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A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities


Yeshe: A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities is an open access, peer-reviewed annual journal that publishes academic articles, book reviews, and interviews related to Tibet, as well as poetry, prose, art, and fiction.


Bound-Up Scenery (1), 1987, 4 Photographs

 Against the Grain of History: Mutiny at the Ockenden School

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa


Abstract: The question of whether Tibet was independent of China has shaped the construction of the national subject for both China and Tibet. This essay turns to newspaper reports, letters, and pamphlets produced by Tibetan refugees and Tibet supporters in the mid-1960s to tell the story of a revolt by thirty Tibetan students at Ockenden School in Dharwar, India––among the first schools established in exile–– for being taught the wrong kind of national history. The story enters the inner space of Tibetan exile life and demonstrates how the formation of the exile government produced its own center/margin political space.

Keywords: Bon, Ockenden School, alternate histories, national narrative, unity


Malcolm Dexter and Sangye Tenzin, teachers at Ockenden School in Dharwar, Karnataka (India), did not realize when they set off on an excursion to the bazaar on 29 April 1966 that their students were planning a surprise for them. Two days after the incident, Dexter, who was the headmaster, wrote a letter to the school’s founder Joyce Pearce in Surrey, England, describing it as the most difficult and important letter he had ever written. Twenty-five students had abruptly left the school with their bedding, uniforms, and even textbooks! “Sangye and I were absolutely heart-broken,” Dexter writes (May 1). Recalling the incident after their return from the bazaar, he mentions that several students had refused to do their afternoon garden duties and held a meeting in the evening to discuss their complaints against the school. Dexter had decided to expel the ringleaders—six students in all—and suspected that they were abetted and led to this revolt by one of the two Tibetan teachers, Gyaltsen Choden and Kelsang Liushar, at the school.[1] Hinting at the play of complex religious and political machinations, Dexter explains to Pearce in the same letter on May 1 that what it boiled down to was Sangye Tenzin’s Bonpo identity (from the Bon religious practice that pre-dated Buddhism in Tibet and had been long relegated to the margins in Tibetan society).

The Ockenden School was set up in 1965 by the Ockenden Venture, a charity organization founded by three schoolteachers from Surrey. Established under the 1940 War Charities Act, the organization’s first humanitarian aid was focused on young East European refugees following World War II. The charity’s scope was amended in 1962 to support displaced children beyond Europe after one of its founders, Joyce Pearce, advocated to assist Tibetan refugees in India. Ockenden’s goal was to provide young Tibetan refugees a sound Western education while still grounding them in Tibetan cultural traditions. Ockenden students were to be among the first generation of Tibetan refugees receiving education in India. The organization hoped that the students, upon graduation, would be of value to the Tibetan community as translators and liaison officers.

Ockenden Venture hired two instructors—Malcolm Dexter and Sangye Tenzin, both scholars of Bon—to educate the thirty boys in the school.[2] Sangye Tenzin­, who was awarded a Geshe degree in Tibet, had returned to India after teaching and studying at the School of Oriental Studies (SOAS) in London.[3] Two additional teachers, Gyaltsen Choden, a Tibetan instructor, and Kelsang Liushar, a steward, had been appointed by the Council for Tibetan Education, a new wing under the Department of Education of the Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala, India.

The Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet had led to cataclysmic changes in the lives of Tibetans whether they remained inside Tibet or fled in 1959 to the neighboring countries of India, Nepal, and Bhutan. For those abruptly rendered refugees, the past became the means not only to make sense of the present but more importantly, to prepare the groundwork for a return to an independent Tibet.

The recently established Tibetan Government-in-Exile had insisted on creating separate Tibetan schools, instead of sending Tibetan children to existing Indian schools, even though Tibetans had little managerial experience and lacked material resources to run institutions (Rigzin 367). The dual objective–preservation of the Tibetan language and culture as well as preparation for a modern future–was at the heart of the Tibetan education policy. A customized Tibetan education would help answer questions such as “Who am I? Where have I come from and from where did my parents come from?” (Shiromany 317).[4] Education was central to promoting the development of ideal Tibetans in exile.

The Council for Tibetan Education’s task was to prepare the curricula in Tibetan schools according to the guidelines of the exile government. The Council had formed a publication section consisting of a team of renowned religious teachers—Dudjom Rinpoche, Zemey Rinpoche, and Ngor Thartse Rinpoche—to help write textbooks for the schools (Tibet Documentation 87). The first Tibetan school, called the Tibetan Refugee Educational Institute, in Mussoorie, in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, had fifty students ranging in age from thirteen to thirty-five (Rigzin 267). By 1962, there were two more residential schools, one in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, and the other in Darjeeling, West Bengal.

The events of the boys’ revolt came to light for exile Tibetans on 2 June 1966 when the newspaper Tibetan Freedom (Bhod-mi Rangwang) published the first of several testimonials by the two Tibetan teachers and the students, alleging Dexter and Sangye Tenzin armed the young students with knowledge that had the potential to create strife among Tibetans and hurt national sentiments. The publication of the testimonials in Tibetan Freedom, the only Tibetan newspaper in exile in 1966, was significant. Run by Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s older brother, the paper’s goal was primarily to inform Tibetans of national and international events related to the Tibetan struggle. It was taken under the fold of the exile establishment after a few years, becoming the first newspaper to be published and managed by the Tibetan exile government. The content published in Tibetan Freedom merits a close study because it had traction in times when media sources were exiguous in the Tibetan community.

The revolt at Ockenden School was brought to my attention by a Bonpo Khenpo in 2013. In the Khenpo’s version of the story, the focus was not so much on the revolt itself but on what the students protected as Tibetan history, how the story was represented in Tibetan Freedom, and the emphasis on national unity in the Tibetan exile community.

I was intrigued that young boys with no memory of Tibet were wounded after learning some facts or historical details that went against the dominant discourse or narratives about the Tibetan nation. That young students were stirred to revolt against their teachers and even left the school is an uncommon occurence in Tibetan society given the importance of the teacher in student-teacher relationships in Tibetan Buddhist traditions. That this was in the early days of Tibetan exilic life, when dissent against authority was scarce or unprecedented, was even more surprising.[5]

I was raised in Tibetan refugee communities where the majority identified themselves as followers of the Gelug, Kagyu, Sakya, or Nyingma traditions. Bon was often described as an aberration from Buddhism: bonpos walked around the stupa anticlockwise; bonpos believed in magic; bonpos were responsible for the demise of Buddhism in Tibet in the ninth century. I did not hear Tibetan Buddhists talk about Bon as an organized monastic system with similarities to other Buddhist schools, or that Bon was integral to Tibetan identity and history. It never occurred to me that Bon was the indigenous religion of Tibet before the official entry of Buddhism in the seventh and eighth centuries.

The Ockenden School revolt took place at a crucial moment when Tibetan exile officials, cultural institutions of society, and community members were beginning the work of creating, preserving, and promoting a stable narrative about Tibetan history. The construction of an official historical narrative, as it has been elsewhere, is a process that is social, cultural, as well as political (McGranahan, Arrested 3). It is a process that legitimizes selective events or versions of events over others as being acceptable or true (3)[6], which can further shift perspectives on the past and alter the meaning of concepts such as nation and identity. As a result, certain people, events, and cultures belong to the official history of the place while certain people, events, and cultures are elided.[7]

The questions raised by the students allow insights into what constituted history, what shaped collective identity, what worldview shaped this narrative, and how history fits into Tibetan education, storytelling, and nationalism. The students’ response is also illustrative of the dominant opinion and attitude towards Bon history and figures. Likewise, the exile government’s decision to act on behalf of the aggrieved students indicates what those in power regarded as the historical tradition and how they would deal with alternate traditions or narratives. The Ockenden School was after all meant to produce future bureaucrats for the exile government.

In the following sections of this article, I refer to the revolt as represented in four sources: 1) the Tibetan newspaper Bhod-mi Rangwang or Tibetan Freedom; 2) letters and testimonials in the archives of the Surrey History Center (UK), exchanged between Joyce Pearce in Surrey and Malcom Dexter, the headmaster of the school 3) letters sent by the Bureau of the Dalai Lama to Joyce Pearce, also in the Surrey archives; and 4) additional letters written by third party observers (friends of Dexter) and volunteer teachers who attempted to make sense of the incident.[8]

Not many Tibetans I spoke to outside of the Bonpo community remembered the Ockenden student revolt of 1966, and the handful of individuals who did, turned the story into a lesson about the dark time in Tibetan exile history when some Tibetans were against Tibetan unity.


Letters from the Field

In a collective letter to Pearce, twenty-five students explain that they left Ockenden because of their uncongenial relationship with Malcolm Dexter and Sangye Tenzin. They list twelve reasons—religion being the first reason behind the discord. The students were all followers of Buddha, but the teachers spoke about a religion that came to Tibet before Buddhism. They write that the two teachers neglected the “holy doctrine” of Buddha, which the students cherished. The teachers were also accused of holding negative views against the Dalai Lama-led Tibetan government. Furthermore, they complain that Dexter was trying to divide Tibetans by speaking about Amdo as being separate from Tibet. The students suspected that the two teachers had a hidden motive of turning Ockenden into a Bonpo center. They end the letter with a plea to Pearce to replace the two teachers (Woodard 1).

The follow-up letter is signed by thirty boys.[9] The students inform Pearce that they were heading to Dharamsala to report the events to the Dalai Lama (Woodall 4).[10] Pearce was also sent a letter from the Bureau of the Dalai Lama, dated May 5, informing her about the thirty boys who had been “expelled” from Ockenden School. The Bureau asks for her clarification on the event (Tara May 4).

In her response to Dexter on 4 May 1966, Pearce advises him not to punish the boys for writing to her. She suggests that Dexter pursue the first complaint in the students’ letter: religion. “Is it not likely that, as you have explained to me, the Bompos [sic] are of a different sect from the Dalai Lama that they may feel Sangye has a different approach in the matter of religious instruction?” she asks Dexter. She wonders if hiring Mr. Phalla (who had been the Head of the Dalai Lama’s Secretariat in the Tibetan Government in Lhasa), who was of a “different sect,” would be the answer to keeping the “balance” in the school.

Dexter’s letter to Pearce on May 10 intimates he had read the students’ letter (perhaps shared by Pearce). He states that the complaints were not worthy to be refuted. Sangye Tenzin neither taught the Bonpo doctrine nor made an issue of religion. The reverse was true: the students began their day with thirty minutes of prayers to the Dalai Lama and Buddha. Dexter clarifies that both he and Sangye Tenzin preached tolerance in the school and treated students from all religious sects and provinces with respect.

Dexter also addresses Pearce’s point regarding the balance between religious leanings in the school by drawing her attention to the appointment of Kelsang Liushar and the “Dharamsala teacher” (referring to Gyaltsen Choden), which had proven to be the cause of the problem.[11]  He indicates he would ask Dr. David. L. Snellgrove, a professor of the Tibetan language at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London, to provide Pearce with essential details regarding the “religious strife” that complicated political and social life in Tibet for centuries. He hints that such tensions persisted within the exile community in India. Snellgrove was among the first Western scholars to study Bon and work with Tibetan Bonpo scholars, such as Sangye Tenzin, in the 1960s. This new scholarship on Bon was not easily accessible to Tibetan refugees in India. Even Western scholars up until the 1960s viewed Bon the way Tibetans did, either as a form of folk religion preceding Buddhism in Tibet, as a religion that developed alongside Buddhism in Tibet, or as a shamanistic practice full of superstitions and divination. These representations were challenged by Bon scholars and scholars such as Snellgrove who, unlike Tibetan Buddhists, saw Bon as a form of Buddhism and not the opposite of Buddhism. “Do we go on? Or do we, abandon the project and cut our losses?” Dexter asks Pearce (May 10).


Right and Wrong History

Tibetan Freedom’s first report on the boys’ revolt, titled “A Report by Gyaltsen Choden, a Tibetan language teacher at Ockenden School” was published on 2 June 1966.[12] Written in the first person, and in the Tibetan language, Gyaltsen Choden describes Dexter and Sangye Tenzin’s teaching pedagogy as inconsistent and their relationship with the students as disrespectful (varying between playfulness and harshness to the extent of beating students and calling them names such as “wild Tibetans” and “pigs”). Gyaltsen Choden accuses the two teachers of advising him to follow their strict disciplinary method with the pupils and portrays himself as someone who preferred maintaining discipline through guidance and advice. He further writes:

I knew the reasons for these beatings, i.e. because the students did not agree to engage in studying Bon religion. Buddhism, monks and lamas were disparaged and they [the teachers] stated that the Tibetan government did not exist. The students did not follow their erroneous paths to break the bond between His Holiness and the Tibetan people by criticizing Tibetan government officers and stating that eastern Tibet was not a part of Tibet.[13]

As per Gyaltsen Choden’s version, Dexter and Sangye Tenzin were engaged in activities that undermined the achievements of the Tibetan exile community in religion and politics. He also took offense to these two teachers’ use of Chinese terms, such as chopsticks, to describe food and utensils in front of foreign and Indian dignitaries, for doing so gave the impression that Chinese and Tibetan traditions were similar. He felt that the two teachers were manipulating the Dalai Lama’s name and the goodwill that donors and sponsors held towards Tibet.

Gyaltsen Choden interprets Dexter and Sangye Tenzin’s ordinary and individual actions in relation to their service or disservice to the nation. He was so troubled that he had written to the Department of Education about the two teachers and threatened to leave the school if the two were not dismissed. He also admits to having sent a letter to the founders of the school, but it is not clear when he wrote this letter.

Kelsang Liushar’s testimony, published on 6 June 1966, under the title “The Reason Why Kelsang Left Ockenden,” speculates that moving the school from its former site in Mussoorie to the more remote location of Dharwar in South India made it possible for Dexter and Sangye Tenzin to turn the students away from Buddhism and create dissension among them. The testimony also accuses the two teachers of favoring Bonpo students.

On 7 June 1966, Tibetan Freedom published testimonies by five students on their reasons for leaving the school, and on June 8, it published three additional student testimonies. A fourteen-year-old student states that he was compelled to revolt because he felt the teachers intended to do away with Buddhism and wanted to convert the students to Bon. He testified that Sangye Tenzin cast King Lang Darma, the forty-first King of Tibet who is commonly held responsible for the persecution of Buddhism in Tibet during his reign, in a positive light. Another student testified that although he had been at Ockenden for only two weeks, he had witnessed the two teachers make disparaging remarks against Buddhism and the exile government. He wrote that Sangye Tenzin referred to there being two distinct dialects in Tibet. Additional testimonies from six students were printed on 7 and 8 June.[14] Read together, the complaints in the testimonies fall under three main categories:

  1. Amdo and Kham as separate political entities independent from the Tibetan government in Lhasa

The students express in different ways that Dexter and Sangye Tenzin emphasized Amdo and Kham’s political autonomy from Central Tibet. One student singles out Sangye Tenzin for saying his birthplace and the Gyalrong area were fully independent and did not pay any tax to the Gaden Phodrang Government under the Dalai Lama. Another student testimony emphasizes that Amdo was one of the three provinces of Tibet, and he was shocked at being taught otherwise.

  1. Representing Lang Darma as a decent person

The students complain that the teachers idealized Lang Darma, Tibet’s most vilified king. This was one of the reasons why they suspected that the teachers wanted to promote Bon in the school and convert the younger boys to Bon.

  1. Suggesting Thonmi Sambhota was not the inventor of the Tibetan script

The students allege that Dexter and Tenzin emphasized in class that Thonmi Sambhota was not the inventor of the Tibetan script and that an earlier script had existed. Such information contradicted what the students accepted as an established fact about the invention of the first Tibetan script.

The student testimonies, published in Tibetan Freedom (these complaints are also expressed in their letter to Joyce Pearce), indicate that they were hurt that the narratives they held as truth were challenged by the two teachers. The students were responding to the contradictions between what they were purportedly learning or unlearning in the classroom and the hegemonic narratives they understood to be true. After all, Tibetan songs, opera, and stories determined that Lang Darma was a villain, that Thonmi Sambhota transformed Tibetans from barbarians into modern people (even though literacy was mostly concentrated in the monasteries and among the elite), and that Tibet comprised the regions of U-Tsang, Kham, and Amdo. Their confusion, even anger, is understandable. However, the power these students gave to alternative historical narratives, such as those related to Bon in the case here or their (mis)interpretation of these narratives challenging the Tibetan government and creating disharmony among Tibetans, seems remarkable.

 The testimonies allow the revolt to be read as an interesting case of what Prasenjit Duara describes as the “repressive connection” (Rescuing 4) between the nation and the subject of history,­ which is religion in the context here.[15] In reading and retelling this event as a story within a story about national history and cultural memory, I am illustrating a way to think about the borders between national histories and the heterogeneous nature of communities and clans. The Ockenden School revolt illustrates how the hegemonic narratives of history and culture were already sedimented into the social and cultural life of Tibetans.


Disrupting Unity

In her letter to Tenzin N. Takla, the Assistant Director of the Council for Tibetan Education, dated 13 May 1966, Joyce Pearce writes that there are always two sides to a question. She suggests that moving from the comfortable mountain climate in Mussoorie to the scorching heat of South India had made the boys unhappy. She wonders why they waited so long to ask questions on religious pedagogy when they had ample and easier opportunities to do so in Mussoorie. 

Tenzin Takla agrees that there are two sides, but he explains that Dexter’s accusations against Kelsang Liushar and Gyaltsen Choden were refuted by the students’ admissions that they had left the school of their own volition (Takla, May 25). The Council had closely examined the reports made by the students and concluded that Dexter and Sangye Tenzin carried at heart the intention to “strike discord among Tibetans” and “disrupt the national pride and cultural values” cherished by the students (3). The students had responded defiantly because of their loyalty to the Tibetan culture and nation. Tenzin Takla expresses his disappointment, explaining that he had regarded the students as potential leaders for the community and nation. He offers two suggestions for the way forward: to dismiss Dexter and Sangye Tenzin, and to run the school under the Dalai Lama’s direction or jointly with the Tibetan Schools Society.

The event, he repeats, had endangered the community’s peace.  It is unclear, from both the articles in Tibetan Freedomand the letters, how the community would have been endangered. One of the most unsettling facts is that the Tibetan committee members arrived at their decision without speaking with the accused teachers. They relied on the letters from the students and the testimonies from Gyaltsen Choden and Kelsang Liushar.

The Ockenden Venture sent Peter Woodard to investigate the incident.[16] Woodard’s exhaustive eighty-nine-page report, “A Report on the Mutiny at the Ockenden School Dharwar Mysore,” contains copies of letters exchanged between different parties involved in the Ockenden School revolt, transcripts of Woodard’s interviews with thirty students and teachers, and minutes of his meetings with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government officials. The contents of the interviews echo the sentiments expressed in the testimonies that were already made public to Tibetan refugees in Tibetan Freedom.

Woodard’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, Tenzin N. Takla, and T.C. Tara on 1 June 1966 at Swarg Ashram in Dharamsala did not go well judging by the meeting’s minutes. This was largely due to Woodard’s refusal to accept the Council’s decision that Dexter and Sangye Tenzin had deliberately sowed dissension. Instead, he insinuated the revolt was a plot hatched by the Tibetan teachers under instructions from Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s brother. The two parties—representative of the Ockenden Venture and the Tibetan exile establishment—stood behind the respective teachers each had hired for the school. Woodard suggested the school retain Dexter and Sangye Tenzin with closer input from the Council, while the Council suggested the school continue its work without the two accused teachers. Woodard implied that it was important to make the right decision because European donors were watching this incident unfold: a big appeal for Tibetans had been planned in Europe. Tenzin Takla retorted that it was equally important to Tibetans as a “matter of principle.” He reiterated how Sangye Tenzin and Dexter had deliberately undermined Tibetan authorities and religion.

In a follow-up letter to Pearce on June 5, the private secretary to the Dalai Lama, T.C. Tara, expressed his disappointment with the “unhappy incident,” as well as with Woodard’s allegation that Gyalo Thondup was behind the whole incident. Tibetans felt that Woodard’s unwillingness to fire Dexter and Sangye Tenzin left them with no other option than to shut down the school.

Pearce suggests to Dexter that he had been unwise in handling the situation. Discipline, she explains in a letter on June 16, is maintained on two grounds. One, the personal “relationship between individuals and his staff and the boys and secondly the external pressure of the society in which the school exists.” Dexter’s relationship with the students had broken down (he was accused of beating the students), and the boys had felt the “external society” would support them (June 16). She writes that Ockenden was not prepared to be involved in Tibetan politics and intrigues. She thought that the exile government was justified in looking into Ockenden’s intentions if they felt the school was not supporting the policies of the Dalai Lama.

In a letter dated 17 June 1966, Pearce is equally direct with Woodard in expressing her concern that he was accusing Gyalo Thondup without any proof. She expresses the same concern in a letter to a colleague in the Tibetan Refugee Aid Society in Canada. She shares that the Ockenden School could only stay open if it was to be run by the exile government. She wonders if the conflict was the outcome of trying to bring a Western education system in line with Tibetan culture. She explains the situation might be analogous to the experience that progressive thinkers of the Middle Ages faced when they offended the Church. A school seeking to align Tibetan education with Western requirements while preserving fundamental elements of Tibetan faith would have to move forward carefully if it aimed to succeed in both goals, she concludes. Pearce’s assessment recognizes that teaching a revised history came into conflict with traditional authority.

Snellgrove’s response to Pearce dated 26 May 1966 provides a context to the study of history. Snellgrove explains that the Western interpretation of Tibetan history was based on critical evaluation and differed in some respects from the history that Tibetans were accustomed to. While new scholarship did not undermine Tibetan belief in Buddhism, Tibetans were understandably reacting against the new ideas, such as studies on the military success of pre-Buddhist Tibet, as anti-traditional. Snellgrove felt that talking about religion with Tibetans from different religious orders was a delicate problem (Woodard 41). He pointed out that it was hard to avoid conflicts with traditional attitudes; he did not think this was unique to Tibetans. He pointed to the disputes in India in choosing between Indian traditional history and history as understood by the West.

What Snellgrove seems to be suggesting is that alternate histories challenge traditionally held realities. Take, for example, the figure of Lang Darma. Of all the Tibetan historical figures, no one is more maligned in Tibetan history than the ninth-century monarch Lang Darma, be it in popular culture or canonical texts. Tsepon Shakabpa’s Tibet: A Political History (1984) was among the first available published political accounts of Tibet written in a somewhat modern-styled format of history and translated into English. His was also among the only available history books written in English covering the events of the Chinese invasion in 1950 till Tsering Shakya’s important account of modern Tibet. Shakabpa writes that Lang Darma was put on the throne by ministers who leaned towards Bon and that they designed laws to destroy Buddhism in Tibet (51). He also writes that Darma’s ministers sealed up Buddhist temples, ordered Buddhist monks to either marry, take up arms, become huntsmen, or convert to Bon. Individuals who refused were killed (52). Similarly, the Dalai Lama writes in his memoir that Lang Darma’s reign was marked by undoing everything that had come before him (My Land 71). The same view is held in Geshe Lhundup Sopa’s Tibetan language text, Lectures on Tibetan Religious Culture, a popular book used to teach the Tibetan language to new learners. Chapter Six of Sopa’s text points out that Lang Darma managed to destroy the teaching of the Vinaya in Central Tibet in his brief reign (129). Lang Darma’s association with Bon meant that Bon became synonymous with the decline of the Tibetan empire and Buddhism.[17]

Tibetan attitudes towards Bon had not yet shifted in the 1960s and 70s to relieve Lang Darma of bearing the burden of responsibility for the demise of the Tibetan empire. Nor was there acceptance of a Tibetan script prior to Thonmi Sambhota’s script. In most Tibetan texts, including the Dalai Lama’s memoir My Land and My People, the decision of the thirty-third king, Songtsen Gampo, to send his minister Thonmi Sambhota to study Buddhism in India, which also resulted in the import of the Gupta script that was used to draft the Tibetan alphabet, is identified as among the most significant events in Tibet (70).

This historiographical portrait of Lang Darma has rarely been questioned by ordinary Buddhist Tibetans (Karmay, “King” 15). More recent scholarship argues that pre-eleventh century sources might offer a different and closer view of the rule of Lang Darma than sources written after or during the eleventh century (29). Samten Karmay challenges sources that give the impression that the king was a follower of the Bon religion and proposes that the conflict that led to the persecution of Buddhism during the reign of Lang Darma could have been related to political struggles between the ecclesiastical leaders and the secular authority, and not necessarily to a “struggle between the two religious establishments” (28). Later Buddhist sources also neglect the Tibetan military administration of the territories under Lang Darma’s reign and focus instead on depicting the King in a “degrading manner” (24).

Similarly, Tibetan historical accounts narrate the invention of the Tibetan script by Thonmi Sambhota as having brought “light” to the benighted land of Tibet, and accordingly, nothing is known about the period before the establishment of the Tibetan empire, for example, the Zhang-Zhung supremacy in the first century mentioned in Bon narratives (Norbu, N “Tibetan” 39). Bon scholars argue that the existence of a Tibetan script before the third century is proven by Bonpo historical documents of the second century (39). Ongoing study of Bonpo manuscripts might reveal more about the first and second centuries of indigenous Tibetan history (39). But doing so would entail shifting hegemonic views and narratives of Tibet and Tibetan identity.

The Tibetan exile administration’s attitudes towards Amdo and Kham’s relation with the Ganden Phodrang government in Lhasa is also a response to the political standoff between the Chinese Government and the Tibetan administration. The political and social autonomy of the Tibetan areas of Kham and Amdo prior to 1950 did not indicate the absence of a larger Tibetan ethos, for there existed across the Tibetan plateau strong forms that could be defined as “supra-local” and some political “proto-national” bonds of collective belonging firmly held together by a religious legacy.[18] A shared religion, historical memory including origin myths, a single writing system, and shared imagination of a geographical territory kept alive a common social system and feeling consistent with a nation or a nationality. The new vocabulary of the nation-state, however, did not accommodate the various political formations of pre-1950 Tibet. To admit that Kham and Amdo had not been under the Gaden Phodrang Government at the time of the Chinese invasion ran the risk of undermining the sovereignty of the Dalai Lama and his government in exile in addition to endangering the national goal of Tibetan independence from Chinese rule. Likewise, suggesting that Thonmi Sambhota was not the first Tibetan to invent the Tibetan script challenged the unity of the Tibetan culture and identity based on shared language and traditions. Finally, recasting Lang Darma as an important historical person undercuts a fundamental plot and periodization of Tibetan history that was formulated on the rise and fall of Buddhism.

Snellgrove believed that the Dalai Lama was keen that Tibetans have the education that would prepare them for the modern world. In a separate letter dated 29 May 1966, Snellgrove speaks to the rivalries and jealousies within the Tibetan community, especially with regard to religious and political beliefs. He reminds Pearce that in 1961, a total of twenty-one guest scholars had been invited to the West as part of a larger program sponsored by the universities from Seattle, London, Paris, Rome, Munich, Copenhagen, Leiden, and Tokyo. There had been seventeen Gelugs, three Sakyas, one Nyingma, and three Bonpos, one of whom had been Sangye Tenzin. Among all those scholars, only Sangye Tenzin had offered to teach young Tibetans on his return to India (Woodard, 43-4).

The student revolt caught the attention of readers of Tibetan Freedom from 1 June 1966 through 8 June 1966. The timing of the articles coincides with Woodard’s private meeting with the Dalai Lama. Tibetan Freedom did not present Dexter or Sangye Tenzin’s side of the story, nor did it analyze the contents of the “untruths” that Sangye Tenzin was alleged to have taught. Instead, the articles emphasized the point that the two men had concocted historical lies, undermined the Dalai Lama’s position, impaired unity among Tibetans, and hurt national sentiments.

The event was followed closely by aid organizations and volunteers helping Tibetans, as indicated by Woodard. Pat Brewster, who worked on several rehabilitation projects in India in his capacity as the director of the Tibetan Refugee Programme of the National Christian Council of India, wrote in his letter to his colleague in Geneva on 2 June 1966 that he had spoken with Malcolm Dexter and with the students, as well as with administrators in Dharamsala. He got the idea that Tibetans suspected that Dexter and Sangye Tenzin were teaching ideas that were contrary to their religious and national feeling. He feared that the matter could not be “patched up” (Brewster, Wiederkehr 1).

Brewster was convinced it was “religion and politics” that had come into the matter, and he thought it had been a silly idea to get a Bonpo lama to be the chief teacher at the school in the first place (3). Brewster’s analysis that “religion and politics” were at the heart of the problem indicates that Sangye Tenzin’s Bon background was viewed as a problem by exile bureaucrats. Bon practitioners, who were a minority in exile, did not fit into any existing Buddhist group, nor did they fall into collectives that were built around geographical regions. They were at the margins of the community.[19]

The letters exchanged between the International Aid Agencies and between the Tibetan government officials offer a glimpse into the delicate balance of authority that the Tibetan officials were attempting to maintain over the external struggle for international recognition of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile­­–– “a territory-less entity that behaves like a state”[20]––and the internal struggle to command loyalty within the Tibetan refugee community. While the exile government did not want to alienate its Western aid partners on whom it relied so heavily, it also did not want to upset its efforts to consolidate a culturally, linguistically, and socially united Tibetan political order in exile.[21]

The Tibetan exilic consciousness was, on the one hand, defined by terms compounded largely from the deep and long history of Buddhism, and on the other hand, by the feeling of being “permanently at risk” because the majority of Tibetans were under the Chinese colonial rule (Boyarins 4).[22] In other words, the Tibetan exile effort was directed to bringing diverse groups of Tibetan people together to create a homogeneous people whose identity was “simultaneously cultural and political” in a unique stateless nation-state polity (4). The exile government’s claims for legitimation and identity demanded the rhetoric of unity. However, this rhetoric framed culture and identity as immanent and not the product of political struggle and power. So too was the case with history.

The fact is that the exile government shut down a much-needed school and dismissed two accomplished and trained scholars at a time when there were only a handful of teachers who had been trained to teach. Nobody in power in the community questioned why Dexter and Sangye Tenzin were not given the chance to present their side of the story. Nor did they consider the possibility that the “untruths” they were critiqued for teaching were, in fact, historically relevant and necessary to an education in Tibetan history and identity. Instead, the two teachers were seen as harmful to Tibetan unity. 


After Ockenden

Almost a decade after the Ockenden incident, Sangye Tenzin was nominated to represent the Amdo constituents in the Tibetan Parliament, then known as the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies (ATPD). The Standing Committee of the ATPD held an extra session at the request of the Election Commission to discuss his nomination along with that of Gonpo Tseten, who was an Amdowa from Clementown. The committee discussed Sangye Tenzin’s role in Ockenden School and stated that the incident had been well documented in Tibetan Freedom.

The majority of the members agreed that the propagation of the Bon religion and the fight for religious rights and equal representation of Bonpos was a duty of a person of the Bon faith, so there was no basis for disqualifying Sangye Tenzin for his personal beliefs. Such a response indicates a shift from earlier perspectives and attitudes towards Bon in the community. The shift in Tibetan attitudes towards Sangye Tenzin and Bon was not, however, reflected in the vote conducted on 21 October 1975 to decide if there should be Bon representation, alongside four religious schools of Tibet, in the Parliament. There was only one vote from a total of fifteen representatives in support of Bon representation in the Parliament; that vote came from a single mother who was representing Kham.

The Bon religion was finally acknowledged, and a religious representative was elected to the sixth Assembly of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile in 1977 alongside representatives from the Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya schools.[23] This move came more than a decade after the establishment of the Tibetan constitution promising equality to all Tibetans. The textbooks on Tibetan history and Buddhism in existing Tibetan schools have undergone some changes, but these changes are not yet sufficient to give Bon its rightful place as integral to understanding “the depth” of “Tibetan mind and civilization” (Gyalpo 68).[24]

In 1968, Sangye Tenzin was appointed as the thirty-third abbot of Menri and received his new name, Lungtok Tenpai Nyima Palzang po. He was recognized as the head of Yungdrung Bon tradition by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in 1978. Sangye Tenzin served as the leader of exiled Bonpos as well as the spiritual head of Bonpo monasteries in Tibet and Nepal for over twenty years. No apology is known to have been offered to him for the events at Ockenden. Today, his photo hangs in the shrines of the halls of the Tibetan exile government.



[1] In his letter to the Bureau of the Dalai Lama on 6 May 1966, Dexter explains that Kelsang Liushar and Choden had strangely gone off to see a movie at the height of events. This letter is also documented in Woodard’s Report (8-10).

[2] According to Dexter’s and Dr. Snellgrove’s respective letters on 29 May 1966, Tenzin and Dexter had met with the Dalai Lama before taking the responsibility to run the school.

[3] I refer to Geshe Sangye Tenzin Jongdong as Sangye Tenzin in this article since all documents related to Ockenden refer to him as such. He was already an acclaimed scholar, teacher, and practitioner at the time of this incident. In 1968, as the thirty-third Abbot of Menri, he was named Lungtok Tenpai Nyima Rinpoche.

[4] In his address at an education conference in Dharmsala on 5 May 1994, the Dalai Lama pointed out the importance of the Tibetan language in the education of Tibetan children. See Shiromany, 317.

[5] The education set-up in exile has been successful in creating grateful new refugee-citizens with allegiance to the government.

[6] See Carole McGranahan’s Arrested Histories: Tibet, The CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War.

[7] See Prasenjit Duara’s Rescuing History. In his analysis of the relationship between the nation-state and nationalism, on one hand, and the linear “evolutionary history,” on the other, in early twentieth-century China, Prasenjit Duara suggests that national history secures “the nation as a subject of History” (5). This means that national histories transform views of the past as well as the meaning of the nation and the world, particularly by establishing “which peoples and cultures belonged to the time of History and who and what had to be eliminated” (5).

[8] A more detailed article on this event in my forthcoming book includes interviews with a few of the students who were present at Ockdenden at the time of the revolt. In the scope of this article, I have chosen to focus on the documents.

[9] Perhaps those who wrote the first letter to Pearce were reunited with five of the younger students from the school who had been escorted by Gyaltsen Choden.

[10] Thirty boys signed the letter. It is not dated.

[11] Dexter also expresses this suspicion in his letters to Gyalo Thondup on May 5, and to Mrs. Taring, who was running the Tibetan Homes Foundation in Mussoorie, on May 7. Letters to Pearce written by Diana Maclehose and Per Kvaerne, both working as teachers in Ockenden, also express their suspicion of the role the two Tibetan teachers played in organizing the revolt. They also mention that the students threatened to physically harm Dexter and Tenzin.

[12] In his memoir, Tibet: A History of Tibet and a Stainless Truthful Biography, Gyaltsen Choden writes that he worked briefly for the newspaper Tibetan Freedom around 1960 at the invitation of Gyalo Thondup. He writes briefly on Ockenden School and suggests the students and school’s head did not get along (368). He recalls that he had refused to sign a letter with the decision to expel ten students and that he suggested instead the students be sent to a training course. His suggestion was dismissed, the students were beaten, and all but five students rebelled against Dexter, according to Gyaltsen Choden (368).

[13] Translated from the Tibetan by Bhuchung D. Sonam.

[14] These six students were Ugyen, Tsering Dorjee, Penpa, Jamdak, Wangdu, and Tsering.

[15] See Rescuing History, Prasenjit Duara’s study of history’s role in securing the “mystique of the nation” and its claim to what Duara calls an “evolving, monistic subjecthood” (5).

[16] A source remembered he was Pearce’s boyfriend.

[17] The term nangpa, translated as the insider, but used synonymously to mean a Buddhist, could have travelled from India to Tibet. It is possible that its use as a reference to Tibetan to create a Tibetan identity with predominantly homogenous Buddhist features came much later. The term nangpa also implies its counterpart, silwa or chipa, and suggests outsider, minoritized visions, experiences, and struggles in its differentiation of the outsider’s stance toward the insider.

By the fourteenth century, the identification of nangpa or insider, cemented by religious institutions, ideology, and practices, provided a sense of integration to Tibetans scattered across the Tibetan plateau and a sense of loyalty to shared origin stories and heritage. Buddhism was a status that provided values, aspirations, and codes of behavior to Tibetans, and it was exercised and enacted through religious practices and vows made to religious institutions and figures, both in the human and non-human realms. Those who did not adhere to the centrality of the Buddhist canon or who produced their own work, such as Tibetans of the Bon religion, were considered silwa or chipa, “outsiders” of the Buddhist framework, and as a result, were excluded or marginalized from the majority national Buddhist sentiment and community.

[18] Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalisms since 1780 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Second Edition 1990s): 46-7.

[19] Brewster himself was already struggling to keep out of trouble with the exile government. He was heading Tibetan Industrial Rehabilitation (TIRS), a relief agency with the purpose of advancing industrial programs for Tibetans. TIRS hoped to help Tibetans become self-sufficient. He had helped several of the Tsho Khag bcu Gsum (Organization of the Thirteen)­ to build their settlements. Another volunteer working with Tsultrim to build the settlement in Clementown expresses his suspicion about an “underground turbulence” spreading across the Tibetan political body in a letter to Pearce dated 23 July 1966. He refers to similar crises in places such as Mainpat, Rajpur, Dalhousie, the locations where members of the Thirteen were living, who were being named as running dogs of the Chinese.

[20] See Fiona McConnell, Rehearsing the State.

[21] See Dawa Norbu, China’s Tibet. The shared systems of religion, writing system, and historical memory that existed on the Tibetan plateau made it “coterminous with a nation or at least a nationality” (342).

[22] See Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin, Powers of Diaspora. The Boyarins use the term “permanently at risk” to explain the diasporic consciousness as one composed of “contingency and genealogy” (4). They propose that the diaspora’s egocentrism offers an “alternate ‘ground’ to that of the territorial state for the intricate and always contentious linkage between cultural identity and political organization” (10). They explain that this alternate ground might help states avoid insistence on purity or permanence (10).

[23] Yungdrung Namgyal served as the first Bon representative.

[24] Gyalpo writes that Bon and Buddhism are two “inalienable paths analogous to method and wisdom aspects of Vajrayana teaching to understand the depth and essence of Tibetan mind and civilization” (68). He suggests Bon is the foundation of Tibetan socio-cultural identity and that Tibetans should learn to appreciate this heritage.


Works Cited

Files on the Ockenden International, Formerly the Ockenden Venture, Refugee Charity of Woking: Records, including papers of Joyce Pearce OBE (1915-1985), Founder, SHC      Reference 7155/8/1/11-4, Surrey History Centre, Woking, Surrey.

Letter to Joyce Pearce. (Personal and confidential). 11 July 1966, pp.1-3, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/13.

Dalai Lama. Letter to Joyce Pearce. nd, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/12.

—. Letter to Joyce Pearce. 1 May 1996, pp.1-4, Files on the Ockenden International, Reference 7155/8/1/11, MRWD/DM.

Dexter, Malcolm. Letter to Joyce Pearce. 13 May 1965, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/12.

—. Letter to Joyce Pearce. 10 May 1966, pp.1-2, Files on the Ockenden International, Reference 7155/8/1/13, Ref. no. MRWD/DM.

—. Letter to the Dalai Lama. 1 May 1966, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/13, Ref. no. MRWD/DM.

Hardy, W. John. “Confidential Letter to Joyce Pearce.” 20 August 1966, pp.1-4, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference, 7155/8/1/13.

Pearce, Joyce. Letter to G. Woodcock. 21 June 1966. Files on the Ockenden International, SHC   Reference 7155/8/1/13.

—. Letter to Peter Woodard. 17 June 1966, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/13.

—. Letter to Tenzin. N. Takla. 13 May 1966, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/13.

—. Letter to the Dalai Lama. 11 May 1966, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/13.

—. Letter to Malcolm Dexter. 4 May 1966, pp. 1-2, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/11.

Maclehose, Diana. Letter to Joyce Pearse. 24 November 1965, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/12.

Snellgrove, D.L. Letter to Joyce Pearce. 29 May 1966, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/13.

—. Letter to Joyce Pearce. 26 May 1966, pp. 1-3, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/13.

1st Student Letter. Handwritten letter to Joyce Pearce. nd, pp. 1-5, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/11.

2nd Student Letter. Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/11.

Takla, T.N. Letter to Joyce Pearce. 25 May 1966, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/13, Ref. no. MRWD/DM.

Tara. T.C. Letter to Joyce Pearce. 5 June 1966, pp.1-7, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/13.

Unknown. Letter to Joyce Pearce. 23 July 1966, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/13.

Woodard, Peter. “A Report on the Mutiny at the Ockenden School.” pp.1-89, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/11-4.


World Council of Churches, Geneva Archives, Geneva, Switzerland.

Brewster. G. Letter to Dr. Ernest Wiederkehr, Swiss Aid to Tibetans. June 2, 1966, Ref. 012085.


Anglophone Sources

Arya, Tsewang Gyalpo. “Yungdrung-bon, the Religion of Eternal Truth in the Land of Snow: A Note to dispel the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the religion.” The Tibet Journal, Vol. 41, No. 2. Autumn/Winter 2016, pp.63-71

Bernstorff, Dagmar and Hubertus von Welck, editors. Exile as Challenge: The Tibetan Diaspora. Hyderabad, Orient Longman Private Ltd., 2004. First published in German by Nomos Verlagsgesellscraft, Baden-Baden, 2002.

Blondeau, Ann-Marie and Katia Buffetrille, editors. Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s “100 Questions.” University of California Press, 2008.

Boyarin, Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin. Powers of Diaspora. University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Choden, Gyaltsen. A History of Tibet and a Stainless Truthful Biography. Self-published, Karnataka, India, 2016.

Dalai Lama. My Land and My People. Potala Corporation, 1977, Reprint. First published in 1962 by McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.

Dalai Lama. Freedom in Exile. Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1990.

Das, Veena. Critical Events: An Anthropological Perspective on Contemporary India. Oxford University Press, 1995.

Duara, Prasenjit. Rescuing History from the Nation. The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Geshe Lhundup Sopa. Lectures on Tibetan Religious Culture. vol. 1. Delhi, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, na.

Karmay, Samten G. The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet, Vol. III, Kathmandu, Mandala Books, 2014.

—. “A Historical Overview of the Bon Religion.” Bon: The Magic Word, edited by Samten G. Karmay and Jeff Watt, Rubin Museum of Art, 2007, pp. 55-82.

—. “King Glang Dar-ma and His Rule.” The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet. Vol. II. Kathmandu, Mandala Publications, 2005, pp. 15-29.

McConnell, Fiona. Rehearsing the State: The Political Practices of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2016.

McGranahan, Carole. “On Social Death: The Spang mda’ tsang Family and 20th Century Tibetan History.” Vitali, 2014.

McGranahan, Carole. Arrested Histories: Tibet, The CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War. Duke University Press, 2010.

Norbu, Namkhai and K. Dhondup. “Tibetan Culture.” The Tibet Journal, vol. 3, no. 3, Autumn 1978, pp. 38-40.

Rigzin, Tsepak. “The Tibetan Schools in the Diaspora,” Exile as Challenge: The Tibetan Diaspora (Hyderabad: Orient Longman Private Ltd., 2004) Edited by Dagmar Bernstorff and Hubertus von Welck pp. 266-78.

Shakabpa, W.D. Tibet: A Political History. Potala Publications, 1967.

Shakya, Tsering. The Dragon in the Land of Snows. New York, Penguin, 1999.

Shiromany, A.A, editor. The Spirit of Tibet: Universal Heritage. Selected Speeches and    Writings of HH The Dalai Lama XIV, New Delhi, Allied Publishers Ltd. and Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Center, First published 1995. 

Vitali Roberto, editor. Trails of the Tibetan Tradition. Dharamsala, Amyen Machen Institute, 2014.


Dr. Tsering Wangmo Dhompa is the author of the poetry books Revolute (Albion Books), My Rice Tastes Like the LakeIn the Absent Everyday, and Rules of the House (from Apogee Press, Berkeley). Dhompa’s first non-fiction book, Coming Home to Tibet, was published in the US by Shambhala Publications in 2016 and by Penguin, India in 2014. She teaches in the English Department at Villanova University. 



The Immortal Ring of Samsara and Poetry

Lama Jabb [1]


Abstract: Chimay is an acclaimed contemporary Tibetan female poet and a revered and beloved Tibetan teacher. She has dedicated her entire intellectual life to imparting the wisdom and wonders of Tibetan language and literature to generations of high school and university students. This essay presents the first-ever English translation of Chimay’s celebrated formal verse poem “The Ring” and uses it to introduce her poetry to an Anglophone readership. Technical brilliance, lyrical accomplishment, emotional and intellectual intensity and a constellation of images distinguish this autobiographical poem, which adroitly strings together fragments of memory through vivid imagery and striking language. Reflections on love, loss, separation, remembering, hope, death and a profound sense of suffering often characterise Chimay’s poetry, expressing complex and intermingled private and public dimensions of a deep sorrow that forms an integral part of her identity. “The Ring” continues to address these prominent themes by capturing aspects of the poet’s lived experience of khorwa in distilled figurative language. It further demonstrates how Chimay finds poetry in pain and employs it to transcend suffering and trauma and to counter forgetting. After allowing the reader to appreciate “The Ring” in its entirety this essay offers a brief commentary on its content and form, referring to other poems and prose pieces by Chimay to provide some contextual insights and highlight recurrent themes. It also touches upon her imaginative exploitation of the Tibetan language and the limitations of translation in mirroring this faithfully. In the final analysis, “The Ring” is an extraordinary poem that epitomises Chimay’s conviction that poetry should be crafted out of one’s real life and mother tongue.

Keywords: Chimay, ring, poetry, language, and translation.


Chimay (’chi med or ‘Immortality’) is the pen-name of one of the most esteemed and prolific contemporary Tibetan female poets. Her real name is Palma Tso, but she is popularly known by her nom de plume. Her brooding, subjective, lyrical poetry is often concerned with life, loss, survival, and memory, and at its heart looms a profound sense of suffering. She was born in Sakyil village in Rebkong, North-eastern Tibet in 1967 and as such was tempered in the fires of the Cultural Revolution. Her father Wandi Tashi was accused of taking part in “the revolt” during the 1950s and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. He passed away several years after his release, when Chimay was six years old, due to injuries he had sustained in prison. Her mother Khamo Gyal was a victim of ‘class struggle’ and suffered incessant public humiliation and torture in ‘struggle sessions’ during the 1960s and 1970s. Chimay went to primary and secondary school in Rebkong and graduated from the Tsongon College for Nationalities in 1987. She has been teaching Tibetan language and literature ever since. She is an award-winning poet and has published numerous poems and prose pieces in literary journals and on online platforms. She has also released two books of her collected poems, The Dreams of the Moon (Zla ba’i rmi lam) in 2012 and The Youth of Water (Chu’i lang tsho) in 2016. The former was awarded the Wild Yak Prize for Literature in 2015.

In this essay I will present my translation of Chimay’s famed poem “The Ring” (“A long”) as an aperture onto her brilliant poetry.[2] After presenting the poem in its entirety at the outset I will make a few brief remarks about its content and form, which are seamlessly bound and charged with emotion and thought. It goes without saying that readers who are literate in Tibetan should consult the original (Appendix One) for a true appreciation of the poem’s arresting rhythm, haunting lyricism and salient as well as subtle repetition of unique Tibetan words and sounds that escape translation.


The Ring

Though gone over are the years and come back the months,

Though the distance be just within and over that distance,

These years and months of longing and long separation

Are the ring of steel, the samsara of oscillating joy and woe.


Though the mind and the mind-met heap of feelings

Are written on the pages of a mountainous book

Inside the little house ripened in karma and body,

The ring of home wears not out, be it written for a lifetime.


The little dance stage of quivering strings of music

Amid the joyous play of strobing lights, white and red,

The sudden awakening from this very dream of a song

With no lyrics is the ring of illusion in bed.


The sheer beauty of shimmering flowers has no bounds,

Bliss imbues the mind when little bees imbibe with their lips.

To be fatigued seeking there the container and the contained

Yet remain without home and in solitude is the ring of exhaustion.


In the expansive landscape formed with ease and grace

When I think and reflect in tranquillity and solitude

And fold each finger inward counting the joys and woes

The ring of past sufferings remains incalculable.


Hidden thoughts and the green garden of love,

Indelible pictures of the mind when displayed for view.

Recalling the uncoloured and natural state of youth

To the saturated mind is the ring of emptiness.


To cast aside tales that narrate unchanging love due to

The karmic burden of hope and fear, loss, gain and discord,

To scatter life and lungta soaked in muddled visions

To the winds on the mountaintop is the ring of hope.


Consorting with the sun and the moon circling in the sky

Ends in utter despair, for the body possesses no wings.

Though little feet might gain a hold in the thin, thin clouds

To perish on encountering the wind is the ring of karma.


How happy I would be if the ground was higher than this,

I would still reach the mountain top even lying down.

How joyous I would be if the water was clearer than this,

The desire to bathe in the open is the ring of swaying.


In that land where the sun shines upon the snow

The blue meadow has gathered me up into its lap.

To scramble on herding the thirty-four consonants and vowels

Imprinting footsteps in the meadow, is the ring of life.


When I furiously stroke the oars roaming aimlessly

Into the sweep of the sea that blankets the earth

To be fleetingly dazed in the abrupt fissure

Of the earth and the sky is the ring of confusion.


Should human life bound by ever-binding customs

Be wiped out by the free and untampered imagination

Only then in a perishable world of purity would I myself

Fulfil every single necessary reality, the ring of desire.


The grey years and months of my solitary wandering

Seeing no blissful worldly revels on this single visit

Are winding pictures on the surface of the earth and moon,

To not reconcile myself to that is the ring of imagination.


It is no obstacle to be merely troubled by cold winds,

Do you not think, you whose mind-core is mingled with mine?

To cocoon each other without betrayal in the warmth of the heart

And hold each other’s hands tightly is the ring of promise.


During that hour when dawn and dusk take turns to arrive

Putting on show all the comings and goings from inside and out

The aimless wayward conduct of my mind running wild

Cannot be captured by limitless intellect, the ring of speech.


The Ringed

“The Ring” is a splendid autobiographical poem characterized by technical brilliance, striking lyricism, emotional intensity, deep reflection and intriguing abstraction. It first appeared in the Tibetan language edition of The Journal of Nationalities Literature (Mi rig rtsom rig dus deb) in 2017, a bimonthly literary magazine published by the China Writers’ Association. The following year it won a literary award named after that journal. Since then, it has reached a much wider audience on social media transcending the limits of the print media and nation-state boundaries. While assisted by this new communication technology, the popular reception of the poem has ultimately been driven by its emotional and intellectual charge and the attraction of its meticulously crafted Tibetan language. Special features consciously devised by the poet appeal to the ear and the heart alike, rendering the poem striking on first encounter and triggering an urge to read it over and over again that makes it endure in the mind.

Among a multitude of other things, poetry is about remembering and being remembered through imaginative marshalling of language. John Carey states that poetry is “language made special, so that it will be remembered and valued” (1). Chimay’s “The Ring” is valued and remembered through its wide circulation and repeated reading, but it is also itself an expressive mode of communication that recalls. It is a store of memories about and reflections on suffering, strife, loneliness, love, hope, death and poetry, recording all of this for the present and posterity. It also appears to be constituted of what Toni Morrison in her 1987 novel Beloved calls “rememories” – one’s identity reconstructed or rediscovered through recollecting layers of often painful memories. In short, “The Ring” is a remembrance of and a meditation on the various iterations of what Tibetans call khorwa (’khor ba): khorwa as in Samsara that is diametrically opposed to Nirvana; khorwa as in the human condition that is, to echo William Blake, woven fine of joy and woe; and khorwa as in domesticity – the arduous management of family life that runs counter to the life of the religious renunciate. Chimay’s poem is about her unique experience of this multivalent khorwa – a ring of unbroken, endless mental and physical activities that revolve around life, struggle, death, and rebirth.

Commenting on his own poetry W. B. Yeats states: “I must leave my myths and symbols to explain themselves as the years go by and one poem lights up another” (qtd. in Parkinson 122). When we read Chimay’s poetic work each poem also brightens and sets ablaze the others with their interlaced content, imagery, and language. In her poetry one often comes across reflections on love, loss, separation, remembering and a profound sense of suffering. There is a complex private and public dimension to this deep agony, which is often indivisibly subjective and collective. Like an old, open wound that refuses to heal, its causes and underlying conditions are never explicitly stated. Many seem unspeakable and as such remain unnamed. Given that all things – including texts – are the mere products of codependent origination (rten ’brel gyi ngo bo tsam), we need to appreciate Chimay’s other poems and prose writing for a more nuanced understanding of “The Ring”. One informative piece of writing that commands special attention is Chimay’s autobiographical essay “Tibetan Women on Tibetan Women’s Literature” (“Bod mos bod mo’i rtsom rig gleng ba”).[3] This candid account of her life and creative intellectual journey sheds vital light on her poetry. There is no space here to undertake even a cursory review of that and Chimay’s other literary output, but reference to two of her other poems will go some way to contextualising the poem under review. Even a fleeting appreciation of these acclaimed works can help to illuminate “The Ring”.

“Love and Karmic Destiny” (“Brtse dung dang las dbang”) is Chimay’s first ever published poem and is in free verse form. It was published in the literary magazine Drangchar (sBrang char, Light Rain) in 1994 and awarded the Drangchar Prize for Literature in 1997. It is a tragic love poem that begins promisingly with the resuscitation of two broken hearts (“two fragmented little red heart-minds”) in the moonlight thanks to the long passage of time.[4] This restoration reaffirms and deepens enduring love and gives new life to poetry: “For the soul of poetry beats once again/ My blood gushes out of your pen nib.[5] The unclouded moon reignites thwarted love and poetry utters it. These are two cathartic sites of nature and culture – both non-corporeal – where the two long-separated lovers can meet. However, lack of freedom and the tyranny of the other make actual reunion in the flesh impossible. This turns their love into a bitter tale of happiness and suffering that the poet is compelled to read with anguish and lamentation. As the poem draws to a close even the moon whose light first revived the lovers is fatally wounded in the West. Swirling clouds on the mountaintop draw the final curtail over the fallen moon. Only the poet’s refusal to forget keeps alive this record of love and karmic destiny.

These themes of love, hurt, loss of freedom, violence and remembrance resonate with redoubled force in another of Chimay’s award-winning free verse poems, “The Tibetan Mastiff” (“’Brog khyi”). This lauded poem, for which Chimay won the Gangjen Metok Prize for Literature in 2012, was first published in the Tibetan poetry magazine Gangjen Metok (Gangs rgyan me tog, Snow Flower) in 2009. It is a powerful work about the rise, fall, ongoing plight, and undying spirit of the proud, independent, and fearsome Tibetan mastiff. The measured tone with which it starts immediately crescendos into a loud bark as the mastiff starts narrating its tragic tale:


I am a Tibetan mastiff,

And I too have a life of my own.

In essence, I too am born of the union of two consciousnesses,

And am a real animal perfected with flesh, blood and mass.


My bark vibrated inside the circle of snow-mountains

Amid the cold wind that made the stars shiver,

The beauty of my hair upon which the sleek dark light played

Made dim the light of the moon on the winter landscape.


When the fierce roar of blizzards devoured entire mountains and valleys

My majesty – to meet head-on and cut through the sharp cold and wind,

My ambition – to pull the stars down to earth with a single leap,

My arrogance – to run in hot pursuit of the blowing fast wind.[6]


The poem goes on to announce the arrival of a cunning and coercive master, resulting in the subjugation and exiling of this once almighty Tibetan guardian and the loss of its homeland. Its tone decreases back to a steady, dignified pace as this story of hurt, repression and mental resilience unfolds. The Tibetan mastiff whose awesome bark resonated within the ring of snow-mountains is stripped of its freedom, independence and wild habitat. It is driven into exile to a distant urbanized landscape that contrasts sharply with its pristine mountainous home. Now it remains chained with an “unbearably heavy ring of black steel” (theg dka’ ba’i lcags nag gi A long) around its neck and is subjected to relentless torture. As it grows old inside a “cage of tempered steel and concrete” (rno lcags dang Ar ’dam gyi gzeb dra ’di nas) its tears dry up and it unfailingly meditates upon “the mountains, the rivers and the plains of homeland” (pha yul gyi ri chu thang gsum bsgoms nas yod). The Tibetan mastiff fights off mind control (“Who can put a lock on my subtle mind?” nga’i sems pa phra mo sgo zwa rgyag thub mkhan su yod), embraces homeland within the mind and refuses to give up its dreams even though it suffers hell on earth. The poem ends with a potent mix of imagery depicting an infernal scene, longing for home, and hope and horror. The Tibetan mastiff fears that one day its master might completely silence its voice but expresses the ultimate satisfaction it would feel were the wind – just once – to carry its “sky-tearing bark” (gnam sa ral bar byed pa’i bdag gi zug skad) and mount it upon the snow-mountain peaks. In her autobiographical essay Chimay reveals that Toni Morrison’s writings on the hardship and suffering of black people inspired “The Tibetan Mastiff,” which is a metonym for her own reawakened pain (“Bod mos bod mo’i rtsom rig gleng ba” 74).

In polished formal verse “The Ring” continues Chimay’s treatment of the intermingled aspects of individual and collective tragedy. Although taking a more personal turn, it addresses the same themes of love, loss, strife, and the strong poetic will to remember what she has experienced in her life. In one of her illuminating review articles Chimay opines that to capture and express one’s true self with transparency is the function and soul of poetry. She believes that “it is to destroy the life and soul of poetry when one writes poetry without prioritizing oneself as the subject and looks for subjects and feelings in other things unconnected to oneself” (“Nga rang dga’ ba’i lhug rtsom zhig” 107).[7] This notion of poetry informs “The Ring” which focuses on the poet herself and reveals a life born of hardship, loneliness and suffering (“The ring of past sufferings remains incalculable”), and a life dedicated to learning and teaching Tibetan language and writing Tibetan poetry (“To scramble on herding the thirty-four consonants and vowels/ Imprinting footsteps in the meadow, is the ring of life”). Through a mixture of directness and abstraction “The Ring” also exposes stifling aspects of domesticity, challenges of married life, and the juggling of family, work, and writing (“The ring of home wears not out, be it written for a lifetime”; “Yet remain without home and in solitude is the ring of exhaustion”).

Through a cluster of metaphors “The Ring” reveals aspects of Chimay’s lived experiences “by flashes of lightning.”[8] Each metaphor pegged to the recurrent image of the ring is an intense illumination in distilled brevity. The reader’s encounter with this set of images carries them on a journey through the poet’s life into the deep interior of the poem. Ultimately “The Ring” seems to concern Chimay’s inner life tempered with pain. Just as in Emily Dickinson’s work, “The Ring” and similarly themed poems appear to communicate “some irremediable shock” that Chimay has endured.[9] Like many of Chimay’s poems “The Ring” is written for those who Shakespeare’s Hamlet unforgettably calls “wonder-wounded hearers” (Hamlet 5.1).[10] Her “phrase of sorrow”, recollection of often painful memories and self-reflection both engage and further sting the already wounded readers.[11]


The Ring Itself

One could be forgiven for overlooking the arduous crafting that goes into the composition of a fine poem like “The Ring”. Its lyrical beauty and seemingly natural fluidity might make the reader take this aspect of laborious devising for granted. If we reread the poem closely with a consideration of its style, Chimay’s conscious verbal inventiveness becomes apparent. Language is manipulated in a deliberately creative way to simultaneously communicate meaning and draw attention to itself. Unlike Chimay’s early poems that are mostly in free verse “The Ring” and many of her later poems are predominantly metrical compositions. This reflects her esteem for the varied and rich Tibetan literary tradition and deliberate return to the practice of stylish formal verse informed by it (“Bod mos bod mo’i rtsom rig gleng ba” 83-84). With regards to meter “The Ring” features fifteen adroitly worked out stanzas, each consisting of four ten-syllabled lines. Each syllable is a pronounced beat. For scansion the syllables are read in pairs and in most cases each pair is a single word that forms the basic metrical unit. This measured flow of two-syllabled words makes up the rhythmical backbone of the poem:


ཕར་སོང་         ལོ་དང་     ཚུར་འོང་     ཟླ་བ་     ཡིན་ཡང་།།

བར་ཐག་     བར་ཐག་     དེ་ཡི་     ཕར་ཚུར་     ཡིན་ཡང་།།

དྲན་བཞིན་     རིང་དུ་     གྱེས་པའི་     ལོ་ཟླ་     འདི་དག།

རེས་སྐྱིད་     རེས་སྡུག་     འཁོར་བ་      ལྕགས་ཀྱི་     ཨ་ལོང་།།


Depending on one’s preferred reading style individual lines can be read in one breath or with a slight pause immediately after the third syllable pair. Such choice is determined by the tempo, tone, and mood one senses in the poem and the elements one wishes to emphasise when reciting:


ཕར་སོང་        ལོ་དང་     ཚུར་འོང་            ཟླ་བ་     ཡིན་ཡང་།།

བར་ཐག་     བར་ཐག་     དེ་ཡི་          ཕར་ཚུར་   ཡིན་ཡང་།།

དྲན་བཞིན་     རིང་དུ་     གྱེས་པའི་          ལོ་ཟླ་   འདི་དག།

རེས་སྐྱིད་     རེས་སྡུག་     འཁོར་བ་          ལྕགས་ཀྱི་   ཨ་ལོང་།།

The introduction of a short pause after the sixth syllable (which is frequently the last phoneme of the third word) makes the flow of sounds smoother and more effortless. While drawing attention to the four remaining syllables and placing particular stress on the fourth word, it also allows the reader to finish the line in a more relaxed and unhurried manner. The number of such pauses and their specific placement within the metrical line is not set in stone. To a certain degree it is dictated by which aspects of the overall rhythmic pattern one wishes to stress.

Another distinct feature of “The Ring” is the frequent use of an incredibly contracted and distilled form of Tibetan collocation. More often than not these collocations are two-syllabled words made up of two different terms. Their use is an integral part of the ten-syllabled poetic sound pattern of “The Ring” and its chiselled diction. As the two constituting units of these compound words are often semantic opposites, they might convey either one single meaning or two or more separate denotations within a given context. Their specific placement might even inject contradictory meanings. This sematic flexibility and multivalence enhance the poem by deepening and complicating it:


ཕར་ཚུར།     ལོ་ཟླ།     དཀར་དམར།     སྣོད་བཅུད།

དགའ་སྡུག     རེ་དོགས།     འགལ་འདུ།     ཐོབ་ཤོར།

ཕན་ཚུན།     ཞོགས་སྲོད།     ཕྱི་ནང་།     འགྲོ་འདུག


The employment of such collocations enriches “The Ring” in several ways. Firstly, as they are mostly constituted of two monosyllabic words and are in common currency, they furnish the poem with a steady rhythm and, like healthy heartbeats, infuse it with a sense of security or comfort. Most of these collocations have high frequency usage and this linguistic familiarity – for the Tibetan reader – endows the poem with a quality of intimacy even though it is quite abstract in parts. Secondly, the multivalence of such collocations creates ambiguity, an attribute celebrated by William Empson as a salient feature of poetic richness. This display of ambiguity introduces indeterminacies, suggests various meanings, opens up multiple readings and also sometimes unites the seemingly disparate elements of a complex whole. Thirdly, the frequent use of these multivalent collocations provides the poem with unfathomable depth. Their ambiguities and their pairings and juxtapositions of words, images, ideas and emotions allow us to dig deep into the poem, thus ferrying us closer and closer to the inner world of the poet.

Chimay’s poem also contains pairings and juxtapositions of distinct entities that are not overtly demonstrated through actual collocations but are arranged in pairs within a single line or separate lines and stanzas. They are sometimes just hinted at. As matches and correlated or contrasted entities that are obvious to the Tibetan reader they can often be overlooked. For instance, phar song lo, tshur ’ong dza ba, sa ’di, chu ’di, gangs, spang, sa gzhi and nyi zla are scattered throughout the poem forming a repeat pattern. Like the compound words these pairings and juxtapositions underline both disunity and fusion of separate entities. Another juxtaposition that is not made explicit but that pervades the poem like breath is that of life and death.


Conclusion: Translation Escapees

Repetition is a prominent formal feature of Chimay’s poem. The overall rhythmic pattern and the unique collocations are both forms of repetition. There is also a pervasive and arresting alliterative presence in the Tibetan original which my translation attempts to mimic but does not necessarily succeed in doing justice to.[12] The ring (A long) is a motif reiterated in each stanza mirroring its referent Samsara – that perpetual cycle of recurrent joy, woe, life, death, and rebirth. John Hoskyns, a 17th century British scholar of rhetoric, states that “in speech there is no repetition without importance” (qtd. in Kermode 19). The repetitions in Chimay’s poem are not just there for stylistic reasons but also for hammering home the content, thereby confirming the Tibetan saying, “One must emphatically repeat what is urgent (gal po che la nan bshad).”

These diverse forms of repetition are one of several aspects of Chimay’s poem that do not easily lend themselves to translation. Besides the untranslatability of the Tibetan meter, sound patterns and cadence, there are many words and phrases that have multiple meanings and are jammed with visual and symbolic significances that escape translation. To cite a few of these fugitives:


འཁོར་བ།     སྣོད་བཅུད།     ལན་ཆགས།     རླུང་རྟ།

རྐང་བགྲོད་ལག་བགྲོད།     ཅི་བསམ་འདི་དྲན་མེད་པ། 

སྣང་བ།     གནས་ལུགས།


Although I have rendered all these terms into English bar one, there are neither singular ‘accurate’ ways of translating them nor exact English equivalents. The context of the poem in its original and target languages and the assumed degree of multi-cultural sensibility and knowledge of the audience affect the translator’s judgement. For instance, I have left lungta (rlung rta) untranslated for the readers of this inaugural issue of a Tibetan studies journal but might translate it as ‘fortune’ for an audience assumed to be unfamiliar with the term and unlikely to explore its significance even when prompted by a footnote. Lungta can be translated literally as windhorse or liberally as fortune. It signifies more than just a thin piece of paper or stretches of material or other artifacts imprinted with holy images and prayers used in a range of private and public rituals. In its common usage it denotes fortune, fame, deeds, and the capricious success and failure of us mortals. It is left untranslated here due to its multivalence and complex cultural associations and with a view to letting it act as a doorway to another translation escapee, the Tibetan cultural world that supplies the bloodstream of Chimay’s poem. In concordance with Arthur Schopenhauer’s misgivings about the translatability of poetry, I hope that I have managed to transpose “The Ring” into English albeit “awkwardly.”[13]

For a more nuanced understanding of the poem and a fuller appreciation of Chimay’s imaginative deployment of Tibetan language and her immersion in the Tibetan literary tradition, I recommend the reader to savour “The Ring” in the Tibetan original. This is not just to offset the limitations of translation but also, most importantly, for the simple fact that Chimay has composed “The Ring” through a painstaking exploration of the resourcefulness of the Tibetan language. For her the making of Tibetan poetry is shaped by one’s real life and the ability to mine the Tibetan language with dogged determination as encapsulated by this Tibetan epigram:





Though the father tongue is a bone, one must gnaw at it

Though the mother letter is a wilderness, one must plough it.[14]



[1] The first draft of this article was presented online at the University of Virginia run Tibetan Women Writing Workshop on 22 July 2020. I would like to extend my gratitude to the organisers – Janet Gyatso, Jue Liang and Tashi Dekyid – and attendees for their warm reception, encouragement and stimulating feedback, and a huge thanks to Jane Caple for her constructive insights and editorial input. 

[2] My translation is based on a version preferred by the poet which differs slightly from the published version listed in the works cited. This can be found online at the Great Tibetan Recitation Platform (Bod kyi gyer ’don spyi stegs chen mo)

[3] Although I have relied on the version published by Tsongon People’s Press (Mtsho sngon mi rigs dpe skrun khang), a more recent edited version of this essay can be accessed online via the Amnye Machen Messaging Platform (A myes rma chen ’phrin stegs)

[4] chag grum shor ba’i dmar chung gi yid sems gnyis.

[5] snyan ngag gi bla srog slar yang ldang bas/ kyed kyi smyug rtse nas bdag gi khrag rgyun lud.

[6] nga ni ’brog khyi zhig ste/

       nga la’ang rang nyid kho nar dbang ba’i ’tsho stangs shig yod/

       ma gzhi nas/ nga rang yang rnam shes gnyis kyi ’phrad sbyor las byung zhing/

       sha khrag gdos bcas kyi kun gzhi tshang ba’i sems can rnal ma zhig yin/


        bdag gi zug skad ni gang kyi ra ba na g.yo zhing/

        skar mar khong ’dar slong ba’i grang rlung gi khrod du/

        gnag snum ’od kyis rtsen pa’i spu kha yi mdzes nyams kyis/

        dgun ljongs zla ba’i ’od snang mog por bsgyur/


bu yug gi gad rgyangs drag pos ri klung hril gyis ’gems dus/

tsag dang bser bu thod la blang shing thad kyis gzhangs pa’i nga’i zil shugs/

mchong thengs gcig gis skar tshogs sa la ’drud snying ’dod pa’i nga’i ham sems/

bser ma rlung gi rgyu phyogs la’ang hol gyis rjes ’ded gtong ba’i nga’i nga rgyal/

[7] rang nyid brjod byar bya rgyu gtso gnad du mi ’jog par snyan ngag ’bri skabs rang nyid dang ’brel ba med pa’i bya dgos gzhan kyi steng nas brjod bya dang tshor ba ’tshol bar byas na snyan ngag gyi bla dang srog stor pa red. In her autobiographical essay Chimay also touches on this proclivity for frank personal accounts of life in poetry often revealing inner torments. She was influenced by the confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath. After reading Plath’s ‘Daddy’ Chimay composed many poems including “Dear Mother, Why Were You in Such a Hurry to Leave? (A ma lags/ khyed rang phebs par de ’dra’i brel don ci/)” (“Bod mos bod mo’i rtsom rig gleng ba” 72-74). The central belief of Chimay’s that good poetry must capture the real life is also vividly evident in her moving appraisal of Naro’s (Na ro) free verse poem “Mother and Her Life Wisdom (A ma dang mo’i ’tsho ba’i shes rab).” Her high esteem of this poem lies in its true to life portrayal of an ordinary mother in a farming village whose life is forged by fruitful yet relentless physical labour. Triggered by this poem Chimay recalls her own mother as a woman of strength, independence and indomitable spirit who comes to epitomize all hardworking Tibetan farmers (“Zhing kha na ’dzad kyin pa’i sle bo” 159-163).

[8] In 1842 Samuel Taylor Coleridge described the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean in these immortal words: “To see him act, is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning” (44).

[9] Detecting the “irremediable shock” conveyed by Emily Dickson’s poetry, the cultural critic and libertarian thinker Isabel Paterson stated: “There are poems also which indicate that Emily endured some irremediable shock, more profound than a parting in life” (qtd. in Pohl 480). Chimay acknowledges the influence of Emily Dickinson on her poetry. As a young poet she wrote several love poems inspired by Dickinson’s poetic treatment of love and life including “Love and Karmic Destiny” (“Bod mos bod mo’i rtsom rig gleng ba” 71-72). 

[10] The verse in full reads:

HAMLET   What is he whose grief

Bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of sorrow

Conjures the wand’ring stars, and makes them stand

Like wonder-wounded hearers? This is I,

Hamlet the Dane.

[11] For examples of  Chimay’s introspective poems characterized by reflection on love, longing and inner torment  see  “I Long in This Way in the Last Month of Spring (dPyid zla tha mar ngas ’di ltar dran)” (Zla ba’i rmi lam 148-151); “Lama Tsongkhapa Who Longed for his Mother on the Summit of Gadan Mountain” (“dGa’ ldan ri bo’i rtse nas A ma dran myong ba’i bla ma tsonag kha pa”); “One Thousand Years of Yearning” (“Lo ngo stong gi re sgug”); and “The Crystal Stamen” (“Shel gyi ze’u ’bru”).

[12] For my tentative reflections on the challenges and also rewards entailed in the translation of Tibetan poetry see my keynote lecture given at the Lotsawa Translation Workshop in October 2018, available at

[13] Schopenhauer states: “Poems cannot be translated; they can only be transposed, and that is always awkward” (33).

[14] Chimay concludes her autobiographical essay with this epigram (“Bod mos bod mo’i rtsom rig gleng ba” 84).


Works cited:

Blake, William. “Auguries of Innocence.” Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Edited by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant, Norton Critical Edition, 1979, pp. 209-212.

Carey, John. A Little History of Poetry. Yale University Press, 2020.

འཆི་མེད། [’Chi med, Chimay]. དགའ་ལྡན་རི་བོའི་རྩེ་ནས་ཨ་མ་དྲན་མྱོང་པའི་བླ་མ་ཙོང་ཁ་པ། [“Lama Tsongkhapa Who Longed for his Mother on the Summit of Gadan Mountain”]. བོད་ཀྱི་ཅེར་འདོན་སྤྱི་སྟེགས་ཆེན་མོ། ༢༠༡༩ །

———. ང་རང་དགའ་བའི་ལྷུག་རྩོམ་ཞིག [“A Piece of Prose I Love”]. ༼གངས་རྒྱན་མེ་ཏོག༽ དེབ་བཞི་བ། ༢༠༡༧ ། ཤོག་ངོས་༡༠༡ནས་༡༠༨།

———. ༼ཆུའི་ལང་ཚོ། ༽་ [The Youth of Water]. སི་ཁྲོན་མི་རིགས་དཔེ་སྐྲུན་ཁང་། ༢༠༡༦ །

———. བོད་མོས་བོད་མོའི་རྩོམ་རིག་གླེང་བ། [“Tibetan Women On Tibetan Women’s Literature”]. ལྕགས་རྡོར་རྒྱལ་དང་། གོ་ཤུལ་གྲགས་པ་འབྱུང་གནས་གཉིས་ཀྱིས་བསྒྲིགས་པའི་༼བུད་མེད་རྩོམ་པ་པོས་གསར་རྩོམ་གླེང་བ།༽ [Women Writers On Creative Writing], མཚོ་སྔོན་མི་རིགས་དཔེ་སྐྲུན་ཁང་། ༢༠༡༧ ། ཤོག་ངོས་༤༡ནས༨༤།

———. འབྲོག་ཁྱི། [“The Tibetan Mastiff”]. ༼ཟླ་བའི་རྨི་ལམ།༽   [The Dreams of the Moon], ཤོག་ངོས་༡༢༩ནས་༡༣༣།

———. བརྩེ་དུང་དང་ལས་དབང་། [“Love and Karmic Destiny”]. ༼ཟླ་བའི་རྨི་ལམ།༽   [The Dreams of the Moon], ཤོག་ངོས་༢༠༡ནས་༢༠༢།

———. ཞིང་ཁ་ན་འཛད་ཀྱིན་པའི་སླེ་བོ། [“The Withering Away Basket at the Edge of the Field”]. ༢༠༡༨ ལོའི༼སྦྲང་ཆར།༽དེབ་བཞི་བ། ཤོག་ངོས་༡༤༩ནས་༡༦༣།

———. ༼ཟླ་བའི་རྨི་ལམ།༽  [The Dreams of the Moon]. མཚོ་སྔོན་མི་རིགས་དཔེ་སྐྲུན་ཁང་། ༢༠༡༢ །

———. ལོ་ངོ་སྟོང་གི་རེ་སྒུག [“One Thousand Years of Yearning”].༼མི་རིགས་རྩོམ་རིག༽ དེབ་དང་པོ། ༢༠༡༧ ། ཤོག་ངོས་༢༠ནས་༢༡།

———. ཤེལ་གྱི་ཟེའུ་འབྲུ། [The Crystal Stamen]. ༼ཆུའི་ལང་ཚོ། ༽ [The Youth of Water], ཤོག་ངོས་༡༥ནས་༡༧།

———. ཨ་ལོང་། [“The Ring”]. ༼མི་རིགས་རྩོམ་རིག༽ དེབ་དང་པོ། ༢༠༡༧ ། ཤོག་ངོས་༢༢ནས་༢༣།

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Table Talk and Omniana of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Oxford University Press, 1917.

Empson, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity. 1930. Penguin, 1995.

Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare’s Language. Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 2000.

Lama Jabb. “An Act of Bardo: Translating Tibetan Poetry.” Lotsawa Translation Workshop, 4-8 Oct. 2018, University of Colorado. Keynote lecture. Available at:

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1987. Vintage Books, 2004.

Parkinson, Thomas. W. B. Yeats: The Later Poetry. University of California Press, 2001.

Pohl, Frederick J. “The Emily Dickinson Controversy.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 41, no. 4, Oct – Dec 1933, pp. 467-482.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. “On Language and Words.” 1800. Translated by Peter Mollenhauer. Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, edited by Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet, The University of Chicago Press, 1992, pp. 32-35.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (The RSC Shakespeare), edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, Macmillan, 2007, pp. 1924-1999.


Dr. Lama Jabb is currently a Supernumerary Fellow in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies and Head of the Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, where he also teaches Tibetan language and literature. He is the author of Oral and Literary Continuities in Modern Tibetan Literature: The Inescapable Nation (2015) and many scholarly articles. 


Appendix One














































































From the Yeti to the Ape-Man: Scientism and “Superstition” in Döndrup Gyel’s Translation of Tong Enzheng’s “The Magic Flute of the Snow Mountains”

Christopher Peacock


Abstract: Döndrup Gyel (1953–1985) was modern Tibet’s preeminent literary writer and a prolific translator. In his collected works, the volume containing his translations is dominated by historical sources and classical literature. The inclusion, therefore, of two short stories by the Chinese science-fiction writer Tong Enzheng (1935–1997) appears somewhat incongruous. What does his interest in this work tell us about Döndrup Gyel’s intellectual project and its relationship with Chinese literary modernity? In Tong Enzheng’s “The Magic Flute of the Snow Mountains,” a team of Chinese archeologists in Tibet discover a yeti-summoning flute, a magical instrument that opens the door to a state-led scientific analysis of the mythical creature. Döndrup Gyel was consistently preoccupied with the question of how Tibet and its traditions ought to engage with the modern world, and with science and technology in particular. This paper argues that Tong’s story provided him with a dramatic staging of these very questions, penned by a Chinese writer and set in a Tibetan context. My analysis places the story alongside some of Döndrup Gyel’s own works in order to examine their shared concerns of scientism, “superstition,” and socialism.

I conclude, however, by considering how the story’s use of science to validate an apparently mythic belief represents an appropriate resolution for a writer who sought not to overturn or do away with Tibetan tradition entirely, but to find ways to incorporate it into a modern world of scientific knowledge and technological advancement.

Keywords: Döndrup Gyel, translation, science-fiction, scientism, evolution


Döndrup Gyel (Don grub rgyal, 1953-1985) is the most celebrated writer of modern Tibetan literature, famed for a brief but enormously influential career that produced path-breaking works of fiction, poetry, and scholarship. Within the volumes that collect his life’s work, we find a translation of a short story set in Tibet, written by Tong Enzheng (童恩正, 1935-1997), one of the pioneers of Chinese science fiction. What was Döndrup Gyel’s interest in this piece, and how does it relate to his own writing? The story in question is “The Magic Flute of the Snow Mountains” (Xueshan mo di 雪山魔笛, hereafter “The Magic Flute”1), the tale of a team of archeologists who discover a yeti-summoning flute, a magical instrument that opens the door to a state-led scientific analysis of the mythical creature. The story stages a conflict between religious and cultural “superstition” and scientific rationality, in which the latter inevitably triumphs, but via the unusual medium of actually confirming the yeti’s existence. With reference to both his more famous works and some lesser-known pieces, I argue here that “The Magic Flute” coincides with key aspects of Döndrup Gyel’s intellectual project. Döndrup Gyel’s work sought a specific kind of modernity for the Tibetan world, one in which rational ideals would supersede cultural “backwardness,” while still allowing a space for tradition to reinvent itself in the modern era. In Tong’s story, we find an apt fictional rendering of this agenda set specifically in the context of modern Tibet.

Döndrup Gyel was born in the village of Gurong Powa (Dgu rong pho ba) in Chentsa (Gcan tsha) county, Qinghai province, in 1953. He began primary level studies in his native area before moving to the Malho (Rma lho) Prefecture Nationalities Teacher Training School. He later studied and taught in Beijing, where he lived between 1971 and 1975 and again from 1978 to 1984, before returning to Qinghai. In 1985, at the age of 32, Döndrup Gyel committed suicide at his then home in Chapcha (Chab cha). In his short life, Döndrup Gyel produced an impressive body of work, the majority of which was compiled in a posthumous six-volume collected works published in 1997. The essays, short stories, poetry, scholarship, and translations in these volumes have had an inestimable impact on the landscape of modern Tibetan literature, and Döndrup Gyel continues to be a source of inspiration to contemporary writers and a subject of study for Tibetan academics.2

Tong Enzheng, author of “The Magic Flute,” was a pioneering writer of Chinese science fiction. Born in Hunan in 1935, Tong began publishing literary texts in the late 1950s, but his writing ceased for the duration of the Cultural Revolution when, like many intellectuals, he was subject to criticism for the content of his academic and literary work. One of his most well-known pieces of fiction is “Death Ray on Coral Island” (Shanhudao shang de siguang 珊瑚岛上的死光), a short story he wrote in the 1960s that was belatedly published after the Cultural Revolution3 and was later adapted into China’s first science-fiction feature film in 1980. Tong was equally renowned as a scholar, known for his work on history, anthropology, and archaeology. He served as a professor at Sichuan University, engaged in major archaeological projects in Southwest China and in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), and made great contributions to the study of both archaeology and anthropology in China.4 Tong Enzheng fled to the United States in the aftermath of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and up until his death in 1997, he was a visiting professor at several U.S. universities, where he continued his academic research while also working to raise awareness of political and environmental issues.5 

Though we know that Döndrup Gyel must have read widely in modern literature, there is little tangible evidence about the actual texts that he was exposed to, a lacuna that has proved problematic when it comes to mapping his intellectual developments. His acquaintances recall him reading Rousseau, Mayakovsky, and Conan Doyle, among others (Dgu rong spun grol, “Zhal mjal thengs gnyis kyi dran pa” 298-299; Chos skyong 62, 75, 121-122), and his own writings on literary composition contain references to Balzac, Gorky, Mao Zedong 毛泽东 and Chinese writers including Lu Xun 鲁迅, Mao Dun 茅盾, and Qin Mu 秦牧 (Don grub rgyal 3: 163-167; Don grub rgyal 6: 89-125). It is in his translations, however, that we find some of the most concrete evidence of his literary interests. The majority of his translation work is tied, in one way or another, to Döndrup Gyel’s wider project of social and cultural reform for the Tibetan world. Döndrup Gyel drew heavily from May Fourth enlightenment traditions, and his extensive translation work also, in a sense, recalls the paramount importance that late Qing and May Fourth intellectuals gave to introducing new knowledge to China through translation.  

In an essay titled “How I Came to Write Fiction” (Wo zenme zuoqi xiaoshuo lai 我怎么做起小说来), Lu Xun wrote that he initially had no desire to be a creative writer; what he thought was important was introducing new material to Chinese readers through translation, particularly short stories (4: 525). He was also especially interested in introducing science fiction to China (he translated Jules Verne into Chinese) as he believed it possessed the potential to popularize science itself. As he wrote in his preface to the Verne translation, “Only by resorting to fictional presentation and dressing scientific ideas up in literary clothing can works of science avoid their tediousness while retaining rational analyses and profound theories” (Quoted in Isaacson 39). Lu Xun, like many intellectuals of his era, viewed translation as key to driving China’s changes, and his translation work constituted a considerable proportion of his output. In the very different context of the post-Cultural Revolution era, Döndrup Gyel was likewise working towards introducing new knowledge into the Tibetan language through translation. The translations volume of his collected works, which at 524 pages is the second-longest book in the collection, contains numerous pieces he translated from Chinese into Tibetan, and it is rather eclectic in its contents. A significant proportion of its space is given over to his work on the Ramayana as well as translations of and commentary on the Tang annals, which were of interest to Döndrup Gyel due to the information they contained on the Tibetan empire (7th-9th centuries AD). Aside from this, there are translations of a great many Chinese praise poems from the “learn from Daqing” campaign, an essay by Lao She 老舍, and two pieces by the Mongolian author Malaqinfu 玛拉沁 夫. Within this volume, we also find translations of two short stories by Tong Enzheng: “The Magic Flute of the Snow Mountains” and “The Dinosaur Hunter” (Zhuizong konglong de ren 追踪恐龙的人; Tib. Mtsho ‘brug gi rjes snyeg mkhan). Döndrup Gyel’s Tibetan translations of these two stories were originally published as a separate book, also titled The Magic Flute of the Snow Mountains (‘Dre ‘bod rkang gling), in 1981, two years after the publication of the original short story in 1979.

“The Magic Flute” combines many of Tong Enzheng’s diverse interests: science fiction, archaeology, anthropology, oral legends, and historical documents.6 It is also a reflection of his fieldwork in Tibetan areas, which yielded numerous publications that are said to have “marked the beginning of modern archaeological research” in the TAR (Brief Biography). The story opens with a small archaeological team performing a survey at a monastery on the slopes of Mount Gangkar7 in the Himalayas. The narrator, Wang Xin 王新, head of the survey team, relates tales of Lapdrön Gyatso (lab sgron rgya mtsho, Ch.: Labushanjiacuo 拉布山嘉错), the last head of the monastery, who was said to possess a magical flute that summons “mountain spirits” (shanjing 山精, Tib.: bdud). The team duly finds the flute inside a statue of the Buddha, and after they play it, a creature comes that night and pokes around their tent, leaving human-like footprints in the snow. They return to Beijing to report their findings to the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), who determine that the yeti-like figure must be a pre-historic ape-man that has survived undetected in the remote terrain of the Himalayas. Marshalling an array of experts and technological equipment, they head back to Tibet, where they broadcast an electronic simulation of the flute’s sound, and with the aid of radar tracking and infrared cameras, they finally make their historic discovery. Via micro-transmitters planted in the food they leave for the ape-men, they are able to locate all of the remaining tribes, and Mount Gangkar is turned into a conservation area in which the anthropoids can live freely while being scientifically studied.   

How does this vision of Tibet in a Chinese science fiction story speak to the work of modern Tibet’s most influential writer? Firstly, it is a piece of contemporary fiction with an unambiguously Tibetan cultural setting. This is a simple but not insignificant fact to point out given the relative scarcity of narrative fiction, short or otherwise, in Tibetan literary history, a state of affairs Döndrup Gyel was beginning to change by composing his own consciously modern short stories. But the affinity between Tong’s story and Döndrup Gyel’s intellectual project runs much deeper. As a kind of model, an example of what modern literature could do in a Tibetan context, Tong’s story must have provided Döndrup Gyel with a fascinating specimen. The philosophy on which the story is premised is one of scientism, a belief in the fundamental ability of science and technology to improve the status of mankind. This is an ideology that deeply resonates with Döndrup Gyel’s work, which was always invested in the idea that science held the key not only to improving the lives of the Tibetan people but to saving their fate as a nation.

The events of the story are all framed specifically as scientific occurrences and developments. Even when the initial discovery of the flute and the yeti’s footprints are still a mystery, they are described by Wang Xin, the narrator, as “an extremely important scientific discovery” (Tong, Xueshan modi 15),8 a sentiment he recapitulates at the end after the mystery has been solved (“can words express the great scientific significance of these [events]?” [34]). Despite the fantastical nature of the story’s premise, the magic flute and the yeti are approached by the characters (the archaeological team and later the academics at CAS) as practical problems soluble by the scientific method and advanced technology. While some of the futuristic technology in the story is incidental (the scientists communicate by “TV phone” and send their samples back to Beijing in a “jetcopter”), when the real analysis of the anthropoids gets underway, it is almost exclusively through science and technology that the enigma is resolved. 

After their discovery, the archaeological team returns to Beijing to brief a conference at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where their samples—the flute, a parchment that accompanied it, photos and casts of the footprints, and a blood sample left after the yeti cuts himself outside their tent—are meticulously analyzed. Professor Zhu Wei 朱苇, an anthropologist from the Academy, proceeds to detail the empirical methods they used, which involved footprint and fossil analysis, biochemical analysis of the blood sample, and climatic analysis of the region in question. The CAS scientists record the sound of the flute and test it on apes, resulting in the discovery that their subjects “immediately reacted with conditioned reflexes; their gastric juices and saliva increased, and they followed the direction of the sound, seeking food” (24). The “comprehensive scientific meeting” (19) they hold in Beijing involves experts of every stripe—anthropologists, paleontologists, medical experts, geneticists, physiologists, radio experts, radar engineers, TV engineers—and each of them in turn offers their thoughts on how best to study the phenomenon. The resulting plan of action is a combination of all their methodologies, and they return to Tibet armed with radars, micro-computers, 3D mapping technology, and sound transmitters. The final discovery of the anthropoids is presented to the reader as a triumph of the rational, empirical scientific method: “at long last, before the eager eyes of dozens of scientists in the observation chamber, a secret kept by mother nature for over a million years was revealed for the first time” (31).

The celebration of science that the story represents would undoubtedly have struck a chord with Döndrup Gyel. His seminal poem “Waterfall of Youth” (Lang tsho’i rbab chu), a manifesto outlining his vision of a new Tibet, famously called on the youth to welcome the “young groom of science” and the “young bride of technology” (Don grub rgyal 1: 134), and throughout his work, we find a utopian, technocratic, and scientistic vision of society. The urgent need for Tibetans to plot such a course for their development is the subject of his well-known literary essay “The Narrow Path” (Rkang lam phra mo). In this poetic meditation on the past, present, and future of Tibetan society, the narrator describes a narrow mountain path near his home village that has “witnessed the uncountable footsteps of one generation after another for many centuries,” the construction of which he considers “the essence of innovation” (Don grub rgyal 6: 1-3; trans. Rang grol 61-62). However, his fond reflections soon morph into a scathing self-critique, since no one has thought to improve upon the path in the hundreds of years since it was first broken. This includes the narrator, who has “neither used pick nor shovel to broaden this narrow path left to us by those people of our ancient past” (4-5; trans. adapted from Rang grol 63).

The narrator of “The Narrow Path” flirts with nostalgia and longing for the comforts of tradition but ultimately determines that the failure of tradition to reinvent itself in the modern world is unforgivable. Tibetans have, he concludes, been left behind by stubborn adherence to the past: “Nowadays we have highways and railways, airways and seaways, and there are even ways to reach the moon,” he writes, “and meanwhile our people are confined to riding their donkeys cheerfully up and down this small track” (5; trans. adapted from Rang grol 63). As the essay reaches its conclusion, the narrator remarks on the state-constructed highway built after “liberation” (bcings ‘grol byas rjes, i.e., after the founding of the People’s Republic), much larger than the narrow path, but long and winding. Standing between the peaceful mountain track and the clamor of the highway, a “beautiful, brilliant, blazing path” appears before him, and he is compelled9 to move towards the highway (7)—towards, in other words, modernization and material development. Its overtly futuristic elements aside, the world depicted in “The Magic Flute” is not excessively fanciful; it is a near-future technocratic utopia in which science is capable of demystifying irrational beliefs and bringing tangible progress to society. It is a vision of a potential Tibet that certainly resonates with the spirit of “The Narrow Path,” which fundamentally expresses a desire for Tibetans to overcome the restraints of tradition and begin their journey towards the progressive future symbolized by the highway. In many ways, Tong’s story shows us one version of where that journey might lead. 

“The Narrow Path” reflects Döndrup Gyel’s enduring concern with what he saw as the “backwards” plight of the Tibetan nation, and his belief that Tibetans lacked scientific and technological expertise was a central feature of this plight. His friends recall that he bemoaned the lack of academic opportunities for Tibetans, in particular the fact that their sole path in university was Tibetan language and literature. It was vital, he felt, that science be taught in Tibetan (Pema Bhum, “The Life of Dhondup Gyal” 22). Döndrup Gyel’s insistence on valuing tangible material progress through science set the tone for nationalist intellectual discourse for years to come. Numerous subsequent scholars and writers hailed Döndrup Gyel as the herald of a new age, the visionary who announced the imperative for Tibetans to study science and technology and catch up with the “advanced” (sngon thon) nations of the world (Sangs rgyas rin chen 16-17; Zhogs ljang 190-191). When a major intellectual movement arose in the 2000s that criticized Tibetan traditions and called for radical modernization through science and material development, almost all of the authors conceived of their work as building on the foundations laid by Döndrup Gyel.10 

While his central focus was the need for Tibetans to modernize, elsewhere in his work, Döndrup Gyel celebrates existing technological advances in Tibetan regions. In his poem “Friendship Between Chinese and Tibetans” (Rgya bod bar gyi mdza’ mthun), for example, he praises developments in industry and agriculture that he sees as having brought material progress to Tibet:

Having lain asleep for 10,000 years,

The doors of the mines are now open,

Thus industrial production in the Land of Snows

Has risen like a waxing moon.


On the square fields

The mechanical iron ox is reaping,

Thus the harvest of wheat, barley, and beans

Is the size of a mountain.


The boundless green meadows

Have been nourished with chemical fertilizer,

Thus the mountains and plains are filled

With draught animals—horse, yak, sheep.

(Don grub rgyal 1: 245-247)

This is likewise the dominant theme of the poem “Joy of a Genuine Dream of Wonder” (‘Khrul min rmi lam ngo mtshar dga’ skyed), in which the author lauds the industrial, agricultural, scientific, and economic achievements of the state, including China’s production of nuclear weapons (Don grub rgyal 1: 207-213). There is a sense in which these scientific and technological advances are divorced from Tibetans, since they were carried out by the Chinese state and not the Tibetan people per se. Yet, they apparently remain laudable to Döndrup Gyel, presumably because they are tangible examples of material progress in a Tibetan context. 

A more specific example of this shared interest in scientism comes in the form of Darwinian evolution. “The Magic Flute” first invokes evolution when Zhu Wei, the CAS anthropologist, is offering his hypothesis on the origins of the ape-man, namely that the gradual geological development of the Himalayas created a deep valley of “primeval forest cut off from the outside world” where these anthropoids “went astray from the path of evolution from ape to man” (23). After the existence of the ape-men is confirmed, the narrator returns to this theme:

Fierce debates over the origins of mankind have raged for more than a century now, ever since 1859, when the British biologist Darwin expounded the theory of evolution in The Origin of Species, and 1863, when Huxley outlined his view that humans had evolved from apes in Man’s Place in Nature. Although in the past ten years there have been ever more discoveries of ancient human fossils and an ever-increasing sophistication of research, our data is still extremely deficient when we consider the wealth of history covered by the ten-million-plus years of evolution from ape to man. Now we have before us a group of living ape-men that represent the missing link between ape and man, and from their living habits and their social and structural organization we can piece together a detailed picture of life from over a million years ago. (34)

Zhu Wei’s (ultimately correct) hypothesis dates the ape-men further back than Peking man and links them to recently discovered fossils in Sichuan Province. Tong’s principal academic interests of archaeology and anthropology thus filter into the story, lending the narration of these fabulous events an air of scholarly credibility.

Döndrup Gyel’s interest in the subject of Darwinian evolution is well-illustrated by a notable essay in which he deals directly with the concept of race vis-à-vis the Tibetan nation: “The Origins of Humanity in Tibet and the Source of the Term ‘Tibet’” (Bod du ‘gro ba mi’i rigs byung tshul dang bod ces pa’i tha snyad kyi ‘byung khungs). The essay begins with the legend of how the Tibetan people originated as the descendants of a monkey and an ogress.11 Döndrup Gyel cites this tale only to dismiss it in favor of a new approach to racial origin:

Let us for a moment discard this orally transmitted myth and try to scientifically examine the real origin of the Tibetan race. As everyone clearly knows, mankind gradually evolved from the apes. By dint of their struggle for survival, the mental capacity of these apes gradually developed more and more. They began to wear animal hides, and they learned to rub sticks together to make fire. After they discovered fire, they took advantage of many cooked and boiled forms of sustenance such as cooked meat. They learned to make various instruments from rocks and bones. Furthermore, they lost their tails and developed manual dexterity. After they stood erect, they began to walk. If one examines this argument, one will find the above discussion rational. Contrary to this point of view, the extremist belief system says that the creator of the world is Brahma, and other peoples hold to the absurd belief that humans were created from clay. The truth has been explained here about how humans really evolved from other creatures. Furthermore, it is clear that humans evolved from no other creatures than the species of apes and monkeys who most resemble the present form of human beings. (Don grub rgyal 3: 195-196; trans. Dondrub Gyal 56)

A brief note retreading the basics of Darwinian evolution written in 1982 hardly seems remarkable, but the very fact that its author felt this worth pointing out in 1982 is remarkable in itself. To Döndrup Gyel, the truth of biological evolution needed to be affirmed, as there were still those who held to “absurd beliefs” about the origins of humankind. Döndrup Gyel may not have been introducing this knowledge in Tibetan for the first time, but he evidently believed it to be insufficiently established among Tibetan readers, and he was convinced that a more “scientific” approach to the question of race was required.

Though they are not mentioned by name in his essay, the piece is clearly informed by the basic theories of Darwin and Huxley, and the discussion of their work in “The Magic Flute” would no doubt have stood out to him. But the relevance of these references is not limited to science itself: equally important to Döndrup Gyel’s thinking was the social application of Darwinism. The worldview of nations vying for position in the global order underpinned Döndrup Gyel’s anxieties over Tibetan backwardness in the modern era, and throughout “Waterfall” and his other poetry, we encounter a social-Darwinist vocabulary of “struggle” (‘thab ‘dzing) and “competition” (rtsal ‘gran) (Don grub rgyal 1: 131, 136, 233, 212). In the Chinese literary and intellectual tradition, the social reading of Darwin’s theories became key in a world of inter-national competition where the threat of extinction at the hands of more powerful nations was felt to be very real. Pusey’s description of Lu Xun’s relationship with Darwinian evolutionary theory applies just as well to Döndrup Gyel: “He wrote, let us be clear, not to spread the gospel of evolution, but to save his people, to wake them up, to get them to change their ways, in thought and word and deed, to save themselves—from themselves” (xi). The discussions of evolutionary biology in Tong’s story could thus be said to have had a dual relevance to Döndrup Gyel, as they signify scientific advancement while also pointing to the discourse of social Darwinism that so heavily colored his intellectual agenda.

The Tibetan setting of “The Magic Flute” also gives Tong Enzheng the opportunity to establish a contrast between the science extolled in the story and a time-worn cliché about Tibet: the mysticism of its religion. The archaeological survey takes place at the Nyingma monastery of Namgyel Ling (rnam rgyal gling, Ch.: tianjialin si 天嘉林寺), the last head lama of which was “said to be a master of sorcery who could exorcize demons and subdue spirits” (2).12 When Tsering Wangdül (Tshe ring dbang ‘dul, Ch.: Ciren Wangui 次仁旺堆), a Tibetan member of the expedition, suggests to Feng Yuan 冯元, a Han Chinese graduate student working with the group, that the flute they discovered may be the key to some secret, his colleagues are dismissive:

Feng Yuan’s clear laughter rang through the tent. “Comrade Tsering Wangdül, I think you’ve been reading too many Buddhist sutras—you’ve been mesmerized! Surely you don’t really believe in all this ‘magic flute’ and ‘mountain spirit’ business?” (9)

Tsering Wangdül resolutely denies that he is “superstitious” (mixin 迷信 Tib.: rmongs dad) but maintains that the flute holds some unknown significance. Later, the roles are reversed. Feng Yuan reports hearing human footsteps outside the tent, prompting Sönam (Bsod nams, Ch.: Suolun 索伦), another Tibetan member of the team, to tease his colleagues for believing in an “absurd legend” (12).

The suggestion of mysticism haunts the early stages of the story, but it is always dispelled by the rational minds of the scientists, none of whom entertain any supernatural explanations for the events that occur, no matter how unusual they may seem. At the meeting in Beijing, Professor Zhu Wei’s stance is emphatic: “We are scientific workers, we are atheists—of course we will not resort to supernatural explanations. These phenomena, which appear incredible and mystical on the surface, must contain some secret of nature that we are yet to discover. We began our work precisely from this conviction” (21-22). After laying out his lengthy scientific analysis of the team’s samples and reaching his hypothesis about the ape-men’s origins and the purpose of the flute, Professor Zhu reiterates his point:

[…] so there is absolutely nothing miraculous about [the technique]. Of course, we have no way to know how Lapdrön Gyatso discovered this secret, but we can say with certainty that he consciously and ingeniously made use of this natural phenomenon, exploiting the masses’ superstitions and duping them for his own benefit. It is for this reason that Namgyel Ling has been shrouded in mystery for over two hundred years. (24)

The dismissal of superstitious beliefs in favor of a scientific approach to the “yeti” even extends to what they decide to name the creature. Zhu Wei’s analysis makes reference to Peking man (Beijing yuanren 北京猿人, Tib.: pe cin spra mi) and reports of “wild men” (yeren 野人; the term Döndrup Gyel uses is mi rgod, “wild man” or “yeti”) in Chinese historical documents. He concludes: “We believe that the ‘yetis’ referred to in these sources may well be the ‘mountain spirits’ of Tibetan legend, and that they were in fact ape-men who lived a million years ago” (2223). Thus, the superstitious “yeti” becomes the scientific “ape-man” (yuanren 猿人, Tib.: spra mi), a term that carries the authority of Darwinian biology and empirical archaeological data.  

Döndrup Gyel’s work takes a virtually identical approach to the broadly conceived category of Tibetan “superstition,” which he consistently places in opposition to modern, scientific rationality. This is the dynamic established in both “Waterfall of Youth” and “The Narrow Path.” In the latter, the old men sitting by the mountain path appreciate its ingenuity but are too set in their ways to ever consider improving it. Those who suggest innovation are met with a stubbornness born of superstition:

“Since the footpath is so narrow, why don’t you make it broader?” remarked a passerby. The old people answered unanimously, “What! This path is inhabited by gnyan demons and btsan spirits, anyone who takes a shovel to it will be stricken with leprosy and die. This is certain.” (Don grub rgyal 6: 6; trans. adapted from Rang grol 64)

“Waterfall of Youth” follows a similar pattern in its advocacy of rational scientific progress for Tibetan civilization. In a frequently cited section of the poem, conservative attitudes and the models of the past—even those that are laudable—are disavowed:


  Yesteryear with its glorious shining sun is no substitute for 


  And how can yesterday with its salt-water quench the thirst of 


  If the corpse of history, which is hard to locate,

  Is bereft of the life-force appropriate for the times,

      The pulse of development will never beat,

      And the heart and blood of the avant-garde will never


       Much less the march of progress.


Conservatism, traditionalism, superstition, laziness

Have no role whatsoever in our generation.

Backwardness, barbarism, darkness, reactionary thought,

Have no place at all in our age.

(Don grub rgyal 1: 135-136; trans. Hartley, “The Advent of Modern Tibetan Free-Verse Poetry” 768)

The call to oppose this last list of undesirable attributes, among them the ubiquitous “superstition” (rmongs dad, the same term in Döndrup Gyel’s translation of “The Magic Flute”), had a major impact on subsequent intellectuals who picked up on and advanced the iconoclastic strains of Döndrup Gyel’s writing. In his work itself, the constant juxtaposition of these concepts with the “pulse of development” encapsulates much of what is at the heart of his ideology.

When the scientists and technicians in “The Magic Flute” return to the monastery to begin their investigations, Tong Enzheng provides a striking image of this contrast:

Our observation deck was set up in the ruins of Namgyel Ling’s scripture hall. After two weeks of frantic preparations, all of the apparatus and instruments were finally in place. A control panel with blinking red and green lights was installed in the altar where the statue of the Buddha used to be, and display screens of various sizes covered up the mystical murals on the walls. The antenna for receiving radar and television signals towered over the prayer flags on the roof. Ancient and modern, superstition and civilization13 formed a stark contrast in what could be described as the most unusual laboratory in the world. (26-27)

For Döndrup Gyel, there could hardly be a more fitting image of science superseding religion in the Tibetan context. Here, scientific equipment is literally supplanting each aspect of the monastery, the “modern” displacing the “ancient” and “civilization” (or “science”) displacing “superstition.” Such a concise illustration of this binary would no doubt have stood out to an author who elsewhere wrote of moving away from the path of tradition towards the modernity of the highway and who repudiated traditionalism and supposed superstition in favor of progress and innovation.   

There is one further comparison to be drawn between the story and Döndrup Gyel’s own work: how the binary outlined above relates to socialism and the Chinese state. In “The Magic Flute,” the idea of “superstition” is linked to a long-standing Maoist discourse of Tibetan religion being used as a tool to oppress the common people and so-called “serfs.”14 The narrator invokes this discourse at the first mention of the legend of the flute:

As an archaeologist, I of course knew that in the past the serf-owning classes of Tibet had habitually taken advantage of Lamaist superstitions15 to deceive the people, using them in the service of their own domination, so I generally didn’t take legends of this kind seriously. (2-3)

Tsering Wangdül takes this line of reasoning one step further, arguing that the ruling classes knowingly twisted scientific knowledge to their advantage:

In the old society, and particularly in the backwards serf system of Tibet, people still had no grasp of the mysteries of nature, they couldn’t understand its laws, so many scientific phenomena were given a cloak of superstition and were deliberately distorted by the ruling classes for their own benefit. (9)

We cannot fail to notice here that the vocabulary shared with those famous lines of “Waterfall of Youth”—superstition, backwardness (rjes lus)—is part of a specifically Marxist reading of Tibetan history and society imposed by the Chinese state. Tsering Shakya draws our attention to the fact that the idea of “backwardness”—or “underdevelopment” as he translates it—encapsulates the Chinese state project of Tibetan economic and cultural “emancipation,” and is therefore “crucial to understanding the nature of Chinese rule in Tibet” as a whole (61). Furthermore, Lobsang Yongdan has considered this point specifically in relation to the work of Döndrup Gyel, persuasively arguing that he drew many of these terms (and indeed the concepts they represent) from the works of Mao and the social context of his upbringing during the Cultural Revolution (Blo bzang yon tan, “Rig gsar” and “Bod kyi rang mos snyan ngag”).

Döndrup Gyel’s well-known short story “Trülku” (Sprul sku) presents a fictional parallel to this notion of Tibetan religion duping the common people. The plot centers around the elderly Akhu Nyima (A khu nyi ma) and his family, a modest rural household that is one day graced by the visit of a traveling trülku. Akhu Nyima, a former monk, is a model of faith: the story opens with him sitting cross-legged, prayer beads in hand, chanting “om mani padme hum.” He is, furthermore, deeply hostile to those who would challenge his religion:

Though Akhu Nyima was a man inclined to trust whatever anyone said—young or old—he did not believe for one second the propaganda of atheist views. Those who were not disposed to superstitious thinking had, on occasion, tried to educate him about the fact that there was no such thing as gods and demons. At those times, Akhu Nyima would become enraged, condemning such people as “merit-less heretics.” Any time a child asked him whether or not gods and demons really existed, Akhu Nyima would tell them that gods do exist and that demons were nothing to be afraid of, then he would show them his little copper statue of the Buddha and say, “This is a god.” In any case, trying to convert him to a materialist point of view was like preaching the dharma to a wolf. For over sixty years he had meditated on the Three Jewels, showed respect for lamas and trülkus as though they were the hat on his head, and never once missed a prayer or let an offering lamp go unlit. (Don grub rgyal 2: 123)

Akhu Nyima is naturally overjoyed when the trülku visits their home. Though he initially has misgivings—the trülku cannot sit cross-legged and displays a worrying lack of knowledge about key Buddhist texts and figures—he interprets these doubts as his own shortcomings and treats the visitor with the utmost reverence. Unbeknownst to Akhu Nyima, however, the trülku turns out to be a thief—and worse. He makes unsolicited advances on one of the village women, then tries to force himself on Akhu Nyima’s daughter-in-law. In the end, he is revealed by the brigade leader to be a con-artist masquerading as a lama and is arrested. 

Upon its publication,16 “Trülku” caused something of a sensation as many Tibetans felt it was attacking their religious system; Döndrup Gyel was labeled a “heretic,” a “destroyer of the teachings,” and even received threatening letters (Dgu rong spun grol, “Mi yul du bzhag pa’i kha chems” 17-18; Pema Bhum, “The Life of Dhondup Gyal” 22 and “Heartbeat of a New Generation” 143; Kapstein 99; Hartley, Contextually Speaking 226-228). It can hardly be said that the story paints a damning picture of trülkus and lamas per se, since the titular trülku turns out not to be a trülku at all. Nevertheless, it does offer a serious critique of blind religious faith and the potential for organized religion to exploit ordinary Tibetans. Akhu Nyima and others are willing to place unquestioning faith in the stranger purely on the basis of his (purported) religious status, and it is because of this that they suffer.

In “The Magic Flute,” the ultimately mundane mechanism of the flute is likewise used by the lama Lapdrön Gyatso to “exploit the masses’ superstitions and dupe them for his own benefit” (24). The unmasking of this deception and the subsequent triumph of science over superstition that the story depicts is driven not just by a mindset of scientific rationality, but by the socialist ideal of cooperative labor directed by the state. Zhu Wei outlines this approach at the conference in Beijing:

According to instructions from the higher echelons of the Party Committee, in order to complete this task, we must use the most cutting-edge science and technology and the most advanced equipment and facilities, and we must make full use of large-scale socialist cooperation. Now, comrades, I invite you to share your thoughts! (25)

After the various experts, scientists, and technicians outline their ideas, a unified plan of action is formed, which the narrator hails as a “demonstration of the wisdom of the collective and the might of cooperative socialist science” (26). The eventual discovery of the ape-men causes Zhu Wei to become uncharacteristically enthusiastic, and he interprets it as a breakthrough not only for science but for Marxism:

Labor created the world, labor created mankind. Today, this great truth has once again been unequivocally confirmed. Comrades, what we are witnessing is no simple natural phenomenon, but the triumph of the dialectics of nature, the triumph of Marxist theory17! (33)

In the politics of the story, Marxist theory and state direction are crucial elements in the unravelling of the mystery. It is thanks to the theory that the scientists are armed with a critical, rational mindset capable of dismantling the flute’s myth, and it is thanks to the socialist state that they are able to muster the technology, labor power, and organization needed to scientifically analyze the problem and confirm their hypotheses. 

In “Trülku,” the state is cast in a similar role when it comes to unmasking the fraud perpetrated on the common people in the guise of religion. The story ends with a type of deus ex machina—common to much “scar literature” (shanghen wenxue 伤痕文学)18 of the period—in the form of the brigade leader who arrives to announce the capture of the conman. The structure of scar fiction tended to progress from lamenting the sufferings of the Cultural Revolution to praising the overthrow of the Gang of Four and the return of liberal policies, affirming a new sense of optimism in the wake of the Party’s self-rectification. In the Tibetan case, the post-Cultural Revolution political thaw manifested itself more specifically as an easing of religious policy and the return of Buddhist practice, a social development that is described in the story by Akhu Nyima’s son (Don grub rgyal 2: 133-134). However, unlike much scar literature, Döndrup Gyel’s story presents some misgivings about the implications of this change of tide. “Trülku” does not condemn the return of religious freedom, but it provides a stark warning that it should not allow for superstition or blind faith. This message is laid out in the final passages of the story by the brigade leader when he mediates a brief dispute over the relative merits of trülkus and tantric practitioners:

“According to the Party’s policies, different religious doctrines must show mutual respect and mustn’t abuse one another. Anyone who has religious beliefs may adhere to their own convictions.” At that point the brigade leader’s expression became stern, and he laid grave emphasis on his point: “However, no one must forget this painful lesson.” (154)

“Trülku” here accords the same mediating role to the Party that we find in “The Magic Flute.” Tibetans may (theoretically) practice their religion freely, but religion is not free to mislead or exploit the people. In Tong’s story, the deception is revealed by scientists in the employ of the state; in “Trülku,” it is brought to light by the brigade leader, the local representative of state power and ideology.

Döndrup Gyel’s connections to socialist ideology have been highlighted by his detractors, but they have not received a great deal of critical academic attention.19 In his writing we find extensive quotes from Mao Zedong, whom he cites, for instance, in a lengthy essay on the subject of literary composition (Don grub rgyal 6: 89-125), and we also find fulsome praise for the Party and the state throughout his poetry. He describes “the new state of China, rising like the sun in the sky,” he exhaustively recounts the life of former Party Chairman Liu Shaoqi 刘少奇, and he hails the “beautiful sunlight of the Party’s policies” that allowed the “lotuses of literature to bloom in the Land of Snows” (Don grub rgyal 1: 138, 190-194, 245-246). Some of these declarations might have the air of political necessity about them; a rote performance of loyalty and gratitude to the Party that was part and parcel of the political environment of his time. While this might indeed be the case, the prevalence of these themes in his work makes them difficult to dismiss lightly. More importantly, there are many ways in which such a standpoint fits with his politics as a whole: his emphasis on materialism and scientism, his opposition to supposedly “backwards” aspects of Tibetan culture, his futurist agenda centered around the progressiveness of Tibetan youth, and so on. But to return to “The Magic Flute,” we can certainly say that such rhetoric constitutes another connection between Tong’s story and Döndrup Gyel’s work as a whole. As in “The Magic Flute,” much of Döndrup Gyel’s writing accords a central role to the socialist state in combatting “superstition” and driving material progress, which, as we have seen, was a key pillar of his ideological agenda.

There is, however, an important qualification to be made to these observations. While Döndrup Gyel’s enduring concerns were always tied up with modernism, he was not by any means an out-and-out iconoclast, opposed to every element of Tibetan tradition. He was well-read in traditional Tibetan history and literature, subjects he wrote about extensively. Döndrup Gyel did much of his academic work on Tibetan history and composed renowned treatises on the Ramayana and the traditional oral poetry of mgur, on which he wrote his master’s thesis (Lin; Pema Bhum, “The Life of Dhondup Gyal”; Ljang bu). Döndrup Gyel sought ways to reinvigorate pre-existing traditions and put them in the service of a new, dynamic, and recognizably Tibetan national literature. And as Lama Jabb has highlighted, Döndrup Gyel also believed that any innovations in literature had to be part of a multi-generational collective effort to re-evaluate traditional literary practices (2-8). One of the clearest examples of this ideology in practice is his adaptation of the Ramayana. Reinterpreting the Indian-derived epic as a product of the “wisdom and labor of the common people,” Döndrup Gyel aimed to return the text to the hands of ordinary Tibetans by rewriting it in an accessible, “vernacular” style that shirked the obscurities of classical (Indic) poetics, thereby reaffirming the value and legitimacy of classical tradition even as he strove for a new indigenous poetic theory (Lin 86-88, 97). Despite accusations from some Tibetan readers that Döndrup Gyel was a “disciple of the foreign customs of Marxism and materialism that destroyed the essence of tradition,” (Me lce 28), the general consensus among scholars is that Döndrup Gyel was not a radical iconoclast but a “union of the old and the new” (Bdud lha rgyal 201), or, as the poet Jangbu phrases it, he was not a “revolutionary” but an “inventor” (Ljang bu). His work most often strikes a balance between glorification and critique, taking the approach of “adopting and discarding” (blang rdor) that was central to the 1980s intellectual trend of “selective tradition” (Hartley, Contextually Speaking 50-51).  

But in a certain sense, we can say that this aspect of his work, too, is reflected in “The Magic Flute.” In the story, science does indeed triumph over superstition, but it does so specifically by demystifying superstitious explanations for strange phenomena, not by proving those phenomena to be false. Technology in fact confirms the existence of the yeti by reinterpreting it as the scientized “ape-man,” suggesting the validity of traditional knowledge while simultaneously criticizing the way in which that knowledge has been twisted into irrational beliefs that support traditional power structures. The role of science is thus not to do away with pre-existing cultural convictions, but to test them, to question their true nature by subjecting them to rational scrutiny, and ultimately to make them comprehensible. The story suggests that science possesses the potential to actually protect and strengthen aspects of tradition, both as material culture and folkloric custom. This is apparent from its opening pages, in which archaeologists are working to retrieve the cultural relics of Namgyel Ling, which had long since fallen into ruin (though the reasons for its ruin in the first place—which would likely have been due to Chinese state policies and Maoist mass movements—are left undiscussed). But it is best illustrated by the story’s idealistic ending, in which Mount Gangkar is transformed into a “conservation area,” a harmony of science and nature in which the once mythical “yetis”—now reconceived as “ape-men”—can “live freely and happily while at the same time providing us with a great deal of precious scientific data” (35). To a writer who was seeking a synthesis of Tibetan culture with the rapidly changing modern world, this would be an appealing resolution. It speaks to the specific kind of modernity that Döndrup Gyel envisioned for Tibet: not one in which the modern replaces the traditional, nor one in which the traditional and the modern simply coexist, but one in which the modern reinvigorates, reinvents, and renews tradition.  

Döndrup Gyel’s interest in this Chinese science fiction story makes even more sense when we look at the nature and role of science fiction as a genre in modern China. Döndrup Gyel’s work was, in numerous ways, engaged in a profound dialogue with the mainstream currents of early modern Chinese writing. In a plaintive and dramatic note composed before he ended his life, he wrote that the Tibetan nation was “mired in an ignorant and backwards condition” and the goal of his writing was “to awaken their consciousness.”20 The crisis of the benighted nation, tied down by economic and cultural “backwardness” and in need of radical reform, loomed large over the birth of modern Chinese literature, and at the beginnings of modern Tibetan literature, it was recreated with uncanny likeness. The prescription Döndrup Gyel proposed for the Tibetan nation— literary and intellectual innovation and a radical materialist progressivism led by the youth—brings his work into an even closer alignment with the May Fourth agenda, and with the work of Lu Xun in particular. In both of these discourses, “science” played a pivotal role, both as tangible material development and as an indexical sign pointing to an entire discursive formation of backwardness and modernization. In other words, Döndrup Gyel adopted what Charlotte Furth calls Chen Duxiu’s 陈独秀 “faith in science” as a “positivistic method of verification controlling standards of truth about nature and society” (89).

As several scholars have demonstrated, the concerns of science fiction were not by any means marginal or divorced from the mainstream of modern Chinese literature—quite the contrary. Science fiction in the late Qing period was seen as “an instrument of national strengthening, scientific popularization, and political revitalization” (Isaacson 33); it was a genre closely associated with the nationalist temperament of literature due to its ability to project “the political desire for China’s reform onto an idealized, technologically more advanced world” (Song 951-952). As Nathaniel Isaacson has shown, late Qing science fiction anticipates the work of Lu Xun in particular through its preoccupation with social Darwinism and its vision of China as a debilitated society. As noted previously, Lu Xun was famously an advocate of science fiction, which he saw as playing “a critical role in the popularization of scientific knowledge and the quest for national strength” (Isaacson 40). The celebrated author Liu Cixin 刘慈欣 affirms this point. He argues that late Qing science fiction was preoccupied with the “invention story”—tales about the miraculous positive effects that technology could have on (Chinese) society (Ball Lightning 382). Science thus became a panacea for all of China’s ills, “the only hope for saving the nation from poverty, weakness, and general backwardness” (“The Worst of All Possible Universes” 363). 

By the time of the Mao era, science fiction had, according to Liu, largely become a “tool to serve the goal of popularizing science” (“The Worst of All Possible Universes” 364). It had shifted from its late Qing beginnings, but nevertheless continued to feature a utopian optimism about the power of science, and most stories “put technology at the core and contained little humanism, featuring simplistic characters and basic, even naïve literary techniques” (364). “The Magic Flute” certainly reflects many of these characteristics in its general lack of interest in character and its central focus on the wondrous potential of technology to unravel mysteries, solve practical problems, and drive human progress. Tong Enzheng’s story was not, of course, a piece of late Qing fiction, but it was still from a time when science was viewed through a utopian lens. It came long before the “dark and subversive” new wave that emerged in the 1990s, which moved into new territory for Chinese science fiction by questioning “key concepts of Chinese modernity, such as progress, development, nationalism, and scientism” (Song 952)—in other words, the very concepts that Döndrup Gyel’s work was dedicated to.

These are some of the core ideals that motivated not only early Chinese science fiction but much of modern literature in China as a whole. As C. T. Hsia writes, “there is a sense in which modern Chinese literature is modern because it stands for progress and modernization.” Late Qing intellectuals yearned to import Western science and technology, and many of modern China’s foremost writers shared a “passion for a wealthy, strong, democratic, and technologically armed China” (534-536). Hsia was not writing about science fiction per se, but his comments nevertheless capture a vital aspect of the genre in its early stages in China, which shared these same traits. He was not writing about modern Tibetan literature, but the extent to which Döndrup Gyel’s rational, scientistic modernity follows the contours of modern China’s intellectual traditions is such that Hsia’s description of the overarching ideology of modern Chinese literature at its initial phase could also apply to the writing of Döndrup Gyel. In sum, all three of these spheres—late Qing/May Fourth intellectual currents, early Chinese science fiction, and the modernist literature of Döndrup Gyel—overlap to a significant extent.

When we dig beneath the surface, what at first glance might seem like an unusual inclusion in Döndrup Gyel’s collected works, or what might seem like a story relevant only for its Tibetan setting, in fact has a lot to tell us about his intellectual project. Döndrup Gyel was consistently preoccupied with the question of how Tibet and its traditions ought to engage with the modern world, and Tong Enzheng’s story provided him with a dramatic staging of these very questions, penned by a Chinese writer, and set in a Tibetan context. The idea of combatting traditional “superstitions” with scientific rationality, the central thrust of the story, was likewise a dominant theme in Döndrup Gyel’s writing. Even his desire to seek a harmonious balance between Tibetan traditions and scientific modernity finds a certain correlate in the plot of “The Magic Flute.” These concerns have continued to play a key role in modern Tibetan literature after Döndrup Gyel’s time, most notably in the writing of secular modernists who consciously developed his scientism and his criticism of traditional beliefs. One aspect of Tong’s story does remain glaringly absent in Tibetan literature, however, and that is its genre: there is virtually no science fiction in Tibetan. Rather like Lu Xun, Döndrup Gyel translated science fiction into Tibetan but he never wrote any himself, and few other Tibetan authors have shown much interest in the genre. But while Tibetan authors have not (yet) produced many examples of such writing, the overlaps between Tong’s short story and the literary concerns of modern Tibet’s most celebrated writer show us that Chinese science fiction has far more relevance to modern Tibetan literature than we might think.  



  1. Döndrup Gyel translated the story into Tibetan as ‘Dre ‘bod rkang gling, literally, “The Spirit Summoning Thigh-Bone Trumpet.”
  2. Several sources provide biographical details of Döndrup Gyel’s life, the most well-known in English being Pema Bhum’s essay, “The Life of Dhondup Gyal: A Shooting Star that Cleaved the Night Sky and Vanished.”
  3. The Magic Flute of the Snow Mountains (Xueshan mo di), a collection published in 1979, contained both the title story and “Death Ray on Coral Island.”
  4. Tong’s article “Morgan’s Model and the Study of Ancient Chinese Society,” in particular, is credited with breaking a new path for Chinese ethnology that moved away from Marxist/Maoist models.
  5. A short biography of Tong is available on the website of Wesleyan University, where he was teaching at the time of his death (see Brief Biography).
  6. The main characters of the story are a renowned anthropologist and a team of archaeologists. In reflecting on his work in the Aba Tibetan Autonomous Region of Sichuan, Tong also wrote about how historical sources and oral traditions can be used in the service of archaeology, particularly in ethnic minority areas of China (“Slate Cist Graves”). “The Magic Flute” recounts how the archaeologists were drawn to the monastery and its artefacts by the extensive legends surrounding it. Later in the story, the scientists combine the information gleaned from these legends with historical documents and scientific analysis to establish the true nature of the ape-men.
  7. Ch. Kangge shan 康格山, translated by Döndrup Gyel as gangs dkar lhun po. Since Tong presumably did not speak Tibetan, and since Tibetan personal and place names do not always have set transliterations in Chinese, it is sometimes unclear what “original” Tibetan names the author may be referring to. All the Tibetan names and transliterations referred to here are therefore taken from Döndrup Gyel’s translation of the story.
  8. All citations of the text are from the original 1979 edition, and the translations are my own. For readers interested in a complete translation of the short story, a bilingual Chinese-English edition was published by the Popular Science Press in 2014.
  9. Nancy Lin has highlighted the importance of the wording in this final scene: that the narrator is involuntarily (rang dbang med par) compelled to go (spo dgos byung) towards the highway (105-106). This is not a choice he makes happily; it is rather forced upon him by circumstance—the failure of the narrow path to meet the needs of the present day.
  10. There were a number of writers associated with this movement, the most notable being Zhokdung (Zhogs dung). For discussions of their work, including their links to Döndrup Gyel, see Wu, Hartley (“Inventing Modernity”), and Peacock.
  11. Janet Gyatso summarizes the legend as follows: “The Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, incarnated as a monkey, is enjoying a life of solitude in the mountains, when he is lured into marriage by a desperate, insistent rock demoness. Their offspring become the first Tibetans” (44).
  12. This is one of several moments in the story where Döndrup Gyel’s translation offers a more culturally appropriate rendition. For the Chinese “master of sorcery” (jingtong wushu 精通巫术) he substitutes “ngakpa with [magical] powers” (sngags pa mthu can). A ngakpa is a specific type of tantric practitioner in the Tibetan Buddhist and Bön traditions.
  13. Wenming 文明, typically translated as “civilization.” Here the term appears to connote a contrast between superstition and some form of scientific knowledge. The published English translation opts for “technology,” while Döndrup Gyel himself chose “science” (tshan rig).
  14. Ch: Nongnu 农奴, rendered in Tibetan by Döndrup Gyel as both bran g.yog and zhing bran. This term is intimately associated with the orthodox Chinese Marxist reading of Tibetan history, and is also the title of a famous 1963 feature film produced by the People’s Liberation Army film studio. The question of whether or not there was “serfdom” in Tibet before Chinese rule has been highly controversial both academically and politically. See Goldstein for an overview of some of these debates.
  15. Lama de mixin 喇嘛的迷信. Lopez has discussed the idea of “Lamaism” extensively, noting that the term was coined in Europe and has no correlate in Tibetan (15-45). It has been commonly used in Chinese in its translated form of lama jiao 喇嘛教. This is another instance where Döndrup Gyel’s translation mediates the outsider perspective by translating the phrase as “religious superstition” (chos lugs rmongs dad), a phrase that certainly carries the same negative connotations, but veers away from the baggage of the colonialist discourse of “Lamaism.”
  16. The story was published in the third issue of Sbrang char in 1983, though it was actually written between 1980 and 1981.
  17. Later in life, Tong was extremely critical of the subordination of archaeological and scientific work to Marxist doctrine. But, as he wrote candidly in a review of archaeology during the Mao era, “If some events and persons are criticized, the one censured first is the author himself. As a practicing Chinese archaeologist, I admit that the work I conducted and the papers I wrote then were inevitably colored by the political climate of the time” (“Thirty Years of Chinese Archaeology” 195). As is evident from “The Magic Flute,” the same would appear to apply to his fiction.
  18. The borrowing of this plot device aside, “Trülku” could not be described as a work of “scar literature” due to its focus on the problems of religious revival (as opposed to the traumas of the Cultural Revolution). “Scar literature” did, however, play a role in Tibetan literature as a genre some years after its popularity in Chinese (Shakya 75-76).
  19. A notable exception is Lobsang Yongdan, a sharp critic of Döndrup Gyel’s work, but one who has analyzed this subject in some detail (Blo bzang yon tan, “Rig gsar” and “Bod kyi rang mos snyan ngag”).
  20. Photographs of the original note, which was written in Chinese, are reprinted in Dgu rong spun grol’s edited collection Rang grol zhib ‘jug.


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Christopher Peacock holds a PhD in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University. He is a scholar of modern Chinese and Tibetan literatures and a translator of contemporary fiction. His translations include Tsering Döndrup’s The Handsome Monk and Other Stories (Columbia University Press, 2019).