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on May 26, 2000
While this book is a good read for someone not familiar with Tibet and its history, I cannot recommend it wholeheartedly with so many other fine books available. The only new territory covered is the material about Hollywood, especially Brad Pitt and the making of Seven Years in Tibet. There are several long chapters summarizing the history of European exploration of Tibet, but these seem to have been compiled from sources (such as John MacGregor's Tibet: A Chronicle of Exploration and Derek Waller's The Pundits) that are far more comprehensive and are not fettered by the didactic agenda that suffuses this book.
There are many errors of fact (for instance, the events at Waco are said to have occurred in 1995) and interpretation (the passages about Buddhism are quite garbled).
Finally, I must differ with the author about the many travellers to Tibet in recent decades. I have spent much of my life in this region and have found the majority of travellers there to be well-informed about the history and politics of the region. Though doubtless there are some who arrive seeking a fantasy and leave disgruntled, this is true of most any travel destination. The beauty of the landscape and indigenous people of Tibet is very real, and much appreciated by most who journey there. Portraying the average Western traveller to Tibet as a naive Shangri-La seeker is a disservice in this era of savvy, Lonely Planet guide carrying wanderers. The situation in Hollywood is another matter entirely (well treated in this book), but I would also suggest that, prior to the Brad Pitt film, most Americans had only the faintest idea what Tibet even was, if they had heard of it at all.
Still, Schell does deserve much credit for his honesty and introspection - this is by and large a fair and balanced work. I hope it gets a wide audience, and that interested readers consult the bibliography in the back.
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on July 22, 2001
Orville Schell's works have always been exquisite. Written in a crisp style, penetrating in analysis, his books have never failed to breathe life into their subjects and leave the reader more informed than before. Expecting the same tour de force as found in Mandate of Heaven and Discos and Democracy, I was not disappointed with Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood. Schell tackles a topic that receives plenty of discussion and fanfare, but has experienced precious little objective study in recent years. Tibet has labored under the political and cultural repression of the People's Republic of China since 1951. Many believe that China is slowly committing cultural genocide through its repression of Tibetan religious and cultural customs and by encouraging vast numbers of Han Chinese to settle in Tibet. With the help of a charismatic Dalai Lama and throngs of Hollywood stars, the Tibetan issue has received a disproportionate amount of attention relative to its importance in world events. Whereas one struggles to find "Free East Timor" bumper stickers on cars, "Free Tibet" stickers are far more ubiquitous. The strong point of Schell's work is his analysis of Hollywood's fascination with Tibet. He interviews many of the most visible promoters of the Tibetan cause and also provides fly-on- the-wall accounts of numerous "Free Tibet" Hollywood functions and the making of the movies Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet. Through his interviews and observations, Schell largely confirms what I have suspected for years. Hollywood's promotion of the Tibetan cause has less to do with its relative merits than it does with the fact that it has become a fashionable issue in which to be associated. The Tibetan cause has become a virtual Rohrsach test in which Hollywood supporters can use to feel better about what ails them spiritually and politically. Schell's works demonstrate an uncanny ability of meeting all the right people and convincing them to reveal their true feelings. Instead of Communist Party officials or Chinese gangsters as in his previous works, Schell is somehow able to elicit revealing quotes from otherwise elusive individuals such as Steven Seagal and Brad Pitt. Although nobody has complained about being misquoted to my knowledge, I hope this reflects Schell's skill as an interviewer. It would be a shame if a writer and journalist of Schell's quality needed to embellish his subject's words for better copy. Schell succeeds in making the subject of Tibetan history more entertaining for the general reader without sacrificing content. Schell's Virtual Tibet is an informative and well-rounded work, lifting much of the mystique from an esoteric, yet prominent subject. While Schell sympathizes with their cause, he is able to remove the veil of motivation from Hollywood's Tibetan supporters. Many readers may have expected Schell to delve deeper into the issues surrounding China and Tibet, but this would have required Schell to tread over already well- traveled terrain. In deciding to leave the debate over the relative merits of Chinese policies toward Tibet aside, Schell has produced an original and thoughtful work of journalism. Schell's portrayal of the main protagonists for the Tibetan cause are unflattering and bound to upset many people. This is the hallmark of a fine journalist.
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on September 28, 2000
I read this, because I am an Asian Studies major and know who Prof. Schell is. I wrote a Masters Thesis for my MA from Seton Hall in 1982, called Chinese Communism and Its Impact on Tibet. I am basing this review on reading the book and some of the other comments I've seen in the reviews. It is true, we have always had an fascination with Tibet, because of Lost Horizon, Seven Years in Tibet, etc. I cannot see in the book where Prof. Schell played down Chinese heavyhandedness. He also states (rightly so) that no Western Govt. backs the idea of an independent Tibet. They do back the Tibetans not being maltreated. Face it, in the modern world, Tibet does not have the resources to survive as an independent country. If anything, Dr. Schell showed just how silly, many of the Hollywood folks jumping on this bandwagon are. This is just the latest fad for them. Movies about Tibet look great on the silver screen. The same cannot be said for Kosovo, or Sudan. I gave it four stars. Hollywood Tibet would have been a better title. Tinseltown Tibet? I am glad this was written to bring it to the American people. Another drawback with this book is, how many people reading it are just reading it for the stars listed and don't understand ALL the issues. I hope this will spur Americans to read more about China as well. I want to know how far the Hollywood circuit wants to go with this. Are they going to go to Tibet themselves? Be with anti-Chinese fighters. No folks, as much as I respect the Dalai Lama, his best hope for seeing his homeland again in his lifetime is to work out a deal with the Chinese. Religious freedom for dropping independence claims. Yes, there is no more Berlin Wall. Tibet cannot make it on its own. Read the book, and as an American, gain your understanding. Want to help Tibet. Help to educate Hollywood folks in both sides of this issue. Prof. Schell shows, it is more complicated than many would like to think.
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on July 5, 2001
Orville Schell has written a pretty good book. The basic premise of the book is that anything that Hollywood touches is going to suffer distortion. It's simply a primal fact of the beast. And what a beast it is! Equal parts whore, dreamer, cynical businesman, and hopeless idealist. Schell is very good at examining the strange interaction between Hollywood and the Tibetan exiles. And I think he does it in a not unkind manner.
The present Dalai Lama is an enormously attractive figure. He's a wonderful spokesmen for Tibetan Buddhism. His spirituality, sincerity, intelligence, and integrity seem to me to be beyond reproach. However, there is more to Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan history than the present Dalai Lama.
Regardless of what you think of the present gang in Beijing, what type of society was Tibet before the Chinese takeover? Schell describes it, more or less, as an oppressive feudalistic theocracy. Tibet as something short of Shangri-la. Schell depicts the old Tibet as being a dark, oppressive, and decidedly filthy place. We can condemn the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the suppression of the Tibetan people without creating fantasies of the old Tibet days. Schell is essentially calling for a realistic view of the historical events. By understanding a bit of the history of the area we may come to a more realistic idea of what needs to be done. The best political solution may be the type of compromise that Schell seems to suggest. This compromise seems to be along the lines of what the Dalai Lama has proposed in recent years.
Religion and reason often do not share the same realm. This is a truism that seems to be as valid for some of the adherents of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the followers of Jimmy Swaggert and Jerry Falwell. Buddhism has a wonderful spirtual tradition--as does Christianity and other religions. However, upon what authority do people consider the Tibetan brand of Buddhism to be superior to the SE Asian, the Japanese, etc. versions of Buddhism? The 4 noble truths and the 8 fold path are the same for all the different flavors of Buddhism. The present Dalai Lama's character strikes me as impeccable. But what of the other Tibetan Buddhist religious figures that came to the West in recent decades to proclaim the dharma? It's my understanding that many of them fell victim to the temptations of our modern culture: money, sex, drugs, etc.
It's our human nature--as Schell--points out to want to think that there is some magical place or idea that will remove all of our imperfections. I think he is right in saying that Tibet is another geographic and human place with it's own attendent vices and virtues. I am of the opinion that Buddhism, like the more thoughtful and sincere versions of Christianity, is a marvelous vehicle for spirtual growth. But that growth in any religious tradition is achieved only through strong effort and practice as well as sincere devotion to the teachings.
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VINE VOICEon June 21, 2000
This is one of the best books ever written about the making of a movie. It is up there with Lillian Ross's "Picture:; she was writing about the earnest effort to film "The Red Badge of Courage" with a much-decorated veteran. Schell also writes about the effort to film "Seven Years in Tibet" with many Tibetan exiles, including the sister of the Dalai Lama. Both historical films were commercial and artistic failures, but the fascination of the books is with the industry involved rather than with the product.

What I find most interesting are the discussions Schell had with Tibetans on location in Argentina. The reader knows that their hopes are not going to be realized. And the author knows that the hopes of American Tibetophiles are not going to be realized. He is impatient with the pretentions of some, particularly (and justifiably!) Steven Seagal. I don't see how anyone can read him as being unsympathetic to the plight of Tibetans, whether they are refugees in diaspora or colonized in Tibet.

While I do not Schell is an apologist for PRC colonialism, his pessimism may foster Chinese goals by making opposition seem futile. In particular, I think that Schell underestimates Tibetans' persistence. The survival and revival of Christianity in the Soviet Union should encourage caution about pulverization. Fifteen years ago, who thought that apartheid could end without a bloodbath or that communists would surrender power in elections in Eastern Europ? Nonetheless, I also think that many Western admirers of Tibetan culture/religion underestimate the will to domination of the colonialist PRC and the need of the illegitimate Chinese communist party to wrap itself in nationalism and spurious claims to any territory ever controlled by any earlier dynasty.

Given Schell's interest in the authenticity of Hollywood representation of Tibet in the 1940s and 50s, it is disappointing that he focused on "Seven Years in Tibet" rather than "Kundun" in which Tibetans are more than glorified extras and in which no blond American movie star is there to distract the viewer. (Schell says that he went for the bigger-budget production because he was interested in Hollywood commodification of Tibet. Probably book-buyers are also more interested in Brad Pitt, Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, and Steven Seagal, so Schell's decision has its own sound commercial instincts...)

Along with reporting on how Tibet is used and projected onto by movie folks and on the experience of plaster recreations of Lhasa in the Andes, Schell discusses Harrer at length and also runs through earlier Western visitors to "the roof the world" and how their reports were read by seekers of a kingdom of the spirit on earth. This survey may not be rigorous or original, but surely it will introduce this travel literature to many readers.
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on May 18, 2000
This is a quick read highlighting Tibet's relationship to the outside world, especially through fallicious film accounts. It gives a good background of the country without getting too pedantic. A very good source for those seeking a good overview without th political and religious details.
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on September 22, 2000
As a Christian, I have always been curious as to why Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism provoke such passion and interest in those people around me. Instead of seeing this book as an incomplete history of that country, or as Hollywood gossip, I saw the book as a discussion on spirituality. Why do people yearn for the Other, the pure and, often, unattainable that will make our lives meaningful? What are the spiritual dangers of using what we perceive as the exotic to attain spiritual peace and fulfillment? I think that Schell writes movingly on the West's attempts to "use" Tibet as a spiritual shortcut instead of looking into itself and practicing Buddhism or Christianity with awarness and personal insight. P.S. The sections on Hollywood, especially regarding certain action movie actors are also very funny.
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on May 26, 2000
While this book is a good read for someone not familiar with Tibet and its history, I cannot recommend it wholeheartedly with so many other fine books available. The only new territory covered is the material about Hollywood, especially Brad Pitt and the making of Seven Years in Tibet. There are several long chapters summarizing the history of European exploration of Tibet, but these seem to have been compiled from sources (such as John MacGregor's Tibet: A Chronicle of Exploration and Derek Waller's The Pundits) that are far more comprehensive and are not fettered by the didactic agenda that suffuses this book.
There are many errors of fact (for instance, the events at Waco are said to have occurred in 1995) and interpretation (the passages about Buddhism are quite garbled).
Finally, I must differ with the author about the many travellers to Tibet in recent decades. I have spent much of my life in this region and have found the majority of travellers there to be well-informed about the history and politics of the region. Though doubtless there are some who arrive seeking a fantasy and leave disgruntled, this is true of most any travel destination. The beauty of the landscape and indigenous people of Tibet is very real, and much appreciated by most who journey there. Portraying the average Western traveller to Tibet as a naive Shangri-La seeker is a disservice in this era of savvy, Lonely Planet guide carrying wanderers. The situation in Hollywood is another matter entirely (well treated in this book), but I would also suggest that, prior to the Brad Pitt film, most Americans had only the faintest idea what Tibet even was, if they had heard of it at all.
Still, Schell does deserve much credit for his honesty and introspection - this is by and large a fair and balanced work. I hope it gets a wide audience, and that interested readers consult the bibliography in the back.
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VINE VOICEon May 11, 2015
The love of the exotic lurks in many hearts and has for centuries. Some people, when told a place is closed, off limits, verboten, must go there at any cost. So it was with Tibet. But not only was Tibet far away, a blank spot on world maps, it had an aura of magic, mysticism, and mystery. Tibet---mysticism---the occult---spiritual life: these connections spread through the West and Russia like measles in a kindergarten. What a challenge, then, for the adventurers of this world. From the 1600s on, a certain kind of Westerners (missionaries, soldiers, explorers, mystics) yearned to reach Lhasa, the ultimate Forbidden City. Their efforts are well recorded by Orville Schell. Most of them failed, but returned with tall tales nonetheless. In 1904, the infamous Younghusband expedition ("Bayonets to Lhasa") battered its way to the Tibetan capital over the bodies of hundreds of Tibetans who had nothing to match machine guns. This was supposedly in aid of keeping the Russians out, but Younghusband was dead keen on getting there long before. Travel to Tibet, well into my own lifetime, was like a pilgrimage to "Otherness". Tibet, a real society, with deep socio-economic problems, a feudal system, was turned into "Virtual Tibet", a figment of Western imagination.

Meanwhile, back in Hollywood----the Dalai Lama became a cult figure for many of the figures of Filmistan. The cultural destruction of Tibet under Chinese rule came to the attention of many who previously could not have found Tibet on a map. In the 1990s, not one, but two movies were produced about Tibet----the film version of Heinrich Harrer's "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Kundun", more the story of the Dalai Lama. Since filming on site was out of the question due to politics, the former was filmed in Argentina starring Brad Pitt. Schell weaves an interesting tale, alternating between the story of Tibetan travellers and the production of the film. In the end, it seems that the film and real Tibet merged because the film brought the extinct version of Tibet back to life for Tibetan actors and film audiences everywhere. "...in the popular imagination of the West, the plight of the Tibetans....occupied against their will....has been added to the lure of Tibet as a mystical place of physical beauty and spiritual refinement." But haven't Westerners created "virtual Tibet" in order to improve the quality of our lives, to give hope that somewhere out there Shangri La really exists? Wasn't Heinrich Harrer an unreconstructed Nazi? Do we know much about real Tibet? These are very interesting questions because Tibet is not the only place, nor Tibetans the only people, to suffer "virtualization". I recommend this book if any of this interests you.
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on July 20, 2000
"Virtual Tibet" is a sorely needed entry in American publication.
As a Mongolian Chinese American, it has pained me to see my fellow Americans presented with much delusion about Tibet by Hollywood. For one, the Free Tibet movement dismisses the existence of millions of real Tibetan minority people in central China. I have been quite despondent while watching the "Free Tibet" movement paint China into a mono-ethnic nation, thereby erasing any ethnic identity from the real minorities in central China.
Most of the American scholars focus on Tibet in studying this issue, but they totally ignore the real minorities in central China.
For my minority Chinese heritage, I wish to say this to a reviewer who compared the Tibet myth to Dr. King's dream: As far as I'm concerned, the Dalai Lama is not Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King had a dream for America. He helped all African Americans to gain self respect. He never forgot African Americans are all over the U.S. I don't see the Dalai Lama ever speak about how his fellow Tibetans in central China. They are swept under the carpet as the Tibet movement tries to convince the West that "Tibet was invaded", that "the Tibetans are a race distinct from the Chinese".
Ghandi wanted a whole India, not to split it.
The Free Tibet movement calls for ethnic segregation for the Tibet region under euphoric terms. It has built a great myth that sugarcoated Ethnic Segregation into supposed "freedom".
This movement is doomed because it does not have the support of real minorities in China. Just as most African Americans will not support a Black Nation, nor will most Europeans support an Aryan Nation, most minorities in China prefer a multiple ethnic nation.
What really matters is how America will fare at the end. The "Free Tibet" movement can hurt our nation. In the past, the Chinese people held a loving attitude toward the U.S., due to our saving China from the Japanese invasion during WWII. Now their feelings are changing. There is a great love for multiple ethnic culture in China. When we engage in "Free Tibet", many Chinese people are angry at the U.S. for wanting to split China.
In this new millennium when the Sino-American relationship is vital to world peace, Tibet has been a thorn in that relationship, and is an threat to world peace.
America may suffer decline in this century if we took the wrong direction on this issue. What's at stake is not what happens to Tibet. The Tibetans in China will have the ultimate say. What's at stake is what will happen to America as a result of helping the Tibet movement.
"Virtual Tibet" may be one of the most important books this year. It can help enlighten us how much of what we think of Tibet is but an illusion. I hope books like this will help call attention to a more realistic view on this issue.
It is sad to see how this book is being panned by the pro-Tibet campaign people, to the point of using phrases such as "communist party line" to attack a respected American scholar. McCarthism lives in Tibet movement. I'm not surprised. I've seen many Tibetan followers levy accusations of "communist" at anyone whose view does not promote their myth.
I do agree with the reviewer who says Tibet has colonized the West. How did the West allow this colonization? It shows a great weakness on the West's system to be manipulated so easily.
The real issue here is the West's need to save itself from Tibetan colonization. Reading Virtual Tibet may just be the first step.
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