Writer Alai on Tibetan language

Writer Alai on Tibetan language

Writer Alai on Tibetan language


Alai, a writer of some repute in the PRC, grew up in an environment strongly influenced by Chinese culture, and the reason why his writings have attracted quite a high degree of interest is his choice of topic which he describes with affected naïveté as primarily relating “the transformation of Tibetan society”, and so “tearing away the mask of secrecy” for the ordinary reader unacquainted with Tibet. In his case, in order to make a living out of writing, he depends upon two firm footholds: one is his theatrical “Tibet”, and the other is his fan following of Chinese readers. Without either of these, Alai’s writings would not be marketable, as everyone knows.

By Kyabchen Dedrol

However, in view of this situation, many readers cannot help but wonder why he does not use the Tibetan language to depict the Tibetan way of life? This is not a question that Alai has much difficulty in answering: he replies simply that due to social circumstances, he never had the opportunity to learn Tibetan. On the contrary, however, it seems that he is in the habit of transferring his own ignorance onto the Tibetan language, for he told an American interviewer, a subsequent interviewer with a Tibetan website, and a few days earlier while appearing on the ‘Straight Talk’ programme on the CCTV, that spoken and written Tibetan is an outdated language, incapable of describing modern life, and that Tibetan has no tradition of literary realism, giving not only a biased view of the language, but an argument at odds with actuality. He once explained that “Gyelmo Tsawarong” (the name of a district in south-east Tibet, and the setting of his most famous novel) meant “a lowland valley close to China”, and if he can confuse such basic facts as this, one understands how it is that Tibetan language is not capable of representing modern life.

On seeing such a demonstration of Alai’s ignorance, many people might feel angry that he could deliberately defame Tibetan culture, but on reflection, Alai and those like him have no other option. First, their writings are not aimed at Tibetan society but at others, and second, (even) if they distance themselves from those others, there is no way for them to set foot in Tibetan society. If the use of Tibetan language became wider, there would be no market for Alai’s compositions written with “tinted spectacles”, and he would then argue out of desperation that “Language is only a tool, whichever one you use, it comes to the same thing.” And after all, the statement that “Chinese is the perfect medium of expression” is hardly without justification.

Since Tibetan society is modernizing at a slightly slower pace than others, it is true that there are no standard Tibetan names for some modern products. However, even if the rest of the world is so “advanced”, the claim that written Tibetan cannot keep up with it or cannot represent it is like the proverb of the crippled Yak grazing (Meaning not doing things completely). Written Tibetan is part of life in modern Tibet, and can represent it, as even my own writings show.

A famous expression from the writings of the Czech author Kundera, “flattering the mediocre”, seems particularly appropriate for Alai and his like today. Are not they the descendents of the writers in the old Soviet Union who passed their time ingratiating themselves with Stalin while Solzhenitsyn and others were exiled (to the labour camps), or those like Guo Moruo (郭沫若), who wrote “poems of praise” (to the leaders) during the Cultural Revolution? That is why I am terrified of encountering writers who ally with the powerful. They carry a bewildering array of signs, like six-armed Mahakala, to confuse others.

Otherwise, since the appearance of modern literature in Tibet, there is still no debate on what distinguishes a Tibetan writer, and it seems to me that it would be great if we said something about this to individual writers. As for my own view, I think a Tibetan writer should be preoccupied with the particular historical predicament of the Tibetan people, and at a time when the written language is in danger of extinction, writing in Tibetan should be the first priority.


  • oh!i read this article in tibetan befor and now can read in english.thanks editor,translater and writer.i realy admire to those writers in tibet.

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