Language, Literature and Representation in Tibet

There are two very important features to this collection of stories, which both has literary interest and signifies the shifting terrain of Chinese rule in Tibet. The first point to make is that “Tibet” has become a subject of a literary muse among the Chinese writers and intellectuals: this in itself is very significant.

Despite the centuries of connection between China and Tibet, as far as I am aware, Tibetans never featured as a subject in mainstream Chinese literature. This is not to say that there are no Chinese narrative texts on Tibet; in fact, there existed a wealth of material. However, there is a clear distinction between the early narratives and the present construction of narrative texts about Tibet. Early works dealt with politics, religion, diplomacy, and history. There are numerous historical and religious texts from the earliest period of Tang Dynasty to the Qing period. These imperial texts result from the political and historical intercourse between the two countries, while the present works deal mainly with works of imagination and are grounded on very different premises. The incursion of Tibet as a subject in the field of literature and genre of Chinese fiction is very recent, and has largely been brought about through the recent assertion of Chinese political rule and the introduction of Tibet into Chinese nationalist thought Tibet as an integral to “the motherland”.

In recent years, the large-scale migration of Chinese into the Tibet Autonomous Region and other Tibetan-speaking areas in Kham and Amdo as administrators, teachers, cadres, technical experts, and traders has given a new grounding to China’s presence in the region. The Tibetans were aware of Chinese culture and literature from an early period. The Tang poets Bo Juyi, Li Bo, and Du Fu depict the Tibetans as a formidable adversary of the Tang. In the 7th century AD, the Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gonpo took the Tang princess Wencheng as one of number of queens. Both Tibetan and Chinese sources state that in 730 the princess requested Chinese classics such as the Shi jing, Zuo zhuan, and Wenxuan be sent to Tibet. The princess also encouraged Tibetan nobles to send their sons to study the Chinese classics. Chinese sources claim that in the early period, the Tibetan court used Chinese as the official language of correspondence. However, Tang records show that the Chinese were reluctant to give these classics to the Tibetans, their fierce enemies; the Tang envoy compared this to “giving weapons to brigands or one’s possessions to thieves”. The sources claim that the Emperor Songtsen dispatched four bright young Tibetans to study in Chang’an, the capital during the Tang Dynasty. In the early period, Tibetans were attracted and influenced by the Chan school of Buddhism and a number of Chinese Buddhist texts were translated into Tibetan.

However, the Chinese language never achieved the dominance that the Sanskrit language did in Tibet. We have very little evidence of mass translation work being carried out from Chinese into Tibetan, whereas much of the Buddhist canon was based on original Sanskrit works. Even if Chinese texts were translated, they remained on the periphery of Tibetan intellectual life during most centuries. From the time of the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet from the early 7th to the 10th century, the only language of intellect was Sanskrit which Tibetan scholars studied and knew well. As the vernacular language was established as a literary form, slowly the need to master Sanskrit seems to have waned.

Despite the establishment of a Buddhist stronghold in Tibet and the adoption of Buddhism as the state religion, Tibetans never replaced their native language. In fact, there seem to have been an instinctive desire to promote Tibetan both as a literary form and as the language of religion.

There was no attempt to promote Sanskrit as the only language of the sacred: there was never a perception that Sanskrit was the natural and only language capable of carrying the message. Although there is a deep reverence for Sanskrit, the Tibetans’ attitude to Sanskrit seems to have been driven by practical considerations: the need to translate Buddhist texts into their native language. Even in Eastern Tibet, that is, Kham or Amdo, which lie in the hinterland of the Chinese and Tibetan border, very few Tibetans spoke Chinese and even fewer could read and write in Chinese. As late as the 1930s, there were only a tiny minority who spoke Chinese, which was the practical language of commerce in the border areas.

Most of the people spoke their regional dialects and wrote in standard Tibetan. However, this monolingual situation was totally disrupted with the imposition of colonial rule in Tibet. The language of the coloniser was imposed as a language of control and domination. The development of the use of Chinese is comparable to the hegemony of English and other imperial languages of the West over colonised territories in Asia and Africa. Today, the colonial nature of the linguistic situation is glaringly obvious. Most educated Tibetans are bi-lingual, and the education system has ensured the dominance of Chinese as the language of knowledge and administration.

These two facts: the appropriation of language by the Tibetans, and the construct of Tibet in Chinese texts, pose interesting questions about the discursive practices that are emerging in Tibet. There is a clear parallel between the situation in Tibet and the formation of literature and language under Western colonial rule in Asia and Africa, where dominance by the ruler’s language replaced and influenced native discursive practices. Given the social-political military bases of Chinese rule in Tibet, the texts that are being produced can best be classed as “colonialist literature”.

Here, it has to be said that given the emotive connotation of such a term, many would see this as political condemnation. However, it is necessary to detach the term from its pejorative connotations and see it as a description of a situation, where the matrix of socio-linguistic inequality is a reflection of the power relationships evident in Tibet. The material bases of colonial rule are undoubtedly founded on military, technological, and coercive power.

However, colonial imposition of Chinese as the language of power and administration does not mean that native literature and language has been eliminated. In fact, there is a growing resurgence of Tibetan language and literature, and all the evidence indicates that the Tibetan language have not been replaced. Tibetans show a deep emotional and practical concern for their native language, and texts produced in Chinese are in the minority, with most Tibetan writers continuing to produce their works in their native language. The Tibetans attitude to the coloniser’s language is instrumental and practical: it is accepted there are certain deficiencies in their native language, but this is not to imply that they believe that their native language is intrinsically inferior. This attitude is based on a pragmatic consideration, namely that in the field of social sciences, science and other technical areas the Chinese have had a far longer period of development and modification, and therefore are more advanced in dealing with technical sciences.

Another consideration is that many see acquisition of Chinese as a means of educational advancement and also as a window to the outside world. This is not only the case inside occupied Tibet: refugee groups living in India or in the West master English for the same purpose. This attitude is moulded by objective factors and by the material condition faced by all Tibetans. Today, most of the educated classes are bi-lingual, using Tibetan as a literary language and imbibing influences through Chinese. Contemporary Tibetan writers demonstrate considerable knowledge of Western literature, albeit read in Chinese translations. They are familiar with, and quote copiously, the works of great 19th Century Russian, English and French realist writers such as Guy de Maupassant, Gogol and Dickens. Much of the new Tibetan literature is influenced by the genre of realism, seen as suitable for apprehending the present reality in Tibet.

Chinese has become the second language of the new professional cadre class, doctors, engineers, banking officials, telecommunications personnel and scientists, who use a mixture of their native language and Chinese, the language of power. Even here, they continue to use their native tongue as the language of home and community. In the lower levels of administration, Tibetan is used, and in rural areas administration is done entirely in the native language, while higher up the pyramid of power the Chinese language dominates. Similar analogies exist in the education system. The formation of linguistic disparities and the establishment of Chinese as the dominant language owes much to the education system that is emerging in Tibet today. While in most areas Tibetan still remains the primary language of education at the lower levels of the education system, in fact, rural schools only have resources for teaching basic Tibetan writing and reading. Students soon realise that there are limits to their own, lived, language and constraints imposed by the colonial education system. The higher up the educational scale, the further the contradictions deepen, and the student will find that knowledge of the language of the coloniser is a prerequisite for attending colleges and universities.

This issue, and the choice of the language of education, is the subject of hot debate among Tibetans, with there being no easy solution. The privileging of Chinese is an inevitable result of the actual material condition of Tibet, and its past failures in reform and innovation. This inherent condition has been compounded further by the assertion of hegemonic rule from Beijing, which has both destroyed the pre-capitalist peasant mode of production and replaced the state-centred economic structure. Today, there are new erasures in the socio-economic fabric of Tibet, as the state imposes a market/capital centred economy. In this process, the indigenous economy will either be obliterated or marginalised. The native economy is still essentially based on subsistence farming or nomadism, and either does not allow for a means of exchange on the market oriented economy or is limited by its inability to produce items of value for exchange in the wider market. As in any colonial situation, material power has been translated into moral and metaphysical superiority.

During the period between 1960-1976, Tibetan culture was assaulted on all levels, and the people experienced a profound sense of dislocation. It is beyond the scope of this short introduction to carry out an exegesis of this entire period. It is sufficient to say that the nature of cultural and literary production was altered, with literary engagement primarily serving the colonial strategy of containment, assimilation and indoctrination. Indigenous literary production was destroyed and language became merely an instrument carrying the coloniser’s message; nothing else was permitted.

However, after the death of Mao, the ascendancy of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s and early 1980s brought fundamental changes to China as whole. Tibet was no exception. One of the most innovative results of reforms was the limited freedom afforded to writers and artists.

Writing Back to the Motherland:

As throughout China, the early 1980s saw a flowering of creative talent, and the intellectual community was swift to burst out with a “cultural fever”. This surge of cultural innovation was also reflected in Tibet, which, however, took a divergent line. On the one hand, many older scholars, lamas, and Rinpoches (incarnate lamas) felt that their new-found freedom should be utilised to recover and salvage what had been lost. The destruction and dislocation caused by the previous periods, particularly during the Cultura Revolution, had profoundly affected the body of Tibet. The monastic and private libraries are now unrecoverable, and it is unlikely that we will ever know the extent of what has been lost or destroyed. However, the early 1980s saw the reprinting of old Tibetan texts. A publishing renaissance brought about a new impetus for publications in the Tibetan language and made many texts accessible to a larger audience. For the first time, Tibetans were able to exploit new printing technology for dissemination of the Tibetan texts.

Parallel to the growth of publications in Tibetan, an increasing number of younger Tibetans writers were working in Chinese. It is interesting to note that when in the 1980s, the first Tibetan language literary journal bod kyi rstom rig rgyu tsal (Tibetan Literature and Arts) was established, the editor noted that they could not find a single Tibetan contributor and, more surprisingly, they were unable to locate any Tibetan text written in the previous ten years. The first issue of the journal comprised four short stories, skal zang me tog, (Auspicious Flower), dbyang chen (Yangchen), pha yul gyi sa, (Soil of the Native land) and sdi dbang gis gson pa’I mi, (A Honoured Person), which had been written in Chinese and then translated into Tibetan. These stories had been written several years before and already published in Chinese magazines. The primary aim of these early stories, written in Chinese about Tibet by Tibetans, was to move Chinese readers and to provide moral justification for the liberation of Tibet. Inevitably, the stories are about the “dark period” of feudal exploitation that prevailed in Tibet before the “liberation” of Tibet by the People’s Liberation Army.

These stories had been published widely in Chinese periodicals and also read in schools. The fact that they were written by Tibetans lent them authenticity: they were seen as the muted voice of the Tibetan serfs speaking against oppressive feudalism.

The texts of the early generation of Tibetan writers primarily focused on the crimes of the old and dark period of Tibetan “feudal” society and the miserable lives of the serfs. A typical example is Jamphel Gyatso’s Gesang Meiduo (An Auspicious Flower) and Yeshi Tenzin’s Xincum de Ren (The Defiant Ones). Both narratives rely on a dramatisation of coloniser’s definition of Tibet. As noted before, the author’s ethnic origin was seen as a confirmation of the correctness of the Chinese view of Tibet. These texts are written in a crude socialist realist style, purporting to depict the “real lived experience” of the Tibetan self. The language and style merge in melodrama, with exaggerated characterisation; the language is flowery and interspersed with Party and socialist rhetoric. The narrative invokes powerful emotions and rage against feudal exploitation. In this text, there is nothing positive in Tibet, and the reader is left with a sense of the legitimacy of coloniser’s civilising mission and the benevolence of the Communist Party.

Here, literature’s purpose is merely as a tool of Communist Party propaganda. The Party’s ideology, and the usefulness of the literature in serving the Party’s goal,determine the truth of the text. The readers were clearly aware of the ideological determinant of the text, and read it as an official text with a certain detachment and degree of mirth. At the mass level, Tibetans see these texts as a product of those who have sold out to the Chinese, and of individual writers ingratiating themselves with all-powerful rulers. The dark and negative images of Tibet in the narrative are seen as a betrayal of one’s own people and tradition.

If the earlier texts are overtly propagandistic, the later texts in this collection attest to a certain shift in style and content. The collection of stories by the Tibetan authors Yangdon, Alai and Sabo are free from overt Party propaganda. This reflects the general relaxation in Party policies towards minority groups and in particular towards art and literature.

After the Third Plenum of the Communist Party’s 11th Central Committee the Party allowed a degree of autonomy that freed the writers from the militant ideological constrains of the past. The writers were allowed to explore more subjective issues, and there was no demand for an absolute fidelity to Party norms. This new-found freedom is evident in the subject matter and style of the new writing that emerged in China and Tibet.

The writings of Tibetans authors in this collection are interesting for a number of points. On the surface, one is immediately struck by the absence of the crude characterisations that dominated earlier writings. There are no clear-cut villainous serf owners and downtrodden serfs, and no obligatory references to the PLA as liberators.

Another important point is the time and location of the narrative. In earlier stories there is a clear delineation of past and present, with the past defined as “before liberation” and the present as the period of liberation. The past is portrayed as dark and negative, while the present is glorious and the future to be even brighter. It is clear that the younger generations of Tibetan writers in this collection have discarded the crude dyad of the brutish past and the happy present.

Their texts reveal much in that they signify the rejection of the coloniser’s linear view of history. In their understanding, the present is more meaningful, and their texts attempt to situate Tibet in the present. More significantly, when we compare the chosen style of narrative of the Chinese and Tibetan authors, there is a clear divide. Both Ma Jian and Ma Yuan write in a mythic style, while all Tibetan writers in this collection write in a realist style. I would argue that chosen style reflect the Writer’s ideological framing of Tibet and relates to differences in the discursive practices between coloniser and the colonised. The preference for realism among Tibetan authors is not accidental. If we are take George Lukes’ definition of realism as a genre concerned with the present and showing the tension between the individual and the society, for the Tibetan authors, it becomes a means of dealing with the present day problems of man-in-society. Sebo’s The Circular Sun is a typical example. The surface narrative concerns the universal theme of the parent – child relationship, a young girl’s demand for the latest fashion and the mother’s wish to fulfill her child’s desire. The mother labours to find the tracksuit for her child, only to find out that it has been sold out.

This story is repeated all over the world, with children demanding the latest astronomically prized Nike trainers or, the latest fad, Pokemon cards, sending parents scurrying into shopping malls and high streets, only to find that they cannot find the exact object desired by the child or the shop has run out. Yet, Sebo provides a twist to his story, with its narrative concerned with the current “socialist market economy” and the Party-promoted “Get Rich Quick” mentality. The avaricious desire for material wealth and commercialisation is rebuked and the narrator, finally, incongruously places the object of desire on the body of a beggar. The ill-fitting suit is nothing more than an object of mockery. Sebo’s story fits in well with Lukecs’ idea of critical realism. Here, the narrative becomes a social commentary on the present. The Tibetans writers chose to write in this manner as a means of apprehending present reality. The stories by Geyang and Yangdon portray a similar style and utilise similar subject matter, attempting to position Tibet within the realms of everyday or lived experience, a mundane world of family, individual desire and the larger constrains of the social world.

Geyang’s “An Old Nun Tells Her Story” is narrated in the first person and ends with these words: “We tell each other the stories of our lives, but more often, we discuss our hopes for the future, when this life will be over”. The idea of telling stories is important for Tibetan writers; after all, they have lived through tremendous changes. The telling of tales becomes a means of articulating one’s voice. It may not be an overt voice of resistance, yet it is evident there is a line of resistance, as there is a calling for the recognition of the humanness of the Tibetan body. Walter Benjamin noted that the story teller tells from his experience; by doing so the teller “makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale.

The idea that text entices the readers into the world of the narrator becomes problematic in the case of these Tibetan writers. We may ask, to whom are they writing? With the shift from a literary to a sociological question, the text becomes problematic. The deeper problem of ethic and psychological was best expressed by the great Indian writer Raja Rao, in the forward to his novel Kanthanpura (1938), Rao wrote that, “One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own”. Whether the Tibetan writers in this collection are confronted with such a crisis of conscious or not, we cannot tell.

However, the issue of language and narrative have become a burning issue among Tibetan writers and critics. In 1987, two influential articles appeared in Bod ljongs zhib ’jug (Tibetan Studies) arguing that the literature of Tibet could only be written in the Tibetan people’s native language. The first article, by Sangya (sangs rgyas), appeared in issue number one of Tibetan Studies. The bold title of the paper itself is indicative of its content: “Creation of a Modern Tibetan Literature Must be Based Definitely on Tibetan Language” (bod rigs kyi gsar rtsom byed na nges par du bod kyi skad dang yi ger brten dgos). In the next issue, another article appeared, this time by Sonam (bsod nams), entitled “A Discussion of the Characteristics of a Nationality and Tibetan Literature”, (rtsom rig gi mi rigs khyad chos dang bod rigs rtsom rig skor gleng ba).

Both of these authors make a passionate appeal and argue strongly that the psychology (sems kham) and consciousness (’du shis) of Tibetans cannot not be rendered in Chinese and that to attempt to do so will result only in distortion. Sangya’s article argues that language and culture is incommensurate so that the representation of Tibet in a foreign text can only render Tibet incomprehensible. Sonam describe writing in Chinese as trying to attach deer’s antler on a head of an ox (glang gi mgo la sha ba’I ra bzhin). Although both articles lack rigour and remain logically unconvincing, their sentiments highlight the nature of a growing debate among Tibetans.

I do not wish to go into the details of the complex arguments presented in the articles. It is sufficient to say that they object to the use of the Chinese language in writing Tibetan literature on number of counts. On a pragmatic level, it is to do with definition and classification. The two articles reject texts written in Chinese as being representative of Tibetan Literature. In China, the official category of “Nationalities’ Literature” and “Tibetan Literature” are classifications expressed purely in ethnic terms. Much of this class of literature is in fact written in Chinese, while texts in the native language are often ignored and do not gain the same degree of attention. Tibetan authors who write in Chinese are often valorised and patronised by the state and promoted as the authentic voice of the people. In this, there is a strong element of the dominant group’s condescension to the ruled group at its success in assimilating the culture of the rulers. Tibetan writers are hardly known outside the small circle of Tibetan readers and thus are marginalised. For example, literary prizes afforded by the state so far have been given only to texts written in Chinese. It is right for Tibetans to feel that such definitions erase and marginalise texts produced in the native language.

The Tibetans recognise that this concerns the community of readers. After all, Chinese texts have a much larger circulation, and also come to the attention of Party leaders, while Tibetan texts only have a limited circulation within the confines of the Tibetan-speaking population. The illiteracy rate among Tibetans is extremely high and the reading public is thus tiny. However, it is not the material facts about circulation that anger the Tibetan. Critics such as Sangya and Sonam object to the assumptions about categorisation and labels that lead to texts produced in Chinese being considered representative of Tibetan Literature. The issue is certainly not unique to Tibet; similar debates take place in many other situations where a dominant language encroaches on the native language. Similar positions are raised by Indian critics, who object to the assumption that Indian Literature is represented by texts written in English. Sangya, in his article, suggests that one of the benefits of writing in Chinese is that it gives the text much wider readership. He couches this argument in Party rhetoric, saying that “these texts “serve the cause of the nationality” by providing an authentic image of Tibet. The idea that a text written in the metropolitan language is able to speak to the dominant group has been prevalent in post-colonial discourse. The very act of construction of a text in an imposed language is seen as a the recovery of agency and writing back to the centre, with native writers ushering in a new discursive practice and disrupting the coloniser’s narrative. Edward Said calls this the voyage in. It is a journey to wage a discourse with the dominant group and transform the discursive practices of the hegemonic power.

In this context of writing to the centre, there is an appeal to the universality and humanity of the Tibetan self. In Geyang’s story, the narrator speaks in the first person, in the end asserting “I’m a common, ordinary person” and going on to say “I have chosen an ordinary way to spent my remaining years”. The texts in this collection by Tibetans authors strive to present an image of Tibet that is “ordinary”. In Yangdon’s A God without Gender, the description of the immediate surroundings and the narrative places emphasis on the slow unfolding of people’s daily lives. The picture of lived experience and ordinariness is surely as powerful as Shylock’s pathos.

It is interesting that in both stories by Geyang and Yangdon the depiction of religion and religious figures is almost positive: there is no attempt to show religion as a negative influence on Tibetan society. In Geyang’s story, the nun, despite having become pregnant, is not presented as an example of the evils of religion. In old age, the protagonist returns to the nunnery and announces that she has “found serenity”. There is a directness here, almost a moral narrative, which is quite refreshing. When we compare the treatment of religion and clerical figures in Tibetan short stories and texts produced in Chinese by Tibetan writers today, we find that in Tibetan texts, religion is invariably presented in a negative light and religious figures become the villains of the piece.

However, this is not really as perplexing as it appears on the surface. The Party’s control over texts produced in Tibetan is far greater than over those produced in Chinese. The Party still sees Tibetan texts as communicating with the masses and regards literature as a vehicle for propaganda. The authorities view Chinese texts as evidence of assimilation and acknowledgement of the superiority of the colonial language, and as a result, a lesser degree of control is asserted.

There are differences between the addresser and addressee: while texts constructed in Chinese addresses the metropolitan reader, texts in the native language are aimed at the Tibetan people. What the natives are saying to each other comes under greater surveillance.

More then any other writer from Tibet, Tashi Dawa achieved great prominence in China and internationally. His works has been translated into several Western languages and has been the subject of a number of academic articles. There in no doubt that Tashi Dawa occupies a unique position, or pervades a middle space, being of Tibet and yet not a Tibetan.

Any discussion among Tibetans about Tashi Dawa elicits extreme responses. This is to do with questions of identity, ethnicity, authenticity, text, and allegiances in Tibet today. There is even confusion and contestation over his identity — for Tibetans he is a Chinese, and for Chinese readers he is Tibetan. This double vision of the man is mirrored in the reading of his narratives. For a Tibetan reader, the narratives are perceived as lacking authenticity and the treatment of Buddhism is superficial; for Chinese readers, Tashi Dawa’s work is read as representative of the authentic Tibet.

Tashi Dawa draws his inspiration from the magical realist tradition of Latin America and is said to be influenced by the writings of Gabrel Garcia Marquez. The techniques of magical realism synchronise the everyday world with the fantastical to produce a text that reveals a deeper reality then the conventions of the experiential world and objects. In Tashi Dawa’s mature stories such as “The Glory of the Wind Horse” and “Tibet: A Soul Knotted on a Leather Thong” demonstrate remarkable technical accomplishment and make skilled use of the everyday temporal world of lived experience together with the mythic realm. :The Glory of the Wind Horse” and “Tibet:” is perhaps one of the finest, in which Tashi Dawa collapses the binary opposites of life and death, living and dying, the real and unreal. The protagonists are transported across time and space. One minute the scene is set in Lhasa, and in the next the character finds himself in a bar in Andes. There is an acuteness in his handling of scene and in his depiction. The dead man comes to watch his own execution; a disconnected telephone rings in a tent and the dead man’s voice asks, “Do you still want to kill me?” All this shows Tashi Dawa to be a skilled writer who constructs his narrative with lucidity and a sense of wit.

However, writing in a magical style is fraught with problems. Tashi Dawa’s text presents a precarious set of dilemmas for readers, especially for a Tibetan reader. This partly explains the extreme response from Tibetans. There is no doubt that Tashi Dawa writes as an outsider, not simply from the margins. His Tibetan world is an alien world. The narrative is from the exterior, observed rather than lived in. His depiction of Buddhism is certainly superficial and sees it at its barest level; even the religious imagery is foreign. His adoption of John Donne’s famous aphorism :For Whom the Bell Tolls” for his story is revealing. In the narrative, Tashi Dawa turns to the image of a Christian funeral service. Is this a deliberate ploy to fit the narrative and descriptions? There are even deeper problem of ideology and metaphysics in his treatment of Buddhism, demonstrating that he is standing outside and looking in. He only sees the surface manifestation of Buddhism, as an ideology bonded by superstition and the mystical.

The crucial question is whether Tashi Dawa fashions the mythical as an ideology of liberation or as a means of containment. It is said that writers such as Salman Rushdie and Ben Okri use the magical realist style as a counternarrative to puncture Western discourse on the Third World. The Tibetan critic sees Tashi Dawa’s use of the magical realist style as contributing to the quantity of denigrating imagery of Tibet and as serving as a means of containing Tibet within the realms of the supernatural. This is not simply a question of unreasoned sentimentality of not wishing Tibet to appear backward. After all, many of our folk tales and even the epic Ling Gesar Gyalpo is enlivened with realism and the magical. What disturbs Tibetans is that Tashi Dawa’s Tibet is all magical and out of this world.

This reinforces the coloniser’s containment of Tibet in the realm of superstition and essentialises Tibet as fantastical. There is much in Tashi Dawa’s writings to suggest that he has internalised much of the coloniser’s view of Tibet, to the extent that he sees the Tibetan language as intrinsically inferior and regards his texts as too sophisticated” for Tibetans. Even after living in Lhasa for more than fifteen years, he refuses to speak the indigenous language and very rarely fraternises with the native. In Tibet today, who mixes with whom is fraught with symbolism, and social rules governing Chinese-Tibetan engagement are drawn up like a caste code. The earlier-mentioned article by Sonam is partly a response to Tashi Dawa, although the article cautiously refrained from naming names. I was told that when Sonam read out this article at a conference of writers in Lhasa in 1985, many of the Chinese writers walked out of the hall. Is it a coincidence that Sonam never wrote another article. His critical comments were taken as nationalist sentiment, and debate about language and literature virtually ceased in Tibet.

The “Othering” of Tibet:

As noted in the earlier section of this article, since the Chinese conquest of Tibet there has been a shift in Chinese discursive practice on Tibet. Tibet is no longer essentialised as exotic or peripheral to the Chinese self. Dru C. Gladney argues that today in China, “the so-called “peripheral minorities” have played a pivotal role in influencing and constructing contemporary Chinese society and identity”. The construction of the other is central to the affirmation of self. The foundations of modern China and Chinese nationalism rest on the opposition between Chinese self and others, be they the West or minority groups. Today, China’s renewed official nationalism rests on the idea of resisting foreign attempts to dismember China. One of the evidences often cited by the state is Western interference in Tibet. Tibet as a reflection of the Chinese body is very much in evidence throughout the texts in this collection.

At state level and in public discourse the idea of Tibet as a dark menace, is ever present; Tibet had to be subjugated and tamed for China to feel secure. Tibet is forever disturbing the Chinese mind. There is much a quoted figure in China, which stresses strategic vulnerability: the minorities make up only 6% of the population but occupy 60% of the land. Athough the statement in itself is meaningless, it is often cited as the reason why China cannot tolerate the concept of real autonomy for minority groups.

Tibet stands in opposition to Chinese civilisation, while the surrounding areas are assimilated to its Confucian civilisation, Tibet stands aloof and distinct from the ambit of the Chinese cultural world. In the second half of the 20th century, resistance to Communism was fiercest in Tibet. A Chinese writer commented that in cities like Xining and Lanzhou, even the muggers feared encountering a Tibetan, for they were always armed with a sword or dagger. This fear of the other is supplemented with contempt. Historical loathing is legitimised further by the pseudo-science of a crude Marxist evolutionary model of society developed by Engels, borrowing heavily from the works of the 19th Century American anthropologist Henry Morgan. Under this evolutionary model of human society, the practices of social prejudice and political subjugation are seen as forming part of a scientifically-based and inevitable march towards modernity.

There is an universal belief among the Chinese that Tibet is luohou (backward). This is taken not merely as a question of economic underdevelopment but also applied to the social/moral spheres. The civilising mission of Chinese imperial rule is justified not only by their legal claims but also by their supposed metaphysical superiority. Of course the assertion of dominance ultimately rests on technological/military and economic power. The material rule of imperialism and its discursive practices are conjoined in forming a colonial ideology.

This brings in the crucial issues of representation and objectification of the native. There has been a wealth of literature on the question of representation of others in the field of literary texts. In the seminal works of Edward Said it has been shown that the issue of representation of the other hinges on political domination. Edward Said points out that representation always entails a power relationship between the text, narrator and subject. In the case of Western representations of the Orient, this is expressed in term of political domination and cultural subjugation. Antecedents to this argument are well explored by Michel Foucault who showed the nexus of power and knowledge to be the twin arms of political domination.

In the early 1980s, the freeing of intellectuals and writers from absolute obedience to the Party released writers and artists from the strictures of realism favoured by the Party. There was a new hunger among Chinese writers and artists to explore wider subject matter and styles, and a rush of artists turned to the minorities to fill their canvases. Prior to Deng’s reforms the minorities were uniformly depicted as infants gratefully receiving the benevolence of the Party; both in arts and literature, Tibetans and other minorities were seen as innocent children, contented and happy in the embrace of Party. The “bosom of the motherland” became the metaphor for containment of minorities within the scope and nourishment of the Party. In the period of reform, artists and writers began to shift images and metaphors from infants to brutes. Images are of brutes living close to nature and without the grace of a culture.The views of Tibet being trapped in primordial times brings the writers perspectives of Tibetan Buddhism close to the 19th century French anthropologist Levy-Bruhl’s notion of the primitive mind. Levy-Bruhl argued that the primitive mind is fundamentally different from the rational mind, and that the primitive mentality is wholly concerned with the mystical and unconcerned with logic.

As noted before, the existence of the primitive mind is validated by acceptance of Morgan’s typology of human social evolution, which seems to be tacitly accepted by Chinese intellectuals as scientific truth. Both Ma Jian and Ma Yuan are major proponents of the argument that Tibet reflects an image of man at his earliest beginnings, both in terms of social organisation and in terms of the mind. Ma Yuan and Ma Jian’s stories in this collection fit well with the typology of the brute. Sex and savagery become the main narrative framework for the texts. Tibet is a dark place where image of incest, bestiality, murder and human sacrifice prevails. The Chinese writers in this collection project the image of Tibet as “the other world”, the antithesis of China and the modern. The two are irreconcilable, the mind of the primitive and the realm of the narrator. The only thing that keeps these people going is sex. In Ma Yuan’s “A Ballad of the Himalayas”, the leper woman tells the narrator: “There is nothing else for men to do. Women are the same. Tell, me if they don’t do this, what is there to do?”

For Ma Jian, they even “do it” while riding on horseback. Ge Fei goes on to describe Tibetan women as “uninhibited” and as people “who smeared their faces with animal fat and blood, bathing naked in the hot springs”. The images that dominate all the stories are of over-sexualised savages. Sex is seen as the most basic of human instincts; Tibetans engage in animalisti sex, devoid of feeling or attachment. Sex in the narrative becomes a form of metalepsis where the other is seen as wholly sexual and as a substitute for culture. The idea of untamed sexuality as a sign of degenerate “race” took hold in Chinese intellectual thought at the beginning of last century. Frank Dikotter writes that sex is linked to China’s attempt to modernise and that “the proper control of sexual desire was the key to restoring the strength of the nation and achieving modernity”. The Tibetans are uncultured, uncivilised and backward because of their failure to tame sex.

Ma Yuan’s narrative is told in the form of a journey, a voyage of discovery. In the 1980s, many young Chinese writers and artists made their way to Tibet as search for their roots; this was meant as a discovery of mankind beginnings. This is reminiscent of Conrad’s description of Marlow’s journey up the Congo river: “Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginning of the world”.

Both Ma Jian and Ma Yuan write in the first-person narrative, with the text alluding to reportage in its framing of the plot. Therefore, the text does not purport to be fiction; the narrator is describing and asserting first hand experience. The dichotomy between fact and fiction is conflated in the narrator voice, which asserts that his report is the reality of Tibet. The narrator is like a traveller, writing to metropolitan readers, who do not have direct experience of the subject of the narrative. The story begins with an assertion of the narrators centrality to the text: “I’m Ma Yuan, that Chinese writer.”

Further down the text, the narrator asserts that “although it’s a long time now since I first arrived in Tibet, I still can’t speak a word of the language”. The question of language is highlighted later in the text as the narrator arrives in Machu, where, he tells us, “no one speaks Chinese”.

Here, the narrator never questions his own lack of ability to speak the local language. This reflects the assertion of the coloniser’s confidence and certainty, where his language is seen as the natural and civilised. Such views are deeply embedded in the State discourse. In April Zhou Yongkang the newly appointed Party Secretary for Sichuan Province, addressing Tibetan delegates to the National People’s Congress, stated that teaching of Tibetan language in schools increased the Government’s financial burden and that they should abandon teaching of minority languages in schools.

There are mimeses between text produced under Western imperialism and the texts that are being fashioned by the Chinese about Tibet. It is noted that the conquest of the land is followed by an ideology of containment through the text of the subject people. In The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Fredrick Jameson argues that ideology consists of “strategies of containment”. The writer, whether unconsciously or, more often, consciously, attempts to validate himself and his group in relations to what he sees as an antagonistic other, and also to promote the interests of his group, while assigning the other to an antagonistic value system. This, in strictly Marxist terms, deals with the relations between antagonistic class interests. We find this precisely in the texts produced by Chinese authors in this collection, i.e. Tibet is inscribed as the antithesis of the Chinese self. The binary opposition between Tibet and China is symbolised in Ma Yuan’s Vagabond Spirit as a mould for a coin with on one side a Tibetan inscription and on the other a Chinese inscription. The search for a means to cement the two sides of the mould becomes an impossible task and the two sides are never unified. Even more telling is the narrator’s comment in A Ballad of the Himalayas. As he is about to depart from the leper colony, he states, “Although we’re contemporaries on the same planet, our worlds are cut off from each other. They are abandoned children. That’s putting it cruelly, but it’s the truth”.

What is presented in the text is a Manichean world, as posited by Fanon in his description of a colonial world where there is eternal opposition between black and white values. Fanon’s metaphor was further explored by Abdul Jan Mohammed in his insightful book Manichean Aesthetics, which not only attests to the accuracy of Fanon’s description but develops it further by showing how colonial literature operates. Abdul Jan Mohammed describes the situation like this: “The colonial mentality is dominated by a Manichean allegory of white and black, good and evil, salvation and damnation, civilization and savagery, superiority and inferiority, intelligence and emotion, self and others, subject and object”.

Ma Yuan’s Machu village is an allegory for Tibet. In fact we can go further and posit that Machu is a metonym for Tibet, in that Machu and Tibet are seen as one and the two are inscribed in the same perceptual domain. Just as the lepers’ diseased body is slowly decaying, there is no cure for the illness but the extinction of the group. For the narrator, Tibet is a putrid body, lacking vitality, degenerate, and slowly decaying in it own filth. As quoted above, as the narrator leaves Machu, he enunciates his final judgement that that “they are abandoned children”. Tibet has been abandoned by time; they are children not in the sense of innocence, but as underdeveloped, irrational, uneducated and possessing a child’s mind.

Ma Yuan as narrator expresses his fear of defilement early on in the narrative: “I was afraid I’d forgotten how to speak Chinese”. The anxiety about contamination is a subtext running through the texts of Yang Geling, Ma Jian and Ma Yuan. In Yang Geling’s Blind Woman Selling Red Apples, when the dance groups arrive in Tibet, they were warned by the Chinese officer that “Tibetan men grab a woman soldier, put her in a big leather sack and carry her back into the mountains to breed little Tibetans”. Ma Yuan’s depiction of the stranger in Machu can be likened to that of the “Krauts” in Conrade’s Heart of Darkness. Although the stranger rejects his ethnic identity, it becomes apparent to the narrator that he is one of them. He is the only person in the village who speaks Chinese, and there is the hidden Guomindang army uniform. The stranger’s secrecy about his true identity is revealing. Just as Krutz falls into the lowest pit of degradation because he lived too long among the savages, Ma Yuan also portrays the stranger descending into barbarity; he practises bestiality and his former self is destroyed. He is ashamed to reveal his former identity and wants to distance himself from the narrator. Yan Geling depicts a soldier stationed in a remote part of Tibet, there cut off from home, he is reduced to seeking gratification as a voyeur of the natives taking a bath in hot springs. The allure of the lustful natives reduces the civilised man to madness.

If a civilised man lives too long among the primitives, he too sinks into savagery. The allure of untamed sexuality corrupts the civilised; in Ma Jian’s story, the soldier tells the narrator “That’s why I never asked them to transfer me out of here”. Yang Geling positions the soldier in same category: he was sent back home but finds that pull was so strong that he returned even though he was without work and pay. He is punished, but he still chooses to gaze on the naked bodies of the natives bathing at the hot springs.

Tibet exerts both attraction and revulsion to the Chinese. They are attracted by the differences and repulsed by what they see. In all the stories, there is an element of voyeurism, and the idea of peering into the soul of the other. Ma Jian and Ma Yuan take cameras. The cameras become the tool of the civilised men in capturing the soul of the native. Ma Jian’s narrative begins with his desire to witness a “sky burial” and it is through a lens of a camera he watches the brothers dismembering Migmar’s body. But looking is not seeing. What the narrators see is what is in their mind about the natives. Ma Jian imagines what the dead woman might have been, and concludes that “she must have able to sing all minority people can”. The narrator already knows what the minority people are like, and he only sees the presupposition of his belief.

Abdul Jan Mohammed points out that imperial writers are seduced by colonial privileges and forced to conform to prevailing racial and cultural preconceptions, thus functioning within the colonial system. Their texts become an extension of a discursive narrative where the native is essentialised and commodified into a stereotyped object and used as a resource for colonial fiction. In this narrative of containment questions of authenticity and accuracy become irrelevant. There are glaringly inaccurate ethnographic details in all the stories, this is not merely a question of inaccurate representation. The details are what the narrator chooses to write and he writes with all the force of colonial privileges. Ma Jian’s story about Sangsang is a good example. The narrator describes a human dissection conducted by a lama to teach medicine, we know that there are no historical or textual evidences that Tibetan Amchis (doctors) ever carried out dissection to teach their students. Of course, we do not expect fiction writers to be social anthropologists and to strive to present a faithful description of subject under his/her construction. Here, the construction of ethnography has another significance.

The system governing colonialist fiction is the nature of its readership. The narrator does not address the native audience, who are not the consumers of the narrative. A native, the subject of the text, is barred because of linguistic and other differences in modes of cultural production. The narrator speaks to the metropolitan reader and the addressee does not have direct contact or experience or the subject of the text. Their image of the native is already framed as dirty, backward and that “they all can sing”, therefore the colonial fiction tends “to be unconcerned with the truth-value of its representation”. The native is denied individuality and treated as a generic being that can be substituted for any other native.

In Ma Jian, Ma Yuan and Yan Geling’s texts the main Tibetan protagonists are all female. This is hardly an accident. It is the feminisation of Tibetan body that fits well with their voyeuristic style of narrative. The feminine body of Tibetis subjected to gaze of the narrator and dismembered textually.

The texts are the product of the coloniser’s certainty of his mission. There is no questioning of the rightness of the coloniser’s right to rule. It is only in Yang Geling’s Blind Woman Selling Red Apples that we can see a hint of doubt. The story describes a hot spring, which is now under the control of the military, and the Tibetans’ access to the spring has been restricted. The narrator tells us that “the spring had been theirs, and they’d soaked at it to their heart’s content, and didn’t have to wash in somebody else’s bath water”. However, the narrator reverses this situation at the end, when the blind woman is shown washing in a filthy pond. The implication is that the natives are blind to the filth that immerses them and are incapable of recognising the dirt that surrounds them. The story end with the blind Tibetan women being mocked as she rushes to get on the truck. The driver pulls away and the blind woman is left falling to the ground. Are the readers meant to laugh at the driver’s trick, or are we to raise our hands in horror? The narrator writes:

“We kept as silent as a load of freight”. Does this show the indifference, or the powerlessness, of the narrator?

Ge Fei’s story Encounter not only differs in time but also differs in that it deals with actual historical figures. It is most likely that he made use of Peter Fleming’s Bayonets to Lhasa, an account of British invasion of Tibet. This book was translated in Chinese in the awake of liberalisation and widely available in Tibet and China. The structure and characterization in the text seems to have draw heavily from Bayonets to Lhasa, to the extent that Ge Fei seem to accept the British interpretation of events. The British invasion of Tibet, writes Ge Fei, marked a “national crisis”. This is certainly true, as the invasion forever altered Chinese’s perception of the Tibetan problem and was portrayed in Chinese historiography as a British attempt to enter China through the back door. It no doubt highlighted China’s weakness on its Western frontier; Ge Fei describes the situation: the ancient empire faced unprecedented calamity”. Ge Fei claims that the character of Rev. John Newman, an English missionary was fictional, however, there are many similarities between the portrayal of Newman and the actual historical figure of Captain Randall Parr, who was an Englishman working for the Chinese Customs Service and stationed in Yatung.

Like Newman, Captain Parr had worked in China before. Ge Fei describes the friendship between the Chinese officer and the English missionary as a source of mistrust by the British of Newman. This is precisely what happened to Parr, who was described by Younghusband as “a terrible talker and rather a low class kind of man”. At the time there was also an English Presbyterian missionary named Annie Taylor working in Yatung. She was first to meet Younghusband as he entered the village. Parr described Anne Taylor as an “intolerable nuisance”. It appears the two characters were conflated into Newman in Gei Fei’s story.

Ge Fei’s favourable portrayal of Newman, as the man who tries to intercede between the Tibetans and the British is interesting. Patrick French’s brilliant biography of Younghusband shows that missionaries such as Annie Taylor were hankering for British Imperial troops to break down the doors to Lhasa. It was grossly exaggerated reports by people like Annie Taylor of 20,000 Russian troops ready to invade India that precipitated the crises in the first place. Ge Fei shows by highlighting the character of Newman that the West not only coveted the land but the soul of the people. This provides a subtext questioning who was to rule the minds and hearts of the Tibetans. Like other Chinese authors in this collection, Ge Fei also sees that the mind of Tibetans was fundamentally governed by the mystical and unscientific. The story ends with the abbot’s obstinate assertion that “the earth is not round”.

The question arises as to whether Ge Fei is using history to criticize the present. This would not be without foundation; it has always been a favourite tool of Chinese intellectuals to use the past to speak about the present. In the story, the Chinese presence in China is seen as ineffective and its officials incompetent. In the end, a Tibetan murders the Chinese official, whose body floats down the river. One Tibetan reader points out that the text was not a liberal appeal to the Chinese government, on the contrary, readers in China and Tibet saw this as warning against Western inference in Tibet and about Chinese weakness in handling Tibet. It is argued that because of oppositional difference between Tibet and China that China is forever under threat in Tibet, with this providing a platform for foreign interference in China. Such an argument is widely made by the Chinese intelligentsia, from human right campaigners such as Wei Jingsheng to the populist writer Wang Lixiong, the author of Sky Burial; the Fate of Tibet.

When Ma Jian’s Stick Out Your Tongue: Coating or Nothingness was published in Renmin Wenxue (People’s Literature) in 1987, Tibetan readers were quick to condemn the story for its derogatory treatment of Tibetans. The publication of the story also coincided with the campaign against Bourgeois Liberalisation and in February 1987 three articles appeared in Renmin Ribao attacking Ma Jian for “sensationalistic language” and for describing characters solely “motivated by sexual desire and greed”. His stories were criticized for departing from literature’s socialist orientation. The work was also criticized for “grave harm to the brotherly solidarity of the nationalities”, and the stories were condemned as an example of “the rise bourgeois liberalism.” Liu Xinwu, editor of Renmin Wenxue was dismissed from his post.

Since 1990, there have been fewer stories written by Chinese about Tibet. This is partly explained by the partial weaning of the burst of creativity in Chinese literature and arts that gripped China in the 1980s. Today, Ma Jian, Ma Yuan and Yan Geling live abroad and continue to write. As for Tibetan writers, the situation is much more complicated. State control over what Tibetan writers can write is far greater than over Chinese writers for various reasons. Tibetan writings in Chinese continue to increase but the stories remain imitative of many short stories that appear in official journals, tending to deal with simple subject matter and being realistic in style. It has to be pointed that literary innovation is still in its infancy. What is really interesting is that there is a growing number of Tibetans experimenting and choosing to appropriate the imposed language as their medium of creative expression. It has taken centuries of colonial rule for Indian writers writing in English to achieve recognition and critical success in the West. There is no doubt that the Tibetans writers have much to write; they have had unique experiences and much to say about their experiences.


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