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Shangri-La: A Case of Myth-taken Identity

Francesca Padget | University of Hertfordshire


Shangri-La is a term that people know but cannot confidently define: “something to do with Buddhism”, “a place”, “a hotel chain”. The reality is that the name was invented by James Hilton, author of Lost Horizon (1933), in which four people crash-land in the Himalayas and find themselves in the mysterious valley called Shangri-La, where they encounter a peaceful and ageless community. As they explore this hidden paradise, they grapple with the concept of immortality and the choices they must make about staying or returning to the outside world. The book, despite being quite popular in its time and later adapted into film, is relatively unknown by most people today. Shangri-La, however, lives on in both name and concept. This article examines the inspiration, origins, and legacy of Hilton’s utopia, revealing how Shangri-La blurs fiction and reality to inform modern perceptions of Tibet.


Historical Perceptions of Tibet


The earliest surviving written encounter between the West and Tibet comes from the Jesuit priest, António de Andrade. Andrade travelled to Tibet in 1624 to ascertain whether the western Tibetan kingdom of Guge was Christian, as rumoured. Andrade’s accounts introduced the belief that Tibetans, as a whole, are “quite a peaceable people”, while simultaneously noting that they “love combat, which they practise all the time.” Indeed, the Guge Kingdom (circa. 912–1680) warred with numerous Central Asian states. Regardless, Andrade’s contradictory account presented his limited perspective as representative of the entirety of the Tibetan people.


To mention Tibet today recalls the country’s contentious relationship with China. Through this lens, Tibet becomes defined by Chinese policy and propaganda, as the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Culturally, however, Tibet extends far beyond its imposed borders, reaching into various Chinese provinces. Likewise, imagining Tibetans and Tibetan culture as homogenous simplifies Tibetan identity; asking “Where are you from?” is an important question for Tibetans as the response reveals regional identity. This is relevant to both pre-modern and modern perceptions of Tibet, as travel writers and explorers (such as Andrade) tended to write of Tibet and its people in homogenous terms. Similarly, Tibetan culture today is often reduced to Buddhism.


A Map in which the extent of Tibet, in historic and cultural terms, is indicated in green.
Map of Cultural Tibet created by Jacques Beaulieu (2015) CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

James Hilton was an English novelist and screenwriter, best known for his Lost Horizon (1933), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934), and the screenplay of Mrs. Miniver (1942), which earned him an Academy Award. Hilton said that he studied Tibet by “reading tales and legends of the great missionary travellers who explored all Central Asia centuries ago”. Indeed, he nods to that research within Lost Horizon, when the main character notices books written by real-world missionaries in the Shangri-La library. It is likely that Hilton was inspired by botanist Joseph Rock’s National Geographic articles on various Tibetan regions. At least twenty-two geographical similarities between a single article and Lost Horizon have been spotted. However, Hilton never publicly said that he was inspired by Rock. Yet, Jane Wyatt, an actress from the film adaptation of Lost Horizon, allegedly said that Hilton confirmed the connection. It is possible that Hilton kept quiet for fear of a plagiarism case, saying in a 1936 interview: “English authors had now to be careful even about the places they described, as some one had successfully sued a novelist after recognising the description of a cottage the plaintiff owned.”


A photograph of the botanist Joseph Rock stood alongside several Tibetan individuals.
Photograph of botanist Joseph Rock at Konkaling (1928) - CC BY-SA 2.0DEED

Hilton’s outlook when writing Lost Horizon was that of despondence and disillusionment with the West, countered by the idealised paradise of Shangri-La. It was a place without war, and in the Western imagination, suited to Tibet. Located just above colonised India, Tibet was a vast, unmapped space. Those who visited contributed to its conception as a sacred landscape. Tibet stood in direct opposition to forcibly “opened'' China; its continued freedom framed it as a landscape imbued with mysterious wisdom and resources in a sea of subjugated colonies. Hence, the Tibet which had been left unscarred by colonialism and the wars and brutality that entailed, was imagined as a peaceable place, beyond the plague of endless violence.


By the 20th century, experiencing the externally constructed spirituality of Tibet became paramount to visitors. Alexandra David-Néel's book My Journey to Lhasa (1927) made her the authority for Westerners seeking an idealistic and mystic Eastern utopia. Hilton mentions the Tibetan Buddhist practice of raising body temperature through meditation, which at the time, had only been recorded in David-Néel's book. General Francis Younghusband's 1904 expedition linked Tibet with the “myth of epiphany”: the General experienced a spiritual revelation while in Lhasa. Younghusband’s “epiphany” developed the idea that Tibet possessed a sacred dimension which undoubtedly informed Hilton.


A discussion of Shangri-La is incomplete without mentioning Shambhala, a legendary kingdom of peace and prosperity. Knowledge of Shambhala had reached the West by 1627 thanks to the Portuguese missionary, Estêvão Cacella, and the father of Tibetology, Sándor Csoma de Kőrös (active during the early 1800s). Likewise, the Theosophical Society (founded 1875) introduced Shambhala to the wider public. The Theosophist Nicholas Roerich became enamoured with Shambhala and wrote of his expeditions to find it, titling one book simply Shambhala (1930). Roerich painted extensively during his expeditions, depicting the Himalayan landscape in various shades of blue. In Lost Horizon, the valley in which Shangri-La sits is called Karakal, which Hilton translates as “Blue Moon”. These sources offer insight into how the West imagined Tibet, specifically a distorted version of a sacred landscape, totally distinct from Tibetan understanding. While Hilton never acknowledged these writers, they would have been the primary source of information about Tibet in the 1920-30s, offering him inspiration for scenery, names and most importantly, an earthly haven.


A landscape painting of Tibet
“Command of the Master” by Nicholas Roerich (1947) - Public Domain

Modern Impact and Exploitation


While Lost Horizon is virtually unknown today, its setting remains popularised, and discourse on Shangri-La continues. Contemporary discussions of Tibet are difficult to separate from the context of China’s “peaceful liberation” (1950), and the Tibetan Government in exile. This issue is further complicated by Shangri-La becoming synonymous with Yunnan due to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda. In a government-approved travel book about Yunnan, the editor claims that “Yunnan is known to the world as the seductive Shangri-La”, confirming intentional conflation, and referencing the existence of a town called Shangri-La in northern Yunnan.

 

In 2001, the county of Zhongdian in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province received approval to rename itself “Shangri-La”. The intention behind this was undoubtedly to generate tourism and stimulate the local economy, but it was also a calculated opportunity to actively mould depictions of Tibetans according to CCP designs, all without jeopardising control in the Tibetan Autonomous Zone. Previously, Zhongdian’s main economy was logging, but when it was banned in 1998, the county needed a new source of income, and tourism delivered. Diqing used the prefecture’s status as the only Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan to increase interest in the area and secure funds for improving the region, and official recognition as Shangri-La cemented their success.

 

Diqing government officials began collecting “evidence” that Zhongdian was the “real” Shangri-La in late 1996, hosting conferences and inviting academics to produce said evidence. And evidence they indeed “found”. It was concluded that Khawa Karpo Mountain (a place of Tibetan pilgrimage) was Hilton’s Mount Karakal and that the surrounding area matched the description of the Valley of the Blue Moon. Incredibly, it was also determined that the Chinese transliteration of Shangri-La – Xianggelila – is in fact from old Tibetan (sems-gi nyin zla - lit. “heart (root word) sun moon” which would locally have been pronounced zemgi nyinda) meaning “sun and moon in the heart”. This is astounding when you consider that Shangri-La was made up by a man who could speak neither Chinese nor Tibetan. Regardless, this retrofitted meaning has stuck and you can find it on official Chinese government websites and tourism websites. As a result of the name change, tourism skyrocketed, and Shangri-La became real, though no less fictional.


Photograph of Ganden Sumtseling Monastery in Shangri-La, Yunnan (2020)
Photograph of Ganden Sumtseling Monastery in Shangri-La, Yunnan (2020) - CC BY-SA 2.0DEED

In order to successfully rebrand as Shangri-La, the city had to reflect its namesake. Ganden Sumtseling Monastery in Shangri-La was given over ¥7 million which was used to gild the roof and build a new car park. Shop, hotel, and restaurant signs had to be re-written in Tibetan as well as Chinese (often incorrectly or simply transliterated, revealing that this was directed at an external audience). A new main street was built with all the buildings in the “Tibetan” style, as well as the remodelling of Tancheng Square with neo-Tibetan buildings, designed by architects from Shanghai who noted in the plans that their designs would serve to promote Tibetan Buddhism. These buildings, which looked nothing like anything built in Tibetan areas, were intended to be museums, libraries, and shops, but many of them stood empty for years after completion, reflecting the superficiality of the project. A giant stupa (structure for meditation, ambulation, and housing relics) was built at the entrance to the city, which, in 2017, was doubled in size to make it the world’s largest. Finally, as the piece de resistance, officials commissioned the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheel on top of a nearby hill, which Chinese tourist websites claim has become an “authentic item because local Buddhists now climb the hill to spin it to submit their prayers.” All these efforts construct a facade of Tibetan culture that condenses it to commercially viable Buddhism.

 

Tibetans are one of China’s fifty-six ethnic groups, with minority ethnic groups often portrayed as “backward” in contrast with (majority) Han “modernity”. Tibetans especially are depicted as simple and primitive, although this is presented as a positive. The people of Shangri-La are sold as an exemplar of where people live in harmony with nature and are reconstructed as inhabitants of an imagined past that promotes ethnic tourism. Some Tibetans living in Shangri-La have capitalised on the opportunities offered by tourism, opening shops and restaurants that cater to the desires and expectations of tourists. It was also a chance to redevelop certain aspects of Tibetan culture that had been fading and to explore regional differences. There has been an increase in the number of high-quality Tibetan artisan shops that compete with mass-produced trinket sellers. Farmhouse “experiences” that reinforced notions of Tibetan primitiveness through song and dance have lost their popularity. The tradition of making black pottery has been revitalised in the nearby village of Tandui due to tourist interest. The requirement for shop signs in Tibetan has spawned a community-based group that corrects the mistakes and promotes the use and learning of Tibetan written script, helping to renew pride in local cultural heritage.


A picture of Tibetan women dancing a traditional dance at a festival.
Photograph of Tibetan women dancing at Zhongdian Festival (1995) - CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

Moreover, during the annual Dêqên Shangri-La Arts Festival that promotes tourism in the region, members of various minority groups partake and perform dances from their hometowns. Not only does this fulfil tourist expectations, but it also strengthens minority identity through restoration of cultural heritage, and encourages recognition of differences, even within the same minority group, as individuals from across cultural Tibet take part and showcase their traditions. Of course, it is only through certain avenues that Tibetan identity is expressed. In official tourism literature there is no mention of independent local histories, institutions or differences in organisation and patterns of communication, nor are the other minority groups who live in the area advertised. Tibetan Buddhism is reduced to ceremonial and symbolic aspects, a tool through which to promote tourism. Shangri-La now produces a carefully cultivated image of Tibetan culture, where tradition and authenticity are renewed, but also combined with an economically and ideologically driven policy.


One such example is the naming of Shangri-La, as discussed above, which denies local history while simultaneously claiming to honour it. Hilton likely devised “Shangri-La” by drawing on similar-sounding words found on maps of Tibet, such as Shingri-La, Chang-La, Changri, and Shirang-La. While “la” means “mountain pass” in Tibetan, “shang” has no meaning. The academics involved in the renaming process claimed that the origin of Zhongdian meant loyalty (“zhong”) to a Naxi (minority group) feudal lord (“dian”) who ruled over the Tibetan people of the area during the Ming Dynasty. Those academics argued that it thereby implied the suppression of the Tibetan people, so the name should be changed to Shangri-La out of respect. The Chinese characters for Zhongdian translate to “middle district”, and it is possible this was the Chinese transliteration of the Naxi name for the town, Zuqdiail, which could mean “place of many yaks” or “place where a friend lives.” Either way, subjugation is absent. In reality, the old Tibetan name for the town was Gyalthang, composed of the words “gyal”, meaning “royal”, and “thang” meaning “plain”, possibly referring to an ancient battle involving the Tibetan king Songtsan Gampo. This demonstrates the extent to which Shangri-La has been fabricated as historical truth is obscured and reinvented to feed Shangri-Laification.

 

Diqing is not the only area to lay claim to Shangri-La; regions of Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, and other Chinese counties have claimed Hilton used them as the inspiration for Shangri-La. After the colonisation of India and parts of China, Europe's imperial ambitions were transferred to Tibet, for it offered a much more impregnable front. A fundamental conception of Shangri-La is its “virginal state'', untouched by outside, corrupting influence (as Tibet once was). However, once Tibet was annexed in the 1950s it lost the qualities of Shangri-La, and the mantle of Shangri-La passed to other Himalayan realms. As each realm was “violated'' by travellers, the allure faded and the fantasy decamped. This is reflected in the never-ending search by tourists for new, off-the-beaten-track locations to visit, chiming with Hilton's depiction of the West as superficial and materialistic. Similarly, the reworking of pilgrimage as a tourist activity and maintenance of “traditional” ideals within Yunnan’s Shangri-La equates the minority cultures of the region exclusively with Buddhism. The modern framing of tourist journeys as a pilgrimage echoes the previous century’s travel writers seeking the “myth of epiphany” in Tibet. The clamour for this untouched landscape, both imagined by the West and capitalised on by the East, renders Shangri-La disputed territory, which complicates efforts to untangle Hilton's fictional utopia and reality.

 

Since Lost Horizon's debut, Shangri-La has come to mean much more than a fictional utopia; it has, at times, come to represent Tibet itself. In the West, explorer after explorer has searched in vain for Shangri-La, while in the East, multiple countries stake a claim to Hilton's idyll, exploiting this geographical and folkloric cache for tourism. In publishing his imagined sacred landscape, Hilton forever influenced both Eastern and Western perceptions of Tibet, creating a new definition by which to view the earthly paradise of the East, a process centuries in the making. While the perception of Tibet today is no longer that of a Buddhist Arcadia, it is still considered something to be treasured, on the precipice of being lost, and Hilton’s Shangri-La has helped to inform that vision. Ultimately, Shangri-La can be understood as a Western dream of an Eastern myth - it captures a yearning for simpler times, everlasting peace, sanctuary, and abundance protected from a violent and volatile world. But this paradise must remain elusive, for seeking it misunderstands and spurns Hilton’s fantasy. Like the most apt utopia, it is literally “nowhere”.


 

Further Reading:


  • Bishop, Peter. The Myth of Shangri-La: Tibet, Travel Writing and the Western Creation of Sacred Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989)

  • Kolås, Åshild. Tourism and Tibetan Culture in Transition: A Place Called Shangrila (Oxford: Routledge, 2008)

  • McCarthy, Susan. Communist Multiculturalism: Ethnic Revival in Southwest China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009)

  • McMillin, Laurie Hovell. English in Tibet, Tibet in English: Self-Presentation in Tibet and the Diaspora (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001)

  • McRae, Michael. The Siege of Shangri-La: The Quest for Tibet’s Sacred Hidden Paradise (New York: Broadway Books, 2002)

Francesca Padget recently finished their thesis on the impact of tourism in the perception and development of the Bai minority group identity in Yunnan as part of the MA Folklore Studies at the University of Hertfordshire. Having studied Chinese, Korean and Tibetan at BA level, the realm of East Asian folklore soon beckoned.


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