Books: understanding Tibet

In Heavenly Beads, chinadialogue’s Liu Jianqiang explores the inner landscape of some Tibetan people, listening with respect and learning from them. Even policy makers can benefit from this outsider’s view, writes Xiong Lei.

Heavenly Beads
Liu Jianqiang
Tibet People’s Publishing House, 2010

While I was writing my reflections on Liu Jianqiang’s legends of Tibetan people Heavenly Beads (Dzi Beads, or Tianzhu), the nation was mourning for those who were killed by the earthquake that devastated Yushu in mid-April. Several of the leading figures recorded in the book are from that Tibetan autonomous prefecture in western China’s Qinghai province.

Although I shared the sorrow and grief of all my Tibetan friends in Yushu over the victims of this disaster, somehow I felt it a cruel blessing in misfortune: at long last, the whole nation was drawn close to that remote area known as the “water tower of Asia” in the hinterland of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The earthquake brought thousands of people to Yushu — including the top leaders of the country and the province — many of whom might otherwise never have had any opportunity to set foot on that part of the “roof of the world”.

I regret that many people have to know of Yushu, a typical Tibetan area, through such a tragedy. And I doubt that many of us outsiders came to know about Yushu and Tibetan people in general in any depth, even though Yushu became instantly known in the news media through April’s sudden attack from nature.

Heavenly Beads is a rarity, a book that explains exactly what Tibet and Tibetan people are all about. Protective dzi beads are the most precious treasures to Tibetans, and Liu Jianqiang’s book portrays the people as having the same precious value as the beads. While their identities may be different – peasants, lamas, NGO workers, businessmen – they’re all doing the same thing: protecting the Tibetan environment and cultural traditions.

I appreciate Heavenly Beads for the author’s efforts to approach and understand Tibetan people with respect. Unlike most travellers and visitors to Tibetan areas, who are just fascinated by scenic landscapes and exotic customs, Liuchinadialogue’s deputy editor in Beijing — went further, knocking open the hearts of people there, listening to them and learning from them. His penetration into the innermost world of his subjects brought him to personal tales far more fascinating than exotic scenes, and resulted in a book that is being regarded as “a unique history of contemporary Tibet and its people”.

Why could so many different Tibetans open their hearts to Liu Jianqiang, an “outsider” who doesn’t even speak their language? The key word is respect, which is also the key to understanding a people.

Liu spent much time living, travelling and chatting with the people in his book. If we count eight hours as a working day, he spent 60 days chatting with Ga Ma, founder of the Three Rivers Environmental Protection Association, deeply digging into his life story.

The author’s respect for Tibetan people is reflected in his profound attention to every word of their conversations. His manner won him the Tibetans’ trust. One day Renqing Sangzhu, the very Han-wary founder of a little village’s environmental protection organisation, said to Liu Jianqiang: “OK, I’m going to tell you my story now. It contains white and black wool, good and bad experience.” This became the first sentence of the book.

Along with not speaking Tibetan, Liu Jianqiang also does not believe in his Tibetan friends’ religion. He may even differ with those whom he wrote about on something they did or said. But these differences never held him back from being respectful of their faith, culture, style of living and way of thinking. Although Liu confessed that he is no expert on Tibet and that he could not fully understand the people there, his esteem for them surmounted barriers and facilitated heart-to-heart communication.

Such communication is missing in many media accounts of contemporary Tibetan people, domestic or international. In many of those accounts, Tibetans tend to be politicised or manipulated. But in Heavenly Beads, we see Tibetan people in their pure and natural selves, pursuing their dreams, leading their lives, coping with challenges and riding out various crises.

Through Liu’s accounts in the book, he reflects their profound feelings for the land in which they were brought up and for the wildlife that co-exists with them. Some Tibetans even give their lives to the protection of the special ecosystem there. We also see how they treasure their cultural roots and endeavour to preserve their traditions and believes, nurtured for generations in that particular geographical location. And we see how they struggle to seek prosperity while keeping their souls calm in a noisy modern world.

Maybe the author plays up certain predestined mystery a bit too much, which might be hard to avoid in a region so remote and at so high an altitude. But what strikes me harder is the revelation of so many things that our policy makers have neglected. Like the remote village where some 200 children could not go to school because there was no bridge over a river. It is in our policy makers’ overlooking of such details that people’s resentments grow, resentments that could offset economic achievements. In that sense, I hope all the policy makers working in Tibetan areas read Heavenly Beads.

Meanwhile, I believe anyone who is concerned about Tibet will learn something from reading this book.

Xiong Lei, a journalist and former executive director of China Features, is currently a guest professor at Tsinghua University’s school of journalism and communication.