Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Language Divide: Identity and Literary Choices in Modern Tibet

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Language Divide: Identity and Literary Choices in Modern Tibet

Article excerpt

A unique conjunction of factors during the 1980s made Lhasa an ideal place for the development of a new literature. The revival of Tibetan culture and beliefs at the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), the eagerness of a generation of oppressed intellectuals to find new ways of expression, and the coincidental gathering in Lhasa of a group of charismatic Tibetan and Hart intellectuals, led to the creation, for the first time in Tibetan history, of a corpus of modern secular literature. (l)

Nevertheless, decades of Chinese occupation had already altered the cultural landscape of Tibet. (2) The madness of the Cultural Revolution led to the systematic destruction of cultural and religious books and objects, as well as the prohibition on teaching Tibetan culture and language in many schools. When better times came and Tibetans felt the need to express themselves through literature, some writers had to do so in Chinese because they were illiterate in their own language. For writers who were able to write in Tibetan, language proved to be a divide difficult to cross since they did not want their works associated with literature written in Chinese.

This paper explores how the use of Tibetan and Chinese affected the literary choices of these writers, their sense of ethnic identity, and the perception of their ethnicity by others.


The visit of the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Hu Yaobang to Tibet in May 1980 marked the beginning of a new era of Chinese policies towards Tibet. During that visit, Hu gave a speech at a gathering of 5,000 cadres in Lhasa in which he summarized the main points of the reform he envisioned for Tibet: to promote an economic recovery; to develop Tibetan science, culture, and education; to establish the University of Tibet; and to exercise national autonomy in the region.

The reform program Hu proposed gave the Tibetan people a great deal of confidence in the future of Tibet. The reformist spirit of the new Chinese government ushered in a series of regulations on religious and cultural freedom. Temples, shrines, and monasteries were rebuilt, and Tibetan classics were reprinted. The local government was given a higher degree of autonomy in dealing with religious, cultural, and educational issues. The living standard of the Tibetan people improved considerably as well, due to the liberalization of the economy and to the number of infrastructure and development projects carried out by the Chinese authorities.

In 1977, the first modern literary journal of Tibet, the Chinese-language Literature and Arts from Tibet (Ch. Xizang wenyi) was published. Three years later, a Tibetan language journal under the same name (Tib.Bod kyi rtsom rig rgyud tsal) was published as well, and in 1984, to avoid the confusion of shared names, the Chinese journal was renamed Literature from Tibet (Ch. Xizang wenxue). Both the Chinese and the Tibetan language journals played a key role in the literary and cultural revitalization of Tibet.

Two groups of Chinese writers and editors who arrived in Tibet after the Chinese occupation also played an active role in the birth of a modern literature in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). The first one, many of whose members were with the People's Liberation Army (PLA), arrived in Tibet right after 1959. They were sent to Tibet to write for propaganda and educational purposes (3) and were mostly of Han nationality, although there were also some Chinese-educated Tibetans from other parts of China. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the second wave of Han educated youth arrived in Tibet. Many of them requested to be sent there because of the spirit of adventure and romanticism Tibet inspired in them. Some--such as the female writer Ma Lihua, the painter Han Shuli, and the writer Ma Yuan--would later become very famous in China for their long-lasting intellectual and emotional association with Tibet. …

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