Foreign observers, western and eastern have frequently idealized the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, describing it as a peaceful, timeless city defined by Buddhist traditions and a contented population, while others have seen it as foul-smelling, oppressive, or backward. In this imaginative new work, Robert Barnett juxtaposes contemporary accounts of Tibet, architectural observations, and his own experience to offer a sharp yet lyrical exploration of Lhasa and its current status as both an ancient city and a modern Chinese provincial capital.
Interspersed throughout the book are dramatic, firsthand accounts of the underground drive for Tibetan independence and the violent confrontations that shook Lhasa in the late 1980s. Plunged by chance into the thick of Tibetan demonstrations, Barnett conveys the anguish of a desperate situation, which is only exacerbated by outsiders’ attempts to intercede. His narrative of the city moves from encounters with the wounded in Lhasa, to Chinese border officials, to Tibetan defectors in a London restaurant. He discovers a city whose story is woven from the tangled threads of myth, legend, history, and desire and shaped by a rich cultural heritage and the impact of political ideals and restraints.
Barnett also offers an innovative perspective on the experience of foreigners in a city not their own. Acting as an "archeologist of the urban soul," he leads the reader into the web of historical layering, popular memory, symbolism, and the architectural statements that constitute the story of a city. Besides the ancient Buddhist temples and former picnic gardens of the Tibetan capital, Barnett describes the urban sprawl, the harsh rectangular structures, and the geometric blue-glass tower blocks that speak wordlessly of the dreams of successive regimes determined to improve upon the past. The buildings and the city streets, as Barnett demonstrates, recount the story of Tibet’s complex transition from tradition to modernity and its painful history of foreign encounters and political experiment. Lhasa; Streets with Memories, Robert Barnett, Columbia University Press, Hardcover, 2006, 219 Pages, $24.50