It may come as a surprise to many literature lovers, but Tibetan language writing, be it poetry or prose, is still thriving. Tibetans, throughout their rich intellectual history, have heavily valued literature, and many Buddhist masters of the past have produced massive collections of scriptures. The art of writing was part of the “sciences” (rig gnas) that fully-trained Buddhist scholars had ideally to master. Writing and belles-lettres have thus played a big part in shaping Tibetan intellectual life for centuries. Book printing was also widespread and woodblock printeries, ranging from small-scale workshops in remote hermitages, to highly organized endeavors like that of Derge, literally dotted the Tibetan territory. That deeply engrained bibliophilia accounts in part for the endurance and resilience of Tibetan literature today.
Writing in Tibetan is still highly valued in educated circles, although of course current literary production shares little in common with that of the pre-1950s Tibetan intellectual and cultural world. Luminaries who were born in the first half of the 20th century, trained in the traditional monastic system, have disappeared, either from natural causes, or victims of the storm that swept Tibet in the late 1950s throughout the late 1970s. Those who survived transmitted their knowledge and love of Tibetan language to students who started then being educated in newly-established schools and universities, who in turn shaped more recent generations of scholars and intellectuals. Of course, authors, publishing venues, genres and content have radically changed: it is now perfectly fine to be both a layman (and, increasingly, a laywoman) and an author. It is perfectly fine to write novels, short stories, free verse, genres which were virtually unknown in Tibet before the late 1970s or early 1980s. It is perfectly fine to write about everyday life, love, economics, social relations, in brief, about mundane concerns, topics which are not edifying in terms of spirituality or religion. Some may resent it, but this reflects the secularization of elites in Tibet today, which does not preclude a deep concern for humans, for nature, and for life in general.
For the time being, writings are still regularly published in Tibetan language, by both a handful of full-fledged writers who have been active since the mid-1980s or 1990s, and by newly arrived young men and women who find solace, self-assertion and relative freedom in shaping their own language into beautiful objects of literature. Great short stories, endearing poems, powerful novels have appeared and continue to appear. Of course, one cannot claim that everything that is published in Tibetan deserves attention – the Tibetan literary scene, in that prospect, differs little from other literary scenes, in other languages. But one characteristic does set the Tibetan literary scene apart from others: a deeply felt but legitimate concern for the fate of Tibetan language and Tibetan civilization. Yeshe: A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities is thus a more than welcome and timely initiative: it can play a vital role in introducing and sharing with Western readers a still vibrant literary world, unknown to most of them. It has the capacity and sets as its aim to reveal the best and most exciting production of the current literary and intellectual scene in Tibet, against all odds. —Françoise Robin
Dr. Françoise Robin teaches Tibetan language and literature at Inalco (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilisations) in Paris. Her research focuses mainly on contemporary written and cinematographic Tibetan culture. Basing herself upon regular fieldwork in Tibet, she seeks to understand through novels, poetry, and films, how Tibetans in the PRC perceive and express their attitude and, often, concerns, about the sweeping social changes that their minorised society undergoes. She has also written about the rise of women’s poetry and feminist writing in Tibet today. She is the co-editor, with Robbie Barnett and Benno Weiner, of Conflicting Memories: Tibetan History under Mao Retold (Brill, 2020). She also translates contemporary Tibetan literature and subtitles Tibetan films into French or English, offering Western audiences access to a neglected but rich cultural world.
© 2021 Yeshe | A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities