by Mridu Khullar
- India -
With the 2008 Olympics in China beginning this week, protests from the Tibetan refugee community in India are intensifying. But since the Tibetan spiritual leader—the 14th Dalai Lama—discourages Tibetans from picking up arms, a small but powerful segment of Tibetans have picked up another weapon—their pens.
Their language of choice—Tibetan, English, and surprisingly, now even Mandarin.
“Although the exile Tibetan community [in India] has been very effective in providing a high level of cultural production in religious areas, it is inside Tibet that Tibetan intellectuals and artists have been able to make achievements in secular culture, such as poetry, literature, music, painting, and some forms of scholarship, despite the difficulties they face,” says Dr. Robert Barnett, Director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University and author of Lhasa: Streets with Memories.
The writings of these poets and essayists have transformed over the past decade from musings about an exotic culture and history, to more real issues of human rights, political policies, and memoirs of people loved and lost. The Tibetan writers of today, regardless of their genre, seem to write with an agenda: to spread the word about the declining situation of the Tibetan freedom movement to readers both inside and out of China.
“While we romance with English due to our exile situation, our counterparts in Tibet have been taking Chinese language to greater heights,” writes Tenzin Tsundue, a political activist and writer living in exile in Dharamsala, India. “Tibetans are recording history and writing poetry and stories on love, religion and culture in Chinese. They are singing in Mandarin. The Chinese cannot but regret they gave the Tibetans their tongue.”
Tibetan artists and intellectuals are evolving with their changing environments, and for some, this includes trying to reach larger audiences by writing in Mandarin. For others, it’s not a choice. “The Chinese authorities have not allowed Tibetan-medium education in the TAR [Tibet Autonomous Region] above primary school level,” explains Dr. Barnett, which means there’s a whole generation of Tibetans in Tibet growing up with little knowledge of their native language.
Poet and writer, Tsering Woeser (Chinese: Wei Se), is among the top Tibetan authors writing in Mandarin today. Born in Lhasa in 1966 to a Tibetan mother and half-Tibetan, half-Chinese father, Ms. Woeser studied Chinese literature and worked as an editor with the Lhasa-based Chinese language journal Tibetan Literature. Ms. Woeser’s book Notes on Tibet was banned in China in 2004 because of its favorable references to the Dalai Lama. Some of her books were later published in Taiwan.
After her work became unavailable in China, Ms. Woeser started two blogs in which she discussed important issues such as HIV/AIDS in Tibet, the Tibetan railway, and the Cultural Revolution. These too, were shut down by the Chinese government in 2006.
Ms. Woeser belongs to a large population of Tibetans who got, what she calls, a “red education,” and for all practical purposes, are Chinese. It was only several years into her career that she read about Tibet and formed her own conclusions. “I was brainwashed,” she has said in several interviews.
She now lives in self-imposed exile in Beijing and has become a huge cultural icon for the Tibetan people.
Ms. Woeser is one of the few writers who work in an emerging genre—informally known as Tibet Literature (Chinese: Xizang wenxue)—which consists of writing of the last twenty years that has been about Tibet, in Chinese, and by authors of all ethnic backgrounds. The genre, while still in its infancy, has given a platform to many new voices.In 2000, Alai, the author of Red Poppies, won China’s most prestigious literary award—the Mao Dun Prizeor—for his book about opium consumption in late imperial China. In the same year, in India, Jamyang Norbu, a Tibetan born and raised in exile, was awarded the Crossword Book Prize for his novel The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, which is based on the two years Holmes spent in Tibet. The year marked a beginning for Tibetan writers, who were finally finding a voice—in languages that were foreign to them.
Since then, many writers have experimented with the languages that have been imposed on them—Chinese and English. These languages have become their window to the world and a means of spreading facts about Tibet to a wider population.
There are, however, several skeptics who feel that encouraging the Tibetans to write in Chinese or English is even more damaging to their language and culture. Others fail to recognize the authenticity of Xizang wenxue because it is written in Chinese and for a Chinese audience.
The genre also brings Tibetan writing under the scanner of the government. “Most Tibetans who write or speak publicly operate under a cloud, with the threat of punishment or ostracism if they say one word or sentence that the government doesn’t like,” says Dr. Barnett.
But most importantly, by reaching out to Chinese intellectuals in their language, the Tibetans can influence and change the minds of the future policy-makers of China.
“There are a number of Tibetan intellectuals and leaders who believe that the only hope for Tibet is to try to create at least some understanding and appreciation of Tibetan culture and religion among Chinese people, so that eventually some of them will be able to influence government policy,” says Dr. Barnett. “This is considered by many to be far more important in the long run than trying to get western support.”
There has been some change, admit scholars, though mostly in architectural conservation policy, and not yet on political conditions. They also admit, given the current circumstances, that it seems unlikely.
Tibetans in exile, too, continue to roll out publications and books that they hope will reach concerned Indians, and people in the West. Tenzin Wangchuk, the managing director of Tibetan World magazine, says his publication is small but influential.
“Media will change the world,” he says, which is why despite fluctuations in income, limited resources, and barely any advertising revenues, he continues to put out issues of his magazine each month. Mr. Wangchuk’s publication has become an important means for educating the Tibetan youth about China’s political policies and the roots of the Tibetan freedom movement.
For Tibetans who’ve adopted writing as a tool to achieve their goals, their eyes are on the bigger prize—the ability to reach beyond the Tibetan-speaking population and affect the consciousness of a much larger world. For these writers, the language comes later, spreading the message comes first.
“My language is English,” says Mr. Tsundue. “But my content is Tibetan.”
About the Author
Mridu Khullar is an independent journalist from New Delhi, India. For the past six years, she has written extensively about human rights and women's issues in Asia and Africa. Her work has been published in Time, Elle, Marie Claire, Ms., Women’s eNews, and East West, among others. Visit her website at www.mridukhullar.com.