High Peaks Pure Earth has translated an essay from WeChat that was written by Yungdrung Gyurme on July 23, 2016 and circulated on the official WeChat channel of Tibetan poet Gade Tsering on August 2, 2016.
The Chinese-language essay has had over 1200 pageviews on WeChat and several comments, including one translated below by Tibetan writer and blogger Woeser. The comment by Woeser, only visible on the WeChat app, not in the web browser, received the most “Likes” out of all the comments.
“Longing for the Disappearing Tibetan Courtyard Life”
By Yungdrung Gyurme
In the courtyard there is a tree with chirping sparrows sitting on the top. There is a row of flower pots along the windows, bees circling around them. For many people, this was life in Lhasa ten years ago. Neighbours cared for each other, shared their sorrows and happiness; it was a harmonious togetherness. This very traditional East Asian lifestyle formed a special moral space and neighbourhood order that was passed down for several millennia. People from Lhasa have always stood out in terms of their taste, they have in a sense been the pioneers in Tibet. They formed the political centre and enjoyed geographical and cultural advantages. Before “liberation,” the young ladies of several aristocratic families became fashion trendsetters. Yet, only Tibetan people know that Lhasa people’s “unique lifestyle” actually exuded an aura of the British bourgeoisie, paying particular attention to etiquette, while simultaneously enjoying the moment. The recently arrived “nouveau riche” rarely understand this hidden aspect. In summer, Lhasa people often ventured out into the suburbs to camp, stroll around at picnics or play music, indulging in elegant pleasures and paying attention to life in unity with nature. In winter, they remained in their houses, recited prayers or rushed from one banquet to the next. This lifestyle was of course only limited to a few aristocratic or political families (including some civil servants, newly rich and capitalists who had experienced upward mobility) who did not have to work and could afford to use servants.
But we cannot deny that Lhasa people have always yearned for the beautiful countryside. And this attitude has undoubtedly influenced Lhasa culture, including poems, folk songs, literature, architecture and so on. Most of Lhasa’s modern folk poems start with a characterisation of the local environment, which serves as a beautiful background for victorious monasteries or special people; for example “Chubsang (to the north of Sera Monastery) is the home of the master, where the weeping willow grows; newly-grown trees tower imposingly, birds sing touchingly.”
Looking at the traditional Tibetan family home, we will notice all sorts of surprises. Along the inside corridors we find nicely-arranged small trees; the owners will raise them as carefully as their own children. In winter, following the daily routine of the owner, the small trees will be moved outside during day time and placed back on the window sill at night. Lhasa people love chrysanthemums, sunflowers and roses the most. I assume it is because they grow easily in the river valleys of the plateau. Zhang Yintang, the Qing Minister stationed in Tibet, once brought the seeds of a “Persian chrysanthemum” into Tibet from abroad and gave them to influential officials and monks as a present; soon this flower would be seen in many Tibetan homes across the entire region. It is extraordinarily strong. One only needs to disperse a few seeds and they will grow for an entire summer. Tibetans refer to this flower as the “Lord Zhang Flower,” after Minister Zhang Yintang. The flowers mostly appear in back gardens or inner courtyards. They are fresh and clean and most commonly milky white, pink or rose-red. I remember clearly how my primary school teachers would grow vegetables and potatoes in front of their residences. Outside the window there would be a small garden full of the “Lord Zhang Flower” that would blossom in midsummer. We pupils were greatly influenced by this. We would collect empty pork tins, perforate them at the bottom, put some fertile soil inside and then disperse a few “Lord Zhang Flower” seeds. A week or two later, we would enjoy the blossoming flowers.
U-Tsang Tibetans love flowers and trees. In some agricultural areas, people would heal flowers and plant trees. Whenever I visit homes, I particularly enjoy visiting “prayer rooms,” “kitchens” and “gardens,” not least because they reveal the achievements and spiritual goals of the owner, or, to use a popular word, their “ability to show off”. The “prayer room,” “kitchen” and “garden” represent the three most important Buddhist “rooms” in life — the “spiritual room,” the “livelihood room” and the “leisure room”. If people miss any of those three “rooms,” their life would indeed be uninspired and dull. Going into the prayer room early in the morning to burn incense, recite prayers and prostrate is what Lhasa people and indeed most Tibetans do every day. The prayer room is usually located in people’s top room. The kitchen below is full of life’s daily necessities; it is directly related to people’s degree of happiness. According to traditional Tibetan belief, the deity of the kitchen lives inside the kitchen, which is why one has to be careful, should not randomly burn things or use bad language. Otherwise one offends the god, which would bring about illness or cause the food to become tasteless. The kitchen is also a place that one should like to remain in and will always fondly remember. The remains of fumes and the shadows of the people having passed through it again and again are the traces left behind by life and time. Tibetans would also carefully decorate their kitchens with religious symbols and messages. They would often use tsampa and butter to draw a pyramid symbolising a mandala and a symbol for the “three gods of fortune, prosperity and longevity”, or the Dharma wheel. The back garden, in contrast, is a place for amusement, for relaxation and individual expression; people always strive for this kind of romantic and unrestrained life, there is no need for further explanation.
Let us jump to the present then; urban development and the rising real estate market have been extraordinarily strong; it seems that the original and quiet times were smashed into pieces overnight. Construction companies built high matchbox-like buildings all around Lhasa, the upper class and newly-rich quickly sensed the opportunities for profit and began to invest in real estate. Today, the economy is declining and the property bubble reaching a critical stage. Lhasa is becoming an empty “ghost town”. How much can this city really digest? In times of uncertainty, everyone just joins hands in stewing a massive hot pot; in the end, everyone is completely full and those who cannot stomach it, are suffering from bad diarrhoea.
Lhasa’s river valley naturally led to the formation of two main suburban residential areas, the “eastern suburb” and the “western suburb”. There is not much space available for the city to extend into the northern or southern areas. The city has many corners that connect it directly with mother nature, for instance, the foot of the mountain, the seaside and the cliff; these places are like “antennas” that receive signals from nature and thus matter a lot to the city. But of course, these places have also become popular leisure places with the rich rushing into to secure property there. Lhasa’s “antennas” are situated at Dokde Ravine, at Nyangra Ravine, at the “Lhalu wetlands” and at the jungle at the foot of Nachen mountain. Of course, owing to the existence of modern bridges, the city is now directly connected to “Tsechokling” located at the southern bank of Lhasa river, which quickly turned Neu into another one of Lhasa’s “antennas.” From a geological perspective, these “antennas” can be understood as buffers between the mountains and the river; it is like people’s temples that can be seen as a link between one’s hair and one’s skin. I know that this is a slightly inappropriate metaphor, but for a traditionally agricultural society such as Tibet, these places used to be an important point of contact between the city and the countryside. They used to be havens for keeping oilseed rape and wheat. Today, they have become places of nostalgia for the third post-agricultural generation like us. Why are these important “connection points” not preserved?! There is absolutely no need to use the same old development model and cram these places with monotonous reinforced concrete blocks.
I often tell my friends that my Chinese dream is to build a Tibetan stone house in Lhasa’s suburbs surrounded by billowing wheat fields, green trees and gurgling streams. It is not because I want one of those rich people’s villas or because I want to hide from the public and shun the world. It is because I yearn for a “beautiful home”. I find it difficult to free myself from my childhood memories and the culture I belong to: planting some flowers, renovating the house, making it waterproof in summer and preparing firewood in winter. Returning to this simple life means exploring life once again. Isn’t that what life is about?!
July 23, 2016, Lhasa riverside
We should be careful about the name “Lord Zhang Flower”. Whether or not this flower existed before the time of Zhang Yintang can only be confirmed by someone who has profound knowledge of the botany of the Tibetan plateau. It is a very ordinary flower with a relatively short life expectancy. Whether or not it existed long time ago cannot be determined by one single legend. I once heard a very different story about this flower, one that has nothing to do with Zhang Yintang. So I do indeed wonder whether this name “Lord Zhang Flower” was really given by Tibetans or whether it is the same situation as with red songs that are misused and propagated as “Tibetan folk song” with many historical, geographical, cultural, botanical details being consciously distorted by the powerful discourse. I just came across a paragraph from Michel Foucault: “Nowadays books are no longer enough. There are much more efficient channels in the form of television and cinema. And I think the whole effort has tended towards a recoding of popular memory which exists but has no way of formally expressing itself. People are shown not what they have been but what they must remember they have been.” “That memory has to be seized, governed, controlled, told what to remember.” Foucault leaves out the subject in this final sentence. Of course, the subject is power. Accordingly, Tibetan intellectuals and scholars in particular must be very cautious when it comes to details such as “Zhang Yintang”. There are simply too many examples. The legendary Princess Wencheng was by no means created just by the powerful other; you play as much a part as they do.