Falsehoods in ‘Seven Years in Tibet’

Seven Years and Several Liars

Many people will have got their impression of the Tibet issue from the Hollywood film of Harrer’s Seven Years In Tibet. It is beautifully made drama and is said to give a real impression of the place, using footage filmed in a portion of the Andes that happens to resemble Tibet. An above-average drama – and also a pack of lies. Plausible but untruthful from beginning to end.

The first bit of nonsense happens when Harrer is about to set off on a mountaineering expedition to a peak in British India. He is hailed as a ‘German hero’ by a Nazi official, and replies “Thank you, but I’m Austrian”. To have said that in 1939 would have been extremely bold, since Austria had been part of Greater Germany since April 1938. Harrer says nothing about any such remark, and it is out of keeping with what he does admit to. He had made his name by being one of four climbers to make the first successful ascent of the notorious Eiger North Face (Nordwand in German.) His three fellow-climbers were not part of the 1939 expedition, even though two of them had started a day later and caught up. It may have helped that Harrer was by then a member of the SS, never a requirement for citizens of the Third Reich. SS membership was generally an honour given to committed and racially-pure Nazi supporters. He had also been a member of Nazi organisations before they were legal in Austria, or else he falsely claimed such membership.[V] With certainty, he gave no sign of anti-Nazi sentiments during the 1930s. He also did not voice them in his 1950s book, when a rejection of his past would have been a sign of sincere regret. I doubt Harrer ever did regret or wish to reject his past: he just said the minimum he could get away with when the matter was publicised in the 1990s.

The film simplifies later events – Harrer made two break-outs from the British internment camp, the first with an Italian general – but is not wildly misleading on that part of his history. It next wanders away from truth with a dramatic encounter with unnamed Tibetan bandits. Harrer’s own account is very different: a series of alarming but inconclusive meetings with people he calls ‘Khampas’:

“‘Khampa’ must mean an inhabitant of the eastern province of Tibet, which is called Kham. But you never heard the name mentioned without an undertone of fear and warning. At last we realised that the word was synonymous with ‘robber’.” [P]

Harrer was writing in 1953. Khampas fighting the Chinese Red Army were later defined as warriors of freedom rather than bandits objecting to being put out of business. Had Italy gone Communist, the Sicilian Mafia and its allies in the Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta might have done something similar – and there was a brief and insignificant attempt at Sicilian separatism using bandits for firepower. Regarding the Khampas, their history is a complex business which I will not examine here. Suffice it to say that the film invents events, having Harrer and his companion ride off safely on stolen horses. It’s absurd to think that real bandits or any sort of nomad would be so sloppy as to let their horses be stolen from an overnight camp.

Harrer in his book explains how he and his companion got some official Tibetan permits to travel by claiming they wanted to seek refuge in neutral Nepal, while all the time hoping to get to Lhasa. The film has him wave a Red Cross document to fool an official, who supposedly can’t tell the difference between Western typescript and Tibet’s own very distinctive alphabet.

The film’s account of his arrival in Lhasa and settling down is in line with Harrer, apart from a romance that owes nothing to anything he mentioned. The main wave of falsehoods come near then end, the point where the story ceases to be personal and becomes highly political, touching on issues still ‘live’ in the global struggle for power and identity.

The film shows shocking violence by the Chinese Army against Tibetans, including helpless non-combatants. This contradicts what people reported at the time. Harrer himself says:

“In 1910 the invading Chinese had plundered and burned when they came to Lhasa, and the inhabitants were paralyzed with fear that these outrages would be repeated. Nevertheless it is fair to say that during the present war the Chinese troops had showed themselves disciplined and tolerant. and Tibetans who had been captured and then released were saying how well they had been treated.” [Q]

Equally striking is the Chinese generals arriving for negotiations, being rude and trampling through a sacred mandala made of sand. Unforgettable if it had happened, which of course it did not. Nor were any Chinese negotiators reported as having said ‘religion is poison’, in the way the film shows. This remark is alleged to have been made by Mao in a private conversation with the Dalai Lama several years later.  (And is probably false, as I detail in another article.)

All serious sources agree that the Chinese Army initially showed great respect for Tibetan religion and culture and would certainly not have trampled through a mandala. It is by comparison a minor invention the Chinese generals arrive by air, several years before Lhasa Gonggar Airport was constructed. The Chinese People’s Army have always been versatile, but actually they came by land across a country with no good roads. The Dalai Lama went by road and mountain trail when he attended the National People’s Congress in Beijing in 1954.

In the film, a broadcast by the new Communist government says that “the remote kingdom of Tibet is an integral part of the Chinese territory and must join the great new Republic.” They would certainly not have put it like that. There was in fact a pledge to “liberate Tibet and Taiwan”. The agreement under which the Lhasa government ruled till 1959 said “the Tibetan nationality is one of the nationalities with a long history within the boundaries of China” and speaks of the Local Government of Tibet, which shall return to the big family of the motherland. [R]

The whole sequence of negotiations and the installation of the Dalai Lama as ruler are out of sequence in the film. The 14th Dalai Lama was enthroned as the temporal leader of Tibet on 17 November 1950. A delegation was sent to Beijing and agreed the Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet.[Q] Meantime the Dalai Lama had left Lhasa and took refuge on the border with India and Sikkim. The Dalai Lama said later that he disliked the agreement, but returned to Lhasa and for several years tried to work within its terms. He was even elected to be the Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the People’s Republic’s first National People’s Congress which he attended in 1954. That’s a detail that ‘Free Tibet’ biographers tend to leave out.[S]

The film makes Harrer’s son a key theme, but in the original book Harrer does not mention his wife or son. His autobiography explains that he had in fact been married and divorced, as the film shows. But his ex-wife’s new husband was killed in the war and Harrer’s son was raised by his ex-wife’s mother.[AA] Harrer gives brief details of his contact with his son, but nothing to support what the film shows. And while the film has the young Dalai Lama denying a father-son relationship between himself and Harrer, Harrer himself says it was just that.[AB]

That’s the film of Seven Years In Tibet – nice cinematography, shame about the facts. Typical of Hollywood’s approach to history: why be constrained by facts when the public are happy to swallow well-crafted lies? Besides, it is well-known that the US public will not stand for inconvenient truths. The epic Heaven’s Gate showed the sordid reality behind the USA’s Western myth, how the original idea of small independent farmers was shoved aside in favour of ranchers producing beef for the world market. The critics hated it and most of the public stayed away, producing financial disaster for United Artists. Even the Wikipedia at one time branded it as a “a highly fictionalized account of the Johnson County War”, though they failed to mention any specific detail that was wrong.[AL] The Internet Movie Database says that “the real James Averill never studied at Harvard, he attended Cornell”, which is hardly a major change. There is no flaw in Heaven’s Gate that isn’t common to all Westerns: it was punished for showing something like the truth, illustrating how the original idea of a Republic of free farmers was undermined.

Heaven’s Gate appeared and was panned in 1980, the same year that the US elected Reagan, offering smiles and lies and flattery to ordinary US citizens at the same time as he diverted money towards the rich. Ordinary US citizens have seen their level of income stagnate at 1970s levels, while the extra wealth went to the rich.[AE] This hasn’t happened anywhere else – Britain has got more unequal, but most Britons are much better off than they were in the 1970s. The development of the USA from the 1980s onwards shows the power of lies, and Seven Years In Tibet is one small part of it.

This comes from a larger article, which deals with Tibet in general.  It and others are listed in a general menu.


[P] Seven Years In Tibet, towards the end of chapter 5.

[Q] Seven Years In Tibet, towards the end of chapter 16.

[R] [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seventeen_Point_Agreement]

[S] [http://voyage.typepad.com/china/2007/01/chairman_mao_lo.html]