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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Tibetans Find Power in Words

August 8, 2008

by Mridu Khullar
The Women's International Perspective, The WIP
August 5, 2008

With the 2008 Olympics in China beginning this week, protests from
the Tibetan refugee community in India are intensifying. But since
the Tibetan spiritual leader—the 14th Dalai Lama—discourages Tibetans
from picking up arms, a small but powerful segment of Tibetans have
picked up another weapon—their pens.

Their language of choice -- Tibetan, English, and surprisingly, now
even Mandarin.

"Although the exile Tibetan community [in India] has been very
effective in providing a high level of cultural production in
religious areas, it is inside Tibet that Tibetan intellectuals and
artists have been able to make achievements in secular culture, such
as poetry, literature, music, painting, and some forms of
scholarship, despite the difficulties they face," says Dr. Robert
Barnett, Director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University
and author of Lhasa: Streets with Memories.

The writings of these poets and essayists have transformed over the
past decade from musings about an exotic culture and history, to more
real issues of human rights, political policies, and memoirs of
people loved and lost. The Tibetan writers of today, regardless of
their genre, seem to write with an agenda: to spread the word about
the declining situation of the Tibetan freedom movement to readers
both inside and out of China.

"While we romance with English due to our exile situation, our
counterparts in Tibet have been taking Chinese language to greater
heights," writes Tenzin Tsundue, a political activist and writer
living in exile in Dharamsala, India. "Tibetans are recording history
and writing poetry and stories on love, religion and culture in
Chinese. They are singing in Mandarin. The Chinese cannot but regret
they gave the Tibetans their tongue."

Tibetan artists and intellectuals are evolving with their changing
environments, and for some, this includes trying to reach larger
audiences by writing in Mandarin. For others, it's not a choice. "The
Chinese authorities have not allowed Tibetan-medium education in the
TAR [Tibet Autonomous Region] above primary school level," explains
Dr. Barnett, which means there's a whole generation of Tibetans in
Tibet growing up with little knowledge of their native language.

Poet and writer, Tsering Woeser (Chinese: Wei Se), is among the top
Tibetan authors writing in Mandarin today. Born in Lhasa in 1966 to a
Tibetan mother and half-Tibetan, half-Chinese father, Ms. Woeser
studied Chinese literature and worked as an editor with the
Lhasa-based Chinese language journal Tibetan Literature. Ms. Woeser's
book Notes on Tibet was banned in China in 2004 because of its
favorable references to the Dalai Lama. Some of her books were later
published in Taiwan.

After her work became unavailable in China, Ms. Woeser started two
blogs in which she discussed important issues such as HIV/AIDS in
Tibet, the Tibetan railway, and the Cultural Revolution. These too,
were shut down by the Chinese government in 2006.

Ms. Woeser belongs to a large population of Tibetans who got, what
she calls, a "red education," and for all practical purposes, are
Chinese. It was only several years into her career that she read
about Tibet and formed her own conclusions. "I was brainwashed," she
has said in several interviews.

She now lives in self-imposed exile in Beijing and has become a huge
cultural icon for the Tibetan people.

Ms. Woeser is one of the few writers who work in an emerging genre --
informally known as Tibet Literature (Chinese: Xizang wenxue)—which
consists of writing of the last twenty years that has been about
Tibet, in Chinese, and by authors of all ethnic backgrounds. The
genre, while still in its infancy, has given a platform to many new voices.

In 2000, Alai, the author of Red Poppies, won China's most
prestigious literary award -- the Mao Dun Prizeor—for his book about
opium consumption in late imperial China. In the same year, in India,
Jamyang Norbu, a Tibetan born and raised in exile, was awarded the
Crossword Book Prize for his novel The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes,
which is based on the two years Holmes spent in Tibet. The year
marked a beginning for Tibetan writers, who were finally finding a
voice -- in languages that were foreign to them.

Since then, many writers have experimented with the languages that
have been imposed on them -- Chinese and English. These languages
have become their window to the world and a means of spreading facts
about Tibet to a wider population.

There are, however, several skeptics who feel that encouraging the
Tibetans to write in Chinese or English is even more damaging to
their language and culture. Others fail to recognize the authenticity
of Xizang wenxue because it is written in Chinese and for a Chinese audience.

The genre also brings Tibetan writing under the scanner of the
government. "Most Tibetans who write or speak publicly operate under
a cloud, with the threat of punishment or ostracism if they say one
word or sentence that the government doesn't like," says Dr. Barnett.

But most importantly, by reaching out to Chinese intellectuals in
their language, the Tibetans can influence and change the minds of
the future policy-makers of China.

"There are a number of Tibetan intellectuals and leaders who believe
that the only hope for Tibet is to try to create at least some
understanding and appreciation of Tibetan culture and religion among
Chinese people, so that eventually some of them will be able to
influence government policy," says Dr. Barnett. "This is considered
by many to be far more important in the long run than trying to get
western support."

There has been some change, admit scholars, though mostly in
architectural conservation policy, and not yet on political
conditions. They also admit, given the current circumstances, that it
seems unlikely.

Tibetans in exile, too, continue to roll out publications and books
that they hope will reach concerned Indians, and people in the West.
Tenzin Wangchuk, the managing director of Tibetan World magazine,
says his publication is small but influential.

"Media will change the world," he says, which is why despite
fluctuations in income, limited resources, and barely any advertising
revenues, he continues to put out issues of his magazine each month.
Mr. Wangchuk's publication has become an important means for
educating the Tibetan youth about China's political policies and the
roots of the Tibetan freedom movement.

For Tibetans who've adopted writing as a tool to achieve their goals,
their eyes are on the bigger prize—the ability to reach beyond the
Tibetan-speaking population and affect the consciousness of a much
larger world. For these writers, the language comes later, spreading
the message comes first.

"My language is English," says Mr. Tsundue. "But my content is Tibetan."

About the Author:
Mridu Khullar is an independent journalist from New Delhi, India. For
the past six years, she has written extensively about human rights
and women's issues in Asia and Africa. Her work has been published in
Time, Elle, Marie Claire, Ms., Women's eNews, and East West, among
others. Visit her website at www.mridukhullar.com.
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