A. Tom Grunfeld is SUNY Distinguished Professor at Empire State College of the State University of New York. Grunfeld is widely sought as a speaker and commentator on China-Tibet issues and on US policy regarding the Tibetan independence movement. Grunfeld is the author of several books including The Making of Modern Tibet and over 150 articles and book reviews, many of which address Tibet and China related-issues. In late spring 2009, he graciously consented to the following interview with Lucien Ellington.
Lucien: In a recent article that appeared in an ASIANetwork publication, you asserted that Americans feel more about Tibet than they know.* Please elaborate upon this point.
Tom Grunfeld: Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the Western world (Europe and North America) has been fascinated with Tibet. Westerners were excluded from Tibet, which did not deter them from trying to get there. However, the less successful they were in reaching Tibet, the greater the development of a mythical Tibet fueled by charlatan “spiritual guides,” and books and films like Lost Horizon. This fantasy became the hook on which the Dalai Lama and his supporters built an international campaign in the late 1980s. This campaign relied heavily, especially in its early years, on perpetuating this myth of a Tibet that was nonviolent, environmentally friendly, spiritually advanced, and led by the most enlightened and benign leaders. In my experience, many of the Americans affiliated with the various “Free Tibet” campaigns have, in their emotional commitment to either Tibetan Buddhism and/or the political campaign, largely bought into the myth. I know that I am generalizing, but the ones I tend to meet, and the written materials that I read, demonstrate little real knowledge, and, sadly, little interest, in the complexities of the historical record.
I should also note that another consequence of the global prominence of Tibet has been an explosion in serious scholarship and intellectual interest that will, in the long-run, have a profound influence onour understanding of the genuine Tibet and, eventually, end the mythologizing