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Melodious Plateau: Politics and Song at Losar (The Tibetan New Year)

[This is a guest post by Kristiana Henderson of Pacific Lutheran University, based upon research begun in Tibet in October 2010 and continued for the duration of that fall in Chengdu and western Sichuan province, PRC.  Henderson uses some Tibetan characters in the post which, depending on your font sympathies and access, may not display in their entirety — a fitting enough irony considering the content of the post.

Speaking more globally, people whose scholarly gears turn along musicological lines should not miss next week’s conference on Asian Pop Music at Princeton University.  It’s a great line up, with lots of papers about Japan.  But without any papers about North Korean hip-hop [a subject about which, to my knowledge, I remain the sole academic to have published anything about] or an appearance from Tokyo-London by the art-music-and-“menstruation machine”-generator-provocateur Sputniko!, the conference may be just as notable for what it is lacking.  And thus back to Tibet, and definitions in reference to absence.  — Adam Cathcart]

བགྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས!  Best wishes for ལོ་སར /Losar/Tibetan New Year.

Holidays connected to a particular ethnicity in China have a way of strengthening definitions of what it means to belong to that identity. Losar, usually sandwiched neatly between Chinese New Year and the Iranian/Kurdish/Zoroastrian New Year, is such a holiday: something uniquely Tibetan (or, at least, Himalayan). For Tibet in particular,  this kind of cultural “spin cycle” of Chinese and indigenous holidays has gone even further into overdrive amidst the dual wash cycles of globalization and an increasingly strong presence of Han Chinese culture in Tibetan popular culture and media.

The metaphor of wash cycles, when applied to Tibet, however, may not contain the desired connotations.  Dare I be more explicit in the connotation of white-washing, or, depending on one’s proclivities, ethnic cleansing?

[Having posed a heart-racing question, the author then proceeds to ignore it. – A.C.]

What interests me much more is how cultures — and all of the facets — that go into sculpting cultural identity, regional differences, complexities in beliefs and values, historiographies, and the interweaving of “healthy” and “not-so-healthy” parts of a culture all get instantly stripped into an easily definable “symbolic” package that can be instantly understood, and, in being instantly understood, become better able to be controlled and “sold” for a target demographic.

Tibetan dress, dialect, music and dancing styles, etc. that are unique to regions and class end up cherry-picked, boiled down into a nice jam that can be easily spread over the bland white bread of mass media. Couple this with China’s heavy hand in ethic minorities’ self-expression, and you have the questions surrounding Tibetan identity in a nutshell.

My own interests began with the policy side of things, looking directly at minority language education policy.  In the midst of this research, I decided to “get in the mood” by finding some decent Tibetan music on QQ music, the Chinese portal, or, now back in the U.S., through YouTube, the perennial time death-trap of the collegian. My discoveries led me into a world of synthesizers mixed with traditional instruments, rap mixed with the soulful, plaintive traditional “warbling,” solo singers and mass performances, and music videos dominated by scenes of spinning prayer wheels, men singing in flower fields, and smiling women either dancing or herding yaks

(Occasionally there were some who tried to get a fresher “Hip Hop” image, but due to the lack of quality in the video itself and the self-consciousness of all the performances, it was too painful to continue watching.  Interesting enough that in some of these incorporate a strange mix of “gangster” and “Abercrombie” images….my take-home message seems to be what I noticed just in my travels and interactions in Tibet: whatever is American sells, not only because it’s “cool,” but because it provides a viable alternative to Chinese mass culture.)

[I would also add that much of the Tibetan exposure to what is regarded as hip-hop on the plateau seems to be strained through South Korean idioms and fashion. — A.C.]

Regardless, the videos left me with questions.  So, if the Tibetans were completely left to their own devices in creating these music videos, and there were absolutely no political constraints on the images and themes they are and are not allowed to broadcast, would there really be this many effing yaks on my computer screen right now?

Cleaned up for academic purposes, I believe it’s a good question to ask, because the implications behind the question are directly related to who is actually in control of how a culture is projected to a larger audience.

Are the images a result of constraints placed by Beijing? Then I’d call it stereotyping and boxing in of a minority culture for post-colonial styles of mass-commodification. If this was truly done free-willingly by Tibetan artists, then I’d suspect the free market, and if the Invisible Hand wants beat-box while milk some sheep on the Tibetan Plateau.  If the latter is the case, then so be it.

How, then, was Losar 2011 presented?  I’ve seen a variety of performances on YouTube already, some involving kids’ shows, some incredibly campy comedy routines centering on illiteracy, that seem more like a daytime slapstick show out of Taibei than Markham, although I doubt even in Taibei they would have a 2008 Beijing Olympics Gift Bag as a prop…. Some have varying levels of “traditional” Tibetan folk costume and dance routines. Some, including some of the advertisements, are in the Tibetan Language (although “surprisingly” many of these have even the tones and inflections of Chinese than even Lhasa Tibetan). Some of the programming is just done straight-up in Chinese and have a few interesting themes woven in besides (check out this one as well), and it’s interesting just to see the theme for comedy material in terms of language used. Also, let’s look at this gem of a bizarre and possibly paternalistic fashion show. Some shows geared for kids, opening up yet another Pandora’s box regarding how to teach kids “how to be Tibetan.”

Simultaneously, there are quite a few popular music videos (I can only guess this is also the case within the 雪城) circulating now around by famous Tibetan singers. The common theme is extolling the virtues of…Tibetan identity. Judging by the fact that these videos were taken from Chinese television channels and/or Chinese Youtube, I can assume that these 土豆videos weren’t TOO hot for the Harmonious Society to handle. But they could be deemed politically “sensitive” nonetheless.

One I  have been enjoying particularly as of late has been a certain Lobsang’s song known in Chinese as 西藏同胞, or Tibetan Brothers/Compatriots…I find neither word to be entirely right, because 同胞 also has implications with coming from the same womb. Hmmm…but doesn’t that seem to stand in stark contrast with China’s concept of 国家, or nationality, that also implies familial ties? Oh, sure, in the background he doesn’t fly the Snow Lion flag, but rather the PRC-okayed multi-colored flag that nondescriptly symbolizes “The Other Chinese.”

But at the same time, considering how much I’ve seen the word “Honda” flashed across the screen, it seems he’s in love with the fact that his motorbike is Japanese as much as the freedom it gives him to roll with his homies (as one Tibetan rather impishly told me, “You see, I’m Tibetan, not Chinese, so I can like Japan!”).

This begs the question:

Is it just me, an outsider back in U.S. territory on the “other side” of the GFW [Great Firewall], or are the “unity themes” in Tibetan music becoming more and more prevalent? Even more, how have these even been able to get through the Chinese media — are they suddenly pulling a [reform-in-Tibet agenda of] Hu Yaobang again? Let’s couple this with the fact that Tashi Dhondhup, a popular singer from Amdo who was just released a few weeks ago from 15 months of “re-education” through hard labor. Considering that unlike most other protest songs in Tibet, which are generally far less blatantly political, I am frankly rather surprised that a singer whose album titled “Torture without Trace” expounded on the unfairness of the “Chinese occupation,” their colonial extractions of Tibet’s resources, the lack of Tibetan rights, sterilization, and other commonly voiced (but seldom published) concerns, received a sentence for “only” 15 months, and that at the end of it, he was released. On a sidenote, I wish he more extrapolated on his concerns about what was happening in Tibet rather than just sang in generalities, but that’s just the empirical part of me speaking; but considering that he didn’t back up his claims in his songs, it makes China’s imperative for his arrest all the more thought-provoking…

To put this further into perspective, it’s still been less than three years since the Tibetan uprisings. And similarly, let’s remember that while there were hundreds of arrests and surrenders in Lhasa, the Tibetan areas in ethnographic Tibet, there were even more outside of the T.A.R.

It’s well understood by both the Western media, Tibet activist groups, and a U.S. Congressional Report that Sichuan province, particularly southern 青海,Ngawa or 阿坝 prefecture in Amdo, as well as parts of 甘孜, or the Kham regions, were also especially strong hotbeds of protest. [The self-immolation of a monk in the Amdo region last week was reported on by both the New York Times and the China Daily. — A.C.]  The take-home message here is that there is much to be said about hell-raising in the Tibetan areas outside of the T.A.R., and particularly from where Tashi Dhondhup hails. If anything, China should be more concerned (and probably is) about the greater, “Ethnographic” Tibet that includes Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan, since any Tibet independence movement would not be confined to where Beijing drew the lines on the map. And let’s not forget that these areas that also have many more Han Chinese residing…

To broaden the perspective further: as is commonly known both inside of China as well as worldwide, Liu Xiaobo, another protesting jailbird, won the Nobel Prize this year. Also…the snow is melting, and that means Spring, and historically for China, that means it’s Revolution Season. I recall a Chinese guide I met last August in Xi’an, who, on the way to the terra-cotta warriors introduced us to China by describing China as a chicken because of its shape, in which Beijing is the head, Xi’an the heart, Sichuan the stomach, “and Tibet, Well…” he said smugly. (大汉主义, much?) But in all honesty, considering these current trends in Tibetan music that seem to be kindling the flames of separatism, how much is China actually protecting “its ass?”

What, then, would be more subtle forms of subversion?

Correct me if I am wrong, and I’m especially addressing readers who can understand the Tibetan lyrics firsthand and all of their subtle nuances, but it is absolutely not difficult to find potential subversiveness in Tibetan popular music, albeit this is often done through far more subtle hints. Take Sonam Tashi’s song known in Chinese as 思念 or “Longing,” which, according to the translations posted at the bottom, are focused on the singer’s profound grievances that his Lama has passed on to somewhere he can’t go, and he wishes to follow him, asking to fly with the eagles to this distant place. He also sings of his estranged “brothers and sisters.” Am I reading too much into this, or do these lyrics strike anyone else as “saying it without saying it”?

Yadong/亚东, as well as his protégé Gunga/根呷, two other extremely popular Kham singers well regarded by both Chinese and Tibetans (despite the fact that some of his most popular songs, because of their Dalai Lama-related “innuendo,” have also been blacklisted), also wrote of his Lama-lessness. Essentially, the DL’s there, but still kept on the DL.

I should point out: Sonam also has a great motorcycle-based song about Tibetan identity (wonderful jogging music), and Gunga also has a song called 家乡, or Phayul (Homeland), that also extrapolates on a generic sense of Tibetan identity that seems meant more for “rallying the troops” and encouraging Pan-Tibetan pride than subscribing to the Chinese versions of nationality — I recommend just reading between the lines and seeing what they’re not saying about their identity that Hu Jintao would find 完全正确….or absolutely correct, as he said regarding ethnic minority policy back in September 2009.

Perhaps these are just my oversimplifications, but it seems that if you only change a few words around and make it sound like it was just your local guru who kicked the bucket, you can publish your music in China while your own interpretive community gets the last laugh. It’s interesting to note that they all have very popular songs sung in Chinese (think: 卓玛, 彩虹下的心愿, or 姑娘我爱你, or other rather mainstream, classic hits well known even to young Han Chinese), but these tend to be much more romantic, simple, and generic, the Tibetan themes more nicely “packaged” for enjoyment for a greater interest. It’s an easily commodifiable way to present being Tibetan. The songs in their Tibetan language extrapolate on many more religious and political themes, such as the aforementioned 思念¸which, frankly, I’m surprised to see even offered on my QQ playlist (and, frankly, if you’re on QQ music, you’ve won the seal of approval). Download commencing….now.

And again, mostly these political come in the form of rallying for “unity.” Ohhh! How nice! Says 和谐-obsessed Beijing, see? I knew we had something in common!

Suuuure we did, China, suuure we did, responds the rebellious side of Tibetan music.

I’m thinking especially about some of the songs by Sherten/谢旦, who on one hand won the 2009 Tibetan Music Artist of the Year award and has his songs available for download on QQ Music, but on the other, has published songs, the possession of which are considered “illegal” because of their “sensitive topics.” It’s not that he is stigmatized in the PRC, or at least not officially — but word on the street is that the Chinese were randomly stopping to check Tibetans’ cell phones to see if they were carrying his song about “Unity” that calls for Tibetans to put aside their regional differences and see themselves as part of a Pride movement in Pan-Tibetanism. And in this way, all those Chinese-defined borders of 自治区/ 所谓 “Autonomous Regions” would even more lose legitimacy as Tibetans are reminded of the traditional borders of their homeland that imply statehood. The PRC is walking a very thin line, indeed: on one hand, they are “giving the people what they want” by allowing for the natural supply and demand of the market for Tibetan popular music. Academically stated, allowing people to listen to what they want keeps them happy; if they are happy, in theory, they’re less likely to cause riots. But on the other hand, if the songs that make people happy subvert state authority in a nation that has historically had very major issues with handling political discourse, then the line has to be drawn somewhere.

In short: Sherten and Yadong good, but some of their songs bad. Again, we see China pulling a Hu Yaobang and not being straight with their policy on Tibet, because in the end, the Han Chinese may be more willing to chuck this popular culture out as either sentimental drivel or separatist nonsense (IF they are able to get the translations from Tibetan!!), and Tibetans will of course want to embrace the songs of all their compatriots, whether they sing of the women they love, the lamas they miss, or their pan-Tibetan identity on Japanese wheels. Tashi Dhondhup is free, and the 西藏问题continues.


For anyone reading this who knows Tibetan, would it be possible to:

A.     Tell me where this performance by Sherten was held…? Was it in China, India, or elsewhere…?

B.     Confirm for me this case about cell phone “confiscations” related to the Sherten song?

C.     Tell me, what is Gunga singing in Tibetan in 家乡/ཕ་ཡུལ?

Any and all help, comments, or research materials on the above themes would be greatly appreciated.

— Kristiana Henderson, Tacoma, Washington, March 10, 2011