I don’t sing about love



Ein Beitrag von Emilia Roza Sulek

There are moments in every scholar’s life, when one accidentally opens a computer file with a title which does not say much about whether it is a draft of an article, a half-translated interview or an unfinished application. These pieces of writing were abandoned as our writing zeal declined, when other tasks came in the way, or when interests changed. If authors before had a drawer where they would dump such drafts while cleaning the desk for something more urgent or important, nowadays the folders in our computer play such a role. Some of these forgotten pieces of writing are accidentally deleted during some upgrading process or get lost while changing the drive and other devices. Some do not even leave a trace in our memory. With some files, we regret losing it, like I do, of an interview with an elderly nomad who told me of his youth spent as a bandit and of his prison term served for stealing Ma Bufang’s horses. I had few of such confessions.

Much of the aborted writings which survived computer purges are never used for publications, because we either need additional data or the topic does not belong to the main field of our expertise. Although we consider these pieces of writing as ‘too short’ to publish, they contain interesting data. As field researchers, we have access to a wealth of information which we receive aside our main inquiries. These pieces of information can be useful for other people, scholars and non-academic readers. However revealing or inspiring such information can be, it sometimes disappears in an abyss which opens up between academic writing where ethnographic data should illustrate a theoretical debate or support a grand thesis and writing for popular journals, which is not easy to produce for scholars and is ruled by its own laws of what an attractive read is or not. This ‘abyss’ absorbs large parts of what the researcher hears, observes, and notes down in the field. Yet, accidental discoveries of our forgotten computer files can sometimes give such material a second life.

The text below is an interview with a singer whose music accompanied me during my field research and whose songs were played in restaurants, shops and cars. The genre called dunglen, which he mastered, is performed with the accompaniment of a mandolin and dunglen lyrics often originate from folk songs. Yet, in present-day Tibet, the lyrics often venture into new, political or socially engaged fields. The reason I conducted this interview is connected to this. The singer was well-known for his critique of certain aspects of social and economic life which he expressed in his songs. Besides, I was a fan of him. Although I am an anthropologist and he was my informant, this was an interview with a celebrity. My informant did not appear in tabloid newspapers because such newspapers did not exist in his region, but he was nevertheless on everyone’s lips. His special status was magnified by the fact that he had been detained during a wave of preemptive arrests that swept through his region before the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics. It was common knowledge that the arrest was not his first time.

The interview was planned for a publication in a journal, but I never managed to finish it. Conducting an anthropological and journalistic style interview are two different things and I was not sure what story to tell. I planned another meeting to continue talking with him, to get a proper photograph taken of him, and so on, but none of these happened. Below are parts of an edited interview. They will never become part of any academic publication (at least not mine), and the chance that we meet again to finish the interview is small. That would anyway be a meeting of two different people, different than in 2009 when we met for this interview.
Continue Reading →

Views from a School Window


Emilia Roza Sulek

for H

During my fieldwork in 2014, I lived in a school compound in one of the few towns in my research region. ‘Development’ in this part of China meant that roads got a new surface, party buildings a new lustre of glass panels, and streets new lamps and other ‘accessories’ such as street signs, now available also in English. It also meant that hospitals moved to better-equipped buildings and schools grew in size. They grew not only in terms of the number of classrooms, but also other facilities, including apartments for school personnel. Almost all teachers lived within this ‘gated community’. They did not pay rent and their life was cheaper than on the other side of the ‘bars’. Continue Reading →

Return the Face to its Owner

Emilia Roza Sulek
Humboldt University in Berlin


A photo-story
(Return the face to its owner)

During my fieldwork in Tibet, I carried with me photographs taken by travellers and anthropologists who went there before, and hoped that someone recognizes the people in those photographs. And yet, I was surprised when it happened.

Sitting in a small village somewhere in the mountains, eating candies and fried bread, I conducted an interview with an elderly nomad. The man – advanced age, with a brown face and a grizzly-like posture – sat on the other side of the stove, answering my questions. His wife, perched on a small stool like a little bird, got up every now and then to pour more tea. Carrying a huge kettle, she threw a few words into our conversation. The leading voice belonged to the man, but she made sure that what he said agreed with what she remembered.

Interview with Rock' photos (Photo E.R. Sulek)

Interview with Rock’ photos (Photo E.R. Sulek)

The man talked about the past, which land belonged to which tribe, and how Ma Bufang, the governor of Qinghai, wrote this on paper, sealed it, and handed it to the leader of the tribe to which my hosts belonged. His signature and stamp testified that this piece of land belonged to these people and to no one else. That was during the time of the Republic of China. Now it is the People’s Republic and many things have changed.

Talking about the past (Phoo E.R. Sulek)

Talking about the past (Photo E.R. Sulek)

That tribe leader who got Ma Bufang’s sayig or land decree could not be among the living anymore, but he could have some living relatives. “Yes, his son is here”, my host said. “How do I find him?”, I jumped with excitement. “He’s around, sometimes here, sometimes there…”, the answer did not sound promising, but was typical of a society where people move a lot, coming and disappearing again.

At that moment, the door to the mud house opened. A man in a yellow hat and thick glasses on his nose entered the room limping slightly. “Well, here he is!”, my hosts exclaimed. Astonished with this deus ex machina way in which the old leader’s son appeared in the door, I only managed to ask, “How did you know you should come right now?!” The man, already in his late eighties, answered, “I always know where nice ladies are”.

I moved closer and, sitting almost at his feet, absorbed his words with almost all senses: the history of old tribal leaders, of his father who got the land from Ma Bufang and of what happened later.

“Can you show him the photos?”, my host asked. Everyone knew that I had with me a folder full of photographs, those which both I and other people took, sometimes decades ago. Among the latter, there were photographs by Joseph Rock from the National Geographic Magazine. The old leader’s son studied them carefully. Suddenly, his face brightened. “I knew this man”, he said. There was a photo of a man with a cocked hat and eyes looking straight into the camera. “Gomba, nicknamed Dadda, chief of the Jazza clan”, the caption said. “Not Jazza. Lowa”, the old leader’s son corrected. “His name was Lowa Ngawang”.

A story followed. The old leader’s son was jailed in 1958, when Tibetans clashed with the Chinese Communist troops. He was lucky and was released quickly, but many of his relatives never left prison alive. There, in prison, he met the man from the photograph: Ngawang, chief of the Lowa tribe who neighboured Jazza. Lowa Ngawang was there together with one of his sons, a Buddhist lama. They were jailed by his other son who supported the new power. “He tortured them a lot, even your worst enemy wouldn’t have done so”, the man said. Lowa Ngawang was 73. He died one month later. What happened to his monk-son is unclear.

For Lowa Ngawang alias Dadda the history ended in 1958. But what happened to his younger son, who secured for himself a place in the ranks of the new Communist functionaries in his region? He was removed from his post during the Cultural Revolution, when many followers of the new government lost their jobs, and sometimes their lives during outbreaks of violent struggle sessions. That was his fate. The story could be a basis of another Shakespeare-like tragedy: of family betrayal and craving for power. The wheel of history turned, destroying both the father, the leader from the old times, as well as his son, a communist, who had gained power, but all together it was only a short-term guarantee of survival.


People from the past, photographed by travellers or anthropologists, are not anonymous representatives of their folk. Their faces, stored in archives and reproduced in books, detached from their owners, gain a life of their own, becoming “vignettes” of their time or region they come from. How many such images do we have, not knowing whose faces these really are? Intricate paths of life, history and coincidence made these people step into a photographer’s lens and start another, photo-life. But they once had names and biographies which later on were lost in transmission.

Lowa Ngawang alias Dadda played an important role in Rock’s narrative being his guide to Golok, but we know little about him. During that interview, he stopped being just a figure in a travelogue and regained part of his biography. However, he was an important person in his community. Would it also be possible to find something about those people who were less important, who were not guides but nameless escorts, not leaders but nomads whose paths accidentally crossed with those of the photographer and whose names the photographer never knew?

Scores of unknown people from the past, both women and men, populate our books. Maybe it is still possible to return some of these faces to their owners.



Joseph Rock’s photograph courtesy of Harvard-Yenching Library.

The author thanks Norma Schulz for her help in editing this post.

Erdbeben in Jekundo

[inspic=679,,,0]Am Morgen des 14. April gab es ein Erdbeben in der Tibetischen Autonomen Präfektur Yushu (Jekundo) in der Provinz Qinghai. Inzwischen werden 2000 Todesopfer und 12.000 Verletzte gezählt. Zehntausende, so heißt es, sind obdachlos. Das Erdbeben der Stärke 7,1 hat den Nachrichten zufolge nahezu 90% der Häuser der Stadt Jekundo zerstört, über die Auswirkungen außerhalb der größeren Städte ist wenig bekannt. Jekundo ist eine nomadisch geprägte Region im Grenzgebiet der chinesischen Provinzen Qinghai, Sichuan und der Autonomen Region Tibet und die Infrastruktur ist überwiegend schlecht. Continue Reading →

30 Jahre britische Fotografie in Tibet

tibetalbum1.jpgDas Pitt Rivers Museum hat eine interessante Seite im Netz zu laufen, auf dem jeden Tag neues Material hochgeladen wird: Fotografien und Hintergrundinformationen zu Tibet von Seiten Britischer Sonderbeauftragter und Handelsreisender vor dem Einmarsch der Chinesen und der Flucht des Dalai Lama. Neben mehr als 6000 Fotos aus den verschiedensten geographischen Gebieten und Sinnprovinzen in Tibet, sind sogar Tagebücher transkribert worden, die den (britischen) Alltag in Tibet näher beleuchten. Ein ambitioniertes Projekt mir kollaborativem Anspruch.

Am interessantesten hier vielleicht die Fotos eines tibetischen Fotographen, Rabden Lepcha, eines Assistenten vom englischen Tibetologen und Fotographen Charles Bell, der ihn 18 Jahre begleitete.

Auf dem schmalen Grat. Annäherung an die zeitgenössische tibetische Literatur.

Ein Beitrag von Franz Xaver Erhard


[inspic=506,left,,200]  Seit einigen Jahren entwickelt sich auf dem tibetischen Hochland eine Literatur, die nur allmählich auch international bekannt wird. Von den Exilautoren wird sie oft mit Argwohn betrachtet und gilt vielen als reine Parteipropaganda, tibetischer Inhalte entleert. Aber Autoren und Lesern der allerorts aufkeimenden Literaturzeitschriften, in jüngster Zeit auch Blogs scheint diese Literatur ein Anliegen zu sein. Ohne finanzielle Anreize engagieren sich junge Intellektuelle unter den Argusaugen der staatlichen Behörden in einem richtungweisenden Diskurs über die tibetische Kultur.

Jede Zeit bringt ihre eigenen literarischen Formen hervor. Seit den 80er Jahren sind dies für Tibet die kleinen und größeren Erzählformen. Besonders die Kurzgeschichte, die für den Abdruck in Zeitschriften gut geeignet ist, bietet den Autoren eine Möglichkeit, sich einem breiteren Publikum zu präsentieren. In den letzten Jahren sind auch mehr und mehr Romane und Erzählbände einzelner Schriftsteller erschienen, etwa von Tsering Döndrub, Dänba Dargyä oder Khedrub.

Continue Reading →

Ausstellung: Between Tibet and Assam: cultural diversity in the eastern Himalayas (London/UK)

Das British Museum zeigt vom 30. Januar bis zum 13. April noch eine Austellung, die sich den kleinen tibetanischen Diasporastämmen im Norden Indiens widmet. Thematisiert werden zwei kleine Stammesgruppen, die buddhistischen Monpa und die animistischen Apatani, deren kulturelle Gemeinsamkeiten und Unterschiede genauso beleuchtet werden, wie die ökonomischen Strategien zwischen Reisanbau und Jagd. Dazu kommt es ausstellungsbegleitend zu einer Konferenz.


“Mehr kann ich dazu nicht sagen…”

Kerstin Grothmann über Olympia und eine kleine Tibetisch sprachige Volksgruppe im Norden Indiens.

Tibet ist in diesen Tagen mehr als je zuvor in den Nachrichten. Der Aufstand Tausender Tibeter in Tibet, das brutale Eingreifen der Chinesischen Regierung und Protestaktionen des International Tibet Support Network fordern Regierungen und NGOs heraus, Statements zu den Menschenrechtsverletzungen in Tibet abzugeben. Es ist nicht so, als würden Tibeter zum ersten Mal ihrem Kampf um Unabhängigkeit, bzw. echter Autonomie, wie vom Dalai Lama gewünscht, Ausdruck verleihen. Continue Reading →

Das friedliche und glückliche Leben in Lhasa

(Ein Augenzeugenbericht)

Gut zwei Wochen sind vergangen, seit “das friedliche und glückliche Leben in Lhasa durch die Dalai Clique”, wie sich der chinesische Staat ausdrückt, “zerstört wurde.” Nun hängt eine beängstigende Stille über der Stadt. Kaum einer wagt es, seinen Laden zu öffnen. An den Straßenkreuzungen kontrollieren bewaffnete Polizeieinheiten die Passanten. Seit den Ausschreitungen vom 14. März sollen in Lhasa bis zu 140 Menschen getötet, an die tausend verletzt und 600 verhaftet worden sein. Die Sicherheitskräfte haben mit aufgepflanzten Bajonetten die Straßen blockiert und jeden verhaftet, der sich nicht ausweisen konnte oder keine Aufenthaltserlaubnis für Lhasa hatte. Folglich wagte sich bald keiner mehr auf die Straße. Diejenigen mit Papieren waren damit beschäftigt, denjenigen, die keine haben, Nahrungsmittel zu besorgen. Continue Reading →

Der Zug in den Westen …

(Ein Beitrag von Olim devona)

China und der chinesische Westen verbindet seit Jahrhunderten eine gemeinsame Geschichte. Mit der Okkupation Tibets 1951 wurde die heutige Autonome Region Tibet politisch in das heutige China integriert. Seit dem Deng Xiaoping in der Mitte der 80er Jahre mit der Liberalisierung der chinesischen Planwirtschaft begann, wandelt der Transformationsprozess in der gesamter Volksrepublik China soziale Ordnungen, Infrastrukturen und wirtschaftliche Beziehungen. Wie schon aus zahlreichen Beispielen aus den 1960er Jahren bekannt, versucht die chinesische Regierung den sozialen und wirtschaftlichen Wandel des Landes in “großen Sprüngen” zu beschleunigen und es auf das Niveau der westlichen Mächte zu bringen. Continue Reading →