The Orientalist

By Li Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2013-10-9 20:18:01

Laurence Brahm
Photo: IC

Laurence Brahm Photo: IC

Potala Palace in Tibet Photo: CFP

Potala Palace in Tibet Photo: CFP

Three decades ago, China opened its doors and embraced the world. Since then, China's destiny had changed, as well as the destiny of a young American Laurence Brahm who came to this land, and witnessed that transforming period.

Brahm came to China in 1981. In the next three decades, he experienced the progress of reform alongside Chinese.

Over the last 10 years, Brahm has jumped off the economic bandwagon to instead take up "spiritual" pursuits. After a long period of travel in Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai and Tibet starting 10 years ago, he came away with his own vision of Tibetan spirituality and culture in opposition to modern materialism. Since then, he has started many business ventures based around these ideals.

He has published Searching for Shangri-La, Shambhala, New Age Sutra, books about his vision of Tibetan culture, and founded the Himalayan Consensus, an economic development paradigm, in 2005 to protect ethnic diversity through sustainable economics.

Late September, at the culture salon Cover to Cover, initiated by NEWS Plus Radio of China Radio International and the Page One bookstore in Beijing, Brahm shared his views on the future of China's economic development and his experiences in Tibet.

Predictive insights

"The 19th century was Britain's century, the 20th century was America's century and the 21st century is China's century." Brahm, like many other promoters of the Asian Century, has seen fierce changes in China.

In the 1980s, when he first came here, China was still an impoverished country. Most were suffering from the extreme lack of substance. It was already lucky enough for him that he could find some pork fat to make a decent meal. Beyond lack of material goods, a lack of understanding about this land made it even harder for other foreign investors to succeed here.  

Brahm is fluent in Putonghua, studied in Chinese universities and worked as a lawyer in Beijing, making him a seasoned China hand. So he started his own company, using his advantages to fill in the blanks of mutual understanding and helping foreign companies to invest in China.

The books he wrote, including China's Century and a biography of Chinese former premier Zhu Rongji, were, by his own account, "must reads" for Western investors.

In these 30 years, China experienced tremendous changes. "[I felt that] China doesn't need a foreign consultant any more," Brahm told the Global Times. So he closed his company in 2002 and went to the west of China.

Tibetan wisdom

Brahm is fascinated by the exploration of traditional Chinese culture. That is one of the reasons that he has purchased courtyard houses in Beijing to preserve these traditional but threatened works of architecture.

The fast pace of economic development seems to inevitably sacrifice culture and the environment. After witnessing China's development all these years, he believes too much of the culture has been lost, especially around the coastal cities. "I feel it's quite a dilemma for China. Why in 2002 I made the decision to go looking for Shangri-La, it wasn't that I was going to Tibet, I was looking for the roots of Chinese culture," said Brahm.

However, exploration in Tibet allowed him to see a way to integrate the UN millennium goals of reduction of poverty into a program of sustainable development that could preserve cultural and ethnic diversity.

"I was struck by the wisdom of Tibet, respecting nature, which in return nurtures man. I also realized the importance of ethnic identity," Brahm said, "Our future as a species depends on both our continuous diversity and protection of this planet."

Encountering local Tibetans, visiting temples and the Lamas, and seeing nature and lifestyles of people there, he learned from locals who shifted his ways of thinking.

According to his observation, local people there aim to protect their own culture and environment by developing the economy. In one of his videos taken of locals, a farmer said they built a factory to make cheese and other products by breeding yaks. They used the profit to sponsor their local schools.

However, they build the school far away from where people live because they do not want their traditional lifestyle to be influenced. "I realized our economic assumptions have all been wrong. People are not motivated by greed alone. Care and compassion are there and spirituality can be stronger than material," Brahm said.

Tibetans have preserved most of their traditions and ethnicity. This is one of the reasons why more modern people are trying to get away from their daily routines and heading to the "spiritual" and remote land of Tibet, to search for peace or another level of their spiritual world.

However, Brahm comments that now most Chinese places and culture are not different from the West. With big cities, skyscrapers, Hollywood culture, China is not that "oriental" anymore. The 21st century might be China's century economically, but not necessarily in culture.

"You have to first of all find what your culture is, China does not have that Eastern culture anymore, very little is here, the values are gone," Brahm said.

Rescuing Africa

As a long term resident who claims a deep understanding of Chinese culture, and with his classically-groomed looks, Brahm may seem a mixture of Eastern and Western culture. However, he prefers to consider himself a "nomad."

After exploring Tibet for around a decade, he revealed that next he would like to spend time in Africa.

As he sees it, China was impoverished by foreign invasion in the past. It's the same story in Africa. "Africa is not poor, it has been impoverished," he quotes a friend as saying.

"They have resources, they have bright people, they have a very powerful workforce, they have all the economic ingredients, but they don't have the improvements, they don't have the tools, and those are coming to them," he said.

But fortunately, Brahm is willing to be their savior. He plans to work with the government and civil society there, and hopefully, "get things right."

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