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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

He thinks in Tibetan, writes in Chinese (Part I and II)

August 16, 2009

"One on One" Program Witnessing Tibet Series
Tibet Web Digest
August 13, 2009

The Writer, Alai (April 29, 2008)

Posted on August 13th, 2009 by Sonam

(See the orginal article in Chinese)

Part I:

Host: Tibetan writer Alai is an influential
writer in contemporary literary circles, based on
his full-length novel As the Dust Settles
(English title, Red Poppies), he once won the
Fifth Mao Dun Literature Award, and is up to now
the only Tibetan writer to gain this honor. Being
a Tibetan writer, Alai pays greater attention to
the original living conditions of Tibetan
compatriots, and the changes and desires
contained in this kind of life. Today, let us get
closer to Alai, to regard the historical and
cultural changes in Tibetan areas from a Tibetan writer’s point of view.

Biography: Alai 2

     * Tibetan Professional writer
     * Deputy Chairman of the Sichuan Province Writers’ Association
     * Board member of the China Writers’ Association

Commentary: On April 15th, 2008, Tibetan writer
Alai flew from Chengdu to Beijing. His reason for
this trip was to participate in a discussion on
the multi-volume novel Hollow Mountain organized
by the journal, Contemporary Writers’ Review.
Hollow Mountain is the main literary work by Alai
in recent years, altogether divided into three
parts and six volumes. The first two parts have
already been officially published, and the
manuscript for the third part was also finished
at the beginning of 2008, and will soon be
published. Hollow Mountain describes in collage
form the developments and changes of a village in
a Tibetan area, adopts a common culture and
background, different people and situations, to
construct a three-dimensional image of a Tibetan
village in order to reveal life in Tibetan areas.

Interview date: April 16, 2008

Alai: Actually, I’ve always had one ambition,
which is to write about the social changes that
have taken place in Tibetan regions over the past
century, the last one hundred years.

Reporter: What you want to express, how has that changed?

Alai: I really want to use the changes in
peoples’ fates, because every book writes about
different changes in peoples’ fates, using the
changes in the fates of the characters you write
about in order to refract the changes of these
times. These last hundred years are the greatest
hundred years of change, or improvement, in
Tibetan society. Moreover, according to Tibetan
history, the changes of the past hundred years
are perhaps greater, even much greater, than any
changes of the past thousand years.

Alai: However, these cultural changes, changes in
social organization, etc. the major changes, were
not made fifty years ago, but were made fifty years later.

Alai: I write about peasants’ lives today, those
lives of peasants who farm. That younger
generation that wants to leave the farm, their
hopes with life, actually I have to tell
everyone, Tibet is more plentiful, especially in
aspects of most peasants’ daily life, we’re well
off compared to Chinese, Mongolians, even in
terms of a farming household in an Indian village
in the USA, there isn’t a huge difference in living.

Alai: Therefore, in Hollow Mountain I say, and
later they also have observations about the
household and notice in particular, that the
character of religion is becoming more and more
diluted. And I say that this is a kind of change
in social reality. Because Red Poppies involved
some religion, since at that time, it was also a
kind of reality, so you have to write about that
period’s politics, and it is inevitably closely
tied to religion, you can’t avoid it. Today, when
I write Hollow Mountain, I try as much as
possible to not write about religion. But now for
those of us outside Tibet, we still don’t pay
enough attention to this kind of real life of
Tibet, and instead pay a lot of attention to
those very symbolic external things. So I once
wrote a small piece, saying that Tibet is an
adjective, Tibet is a noun to me, meaning
whatever it is, it is. However, for most people,
because they don’t want to regard Tibet as an
existing reality, Tibet is a symbol.


Alai: And turned it into an adjective. You can’t
observe Tibet’s reality very well, very objectively.

Reporter: People have turned a noun like Tibet
into an adjective, isn’t it because they’ve
lacked a certain writer for so many years, who
could introduce Tibet’s actual situation for the
outside person to see, is it closely related to this?

Alai: This also has a lot to do with it.

Alai: That’s why I often say, I say the work of
my writing if it has anything at all, I say I’m
actually dispelling Tibet’s mysteriousness,
because we often say Tibet is associated with one
word, mysteriousness. In reality is Tibet really
that mysterious? It’s not that mysterious.

Alai: If we regard such ways correctly at all, we
would pay more attention to nationality, pay more
attention to ordinary peasants, look more for
what they have, don’t look for what makes them
different from us, look more for what they have
in common with us. This is what I think would be
a much better kind of situation.

Reporter: When did you begin to decide to use the
means of writing and novels to record this age of rapid change?

Alai: I probably had a kind of very intense
feeling about this from a young age, because our
own lives were one culture out of many that was
intensely affected, intensely molded. So if you
had anything for certain, if you had any definite
feelings toward this period, toward your own
ethnic culture, I believe it would all be more
intensely impacted than other people, like a
shock to one’s thinking. Therefore, from a young
age I started learning a little history, began
learning some other things, so that I would be
especially concerned with such subjects.

TV Guide:

Born in a tiny village on the ancient tea-horse road

What kind of childhood did he have from this ancient courier station?

Learning Chinese was like listening to nonsense

How did he overcome the obstacles of language

Commentary: Alai’s birthplace is in Ngawa Tibetan
and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in the
northwestern part of Sichuan Province, a place
called "Gyarong" in Tibetan language, which means
a farming valley close to Han Chinese areas. In
1959, Alai was born in a small village in Barkham
County, Ngawa Prefecture, the Tibetan name of
this village is called Karrong, the Chinese name is called Matang.

Reporter: What was the ethnic composition of this
little village? What was the economic situation like?

Alai: This little village is really interesting,
in the past, because it is at an elevation of
approximately four thousand meters at the
foothills of the mountains, and goes through the
northwest, Tibetans going from Qinghai, Gansu,
Sichuan to the extremely important postal road of
the Chengdu plains, we now call it the “Ancient
Tea Horse Road”, every one did that. Actually, in
the past it was this kind of ancient trade route.

Alai: So from ancient times until now, to the
early 1950s, the village was an important courier
station, a thoroughfare. But later after we grew
up, this courier station had already gone into
decline, because there was already a highway. The
highway also led in a different direction, so
this place inevitably went downhill. However,
after going into decline, it left behind a lot of
legends, including one about my own family,
including the past. Because it was just a typical
nomadic, just a farming village, it had to be
fertile, had to be complex, moreover it was in
touch with all kinds of news from all over, from the outside world.

Reporter: Its means were through stories and legends?

Alai: What’s more, people say what is really
interesting about the village is, folk legends
say it had a kind of strength in dealing with the
arts. But at that time, we didn’t really know, it
was something that just happened to you the other
day, according to what he said, it seems like it
was something that took place a hundred years ago.

Reporter: Do you often hear about these kinds of stories?

Alai: Of course at that time the village didn’t
have any kind of entertainment, especially during
the winter. There was just one fireplace in each
household, at night they would have a little wine
to drink, make something to eat. Only when
everyone gathered together, then stories would be
told, old songs would be sung; it was this kind
of atmosphere. But if we look at this atmosphere
today, it is full of artistic appeal.

Reporter: What ethnicity were these ten or so families? Were they all Tibetan?

Alai: Our village here is a little complex, since
it, of course it is mainly Tibetan, but because
after commerce and administration went into
decline in the past, a lot of people left, all
the old business people left, but within [the
village] there are also Hui, because we’re close
to the Northwest, for example, my father is Hui.

Reporter: Your family is made up of two ethnicities?

Alai: Hui and Tibetan, my mother is Tibetan.

Reporter: Your mother is Tibetan and your father
is Hui. Did this kind of ethnic combination influence you growing up?

Alai: On the contrary, this didn’t influence me.

Alai: First of all, the local culture was
primarily Tibetan culture. When my father’s
family came, he could only conform to it, his
minority people could only conform to the local
customs. He didn’t bring along his religion or
customs because it wasn’t possible to bring them,
there wasn’t that kind of environment.

Reporter: So what language does your family speak?

Alai: Of course we mainly speak Tibetan language.

Reporter: So in other words, your mother tongue is Tibetan language?

Alai: Tibetan language.

Commentary:  Because it was once an important
courier station on a thoroughfare, the village
where Alai lived was more open than traditionally
significant Tibetan areas. From his childhood,
Alai navigated between two languages. In 1966,
Alai entered primary school and began to face studying Chinese language.

Reporter: How old were you when you started going to school?

Alai: I was probably about 7 years old, but we
were really happy to go to school. At that time
when we went to school, the first year was a
little like preschool these days, called
preparatory class. The first year of preparatory
class didn’t involve going to class, it was just
teaching Chinese language and conversation. Just
to be able to understand what you hear daily.

Reporter: For you, as a kind of oral language, is
Tibetan better? Or is Chinese better?

Alai: Of course Tibetan is better, because
Tibetan language and your life have to have a
close relationship. Then, at the same time
language is also a kind of way and habit of
thinking, so the integration of language and
local life must be close. Moreover, language
represents lifestyle; it is the most suitable and
even vibrant for only this kind of thing.

Reporter: After going to school, was it possible
to continue to study Tibetan language at the same time?

Alai: At that time if we were allowed to choose,
especially our group of people from this area, we
probably would have even chosen Chinese language.
However, Tibetan culture has a characteristic,
which is, because of its past society, its
culture was monopolized by the monastic class, so
the majority of the common people, of course I
don’t want to use statistical numbers to say 90%,
80%, we don’t have statistics for this, but
anyway, most people are all illiterate.

Reporter: Why is this?

Alai: Because Tibetans, look, if you open a map
of China, such a huge plateau, probably at least
a fifth of China. Such a big area has only about
five million people, and the geographic
separations are really severe. Therefore in
Tibetan language, there are so many different
cultures and dialects, and on top of that, the
differences are huge. Perhaps the differences
between the dialects in our Tibetan language and
a so-called standard language are much larger
than the differences between Cantonese,
Fujianese, and Beijing people’s languages.
Tibetan language, for example, takes Lhasa
dialect as its standard. If we were to go learn
it, it would be like learning a foreign language;
the difference in dialects is really that big.
Secondly, at that time, you wouldn’t know, after
learning Tibetan language, because in most
places, you were using Chinese language.

Reporter: Studying Chinese at that time was a
kind of tool for you, is it still?

Alai: Perhaps starting from that time, we would
treat culture, I can’t say how old I was at that
time, I understood culture as much as I do today,
so at that time I definitely would have
considered that learning this thing, what other
people told you was this, you could change your life.

Commentary: With Tibetan language as his own
mother tongue, when Alai began to go to Chinese
language and culture classes in primary school,
he found it extremely strenuous.

Reporter: When a person has a mother tongue, it’s
a very difficult process to take on another
language. I suppose you had to experience these difficulties from a young age?

Alai: It was extremely difficult, because I think
from primary school, moreover we were considered
good within all the Tibetan areas, other people
thought our area was a fairly open area, many
people from before understood a little [Chinese
language]. At school, the teacher was really
happy upon first hearing us and said ‘these kids
all have a foundation’. We could say ‘eat’, we
could say ‘the sun has come out’, we could say
‘the cattle have gone up the mountain, the sheep
have come down from the mountain’, but these were
useless. Once you entered the realm of the
textbook, you realized that even though you
seemed to understand every sentence the teacher
spoke in the classroom, in the end, after you
left class, you didn’t understand what it was
actually trying to tell you. So for many years I
couldn’t understand my classes. Of course a lot
of people who couldn’t understand just let it be,
but since I was a kid I particularly had a kind
of anxiety, that of not understanding. I remember
when I was young I always had a nightmare about
not understanding math one by one: those in
brackets, addition, subtraction, multiplication,
division, one by one the formulas fell down from
the sky, it was that kind of solid, like
something made of foam, that crushed your body until you couldn’t breathe.

Reporter: When did you start to understand?

Alai: Finally one day, but at a time when I was
going all out, I mastered this thing as best I
could. Reading newspapers, anyway reading as much
of anything I got that had some words on it, so
finally one day, I remember it was when I was in
the third grade of primary school, that day, I
felt like my brain was normally made of wood,
then that day it was like in one buzz it opened
up, I understood everything I couldn’t understand
before. From that time on, I felt it was like
entering a world, up until now, I feel that if I
wish to make something understood, I can make
clear any situation using Chinese language, you
just have to give me a line of words, this kind
of ability to understand has been cultivated.

TV Guide:

Wandering around Tibetan areas like an ascetic monk

What kind of creative inspirations did he gain?

Writing on the go

Why isn’t he satisfied with his own creations?

Commentary: In 1979, Alai graduated cum laude
from Barkham Normal School, and was assigned to a
post as a teacher in a Tibetan area village
primary school. Having taught well, after two
years, Alai was transferred to the Barkham County
Secondary School as the history teacher for the
graduating class. From being a grade school
student with scant knowledge of Chinese language
to now being a Tibetan teacher using Chinese
language to teach class, Alai has a deeper
understanding of Chinese language, and from his
interest in literature, Alai formed a creative
impulse, and began attempting to use Chinese language to write.

Reporter: When you first started writing in
Chinese, there was then an issue placed in the
forefront, what would you write using Chinese?
What would you write using Chinese that would be your strong point?

3Alai: What to write, I think a lot of people
have been looking a long time for this way. What
I first started to write, actually I don’t think
it was very clear. It was hard to avoid going
along and writing a little of what other people
were writing at the same time. In this writing
process, at that time I was really, really
confused, I began to publish my work in 1982.

Reporter: What piece did you publish in 1982?

Alai: Poetry that I wrote.

Reporter: What was the content of what you wrote?

Alai: At that time I was still in a village
school teaching class, going for walks every day,
so I observed the restoration of a monastery.
Each day they drew the murals for the monastery,
what kind of birds, what kind of flowers, what
kind of buddhas, they were all drawn based on
scriptures, there weren’t that many works by
artists inside. Everyday I observed, I watched
those people paint, a way of painting turned into
a procedure, painting everyday. I observed that
what they themselves painted also lacked spirit.
Suddenly one day, I watched a young lama, it was
very interesting: he got tired of painting and
came outside and painted a dove on a slab of
stone. What he painted on the spur of the moment
was really life-like. All at once it was
different from the other things he painted: The
dove painted on the stone was about to fly away.

Reporter: What did you observe from these details?

Alai: One thing I saw was religious, the kind of
ideological form that strongly needs to
standardize people within a framework, inside
every corner of each individual’s soul, seeking a
kind of possibility of freedom, this kind of
comparison. After another year or two, when I
wrote that poem, I suddenly thought of that image.

Commentary: This first poem entitled "The
Fluttering Sound of the Wings of Your Soul" was
the first literary work officially published by
Alai. Because he was skilled in writing, in 1984,
Alai was transferred to the position of editor of
the New Grasslands magazine under the Ngawa
Prefecture Cultural Affairs Department. After
undertaking writing work, Alai frequented
bookshops to read and purchase books. He read a
large amount of internationally famous writers,
these classic works translated into Chinese both
broadened his horizons, and also brought him
inspiration. Alai began to reflect on the issues
dealt with within his own writings.

Reporter: What [issues] did you face?

Alai: The issues I faced were: I wanted to enter
this field of writing, which had never been expressed by very good literature.

Reporter: What field did you want to enter?

Alai: The field of describing society in Tibetan areas.

Reporter: Until this, there hadn’t been any other
writers who had written pieces about this area?

Alai: There were, but they were of the kind of style that I didn’t agree with.

Reporter: In other words, in your mind’s eye,
there wasn’t a single piece of writing that was
able to express well and in its original state
these people’s ways of life, a kind of concept of
living, etc. in Tibetan areas.

Alai: Right, and on top of that, social reality
isn’t conveyed very well, it may conceptually
block some realities; there is this kind of issue.

Reporter: What made you write it down?

Alai: We were pretty lucky because, actually a
period of time gives people a lot of experience,
this period of time I think I am especially
indebted to the 1980s. At that time we
encountered a lot of different ideological trends
in foreign literature, particularly at that time
I encountered two foreign, really great, one was
America’s Whitman in English, one was Latin
America’s Neruda in Spanish, these kinds of two
poets, I thought I had found two mentors. Neither
of these two mentors were along the same lines as
me, nor were they in the same time period as me.

Reporter: So did it change you?

Alai: To express using a kind of familiar
language, and moreover a very ancient and
culturally rich traditional language, to express
a reality that had never before been expressed.
Neruda used Spanish language to express South
America, Whitman used English language to express
America, and I really liked the kind of style of
these two people, which was that kind of, one was
in America, one was in South America traveling
around, then singing, and writing.

Commentary: Just like the poets Whitman and
Neruda that he adored in his mind’s eye, Alai
begin to travel like an ascetic around the
seventy-thousand square kilometer area of his own Ngawa Prefecture.

Reporter: I want to know what did you want to do? What did you want to gain?

Alai: Of course each time was not the same as
your average trip. At that time, after having
one’s own literary ways of thinking, you
determine some topics for yourself. For instance,
when I go out this time, what will I have to do?
What things do I mainly want to see?

Reporter: Can you give me an example?

Alai: Take local history for instance, because
every place I went to at that time, it was like
you would discover some abandoned, already ruined
towns inside those mountains, just like an
ancient European castle, suddenly there. If you
were someone who believed in fate, even the wild
walnut trees have already grown so huge within
those city walls, meaning that those houses have
lain fallen for a hundred, two hundred years.
Then you go ask local people, for example, I
walked to one place, and came across this kind of
big ghost town, the ruins of a village. He told
me, this building was called “Gyalpo” in Tibetan
language, what is “Gyalpo”: king.

Reporter: You were communicating with him in Tibetan language, right?

Alai: Of course, spoken language is fine. This
was the king’s building, the king’s building,
because at that time, those, the chiefs of those
indigenous peoples of the local areas all
considered themselves kings, and even called
themselves kings. In Tibetan language, it meant
“king”. The aforesaid king received some kind of
curse, because he didn’t treat a certain kind of
person amicably, and this person should have
received kind treatment. So how did he receive
the curse then? The legend is very
straightforward, a piece of rock fell down from
the back of the mountain, one day, in the middle
of the night, it just happened to break off, it
rolled down from the mountain and crashed into
this building. Afterwards, this king went into
decline. Then around his village, meaning his
serfs and these things, also scattered in all
directions, and this village disappeared. This
kind of story and legend can be encountered everywhere.

Commentary: The fruits of his travels are two
literary works that Alai has written in Chinese.
The first one is a collection of poems that
describe his homeland’s mother river, Somang
River, and the [second] one is a collection of
short stories called Bloodstained Years of Old,
from these he was recognized as a writer. And his
method of writing while traveling is something
foreigners consider the most independent and unique way.

Reporter: If you write in Chinese while
traveling, what kind of meaning and influence does it have?

Alai: At that time also, perhaps I wrote a few
things, but I didn’t think it was any special
way; deep down I was still kind of hazy. Actually
it was also a kind of way to go out and shake off this haziness.

Reporter (typo in original? Should be Alai): A
lot of people call you a writer, but at this time
I was truly extremely terrified, that kind of
terror I just talked about, was I really a
writer? I suddenly started to ask myself this
question. In the beginning publishing one or two
poems, receiving a couple prizes, this kind of
vain thing, until later there’s nothing. On the
contrary, I always asked myself, do I fit? The
kinds of people I thought of were Li Bai, Du Fu,
Su Dong Po, Neruda, and Whitman. Then, I also
thought, the differences between myself and their
time were too great, moreover, could we catch up
with them on those points, was there this kind of possibility?

Reporter: What exactly were you seeking?

Alai: I just wanted to affirm myself, I thought
there was only one kind of way, which was to
return to my land, and be among my people. That
year I traveled completely on foot, that year I
went to two counties, which doesn’t amount to
much in the mainland, there it was close to
thirty-thousand square kilometers. I walked for a
long time. I even completely wore out a really good pair of shoes.

That time, I probably walked for more than two
months. When I set out, I told my wife, I said,
this time I might set out and come back. In the
end the possibilities were, one was that I would
continue to write it down, one was that from then
until now I wouldn’t write a single word anymore.
These two books were a record of impulsive youth,
and I returned to being a teacher.

Reporter: I just can’t understand, since you also
just said that in the midst of this kind of
continuous writing and hesitation, you already
affirmed yourself as the first generation of
Tibetan intellectuals, you had a sense of responsibility.

Alai: When I was in my thirties, my thinking
wasn’t as clear as it is today. Yet, in those
travels, I thought I did. Moreover, along the way
I wrote a long poem for myself, but in fact it
wasn’t just about myself, it was written about
the complete harmony between this piece of land
and the people on this piece of land.

At the same time, you were still an intellectual,
you were also able to be detached from these
feelings, to observe this piece, you looked at it
as a piece of history, recorded this kind of
change. Therefore, I regarded that time, this was
1989, so that year was also when I wrote my last
poem. I thought I would never write poetry again.
Since then I’ve stayed steadfast, I didn’t
written poetry again, and began to write novels.
Writing that, I prepared that way by using what I
considered to be masterpieces at that time.

TV Guide:

As the Dust Settles won the Fifth Mao Dun Literature Award

He is the only Tibetan writer to gain this honor to date

The novel has been translated into 16 languages

For what reason has it attracted people’s attention?

"One on One" Dong Qian exclusively interviews Tibetan writer Alai, in broadcast

Commentary 9: For the full-length novel As the
Dust Settles written in 1994, Alai took 8 months
to finish writing this fable-like literary work.
 From the perspective of an idiot son of a
headman’s family, As the Dust Settles describes
the history of the demise of the mysterious
Tibetan headsman system. Alai uses vivid,
unhurried, and refined language, to render the
fated story of an idiot son of the last
generation of headsmen, which has a certain
supernatural tone. In 2001, As the Dust Settles
won the Fifth Mao Dun Literature Award, in this
year, Alai was 41 years old; he is the only
Tibetan writer to gain this honor to date.

Reporter: For the daily life activities, customs,
and including the religious beliefs, etc. of
Tibetan compatriots, when using Chinese language
to represent them, is it possible to be
completely accurate, is it possible to remain authentic?

Alai: This is possible, however you principally
go with the macro-thinking structure, it is
already composed of Chinese language, because you
acquire knowledge through it, because it is not
as simple as the impressions of rural life
originally relying on Tibetan language as the
mother tongue. But today in the novel, because I
have not given up Tibetan language, and I now
often return to that kind of rural life, to allow
myself some serenity, some rest. So when I’m
writing novels, if I come across these kinds of
questions, I can go back to Tibetan language and
use it to think things through.

Reporter: You just said, to return to using
Tibetan language to think, a way to exchange, it’s a kind of break for you.

Alai: Right.

Reporter: Why?

Alai: Because it’s not that grandiose, it’s just
directly connected to daily life, it doesn’t have
that many anxieties. It doesn’t have so many
considerations, confusions; it doesn’t have those
kinds of things, because it is directly a
prototype, related to life’s vital element. So I
only have to write about some scenes, some
appearances in the novel, when some appearances
are very difficult to describe, if it’s difficult
to express in Chinese language, or when it’s
expressed but its particular feeling is lost, I
go back to Tibetan language, I think a bit, if I
use Tibetan language to express it, what would it
be like? For example, in As the Dust Settles, the
main character asks, what is love? He can’t
answer, and then suddenly answers, love is the
kind of feeling of bubbles inside your bones. In
Chinese language, it would definitely find a more
standard, more poetic expression. But he is a
kind of thing that is even simpler, in between
things. It looks for a similar kind of situation;
it is all some parts. I use Tibetan language to
think about some parts, then translate them into Chinese.

Reporter: When you want to use a Tibetan language
method of thinking, when you translate it into
Chinese, what kind of challenge does that pose?

Alai: Conversely, I see it more as a good thing,
once you enter it, after you understand it, after
you understand it, what kind of question is
there? When I enter into Chinese language,
Chinese language has this kind of richness,
refinement, such a great expressiveness; even
ordinary vocabulary has such a great
expressiveness and penetrating power. This, I
think, regarding this characteristic of Chinese
language, I grasp it to a greater degree than
even many of the Chinese writers of my generation.

Reporter: Why is this?

Alai: This is because I have another language to refer to; I have a comparison.

Alai: Perhaps a lot of Chinese writers are
forever inside this linguistic context, and
instead, don’t have this kind of reference and
comparison. Especially our generation of writers,
we’ve had a strong awareness since we were young,
because I always had another language for
comparison, that is the Chinese written language,
its kind of richness, especially its refinement,
its accuracy, and ability to express precisely.
You can write with it. So to this day, I cannot use Tibetan language to write.

Reporter: Why is this?

Alai: Because spoken and written languages are
two completely different systems, moreover, if I
speak a little practically, perhaps if you let me
study a language, I might study English, French,
but not Tibetan written language.

Reporter: Why?

Alai: Because Tibetan language also has an issue,
which is, this language, since its creation, up
through the last few centuries until the end of
the 1950s, for the most part, it was a religious
language used by monks, and wasn’t a language, a
written language, that was shared by the entire
populace to express all parts of our lives. So
its expressions are limited, and so if you enter
into this writing system, actually we don’t even
have a real independent literary tradition,
although maybe in Buddhist texts, in order to
express the logic more vividly, it also has some
methods of literary expression, but it doesn’t
have independent literature. (Note: Tibet Web
Digest recommend you to read Alai on Tibetan
Language by Kyabchen Dedrol, another influential
young  writer who teaches Tibetan language and literature in Tibet.)

Commentary: From the first time it was published
in 1998 up to today, As the Dust Settles has
already been translated into 16 languages and
published around the world. As the Dust Settles
has also been filmed as a television series, which received high ratings.

Insert television series segment

Reporter: This kind of piece, why is it able to
move people who aren’t of this kind of culture and place?

1Alai: The most important thing is, while we can
move other people, it’s still a person’s fate.
Because in my conception of literature, I think
that except for what we call individualist, we
still seek some things we share with humanity,
some simple things. Our feelings are the same,
the basic circumstances we face, the ultimate
circumstances are the same. Don’t we all get
born, age, get sick, and die? Don’t we all love
and hate? Even if we say there are some cultural
differences, we just wear different clothes, eat
different things, it’s just that we regard love
and ways of looking at things a little
differently. But in the end, faced with the
ultimate, the ultimate impact on our development
are still eight words “love, hate, kindness,
enmity, birth, aging, sickness, death”, all people face these issues.

Reporter: If you don’t write, if one doesn’t live
in this place, doesn’t understand the people of
these cultures, can one still be able to know?

Alai: Perhaps they couldn’t know. Because people
who don’t live in these areas don’t know, what is
so peculiar about this culture is, sometimes
people who live in the midst of this culture, they may not even know it.

Reporter: How can I understand this comment of yours?

Alai: It’s because, they just accept it as a
habit, and later they don’t understand it in a
rational way. Sometimes culture needs some" On
one hand, our life is in the middle of a really
strong inertia, this is the majority of people.
But to detach oneself from this inertia, to
observe how this inertia was produced, actually
this is more or less a part of cultural research,
but very few people will jump out of this role,
to observe this thing. Moreover, especially when
you talk about minority peoples’ culture, they may be characterized even more.

Part II:

TV Guide:

Leaving his home village

In what ways would he continue to write Tibetan culture

Walking towards the world

How would he regard preservation and development of culture?

"One on One" Dong Qian exclusively interviews Tibetan writer Alai, in broadcast

Commentary: In 1996, Alai joined Chengdu’s
Science Fiction Magazine, and later became the
magazine’s editor-in-chief. Despite leaving his
home village, Alai didn’t forget the land where
he was born and raised. He said he left his home
village, but used writing as a way to return. In
1999, he participated in Yunnan People’s Press’
“Entering Tibet” cultural study tour, and
completed the lengthy essay “Land of Ladders”.

Reporter: Weren’t you also paying attention to
the people in all the places you went, what kind
of lifestyle did they have, what kind of appearance did their lives have?

Alai: Right, if you walked into a small village,
from far away you would see a five starred red
flag, and a building with some Chinese features,
and you would know that there was a primary
school there. Then, if this primary school has
already been here twenty years, it has probably
influenced the greater surrounding area, the
entire mental attitude of its people, even to a
fine degree of its agricultural cultivation.
After it has culture, its impact on every aspect of social life is huge.

Reporter: What kind of impact has this
transformation of this great age had on their lives?

Alai: Take a farmer for example, he harvests 500
kilograms of corn this year, and is going to sell
it. Next year, he harvests 800 kilograms of corn
and is going to sell it. Not necessarily, in the
original thinking, in his old concept 800
kilograms of corn was considered a bumper harvest
year, but, not always, after the current
marketization, when he hauls 800 kilograms of
corn to the city, it’s possible that he doesn’t
earn as much as last year’s 500 kilograms of corn.

Alai: Earning a little money for the sake of
economic livelihood, he must pay attention to
urban information, because the market is in the
city, demands come from the city. Today’s farming
village isn’t the same as in the past, farming
villages in the past were a self-sufficient
society, but today’s farming village, a lot of
commodities from the outside, nomads want to ride
motorcycles, and want to watch television, put a
lid on it. These things, he wants to enjoy them
all. These things all come from the outside.
Secondly, his commodities also have to be brought
out to be exchanged, and moreover the exchange
value is not determined by him. It is
[determined] by the city, so he is especially
sensitive to the transformations of the city today.

Commentary: In 2007, Alai joined the Sichuan
Province Writers Association as a professional
writer, he still maintained the habit of his
youth of writing while traveling, only the scope
of his travels wasn’t confined only to Tibetan
areas, he went abroad, and in the process of
observing abroad, Alai especially paid attention
to the state of cultural preservation and development.

Reporter: Since strong and weak cultures really
exist of cultures, when a strong culture faces a
relatively weak culture, what kind of impact do you think it will have?

Alai: Sometimes a culture, not only culture, its
economy, its social system, when relatively
backwards, it inevitably will have to be influenced by a stronger culture.

Reporter: Some people think, when Han Chinese
culture enters Tibetan cultural areas, Tibetan
culture, how can it maintain itself well, and at
the same time continually evolve and develop ahead?

Alai: In theory this thing is a very satisfactory
saying, theoretically a very satisfactory saying,
in reality in today’s society, its independent
evolution already eliminated such a possibility.

Alai: Look at any culture in today’s world, not
one says it has preserved itself, and all its
original old things, and at the same time is able
to progress. In theory this is a very good
hypothesis, to say we can both preserve all old
things, and at the same time we can also
progress, but who can do it? Americans haven’t
done it; the French haven’t done it.

Alai: For example when I was in the US, I
observed, I purposely went to Indiana [sic. means
Native American reservation], keeping them
confined here was called preservation, and
confined here, young people still wanted to
leave, moreover preservation had no way to
preserve. Reservations could open casinos, then
just like a duty-free shop at an airport, you
could buy tax-free cigarettes and alcohol, and
lastly, Indians on the reservation relied on
opening little casinos and selling free
cigarettes and alcohol, people from around all
went there, like we go to the airport, to buy
whiskey, Triple 5, Marlboros, just go there to
buy, these were the privileges the government gave them.

Alai: You confine them in there, the surrounding
areas are all Americanized, in this one Indian
reservation, it’s still impossible to maintain
the original Indian ways of life. At the most
some of their traditional handicrafts are
produced, in actuality they are also modern
designs, sold to tourists. Do you call this preservation?

Reporter: People pay attention to Tibetan
culture, it’s because of its uniqueness; because
it’s unique it has attained its charm.

Alai: But we’ve overlooked another aspect,
ordinary people demand changes in their life.
Take a farmer for example, originally he used
plough cattle, Tibetan areas use two head of
cattle for one plough, now we have the
conditions, we can use tractors, why not use
tractors? If he uses a tractor, and not plough
cattle, two head of cattle for one plough, is
this the destruction of culture? In the original
homes, Tibetan areas frequently engaged in
fighting, that kind of fortress-style house,
look, that kind of house was really small,
windows were like the firing holes of bunkers.
Why? At that time society was not stable, they
didn’t dare to open up big windows, at that time,
a lot of our elderly people were in the home’s
fire tending chamber, a lot of elderly people
didn’t have good eyesight from early on. The
smoke was black, it spread but didn’t go out. Now
life has improved, look at today’s architecture
in Tibetan areas, windows are bigger and bigger,
paintings are more and more beautiful. Nowadays a
lot of Tibetan people, you go put your herd out
to pasture, the herds are horses, but they don’t
ride horses, they ride motorcycles. Why don’t
they ride horses, isn’t riding horses more like
Tibetan people? This is what an outsider thinks:
aren’t you Tibetans naturally supposed to ride
horses, so be like a Tibetan, why does he ride a
motorcycle, and on top of that herd horses?

Alai: Actually we should really see, a lot of
times it’s some lifestyle changes, cultural
evolution, a lot of times it is the voluntary
choice of ordinary people, whatever is more
convenient, whatever is more effective, whatever
is more comfortable, as long as economic
conditions permit, he must pursue that.

Commentary: Today, Alai has settled down in
Chengdu, but most of the time, he still drives
himself to travel in familiar Tibetan areas, he
also frequently returns to his own birthplace, to
visit Tibetan relatives and compatriots living
there. And transformations in lifestyles in
Tibetan areas always fill Alai’s heart with emotion.

Reporter: Speaking from your own life, what kinds
of changes have occurred in this last half-century?

Alai: In the last half-century, I think, I’ve
always said, the changes in the last hundred
years are even greater than those in the last
thousand years, whether materially, speaking in
terms of the richness of ordinary people’s material lives, it’s like this.

Reporter: When you were little, do you still
remember what your living conditions were like?

Alai: For example, in the past when villages like
ours were just liberated, at that time, a road
was built, nowadays at our, in my hometown
village, at that time whatever place we would go,
to go to a place with a department store we had
to walk twenty kilometers, this department
store’s town was twenty some kilometers outside,
we had to get up before dawn, then walk on the
road for half a day, and return home after dark. An entire day walking.

Alai: But now if you want to go, almost every
family has a car, has a motorcycle, has a
tractor, not just one, but two. You can go there
in about ten minutes, already return home here
and drink wine, say, they’re about to finish
their wine, one person goes twenty, thirty
kilometers, and returns in ten minutes. And is
already carrying a box of wine back. So, that
kind of life, the second reality, more
importantly is, in our remote villages, a lot of
people leave, not just myself. They receive a
modern education, walk towards the outside world,
moreover not just anyone returns to Tibetan areas
to work. Our village just has how many people? It
has some really good old surgeons, a railroad company.

Reporter: Why is that?

Alai: It’s because they received an education,
and also it’s still not a given that a lot of our
people will return to Tibetan areas, our
generation of people, they are very capable of
joining mainstream society, joining China’s
mainstream society. Perhaps in our village there
are now two or three hundred people, and maybe
there are forty or fifty of them working outside,
as cadres, as doctors, as teachers, as whatever.
Moreover many of them are undertaking highly
intellectual, highly technical work.

Reporter: Do you consider that being a Tibetan
writer, expressing your own ethnicity’s changes
due to society, and a period that has brought
about changes in lifestyle and thinking, this
channel that sowed change, shouldn’t outside
people should know even more about everything it has experienced?

Alai: The times drive you to produce this kind of
transformation. We are actually recording this
kind of change, and furthermore Tibetan society
is very strange. China’s ethnic minorities, among
more than fifty ethnic minorities, not all
ethnicities have written language, Tibetans
themselves have written language, but when we
examine our history, our historical records are
extremely sparse. Mainly they are about the
continuation of religion, but we consider that
reaching this stage today, we can say this:
perhaps we are also a result produced by Tibetan
society’s hundred years of change.

Alai: That is, perhaps we are the first
generation of truly significant intellectuals in
Tibetan history. Then, of course intellectuals
have the responsibility and fate of
intellectuals. Then, we need to accept this kind
of responsibility, bear this responsibility, and also accept this fate.

Commentary: In the midst of writing, Alai
describes his home village of Gyarong as such:
"It doesn’t matter if it’s for a book or for a
person’s wisdom, this piece of land is too
profound. The river runs day and night, the four
seasons freely change, people thrive
uninterrupted.” Regarding continuing to travel to
Tibetan areas, Alai says: Tibetan areas’ changes
in lifestyle and development will always be the object of his writing.

Reporter: You are a writer, what do you think
your next writing will be, two novels have
already come out in succession. Have you already finished your duty?

Alai: No, I haven’t. Right now I’m currently, I
just started to write a part, I’m writing a very
famous oral history in our Tibetan history, King
Gesar, right now I’m participating in an
international writing plan, England has a
publisher, which is organizing writers from
around the world, it has a project called
International Collaborative Project, called
Remaking Myths, where every ethnicity, every
country has their own ancient peoples, myths
created by the nation. But a lot of these myths
have already died out, since modern people can’t accept that kind of approach.

Alai: It wishes to use the method of modern
novels to write these myths, then reactivate it.

Reporter: I think you are a writer without pressures to write.

Alai: Correct, I don’t give myself rules, maybe
when this book is finished, I suppose my writing
will temporarily stop for a bit, maybe I’ll want
to go do something again, something I’ve never
done. Moreover this is adding to one’s own
experience, because I’m already nearly a
fifty-year-old person, for writing, I think even
when I can no longer move about, I can still
write. But now I have to engage in this society,
perhaps it has even greater meaning.

Host: Since engaging in literary work, his home
village of Gyarong’s natural scenery and
historical culture have always been the source
and strength of Alai’s creative work. In 2008,
Alai already began to write the lengthy novel
King Gesar, which is different from the
traditional significance of King Gesar. This work
will have a stronger contemporary meaning; upon
its completion the work will be published
internationally in six languages. We believe,
following the development of the times, that
under the perseverance of Alai and even more
people promoting Tibetan culture, Tibetan culture
will better walk toward the world. That’s all for
today’s program, thank you for watching.
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