Tibetan youth show that they are capable of creating an identity for themselves that exists entirely outside of the Chinese imagination.
In my life there have been a few rare occasions when I wished I were younger. Such futile sentiments are usually followed by a mixture of nostalgia and regret. Sitting now in a coffee shop, watching the Tibetan pop vocal group Yudruk perform Milam, I am struck by these feelings once again. I wish I were experiencing this as a younger man. I wish I had had the chance to be cool and be Tibetan when I was a young college student in Beijing.
In those days, I struggled to express who I wanted to be. Looking back, I can see that I was searching for a way to be “cool” and be Tibetan at the same time. Of course, back then, the term cool didn’t exist, either in Tibetan or Chinese. And whatever it was, “coolness” was the last thing associated with Tibetans in the Chinese imagination. As a young Tibetan who grew up in the Chinese education system, we didn’t yet know how to live outside Chinese imagination.
I still vividly remember my first journey into the Chinese heartland. In the barren city of Golmud in the Tsaidam desert, I had a conversation with my fellow Tibetan travelers – all freshmen headed to college – about how to be a Tibetan in this new land where we would spend the next four years. One student had already been to China as a soccer player. He told us that we needed to carry a Tibetan knife and act a little savage. For some reason, there happened to be an abundance of Tibetan knives to buy in the dusty market of Golmud. I think I was the only one who did not rush to buy a knife. I just couldn't picture myself with a big Tibetan knife dangling at my waist, swaggering around the Chinese capital.
I was dreaming of something else – of finding a way to be both Tibetan and modern.
But soon after we arrived, I found out that in China's national imagination there was no space for me to be both. Who I could be was already predetermined.
From the early days of China’s rule in Tibet, a dark and savage image of Tibetans was created and propagated: dark skinned, greasy, barbaric, and in need of civilization and liberation. This image became widespread through the mute character Champa in the classic film “Nongnu”. As the story goes, when the People’s Liberation Army finally liberated Champa from his slave master, this man who hadn’t spoken for years cried out in gratitude, “Long live Chairman Mao!” That caricature not only became ingrained in China's national imagination, it also became an integral part of modern China's national narrative.
In fact, in the mad drama of contemporary China, there were only two sanctioned Tibetan characters scripted by the Party. We had the option of being either the pre-liberation savage or the post-liberation political sycophant, indebted to the Party for rescuing us from ourselves.
Most of us were too smart and too proud to play the post-liberation sycophant. So that left us with the role of savages. Back in Tibet, we tended to be quiet, mild-mannered, even nerdy students. But in China we became street fighters. We brawled in restaurants and beat up other students in school. Everyone pretended to be frightened of us and we pretended we were untamed wild men. We were Tibetan.
Meanwhile my dream of becoming a cool, modern Tibetan remained shrouded in the distance.
Nowadays, I understand that Tibetan college students in China have their own set of challenges in being Tibetan. But as the story of China becomes more diverse and complicated, Tibetans are also coming out from the shadow of the liberation narrative. There are now extraordinarily conflicting images of Tibetans settling into the Chinese mind. Now we are rioters, learned Buddhist scholars, corrupt party bosses, smart college kids, the best-looking man in China, stubborn religious fanatics – and of course, we are also cool like the four young men of Yudruk.
Tibetan song / Music Rmi lam (dream) by Yudrug Group
The Yudruk phenomenon shows not only that Tibetans can be cool, but that it is cool to be Tibetan. This is a radical shift. But not only does it show a kind of Tibetanness that is on the cutting edge of cool. It also makes it clear that a Tibetan image can be created and exist entirely outside of the Chinese imagination. This is a kind of Tibetanness that was made by and for Tibetans.
Last night I had a beautiful dream,
I dreamed about Bod, the Land of Snow
Dream about five colors of the flowers bloomed
Dream about blue dragon land on grand
As I watch these intensely Tibetan and coolly hip young performers, I can see that they have a new audience in mind: other young Tibetans. They are no longer just trying to fit into the Chinese national story; instead they are creating their own.
* The author is a Tibetan scholar, educated in Tibet and China, now based in the US.