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The Waterfall and Fragrant Flowers

Thursday 27 December 2007, by Tsering Shakya

Modern Tibetan literature is unknown in the west, and has been ignored by the field of traditional Tibetan studies, which considers it of little interest. Over the past four decades, however, the Tibetan language and literary production have diverged from the usages and genres of the literature of the past, and thus there is a need to study and read it in light of the many fundamental changes that have occurred.

Traditionally, Tibetan society has always been highly literate and has placed great value on literary activities and creation; part of the reason is that much of the literary production in the premodern period focused on Buddhism and was composed mainly of philosophical texts and liturgical and biographical accounts of lamas. Although there was also a body of secular texts comprising various types of histories (lo rgyus, rgyal rabs, chos’byung), biographical literature (rnam thar), aphoristic writings (legs bshad), oral folk songs (glu gzas), bardic tales, and folk stories (sgrung gtam), Buddhism cemented all literary creativity in Tibet.

Poetry (snyen ngag) dominated the secular literary tradition, inheriting both content and style from Indian Sanskrit conventions. The Mirror of poetry (snyen ngag me long), by the 7th century Indian scholar Dandin, served as a paradigm. As a consequence, contemporary Tibetan critics such as ju Kalzang (’ju skal bzang) and Dhundop Gyal (don grub rgyal) have been scathingly derisive about traditional poetry, condemning it as nothing more than eulogy (btsod pa).

The sole example of a premodern secular novel is an eighteenth - century work, The Tale of the Incomparable Youth (gzhun nu zla med kyi gtam rgyud), written by Dokhar Tsering Wangyal (mdo mkha tshe ring dbang rgyal). The novel is composed in a classical style drawn from such Indian epics as the Ramayana. The primary focus of the secular narrative, however, has been shifted from religion to romantic adventure. For the first time, the adventures of the protagonist are at the centre of the story, with religion forming only the subtext.

Despite the existence of such secular works, fiction as modern western author would define it - that is, work of an author’s imagination, in the form of short stories and novels - had no place in traditional Tibetan literature. Indeed, if we use a modern western definition of literature, virtually no secular literature existed in Tibet until very recently. In fact, most critics in Tibet would tend to say that such a literature began only in the early 1980s.

A new Tibetan literature emerged only after the establishment of Communist Chinese rule in Tibetan - speaking areas. The Chinese government established not only Communist political and administrative control of Tibet, but also brought about Tibet’s first encounter with the modern world - specifically, an engagement with a technologically advanced society imbued with a modern and materialistic ideology. The missionary zeal of the new Communist regime was focused on incorporating Tibet into the great "motherland," and in doing so to "civilise" this underdeveloped, backward region. In this regard, there are many similarities between western colonial rule and Chinese colonisation of Tibet. In both case, colonialism caused a dislocation of identity and traditional epistemology in the indigenous social system and culture. Like other rulers, China not only asserted territorial claims but also set out to control the minds of the natives.

The notion of underdevelopment (rjes lus) is crucial to understanding the nature of Chinese rule in Tibet. The term implies that Tibet lagged behind in technology and, more important, that it was culturally stagnant and backward. Therefore, "liberation of the serfs" was intended to result in both economic emancipation and the cultural empowerment of the people. In this process, language and literature became the focus of colonial exchange. And it was in this context that a new literature emerged in Tibet.

Chinese rule had an immediate and striking impact on the Tibetan language at every level because initially it was the principal medium used by the Communists to convey their message. At this stage, Tibetan intellectual were recruited as "important patriotic personages" - a class that would mediate between the past and the present. Because many of the early literary elite came from monasteries and the religious community, the Chinese assumed that they would be trusted by the masses. The Communists used them and their literary skills not only to mediate but also to articulate the new narrowly focused on the question of a new lexicon and terminology (tha snyed). A new Tibetan lexicon was needed to translate the Communist propaganda and Marxist ideology that had driven the Communist revolution in China. It’s worth noting that, unlike western colonialists, who generally did not intend to overthrow the traditional ideology of their subjugated territories, the Communists came to Tibet with the explicit intention of replacing the existing socio-ideological system.

Modification and reform of the Tibetan language was therefore considered necessary to mould the thoughts and actions of the people. In the early 1950s, the Communists acted with the belief that the social transformation would be gradual, and that it would proceed with the consent of the people. Change was to be introduced slowly by both overt and covert means: overtly by appropriating existing institutions and ideology to win over the people; and covertly by undermining the ruling order. The knowledge and skills of the traditional literary elite could be exploited for the revolutionary cause; ironically, the class position given to these writers also made them targets for attack. Indeed, the literary production of the Tibetan elite was soon used against them, to undermine their privileged position in society.

Initially, then, the Communists’ concern with the Tibetan language was primarily related to the practically of governing a country that- whatever China’s historical and legal justification for claiming Tibet to be a part of China - had been and wished to remain fundamentally separate. At this time, literary activities involved publishing translations of Communist propaganda, and so the literary elite debated how to translate into Tibetan such concepts in the Communist lexicon as people, democracy, class, liberation, and exploitation. They also discussed whether there was a need for a written textual basis for coining new terms, or whether the new terms should be derived from colloquial usages. Clearly, printing technologies and presses were not brought into Tibet by the Chinese in order to promote literary creativity; rather, they were there for the Party and its propaganda needs.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the Chinese emphatically denied the existence of a separate Tibetan identity, and under the Communist slogan "destroy the Four Olds," all aspects of Tibetan life and custom were attacked. The Party imposed total uniformity on culture and lifestyle throughout China. In Tibet, almost all publishing in the Tibetan language ceased, except for Party propaganda and translations of articles from Chinese newspapers, Consequently, the sole marker of distinction that remained for the Tibetan people was the spoken language.

Only after the death of Mao and the subsequent emergence of new leadership under Deng Xiaoping did unprecedented change come to China. The Party’s policy towards intellectuals underwent a transformation, and, at the same time the Party’s policies toward so-called minorities began to change as well. The policy of overt assimilation was abandoned, to be replaced by policies of cultural autonomy. These changes had far-reaching consequences for Tibetans.

Tibetans generally agree that when the authorities started to allow Tibet some degree of autonomy in expressing its cultural identity-shortly after the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee, in 1979-modern Tibetan literature began. Tibetan Buddhism, suppressed for over twenty years, was also revived.

In 1980, the first journal devoted to new writing was Tibetan Literature and Art (bod kyi rtsom rig rgyud tsal). Published by the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) Writers’ Association, the inaugural issue comprised four short stories: "Auspicious Flower" (skal zang mi tog), "Yangchen" (dbyang chen), "Soil of the Native Land" (payul gyi sa), and "Honored Person" (sdi dbang gisgson pa ’i mi). These stories had been written several years earlier and had already been published in Chinese magazines; all were about Tibet and had been written in Chinese by Tibetans. Their primary aim was to persuade Chinese readers of the moral justification for the "liberation" of Tibet by portraying the People’s Liberation Army as freeing Tibetans from the "dark period" of feudal exploitation that had previously prevailed. The fact that the stories were written by Tibetans - the muted voice of Tibetan serfs speaking against oppressive feudal lords-gave them an air of authenticity. All were published widely and used in schools.

The translation of these stories from Chinese into Tibetan implied that there were no Tibetans writing in their own language at this time. Indeed, in 1979 when a Swedish journalist arrived in Lhasa with the intention of meeting contemporary Tibetan writers, the Cultural Department of the TAR Government was unable to produce a single one. According to Tenzin Namgyal, a former editor of Tibetan Literature and Art, this had a great impact on Tibetans working in the Cultural Department and inspired them to encourage Tibetans to begin writing stories.

Later, critics realised that no Tibetans had been producing fiction primarily because they were unsure what was permissible under Party policy. A more cynical observation is that the four stories in the first issue of Tibetan Literature and Art were deliberately selected to establish precisely the guidelines on style and content favoured by the Party; this seemed especially true since all four dealt with the crimes of the Tibetan "feudal" society and the miserable lives of the working class.

Whatever the motive for publication, the first edition of Tibetan Literature and Art initiated a burning debate. What is Tibetan literature? What should be the defining factor: the ethnic origin of the author, the subject matter, or the language? The first edition of Tibetan Literature and Art seemed to suggest that subject matter and the author’s ethnic origin defined Tibetan literature.

A year later, a new publication called Light Rain (sbrang char) was issued in Amdo, in the far northeastern corner of the Tibetan-speaking world, The title suggests the nurturing of young seedlings and evokes images of fertility, luxuriance, and the regenerative power of rainwater. Aptly titled, Light Rain was to become the premier literary journal in Tibet. More than any other publication, it shaped and established the foundation of modern Tibetan literature.

The editors of Light Rain deliberately challenged the views of Tibetan Literature and Art by setting a policy of publishing only stories written in Tibetan; furthermore, they would publish translated stories only if they had been written originally in Tibetan. This suggests that the editors felt Tibetan literature should be defined not by the subject matter or the ethnicity of the author, but by the language alone. The readers concurred. One reader insisted that if the journal published stories translated from Chinese, it would lose its unique nature and become neither "a goat nor a sheep" (ra ma lug tu ’gyur).

A number of magazines soon emerged, including New Moon (zla zer), Tibetan Popular Arts(bodkyi mang tsJiogs sgyutsal), Youthful Sun (nye gzhon), Lhoka Literature and Arts (Lho kha’i rtsom rig rgyu tsal), Kyichu River ofLhasa ([ha sa ’i skyed chu), and Snowy Mountains (gangs dkar ri bo). In the words of one Tibetan poet, the magazines "blossomed like spring flowers."

These journals were never truly independent, but continued to fall under the control of larger associations. Current examples include Tibetan Literature and Art, published by the Tibet Autonomous Region Writers’ Association; Light Rain, published under the auspices of the Qinghai Writers’ Association; and such magazines as Snowy Mountains, published by the trade unions.

In addition to these journals, many unofficial publications and magazines-from colleges and even monasteries-began to circulate in local areas. In Amdo, there was a mushrooming of unofficial publications, such as Song of the Blue Lake (mtsho sngon po’i glu dbyang), A New Shoot (myug gsar), Sound of a Sheep(’ba’ rgra), and The Eastern Mountain (shar dung ri). Published in cyclo style, the journals were poorly printed and were distributed only in local areas.

In this early period, the subject matter of a typical story was predominantly the evils of the old society. For example, "A Story of Three Sisters" (bu mo spon gsum gyi rnam thar), written by Kalsang Namdrol and published in Tibetan Literature and Art, tells of the sufferings of three sisters-Patok, Botrik, and Tsamcho-at the hands of a soldier, a son of an aristocrat, and a lama these representing the three feudal lords of old Tibet). By describing the evil behaviour of these three men, the story attempts to show the backwardness and oppressiveness of the old society.

Between 1980 and 1984, such stories condemning the evils of the old society and praising the benefits of the peaceful Chinese liberation were regularly published in Tibetan Literature and Art. They were intended to convince the younger generation of Tibetans, those born after 1950, that Communist policies in Tibet were justified. This was particularly important after 1980 because, by then, most people were complaining not about the evils of feudal Tibet but about the suffering they and their parents had endured during the Cultural Revolution.

Fiction writing at this time was confined to the short-story form because the only medium for publication was magazines. In 1982, however, the first full-length Tibetan novel was published: An Auspicious Flower (kalsang metok), written by Jamphel Gyatso, an academic working at the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. From a poor family in Bathang in Eastern Tibet, Jamphel Gyatso had joined the invading People’s Liberation Army at a young age and had been trained as a translator. An Auspicious Flower is written in the style of socialist realism and has stereotypical characterisations. Set at the time of the Chinese invasion, the novel celebrates the "unwavering service performed by the People’s Liberation Army for the Tibetan people" in liberating the masses: In the epilogue, the author says that he wrote the book in order to depict the sacrifices made by the People’s Liberation Army.

The book received much praise and won a prize for the best novel by a minority national in China. Among the Tibetan populace, however, the book was recognised as Party propaganda, and the author was criticised for denigrating Tibetan society while internalising the coloniser’s image of Tibet as "a hell on earth" before the Chinese invasion. Despite the novel’s propagandistic style and content, it nevertheless made innovations in the use of simple and readable language.

In 1985, the second Tibetan novel, The Turquoise Crown (gtsug gyu), appeared as part of the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the TAR and was serialised in Tibetan Literature and Art. The author was Paljor Lapgdun, a great-nephew of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama.

As a young boy, Paljor had studied in Darjeeling, India, and in the fifties had travelled to China to further his education. The subject of the novel is the internal rivalries among the aristocracy of the old Tibetan society. The story was intended to portray "the exterior beauty and the internal rottenness of the aristocracy and power holding classes," and readers were asked to empathise with the suffering of the working class. True to the Party line, aristocrats and landlords are once again represented as serving only their own class interests. The protagonist, Palden, is described as a slave with deep hatred for his oppressors. Through Palden’s actions, we are shown that the overthrow of the ruling class is natural because the hatred of the working class cannot be suppressed.

Despite its very narrow and superficial theme, The Turquoise Crown was an instant bestseller. It is now out of print, and when I was last in Lhasa I was unable to find anyone who would part with a copy! Though propagandistic, the book was widely read and liked by Tibetans for its use of language and its portrayal of old ways of life. Readers tended to dismiss the obvious propaganda in the novel as simply a prerequisite for publication, and therefore focused on the language and how the narrative moved them. The plot has been described as a "turquoise rosary," meaning that it grips the reader.

While the novel follows traditional Tibetan grammatical and stylistic rules, The Turquoise Crown also manages to give everyday conversation a literary flavour. The mixture of colloquial speech and literary form made the novel accessible to the masses; thus it was able to meet one of the new literary criteria. The Turquoise Crown and An Auspicious Flower were thus landmarks in the development of modern Tibetan literature.

After 1985, a new theme began to emerge in Tibetan short stories. This, too, was not an accident but the result of Party policy to "expose the crimes of the Gang of Four and praise the Four Modernisations." The policy allowed Tibetans for the first time to write arid speak about the painful period after the "peacefu11iberation" of Tibet. A number of stories appeared depicting life during the Cultural Revolution and the suffering endured by the people. Gopo Lin, a critic from Kham writing in Light Rain in 1989, called these "The stories of the wounded mind of Tibet" (bod kyi sems rma’I sgrung gtam). The popular term "literature of the wounded" had appeared in China in 1979. A typical story of this kind is "Old Man Tsering’s Misunderstanding." The main character, Tsering, is persecuted during the Cultural Revolution for following the "capitalist road"; but afterwards his skill as an entrepreneur is appreciated and encouraged.

Most of these stories about the Cultural Revolution were not original and did not critically analyse or explore the deeper experience of that nightmarish period. However, two stories published in the early eighties in Tibetan Literature and Art were exceptional. While they lacked immediate identification as "scar literature," later commentators quickly saw in them representations of the Cultural Revolution. These two stories, "The Forest After a Storm" (char shul gyi nags tshal) by Namdrol and "A Dispute in a Garden" (me tog ldum ra’i nang gi klan ka) by Paljor, are written in an allegorical style and borrow much from folktales and traditional genres, such as the dispute between Tea and Beer.

The former is written in the style of a folktale (sgrung). The narrative is in prose, but the speech of the main protagonists is in verse. In the story, a group of animals have to rebuild their forest dwellings after a storm, which evidently represents the Cultural Revolution. Remarkably, the characterisations of the animals are reminiscent of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Paljor’s "A Dispute in a Garden" is regarded as one of the finest works of prose written in Tibetan. The language and style of the story are significantly more sophisticated than those of comparable works, and the author makes little attempt to comply with the demand that the language be accessible to the masses. Using old-fashioned language, the narrative has flowers in a garden disputing who is the most beautiful; in order to claim the coveted title, each behaves selfishly and ruthlessly.

These two short stories resist the standard treatment of the Cultural Revolution in fiction. Rather than merely justifying the policies of the new leadership under Deng Xiaoping, the authors look deeply into their own experiences, questioning the nature of humanity and human relationships. The Cultural Revolution, like all traumatic events, brought to the surface the best and worst human emotions, including greed. By depicting allegorically how characters behave in an evil manner in order to achieve their own goals, the authors ask if human nature is inherently selfish or altruistic.

In essence, this opening of literature to other kinds of expression was an invention of the Chinese authorities, designed to serve a political need. For their part, the authorities saw a dual role for literature: extolling (bstod bsnags byas) the virtues of the revolution and exposing (ther ’don) the criminality of feudalism, perpetuated by enemies of the state. The literary revolution they designed was meant to sever the link with Tibet’s past and usher in a new period of socialism under the tutelage of the Chinese Communist Party. To this end, the reforms were meant to leave no room for ambiguity or freedom of expression.

Ultimately, the authorities hoped that literature would establish a secular humanistic tradition to replace religion as the main discourse of public and private morality. And this educational function of literature-to mould people’s thoughts and train citizens how to behave-was made a significant part of the burden that a writer under Communism was required to shoulder. The emerging generation of Tibetan Writers was expected to be the vanguard of socialist modernisation, and their work-through exemplary plots and appeals to rationalism-was expected to urge the people, by peaceful means, to open their mental horizons (blo sgo phye) and to embrace China’s socialist modernism (gsar rje).

Of course, this is the official version of literature’s function, and it is disputable whether all writers and artists agreed with it in the 1980s any more than they do today. It was clear, however-as it is now-that without conformity to Party policy there was no possibility for publication.

In the period after 1980, the Tibetan intellectual community-traditional scholars educated in the monasteries and a young generation of intellectuals trained in universities in China-emerged from the Cultural Revolution severely traumatised. They had witnessed attacks on every aspect of Tibetan culture and identity. Now, when the Party allowed even a small opportunity for expression, the intellectual community plunged into a debate on how best to make use of the degree of openness that the new policies allowed. Traditionalists in the community argued that the weight of intellectual labour should be directed towards restoring what had been lost and destroyed; this group embarked on a mission to salvage and reproduce damaged manuscripts. Consequently, during the eighties there was a renaissance in Tibetan publications, and a large number of rare manuscripts and texts began to enter the public domain.

The age of innovation

At the same time, a group of young intellectuals believed that the main task facing Tibet was what they called "innovation." They believed that Tibet had suffered under the hands of the Communists not only because of the military and political might of the Chinese, but also because there was an inherent weakness in Tibetan culture: its inability to confront and integrate the forces of change.

At the same time, a group of young intellectuals believed that the main task facing Tibet was what they called "innovation." They believed that Tibet had suffered under the hands of the Communists not only because of the military and political might of the Chinese, but also because there was an inherent weakness in Tibetan culture: its inability to confront and integrate the forces of change.

Among the writers of the Tibetan intellectual community to emerge from this debate was a young man named Dhondup Gyal (1953-1985). Now considered the founder of modern Tibetan literature, he was born in a small village in Gurong Phuba in the Nangra district of Amdo in 1953, a few years after the Communists came to power. Dhondup Gyal was therefore from the first generation born after liberation-those who supposedly were the main beneficiaries of the Communist revolution. However, like that of so many of his generation, his education was to come to an abrupt end during the Cultural Revolution.

In 1979, Dhondup Gyal enrolled at Beijing Central Nationalities Institute and began to study under the prominent Tibetan scholar Dungkar Lobsang Trinley, who remembers him as a brilliant student with a perfect memory. "He would sit in the class without opening a notebook, but a few days later he would recall everything he had heard," Trinley has said.

In 1983, Dhondup Gyal published a poem called "Waterfall of Youth" (lang tsho’i rbab chu), which caused a sensation among Tibetans. The poem was like nothing they had ever read. Not only did it evidence literary innovation, but it contained a bold and nationalistic political statement. The poem fervently appealed to Tibetans to embrace modernism as a means of regenerating their culture and national pride, and beseeched the youth to shake off the past and march proudly towards their future. This boldness in style and politics was characteristic of Dhondup Gyal’s writings. For the first time, the possibility emerged that, through-the medium of poetry and fiction, a genuine discourse on Tibetan modernity could occur. At stake were the future direction of Tibet and Tibetan identity in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Dhondup Gyal’s work was a turning point because, while criticism was unacceptable to the Chinese authorities, he showed that it was nevertheless possible to speak implicitly about the "wound inflicted on the mind of the Tibetans" (bod kyi sems kyi rma), referring to the period under the leadership of the Gang of Four.

Furthermore, he was able to raise the issue of Tibet’s status as subaltern, which was intrinsic to a debate about modernisation. At this time, the founders of literary journals saw their task as nothing less than the regeneration of Tibetan culture and identity, and one of the phrases that dominated Tibetan literature between 1980 and 1987 was mi rigs kyi la rgya, which means "honour, pride, allegiance to nationality." Literature that raised this subject was possible because indigenous discourse on Tibet’s alterity paralleled state-sponsored discourse on modernisation-that is, the Four Modernisations. The authorities saw the emerging debate in Tibetan literature as conforming to the Party’s will-thus lessening the Party’s fear of a possible challenge to official definitions-but overlooked the larger issues being addressed in the writing.

The debate inevitably produced a confrontation between traditionalists and modernists. While the modernists saw tradition ("old habits") as impediments to change, others pointed out that tradition was the most significant marker of Tibetan separateness from the coloniser. Because of Party restraints, traditionalists could not make their counterarguments publicly. However, the actual process and practice of revitalisation demonstrated that a large portion of the populace favoured the use of tradition as a way to restore Tibet’s selfhood and define it as separate from China.

Despite obstacles, this infant literature was audacious, and it is fitting that Tibetan critics compare the period to the May Fourth literary movement in China, which brought debates about modernity into the forefront of intellectual discourse in the twenties and thirties. While a characteristic of this early period of Tibetan literature was writers’ condemnation of the "old society," the best work can be distinguished from the turgid style favoured by the Party and from the stereotyped proletarian heroes and demonic feudal lords prevalent in propaganda. While condemning the past, Dhondup Gyal and other new writers made no attempt to provide a political justification for the present. Nor did they make a clear distinction between a "bad past" and a "good future." Significantly, they portrayed a more complex relationship between past and present; and the imperfections of the old Tibetan society were described a1ong with its accomplishments.

In a number of short stories, poems, and articles, Dhondup Gyal championed modernism. However, his advocacy did not include the official characterisation of Tibet as underdeveloped. In his poem "Waterfall of Youth," for example, he demonstrates that he feels the only path for Tibet to follow is embracing "the bride of science and technology." In this verse from the poem, he makes it clear that the past cannot be a guide to the future:

The thousand brilliant accomplishments
of the past
cannot serve today’s purpose,
yesterday’s salty water cannot quench today’s
thirsts,
the withered body of history is lifeless
without the soul of today,
the pulse of progress will not beat,

the blood of progress will not flow

Tibet’s past is compared to "salty water" and a "withered body" that lacks the ability to regenerate itself. In a poem published five years later, "A Pulsating Heart at the Edge of a Cliff" (di na yang drag tu mchong lding byed bzhin pa’i snying gsbn po zhig ’dug), he associates the old Tibet with conservatism (rnyeng zhen), isolationism (bag ’khums), and reactionary thinking. He asks, Why is it so difficult to plant new ideas, new habits, and new doctrines in the Land of Snows?

In short stories and articles as well as in poetry, Dhondup Gyal explored the urgent need for Tibet to modernise. His ideas crystallised in a brilliant polemical essay, "A Narrow Footpath" (rkang lam phra mo), published in Light Rain in 1984. The essay begins with a group of old men in a village who are gazing towards a narrow footpath that leads away from the village. The footpath is full of historical significance, and the villagers are greatly attached to it. Legend has it that the mythical King Gesar once traversed, the path and that Trehue Jangchup Sepa, the primogenitor of the Tibetan race, also travelled on it. Other villagers assert that the path was created by Lhalung Palgyi Dorji, a monk who assassinated the anti-Buddhist King Lang Dharma.

The narrator of "A Narrow Footpath" is a young boy. He walks on the path to school every day, wondering why the old people of the village do not use the new road below the village. For him, the ancient path evokes wonder at the courage, innovation, and bravery of his ancestors, but it also poses a question: If our ancestors could carve this path, why has the current generation failed to make any improvements and allowed it to fall into such a dilapidated state?

For Dhondup Gyal, the narrow path is a metaphor for Tibet’s parochialism, conservatism, and confinement. The old people who venerate the past do not want to change. Rather than seeing history as containing the potential for innovation, the traditionalists insist that their way of life is immutable, and they fear progress. Dhondup Gyal concludes that the narrow path cannot teach contemporary Tibet much about the spirits of science and technology, that traditional cultural monuments cannot provide the Tibetan people with "nourishment and energy for the invention of a new culture." We can understand that it is Dhondup Gyal’s own voice calling for change when the boy narrator declares that he will travel to school on the new road.

"A Narrow Footpath" was published under a pseudonym and was seen by many as an attack on traditional culture, which offended conservative sections of the Tibetan community. Dhondup Gyal reportedly received death threats after its publication. However, he remained undaunted and continued to explore the theme of tradition versus modernity. In each, he did not blindly condemn the "old society," but rather encouraged readers to question all power and authority, and this gave Tibetan literature a purpose different from that assigned to it by the Party.

Related to the question of modernisation, another difficult subject for Tibetan writers was, and still is, religion. At a practical level, the Party’s policy is to view religion as obstructing economic modernisation and to regard religion’s persistence and popularity in society as contradicting socialism. It is through their religion, however, that Tibetans have always found their identity. Consequently, the early Party practice of overtly denigrating Tibetan Buddhism was seen by the people as undermining Tibetan selfhood, and it gradually became clear to the Party that their direct attacks and coercive methods had completely failed. Therefore, in the new period, the party decided to challenge the influence of religion indirectly-through literature. Writing that contested the authority of religion and portrayed religious figures negatively was encouraged. (This is why many Tibetan readers continue to see all modern literature as nothing but a tool of the Chinese Communist Party.)

Dhondup Gyal dealt with this question in a controversial story titled "An Incarnate Lama" (sprul sku), published in Light Rain. Set in a remote village in 1980, the first time after the Cultural Revolution that people were, allowed to practice their faith freely, the story begins with the arrival of a stranger who proclaims himself to be an incarnate lama.

The form and content of the story appear similar to those favoured by the authorities. The protagonist, an old man named Agu Nyima, embodies religious faith and is described as "honest and straight as an arrow." His faith is so strong that he distrusts his own knowledge. He sees evidence that the incarnate lama may not be who he claims to be-the lama contradicts himself and shows an imperfect knowledge of Buddhism-but Agu Nyima accepts the Lama’s explanations for these lapses and regards his own doubts as a lack of faith.

At the time of its publication, the story was seen by commentators as a good example of modern writing containing antireligious social-moral propaganda. The story appeared to warn people that religion could be used to deceive them. Whether readers interpreted it as attacking religion or merely reflecting a trend in society, the story became the subject of much debate, But Tibetans have always been well aware, of course, that there are people who wear the mask of religion in order to dupe the faithful. Therefore, a closer reading of the text-in light of the recent history of Tibet and China-might suggest that the figure of the incarnate lama represents the blind trust that people had placed in Mao and the Communist Party.

Such ambiguities are present in many modern Tibetan stories. For example, "A Sound of a Bell from a Monastery," published in Tibetan Literature and Art, tells of an old woman who is very sick. Her family consults a lama, who tells them that if the mother goes on a pilgrimage and hears the sound of a particular bell, she will be cured. The family makes the long journey. The old woman dies, but just before her death, she hears the sound of the gong. Describing her death, the author implies that as she hears the bell, she finds "laughter and peace" within herself. Rather than demonstrating that religion is false, the story may be suggesting that religion is useful in providing mental peace.

Clearly, writers in Tibet and China lack the freedom to explore individual sentiments and subjects explicitly. Nevertheless, we can see that their work does not always merely follow the diktats of the Party, even when it is written in Chinese and published under the eyes of the censors. Despite the constraints imposed by the state and the Party, Tibetan writers are able to bring burning issues into the foreground, and as we have seen, this stimulates politically charged debate. Although the line favoured by the state and the Party is compulsory and all authors must seem to conform in order to be published, when we examine the writings themselves, their conformity is not quite so clear-cut.

Literature has become the main arena for intellectual confrontation among competing ideas in Tibet today. At the same time, literature emanating from Tibet is still in its infancy. Many works are repetitive and didactic and simply follow the Party’s guidelines on art and literature.

Since 1994, control over work produced by Tibetan writers has become increasingly strict, The creative energy that was released in the early eighties has been suppressed, making writers more cautious than ever.

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