IS Tibet a place of sky-blue waters, unspoiled natural beauty, and an exotic culture? Or is it a backward place of grinding poverty with little to eat and where relations with the local people have been strained by Chinese attempts, during the 1960s, to destroy Tibetan civilization?
When it comes to chosing a place to live and work, many Chinese would focus on the second description rather than the first. So it's not surprising that few college graduates in China volunteer to work in remote areas such as Tibet for the eight years required by the state's job assignment system.
But enter a handful of adventuresome young artists.
Back in 1982, they shrugged off the tales of austere living and opted for a more independent life style on the ``roof of the world.'' Energetic and idealistic, each sacrificed a conventional career to work in China's most forbidding region.
During a recent visit to Peking, three of the artists brought the fruits of their five years' labor to share with friends and the interested public. Their art, still somewhat raw and experimental, resonates with an appreciation of Tibetan religion, culture, and geography unusual among Chinese.
``I love Tibetan culture,'' said Cai Xianming, who volunteered to go to Tibet after graduating from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in 1982.
Mr. Cai, who is in his late twenties, might have been at home in any place. Like his two colleagues, he is outgoing and makes friends easily. He has learned to speak the Tibetan language and often takes extended trips to remote areas with Buddhist pilgrims. He says he appreciates their philosophy of life.
``When I first arrived in Tibet, I didn't feel the culture was as backward as people had said,'' Mr. Cai recalled. ``In some respects, Tibetan culture is superior to Chinese culture, for instance, in architecture and religion.'' He also observed that among Tibetans there is none of the intellectual pride common among Han Chinese which, he said, was the result of an excessive emphasis on book learning.
Cai feels that Tibetans are more open in their relations with one another and more appreciative of art than are the Chinese. His views run contrary to the perception, common in China, that Tibetan social and cultural life is as underdeveloped as its economy, one of the poorest of the Chinese territories.
His classmate, Li Xingjian shares Cai's appreciation of Tibet, but for slightly different reasons. ``There are several advantages to Tibet,'' Mr. Li said. ``I like the Tibetan people. The scenery gives me inspiration.''
The other advantage is a practical one. ``I can live a simple life and have more time to myself, more time for painting,'' Li said. ``My classmates who didn't go to Tibet are getting rich ... but their paintings are fewer.''
When Li volunteered to go to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, he expected to find an unspoiled country of blue skies, clear rivers, and honest people, a place where his imagination could have free rein. Cai said he has not been disappointed, except to learn that in art, pure imagination is less important than he thought. After several years in Tibet, he said, his art became more realistic and less abstract.
Li's and Cai's classmate, Zhang Xiaohong, has had a longer relationship with Tibet, since his parents were stationed there in the Chinese military.
``I was surrounded by the mysteries of Tibet when I was a young child,'' said Mr. Zhang, who speaks Tibetan and appears to thrive on the contacts he makes in his frequent travels around Tibet. Zhang finds the Tibetans themselves the most compelling reason for working there.
``I want to understand further the psychology of the Tibetan people. I don't understand much about religion, but some religious elements exist in myself. I am very much moved by the earnestness of religious feelings among the Tibetans. It's like the earnestness of artists toward their art.''
All three artists told of physical hardships, especially before Tibet was opened to foreigners in 1985 and living standards began to improve. One big challenge was food.
``There was nothing for breakfast and nothing for dinner except steamed bread and absolutely no fresh vegetables,'' said Li. Now there are a handful of Chinese restaurants and fresh vegetables and meat, he said.
Buddhism is a central feature of Tibetan life and religious subjects are common themes for these artists. One example is Zhang's decorative and playful scroll painting of monks debating theology at a monastery.
``We are very interested in Tibetan religion, but we don't understand it,'' said Li. ``This is a very mysterious thing, and it's a strong influence on our art.''
One of Li's paintings shows a Tibetan man whom he sees on a Lhasa street. The man's hands are raised above his head, as if in prayer, and he is seen through a blackened portal against a background of clear, blue sky. The style hints of Salvador Dali.
One of Zhang's most striking paintings shows Tibetans prostrated in prayer while floating through the sky toward the Potola, the Dalai Lama's former residence, and a sacred shrine.
The artists' most appealing works, however, are not so strange. Zhang's 15-foot-long mural of Lhasa street Life, for instance. And Cai's handsome ink sketches of the Moinba minority who live near the Indian-Tibetan border. All three artists paint in oils, which they say has the depth of colors needed to convey the strong feelings of the Tibetan landscapes and people.
These artists were the among the first art students to be sent directly to Lhasa to work and, while their work has not yet reached maturity, it is appealing. It is an improvement over the socialist realism style in painting which has portrayed China's minorities in storybook fashion as a happy and prosperous people, but lacking a complete cultural identity.
It has not been easy for Cai, Li, and Zhang - and several dozen other pioneering Chinese artists in Tibet - to maintain their artistic integrity. Their state employers are inclined toward stereotypes and clich'es. Bright happy faces, blue skies, and subjects dressed in the costumes of their ethnic group are the official preference.
But recently they have had support from the state for their different approaches to art. Their exhibit was visited by Peking cultural officials whose reaction was favorable. Several paintings had to be pulled down, one because it depicted a taboo subject, the Tibetan sky burial ceremony. But the artists were not upset about the censorship and considered their self-financed exhibition a success.
The most treasured comment at the exhibition was from a Tibetan scholar. ``Thank you for expressing the real feeling of the Tibetan people,'' he wrote. ``As a Tibetan, I really thank you from my heart and admire your spirit. I wish you would create more and more beautiful works.''