The Wandering Singer

Tsering Woeser

(Translated from Chinese by Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani)


Long ago, a common family lived in a place that resembled an open lotus flower with eight petals. Blessed by his ancestors, the son held for a few decades a mid-level position as a government employee. When he was eight or nine years old, following his heart’s call, he almost became a monk in the nearby monastery, but being the only child, the heavy task of supporting the family business fell on him. He did not have the slightest of vices. Did not drink alcohol, did not smoke opium, and did not dally with women. With age, he became more and more secluded, a stack of scriptures his sole companion. As promised by the matchmaker, the woman he married was of a similar family status, lively and cheerful, well known by her beauty and a voice as melodious as silver bells. Although as a young girl, instead of singing at summer parties, she preferred to sneak drink and flirt with elegant men. 

Soon their son Ngawang was born without much trouble. However, a couple of years later, the birth of their daughter Ngayang made her mother suffer quite a lot. At first, a rare heavy snowfall drew the heavily pregnant mother out of the house. Forgetting herself amidst the beautiful silvery snow, she began singing like she used to do before getting married. That night she fainted, her body boiling in fever. The whole family was thrown into chaos. Defying the dark night and the slippery road, Ngayang’s father whipped his horse and went looking for the best doctor in town.

A black pill brought Ngayang’s mother back to life, and although the dreadful fever did not harm Ngayang’s still forming body, it did burn her mother’s throat to ashes. After that, her voice turned hoarse and irksome, often frightening the two children to tears. Ngayang was finally born on a starless early-summer night, when the perfume of the courtyard’s evening flowers gladdened the heart. Blood stains could not conceal the glow of that new life but, when she began to cry, all the oil lamps in the room extinguished, as if somebody had suddenly breathed out a big puff of air. A ray of light came out of nowhere, increasing its brightness until it surpassed that of daylight. A strange feeling crept upon people’s hearts until Ngayang’s mother asked softly: “Go see where that glare is coming from.”

When Ngayang’s father rushed downstairs, he saw the strangest of things. Many servants were standing in the courtyard, as if paralyzed by divine intervention. Their faces were flushed in red, their gazes fixed on a point behind him. When he looked back suspiciously, he realized they were all looking at the room where Ngayang had been born. A flame shot up to the sky but did not spread; it stayed there hanging, like a long, marvelous rainbow, strange and yet beautiful. He had never come across such a wonder! He was joyful but worried, because he did not know what it foretold. Without even noticing it, he kneeled, clasped his hands, and began to mumble words of begging and gratitude to all the gods and Buddhas he had ever believed in.

Suddenly, he had a vision. Someone dressed in a white hat and a white cloak, and carrying a white staff, floated to his ear, and whispered softly: “Oh, raising children takes such a long time! The girl named Ngayang will walk alone a long, long road, and on that long road a lot of people will remember her voice.”

Ngayang grew up in the pollen and dust that floated in the sun, in beautiful clothes and games of hide-and-seek, surrounded by short-legged dogs and stories told by female servants every night, with pastries made of yak’s butter and sweet milk tea. Everyone loved and doted on her, praising her honey-soft skin, curly chestnut hair, long eyelashes, and tiny red mouth. Her father often held her on his lap, pointing to the images on the long, narrow, yellow pages of the Buddhist scriptures, teaching her to recognize who was Avalokiteshvara, who was Tara, and who was Manjushri. When this happened, Ngayang always seemed very quiet. Her languid mother, on the other hand, often laid on a rug covered by a parasol, charmingly blushed due to the alcohol she was always drinking. When Ngayang’s silvery voice filled the courtyard, her mother would sadly remember that snowy winter day when she lost hers. When thinking of her other son, Ngawang, she wondered when he would be able to restrain his wild craziness and that greedy desire to just have fun.

When Ngayang was five, her father transferred to a Chinese town to work as a local official. She would never forget this first long trip, riding on a horse during the days, and sleeping at inns at night. Did it plant the seed of what would later be her wandering life? Like a grownup, she used the cold eastern Chinese water to bathe, the northern Chinese knives to eat chunks of meat and, in the omnipresent sandstorms of China’s central region, she became a silent person by the ruins. 

One day early in the morning, when the servants were loading things onto the cowhide rafts by the gentle river, a strangely dressed man came walking over from the distant pebble beach: he was wearing a white hat, a white cloak, and holding a white staff in his hand. He was singing a mellifluous song loudly, as if nobody was around. The sun, rising from behind him, surrounded his body with an indescribable radiance. Everybody stopped what they were doing just to look at him. Shyly, Ngayang extended her small hand to pull his sleeve. The man turned his head to look at her and continued singing but in a low voice, as if singing just for her. Ngayang’s tears fell slowly. Her father hurriedly stuffed some money in the man’s hand, picked up his daughter and walked directly to the boat, thinking about that night years ago when that marvelous beam of light had appeared. Looking at the money, the singer smiled, raised his voice again and continued his walk.

In that beautiful town of lush mountains and clear water, Ngayang grew up resembling her mother’s younger self, but she had something her mother never possessed: an interest in the spiritual world seemingly inherited from her father. She also learned many skills that she would later use during her years travelling around: weaving serge, embroidering, playing the six-string qin, writing lyrics in Chinese, drawing Buddhist images according to the canon, reading palms, identifying herbs, and engraving decorations on gold and silver to make jewelry. Most importantly, people for miles around knew that she could sing more beautifully than a skylark.

One year, during the festival to circumambulate the sacred mountain, a tribal prince who had come from afar fell in love with Ngayang while she was singing. In a turn of fate, Ngayang’s father, determined that Ngayang would not lead the wandering life the man in white had predicted, gave his marriage blessings to the prince. Soon after, Ngayang tearfully bid farewell and followed the prince to his warm and fertile hometown. Gradually, she became a common and happy wife, but with one worry: that she had not yet conceived a child.

After searching all over for the advice of the most famous doctors, Ngayang was finally able to get pregnant, but not long after, she received the news that her father had died of illness. Devastated, she dragged her heavy body back home, but the depth of her sorrow caused her to go into labor prematurely and her baby boy passed away right after birth.

Ngayang became so very ill that she lost all her fine black hair in one night. One day, by chance, she overheard her mother’s drunken, sobbing confession at the scripture hall. Ngayang was stunned to find out that her own mother had had secret affairs with other men for years. Unable to contain herself, Ngayang often confronted her mother. Slowly, Ngayang’s mother began to lose her mind, until eventually her son Ngawang, the owner of a gambling establishment in Lhasa, came to take her away.

Secluded at home, Ngayang spent her days lighting candles, bringing water offerings, and praying for her father and her son. She even thought about becoming a Buddhist nun.

When spring came in all its warm and bloom, on her way back home from turning the prayer wheels, Ngayang met a young man all dressed in white. He did not wear a white hat on his head, nor did he hold a white staff in his hand, but he had a pair of deep eyes that made her feel a sense of déjà vu. It turned out that he was the son of the white-clothed man she had encountered in her childhood. She wondered which woman would have the blessing of loving him, of sharing with him the same pillow, of bearing his child. She knew that both, white-clothed father and son, were traveling singers. And even though the son naturally lacked the symbols of the white hat and the white staff, he could still be recognized as a wandering singer.

But was there a mark carved on Ngayang’s forehead? Was this the reason that man in white had appeared by her side? Many stories circulate about those who have been branded with invisible signs on their foreheads due to having a mysterious calling in this life, or due to carrying down wrongdoings from a previous life. From the moment of their birth into this world, this mark would burn like a blaze in their hearts all day long, pushing them to keep walking, keep going…

Later on, Ngayang met a tangka painter and a yoga master, with whom she had heartbreaking love stories. It would seem that the gods of fate never bestowed on her the ability to get an everlasting love. When in the dark night she opened her passionate lips to offer a brown flower bud she saw a whole sky full of stars crazily spinning and falling on top of her head. The smell of burnt skin and flesh filled the air. She could not contain her desire to cry out.

Thus, she finally became a travelling singer as well. Slowly, she began to resemble one of those serene and proper monks, although the clothes were not the same. A lot of people thought that her singing could wipe out all the emotions and desires of common people. However, the moment she sang, whether in low or high pitch, whether animated or sad, people would be irresistibly moved by the passion hidden in her voice. All of life’s unforgettable emotions would raid the heart, leaving them no option but to shed tears in sorrow. 

How could people know what was inside Ngayang’s mind? When she sang, she was recalling vivid images of different people. The naturally joyful and energetic man who often made funny stories into song lyrics. That other man whose fascination with Buddhist paintings made him forget for days and nights the woman who loved him. The man so passionate about nature’s beauty that he only wished to be left alone in it. And there was also he, the kind prince who had only ever wanted to live the leisurely, bucolic life of a lord. It was said that he, looking for Ngayang, had travelled through mountains and rivers, eating and sleeping outdoors, robbed so many times by bandits that he had almost become a beggar. These people who were destined to briefly pass by Ngayang’s life have long since blended with her tears, becoming consecrated objects in front of the Buddha.

Ngayang remembered that when she was younger, she always had dreams of broken bones and splashed brains. Once she woke up, it was impossible to go back to sleep, her intense heartbeat resounding loud and clear in the endless, pitch-black night. She did not look at all like a woman in her twenties. A highly learned Nyingma Lama she found performed a divination. Looking straight at her with his bright eyes, he prophesized: “One of your family members will suffer terribly.” Ngayang thought of her mother, from whom she had not received messages since she had left, and a sudden feeling of remorse arose in her. In tears, she asked: “How could it be avoided?” Taking pity on her, the Nyingma Lama exclaimed: “Go, walk endlessly, keep wandering until the end of this life.”  

That was how Ngayang embarked on her endless journey. The more she walked, the clearer the mark on her forehead became. At last, the spirit hidden in her heart set in motion the singing voice she had silenced for so long. The echoes of her voice began to resonate all over Tibet. One after another, girls in the prime of their youth changed their names to Rigdzin Wangmo in the hope of becoming as virtuous as the woman praised in Ngayang’s song. The song went like this:


On the eastern hilltop,

Rises the bright moon:

It is my Rigdzin Wangmo,

Burning the incense to offer blessings.


In the winter of her thirty-seventh year, the misfortune that had once descended on her mother also seized her. The same snowfall enticed her out of the house, and the same dreadful fever ruined her. At that time, the shepherd’s son she had adopted was already two years old. Very late, on a fateful night, holding the child in her arms, Ngayang went to look for the doctor who had always cared for her so well. She entrusted him with the child, and he took the boy in. Not being able to share the tender feelings he had long felt for her caused him even more worry that night.

“Ngayang, when will you be able to come back? Don’t forget your son, and…” he muttered.

Ngayang’s eyes suddenly filled with tears. Softly, she touched the child’s forehead with hers and, in a hoarse voice said: “Oh my child, grow up quickly to become a doctor and treat your mother’s illness…” As if sensing something, the boy waved his tiny hands and cried inconsolably. Ngayang took a few steps back and hardening her heart, stepped into the dark night. 

Many years later, a man hesitantly said he had seen a woman who resembled Ngayang wearing a white cloak and hat and holding a white staff in her hand. She had been engulfed by a rare avalanche on a northern mountain shaped like a Mandala.

May 1997, Lhasa


Tsering Woeser (Ch. Weise) is the most internationally acclaimed Sinophone Tibetan author. She was born in Lhasa but grew up and attended college in Sichuan province, and later on graduated from the prestigious Lu Xun Literary College in Beijing. In 1990 she went to Tibet to work as a journalist, and she soon became a member of the Tibetan branch of the Chinese Writers Association and began working as an editor in the Lhasa-based Chinese-language journal Literature of Tibet (Xizang Wenzue). Even though she had lived most of her life in a Chinese-speaking environment, once she returned to Tibet, she became determined to rediscover her Tibetan roots. She learned to speak Tibetan fluently and became a devoted Buddhist.

In 2004, after the publication and subsequent banning of her book Notes on Tibet (Guangzhou Huacheng Publishing Press, 2003), Tsering Woeser resigned from her job in Lhasa and moved to Beijing to avoid having to undergo political reeducation. Since then, Tsering Woeser has been subject to the confiscation of her passport as well as to several periods of house arrest.

Despite all odds, Tsering Woeser has continued her prolific career as a writer, journalist, and historian of Tibet writing in her own blog, as well as in publishing houses and websites outside China. Her book Forbidden Memoir: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution was published in Taiwan by Dakuai Wenhua-Locus Press in 2006.

Tsering Woeser’s works have been translated into Tibetan as well as many foreign languages, including an English-language anthology of her poetry entitled Woeser: Tibet’s True Heart (Ragged Banner Press, 2008). She has won numerous international awards, among them the Freedom of Expression Prize, the Prince Claus Award, the Courage in Journalism, and the International Women of Courage Award.

Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani (Ph.D. 2002) teaches Honors and Chinese language courses at Texas State University. She has authored many academic papers and two books, Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change and Enticement: Stories of Tibet. Her research deals with Sinophone Tibetan literature. She is the founder of the Tibetan Arts and Literature Initiative ( and co-founder of Yeshe: A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities