Stand-up for Tibetan7 min read

A seriously laughing matter – Timothy Thurston


If I say “China” and “Tibet” in one breath, “comedy” is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. You may think of Buddhist monks, towering, snow-covered mountains and verdant grasslands – or you may conjure “cultural genocide.” If you are from China, meanwhile, you might think about Tibet as a feudal, pre-modern hell-on-earth liberated and modernized by the Chinese Communist Party, or a pristine, sparsely inhabited landscape contrasting noticeably with the urban metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai. These discourses, however, overlook the complexity of Tibetan cultural life in contemporary China. Tibetans in China do face mass surveillance, incarceration for political crimes, and cultural pressure, making it easy to overlook the dynamic cultural work being done in the region, from literature, to film, to hip-hop and, yes, comedy. Sometimes this work is done hand-in-hand with the Party, and sometimes counter to it, but much of it defies easy labels like “collaboration” and “resistance.”

Take, for example, ‘Studying Tibetan’ (Bod yig slob pa བོད་ཡིག་སློབ་པ), a comedic routine written in 1980 by Dondhup Gyal (Don grub rgyal དོན་གྲུབ་རྒྱལ), considered one of the founders of modern Tibetan literature. The sketch hails from a genre of comic dialogue similar to Abbot and Costello’s ‘Who’s on First‘ that became popular in Northeastern Tibet in the post-Mao period. ‘Studying Tibetan’ has gone largely unnoticed among Dondhup Gyal’s other work – I have found no record that it has ever been performed – but it’s a quick-witted commentary on contemporary Tibet.

Explicitly referenced in the title of Dondhup Gyal’s sketch, concerns about Tibetan language have grown increasingly prevalent in recent decades. For several years, there have been protests about the perceived lack of support for Tibetan language education. A recent Human Rights Watch report, meanwhile, discusses how authorities have closed informal Tibetan language education classes. But this is nothing new, particularly in the Northeastern Tibetan region known as Amdo (A’mdo ཨ་མདོ, located in present-day Qinghai and Gansu provinces) which Dondhup Gyal and many of Tibet’s most renowned artists and intellectuals call home. In fact, these worries date back at least to the beginning of the post-Mao period.

‘Studying Tibetan’ begins with two people greeting each other and bantering in proverbs (gtam dpe གཏམ་དཔེ):

A: Hey, what’s been rattling around in your thoughts these days? There’s nothing wrong with your health, is there?
B: Nothing wrong with my health, but I can’t set my mind at ease.
A: It’s said that “stylish clothes should be looked at, and deep words should be listened to.” And don’t I know it! Your words seem worth listening to.
B: That’s for sure! Haven’t you heard it said that “butter is at the heart of yogurt that has been churned 100 times, and meaning is at the heart of 100 words”? You’re a perceptive person. Can you see into my stomach while I open my mouth?
A: It’s really difficult to see into your stomach. Haven’t you heard the saying, “A cow’s colors are on the outside, but a person’s colors are on the inside”?

After dazzling the audience with more rhetorical jousting, B finally gets down to business, telling A, “When you’ve got something on your mind, it’s probably these crooked letters,” by which he means Tibetan writing. A balks, “I completely disagree with calling the writing of Tibet, the land of snows, ‘crooked letters.’” With this statement, the two friends change tack from proverbs and witticisms to a serious discussion of politics and language.

Though A insists that he is not looking down on the Tibetan language, he believes that Tibetan is becoming obsolete in New China. In fact, a local Tibetan official (and A’s boss), Secretary Wangchen (dbang chen དབང་ཆེན), whose name literally means “very powerful,” only uses Chinese when he is in the countryside speaking to Tibetans, thus requiring someone to translate. B is understandably taken aback, saying, “What did you say? Secretary Wangchen doesn’t know Tibetan?” A quickly reassures the second that Secretary Wangchen (as a Tibetan) certainly does know Tibetan, very well in fact. This leaves B even more confused. But A is not finished. You see, Secretary Wangchen only speaks Tibetan when he travels outside of Tibet.

“The sketch draws attention to language as a matter of concern for public intellectuals”

In a way, it makes sense. Secretary Wangchen cannot be seen speaking Tibetan among Tibetans, lest he jeopardize the prestige of his official position in modern China. Thus he always calls on his personal assistant, a Han Chinese subordinate surnamed Zhang, to translate for him. In these situations, clear communication is particularly important because “if the people know the Party’s policies, then all of their agricultural and pastoral work will develop.” But Zhang simply says, “Well, I’m not very good at translation, and there were many mistakes! Well, you get the general idea!” A, meanwhile, can’t translate for the secretary – it would be too strange for a Tibetan to translate from Chinese to Tibetan, for another Tibetan, when talking to Tibetans. This patently ridiculous situation leads A to conclude that learning Tibetan is useless.

B then takes it upon himself to disabuse his partner of these errant notions. He points out that during the Cultural Revolution, thanks to Lin Biao and the Gang of Four, the entire country had been thrown into disarray, but with the Party’s improved policies, and the downfall of that nasty cabal, a new age has dawned, brighter than ever before, with the Party poised to lead the country into a new prosperous and developed age. “It goes without saying,” A agrees, “that’s definitely true.”

Then B notes that in this better era, Tibetan culture remains great and worthy of study. “It goes without saying, that’s definitely true,” A replies. Once he has agreed to this, he is on the hook for the rest.

If Tibetan culture is worthy of study, B continues, then there is also benefit to the study of folk culture – folk songs and love songs, dances and games, folktales, the Gesar epic, and so on. So too are religion and history worthy of study. Then moving back up in scale, the second speaker points out that the Party wants the people to develop both scientifically and culturally, and links the study of Tibetan to this:

What we Tibetans have is Tibetan, what we speak is Tibetan. If we don’t know how to speak and write Tibetan, how can we study culture? How can we understand science? If we don’t have the proper levels of science and culture, we won’t be able to realize the four modernizations.

“It goes without–” B begins, stopping as he realizes he has been forced to contradict himself, and admits the errors in his thinking. Language is important, and studying Tibetan does have value, even in the modern era.

Finally, A suggests that B should no longer translate for Secretary Wangchen. “It g–,” B cuts himself off again. He can’t refuse so powerful a figure as Secretary Wangchen, and A and B laugh at the whole mess.

‘Studying Tibetan’ pokes fun at Tibetan officials, praises central policies, and exults in dated idioms. But it also offers an impassioned defense of the Tibetan language. The sketch draws attention to language as a matter of concern for public intellectuals as Tibetans navigate the pressures of modernity in a country in which they are a small minority. The use of proverbs, the explicitly stated value of oral traditions, and the recognition that Secretary Wangchen’s obdurate refusal to speak Tibetan hinders the effective implementation of Party policy all suggest that Tibetan is not only valuable but actually vital in the modern China. Thirty-eight years later, this strain of thought has only grown more influential. ∎


Header image: Jamyang Lodrö (’Jam dbyangs blo gros) and Shanphur (Bya ’phur) in a 2014 performance (Timothy Thurston)