Poem: “The Spider of Yabzhi Taktser” By Woeser

“The Spider of Yabzhi Taktser”
By Woeser

Translation by Ian Boyden

That afternoon the savage light
fell on ordinary, worldly faces,
the faces golden
as if stone were turned to gold,
transformed into unusual treasure.

We walked Jiangsu Road [1]. Yes,
the Jiangsu Road in the southern part of Lhasa.
The road’s name is a violation that does not belong here—
     you understand?
Although I am older than my two friends,
I’m an acha [2] who’s a full head shorter.
We spoke Tibetan, Chinese, and English,
although I only speak Chinese and Tibetan.
We were followed, I don’t know by who or how many.
They were like tails we couldn’t shake loose.
They stood there on the corners,
their eyes like cunning rats,
with their tiny swallowed hearts,
such trembling, wretched obsequious worms.
And there in the shadows of the roadside trees
people milled about outside of shops
their faces void of light
discussing business
riddled with anxiety.

We walked through Central Beijing Road [3],
this holy city so long ago embedded with foreign names.
Each name is like its own occupation—one after another,
everyone’s grown so accustomed to them,
no one knows to think the names are strange.
Sunshine, ah, golden sunshine,
our warm shadows fell long across the colorful floor tiles.
Surveillance cameras everywhere [4]
hung in the high places
their eyes fell upon our bodies
on everyone’s bodies—
     it seemed our backs grew cold.
Even so, I didn’t want to turn my head to look.
I didn’t want to stop,
I just wanted to keep going forward
and so we walked with long strides.
We grinned and laughed—
we were so handsome
cherishing this moment of apparent freedom
and together we sighed the slogan of the oppressor
          “So Happy and Blessed!” [5]

Go straight, then turn right—
how many times have I returned to visit Yabzhi Takster?[6]
This mansion which carries the family name of His Holiness [7]
was built more than sixty years ago, half of it already in ruins.
However, I don’t want to retell history—
the earliest happy gathering,
the rapid tumble to impermanence
after being forced to abandon it,
the tears they shed while leaving.
Those who occupied it were outsiders
who wore green clothes, blue clothes,
outsiders reincarnated as hungry ghosts,
reincarnated as hermit crabs occupying the shell of another.
Today, the ancient orchards and gardens
have become a parking lot
a Sichuan restaurant
a shopping mall.
Many parts of the main building
and the outer courtyards have collapsed,
almost no windows still intact.

We stood on the roof of a nearby market
and looked down.
I was astonished at this huge wound that cannot be healed
astonished to see the mansion was so close to the Phodrang Potala [8]
     —so close, so close.

I harbored tears filled with self-criticism:
I’m an incapable, powerless waste.

We walked into the empty wilderness of the outer courtyard
half-filled with weeds and wildflowers,
half-filled with bicycles and motorcycles.
A senseless warehouse.
A man and woman who seemed like workers
passed by carrying plastic bags.
Four or five tall, lacquer-black mastiffs [9]
were chained in a corner downstairs
their eyes of desperation.
They could only show their sharp teeth,
could only utter futile barks.
They belonged to the owner of a nearby Sichuan restaurant
who was waiting to sell them at a good price.
A few days later when we snuck in again
we ran into him as he came to feed them.
He assumed the posture of the owner
but his bluff to expel us had no effect.
He called a man wearing a security uniform—a Tibetan—
to rid the place of us.
But I asked him in Tibetan, “Who is the real owner of this place?”
My question rendered him helpless,
    na, na, unable to form a sentence.

Walking up the stairs from the garbage-strewn ground floor
we held our breath as we passed
through a winding corridor crosshatched with cracks.
A few rows of iron railings purchased from India
had bloomed rust but were still sturdy,
their consecutive patterns of sunlight and shadow
framing an unknowable maze like a foreign country.
We leaned on a railing and looked around.
The original white walls were mottled,
the black window frames had split apart,
the ends of the eaves were carved
with sacred animals, magic clouds, and lotus flowers.
Rotten wood strained
to support the structure of the mansion
and in a dark hall lined with ten or so columns
several shabby tables and chairs were scattered about,
discarded by the last people who left.
A few beams of light
fell obliquely from a clear story
through flying dust, flickering phantoms
as if they were monks wearing masks slowly performing Cham [10]
I noticed a window to the northwest
through this opening lined with blades of glass
I could perfectly see the Phodrang Potala
and it seemed like I was looking into the past,
and saw, within all the worry and grief
of the first years of the occupation,
the commitment of the Venerable Youth [11].
I turned from this only to be shocked again
by a broken mirror hanging from a pillar.
I hung there, reflected as a helpless Self
carrying an expression
of the desire to hide from the world.
I didn’t dare get closer,
I was scared I might catch a glimpse of a singular shadow
fleeing in a panic in the middle of the night,
1959.
I was scared I might hear His Holiness
who has passed most of his life in foreign countries,
might hear him whisper:
      “Your home, your friends, your country—suddenly lost…” [12]

Is it possible
I lived here in a previous life?
That I endured all the parting?
Is it possible
in the past I was in so much pain
I did not want to live,
yet exhausted my mind just to survive?
Unexpectedly there rose the desire to escape
but still I lingered in this room filled with vestigial traces:
the walls covered with old portraits of popular Hong Kong stars,
a front page of Tibet Daily from over twenty years ago
covering news of the 14th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party,
a completely shredded print of the Potala Palace,
Chinese characters pasted to some of the doors
reading “Blessing” and “Great Prosperity in the New Year.”
Another door carried the Chinese word “Office” written in red lacquer
and pasted to yet another door, a deathly pale seal:
    Petition presented on January 5, 2005…
And a long-bearded Chinese door god,
his right hand holding a pagoda,
his left hand lifting an iron hammer.
In one nook there was a goat skull with a pair of empty eyes
its two burned horns curling out
as if in the past it were desperate for help.
In another nook, the original arkar [13] floor was gone
and from the cracks there grew small blades of grass
full of life.
In another spot, a chunk of wood the size of your hand—
which must have been a gorgeous column cap that fell long ago:
the paint still there
the carving still there.
It was the essence of this ancient house—
I quietly slipped it into my backpack.

A single piece of turquoise [14] hangs from my neck
it is my secret guide
that led me to the destiny of my next encounter:

            Dom! [15]

Hanging outside a broken window
and floating dangerously in midair,
dom, a spider trapped in threads it spit out itself,
floated on a web so thin it could almost not be seen.
It had already become a mummy
looking into the abyss,
into a section of tragic collapse.
Was it the only dead bit of life here?
Was it the only existing guardian here?
Had it overestimated its own position?
Had it wanted to capture these invincible demons?

Hanging in front of my eyes, the spider was another mirror,
its lacquer-black carapace glimmering in the traitorous light.
Through some kind of struggle, it had become a metaphor.
I dared not touch it, afraid that in that instant
it might disappear.

I think back to those years.
This symbolic animal must not have been the only one of its kind,
and there must have been the host’s house pets too—
there must have been cats and mice
and dogs, the special Lhasa apso, running back and forth
from the Buddha hall to the living room and the bedrooms
perhaps peacefully falling asleep.
And surely a big dog too?
I mean a mastiff from the grasslands.
He would have stayed in the yard with the gatekeeper,
stood at the entrance of the main gate—loyal, devoted, invincible.

Dom—this is how one says “spider” in Tibetan
     the m soft, almost non-existent.

Domthag—this is how one says “spider web”
     the m subtle as if it were being swallowed.[16]

Compared with other lifeforms
the spider’s vitality is perhaps more tenacious:
it is easier for it to hide itself in another place and survive.
And yet it is also easier for the spider to die alone
in a violent, unnatural death that goes unreported.

This spider, “born like a fortress to imprison enemies,” [17]
wove the world into a lifetime of web,
bound by and to itself,
unable to extricate itself from its own threads—

just like us
and our unfathomable fate.

Woeser
Beijing
July 31 – August 3, 2017

Translated by Ian Boyden
San Juan Island
September 19, 2017

Translator’s note: This is poem of extraordinary scale and complexity. I called on many of my friends to help me figure out how to render it into English. My deepest thanks to Rong Sun, Dechen Pemba, Jim Canary, Jennifer Boyden, and Sam Hamill for their insights and suggestions. And my great gratitude to Woeser for her patience with my many questions as I worked to understand the poem as completely as I possibly could.

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)

  1. [1] Jiangsu Road. Almost all the endnotes to this poem have to do with names and language, and how they constitute one of the primary means by which we form cultural identity. After the Chinese occupied Tibet in the 1950s, they quickly started to attack the Tibetan language. They renamed the streets, buildings, and cultural landmarks with Chinese names, even changing the names of mountains and rivers. Chinese was declared the state language, children were forced to attend Chinese schools, official documents were written in Chinese, and so forth. These foreign names are much more than symbolic, they are like weapons of the occupier, slowly erasing the cultural memory of Lhasa and Tibet as a whole. If you look at Tibet today on Google Maps, you will see this erasure in action, you will see a landscape of Chinese names. In the case of Jiangsu Road, Jiangsu is a province in eastern China, a part of historical Han China. Jiangsu has nothing to do with historical Tibet. The road was given this name on August 27, 1997 in “honor” of Jiangsu province funding the Chinese “modernization” of this part of Lhasa. What was Jiangsu Road before it was Jiangsu Road? It was a road called Golden Pearl Road built by the People’s Liberation Army shortly after they occupied the city in 1959. Before that, there was no road at all—it was a giant stretch of forested parks, foot paths, and little streams. When the PLA entered Lhasa they cut down this area and turned it into a military barracks, which were then linked by this new road.
  2. [2] Acha (ཨ་ཅག་): Tibetan meaning “older sister.” Woeser is originally from Lhasa and speaks both Tibetan and Chinese. However, she writes almost exclusively in Chinese. In this poem, she utilizes many Tibetan words transliterated into Chinese, consciously choosing to not use existing Chinese words. She could have chosen the Chinese word for older sister, but her conscious choice of acha indicates that her relationship with her friends continues to be defined by Tibetan culture. The choice forces her Chinese readers to stumble into the unfamiliar. I have chosen to italicize these Tibetan words as they appear in the translation with footnotes showing the original word in Tibetan and their meaning. The transliterations are roughly based on the Wylie transliteration system, but have been modified to reflect how the words are pronounced in Lhasa, where Woeser is from and where the poem takes place.
  3. [3] Central Beijing Road. Like the name Jiangsu Road discussed in note 1, Beijing has nothing to do with historical Tibet. The original Tibetan name of Beijing Road was Dekyi Namgang (བདེ་སྐྱིད་གནམ་གང་།), which means ‘Happiness Road.’ After the Chinese occupation, the road was expanded, cutting through numerous parks and wild lands to form the continuum of East Beijing Road, Central Beijing Road, and West Beijing Road, one of the main arteries of the city. In her essay “The New Face of Lhasa,” Woeser writes, “Lhasa is submerged in a pile of new names that have nothing to do with its history, tradition, or culture. The outsider “liberators,” came and took over the old city of Tibet that had nothing to do with them, and have constructed a logic for reassigning revolutionary names that is unoriginal and completely domineering.”
  4. [4] Today, Lhasa is covered in security cameras. They surround all of the major monuments and civic buildings. Chinese snipers are positioned on the top of many buildings, keeping watch for any individual or group protest that might break out. Han Chinese are more free to wander the streets of Lhasa than the native Tibetans.
  5. [5] Woeser told me that as she and her friends walked along the streets that day, they tried to imagine they were Han Chinese, but that everything became imbued with irony. “So Happy and Blessed!” is a common phrase used in Chinese propaganda regarding Tibet. Tibetans are presented as an idyllic people, “so happy and blessed,” who were saved by Chinese liberation. In 2012, there was a large sculpture placed in the center of Lhasa that reads “The Happy and Blessed City.” It was meant to look like an abstract Tibetan style cloud, but the Tibetans laughed saying it looked like a giant pile of shit.
  6. [6] Yabzhi Taktser (ཡབ་གཞིས་སྟག་འཚེར་) is the family name of the 14th Dalai Lama. According to tradition this is also the name of this mansion. After the family of the Dalai Lama moved from Amdo to Lhasa, they built this mansion and gave it this name. It is located in the center of Lhasa, close to the Potala Palace. For more detail see her essay “The Ruins of Yabzhi Taktser.”
  7. [7] His Holiness. Tibetans have a multitude of names for the Dalai Lama including Yeshe Norbu, Gongsachog, Chenrezig, Gyalwa Rinpoche, and Kundun. In fact, most Tibetans usually do not refer to him by the name Dalai Lama. The reason is that ‘Dalai Lama,’ meaning ‘Ocean of Wisdom,’ is actually a Mongolian name given to his lineage by the Mongolian King Altan Khan in the 16th century. ‘Dalai’ is a Mongolian word meaning ‘Ocean’ combined with the Tibetan word ‘Lama’ meaning ‘Wisdom.’ In this poem, Woeser refers to him as 尊者, meaning ‘Venerable One,” and which corresponds to the English appellation ‘His Holiness.’ It is interesting to note that the terms ‘His Holiness’ and ‘尊者’ are not translations of a specific Tibetan term, but are rather terms that originated within the Tibetan exile communities post 1959. As a major theme of this poem has to do with names and how they shape our consciousness, it is important to point out how Woeser refers to the most important spiritual leader of the Tibetan tradition.
  8. [8] Phodrang Potala (ཕོ་བྲང་པོ་ཏ་ལ་) is the Tibetan name for the Potala Palace. The Potala Palace is the most famous building in Tibet. It was the residence of the Dalai Lama until 1959 as well as the seat of the Tibetan government.
  9. [9] Tibetan Mastiff, dokyi (འདོགས་ཁྱི). In her essay “The Tibetan Mastiff as a Metaphor,” Woeser describes how in recent years the Tibetan mastiff has become the favorite pet of Chinese tycoons. The thirst for these dogs has lead to these dogs being stolen from Tibetans across the Tibet and sold at incredible prices in China. But then the market for these dogs collapsed and they were no longer cherished and were then sold to be eaten in hotpot restaurants. She see this as a metaphor for the relationship of Han Chinese to Tibetans. The Han Chinese treat Tibetans the same way they treat their pets.
  10. [10] Cham (འཆམ་): A form of Tibetan religious dance performed by monks.
  11. [11] Venerable Youth, a reference to the young Dalai Lama.
  12. [12] This quotation is from In Exile from the Land of Snows: The Definitive Account of the Dalai Lama and Tibet Since the Chinese Conquest by John Avedon (Harper Perennial, 1997).
  13. [13] Arkar (ཨར་དཀར་): Tibetan word meaning “white material.” It is used in Tibetan buildings, made from weathered limestone or sandstone pounded into powder. It is generally used for the floors and roofs of buildings. During construction it is mixed with water, applied to the surface, and polished. After construction it is smooth, solid, and impermeable, like cement. There is a folk song: “Arkar is not a stone, Arkar is not the soil, Arkar is the essence of the essence of the lotus land from deep within the mountains.”
  14. [14] Turquoise, gyu (གཡུ་): Among Tibetan people turquoise is also known as a bla stone or ‘soul stone.’ Namkhai Norbu writes: “According to Tibetan tradition, the bla can have a support or be personified by an object, like a precious stone, a mountain, a lake etc.” (pg. 225). Turquoise “is a bla stone to attract the oath-bound deities” (pg. 5). Namkhai Norbu, Drung, Deu and Bon: Narrations, Symbolic Languages and the Bon Tradition on Ancient Tibet, translated from Tibetan into Italian, edited, and annotated by Adriano Clemente; translated from Italian into English by Andrew Lukianowicz (Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1995). See note 14 below.
  15. [15] Dom (སྡོམ): Tibetan, meaning “spider.” Because Chinese is not written with an alphabet, it is very inhospitable to transliterating words from other languages. Foreign words are rendered using a combination of Chinese characters that approximate the sounds, which invariably sound very awkward and a far cry from the original. And while the Chinese characters used are selected for sound, nevertheless, they also have their own Chinese meaning, which sometimes adds a new layer of potential meaning to the transliterated word. As there is no standard stystem for transliterating Tibetan words into Chinese, Woeser often makes them up herself, which means she has the chance of selecting Chinese characters not just for sound but also for meaning. Dom presents a delightful example. She originally chose the characters 董木, (dǒngmù). At one point in our correspondence regarding the translation of this poem, I wrote, “I love that the word dom, as transliterated into English contains the fundamental Sanskrit seed syllable Om—the cosmic, immutable sound, which forms a fundamental part of Buddhist chants such as Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ. Your entire poem is like a spider web revolving around this single word dom, it is the seed syllable of the poem. If I were to transliterate it into Chinese I would utilize the character 嗡, which means both Om and the buzzing of insects. Both predator and prey, a poem within the poem, like a secret sword.” To my delight Woeser accepted this proposal, and changed the transliteration to 特嗡母 (tèwēngmǔ), meaning ‘mother of the extraordinary Om.’
  16. [16] Domthag (སྡོམ་ཐག་): Tibetan, meaning “spider web.”
  17. [17] This phrase is from the Epic of King Gesar in a passage about the extraordinary beauty of Gesar’s stepbrother Gyatsa Shelkar, translated in Namkhai Norbu’s Drung, Deu and Bon, page 5 (see note 10 above). By incorporating this quote, Woeser allies her poem with the Epic of King Gesar and the ancient Tibetan narratives known as drung, which record history, customs, and habits of the Tibetans and are often enriched with allegorical and poetic details. She said she was not forging a direct a direct relationship between Shelkar and the spider, rather she wanted to invoke the beauty of the language in that passage.

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