The Tibetan Freedom Movement

The history of Tibet is one of domination and subjugation. In early times, the area now known as Tibet was the principle trade route from China to India. In the 7th century AD, Buddhism was introduced and a Tibetan kingdom came into being. In the 12th century, Tibet came under Mongol domination, eventually passing to the Chinese Manchu dynasty in 1720. As Chinese influence waned throughout the remainder of the 18th century and most of the 19th, Tibet suffered from repeated invasions from Gurkha tribes in neighbouring Nepal. A British attempt to open up Tibet to trade met with Tibetan resistance, prompting a British invasion in 1904. After the fall of China's Manchu dynasty in 1912, Tibet became an independent state. Tibetan freedom lasted until 1950, when China invaded it and restored Chinese control over the country. A rebellion against Chinese rule in 1959 was severely crushed, Tibetan Buddhism was suppressed and a secular government was installed. Tibetan Buddhism, derived from Indian Mahayana Buddhism, names its chief religious leaders, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, as the traditional political leaders as well. The Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala in northern India, where he and the Tibetan government has been in exile since.

Since the Dalai Lama won the Noble Peace Prize in 1989 there has been a growth support for the Tibetan Freedom Movement. The spiritual leader of his people, he has the support and sympathy of many Western governments, the Western media, numerous university groups and many other high profile personalities. Along with the economic and social changes slowly developing in China, he states that greater autonomy for Tibet is inevitable. The Dalai Lama follows a high profile program of non-violent resistance. This has spawned a variety of media events ranging from Hollywood movies depicting the life of the Dalai Lama and the domination of Tibet to media events such as the Tibetan Freedom Concert to numerous public foundations devoted spreading word of the Tibetan cause. I wish to explore the content of the advertising for some of these media activities that raise awareness to the Tibetan cause and how they express the idea of nation.


Tibetan Symbolism in Nationalist Advertising

The Tibetan flag is often used on many websites that deal with or believe in the Tibetan Freedom movement. As a symbol it is intimately connected with the history of Tibet as well as representing the land, customs and traditions of Tibet in its content.

Figure 1.1


The Tibetan Freedom Concert and the Milarepa Fund

The Tibetan Freedom Concert is an annual concert event that started in 1996. Organized by the Milarepa Fund and musicians including Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, the concerts have raised funds to help press for the liberation of Tibet from Chinese occupation. To begin my research I started off at the concert website. Heavily used throughout the site are dark vibrant colors found in Tibetan artwork and Buddhist artwork mixed in the activist messages and popculture art. The name of the concert itself initiates a sense of grassroots activism and is used repeatedly. Not only is it a title but it is a motto. It is "Tibetan Freedom" in concert. You aren't going to just a concert; you are going to a concert to protest for the Freedom of the Tibetans.

Figure 2.1

Figure 2.2

The pop-rock benefit festival has become a youth-culture rite of passage and almost a measure of the music industry's capacity to initiate social and political change. The advertisements spread the words "Non-violence" mixed in with revolutionary words such as "action" and "freedom". This is an interesting contrast between the Buddhist ways and ideals and American words of power to get support from people from one nation for an entirely foreign country. The very movement becomes a popculture phenomena around which people gather at this concert in a transnationlistic movement for a foreign country. Figure 2.3 message "Coming to a Capitol City Near You" interests me especially because of it's mix between a spoof on a movie advertisement and it's nationalistic gathering undertones. It's a mix between being cool and being activistic and uses Buddhist inspired art to push it's nationalist Tibetan tonality. Figures 2.4 and 2.5 are interesting in that they are cartoons/art that mix in Tibetan art themes and religious icons with symbols of American nationalism.

Activists are pushing Tibetan Freedom at a time when the Clinton Administration is getting lots of outside pressure on the China/Human rights issue. That pressure is coming not just from the left of the spectrum (alternative rockers and Buddhists concerned about Tibet) but from the Christian Right as well.

Figure 2.3

Figure 2.4

Figure 2.5



Kundun is the story of H.H. the fourteenth Dalai Lama, made with his cooperation and that of many members of the Tibet-in-exile community. The actors are all amateurs, many of them relatives, students, or friends of characters in the film. For example the woman who plays the Dalai Lama's mother is portraying her own grandmother. By insisting on using nothing but actual Tibetans, Scorsese achieves a portrait of this lost nation and its deeply spiritual people. All of the actors, none of them professional, are quite believable. And scenes of the dazzling, intricate Tibetan art of sandpainting are woven dream-like throughout the film.

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and thus in much nationlist freedom advertising they use images of the Dalai Lama himself. This spiritual worship is reflected in Figure 3.2 where they simply use an image of the boy dalai lama. There is also much use of the people themselves as in Figure 3.3 in order to establish links personal links between those people and the people in other countries which the Freedom Movement is reaching out to for support. The movie makes the history of the Dalai Lama larger than life and mystical. This is drawn on by the advertisements. The caption in Figure 3.1 calls Kundun "The amazing story of the Dalai Lama". It almost mytholgizes his story before while he is still alive.

The Kundun Movie trailer uses an operetic score and buddhist-like chanting to create a mystical mood where striking images of the Tibetan landscape and people fade in a dream-like state. The life of the Dalai Lama seemingly flashes before our eyes. Chaos meets idealism as the trailer speeds up and the peaceful landscape degrades to a nightmare as the Chinese invade Tibet. As the dialogue in the trailer goes "The Chinese are once again trying to convince the world, that Tibet belongs to them." we see the trailer take on activist undertones as the trailer is trying to explain that Tibet is not part of China at all.

load trailer: Kundun Trailer (7.059KB)

Figure 3.1

Figure 3.2 - click for enlarged image

Figure 3.3


Seven Years in Tibet

Originally published in 1953 and released as a movie in 1997, this adventure classic recounts Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer's 1943 escape from a British internment camp in India, his daring trek across the Himalayas, and his happy sojourn in Tibet, then, as now, a remote land little visited by foreigners. Warmly welcomed, he eventually became tutor to the Dalai Lama, teenaged god-king of the theocratic nation. The author's vivid descriptions of Tibetan rites and customs capture its unique traditions before the Chinese invasion in 1950, which prompted Harrer's departure.

Seven Years in Tibet is a compelling portrait of the Dalai Lama and his nation. Filtering this exquisitely foreign land through the eyes of a Westerner (even if he was a Nazi) may have been the best way to guide an audience. Seven Years gave viewers a flawed hero with a crucial character arc (from blind narcissism to wide-eyed compassion) through which we, the viewers, were able to achieve enlightenment. The Dalai Lama, being the perfect and unflawed incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, isn't exactly the easiest protagonist to identify with. "If you can imagine a place, rich with all your nighttime dreams, then you know where I am."

load trailer: Seven Years in Tibet Trailer (9.519KB)

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.2


Charles David and the International Campaign for Tibet

I found this Tibet Freedom advertisement campaign in the March issue of ELLE magazine. A 2 page advertisement on the right page it looked like any other fashion spread, a women in a gauzy red skirt shod in flat red sandels on the a sunny beach, foot prints trailed behind her. On the left side I found a stark contrast to this fashion dream, red and black duotone photos of Tibet children each looking in sadder and more sublime as they grow in age. In bold letters read the words "Walk With Us". The caption reads:

His name is Ngawang Choephel.
He is a Fulbright Scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont.
He is a gifted musician.
And, because he is Tibetan, he is now a prisoner. Every
day, countless innocent Tibetans are jailed and tortured for
the crime of pursuing their own beliefs.
Please join us as we seek to gather 1 million signatures in
a petition for Ngawang Choephel's release.
Give a voice to those who can't speak.

This is the Charles David "Walk with Us" ad campaign. In collaboration with the The International Campaign for Tibet Charles David is "inviting consumers to vote with their feet and liberate political prisoners" (Advertising Age, Cordona) as part of their current ad campaign.

Real Audio video detailing the Tibetan Crisis

Figures 5.1 and 5.2

Figures 5.3