China as Self-designated “Curator” of Tibetan Culture: Q & A with Tibetan Historian Tsering Shakya

HIMĀL Southasian, the region’s news and analysis magazine, engages with leading Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya in Beyond Development and Diversity:

Himal Southasian: How do we then look at the impact of the Chinese state’s appropriating, almost curating the scope of, religion and culture in Tibet, with places like Jokhang Temple having been reduced from living cultural spaces to opaque, ornamental museums?

Tsering Shakya: Curating is a good way of putting it. It changes the way in which people think about themselves, the way they think about custom and religion. It’s a way in which you become increasingly estranged from yourself and your culture. Imagine an African American person looking at a museum of African art.

Filling a Void: Five Contemporary Tibetan Novelists Published in Tibetan 

藏语首部母语长篇小说丛书 青海民族出版社In Mother-tongue Literature, I posed these questions about one Han scholar’s call for celebrating writing in China’s indigenous languages:

Who is going to write in their native language — or read what is written for that matter — if they cannot receive a decent education in it?

Those weighty questions remain unanswered, but happily, some publishers are pushing ahead to make more such fiction available to potential readers. According to a May 19 news report (藏语首部母语长篇小说丛书), a new five-volume series of novels in Tibetan has just been launched by Qinghai Nationalities Publishing (青海民族出版社). A similar item has now appeared in English (First Collection).

The promotional material states that this is the first such collection of contemporary novels in Tibetan. This may just be advertising hype, but if true, it indicates that Tibetan authors are either not writing a lot of novels in their mother tongue . . . or they couldn’t previously find publishers!

The titles and authors are as follows:

[Read more…]

Light Reading for Tibetans: “1984” and “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”

"1984" in Tibetan: But will readers on the Roof of the World recognize this is supposed to be fiction?

“1984” in Tibetan: But will readers on the Roof of the World recognize this is supposed to be fiction?

Orwell’s 1984 — in Tibetan (གཅིག་དགུ་གྱ་བཞི།, at left) — is now available in the PRC, confirms French Tibetologist Françoise Robin in an e-mail today. I assume it has the official stamp of approval, because it is published by the state-run Gansu Nationalities Publishing House, according to a news item in Tibetan (here). It was translated by Dorje Tseten (རྡོ་རྗེ་ཚེ་བརྟན་), who lives in the US. According to the report, he is currently translating Animal Farm.

Also published earlier in the same “Collection of Tibetan Translations of Famous Novels of the World” series was Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 grim novel of life in the Soviet gulag, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (tr. G. yang ‘bum rgyal གཡང་འབུམ་རྒྱལ།).

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that China’s literary translation policy has indeed been undergoing some major changes of late. Earlier largely uni-directional translation — read from Han Chinese into various other languages of China — has evolved into a markedly more multi-directional approach. That means more fiction by non-Han writers is getting translated into Chinese, and more international writing is appearing in Uyghur, Mongolian, Tibetan, etc.

Other examples of English and French literature recently published in Tibetan: [Read more…]

Bilingual Han Cadres: Coming Soon to Tibet Autonomous Region?

In Han Cadres Required to Learn Tibetan Language, the Global Times reports that Xi Jinping and company are getting serious about implementing the “bilingual policy” (藏、汉双语方针) that was legislated in Tibet way back in 1987:

Mastery of the Tibetan language will become a requirement for non-native cadres in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region.

All seven prefecture-level cities in Tibet have started organizing Tibetan language training for non-native cadres, according to the regional bureau of compilation and translation on Monday.

Qoizha, deputy director of the bureau, said they have handed out 40,000 books on basic Tibetan language for daily conversation.

In a country where statistics and quantifiable targets pepper most news reports — e.g., 90 percent of Tibet residents are Tibetan, 40,000 handbooks distributed — there are several key numbers missing from the report:

  • Percentage of Han cadres who can currently conduct their daily tasks in Tibetan
  • Percentage who must attain basic fluency within 2015
  • Date when formal testing of Han cadre fluency in Tibetan will begin

Although the new announcement regarding the implementation of the old bilingual policy is certainly a step in the right direction, it sounds like a statement of intention rather than the “requirement” being suggested in Global Times’ lead paragraph.

Here are a few suggestions on how to make bilingualism among civil servants in Tibet a reality:

1) Announce a realistic timetable and a budget for implementing the program. It will certainly take at least 5 years to get this project off the ground;

2) Gradually introduce examinations in oral and written Tibetan for would-be and current civil servants. Gradually tie promotions for cadres to ability to communicate in both Putonghua and Tibetan;

3) Offer free, intensive Tibetan language training to current and new civil servants;

4) Do not refer to ethnicity of candidates in recruitment ads. Instead, note the level of Putonghua and Tibetan required for each job;

5) Send a delegation to Hong Kong to see how 1-4 were fairly successfully implemented for Cantonese and English during British rule, and continue to be implemented in the post-1997 Hong Kong SAR.

For the Chinese-language version of the news item, see 西藏动员全区汉族干部学藏语 “接地气” .

China & “King Gesar”: Challenges of Putting an Oral Epic to Paper

Gesar Storyteller (格萨尔王说唱艺人)In a Q & A (艺人及其抢救) with Dr. Yang Enhong, Yao Hui of the Institute of Ethnic Literature (China Academy of Social Sciences) succeeds in extracting fascinating details about how Drakpa (གྲགས་པ།,扎巴), a master storyteller (说唱艺人) of the Tibetan oral epic King Gesar was discovered, and his performances preserved in audio recordings and in written form — the first such documentation project in China. Eventually, during 1978-86  he was persuaded to record some 26 parts of the monumental epic, and 17 volumes of his lyrics were subsequently published.

Dr. Yang Enhong (杨恩洪) took part in the project, and is former Director of the National “Gesar” Leading Workgroup (全国《格萨尔》工作领导小组办公室主任).

Here is a brief excerpt from the Q & A that I’ve translated because it highlights a sensitive issue: How to maintain faithfulness to the original narration as dynamic voiced content is “textualized”?

The following is part of  Dr. Yang Enhong’s answer regarding the sort of difficulties that arise when carrying out such a conversion:

The Finnish epics expert [Lauri] Honko once said this, which left me with a deep impression: “The greatest benefit to putting an orally transmitted epic down on paper is that it endows it with a second life — people can access it by reading the written word.”  This is truly important.

During the process of progressing from oral to written transmission, however, I believe there are many issues that we need to consider carefully. How should we undertake textualization?

. . . Some of our scholars, including Tibetan ones, hold the opinion that folk storytellers and renditions by the common people employ a vulgar, unrefined language. So during compilation, all wording deemed rambling, repetitious, inconcise or redundant is changed or deleted, and then adapted according to one’s personal literary standards. They think that by means of such ameliorations a fine work will emerge. To the contrary, this serves to distort the features of genuine folk literature. Such a work may have a certain value when read, but academically, it possesses no research value.

Within China’s academia and among Gesar scholars the phenomena of willful adaptation still exists. Perhaps a certain scholar speaks the Amdo dialect and does not understand the Naqchu or Chamdo dialects, so he changes the text to Amdo. After adaptation, such a version’s academic value will be greatly reduced. And there are even those who merge many elements, massaging them into a pastiche comprising the best parts of each storyteller’s rendition, handwritten libretto, block book or actual lyrics, and edit them into a finished tome. In his estimation, this is a highly refined work. But in fact, I think not. This is equivalent to maltreating the original nature of the epic, which is now neither fish nor fowl.

Once I went abroad to ask the opinion of several respected scholars regarding this phenomenon. France’s [Anne-] Marie Blondeau, for instance, who is a famous Tibetologist. “That’s unacceptable,” she said. “I would definitely not consult such a version. And for research purposes, I absolutely would not use it.”

I personally sought advice from the German Professor Walther Heissig, an expert in Mongolian epics, explaining that there were differences in opinion regarding the version [of King Gesar] we were compiling. Could we proceed with a hybrid version? “No,” he replied. “That’s known as ‘cooking together’.”

Champa the Driver: Tibetan Candide Does Beijing?

Over at, Brigitte Duzan has just published a backgrounder on Beijing-based Hong Kong writer Chan Koonchung (陈冠中). She details his works from 1976 to the present day, but in the excerpt below she is talking about his new novel, The Unbelievable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver, starring a Tibetan chauffeur in Lhasa who dreams of hanging out in Beijing:

Chan Koonchung a choisi son sujet en connaissance de cause. Il a commencé à s’intéresser au Tibet en 1992 car il a alors réalisé des recherches pour un film que voulait réaliser Francis Ford Coppola. Depuis lors, il a vu la proportion de Han dans la population de Lhassa augmenter régulièrement, les touristes chinois se multiplier tandis que les touristes occidentaux se faisaient plus rares, faute de visas.

A l’origine, il voulait conter l’histoire d’un jeune Tibétain tel que le Nyima qui croise la route de Champa dans son roman. Mais il a finalement opté pour une autre optique : faire jouer à son personnage un rôle d’observateur à la Candide.

“Champa the Driver”: Tibetan Dreamer in an Alien Land

Original Chinese novel:  《裸命》

English title:                     The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver

Author:                             Chan Koonchung (陈冠中)

Translator:                       Nicky Harman

Reviewer:                         Bruce Humes


 “Dreams are so good. Why do we have to make them a reality?

What’s a young Tibetan stud to do for a living nowadays in a tourist hotspot like Lhasa? And what happens when his childhood dream—to hang out in the capital of a country called China—comes true?

In the just-published Champa the Driver, author Chan Koonchung takes us on a rocky road from Lhasa to Beijing. The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the DriverAlong the way he paints disturbing vignettes. An apartheid-in-the-making. The eerie death wish of a would-be self-immolator. The Kafkaesque “black jails” where provincial petitioners who dare air their grievances to the Beijing Mandarins are brutalized, then sent home.

If they’re lucky, that is.

I read both the Chinese original and Nicky Harman’s translation, and her rendition convincingly captures Champa’s conflicted mindset and odd lingo; after all, like any young PRC citizen he is the product of 21st-century China’s booming economy and rampant materialism. But he is also not a native speaker of Chinese, and deep down, he is more Tibetan and Buddhist than he realizes. Even as Chan evokes the gap between image and reality, between the tourist’s Lhasa and Tibet under the heel of the dragon, and Beijing as it is dreamt vs. lived, the novel remains a quick and compelling read.

At the outset, Champa is sitting pretty. He’s got a cushy job in Lhasa as a chauffeur for Plum, a savvy Han businesswoman with a robust appetite for the occasional “spurt of the moment” (as Champa puts it), and before he knows it, he’s her lover-on-demand. However the simple days of cock-and-cunt—there’s a hefty dose of raw sex as the novel opens—are soon overshadowed by the troubling loss of his Tibetan virility. After an-all-too-short trip to Beijing, he realizes that she doesn’t want to be seen parading her “Tibetan Mastiff puppy” in the capital.

This is a body blow to his self-image, and impacts their relations back home in Lhasa. “Plum just didn’t get my tantric juices flowing” any more, he admits. To do his night gig with the boss now, he has to spend his daytime headhunting a fresh new sex object—in a whorehouse, online, among tourists, whatever—that he can visualize while servicing Plum. [Read more…]

China’s Tibet™: Brand Management with Chinese Characteristics

A thought-provoking piece over at a web site entitled “Rukor” (Creating China’s Tibet): 

China’s home-grown orientalism, like the historic orientalism of Europe towards west Asia, ascribes fixed roles and identities to its exotic objects. The Tibetans are required to play their part in a Beijing based script. The scripted role for Tibetans is to be forever on the way to modernity, without ever reaching their goal of achieving a level of civilisation equivalent to the urban Chinese who come to Lhasa as tourists. This is an unresolved tension. If Tibetans remain backward, ungrateful and uncivilised, tourists will not feel welcome or even safe. If Tibetans adopt Chinese ways and language, thus improving their human quality, becoming more civilised and employable in Chinese enterprises, they lose their exotic appeal, and will compete with politically reliable Han Chinese immigrants for hospitality industry jobs.

So Tibetans must forever be in between, striving but not yet succeeding in becoming more modern, in recognisably Chinese ways. This is the paradox: the Tibetans are not permitted to turn their backs on Chinese modernity, but they may not succeed either. They cannot fail but they cannot win. This internal contradiction inherent in China’s mass tourism industry and overall policy towards Tibet is at the core of the unique brand China has invented: China’s Tibet™. 

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).


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.

Alai’s “The Song of Gesar”: Abridged, Prose-driven Text and Lack of Annotations Disappoint

Here’s one of the first reviews that I’ve seen of Howard Goldblatt’s and Sylvia Li-chun Lin’s rendering of Alai’s The Song of Gesar, and one that I particularly enjoyed because reviewer Jim Murdoch is a Scottish writer who does his research, takes a stand and makes no claim to being a China hand:

When this book arrived from Canongate I got the wrong end of the stick completely. I assumed it was an English translation because it says on the back:


which it is not. Alexandra David-Néel translated the epic into French in 1931: this was subsequently translated into English as The Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling in 1933 and on checking Amazon I found several other English translations; Douglas J. Penick, for example, has recently completed a three-volume version. There’s nothing on the dust jacket of The Song of Gesar to suggest this is actually a part of Canongate’s long-running Myth Series in which ancient myths from various cultures are reimagined and rewritten by contemporary authors which is, in fact, what it is. As far as I was aware there are eighteen of these so I did wonder why on the book’s spine there was a ‘XV’ but I let that pass; they’re planning a hundred in total. It would’ve probably helped, too, if I had known who Alai was, but I didn’t and just dived into the book without checking anything as I tend to do if I can get away with it assuming that the less I know beforehand the better.

Most of the books in the Myths Series are short—that was part of the deal—but when you’re starting off with a text that fills some 120 volumes concessions have to be made. That Alai managed to compress the epic into a single volume is commendable in itself although to be fair what we have here is an abridged version of Alai’s book. Alai wrote his original in Chinese and was agreeable to the work being shortened further following the translation process. But at what cost?