"What Kinds of Songs are 'Reactionary Songs'?" by Woeser

High Peaks Pure Earth is posting a translation of a post from Woeser’s blog that was posted on 13th January 2009 titled “What kinds of songs are ‘reactionary songs’?”.

It is through sheer coincidence that whilst reading Woeser’s post and thinking about what she wrote, High Peaks Pure Earth received news that the well-known Amdo singer Tenzin, who owns a music shop in Lhasa had been detained by the police and accused of downloading “illegal music”.

Tenzin, musician from Amdo

We are not sure of the exact date of his detention. Our source says he was detained on 22nd January. It is unlikely a person would be detained for selling pirated music, in such a case, authorities would only impose fines. Therefore this is not an anti-piracy campaign; here “illegal music” refers to songs that are mentioned in Woeser’s article below.
High Peaks Pure Earth readers can view a YouTube video here of Tenzin singing with Dr Anna Morcom, enthonomusicologist from Royal Holloway College, University of London. If readers are interested, Dr Morcom wrote an article on the Tibetan music industry for the Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies.
Woeser’s articles highlights the fine line artists in Tibet have to tread for their creativity and artistic expression. Woeser’s article mentions Tibetan folk singer Dolma Kyi who was detained last year and also another singer from Amdo, Lhundrup. For more information about this group of artists who were all arrested last year, read an article here that was published in the LA Times on June 8, 2008.

During the winter of 2006, in Lhasa, the most popular song was “Ama Jetsun Pema” … The first photo is a photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama with his younger sister Jetsun Pema. The second photo is of Ama Jetsun Pema with the children of the Tibetan Children’s Village.

“What Kinds of Songs are ‘Reactionary Songs’?” By Woeser

“What kinds of songs are ‘reactionary songs’?”, this was a question that a journalist from The Times asked me a few days ago.
Her question was related to the following:
Not so long ago, Lhasa’s deputy police chief had announced in a press conference that they had just detained 59 rumour-mongers who had been “inciting ethnic feelings”. Their method of rumour-mongering: “illegal downloading of reactionary songs from the internet in CD, MP3, MP4 and other electronic formats, for sale to the public”.
For a moment I didn’t know what to reply. I remembered an incident that had occurred in Lhasa at the beginning of 2006 that was related to a song. If I told her that this song was a banned “reactionary song”, wouldn’t this sound incredulous to a Western person from a “rangwang lungba” (Tibetan for “free country”)? The song that I was thinking of has two names, one name is “Ama Jetsun Pema” and the other is “Amala” (mother). Many Tibetans will immediately know what kind of song this song is after hearing my explanation.
I was in Lhasa at that time. One day around noon, a friend excitedly took me to a stall in front of the cinema that was selling pirate versions of various CDs. He let me stand there and look at the poor quality VCD players and the dust covered TV screens on the open shelves playing a song:
“Even the orphans who are in exile in an alien land,
still have Ama Jetsun Pema [care for them] who is as compassionate as the Buddhas.
She cherishes us and warms [our hearts] just like our mothers,
She is the mother of the world, to whom our debt of gratitude is as heavy as a mountain.
The children of the Land of Snows have been taken care of by you throughout their entire life,
You have endured all sorts of hardship for the sake of the children of the Land Snows.
How can we forget you, whose kindness to us is as deep as the deepest sea.
All the children of the Land of Snow pay tribute to you, Ama Jetsun Pema.”
“It is our Karmic fortune, people of the Land of Snows, that you arrived in the Land of Snows,
You use all your energy to benefit the children of the Land of Snows, regardless of days and nights.
She is the mother of the world, to whom our debt of gratitude is as heavy as a mountain.
The children of the Land of Snows have been taken care by you throughout their entire life.
In order to realise your wishes and your expectations,
We, the children of the Land of Snows, will remember forever.
We pray for your longevity, the mother of the Land of Snows, Ama Jetsun Pema…”

The picture on the outdoor TV set was clear. The singer was a young person singing in Lhasa dialect, he was standing on what looked like a stage in a school and was introducing himself as someone who had escaped into exile from Lhasa to Dharamsala. His singing was very heartfelt, as though he was missing his own mother and exerting all his feelings onto a woman who had nurtured countless children in exile who were seeking an education and whom everyone referred to as “Amala”, moving people to tears. The mother who appeared in the song was a compassionate looking woman, wearing a chuba (Tibetan for Tibetan dress), grey hair at the temples, she is the younger sister of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Jetsun Pema.
The winter sun shining down on Lhasa was very warming. Shoulder to shoulder, the stalls were closely laid out one after another, each one reverberating with the sounds of popular songs, Tibetan songs, Chinese songs, English songs, Hindi songs, the bustling crowds all blended together and gave the impression of a very lively place. To see the image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s sister smiling and rushing around in broad daylight, how dangerous this was. It should be known that for over a decade (not counting the period from 1959 and the Cultural Revolution) that in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama was the very symbol of a “separatist”, his photo could not be possessed, his recordings could not be possessed and everything else that had anything to do with him, unless it was something insulting and critical. Along with the Tibetans all around me, we were all glued to the screen with tacit understanding. All kinds of feelings were stirring up inside us as we listened to the song. It’s quite strange that so many Tibetans all know who Ama Jetsun Pema is, how come all the uniformed and non-uniformed officials on the street don’t know? I listened to the song again at least three times before buying several CDs from the Chinese Muslim vendor, still wanting to listen to the CD more.
In Lhasa, the open sale of pirated CDs takes place mainly in the old town, sun island (Taiyang dao) and the Tianhai night market in western suburbs. The vendors are mostly Chinese Muslims and the customers are mostly Tibetans, so basically most of the CDs and films on sale are in Tibetan. All are pirated discs and the prices are low, one disc costs between RMB 3-5. In the past, I have bought “Tom & Jerry” and “Journey to the West” from them in Tibetan, and the quality of these discs are not that bad. Over the years, the Chinese Muslim vendors have learned extremely well what kinds of songs Tibetans like. Thus, they cater to the Tibetans’ likes and provide discs for sale in a steady stream. For instance, the discs of the song Ama Jetsun Pema sold very well. How well? They almost sold out at once. Consequently, the Chinese Muslim vendors would burn more copies, then sell them again. Even if you just look toward their stalls a couple of glimpses when you were passing by their stall, they would come to you and say in a low voice: at my stall we have Ama Jetsun Pema.
Take me, for example, in the past, even though I knew the names of His Holiness’ siblings, I’m afraid to say that I knew the most about the oldest brother of His Holiness, Taktser Rinpoche and the second oldest brother Gyalo Dhondup. This was because I had read Taktser Rinpoche’s book and I had heard that Gyalo Dhondup had held talks with Deng Xiaoping. However, when it came to Jetsun Pema la, —- honestly, after listening to that song, I had the feeling that it was hard for me to call her Jetsun Pema. I would rather call her Ama Jetsun Pema as sung in that song. It is indeed easy to call her Ama Jetsun Pema, and I feel it is respectful to call her this way.
I can safely say it is the common felling shared by many Tibetans. I knew very little about her before, but I know now that “Ama Jetsun Pema” has been working for decades in schools established by the exiled Tibetan communities in India and in the Tibetan Children’s Village, with her heart and soul. Her painstaking efforts are more than enough to leave a lasting reputation in the world.
Once, I went to a Tibetan restaurant and was waiting for friends when I saw that song being played on the TV. I’m not saying that that song was being broadcast on TV, that would be too strange. It was the Tibetan staff member who was playing the song on the VCD player and little by little was learning how to sing the song. It was not yet dinner time and two uniformed policemen were sitting around the stove drinking tea. I looked at them surprised and was worried that they might hear what was being played but they were sitting as though they hadn’t heard anything. They were both Tibetan, they were chatting to each other in Tibetan, how could they not have noticed that the song was in praise of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s sister?
However, after a while, I heard that that song had been “exposed”, labeled as a “reactionary song” that had to be dealt with, it was said that some old retired cadres had “uncovered” the song and that several Chinese Muslims had been arrested, it was also said that a Chinese Muslim had confessed that a Tibetan had given them money to make copies, it is said… For a while, Lhasa was bristling with talk about this in the sweet tea houses, on the street and in homes. But that song had already been popular in Lhasa for three or four months, whatever impression that it had to make had already been made and most Tibetan homes had already seen a copy of the Ama Jetsun Pema CD.
I also know that the melody of the song comes from the song by a Hong Kong pop singer but it was not an original song by this Hong Kong singer, rather the tune originally came from a Japanese singer. In other words, it appears that the sad melody was imported from Japan to Hong Kong, then imported from Hong Kong to mainland China and then imported from mainland China to Lhasa, and then imported from Lhasa to Dharamsala, from Dharamsala again back to Lhasa… it may sound very complicated but in fact this had been a very quick process and the lyrics had emerged in three languages: Japanese, Chinese, and Tibetan. If that original composer only knew, that the song that he wrote simply about a man’s love for a woman transformed into a song about homesickness and the longing and pain of exile, creating a song with a totally different meaning and it ultimately became a banned “reactionary song” … how would he feel about that? In the autumn of 2007, I was on a train leaving Lhasa and the familiar melody of the song suddenly came on, the singer was of course the one from Hong Kong, and I sang along with it but the words I was singing were,
“Even the orphans who are in exile in an alien land,
still have Ama Jetsun Pema [care for them] who is as compassionate as the Buddhas…”
In fact, it is impossible to ban this song. Or put it in another way, it is common that “reactionary songs” which are prohibited by all means can not be banned, and the songs which are not reactionary will not impress as deeply upon everyone’s mind as those “reactionary songs” do. Even if those songs are sung on TV, on radios, in the squares, on the trains, and even if they are printed on the songsheets in Karaoke bars, or they are included in the ringtones for mobile phones, they are quite awful and they are purely for self-consolation. One such typical song is the song which portrays the Qinghai-Tibet railway as “the celestial road to heaven”.
Which songs are included in the list of “reactionary songs”? I can not even count them. When I think this over, it seems that there are quite a lot of “reactionary songs” we have either listened to or know how to sing. For example, in 1987 the song about Tibetan compatriots was rather popular. It’s lyrics are as follows: “We Tibetan compatriots are ones who are of the same descent. Tibetans from Amdo, U-tsang and Kham and Tibetans of the five religious schools. Let’s unite together, we go back to Tibet together. Tibetan compatriots from Amdo, U-tsang and Kham, let’s unite together. Though the religious schools are different, yet the goal is the same. Let’s unite together, and let’s go back to Tibet together…” It is said when Tibetans who were arrested during the riots at that time were paraded through streets in trucks, Tibetan men and women defiantly sung this song with spirit, holding their heads high. In 1989 the lyrics of another popular song are “Lhasa was not sold, and India was not bought. It is not that the Dalai Lama, the Wish Fulfilling Jewel, does not have a home, there is his dharma throne in the high Potala Palace…”, it is said that at a gathering of the TAR Academy of Social Sciences, Tibetan cadres were drunk and were singing this song, choking back their sobs. At the beginning of the 1990s, the popular song was Chorten Karpo, whose lyrics are “no matter when the sky is filled with dark clouds, your pure white figure illuminates the devoted hearts…”; what was popular at the end of 1990s was “Younger Brother with Deep Feeling”, the lyrics are “who dispelled your sheep flock, and left you to guard the last home…”. I heard the popular song last year was “Sadness” (which is also translated as “Moved”): “In Amdo and Kham the Lama’s teachings spread continuously. I who lie alone can not listen to your teachings. I am sad because I can not see my Lama. Oh, my Lama, how sad I am for not being able to see you…”
Furthermore, the special collection of songs entitled “Return of the Tsangpo”, produced by Tibetans in Amdo and Kham, were labeled as “reactionary songs” and were seized and destroyed. The song writer and composer were arrested because of this and some of them are still in prison. Dolma Kyi, a Golok Tibetan, was arrested at the end of March in 2008 because she herself sang songs longing for the Dalai Lama in the Nangma singing hall and had allowed other singers to sing such songs. Lhundrup, another singer who was arrested together with Dolma Kyi, sang the following lyrics on the record he produced: “The sun and the moon are not here any more, our hope has gone afar. Is this the karma of we Tibetans?” The “sun” and the “Moon” are concealed analogies for the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. Apart from the song entitled “Going back to Tibet” in 1987, the rest of them were songs written in Tibet.

Yes, the songs written outside of Tibet have bigger impact, but it is also easier for them to be banned. My favorite song is Chak Sum Tsal (Three Prostrations) and it might be on the blacklist as well. The lyrics of the second section of the song are as follows: “Tibet, my hometown; Tibetans, my compatriots. Before my life ends, I won’t leave until I have prayed three times. If I return to the world again, I wish I would be born in my hometown Tibet again. Oh, take off my fox-skin hat, and prostrate to you three times!” This has also been the most popular song in Lhasa for the past two years, and what is interesting is that the retired cadres are singing the song while playing mahjong. They are all fans of Phurbu Namgyal, the Tibetan singer in the U.S.
When I consider the situation carefully, I find out that for many years every years quite a lot of “reactionary songs” on average have emerged, then they will be banned by all means. We are all too accustomed to consider this as strange. But this time they arrested 59 people at one time, and I heard most of them were students. All of them were labeled as “rumour mongers” on a large scale. What is the motive for doing so? Are the authorities really mad at Tibetans for loving “reactionary songs” so much that they have to arrest a group of people, otherwise, it would not have the effect of punishing them as a warning to others? Or is it the case that they can not find “Tibetan separatists” any more and downloading songs which miss His Holiness and miss one’s hometown has become the felony? Or is it the case that the hungry ghosts in the six realms, who are making a living on “anti-splittist” activities, are creating some enemies to the great party with new tricks.

I have to tell you another story related to a song. The story is about the well-known song entitled “Beautiful Rigzin Wangmo” which has been mistaken as a Tibetan folk song. That is a song which can be performed on TV and can be sung outside of one’s home, and one can sing it without too many worries. Furthermore, the song has already become the signature song for the well-known “government sponsored” singer Tseten Dolma. Among all the singers who are as numerous as yak hairs, Tseten Dolma is the only one who transformed herself from “a liberated serf” to an official with the rank of a deputy provincial governor through singing songs and it seems that she really likes the song entitled “Beautiful Rigzin Wangmo”. In almost all the special collections distributed officially, this song has always been included. But does she really know that this song, in fact, is not a Tibetan folk song? Does she really know who the songwriter and composer of this song is? Though the lyrics were written by the Sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso, the greatest poet in Tibetan history, and many of his poems are sung among the people and belong to ancient Tibetan folk songs. But this song is different because the composer is not an anonymous artist of the past, instead he is a Tibetan in exile named Thubten Samdub, who was in Dharamsala some years ago and now is living in Canada. He has been working hard for the Tibetan cause. In accordance with the Party’s standards, he should be one of the “splittists”. It is rather preposterous that the song loved by Tseten Dolma, the representative of the party in Tibet, who has sung the song many times, turned out to be composed by a reactionary Tibetan in exile.
Furthermore, in the 1970s, the talented Thubten Samdub was still a young man. Though he experienced numerous hardships as somebody in exile, he was also at his prime of life. The beautiful maid named Rigzin Wangmo who appeared in Tsangyang Gyatso’s poem became the symbol of love, thus, the song came into being, and its melodies are extremely beautiful.
It is probably not long after the end of the Cultural Revolution that the song sung and played by Thupten Samdub spread to Lhasa where people just began to respite from the great catastrophe. The situation of the time was that it was the first time that Tibetans in Tibet and abroad were allowed to have some formal exchanges. Whilst some went to visit their relatives in India, others came back to Lhasa to visit their relatives. In the process of getting in touch with each other, the traditional culture preserved by Tibetans in exile and the modern multi-cultures with styles of the alien land created by Tibetans in exile has deeply fascinated Tibetans in Tibet. For Tibetans in Tibet who have been tortured by the revolutionary songs such as “Liberated Serfs Singing Songs”, the songs created by Tibetans in exile are original, novel, cordial and moving. Thus, the degree to which these songs are welcomed and the speed they have been spread is just like how the “decadent music” by the Taiwan singer Deng Lijun was received by the Chinese in the beginning of the period when China opened to the outside world: just like Deng’s music has the effect of thunders over the Chinese people and appeals to them greatly.
Soon “Beautiful Rigzin Wangmo” became popular in Lhasa. What is interesting is that Tseten Dolma, who had sung “Bitterness has Turned to Sweetness after the Communist Party Came” her whole life, liked the song and started to sing it. I do not know whether it was a deliberate act or if it was out of sheer ignorance that nobody has ever mentioned that the composer was a Tibetan in exile, on the contrary, they packaged it as a “Tibetan folk song”. As a result, after a long passage of time, the truth has been buried, who is Thubten Samdub? Up to now, the rock band called “Namchag” formed by young Tibetans in Lhasa also sang the old song which is very much a folk song, furthermore, they reinterpreted Rigzin Wangmo by means of rap music. In their song, the beautiful Rigzin Wangmo changed and she became like many Tibetan girls on the streets of Lhasa who are vain and who can only be satisfied with material goods and money.
In fact, the history, the evolution and the vicissitudes of these songs, which have the imprints of the various historical periods, happen to be the epitome of today’s Tibet which has gone through earth-shaking transformations. If we need to record in detail and research carefully, it would be a project of one or several books. It is obvious that my article might list one and omit thousands, and only portrays through stories the “reactionary songs” I have encountered and understood in my own past.
Recently, I learned from the internet that another “reactionary song” related to Tibet has been exposed again. But the origin and development of the song greatly surprised me, because this song is not a Tibetan song, and the singer is not Tibetan either. Instead, the singer is the Taiwanese singer Tao Zhe who has thousands and thousands of fans in China. To tell the truth, though I know of him, I have never listened to his songs before. It is only because I saw the news that I especially searched for his “Tibetan independence” song on google and baidu search engines. It is rather difficult to search for it, and most of them have already been deleted. This greatly aroused by curiosity and I felt that I had to find the “Tibetan independence song” named “Not The Same”. It took me quite a long time to finally find it, and I can not only listen to the song, but also read the lyrics as well. It turned out that the “Tibetan independence song”, which is portrayed to be so frightening, in fact, is because of one sentence, and it is hard to find it as it is hidden in many sentences. The sentence is “the Dalai Lama is uniquely great, and he is the hero of the mankind”. In front of the Dalai Lama, there are many names such as Gandhi, Disney, Laozi, Brando, Freud, Confucius, Chaplin, Picasso, Einstein and others, but, consequently, they were all branded too much trouble and became the allies of “Tibetan splittists”
It is actually an honour for Tibetan singers or composers if their songs are labeled as “reactionary songs”. But for Tao Zhe, who is living in the democratic society of Taiwan, when it was learned that because the name of the Dalai Lama appeared in his old song sung in 1999, his song was judged to be related to “Tibetan independence”. His discs had to be taken off from the shelves, his songs were removed from the ringtones, and all his songs might even have been completely banned. What does he think of this incident? I learned from the news on the internet that his record company disappointedly denied that they deliberately spread the “Tibetan independence song”, claiming it was because of carelessness that the baneful influence was spread.
As far as His Holiness the Dalai Lama is concerned, many times he has earnestly reiterated that what he seeks is not independence, but a high degree of true autonomy. In addition, he has honestly pointed out many times though the Chinese government is not sincere, yet he still has faith in the Chinese people. However, in today’s China, his name is equivalent to “separation”, then it is equal to being guilty of the most heinous crimes. Besides being reprimanded by the shrewd and astute Chinese officials as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, he is also reviled without any respect by countless young Chinese. Oh, His Holiness is the reincarnation of the Lord of Compassion (Avalokiteshvara), who is compassionate and who will not mind this. But Tibetans will mind this, at least, Tibetans will lose their confidence in the Chinese people because of the bone-piercing pain.
What I would like to point out here is that I once wrote some lyrics as well, and they are being translated into Tibetan. Later they will become songs. I will not mention who the singer of my songs will be for the time being. I need to clarify the lyrics of one song as follows, and based on the lyrics will this song be considered to be another “reactionary song” soon? I would like to explain that in the lyrics “Yeshe Norbu” means “wish-fulfilling jewel”, “Kundun” literally means “appear in front of one’s eyes as soon as one evokes him”, “Gongsa chog” (gong sa mchog) means “His Holiness”, and “Gyalwa Rinpoche” (rgyal ba rin po che) refers to “the Dharma King”. All these appellations are honorific titles for His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Tibetan.
On the road,
Oh, on the road,
I am moved to tears.
Holding in my arms the most beautiful flower in the world
Before it is withered,
Rush quickly
Only to present it to an old man in maroon
He is our Yeshe Norbu
Our Kundun
Our Gongsa chog
Our Gyalwa Rinpoche
On the road,
Oh, on the road,
I am moved to tears.
Holding in my arms the most beautiful flower in the world
Present it to him, present it to him.
A wisp of a smile
These bind the generation tight.
Beijing, January 1, 2009
(Note: I would like to thank Dolkar la and Dawa Tsering La for translating the meaning of the lyrics of a few Tibetan songs)
This article was first published on “Democratic China” (http://minzhuzhongguo.org/Article/sf/200901/20090112085516.shtml)

These two photos were taken in front of the Tibetan Hospital in Lhasa three years ago.

This is a record by Lhundrup, who was arrested in April, 2008. His current situation is unknown.

This is the Taiwanese Singer Tao Zhe, who was found to have sung the so-called “Tibetan independence” song.


  1. The answer’s obvious: Anything the Autarchs don’t like.

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