London Book Fair. Event 3
Alai (in the middle) was born in 1959 at the start of the Great Leap Forward. Until he went to school he spoke a Tibetan dialect and in his first year had to learn 300 sentences in Mandarin. He now writes Tibetan stories in Mandarin. Only in the 1980s was the Tibetan language taught in schools. Although the schools were in poor condition they were appreciated because it was a chance to be educated.
Tsering Norbu is slightly younger. He was born in a traditional four-sided courtyard style house on two floors. It housed 30 families. He was taught in Tibetan from his primary through secondary to tertiary levels. There were no published text books - just work published by teachers.
Alai said that legends are important in Tibetan villages. The epic of King Gesar is still sung by bards today, and he was commissioned by Canongate to rewrite it as part of Canongate's Myth Series (there is more about this on Bruce Humes's website here). It is the longest myth known in the world today. The myth is being rebuilt with the British Council and has proved to be a difficult project due to the extent of the piece, and the influence of Buddhism on the original. At the moment the Canongate myth is only available in Chinese - an English version is expect in 2013.
Another general difficulty as regards Tibetan literature is the religious element. Communists do not believe in religion; but the Tibetans, for their part, do not believe that tradition can be broken in a couple of decades.
China is not ready for pluralisation of cultures. Alai believes that the greater the variety of cultures in a society, the more beautiful it will be - as in nature. By 'culture' he means not just the religion but the whole culture, and not just Tibetan but all the minorities in China.
Alai found it difficult to get his book Red Poppies published because it is about a sensitive period in history (the 1930s) and the death of a facet of Tibetan culture. He finished the book in 1994 and at the time publication proved difficult because it was thought to be unprofitable and also an issue with censorship. In 1998 opinions had changed and it was published and became a hot seller. He sold the English version for $150 000 in 1999.
However, he said that money was a secondary issue - he writes for the joy of writing.
Tsering Norbu pointed out that it is important for the majority of people that a country is stable. Most people do not want turbulence - they just want a happy life. Having been witness to such 'turbulence' he knws that what happens is often not accurately reported by either the government or the West.
The Tibetans now lives in a secular society, but this secular culture must be nourished in a modern sense. People tend to take sides, they become politicised and this has happened throughout history. But as well as wars there have also been marriages between the Tibetans the Han Chinese, and the Manchu - and the and these have downplayed the anger. That is what is needed now - more marriages between ideologies to discourage turbulence and unrest.
It was a very interesting session and I much appreciated hearing thee new and different viewpoints of a world. At the end of the session Tsering Norbu handed out 'Pathlight' the first edition of a literary magazine of new Chinese Writing which I am looking forward to reading.