From Imagination to Reality: The town of Shangri La

The Songstam Monastery, Shanri La.

Shangri La, China. July 2009

Shangri La is a town (and a county) in the northwest part of China’s Yunnan Province, not too far from the Bumese border. The town is on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, which puts it at a dizzying (literally) altitude of about 3,300 meters (10,000 feet) above sea level. Shangri La is surrounded by magnificent mountains, snow capped for much of the year; a few hours drive to the northwest of the town is Meili Mountain, a holy site for Tibetan Buddhists.

Shangri La wasn’t always Shangri La. It acquired its name only in 2001. Before that, the town’s name was Zhong Dian.  How – and why – the city came to be renamed is a fascinating but complicated tale.

Northwest Yunnan Province.

Northwest Yunnan Province.

The story starts in the 1920s, when an Austrian botanist, photographer, and sometime cartographer named Joseph Rock arrived in the then-remote town of Li Jiang, south of the current Shangri La. Rock was fascinated by the plants, people, and landscapes of northern Yunnan Province, and ended up staying in Li Jiang for more than two decades. During this time, he published a two-volume book on the Naxi people who inhabit the area, and penned nearly a dozen articles for National Geographic magazine (he also took it upon himself to name a mountain peak in Sichuan Province “Mount Grosvenor” after the National Geographic Society’s president.)

Joseph Rock (1884 - 1962) in the field

Joseph Rock (1884 – 1962) in the field

In the early 1930s, Rock’s National Geographic articles came to the attention of a British author named James Hilton, who in 1933 published a novel titled Lost Horizon, which he dedicated to Rock. The novel tells the story of four travelers, three of them English and one American, who are abducted from an airfield in India, and end up in an idyllic lamastery in the shadow of a towering mountain peak. The travelers don’t know exactly where they are, but they do learn that the place is called Shangri La. (Hilton, incidentally, never visited Asia.)

Hilton’s Shangri La is a place of great beauty and serenity, run by an order of monks whose creed is based on the notion of moderation. “We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excesses of all kinds,” a lama tells one of the abductees, “Our people are moderately sober, moderately chaste, and moderately honest.” One thing Shangri La’s monks do not do, however, is live to a moderately old age. The lamastery is led by a High Lama from Luxembourg who is more than two centuries old; all of the other monks (mostly foreigners) are also of unusually advanced years.

Initially, Lost Horizon wasn’t a great success.  But it came to fame on the coattails of Hilton’s next novel, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and the book became so popular that Frank Capra made it into a movie in 1937 (a musical version followed in 1973.)  Franklin Roosevelt was so taken with Lost Horizon that he named the newly established presidential retreat Shangri La. (Dwight Eisenhower didn’t share Roosevelt’s sentiments; he renamed the retreat Camp David in honor of his grandson.)

The mythical Shangri La quickly became a synonym for utopia; a remote, beautiful and imaginary place where life approaches perfection. The name was adopted in 1971 by a luxury hotel chain based in Singapore, which acknowledges Hilton’s novel and mythical nature of Shangri La on its website.

Now our story moves to the 1990s and to the remote Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in China’s Yunnan Province (I warned you this would be complicated.) Diqing was a place that historically had little going for it. Surrounded by mountains, it was not easy to get to, and its elevation and climate made it a difficult place for agriculture. In the 1960s, the state forestry bureau recognized the area’s potential as a source of lumber, and in a pattern familiar in many parts of China, the bureau began building logging roads and speedily chopping down the area’s trees. By the mid 1990s, 80 percent of Diqing Prefecture’s GDP came from logging.  The consequences of rapid deforestation in Yunnan and elsewhere became tragically clear when, in 1998, runoff from denuded forest lands contributed to floods in the Yangtze River valley that killed 4,100 people and left millions homeless.  The Chinese government, unencumbered by the complications of democracy, acted with swiftness and decisiveness. In August 1998, a logging ban in the upper Yangtze was announced, to become effective a month later. In an instant, local governments lost up to four fifths of their revenue.

But all was not lost. Diqing had something else going for it aside from logging. It had scenery and it had Tibetan people, the raw material for a tourist industry if only tourists knew about the place and could get there. Providing access to the area was difficult but doable. A good but tortuous road was built from Li Jiang and, in 1999, a new airport was opened in Diqing.  These alone weren’t enough though; potential visitors needed to be made aware of this idyllic place.  And it was here that the bureaucrats of Diqing showed their true PR genius.  They determined that parts of Diqing county were “very similar to the Shangri la described in James Hilton’s novel  Lost Horizon,” and considering the location, geographic environment and local Tibetan culture, they pronounced that the town of Zhong Dian was indeed the long-lost Shangri La. This decision was not reached in haste: a government-appointed team of historians, linguists, and anthropologists had been researching the issue since 1996. And so, by edict of the Yunnan government and amidst considerable fanfare, the name of Zhong Dian was changed to Shangri La (rendered as Xienggelila in Mandarin.)

Renaming the place was only a start, though. The cache of a 60 year-old novel wasn’t in itself enough to ensure a tourist trade, especially considering that most tourists coming to the area would have to be Chinese people who were unlikely to have read Hilton’s book or seen Capra’s film. So the authorities decided that Shangri La would also be marketed as a showcase of Tibetan culture (Tibetans comprise about a third of Diqing county’s population.) Seven million yuan (about a million dollars) was given to the local 800-monk Songtsam Monastery; the funds were used for a new gilded rooftop and a parking lot for tour buses.  New buildings in town were adorned with faux Tibetan architectural flourishes. A decree was issued requiring that all hotel, restaurant, and shop signs had to be in Tibetan script as well as in Chinese (according to Australian scholar Ben Hillman many of these signs are “hasty transliterations of Chinese that no literate Tibetan can understand.” A beauty shop, for example, misspelled the word ‘beauty’ in its name, instead using the Tibetan characters that mean ‘leprosy.’)

Changing a few signs, however, isn’t enough to bestow a true Tibetan heritage on a place. So the government experts went further. They determined that the name Zhong Dian means ‘loyalty to a Naxi feudal lord.’ The Naxi are another ethnic group in Yunnan; according to the experts they ruled over Tibetans during the Ming dynasty.  The name, the expert said, therefore memorializes the suppression of the Tibetan people, and is demeaning to them. Hillman notes that in months of traveling and interviewing in the area, he never met anyone who expressed this sentiment.  The name, he claims, has a more prosaic origin. Zhong Dian in Chinese simply means ‘middle district;’ in the Naxi language the name is Zuqdiail, meaning ‘a place of many yaks,’ or ‘a place where a friend lives.’

Regardless of the veracity of the experts’ findings, the rebranding of Zhong Dian as Shangri La worked. By 2001, the tourist industry was already bringing in more money that logging did at its peak. As I walked around the town in 2009, it was clear tourism had grown even more since then.

Guest book entry

A recent visitor to Songtsam Lamastery laments the impact that people like her have had on the place (from a visitors’ book at Songtsam.)

I spent my first two nights in Shangri La at a brand new Tibetan-themed Accor hotel, located on a hillside overlooking the Songtsam monastery.  The hotel opened a few months before my arrival, and already an expansion was under construction. For the remaining three days of my stay, I moved to a guesthouse in “Old Town” Shangri La, an area of (restored) old buildings and cobblestone streets. The streets are lined with stores selling “traditional” Tibetan products, ranging from Buddhist religious artwork to wood carvings and yak yogurt. Women in traditional garb sit at the entrance to stores weaving traditional scarves, and every evening at seven locals gather in the main square of the old town for traditional dancing.

On the outskirts of town, at the monastery that supposedly served as the inspiration for Hilton’s work, the community of lamas go about their business while groups of tourists from Beijing and Shanghai (together with the occasional American academic or European backpacker) snap pictures of them. In moderation, of course.


I consulted a number of fascinating sources in writing this blog. These included:

Hillman, Ben. Paradise Under Construction: Minorities, Myths and Modernity in Northwest Yunnan. Asian Ethnicity, Volume 4, Number 2, June 2003.

Kolas, Ashild. Tourism and the Making of Place in Shangri-La. Tourism Geographies, Vol. 6, No. 3, 262—278, August 2004.

Hilton, James. Lost Horizon. First published in 1933; I used this online version of the book. The book makes interesting reading, not just as a fantasy tale but also as an exemplar of the colonial attitudes its times. Early British and French explorers credited the ruins at Great Zimbabwe and Angkor Wat to lost tribes of Europeans; in a similar vein Hilton appears to be compelled to populate his imaginary Tibetan lamastery mainly with Europeans.

Alsevich, Christopher, Another Day in Paradise. USC US-China Institute, March 2008.

The map above is from Maps of China; the photograph of Joseph Rock comes from the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documents.

For more photographs of the Songtsam Monstery, Shangri La (new and old towns) and the town’s environs, see my Picasa and Facebook albums.


  1. Andy Rush July 13, 2009
  2. dnrallis July 13, 2009
  3. Hilton July 18, 2009
  4. Ryan January 19, 2010
  5. Tyler V. June 24, 2010
  6. Karla C July 17, 2012
  7. Sara Hickey April 17, 2013
  8. Aram M. July 10, 2013
  9. Elizabeth Rival July 24, 2013

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