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  • Realism, Humor, and Social Commitment:An Interview
  • Phuntshog Tashi (bio) and Patricia Schiaffini (bio)

Born in Shigatse, Phuntshog Tashi is one of the most famous writers in Tibet. He is a member of the Tibetan Writers Association and has been editor-in-chief of the Chinese-language journal Xizang minsu (Tibetan folklore), an official publication of the Association of Writers of Tibet. In addition to short stories, he has also written a number of plays and comedy routines popular on Lhasa television. The following interview was conducted at a guesthouse located on the premises of the association.

PS I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your childhood.

PT Sure. I was born in 1959 in Shigatse. The Cultural Revolution started when I was in primary school, so we did not study very hard. We did not have learning materials, and we were not even given exams or anything of the sort. We only talked about politics and learned to do the manual work done by workers and peasants. Our teachers had to attend ideological discussions too, so they did not have time to teach us anyway. That is why I did not learn much during those years. It often happened that a whole class would pass to the following grade without even taking exams; can you imagine? Those were times without any kind of academic rules or standards. I was lucky because the little education we received was in Tibetan—even the classes in politics and the discussions of Mao's Little Red Book were in Tibetan. So, I at least learned to write and read in the Tibetan language. I did not learn much Chinese at that time. In general I enjoyed studying, but we did not have many learning opportunities then.

PS During the Cultural Revolution, creative literature was not openly written. How did you become interested in literature in such a nonliterary environment?

PT Mostly through stories people would tell me. Because my older neighbors had studied before the Cultural Revolution, they read better than [End Page 119] I could. They had had access to a better education and used to tell me stories while they were milling grain. I especially recall that the sister of one of my neighbors used to read me traditional Tibetan stories. I loved going to their house to hear her stories. Storytelling was the only pastime, you know [pauses]; there were no films or television then. I remember that I wished I could read those stories on my own. My sister and some friends used to read me stories in Chinese, too, but their Chinese was not very good, so at times they did not get the contents of the story right [laughs]. Anyway, as soon as somebody was willing to tell or read a story, I would be the first to show up to listen.

PS So, it was this early passion for storytelling that influenced your later career choice…

PT Yes. It also helped me to be chosen for the Propaganda Performing Troupe. Our task was to convey political messages to the people through plays, dances, songs, and recitals of poetry. I became rather well known in the group. This job was great because it gave me a chance to meet a lot of professors and artists. My teachers of music and performing arts were highly educated people, and they left a deep impression on me.

PS I guess that with the end of the Cultural Revolution, your role in the propaganda troupe also ended. How did the transition from the Cultural Revolution to China's open-door policy of the late 1970s affect you?

PT You know, during the Cultural Revolution, success in school was due to subjective factors, such as your political background, your attitude toward the leaders, et cetera. But in 1978, education finally began to be based on exams and grades again. At that time, I entered the Teachers College of Shigatse and was able to pursue a more formal education. For three years I studied such subjects as mathematics, chemistry, and geography. More than anything else, however, I concentrated on the Chinese and Tibetan languages. That was the time when...