The writings of the1980s from Tibet are marked by several salient features from its preceding literary works both in terms of theme and style. These drastic changes were not something that occurred overnight. There were manifold but slow and gradual changes which were made and took place, at different times, regarding aspects of literature over several decades, that have to be accredited to several factors. Thus, it is fair to say that the writings of the early 80s encompass all the metamorphoses over many years. Since the literary works of that period hold a special place in the history of Tibetan literature, they are worthy of proper intellectual attention and analysis. This paper is a comprehensive study of the first five years of publications of one of the most famed literary magazines of that period; Sbrang char (Light Rain), published first in 1981.
The influence of society over literature is reciprocal. Due to the inextricable association between the two, discussions of one without throwing some lights upon the other leaves the subject matter incomplete. Therefore, for better comprehension of the analysis in this paper, some introductory remarks about the socio-political dynamics of Tibetan society from 1950 to 1980 are felt mandatory.
The socialist literature and print media introduced by the Chinese to Tibet in the early 1950s has had an undeniable impact on the literature of the 1980s in terms of language, form and themes. Thus, a deeper understanding of the literature of 1980s demands incorporation of insights regarding socialist literature as well.
Additionally, the question of Modern Tibetan Literature is either associated or dissociated with the writing of the 1980s by scholars with divergent views. Thus, I am going to make my own attempt to address the complexity of this issue.
The advent of the Chinese in Tibet in 1950 had a traumatic and lasting impact on the social, political, and cultural aspects of Tibetan lives – beginning with ‘educating’ the Tibetan people about Socialist ideas and Mao Zedong’s thoughts. Then, soon after during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1967), Tibetan culture suffered irreparable destructions. Historically, the reign of the 41st King of Tibet, Glang dar ma (841 – 846) was deemed as the ‘Dark period’ of Tibetan Buddhism due to his attempts to eradicate Buddhism from Tibet. Keeping in mind the number of monasteries and Buddhist texts then, the destruction was in nowhere comparable with the extensive destruction carried out during the Cultural Revolution. Tibetan Buddhism, Art, and Literature flourished in the aftermath of this [earlier] disintegration.
The Thirteenth Century is considered to be the ‘Golden Age’ of Tibetan Buddhism and Literature. It was during this period and the succeeding few centuries that several Buddhist texts in Sanskrit were translated into Tibetan – Tibetan scholars have composed invaluable treatises on Buddhism. Consequently, the number of monasteries (the traditional repository of Buddhist knowledge) mushroomed extensively across even the remotest parts of the Tibetan plateau. The cultural grandeur of Tibet, which took several centuries to achieve, was reduced to dust and ashes during the Cultural Revolution. The cultural vacuum created during this revolutionary period could not [easily] be filled by the later generations. By comparison, the colossal cultural catastrophe suffered during the reign of Glang dar ma was restricted only to the Buddhist aspects of Tibetan culture. During the Cultural Revolution, under the dogmatic term ‘Four Olds,’ all aspects of Tibetan-ness were attacked, from Tibetan Buddhism to even the furniture in the houses! As stated in the book, Six Stars with a crooked neck; Tibetan Memoirs of the Cultural Revolution by Pema Bhum, Tibetans were not allowed to learn Tibetan (leaving aside the reading of Mao’s Red Book and some other socialist works translated in to Tibetan language), the Singing of traditional songs was banned, narrations of folk stories were read and viewed clandestinely and illegally. Buddhist studies and the traditional observation of rituals were dealt with antagonistically. Thus Tibetans, for a decade, lived a parallel lives as depicted in George Owell’s novel 1984; life in Tibet became a life devoid of any cultural traces and horrendously and mechanically monitored by state surveillances.
The 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in 1978 after the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 had been a long awaited drop of water for the culturally barren land of Tibet. The session was a watershed moment in the damaged history of Tibetan nation and culture. The preceding decade, which was marked by a dearth of culture, had awakened the Tibetan people’s consciousness towards their own culture, which then triggered collective efforts from the handful of scholars who had survived the Cultural Revolution, for the revival of Tibetan Culture.
Due to the substantial contribution made by Tshe tan zhabs drung (Tseten Shabdrung), Dung dkar blo bzang ’phrin las (Dhungkar Lobsang Trinley) and Dmu dge bsam gtan (Muge Samten) in reviving Tibetan culture in those days, they were and are lauded among the people as the ‘Three Scholars’ as an analogy to the three scholars responsible for the revival of Buddhism after the assassination of Glang dar ma. For the second time, Tibetan culture (Buddhism) started reviving from an almost apocalyptic state of attempted annihilation. Schools were built and students recruited, but the numbers of teachers available were not able to meet the demands. There was a resurgence of publications, albeit mostly classical texts, and intriguing literary works capturing the social mores and sentiments of Tibetans of the 1980s also appeared. Under different pretexts, Tibetans started gaining the approval of the communist party for the publications of a myriad of literary journals in the early 1980s. As a result literary journals became the main platform for the writers of that period.
The history of the employment of literature for channelling propaganda is as old as the history of literature itself, but no country in the world did it to the extent of Russia and China. For China as a country especially, after the collapse of the Qing dynasty, literature played a crucial role as one of the stimuli for the revolutionary zeal amongst the Chinese. Lu Xun (the father of modern Chinese literature), as a physicist, was of the view that the China of his time was in need of a literary physicist, thereby starting his writing career. While the Communist Party was struggling hard to establish its legitimacy and topple the Kuomingtang, Mao Zedong convened the writers and artists to ‘Yenan Forum on Literature and Art’ on May 2, 1942. During the conference, he laid out succinct guidelines for the writers as literature for a particular audience, in certain styles and forms etc… He stated during the conference “In our struggle for the liberation of the Chinese people there are various fronts, among which there are the fronts of the pen and of the gun.” The sole objective behind this conference was to drive the Chinese literature in one forceful direction, which was to assist the Communist Party in achieving its political goal.
Tibetan literature started to adopt a new theme and style, especially by those writers who were lured by the communist’s political propaganda. The writings from 1950 to 1980 in Tibet, at least to my knowledge, closely fall in line with the proposed notion of ‘literature and its role’ by Mao Zedong at the ‘Yenan Forum on Literature and Art.’ Literature was to ‘serve’ the masses of revolutionary workers, peasants and soldiers as per Mao Zedong’s vision, but the workers and peasants in Tibet of those days were relatively illiterate due to monasteries as being the main centres of learning in the Tibetan society up till then. Thus, Tibetan writers were compelled to make a huge deviation from the work of their predecessors (who traditionally wrote in embellished and poetic language as was the custom) by using colloquial language. Additionally, as they have since recounted, as a part of initiatives for the making the language more accessible to the commoners, the Communist party, under the official policy document Bod yig bcos sgyur gyi rtsa ’dzin (Guidelines for the modified Tibetan language) demanded they follow certain guidlines. In the wake of this official declaration in the early 1970s, several changes to the spelling and grammatical aspects of Tibetan language were made. As elucidated by Pema Bhum in his book Drn tho rdo ring ma (The Stone Pillar – like Memoirs), up till 1978, all the publishers in Tibet had implemented the officially altered aspects of Tibetan language. The coming of the Communist Party to Tibet has incorporated socialist terminologies into Tibetan lexicons, hitherto alien to the Tibetans, for instance, Spyi tsogs gsar pa (new society), Spyi tsogs snying pa (old society), Gral rim (class) and Ngal rtsol mi dmangs (proletariat) – to mention just a few.
Marxist criticism of literature stresses on the necessity for literature to be free from direct political determinism. It also encourages uncontrolled experimentation and an aesthetically heightened kind of literature. Previously, Russia in the 1930s had reacted harshly against liberal writing. This harsh attack was based on the writings of Lenin, who had argued in 1905 that literature must become an instrument of the party. Thus, Straight Realism or Socialist Realism was therefore imposed. As the term ‘straight’ suggests, the communist Russia (or China for that matter), don’t favor ‘Aesopian’ literature. Russian Formalists, who focused on the concept of ‘defamiliarization’ aspects of literature were outlawed, and many of its members had to leave Russia. In the case of China, Mao Zedong in 1942 told the writers who believed in the freedom of expression “because Communist areas were already ‘free,’ they did not need to be like Lu Xun” – who was known for his satirical and ironic writing style. Covert or roundabout way of conveying messages – which augments the literariness of literature was assumed as ‘bourgeois decadence’ in both communist Russia and China. Peter Barry, in his book Beginning Theory; an introduction to literary and cultural theory shares with us communist sympathizer Christopher Caudwell’s view on Victorian literature, which is stigmatized as representating ‘bourgeois taste’:
Caudwell’s discussion of Victorian poets (extracted from Newton’s Twentieth Century Literary Theory) we read that ‘[Browning’s] vocabulary has a foggy verbalism which is a reflection of his intellectual dishonesty in dealing with real contemporary problems.’ Thus, a particular kind of vocabulary is the direct product of the middle-class writer’s evasiveness on sensitive social issues. All poets have their own form of escape from modern reality: Tennyson laspes(sic) into a Keatsian dreamworld, Browning writes constantly on Italian medieval themes. (160-61)
The kind of literary theory adopted by the Chinese Communist Party in Tibet from 1950 is that of ‘Leninist’ Marxist criticism, which in a more derogatory term is often referred to as ‘Vulgar Marxism.’ It is important for the general readers to be able to distinguish ‘Leninist Marxist criticism from its root ‘Engelsian’ Marxist criticism. The literary works in Tibet from 1950 became ‘party literature.’ For the first time, Tibetan people encountered literature centered on materialist philosophy that doesn’t acknowledge things beyond this world. Traditional Tibetan literature is characterized by its spirituality and regular references to metaphysical things. Thus, there was a complete overhauling of literary philosophy about life.
The basic difference between modern and traditional Tibetan literature in Tsering Shakya view is the difference in the ‘perception of causation.’ The chaos and cohesion of human existence is approached from a karmic framework in traditional Tibetan literature, whereas in the post 1950, many literary works approach the human condition from a ‘dialogic material’ perspective. Snang sa ’od ’bum (Nangsa Oedbum) a traditional Tibetan story is part of Opera performance is set in 12th century Tibetan society. The story is basically about the inhuman treatment Snang sa (a virtuous girl of humble background) met under Ani snyon ma (Snang sa’s sister-in-law of royal lineage). The denouement of the story, where Snang sa overcomes adversity is connected to her religiosity. This is an example of the belief that things beyond the worldly interfere in lives, a typical characteristic of traditional Tibetan literature. In contrast, Ye shes lha mo dang mgar ba Stobs rgyal (Yeshe Lhamo and Blacksmith Topgyal), written in the 1950s is a novel based on the romance between fictional character Yeshe Lhamo and Topgyal. Yeshe and Topgyal, though united by love, find their incompatible social status becomes the main hurdle to their union. Thus, this story, written post 1950, approaches a human problem from the material and class angle.
In the history of colonialism, territorial colonization went hand in hand with mental colonization. The injection of an inferiority complex into the minds of natives facilitates smooth subordination at the feet of the colonizers. To achieve this, every aspect of the traditional lives of the natives was systematically reduced to nothing. This cunning approach was usually carried out through literature, education and social system, etc… Peter Barry affirms:
For centuries the European colonizing power will have devalued the nation’s past, seeing its precolonial era as a precivilized limbo, or even as a historical void. Children, both black and white, will have been taught to see history, culture and progress as beginning with the arrival of the Europeans. (193)
The scheming tactics for mental subjugation were executed in Tibet by the Chinese through a myriad of ways. One was literature. The Tibetan literature which emerged under Communist China adopts two different social backdrops: the old society (pre 1950) and the new society (post 1950). Literary works that adopt the old society as backdrops are characterized by the prevalence of a rigidly hierarchic society, and blatant discrimination and suppression of the lower class by the upper ones. Superstition, blind-faith, cultural stagnancy … are another simulacrums of the old society. Another kind of literary works is those which adopt the new society as the backdrop. In these literary works, the new society (which sits in stark contrast to the old society) is represented as liberating, forward-marching, prosperous, harmonious, scientific … Choephel Dorje, in his poem ’tsho ba gsar par bstod pa (Admiring the new life), published in the first publication of Bod kyi rtsom rig sgyu rtsal (Tibetan Art and Literature), 1983 writes:
… Kha gting med pa’i zhing ’brog mi dmangs tshos/
Kha zhe gnyis med tang la dga’ zhen gyis/
Kha spyod mtshung pa’i bya spyod ngo ma’i thog/
Kha gyeng med par thun skied bya bar brtson …
…The peasants and farmers;
devoid of discord are their words and hearts,
so sincere is their love and allegiance to the Party.
Through conducts that synchronize with what they say,
endeavour they towards productive works without distraction …
The question of Modern Tibetan Literature
As with the industrialization of different countries, the period of the birth of modern literature of different countries varies. Modern Chinese literature began after May 4, 1917, (popularly known as May Fourth) Modern Indian Literature in 1800, and Modern English literature at the dawn of the Twentieth Century. Despite the explicitly superficial differences among all these, there is an intrinsic commonality that brings uniformity among them; i.e. thematic and writing style (diction and narration) and deviation from the preceding literary norms. More importantly, the hallmark of modern literature is lack of adherence to any particular school of thought or ideological dogma. The plurality of ideas and preferences in modern literatures is a testimony of modern world that is largely governed by democracy, which strongly upholds individualism and freedom of expression. Pema Bhum in his article “Heartbeat of a New Generation”: A Discussion of the New Poetry, assumes that the victory of new Tibetan poetry (Snyan ngag gsar pa) – which almost overlaps the definition of modern Tibetan literature – is “being without any limitations on thought … like being a bird set free from a cage.” Thus, unrestrained freedom of thoughts and expression is the prerequisite of good literature, and this essence is a quintessential feature of the modern literature of many countries.
The question of modern Tibetan literature has been a conundrum that is still not resolved with unanimous scholarly view. According to Tsering Shakya, modern Tibetan literature started from when China occupied Tibet (1950). Taba, a scholar in Tibetology and prolific writer himself, is of the view that since there was not much literary production from the 1950s to the end of the Cultural Revolution, Modern Tibetan literature could be considered to have started from 1980. These scholars have taken into consideration only the theme and style of the writings. Modern literatures of the countries that have been previously mentioned are marked by their rebellious themes. For instance, the predominant theme of modern English literature is rejection of Victorian self-complacency, modern Chinese and Indian literature are both characterized by western values replacing traditional values. Pema Bhum, to elucidate the revolutionary theme of modern Tibetan literature writes:
…their (traditional poets) psychology was bound by Buddhism, their poetic composition was also bound by its theories. Poetry itself was not able to achieve an independent status.
The pioneering efforts of contemporary poets have been to liberate themselves from religious poetry. They see the whole domain of poetry as their mission, and have their own ways of viewing world, society, and human life. (121)
Take into consideration the style of writing of modern literature, where the flow of the writing synchronizes with the undulating rhythm of the mental thinking process. The choice of words and phrases are in colloquial language, which facilitates establishing immediacy between the reader and subject matter of the writing. Out of the eight points Hu Shi spoke about during a lecture in 1917, which marks the beginning of modern Chinese literature the second point is ‘Do not imitate the ancients.’ To elaborate the point, he said “…I have always held that colloquial stories alone in modern Chinese literature can proudly be compared with the first-class literature of the world. Because they do not imitate the past, but just describe the society of the day, they have become genuine literature…”
A genuine modern literature phase is not just identified by its rejection of preceding literary themes and styles. The plurality of subject matter flow from liberal social and political conditions which don’t prevent the mind of writers from flying high and wide is a crucial facet of modern literature. Today, the modern readers of literature, it is hard to find an ideological common ground as was found by the readers of traditional Tibetan literature and Tibetan socialist literature, where both are didactic in nature. Life is not just right or wrong, it is both right AND wrong. Thus, modern literature helps us to realize these comprehensive aspects of life. Tzvetan Todorov’s article ‘What Is Literature For’ helps us in understanding not only that the living soul in literature dries when shaped by the official ideology, but people may even fail to perceive the essence of literature. Despite the rejection of traditional themes and styles by the literary works in Tibet post 1950 to 1980, the crucial question that needs to be pondered critically is, ‘Did the writers of that age ever enjoyed the freedom of uniting their private conviction with the prevailing public emotion?’ Or (given that what they wrote was confined within the wall of personal perceptions), ‘How sincere were they in their writings?’
The polemic suppositions that Tibetan writers at that time acquiesced the content of their writing due to pressure from the Chinese communist party, or even whetherwhat they wrote was a genuine representation of their stance is quite difficult to delineate. But by making reference to Mao Zedong’s statement “There is no such thing as ‘art for art’s sake’: all art must serve socialism or the socialist state” we can understand that the writers who lived from 1950 to 1978 had no freedom to write anything but socialist literature. The socialist literature of this period reflects a huge gap between itself and the sentiments and aspirations of Tibetan people. This dichotomy between socialist literature (works that depicts Tibetan people wholeheartedly advocating socialism and feeling happy about uniting with mainland china) and the people is obviously reflected by the literary works of the ‘more free’ 1980s which are abound with the themes of maintaining and glorifying Tibetan culture, calling for unity among Tibetans etc…
Thus, the period from 1950 to 1978 is a period where writers have no freedom to touch upon subjects of their own interests, where literature is factitious and merely the apparatus for the state to disseminate its relentless ideology, where literature failed to evince the sentiments and aspirations of the people. The curricula for the study of modern Chinese literature offered by one of the Chinese University clearly demarcates the modern Chinese literature as the literary works written between the period 1917 to 1949. This clearly indicates that the Chinese literature under Communist Party is not considered modern literature. Therefore, the astute literary scholars have an important role in reviewing the notion that modern Tibetan literature started from 1950.
Literary Works of the early 1980s
The period when writers were supposed to look at everything through the lenses of the Communist Party, and what they write should be a potential roller-coaster to the party’s forward-march came to an end in 1978. Additionally, different literary journals in Tibetan started burgeoning in the early 1980s in Tibet. Thus, with these two favourable situations, lifting the ideological baggage and the emergence of a literary forum definitely was jolt for the Tibetan intelligentsia from their long hibernation within the confinement of the communist ideological walls. This is conspicuous considering the enthusiasm shown by the writers which could be reflected through their continuous voluntary contributions to those literary journals on varied subjects. The improvement in the political atmosphere for the writers shouldn’t be mistaken for complete independence from the state policy; notwithstanding, it paved a way for the writers to forge artistically sophisticated approaches to express alternative views.
For the first time in the history of Tibetan literature, the readers were encountering literary works written in unprecedented generic forms, and hitherto not-talked-about subjects both during the independent era and as well as after Chinese subjugation permeate the works. That said, here I am not ruling out the absence of traditional writing styles, and themes that comply with state policy. Since 1980s is considered as the epoch-making period in the domain of Tibetan literature, I am focusing only on the aspects of the writing that contributed in achieving this uniqueness which almost established itself as a separate literary entity.
Most of the writers who ardently contributed to Sbrang char in the early 1980s were educated and attained their intellectual maturity after 1950. Many of them were even born after this historic period. Thus, obviously the majority of them belong to the period when the Chinese made it mandatory for all the families to send their kids to schools. The period, 1950 to 1976 has witnessed the Chinese imposition of genitive alterations to the Tibetan language. It was during this period that writers were instructed to write in close alliance to colloquial language in consideration of accessibility for the commoners. The mandatory change in Tibetan language imposed by the Chinese was also part of their endeavor to uproot the so-called decadence of the aristocratic tradition. The preference of diction in literary works to be close to colloquial is not something conceived only by the Chinese. Prior to the Chinese arrival, the iconoclastic Tibetan scholar of the twentieth Century, Dge ’dun chos ’phel (Gedun Choephel) had also advocated for diction in literary works to be moved closer to the language of commoners. Lauran R. Hartley in her article Heterodox Views and the New Orthodox Poems: Tibetan writers in the Early and Mid-Twentieth Century quotes Pema Bhum’s view on Gedun Choephe’s writings as “A lucid writing style, void of Kavya’s heavy ornamentation and synonyms was cause for his (Gedun Choephel) popularity in the 1980s.”
The diction of the works found in Sbrang char of the early 1980s is the culmination of the social and political factors discussed above. Whether for good or bad, the language employed by the writers of this period eschewed the heavy ornamentation of the Kavya tradition. The stark difference is lucid especially in the Sbrang char short stories that deal with social issues, and research articles.
The transformation from a highly embellished language to the vernacular is also partly due to the dominance of a particular literary philosophy of that period. Social issues being the central theme of many of those works, ‘Realism’ pervaded in many of the short stories. Thus, the choice of vernacular is mandatory for the prevention of incongruity in a realistic social milieu set as the backdrop of those works.
History stands as the witness to acculturation, assimilation and appropriation of all cultural aspects as part of any colonization process. The appropriation of the Chinese language by the Tibetans, no matter how much effort was made, couldn’t be prevented as they desired. Such appropriation of Chinese language, especially terms that signify designations such as Hru’u ci, Tos krang, Zhan hru’u ci etc … were used in most of the short stories.
The Chinese occupation of Tibet resulted in the establishment of formal and institutionalized schools for the general Tibetan populace. This led the Tibetans to encounter modern Chinese literature, which is highly influenced by western literature both in terms of theme and style. In particular the change in policy with regard to the admission of students to colleges and universities in the late 1970s opened up opportunities for Tibetan students to gain admission to some of the best Chinese universities. These opportunities literally opened the gate of the ocean of world literature for the young Tibetan enthusiasts. Some of the writers belonging to this period have openly professed the influence of western literary giants like Gorky, Whitman, and Pushkin so and so forth.
Muge, a lecturer of Tibetan poetry at Sarah Tibetan College shared with me during an interview that Dhon grub rgyal (Dhondup Gyal) as a student at Beijing was very impressed by the lucid and novel literary works of other countries. The several translated foreign works translated into Tibetan which are published in Sbrang char is vivid evidence that Tibetan writers had access to foreign literary works at that time.
One of the direct results of the encounter with the literary works of other countries is the emergence of new literary genres in Tibetan literature in the early 1980s. The ubiquitous romance of Tibetan writers with their the new – found literary genres is highlighted by a number of short stories and ‘New poetry’ in Sbrang char. Regarding short stories though there were some written in Chinese by Tibetans before 1980, short stories in Tibetan were non-existent before 1980 to my knowledge.
Several short stories were published in Sbrang char since its inception. The average number of short stories published through this literary magazine in the first five years was two to three for each publication. The stories published in Sbrang char, though could be identified as one genre under the umbrella of ‘short story’ but there are small variations among them as well, which could be categorized into two on the basis of narrative style.
There are short stories inspired by traditional Tibetan narrative style. For instance, ’brong stag thang (Wild yak and Tiger Plain) written by Don grub rgyal (Dhondup Gyal), the social milieu of story projected by the writer in the story is very much contemporary, but occasionally, the characters in the story converse through songs. This narrative style, where characters communicate through songs, was part of traditional Tibetan narrative style inspired by the Indic poetic tradition. Ya cun me tog, written by Byams pa chos ’dzoms (Jampa Choezom) is another such short story where the personified flower characters converse through poetry. In these kinds of stories, though the form is inspired by the short story, the narrative style is very much traditional, subsequently dismantling the immediacy between the readers and the subject matter of the particular work.
Another type of short story is the types that were written in close alignment with the tenets of ‘Realism.’ The contemporary social issues and milieu pervade in these short stories. As well, the conversations between the characters are in ordinary dialogue form. The employment of colloquial and vernacular are the chief features of these short stories. Don grub rgyal’s Sprul sku (Reincarnation) is one such realistic short story. These kinds of stories, owing to their theme and language, and unlike the erstwhile short stories of traditional narrative style, bring an air of authenticity to the work in relation to with the social context in which there were written.
The emergence of ‘New Poetry’ had been a trailblazing event in the history of Tibetan literature. It was to be an event that took the Tibetan literary community by storm. As Pema Bhum has put it, the traditionalists reacted to it with remorse, whereas the new generation celebrated. Thus, new poetry has received polemical reactions from the Tibetan literary community.
The first new poetry is titled Lang tsho’i rbab chu (Waterfall of Youth), and it was written by the bohemian writer Dhon grub rgyal and published in the second publication of Sbrang char, 1983. This trend-setting poetry is revolutionary in the sense that it did away with the traditional poetic norms. The observation of metric rule, which is an essential part of Kavya poetic tradition, has been discarded in the new poetry. The rhythm of this new poetry is in close alignment with the spoken dialogue; therefore, there is spontaneity and originality in it compared with the traditional poems. One of the greatest advantages of this new poetry is that a poet is completely free from the restraints of obligatory poetic rules, thus has no need to compromise the intended subject matter.
John McLeod in his book Beginning Postcolonialism assumes that new, unusual forms of artistic expression emerge when intellectuals or writers directly involve themselves in the people’s struggle against colonialism. This kind of writing contributes and bears witness to the dynamism of the movement. The new sensibility of people resulted in new social and political conditions which could be expressed appropriately through these new forms.
As much as literature is employed as a tool for subjugation, that much it is used for the emancipation as well. It is subjugated owing to its politically unprivileged position – especially in a country like China, where an overt use of literature for politically subversive activity is impossible. That said, it should not be misconstrued as there being no room for any subversive or alternative expression through literature. No matter how rigid the system and tight the censorship, literature always finds its way for dissident expression. This possibility is not because there is any crack within the state policy through which writers may get an opportunity to slip. The ambiguity and slippery nature of language is such that one can’t break it down to single meanings. The nature of language allows alternative views and nationalist expressions are always whispered through literature. The literary works of Sbrang char (which although superficially did not seem to be dissident) but considering the social and political conditions and aspirations of Tibetan people of that time, obviously opened avenues for different thematic interpretations.
The themes of the works published in Sbrang char are varied. An attempt to compress all under a singular title would not do justice to the thematic diversity. Therefore, here I have attempted an inclusive concretization of the varied themes and will be dealing with each under their respective subtitles.
Returning to the Past
In the history of colonialism, the colonized people going back to their past is an act of reclamation of their identity and an expression of nonconformity with the colonizer’s view. Peter Barry quotes Franz Fanon’s view on reclaiming the past in his book Beginning Theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory, “…the first step for ‘colonized’ people in finding a voice and an identity is to reclaim their own past. For centuries the European colonizing power will have devalued the nation’s past, seeing its pre-colonial era as a pre-civilized limbo, or even as a historical void.”
The process of colonization is always accompanied by the construction of binary opposition or an ‘other’ by the colonizers; the colonized being the ‘other’ which the colonizers are not. The ‘other’ is always construed as uncivilized, backward, barbarian, inferior, etc. All these are antonyms to what the colonizers perceive themselves as being civilized, forward moving, cultured and superior. The chief reason that the Chinese give for the colonization of Tibet was to ‘liberate’ the Tibetans from a ‘feudal system’ and ‘developing’ what they call was a culturally stagnant society. This superiority complex of the colonizer is typically perpetuated in day to day lives of the people, in the form of discrimination of the natives on different bases, such as race, faith, language and location. The usage of different terms by the Chinese in reference to Tibetan people collectively like Lao zang (old Tibetan), mei nao dai (devoid of intelligence), Yuan sheng tai (primitive land), Gou xi fan (doggy Tibetan), A lao (‘Aro’ a Tibetan phrase used as a greeting) are clear testimony of prejudice against Tibetans and anything that is of Tibetan, even in language.
The process of ‘reclaiming the past’ or ‘going back to the past’ is a prominent literary practice to deconstruct the constructed notions of the natives formed from the imperialists’ perspectives. Leopold Sedhar Senghor, the African writer writes in his poem, Black Woman:
Naked woman, black woman
Clothed with your colour which is life,
With your form which is beauty! …
‘Black’ and ‘naked,’ from the perspective of European whites, are two signs that signify ‘unknown’ and ‘primitive’ respectively. In contrast here in the poem – as the poet is known for his celebration of ‘Negritude’ – Senghor glorifies the physical aspects of black people as ‘life’ and ‘beauty.’ A similar deconstruction of the colonizer’s perception of Tibet and Tibetan-ness is vividly shown in many of the works published in Sbrang char. Rdo rje tshe brtan (Dorjee Tseten) writes in his poem Bod kyi yi ge la bsngags pa lhag bsam sprin gyi sgr dbyngs (Melodious ode to Tibetan script):
Mtshan tsam gyis kyang srid zhi’i gdung ba kun sel b’i/
Chos rgyal srong btsan nyin byed rta bdun gyi dbang bo/
’dzum pa’ gzi ’aod phyogs med rgyal khams su shar tshe/
Bod yul sA la’ sman ljongs ’dzam gling du grgas so/
The sun like religious king Songtsen
[who] even by name could dispel the suffering of the world.
When the radiance of his smile spreads far and wide
famed is the land of Tibet to the world.
The colonizer’s notion of old Tibet as a land of ignorance, backwardness, and uncivilized is subverted in the poem by overtly eulogizing the historical figure Songtsen, the 33rd King of Tibet, during whose reign Tibetan language and culture started flourishing. The reminiscences of past glory among the colonized are a process of drawing inspiration from the past to challenge the present adversity; it is also an attempt to redefine the definition imposed upon them by the colonizer.
The serene landscape of Tibet, and the nomadic lifestyle of Tibetans are termed as ‘untouched’ by the Chinese, that is to mean it was not touched by modernity, which therefore projects connotation that Tibet is backward and primitive. But several literary works of Sbrang char celebrate this nature of the Tibetan landscape. Reb tsha rdo rje sgra dbyangs rgya mtsho (Reb tsa dorjee dayang gyatso) in his poem Pha yul dran glu (Missing the fatherland) writes:
Rtswa ljang gos su bklubs pa’i sa ’dzin gyi lhun por/
Bgrang bya’ yul las ’das pa’i rigs kun gyi gcan gzan/
Ma bos lhan gcig yongs ’du’i brtse dga’ la rol bzhin/
Snyan ’gyur gad rgyangs sgrog pa’i pha yul dran byung/
Clothed are the majestic mountains with greenery.
Uncalled the countless species of wild animals congregate
and coexist them in their exuberant playful melodies.
Such is my fatherland that I miss.
These aspects of Tibetan life, which the colonizers always demean are reclaimed and reinstated as an integral part of their identity. This poem for example highlights the unique relationship that Tibetans have with nature. Life for the Tibetans is about a coherent coexistence with its flora and fauna. The concept of development from the Chinese perspective, i.e. highways, railways, and skyscrapers is indirectly resisted in the poem. This act of abrogating what the Chinese impose upon the colonized is a form of resistance as well. To define this refusal to change by the Tibetans, Tsering Wangmo Dhompo puts in her novel A Home in Tibet:
Sometimes I wonder if they live in a state of apathy or ignorance, or if they are passive, but when I consider what continues to exist inside Tibet, even after such violent upheaval, it is resistance that comes to mind, not inaction. I have come to equate concrete action as resistance. (191)
Any vibration of novelty that dotted different points in history and caused even the slightest tremor to the traditional Tibetan society was received with disdain and skepticism. Dge dun chos ’phel (Gedun Choephel), the first modern Tibetan scholar, whose attempts to wake his compatriots from ignorance were met with severe repercussions. Mgo rul pa sna bas ma tshor (the rotting head can’t be sensed by the nose), as the Tibetan saying goes, the Tibetans failed to realize the serious loopholes of their rigid adherence to tradition. The way China occupied Tibet with ease and the subsequent hardships faced by the Tibetans made them question many of their cultural values. The exposures to western ideals like individualism, and rights as such (through their education in china) also influenced their perception of self and rights. Therefore, an interrogative tone and the demand for cultural modification is the central characteristic of some of the works of Sbrang char.
Franz Fanon outlined three different stages of intellectuals, artists and writers in the process of fighting against colonialism in his book The Wretched Of The Earth. In the third stage or ‘fighting phase’ he writes:
… The native intellectual nevertheless sooner or later will realize that you do not show proof of your nation from its culture but that you substantiate its existence in the fight which the people wage against the forces of occupation. No colonial system draws its justification from the fact that the territories it dominates are culturally non-existent. You will never make colonialism blush for shame by spreading out little-known cultural treasures under its eyes.
If the construction of identity and unification is made important by going back to the past, so is the modification of the past to meet the present demands. This Fanonian attitude towards cultural modification resonates in many works. Don grub rgyal (Dhondup Gyal) in his essay Rkang lam phra mo (Narrow Path), where the narrow path is an analogy for Tibetan culture writes:
Da lta gzhung lam dang/ lcags lam/ mkha’ lam/ mtsho lam sogs yod la/ tha na zla ba’i khang bzang du bgrod pa’i lam yang yod pas/ nga tsho’i mi rigs ’di da dung bong bur zhon nas rkang lam phra mo ’da’i thog tu sos dal bag phebs kyis ’gro zhing mcis/
Now there is the boulevard, railway track, airway, seaway, there is even way to reach the moon. Our people still ride on donkeys and travel on the narrow path, so slowly and comfortably.
The writer succinctly points out that the inherited culture alone can’t facilitate the Tibetans walking shoulder to shoulder with other people. In the essay, he bemoans the Tibetan people’s apathy in widening the narrow path (culture) that presently can’t provide them with convenient and effective transportation.
An ambivalent view on the impact of Buddhism on Tibet emerged amongst scholars and writers when the country was plunged into historical tragedy. A critical analysis of Buddhism and its influence upon the Tibetan society has become heated subject of discussions and writings amongst the more progressive thinkers. The union of the temporal and spiritual in the Tibetan administrative system, which began way back in the seventeenth century as we understand it, has elevated religion to a position above all the other fields. In regards to the affect of this unification Rnam rgyal sgrol dkar (Namgyal Dolkar) in her article Sangs rgyas chos lugs dar ba ’dis bod kyi rig gnas la phan gnod ci byung gi skor rob tsam oshad pa (A treatise on the pros and cons of Buddhism on Tibetan fields of studies) writes:
Dmangs krod kyi rig gnas dang sgyu rtaol khag la yang mthong che’i ngang ’tshol sdud dang phyogs bsdoms/ ’phel rgyas sogs byed rgyur do snang ma byas pas rgya che b’i mang tshogs rnams yig rmongs kyi gnas su gyur pas mi rigs kyi rig gnas kyis spyi tshogs yongs la zhabs ’degs zhu thub rgyu med par ma zad/ de las ltog ste de ’phel rgyas dang gong ’phel gtong rgyur ’gog rkyen chen po byung yod/
The popular field of studies and art were not given due importance. Researching, collection and progression of these fields were neglected; as a result, the general populace was illiterate and the indigenous fields of knowledge couldn’t contribute to the society. Contrarily, it (union of temporal and spiritual) had been an obstacle to the propagation and progression of popular fields of studies.
Progressive thinkers Don ’grub rgyal (Dhondup Gyal) and rnam gyal sgrol dkar (Namgyal Dolkar) alike are not proposing to completely eschew the traditional values and system, but rather urge others to ‘substantiate’ it time and again in order to coherently proceed hand in hand with the evolution of society.
A dispassionate study of ‘nation’ caused anthropologists and sociologists to conclude nation as an ‘imagined community’ in recent years. It is often posited that the idea of nation or national belonging is manufactured by narratives, rituals and symbols. The telling and retelling of myths, epics, folk stories and histories come under the mechanism of ‘narrative’ in nation building.
History is a collective archive of an imagined community. Despite the space and time gap amongst the people of an imagined community, a common story about their origin, ancestors and events of the past generate a sense of belonging and a shared identity in the present. When history takes the role of identifying who one is and where one belongs, simultaneously it also informs who one is not and where one doesn’t belong. When history informs us about the events of the past, it also has the responsibility to construct a foundation for a favourable future as a community, thus resulting in homogenizing different versions of a history through standardization.
Given the political circumstances of the 1980’s in Tibet, the possibility of study and propagation of a purely Tibetan version of its history seemed gloomy. Nevertheless, the Tibetan intelligentsias made best use of the little space that they had.
Examining the editorial announcement about the kind of writings to be collected for the successive Sbrang char publications, there is no specific pronouncement of contribution of writings on historical monuments and historically related subjects. But that is what one encounters in most of the Sbrang char publications. Research articles about historical monuments, events, and personalities are ample in Sbrang char. Though these scholarly works thematically seemed not to deal with the historical contention about Tibet being a separate nation, the subject of their study (which often dated back to far before the Chinese occupation of Tibet) gave rise to several sensitive things which don’t synchronize with the political context of Tibet under China in the 1980’s. For instance, Dmu dge bsam gtan (Muge Samten), in his research article Dwags po’i mi rigs kyi gnad don skor (About Dwags po race) says:
Bod rgyal dang thang rgyal ma mthun par lo ngo du mar dmag ’krug langs te/ bod rgyal gyis dmag ’bum phrag du ma mngags nas ’thab pas/ thang dang bod gnyis bar ’dum byed dgos byung/ …bar ’dum byed skabs rgya bod bar du rdo ring btsugs/ rgya rgya yul du sdod rgyu dang/ bod bod yul du rgyu las/ phan tshun dmag ’jug byed mi chog pa thag gis bcad/
The Tibetan dynasty and Tang dynasty fought for several years due to disagreements between the two. The Tibetan dynasty won the war after dispatching several millions of soldiers. A border demarcation took place between Tibet and Tang … during the demarcation a pillar was raised at the border upon which is inscribed, ‘Chinese should stay in china and Tibetans in Tibet. Neither side should wage war upon the other.’
Don ’grub rgyal (Dhondup Gyal) in his collaborative research article with a Chinese scholar named Chen Qingying on the Dunhung manuscripts writes:
Rgy’i lo rgyus kyi debt her du bkod pa ltar na/ spyi lo 781 – 848 bar gyi lo ngo drug cu re bdun gi ring la bod dmag gist tun hong la dbang bsgyur ba dang/ de’i rjes kyi lo ngo mang po’i ring l’ng bod kyi dmag dpung dang mtsher ’dzing kyi tsho ba khag cig ’di gar sdod pa’i gnas tshul byung myong/
As per the account of history in the books, from 781 – 848, for a duration of sixty seven years, the Tibetan army occupied Dunhung, and even after that, there were cases of Tibetan army and nomads staying there for several years.
Due to the generally apolitical subjects that these articles deal with, the politically subversive views accommodated here and there are not so emphatic in nature. But this presentation of Tibet as a separate political entity at a particular juncture of history is a reminder for those who knew Tibet as an independent state and a revelation for those Tibetans born after the occupation. It is due to this historical segregation of Tibet from China and unification of all Tibetans as one which perpetuates the sense of belongingness and oneness amongst Tibetans. When the writers of early the 1980s didn’t have the luxury of being able to write about the political contentions between Tibet and China contemporary to them, they nevertheless subtly managed to go back into history to prove that Tibet was separate.
The first five years of publication of Sbrang char is a vast body of literary works of different genres. A study of all kind of images used in these works is beyond the scope of this paper; nonetheless, there are a few images are constant in several works published in the Sbrang char of the early 1980s. Some of these images have been in use in classical Tibetan literature and we also come across new images which were not used to now. Given the political context of Tibet, some of these classical images have enjoyed a renewed representation and the new ones were created to express the political currency of the Tibetan society of that time. So here I am going to critically analyze these images in relation to the process of conceptualizing community and nation.
The images that I am focusing on are of three kinds: first those images inspired by the topography and climate of Tibet like Gang can (the snow one), Gang ljong (realm of snow), bsil ldan (Temperate land )etc. Second, there are images of unique landscapes in Tibet like Mtsho sngon po (Blue lake), Then finally, images that either support or construct the concept of separate identity and origin of the Tibetan race such as Phyag na pad mo’i gdung rgyud (descendent of Avalokiteshvara), Gdong dmar (Red face), Rtsam gzan (Those who eat tsampa), Bod rigs spun zla (Tibetan brother) etc.
The concept of community or nation is strongly connected to the unique topography, climate and landscapes. These are the physical difference based on which one place could be identified from another. The unique aspects of a land are intrinsically related to the language and cultural formation of a particular community and nation. Apart from this relation between land and people, there are several other factors that augment peoples’ emotional attachment to their land, stories, myths and events of historical importance associated with the land, which establish a subtle relationship between the land and its people. This feeling ultimately leads to a sense of ownership of the land and belongingness to the land among the dwellers. The Jamaican writer Mervyn Morris in his essay Feeling, Affection, Respect gives an account of how the English on the boat in which he was travelling reacted when they first saw the sight of England from the sea:
I learnt the fundamental lesson of nationalism … half an hour away from England, approaching the cliffs of Dover. There was excitement among the English on board [the board]. I looked, but the cliffs seemed very ordinary to me. And then I realized that of course the cliffs are not cliffs: to the Englishmen they are a symbol of something greater, of the return from land of strangers, of the return home. Nothing is important in nationalism than the feeling of ownership.
Given the perspective of Mervyn Morris’ on the Englishmen’s reaction upon seeing the cliffs of Dover, the way the writers of the early 1980s emphatically employed images that are quintessential to the land of Tibet could be interpreted from a political angle, i.e. that the writers are reiterating the Tibetan people’s ownership of their land, and that they are claiming that only Tibetans belong to Tibet.
There are scholars who are of the view that unity and sense of brotherhood among Tibetans came into existence only after the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The truth of such statements could barely be proved scientifically, but one can say with certain surety that this sense of unity and brotherhood became heightened among Tibetans after the Chinese occupation. This cognizance of the Tibetan brotherhood and unity inevitably makes us to think about Aime Cesaire’s understanding of unity among oppressed people as being as result of the simultaneity of their suffering.
However one might define the genealogy of Tibetan unity within a theoretical framework, but the extensive use of images in the early publications of Sbrang char establish a unique origin and identity to the Tibetan people which ultimately led the Tibetan people to a feverish national consciousness. Franz Fanon stressed on the urgent responsibility of writers and intellectuals to forge a national consciousness into their works as part of the struggle against the colonizer. In this respect, the images employed in the early Sbrang char publications are a small attempt in this direction. [Download PDF]
Dorji Tsering is currently pursuing Ph.D at University of Madras and has worked at the Tibet Policy Institute as a visiting fellow.
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