China’s Richest Authors, the “Tibet Craze” and Silenced Immolations

He Ma (何马) author of the wildly best-selling The Tibet Code (藏地密码), ranks 28th among the Top 30 in the just-released (unofficial) list of China’s Richest Authors (2012 年中国作家富豪榜).

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Back in mid-2011, I wrote about He Ma’s 10-volume series for Paper Republic (The Tibetan Factor, Marketing Smarts and Toilet Humor):

It has hit the shelves at last: the last installment—Volume 10 of The Tibet Code (藏地密码 10: 神圣大结局)—is on sale now throughout China. The critics scoffed, but marketing experts acclaimed the way the free online tale transitioned to paying hard copy, and devoted fans reportedly snapped up three million copies during its three-year stay on the best-seller charts.

Chinese-to-English literary translator Joel Martinsen describes it as a “successful pulp adventure series” that “puts its characters in life-threatening situations in a quest for legendary animals and lost civilizations,” in an interview with The Global Times.

The civilization in question is a form of ancient Tibetan Buddhism abolished by the Emperor Langdarma in the ninth century, and Tibetan mastiffs play a starring role in what is essentially a modern-day, wild goose chase for sacred sutras and artifacts hidden away in defiance of the emperor’s ban. Even 20th-century secret missions sent by Hitler and Stalin get in on the game.

Driving the series is the so-called “Tibetan factor”, the use of a mélange of Tibetan motifs, myths and sites that virtually steep the story in representations of a culture that remains exotic even for the great mass of Chinese people. The series is packaged in a cover that is visually similar to traditional Tibetan layered garb.

A RMB millionaire he may now be, but He Ma — a Han from Sichuan who has reportedly spent nearly a decade exploring Tibet, including three years in Lhasa — appears to be one of the unnamed targets of a Nov 27 article by Gao Yujie (高玉洁) in the Tibet Daily (文学作品 “西藏热” 的喜与忧) trashing much of the fiction published during the so-called “Tibet craze” that has swept the popular literary scene over the last few years.

A reporter for the Tibet Daily, Gao argues pointedly that in this “era of fast-food reading,” many books on Tibet utterly fail to fully reflect the “genuine” Tibet. She contrasts this with the 1980s when authors such as Ma Yuan (马原, Ballad of the Himalayas), Tashi  Dawa (扎西达娃, Selected Stories by Tashi Dawa) and Ma Lihua (马丽华, Glimpses of Northern Tibet) were popular. The reason why their literary works have become “classics,” she says, is because they “realistically, objectively reflected the Tibet of that era.”

That’s not to say no one is doing so, explains Gao, but she excludes best-sellers The Tibet Code by He Ma and Tibetan Mastiffs (藏獒) by Yang Zhijun (杨志军) from her brief list. Gao’s favorites include Purple Barley author Nima Panduo (紫青稞,尼玛潘多著), and Tsering Norbu (次仁罗布) whose A Sheep Released to Life (放生羊) won the Lu Xün Literary Award.

One wonders quite how interested writers will manage to “realistically, objectively” reflect Tibetan society in the near future. Just a few days ago another four Tibetans in Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan set themselves on fire in protest against China’s Tibetan policies, bringing the number to 20 in November alone, and — according to the US-based Radio Free Tibet — 85 since 2009.  Rarely mentioned in Chinese media, these tragic immolations are strongly condemned as terrorist acts incited by separatists.

Not having visited Tibet or traditionally Tibetan-dominated regions outside it, I can’t judge whether these suicides are “representative” of opinion in Tibetan society overall. But either way, it’s hard to imagine any PRC resident — especially a Han author like He Ma who made his fortune by exoticizing Tibet’s history and culture for mass entertainment — daring to address this painful and taboo issue in his or her writing within 2013.