LHASA: STREETS WITH MEMORIES ROBERT BARNETT New York: Columbia University Press, 2006 219 pp.; $24.50 (cloth)


ROBERT BARNETT’S BRILLIANT rumination on Tibet’s capital, Lhasa: Streets with Memories, begins with a deceptively humble idea. Admitting in his preface that foreign writers cannot portray Lhasa without preconceived notions—particularly given the Sino-Tibetan politics that surround Lhasa and the conspicuous absence of its patron saint, the Dalai Lama—Barnett proposes to merely “scrape a little of the topsoil off the affective history.”

Instead of digging for buried treasure, in other words, Barnett’s archaeology will content itself to observing the visible—the street-corner “convergence of memories.” In taking this modest approach, it’s almost as if he were heeding Vladimir Nabokov’s warning in Transparent Things: “When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object.” Nabokov saw the value of sticking to surface detail in order to embrace a multi-laminated reality. In a rare employment of the exclamation point, Nabokov gushed: “Transparent things, through which the past shines!”

It is in this context that Lhasa: Streets with Memories manages to illuminate the sentiment of Lhasa in a way no work about the city has yet achieved. Intellectually, few authors are better qualified than Barnett to take on this task. He is a former teacher at Tibet University, a linguist, a journalist, and an editor, and is currently at Columbia University as Lecturer in Modern Tibetan Studies. Still, it is not academic pyrotechnics that make this book memorable. It is the genuine emotional weight in the narrator’s voice that will carry the reader from one page to the next—an authentic involvement based on a remarkable and unplanned event that took place in Barnett’s life.

Knowing very little about Lhasa—other than what he had read by earlier chronicles emphasizing the more romantic notions of Lhasa as the City of the Gods—Barnett made his first visit there in the fall of 1987.

On September 27, 1987, twenty-one monks from Drepung Monastery came into Lhasa, performed three choras (circumambulations) around the perimeter of the old Barkor district, and shouted two treasonous words: “Free Tibet!”

The city was galvanized, and so was Barnett, who had just arrived. Particularly unsettling was the fact that the Chinese militia did nothing.

Four days later, on October 1, several hundred monks from Sera Monastery came into Lhasa to have their own demonstration. This time the Chinese were prepared. The streets and alleyways of Lhasa suddenly turned into a battlefield. Civilians in the streets were gunned down. Buildings were torched. Robert Barnett, one of the few Westerners in Lhasa at the time, witnessed the tumultuous unraveling of the tightly controlled city:

Back on the Barkor, the street from which I had just come, a posse of men, still within firing range of the soldiers now advancing, were running into a shop. They were carrying a man awkwardly draped among them. Seconds later the group backed clumsily out of the shop door, still with their burden. There was a red cross painted on a sign above the door.

The group approached Barnett, pleading for help. The man they were carrying was bleeding from a soldier’s bullet. Barnett panicked, not understanding why they were begging for his assistance since there was a clinic in plain sight right across the street. If there were no doctors in the clinic, Barnett wondered, why didn’t the Tibetans simply rush their friend to a hospital?

Then the grim reality set in.

The Tibetans feared the hospital because the word on the street was that the Chinese authorities had ordered all Lhasa clinics and hospitals to turn away wounded demonstrators. To treat a victim would be paramount to a prison sentence—for doctor and victim alike.

In the strange world in which I now found myself, it was unimportant that bullets wound people. What mattered was that the wounds branded them as protestors, criminal. So they would die not from bullets but from lack of medical treatment.

The group half carried, half dragged their friend along the alleyway and disappeared into the maze of tiny streets that is the old city of Lhasa. From the Barkor the sound of shooting continued, muffled to a thin crackle by the thick, mud-packed stone walls of the old Tibetan houses, as if their ancient fabric could alone absorb the rifle fire.

What makes the narration particularly unnerving is the manner in which Barnett adroitly juxtaposes the days of the 1987 uprising with other times in Lhasa when the city has known relative tranquility. Between accounts of his harrowing adventure, he describes the Lhasa streets before the Chinese invasion, as well as the new wide roads of the twenty-first century, congested with Han businessmen and tour buses from mainland China.

Through Barnett’s skillful patchwork of imagery, the reader begins to understand the extent to which radical changes have taken place since Mao Zedong took over Tibet in the 1950s: the razing of Old Lhasa in favor of concrete Chinese utilitarian architecture with blue-tinted glass; the sprouting up of incongruous art deco lampposts; the ultramodern concrete “120-foot-high replica of a mountain,” erected across from the Potala Palace; the karaoke bars, electronics stores, and dance halls; the supernumerary brothels—Barnett counts over six hundred—out of which sated customers emerge onto the sidewalks, under the shadows of shockingly green plastic palm trees that now grace the boulevards; Chinese people reading Chinese road signs in a Chinese town.

This is not the “See Tibet” travel brochure offered by your neighborhood tourist agency. It is a Lhasa where Tibetans are a minority in their own capital. Twenty times larger than when the Fourteenth Dalai Lama held sway in the upper stories of the Potala Palace, today’s Lhasa is deafened by traffic and hazy with pollution. And Tibetan Buddhism (the reason most foreigners visit Lhasa in the first place) is promoted by the Chinese in much the same way that a Las Vegas developer might envision and improve upon a famous landmark from a distant part of the world—“improve” because the new version’s blueprint doesn’t fuss too much with expensive authenticity but, rather, concentrates on facade replication, token costumed monks, and crowd control.

To Bartlett’s credit, his narration stays clear of polemics. From time to time, perhaps just to level the playing field, the author reminds the reader that the “old Tibet” was no Shangri-La and its government was capable of behaving brutally to its own people. It is Bartlett’s restraint that lends credibility to his narration.

In the tradition of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg and Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Robert Barnett’s Lhasa: Streets with Memories makes sure that the main character is the city itself, not the city’s inhabitants. Using rapidly morphing Lhasan architecture as the hook, Barnett has written a significant work on Sino-Tibetan history, politics, and culture.

It is also worth mentioning that Karen Diemberger’s line drawings, which are interspersed within the text, are a subtle but beautifully executed complement to Bartlett’s notion that the layered memories of Lhasa’s streets are, in the end, as transitory as they are translucent.


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