High Peaks Pure Earth presents two very different pieces discussing the 2015 film Paths of the Soul by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yang. The two pieces were both published online recently.
Paths of the Soul (original title: Kang Rinpoche) had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2015 and has been steadily gaining stellar reviews, awards and critical acclaim. The film screened at 41 international film festivals over a period of 21 months before opening in China on June 20 this year.
Paths of the Soul is billed as a “Tibetan road movie”, following a group of pilgrims from eastern Tibet on their journey to Mount Kailash, via Lhasa. Although categorised as a documentary and using a cast of non-professional actors who are all Tibetan, the director Zhang Yang has said in interviews that “Some of the scenes were based on things that had taken place on other pilgrimages. We just put them together and presented these situations with one group.”
In July 2017, the South China Morning Post reported that Paths of the Soul was the highest grossing Tibetan-language film ever screened in China.
The first article on Paths of the Soul was originally published on July 11, 2017 by Guancha and circulated on their WeChat account. The author, Qiang Ge, is an Associate Professor at the Central Party School of the Communist Party. Selected translated extracts of the long article are below:
“When You Feel Sympathy for the Devout Prostrating Buddhists,
Have You Ever Thought About Those Who Paved the Road Upon Which They Kneel?”
By Qiang Ge
A heated debate has recently erupted around the documentary “Paths of the Soul”. Because of my Tibet background, friends would usually come to hear my opinion when artistic and cultural works of this kind enter the market. Since I have been occupied with my research on State Owned Enterprises, I have not yet watched “Paths of Soul” and thus naturally cannot have an opinion. However, when I saw the film poster, the following question came to my mind:
When you feel sympathy for the devout prostrating Buddhists, have you ever thought about those who paved the road upon which they kneel?
Whether in artworks or when we travel through Tibet, we always see them prostrating with their heads on the road. But who actually built this road?
It was built by generations of construction workers under the guidance of the Party’s leaders (…)
In comparison to the pilgrims, the construction workers who built the road, no matter whether they were engineers, labor contractors or migrant workers, would never exude the same artistic aura. I deeply respect the prostrating Buddhists for it deserves great admiration to be able to concentrate on one matter for such an extended amount of time. But I am not particularly interested in them. I respect even more the construction workers who defied all setbacks and struggles; “Bitter sacrifice strengthens bold resolve, Which dares to make sun and moon shine in new skies” (a quote from one of Mao’s poems), that was their great spirit.
Many of those more or less superficial “literary and arty youths” like to look at tradition and modernity as being oppositional, lamenting that Tibet’s development has deprived it of its purity. But in reality, going on a pilgrimage does by no means come from tradition, it is a product of the opening up reforms. More specifically:
Firstly, in the Old Tibet, a pilgrimage by prostrating all the way to Lhasa did not exist. Because there was no road. Tibet’s topography was complex and arduous, it was even difficult for monkeys to cross many places on four legs, so it would have been even more difficult for people kneeling down.
Secondly, pilgrimages did exist, but they were only made by a very small group of aristocrats and other outstanding people. The fact that they could go did not mean that most ordinary people could.
Of course, when I express this point of view, I am often refuted by my friends, Tibetans, Han Chinese, Americans, French, Germans alike. They would then enumerate all sorts of evidence, ranging from data found in historical books on pilgrimages to hearsay accounts, as in “last time when I was travelling through Tibet, someone told me” etc.
Nowadays, when we observe Tibet (regardless of whether from an academic or popular angle), we excessively emphasise Tibet’s, Tibetan people’s and the Tibet question’s special character, subconsciously believing that “Tibetans only pursue spiritual purity, they don’t want a better material life” (as if “dialectical materialism” did not apply to Tibetans). However, in reality, without the transportation infrastructure, the increased productivity and consumption etc. that modernisation and the Chinese state have brought about, we would be very unlikely to see the pilgrimages and the prostrating believers that we so commonly see in Tibet today and that symbolise Tibetans’ “spiritual purity” .
I once met an old lady on her pilgrimage who was accompanied by her family, they invited me to eat their home-made curd. As we were chatting (I know some Tibetan and someone was also helping me translate), I asked her: “Who do you pray for when prostrating?” She replied: “For myself, for my family and for the good people who went through the hard work to build this road.”
I was curious, “why would you pray for the construction workers?”
She replied (her son standing next to her also jumped in, the following sentence was edited by me):
In our home, there are big mountains and deep valleys, the area is vast and the transportation extremely inconvenient. In the past, there was no road, so the villagers could not only not go on a pilgrimage to Lhasa, they could not even go to the nearest county town. When someone was ill, they could only use old and crude methods to heal them, like asking someone to recite sutras or boil medicine. If it wasn’t for this road, I would never have been able to go to Lhasa on a pilgrimage at my old age. On the road, I have seen so many never-seen-before things, prayed at so many monasteries, I have accumulated so many achievements and virtues for myself, so that I really need to express my heartfelt thanks to the good and benevolent people who built this road, regardless of whether they were Tibetans or Han Chinese, they really did something extraordinary, Buddha will definitely protect them.
Nowadays, so many people like to put modernisation, material wealth and devout religious belief in opposition to each other. However, it was precisely the Chinese Communist Party and modernisation that have provided and fully realised freedom of belief. The old lady who has not read many books understands this so much better than many others who have read countless books.
“The Expression and Commodification of Images:
Some Thoughts on Films With Tibet as Subject”
The second article on Paths of the Soul is by a Tibetan PhD student called Riga whose piece has been circulated in Chinese on WeChat by MelongArt on July 3, 2017. It has received over 5000 views and generated many comments and discussion.
Riga prefaces his piece by saying:
To be honest I don’t read film reviews. This short essay is not intended to be a review of Paths of the Soul. Nor is it meant to disparage Zhang Yang as a director. Nonetheless, his film, and more importantly the response it has elicited over the last few weeks compels to me to share my thoughts about filmmaking with my friends.
I am a student of Tibetan history and literature, and since 2015 have also been involved very tangentially in making films about Tibet. My inclinations are naturally informed by my own experiences in both worlds, as well as by my own fledgling interpretations of pre-existing theory.
When I first watched Paths of the Soul in 2015 I was a student in Toronto. I went to the Toronto International Film Festival Lightbox one evening with few expectations and left unimpressed, although not offended. The film garnered moderate praise from Western critics, who praised the directors casting of non-professional Tibetan actors, the patient pacing of the narrative and Guo Daming’s impressively framed wide angle shots. To me the film wasn’t particularly noteworthy, and I soon forgot it as I went back to my books.
In our world of global capitalism we are faced by a prolificity of image. As we transmit images of devoting pilgrims in hide aprons braving the snows we are consuming and reproducing a certain representation of Tibet and Tibetans.
Tibet has become symbolic of belief, faith and idyllic tranquility. What this kind of representation does is remove the subject from their everyday contexts and render them receptacles for the anxieties, fears, desires and fantasies of the viewer and the historical moment they live in.
I don’t mean to say Tibetans are not fervent in their beliefs, nor to say that the Tibetan plateau is anything but beautiful; only that film narrative, the relationship between a sign and what is signifies, while seemingly natural, is actually dependent on a deeper system of cultural associations and relationships.
Irrespective of the identity of the director, wanton cinematic representation threatens to erase the processes by which the relationship between knower and subject comes to be formed.
The increasing circulation and consumption of these seemingly benign images leave us bewildered as we begin to believe the myths that we are being sold. With Tibetan Buddhism more popular than ever, in China and the West, Tibet and Tibetans have become objects of the bourgeois Han imagination. Objects upon which their own longing can be inscribed.
Abstracted representations of Tibet have a long and complicated history that intersects with that of colonialism and the birth of Western anthropology and ethnography. Later film and popular media became a way for the state to disseminate national ideology. In the contemporary context, and especially in regard to independent filmmaking, depictions of Tibet are rooted in want away fantasies of a dissatisfied bourgeois class. In this section, I want to show how Paths of the Soul is blighted by the long history of representation and how an unwillingness to acknowledge our own subjectivity can be stifling in all the creative fields, be it contemporary art, film or literature.
I will concentrate on the content of Paths of the Soul, and avoid pointing out what is missing here from the narrative. The film is a simple road narrative where the belief and faith of the pilgrims helps them overcome the harsh natural environment to reach Lhasa. Death, and new life on this journey complete a rather cliched portrayal of samsara.
It has been almost two years since I watched the film but the plot details are insignificant to the point I am trying to making. The act of pilgrimage, of circumambulation, of prostration, of ritual are being removed from their everyday, lived contexts and are used to exemplify something that is missing from life in contemporary China. Images of ritual practices then become something to be gawked at in amazement rather that understood as something is but one part of the life of a population.
I would go as far as to say that the consumption of images of devotion, fill the void that is left by a society that is increasingly removed from belief and faith. I am not a scholar of film but I see Zhang Yang’s latest film as sharing in his meditations on globalisation and modernisation in his 1999 film, Xizao (Shower). In Xizao, the lives of ordinary citizens are transformed by new configurations of space in the wake of commercialisation. The bathhouse represented the familiar, the permanent and the collective. The late 90’s and the early 2000’s saw any number of independent films about dislocations from roots tradition. With the loss of the bathhouse, the so called bohemian artist class have turned to Tibetan as their Shangri-La.
The sky burial scene to me evoked the tendencies of early Western anthropologists in Tibet who sought to document exotic, barbarian projects as part of a civilising mission. While some may argue that today portrayals of Tibetan Buddhism might be one of appreciation, what they share with their ethnographic predecessors is the emphasis on universal meaning and the omission of the social conditions for the production of knowledge, and the configuration of knower an subject. Religious belief and faith become homogenized and meaningless. Tibet becomes somewhere timeless and ahistorical, existing as an anachronism in which we may find an antidote to the disorientation of our modern secular condition.
Susan Sontag was quite prophetic in writing that everything in the world exists to end up in a photography. Image begins to become equivalent to experience, and experience equivalent to knowledge and power. Conflating filmic and photographic representation with reality is problematic. Zhang Yang’s film blurs the boundaries between documentary and feature film. I have no qualms with this but filmmakers must at least attempt to search for a balance between representing the subject and acknowledging their complicity in the inherent contradiction of cinema. And by assuming the role of the passive observer we become participant in the commodification of our own culture.
It is certainly not my intention to argue that only Tibetans can make films about Tibet. In fact, I am happy that today we see directors from all around world making films about Tibet. Nor do I mean to insinuate that we are prisoners of our representation. We are at pivotal moment in Tibet film history, as more and more Tibetans begin to study and make films. It is out of respect for this moment in history that I humbly offer my own thoughts.
The dominant representation of Tibet sees filmmakers regurgitating tired stereotypes about Tibet, or retreating into ethnographic documentary projects about their hometowns. The latter is surely a rewarding endeavour, but I would encourage young filmmakers to think outside the boundaries of studying film to go return home and making a film about their local monastery.
It seems that the manifesto of Tibetan new cinema is to write a Tibetan script, to use non-professional Tibetan actors and employ some technically skilled Tibetan crew and to make to a ‘Tibetan’ film. Forgive my sardonicism but what exactly is a Tibetan film?
Often times these kind of films can unintentionally reinforce the representations we seek to escape. The local represents something ancient, pure and uncontaminated. When we are dissatisfied with the present it is only natural we turn to the past. However, what we must realise is that the local, and the past are constructs in and of themselves. Tibetan filmmaking should not be about denying the persistence and influence of non-Tibetan cultures. A hegemonic mode of thinking might be unescapable, but we must meet it head on by problematising, complicating and disassembling what is taken to understood to be conventional.
To be honest I am not interested in searching for truth or reality in cinema. I feel that kind of cinema actually betrays the hubris of the artist. My own views on filmmaking will surely be seen as radical and divergent but I would like to see more Tibetan directors experiment with style, subject matter and sound, and will end by saying that celebrating Tibetan filmmaking might be best done by underscoring what is not unique to it.