The Princess Wencheng spectacle will be staged with a cast of nearly 600 on a stage nearly 100 metres long, in a fake Potala Palace that faces the real Potala, former home of the Dalai Lama. It will be performed at a time when Lhasa is under military lockdown with snipers visible on rooftops and its citizens subject to intense surveillance and ideological campaigns.
The drama, which will be re-enacted 180 times annually according to the Chinese official media, is a state-scripted narrative in which the Chinese, embodied by Princess Wencheng of the 7th century, ‘civilise’ the Tibetans and bring harmony to Tibet.
Leading Tibetan writer and blogger Woeser, who posted images of the new fake Potala on her blog, said: “In reality this is a project to rewrite history, to ‘wipe out’ the historical memory and culture of a people. […] This is a ‘win win’ project that can both make money and be a tool for brainwashing people with propaganda.” (Posted on Woeser’s blog on July 20, http://woeser.middle-way.net/2013/07/blog-post_9773.html). According to Woeser, official media stated that a total of more than $120 million had been invested in the project.
The controversial Princess Wencheng drama is opening amid a tourist boom in Tibet, with Lhasa the main focus, particularly since the arrival of the railway in 2006 linking Tibet with China. As the number of self-immolations by Tibetans exceeds 120, indicating the depth of Tibetan anguish at Chinese oppression, the Chinese authorities are seeking to brand Tibet as an exotic, ‘Shangri La’ destination.
The Princess Wencheng drama is part of China’s ambitious plans to bring large numbers of Chinese and international tourists to state-owned scenic sites and cultural icons of Tibet to receive a story scripted and delivered by the state and its state trained guides. It is unclear whether the dialogue will be in Tibetan or Chinese, and the numbers of Tibetans and Chinese in the cast and production team are also not known.
According to new statistics published in the state media, 3.43 million tourists travelled to the Tibet Autonomous Region in the first six months of this year, an increase of 21.8 per cent from the same period last year. More than 95 per cent of tourists to Tibet are Chinese. (China Daily, Tibet reports strong surge in tourist numbers). By 2015, the Chinese authorities plan to attract 15 million domestic tourists to central Tibet annually (China Daily, Tibet receives record number of tourists).
The Chinese Princess Wencheng Gongzhu travelled to Tibet in the 7th century to be one of the five wives of Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo, who introduced Buddhism in Tibet. Princess Wencheng brought a dowry of precious Buddhist gifts to Lhasa, notably the Jowo Rinpoche statue. The story of Princess Wencheng’s marriage to Songtsen Gampo (who also had a Nepalese wife, Bhrikuti Devi, who he married before Wencheng) has been used as a basis for numerous songs, operas, films and paintings in China since 1950. According to Tibetologist Robert Barnett, “Hers is the main story used officially in modern China to describe the Sino-Tibetan relationship. Most if not all of this cultural production is state-sponsored.” (‘Lhasa: Streets with Memories’ by Robert Barnett, Columbia University Press, 2010).
According to the Tibetan writer Woeser, who lives in Beijing, Party cadres organized the first ‘Symposium on the Princess Wencheng’ in Lhasa recently, in which officials presented proposals for building Princess Wencheng themed gardens and plays. Academics, artists and journalists were invited to the symposium to discuss how to use the historical reference of Princess Wencheng’s story as a centre-piece for promoting ‘national unity between Han and Tibetans’. (Invisible Tibet, http://woeser.middle-way.net/2013/07/blog-post_9773.html).
Gabriel Lafitte, an Australian scholar who has researched the dynamics behind the tourism boom in Tibet, said: “In order to stage this spectacle in Lhasa, a story cherished by Tibetans has been turned inside out. The disconnect between the message of China the benevolent civilizer and the daily experience of Tibetans in Lhasa, living under the gun, is dissonant. The staging of the mandatory harmony between Tibetans and Han is a major nation-building infrastructure investment, scripted entirely by central leaders in Beijing.” (Gabriel Lafitte’s blog is at: www.rukor.org).
Fifteen years after the Ninth TAR Five-Year-Plan announced tourism as a “pillar industry”, Lhasa has been transformed into a major destination. Analysts report that much of the revenue from tourism leaves the region to go back into China. The dramatic increase in tourism since the opening of the railway has been especially acute at Lhasa’s historic cultural sites, such as the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple in the Barkhor area, and the Dalai Lama’s former summer palace, the Norbulingka. These sites also have a deeper significance to the Tibetan people because of their connection to the Dalai Lama and Tibet before the Chinese invasion — the Potala, established by the Fifth Dalai Lama, was the political and religious center of Tibetan theocracy. Tibetan writer Woeser has described it as the “soul of a race”. The stage for the new Princess Wencheng production has been constructed in a fake Potala Palace built across the river from the original, positioned facing north towards the Dalai Lama’s former home.
Bhuchung Tsering, Interim President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “Irrespective of how tourists might view a mega-production of this scale, if the Princess Wencheng opera is used to appropriate and re-invent Tibetan history and heritage to meet the political needs of current Chinese rulers, there is no way the Tibetan people will approve of it. Tibetans are familiar with the story of “Gyasa Bhelsa,” the opera about the Chinese and Nepalese princesses depicting marital alliances between Tibet and her two neighboring kingdoms.”
While the Chinese authorities are marketing Tibet as a tourist destination based on the spiritual attractions of its Buddhist culture and landscape, Beijing has tightened its control over Tibetan religious expression and practice. Tibetan Buddhism is an integral element of Tibetan identity and Tibetan nationalism, and is therefore perceived as a potential threat to the authority of the state and ‘unity’ of the PRC. The authorities’ commodification of Tibetan culture and promotion of ‘Tibet chic’ coincides with a trend towards increasing repression of Tibetan cultural identity and a crackdown of unprecedented depth and scope.
In a reflection of this development, in China’s new national Tourism Law, which comes into force on October 1, 2013, there is almost no mention of host communities, designated in the Tourism Law not as people but as places. Article 41 states tour guides must “respect the customs and religious beliefs” not of local Tibetans, but “of the tourists”. (Rukor, Engineering Tibet for the mass tourist gaze).
There was a trial performance of the Princess Wencheng drama on July 20 before the opening on August 1 in Lhasa, according to the Lhasa Evening News on July 22 (http://www.lasa-eveningnews.com.cn/epaper/uniflows/html/2013/07/22/03/03_24.htm). The Lhasa Evening News announced that the drama has roughly the same plot as an earlier performance in the Beijing National Grand Theater, and that ticket prices range from over a hundred yuan to more than a thousand yuan, indicating that the authorities are seeking to attract wealthier tourists.
* ICT is publishing a major new report on tourism in Tibet in September. Advance copies will be available to press prior to publication.
 Development economist Andrew Fischer wrote in 2005: “Most of the tourists visiting the TAR are Chinese nationals and they mostly stay in Chinese-owned and -run hotels on the west side of Lhasa, close to an abundant supply of Chinese restaurants and entertainment centers, complete with Chinese brothels and Chinese sex workers, who obviously service the military personnel and cadres stationed there as well. It is likely that much of the revenue that such tourism generates is channeled through such venues and eventually out of the province altogether. Under such conditions, the tourism industry will have a difficult time functioning as a self-sustaining pillar industry that accumulates capital and profits in the TAR, rather than servicing as another drain from which incoming resources flow back out of the province almost as fast as they enter.” (‘State Growth and Social Exclusion in Tibet’, Andrew Fischer, NIAS Press, 2005, cited in ICT report ‘Tracking the Steel Dragon’).