“The Gemotsang Daughter-in-Law Got Her Hair Dyed Blonde”: Metamorphoses of the Female Hairstyle in Contemporary Tibetan Language Literature

Françoise Robin


Abstract: This article explores how a close reading of contemporary Tibetan literature provides an account of the changes in women’s hair, and of the socio-economic upheavals affecting young Tibetan women today. By examining a poem, “The Gemotsang Daughter-in-Law Got Her Hair Dyed Blonde,” by Chen Metak (2012), we see how the seemingly innocuous topic of the hair coloring of a young woman who went to the city flabbergasts the inhabitants of a village. Mirroring the perceptions of these developments by male writers, some writings by Tibetan women intellectuals will also be mentioned, which call for a questioning of the traditional hair norms imposed on women, and associate them with invisible but powerful symbols of subordination. This article, therefore, suggests more generally that today’s creative literature can be read for its documentary value, as will be immediately discussed below.


Belles-Lettres as Valid Documentary Sources in Tibet?

In Tibetan studies and elsewhere, scholars seldom resort to literary texts to reflect upon social trends or changes. In a provocative fashion, D. Lewis, D. Rodgers and M. Woolcock have convincingly shown, in their 2008 article dealing with African novels, that, at least as far as development studies were concerned, fictional writing was often ahead of academic research in terms of the evaluation of the damage caused by poorly conceived developmental policies.[1] In the present article, I will try to show that poetry can, if employed in a careful manner, be used to gain perspective on the social changes affecting Tibetan society, changes that might not otherwise be easily perceived.

Contemporary Tibetan-language fiction was first published in the late 1970s, in the People’s Republic of China. New poetry soon followed suit. Initially, these works could be found in government-run literary magazines, and adhered rather strictly to the views and norms of the cultural-political authorities who carefully watched over literary, and more generally cultural, production. From the late 1990s onwards, privately-funded magazines offered new venues for literary creation, followed, from 2005 onwards, by privately-run websites.[2] A cursory reading of literary magazines indicates, empirically, that fictional texts that were, and still are, published in these various media are mainly realistic and deal with today’s society. This is a radical departure from imaginative literary output from the pre-1950s, when ‘fiction’ could hardly be found, apart from the genres of folk, or edifying tales, or the epic, in which where realism was not dominant. Poetry has followed a similar pattern: since the 1990s, and especially since the advent of the group of poets self-labelled “Third Generation” (on which see below), poems have tackled the everyday and the subjective, distancing themselves from traditionally preferred topics, such as eulogies or mystic verses. Another difference between pre-1950s and post-1980s literary production is that contemporary Tibetan belles-lettres address a mostly Tibetan readership. While knowledge of written and classical Tibetan was common among the religiously-trained Mongols, and even Kalmuks, it is now restricted to Tibet proper, for lack of penetration of the Tibetan language beyond the confines of Tibetan-speaking areas. This internal focus allows this nascent literature to avoid, in part, the pitfalls of certain postcolonial literatures. These literatures are sometimes suspected of being aimed primarily at a Western audience, and thus of being more concerned with their reception by an allogeneic audience easily satisfied by a few exotic vignettes, than with the reception that might be reserved for them by a native readership more demanding in terms of representational accuracy. This more faithful representation enables the reader, and the researcher, to use such literary material as a partially trustworthy, faithful, or at least plausible reflection of today’s Tibetan social reality.

Still, this does not go without two important caveats, a general one and a specific one. First, it is important to bear in mind that, as with any literature, Tibetan belles-lettres do not avoid the trap of artistic mimesis: Marielle Macé aptly contrasts “the discordance of lived experience with the concordance of the narrated,”[3] warning the reader of the necessarily arranged nature of literary representation, opposed to a chaotic reality.

Second, the political context in which literature is written and published in Tibet today demands caution because it is a domain that is under the surveillance of the PRC cultural authorities, who ultimately obey PRC politicians.

It is quite obvious that Tibetan literature is not written in a constraint-free environment, to say the least. It follows that when one reads these fictional or poetic texts, one should not look for overtly political messages (although subtexts may be found even in works that on the surface seem to adhere to political correctness).[4] This does not mean that officially published Tibetan literature should be discarded as propaganda subserviently relaying the official Chinese state narrative of liberation, development, or assimilation. As one might expect, things are a little more complex. Rather than confrontational and subversive content, readers will find precious social commentary, for these are the visible and permitted bases of artistic and literary inspiration. In the contents of this new and abundant literary movement, mainly created by young lay men (we will return to the relative marginality of women writers later), a few favorite topics prevail. For instance, love is a recurrent theme, as is education, development, and economic, social, and familial relations. Relationships with nature and the landscape, the pride to be Tibetan, and relationships between generations, as well as friendship or religious life, to mention only a few examples, are common topics too; these themes present little political danger and thus form the framework of a very large number of published texts. As researcher Lama Jabb has shown, in The Inescapable Nation (2015), that even sex is beginning to find its place in today’s works (mainly poetic ones), an innovation that may reveal a change in the public expression of feelings, and, perhaps, a liberalization of morals, at least in the socio-professional category of authors and publishers.[5]

Therefore, although it may seem, at first glance, paradoxical, Tibetan realist literature published after the 1980s is a source of narratives based upon verisimilitude. This is all the truer because no free press or right to information is attested to or authorized in Tibet under Chinese control.[6] Elsewhere in the world, news outlets, social networks and opinion polls relay, amplify, and nourish discussion about disputed social facts and events. In “China’s Tibet”, such social facts and events have only one authorized and relatively independent channel of public expression: the literary sphere[7] (within the limits, of course, of the themes authorized by the vagaries of a perplexing censorship).[8]


Why Hair Matters?

According to T. Synnott, “the major divisions in our society are symbolized in hair, as are our specific individual identities. Hair, and by extension the body, is not only individual … but also social. The body physical and the body social are symbolically one” (1987: 410). Unsurprisingly, Tibetan creative writing does make room for the topic of hair and, although it has not yet been taken as a valid angle from which to study how social changes are represented in fiction or poetry, it offers a rather fertile ground to the careful reader. Hair’s length, cut, and color frequently appear in literary productions as elements of description, but can also convey symbolic meaning or socially loaded commentary. For example, Tagbumgyal’s novel rGud (“Decline”), which recounts the fall of a powerful clan in Amdo in the twentieth century, opens with a detailed description of the braiding of the clan chief’s wife’s hair by the servant girl. The opulence of the mistress’ hair and the care with which the maid handles it symbolize the power of the family, but also indicate the trusting and close relationship between the two women.[9]

The present article will focus on how some pieces of Tibetan-language literature describe women’s hair and its transformations, and how these indicate the individual and economic emancipation of Tibetan women.[10] We will also see that, depending on the gender of the author, two different approaches to these metamorphoses are proposed: male authors tend to describe them in a documentary manner, while female authors call for them to happen and endow them with feminist content.


The Conventional Reading of Women’s Hair: Beauty and Ethnicity

Before addressing the theme of women’s hair metamorphoses in today’s literature, it should be pointed out that in Tibet, women’s hair is often the object of a conventional and superficial literary treatment. Since Tibetan writers and poets were, and still are, mainly men, they produce a largely androcentric literature. Their poems or fictions often reduce female hair to its simple aesthetic dimension, especially in sentimental poems, or dramatic or romantic fictions. One such poet is Sangdor (Seng rdor, b. 1982), a relatively well-known Tibetan language poet today. One of his most widely read poems online is called “An Authentic Herder / Part One” (‘Brog mo ngo ma/ phyi dum).[11] Sangdor chooses as the first descriptor and celebration of what he describes as a “genuine herder woman” (‘brog mo ngo ma) this woman’s hair, an indication of the centrality of this element in the perception and description (or even prescription) of female physical beauty. The poem is hexasyllabic, Sangdor’s preferred versification, because it is attested as early as the Dunhuang manuscripts (viiie-ixe c.). It begins thus:


སྦྲ་རྒན་ནག་ལྡང་འཁྲིས་ཀྱི། །

རས་གུར་དཀར་མདུང་སྦུག་ཏུ། །

འབྲོག་མོ་སྟན་ཐོག་བསྡད་དེ། །

སྐྲ་རྔའི་ཁ་བཏགས་བལྟ་དུས། །

གནམ་ངོར་སྐར་ཁྱུ་བཀྲམ་ཡོད། །

རྫ་མགོར་མུན་ཆེན་འདལ་ཡོད། །


Near a flapping old black tent

Inside a conch-white cotton tent

A woman herder sits on a cushion

As I look at the khata of her o

The sky is dotted with constellations

Peaks are absorbed in darkness


In this poem, the woman herder’s hair is likened to the symbolic object par excellence of Tibet: the khata [kha btags]. The khata is a ceremonial scarf, often white in color, offered with deference to guests or friends—for example, as a sign of welcome—as well as to religious people or religious images, as a sign of respect. In the Tibetan world, it symbolizes the establishment of an auspicious bond between the giver and the receiver, and has become one of the cultural emblems of Tibet. In Sangdor’s poem, the khata serves as a “comparison basis” (or the compared element)—‘pe’ in Tibetan [dpe]—and the hair as the comparator, or ‘pechen’ [dpe can].[12] The use of khata as a comparator with female hair can be interpreted as a relatively classical and androcentric connection between women and beauty, here associated with nomadic culture. It may also point towards an ethnic dimension, since the way of life posited by many Tibetans today as archetypal of Tibetan identity is nomadic pastoralism – in an essentialist gesture of differentiation from the sedentary and agricultural Han world.[13]


The apparently paradoxical equating of the young woman’s black hair with the white khata may be surprising at first sight. Besides the fact that the comparison may be seen as an echo of the black and white tents evoked in the first two lines of the poem, it may be understood above all that the hair/khata parallel is not so much about color as about the suppleness, brilliance, length, and splendor shared by both women’s hair and the scarf.[14] There are a relatively large number of poems in this vein (albeit less oxymoronic) that predictably celebrate Tibetan women’s hair as shiny, supple, and above all, very long.[15] The celebration of hair length may also encapsulate an ethnic-nationalist dimension in Chinese-controlled Tibet. There, women (and often men) traditionally sport long hair, in opposition to the Hans, for whom short hair among women is common, and the norm among men.[16] This mention of hair length in the poem reinforces the ethnic celebratory dimension of the Tibetan women’s hair and provides a slight ethnic dimension to the poem.


The Metamorphoses of Female Hair

In contrast to the conventional celebration of Tibetan women’s long, shiny, black, supple hair, some texts in verse or prose report the metamorphoses that women’s hair may undergo. These almost always illustrate a break from the norm, corresponding to a “will to be different. [Because] Everywhere, hairstyles mark the limit between submission and disobedience” (Bromberger 2008: 384). In this article I will look first at a group of poems written by Tibetan male writers. They all describe changes in women’s hair. A central part will concern a short poem by the contemporary poet Chen Metak (Gcan Me stag), which describes the astonishment that seizes a village at the announcement of the blonde coloring of a young woman’s hair. Tibetan cinema will also be discussed. I will then look at two essays by women writers that decipher and deconstruct the aesthetic social prescriptive norms of female hair, norms that, according to their authors, perpetuate a male domination that they wish would disappear.


The Chosen Metamorphosis

“The Gemotsang Daughter-in-Law Got Her Hair Dyed Blonde” is a short poem in free verse written by Chen Metak, a pseudonym meaning “The Spark of Chen[tsa].” Chen Metak is a native of Chentsa [gCan tsha], in the province of Amdo, northeastern Tibet, in what is now Qinghai province. This poet, born in the early 1970s, has been writing for more than twenty-five years and teaches Tibetan at a nationalities college in Golok [mGo log], Qinghai province. He is also a lately co-opted member of the “Third Generation” poets coterie (Mi rabs gsum pa), a group of poets born in the 1970s and 1980s, who share and claim an interest in the secular world, in 20th century world literature (they are fond of Western poetry, available in Chinese translation), and in the banal.[17] They could be likened to free or independent artists as described and studied by P. Bourdieu, in his 1998-2000 lectures at the Collège de France. Having broken the shackles of academic conventions, Flaubert, for instance, set himself the goal of “writing the mediocre well”, and Manet, for his part, represented the artist who sought to overcome the difficulty of the “contradiction between formal refinement and the triviality of the object” (Bourdieu, 2013: 728). Tibetan poets engaged in such a program from the 1980s onwards; under Chinese domination, the network of state-run high schools and universities insisted upon and provided secular literary training so that poetic creation could no longer be centered upon spirituality or religion, as had traditionally been the case in Tibet before the 1950s. Equally, after the ravages of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), authors gradually abandoned the mandatory posture of sycophants of China and Tibet’s communist leaders or policies, as had been de rigueur since the 1950s and was still quite prevalent in the 1980s. The new Tibetan literature, from the 1990s onwards, embarked upon celebrating the prosaic and the everyday, while often exalting  the ethnic. The group of “Third Generation” poets that emerged in 2003 is distinctive in that it breaks from what we might call the “imperative of the ethnic”.[18] This imperative is, in other words, the picturesque, which Bourdieu defines as “a degraded form of academism” (Bourdieu, 2013: 502). Chen Metak’s poem partly reflects this de-ethnicized and decollectivized trend, where the everyday, the intimate, the non-edifying, the banal, prevails.

“The Gemotsang Daughter-in-Law Got Her Hair Dyed Blonde” was composed in 2011 and published online on June 14, 2012.[19] It paints a vivid picture of a typical village scene in rural Tibetan Amdo in a few short verses. Many Tibetans or travelers in Amdo might think they “recognize” a place they have been to. The deadpan tone and tender irony adopted by the narrator allow him to avoid the temptation of the picturesque, the bucolic, and the decorative ethnic motif.







མ་ཎི་ཁང་གི་ཁེར་རྐྱང་གི་གྲིབ་མ་དང ལྡོག་འོད་འཕྲོ་ཀྱིན་པའི

ཁང་ཀླད་ཀྱི་རྫ་གཡམ བྱ་འདབས་ཀྱི་ཕུག་རོན་ཚོགས་ལ




ངོ་མཚར་མཚར་དུ་གླེང་ཞོར           དེ་ནི



དོན་དངོས་སུ            དབེན་སིམ་པའི་སྡེ་གྲོང་འདིར










Sitting in the manikhang courtyard

While talking about the daughter-in-law of the Gemotsang family

We scolded the snotty-nosed children who

Galloped around the courtyard brazenly

Until dusk

The lonely shadow of the manikhang                         The reverberating

Roof tiles                    The flocks of doves

All were still and silent

Sat in the manikhang

We discussed an event that had occurred last year in the administrative center at the foot of the mountains

And which was very astonishing                    But

“Compared to the daughter-in-law of the Gemotsang family

It is nothing amazing”, we said

In fact             In this quiet village

This was the one and only possible piece of news:

The daughter-in-law of the Gemotsang family

Once went to Xining to look for work

Then like city women

She dyed her hair blonde, that’s all.

Sitting in the manikhang

We talked so much about the daughter-in-law of the Gemotsang family

That we did not recite a single rosary of mani prayers


Who is this “we”? Is it the old men and women of the village, whose sociability in old age consists of reciting collective prayers in the local manikhang[20]? It is the narrator (or the author?), living in a small village, well aware that nothing ever happens, since, “In fact… This was the one and only possible piece of news: … [the daughter-in-law] dyed her hair, that’s all”? Or is it the author (or the narrator?) gently mocking the pious villagers, who in theory have gathered to pray together, but who spend most of their time scolding the children and commenting on the latest village gossip, a hubbub that contrasts with the calm and stillness of the setting?


The Reception of Blondness in Tibet

The blonde dyeing of the Gemotsang daughter-in-law’s hair forms the pretext for the writing of the poem. We do not know the motivation for her action, how and why she decided on it, whether it is successful or not, and how the locals got wind of it, since she does not seem to be back in the village yet. However, it becomes the kind of news (gsar ‘gyur) that surpasses all others and disrupts the villagers’ routine and religious practice. Is the coloring of hair blonde in itself an extraordinary gesture in Tibet? A quick search online for the English keywords “blonde”, “Tibetan”, and “woman” or “girl” does not yield any convincing results.[21] This contrasts with the many results when one substitutes “China”, “Japan”, “Korea” or even “India” for “Tibet”. Similarly, if “blonde” is replaced by “yellow hair”, the only results concern the meeting between Tibetans and blonde Westerners. The association of Tibetan hair and blondness thus seems to be even more of an oxymoron than the association of black hair and white khata, at least if we take the lack of findings on the internet as an indication.

While the rarity of blondness in Tibet is not surprising, it is necessary to try to understand how this shade of hair is perceived in Tibet in order to be able to suggest an interpretation of this poem. It is well known that in Europe blondness is highly valued.[22] But the treatments that hair is subjected to “form a system of differences within a given cultural configuration and make sense only through the position they occupy” (Bromberger, 2010: 27). In other words, the positive value of blondness in the West cannot be superimposed on the Tibetan world without caution. As well, blondness was not traditionally valued in the Tibetan world. As a result, it did not provoke fascination. Quite the contrary: that hair color has been associated with the foreign, the divine, or the demonic and supernatural.[23] Westerners were, and still are, sometimes called “gopser” (mgo ser), literally “yellow heads”, an epithet that is more descriptive than eulogistic, and sometimes even pejorative. The famous scholar and iconoclast Gendun Chophel (dGe ‘dun chos ‘phel, 1903-1951) lived in India and travelled with Rahul Sankrityayan (1893-1963), a communist who had been jailed by the British. He composed a quatrain in which he expressed his distrust of the “yellow-headed monkeys”, a quatrain that has remains famous to this day:







Although lacking the oil of altruistic compassion,

Thanks to their skill in the arts, and the magic of electricity,

They lead honest humans towards crooked paths.

Beware the race of yellow-haired monkeys[24]


The awe and even dislike that yellow hair traditionally inspires among Tibetans can be assessed through another example. When the senior Tibetan official Lungshar (1880-1938) accompanied the first group of Tibetan children sent to England for schooling in 1913, he had to return to Tibet very quickly, as his wife was pregnant. Both feared that she would give birth to a blonde child with blue eyes.[25] This wariness of blondness has certainly diminished in intensity with the opening of Tibet to tourism and the mobility of Tibetans outside of Tibet, but it still cannot be said that female blondness is associated with beauty or seduction.[26] This  attitude is perceptible in a poem by Basé (‘Ba’ sras), born in the 1970s. In the poem “Seduction of a Blonde” (sKra ser ma zhig la grogs la bkugs),[27] the first-person narrator describes how he chatted up a young blonde woman in France in 2011. The color of her hair, far from being a central element in his attraction to her, would, rather, work against it:




If the hair on your head is golden, so be it

If the eyes of your forehead are blue, so be it

Under the canopy of our little loving hearts

Suffice for our faithful hearts to be pure.

If you are a Christian, so be it

If you don’t believe in my gods, so be it

If your heart and mine accord

Love in this mundane world will be our deity


In the eyes of the Tibetan narrator, the blondness of the young woman is a disadvantage, as are her blue eyes and her Christian faith. Another short poem, by yet another man, confirms that, in Tibet, blondness is not classified as an ideal of beauty:




Blonde hair

Sometimes evokes the hungry spirits, who starved to death in ’58

And sometimes the masters of deep meditation, in the heart of emptiness

Indescribable blonde hair


The author of this poem, written in 2011, associates blondness with contrasting images: on the one hand, he mentions one of the most critical periods of the recent Tibetan past, “58”, i.e. 1958, the year of the great anti-Chinese Tibetan rebellion in Amdo, which was followed by famine during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960).[28] In popular imagination, the starving Tibetans at the time are equated to yidag (yi dwags, Sanskrit preta) or “hungry spirits”, i.e. beings condemned to the torments of unquenchable thirst and hunger.[29] The other possible association that the narrator can make with blondness—which is much more positive, but equally extraordinary—is with great meditators in the high spheres of spirituality, in an obscure parallel. In any case, for the author of this poem, blondness is “indescribable”. Literally, he “does not know how to describe it”. Another recent testimony confirms that blondness inspires curiosity. It comes from a young woman of Tibeto-Namuyi culture (an ethnic group close to the Yi and living in Sichuan), born around 1993.[30] She went to a school in Xining where her teachers were Westerners. When she saw them for the first time when she was sixteen years old, she recalls: “I was very excited. That was my first time to see so many people with yellow hair.”[31]

Finally, in Tibet, in contrast with Western culture, blondness is not particularly associated with femininity. As we can see, in the absence of a Western colonial precedent and of cinematographic cultural imperialism, and therefore of successfully imported Western imaginary, blondness in no way conveys the values that it may have among other populations where it is just as foreign.[32]


Hair as a “Woman’s Ornament”

To return to Chen Metaks’ poem, the Gemotsang family daughter-in-law has given her hair a treatment that is neither conventional nor legible according to prevailing hair aesthetic and cultural standards; in Tibet, hair is popularly described as a girl’s “ornaments” [rgyan] and is part of her seductive capital. With the exception of nuns, very few teenage or adult women wear short hair, at least in Tibet. Let us recall here the anecdote reported by a Tibetan-American woman with short hair when she met, in exile, a young nun just out of Tibet: “A very young nun, fourteen perhaps, newly out of Tibet, went red, covered her face with her hands and would not talk to me because I have short hair and she was convinced I was a boy.”[33]


ill. 1 – Hair carer in’Brong shog, Nang chen. Picture by Clémence Henry, 2010.


I was able to verify, in a casual conversation with Drolma,[34] a Tibetan woman who arrived in France in 2015, that the villagers’ perplexed reaction to female hair originality in Chen Metak’s poem was not totally distorted or exaggerated. This young woman, born in the early 1980s in a small village in Amdo, told me that at the age of nineteen, she went to the district administrative seat in search of a paid job. A Chinese restaurant hired her to wash dishes. However, her hair, reaching her waist, as is customary for young girls, required care and time that were not compatible with her new life in the kitchen and in this urban environment where time was short. Encouraged by her young colleague, a Chinese woman, she cut her hair half-length of the original. Back home after a few months in the “city”, she was severely beaten by her own elder sister, under the approving eyes of her parents and her other siblings, for having dared to cut her hair. When I asked her about the motives for this beating, she found it difficult to put into words exactly what the offense she committed had been. Upon reflection, she said that medium-length hair, for this typical Tibetan village family, evoked not so much a different, urban, Chinese way of life, but an intolerable break with what was expected of her. But she was unable to better specify what these expectations were. It is not insignificant to note that the severe beating was inflicted on her by her own elder sister. This can be seen as proof of the internalization of norms by women, norms which are thus legitimized and, as a result, perpetuated all the more easily.


Women’s Access to Paid Work

Let us return to the poem again. The narrator does not explain the reasons for the young woman’s decision to dye her hair. However, he establishes a link between the dyeing and the daughter-in-law’s only trip to Xining, the capital of the province, to work. This journey recalls the case of Drolma, who decided to cut her hair during a stay in an urban environment where she went to get a petty job. Behind the hair dyeing or cutting lies the theme of the economic and social changes underway in Tibet, which, in terms of gender, have consequences for female emancipation. According to Chen Metak’s poem, the young daughter-in-law has gone to the provincial capital to do shorlé (zhor las), literally “work on the side”, i.e. complementary work. Behind the anodyne disyllabic locution—shorlé—lies the great economic upheaval that the Tibetan countryside has experienced since the 1990s and even more so in the 2000s. Tibetan farmers and herders have had to develop a high flexibility and capacity to change given the regular and sweeping changes that their way of life has experienced due to external policies imposed on them since the late 1950s. They went from a quasi-autarchic mode of functioning to a communist and collectivized mode imposed by the Chinese takeover, before returning to a more traditional and family-based mode of functioning after the Cultural Revolution, now under the strict supervision of the state. Since the 1980s, and more intensely since the 1990s, they have been encouraged to wholeheartedly embrace capitalism and paid work in the secondary or tertiary sectors, sectors that have benefited from massive investments by the central or provincial authorities since 2000.[35] In this context, the adjustment of Tibetan rural populations to entirely new economic and social conditions has often meant that they were only eligible for the lowest-skilled jobs, due to their lack of technical and Chinese language training. The shorlé jobs they can expect to get are mainly at the lower end of the scale, and often far from home.[36] However, these jobs are attractive in that they hold the potential for personal financial gain in cash, in a society where, until recently, bartering was the norm and where money in circulation was very often held by men (fathers, fathers-in-law, brothers, husbands).[37] This fundamental shift in rural lifestyles took place in the late 1980s in the region presumably referred to in this poem, Amdo, according to the short story “The Quarrel” (rTsod gzhi, 1990) by Rigdan Gyatso (Rig ldan rgya mtsho). The protagonist is a young man separated from his wife and causes a sensation by being the first in the village to leave, shovel on his back, in search of wage labor.[38]

As far as I know, access to wage and urban labor for young rural Tibetan women has not been studied by Western academics in the Qinghai province. But in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), particularly in Lhasa, such labor has attracted the attention of a few researchers.[39] There, it seems relatively common for young women to engage in paid work far from home.[40] They are sometimes even encouraged to do so by their families, as a strategy for financial and social optimization. The recently published gloomy novel Flowers and Dreams by Tsering Yangkyi (Tshe ring dbyang skyid) illustrates the misfortunes of three young Tibetan peasant women (and one Chinese) after they reach Lhasa in search for a means of living independently. All end up as prostitutes.[41] A similar theme is central to Sunlight on the Way (Lam gyi nyi ‘od), a short story by the promising young novelist and intellectual Lhasham Gyal (Lha byams rgyal). This story also features a young woman from the countryside looking for a job in Lhasa, who is cheated and raped in the process.[42] From my own recent field work and conversations with Amdo youngsters, young Tibetan women in Qinghai Province have started to embark upon shorlé activities later than their Central Tibetan sisters. In the TAR, job opportunities abound in Lhasa or Shigatse, i.e. in urban environments that remain partially Tibetan. The availability of opportunities diminishes the trauma and difficulties caused by the ethnic split and the cultural and language barrier. In these urban environments, one can also rely on cousins or co-villagers (pha yul gcig pa) already settled there. In Qinghai, on the other hand, there exists no fully integrated Tibetan urban space,[43] as Tibetans have only very recently begun to settle down in the city.[44] Thus, the displacement of the daughter-in-law to Xining––a big city where Tibetans in 2011 were still an ultra-minority, and which does not represent any spiritual or historical ideal in the Tibetan imagination,––signifies a radical break with the cultural and ethnic environment of the origin of these economic migrants.


Blonde Dye as a Symbol of the Emancipation of the Daughters-in-Law?

Research conducted by Western anthropologists on young Tibetan women from the countryside who leave the family home in search of shorlé shows that this type of move concerns unmarried daughters who separate from the family home, with their parents’ consent, to supplement the whole family’s income. Nowhere in these studies can we find mention of a daughter-in-law who leaves her in-law’s family in search of paid work. However, as the title of the poem “The Gemotsang Daughter-in-Law Got Her Hair Dyed Blonde” clearly emphasizes, the young woman who features so prominently in the village news is a nama (mna’ ma) or “virilocally (or patrilocally)-married daughter-in-law”, living with her husband at her parents-in-law’s house. She may be a stranger to the village, where she has come to settle since the beginning of her married life. She has no other name than “Gemotsang daughter-in-law”; like all of her fellow nama, she is defined in her adopted community as an outsider-turned-local, but always through her in-laws. However, by leaving the village to look for work and by choosing to have her hair dyed blond, she breaks with both social and aesthetic conventions. Indeed, the role assigned to nama in the Tibetan world and particularly in Amdo, is more traditional than that in central Tibet. The feminist Tibetan studies specialist H. Rajan, who has herself spent a considerable amount of time in Amdo, writes that “A patrilocally married woman is expected, especially at the beginning of her marriage, to work hard and prove herself. One of the main reasons for her coming to the husband’s family is for her to work hard for the family, and she is expected to gradually take over her mother-in-law’s tasks, to become the primary performer of women’s tasks, so that her mother-in-law can afford to rest in her old age” (2014: 146). If the Gemotsang daughter-in-law goes to stay in the city—where it is not known what she did or whom she met—it implies that she has retracted from her assigned mission, ie, training, under her mother-in-law’s guidance, to acquire the gestures and ethos that will enable her to become the central feminine element of her new home and serve everyone in the family, thereby enabling the mother-in-law to rest after a life devoted to child-bearing and looking after domestic matters.

It can be argued that the Gemotsang daughter-in-law may have gone to Xining, the provincial capital, with the support of her husband, or even her in-laws, for financial reasons. However, the freedom that the daughter-in-law takes with her hair, and the fact that the narrator relates the blonde dyeing to the trip to the city in search of shorlé, leads the reader to attribute a deeper meaning to that bold gesture and her hair coloring. This break from a prescriptive aesthetic norm can be read as the sign of self-attention on a highly socialized part of the body. As C. Bromberger claims: “Any variation from sexuality hair standards, however varied such standards might be, is a sign of rupture, whether it is chosen freely, suffered, or imposed. When studying appearances, it is always important to know who gives the orders, directly or indirectly” (2008: 389). Here, the fact that she dared to dye her hair blonde, far from the gaze of her in-laws, perhaps sheltered in the anonymity of the big city, argues in favor of the interpretation of an empowerment of this young woman. We do not know if the daughter-in-law wanted or even thought that the news would reach her in-law’s village. Whatever her motivations—which will never be known, since the narrator/author does not venture to provide them—the effect on the community is undeniable and constitutes the object of the poem: a collective astonishment. This surprise is due to an unexpected discrepancy between the cultural and social expectations of this young woman, and her actions.

Cinema has provided similar representations of shorlé-induced gendered empowerment. Chenaktsang Dorje Tsering’s documentary, Yartsa Rinpoche (in the making), shows the budding love between a young man and a young woman, both Tibetans, who meet during their search of shorlé. This episode, even if it is not at the heart of the documentary, captures the new potential of shorlé work. It is a source of emancipation, not only economically, but also personally and emotionally. This emancipation is all the more novel for women because in Amdo they are traditionally confined to the domestic circle, and travel outside the village has long been the privilege of men.[45] Moreover, as Rajan has shown, women in this region “are often meant to show humility, displaying they are more respectful, humble, silent, and deferential than men.. […]women are under pressure to be respectful and humble” (Rajan, 2015: 154), a disposition that does not accord with self-promotion and the sense of persuasion inherent in the search for shorlé.

The articulation between hair revolution, female emancipation, and the city is also at work in the film Tharlo [Thar lo], by Pema Tseden (2015). A Tibetan hairdresser, a self-made young woman in control of her own destiny, runs a hair salon in a small Tibetan town after she has left her rural original milieu. She meets a single, naive Tibetan shepherd who earns a hard living tending other people’s sheep in the mountains. Conservative, rural, and normative, he twice points out to the hairdresser that she is not a real Tibetan woman, for two reasons: she sports what he calls “short hair” (it is actually medium-length) and she smokes. Here is an excerpt from the dialogue:


Hairdresser: Why are you staring at me? Do you think I’m pretty?

Shepherd: I thought you were a boy. If it wasn’t for your earrings and necklace, I would have really thought you were a boy.

Hairdresser: In the city, short hair is the fashion right now.

Shepherd: It doesn’t suit Tibetan women. You must be the first one I’ve seen with short hair.



ill. 2 – The hairdresser with half-length hair, an emancipated and unscrupulous woman, in the film “Tharlo” by Pema Tseden (2015)


This young hairdresser, free, independent, and liberated, turns out to be a liar, dishonest and ready for all shenanigans. Therefore, the short hair of this Tibetan woman is certainly a symbol of urban and economic emancipation, but it goes hand in hand with an aesthetic and cultural hybridity and, perhaps, a loss of Tibetan identity and morality.

Overall, Chen Metak’s short poem tells us as much about the moderate conservatism of the small village (the general feeling or attitude the poet chooses to emphasize is not so much hostility toward the young woman as amazement). It is also revealing about the aesthetic norms imposed on women’s hair, a norm that women are beginning to challenge. It speaks to us in passing of the timid emancipation of rural women in Amdo, of which the dyed hair is the symbol. It symbolizes a quest for new autonomy that Tibetan women can pursue.


Desired Metamorphoses of Women’s Hair: the Feminist Discourse

Two other texts, belonging to the genre of the critical essay, will bring this investigation of the relationship between hair and female emancipation to a close. Here, it is no longer an androcentric, but a gynocentric point of view that is offered; both authors are women. Women are certainly still a minority in terms of numbers and in terms of recognition by the literary establishment, which is androcentric in Tibet, as it is elsewhere. However, they have begun to conquer and acquire a legitimacy and a voice that were denied them a decade or so ago.


Unequal System of Meaning of Hairstyle

Jamyang Kyi (‘Jam dbyangs skyid, b. 1965) has both legitimacy and voice. A famous singer and television anchor in Amdo, she was arrested during the pro-Tibetan protest movements of spring 2008, on the pretext of “revealing state secrets”, before being released. She can also be considered one of the first Tibetan feminists in Tibet. Her reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex (in its Chinese translation) led her to reflect on the place of women in Tibetan society, and, more precisely, in Amdo society. She first published a few texts on the condition of women in Tibet on her blog in 2006, texts which were then compiled in a collection titled Women’s Joys and Sorrows. Mixed Snow and Rain (Ra rdza 2008). What can be described as the first Tibetan-language feminist literary attempt contains a passage on the ornaments worn by women, particularly hair ornaments. The passage is titled “Of Ornaments and Women”, written in February 2007.[46]

In this text, the author questions, from a female and feminist point of view, the trabap (skra bab) ceremony, a festival and rite of passage to adulthood for girls, attested in several peasant areas of the Tibetan world (ill. 3). Thus, this work adopts a very different perspective from other studies on this custom. Indeed, trabap is often appreciated as authentically Tibetan and deproblematized from a gender point of view, either by journalists or by authors who describe it in its purely ethnological and aesthetic aspects.[47] In essence, writes Jamyang Kyi, when a young woman in some agricultural areas of Amdo reaches the age of sixteen or seventeen, i.e. when she becomes potentially marriageable, the community celebrates the trabap, which literally means “hair fall/descent”.[48] During this ceremony, hair ornaments, called tralung [skra lung], are attached to the girl’s hair. More unexpectedly, the ornamented hair is associated with the “consciousness” or namshé [rnam shes] of her future husband. Jamyang Kyi writes (Ra rdza 2008: 7):

It is thought that the tralung symbolizes the “consciousness”, physical strength and wealth of her future husband. Once the trapab ceremony is performed, the girl may be married in a family. After the wedding party, this hair ornament follows her like a shadow and she is not allowed to part with it. If a traditionally dressed woman does not wear her tralung, leaving her back empty, she causes doubts as to whether she has become a widow. It is because of this tradition that women are afraid to part with this accessory.”


    ill. 3 – Tralung, village in the district of Khri ka, Qinghai, New Year Period. Picture by Clémence Henry, 2015.


Therefore, in contrast to men’s hairstyles,་women’s hairstyles are codified according to their marital status (single, married, widowed).[49] Thus, in Tingri, in southern Tibet, a married woman can be recognized by the small trana [spelling unknown] she wears on the top of her head. This small turquoise headdress, framed by two small corals, is obligatory for a married woman from the countryside, and has no male equivalent.[50]

Farther in her essay, Jamyang Kyi establishes a parallel between the “hair descent” (or “taming”) ceremony and its accessory, the tralung, and the wearing of the pangden (pang gdan), the striped apron worn by women in the central Tibetan region. She adds that, according to an inquiry she made among women of Central Tibet about its significance, married women cannot part with the pangden, fearing that people might interpret their choice as a sign of widowhood, since the apron “symbolizes the life force (bla srog) of the husband” (2008: 9).[51] Dogon Sangda Dorje’s explanation of the meaning of pangden in his 2004 study of traditional Central Tibetan customs does not mention the equation of pangden and a husband’s life force. Still, he relates that two sartorial elements with a change in hairdo—from a single-braid to a two-braid hairdress, and the wearing of a hair ornament called patruk, spelt spa phrug— clearly indicate that a young woman can now be married:


When a girl reaches the age of 16,… she wears a hair-dress called patruk and an apron… From the moment when she wears the patruk which is the time when she wears an apron permanently, she braids her hair in two braids. This is equivalent to the sign that time has come for to join an in-law’s family (literally to travel to the door, sgo ‘grim pa), so those who look for a bride rely on that sign to ask for a bride”.[52]



  ill. 4 – Tibetan ladies wearing a pangden. Picture by Françoise Robin, Lhasa, August 2007.


In contrast to the detached and non-partisan tone adopted by Chen Metak, Basé, and director Pema Tseden, Jamyang Kyi condemns the female hair regime specific to certain rural areas in Amdo described above. She questions her readers about the asymmetry in gender-based aesthetic and hair expectations and denounces this asymmetry as a symbol of a woman’s subservience to her husband, adding that it hinders a woman’s movement in the fields or pastures. If a woman’s dependence on a man and his in-laws is encoded in her hair, it is all the more understandable why the dyeing of the Gemotsang daughter-in-law’s hair is causing a stir, even assuming that this young woman did not wear the traditional headdress and did not cut her hair.


A Call to Problematize the Social Construction of Gender

One of the first American sociologists to investigate the subordination of women in contemporary and particularly American society was Erving Goffman. In The Arrangement of the Sexes, he emphasized that the character of male dominance was only natural:


It is common to conceive of the differences between the sexes as showing up against the demands and constraints of the environment, the environment itself being taken as a harsh given, present before the matter of sex differences arose. Or, differently put, that sex differences are a biological given, an external constraint upon any form of social organization that humans might devise (1977: 313).


Jamyang Kyi writes that “these ornaments turned into symbols are nothing more and nothing less than iron links in a chain that hinders women’s existence once they are married” (2008: 9). Thus she agrees with Goffman, positing that the particular treatment of women’s hair is wrongly perceived as natural and, therefore, impossible to question.

Sculptor Monsal Pekar Desal (Smon gsal Pad dkar bde gsal, born 1964), another Tibetan artist, shares with Jamyang Kyi a critical reading and interpretation of women’s tamed hair and other aesthetic devices as a mark of male authority that is rarely questioned because it is not deciphered as such. To illustrate, she cites the wearing of an apron in Ütsang [dBus-gtsang][53] (also denounced by Jamyang Kyi), the attachment of five amber balls in the hair in Kham [Khams],[54] and, in Amdo, what she calls “hari”.[55] According to her feminist reading, they share the same meaning: “all these objects indicate that the woman is already possessed by her husband; they represent stature [sic, for: status] and are perceived as sacred by the women themselves – so sacred that they make the women lose all their own identity” (2002: 10-11).



Some Tibetan literature and, more recently, films have recorded, more or less explicitly, hair metamorphoses (i.e. coloring, cutting) among young Tibetan women in the countryside. These modifications could at first be disregarded as individual whims. However, this contestation of the norm, as featured in creative works by male authors, coincides with the emergence of a discourse on the part of women essayists exposing and denouncing the androcentric hegemony of women’s hairstyles. As C. Bromberger states: “while one should not take all the whims of the fashion for indices of evolution of the mentalities, changes of capillary style (of form, of color) can symbolize deep social mutations” (2010: 212). Beyond a simple phenomenon of individual aesthetic adventure, one can detect through the observed or called-for metamorphoses of women’s hair in Tibet—as echoed in contemporary literature or film—an empowerment at work among young women who are traditionally more constrained than men in their hair aesthetics. Since “hair care is one of the touchstones of the individualization process” (ibid.: 196), the metamorphoses of women’s hair described or proposed by the writings reviewed seem to confirm this trend.

However, in the Tibetan case, this empowerment and individualization comes up against two major obstacles: first, the ethnic, even nationalistic, dimension of long hair, in contrast to the much more frequent short hair in China;[56] second, the still very religious connotation associated with women’s short hair. Both complicate the situation and can hamper unfolding changes. However, urbanization and access to financial autonomy and education, as well as the spectacle of hair fantasies in Asian television series, announce greater changes to come in shaping female hair in Tibet, developments that mirror bigger social changes at work.


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[1] Lewis, Rodgers and Woolcock 2008.

[2] Although still critically under-researched, contemporary Tibetan literature has been studied in Shakya 2008, Hartley and Schiaffini 2008, Robin 2010, Erhard 2011, Jabb 2016, Erhard 2020, Peacock 2020 (especially chapters 2 and 4).

[3] Macé, 2011: 111.

[4] This is for instance demonstrated by Erhard: “The skillful narrative play with folk literary elements in contemporary fiction represents one way to conceal oppositional nativist and cultural emancipatory meanings within otherwise affirmative texts” (Erhard2020:144).

[5] This visibility of sex is also an indication of the relative relaxation of the Communist authorities of the People’s Republic of China on this subject.

[6] The same is not true in exile Tibet.

[7] Sometimes, popular songs also fulfill this role, but they do so in very short and formally constrained forms (versification), which therefore limit the range of possibilities. Moreover, social criticism, while not altogether absent, is uncommon. Cinema, which is emerging in Tibet, joins literature in its heuristic virtue.

[8] The “big” issues, such as the aspiration to independence, nostalgia for a Tibet where Tibetans presided over their own destiny, thirst for democracy, criticism of Communist policies, reverence for the Dalai Lama, resentment and despair at the splitting up of Tibetan community between home and exile, although prevalent in intimate conversations, very seldom find a place in published stories and poems. The few authors who address these issues head-on take serious risks, as it is common for them to be arrested and convicted.

[9] sTag ‘bum rgyal, 2012: 11-12.

[10] Men’s hair (which in Tibet is quite frequently worn medium-length) is also a fertile theme among Tibetan creators, be they filmmakers, fiction writers, or poets. Treating that topic would require another article. See Donyol Dondrup and Makley 2018 for a parallel between hairstyle and freedom.

[11] This poem has more than ten thousand views on the internet, which is not insignificant for a population of six million Tibetans, less than half of whom can read and only a small fraction of whom are interested in online literature.

[12] In classical Tibetan poetry, modeled on Sanskrit scholarly poetics, parallels are formed with the help of a comparator and a compared element: the former is often associated with the latter with the help of a genitive case mark. Here, “the khata of the hair” means that the hair evokes a khata, not that the hair has a khata.

[13] See Upton (1996) for a fine-grained analysis of the rise of the nomadic pastor as an archetype of Tibetan identity.

[14] The fact that the young woman is placed by the narrator in a white tent also conveys a notion of tranquility and immobility, and anchors the woman in her sphere par excellence, the domestic sphere.

[15] Bhutan, where women traditionally sport short hair, is culturally close, but does not seem to be considered by Tibetans as belonging to the Tibetan cultural sphere. Limited exchange between Tibet and Bhutan since the 1950s, following the Chinese invasion, has resulted in many Tibetans currently being poorly informed of Bhutan’s cultural characteristics, while at the same time showing great curiosity and a very positive attitude towards this country, its culture, and its people. It should be noted, however, that Bhutanese women’s short haircut, which is said to be due to the country’s monastic tradition, has been losing popularity among Bhutanese ladies for the past twenty years. This change is due to the influence of Tibetans in exile (mainly in India, but also in Nepal and more marginally in Bhutan), but above all of the fashions coming from the rest of Asia and the improvement of hygiene. Young women of all social classes wear their hair long, and the short haircut is now reserved for women of a certain age. I thank F. Pommaret (CNRS/CRCAO) for this information.

[16] It will be recalled here that the Manchu dynasty, which ruled the Chinese empire for more than two hundred and fifty years, imposed its own hair standard: “In 1645, the Qing court ordered all Han subjects, on the pain of death, to shave their topknots, and leave a Manchu queue in the back” (Xing, 2008: 253). When the dynasty fell in 1911, the first symbolic gesture of the Han revolutionaries was to cut off this braid (see Cheng 1998). On the wearing of this mat in one region of Eastern Tibet, see Sihlé 2018. For the political-nationalist dimension of hair length in contemporary times, cf. Donyol Dondrup and Makley op. cit.

[17] See Sangye Gyatso (Gangzhün) 2008 and Jabb 2015 (chapter 5) for an evocation of this coterie.

[18] Kyabchen Dedröl (sKyabs chen bde grol, b. 1977), founder of this group in 2003, says: “The world under our pens is no longer the shared public world merely driven by ‘national pride’ and ‘national characteristics’ as before. Rather, it is one of inner consciousness and private life. As such it is rich with a diversity of literary techniques and a multiplicity of subject matters” (quoted in Jabb, 2015: 138).

[19] gCan me stag, 2012.

[20] A building reserved for the practice of collective chanting, especially among the elders, and common in Amdo.

[21] One exception: numerous references to the Dalai Lama’s infamous July 2015 remark about his possible reincarnation as a pretty “blonde woman” and the ensuing controversy.

[22] “Hasn’t blondness been the mark of triumphant Aryanity and, in another mode, the mark of female beauty throughout Western history, from Aphrodite to Madonna, passing, in contemporary times, through Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, Doris Day, Princess Diana?” (Bromberger, 2010: 23). The same author confirms, in another article, that “from antiquity, with the exception of a time in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in the romantic, period, feminine beauty was seen to be blonde by groups living on the northern shore of the Mediterranean” (Bromberger, 2008: 396).

[23] Nebesky-Wojkowitz (1956) mentions several deities (often wrathful) with “yellow”, “red” or even “red-yellow” hair, i.e. red.

[24] Slightly revised from Donald Lopez’s translation (Lopez, 2018: 40).

[25] This example is provided by I. Henrion-Dourcy (2013: 215). I take this opportunity to thank I. Henrion-Dourcy (Laval University, Quebec) for her comments while proofreading a draft of this article.

[26] According to Childs and Barkin (2006: 49), in the context of exile where ethnic endogamous marriage is still preferred, a union with a Westerner (called a “yellow-headed Englishperson” or Inji gopser) will be a source of pride and satisfaction for the Tibetan family, mainly because of the prospects of financial support that such a marriage may bring.

[27] Ba’ sras, 2011.

[28] Weiner (2020) offers a masterful historical study of the incorporation of Amdo in the newly created PRC. The event culminated in the merciless repression of the anti-Communist rebellion in 1958.

[29] In Buddhist cosmology, beings are divided into six categories: gods, demigods or titans, human beings, animals, preta, and underworld beings.

[30] The girl reports being fourteen years old in 2007 (Li, 2014: 62).

[31] Ibid: 75.

[32] One thinks of African Americans subjected to a hair and aesthetic hegemony stemming from the white world, with what T. Owens Patton (2006: 24) describes as “devastating effects”, and of East Asia (China, Korea), where pop and postmodern urban life lead to the valorization of the blonde hue.

[33] Quoted in (accessed May 11, 2016).

[34] The name has been changed.

[35] See Fischer (2014: 47-81) for a review of these economic disruptions.

[36] On these difficulties, analyzed in terms of exclusion and marginalization, see Fischer, 2014: 246-289. S. Wang (2014: 1130). While analyzing the causes of Tibetans’ economic hardships in relative detail (based on case studies in Qinghai province), this study does not focus on gender differentials in economic potential and gains. It only mentions women’s economic activities on one occasion, and that is the sale of local agricultural products in markets. Fischer points out that even here, Tibetan women show less initiative in the public economic sphere than women of other ethnic groups. The latter trade fruits and vegetables as middlemen for wholesalers, while Tibetan women limit themselves to their own production, a characteristic Fischer attributes to a lack of entrepreneurship or inclusion in the modern business world.

[37] Rajan (2014: 155) confirms male economic dominance in the majority of households in Amdo: “male control of the household finances is the normative and prototypical scenario in the study sites.” She amends this observation by adding that, if a woman proves to be economically more capable than her husband, then she may obtain “more power to control money and make decisions than her husband” (ibid.).

[38] Rig ldan rgya mtsho (1990). I thank P. de Saint-Victor who translated this short story, as well as Robbie Barnett (Columbia University), and the entire student body of the “Telling the stories” seminar held at Inalco from March to June 2016, for helping to point out and translate this short story.

[39] See Zhang (2007, 2012) and Childs, Goldstein, and Wangdui (2011).

[40] Childs, Goldstein, and Wangdui’s (2011) article addresses a related topic, that of sending a daughter out of the domestic circle so that she can provide income for her parents without depending on an in-law. This study, in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, tends to show that the departure of a daughter for shorlé has become a family strategy and that it is not solely the result of the interest for a personal and individual gain for the young woman. Rather, it is done for the benefit of her parents, whom their daughter represents, as the title of the article indicates, as a “social capital”. T. Zhang confirms that some young women leave to work in carpet factories without any plans to return to their parents, nor with the aim of helping them later on. By encouraging the departure of their daughters to the city, the parents facilitate the redistribution of the land to the remaining sons. It is thus also against a backdrop of collective family strategy that daughters go to work in carpet factories., As T. Zhang writes: “independence, when coupled with a strong sense of loyalty to parents and brothers, does not conflict with patriarchal norms; on the contrary, young women’s economic independence eases the burden on brothers by allowing them to reproduce their own patriarchal families” (2012: 12).

[41] Tshe ring dbyangs skyid 2016. The English translation by Chris Peacock was awarded the English Pen Translates Award in 2021 and is announced for publication in 2022 by Balestier under the title Flowers of Lhasa (, accessed 31 March 2022).

[42] Lha byams rgyal 2010.

[43]The religious and commercial centers of Rebkong (Reb gong) and Labrang (Bla brang, in Gansu, bordering Qinghai) are relatively developed and old, but it seems to me that we cannot yet fully speak of urban life with its usual characteristics (anonymity and focus on the individual, institutionalized education structures, tertiary work, public transportation, to name the most common). The burgeoning Tibetan commercial center called Norbu Zangpo, established in the high Western area of Xining, forms an isolated bubble of Tibetan commercial businesses. However, it certainly provides welcome urban-oriented opportunities in an otherwise very Han and Hui-dominated Xining.

[44] A study on the Tibetanization of Xining forms the main topic of Grant 2022. I have not been able to consult it at the time of writing. Serrand 2017 geography MA thesis also deals with that topic.

[45] It should be noted, however, that in Yartsa Rinpoche, the man eventually gives in to family authority since, when he introduces the girl to her parents, they refuse to give him their approval and he must separate from his fiancée. The position of the girl’s family towards that relationship is unknown.

[46] High Peaks Pure Earth has provided a translation of a blogpost apparently re-posted in 2014 ( My translation differs slightly from it.

[47] For example, see Tshe dpal rdo rje (2010) for an interesting ethnographic study and (accessed May 1, 2016) for a tourist-like account.

[48] Translated as ‘Hair taming’ by Blo bzang tshe ring, Don grub sgrol ma, Roche, and Stuart 2012: 336. Wu 2013 suggests “hair braiding”.

[49] Described briefly by Wu 2013 (118-121), who classifies it as a rite of passage. It is obvious through that author’s description that it has no equivalent for young men and that it is totally linked to marriageability and men-dominated control of women’s reproductive capacity.

[50] Personal communication, Tashi Yangzom, Paris, May 1, 2016. In Iran, it is the shape of the eyebrows that holds the role of an indicator of marital status: a young girl to be married has bushy eyebrows, au naturel, while a married woman plucks them (Bromberger, 2010: 37). Similarly, among the Diawara of Mali, hair indicates “all the stages of a woman’s life” (ibid.: 121, citing Y. Deslandres and M. de Fontanès, “Histoire des modes de la coiffure”, in J. Poirier (ed.), Histoire des mœurs II, Paris, Gallimard, 1990, pp. 723-773).

[51] The quotation marks surrounding the original Tibetan word (bla srog), translated here as “stream of consciousness”, are present in the original text.

[52] rDo mgon 2004: 170-171.

[53] Name of the province of Central Tibet, in Tibetan.

[54] The other large Tibetan province, east of Tibet. With Amdo and Ütsang, this territory forms the whole of historical Tibet.

[55] Lhamo Tso has dedicated a whole article to the current Dalai Lama’s mother’s (1901-1981) hari. In it, she writes: “The hari, patuk and pangden were considered expressions of social morality and obeisance. In Tsongkha, a woman not wearing her hari ornament was looked down upon by society for impropriety and her actions would bring dishonour to her elders and parents, as well as her husband” (Lhamo Tso 2018:157).

[56] The ethno-nationalist dimension is also visible in skin color, judging by a discussion of the gradual disappearance of red cheekbones among Tibetan women in order to subscribe to Chinese standards of beauty (see Kehoe, 2016a and 2016b for a brief discussion of this issue).


Françoise Robin (Ph.D., Tibetan Studies, Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales INALCO, Paris, 2003) is Assistant Professor of Tibetan language and literature at INALCO. Her research deals with contemporary Tibetan literature, film, and traditional printing techniques. She has published articles in prestigious journals such as China Perspectives and Esprit, as well as book chapters in Contemporary Tibetan Literary Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2006), Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change (Durham: Duke UP, 2008), Tibetan Arts in Transition (Rome: ASIA, 2009), etc. Dr. Robin has translated several texts of contemporary and traditional Tibetan literature, among them La Controverse dans le jardin aux fleurs by Langdün Päljor (Paris: Bleu de Chinese, 2006), L´Artiste tibétain (Paris: Bleu de Chine, 2007), and La Fleur vaincue par le gel (Paris: Bleu de Chinese, 2006) by Thöndrup Gyäl. She has published the first French-language anthology of short stories by Tibetan writer Pema Tseden, titled Neige: nouvelles du Tibet (Ales: Philippe Picquer, 2012).