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  • Die Arshe: Arbeitslieder aus dem traditionellen tibetischen Bauhandwerk
  • Jacob Eyferth (bio)
Kerstin Grothmann. Die Arshe: Arbeitslieder aus dem traditionellen tibetischen Bauhandwerk. Alltagskulturen Chinas und seiner Nachbarn 3. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2011. 165 pp. Paperback €38.00, ISBN 978-3-447-06453-8.

This is the third volume to come out of the useful series Everyday Cultures of China and Its Neighbors, edited by the anthropologist Mareile Flitsch. Its topic is the arshe (ar gzhas), work songs performed during the construction of the flat roofs that cover traditional houses in central Tibet. These roofs consist of a wooden ceiling, covered with a bottom layer of earth and pebbles and a top layer of arka, crushed limestone. The arka is laboriously compacted by teams of workers (in the case described by Grothmann, women workers) who stamp the ground with their feet and tamp it with a long ramming pole (bogto). This is typically done in groups: workers line up in rows and move one step forward, one step back, at the same time beating the ground rhythmically with the bogto. These rhythmic movements are accompanied by songs, sung antiphonally by groups of workers that often face each other across the roof. Grothmann’s book is based on research carried out while she participated in the Lhasa Old Town Conservation Project of the Tibet Heritage Fund, an international organization active in the mapping and preservation of old buildings in Tibet and in the training of Tibetan artisans. The book consists of a brief description of Tibetan roofing techniques, a general discussion of work songs and their functions, and a detailed discussion of the formal [End Page 182] features of arshe and of their place in Tibetan oral literature. This is followed by a commented translation of twenty arshe, reproduced also in Tibetan script, which takes up about two-thirds of the total length of the book.

Most of the songs presented here are based on religious themes, often adapted from theater plays or popular legends. Nangsa Öbum — the folk heroine who suffered brutal persecution from her husband and in-laws before she attained the spiritual salvation that she had longed for since her birth — appears in five songs; Padmasambhava, Milarepa, and Rechung also make several appearances. Suffering, tribulation, and perseverance in the face of hardship are frequent themes, perhaps appropriately for songs that were sung during long hours of arduous, repetitive work. Some songs seem to map out pilgrimage routes, describing the history and the aesthetic attractions of monasteries and holy mountains in central Tibet — though, as Grothmann points out, the sequence of place names rarely coincides with the actual route a pilgrim would use on his or her tour. As with work songs all over the world, arshe tend to be quite repetitive; after all, their aim is to keep workers in continuous motion for a certain amount of time, in this case for a unit of work lasting thirty to forty minutes. Here is a typical example of a song: “[T]he wild yak went, the wild yak did not go. The wild yak went toward the east; on the right mountain slope it ate grass, on the left mountain slope it drank water; on the upper meadow it slept comfortably.” This is then repeated, with the wild yak going toward the south, west, and north. Another typical feature of these songs is that they list places or objects to evoke social hierarchies and cosmological structures: the upper, middle, and lower reaches of the land are linked to lamas, governors, and commoners; likewise, different types of hats evoke the nobility, lower functionaries, and the commoner population, and different body parts of a horse (perhaps Kyanggö Gyerba, the famous mount of King Gesar) illustrate points of Buddhist doctrine. A threefold division (into men, women, and domestic animals; lamas, officials, and commoners; outer, inner, and secret teachings) is a common feature that serves to reproduce and reinforce cosmological assumptions. References to arka work — or, indeed, any other type of work — are rare. Nor do most songs appear to function as mnemonic aids for technical, scientific, or religious knowledge.

Grothmann provides rich detail on the songs’ content, discussing deities, historical personages, monasteries...