China’s Soul-Searching Wealthy Pay a Premium for ‘Brand Tibet’

A detailed close-up of part of a Tibetan thangka painting

A detailed close-up of part of a Tibetan thangka that sold to Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian in November 2014 for US$45 million at Christie’s. (Christie’s)

From yak wool scarves to rare caterpillar fungus, items from Tibet are commanding premium prices from wealthy Han Chinese consumers as they become increasingly fascinated with the mountainous region and its religion.

At a Christie’s Hong Kong auction last November, mainland Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian spent a staggering US$45 million on a 600-year-old piece of art commissioned by a Ming dynasty emperor. The price was higher than that of any Chinese artwork sold at an international auction, but this wasn’t an ink scroll by a Confucian scholar—it was a rare Tibetan thangka, or silk tapestry with Tibetan Buddhist religious imagery.

This was just one of many examples of high-end Tibetan products being sold for high prices in China, which include jewelry, religious ritual objects, textiles, and food products. On Taobao, gift boxes of dried yak meat are available for around US$80. Fungus from the rare Tibetan caterpillar yartsa gunbu, which is believed by Chinese buyers to have traditional healing properties, can sell for US$50,000 a pound. Shanghai-based luxury skincare brand Ba Yan Ka La is named after a mountain range on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau and sells products made with Tibetan roseroot. At Beijing Tibetan restaurant Makye Ame, Chinese patrons sip on RMB880 (US$142) bottles of Classical Tibet liquor and eat RMB888 (US$143) braised yak tongue while watching Tibetan performers sing and dance. Even bottled water is getting in on the market—Tibet 5100 has beaten Evian and Perrier as the top-selling premium water brand in China.

Tibet 5100 water is one of China's most popular premium brands. (Courtesy Photo)

Tibet 5100 water is one of China’s most popular premium brands. (Courtesy Photo)

While Europeans and Americans have long romanticized Tibet, China’s majority Han ethnic group is also enchanted with the people of the mountainous plateau in China’s west. As incomes rise and China’s wealthy are increasingly on the search for more unique and enriching ways to spend their money, a growing number of companies are capitalizing on this fascination. “Many Han Chinese have a stereotype of Tibet as being pre-modern, of Tibetan people having a simple, happy existence,” says John Osburg, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester who has written a book on the culture of China’s rich. “There’s a long history of luxury goods being tied to the foreign and the exotic. For the Han Chinese, Tibetan jewelry and art still has an exotic tinge to it.”

That exotic Tibetan feeling doesn’t even have to be produced by Tibetan hands to earn high prices from Chinese buyers. Chinese artist Chen Yifei’s oil paintings of Tibetans engaged in activities such as praying and riding horses frequently fetch millions of dollars at auction. Experts on China’s ethnic minorities have criticized the way that Tibetans and other minorities are often presented in Chinese artwork and media, stating that they’re often made to look primitive.

One major trend associated with this attitude is a growing Han Chinese interest in Tibetan Buddhism, which was practiced by many emperors in China’s imperial times and is now a focus of China’s elite. “More Chinese people are becoming interested in Buddhism and strive to find spirituality either by traveling to Tibet or through Tibetan Buddhism,” says Dechen Yeshi, the managing director of Norlha, an eco-conscious brand that sells yak wool textiles and clothing crafted by Tibetan nomads. “This has indirectly helped to promote Tibetan products among Chinese people.”

A promo photo for Norlha, which sells handmade Tibetan textiles in China and worldwide. (Courtesy Photo)

A promo photo for Norlha, which sells handmade Tibetan textiles in China and worldwide. (Courtesy Photo)

This interest extends to the upper echelons of Chinese society: former CCP party high official Xiao Wunan surprised many in January when he released a 2012 video to BBC showing his meeting with the exiled Dalai Lama, who is considered a dangerous separatist by the Chinese government (Xiao was not working for the government when he had the meeting). In another surprising development, he showed off his private Buddhist shrine in his house with a photo of the religious leader.

The fascination with Tibetan Buddhism has spurred rich Han Chinese to seek out Tibetan Buddhist lamas for spiritual guidance and life advice, often attending exclusive Buddhist clubs in cities or even traveling to Tibet to meet with gurus. When rich Chinese seek out religious masters and become their “students,” they offer them patronage with envelopes full of cash, luxury banquets, and lavish gifts.

“For wealthier students who own multiple apartments, gifting an apartment to the guru is not uncommon,” says Osburg, who is currently in Chengdu researching wealthy Han patronage of Tibetan Buddhism. He says that they often make an apartment available to hold ceremonies and rituals since individual religious activities are not allowed to happen in public. “Gifts of cars are also not unusual. It’s pretty common. Of the more well-known lamas—and even the ones that aren’t particularly well-known—I have yet to see one that doesn’t drive a pretty nice SUV.” He says that many famous lamas in Tibet receive Lexus SUVs to drive over the region’s rugged terrain, while gifts can also include land and medicine. Meanwhile, Norlha offers a Tibetan monk’s robe set for RMB 8,245 (around US$1,300) that Chinese customers can buy for their masters.

According to Osburg, many Chinese patrons do not see any contradiction between Tibetan Buddhism’s anti-materialist philosophy and their monetary support. “There’s not the kind of rejection of all things material that you find with Western ‘hippie Buddhists,’” he says, noting that Chinese followers believe that they can achieve more earthly prosperity from their practice. “They’re not really interested in becoming enlightened or becoming a bodhisattva,” but instead are thinking, “maybe I can harness the power of Tibetan Buddhism to keep my business going strong or to prevent me from being arrested in a corruption crackdown.”

The massive amount of wealth being directed toward Tibetan Buddhist figures has caused some unsavory characters to take advantage of Chinese patrons’ beliefs. Fake lamas are a “growing problem,” according to Osburg, who says that Han Chinese patrons often “can’t tell the difference” between impostors and real religious figures. Non-lamas have been known to bribe local government officials to obtain a huofo zheng, or “living Buddha certificate” that allows them to trick patrons into giving them donations. The problem has become so pronounced that the Dalai Lama even addressed it in his meeting with Xiao mentioned earlier in this article.

In less extreme cases, minor lamas in the Tibetan communities will often build up large communities of rich Chinese followers, says Osburg. “That’s probably even more common than the fake lama phenomenon,” he says. “They become a big deal in Han areas but still aren’t really recognized back home.”

The interest in Tibetan Buddhism is also coinciding with a surge in Chinese visitor numbers to Tibet. In Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, five-star hotel brands including St. Regis, Shangri-La, and InterContinental have sprung up within the past four years to meet growing demand to visit among Chinese tourists.

These businesses face a highly unstable political environment, however, as the Tibetan plateau has seen a spate of self-immolations in protest of the government’s policies in the region since violent riots hit Lhasa in 2008. Despite a massive outbound Chinese tourist boom, Tibetans have faced limits on access to passports to travel abroad themselves as the government fears that they will go to India to join the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan exile community.

This hasn’t stopped Han Chinese visitors from flocking to the region in the short term as they seek out not only Buddhism but an escape from smoggy cities. “The Tibetan environment is very special. It’s on an idyllic plateau. There’s no pollution out there; it’s very natural and pristine,” says Zhang Zimin, the founder of Tibetan yogurt brand Tsowa, which sells handmade yogurt with ingredients sourced from Tibet.

These pristine conditions may also be under threat as Tibetans in some areas have been protesting environmental damage from Chinese mining and other development.

As a result, a very small contingent of Chinese travelers is opting for eco-tourism. In response to this demand, the founders of Norlha have also introduced Norden Camp, a luxury tent site outside of Labrang in Gansu staffed by nomads. The aim of the camp is to provide an environmentally friendly travel option while offering jobs to local Tibetans. “Our eco-travel will always be a niche market,” says Yeshi, who also serves as Norden’s managing director. “It is for those who have the sensitivity to local culture and appreciate being in a place that doesn’t disrupt the natural harmony of its habitants.”

Norden Camp in Gansu is frequented by eco-conscious travelers. (Courtesy Photo)

Norden Camp in Gansu is frequented by eco-conscious travelers. (Courtesy Photo)

Meanwhile, when it comes to premium Tibet items, there is also a small but growing demand among a select group of Chinese consumers for artisanal, environmentally friendly products. Interest in these types of goods “was once very small and more of a middle-class interest, but it’s becoming more common and widespread,” says Zhang, who notes that his company promotes the fact that his yogurt is handmade.

Norlha has noticed this growth as well. The company was originally founded in France by a Tibetan husband and French wife and features actress Tilda Swinton among its devotees, but has been focusing on expansion in China with pop-up shops and e-commerce. The company also plans to open a store in Lhasa after it saw Chinese buyers make up almost half of all its sales in 2014.

Even as a massive amount of Chinese money is being spent thanks to fascination with Tibet, interest in socially conscious, handcrafted items is still low-key for now. “I feel that many young Chinese people are still very much brand-oriented, which is a challenge for us and one of the reasons that we feel we have to establish our brand abroad in order to get recognition in China,” says Yeshi. “However, there is a growing niche of wealthy Chinese people who have moved beyond fascination [with] fashion brands and are looking more towards the natural, unique, and a product of quality.”

 

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