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.

I stopped singing love songs already in 2005. It’s only about who loves whom. I love you, you love me. This doesn’t bring anything new to the society.

How would you introduce yourself?
I was born in 1981, in a nomadic family. I was a yak herder. And then I ran away to India.

Why did you run away?
My father passed away when I was a child and until the age of 18, I lived just like that. I didn’t do any religious rituals for my father, I didn’t even recite the mani for him. As I grew up, I started thinking about bringing his ashes to India in order to generate some merit (gertsa) for him. Finally, I ran away.

Did you go to school?
Yes and no. Not in China, but in India. But that was when I was already grown-up. My family didn’t understand the need to send kids to school. Nomads often think that there is no gain from attending school. When I ran away, I didn’t have a plan of going to school either. I wanted to see His Holiness, go on a pilgrimage, and then return home. But when I arrived in India, I thought of all those problems I encountered on my way, and when they asked me: “Do you want to go back or stay here and study?”, I already had an answer: “Stay and study”.

Do you have some pictures in your mind which always return to you when you think about that journey?
I can clearly remember it. It was 12 August 1998. I took our horse and rode towards Henan, just in case someone wanted to chase after me. There I sold the horse and the ivory prayer beads I had with me. I didn’t have any money and I received some six thousand yuan from the sale. I knew some Tibetans in Henan and one of them put me on a bus to Xining. But once I arrived in Xining, I was helpless. I didn’t know how to order food or where to go. The only place I knew was the train station. I remembered from the time when I traveled to Lhasa as an eight year old boy that there were red stone horses in front of the station. So I hanged around there and finally a man approached me and asked, “Are you going to Lhasa?” I paid him 170 yuan and we left. In Lhasa, it was the same. We arrived at 4 am and I didn’t know where to go. So I waited and thought that when the day breaks, I will at least find my way to the Jokhang temple. Sometime later, a man on a motorbike came and told me that he was from Ngulra and that he owned a hotel. I went with him and three days later, I met people from my hometown. It turned out I had an uncle in Sera Monastery. I didn’t know about him, but my family called him and said that I ran away. So he sent some monks to look for me in the streets.

What did he do when they found you?
He tried to persuade me to go home, but I insisted that I go to India even if I had to die for it. What could he say to that? So he found a guide for me.

How did it develop later?
We went until Shigatse on a truck. There were maybe seventy of us, sitting on each other. Those at the very bottom could hardly breathe. Some of us paid two thousand yuan, some seven hundred. There was no fixed rate. The guide must have taken some twenty thousand yuan from all of us. When we reached Shigatse, he disappeared. We didn’t know the way, so we returned back to Lhasa. The next guide was better. It took us sixty one days and nights from Lhasa to Nepal. When we arrived at the refugee center, it was exactly thirty days from the moment we set off. We were ninety people. We could have made it faster, but we walked slowly. When we had to hide, we hid. When we had to take a longer road to avoid controls, we did. The only problem was that we didn’t have enough food.

When did you change your mind about coming back?

In India, I felt I could do anything. I learned English and Tibetan and with this knowledge, I could easily travel and do anything. This was possible, even with my broken English. I felt so confident and thought that if others can do something, I can do it, too. I was good in singing and at school events or on His Holiness’ birthday, I sang and played the mandolin. I knew that there was an Amdo music group in Switzerland and I wanted to join it. One day I called home to say that I am not coming back. My mother was shocked. In the beginning, I was adamant, but then I started having doubts. I didn’t know it, but my mother paid monks to perform some rituals to bring me home. I started having strange heart beats and couldn’t sleep. I felt so homesick that I just couldn’t stop thinking about my lonely mother. Finally, I gave up. At that time, I didn’t know what was going on. Now I think I called home too early. I shouldn’t have done it.

Does your mother regret that you are back?
She is happy that I am with her.
But you have been to prison almost every year.

Would you think of going abroad again?
They would never give me a passport.

How different were you as a person when you came back?
I was twenty four. I was more independent. Since my teachers in Dharamsala spoke the Lhasa dialect, I had no problems with communication in Lhasa. But in Xining, it was the same as before. I didn’t know Chinese and the Lhasa dialect didn’t help. English neither. Well, it was a bit better. Now I could at least talk with hand signs. Before, I just gawped at people with my mouth wide open. But most importantly, people looked totally different to me. I didn’t think about our society before. Now I realized how self-centered, narrow-minded, and rough-mannered our people are. Sure, I have relatives and friends and I have gradually adjusted to it, but this feeling remained.

When did you start singing?
I played the mandolin as a child, when I was herding yaks. I had no idea how to compose music or to write songs, but I could imitate others. After returning from India, I could have become a teacher, but that would mean I would have to obey other people’s orders, and I wanted independence. But I didn’t have any source of income. I had no livestock. People were digging caterpillar fungus, but there was no caterpillar fungus on our land. Music was a good solution. In 2004, I had my first album ready.

In the first album you sing a lot about women…
Oh yes, I had many songs about love! But then I realized that this was not what I wanted. Our people are shy. You can’t play love songs at home. It’s embarrassing to listen to them when your parents or elderly people are around. And what is the use of such songs anyway? It’s only about who loves whom, I love you and you love me. This doesn’t bring anything new to the society. So from 2005 on I dropped this topic. I started making songs that could impact other people’s lives or teach them something. Although people here can’t read or write, they really try hard to understand what the songs are saying to them.

At the Jokhang

At the Jokhang

What do you sing about now?
About education, for example. Lack of education is a tremendous problem. Our grandparents haven’t been to school, neither did our parents, so why should the kids go to school? This is a common way of thinking. People think: As long as you have enough to eat and to wear, and you don’t cheat others, you’re OK. People can see only what is in front of them, not what is in the back. But without education, there is no development. Without education, our people will still marvel when seeing a television: “Oh, how come somebody talks from a box?!” But this is all man-made. There is nothing supernatural about it.

And the environment?
People don’t understand the need to protect the environment. Or, even if they do understand it, they don’t care. We could talk for hours about whether there is desertification or not, and why. Well, before 1959, there was none. Even during the 1980s, Martod county was very fertile. Now, it’s degraded. Why? I think it’s because of the fenced pastures. The yaks know very well where to graze. But when they are kept fenced, they get crazy and trample the soil. They destroy the grass and it won’t grow next year. I think the whole story of desertification is an excuse to gather people in one place, because it is easier to control them. And when the land is empty, it can be used for other purposes. But the government is not guilty of everything. People have to change their way of thinking. For example, before, we didn’t have much money and there was little to buy anyway. Now, people buy all kinds of snacks and drinks. And where do the bottles end up? On the grassland. In China, there are dustbins. But here, there are none. How often do you see this picture: a nomad drives his car, finishes his drink and throws the bottle out the window? We can change this attitude. If the two of us start disposing rubbish properly, others will follow. But it’s a long way to go.


In the Grassland

Is it different than elsewhere? Where exactly is the problem?
The problem is with people’s thinking. The environmental laws are similar all over China, but the implementation is different. Rather than implementing the laws, the officials write fake reports about how successful they are. The state makes plans and policies and distributes funds. But it is like with bread: when it arrives here, there is very little left because everyone took his share on the way. And many officials actually like places like this, because the only thing they have to do here is to lie. In the cities, they have to work. But here, it’s mostly about faking numbers. It’s the same with schools. When there is a control announced, they gather kids from everywhere to show how well-attended the schools are. After the inspection, the kids are sent home. This is not the problem of the government, but of the local officials.

You sung about caterpillar fungus, too.
Caterpillar fungus contributes to our problems. Before, people didn’t have experience with money, but during the last decade, they earned a lot of money and started thinking that making money is easy. They don’t think that caterpillar fungus will vanish or that people will stop buying it. They earn money from it and don’t want to keep yaks or sheep. Tuimu huancao (“converting pastures to grasslands”) could have some impact, but it is small. Let’s be frank, the government states that people are not allowed to dig caterpillar fungus or to lease land to diggers, but people still do it. So if they really wanted to keep sheep, they would find a way. They just get lazy and want to have a comfortable life. But the problem is that they don’t know how to manage money. As long as they spend it on life’s necessities, it’s OK, but when they come to town, they just waste the money. There are also more conflicts. When people were poor, there was some solidarity. Now, they have money and think they do not depend on each other, and the solidarity is gone. Money can do bad things.

Can you give examples?
Yes, spying, for example. There are cases of people reporting on others for money. They don’t think that others also have to survive. As long as they are paid, they don’t care about the consequences which others will face. If a nomad is asked by some official to report on his neighbor, he may think that if he does it, the official will help him in the future. So he reports that this person did this and that person did that.

Do you ever sing in Chinese?
I don’t know much Chinese. Learning Chinese is very important, because we live in a Chinese society. Our livelihood depends on it. So it should be a tool we master, without us becoming Chinese. Yet, my goal is to communicate with people who don’t speak Chinese. I sing for the people around me. Anyway, even if I was good in Chinese, I don’t have any knowledge which would enable me to impact somebody’s life in China.

Did you notice that things improved since you started singing?
I don’t think that it’s my success, but during the last five or six years much has changed. Songs are one of the main ways to educate people. If the government tries to educate them, it does it by using Chinese. But people don’t understand Chinese. It’s like reciting the mani to the wolves. Regardless of how often you do it, they will continue killing sheep. But the songs are in a spoken language which people understand. This makes them important.

What will you do in the future?
I will continue singing. I would also like to do some business, since I have no other income. I will sing and produce albums to earn money. Money is so important in today’s society. You can’t do anything without it.

What does this story tell us? Perhaps to many, it does not tell much. But on the other hand, it tells of emigrants who leave China in search of education, adventure, religious experience or freedom, and of people who return because of what they left back home or who feel that what they can build up at home in the future has more meaning and gravity than the prospect of a life in exile. This story also tells of music as a medium of social communication and education. This role is particularly large in a society where there is no press and little other media, where open debates and critiques are restricted and where technological development, low level of literacy, and language diversity do not facilitate successful development and access to such public spheres. In such circumstances, songs play a vital role: they are the agora to express social concerns and political sympathies. Analyzing the lyrics allows observing changes which the society undergoes, noticing new topics in local debates and new issues which trouble the region. Last but not least, this interview contains a Shakespearean story of a mother who forced her son to return home with the help of, as she admitted, religious rituals, and how she, year by year, sees her son disappear into a prison because of yet another socially engaged or politically critical album.

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