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Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change (review)

From: China Review International
Volume 16, Number 2, 2009
pp. 185-189 | 10.1353/cri.2009.0051

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Reviewed by
Lauran R. Hartley and Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani, editors. Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008. xxxviii, 382 pp. $24.95, ISBN 978-0-8223-4277-9.

The study of contemporary Tibetan literature is among the youngest and least developed domains within Tibetan studies. Although not the first publication dealing with contemporary Tibetan literature (cf., e.g., Venturino 2007), this volume will be remembered as the book that legitimized Tibetan literature.

The book familiarizes the reader with the major figures and movements in Tibetan literature in the twentieth century. The historical focus is reflected in the overall structure of the work, which is divided into two parts, "Engaging Tradition" and "Negotiating Modernities." The papers fall uncomfortably into these two categories: chapter 12 is a historical overview similar to chapter 3, but the two are put into different sections. Although all the essays are presented in English, four of the contributions (chapters 5, 6, 12, and 13) are translated from Tibetan. The inclusion of such translations adds enormously to the value of the work. In addition to the new contributions, the volume anthologizes important essays published elsewhere (chapters 3, 5, 6, 11, and 12). Most of the articles are schematic, outlining major themes such as Tibetan literature in the early twentieth century (chapter 1), poetry in Chinese by Tibetan authors (chapter 2), Tibetan magical realism (chapter 9), and Tibetan literature in the diaspora (chapter 13). Only [End Page 185] three chapters (4, 10, and 14) focus on an extended analysis of a single specific work of literature. The placement side-by-side of historical overviews and more detailed studies gives the anthology as whole a heterogeneous quality. However, the recurrence of the same writers, works, and themes in different chapters and from different perspectives exposes the reader to some of the central concerns of contemporary Tibetan literature. For example, two works of Don grub rgyal (1953-1985), "Waterfall of Youth" (Lang tsho'i rbab chu) and "A Narrow Footpath" (Rkang lam phra mo), Tsering Shakya analyzes as rejecting tradition (pp. 77-81) but Nancy Lin sees as revitalizing tradition (pp. 104-105). The conjunction of such differing interpretations reveals that the major works of contemporary Tibetan literature are as ambiguous and laden with meaning as great works of literature in any language.

A preoccupation running throughout the volume is the status of writings by Tibetans in Chinese (especially chapters 2, 8, 9, and 10). Yangdon Dhondup gives a historical overview of poetry in Chinese by Tibetan authors (chapter 2). Lara Maconi addresses the relationship between Sinophone and Tibetophone authors and publishing (chapter 8). Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani and Howard Choy provide detailed discussions of specific works in Chinese (chapters 9 and 10). In these discussions, the meaningfulness of the author being Tibetan is taken surprisingly for granted (pp. 56, 176). Considerable attention is given to the question of whether Sinophone literature by ethnic Tibetans can be considered Tibetan literature at all. According to Tsering Shakya, the longest-running Tibetan literary journal Bod kyi rtsom rig sgyu rtsal does not hesitate to include work in Chinese or translations from Chinese under the rubric of Tibetan literature, whereas the more influential journal Sbrang char includes only work originally written in Tibetan (pp. 64-66). According to Maconi, Sbrang char does publish works translated from Chinese, but suppresses the original place of publication and identity of the translator of works by Tibetan authors (p. 182). Despite these discussions, almost no attention is given to the questions of whether Sinophone literature by Tibetans can be considered Chinese literature, or whether Sinophone literature by Chinese can ever be considered Tibetan literature. Maconi acknowledges that there are Chinese writers who live in Tibet (p. 178) and that they are considered in the PRC as writers of Xizang wenxue (Tibetan regional literature) but not Zangzu wenxue (Tibetan ethnic literature).

Although one of the major theses in this volume is the engagement of contemporary Tibetan literature with tradition, the authors do not sufficiently demonstrate familiarity with traditional Sanskrit and Tibetan literature. Despite various assertions such as that Shel-dkar gling-pa "draws his style and select metaphors from Indic K...