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Manoa 12.2 (2000) 28-40

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The Waterfall and Fragrant Flowers: The Development of Tibetan Literature Since 1950

Tsering Shakya

Modern Tibetan literature is largely unknown in the West, and has been ignored by the field of traditional Tibetan studies, which considers it of little interest. Over the past four decades, however, the Tibetan language and literary production have diverged from the usages and genres of the literature of the past, and thus there is a need to study and read it in light of the many fundamental changes that have occurred.

Traditionally, Tibetan society has always been highly literate and has placed great value on literary activities and creation; part of the reason is that much of the literary production in the premodern period focused on Buddhism and was composed mainly of philosophical texts and liturgical and biographical accounts of lamas. Although there was also a body of secular texts comprising various types of histories (lo rgyus, rgyal rabs, chos 'byung), biographical literature (rnam thar), aphoristic writings (legs bshad), oral folk songs (glu gzas), bardic tales, and folk stories (sgrung gtam), Buddhism cemented all literary creativity in Tibet.

Poetry (snyen ngag) dominated the secular literary tradition, inheriting both content and style from Indian Sanskrit conventions. The Mirror of Poetry (snyen ngag me long), by the seventh-century Indian scholar Dandin, served as a paradigm. As a consequence, contemporary Tibetan critics such as Ju Kalzang ('ju skal bzang) and Dhondup Gyal (don grub rgyal) have been scathingly derisive about traditional poetry, condemning it as nothing more than eulogy (bstod pa).

The sole example of a premodern secular novel is an eighteenth-century work, The Tale of the Incomparable Youth (gzhun nu zla med kyi gtam rgyud), written by Do Khar Tsering Wangyal (mdo mkha tshe ring dbang rgyal). The novel is composed in verse in a classical style drawn from such Indian epics as the Ramayana. The primary focus of the secular narrative, however, has been shifted from religion to romantic adventure. For the first time, the adventures of the protagonist are at the center of the story, with religion forming only the subtext.

Despite the existence of such secular works, fiction as modern Western [End Page 28] authors would define it--that is, work of an author's imagination, in the form of short stories and novels--had no place in traditional Tibetan literature. Indeed, if we use a modern Western definition of literature, virtually no secular literature existed in Tibet until very recently. In fact, most critics in Tibet would tend to say that such a literature began only in the early 1980s.

A new Tibetan literature emerged only after the establishment of Communist Chinese rule in Tibetan-speaking areas. The Chinese government established not only Communist political and administrative control of Tibet, but also brought about Tibet's first encounter with the modern world--specifically, an engagement with a technologically advanced society imbued with a modern and materialistic ideology. The missionary zeal of the new Communist regime was focused on incorporating Tibet into the great "motherland," and in doing so to "civilize" this underdeveloped, backward region. In this regard, there are many similarities between Western colonial rule and Chinese colonization of Tibet. In both cases, colonialism caused a dislocation of identity and traditional epistemology in the indigenous social system and culture. Like other colonial rulers, China not only asserted territorial claims but also set out to control the minds of the natives.

The notion of underdevelopment (rjes lus) is crucial to understanding the nature of Chinese rule in Tibet. The term implies that Tibet lagged behind in technology and, more important, that it was culturally stagnant and backward. Therefore, "liberation of the serfs" was intended to result in both economic emancipation and the cultural empowerment of the people. In this process, language and literature became the focus of colonial exchange. And it was in this context that a new literature emerged in Tibet.

Chinese rule had an immediate and striking impact on the Tibetan language at every level because initially it was the principal medium...


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