Whereas James Hilton’s novel has played an important role in popular imagery of Tibet in the Western world, in the People’s Republic quite different images of Tibet were propagated, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Among the many novels and motion pictures that popularized these images, the movie ‘Nongnu’ (‘Serfs’), made in 1963 by the director Li Gun, left the most lasting impression on people in China. According to a Chinese documentary broadcast by China’s Central Television during my fieldwork, this movie shaped the views of a whole generation of Chinese, especially people currently above the age of 40. I discussed this documentary with a Tibetan friend who had seen the movie as a child, and he agreed:
Yes, through this film people understood the slavery. Those who saw this film understood that people can have religion but the upper classes made use of it to control the people. They could also see that the slaves led a very bitter life, with no freedom. I asked my aged relatives whether Zhongdian as a Tibetan region had slaves. They said yes they had, and they could be sold like slaves, like in the United States. They even told me the names of these people, and I believed them. At that time I was still a child, and in my heart I felt that it was great that slaves could get freedom. From the film I could feel that religion was only a tool of the upper classes to control the people. I felt really sad when I saw the poster [for ‘Nongnu’] with a slave leaning down and his master stepping on his back. In Lhasa the Potala was preserved, although here the monastery was destroyed. But many slaves got freedom, and that was wonderful.