Leaving his home village
In what ways would he continue to write Tibetan culture
Walking towards the world
How would he regard preservation and development of culture?
“One on One” Dong Qian exclusively interviews Tibetan writer Alai, in broadcast
Commentary: In 1996, Alai joined Chengdu’s Science Fiction Magazine, and later became the magazine’s editor-in-chief. Despite leaving his home village, Alai didn’t forget the land where he was born and raised. He said he left his home village, but used writing as a way to return. In 1999, he participated in Yunnan People’s Press’ “Entering Tibet” cultural study tour, and completed the lengthy essay “Land of Ladders”.
Reporter: Weren’t you also paying attention to the people in all the places you went, what kind of lifestyle did they have, what kind of appearance did their lives have?
Alai: Right, if you walked into a small village, from far away you would see a five starred red flag, and a building with some Chinese features, and you would know that there was a primary school there. Then, if this primary school has already been here twenty years, it has probably influenced the greater surrounding area, the entire mental attitude of its people, even to a fine degree of its agricultural cultivation. After it has culture, its impact on every aspect of social life is huge.
Reporter: What kind of impact has this transformation of this great age had on their lives?
Alai: Take a farmer for example, he harvests 500 kilograms of corn this year, and is going to sell it. Next year, he harvests 800 kilograms of corn and is going to sell it. Not necessarily, in the original thinking, in his old concept 800 kilograms of corn was considered a bumper harvest year, but, not always, after the current marketization, when he hauls 800 kilograms of corn to the city, it’s possible that he doesn’t earn as much as last year’s 500 kilograms of corn.
Alai: Earning a little money for the sake of economic livelihood, he must pay attention to urban information, because the market is in the city, demands come from the city. Today’s farming village isn’t the same as in the past, farming villages in the past were a self-sufficient society, but today’s farming village, a lot of commodities from the outside, nomads want to ride motorcycles, and want to watch television, put a lid on it. These things, he wants to enjoy them all. These things all come from the outside. Secondly, his commodities also have to be brought out to be exchanged, and moreover the exchange value is not determined by him. It is [determined] by the city, so he is especially sensitive to the transformations of the city today.
Commentary: In 2007, Alai joined the Sichuan Province Writers Association as a professional writer, he still maintained the habit of his youth of writing while traveling, only the scope of his travels wasn’t confined only to Tibetan areas, he went abroad, and in the process of observing abroad, Alai especially paid attention to the state of cultural preservation and development.
Reporter: Since strong and weak cultures really exist of cultures, when a strong culture faces a relatively weak culture, what kind of impact do you think it will have?
Alai: Sometimes a culture, not only culture, its economy, its social system, when relatively backwards, it inevitably will have to be influenced by a stronger culture.
Reporter: Some people think, when Han Chinese culture enters Tibetan cultural areas, Tibetan culture, how can it maintain itself well, and at the same time continually evolve and develop ahead?
Alai: In theory this thing is a very satisfactory saying, theoretically a very satisfactory saying, in reality in today’s society, its independent evolution already eliminated such a possibility.
Alai: Look at any culture in today’s world, not one says it has preserved itself, and all its original old things, and at the same time is able to progress. In theory this is a very good hypothesis, to say we can both preserve all old things, and at the same time we can also progress, but who can do it? Americans haven’t done it; the French haven’t done it.
Alai: For example when I was in the US, I observed, I purposely went to Indiana [sic. means Native American reservation], keeping them confined here was called preservation, and confined here, young people still wanted to leave, moreover preservation had no way to preserve. Reservations could open casinos, then just like a duty-free shop at an airport, you could buy tax-free cigarettes and alcohol, and lastly, Indians on the reservation relied on opening little casinos and selling free cigarettes and alcohol, people from around all went there, like we go to the airport, to buy whiskey, Triple 5, Marlboros, just go there to buy, these were the privileges the government gave them.
Alai: You confine them in there, the surrounding areas are all Americanized, in this one Indian reservation, it’s still impossible to maintain the original Indian ways of life. At the most some of their traditional handicrafts are produced, in actuality they are also modern designs, sold to tourists. Do you call this preservation?
Reporter: People pay attention to Tibetan culture, it’s because of its uniqueness; because it’s unique it has attained its charm.
Alai: But we’ve overlooked another aspect, ordinary people demand changes in their life. Take a farmer for example, originally he used plough cattle, Tibetan areas use two head of cattle for one plough, now we have the conditions, we can use tractors, why not use tractors? If he uses a tractor, and not plough cattle, two head of cattle for one plough, is this the destruction of culture? In the original homes, Tibetan areas frequently engaged in fighting, that kind of fortress-style house, look, that kind of house was really small, windows were like the firing holes of bunkers. Why? At that time society was not stable, they didn’t dare to open up big windows, at that time, a lot of our elderly people were in the home’s fire tending chamber, a lot of elderly people didn’t have good eyesight from early on. The smoke was black, it spread but didn’t go out. Now life has improved, look at today’s architecture in Tibetan areas, windows are bigger and bigger, paintings are more and more beautiful. Nowadays a lot of Tibetan people, you go put your herd out to pasture, the herds are horses, but they don’t ride horses, they ride motorcycles. Why don’t they ride horses, isn’t riding horses more like Tibetan people? This is what an outsider thinks: aren’t you Tibetans naturally supposed to ride horses, so be like a Tibetan, why does he ride a motorcycle, and on top of that herd horses?
Alai: Actually we should really see, a lot of times it’s some lifestyle changes, cultural evolution, a lot of times it is the voluntary choice of ordinary people, whatever is more convenient, whatever is more effective, whatever is more comfortable, as long as economic conditions permit, he must pursue that.
Commentary: Today, Alai has settled down in Chengdu, but most of the time, he still drives himself to travel in familiar Tibetan areas, he also frequently returns to his own birthplace, to visit Tibetan relatives and compatriots living there. And transformations in lifestyles in Tibetan areas always fill Alai’s heart with emotion.
Reporter: Speaking from your own life, what kinds of changes have occurred in this last half-century?
Alai: In the last half-century, I think, I’ve always said, the changes in the last hundred years are even greater than those in the last thousand years, whether materially, speaking in terms of the richness of ordinary people’s material lives, it’s like this.
Reporter: When you were little, do you still remember what your living conditions were like?
Alai: For example, in the past when villages like ours were just liberated, at that time, a road was built, nowadays at our, in my hometown village, at that time whatever place we would go, to go to a place with a department store we had to walk twenty kilometers, this department store’s town was twenty some kilometers outside, we had to get up before dawn, then walk on the road for half a day, and return home after dark. An entire day walking.
Alai: But now if you want to go, almost every family has a car, has a motorcycle, has a tractor, not just one, but two. You can go there in about ten minutes, already return home here and drink wine, say, they’re about to finish their wine, one person goes twenty, thirty kilometers, and returns in ten minutes. And is already carrying a box of wine back. So, that kind of life, the second reality, more importantly is, in our remote villages, a lot of people leave, not just myself. They receive a modern education, walk towards the outside world, moreover not just anyone returns to Tibetan areas to work. Our village just has how many people? It has some really good old surgeons, a railroad company.
Reporter: Why is that?
Alai: It’s because they received an education, and also it’s still not a given that a lot of our people will return to Tibetan areas, our generation of people, they are very capable of joining mainstream society, joining China’s mainstream society. Perhaps in our village there are now two or three hundred people, and maybe there are forty or fifty of them working outside, as cadres, as doctors, as teachers, as whatever. Moreover many of them are undertaking highly intellectual, highly technical work.
Reporter: Do you consider that being a Tibetan writer, expressing your own ethnicity’s changes due to society, and a period that has brought about changes in lifestyle and thinking, this channel that sowed change, shouldn’t outside people should know even more about everything it has experienced?
Alai: The times drive you to produce this kind of transformation. We are actually recording this kind of change, and furthermore Tibetan society is very strange. China’s ethnic minorities, among more than fifty ethnic minorities, not all ethnicities have written language, Tibetans themselves have written language, but when we examine our history, our historical records are extremely sparse. Mainly they are about the continuation of religion, but we consider that reaching this stage today, we can say this: perhaps we are also a result produced by Tibetan society’s hundred years of change.
Alai: That is, perhaps we are the first generation of truly significant intellectuals in Tibetan history. Then, of course intellectuals have the responsibility and fate of intellectuals. Then, we need to accept this kind of responsibility, bear this responsibility, and also accept this fate.
Commentary: In the midst of writing, Alai describes his home village of Gyarong as such: “It doesn’t matter if it’s for a book or for a person’s wisdom, this piece of land is too profound. The river runs day and night, the four seasons freely change, people thrive uninterrupted.” Regarding continuing to travel to Tibetan areas, Alai says: Tibetan areas’ changes in lifestyle and development will always be the object of his writing.
Reporter: You are a writer, what do you think your next writing will be, two novels have already come out in succession. Have you already finished your duty?
Alai: No, I haven’t. Right now I’m currently, I just started to write a part, I’m writing a very famous oral history in our Tibetan history, King Gesar, right now I’m participating in an international writing plan, England has a publisher, which is organizing writers from around the world, it has a project called International Collaborative Project, called Remaking Myths, where every ethnicity, every country has their own ancient peoples, myths created by the nation. But a lot of these myths have already died out, since modern people can’t accept that kind of approach.
Alai: It wishes to use the method of modern novels to write these myths, then reactivate it.
Reporter: I think you are a writer without pressures to write.
Alai: Correct, I don’t give myself rules, maybe when this book is finished, I suppose my writing will temporarily stop for a bit, maybe I’ll want to go do something again, something I’ve never done. Moreover this is adding to one’s own experience, because I’m already nearly a fifty-year-old person, for writing, I think even when I can no longer move about, I can still write. But now I have to engage in this society, perhaps it has even greater meaning.
Host: Since engaging in literary work, his home village of Gyarong’s natural scenery and historical culture have always been the source and strength of Alai’s creative work. In 2008, Alai already began to write the lengthy novel King Gesar, which is different from the traditional significance of King Gesar. This work will have a stronger contemporary meaning; upon its completion the work will be published internationally in six languages. We believe, following the development of the times, that under the perseverance of Alai and even more people promoting Tibetan culture, Tibetan culture will better walk toward the world. That’s all for today’s program, thank you for watching.