In search of their ancestors

In Search for Their Ancestors: Contemporary Writing from Tibet

Yangdon Dhondup


Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else's? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling. But for me there is no other choice. I have been given the language and I intend to use it.
Chinua Achebe, The Language of African Literature


Tibet as a subject in Chinese literature has become the focus of attention in the late eighties when the writer Ma Jian published his short story Liangchu nide shetai huo kongkong dangdang (Stick your tongue out or it's all void) in the literary magazine Renmin Wenxue (People's Literature).1 The story which is narrated mostly in the first person describes the bizarre travels of the narrator in Tibet. The attributes of the wild and uncivilised Tibetan, with depiction of a nomad drinking blood or accounts of incest and monks having sexual relationship with women are portrayed in meticulous detail. This exoticised and sexualised depiction of Tibetans in the story was not only condemned by Tibetans but was also used by the Chinese government as a target of the campaign against bourgeois liberalisation which China underwent during this period.


Although this story merits little attention it nevertheless sets the discussion ground for cultural representations in the narrative. Since the arrival of the Chinese in Tibet narratives about Tibet written by Chinese dominated the literary scene in Tibet. Novels which appeared during the period from 1950 onwards, were works such as published by the Propaganda Section of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Chun dao Yaluzangbujiang (Spring comes to the Yarlung Tsangpo River), Zangbei kaige (Northern Tibet Paean) by Yan Keqin or Zai caoyuan shang (In the Grassland) by Ye Junjian. In these novels, the Chinese were depicted as helping the uncivilised backward Tibetans transform into a modern civilised man whereby the Chinese assumed the role of a patriarch-mentor. This image is vividly encapsulated by the use of the paternal term "elder brother" (lao da ge) to refer to the Han Chinese.

The authors were mostly professional writers employed by the PLA. Thus literature was used as a tool for Party policy and served mainly to morally justify Tibet's "liberation". We can therefore say that the function of literature served to pursue a moral and legal discourse whereby the wrongs and rights were named for a political agenda. Looking from the Chinese perspective, it was pursued for social justice. Readers were meant to sympathise with the serfs and loathe the practices of the old society. The practice of using literature as an arena for "forensic discourse" is not unknown to Chinese literature. David Wang, a scholar in Chinese literature has analysed the writings of Lu Xun (1881-1936), Ouyang Yuqian (1889-1962), and Ding Ling (1907-1986), just to name the most famous, who were using literature as a forum to discuss justice.2 Thus literature performed the task of an extended forum where legal issues were negotiated. In this sense Chinese writers who wrote about Tibet were mediating to the Chinese readership the Party's notion of Tibet as being historically part of China. The task of the writers was to sustain or alter the public's view about Tibet.


From late 1970 onwards the depiction of Tibet in Chinese narratives shifted to a more subjectified approach. This change was due to the emergence of a new generation of writers whereby Chinese university students such as Ma Lihua, Liu Wei, Ma Yuan and Feng Liang succeeded the PLA writers.3 Some of them wrote in a journalistic style about the customs and culture of Tibet4 whereas others found in the setting of Tibet their literary inspiration. Among these writers only Ma Yuan with his stories such as Lasa de nushen (The Goddess of the Lhasa river), Gangdisi de youhuo' (The Lure of the Gangdise Mountain) and Xuguo (Fabrication) attracted much attention. Some critics even credited him as laying the markstone in the rise of Chinese avant-garde fiction.5


While Tibet appeared as a subject of literature in the writings of these Chinese writers, Tibetan writers slowly began to take over this subject in the 1980s. This generation of Tibetan writers were mainly born after the Chinese invasion and had their education in a Chinese system. It is therefore not surprising to see that some of these writers were feeling more comfortable in using Chinese as a medium of expression.


The circumstances of Tibetans using Chinese as their primary language of expression can be traced back to the Chinese take-over of Tibet. The Chinese government reformed the education system and Lhasa Primary School was set up in 1952.6 Although at the beginning the curriculum was taught in Tibetan, the use of Tibetan language in the schools underwent severe attacks over the years during the various political campaigns. Internal Party documents announcing slogans such as 'Tibetan written Language is useless, only the Han Language is an advanced Language' reveal the official attitude towards Tibetan language.7 The harshest criticism to Tibetans using their own language was during the Cultural Revolution where anything Tibetan was banned from daily life.

However, with the death of Mao and the ascendance of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s the policy implemented towards Tibet became more relaxed. Some Secondary schools in Amdo were using Tibetan as a medium of education but as Catriona Bass notes:

" appears that, even at the height of the reforms in the 1980s, directives to implement the Tibetan language policy met with apathy or resistance from many officials and leaders... In the TAR itself, the process of implementing the Tibetan language policy in education began in 1984...However, all secondary education for Tibetans in the TAR continued to be taught in Chinese."8

Some of the reasons behind this unsuccessful attempt is summed up by her: "reluctance on the part of officials to implement the policy, financial considerations and the change in the political climate after the pro-independence demonstrations in 1987."9 We can assume that the education policy implemented towards Tibet reveals not only a delicate mediation of certain values and ideas but it also exhibits the Party's control and demonstration of cultural power. The disassociation of Tibetan language from its daily use sought to reduce Tibetans into objects emptied of their identity.


The situation in Amdo is captured by Pema Bhum, scholar based nowadays in the United States where he recalls his years of teaching Tibetan literature in Lanzhou at the Northwest Minority Institute (Xibei Minzu Xueyuan):

"In 1979, out of 37 students, only 5 could read and write in Tibetan. In the year of 1983 there was not one single student who could understand Tibetan. We had to teach Tibetan literature in Chinese to these Tibetan students!"10

Thus the institutionalisation of Chinese in Tibet was therefore used for a socio-political control over its subjects. A recent announcement by the Party Secretary of Sichuan in March 2000 whereby he states that it was useless to teach Tibetan and therefore a waste the state's resources confirms the present official view on education in the Tibetan language.11


Even nowadays, entrance to higher education is determined by knowledge of Chinese. Many parents in Lhasa therefore prefer to send their children from a young age to Chinese boarding schools in mainland China. During the summer months, Lhasa people are busily going from one farewell party (they use the Chinese term 'huansong' to refer to this kind of newly invented social gathering) to the other where the child supposed to be leaving for China receives an envelope with money (and where adults have another excuse to play mah-jong). The increasing number of this kind of "farewell party" over the years indicates that Tibetan parents overlook the loss of a Tibetan upbringing and prefer to send their children to a Chinese school which would entail better employment for the future.


Thus the implications is that the language policy has produced in consequence a whole generation of Tibetans who were brought up using Chinese as their first language. But how did Tibetans reinterpret, react or respond to this language policy?

One way to look at this is through the literature which is produced by Tibetans. The late 1970s saw a general relaxation in the social and political sphere in China. This movement was also paralleled in Tibet whereby the Party allowed a certain degree of cultural autonomy. Monasteries were rebuilt, Tibetans were allowed to practice religion, women started to wear their traditional dress and in 1985 Tibet University was founded in Lhasa.


One of the first sign of this transition was the founding of Xizang Wenyi (Tibetan Literature and Art) in January 1977. The journal drew contributions from Tibetan writers who expressed themselves in Chinese. The most striking aspect of that journal was the use of a foreign language by Tibetan writers. It is the first time in the history of Tibet that Tibetans began to write in Chinese. Despite the cultural exchanges which existed between China and Tibet for centuries, Tibetans never adopted Chinese language as a medium of expression.


Geng Zifang, the editor of Zangzu dangdai wenxue (Modern Tibetan Literature), in the introduction of the section about novels and short stories writes that from the 1980s to 1994, 700 short stories were published by Tibetan writers. Among them 300 were written in Tibetan and the rest in Chinese.12 Although the number does not show whether short stories from Amdo and Kham are included in this statistic, it nevertheless indicates that a majority of Tibetan writers are using Chinese as their literary language.

Although the contributors to Xizang Wenyi (Tibetan Literature and Art) were not entirely Tibetan, the emergence of this journal marked an important turning-point in the cultural history of Tibet. It provided a new forum for Tibetan writers since it differed from any previous published journals in the sense that its primary focus was fictional writing. Thus Tibetan writers started to articulate their own perceptions of cultural experience. Since the authors were ethnically Tibetan, their works were seen by the readership as more authentic depiction of Tibet. We can say in a way that with the emergence of Tibetan writers Chinese authors gradually lost their monopoly on narratives about Tibet. Tibetans seized this method to assert their own identity and history.


This method of appropriating the language is not a specific case which happened only in Tibet, as we can see it in the case of Africa and India, it is "a discussion of the process by which the language, with its power, and the writing, with its signification of authority, has been wrested from the dominant... culture."13


A parallel development in the narratives written in Tibetan took place which resulted in the emergence of two Tibetan language literary journals in 1980: Bod-kyi rstom-rig sgyu-rtsal (Tibetan Literature and Art) in Lhasa and Sbrang-char (Light Rain) in Xining. The publication of these two journals marked the beginning of a new Tibetan literary tradition. Xizang Wenyi (Tibetan Literature and Art), the journal with a similar name published earlier in 1977 for Chinese readers changed its name to Xizang Wenxue (Tibetan Literature) in 1984.


Thus the period from 1980 saw the birth of two trends in the literary production in Tibet which are distinguished by the choice of language. These two traditions are exemplified by two writers who are seen as the leading figures in their field. Dhondup Gyal, a writer and scholar who wrote in Tibetan and Tashi Dawa who writes in Chinese.


Dhondup Gyal was born in Gurong Phuba, Amdo (Qinghai) in 1953. His writing laid the foundation for a modern Tibetan literature and had a tremendous impact among young Tibetans.14 In a region where the population of Han Chinese and Hui Moslems have for centuries outnumbered Tibetans in many areas, the only way to safeguard culture was to preserve the language. Thus the reaction from Amdo to the language policy was to reject the language of the dominant power. Tibetan language thus became the focal point of restoring national identity.


This commitment to use one's own language is described by the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o when he said: "I believe that my writing in the Gijuyu language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples."15 One wonders whether Dhondup Gyal was as uncompromising as Ngugi, when he adamantly insisted in using Tibetan as his medium of art.


The result of this language strategy produced many brilliant Tibetan intellectuals and writers who originated from this region and later became leading figures of this new literary movement such as Jangbu, Ju Kelsang, Tsering Dhondup or Rebkong Dorje Khar.16

The other response towards this language policy was to appropriate the Chinese language and use it as a tool to reassert their identity. This linguistic strategy can be very powerful since the readership in Chinese exceeds the Tibetan readership, and therefore allows Tibetans to speak back to the metropolitan readers.


Tashi Dawa, a half Tibetan half Chinese born in 1959 in Batang, Kham, is regarded to represent the generation writing in Chinese.17 His story Xizang, ji zai pisheng kou shang de hun (Tibet, Soul Tied to a Leather Cord), published in 1985 attracted critics and readers throughout China.18 The story was also translated later from Chinese into Tibetan.


Tashi Dawa's early writings are simple narratives in a realistic style. His short stories such as Jiang nabian (Over the River) or Guiyu xiaoyequ (Plateau Serenade) reveal the onset of modernisation in Tibet. Tradition and modernity both of which are characterised through images and metaphors seem not to clash with each other. However, in the mid 1980s his style of writing becomes more sophisticated and complex. He began to adopt a magical realist style, a technique which Chinese writers began to explore in the early 1980s. The flux of time and the combination of historical facts with fictitious incidents show the influence of magical realism in his writings. Shiji zhiyao (Invitation of a Century) is a good example of the author's deconstruction of linear history or temporality.

"Excuse me," said a big-nosed old man walking out of the crowd, "but are you young Master Sangdu Jamyang Palden?"
"No, I'm not," Sangye answered, startled, for he had never heard that his friend Jamyang was a master of any sort with such a title.
"I've come to attend his wedding ceremony. Is it here?"... "What's this place?" he asked the old man.
"This is Sangdu Manor, haven't you seen anyone coming this way?" "Where is your... Party secretary?" he stumbled.
The old man looked at him, confused. "I mean, where's the district chairman? So, you don't understand! Are the director of security office or the leader of the militia around?" "I don't understand what you are talkingabout," the old man said.
"If you are looking for someone who's in charge," the old man continued slowly, "there is only the village head - no one's more important than him here....
"What year is it? Sangye asked him in a low voice. "What year?" the old man thought for a moment, and said, "we country people don't care what year it is, so long we can count our sheep and know how much grain we are harvesting. That's the most important thing."19


The author playfully transforms time and history into grotesque absurdity and portrays Tibet as a mixture of past, present and future. Even though Tashi Dawa has been highly acclaimed by critics, Tibetan readers disapprove of the image of Tibet portrayed in his works. They maintain the argument that the author, by using magical realism, sustain the Chinese view of Tibet as being backward and mystical. One Tibetan even described him as "a wolf in sheep's clothing" since "his brain had been well washed with Chinese culture..."20

Tashi Dawa's recognition came precisely because he wrote in Chinese and thus made his writing more accessible for a wider readership. Some of his stories were later translated in other languages whereas one very rarely sees translations of Tibetan works. Thus writing in Chinese seems to entail not only a wider readership, but also results in the likelihood of having one's works translated in foreign languages.


In the sense of government recognition, writers who express themselves in Chinese are more esteemed and therefore more qualified in receiving acknowledgements for their works. All the major literary prizes, including the minority literature prize, an award specifically designed for writers from ethnic minority areas, are awarded to works written only in Chinese. Thus Tibetan writers using Chinese as their medium of expression are more advantaged than their Tibetan colleagues writing in Tibetan. There seems to be a tacit consent in the Party's policy to block other narratives, to which they do not have immediate access, from emerging. This process of exclusion leads to a distorted view whereby writers who use Chinese as their medium of art are seen as representing Tibetan literature. This has lead to the resentment from some Tibetan writers who see themselves as the true representatives of Tibetan literature.


This remark should not be taken as an assessment of the hierarchy of what is understood as Tibetan literature. More interesting is to see how some of the authors use Chinese language as a tool to explore themes which engage them in a dialogue with the dominant culture. In so doing, it enables them to narrate their own version of how they understand and interpret their culture. The works of Alai, Sebo, Yidam Tsering, Yangdon or Medon offer remarkable insights in this respect. While some writers use narrative fiction to reassert their identity, others attempt to criticise and reflect their current position as marginal subjects. The following is a brief outline of these writers.


Alai was born in 1959 in Markham, Kham (Sichuan) and is nowadays based in Chengdu (Sichuan). In 1982 he published his first poem and in 1985 he received for his poem Zhenxiang ni xinling de chibang (Glide the wings of your heart) the Tibetan literary prize for Poetry of the Five Provinces. The poem compares the monastic life which remained unchanged for centuries to the contrasting changes of the outside world. Alai's early writings are descriptive and written in a realist style. In 1989 he published a collection of short stories titled Jiunian de xueji (Bloodstains of the Bygone Years) but his breakthrough came with his novel Chen'ai luoding (Falling Dust) in 1998. The novel received this year the Mao Dun Literary Prize, named after the Chinese novelist Mao Dun (1896- 1981). It is the most prestigious literary award a writer can receive in mainland China.


Although Alai is not the first "minority" writer in receiving this prize, he is nevertheless the first Tibetan who won this prize.21 Thus we can assume that some Tibetan writers have mastered the Chinese language and appropriated it in a way that they are fully competitive with Chinese writers. It is even rumoured that he returned from the United States with a contract for an English translation worth of $ 150'000.22


Sebo studied medicine in Liaoning and worked after graduation in different parts of Tibet. He started writing short stories in 1982. Sebo's short stories such as Yuanxing rizi (Round Days) and Zai zher shang chuan (Get the Boat Here) deal with eccentric and capricious characters who are both alienated from Tibetan culture and tradition while simultaneously derisive of Western culture.

Yidam Tsering was born in 1933 in Tsongkha, Amdo. He is also well known among Tibetan readers and is one of the few poets whose poems are translated from Chinese back into Tibetan. He recently published a collection with poems and essays titled Xueshan shizi hou (The Roar of the Snowlion). Although he was one of the five poets in Amdo who were famous during the Cultural Revolution for writing propaganda literature, his recent poems are highly praised among Tibetan readers.23 Many young Tibetans comment that his poems reveal a nationalistic feeling towards Tibet. Writers such as Yangdon or Medon are leading women writers from the younger generation.


Yangdon was born in 1963 in Lhasa. She graduated in 1985 from the Chinese department of Beijing University. Her short story Wu xingbie de shen (God without Gender) was later revised and published as a novel under the same title. In 1997 she received the literature prize for minorities in recognition of her novel, and in 1999 a feature film based on her novel was produced. Yangdon is one of the few writers who can speak Tibetan. One of the motivation of writing the novel arose from her view that Tibet has been misrepresented in Chinese Literature.24


By trying to represent an "authentic" view of Tibetan culture and customs, she, in a way, uses the narrative to re-inscribe her own culture. Tibet in her narrative is revisioned in its myriad details and cultural riches. The author attempts to give the reader a glimpse of the life of a Tibetan aristocratic family. In so doing, she invariably tries to reverse the depiction of Tibet as portrayed by Chinese writers whereby the aristocrats represent the dark side of Tibetan society.


Medon is among the few woman writers who has published a book containing her poems, a few short stories and a novel. She was born in 1966 in Taktsang, Amdo (Qinghai) and graduated from the Teacher's College in Xining (Qinghai Shifan Daxue). With her novel Taiyang Buluo (The Clan of the Sun), she also received the minority prize for literature. Taiyang Buluo depicts the life of two Tibetan tribes in Amdo during the period of Ma Bufeng's control over this region. The novel is constructed in such a way that she subverts the reality of the present situation. The Tibetans in her text form the centre of attention whereas Chinese characters are reduced to mere minor figures. Suobai, the main protagonist, represents the link to modernity. He encounters criticism from the other villagers when he wants to open a school in the village. The courses which will be offered are Tibetan, Chinese, Mathematics, History and Natural History."

"Chinese? Why study Chinese? Isn't Tibetan enough? I have studied Tibetan my whole life and I still haven't learned enough!" Danma said.
Tenzin Tseba immediately added: "It's true what Danma Lama says. We are Tibetan, what is the use of studying Chinese."
... Tsering cleared his throat and said: "If the children learn Chinese...they will become like those kids from Yanjiazhuang!"
... Rinchen then added: "To learn Chinese is to make the children forget their roots." ... Danma stared at him [Suobai] and smiled derisively: " learn Chinese is to sinicise the generation after us. Isn't this nationality already dying out?"25

The novel thus problematises issues such as education, modernisation and the loss of tradition facing Tibetans living in Tibet. Throughout the novel, she skilfully manages to combine literary aesthetic with contemporary social issues. Her linguistic ability to voice out and reclaim her identity is one way of making use of her situation as being positioned as a writer from the margin.

The choice of subject in Medon's poems is also significant in analysing how she uses the text to reclaim her history. Tibetan historical figures such as Songtsen Gampo, the first King who united the various kingdoms and founded the Tibetan Empire or Tseyang Gyatso, the 6th Dalai Lama are used as themes to convey to the reader the grandiosity of Tibetan civilisation and culture. The celebrating of cultural heroes can be interpreted as a reaction to the image of Tibet as maintained by the Chinese.

The present literary situation in Tibet bears many similarities with the colonial literary experience encountered by African and Indian writers. The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, for example, argued: "Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else's? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling. But for me there is no other choice. I have been given the language and I intend to use it."26


The same can be observed with the Tibetan writers using Chinese as their language of art. Not only have they mastered the Chinese language so well that they are fully able to compete with Chinese writers but their writings are also an account of the situation of a marginalised people. Most of them are familiar with both cultures and succeed in conveying a message to the dominant culture. Their writings about Tibet can be therefore seen as either a response towards narratives produced in Chinese literature and/or a reaction to colonial presence.


Nevertheless, although their works are seen by the Chinese readership as rendering a flavour of Tibet, Tibetan readers are reluctant to read and accept their works as representing authentic Tibetan literature. Whereas novels and short stories produced in Tibetan language are read by a knowledgeable readership whose identities are rooted in the region, the works produced in Chinese are focused on a readership which is little acquainted with Tibetan culture. Thus some Tibetan readers feel alienated towards these works and argue that the writers are writing from an outsider view.


It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the definition of Tibetan literature but the arrival of the Chinese in Tibet has invariably produced a generation of Tibetans who are linguistically displaced from their own community. This results in a dilemma of these writers who are seen as representatives of Tibetan voices by Chinese readers whereas their own compatriots show hesitancy to include them in their literary community.


Mulk Raj Anand expressed his burden as an Indian writer who had studied in England and wrote in English about Indian themes when he said: "I carry the double burden on my shoulders, the Alps of the European tradition and the Himalayas of my Indian past."27 In one sense, this remark epitomises the situation of these Tibetan writers. Their cultural background and their educational formation are two competing cultures; the only way to express their difference is by "carving out a territory for themselves."28



1 For a detailed description of this story see Sabine Kojima Bilder und Zerrbilder des Fremden. Tibet in einer Erzählung Ma Jians, China Themen, Universitätsverlag, Bochum, 1994.
2 Seminar held at School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), University of London, December 2000.
3 see Ma Lihua 'Modern Tibetan Literature' in Tibet Daily, Nov. 16, 1996, TIN Document.
4 see for example the writings of Ma Lihua.
5 Henry Y.H.Zhao 'Ma Yuan the Chinese Fabricator' in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No.2, Spring 1995, University of Oklahoma Press.
6 Catriona Bass Education in Tibet, Zed Books Ltd. in association with Tibet Information Network (TIN), London, 1998, p. 30.
7 ibid., p. 230.
8 ibid., pp. 232-234.
9 ibid., p. 245.
10 Interview, February 2000, New York.
11 South China Morning Post, 14.03.2000.
12 Geng Zifang, ed., Zangzu dangdai Wenxue, Zhongguo Zangxue Chubanshe, Beijing, 1994, p. 98.
13 Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin The Empire writes Back, Routledge, London, 1989, p. 8.
14 For a discussion on Dhondup Gyal and on the birth of modern Tibetan literature, see Tsering Shakya 'The Waterfall and Fragrant Flowers: The Development of Tibetan Literature since 1950' in Manoa, 12:2, Songs of the Snow Lion, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2000
15 Ngugi Wa Thiong'O Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, James Currey, London, 1986, p. 28.
16 Although Tsering Dhondup is by birth Mongolian, he writes in Tibetan.
17 For a comprehensive analysis of Tashi Dawa's stories, see Alice Grünfelder Tashi Dawa und die neuere tibetische Literature, Projekt Verlag, Bochum, 1999.
18 An English translation of this short story can be found in Tai J. (ed.), Spring Bamboo: A Collection of Contemporary Chinese Short Stories, Random House, London, 1989.
19 Tashi Dawa A Soul in Bondage, Panda Books, Chinese Literature Press, Beijing, 1992, pp. 202-205.
20 Pema Tsering, trans. Riika Virtanen A Deceitful Erected Stone Pillar and The Beginnings of Modern Tibetan Literature, The Tibet Journal, Vol.24, No.2, Dharamsala, 1999, p. 115.
21 The other two writers who were previously awarded with the Mao Dun Literary Prize are the Mongol writer Li Zhun and the Hui writer Huo Da.
22 Sichuan Xinwen Wang, Internetsite, 16/10/2000.
23 The other known four poets were Kelsang Dorje, Gompo Tashi, Pasang Rabgye and Dorje Tseten.
24 Interview, Beijing, September 1999.
25 Meizhuo Taiyang Buluo, Zhongguo Wenlian Chuban Gongsi, Beijing, 1998, p. 143.
26 cited in 'The Language of African Literature' by Ngugi wa Thiong'o in B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths & H. Tiffin (eds.) The post-colonial studies reader, Routledge, London, 1995, p. 285.
27 Pankaj Mishra 'India's Best Writers' in The New York Review of Books, May 20, 1999, p. 47.
28 Salman Rushdie Imagined Homeland, Granta Books, London, 1992, p. 64.

Yangdon Dhondup graduated in Chinese Studies from the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), Universityof London. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at SOAS.
Her research interest covers contemporary literature, music, art and life histories