FRONTIER POETICS AND LANDSCAPES OF ETHNIC IDENTITY
FROM the perspective of the Chinese imperial state, the regions that lay beyond its grip were “lands outside civilization” (hua wai zhi di), a term denoting not only their marginality and inferiority but also the wildness and defiance of their inhabitants. The accounts left by early Han adventurers allow a few glimpses into the frontier lands. Xu Xiake (1586–1641), China’s most celebrated travel writer, spent almost two years in Yunnan covering fourteen prefectures, including Lijiang, which at the time had jurisdiction over Zhongdian (Tib. Gyalthang) (see map 1, C). As a guest of the Naxi chieftain, Xu attempted to venture into the Tibetan town to see a large bronze statue of Maitreya, only to be discouraged by his host, who intimated that Zhongdian was filled with bandits and unruly Tibetan caravans (Xu Xiake 2004, 555). After the area was effectively incorporated into the Qing empire (1644–1911), Yu Qingyuan, a less known traveler, was able to spend a year in Weixi, an administrative entity that covered present-day Weixi, Deqin (Tib. Dechen) (see map 1, D), and two other counties in Yunnan. In 1770, after extensive interviews with the local inhabitants, he wrote Weixi Notes (Weixi jianwen ji), about this far-flung land and its many peoples. He described the climate of the White Horse Snow Mountain (Baimaxueshan) near Deqin as so severe that even in the summer, “the wind swirled like water and it was cold to the bone,” and on top of the mountain, “if a voice was raised or laughter heard, hailstones as big as fists would rain down continuously and lots of people died as a result” (Deng and Bai 2012, 41). He painted the Lisu as a people who “loved to reside at steep cliffs and on mountaintops,” “ran like crafty hares,” and were “by nature vicious and loved to kill” (ibid., 96). In the Han literary imagination, the borderlands were a menacing landscape of high peaks and unpredictable weather, populated by wild ethnic tribes far removed from civilization.
No longer beyond the reach of state power and the pathways of ordinary travelers, as in the times of Xu and Yu, the Sino-Tibetan borderlands nowadays receive busloads of tourists daily. In advertisements produced by local governments and the tourist industry, they are touted as a better, gentler, and more beautiful alternative to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Pictures of snowcapped mountains, verdant valleys, crystal-clear lakes, virgin forests, lamas in crimson robes, and magnificent monasteries constitute “media-generated sets of signs” created solely for the consumption of domestic and international tourists (Urry 2002, 14). For better or for worse, globalization and tourism have opened up spaces for new modes of inquiry and identity formation. The once forbidding landscape of the Sino-Tibetan borderlands is now accessible by means of airports and modern roads, but it is still used to define the people who live there, the people who visit, and the relationship between border polities and the powers of the central state. As in the imperial context, writers play a key role in articulating these relationships, and they draw on specific features, both “natural” and “cultural,” to compose border landscapes as particular kinds of claims on national and ethnic identity and belonging. In the postcolonial context and during a period of rapid globalization, these literary claims on the landscape are made by “insiders,” “outsiders,” and those who seek a world betwixt and between.
The writers examined in this chapter adopt different strategies for making claims on self, ethnic identity, and place in terms that both draw from and constitute particular kinds of landscape. Featured prominently in their writings is a vital connection between the natural environment and ethnic representation. Landscape, infused with vitality and spirit, is thus critical for the rediscovery of the self, as both the outsider and the insider see it as the living embodiment of cultural traditions and lifestyles. In their travel writings, Wen Pulin and Fan Wen, a Sinicized Manchu and a Han, both from metropolitan areas, view the borderlands as an enchanting landscape of dreams and minority culture as a mirror that reflects the deficiencies of urban existence. Their physical excursions are often portrayed as spiritual journeys that result in a deepened sense of self-awareness as well as an appreciation of ethnic and cultural differences.
While these outsiders focus on the individual self and on presenting a harmonious multiethnic society, the local writers examined here are more concerned with the survival of native cultures and of the specific ethnolinguistic groups that define ethnic identity in particular regions of the Sino-Tibetan borderlands. Increasingly aware of the importance of speaking for themselves, they express the sense of crisis facing their indigenous traditions. As they define place-based identities, they draw inspiration and solace from the mountains and rivers steeped in historical memories, to help negotiate the images outsiders have imposed on their cultural landscapes and practices. Return (Huigui), a Chinese- and Tibetan-language journal launched by the Khawa Karpo Culture Society, the first nongovernmental organization in Deqin, publishes folk songs collected and transcribed from live performances by villagers. As a platform for debating issues important to the survival of minority cultures and disseminating information about the society’s activities, Return promotes what could be called “frontier poetics,” a counterpart to metropolitan modes of poetic expression. Encouraged by a national discourse that sees China’s frontiers as sites for the nation’s spiritual renewal, the ethnic minority writers Li Guiming and Tashi Nyima respond by trying to shift the center of conversation away from the Han metropolis and toward the minority borderlands.
While Li and Tashi Nyima focus on preserving and revitalizing folk songs, which they believe shape the foundations of frontier poetics, Alai positions himself as a sort of intellectual tour guide of his native Gyarong, in Ngawa (Ch. Aba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, northern Sichuan (see map 1). His travelogue doubles as an introduction to Gyarong history and an intensely personal journey of remembrances. While recalling his childhood and youth in Ngawa, Alai takes himself and his readers back to the “childhood and youth” of Gyarong Tibet. As he climbs higher and higher on the Tibetan Plateau, he enters a process of what the postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha (1994, 90) calls “re-membering, a putting together of a dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present.” The native son who left his homeland now returns to reclaim his ethnic identity by walking across what he calls “the earth’s staircase,” the gradually rising terrain from the Sichuan plains to the Tibetan Plateau, a landscape saturated in myths and legends of Tibetan military and cultural conquests as well as a recent history of political and natural devastations.
The fusion of the physical and spiritual in these writers’ perceptual experiences makes the Sino-Tibetan borderlands a particularly appropriate locale for initiating an inquiry into the relationship between landscape and selfhood for both urban Chinese and frontier minority writers. Whether in the genre of travelogue or poetry, these place-specific writings treat landscape as a geo-cultural site and the borderlands as a serious contender for epistemological and moral authority. Indigenous literature or literature of the indigenous, which has risen in post-Mao China in the wake of globalization and mass tourism, is thus a dynamic form of landscape representation. While engaging in a national conversation about the “Chinese spirit” (Zhonghua minzu de jingshen) and “revitalization of the Chinese nation” (Zhonghua minzu de fuxing), this “regional” literature contributes, in some cases, to shangrilazation and, in others, to attempts to dismantle it.
WEN PULIN: EXOTIC LANDSCAPE AND THE SEARCH FOR SELF
The metropolitan self in search of the more authentic other in a rural or remote place is a common theme in travel writing, as it is in tourism, in which “othering is a key process of socially constructing and representing other places and peoples” (Mowforth and Munt 1998, 59). Travel naturally inspires comparisons, as it puts into prominent relief the differences between the metropolitan traveler and the subjects he or she encounters. While feasting on the exotic landscape, the traveler is simultaneously drawn to indigenous ways of life. Thus, “othering” becomes a vehicle through which metropolitan life comes to be seen as excessively materialistic and to be rejected in favor of a more virtuous, simple existence. In many ways, this pastoral sentiment is akin to “imperialist nostalgia,” a longing for “more stable worlds, whether these reside in our past, in other cultures, or in the conflation of the two” (Rosaldo 1989, 107–8). While pastoralism is an old pursuit of Chinese scholar-officials, exemplified in the poetry of Tao Qian (365–427), finding the source of the pastoral in ethnic minorities is a relatively modern phenomenon, articulated first in the stories of Shen Congwen (1902–1988) in the 1930s but more prevalently in post-Mao literature, such as Bai Hua’s The Remote Country of Women (Yuanfang you ge nü’er guo), Zhang Chengzhi’s Black Steed (Hei junma), and Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem (Lang tuteng). In this ideologically fashioned structure, the less developed/civilized is expected to save the more developed/civilized, a reversal of the Hegelian Marxist stage evolutionary theory widely accepted in China. As objects of the metropolitan imagination and a mirror that reflects the morality of the city, the ethnic minorities living along China’s frontiers are seen as representing the primitive innocence and vitality absent in the modern lives of Chinese urbanites. Due to their unique geography and religiosity, Tibetans in particular are the focus of this metropolitan fixation. As a result of the close encounter between the metropolitan self and the native other, the voyeuristic gaze, as depicted in the works of Wen and Fan, is invariably turned inward, leading to self-reflection and even self-transformation. Trips to the Sino-Tibetan borderlands, therefore, give Chinese urbanites opportunities to experience different cultures but, more importantly, as shown in the example of Wen, they represent inner journeys of self-discovery and possibly the reconstitution of self-identity (see chs. 2 and 3 in this volume).
Wen’s travel writings cover a span of more than a decade, from 1989 to early in the first decade of the 2000s, when he took frequent trips to Tibet, often traveling on foot in the company of pilgrims, itinerants, and traders. This mode of transportation allowed him to come into close contact with ordinary Tibetans, who, he believes, are attuned to their natural environment. Wen thinks of nature as the source of salvation for modern metropolites alienated from the fundamentals of life. “We urbanites have been living far too long away from nature and land. [But] deep in our hearts we all have a yearning for them. Unfortunately, we have very little opportunity and very little luck to come into close contact with nature and land” (Wen 2003a, 278). The nature Wen speaks of is not just scenery or landscape; rather, it is the totality of a place, including its people and their way of life. The unsullied natural environment and the authentic minorities living in it go hand in hand. To Wen, Axu (in Dege County, Ganzi [Tib. Kardze] Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture), in northwest Sichuan, represents a cultural ecological paradise where man lives in perfect harmony with nature.1 Wen describes his love for Axu as instantaneous. The moment he saw it, he writes, he knew he had found “the Shangrila of [his] dreams,” “a flat prairie embraced by mountains on three sides, and the yellow grass bathed in the warm sun,” a place that “existed as if in a dream or imagination” (Wen 2003b, 12). The landscape of Axu confirmed the scripted narratives of Tibet that Wen had read. He later organized a trip to Axu with a group of urbanites, which he calls “the last romantic journey at the end of the century,” to witness the opening of a temple built with the funds he had helped raise. In his book, he recalls frequent squabbles among the group on the way to Axu, but at the end of the journey, they parted as bosom friends. “Cities have made men no longer able to cry! Axu made it possible for us to reclaim the long-lost emotions” (Wen 2003a, 277–78). As if by magic, Axu cleansed the soul of this traveler and brought out the best in him by returning him to the “lost” world of primitive innocence. “I’m not saying that everything here fits the image of Shangrila, but in comparison with city life, I feel much freer and happier. This land is closer to the sky and [therefore] closer to spiritual life” (Wen 2003b, 263). The equation of high altitude with spirituality is important to note, as geography is seen as a passage to the otherworldly realm. This portrayal of Axu as a place of freedom, spirituality, and natural beauty, everything Beijing is not, draws attention to the dichotomy of pastoral simplicity and metropolitan materialism. In the modern world, Wen needs to be emotionally and spiritually anchored in the fundamentals of life found in the unindustrialized frontiers. He confesses that “the string of my heart is attached to [Axu], which has become the source that sustains me in this corrupted world” (ibid.).
The sense of freedom Wen refers to often has to do with physical pleasures. To Wen, the endless open space in Tibet breeds an open sexual attitude. He admits to having some “unclean” thoughts about the place and its people when he first arrived in Tibet. “How charming were Tibetan women! The stench of butter coming from them, like incense in Tibetan [temples], sent us into fainting spells. They made me yearn for them. They were absolutely perfect and healthy, qualities that our girls in the interior lacked. Their cheeks were like ripe red apples or bread right out of an oven, rosy and milky” (Wen 2003b, 30–31). In mocking his earlier attitude, Wen shows that cultural stereotypes frequently inform perceptual experiences. Metropolitan Han men often see minority women as objects of sexual fantasies, portrayed as early as the 1980s in Bai Hua’s Remote Country of Women, a novel in which a collision between the contrasting forces of sexual repression and freedom plays out between a Han man and a Mosuo woman. Wen shares this view to some extent, as he tells stories, in admiring tones, of Tibetan women exercising absolute liberty in choosing their sexual partners outside of marriage. In some ways, he still sees these women as noble savages, free from sexual constraints, who represent mankind’s simple past and through whom his own hidden primitive desires can be awakened. Mythologizing the primitive other as “a body of pleasure” (Certeau 1988, 226–27), Wen discovers in Axu a “lost paradise” in which erotic innocence is on full display, tantalizing the traveler disenchanted with modernity and Confucian ethics. Here he is revealed to be a classic example of the metropolitan man attracted to the sensual native other.
In Wen’s view, however, bodily enjoyment is on a par with spiritual well-being. Therefore, the search for the bodily authentic other is essentially a search for the “original” self, and in Axu, Wen has found the very source of energy that reconnects him to his primitive impulses. This cultural landscape that embodies the ideal of Shangrila, to which he returns for physical and spiritual renewal, becomes his second home, and his journey back to it is constructed as a personal allegory of finding the missing part of the self. With a newly acquired hyphenated identity, a Tibetan-Manchu-Axuwa-Beijinger, the self is finally complete and made whole. Furthermore, Axu is the site where he creates his identity as a writer. Wen yearns to go back to the days when he roamed its mountains and prairies, for travel is a context for re-creating the self. Without the outer journey, there is no inner journey toward greater self-awareness and self-creation. The metropolite needs his rural and ethnic Shangrila if he wishes to maintain equilibrium of the mind and body and continue to reinvent himself. Axu, as the counterpart to the metropolitan, serves as an agent of healing that repairs the damage done to the individual by industrialization and materialism. Landscape is thus granted the capacity to engender spiritual transformation, and the power it displays is most centrally located in the traveler’s emotional response to the external stimuli found in ethnic minority communities.
FAN WEN: EPHEMERAL LANDSCAPE AND MULTICULTURAL HARMONY
In comparison with Wen Pulin, Fan Wen is more of an observer, a journalist on assignment who reports to his readers what he sees on the road, and less of a character in his own travel accounts. A man much more comfortable in his own skin, Fan prefers to deal with other people’s issues of identity rather than his own. Cultural hybridity is a recurring theme in both his fictional and travel writings. By focusing on religious landscapes, such as churches, monasteries, and everyday acts of piety as indicators of the diverse cultural history and reality of the region, he treats the ephemerality of landscape as a metaphor for the temporality of cultural memory. He also looks at social habitus, ethnic composition, and family structures in order to underscore the interethnic relationships in the area.
Inhabited by many minorities and as reflected in their multilayered geography and ecology, the Sino-Tibetan borderlands of Yunnan and Sichuan are by definition a fusion of differences. In Diqing (see map 1, C, D) live Tibetans, Lisu, Naxi, Bai, Hui, Yi, Miao, Pumi, and other groups, and among the many religions practiced in this area are Bön, Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism, Dongba, and Islam. Fan is interested in exploring how the locals view this mosaic of differences. His investigation reveals that the many ethnic groups in Diqing live in harmony, despite a turbulent history of ethnic and religious wars, which, he happily observes, have been put behind.
In these multiethnic borderlands, identities are fluid and even arbitrary. Often a person’s ethnic designation depends on many factors, such as places of residence, career paths, and government policies. In the midst of all the apparent confusion, dual or hyphenated identities are frequently formed. Through many examples, Fan examines the complex and malleable politics of identity and self-identity in the area. The first person he met on the way to Shangrila was the owner of a small food stand selling Tibetan butter tea to tourists. Self-identified as Tibetan, this man had a Tibetan mother and a Naxi father, a common phenomenon in the area. Indeed, as Fan goes on to show, interethnic marriages, not just between Tibetans and Naxi, are a matter of everyday life in the region, and the children of such marriages have much flexibility in their ethnic self-identity, making many into “ethnic amphibians” (Scott 2009, 241).
The people in the area also exhibit a remarkable degree of tolerance and even casualness about their choice of religion, subverting some commonly held notions about ethnicity and religious beliefs. Fan cites Cizhong Village as a case in point. Paul Zhang, a retired government worker who had been baptized at the age of fifteen, was one of the elderly Catholics Fan interviewed. The son of a Naxi father and a Tibetan mother, Zhang was the embodiment of the diversity of Deqin. Having spent all his life in the county government, he spoke Tibetan, Naxi, Lisu, and standard Chinese (Mandarin) and felt completely at home in the predominantly Tibetan village. Zhang told Fan that church services had been conducted in Naxi, as most of the members were Naxi, but as more and more Tibetans joined, Tibetan replaced Naxi.
Given the violent history of religious conflicts in the area, Cizhong’s peaceful environment and social harmony are striking, according to Fan. He writes of discovering that the Catholic Church, after decades of Communist suppression, is now the pride and joy of the locals. Even the vineyards and the wineries are making a strong comeback a century after they were brought to the area by Catholic priests from Europe. This church, nestled in the midst of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and temples, is obviously a lonely site in this part of the world, but, Fan notes, “solitude itself is a kind of beauty,” and he appreciates the resilience of the Catholic faith and the fact that it has survived in the least likely place, despite having been “a seed of religion unsuited to the native soil” (Fan 2000, 276, 265).
Fan cites many other examples of cultural fluidity and openness in this area: the Naxi man who is chosen to be a Tibetan tulku (an incarnate lama) while his brother has inherited the family mantle of Dongba priesthood; the holy land of the Dongba religion located not in Lijiang, the center of Naxi country, but in Zhongdian (Shangrila), the heart of Tibetan land in Yunnan; the Muslim-Tibetan family in Deqin whose mother is a devout Catholic; the Naxi men and women who believe in Tibetan Buddhism; and the Tibetan men and women in Cizhong and Yanjin who pledge their faith in Christianity. These examples foreground the predominant theme of his travel writings: landscapes of ethnic identity and religious affiliation in the borderlands debunk customary designations, and despite a history of conflicts, Diqing is a place of harmony, shared among all ethnicities and religions.
Highlighting what he calls the “peaceful coexistence” of all ethnicities in the region in the present day, Fan traces several bloody battles of the past between Tibetans and others. By remembering the turbulent past, he argues, one is able to better appreciate the present. He recalls his visit to Weixi, where a fortress built nearly five hundred years ago still stands, commenting:
Just as Nature eventually turns into dust the fortresses and trenches imposed on its beautiful body, mankind will gradually erase the terrible traces of war from its memory as time goes on. The winners and losers who once upon a time were brave, moving, tragic, and magnificent or sad, lowly, and defeated are all gone, and their only value is the “historical lessons” they provide us. (Fan 2000, 166–67)
Fan embraces this historical view drawn from the landscape in order to show that the peace of the present is something that people ought to cherish. Landscape as a metaphor for cultural memory is seen to be evanescent, as no structure is permanent and nothing is preserved forever. Relating his interview of Kelsang Dawa, a Tibetan man who escaped to India in 1962 but returned in 1990, Fan laments:
When the footsteps of history have gone far away and the back views of travelers have gone farther and farther from our sight and become more and more vague, can we still see their solitary eyes and hear their breathing under heavy loads? (Ibid., 292)
History is personified as a traveler always on the move. Once it is gone, there is very little trace left behind. The ephemeral nature of landscape demands that people follow the rules of nature and look beyond the past of their own ethnic or religious affiliations and prejudices. Fan takes comfort in the example of Kelsang Dawa and his fellow countrymen, including Deqin government officials, who managed to bury the bitter experience of the past. He sees Kelsang Dawa’s story as an excellent illustration of not only the power of time but also the wisdom of men. Fan makes no mention of how Tibetans there really feel about the Tibetan revolts in the 1950s and the current standoff between Beijing and Dharamsala. He presents Diqing as a cultural melting pot, a place where group identity politics is not and should not be at the center of daily life. The picture of “interethnic unity” (minzu tuanjie), a policy the Chinese Communist Party inherited from Sun Yatsen’s Republican government, seems to have been fully implemented in the borderlands. While there may be many other factors that contribute to this harmonious coexistence, Fan, a poet at heart rather than an anthropologist or sociologist, chooses to concentrate on the link between the landscape and human behavior, avoiding altogether a discussion of the implementation and enforcement of CCP minority policies in the area.
Although Fan’s work focuses on documenting the lives of the local residents, their stories have an obvious impact on him. Commenting on the relationship between the traveler and the native, he writes:
The roles of the discoverer and the discovered can be switched, especially when the discovered is so full of attraction. My relationship to Tibet is probably like that. I took part in the cultural exploration trip sponsored by Yunnan People’s Press to learn about the culture, history, customs, and the soul of Tibet, but in the process my own soul received a precious baptism in the Snow Land. (Fan 2000, 6)
He has certainly gained respect for religion, as he recognizes the difference between him and, for example, the Tibetan hermits who seek out suffering in order to reach enlightenment. In his view, the world of the monk and that of the ordinary man are two separate realms, and “we see each other as ‘a different kind of people’ and cannot find a common language” (Fan, 2000,189). He has also learned to not pass judgment but to only observe and learn. He notes that upon hearing that fasting Tibetan nuns were allowed only one meal every two days for three months, he dismissed his concern for their health by returning to the mantra he kept repeating to himself when his secular views clashed with Tibetans religious practices: “You cannot judge the behavior of the pious with the reasoning of a secular mind” (Fan 2000, 194). But he confesses that more than once, he has found it hard to watch passively from a distance.
On the way to Mangkang (Markam County, in the easternmost part of the TAR), Fan Wen met a Khampa who asked for too much money when Fan tried to hire his horse. Fan’s first reaction was indignation, followed by understanding, and, finally, resignation.
Khampas are known as smart businessmen. They have a tradition of doing business and therefore are better at adapting to the market economy than other Tibetans. What they do more or less ruins our beautiful impressions of Tibet. We wish they would be forever pure, kind, honest, pious, and simple, all of which form a kind of scenery and provide an example that would purify outsiders like us who have been corrupted by vulgar materialism. But is it fair to treat Tibet like this? . . . People living in one place should not stay unchanged for the benefit of the people living in another place so that the latter can satisfy their desire for pure cultural scenery. But whenever I have been ripped off, I would lament that the loss of moral values has reached even the pure Snow Land. I like the Tibetans who are kind, simple, and pious. To me, they represent tradition and the Tibet in my mind and in the minds of many other people. Those Tibetans who are smart businessmen only make me feel uncomfortable. (Fan 2000, 308)
Fan’s conflicted feelings about the Khampas reflect the complex relationship between well-informed metropolitan travelers and Tibet. On the one hand, they condemn the objectification of the Tibetan landscape and culture; on the other, they continue to perpetuate that same practice. As much as outsiders wish to see a pure and pious Tibet, Tibetans, like any other people, are varied, and some are indeed materialistic and dishonest. But travelers who escape to Tibet with a scripted narrative and image of the place find it hard to accept the reality. Fan’s reaction to the Khampa man reminds us of Wen Pulin’s account of the Tibetan monk in Axu who reprimands an outsider when the latter expresses admiration for the “beautiful” and “charming” Tibetan culture and urges that it be preserved, “You Han people wish that we remain forever backward for you to look at” (Wen 2003b, 14–15). Fan readily acknowledges that the wish to preserve a “pure” tradition is self-serving and that there is a gulf between what is real and what is imagined. He himself is unquestionably opposed to treating minority cultures as objects of curiosity. About the future of the primitive salt fields of Yanjing in the TAR, he writes, “The salt fields should not become scenery for us. If possible, they should become part of history gloriously retired from service” (ibid., 394). He rejects the idea of preserving landscapes as sites of cultural memory for tourists. Conscious of his position as a Han from the city and the social and cultural implications of the boundary that separates him from the subjects he studies, he tries to avoid falling into the mind-set of a typical metropolitan tourist searching for primitive lifestyles. Nevertheless, the Tibet that he prefers is still something out of a picture book, a dreamlike image of Shangrila:
Walking across the wilderness of Zhongdian is like wandering in a dream of warm and moist nature. The lakes are like women’s moist eyes; the grassland is like watercolor paintings done playfully by children, with fairytale-like exaggeration and a romantic touch; on the other hand, the forests are like masterpieces of art, deep, profound, and multilayered; and the snowcapped mountains behind the forests even resemble the scenery of Europe on postcards. (Fan 2000, 198)
By comparing the landscape to seductive women, Fan assumes, perhaps unconsciously, the relationship between the viewer and the object he observes to be a gendered and hierarchical one. This gendered landscape is further reinforced by the references to “dream,” “paintings,” “fairytales,” and “postcards,” which emphasize the imaginary aspect of the borderlands. Instead of a real, lived space, Zhongdian is seen as a product of fantasies, to be gazed at by outsiders. And like a highly desired woman or a cherished artwork, it can fetch a good price. Indeed everywhere he went, Fan saw potential for tourism: “Zhongdian, unique for its forests, green vegetation, snowy mountains, and multiethnic and multicultural sites of human development (ren wen jingguan), is like a lucky heir who has received a large inheritance, and therefore enjoys natural advantages in today’s competitive market economy” (Fan 2000, 198). Here Zhongdian’s landscape is measured on the global market of tourism, and its value is defined by the degree of interest it attracts from the outside. When Fan visited Cizhong’s Catholic church, he imagined how the place would become a tourist attraction. With the eye of an outsider, he can’t help but see the borderlands as a museum, a park, and a remote therapeutic site for urbanites fleeing materialism and modernity. His use of the phrase “multiethnic and multicultural sites of human development” indicates that, subconsciously, he regards the cultures of the minorities as “sites,” like natural scenic sites, to be consumed by outsiders. The borderlands, in spite of the central role they play in his writings, remain no more and no less than an exotic place, a sanctuary and a place of escape. It is this land of natural beauty with its multiple ethnic groups living together in perfect harmony that he wishes to preserve and present, a portrayal that coincides with the message marketed by the local government and tourist industry as well as the project for a harmonious society that the central government in Beijing is promoting.
KHAWA KARPO CULTURE SOCIETY: CENTERING FOLK SONGS AND FRONTIER POETRY
Contrary to the image of the borderlands as quaint and exotic places located on the margins of the nation, to their indigenous inhabitants, they are the center of their world. Once the midpoint of trade on the so-called Ancient Tea-Horse Road, connecting Tibet proper with tea-producing Pu’er County in Yunnan, Zhongdian was a vibrant town of commercial and strategic importance and an amalgamation of peoples. Although modern transportation has replaced horses, this notion of Zhongdian (meaning “Central Plain”) remains in the subconscious and self-perception of the locals, who continue to use the old name even after its much more exotic replacement, Shangrila, was officially adopted. A group of young people, mostly Tibetans but also other ethnicities in the area, are giving Zhongdian a new definition, one based not on trade but on folk traditions. In essays published by Return, they propose a reconfiguration of the concept of center versus margin, replacing a criterion measured by political and economic strength with one defined by spiritual authority. These minority intellectuals use folk songs and poetry as a means of reversing or overturning geographic and sociocultural marginality imposed on the borderlands by Han metropolitan centers.
Their attempt at reterritorializing literary and cultural landscapes is predicated on a national discourse that centers on the assumption of the borderlands as a source of spiritual renewal for the nation as a whole. The trips taken and written about by Wen Pulin and Fan Wen reflect this metropolitan interest in the minorities. Faced with the excessive materialism that dominates urban societies, many Han writers have argued for a return to a world of innocence and vitality. Films and literature frequently explore the theme of nature versus culture. Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem calls for a metaphorical blood transfusion through which the Han absorb the Mongolian spirit embodied in the image of the wolf. In the movie Sacrificed Youth (Qingchun ji), the vibrant and “natural” Dai are to save the Han from wasting away, just as the Manchus and other non-Han groups saved the Han throughout Chinese history.
These and many other works demonstrate the Han metropolitan desire for primitive vitality, and the attempt to objectivize China’s frontiers and the ethnic minorities who live there. The binary opposition between the “free” and “sensual” minorities versus the “restrained” and “emaciated” Han majority is built on essentialized qualities that highlight the differences between the two ideological constructs.
When the metropolis longingly beseeches the borderlands, “Can you save us?” the editors of Return readily respond, “Yes, we can, with our landscapes and folk songs and the spirit embodied in them!” They offer northwest Yunnan as the place that has the answer for a nation looking for ways of cultural revitalization. Why northwest Yunnan? Li Guiming, a Lisu poet and a Return editor, attributes the reason to its “spiritual wisdom of survival,” “reverence for the natural world,” and relative isolation and “backwardness.” The ambitious project proposed by Li and his colleagues is meant to challenge conventional concepts of space and authority, notions of inside and outside, center and margin. It is precisely because of its marginality, Li argues, that Yunnan has preserved “the solid fossils of twenty-six bones” (that is, the twenty-six ethnic minorities in the province) that have retained “historical patterns” (Li Guiming 2007b, 17, 19). Among the “fossils” unearthed are Tibetan and Lisu folk songs. The editors of Return see the oral traditions of minorities as an alternative to the vision of modernity shaped by globalization and Westernization. By turning their economic backwardness and their frontier status into an advantage, these minority writers wish to create a “Latin American effect.” In their view, the popularity of Latin American writers is a strong example of the Third World prevailing over the developed world, and the success of minority writers in China such as Alai and Tashi Dawa proves that the borderlands can replace the metropole as the center of a literary renaissance.
Their position might appear problematic at first glance. On the one hand, the idea that minorities are frozen in time is an essential part of Han fetishization of minorities, and in promoting this idea, Li seems to largely cede power to the Han to define the minorities. If minorities are indeed unchanged “fossils” from some primordial state of nature, does it mean that their lived history is effectively erased? If so, Li’s willing acceptance of Han essentialism about minorities is unfortunate. On the other hand, it is presumptuous to assume that Li and his friends passively and naively buy into the metropolitan premise without much thought. One may argue that once adopted by minorities, these terminologies can acquire specific meanings as a result of conversations between “local and extra-local cultural systems.” Li’s idea may be derivative, but it is hardly naive. Instead of being static and lifeless, his “fossils” are alive and pulsing with vitality. Preserved but not frozen, they are sung on the lips and danced by the feet of villagers. These “fossils” may come from a distant past but they are the very signs of a group’s lived history. Kept not in museums but in life, they are now revealed to the outside world with a new role and a new set of implications. Indeed, tourism and globalization have not only given these ancient traditions a new audience; they empower the minorities, allowing them to represent themselves to the outside world with confidence. The borderlands are poised to take center stage, to speak directly and forcefully to the centers of power. As spatial representation is intimately connected to the politics of power, what Li and his colleagues attempt to do in mapping their own cultural landscape has the potential to change the dynamics of China’s intellectual and literary conversation. The margins now not only speak to the center; they intend to become the center.
At the forefront of the Khawa Karpo Culture Society’s undertaking is rescuing folk songs. The Eye of the Snow Mountain, by Tashi Nyima, a Return editor and Tibetan poet, is a collection of essays documenting the trips society members took to remote villages to record folk songs and dances and presents much evidence of the central role these songs play in village life. In their view, folk songs are the “childhood” of poetry and therefore the purest and most innocent. By naming their journal Return, the editors signal nostalgia for a lost or disappearing world, a world that is both physical and epistemological. Located in Tibetan or Lisu villages, minority folk traditions are regarded as receptacles of knowledge that the metropolitan centers lack. Rural northwest Yunnan is thus positioned to lead the nation to a spiritual and literary revival.
What is the essence of the poetic/cultural landscapes of northwest Yunnan? In Li’s definition, it is the “lineage of freedom” (Li Guiming 2011). The freedom he refers to is not only a chosen lifestyle, such as the sexual practices admired by Wen, but also the courage of resistance characteristic of peoples living in the border areas. Indeed, borderland groups are seen to be “simultaneously situating themselves to make strategic and political claims vis-à-vis multiple nation-states, while also remaining deeply committed to the ‘ungoverned’ aspects of their identity” (Schneiderman 2010, 292). It is important to note that here Li uses the word “lineage” (xuetong) instead of the commonly used word “tradition” (chuantong), indicating that this concept of freedom is instilled in the genetic makeup of the many ethnic minorities inhabiting the area and passed down through blood—in other words, the umbilical cord that connects the landscape, the ethnic customs, and the poet has been established before birth. To be a poet of this tradition, one needs only to reach back and reconnect oneself to it through folk songs.
Folk songs are at the center of social and religious life in a village. For a people like the Lisu who do not have a written language, the songs also function as historical records. For these reasons, folk songs play an important role in reconstructing the ethnic self. The following lines by Li Guiming give a clear indication of the relationship between landscape, folk songs, and self-identity:
In this life, I’ve been circumambulating mountains and rivers
In order to return to the homestead of folk ballads
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A folk song is a warm distance
Safeguarding a solemn dusk
Like the sorrows of swans
Flying across the bloody red sky
They are so white, so free
The color of pride
Telling me how far away from home I am (Li Guiming 2010, 186)
Successful, modern Lisu in China today are often unfamiliar with their ethnic traditions. The higher they climb on the social and professional ladder, the further removed they are from their roots. The sense of guilt felt by Li’s poetic persona is reflected in the accusing but loving words presumably coming from the ghosts of his ancestors. The gulf between him and his ancestors is immense, and the sorrow it creates in him is profound. Fortunately, this gulf can be bridged by a ballad, which guides him on his journey home:
Brothers in front
Please bend down and take my hand
My right hand that has lost its way. (Li Guiming 2007b, 21)
Folk songs, to be rediscovered in the mountains, rivers, and “on the foreheads” of grandfathers, are conduits to ethnic roots and ethnic identity. Furthermore, they provide a model and an inspiration for the frontier poetry Li and his colleagues promote.
In their campaign to assert the centrality of frontier poetics, minority poets ascribe specific meanings to local landscape, which comes to embody their values and aesthetics. Tashi Nyima paints this picture:
Stepping on the popping sounds of peach blossoms
Crossing the village paths
The sound of their bells falls on the asphalt pavement
Reverberated on the reflections of windows
A spot of green
A spot of red
A spot of tender yellow
Standing on the slope in the upper village
Facing three directions
Recall past events. (Tashi Nyima 2007, 27)
In the smells, colors, and sounds of the earth and animals, in the heartbeats of village life, the poet roams freely in and out of the consciousness of the cows, epitomizing a harmonious relationship between humans and their environment. The pastoral scene forms the very substance of poetry. There is nothing that the poet needs to add; he simply appropriates these natural phenomena by turning them into poetic expressions. Tashi Nyima describes the village of Adong in Deqin:
Adong is like an open book, a book without words. But in the book are a village, fields, irrigation canals, mountain paths, and countless trees. Birds are flying about, insects are singing, cows and goats are grazing, pigs are fattening, and people are bustling around, praying, experiencing sadness, celebrating the New Year, singing at the top of their lungs, and stamping on the ground in a group dance. How I wish I could keep Adong forever in that moment! (Tashi Nyima and Ma 2010, 115)
These descriptions foster a bucolic vision of a Tibetan village, possibly obscuring the realities of hardships that are bound to exist in rural communities in this area. They further define the essence of frontier poetics, the focal point of which asserts the primacy of the spatial experience as consequential to the epistemological and literary concerns. The birds, animals, and people give substance to the meaning of the “book,” or the landscape, of Adong. Li’s and Tashi Nyima’s poems underscore the importance of landscape in defining frontier poetry, through which they hope to claim cultural authenticity and literary authority.
While trying to rescue folk songs and promoting “frontier poetics” through their own poetry, these minority writers are experiencing an ethnic awakening, as Li admits.
When I interact with poets from the interior, I always feel that I am a poet with an awkward identity. Why so? Because in the world of poetry written in Chinese, I am known as a Lisu poet. But I don’t think I deserve that title. At most, I am an amateur poet who expresses himself in Chinese, and my ethnic identity is Lisu. Because I know very little of the knowledge passed down from my ancestors over a thousand years, I am faced with the impossible task of trying to communicate in Chinese those poignant passages existing within my native tongue that move me to tears. I think this dilemma is caused by the differences between the two languages and two cultures. (Li Guiming 2011)
Li finds himself in an awkward position that reflects the dilemmas of ethnic minorities in the borderlands. Nearly all contributions to Return are written in Chinese. Unlike the TAR, where Tibetans are the majority, the Sino-Tibetan borderlands are ethnically and linguistically diverse, and the Han presence is much more prominent. As a result, the Tibetans, Lisu, and others who live in the area are much more Sinicized. One of the consequences of assimilation is the disappearance of native languages. Sonam Norbu, a founding member of the Khawa Karpo Culture Society, shares a typical experience:
I began schooling at the age of six. The formal education I received was based on the national curriculum, all in Chinese. Till the day I graduated from the Yunnan School of Arts and began working for the government, I never learned Tibetan, knew nothing of my own cultural history, and had no interest in Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture. While studying away from home, however, my lack of knowledge in my own culture put me in some embarrassing situations, which greatly changed my way of thinking. (Sonam Norbu 2009, 24)
This cultural awakening would later prompt Sonam Norbu to open Tibetan-language classes in Deqin and to rescue folk songs. Yet it is precisely because of their high level of Chinese-language proficiency that these minority intellectuals can effectively defend their culture against misrepresentations by the Han metropolitan center and can translate, though imperfectly, their poetic tradition into the language of the mainstream.
ALAI: THE “STAIRCASE” AND TIBETAN IDENTITY
While Li and his colleagues seem content to play the role of spiritual rescuers for lost urbanites, Alai, who is more familiar with postcolonial theories, does not want the Tibetan landscape to be a reference for the city. He writes,
In many books about the Tibetan Plateau and the Tibetans who live there, there is a tendency toward essentialism. When it comes to the Tibetan Plateau, to this unique cultural landscape, everything seems to be very simple. It is either good or bad, either civilized or barbaric. Even more troubling is that rural culture is completely turned into a reflection of the morality of the metropolis. Country life is not the paradise of Shangrila. On the ascending steps close to the Tibetan Plateau, there is much suffering, but the people who have been kept in the dark have not yet learned to express it in their own voices! (Alai 2000, 143)
Alai’s distaste for popular representations of Tibetan culture as binary oppositions of good and evil reflects a critique of the long-standing image of Tibet as a pure landscape untouched by industrialization or as a backward culture known for its barbaric customs, images that plagued Tibet for decades. Alai rejects seeing Tibet in such simplistic terms; instead he wishes to present a “real” Tibet, in this case, his native Gyarong-Tibet, on the border of Amdo and Kham in counties spanning today’s Aba and Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures in Sichuan.
Sandwiched between two regional powers—Han China to the east and Tibet proper to the west—Gyarong historically maintained a delicate relationship with both of them. Depending on which direction the pendulum of power swung, Gyarong’s allegiance fluctuated with the fortunes of its two mighty neighbors. Alai’s novel Red Poppies (Chen’ai luoding) is an attempt to articulate this geopolitical position and Gyarong identity.8 If self-identity in the novel is couched in the metaphor of idiocy, it is presented without the slightest ambiguity in Alai’s travelogue, The Earth’s Staircase (Dadi de jieti). The sense of belonging in this book is clear-cut and uncompromised. For Alai, his journey and writing represent a process of personal and collective remembrance, “every blade of grass and every tree triggering endless memories in my mind” (Alai 2000, 186). To search his native landscape for personal memories of his childhood and youth and collective memories of historical Gyarong is to come to terms with his own identity, to take stock of what makes Gyarong, and to defend Tibet and Tibetan culture against a history of misrepresentations. As an individual, Alai is reaffirming his Tibetanness, and as a self-designated spokesperson for his people, he is reconfirming Gyarong’s Tibetan cultural territoriality. Here the personal and the collective become one shared experience.
Like Wen Pulin, Alai also plays a dual role in his writing: he educates his readers and reflects on his own relationship with the landscape. His authority as a teacher and proponent of Gyarong Tibetan culture is grounded in his identity as a Gyarong Tibetan, which is established through the act of “remembering,” an emotional process of recalling the past and reuniting oneself with one’s group. When the past is brought back to life, Alai writes, such as in the folk dance he witnessed, “I felt they [the dancers] were Gyarong men from a past era when Xiaojin was still called Tsanlha. . . . All of a sudden, the past was standing in front of my eyes” (ibid., 118). This memory of a bygone age is not the author’s alone; it is shared by all Gyarong people. “I could see on the faces of those dancers, especially those men . . . that they were dancing their own dance and they were immersed in their own passion and the memories within that passion. . . . In this dance, they could return to the past, to an infinitely distant and expansive reservoir of memories” (Alai 2000, 120). Here the collective and personal memories, the present and the past, are collapsed in the moment of the dance, and a strong connection between the author and the dancers, between them and the Tibetan warriors the dance invoked, is established.
The old Gyarong in Alai’s memory and imagination can still be seen, though rarely. Alai discovers a correlation between landscape and identity. As the land rises, “wheat turns to barley, and forests of maples, poplars, pines, grey-trunked spruces, and dark-barked hemlocks” (Alai 2000, 158) appear. Alai finds himself in the depths of old Gyarong, and the floodgates of childhood memories and memories of Tibetan culture suddenly opens. The lower he goes on the “staircase,” the closer he comes to the Han interior and the more attenuated Tibetan culture becomes. It is this geographic and cultural “rise” and “fall” that is his focus in the travel account.
As the landscape changes, Alai notes sharp contrasts between the pure Tibetan Gyarong and the Sinicized Gyarong. Village names reflect changes in the political history of the region. The poetic name “Najue,” meaning “a deep valley” and compatible with the environment, was changed to the nondescript “203 Lumbering Field” during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), when large-scale logging turned the green valley into wasteland. In the mixed architecture in the area Alai notices a disparity between graceful traditional Gyarong houses, which “forever maintain a respectful silence and a sense of serenity in harmony with the mountains and rivers,” and “the rough and arrogant cement boxes” typical of the Mao-era Chinese architecture, whose “open sewers filled with garbage become home for flies in the summer” (Alai 2000, 193–94). In the sharply contrasted and violently disconnected world of Tibetan beauty and Han dreadfulness, Alai’s Tibetan identity is repeatedly and positively affirmed. Hence, Gyarong offers a site for the reassertion of the writer’s sense of belonging, and his physical journey is framed as an interior mapping of his own attachment to the Gyarong cultural landscape.
This Gyarong cultural landscape, however, is a constructed entity, created through acts of remembering and imagining. To Alai, the true Gyarong is found in the past, kept alive in the myths and legends associated with the mountains and rivers. On the solitary journey that allows him uninterrupted meditative reveries, Alai indulges himself in a romantic nostalgic retreat into the past depicted in stories about the spread of Buddhism in Gyarong, and Tubo (Tibetan) military conquests. Intensely emotional in its self-location, Alai’s travelogue expresses a longing for a Gyarong that was pure, unadulterated, elegant, and heroic. He is immensely proud of his ancestors, proud of his lineage: “I know that in my body flows the blood of my native Gyarong ancestors as well as the blood of the Tibetan warriors from Ngari” (Alai 2000, 35), not to mention the Hui blood that also courses through his veins. Throughout the book, however, it is his Tibetanness, not his other heritages, that he emphasizes.
In polyethnic Ngawa, hybridity has been a fact of life from the very beginning, when Tibetan soldiers appeared in the landscape. Originally settled by the Qiang, an ancient nomadic people, Gyarong was conquered by Tibetans in the seventh and eighth centuries, followed by Mongols, and later by the Qing empire, which brought Han and Hui soldiers from Sichuan and Shaanxi. Many of these newcomers settled in the area and married the local peoples. The Gyarong Tibetans, “as the colonizers yesterday, . . . were counter-colonized then and are recolonized today. Colonization is therefore never unidirectional, nor does it occur only once” (Choy 2008, 231). Although a pure and unadulterated Gyarong may never have existed, to Alai, the imagined past, embedded in the valleys and mountains of the landscape, was altogether whole and untainted. By reasserting Gyarong’s Tibetanness, Alai embraces a Tibetan national identity distinct from the Chinese national identity, although his position is more cultural and aesthetic than political. As a repository of collective Tibetan consciousness, the Gyarong landscape evokes the legends of a glorious Tibet marked by beauty, religiosity, and political triumph. Compared with the writings of Tashi Nyima and Alai’s own fictional work, The Earth’s Staircase is an unapologetic affirmation of a Tibetan national identity at the expense of Gyarong’s local and hybrid identity.
As China’s economy grows, the Sino-Tibetan borderlands are becoming increasingly popular destinations for urbanites escaping congested cities and fast-paced lifestyles. Travel literature is both a product and a catalyst of this rush to the borders. It not only provides guidance on how landscapes should be viewed but also bears witness to the societies observed. What Wen Pulin, Fan Wen, and Alai have created, therefore, are textual spaces in which the encounter between the outsider and the indigenous takes place and issues of representing the landscape and its people are explored. The connection between travel/tourism and identity politics is well studied (Grenier 2005; R. Williams 2008). Although travel is essentially a process of finding the other, the intrusion of the traveler into the life of the native often has reverberating effects. While the outsider looks in, trying to uncover some unknown mysteries in the other, the insider, in response to the external gaze, looks back, searching the past for guidance in order to redefine himself or herself and defend indigenous tradition. Only in an imagined pure past, an untainted “childhood,” with its own distinct cultural practices untouched by the project of “the Chinese nation” can minorities retrieve the bloodlines of their ethnicity. The Sino-Tibetan borderlands are thus fertile grounds for reimagining “the nation,” be it a newly reconstructed Tibetan one, a reconfiguration of an older multiethnic People’s Republic, or a completely new territory and polity.
Landscape features in the writings of both groups as a space in which meanings can be located. In the eyes of the outsider, landscape in the borderlands is constructed as a space that fulfills dreams and fantasies—a path to new kinds of selfhood. To indigenous authors, it is a repository for ethnic history and tradition, invested with memory and vitality and with the capacity to preserve knowledge and define self and group identity. For both groups, landscape serves as the primary location for interpretation of cultural differences, some of which manifest as differences in literary style and content. From this angle, landscape is not only a subject to be written about; it is an agent that can and does express itself historically and politically. Indeed, the travel writings and poems discussed in this chapter treat landscape as an entity that leverages ownership of moral, spiritual, and literary authority.
Fraught with questions related to history, tradition, and authenticity of representation, ethnic identity in the borderlands is always complex. The minorities living there straddle multiple allegiances and consider themselves as both part of and separate from the national culture. For Tibetans in the Sino-Tibetan borderlands, this means that PRC state incorporation and global tourism, which come together in shangrilazation, have generated new forms of Tibetan unity and an affinity for a Tibetan nationalist project that did not previously exist.9 This tendency is most pronounced in Alai’s travel writing, despite his professed disinterest in Tibetan politics. This is not to say that Tashi Nyima does not espouse a similar sentiment. However, the fact that the Khawa Karpo Culture Society and Return operate as a platform for all minorities in the region, not just for Tibetans, makes it hard, if not impossible, to advocate or express a particularly pan-Tibetan national identity, another indication of the hybridity of the cultural landscape of northwest Yunnan.
In the Sino-Tibetan borderlands, landscape plays an important role in imaginative constructions of identity. As each writer presents his own view of the region, the claims he makes on specific identities are contingent upon representations of the landscape. Landscape, therefore, is not just a physical space; it is a complex entity, codified and inscribed with meanings. As a cultural and political production, landscape is used to tell stories, teach historical lessons, set the terms for a literary form, and, most importantly, define self-identity and ethnic and national identity.
CHAPTER 1. VITAL MARGINS
1Tibetans in this case are treated similarly as Naturvölker, defined as peoples who live close to nature, a concept proposed by the German psychologist and anthropologist Theodor Waitz (1821-1864). See his seminal work Die Anthropologie der Naturvölker (Waitz 2012) and a critique of Naturvölker in Zimmerman 2001.
2For a Chinese interpretation of Sun’s minority policy and its implications in contemporary Chinese ethnic relations, see Hu 1995.
3Emily T. Yeh’s study of Lhasa neighborhoods in the pre- and post-1950s argues that a historical cosmopolitanism based on Buddhism in combination with a coercive state policy of national unity has facilitated smooth interactions among different ethnicities living in Lhasa (Yeh 2009c).
4In China, tourist sites are divided into two categories: natural sites (ziran jingguan) and cultural or human development sites (ren wen jingguan).
5For a discussion of how ethnic minorities are used to help define Chinese national identity, see Gladney 1994.
6Li’s use of this phrase reflects the Chinese view of the international recognition of Latin American writers, such as Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges, and the hope that their own “regionalism” could become mainstream as well.
7In his study of China’s politics of regionalism, Tim Oakes (1999, 2000) finds that ethnic minorities are represented and self-represent as “‘living fossils’ (huo huashi) of ancient China.” The Miao people of Guizhou, the subject of his research, are portrayed as “the Chinese of the Tang dynasty” (618–907), and their Ground Opera is promoted as the exact form staged in the heartland of Chinese civilization up to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). In the summer of 2002, I attended a concert of Naxi Ancient Music, which Xuan Ke, its famous spokesperson, claimed that the Naxi alone had preserved from the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE).
8Howard Y. F. Choy (2008, 224) argues, “Disoriented in the identity crisis between Chineseness and Tibetanness, the self of such a Chinese Tibetan as the writer Alai . . . is so confused that he can only present fictionally and fictitiously his identity in idiocy.” Although I would not go so far as to equate the first-person narrator in Red Poppies with the author Alai, as Choy clearly does, I agree that in Gyarong, a “polyethnic gray area,” self-identity is complex, shifting, and historically conditioned.
9Tsering Topgyal’s (2011) dissertation examines the cycles of (Chinese) state-building policies and strengthening of (Tibetan) identity and resistance and sees them as obstacles for solving the Tibet Question.