“This is How We Quietly Work”
How I felt yesterday upon meeting Pema Tseden
As soon as I saw you
I felt that you had grown older
Your face had gone darker
Your wrinkles had gone deeper
Your hair had gone whiter, too.
Hey Your health has declined indeed
In just a few days
You have really aged
You have really aged quickly For sure
Here are a few thoughts of mine
Which I could not express
As soon as we met
As usual we discussed movies
We discussed work We discussed projects
We discussed difficulties We discussed dangers
We discussed victories and defeats too
You as always without rushing
Oh And without apprehension either
Just as if we were the only ones in the world
You talked about strategy in profusion
You harboured no complaints No regrets No resentment
And I manifesting no fear
Manifesting total self confidence
Manifesting no bowing to anything
I stared at you facing you
I talked about practice in detail
I harboured no doubt No trickery No deceit
And we as usual
Gave to each other mutual recollections
Mutual strength and confidence
And in this manner inconspicuously
This is how we each go about our work
Essay: “Gangshun and the Rise of Capitalism with Tibetan Characteristics”
By Françoise Robin
This short poem was published online on 7 September 2017 and was read more than 5000 times in two weeks, testifying either to the celebrity of its author or its subject – or perhaps both. It was written by Gangshun (Gangs zhun), a name that may not be so familiar to Westerners as that of Pema Tseden, but a name that is nonetheless tightly associated with the emerging new Tibetan cinema. Gangshun is the pseudonym or pen-name of Sangye Gyatso (Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho), a longtime companion of Pema Tseden, having studied in the same university, at the Tibetan department of the Northwest Nationalities Institute, in Lanzhou, famous in Tibetan intellectual circles today for its modernist leaning. He graduated in 2001 after submitting a MA thesis dealing with the use of traditional metaphors (mngon brjod) in contemporary Tibetan poetry.
Pema Tseden has turned into a famous Tibetan arthouse filmmaker, making his films “a field of heterogeneous agency for Tibetans in constructing their own subjectivities and landscapes” (Grewal 2016: 140), what has also been analysed by V. Frangville as the making of a “minor cinema” (2016), expanding the meaning of the expression coined by G. Deleuze. Gangshun, for him, is a poet, whose poems can be found in many magazines and with one collection already published. He has become a successful businessman whose name can often be found in Pema Tseden film credits, as he features as their co-producer. He can also occasionally be spotted in festivals, travelling with Pema Tseden and his team. He has produced almost all but one of Pema Tseden’s films  and without him the films would not have existed, as he covered 90% of the production costs.
It is now well-known that, from the beginning of his cinematographic training, Pema Tseden wanted to establish a well-trained, reliable and steady group of professional Tibetans in the field of cinematography, so as to build up a cinema team that would empower Tibetans into recapturing their own cinematographic narrative. Therefore, Pema Tseden was not alone in studying at the Beijing Film Academy (BFA) in Beijing. Along with him, and part of the project, came Sonthar Gyal (Zon thar rgyal), an equally talented filmmaker although with a slower career (he has so far completed ‘only’ two exquisite films, The Sun Beaten Path and River, but he has two more in the making at the time of writing). Originally trained as an art teacher, and himself the son of a painter, he graduated from the BFA’s direction of photography department the same year as Pema Tseden graduated from the directing department. The musician Dukar Tserang, currently completing “They are 100 Years”, his long-awaited documentary film about his grandmother and her grandson, and about to embark upon his first feature film, on a script that is supported by Jia Zhangke, graduated for his part from the sound department of the same academy. The three brothers in films can sometimes be seen working together on projects when their busy schedule permits, which is getting rarer as they are increasingly engaged in successful and busy careers.
Gangshun is often forgotten, working behind the scenes. But he is also an essential part of that initial group: while the three others were slowly mastering the arts of filmmaking, he studied production and has been associated as a co-producer to the films made by Pema Tseden since. Production is indeed the sinews of war and has been greatly overlooked so far in our analysis of the emerging Tibetan cinema. Given the still overwhelmingly rural nature of Tibetan economy, Tibet’s remoteness from the great urban centres where business takes place, its marginality and that of Tibetans in the spectacular economic development that the PRC has been experiencing over the decades, it is worth enquiring about where money comes from, for the making of Tibetan films, given that by definition, “independent” films are not State-supported.
Gangshun was originally, and still is, a poet, and enjoyed quite a renown among his peers. His generation (he was born in 1969) has reinvented a Tibetan poetry that distances itself from its classical, ethnic, and traditional fabric. While Gangshun did not turn his back on novelty (he writes in free verse and favours daily, ordinary topics and not the grand, lofty themes of traditional poetry), he did not reject classicism, often penning works with obvious inspiration from classical rhythms and similes. Moreover, his poems often alluded to Buddhism in a modern Tibetan social context. Another distinctive feature is that, while most Tibetans of his generation and with his high level of education have pursued either an academic or an administrative career, i.e. the financially risk averse, but often constraining, path of the civil servant, Gangshun has opted for a less secure, and more adventurous option. After studying production, he encountered financial success in real estate business, upon which he seriously embarked upon business. But with a difference, he insists: he is one of the very few Tibetan successful businessmen with a solid academic education in Tibetan language, and a deep concern for Tibetan culture. Hence his long-vested interest for Pema Tseden’s cinema, which comes in the shape of co-production: “And we achieved very good results, didn’t we?,” he half-asked, half-asserted, as we were discussing in the trendy Wanda Plaza, west of Xining, in August this year.
Over the last fifteen years, Gangshun has launched projects and business ventures which, he says, try to combine business, culture and craftiness (Tb: tshong las, rig gnas and las rtsal), the three indispensable components of any sound business venture according to him – he particularly insists upon culture, in his wish to reconcile mind and money. For instance, he is currently involved in building a huge Tibetan cultural and leisure centre called “Palace of Culture” (Rig gnas pho brang) in his home valley of Chentsa (Ch: Jianza), which will serve as a holiday and cultural resort. He has also commissioned 1000 thangka painters in Rebkong for a 1.2 km long thangka representing Tsongkhapa (Tsong kha pa, 1357-1419)’s life, in which he has selected all the scenes after consulting many biographies of the 14th-15th century Tibetan master and founder of the Geluk (Dge lugs) school of Buddhism. But, perhaps owing to his first job as a teacher, he has also undertaken the grand task of educating aspiring Tibetan businessmen into the basic tricks of capitalism. Thus, he spends a lot of time touring Tibetan areas (mostly Amdo-speaking parts of Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan), providing advice to the local entrepreneurs and companies who are currently burgeoning on the Tibetan plateau. He underscores that he always speaks Tibetan during these meetings, which entails a level of lexicological creativity, as in any other field of knowledge and activity still unexplored in Tibet. He also meets and launches projects with local federations of Tibetan entrepreneurs that can be found, he says, in Xining, Rebkong (Ch: Tongren), Chentsa, Labrang (Ch: Xiahe) and above all in Ngapa (Ch: Aba), whose Tibetan community has a strong and well-established reputation for business acumen. His WeChat account delivers almost daily short, basic, and pragmatic advices, wrapped in his own insight and vision of business for and by Tibetans, to fellowmen wishing to engage in business: Tibetans interested in business and having subscribed to his WeChat account, who until recently were overwhelmingly peasants and nomads, but can also be young graduates, thus receive short Tibetan documents which expound “business in a nutshell”, in Tibetan language. For instance, Gangshun explains such basic concepts as “commercialisation”, “production”, “planning”, the concept of working hours, that of “responsibility”. He offers such lists as “the 6 assessments to be made before launching into business”, “the 6 potentialities of a business association”, “the 3 great components of strategy”, with a few comments and tips, in a simple language, and based upon his experience.
Trying to shape a capitalism with Tibetan characteristics, and in sound Tibetan language, he stresses for instance the importance of thinking of both one’s and other’s benefit when establishing a business, obviously having altruism in mind, a value that features prominently in Tibetan Buddhism. One of his latest projects, a joint project with business partners from Ngapa, exemplifies his principles, he said in August, upon offering me a box of the newly-conceived biscuits and a can of dehydrated drink, all made from “nas nag”, or “black barley”, a highly nutritious cereal, organically grown, mixed with local honey, and four types of wild herbs.
This project, he explained when I teased him on the dubious necessity of launching yet another food item on the Chinese market, encapsulates his vision: it is not only good for the consumer’s health (ingredients are organic, without conservatives nor sugar), but it is also beneficial to local farmers in the high lands of Ngapa and beyond. In a way reminiscent of fair trade, by growing and selling “nas nag” to manufactures that produce these biscuits and the dehydrated drink, their income will increase, as a decent price will be offered to them if the product is successful.
This combination of individual and collective benefit is not Gangshun’s monopoly. It irrigates a number of projects launched by new Tibetan entrepreneurs. Tibetan garments factories and companies are everywhere to be seen, for instance. But, closer to the topic of cinema, one can turn to Sonthar Gyal’s latest grand project. In September last year, he launched the “Garuda Film Project”, a cinema base that provides training opportunities to Tibetans in the field of cinema, as well as professional equipment and skills, on a small basis. In August this year, I was able to visit it in Bardzong, his native place.
Although arriving on a weekend, I was warmly welcomed by Sonthar Gyal’s colleagues, a group of young and energetic Tibetans involved in Sonthar Gyal’s new film, which was then being shot in Gyalrong, where they too were about to go after a few days. Capitalising on his rising popularity and collective acknowledgement, Sonthar Gyal has succeeded in convincing local authorities in charge of development of the benefit of supporting this new and original venture. His company is located in the upper part of town, overlooking the Ba river, alongside with more conventional companies like small garment factories. More than the thirst for profit, what has decided Sonthar Gyal to launch into such a new direction is the need to develop cinema in Tibetan areas, as well as to provide facilities to contribute to a rising field, under the guidance of Pema Tseden and himself. Such places also offer welcome job opportunities to educated Tibetans who, upon graduation, have usually few options in terms of meaningful, professional occupations, and who are more and more turning their backs to the “iron bowl” option, in spite of family pressure. In Tibetan areas, being a cadre and a civil servant is still seen by the 40+ generations as the ideal, secure path, but is increasingly and realistically rejected by youngsters, who see at least potentially a variety of options open to them, in a very diversified economy.
A few days later, I was lucky to accompany Pema Tseden for the last days of shooting of “Small Rain Boots” (Chu lham chung chung), the first feature film of Lhapal-Gyal (Lha dpal rgyal), a recent graduate from BFA too, and who had been Pema Tseden’s assistant on “Tharlo”. The scenario had received a number of awards and was supported by the young directors’ fund of the BFA. Sonam Gyal (Bsod nams rgyal) was our driver: a singer and owner of the recording studio Khawachen (Ch: Kawajian) in Xining, he happened to be one of Lhapal-Gyal’s numerous younger brothers – another brother, Chakdor-Kyab, was the editor in the film. Along with Professor Hoshi Izumi (Tokyo University) and Pema Tseden, we drove to the remote village of Thagya (Thal rgya) in Hualong where we arrived late at night. The 50+ film crew was hosted in a spartan way in the local primary school. Pema Tseden and Lhapal-Gyal were entitled to a slightly less overcrowded room, what the former called jokingly a “five-star hotel”. Professor Hoshi and myself were guided to a big classroom where women working and the two children acting in the film were accommodated in bunk beds. The next morning, and for three days, we shared the life of the film crew and were able to observe how Pema Tseden interacted with the team.
Gangshun was right: Pema Tseden had aged, with more white hair and a more wrinkles. But he was concentrated, involved, giving generous advice to Lhapal-Gyal, solving minute logistical problems, reading books between scenes, answering the phone, or joking with the crew. His calm and quiet demeanour contrasted with the hustle bustle of the school.
The staff was young, mostly consisting of men in their 20s and 30s otherwise engaged some way or another into film or music. Most of them had already worked on “Tharlo” or on Pema Tseden’s previous films, and they were gradually accumulating experience in film making. Followers of Pema Tseden’s films could also spot familiar faces, recognising extras from his previous films: a young policeman in “Tharlo” happened to be Pema Tseden’s public relation, Tsemdo (Tshe mdo); Kathub Tashi (Dka’ thub bkra shis), the teacher in “The Search”, had been invited to join the crew again for a few days to play, once more, a teacher at the village school. An art teacher in real life, we discovered that he was also running in his free time a non-profit vocational school that trains Tibetan school dropouts to cook Tibetan and Chinese food.
Gangshun, although not involved in the film, was somehow present, since one of his maternal cousin, Nyima-Thar (Nyi ma thar), played the role of a village leader, with ease and real talent. Familiar faces were not only Tibetan: the director of photography on this débutant film was Lu Songye, Tharlo’s director of photography. This time, he had a young Tibetan as an assistant. The still photographer, Niuniu, was another friend of Pema Tseden’s, having come from Shenzhen for the shoot, and planning to stay longer to accompany Pema Tseden on his next film, “The Killer” (Lag dmar ba), shooting in October 2017 in Jyekundo (Skye dgu mdo). Pema Tseden’s son, Jigme (’Jigs med), was also there: he had successfully passed the exam to enter the same cinema school as his famous father. “But I do not want to make the same movies as him” he grinned, looking teasingly at his father next to him, who smiled leniently and proudly in return. He was in charge of clapboarding and, in between scenes, he would skilfully draw scenes or peoples on his clapboard, read a book by O’Henry in Chinese, joke with other youngsters of the crew, and was busy uploading pictures and texts about the shooting on his WeChat account, like all other staff. Despite having been brought up in Beijing, his spoken Amdo Tibetan was perfect, a not so common feat among children of “diasporic” Tibetans living in big Chinese cities where no provision for Tibetan language education is offered. The film shooting was obviously the occasion also for some newcomers in the film industry to acquire experience: some had been recruited without any previous experience, as trainees, but on the basis of their motivation, as for instance, Tenzin (Bstan ’dzin). The fact that he runs in real life a “Tharlo” café in Chabcha, his hometown, might have been considered as a good omen by Lhapal-Gyal, who hired him as an assistant.
In “Small Rain Boots”, the main adult actor was played by the rising star of Tibetan cinema, Jinpa (Sbyin pa). A herder from Machu, he is gradually becoming a stable element of the film scene in Tibet, having been cast as the main actor in Zhang Yang’s “Soul on a String” (2017), among others. He is familiar to Tharlo watchers: in that film, he played one of Tharlo’s sheep owners, and slapped poor Tharlo several times after the latter had lost his sheep to the wolves, after a drunken night. In between scenes on “Small Rain Boots”, Jinpa, who is also a poet, and has a reputation for his erotic poetry (snyan ngag ser po) in Tibetan language, could be seen reading… Orwell’s 1984. He was reading it in Chinese, although two Tibetan translations have appeared in the last two years. He wanted to improve his Chinese, he said, since his career is taking off and he hopes to attract more filmmakers’ attention.
Gangshun, in the short poem translated here, claims that Pema Tseden and himself work quietly, while Sonthar Gyal’s slogan shown above implies that cinema making in Tibet is going at a fast pace. The contradiction is only superficial: the adverb in the poem, which I translated as “quietly” (khu sim mer), conveys the idea of discretion and noiselessness, while that of Sonthar Gyal implies that of resolution. Indeed, Gangshun, Pema Tseden, Sonthar Gyal, Dukar Tserang, and a number of other Tibetans, have been building quietly but energetically, and regularly, projects that, at least in their view and their ideal, benefit both the individual and the collective Tibetan ethos in a new age, while not ignoring other communities, be they Chinese or foreign. This new generation of Tibetan entrepreneurs and artists go on with their work, quietly indeed, but giving each other “mutual encouragement, strength and confidence” to create and secure for themselves, against all odds, a space in a sustainable and modern Tibet in the global age, shaped as much as possible according to their own views and values. Their goal is to adapt themselves and survive meaningfully as Tibetans in an environment still largely conditioned by outside authoritarian forces, and driven along economic and artistic principles that, a few decades ago, were unheard of in Tibet. Thus we may suggest that we can confidently extend the “cultural activism” that A. Grewal (2016: 146) showed was at work in Pema Tseden’s films to a “cultural capitalism”. According to C. Berry, “minority nationality films” made in the PRC without the support of the Chinese government “are part of a wider social process of ethnic minority production of their own subjectivity and culture in the era of the market economy, trade and globalisation” (Berry 2016: 91). Although “production of culture” here did not mean the actual production of films, it seems it can readily apply in the case of Tibetan cinema, with the combined, quiet and determined collaboration of a group of old university friends, with complementary talents (a writer, a poet, a painter and a singer), turned filmmakers and producers.
Institut National des Langues et civilisations orientales (INALCO), Paris
20 October 2017
Françoise Robin is a professor of Tibetan language and Tibetan literature at INALCO (Paris). She has written extensively on Tibetan contemporary literature and cinema, and translates contemporary Tibetan literature.
Berry, Chris. 2016. “Pema Tseden and the Tibetan road movie: space and identity beyond the ‘minority nationality film’”, Journal of Chinese Cinemas, 10 (2), 89-105.
Frangville, Vanessa. 2016. “Pema Tseden’s The Search: the making of a minor cinema”, Journal of Chinese Cinemas, 10 (2), 106-119.
Grewal, Anup. 2016. “Contested Tibetan Landscapes in the films of Pema Tseden”, Journal of Chinese Cinemas, 10 (2), 135-149.
- The films he produced are The Silent Holy Stones, The Search, Old Dog, Sacred Arrow, and two documentary films (The Last Hailmaker and Samye Monastery), as well as Pema Tseden’s graduation film Grassland (2002) (personal communication, 16 October 2017). ↩