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Banned Lyrics, Reactionary Songs

July 27, 2010

How Beijing distorts and uses Tibetan performing arts?
By Bhuchung D. Sonam
Phayul
July 26, 2010

In September 2008, Tashi Dhondup -- a gifted
30-year-old singer from Amdo in north-eastern
Tibet -- was detained at gun-point by the Chinese
authorities while his wife wept and clung to a
police officer’s legs in an attempt to save him.
Dhondup was accused of composing 'subversive
songs' with ‘counter-revolutionary content’ in
his music album Torture Without Trace. He was
detained and beaten for over a week by police in Xining.

In one of the songs titled Unable to Meet Dhondup sings:

When I think about it I am unfortunate
I am unable to wave the Snow Lion Flag
Even though I wish, I have no freedom
If I think about this I am unfortunate

Ever since the People’s Liberation Army first
marched into Tibet in 1949-1950, the Chinese
Communist Party (CCP) has used propaganda to
legitimize its occupation of Tibet and educate
the masses on the virtues of its version of
socialism. One means to achieve this has been
music which overcomes the language barrier and
has the power to convey any message immediately.
Taking a cue from Lenin, who said that literature
and art are "a screw in the whole machine," the
Chinese authorities have employed music as a core
component of State propaganda.

In the 1950s and ‘60s massive public
song-and-dance campaigns were staged to
disseminate political ideology through lyrics and
to convince the people of the supposed benefits
the CCP had brought to the people. "Music is no
longer an end in itself, but a vital weapon in
the struggle," said Mao while encouraging a
‘cultural army’ of musicians and other performing
artistes to carry out large-scale uniformed
performances with 'passion and conviction' to spearhead the revolution.

Dance Troupes -- mostly composed of young
Tibetans taken to China and trained by Chinese
teachers to sing in high-pitched Chinese operatic
style — were used to disseminate ideological and
political propaganda. These troupes travelled to
the remotest regions throughout Tibet to stage
'developed' and highly-sinicized versions of
traditional music dressed in hybridized costumes.

Revolutionary songs were taught to adults during
PRC’s endless the political campaigns, at
meetings, and to children in schools, both to
impart ideological education and also to teach
Chinese language as the songs were primarily
composed in Chinese and then translated into
Tibetan. Lobsang Dekyi, who grew up in Shigatse
in central Tibet in the 1950s and 1960s, told
Tibet Information Network that "these songs were
[the Communist Party's] own creation, composed
with music and with political meanings and all,
but when performing these songs, while
inaugurating schools in China or while organising
ceremonies, they would say that they were performing Tibetan folk songs."

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) the
traditional performing arts were completely
banned. Anyone singing Tibetan songs were forced
to undergo struggle sessions and publicly
humiliated as harbouring ‘bourgeois habits.’ Even
Dance Troupes were ordered to sing only Communist songs approved by Beijing.

Tibetan music and the performing arts never
recovered from the years of damage, exacerbated
by the decade of political and cultural mayhem in
the form of the Cultural Revolution. Even Hu
Yaobang’s liberal policies after his historic
Tibet visit in May 1980 did little to heal the wounds.

In The Ideological Impact on Tibetan Art, Per
Kvaerne -- a professor of the History of
Religions at the University of Oslo — talks about
an official festival of folk culture in a
district of Amdo in the late 1980s. During the
festival Tibetan folk-performances, Chinese pop,
disco and break-dancing dominated the programme
in the local Palace of Culture for two full
nights. The intention was to showcase diversity
and equality between the nationalities’ culture,
and to express their happiness under the leadership of the Party.

However, Kvaerne writes that there was a "more
subtle message, an essential meaning which was
conveyed by the dress of the dancers, which was
just as gaudy and unrealistic as any to be found…
Official folk culture in contemporary China is
entertainment, circus, show – nothing more.
Further, the personal appearance of the dancers
-- their heavy make-up and expressionless facial
features - conforms to Chinese, not Tibetan
aesthetic ideals. What we see there is not
Tibetan folk-culture at all, but a modern Chinese
cultural idiom masquerading as Tibetan."

Kvaerne adds that "as row upon row of [Tibetan]
young women and men, who were dressed up in
imitations of Tibetan chupa, filed before the
local nomenklatura, one was struck not only by
the incongruity of Chinese pink straw hats as
part of Tibetan dress, but on a deeper level one
realises that one is witnessing a call to blind
political obedience, collective existence and cultural uniformity."

In today’s globalized world, Tibetan music is
still used by Beijing to drive home political
messages. Anyone not toeing the official line is
barred from public performances, persecuted, arrested and imprisoned.

Beijing, however, maintains a roster of
‘acceptable’ Tibetan singers whose songs they
consider exemplary. But, writes Tsering Shakya in
The Struggle for Tibet, the list has never
changed. "The official diva of the Tibetan song
is Tsetan Dolma, who has officially been the most
loved of all Tibetan singers since the 1950s.
Musical tastes may have changed, but Tsetan Dolma
is still championed as the number one singer and
appears regularly in every political event, even
though many people despise her music."

On 10 March 1993, Zeng Jian-Hui, vice-minister of
the Propaganda Ministry of CCP Central Committee
said, "We should expand our sphere of influence;
in particular, we should infiltrate our
propaganda into the mainstream life of the west.
Firstly, we should continue to send Tibetan
scholars and Tibetan singing and dancing troupes
abroad to lecture and perform." 'Singing and
dancing Tibetans' come as handy tools for PRC to
expand its influence abroad, to legitimise its
rule in Tibet, to prove how happy the Tibetans
are in Tibet and finally to show that Tibetan culture is fully protected.

This reverses reality. Like other aspects of
Tibetan life, traditional music and performing
arts are being stifled by constant official
censorship, deliberate distortion and
comprehensive sinicization. Tibetan musicians who
do not reinforce Beijing’s propaganda and campaigns are persecuted.

In January 2010, the authorities sentenced the
singer Tashi Dhondup to 15 months’ ‘reform
through hard labour.’ Earlier, in March 2008,
another young Tibetan singer, Dolma Kyi from
Golog, was arrested for composing and singing
'reactionary songs'. Likewise, in May this year a
list of 27 popular Tibetan-language songs were
banned in Tibet, whether in audio or videodisk
format, or as digital media files on people’s cell phones.

"Anyone possessing the illegal music or videos
will be severely dealt with," the authorities warned.

Bu no matter how harsh Beijing imposes its
crackdown on Tibetan lyrics or how many times the
CCP may smash the strings of our danyen, songs
will be sung and music will flow from occupied
Tibet through the ramparts of the Himalayan range.

* The writer can be reached at bhuchungdsonam@gmail.com

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