ISSN 2768-4261 (Online)
Animaqing, Animaqing 阿尼玛卿，阿尼玛卿 (Amnye Machen, Amnye Machen)
Ciren Weise 次仁唯色 (Tsering Woeser)
245 pages, 2020, 300 NT$
Xueyu chubanshe 雪域出版社
Reviewed by Kamila Hladíková
May the holy mountain be eternal, and the faith remain firm and unwavering, may all sentient beings be happy; not some of them being happier while others deprived of all happiness.
From August 15 to 23, 2018, Tibetan sinophone writer Tsering Woeser and French ethnologist and Tibetologist Katia Buffetrille undertook a pilgrimage around Amnye Machen, one of the most important sacred mountains in Tibet. The trip later inspired Tsering Woeser to produce a collection of poetry recording the whole journey step by step. The book, which was finished in April 2020 amid the first global surge of Covid-19, consists of 81 numbered prose poems in Chinese language and can be read as a poetic diary or travelog combining personal impressions with factual description of the pilgrimage circuit, including legends and rituals related to each section on the approximately 180 km long route (Buffetrille 1997: 77). The text is interwoven with photographic illustrations – snapshots taken by the author and photographs made by Katia Buffetrille during her previous three pilgrimages in 1990, 1992 and 2002. Katia Buffetrille also contributed her expertise within the process of translating the Chinese text for planned French language edition of the book.
Woeser’s poems include numerous references to Tibetan religious writings as well as Western and Chinese-language scholarship. In the original Taiwanese edition, all references are indicated in the footnotes along with explanations of Tibetan terms, names, and religious concepts. The poetic travelog opens with lines written by the Fifth Dalai Lama, quoted from the Amdo scholar Caibei (才贝; Tsepe)’s Chinese language Research of Amnye Machen Mountain Deity (Animaqing shanshen yanjiu 阿尼玛卿山神研究, 2012), followed by a foreword highlighting the notion of “domestication” (Ch. xunhua 驯化) from Jared Diamond’s 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel (which Woeser read in Chinese translation). In Diamond’s interpretation, the process of domestication of large animals by humans facilitated the emergence of great ancient civilizations in certain parts of the world, because they helped humans to develop agriculture and trade. Diamond differentiates between “domesticable” (Ch. ke xunhua 可驯化) and “undomesticable” (Ch. bu ke xunhua 不可驯化) animals, referring to the so-called “Anna Karenina principle.” The famous 1877 novel by the Russian realist writer Leo Tolstoy starts with a statement that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Diamond’s paraphrase of the key idea that deficiency within any one of possible negative traits for domestication can render a species undomesticable has become a leitmotif of Woeser’s book that is introduced in the foreword: “Domesticable animals are all alike [but] every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way.” Circling around the question of whether Tibetans may be of the “undomesticable” kind, resisting to be fully “domesticated” for more than seven decades, Woeser comments: “Within the six realms of Samsara, you and I may be human in this life, but not necessarily in the next one. Thus, the story of domesticated and undomesticated will go on.”
The first two poetic pieces in the collection are “Promise” (Chengnuo 承诺) and “Prayer” (Qiyuan 祈愿), both written before the pilgrimage as mental and spiritual tuning for the ultimately religious act of circumambulating a sacred mountain. “Promise,” dated on March 25, 2018 in Beijing is a celebration of the mountain and above all the spirit of its inhabitants, Tibetan pastoralists grazing their animals on the high-altitude slopes of the 6,282 meters high mountain. “Prayer” was written in Lhasa shortly before the journey, on July 30, 2018. It is a plead for protection to the Amnye Machen mountain deity, Machen Pomra, visualized according to local legends and iconographies as a man with a white woolen hat, riding on a white green-maned horse, snow lion or a wild yak. The 81 prose poems in the collection proper are reminiscent of the Chinese term biji (笔记; usually translated as scholars’ notes), which was used in the title of Woeser’s banned book Notes on Tibet (Xizang biji 西藏笔记, 2003). Notes on Tibet is a collection of essays combining travel notes with personal, sometimes highly poetic, reflections on various aspects of Tibetan culture and history. The work shows strong attachment of the author to cultural and spiritual traditions of her homeland to which she lost access since her birth which happened to coincide with the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. In this text, Woeser used poetic and often elliptical language to express forbidden meanings related to Tibetan subjectivity and experience during the Chinese rule in Tibet.
In Amnye Machen, Amnye Machen, she has rarely addressed sensitive issues or expressed direct criticism of Chinese colonial rule, but the hints of the forced “domestication” of Tibetans by the Chinese Communist Party appear throughout the text. For example, poem no. 26 includes the lines:
Thinking about them comparing my people to yaks, simply calling them yaks,
With a slight condescending irreverence in their smiles.
Are wild yaks undomesticated yaks?
And yaks already domesticated wild yaks?
Here, the Chinese used by Woeser betrays the paradox that would be more obvious in Tibetan, where the word yak (g’yag) is used only for male individuals of the domestic species, while the wild yak is known as drong (‘brong). Unlike in Chinese (or English and other Western languages), the difference between yak (g’yag) and wild yak (‘brong) does not seem to be just the question of eventual domestication, but an inherent trait of respective species. As explained by Woeser in the following poem: “The question of domestication is the question of survival or extinction” (87). Later she adds: “Domesticated yaks are extremely gentle, domesticated indigenous people are extremely docile” (176).
She returns to the discussion of “domestication” again and again, describing the reality of today’s Tibet:
I was domesticated on the surface,
But my heart was not domesticated.
Yet, some of our people I met,
Have not lost their mother tongue and have not abandoned the custom,
But what about their hearts?
The bitter sigh addresses young Tibetans willing to embrace the comfortable life of “moderate wealth” (xiaokang 小康) offered to them by the government. Writing about the acts of resistance and repression, be it the armed resistance of Golog people against the Peoples’ Liberation Army in the 1950s (38; 79) or the fate of young horseman’s father who was imprisoned during the 2008 protests (42), Woeser observes how the young generation is slowly coopted by the system.
Perhaps even more pressing are the environmental issues resurfacing with rising urgency throughout the book as the author witnessed enormous changes of climate and landscape in the Amnye Machen region. Poem no. 22 conveys concerns of local pastoralists about the disappearing eternal snow and retreating glaciers turning the original “Gangri” (gangs ri; snow mountain) into “Dzari” (rdza ri; rock mountain) (73-74). Other poems describe insensitive and self-centered behavior of Chinese tourists (156) or omnipresent barbed wires dividing vast grasslands and mountain valleys, hindering free movement of both wild and domestic animals (179-180).
With its rich metaphorical language, Woeser’s collection is an intimately poetic and ultimately human account of one kind of modern Tibetan identity. From pious prayers and Buddhist legends through humorous records of hardships of an urban pilgrim to compassionate observations of people and nature encountered on the road, the author often examines her own troubled identity of “domesticated” city dweller, embarrassed when she has to use Chinese to communicate with her fellow Tibetans, nomads from Golog or Nangchen who do not speak the Lhasa language (126). To stress her Tibetan identity despite writing in Chinese, she tends to pay attention to decolonization of her language, using Tibetan terms and expressions wherever the concept requires it. She writes Tubote 图波特 or Bo 波 (Tib. bod) instead of the Chinese term Xizang 西藏, or pozhang 颇章 (Tib. pho drang; palace) when referring to the Potala (18). Throughout the text, many Tibetan words are used, transcribed in Chinese characters and explained in footnotes, such as ningdu 宁度 for “beloved one” (Tib. snying sdug; 47), qiakuo 恰廓 for eagle (Tib. bya rgod; 50), or songma 松玛 for protector (Tib. srung ma; 64). Tibetan language and imagery, vividly present on each page, the author’s deeply human attitude, and her scholarly erudition help to turn the book into a healing work of art permeated with Buddhist philosophy and compassion, critically reflecting various aspects of Tibetanness in the contemporary PRC.
Buffetrille, K. (1997) “The great pilgrimage of A-myes rMa-chen: written traditions, living realities”, in A.W. Macdonald (ed), Maṇḍala and Landscape, New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, pp. 75–132.
Kamila Hladíková is assistant professor of Chinese literature at Palacký University Olomouc, Czech Republic. She graduated in sinology at Charles University in Prague and completed her Ph.D. in 2011. In her doctoral thesis (The Exotic Other and Negotiation of Tibetan Self, 2013), she focused on representation of Tibet in Chinese and Tibetan literature of the 1980s and examined questions of identity in Sinophone Tibetan short stories. She published articles on Tibet-related literature and film in the PRC, examining the work of Pema Tseden (“Shangri-la Deconstructed: Representation of Tibet in Pema Tseden’s Films”, 2016), Tsering Woeser (“A Tibetan Heart in a Chinese Mouth: Tsering Woeser’s Notes on Tibet”, 2018; “Purple Ruins: Tsering Woeser’s (re)construction of Tibetan identity”, 2021), or Tsering Norbu (“Voiceless Tibet? Past and Present in Tibetan Sinophone Writing by Tsering Norbu”, 2023). More recently, she focused on contemporary Chinese popular culture (“Heroes and Villains of The Word of Honor: Cooptation of popular culture in promotion of ‘core values’ and patriotism in the PRC”, 2023). She is also the author of the first Czech language teaching material on modern Chinese literature and co-author of the first Czech lexicon of Sinophone cinema. She translated works of Chinese and Sinophone Tibetan literature into Czech, for example co-edited and co-translated a Czech-language anthology of short stories from Tibet Vábení Kailásu (The Lure of Kailash, 2005). Her translation of Tsering Woeser’s Notes on Tibet was published in 2015.
© 2021 Yeshe | A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities