Lhasa’s Disappearing Heritage
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Lhasa’s Disappearing Heritage


Built in the 7th century, the Jokhang Temple is one of Lhasa’s most recognizable and sacred structures. The temple and its surrounding street, Barkhor Street are of historical and symbolic importance to the culture and identity of millions of Tibetan people in the Tibet Autonomous Region and now scattered around the world. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the “historical ensemble of the Potala Palace”.

Yet, the Chinese government has now revealed plans to build a shopping mall on the site, and fears that this may seriously endanger the site are escalating among the Tibetan and international community.

This is not the first time Chinese development policies have caused such concerns and outrage. The ancient city of Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region has become unrecognizable with the destruction of many of its historical sites. The government’s narrative then was that most of the city’s structures were faulty and vulnerable to earthquakes. This had some credibility and was especially relevant in the backdrop of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which claimed the lives of around 70,000 people. Yet today more than half of the city’s old town has been destroyed and replaced with high rise apartments and shopping malls.

The European Parliament passed a resolution calling for “culture-sensitive methods of renovation” and condemning Beijing’s past demolition of “historical buildings without considering the loss of priceless historical and cultural heritage” and “without giving priority to their preservation”.

Barkhor and Jokhang’s symbolic importance have made it the site of protests by Tibetans against the policies and actions of the Chinese government. In 2008, unrest in the region led to a crackdown by the authorities that left 12 people dead. According to reports, a self immolation may have taken place in front of the temple. Since 2009, more than 100 Tibetans have set themselves on fire protesting Chinese “repression” and calling for the return of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, currently in exile in India to Tibet.

Activists now allege that the transformation of the region into a commercial zone may be aimed at preventing such movements. Further, the forced resettling of people from the region will also lead to fewer Tibetans inhabiting one of their most important areas. Currently, Han Chinese outnumber ethnic Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region. 

The Chinese government however claims that they are simply updating Barkhor’s infrastructure by building “heating facilities, removing fire hazards, improving sanitation services, regulating signs and dismantling illegally built structures.”

Still young, already the 21st century has seen the tragic destruction of ancient sites of global importance, with the dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001 and the more recent torching of the Ahmed Baba institute and the razing of ancient Sufi shrines in Mali’s Timbuktu by Ansar Dine being painful examples. A study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states that more than 80 percent of historical sites that have been damaged in this century have been due to human action, adding “the fact that even designated UNESCO World Heritage sites are suffering neglect, damage, and loss suggests the large scale of the global crisis”.

As for Tibet, these developments are simply the latest in a series of Chinese policies that have been destroying the social fabric and cultural heritage of an ancient land and its people. 

Sean Su
July 18, 2013 at 00:45

Although I am obviously responding to a troll account, these words were said by many a brutal conquerer and invader. "We're only helping the very people we're killing and wiping out" was essentially said by many a occupier and colonialist throughout the history of humankind. History is repeating itself and China is showing itself no better in way than it's own history, and the multitude of conquerers in the history of others.

June 18, 2013 at 22:45

@ W. Tseng


Use Google and look up "history of Vietnam" and then "history of Korea" (without the quotes) and see for yourself. Do you know that the current border of Vietnam and Korea are not the same in ancient time? Do you know that ancient Vietnam controlled what is now Guangxi and Guangdong of china? Do you know that ancient Korea controlled much more than than it is now? Shall I go on?


You were saying something about "can you really think"? Spoken like a true chinese. How sad.



W. Tseng
June 18, 2013 at 15:27

@Observer If the Chinese "flushed out" the natives as you asserts with ancient Vietnam & Korea, how come there are still here today? Can you really think?

Oro Invictus
June 18, 2013 at 10:06

@ James

… Except that half of his post is directly speaking about the “flawed” nature of these articles. Half. 50%. In other words, it was not small at all, particularly when you consider the first half was clearly just serving as a lead-in to the second half.  In the future, I’d recommend not speaking falsities when the comment itself is right there for everyone to read.

On that same note:

“I have never claimed that you were anti-communist.”


“and I can't help but notice that your comment was more directed at changing the topic to "evil communists"”.


Also, don’t try and obfuscate matters by claiming you meant something else, if you meant the CPC you would have said that (even though it still wouldn't change the fact that you're attempting to diminish me on the basis of a circumstantial ad hominem impugnation); no, you were just clumsily trying to portray me as a narrow-minded “rightist” or such to distract from my application of basic logic to Mishmael’s points, points you apparently agreed with but could not defend otherwise.  I have very little patience for such basal argumentative tactics and will not entertain them in the slightest, no matter what sort of pedanticalness is applied.

June 18, 2013 at 03:17

@ Oro Invictus

And that is why this isn't the point. You have caught on to a small portion of his comments, about how he tried to dicredit all articles based on his "personal incredulity". Now, let's set the possiblity that perhaps his experiences in Tibet does put such articles in a negative light, the main purpose of his comments is to prove this specific article false. That's what matters, and selecting a certain, minor point in words to attack does not help discredit his claims.

  I have never claimed that you were anti-communist. Note that I have only used the word "communist" once in my previous post, and the word was referring to the CPC rather than ideas of Marxism. Whether you are a "rabid anti-communist poster" or not matters very littles to me, and I have no desire to make you look like one, and since that is really beyond the topic of this conversaion.

June 18, 2013 at 00:55

Good to issue to highlight, but to claim that the Chinese government's reasons behind the Kashgar Old City's demolition "had some credibility" is naive and lacks thoughtful analysis of the situation. I understand that due to the article's focus on Lhasa, a thorough investigation of Kashgar may not be possible. However, given the ethnic dimension to the destruction in Lhasa, the case of Kashgar would have provided compelling corroborating evidence. Arguments over "development" and "safety" notwithstanding, the Kashgar Old City demolition has been effective in dispersing a long-standing Uyghur community and a cultural haven from Han Chinese influence. 

June 17, 2013 at 22:34

@Mishmal ; Okay, let's for a split second go by what you saw. Tell me, how much do you know the true feelings of centimental value that Jhokhang and its natural surrounding holds in the hearts, minds and souls of the tibetans? By  incirlcling ancient Jhokhang with modern shopping centers has taken away the salt from the food they no longe can enjoy in the same way. That is the  spiritua value and centiment lost of that holy place . It kills the very heavenly uplifting of hearts natives have been experiencing that no longer is going to be case. That means it is what exactly  Beijing is hoping for. Slowly , but surely kill Tibet from every fiber of its Tibetaness. That is one of the many soft wares they use to kill Tibet and the Tibetans; eventually wiping off the name of Tibet and Tibetans off the face of the world.

The article has more truth than you can understand. It is the truth . I am a Tibetan.I am living this life. we have to take our story to the world. We do nor kid around our life and its struggle.I have no problem with your soft feelings for China. We are humans.We each have our own soft corners  for some one or the other, does not mean you become weak in the knee and try to tell the world 119 self-immolated just to prove a point because they happen to dislike China. Tibetans, I would like to understand are much more grown up than that. All I ask you , Mishmal is to seriously  understand the cultures of the two nations, and their past history. Tibetan issue is not just about winning or losing. It's about justice in this human world , that be served justly. For that one tour to Tibet on suuny day is not enough.You have know the whole Chinese activities behind the closed Tibet to the world. The most recent thing is the incident that's going on with a well respected Frecnch journalist Cyril Payen. Look him up and see what's going with him simply because he recorded  a life documentary film on Tibet

June 17, 2013 at 21:55

Tibet was poor ,but never a starving nation up until hungry long marchers ate up all our foods.Tibet was not  modernized with glamourous 21st century modernization, nor was China at the time.Tibet faced famine for the first time ever in its thousands of years of history  after the Chinese came .Tibet can yet, show off ourselves as one of the most civilized nation as is obvious through our age old culture, literature, arts and architects . You name it.

How come, people who supposedly have come to help are the ones benefiting out of every good thing happening thing in Tibet while natives are not.People who come to help do not raise ancient monuments of priceless values to the ground with such hatred.Why are so many in Tibet choose death over life ? It certainly does not seem food and clothing are the primary concerns of the people. Probably it has much more to do with human rights, freedom of speech, right to study, speak , read , write and be able to express in ones own language, environmental well being, survival of Tibetan race as ethnic race of the land, religious freedom and freedom to worship whatever religion one chooses. These are basic human life blood that should not be denied to the Tibetans on their own soil.

How can taking away every thing we  treaured in life ever be help to the Tibetans to  begin from the beginning ? The fact , that Chinese do not understand Tibetans and our needs itself is a clear sign we were never meant to be  one as a nation.

June 17, 2013 at 21:32

Basically , what China is doing is very obvious one. They flood in Han Chinese into Tibet by flushing out Tibetan ethnic group out of all the prominent promising places in Tibet.China is slowly and intentionally draining out Tibetans as a whole by any means possible. Therefor; international community and governments  must and have to step in to stop China from ever being able to fulfill this evil desgn.

Oro Invictus
June 17, 2013 at 14:27

@ James

Except that is the point, because the entire second half of his post was about how these articles in general are "flawed" and "biased", basing such things on personal incredulity. That he began his post with a microcosmic associative fallacy is simply incidental, the goal of  the post is the denigration of all such articles which qualify what is occurring in Tibet separate from what the official line of the CPC is; the rhetoric is constant and present throughout his comment.

Similarly, on the topic of argumentative fallacies, your comment attempted to impugn on me by creating a bulverist inference that I am some “rabid anti-communist” poster; not only is such a stratagem disingenuous (given I said nothing of the sort in my post), but it is patently incorrect given I have never once attacked the concept of communism (indeed, on an idealistic level I have been far more critical of capitalism than communism).

June 17, 2013 at 13:35

If Tibetians receive so much "help" from china and chinese, one would wonder why those monks would burn themselves up in several protests?  


Typical of china and chinese. Slowly and steadily swallow the natives and make it become a part of china by flushing the whole area full of chinese. They did that before with ancient Vietnam and ancient Korea.

June 17, 2013 at 12:38

But that's not the point. Mishmael was refuting the article's contents, and I can't help but notice that your comment was more directed at changing the topic to "evil communists" than refuting Mishmael's assertions. If Mishmael's comments were true, than whether China is supressing information about Tibet is irrevelant to the topic. If you wish to refute his point, I would suggest that you focus more on what is he actually saying than what the Chinese government is censoring.

June 17, 2013 at 11:43

In 1947 when India got its independence from Britain, the historic Tibetan town of Tawang and South Tibet was still directly administered by the Lhasa government.  Immediately upon India's independence the Lhasa government seek a new relation with Nehru's India, hoping that the newly independent India will be sympathetic to the interests of the Tibetans and cease the expansionist policy of the British Raj.  Nehru prompty rebuffed Lhasa's initiative and told the Lhasa government that they should continue treating the newly independent India as if with the British Raj.  In 1951 India sent in troops to invade Tawang and South Tibet and kicked out the Tibetan officials there and permanently annexed the region.  Tawang is the birth place of the Sixth Dalai Lama and home to one of the holiest Tibetan monastery.  In 1987 India make South Tibet into a state and gave it an air of legitimacy by renaming it to a Hindu name, Arunachal Pradesh.

To this day Tawang and South Tibet is still under India occupation and its people and cultural landscape are under serious threat from being permenantly changed by Indian settlers.

Kim's Uncle
June 17, 2013 at 11:14

Well this is just another example of Chinese “soft power” at work! That’s why there is no such thing as Chinese soft power. China has a very negative image is just a reflection of an authoritarian government that does not know any better or are in very deep denial! What civilized and educated country has over 100 self immolations?

Oro Invictus
June 17, 2013 at 07:11


Right, well, most people don’t have the time and/or resources for such a visit and, even if they do, the numerous bans and restrictions the CPC has placed on foreign tourists entering Tibet in recent years (always a great sign that things are going swimmingly) means that, even if you get your booking, you run the risk of your plans being cancelled at a moment’s notice. Mind you, even if your plans coincide with a period in which the PRC government hasn’t issued a complete ban, you can easily be refused from entering/ejected from Tibet if the PRC government even thinks you will come back from Tibet and say anything but the people there love and are doing well under PRC rule.

As such, articles like this are necessary to try and get an idea of what is going on in Tibet in the absence of easy access. Any lack of depth in the articles can almost entirely be attributed to the PRC not allowing foreign reporters in in the first place, thus restricting how much can actually be reported. On that same note, it is for such reasons that claims all is well in Tibet, such as yours and others who follow (or speak for) the CPC’s party line, ring so hollow; you don’t ban human rights observers and foreign reporters from entering an area or confiscate communications devices like satellite dishes from locals if everything is fine and everyone is happy. Indeed, given that those few reports that get through almost always run almost completely counter to the CPC’s line, it is abundantly clear that articles like this are not only closer to truth than not, but may very well be understating the issue. Even the justification of such bans or the content of these reports being due to some ridiculous “Western” media conspiracy falls flat when you consider that it is not just “Western” media which are being banned or who are reporting such things (unless you consider stations like Al Jazeera, [Russia] First Channel, South African Broadcasting, and Rede Globo “Western”).

admiral Cheng
June 17, 2013 at 00:38

Its not oppression but liberation from economic bondage. China is just trying to help those poor tibetan to enjoy the latest offerings thats available to the World. TV, Radio, Education,Food etc.

June 16, 2013 at 22:22

I feel that I must respond to this peice. As someone who has personally visited Lhasa recently, I can can definitively say that there is no equivalency between the Taliban's actions in 2001 and the projects sponsored by the Chinese government which are currently underway.

The Jokhang temple itself is somwhat commercialized of late, but mostly in order to raise funds from tourist revenue in order to facilitate the renovations and maintenance of the structure and the clerical inhabitants. Tibetan structures, especially traditional ones, incorporate a plaster-like layer of material which at the very least must be annually replenished. There is no actual construction which is damaging any part of the temple itself, and the construcion is upon a ring of shops and commercial buildings around the temple, as well as the circular path around it being used by pilgrims.

It is highly predjudicial to allege an intentional campaign of cultrual destruction on the part of the Chinese government, and to link it to events outside of China to which there is no relation. I urge people to visit Tibet and see the events for themselves, and not to take as truth the word of people who harbour deep-rooted grudges against the Chinese government. In fact, I see no purpose  for articles such as this for people like myself who have personal knowledge of the matter, because I can easily distinguish between what I saw and what the author is alleging.

Foreign visitors need to apply for a Chinese visa, and then upon entering China they need to contact a tourist agency in order to apply for a foreign visiotrs permit to visit Tibet. Seriously, do it if you really want to know about Tibet – otherwise you might just be parroting someone elses' grudges.

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