Breathing Tibet

Ben Lee

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Ben Lee

Ben Lee

Waking up at base camp on the Chinese side of Everest is like waking up after a big night out. Climbing out of bed and wrapping myself in a jacket and poncho were strenuous chores. Pushing open my tent’s metal door to amble out into the Tibetan wind and rain was enough to make me sit down on the nearest rock. What seemed like a hangover was, in fact, the effect of the altitude sickness I had suffered since landing in Lhasa, five days previously.

Partial view of Barkhor Square in central Lhasa. In the right foreground is a branch of the Chinese equivalent of KFC, “Dico’s”. The golden roof in the background belongs to the Jokhang Temple, generally considered the most sacred in Tibet.

Lhasa is a deceptively large city. If you limit yourself to the central Barkhor area, you could believe that there’s little more to the city than restaurants, souvenir stores, and incense. The whitewashed, red-shuttered buildings lining the streets are romantically rustic, their ornate balustrades and blue lintels luring you to inspect the exotic wares within. But anyone visiting Lhasa must notice the urban sprawl, comprising not only cultural sites but residential estates, shopping centres, hospitals, and schools. It has all the trappings of a modern capital, which in Lhasa’s case, also include military bases, armoured vehicles, police stations on every corner, and Chinese flags atop every building.

A pedestrian street in Barkhor.

On that first day in Lhasa, however, my scope quickly became far more limited than even Barkhor. Upon landing, the air was noticeably thinner, forcing me to breathe more deeply and move more slowly. Though I had taken altitude sickness pills before my flight from Chengdu, I ended up spending much of the day in bed, weak and in pain. For several hours, all I knew of Tibet was the graffiti-ridden walls of my hostel dorm.


Alcohol should have been out of the question. But on the second night, I allowed my travelling companions to peer pressure me into sampling the Lhasa nightlife. We were, after all, a bunch of foreign students in China taking advantage of our summer break. The best entertainment we could find was a cabaret theatre, where patrons could sit at one of many small tables in front of a large stage, and enjoy dinner and a show. In front of a screen showing projected images of Tibetan landscapes, topped with a grand diorama of the Potala Palace, we were treated to Tibetan and Chinese love ballads, traditional dancing, and even some slapstick comedy by performers in drag. At one point, an electronic remix of traditional Tibetan music started playing, and one man started shuffling about on stage. I wondered whether someone had pulled out of the show at the last minute, and this was the depressing substitute act, but it turned out that at regular intervals the stage became an impromptu dancefloor. Gradually, more people joined the lone dancer until two concentric rings of people were dancing on stage. One of them was a lady wearing a psychedelic T-shirt. The slogan on the front said, “Your life is a fucking illusion.”

Eastern view of Lhasa from the rear of the Potala Palace.

I’m unsure if the woman realized the gravity of her T-shirt’s pronouncement, but Tibet could have convinced me of its truth. Tibet’s natural and cultural heritage deserve to be experienced, and we are fortunate that much of it has survived the upheaval of the 20th century, especially the Cultural Revolution. You can make your way through labyrinthine temples packed with artifacts, and emerge under the bluest skies, breathing the freshest air in China. But those who live and breathe this heritage remain under the thumb of a communist regime thousands of miles away, which projects power through military might and Han Chinese colonists. If the fighter jets on the airport tarmac don’t convince you, the policemen slapping around local beggars in the main square will. Tibet’s cultural symbols are everywhere to be seen, but if those to whom they have meaning are restricted in their control and access, then those temple murals and carvings would be so much decoration, and Tibetan culture may one day fall as silent as the gilded tombs of Dalai Lamas past. Perhaps that T-shirt was a warning: your life is but mist, easily blown away by a strong wind.

The Yarlung Zangbo River, longest river in Tibet and upper stream of the Brahmaputra River. The Friendship Highway is visible here on the left bank.

On the fourth day, my friends and I began our road trip to Everest base camp. We took the Friendship Highway, so called because it links Lhasa and Kathmandu, thus symbolizing the friendship between Nepal and Tibet (and therefore China). Beside the highway runs the Yarlung Zangbo River, eventually to become the Brahmaputra River, on its way to meet the Ganges just before it runs into the Bay of Bengal. It is the lifeblood of this region, and we often observed herds of yak and mountain goats crouching at the riverbank to drink.


Unlike the freely flowing river, our journey was interrupted many times. The police impose a strict speed limit of 40km/h along the Friendship Highway, and enforce it through a series of checkpoints. This is ostensibly to prevent accidents, a genuine risk due to some sharp turns, the high elevation of the road, and lack of safety barriers. But it also guarantees that the police have a record of everyone who travels along that road. As tourists, we would have been known to the authorities anyway, but we only had to get out of the vehicle a couple of times. Our driver and tour guide, both locals, had to get out and show their papers every single time.

Our tour guide would tell us later, generously and frankly, that one of the freedoms he hoped would come to Tibet would be freedom of movement. It was inconvenient for us foreigners to be stopped every few hours simply getting from A to B. But imagine being born in a country where you are forced daily to justify your presence. Perhaps this is survivable if it’s all you’ve ever known. After all, tourists get to leave Tibet. Locals are never given passports.

At many checkpoints, there is a fibre-glass statue of a traffic policeman. His paintwork is often scratched and pitted, but he smiles and salutes all the same, welcoming travelers to the desolate stretch of bitumen beyond. At one checkpoint, our driver was instead greeted with a ¥2000 speeding fine. He had to pay on the spot and could not afford it. After several hours of negotiation, he was happy to pay only ¥800.

Rocky plain in front of Everest base camp. This area is restricted and the tourists seen here were soon chased away by local police. Everest itself would have been visible behind the perfectly mountain-shaped cloud at centre-left.

My friends and I chipped in so he wouldn’t be out of pocket on our account. Time was of the essence, not only because of the limited duration of our travel permit, but because favourable conditions at Everest base camp rarely last. If you have seen HD pictures of Everest in a nature documentary, prepare for another illusion to be shattered. For the entire time we were within sight of the mountain, it was shrouded in mist. “Base camp” consists of a hut on a hill with a plaque in front of it, and a shrine on an opposite hill covered in prayer flags, both overlooking a flat valley of stones, butting up against a wall of clouds. It’s not romantic and it’s very cold.

It was there that my altitude sickness, which I had thought under control, returned with a vengeance. I crouched among the prayer flags, hiding from the wind until it was time to go back to the tent city where we were staying the night. I slept fitfully, until unwanted light and noise forced me from the tent in the morning. I speculated later that it was only out here, away from the urban centres swarming with police and soldiers, that the Tibetan existence was not illusory. Here, if you were lucky, the mist would be blown away to reveal something permanent: Everest itself, the Holy Mother, Qomolangma. With only the environment to oppress you, everything else would fall away, and life would be what you made of it. But my revelation was different. The price you pay to sit at the foot of a goddess is to breathe the thinnest air. Right then, I wanted nothing more than to be back in the city, to feel the full weight of my footsteps on the pavement. I wouldn’t have minded being swept up in the sea of humanity as long as I felt like I belonged. Yet there I sat, alone on a rock beside a tent pitched on the roof of the world, head in my hands, struggling to breathe.

Ben Lee studies Chinese language and culture at the Australian National University, Canberra. He is currently translating classical Chinese anecdotal texts into English, and wishes he had another opportunity to explore the country that produced such tales of wonder.

Abstract Narratives: Zao Wou-ki Exhibition Review

By Mengyue Wu

The first retrospective exhibition of Chinese-French artist Zao Wou-ki (1920-2013)[1] in the United States, No Limits: Zao Wou-ki, was on view at the Asia Society[2], New York, from September 9, 2016 to January 8, 2017. In the age of globalization, the exhibition’s title “No Limits” not only refers to Zao’s first name, which literally means limitless in Chinese, but also implies the expatriate experience of Zao and the transnational art world in which Zao was actively involved. Zao grew up in Dantu, a small city in the Southeast of China, moved to Montparnasse, Paris at the age of 28, and visited the United States in 1950s. Zao was highly regarded in his lifetime and is hailed as the most successful Chinese artist at present for his abstract paintings.

Although Zao’s abstract artworks stylistically resemble works of American abstract artists active in the 50s, Zao employed his expressionist background to depict emotive narratives through abstract forms, showing significant influence from the Parisian impressionists and post-impressionists, and most importantly, from the tradition of Chinese ink painting. Through an analysis of the painting Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55 (1955) at the exhibition, I will critique the “abstract narrative” style of Zao, whose multi-cultural background and transnational experience significantly shape his art.

The exhibition was divided into two parts: Zao’s early work in one room, and his mature work in another. The small, bright room housed works Zao produced in college, at the China Art Academy. While the small room displayed mostly water color paintings of tea pots and trees, the other room exhibited Zao’s more abstract and large-scale oil paintings. Located on the opposite side of the hall, the large room tripled the size of the small one, whilst its zigzag path forced viewers to look at these paintings in a designed sequence. Despite the physical separation between Zao’s earlier works and his mature paintings, one cannot deny the continuity in his art practice, especially his consistent fascination with representation. In fact, the zigzag path inside the larger exhibition space intensifies the logic of Zao’s art, which is to represent the world with abstract visual languages, through a post-impressionist approach as well as a traditional Chinese ink painting practice. The legibility of subjects may dwindle as Zao’s style becomes more mature, but the subject matter neither disappears nor gives way to a pure abstraction; Zao’s representations of the real world are dissolved into symbols and colors on gigantic canvases.

Upon entering the large room, viewers would be absorbed into an immersive experience by looking at an enormous blue painting against a black plastic wall. This is Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55, a larger than life sized portrait of Chu Yun, a historical figure from the ancient Chinese state, Chu. Chu Yun drowned himself in the Miluo River after Qin conquered his homeland on the fifth of May. At first sight, any viewer with some basic knowledge of Western modern art may find Homage to Chu Yun reminiscent of the abstract-expressionist works of Paul Klee and Jackson Pollock, because the painting seems to consist of random, energetic splashes of paint. However, this painting is more of a portrait without figures than a pure abstract-expressionist painting. Narrative consists of a major part of this work. Relying on colors, lines and script, Honage to Chu Yun memorizes and dramatizes the climactic moment of Chu Yun’s suicidal jump into the Miluo river. As the first painting to be viewed in the second exhibition room, this work is possibly among Zao’s early experiments with abstraction, and it serves as an exemplar model to illustrate the “abstract narrative” style.

Every element in Homage to Chu Yun is created with intention in order to tell a story with abstract vocabulary. Among all tools, color is the most straightforward and easily identifiable feature to elucidate the narrative. In the painting, Zao only uses four colors—blue, black, red and white—for narrative rather than aesthetic purposes. The colors are associated with different objects based on their physical likeness. Recalling the title and the theme of the work, the deep blue background refers to the cold Miluo River, the reddish orange heap in the center of the picture is the warm body of Qu Yuan falling into the river, the black clusters around the red paint are fish swimming towards Qu’s body, and the white paint in the upper part of the painting suggests the bubbles generated by the instant splash as the body hits the water. To give the painting some visual complexity, Zao uses different tones of these four colors, but no extra color is used, for irrelevant colors would be distracting. The dramatic moment of Qu yuan’s heroic jump is captured through four specific colors and their according positions.

Colors alone may fail to reveal the story in its full clarity, but Zao further enhances the narrative through symbols from ancient Chinese oracle scripts and modern Chinese characters. The fish are represented not only by the black color from the fish scales, but also by their physical shapes. Looking closely to the right of the dark black cluster below the red paint, viewers may find that the “X” or “又” shaped cross-lines resemble a fish tail, while the circle resembles the body of a fish.  On the lower left side, a few strokes form the shape a fish. These simplified forms may be inspired by the ancient Chinese oracle scripts, which are quasi-abstract symbols derived from shapes of things in the natural world. A more abstract yet more explicit image derived from modern Chinese script is also visible on the left margin. The small square with two horizontal lines and a vertical line is very likely a fragment from the center of the modern Chinese character “鱼,” meaning fish. Although the modern fragment may not be as figurative as the oracle scripts, it is more straightforward to people who read Modern Chinese. By using words, Zao further illustrates the shapes of fish, thereby making the narrative more legible.

Zao must be familiar with both the ancient and the modern scripts, as he grew up in China and went to the China Art Academy, which was known for its strict training in traditional Chinese art. Zao’s practice of integrating scripts into paintings may find precedents in the West—the canonical introduction of alternate planes in Pablo Picasso’s collages—but it is unfair to argue that Zao’s painting is derivative. Unlike the phonetically developed Latin alphabet, the ancient Chinese oracle scripts were created based on forms and shapes, so writing script is roughly equivalent to painting. Picasso used phonetics to add the fourth dimension of an object, while Zao uses words that are symbolic in their nature as abstract elements to provide clear definitions to otherwise ambiguous images. The evolution of Chinese script is an abbreviated history of abstraction, as characters become increasingly simplified and decreasingly figurative in forms, but more effective for writing and reading. Zao’s use of writing is also reminiscent of the inscriptions in the traditional Chinese literati scroll painting. Literati artists usually comment and sign their names in calligraphy on the left margin of hanging scrolls; the continuous, linear black brushstrokes on the left margin of Homage to Chu Yun resemble the inscriptions, in terms of the format and the location. The Chinese scripts of fish and the reference to inscriptions all point to Zao’s connection with traditional Chinese art.

Besides fish, a legendary creature commonly associated with Qu Yuan—the dragon—also emerges from the seemingly chaotic brushstrokes. The rough, dry black lines trace an up-side-down dragon, which consists of a white belly, horse-like head, a long tail, a claw, and back fins. These features accord with descriptions of dragons in Chinese folklore and artworks throughout Chinese history. For example, in Chen Rong’s famous scroll painting Nine Dragons (1244), and the dragons also feature a reptile’s body and scales, tails, falcon claws, and horse heads. Zao’s dragon is almost a simplified and abstracted version of Chen’s dragon, with extremely similar claws, tails and heads.

The inclusion of a dragon in the center of the painting is probably to evoke the connections between Chu Yun and dragons. In the lunar calendar, the fifth of May is considered to have the strongest sun around the time of summer solstice, as the daylight in the northern hemisphere is the longest. Like the sun, the dragon is a masculine symbol whose images are often used to decorate the boats for the dragon boat race. The dragon boat race is a traditional activity to honor the death of Chu Yun in China on the fifth of May, or the so-called Dragon Boat Festival. This semi-religious and semi-entertaining sport has more than a thousand year’s history since it was invented in the Warring Stets period. Each participating boat has dragon decorations on the front. During the festival, there is another tradition to throw zongzi, a sticky-rice dish, into the Miluo river, in order to prevent the dragons and fish from eating Chu’s body. Thus, in the painting, near Qu’s body could be a dragon waiting to consume his flesh, in reference to the folklore. With these connections, the dragon image reinforces the theme and title of Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55, the glorification of the heroic act of Chu Yun on the special day of his anniversary.

Hidden in the abstraction is the breathtaking moment of Chu Yun’s legendary jump. From Zao’s deliberate choice of colors, the accurate positions of colors, and the lines depicting fish and the dragon, Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55 is a portrait without figures. In 1955, Zao had been abroad for seven years since he departed for Paris in 1948, but at this point, Zao still painted themes related to Chinese folklore, and retained a propensity to paint figures. Thanks to the display of Zao’s early works in the small room, viewers were prepared with some background of Zao’s early art training and were able to notice the continuity in his artworks. Zao’s art does not defy representation like other artists active in the 1950s; rather, he embraces narratives and embedded stories in abstract forms.


[1] More information about Zao Wou-ki can be found on the website “Foundation Zao=Wouki,”

[2] Founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Asia Society is a nonpartisan, nonprofit institution located on the 70th Street of New York City, dedicated to promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among peoples, leaders and institutions of Asia and the United States in a global context. Information about Asia Society can be found on


Mengyue Wu is an undergraduate student at New York University, major in Art History.
Her academic interests lie in modern and contemporary art, East Asian Art, and transnationalism.
Her current research project concerns artists’ expatriate experience, and its influence on their art.
She can be contacted via:


The Scolding of the Empire Child

by Oliver A. Moxham


From the Lowlands came the first of them,

Inquisitors from afar.

Politely they came seeking out

Where the Eastern nations are.


They were stashed inside a cubby-hole

Down in ancient Nagasaki,

But the Shogun came to mistrust them

and tried to send them packing.


Their manners and technologies

Would serve him well, but no.

Their religious types kept pestering,

Telling people ‘This is so!’


And so he decreed a cutting off,

Pulling down the nation’s shutter.

Better to keep their God away

And the country free from butter.


As samurai held down the land

With their dominions and steel,

The Western world kept pushing on

To lands which were yet to kneel.


Peoples fought and fell for naught

To Empirical swords and guns.

And all the while peace was held

In the Land of the Rising Sun.


In Edo, the Shogun sat and smiled,

“Lasting peace, thanks to me!”

And so it held ’til Perry came

in 1853.


America, a bastard son

of Europe’s warring states,

Sent a message with their fleet

To say, “Open up your gates!”


Well, steel swords don’t count for much

When there’s no ships to hold your sea.

So when the deadline came around

They told them “Let us be!”


The Shogun gone, a new age came

Full of foreigners abound.

What delights were held in farthest East,

What power could there be found.


Brits, Fritz and Yanks all sought

For an ally in the East.

They poured upon them luxuries

Of the industrial elite.


Yet while Japan was told of spoils

Of the colonialist’s prize,

They were much too late to play the game,

Due to the Unknown’s shrunken size.


Peace had held the land for years,

While war claimed the world around.

Untouched nations were scarcely left,

Flagpoles kept the lessers bound.


As time moved on and interest waned,

The new nation grew in years.

Yearning for the Empire’s way,

They went after their arrears.


The world, an ever-changing place,

Had moved past that early stage.

Joined together, the Western world

Sought a better, peaceful age.


And so it was the Empire Child

Had been taken by surprise

When he was beaten by the very hands

That had ushered him to rise.



Oliver is a student at the University of Sheffield, studying Japanese Studies and History after having spent nine months travelling in Japan. After his time there, he was left with a strong impression of how its distinct traditional culture coexisted with strong European influences, and have been inspired since to find the Japanese voice in a history dominated by a Eurocentric dialogue.” Oliver can be followed at @olliemox on Twitter.

Images from the Asia Pacific