King Gesar, the subject
of many stories and dramas Tibet has one of the world’s most romanticized cultures.
Tibet has its own language, culture, customs, alphabet, legends, music, government, calendar and religion. Traditionally, art, culture, religion and everyday life have been inextricably intertwined in Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan culture has gone underground to a large extent under Chinese occupation and is arguably more alive outside of Tibet in places like Ladakh, Bhutan and Sikkim. Tibetan scholars that want to study their classical literature often have to do so with Chinese translations.
Many traditional Tibetan arts—such as religious paintings, sculpture, carved altars, religious texts, altar implements, statues with precious metals inlaid with gems, appliqued temples hangings, operatic costumes, religious performances, religious music, and religious singing—are forms of religious worship, many of them carried out by monks at monasteries.
Well-known Tibetan intellectuals include Jamyang Kyo, a writer and researcher that was arrested in April 2008 and taken away from her office in a state-owned television station in Xining in Qinghai Province; and Jamyang Kti, a well-known singer and television presenter who has written extensively about women’s rights. Among the Tibetans that gained some notoriety in the West were Chogyam Trunga, the guru of the beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
Tibetan Cultural Sites: Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; Tibet Online on Culture tibet.org/Culture ; dharma-haven.org ; Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture tibetanculture.org ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Mystical Arts of Tibet mysticalartsoftibet.org ; Tibetan and Himalayan Library thlib.org ; Literature and Film: Asian Classics Input Project asianclassics.org ; Folk Tales crosby-lundin.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ;Tibet on Film 1921-84 michaelorgan.org.au ; Tibet on Film 1984- 2005 michaelorgan.org ; Tibet Film Index michaelorgan.org ; Links in this Website: LITERATURE, FILM AND THE MEDIA IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; MUSIC, DANCE AND THEATER IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; SPORTS, RECREATION AND PETS IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN ART Factsanddetails.com/China
Tibetan storyteller Good Websites and Sources on Tibet: Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) www.tibet.com ; Chinese Government Tibet website eng.tibet.cn/ Wikipedia Wikipedia Tibetan Resources phayul.com ; Open Directory dmoz.org/Regional/Asia/China/Tibet/ ; Snow Lion Publications (books on Tibet) snowlionpub.com ; Photos Tibet Photo Gallery Tibet Gallery Terra Nomada Terra Nomada ; Tibetan Cultural Sites: Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture tibetanculture.org ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; Tibetan Studies and Tibet Research: Tibetan Resources on The Web (Columbia University C.V. Starr East Asian Library ) columbia.edu ; Tibetan and Himalayan Library thlib.org Digital Himalaya ; digitalhimalaya.com ; Tibetan Studies Maps WWW Virtual Library ciolek.com/WWWVL-TibetanStudies ; Center for Research of Tibet case.edu ; Center for Advanced Tibetan Studies amnyemachen.org ; Tibetan Studies resources blog tibetan-studies-resources.blogspot.com ; News, Electronic Journals ciolek.com/WWWVLPages
Tibetan literature includes religious texts, works of history, philosophy, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, fiction and poetry. Much of it is connected with Buddhism. Little of it has been translated to English and even if it was it probably be of little interest to people other than scholars. Because so many Tibetans have traditionally been illiterate, folk tales, histories and legends have traditionally been passed on orally from generation to generation. Guru Rinpoche figures prominently in many of these old tales.Works that have been translated into English include The Tibetan Book of the Dead (See Religion); The Life of Milarepa, an autobiography by Tibet’s most beloved ascetic; The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, a description of the path to enlightenment by one of Milarepa’s disciples.
“The value of Tibetan literature is two things,” David Germano, a professor of Tibetan studies at the University of Virginia, told the New York Times. “First of all, it’s one of the four great languages in which the Buddhist canon was preserved.” (The others are Chinese, Sanskrit and Pali, an extinct language of India.) “In addition to the scriptural canon,” he said, “there were histories, stories, autobiography, poetry, ritual writing, narrative, epics — pretty much any kind of literary output you could imagine. So the second value of the Tibetan canon is it’s one of the greatest in the world.”
The canon was imperiled after China invaded and occupied Tibet in the 1950s. Though fleeing refugees managed to smuggle some books out, the Chinese destroyed a great many others.“With the close of the Cultural Revolution, you essentially lost much of the Tibetan Buddhist literature,” Professor Germano said. “It was lost to the war; it was lost to the destruction of the monasteries, libraries and collections of books in Tibet that were systematically sought out and burned during the Cultural Revolution.”
E. Gene Smith, a Utah native who died in 2010, amassed the largest collection of Tibetan books outside Tibet and put much of it online through the Tibetan Buddhism Resource Center, which he founded. Beginning I earnest when worked for the Library of Congress in India, according to New York Times, he “acquired as many Tibetan books as he could for the library, seeking out Tibetan refugees in India, Nepal and Bhutan and earning their trust. Most of the books he collected were either hand-lettered manuscripts or had been printed in the traditional manner, using carved wood blocks. (Tibet had no printing presses.) Often, a book he obtained was the only known copy in the world.”
Robert Thurman, of Columbia University studied to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk after he ended a marriage to an heiress after deciding that he didn’t want to spend his life, as he told the Times, “drinking Champagne and staring at Rouaults.” He friendship with the Dalai Lama dates back to the 1960s when they met in India.
See Texts, Religion.
Woeser is the world’s best known contemporary Tibetan writer. A resident of Beijing who goes by only one name, she is known best for poetry, very little of which has been translated into English. Of late she has focused here writing on the Tibetan riots in March 2008 at the risk of being arrested. Much of he work is released on her blog, which has been hacked a number of times. She has been placed under house arrest and told by policemen that watch her to stop writing about Tibet.
Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “A graceful, soft-spoken woman whose disquieting tales are often punctuated by nervous laughter, Woeser has become an accidental hero to a generation of disenfranchised young Tibetans. Like many of her peers, she was schooled in Mandarin, part of a policy of assimilation that left her unable to write Tibetan, and she grew up embracing the official version of history — that the Communist Party brought freedom and prosperity to a backward land.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 25, 2009]
Woeser told the New York Times that “she dreamed that she was back in Tibet and that an army truck was passing before her, its cargo enveloped in green canvas. One side of the truck was uncovered, however, and inside she could see a heap of black-and-blue bodies, Tibetans old and young, who had been battered into submission. Desperate to record the sight, she reached for her camera but it was gone.” “The dream ends with me chasing the truck, wailing and yelling.” Woeser said. [Ibid]
Woeser enjoyed a relatively privileged life . She was born in Lhasa in 1967 to members of the Communist Party: a Han father and Tibetan mother. Her father was a deputy commander of a local unit of the People’s Liberation Army. When she was four her family moved to a Tibetan area of Sichuan. She was educated in Chinese and never learned to read or write her native tongue. She returned to Lhasa after getting a university degree in Chinese literature. She told the Washington Post, “My way of thinking was not based on reality. All I wanted to do was write poems.”
“Woeser recalled her father as a devoted Communist who would publicly denounce religion by day and seek refuge in Buddhist texts at night. After he died in 1991, she found a dog-eared biography of the Dalai Lama hidden on his bookshelf. ‘He was like many Tibetans who work for the government,’ she said. ‘They are divided inside. We call them people with two heads.,” [Ibid]
Back in Lhasa she developed on strong interest in Tibetan culture and Buddhism, neither of which had captivated her before. “When she was 24, during a visit to Lhasa, an auntdragged her to the Jokhang Monastery, one of Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest sites, and she found herself overwhelmed by the emotional intensity of the faithful. I was crying so loudly a monk told my aunt, ‘Look at that pathetic Chinese girl, she can’t control herself.’” “It was that moment I realized I had come home,” she said.
After reading a biography of the Dali Lama and watching Chinese authorities disrupt the selection of the Panchen Lama she became interested in politics. In 1999, she published her first book of poetry, which delved into her Tibetan identity and explored sensitive subjects through metaphors. A second book, of prose essays, was more direct and caused her to lose her job at a state-supported literary journal and forfeit her pension. After that she moved to Beijing and married the Chinese dissident writer Wang Lixiong. Today her works is published in Taiwan and Hong Kong but not the mainland.
“In 2003, a publisher in Guangzhou put out her first book, Notes on Tibet , a collection of prose and short stories that quickly sold out. It was just before the second print run that the authorities took notice. They promptly banned the book, saying it contained serious political mistakes. Authorities demanded a confession of her errors. She refused, andfound herself unemployed.”[Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 25, 2009]
With no means of support, she moved to Beijing. After gushing to friends about one of China’s best-known writers, Wang Lixiong, an introduction was made. They married a year later.
“One of her most startling recent projects is Forbidden Memory , a book of photographs taken by her father during the Cultural Revolution. Published in Taiwan, the book provides a disturbing glimpse of the tumultuous decade that destroyed thousands of temples and laid waste to countless lives. There are pictures of trampled relics, jubilant crowds bearing oversized Mao portraits and a female living Buddha, head bowed in humiliation, as she is hectored in the streets. ‘My father loved photography and no one dared stop him because he was in uniform,’ she said.” [Ibid]
An excerpt from Secrets of Tibet of the few poems by Woeser translated to English goes:
Once in a while. The masked demon reveals its true face,
frightening even to the ancient deities
Yet, the challenges have emboldened the ordinary birth;
who turn prayers to the deep nights into cries under the sun,
who concert whines behind the high walls into songs spread wide.
They are arrested! Punishments increased! Life sentences!
Executions postponed! Shot dead!
I usually keep quiet because I barely know anything.
Having been born and raised under the bugle of the PLA,
I am a suitable inheritor of Communism,
Egg under the red flag, suddenly cracked and broken,
Nearing middle age, belated anger is about to blurt from my throat
I cannot stop my tears for the suffering Tibetans younger than me.
“In recent years Woeser has become less tolerant of Chinese rule and more vocally opposed to the Han migrants and tourists who she claims have diluted Tibetan culture and damaged a fragile ecosystem. Such outspokenness has only heightened the interest of the authorities, who blocked her first three blogs. (The fourth, she said, was destroyed by hackers.)” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 25, 2009]
“Woeser’s blog, Invisible Tibet, has become one of the few reliable news outlets on what is happening in Tibet. Most of the news that appears on her blog arrives through e-mail messages or via Skype, the Internet calling service, although they are not without risk. She said 13 of her friends are still in detention, some facing charges that they illegally disseminated details of arrests and protests to the outside world. Every day I cry because I don’t know what’s going to happen to them, she said, glancing out the 20th-floor window of her apartment, with its expansive view of a hazy Beijing sunset.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 25, 2009]
“Woeser’s visits to Tibet are even more tightly scrutinized. The police track her every move, interrogating any friend who dares to meet with her. Most of my friends no longer have the guts to see me, she said. In 2008, she and her husband were briefly placed under house arrest after they spoke to the foreign news media.” [Ibid]
During a visit to Tibet in August 2008, public security officials searched her mother’s home in Lhasa, confiscating computers and subjecting Woeser to eight hours of questioning. When she returned home, her mother, fearful for her safety, begged her to pack her bags and go. That was one of the most heartbreaking moments, she said.” [Ibid]
“Despite her relatively high profile both inside and outside China, she is well aware that her liberty is fragile. Since 2004 she has been waiting for a passport, which would allow her to travel and speak abroad. ‘I feel so insecure inside,’ she said. ‘I feel like I’m sitting on the edge of a cliff and I could fall down at any moment.’” [Ibid]
Woeser Blocked from Receiving Award
In late February 2012, Woeser said that police had placed her under house arrest in Beijing to prevent her from receiving a prize for culture from the Dutch Embassy. Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, Woeser said “in the afternoon that there were police officers downstairs in her apartment building, where she lives on the 20th floor. She said she was unsure of the exact number, but had noticed at least two men in a car outside the main door and others waiting nearby. She said Beijing police officers came to her apartment and told her she would not be allowed to receive the award. “I told the embassy last night that I probably won’t be able to go this evening,” said Woeser. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, March 1, 2012]
The embassy is giving Woeser an award from the Prince Claus Fund. The fund’s Web site says the award is given out annually to individuals and organizations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean “for their outstanding achievements in the field of culture and development.” Woeser, who has written critically of the Chinese government’s policies in Tibet, said she had planned to go the Dutch ambassador’s residence on Thursday at 6 p.m. to have dinner and receive the award. The ceremony was originally to have been at the embassy but was recently moved to the residence.
Woeser said the police might stay at her apartment building for a couple weeks or even a month. “I just asked them how long they’ll be there, and they said they don’t know,” she said.
Alai and Hollow Mountain
Alai, a Tibetan writer who gies by one name, is author of the six-volume Hollow Mountain , about a Tibetan village in the throes of a 50-year tumultuous transformation is a microcosm of rural China at large. Alai told the China Daily, “The protagonist of my novel is the village, not a person, and this village is broken and unstable, with an array of people on center stage at various times.” [Source: Raymond Zhou, China Daily, April 15, 2009]
Alai is from the Tibetan area of northwestern Sichuan. He won the title of “Outstanding Author of 2008," the year the last installment of his magnum opus was published. Alai emerged in 1998 with his debut novel Red Poppies , now available in English. Its original title in Chinese is The Dust Settles , and it is also set in Tibet. Alai’s writing career started in the 1980s, first with poetry and then with fiction. He is now president of the Sichuan Writers Association. [Ibid]
Alai doesn’t like being called “Tibetan writer,” explaining that the label “puts me down,” and insists that what he wrote applies not only to the Tibetan area, but also to all of rural China: “Our urban development comes at the cost of the rural area. An increasing burden is imposed on the countryside, something it has to bear. Things have turned for the better in the past 30 years, but fundamentally farmers' living conditions are less than ideal and their fate is one of tragedy.” [Ibid]
“Alai says he is not a ‘brave man’ and adds that he should not pretend to be one. ‘I take history and literature very seriously,’ he reveals. ‘I write about the dark side not because I want to expose it, but because it is the truth. The value of charting the sad course of history is to make people think. If something like that happens again, people will be vigilant. If we all forget, in a generation or two nobody will know anything about it, and that'll be our tragedy, just like building on a fault-line even though you know it's there.’” [Ibid]
“The Tibetan in 2008 he said exposed what he calls ‘the beautiful misunderstanding rampant among the rest of the world, including China’. This ‘beautiful’ misunderstanding, he says, has sown the seeds of mistrust among people of different ethnicities. Alai says the outside world has a romantic version of Tibet that has little to do with its real history. They imagine Tibet to be ‘a cradle of myths’, which epitomizes the opposite of all undesirable things in a material world. They choose to be oblivious to the fact that most people in Tibet lived in ignorance and life did not improve for hundreds of years.” [Ibid]
“Alai takes upon himself the task of ‘demystifying’ Tibet. ‘The Tibetan people are a member of the human population, and what they need is not how to be the servants of god, but to be human beings.’ He also takes care not to see himself as a spokesman for all Tibetans. ‘Nobody -not a monk or any other person, or myself - has the right to take the place of all the people in this region. Only individuals who form this whole can present the whole picture of this race and this culture.’” [Ibid]
Alai on Artistic Quality
Alai, one of China's few best-known Tibetan writers, is encouraging some of his peers to readjust their profit-oriented goals and concentrate instead on artistic quality. He made the remarks at the recently concluded sessions of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). [Source: Liu Lu, China Daily, March 20, 2012]
The NPC deputy and chairman of the Sichuan Writers' Association says contemporary publishing circles suffer from an erroneous belief that sales are a barometer of a book's popularity. So to please the public, some writers seek popularity through creating vulgar works that "undermine the artistic nature of literature".
"The market-oriented approach does stimulate the creativity of Chinese writers, which has greatly contributed to today's literary boom," Alai says. "But there are serious problems behind this." The novelist says that while profitability is an indicator of success, a book's spiritual and artistic value is more important. "The development of the cultural industry cannot simply follow the development routes of other industries and be solely profit-oriented. In my opinion, a good literary work should not only be readable but also put an emphasis on artistic exploration and delve deeper into human nature and the diversity of culture."
Alai says the lack of spiritual qualities in works by Chinese writers means they are not as influential as they could be internationally. "Foreign publishing houses are looking for outstanding literary works from China that allow overseas readers to gain a better understanding of the country," he says. "They do not love just entertaining works."
More foreign works are imported than Chinese works exported, he adds. "If Chinese writers want to improve their international prestige, they must improve their literary quality," Alai says. He also urges the authorities to attach more importance to the export of Chinese literary works, because "they have a more lasting and far-reaching influence in regard to constructing China's soft power and offer a gateway for foreign readers to have a deeper understanding of the diversified aspects of China. When more true-to-life literature is created in China, Chinese literature will surely be more influential."
Alai started his literary career in the 1980s as a poet. His first best-selling book, As the Dust Settles, won the Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2000. He taps deeply into the interpretation of Tibetan history and culture. All his novels have been translated into several foreign languages and have been well received overseas.
Shangri-La and Lost Horizon
The term "Shangri-la" was coined by English novelist James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon. It refers to a beautiful mystical place discovered by four Westerners who crash land in an airplane there. Lost Horizon was published the year that Hitler rose to power and topped the best seller list for two years. Frank Capra did a 1937 film version of the novel, which starred Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt. It won several Oscars but seems quite silly and dated when viewed today.
In Lost Horizon, Shangri-la is a Buddhist monastery in a Tibetan valley where people enjoy a happy trouble-free life and live to be more than 200 years old by doing yoga, breathing in the mountain air and eating tangatseberry (a native herb).
The monastery boasts central heating, European plumbing, an Oriental garden and a first-rate collection of Chinese art. It is run by a 163-year-old Catholic priest who keeps a file of the London Times and maintains a library. The residents spend their free time learning new languages, mastering Chopin piano pieces, contemplated eternal questions and bathing in green porcelain tubs.
See Places, China
Models for Shangri-la
The word Shangri-la is possibly inspired by Shambala, the Tibetan word for paradise based on Tibetan legends about beyuls, secluded sanctuaries located in beautiful valleys. Shambala is Tibetan Buddhism’s earthly paradise where there is no war and no suffering, where people live in peace and harmony through meditation and self-discipline. It is said to be beyond the Himalayas at the base a crystal mountains, where people have been untouched by the corrupting influences of the outside word.
In 1998, after five years of looking, explorer Ian Baker said he found a beyul in the Pemako area around the Tsangpo River in eastern Tibet. After following a route described in an 8th-century Tibetan text, he reached an extraordinarily beautiful valley through a portal in a cliff masked and penetrated by a waterfall. The Pemako region is located where Tibet, India, Bhutan and Burma all come together. Reached after weeks of jeep and foot travel, it is situated in an area of dense, wet forest with pit vipers and leeches and high mountains. The local people, the Lobas, are fierce animist warriors. They live in villages on high terraces above he Tsangpo River. They believe some valleys are occupied by yetis and others are home to poison cults (made up of woman who poison people to obtain good fortune).
James Hilton (1900-1954) was born in Leigh in Lancashire, England. He grew up in London and earned an honors degree at Christ College, Cambridge. He wrote for the Manchester Guardian as a teenager and had his fist novel published when he was in college. When he was 24, he wrote the bestseller Goodbye Mr. Chips. Lost Horizon was published a year later. Hilton wrote 22 books. Hilton lived in California from 1935 to his death in 1954.
Hilton reportedly got the idea for Lost Horizon while riding his bike and wrote the short novel in four days. The story was originally a Christmas feature in the magazine British Weekly. It was released as book in the United States but wasn’t as successful as Goodbye Mr. Chips.
Hilton never visited Tibet or China. He was reportedly inspired by articles written by the botanist Joseph Rock for National Geographic in the 1920s and 30s. The 6,500-meter-tall Mount Kagpo, also known as Meili Xueshan, described by Rock, is believed to be the model for Hilton’s mystical Mount Karakal.
Heinrich Harrer and Seven Years in Tibet
Heinrich Harrer Seven Years in Tibet, the film starring Brad Pitt, was based a 1953 autobiographical book by Heinrich Harrer (1912-2006) , a selfish, real-life Austrian mountain-climber who befriended the Dalai Lama and became his tutor. Harrer had been a Nazi and a S.S. officer before setting off for Asia on a climbing expedition, leaving his pregnant wife behind. The book Seven Years in Tibet has sold 4 million copies and been translated into 48 languages. [Source: Lewis Simmons, Smithsonian magazine, H.G. Bissinger, Vanity Fair, October 1997]
Harrer’s original destination was Pakistan, where several of the world’s highest mountains are located. On his way there he was captured by the British and sent to a prison camp in India. After three unsuccessful escape attempts, he and six other men disguised as British military officers and Indian laborers slipped out of the lightly guarded prison in April 1944. Two years later, after a 1,500-mile journey over 65 Himalayan mountain passes he arrived at the gates of Lhasa with his partner Peter Aufschnaiter, another Austrian mountain climber.
Harrer and Aufschnaiter's original plan was to make their way to freedom in Manchuria—then held by Japan, an ally of Germany and Austria in World War II—on the treacherous northern route through Tibet in the winter. On their journey they encountered valleys with leech-infested strawberries, endured attacks by bandits, suffered hunger-induced hallucinations, walked along cliff-side trails from which numerous animals had fallen. To gain entry into Tibet they convinced local officials that an entry permit they had for western China gave them permission to travel into the Tibetan interior.
After plunging his feat accidently through some ice into freezing water, Harrier wrote, "as soon as we pulled ourselves out our feet froze immediately. They turned brown and then black. We wrapped them in every piece of cloth we could find but the pain was excruciating. I still don't know why we didn't lose our feet."
Heinrich Harrer and the Dalai Lama
In January 1946, Harrer and Aufschnaiter arrived in Lhasa "dead-tired and half-starved." The were accepted as guests by the Tibetan aristocracy. They taught the Tibetans how to play volleyball and hosted swimming parties.
Harrer befriended the Dalai Lama and became his tutor. Featured in the film Seven Years in Tibet, the friendship began when Harrer was 37 and the Dalai Lama was 14. Harrer taught the Dalai Lama English and geography, informed him about Western customs, and explained the best he could how planes flew, tanks worked and atom bombs were detonated. Harrer and the Dalai Lama shared the same birthday, July 6.
Describing the first time he saw the Dalai Lama in a procession, Harrer wrote: "And now approached the yellow, silk-lined palanquin of the Living Buddha, gleaming like gold in the sunlight. The bearers were six-and-thirty men in green silk coats, wearing red plate-shaped caps. A monk was holding a huge iridescent sunshade made of peacock's feathers over the palanquin. The whole scene was a feast for the eyes—a picture revived from a long-forgotten fairy tale of the Orient." Anything the Dalai Lama touched, Harrer said, was seized as an auspicious object.
Explaining how he met Harrer, the Dalai Lama said, "We had an old movie projector and a generator which always broke down. My aides were afraid I'd be electrocuted." Harrer was called in. "In those days, we considered all Westerners to be experts in mechanical things...During his stay in Tibet, everyone liked him." To amuse himself the Dalai Lama used to take projector completely apart and put it back together.
Image Sources: Purdue University, Cosmic Harmony, the film Kundun
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2012