“The Tibetan Community of Chengdu” – An Introduction by Lowell Cook*
There are a number of Tibetan communities outside of the indigenous Tibetan lands and the community of Wuhouci is one of the most vibrant. Wuhouci is a neighborhood in the city of Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province, and has earned a name for itself as Chengdu’s Tibetan quarter.
With Sichuan encompassing large parts of Kham and Amdo, Chengdu acts as one of the major centers for Tibetans from these regions to access certain goods and medical care, find work and attend language schools or universities, and even spend their winters. It is said that at any given time, there are around 300,000 Tibetans in Chengdu. When you think about the overall Tibetan population (roughly 6 million), this is a sizable number. Yet, when you consider the entire population of Chengdu (over 14 million), it becomes clear that they are still very much a minority.
The center of the Wuhouci “mandala” is the Ximianqiao intersection with its four streets going off in the four directions. On these streets are rows of stores selling statues and ritual items, traditional clothes and monastic robes, Tibetan books and CDs, as well as endless Tibetan restaurants and teahouses. At night, street vendors set out their wares under the glow of security cameras, selling dried meat and yoghurt, mala beads and varjas, and everything else in between. The combination of Tibetan pop music streaming out of speakers and the flashing of red and blue police lights makes you wonder whether you are about to enter a night club or a police station.
Down one of the four streets, you find the Southwest University for Nationalities. “Nationalities” is the translation of the Chinese minzu and the Tibetan mi rigs, which is used here to refer to the 56 ethnic minorities in the PRC. There are well over 1,000 Tibetan students studying there, which means a lot of the young Tibetans you may meet are students.
Chengdu has a long-established reputation as a gastronomic mecca throughout China and this holds equally true for its Tibetan cuisine. Many Tibetan friends have said that Chengdu outdoes Lhasa and other major Tibetan cities when it comes to the range of food options. And unlike the other cities such as Xining, Lanzhou, or Beijing where the Tibetan communities are scattered around, the one in Chengdu is all centrally located in Wuhouci.
The below poem, “Wuhouci, Chengdu,” is a satirical jab at both the blessings and curses of city life. While the author Kalsang Namdren does praise the positive aspects of the city that draws in Tibetans such as the availability of dharma items, access to medical care, opportunities to make a name for yourself as a singer, author, or lama, ultimately the negative aspects of city life win out. For anyone who has been through the streets of Wuhouci, the images described here are sure to bring to mind past moments and memories—the organized chaos of all sorts of random dharma goods being sold, beggars shoving ambiguous certificates in your face and profiting off the generosity of the Tibetans, and so on. The form of the poem, where “Wuhouci” is repeated ad nauseam at the end of every line, may initially appear to be a lack of creativity. But upon closer inspection, it’s clear that this “cheap” repetition very much reflects the images described in the poem and exemplifies the pace of city life perfectly.
Indeed, it is the image of Wuhouci being a thriving and bustling center, that draws in so many young Tibetans trying to make it big—either as a singer in the local nangma clubs, as a poet getting their work published, or as a Buddhist teacher with many Chinese devotees. Yet, it is this seductive chance at fame, name, and wealth that leads many into hypocrisy. To be certain, this hypocrisy is the central topic of the poem and is where it gets it’s satirical tone. Whether it’s laypeople pretending to be ordained or vice versa, monks and nuns doing dubious business deals, or what have you, these scenes leave the author Kalsang Namdren in a “state of astonishment.”
It should be noted about the translation, that the word rgya bla, which gets translated as “Chinese lama,” is a bit of a misnomer. While rgya bla does literally mean Chinese lama, it doesn’t refer to lamas of the Han ethnicity, but instead to lamas famous in mainland China who have great numbers of Chinese disciples and sponsors. From time to time, you can overhear conversations in Wuhouci where one person will argue that it’s great for these lamas to spread Buddhism throughout China while another will respond with skepticism. Perhaps I should have opted for another translation, but “lamas who are famous in China” is a bit long-winded compared to the two syllabled rgya bla. Furthermore, not translating rgya as China/Chinese would have disrupted the word play (sgra rgyan) in the third stanza.
It is my hope that this unique Tibetan poem with its English translation will help shed a little more light on a part of the larger Tibetan community that is rarely written about. The challenges Tibetans face today as they negotiate the vast divides between tradition and modernity, religion and society, pasture and city, is often stated, but many of us lack a concrete idea of what this may actually entail. The poem below showed me new things about a city I was long familiar with and expressed things I had thought or felt without knowing how to say them myself. I hope it may do something similar for you.
*Lowell Cook lives in Chengdu where he translates Buddhist scripture and contemporary Tibetan literature.
By Kalsang Namdren
Translated by Lowell Cook
Where all the greatest lamas gather, Wuhouci
Where all the richest traders reside, Wuhouci
Where all the scholars write and edit, Wuhouci
Where all the fools reveal their failings, Wuhouci
Where the unwell come to spend their winters, Wuhouci
Where it’s easy to find yourself a doctor, Wuhouci
Where it’s always your turn to treat, Wuhouci
The place where practitioners shouldn’t be, Wuhouci
Where Chinese lamas like to flaunt their wealth, Wuhouci
Where Chinese girls like to invite you out, Wuhouci
Where all of China does it dharma shopping, Wuhouci
Where Chinese and Tibetan cultures mix, Wuhouci
Where laypeople dress up as monks, Wuhouci
Where monks pretend to be laypeople, Wuhouci
Where monasteries try to sell their teachings, Wuhouci
You look like a citywide festival, Wuhouci
Where Tibetan culture will meet its end, Wuhouci
Where Tibetans humiliate themselves, Wuhouci
Where Tibetan Buddhism is pawned away, Wuhouci
Where you see the true colors of Tibetans, Wuhouci
Where any type of prayer beads can be sold, Wuhouci
Where all sorts of random goods are displayed, Wuhouci
Where most of the food is Tibetan, Wuhouci
Where you can waste away a thousand days, Wuhouci
Where the lamas act as businessmen, Wuhouci
Where their consorts strut up and down, Wuhouci
Where nuns come to conduct their business, Wuhouci
Where call girls will trick your heart, Wuhouci
Where male singers sling their albums, Wuhouci
Where female singers become stars, Wuhouci
Where beautiful girls roam here and there, Wuhouci
Where thieves are lurking ever near, Wuhouci
Where the Tibetans defeat themselves, Wuhouci
Where Chinese lamas criticize each other, Wuhouci
Where the crippled blast their speakers, Wuhouci,
Where the beggars show you their certificates, Wuhouci
That there are many representations of the Buddha, I rejoice
Yet at the many thieves and muggers, I am ashamed
All those fake Chinese lamas, will surely be our end
All those Tibetans full of hope, how pitiful indeed
By Kalsang Namdren of Tsang in a state of astonishment
January 19, 2017
This post is also available in: English