06 April 2008
Tibet Woodblock - Research
photo from Getty Images
In July of 2006, the Qinghai-Tibet railway, which connects Lhasa to the existing China rail network, opened to great fanfare. Hailed by Chinese official media as an engineering wonder, the 710-mile line is the world's highest railway (16,600 feet above sea level at its highest) and boasts high-tech engineering to stabilize tracks over permafrost and to pump oxygen into cabins to help passengers cope with the high altitude.
Before the railway, there were only two ways into Lhasa: an expensive plane ride or three days and nights on a bus along treacherous mountain roads. China's rulers have said that the rail line is opening up Tibet and bringing greater prosperity for all its people, but Tibetans say that the rail is accelerating the demise of Tibet's unique culture and way of life. From all accounts, Lhasa has become something of a boomtown in recent years, filled with malls and construction sites and populated more and more by Chinese immigrants from poor rural provinces who are attracted by the pull of jobs and money.
Sadly, the situation is similar in many ways to what happened in the U.S. in the 19th century, when railroads opened the west to a huge influx of new population and native peoples were pushed to the margins.
Shortly after I first heard about the Qinghai-Tibet railway I wanted to make a print about it and I thought of doing a typographical treatment, using Chinese characters and Tibetan script somehow. When I found the Tibetan woodblock a couple of weeks ago I realized that I had the Tibetan script I needed to make the print I envisioned.
For the Chinese characters, I researched 20th century Chinese propaganda posters. The one I decided to use comes from Mao's "Down to the Countryside Movement." During this movement, which lasted from around 1968-1978, young intellectuals living in cities were ordered to go to mountainous areas or farming villages ostensibly so that they could learn from the workers and farmers there. The policy also was intended to redistribute excess urban population as well as to quell unrest among the Red Guard and remove the embarrassment of the early Cultural Revolution from sight.
This propaganda poster, from 1972, says "Take root in the countryside while keeping the world in your heart." I like this phrase for its evocation of the great movement of population to Tibet via the the Qinghai-Tibet railway.