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“Lamaism, the living anachronism” – Depiction of Tibetan Buddhism in Czechoslovak Travelogues from the 1950s

“Lamaism, the living anachronism” – Depiction of Tibetan Buddhism in Czechoslovak Travelogues from the 1950s

Martin Lavicka25 Apr 2016Leave a comment

“Lamaism, the living anachronism” – Depiction of Tibetan Buddhism in Czechoslovak Travelogues from the 1950s1

Written by Martin Slobodník (Comenius University in Bratislava)

Annotation: The paper discusses the  depiction of Tibetan Buddhism in a  number of travelogues written by Czech and Slovak authors (usually writers and journalists who had no academic background in either Tibetan or religious studies) who visited China and Mongolia as official guests in the  1950s. The descriptions of  monasteries and temples in these writings (authored by A. Hoffmeiser, R. Moric, L. Mňačko, P.  Poucha, K. Beba, V. Sís and J. Vaniš) reflect various stereotyped images of the Marxist critical approaches towards religion as well as some Western negative prejudices about “Lamaism”. The author argues that the praiseful assessment of the anti-religious campaign of the communist Chinese government in 1950s in these travelogues served also as an instrument which should have persuaded the Czechoslovak readership that the anti-religious measures unleashed in socialist Czechoslovakia since 1950 were correct. In the concluding part, the author notes that the Czechoslovak criticism of Tibetan Buddhism (and traditional Tibet in general) preceded even the Chinese negative portrayals of pre-1950 Tibet.

Key words: China, Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism, Czechoslovak travelogues, 1950s, image of Tibet

The aim of this article is to provide an analysis of the depiction of Tibetan Buddhism in travelogues written by Czech and Slovak authors who visited China (and partially also Mongolia) during the 1950s. The description of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and temples in these writings is sometimes marginal, but it reflects various stereotyped images of the Marxist critical approaches towards religion (religion as a  relic of the  past, religion as a  product of the  oppressive class society, etc.). My contribution is  a  sequel to the  two articles written by Jana Rozehnalová and Luboš Bělka, who also briefly tackled some of the issues I will discuss.2

1 Historical and Political Background

The travelogues written by Czech and Slovak authors and published in book form during the 1950s represent an outcome of close cooperation between socialist Czechoslovakia and socialist China, which reached its peak precisely in the 1950s. Czechoslovakia had become a socialist country and a satellite of the Soviet regime after the seizure of power by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in February 1948, and the  representatives of  the  Communist Party of China proclaimed the  establishment of the  People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. The ideological proximity of these two socialist countries facilitated large-scale political, economic, and cultural cooperation. It is beyond the scope of this study to provide a detailed analysis of the initial period of Czechoslovak-Chinese relations,3 but the political context played a crucial role because cultural cooperation (which included the  visits of  Czech and Slovak writers and journalists) was conditioned by  the  close political partnership between the  two regimes. To  a  certain extent, cultural exchanges were a spinoff of the contacts established within the highest echelon of government officials and party leaders.

The first cultural agreement between Czechoslovakia and the People’s Republic of China was signed in spring 1952, when the Czechoslovak governmental delegation led by Václav Kopecký, Minister of Information, visited China. This agreement launched a close and vivid cooperation between these two socialist countries: Czechoslovakia was visited by Chinese writers, filmmakers, painters, actors, dance and music ensembles, a number of  modern Chinese literary works (written by leftist and communist authors) was translated into Czech, and representatives of the Czechoslovak “cultural front” made reciprocal visits to China.4

Knowledge of China in Czechoslovakia was scarce5 and once the People’s Republic of China joined the socialist bloc in October 1949 the need came about for bridging the gap between the citizens of Czechoslovakia and this geographically and culturally distant country. This would build a  sense of brotherhood between these two nations which were jointly  – under the leadership of the Soviet Union – building socialism and defending peace against “imperialist aggressors”. Travelogues written by Slovak and Czech authors, which were published either in book form or in journals and newspapers, became an important propaganda tool as they bore witness to China’s progress, and thus contributed to overcoming the barrier of ignorance between the two “friendly nations”. Authentic reportage and literary travelogues provided the  general public with insights into a  country which, unless one was one of its prominent guests, was only open to be visited by a  very limited few. These state-sponsored trips for Czech and Slovak pro-regime authors, who generally were not previously very knowledgeable about China, resulted in the publishing of travelogues commissioned by state and party authorities. These works represented part of the mandatory “publication output” for the prominent writers, and were to serve for the education of the masses.

(to continue reading, please go to our Proceedings from the 8th Annual Czech and Slovak Sinological Conference available for free in iPDF)

1 This work was supported by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange, Taiwan, grant no. RG001-EU-14.

2 Rozehnalová 2008; Bělka 2015.

3 So far, very few scholarly works have dealt with the political and economic relations between China and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s – see Trhlík 1985; Litera 2007.

4 Cultural exchanges between Czechoslovakia and China have so far been discussed only in a preliminary manner – see Dřímalová 2009. Michaela Pejčochová provides a good overview focused only on the fine arts (Pejčochová 2008).

5 “Until recently everything about this country was enwrapped by the mystery of the enormous distance which separated us” (Čech, Jasný and Kachyňa 1954, 16). For a good overview on the knowledge about China in the late 19th century Czech society, see Suchomel and Suchomelová 2011, 81–118.

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