‘New Thangka’ and Representations of the Party-State in Tibetan Art

Last week Jiang Zemin, the man who served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China from 1989 to 2002 and is affectionately (and not) known as “Uncle Toad“, celebrated his 90th birthday. To commemorate the former president hitting the big 9-0, a tidal wave of “toad worship” descended over Weibo, with a flurry of colourful pictures, memes, and gifs of toads and over-sized spectacles circulating widely. Among them all, one image in particular caught my eye:

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Jiang Zemin Receives Caidan Zhuoma, by Tsering Wanggyal, Li Zhibao and Lhakpa Tsering Source

Painted by two Tibetan artists and one Yao artist who has lived and worked in Lhasa for years, the image depicts Jiang presenting a khata (a traditional ceremonial scarf) to Caidan Zhuoma (Tib. Tseten Dolma), a famous Tibetan singer known for her songs celebrating China’s ‘peaceful liberation’ of Tibet, the end of ‘feudal serfdom’, and so on.

The distinct blend of overt party-state propaganda, socialist realism, and traditional Tibetan painting style was new to me, and it got me wondering how much more of it could be out there.

A few minutes searching around Baidu yielded no end of the stuff. Representations of Chinese senior party officials were popping up left, right and centre across Chinese state media outlets in what was invariably referred to as ‘New Thangka’  (新唐卡).

It turned out Jiang was far from the only leader to get the Thangka treatment. In fact, I soon learned that the piece he appeared in was part of a wider set, all by Tsering Wanggyal, Li Zhibao, and Lhakpa Tsering.

Source                             Source                                Source

Thangka (Tib. ཐང་ཀ ; Ch. 唐卡), as many readers will know, is a form of traditional Tibetan artwork, often depicting Buddhist deities, bodhisattvas, and other elements of Tibetan Buddhism. But, what about ‘New Thangka’?

Googling the term in English proved fruitless, but thanks to a suggestion by Françoise Pommaret, I found some work on “New Tibetan Painting” (Tib. བོད་ཀྱི་རི་མོ་གསར་པ་; Ch. 新藏画)by Per Kvaerne. Beginning in the Tibetan town of Kanze in the 1980s, “New Tibetan Art” combined elements of traditional Tibetan painting with modern Chinese art and was “consciously and systematically put to ideoloigcal use” (Kvaerne 1994: 166). Perhaps “New Thangka” and “New Tibetan Art” were one and the same thing?

In any case, searching “New Thangka” in Mandarin yielded plenty of results. A precise definition, however, seemed pretty hard to come by. One Xinhua piece provided an enthusiastic but vague description of “New Thangka” as “a moment of flourishing reform for traditional Tibetan Thangka, a single leap from traditional craft art into modern painting.”

An essay penned by Tsering Woeser offered a considerably more helpful and less lofty explanation:

Some of these so-called “New Thangka” paintings display the bold attempts of mainstream artists. Though sticking with the age-old forms, the content is not of the past. It empties into the ceaseless flow of news and information of this era of rapid progress. Tractors, cars, planes and related symbols of material progress. There are also portraits and so on of authorities (权力者), communicating political meanings. Even more “New Thangka” draw lessons from forms of expression of both Chinese and western art, longing to become an independent work of art. Do these “New Thangka” stray too far from the authentic Thangka? Without religious elements, even if they use traditional methods, is it still Thangka?

Source

What I found surprising was that many of these New Thangka, even those featuring Mao and Deng, are all very recent. Most were completed in the last four years as part of the ongoing propaganda overload that is the “Hundred New Thangkas Project”. Initiated in 2012 by the Party Committee and government of the Tibet Autonomous Region, this “significant cultural project” was promoted to mark the 60th anniversary of Tibet’s “peaceful liberation”. The project involves over 70 Thangka painters (almost all Tibetan) covering themes “of grand reforms and constructions, important historical events, figures and changes of Tibet in 60 years after Tibet Peaceful Liberation”.

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Comrade Xi Jinping and Tibet Autonomous Region’s Deputy to the National People’s Congress Discuss Affairs of the State, by Li Zhibao. Source  

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Chairman Mao Meeting with Pagbalha Geleg Namgyai (‘Living Buddha’ and Vice Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference), by Sonam Topgyal. Source

Another very recent batch of “New Thangka” showed up in a photo essay on Buddhism iFeng. Completed over the course of three years, they all featured in an exhibition hosted in Xining in early 2016. Here’s a quick slideshow of some “New Thangka” that appeared there.

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It is also easy to spot the highly gendered dimensions of these Thangka. Apart from that one image featured above of Jiang Receives Caidan Zhuoma, women remain very much at the fringes of the scene, passively watching on as Han and Tibetan menfolk stride forward in socialist bromance.

Older examples of politicised Thangka seemed a little harder to come by on my first Baidu search, but maybe that’s a blog project for another time. One image that did pop up frequently during my searches was this:

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Drawing of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama Shaking Hands (1954) Source

This Thangka, now held at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities in Beijing, was presented to Chairman Mao as a gift by the 10th Panchen Lama, Choekyi Gyaltsen, in October, 1954. It depicts a scene of the 14th Dalai Lama and the 10th Panchen Lama shaking hands below the national emblem of the People’s Republic of China. In the top right, in Tibetan and Mandarin, the words “Commemorating the Great leader Chairman Mao, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama  both unite together. Donated by the Panchen Lama, October 1954.”

So, what to make of all these very patriotic Tibetan-produced “New Thangka”, brimming with harmony, gratitude, and socialist zeal? Has party-state indoctrination and patriotic education got the best of artists in contemporary Tibet, or are there really so many artists in Tibet who believe in the party-state promise?

Without having talked to any of the contributors, I can only hazard what I reckon is a safe guess, and that is that the majority of contributors to the above collections are just being strategic, i.e. taking advantage of an opportunity for paid work, the chance to make new contacts, build new networks etc.

Speaking about it all with Leigh Miller, an expert on Contemporary Tibetan Art at Maitripa College, I learned that artist opportunism would not tell the full story. In recent years, she said, there has been some pressure to accept party-state commissions, adding “how can they really decline without knowing there will be repercussions of one sort or another?” Leigh also noted that in some cases, the Han leaders or contacts are also personal contacts – professional or as former teachers, etc.

And on a final note, is this all there is to artistic innovation in 21st century Tibet? Of course not. Contemporary Tibetan art is an exceptionally dynamic, creative and bold space, regularly drawing from tradition while simultaneously experimenting with an endless array of new ideas and styles from within Tibet and further afield. And as the work of Gade, one of the most important and influential Tibetan artists in Tibet today shows, representing leaders in considerably more ambiguous ways is not unknown…

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Father’s Nightmare (2007) Source

Further Reading:

Kvaerne, Per. “The Ideological Impact on Tibetan Art.” Resistance and Reform in Tibet Edited by Robbie Barnett and Shirin Akiner. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1994.

 



Thanks to Leigh Miller and 
Françoise Pommaret for their helpful comments and suggestions!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Images of Xinjiang and the Cultural Revolution (part two)

This morning I stumbled upon a large collection of photographs capturing a variety of events from Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and decided to make a quick follow-up to a post I made a few months back on Images of Xinjiang and the Cultural Revolution. They appear to come from a variety of sources, though mostly from a 2014 photo essay by a Xinjiang-based website named Yaxin. The piece from Yaxin, entitled “Xinjiang History: The People’s Militia of the Tarim Basin”, also features some brief comments on the wider context of the time, which I have also included below.

I would just like to add a very brief note regarding the reception of these pictures on Weibo. I noticed a number of netizens expressing a sense of nostalgia for what they perceive to have been a time of ethnic harmony and unity. Now, they wrote, with the arrival of “religious extremism” in Xinjiang, no one would dare share weapons of the sort pictured below with Uyghur people. One comment, which garnered over 40 ‘likes’ had a very different take and is worth translating in full:

“When many old Uyghur people come to Beijing, once they get to Tiananmen and see the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, they begin to cry. They tell children about the past and how good Mao was at that time. Later, when they go to sort out accommodation for the night, people take one look at their ID card (身份证), see they are from Xinjiang, and refuse to let them stay. In the whole of Beijing, they can find nowhere to stay. Sigh.” 


Starting in the 1970, the military districts in southern Xinjiang mobilised the masses across all ethnic groups, rural and urban, to establish an organisation for a people’s militia. An attendance so large and a momentum so great had never been seen before. The organisation of the people’s militia, in safeguarding social peace and rushing to deal with calamities, brought into play their important role, especially the battalions on the front lines for border defence. Every house is a guard building, every person is a guard.

In 1972, the southern Xinjiang military area decided to convene the people’s militia congress meeting. In order to prepare well, Yuan Guoxiang took the Working Group along the Tarim (Ch. Talimu) Basin to research, and also took many photographs.

Yuan Guoxiang said that the peoples of each ethnic group knew very well that a life of happiness was not easy to come by, and that there was high enthusiasm for joining the people’s militia. The militia organised a training session every year. Through defending the country and guarding the borders, maintaining social order, advancing production and development, they played a significant role.

The advanced achievements of the ethnic minority division of the people’s militia of the armed forces of Baicheng County (southern Xinjiang military district) were once made into a film by CCTV. In particular, the shots of the Laohu Tai People’s Militia training in combat readiness and scenes of tending and herding in remote mountainside all left a deep impression on viewers.

Work of the people’s militia at Kashgar textile factory has always been at the forefront. They once built a anti-aircraft gun and even mastered shooting techniques, making a contribution to Kashgar’s air defence combat readiness. In 1991, when riots occurred in Baren county, all ethnic groups of textile factory were dispatched throughout the night to co-ordinate with the armed forced and surround the rebels. Very quickly,through outstanding military service, the riot was quelled.

Not only did the people’s militia train tirelessly, they also participated in local development, making contributions to the local economy.

Born in Moyu County, militia battalion commander Noor Mohammad (pictured below), encouraged and led tens of militia members into the desolate fringes of the Taklimakan Desert to clear weeds and sand dunes, reclaiming large tracts of farmland and leading to many peasant households setting up home. He also served as a representative of the people’s militia, and went to Beijing to take part in the first national people’s militia congress, and was received by Chairman Mao, Commander-in-Chief Zhu, and other senior officials.

 

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1. Yasheng•Kuerban, captain of Laohutai army forces assigning tasks to the militia

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2. The bold and brave women of the militia

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3. The people’s militia working hard to practice their bayonet skills

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4. After Moyu County’s people’s militia battalion commander, Noor Mohammad arrives home, he brings an automatic rifle awarded to him by the Central Military Commission and gives an account of the occasion of seeing Chairman Mao.  

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5. April, 1960, Chairman Mao, Commander-in-Chief Zhu, and other senior officials receive representatives of the people’s militia congress in Beijing

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6.  After Tulupu of Pishan county people’s militia gloriously sacrificed himself, the people’s militia go to comfort his motherScreen Shot 2016-08-13 at 16.20.10

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7. People’s Militia ride camels to pursue fleeing rebels

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8. In 1965, Premier Zhou chats with female textiles worker from Kashgar

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9. People’s militia member Wangdui’s father is killed by rebels. He vows to avenge his father

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10. Both male and female militia members cherish their weapons and study shooting theory

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11. Brave and bold female militia members 


 

And here are some pictures from taken during the 1970s by Li Qiuwei, the director of the People’s Liberation Army Pictorial, while he worked in Xinjiang. These pictures were posted together with the above in a recent Weibo post.

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Tajik Youth (1970) 

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Xinjiang’s Ala Shan Watchtower(1971)

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A Time of Happiness (1971)

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Female Kazakh Member of the People’s Militia (1971)

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Reclamation of Wasteland by army (1971)

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Gongnaisi Grasslands (October, 1973)

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Nadam Fair (a Mongolian traditional fair) on the Grasslands (1973)

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No details

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During the Cultural Revolution, the PLA stationed in the motherland’s northwest regions and the people of the Uyghur areas were in close unity, mutually developing and safeguarding the frontiers. This is a member of the army and a local man carrying out a land survey.

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Xinjiang Pictorial (1973)

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During the Cultural Revolution, a soldier and a one hundred year old Uyghur man study The Selected Works of Chairman Mao

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Ethnic Unity, Close Kinship

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During the Cultural Revolution, the soldiers and the people enjoyed feelings of kinship. Here is an Uyghur man named Ada bringing fresh spring water from a fair away place to convey greetings to the soldiers developing and safeguarding the frontier.

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Turpan (Ch. Tulufan) grapes have ripened. Chairman Mao and the people of Xinjiang stand together.

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Issue one of the Xinjiang Pictorial (1966)

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Issue one of the Xinjiang Pictorial (1972)

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Picture from Xinjiang Pictorial 1966

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Picture from Xinjiang Pictorial (1966)

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Picture from Xinjiang Pictorial (1966)

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Picture from Xinjiang Pictorial (1966)

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Picture from Xinjiang Pictorial (1966)

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Picture from Xinjiang Pictorial (1966)

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Picture from Xinjiang Pictorial (1966)

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Picture from Xinjiang Pictorial (1966)

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Picture from Xinjiang Pictorial (1966)

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Day 17: An Update from Pema Tseden

Today, 17 days after he was detained, Pema Tseden released a short statement on his Weibo page concerning his current situation and condition. As I write this blog, his post has been shared over 500 times across Weibo alone. Below I provide a translation of his post. You can also find the original Mandarin and Tibetan versions of his statement at the end of this blog.

(This translation is my own. While I have made every effort to remain faithful to the original text, I am not a professional translator. Please get in touch if you feel that any particular section needs attention or have any suggestions for improvement! All images are from the original Weibo post)


Hello everyone,

I am now at a government-designated hospital. Everyday I am receiving oxygen, IV, and other kinds of treatments, and my condition has improved to some extent. Because of the special situation at present, it is not convenient for me to respond to everyone’s messages. Regarding this incident, the relevant authorities are in the process of carrying out an investigation once more. It has already 17 days since the incident happened. From the beginning until now, my request has been very simple: I need an explanation. Even if I have to return to detention in the future, this request will not change. I hope for a reasonable explanation as soon as possible. Many thanks to everyone for their concern.

Pema Tseden
11/07/2016

 

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Police Report on Pema Tseden’s Detention

Here is a translation of a police report regarding the detention of Pema Tseden. It appeared in Legal Daily (法制日报) yesterday (June 29th). Pema’s name in Mandarin is Wanma Caidan (万玛才旦), and he is referred to in the below translation as Mr. Wan. Many thanks to my anonymous co-translator for their contributions.

(Neither myself nor the other person who contributed to the translation below are professional translators. Please get in touch if you feel that any particular section needs attention or have any suggestions for improvement!)


Qinghai Civil Aviation Airport Public Security Bureau Carry out Legal Investigate into a Passenger Who Disturbed Public Order through Illegal Behaviour

Legal Daily Online, Xining June 29th  Han Ping reports

A notice issued this afternoon by Qinghai Civil Aviation Airport Public Security Bureau: In recent days, in order to maintain peace and stability, and acting in accordance with legal procedure, Qinghai Airport Security investigated a case of a passenger who disturbed public order through illegal behavior.

On June 25th at 20:15 Mr. Wan, the person who behaved illegally, arrived in Xining on flight CZ6269 from Beijing. At 20:30, Mr. Wan walked out of the arrival control area. When we reached the parking lot, he discovered that he had left a piece of luggage in the arrival hall on a cart near the luggage carousel. He then returned from the parking lot to the arrival hall. At 20:35 Mr. Wan trespassed into the arrival control area in search of his luggage. Airport security personnel repeatedly tried to dissuade him, but Mr. Wan would not be listen and argued with safety personnel. Following this, airport safety personnel called for the police.

Three on-duty police officers from the Qinghai Civil Aviation Airport Security Bureau immediately arrived at the scene. In accordance with the relevant legislation under “Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Safety and Security of Civil Aviation”, the officers demanded Mr. Wan leave the control area, and also adviced that airport personnel help him to find his luggage. However, Mr. Wan would not listen their advice and would not leave the control area. He continued to shout and scream in the control area, and would not co-operate with the directives of the on-duty police officers. After repeated attempts by on-duty police officers were ineffective, at 20:49 the officers forcibly removed Mr. Wang from the scene to carry out investigation.

During the investigation, the on-duty police officers patiently educated and explained policy to Mr. Wan. They also asked Mr. Wan’s friends from the scene to co-operate with police work and accept investigation. However, Mr. Wan still refused to co-operate and refused to answer the officers’ questions. According to evidence gathered at the scene by Qinghai Civil Aviation Airport Security Bureau from two of their counterparts, airport staff, and eye witnesses, Mr. Wan’s behavior constituted a disturbance of public order. The facts are clear and the evidence is conclusive. In accordance with the provisions of Article 23 of the first paragraph of the “Public Security Administration Punishments Law of the People’s Republic of China” the Qinghai Civil Aviation Airport Public Security Bureau placed Mr. Wan into detention for a period of 5 days as punishment.

During the investigation of this case, Qinghai Civil Aviation Airport Security Bureau police informed Mr. Wan of his legal rights, and strictly abided by the laws and regulations during the course of interrogation. An audio-visual recording of the entire course of law enforcement was made. In accordance with the laws and regulations, before Mr. Wan was put into detention, police escorted him to the People’s Hospital in Haidong City, Ping’An District to undergo a physical examination. According to the results of his physical examination, it was established that there was no legal basis preventing Mr. Wan from being put into detention. On June 26th at 7:10 Mr. Wan was taken to Ping’An district detention centre. On June 25th at 20:49 police forcibly escorted Mr. Wan from the scene. As Mr. Wan refused to co-operate, this led to 3 scars on his wrists from handcuffing.

At the detention center, Mr. Wan’s scars were recorded and Mr. Wan signed a document to confirm this. On June 27th at 10:00, Qinghai Civil Aviation Airport Security Bureau made a phone call to Ping’An District Detention Center. They requested medical care for Mr. Wan who was experienced chest pains and dizziness. Qinghai Civil Aviation Airport Security Bureau immediately sent two officers with legal recording equipment to escort him to Ping’An District Hospital. In the presence of his friends and family, Mr. Wan received medical examination. The results of his examination showed high blood pressure and hyperglycemia. No other symptoms were detected. Doctors recommended that Mr. Wan be admitted to hospital for observation. After being treated, 2 police officers once again read Mr. Wan his rights and informed him that once he had recovered he would complete the remainder of his administrative detention period. Mr. Wan expressed agreement.

Qinghai Civil Aviation Airport Security Bureau sincerely thanks the large netizenry for following public security work,and welcomes netizen scrutiny of the Public Security Bureau and police.

Original Editor: Zhang Xin.


民航青海机场公安局依法查处一起旅客扰乱公共场所秩序违法行为

发布时间:2016-06-29 19:22 星期三来源:法制日报——法制网

    法制网西宁6月29日电 记者韩萍 今天下午,民航青海机场公安局通报:近日,为维护机场治安秩序稳定,民航青海机场公安局依法查处一起旅客扰乱公共场所秩序违法行为。

6月25日20时15分许,违法行为人万某乘坐由北京飞往西宁的CZ6269次航班到达西宁。20时30分许,万某从西宁机场到达厅控制区走出,行至停车场后发现随身携带行李遗忘在到达厅行李转盘处的手推车上,随即又从停车场返回到达厅。20时35分许,万某擅自闯入到达厅控制区寻找行李,机场安检人员多次劝阻,但万某不听劝阻并和安检人员发生争执,机场安检人员随即报警。民航青海机场公安局3名执勤民警立即到达现场,按照《中华人民共和国民用航空安全保卫条例》有关规定,对万某进行劝阻,要求万某退出控制区,并告知其行李由机场工作人员帮助找回。但万某既不听取劝阻也不退出控制区,继续在控制区内大吵大闹,不配合现场执勤民警执行公务。执勤民警多次劝阻无效后,于20时49分许将万某强制带离现场进行调查。

调查期间,执勤民警对其进行了耐心教育和政策说明,并请万某在场朋友劝其配合民警工作、接受调查。但万某仍拒不配合,拒绝回答民警询问。经民航青海机场公安局对其同行2人和机场工作人员等目击证人进行调查取证,根据现场收集到的相关证据,万某的行为构成扰乱公共场所秩序,事实清楚,证据确凿。根据《中华人民共和国治安管理处罚法》第二十三条第一款第二项之规定,民航青海机场公安局对万某处以行政拘留5日的处罚。

该案调查期间,民航青海机场公安局民警告知万某依法享有的权利,严格按照法律规定进行询问,对执法全程视音频记录。按照法律规定在对万某执行行政拘留前,民警将其带至海东市平安区人民医院进行体检。根据体检结果,万某没有不适合行政拘留的法定情形。6月26日7时10分将其送至平安区行政拘留所执行行政拘留。6月25日20时49分,民警将万某强制带离现场时,由于其拒不配合,导致手腕有3处手铐勒痕。拘留所对万某勒痕进行了备案,并经万某签字确认。6月27日10时许,民航青海机场公安局接到平安区行政拘留所电话,万某称“胸闷、头晕”身体不适提出就诊申请。民航青海机场公安局立即派2名民警携带执法记录仪将其送往平安区中医院,在其家属和朋友陪护下进行诊断,诊断结果为高血压和高血糖症状,无其他症状,医生建议入院观察。就诊后,2名民警再次向万某宣读了权利和义务,并告知病愈后将依法执行未完成行政拘留期限,万某表示同意。

民航青海机场公安局感谢广大网民对公安工作的关注,同时也欢迎广大网民对公安机关及民警执法进行监督。

 

 

 

 

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Update on Pema Tseden from Sina Entertainment: Witness Responds to Pema Tseden Incident

This is a translation of a news piece that was released today by Sina Entertainment at 16:04,  (Beijing time). It contains a number of important comments from someone who has spoken with Pema over the past 3 days as well as people who were at the scene when Pema was taken away by police.

(This translation is my own. While I have made every effort to remain faithful to the original text, I am not a professional translator. Please get in touch if you feel that any particular section needs attention or have any suggestions for improvement! All images are from the original news piece.)


Witness Responds to Pema Tseden Incident

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Sina Entertainment – June 29th: News has emerged and spread across social media that director Pema Tseden was forcefully detained by police at Xining Airport. After the incident, Sina Entertainment contacted Keke (a pseudonym), a person who recently visited Pema at the detention centre. Keke said “Apart from a few others who knew about this, we did not tell anyone else. We were worried that the incident between Pema and airport security would be blown out of proportion and distorted.” Currently, Xining police have yet to issue statement about this incident.

The Series of Events

On the evening of June 26th around 8pm Pema Tseden arrived from Beijing to Xining Caojiabao Airport. After exiting the building he discovered that he had forgotten his backpack at the baggage collection area. Following this, he approached a member of staff and informed them about the piece of luggage that he wished to collect. “The staff member asked Pema to leave. Pema Tseden then showed his plane ticket to the staff member to explain that the item was his, but the staff member’s attitude was that the ticket did not matter. Pema continued to speak with staff, but then the police were called.”

At this point, the two people who had originally come to the airport to pick Pema up arrived at the scene. At this stage, the members of staff had taken out Pema’s backpack. The people who had come to pick Pema up then said to the police “It’s fine, we’ll leave”, but at that stage the attitude of the police was that they had to arrest Pema.

“They pleaded with police over and over, but by then police had begun handcuffing Pema, and forcefully taking him away to a nearby police station. After this, Pema was interrogated until around 4 or 5am the next morning. They claimed Pema had disturbed public order. They tried to argue with him, but he was not persuaded by their reasoning. They then said that it is exactly people like him who they are after – people who understand reason but still refuse to listen”.

“There was no physical assault between Pema Tseden and the others, and he did not resist.” Keke added. “Those police officers who arrived did not ask any questions. Even ask the the bare minimum that they have should have asked, they didn’t. They just handcuffed Pema. They did not inform his relatives. Even now his relative still do not know what has happened.”

As events continued to unfold that night, one of the people who originally went to pick up Pema gave Keke a call. On June 27th Keke bought a quilt and mattress to the police station. In the detention centre he met with Pema for 2 or 3 minutes. “His handcuffs were worn very tightly and he had a number of wounds on his body”.

The Police told Keke that Pema Tseden had experienced some chest pain and headaches, and needed to see a doctor. Keke said “They said you yourselves should take him to see a doctor. What they meant was we relatives should pay the medical expenses. Whatever happens at the hospital is your responsibility. After he finishes with the doctors, he must return to complete his detention period. That’s what the airport police said. They were not willing to take any responsibility”.

The Director’s Current Situation

Keke revealed “Pema Tseden chest pains are causing him quite a bit of discomfort and he is feeling some chest tightness. Last night they measured his blood pressure. At it’s highest it was over 200, and at it’s lowest it was under 60. His diabetes has also left his two hands feeling numb. The soft tissue in his back and shoulders have also been injured. At night he cannot sleep well and with lying in some positions are very painful.”

It is understood that the police at Xining Airport have detained Pema Tseden for 5 days. It is unclear whether they have an official warrant for his detention. Currently Pema Tseden has been detained for 2 days. Once he has finished with doctors he will continue his period of detention for a further 3 days.

Keke said “Pema Tseden resides in Beijing. His trip to Xining this time was to promote a new film. To do so, he had invited a number of foreign guests to take part in events. He had also planned to take them to visit some scenic areas in Qinghai. This incident has caused much disruption to the scheduled events, which cannot now be carried out. These guests are still in Qinghai.”

Though the incident happened 3 days ago, the news has only just been posted on Weibo. In response to this Keke said “Apart from a few others who knew about this, we did not tell anyone else. We were worried that the incident between Pema and airport security would be blown out of proportion and distorted.” Even though the director does not wish the details to get out, in the end the news spread very quickly.

Pema Tseden is not aware that the story has spread across social media and he does not know that the media has been following the story. China Film Guild has also issued a statement in which they express their hopes that the incident will be dealt with justly and appropriately.


亲历者回应万玛才旦事件经过

2016-06-29 16:04 新浪娱乐
摘要: 亲历者表示:除了几个人知道,我们一直没有往外说,就怕往大了去,性质给变了。目前,西宁警方尚未就此事做出回应。

新浪娱乐讯 6月29日,导演万玛才旦在西宁机场警方强制带离的事件经某微博博主曝光,随后迅速发酵。事件发生后,新浪娱乐联系到了曾前往拘留所看望万玛才旦的可可(化名),他表示:“除了几个人知道,我们一直没有往外说,就怕本来是一个机场公安对他的一个事情,往大了去,性质给变了。”目前,西宁警方尚未就此事做出回应。

  事件过程

  6月26日晚上8点左右,万玛才旦从北京到达西宁曹家堡机场,出来后发现把双肩包忘在了取行李的地方,之后他找到工作人员,表示想取回背包,“工作人员的意思是你给我出去,于是万玛才旦老师把机票给工作人员看了下,说明是他的东西,但工作人员的态度是你有票了不起吗,万玛才旦就继续跟他们说,他们就找机场的派出所了。”

  此时,前来为万玛才旦接机的两个人也上前劝了起来,过程中,工作人员把双肩包拿了出来,此时接机人对民警表示“没事了,我们走了”,而民警的态度则是必须拘捕万玛才旦。

  “他们一直劝民警,但民警当时就用手铐把他铐了起来,强行地拉到了机场附近的派出所,之后一直审问到凌晨四五点。他们的意思是万玛才旦是扰乱公共秩序,与万玛才旦说道理,但没有说过万玛才旦,意思是你们这些懂道理、却不听话的人,我们针对的就是你们这种人。”

  “万玛才旦没有与对方发生任何肢体上的冲突,也没有反抗。”可可补充道,“那些民警来了没有问任何问题,最起码你要说一下,他们没有问,直接就把手铐铐人了。而且没有通知家属,到现在家属都不知情。”

  事件发生当晚,其中一位接机人打了个电话给可可。27号当天,可可带着被子和褥子前往派出所,在看守所值班室门口与万玛才旦见了两三分钟:“他的手铐铐得非常紧,身上很多伤。”

  民警告诉可可一行人,万玛才旦出现了胸闷、头痛的情况,需要看病。可可回忆:“他们说,你们自己去看病,意思是你们家属自己掏钱,医院出的事情就是你们的事情,看完病之后,必须继续拘留。机场的意思是这样的,不会担任何责任。”

  导演现状

  可可透露:“万玛才旦的心脏非常不舒服,胸闷,昨晚测得血压,高压200多,低压是60以下,血糖也高了两只手的骨头一直是麻木的,大夫是他的背上和肩上的软组织受伤,他晚上都睡不好,靠的时候非常疼。”

  据了解,西宁机场警方对万玛才旦执行行政拘留五天,有没有正式的拘留书尚不明确。目前万玛才旦已被拘留两天,看完病后将会继续呆在看守所三天。

  可可表示:“万玛才旦定居北京,此次来到西宁,是为了推广一部新片。为此,他叫来了很多国外的客人,举办活动,还会顺便带他们去青海的景区看一下,这件事情导致后面的事情也做不成了,这些客人还在青海。”

  事件发生三天,才有博主在微博上曝光,对此,可可表示:“除了几个人知道以外,一直没有往外说,就怕本来是一个机场公安对他的一个事情,往大了去,性质给变了。”尽管导演方并不希望事情传出去,但消息终究是不胫而走了。

  而万玛才旦本人,对于事件在社交网络上的发酵并不知情,也不知道已经引起了媒体的关注,中国导演协会也就此发表了声明,希望事件得到公正和妥善的解决。(鲁雪婷/文)

Posted in Film, Tibet | 3 Comments

A Statement from Film Directors’ Guild of China on Detention and Assault of Pema Tseden

As many of you will have seen in the news this morning, well-known Tibetan director Pema Tseden was detained and assaulted by police at Xining Airport on Saturday, June 25th. Details are still emerging regarding what and how events unfolded. Tibetan netizens are calling for calm and have asked people to reserve comment until further details have been released. In the meantime below is a translation of a statement from the Film Directors’ Guild of China (中国电影导演协会) on the incident.

*Update: Several reports from Pema’s close friends and colleagues say that, apart from blood pressure being a little high, he is doing just fine.

(This translation is my own. While I have made every effort to remain faithful to the original text, I am not a professional translator. Please get in touch if you feel that any particular section needs attention or have any suggestions for improvement! All images are from the original essay.)

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Film Directors Guild of China (FDGC)

On June 25th, Pema Tseden, a member of the fifth executive committee of FDGC and well-known film director, was forcefully taken away by police at Xining Airport. In the course of subsequent detention, he sustained injuries and was admitted to hospital on the afternoon of June 27th.

Pema was taken away by police on charges of disturbing public order, but no details have yet been officially issued concerning specific laws or regulations that police employed to detain him. This all took place four days ago. Today many in the film industry and wider society are using the internet and social media to express their concern for Pema.

FDGC is a professional association for film directors in China. The protection of rights and interests of its members is our basic duty. We will be paying very close attention to the reasons for this incident and related developments. We call upon authorities to respond in a timely and considerate manner and to release all details, including the reasons why police took such forceful measures, whether these measures were standard, and whether violent or excessive enforcement was used.

Pema Tseden is a writer and director. He is a graduate of Northwest Nationalities University and the Beijing Film Academy departments of literature and film. He is one of the outstanding Tibetan directors in our country. In recent years his series of films have been very well received both domestically and internationally. To our knowledge, Pema Tseden suffers from a number of chronic illnesses. Already in the course of detention his state of health has declined and this has made us very concerned.  We hope Pema Tseden is safe and sound, and we hope that this situation will be resolved in a just and appropriate manner.

Film Directors Guild of China (FDGC)

Afternoon of 29th June, 2016


The original statement in Mandarin can be found at http://mp.weixin.qq.com/s?__biz=MjM5OTY1OTg4MQ==&mid=2650932866&idx=1&sn=6762646adf0dae79de762dc667cd2ecb&scene=1&srcid=0629zJVVDV8mRtbzCpx1EBWE&from=groupmessage&isappinstalled=0#wechat_redirect

Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 09.02.15.png

Posted in Film, Tibet | 2 Comments

Qijia Dawa: Profile of a Tibetan Woodblock Printmaker

Feeling inspired by some fascinating papers on Tibet’s contemporary art scene at this year’s International Association of Tibet Studies conference, here’s a short blog on the life and work of Qijia Dawa, a Tibetan artist whose work I recently stumbled upon on a Tibetan literature and art website.

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Qijia Dawa hails from Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan. He was born in 1946 and was orphaned at an early age. Soon after he was re-homed by the local government and sent to primary school.

In 1959 Qijia was recommended for admission to the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in Chongqing where he joined special classes for ethnic minority students and began his training in woodblock printing.

Following his graduation in 1964, Qijia was assigned to to the Sichuan Branch of the Chinese Artists Association to begin work as a professional printmaker. Since then, he has held a number of high-ranking positions at leading cultural institutions across China, among which include Sichuan Artists Association, Sichuan Provincial Museum, and Shenzhen Academy of Fine Arts.

Though Qijia left the Tibetan Plateau at the age of 19 for study and work in interior China, he regularly describes the deep sense of attachment and affection he feels for his homeland as well as the ways in which this informs his work.

“I love my hometown, I love the plateau. Each snowy peak, each stretch of grassland, each section of river: they have at all times been a source of enchantment. My work have never left the grasslands, nor has it left the subject of Tibetan lives.”

Qijia has returned to the grasslands at various points in his career, noting that the Tibetan Plateau has always been an important source of inspiration for his work. Garzê and Ngawa are two places he frequents most, though during the 60s and 70s he also spent time in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

“In 1965 I followed Niufen and Li Huanmin on their first trips to the TAR. From September of that year until January the following year, we three spent 3 months there. My second time to immerse myself in TAR life was from May to December in 1977, when Li Huanming, Song Guangxun, Xu Guang, A Ge, Ma Zhensheng and Zhu Licun and I, altogether seven of us, stayed in the TAR for more than half a year. Both of these periods were quite long. During that time transportation was very inconvenient, various things were lacking, there were language barriers, and we also experienced altitude sickness. We faced many challenges but also overcame all kinds of difficulties. From the frontier to the interior, from north to south, we entered deep into the realities of peasant homes, nomadic areas, army units, state farms, monasteries and historic sites. In these places we learned much about the socio-cultural transformation at the time.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 22.46.48.png

Now 50 years on, Qijia has produced well over one hundred of pieces of work depicting the everyday lives of ‘ordinary’ Tibetans across the plateau. Using both water-soluble ink and oil-based ink techniques throughout his woodcuts, Qijia is perhaps best known for his striking black and white portraits.

I am eager to use my paintbrush to portray both the naturalness and mystique of the Land of Snow. I yearn to demonstrate the hardworking, tough, courageous, and kind character of my fellow Tibetans.

His work regularly explores past and recent experiences, often reflecting positively on change and progress. Military, education, and infrastructure are just some of hallmarks of modernity that have featured prominently in his prints to date.

“I have always wanted to paint the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. To build a rail line across such a plateau is really a landmark in human history. It must be expressed in art.”

Qijia is widely considered to be one of the most important representatives of the woodblock printing tradition in the People’s Republic of China. Some of his best most well-known pieces include ‘Beginnings’, ‘Man of the Forest’, ‘Meditation’ and ‘Golden Autumn’, all widely recognised as signature pieces in the development of modern Chinese woodblock printing.

His work has been exhibited around the world, including galleries in Canada, Malaysia, United States, and Germany.

Over the course of his career, Qijia has been awarded a number of prestigious prizes, among which include:

1987 Gold Medal at the Chinese Contemporary Prints Exhibition, Japan

1994 The 8th National Exhibition of Fine Art, Prize for Outstanding Work

1999 Lu Xun Printmaking Prize

2001 ‘Outstanding National Minority Artist’, the Chinese Artist’s Association Chinese Minorities Promotion Group

 

 

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Naked in Tibet: The Yamdrok Lake Incident and the Violence of Han Hegemony

In this blog I discuss a series of images that have sparked uproar and debate among Tibetan and Han netizens over the past few days. The images feature a women posing semi-naked and naked along the shores of Yamdrok Lake, one of Tibet’s four holy lakes. Cyberspace has been ablaze with heated commentary over whether or not this constitutes an act of disrespect to Tibetan culture.

While the story has picked up widespread coverage in both Chinese and Western media, I want to use this blog to reflect on the necessity of situating this particular incident in a long series of state-sponsored practices of ethnic commodification, cultural appropriation, and violent defilement of Tibetan culture for Han desire. 


This week Tibetan cyberspace has been ablaze over pictures of a model posing both semi-naked and naked along the shores of Yamdrok Lake in Tibet. First posted on Weibo on April 11th  by  YouchumDolkar, the images, taken by photographer Yu Feixiong, quickly went viral among Tibetans and Han netizens. The incident was also widely covered across major media outlets in China, generating huge commentary online. However, while there was a large consensus among Tibetans that the images constituted a grave offence and insult to Tibetan culture, for Han netizens debate ensued about whether there was a problem at all.

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It is important to note that images of Han tourists behaving badly in Tibet are regularly posted, circulated and criticised by Tibetans on Weibo and Wechat. Standing on prayer flags, wearing clothes bearing images of religious iconography and revered figures, photographing sky burials, and climbing and sitting on sacred statues are but a few examples.

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In fact, as the pictures below show, the Yamdrok Incident is not even the first time Tibetan’s have drawn attention to Han tourists feeling the urge to strip off in the Tibet’s great outdoors.

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So well versed in instances of Han tourists behaving badly have Tibetan netizens become that they have even compiled a number of lists advising on “Do’s and Don’ts” for tourists visiting the Tibet. Usual entries include “don’t stand or walk on prayer flags“, “don’t stick your camera in someone’s face” etc. I have yet to see one with “Don’t take off in your clothes on highways“, but perhaps it will be making an appearance soon.

Bearing in mind that disrespectful behaviour from Han tourists is a worryingly common and oft discussed happening, why did this series of photographs of a woman posing semi-naked and fully naked at a lakeside provoke an outcry among Tibetans that far exceeded any of the above examples?

The answer lies in the fact that it happened at Yamdrok Lake. Located some 100km southwest of Lhasa, Yamdrok Lake is an immensely sacred and culturally significant lake for many Tibetans. Along with Lhamo La Lake, Nam Lake and Manasarovar Lake, Yamdrok Lake is one of Tibet’s four “Great Wrathful Lakes” believed to be guarded by the goddess Dorje Gegkyi Tso.

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An important site of pilgrimage for many devout Tibetan Buddhists every year, the holy lake has long been victim to state-sponsored exploitation. In Meltdown in Tibet: China’s Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems from the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia, Michael Buckley writes that commercial fishermen regularly tossed explosives into the lake to kill fish. During the 1980s and 1990s the Yamdrok Hydropower Station was built on the lake. The dam project, completed in 1998, faced enormous opposition from local Tibetans throughout its construction and continues to be a source of enormous controversy. Meanwhile, state media, unsurprisingly, celebrated the project as another victory on Tibet’s journey to modernisation. Far from the first assault, the latest scandal represents just another instance of profound disrespect and exploitation of this holy lake.

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Reading Tibetan responses to the photo series, it is pretty clear why Tibetans were so outraged. The central issue not because the woman was naked,  but where she got naked, and this point was commonly repeated in Tibetan comments online.

Many Han netizens were sympathetic to Tibetans concerns. Indeed, never have I seen the idiom “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” (ruxiangsuisu) repeated quite so much. Another netizen received many likes and shares for commenting that “Tibetans should have the biggest say in matters like this“.

Others, however were much less understanding. Mirroring typical dominant group rhetoric elsewhere, hundreds of Han commenters told Tibetans “not to be so sensitive” and “to stop overthinking the pictures“. Echoing widespread sentiment among Han commenters, one netizen queried “Why can’t they do this shoot? The human body is a natural gift to humankind. Why can we not face our own bodies?” Others recast the whole incident as a reflection of Tibetan and Chinese conservativeness around female sexuality “You just need to shoot a few artful pictures of a naked women and it will be labelled as defiling culture, indecent and other anti-morality nonsenseThis woman’s mistake was being born in a sexually-unliberated China.” Many, engaging a mocking and dismissive tone, wondered whether Tibetans should also “require yaks and horses by the lakeside to cover-up as well“. Another highly condescending attitude prevalent in the Han response simply claimed that Tibetans were too “backward” and just “didn’t understand art“.

Bearing striking similarities to other pervasive and violent forms of micro-aggressions such as whitesplaining and mansplaining, Han comments regularly betrayed a distinct sense of paternalism and chauvinism towards Tibetans, explaining in condescending terms that Tibetans had simply misread their own experiences of oppression and suggesting a more ‘correct’ reading. So ubiquitous is this dynamic in online interactions I witness between Han and ethnic minorities that I now have a word to describe it: hansplaining. 

Tibetans were quick to respond to these various mischaracterisation of the issue. One Tibetan responded “First talk about respect and then we’ll get to art“. Another Tibetan commenter posted that “This is first and foremost an issue of cultural sensitivity. Don’t talk about this as an issue of ethnic groups needing to learn how to be more tolerant.” Several others responded by sharing a post that has now become an emblem of Tibetan cyber-struggle against these constant acts of disrespect:

You do not need to be Buddhist, nor do you do not need to understand our faith, but please, as the minimum mark of respect, try to understand a little of the local culture and customs before you come.

By far the most liked and reposted retort was:

Some say that we are too backward. Seems like we can’t even appreciate a bit of nudity as art. If you think that nudity represents the modern and civilised, then consider this: since ancient times Lhasa’s lakesides and natural springs have never had any shortage of naked bodies. Even our Bathing festival is about everyone getting naked together. What happened at Yamdrok is not about nakedness as modern or backward, it is about the basic principles of being respectful and being respected. I’m really sick of this kind of oppression.

And of course, predictably, in a classic act of conversation derailment, some Han netizens pointed out that ethnic minorities also disrespect Han culture, brazenly adding that “we all know verbally abusing Han people carries no risk“. Indeed, many of comments reflected very familiar manipulative tricks that attempt to deflect attention away from acknowledging  responsibility for and the need to address oppressive Han behaviour. Arguably, the vast majority of Han commentators failed to acknowledge in any shape or form the immense spiritual and cultural significance of the Yumdrok Lake, the many instances of violent assault carried out by the Han-State on the lake over the course of the past few decades, or any kind of connection with wider forms of prejudice or discrimination against Tibetans.

The photographs and discussion of the Yamdrok Incident, in tangent with previous instances evidenced in the above photographs, reflect so much of ethnic minority-majority relations in China today. Spurred on by the now longstanding state-sponsored drive to ‘modernize’ Tibet through tourism development, these images embody a desire to consume and commodify all things Tibetan, a profound sense of narcissistic entitlement to the Tibetan homeland that appears to trump any need for acknowledging, let alone addressing, Tibetan calls for respect and recognition.  Crucially, while Han tourists enjoy the Tibetan homeland as a site of pleasure and indulgence, Tibetans find themselves increasingly dispossessed and out of place in Tibet, tirelessly struggling against land grabs, resettlement, travel restrictions and stringent security checks, inward Han migration, inland schooling, and so on. Far more than simply “foolish Chinese women…posting silly photos of themselves” on social media as one media outlet suggested, the Yamdrok Incident so vividly encapsulates the ongoing violence of Han hegemony in Tibet today.

 

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Plateau Redness and the Politics of Beauty in Contemporary Tibet (Part 2)

In part one I shared a translated essay from Wechat penned by a young Tibetan woman on the perceived loss of Plateau Redness. In her essay she raised concerns about the rapid growth of the cosmetics industry in Lhasa over the past few years. She criticises the advent of a singular beauty standard revolving exclusively around whiteness as well as the ensuing loss of plateau redness, a distinguishing feature, she argues of Tibetan identity.

The essay garnered a great deal of attention on Wechat, generating a wide array of reactions and provocative commentary on the politics of beauty in contemporary Tibet. This blog starts off by trying to contextualize the essay and responses within the broader socio-cultural milieu within which they take place. To do so, I provide a brief overview of how the issue of plateau redness has been treated in Chinese media. I then move on to looking at some of the main responses the essay generated, before finally looking at a recent example of Han appropriation of plateau redness.

(The translations below are my own. While I have made every effort to remain faithful to the original texts, I am not a professional translator. Please get in touch if you feel that any particular section needs attention or have any suggestions for improvement!)


Reading through a few articles from Xinhua, China News and other major news outlets, I noticed that state media have been quite consistent in their discussions of plateau redness. Like most reportage on Tibet in state media, the plateau redness coverage was framed by discourses of science, progress, development, and increasing integration with interior China and the world, often juxtaposing ‘old Tibet’ and ‘new Tibet’.

In 2013 a piece from state mouthpiece Xinhua entitled Tibet’s ‘Plateau Redness’ is Becoming Rarer explained that the disappearance of plateau redness is simply a case of Tibetans “understanding understand more of scientific culture (kexue wenhua)” and “how better to protect themselves”. In a bizarre attempt to put a positive spin on climate change, the same piece, quoting a professor of medicine at Tibet University, also made the argument that:

Global warming is leading to an increase in Tibet’s vegetation, more rainfall, more moisture, and an increase in the amount of oxygen in the air. These changes are making peoples’ skin better able to retain moisture, thus lessening the occurrence of dry, cracked skin, and plateau redness.

More typically, state media tends to dismiss plateau redness as an illness of bygone times before health awareness took hold. Citing Nyima Tsering, director of the Tibetan Medicine Institute in the Tibet Autonomous Region, a China News article in 2015 entitled “The Plateau Redness that is now Disappearing” stated “actually Plateau redness is really not as beautiful as imagined, it is a type of plateau illness.” Similarly in 2013 Xinhua ran a piece entitled “Tibetans Hope to Get Rid of Red Cheeks” where they discussed Tibetan women’s increasing sense of “irritation” with plateau redness and Lhasa’s bustling cosmetics market. Degyi, a cosmetics saleswoman in Lhasa, was quoted as saying “we used to bask in the sun for warmth and had no knowledge of the harm the exposure could do. Today, we have a better understanding of how to protect ourselves.”

A quick search on Baidu turns up no end of articles and forum threads discussing how to get rid of plateau redness. The advertisement below for Victoria Plastic and Cosmetic Hospital in Lhasa offers a “plateau redness removal” service for 8,800 RMB.

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Keeping the above in mind, let’s get back to the essay. In general the piece was well received. On Qumi, the Wechat platform on which it was originally posted, it quickly accumulated over 5,000 views and generated over 50 comments. The essay was also shared elsewhere.

The piece resonated with many readers. Several posted comments expressing their agreement and praise. One comment praised the piece for allowing Tibetan women to “accept and even like our plateau redness. You wrote so well!” Another read “many people ask me why there is no plateau redness upon my face. I can only remain silent”.

Others, however, were critical of what they saw as an implicit suggestion in the piece that those without plateau redness were somehow less Tibetan. As one commenter remarked, “So only if you have plateau redness do you count as Tibetan?” Others joined in, arguing that this attempt to make plateau redness a compulsory feature of Tibetan women simply constituted another “a form of social violence“. Some were also irked by the burdens and limitations the piece placed on Tibetan women’s personal freedoms. One commenter wrote, “whether people decide to wear make-up or whiten their skin is really a matter of personal choice and determination, and we should not talk about it on the level of ethnicity”. Similarly, another commenter responded:

I am a Tibetan who was born and brought up in Tibet, but since I was a kid I have never had any kind of plateau redness. If outsiders think that people who live on the plateau must have plateau redness, that just tells you that they’re too narrow-minded.

While the essay certainly stirred up debate around questions of identity and authenticity, others were much more concerned about thinking about the reasons behind plateau redness’ disappearance.

Upon the plateau redness that exists on our face, we smear stuff, taking Han whiteness as beauty. We hardly realise that doing things like this, in this society of counterfeits, will harm our very own original skin and original form, and this is what is making plateau redness disappear… 

Perhaps the most divisive point of the discussion was the degree to which Tibetans felt the loss of plateau redness was of their own making. Many argued the the disappearance of plateau redness goes far beyond being simply a matter of beauty trends and tastes. As one commenter wrote, “one of the main reasons plateau redness is disappearing has to do with the natural environment, rather than personal choice.” Indeed, other commenters quickly picked up on this point, arguing that climate change should indeed be considered. One posted that “plateau redness follows the trends of changes in the environment and climate, and disappears“, while another noted “I think Lhasa’s weather is less and less that of before, climate change should really be an influence in this“.

Others identifed an interrelated third factor, namely China’s inland schooling programs for Tibetans (xizang ban). Since 1985, as part of its ‘intellectual aid scheme’ (zhili yuanzang), the Chinese government has been sending large numbers of Tibetan primary school graduates to inland secondary schools outside Tibetan regions. The cultural impact of inland schooling continues to be a very contentious subject of discussion among Tibetan netizens, and was also reflected in the comments on the loss of plateau redness.

Nowadays from a very young age many young Tibetans study in interior China and then their plateau redness slowly disappears. Also, before our diet was mainly tsampa but these days it’s basically rice and so on. These are just external changes, but the saddest part is that many have already begun forgetting their language and faith. 

Because ‘plateau redness’ will follow climatic and environmental change and transformation, and disappear. Following the upsurge in inland schooling classes so many students from the plateau study in interior China from a very young age. Once they go, that’s four years. They initially take their plateau redness with them to interior China and when they return to the plateau it has disappeared, and their skin has become white. 

While the majority acknowledged the role that climate change, education, mainstream beauty standards etc. play in the loss of plateau redness, not everyone viewed this as necessarily a negative development. As one commenter argued, the development of new beauty standards constitutes a sign of Tibetan development, openness and greater integration in the world:

Pursuing what is fashionable does not mean not having a deep love for one’s own ethnicity. We are in the process of integrating into modern society, and this demonstrates our openness but we cannot lose our essential things. We study English, Mandarin, wear modern clothes, but this does not represent a lack of ethnic identification. This is the process of Tibetans moving towards the world. 

Yet, there were plenty of others who took a far less rosy view of the situation:

The times are changing. Some things, we really haven’t intended to change but they change anyway. Just like some traditions that have already disappeared without a trace. If you want someone or something to blame, blame this nasty era.

To others, no matter the status of plateau redness, whether in the process of disappearing or not, “the blood that flows in our veins will never change“. Or, as another poster asked, “as long as there is a grain of love for Tibetans in your heart what does outwards appearance matter?” 

Meanwhile, while Tibetans debated over the many fraught issues of identity, climate change, and inland schooling, plateau redness was being mobilised elsewhere in a photo shoot named Nomads in the City. The photography collection (enjoy the whole thing in the slideshow below) featured two Han Chinese female models ostensibly posing as Tibetan nomads on a stroll around the high streets of one of China’s sprawling urban centres (looks like Chengdu to me). I found the following spiel on the photographer’s Weibo page about what the photo collection is supposed to represent:

From today’s perspectives, the nomadic lifestyle is pretty bohemian. They are of no fixed abode, they take their tent this way and that, settling wherever there is water and grass.They have no home. Wherever they pitch their tent is home, not unlike gypsies. This life of unrestrained freedom remains the fantasy of so many modern urbanites who perhaps walk and walk, not knowing where they will pick up a girl of their liking.

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Decked out pantomime-style in a bizarre mimicry of Tibetan attire and clownish-attempt at plateau redness, the models’ look did not make much of a splash among Tibetan netizens. The few comments I read had little more to say than that the representations of urban nomads were a “complete sham” and “terribly ugly“.

Just a few days ago I stumbled across the photos once again. This time they were on Taobao, a Chinese online shopping website, being used to promote ‘Gegu Heavenly‘, a new online store inspired by ‘ethnic culture’ and specialising in necklaces, bracelets, earrings, antiques and other ornaments. Gegu Heavenly has certainly been working hard to market their products by leveraging the many tired stereotypes of Tibetan nomads as wild, mysterious, exotic, romantic and unrestrained bodies. Mobilising an amplified plateau redness must have been considered as lending their brand an heightened charm of je n’ai said quoi.

Like so much of the socio-cultural landscape in contemporary Tibet, the politics of plateau redness are deeply embedded in wider ongoing debates concerning identity, cultural assimilation, migration, education, climate change and so on. Tibetan Girls, We are in the Process Losing Tibetan Redness and the many comments it generated reflect so many of internal dilemmas and conflicts experienced by Tibetans living in the shadows of the dominant Han culture and state. Yet, unlike so many debates and discussions of this kind, the politics of plateau redness was dominated by Tibetan women. Across state media and the essay comments I saw no references to Tibetan men’s relationship to plateau redness. Does plateau redness not concern Tibetan men? Where is the male gaze in all this? I briefly posed the question to the woman who penned the essay I translated. She responded that it was something she had not considered when writing the piece, but suspected the issue would resonate with many men. Perhaps the gendered politics of plateau beauty will have to be a blog for another time.

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Plateau Redness and the Politics of Beauty in Contemporary Tibet (Part 1)

In the first of a two-part series, I translate an essay that was first published in February, 2016 on a popular Tibetan platform on Wechat. The essay, written by a young Tibetan woman currently studying at a prestigious university in interior China, discusses the perceived loss of “plateau redness” (高原红), a reference to rouge cheeks commonly associated with those who dwell at high-altitudes.

As part two (coming up in the next few days!) will examine, this essay’s exploration of the loss of plateau redness forms part of a wider discussion that has been ongoing for years. The piece generated a very complex array of responses, many of which situate the loss of plateau redness within a wider landscape of globalisation, cultural assimilation, climate change, identity, gender, inland schooling, as well as resettlement and migration.

(This translation is my own. While I have made every effort to remain faithful to the original text, I am not a professional translator. Please get in touch if you feel that any particular section needs attention or have any suggestions for improvement! All images are from the original essay.)


Tibetan Girls, We are in the Process of Losing ‘Plateau Redness’

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Once upon a time in interior China (neidi), ‘plateau redness’ was a distinguishing sign of Tibetan women. I remember when I was young, during my first trip to Chengdu, standing amid the hustle and bustle of crowds on Chunxi Road, where, no matter what clothes you were wearing or whether you opened your mouth to speak, from the wisps of natural rouge upon one’s face everyone could immediately identify a Tibetan girl.

Yet, today, walking through the streets and lanes of Lhasa, the majority of women are fair complexioned and kitted out in the latest fashion. Were you not to stop and chat with them, you would in fact never know that they were Tibetan. Often it is only on the faces of women coming from other Tibetan counties to Lhasa for pilgrimage and downing sheepskin garments that the dear, familiar wisps of rouge can be seen.

Rongzhongerjia’s (a well-known Tibetan singer) passionate song “Plateau Redness” has long since spread wide and far. This song, known to all, describes the Plateau Redness as follows:

Plateau Redness, 

beautiful plateau redness, 

brewing and brewing once more the barley beer, 

still as thick as it was that year

The lyrics of this song make so many people in interior China really grasp this distinguishing feature of Tibetan women. Yet perhaps what makes many tourists feel disappointed is that, they see the great Potala Palace that they have longed to see and snap shots of devout pilgrims to Jokhang Temple they have longed to snap, but they rarely see the ‘plateau redness’ of Tibetan girls. They suddenly see the difference between the Tibet they have learned about from propaganda and that of reality. But, what has led to the disappearance of this marker of our ethnic group, the plateau redness?

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The lyrics of the song describe the beauty of the plateau redness, but the reality is that, no matter whether we are talking about Tibetan men or women, very few actually think that plateau redness is attractive. Tibetan girls are just the same as Han girls, whose sense of beauty has been hijacked by drama series’ from Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan, spending so much time pursuing the acquisition of white skin.

Across the highly developed cosmetic beauty industry and the explosive marketing of cosmetic products across Wechat, along with the growing collective consciousness about the need to protect our skin from the sun, Tibetan women are having their wishes fulfilled and continue on in a celebratory manner along the road to fair complexion.

In this era of unitary standards of beauty, many young Tibetan women chose to apply whitening products, matching it up with bright red lips, and constantly engaging in endless cycles of weight loss programs that leave them exhausted. For those few who still have the plateau redness, this culture gives way to feelings of embarrassment and insecurity around this natural look.

A report in the Phoenix Weekly found that ever since the first cosmetic branch opened up in Lhasa in the 1990s, the development of the cosmetic business in Tibet has been a story of unparalleled success. Indeed, cosmetics that get rid of redness and freckles have been the most popular. Apart from cosmetics, daily health care and make-up have are another set of techniques that require mastering.

The author writes this piece hoping that everyone will gain a wider appreciation for the different kinds of beauty out there. Don’t let plateau redness become something that is only seen in movies and pieces of art as a marker of Tibetan-ness, left with no option but to disappear within the narrow-minded desires of the general public.

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It is precisely because of this roof of the world upon which we live, a plateau to be proud of, that plateau redness is produced, a consequence of natural selection within this very environment. Because of the elevation above sea level across Qinghai, Tibet and other areas, the air is thin and dry, and there is little oxygen. As a result, the skin does not inhale enough, and so the red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen increase. And when the difference in temperatures across the plateau is even more pronounced and ultraviolet rays radiate even more intensively, redness becomes all the more noticeable.

The plateau bestows upon us a superior physicality, stronger lungs and heart, and a bright red face. These natural gifts leave us with nothing to feel embarrassed about. Within this information explosion that characterises our present, so much is demanded, particularly of women. From being a perfect 50kg to the endless whitening brainwashing, we feel completely as though we ourselves are imperfect and are in need to change. In fact, there really is no need to live by the expectations of others.

Keeping a natural heart, and a natural appearance is also a manifestation of beauty.

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