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]?” ). 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.
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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).
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