“I Was Moved by the Tibetan Script at the Olympics Closing Ceremony” By Woeser


High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser, originally written for the Tibetan service of Radio Free Asia on August 23, 2016, and published on her blog on August 27, 2016.

In this post, Woeser discusses her feelings upon seeing Tibetan script at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics. As Woeser explains, even though the Tibetan script was representing Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan, seeing “Kadrin Che – Thank You” written in Tibetan prompted much social media activity and sharing amongst Tibetans.

The two Tibetans who competed in the Olympics representing PRC, Choeyang Kyi and Topgyal, did not come away with any medals. Choeyang Kyi completed her 20km race walk in 5th place and Topgyal his marathon in 91st place. Choeyang Kyi later posted an apology in Tibetan on her social media about what she considered to be her poor performance.


“I Was Moved by the Tibetan Script at the Olympics Closing Ceremony”
By Woeser


During the Rio Olympics, the New York Times published a commentary titled “The World Loves Refugees, When They’re Olympians,” in which it is stated: “The glorification of Team Refugees and the vilification of refugees coexist. How can they? It’s the old principle: Not in my backyard. ‘We are getting better and we are getting worse at the same time,’ Paul Auster, the novelist, told me. ‘And at the same speed.’”

This post is also related to the Olympics. These days, there is one ethnic group whose netizens are also deeply moved. This is because of two things: first, because two Tibetan athletes competed in the Olympics; one is the race walker Choeyang Kyi from Qinghai and the other one is the marathon runner Topgyal from the Tibet Autonomous Region. Second, during the closing ceremony when the words “Thank You” were projected onto the stadium ground in many different languages, Tibetan script appeared.

I admit that I was not moved by the two Tibetan athletes; they did not at all come from Amdo and U-Tsang, but from Qinghai and the TAR, these are facts. I appreciate their dedication and love for sports and admire the efforts they went through for their passion, but that’s all. I think it is clear to all here. If they had received a medal, they would have represented China; as one of China’s 56 “flowers”, their Olympic glory would not have been very special, because they would have just been one of many. No one would particularly emphasise Tibet or them being Tibetans, in fact, this would have probably been ignored altogether. This is why I was not moved.

But I was moved by those three Tibetan characters at the closing ceremony. I tweeted: “The Tibetan words བཀའ་དྲིན་ཆེ། (Thank You) appeared at the Olympics closing ceremony!” I also changed my profile picture to the image showing “Thank You” in many languages. And of course, I also posted this on my WeChat “Moments”; a Chinese friend replied saying that he could not see the Tibetan script and I immediately pointed out that we find it to the right of the middle part, slightly towards the front. Haha. I was genuinely and spontaneously surprised in a pleasant way. But I knew immediately that the reason why they included Tibetan script was because Bhutan participated in the Olympics and isn’t Bhutanese Tibetan? Those who know the country Bhutan will know that Bhutan’s script is Tibetan. Of course you could say that it is called Dzongkha or you could dig out some subtle differences. But isn’t traditional Chinese also Chinese!? Or is only simplified Chinese really Chinese?

Of course, Tibetan netizens (or at least netizens within the great firewall) were deeply moved and quickly shared the photo; but then some people emerged saying mockingly: “Just as Lord Ye did not really love dragons in the past, Tibetans don’t really love their script today,” meaning that these Tibetans “pretending to know Tibetan … don’t actually use Tibetan at home, so what is the point of becoming overjoyed, yes even proud, when seeing some Tibetan appear in a foreign place?”

I have to really criticise this. You can feel moved for all sorts of reasons. Of course, blindly following what everyone else does is of no use, there is no need to mention that. Of course, you can also ridicule Tibetans by comparing them with the ancient Chinese Lord Ye, but unless you are a fake Tibetan, please don’t use this old Chinese idiom of Lord Ye as an example! Or do we call the person who typed these words a fake Chinese speaker, misspelling the word “Lord Ye”; “Ye” used to actually pronounced as “She” (fourth tone), but can only be typed as “Ye” (fourth tone).

My point is that there are many ways to feel moved; for instance, when you have been deprived of your freedom and deprived of your right to self-determination, you may suddenly feel moved when confronted with the past. For example, in 2010, when Spain won the football World Cup in South Africa, the famous team captain Carles Puyol ran across the entire pitch holding up a Catalonian flag. On a photo showing him hugging and celebrating with his teammates, people noticed that he had Tibetan tattooed on the inside of his left arm: “Power is inside the mind. The strong can endure.” When I saw that I was indeed deeply moved.

It seems that a fake Tibetan-speaker like me who is always pretending to be so excited “represents another form of the self-inflicted feeling of Tibetan inferiority” (to quote another one of those Tibetan netizens who thinks that “when you are strong and powerful, everything is just normal and makes perfect sense”). But what I noticed is that Puyol and his teammates were by no means labelled as “Catalonian separatists” and banned from playing football or something even worse; on the contrary, today’s Spanish and Catalonian people enjoy genuine autonomy; regardless of what events they hold, they are always allowed to use their own language. It is Puyol and his teammates who are actually strong and powerful.

Let’s think about this in more detail; today’s Tibetans are in a really awkward position. If you cheer for Tibetans at the Olympics, they actually represent China; if you cheer for Tibetan script appearing at the Olympic closing ceremony, it is “explained” that it is actually Dzongkha and you are laughed at for “supporting Bhutan”. Considering this, wouldn’t you also be as grieved as I am? Originally I thought we were represented, could celebrate our mother tongue and be excited about the sudden appearance of Tibetan script on a world stage. But is that really so? You suddenly realise that for one, you no longer have a presence, your presence has been taken away; second, you also no longer have a future; in the future, not even your mother tongue belongs to you, it belongs to someone else and so your future has also been taken away.

So the only thing you have left is the past. In the past, you were a Tibetan; in the past, you had a mother tongue (in Tibetan we call it father tongue). But in the present and in the future, you no longer have a place. Of course, if you don’t care about it, well then it doesn’t matter, it is up to you what kind of identity and goal you want to have. But to turn a blind eye to this current situation, to past and present hardships and commenting on people’s affection by bringing up Lord Ye and arguing that they are not strong and powerful enough is completely unreasonable

I like the affection displayed by poet Ngawang Gyatso. He said: “Well, we were all happy. We usually never see any Tibetan script at work or elsewhere; so seeing it in Rio, it felt nice. Even if we only saw them on other people’s photos.”

I also like Bubu’s affection: She said: “Feeling emotional about Tibetan script appearing on a world’s stage is really a very simply, almost crude kind of emotion, one that we don’t want to criticise, don’t want to scrutinise or analyse. Imagine a shepherd boy who has never even finished primary school on his way home, suddenly seeing an old TV at a food stall along the road broadcasting the Olympic closing ceremony in bad quality; at that moment, he sees the Tibetan words ༼བཀའ་དྲིན་ཆེ༽, he immediately starts to shout: ‘Mum! Dad! Mum! Dad! There is Tibetan script at the international Olympic Games…’ This is how it is.”

Among the subsequent debates, I could particularly sympathise with what dANBA said: “It doesn’t matter why this Tibetan script appeared or which country they represent, these letters are definitely found in Tibetan language and Tibetans subjectively saw themselves reflected in these symbols; when one sees one culture being trampled down everywhere, this feeling of blind and spontaneous affection is really like a luxury, please understand some Tibetan people’s ignorance. Those who are really perceptive and show some depth should change the focus of their question and ask ‘why is it that this specious cultural symbol made so many Tibetans feel so deeply moved?’ Believe me, there are many profound historical and socio-cultural issues to be dug out here.”

Simultaneously, the theme song of the South African world cup rang in my ears: “When I get older I will be stronger; They’ll call me freedom; Just like a wavin’ flag…” Indeed, we have no freedom let alone power; and freedom, just as the New York Times’ comment on the refugee team concluded, “cannot be built on exclusion and hatred. It is a universal human right. Brazil and the International Olympic Committee have given the world a glimpse of the humanity and aspirations of each refugee. Perhaps, after all, we are getting better faster than we are getting worse, and barriers will continue to fall — but not through words alone.”

Beijing, August 23, 2016

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)