Lost Horizon – The Origins of Shangri-La

LHShangri-La is a mythical, lush, temperate valley hidden amidst a frozen mountain range somewhere in Tibet.   Its people, an easy-going group governed by a lamasery, believe that good is achieved by doing things in moderation.

This famous fabled heaven-on-earth is the creation of British writer, James Hilton, in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon.

In Lost Horizon, the narrator reads a manuscript written by a former school mate,  Mr. Rutherford who records the incredible tale recounted to him by his friend Mr. Conway, a former British Consul for China, of his brief visit to the mysterious lamasery at Shangri-La.

After accidentally meeting Conway in a rural hospital in China, Rutherford is amazed at his friend’s loss of memory, which he later regains, and of his tale of  adventure at Shangri-La with 3 other foreigners.

According to Conway, he and 3 others – a fellow British government officer, an American businessman, and a British missionary, were kidnapped during an evacuation from a war-torn city called Baskul.  Their plane, originally intended to fly to Peshawar, was instead piloted by an unknown man to an unknown destination, only to crash later in the middle of nowhere in on a snow-covered mountain somewhere in Tibet.

Fortunately, the 4 foreigners survived and were  met by a group of men, lead by a Chinese monk who spoke perfect English, who invited them to take shelter in the nearby lamasery of Shangri-La.  Surprised the presence of the men, and later by the opulence of the lamasery and the comforts it provided, the foreigners had no choice but to accept their hospitality.

Chang, the monk they met in the mountain pass, willingly answered their questions about the lamasery and the treasures within, careful not to give too much information.  He tours them around the lamasery, as well as the valley below, which is surprisingly green and warm.  He tells the visitors that the lamas of the temple, as well as the people in the valley, practice a kind of teaching which emphasizes the importance of moderation.

Because of the nature of its location, the 4 visitors are told that though it was not easy to leave Shangri-la, it was not altogether impossible.  Every few months, porters from nearby cities bringing provisions arrive at Shangri-La and those who wished to leave the lamasery could do so by returning with the porters.

While waiting for the next batch of provisions to arrive at Shangri-La, brought by porters from the outside world, the 4 visitors learn more and more about the mysterious lamasery, as well as about each other.

After a couple of months at the lamasery, Conway, being the most level-headed and open-minded of the group was finally called to meet the highest lama.  After a long conversation with the wise, old man, Conway is surprised by the secrets revealed to him about Shangri-La and its residents.

He learns that through the years, people from different parts of the world have stumbled upon the lamasery, and those who find themselves there don’t ever return to the outside world.  He also learns that for those who choose to stay in Shangri-La, they are given an almost immortal existence, living way beyond their years.

By the end of their brief stay, the 4 visitors, having had different experiences during the past 2 months, have made up their minds whether to stay in Shangri-La or to attempt to return to the outside world, and to their former lives.

After Lost Horizon, Shangri-La has become synonymous with places resembling a type of heaven-on-earth.  Because of the images of harmony and tranquility it evokes, many places have used the name to draw in tourists and visitors – actual cities in China and Tibet; it is even the name of a luxurious Hong Kong based hotel and resorts chain.

However, James Hilton’s Shangri-La, to me, does not evoke the same peaceful image as its modern namesakes.  In fact, there seems to be something ominous about Hilton’s Shangri-La.  Shut out from the outside world, run by lamas who are initially held captive against their will, it evokes a sort of paradise prison where people go not to seek solace, but to escape reality.    It also seems like a vindictive place, promising longevity and peace of mind as long as you are within its territory, only to take it all away the moment you leave its confines.

Instead of being a site of perfection, I imagine Shangri-La as a kind of trap, tempting people to enter at their own risk.


Lost Horizon (1933) – James Hilton

Harper Perennial; 241 pages

Personal rating:  2.5/5

5 thoughts on “Lost Horizon – The Origins of Shangri-La

  1. How fascinating. I had no idea that the concept of Shangri-La came from a novel like this. So interesting. And yes, it does sound a bit ominous and not all that tranquil and paradise-like.

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