Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Welcome To Babylon

A lady from the immigration office that handles asylum cases rang me the other day. Whether I could confirm that there are two ways of spelling a Tibetan place name and whether those two names were referring to one and the same place? – Oh my goddess! Why did they contact a private person? And how did they get my name?

It showed how determined the authorities were to limit the stream of asylum-seekers into the country: They were expanding their investigative methods in unconventional ways using their personal network outside of their work: They got my name from one of my former colleagues whose mom was friends with the lady on the phone.

They had a case, she said, where the applicant claimed his place of origin called “Ganzi” in some documents, was the same place spelled "Kardze" in other documents - whether it was really true that there were two such greatly differing ways to write one and the same place name?

Maybe she suspected the person wanted to obtain asylum by fraud, I don't know. So I confirmed whatever I could and whatever its worth, in the hope it helps.

She could follow that the discrepancies in the spelling resulted from two different ways of romanising a Tibetan place name - via Chinese (Ganzi) or directly from Tibetan (Kardze). But if the lady had got a hint on how much chaos really reigned, she would have shook her head in disbelief: I saw at least two more variations floating around - “Kandze” and “Garze” – and I also had to think of how grossly negligent the Tibetans could be when it came to place names.

It was easier when I was growing up: People didn’t need to think much about each other’s place of origin. As descendants of “old-established” exiles, we were “Tibetans” most of the time and if there ever was a need to differentiate then you were Ü-Tsang, Amdo or Kham and that was that.

But with the opening of China and thousands of Tibetans socialised within the New China coming out, the entire exile demographics changed and apart from the three historical Cholkha you now heard a whole lot of new place and region names, some of them in half a dozen variations.

When it is a pure headache for Tibetans to keep track, how bad could it get for the lady handling asylum cases?

I never heard older folks use the name Kardze as their place of origin for that matter. They say they are something that to me sounds like “Driu”-Khampa. I don’t know whether the term is related to the old Tibetan name of the region drehor (“Trehor”) or whether it’s from a place spelled in Tibetan as bre’o and also dre’o, which old maps show as an area within Trehor - near Rongpatsa and Dargay Gompa in case that helps.

Wide-spread illiteracy and the isolation of communities in the old days add their bit to the ambiguity over place names. What mattered to folks back then were the toponyms in their immediate surroundings such as a particular mountain nearby, a specific forest, or a pasture. Trying to figure out names now, decades later and from afar, at times feels like a guessing game.

To add to the spelling ambiguity, Kardze is not only the name of the largest Tibetan prefecture outside the Tibet Autonomous Region, it is also the name of a county within that prefecture, plus the name of a town that is the county seat.  Was there perhaps a shortage of good names when the communists began to rearrange the administrative units?

A friend, who hails from Kardze town, tells me the name is a contraction of the Tibetan karpo (“white”) and dzebo (“graceful”) - actually a rather unlikely and funny name for a macho Khampa place. It sounds more like a name for a Tibetan cosmetics line: “Fair & Lovely”!

The town Kardze, however, is not the capital of the Prefecture Kardze. That privilege goes to Dartse(m)do, a formerly important trading-town on the old Sino-Tibetan border. But in present-day Tibet, folks who hail from Dartsedo would tell you they are from Kangding.

How Dartsedowas can be so brainless and voluntarily use that dreadful Chinese name is a mystery only they are able to penetrate. Doesn’t it mean “subjugation of Kham”? Arrog Khampa, what happened to your famous pride? Linguistics is a political battlefield, if you still haven’t noticed. Why do you shoot yourself in the foot?

It was in Dartsedo where we met up with a relative from Lhasa last summer. Since it wasn’t possible to obtain permits to enter the Autonomous Region, he came down to Kham. While we were sitting in a restaurant over a cup of tea, he received a call on his cell phone and we heard him say: “Sorry, but, I’m in China at the moment ( … rgyanag-la yod)”.

A Chinese has a reason to be sinocentric: Dartsedo is in Sichuan and Sichuan is about as Chinese as can get; but to hear your own relative say something so disparaging was a shock. The same relative dropped a strange remark when we were strolling through the Barkhor on an earlier visit: “These days there aren’t many Lhasans in Lhasa,” he said, “the city is full of Chinese and Khampas”.

“Thanks for lumping in your Eastern Tibetan brothers and sisters with the archenemy, dear uncle”. Had I not recalled Asian etiquette of respecting the elders that’s what I would have said.

Not only was my uncle not on top of our geography but his remarks also made me wonder whatever happened to all those grandiose incantations of “Tibetan unity”: Every other singer in Tibet seems to have no other topic to sing about but this one. Still the message didn’t get through to people like my relative. In his mind, the only “Tibetans” far and wide were the ones like him from Ü-Tsang or Central Tibet.

Remember how Gedun Choephel wrote about the sense of superiority he encountered in Lhasa when he arrived full of expectation from his rural Amdo backwaters? And remember how Bapa Phuntsog Wangyal noticed the same air of superiority when he left his native Kham to lobby the government in Lhasa to back his socialist ideas?

My relative’s comment only confirmed the extent of our ancestors’ neglect: They never cared enough to foster a pan-Tibetan national consciousness encompassing all the Tibetan regions while they were still in control of the country. How are we supposed to create that awareness now that we are living split up into dozens of administrative units, scattered all over the globe, sometimes even unable to use our own tongue as the medium of communication? Sometimes it felt like trying to get spilled milk back into the pot.

I’m getting off track.

There’s another twist to the whole story of toponyms with unaware or indifferent people perpetuating weird names through frequent usage.

Look at Gyalthang bordering the Kardze Prefecture in the south. It is part of the Dechen Prefecture or Diqing in Chinese, which sometimes even locals confuse with Deqin, a town further north which is actually Jol in Tibetan - are you still following me?

Similar to Dartsedo, Gyalthang was an important trading town.  It’s one of the few Tibetan places with a historical Chinese name, Zhongdian. In the late 1990s the place was rebaptised “Shangrila” aka Xianggelila to attract tourists. Now you come across Gyalthangpas who Tibetanised it and tell you in all sobriety that they are – hold on tight – “Shangrilawa”!

The new name also comes up in the dialogue that precedes the song Gasho-la (“Common, rejoice!”) by the area’s best-known singer Yangchen Lhamo. Listen up:
Ashi khyö gawa rey? - Madam, where are you from?
Nga ni Gyalthangpa rey. - I am a Gyalthangpa
Gyalthang se-na gabar rey? - Where is this place called “Gyalthang”?
Shangrila rey. - It’s Shangrila.
Khyö Shangrilawa rey! - Oh, so you are a “Shangrilawa”!

An entirely useless feature of this video is the Chinese subtitles. They don't make sense to Chinese readers since the characters merely replicate the sound of the Tibetan words. The average Tibetan can't make sense of it either since we're dealing with a local Tibetan dialect rendered in Chinese characters. Nobody can make sense - only "Shangrilawas" - grin.  Had they added Tibetan subtitles, ordinary mortals would learn what they’re singing about and recognise similarities between dialect and High Tibetan; an interregional connect would have been possible. So much for trying to see beyond one’s own nose... and we are left wondering: “Gasho-la about what?”

In the case of “Shangrila” the name is so fake you simply smell the rat. In other cases though, ambiguity sneaked into a place name slyly and even locals become insecure about their place’s real name.

It’s happening in Mili bordering Konkaling. Tibetan texts before the Chinese takeover all spell the name unequivocally as rmili. But these days, one sees “Muli” more often which is the romanisation of the Chinese characters: mu (“wood”) and li (“land”). As usual, the Chinese name is mimicking the Tibetan sound of the word, but co-incidentally Mili also has tons of precious timber, which the Chinese have been logging incessantly since they took control, and so the Chinese name imitation “Muli” gets a pseudo-rational complexion which appears so logical that it entered the Tibetan language: Now you can also spell it rmuli in Tibetan and locals have become so used to it that they will tell you both variations of the name are correct.


Miliwas are exotic birds even among Khampas, let alone Tibetans in general. So who is supposed to care if Mili folks themselves don’t bother? Especially for a peripheral area like Mili, the risk is that the territory clearly identifiable as “Tibet” shrinks with locals down the generations not knowing anymore for sure whether their area is really Tibetan or not.

Lack of awareness and traditionally low literacy rates in the mother tongue are a curse the Tibetans are carrying around with themselves wherever they go. But especially in border areas such as Mili, the consequences can be grave.

Of course the Chinese are the main culprits of the naming chaos. On the one hand, it is a physical impossibility to render Tibetan names through Chinese characters which are tailored to the replicate the sounds typical of that language. The best-meant shot will always retain a degree of fuzziness. On the other hand, squeezing Tibetan proper names into Hanyu Pinyin, which was invented to romanise Chinese with its specific linguistic characteristics, distorts Tibetan toponyms even further.

And sometimes, the Chinese beat themselves at how best not to accurately reproduce a Tibetan proper name, when out of sheer ignorance, they translate a Tibetan name into English based on the meaning of the Chinese characters although those characters where initially chosen for their sound.  The result can be hilarious as the example of Dondrup Ling monastery shows.

Dondrup Ling means something like “island of the one who established the purpose”. It’s located in a place called Kongtsera (aka Pongzera aka Benzilan, etc., etc.). The place is known in Tibet for producing beautiful wooden Tsampa bowls - you can buy them in the Barkhor. But guidebooks list the name of the monastery as “Eastern Bamboo Forest”. There is however neither trees nor bushes on the surrounding hills, let alone a bamboo forest, and one wonders how the monastery ended up with such a name. Turns out it is the English translation of the meaning of the Chinese characters used to phonetically express the Tibetan: dong (“east), zhu (“bamboo”), lin (“forest”) => Dongzhulin = Dondrup Ling - tataaa!

Welcome to Babylon and the Babylonian confusion of tongues coming out of China, where official Chinese linguistic barbarism meets local Tibetan unawareness!

While it’s bad enough to have to put up with the Chinese screwing up our place names and our language, there is no reason why we should support that by acting lapo (“washy”). Obviously the Chinese don’t have an incentive to clean up but we do since places and their names are the very foundation of our identity. We derive our sense of community and physical belonging directly from a specific piece of land. So perpetuating wrong names and wrong concepts out of carelessness and insensitivity erodes the Tibetan identity.

Since we are the ones whose collective identity is at stake, we should also be the ones to make a collective effort. If we don’t get on top of our language including correct toponyms, the Chinese will continue to portray Tibet to the world uncontested with all their linguistic and conceptual limits - and we are left standing, unable to prevent further deterioration, helplessly accelerating our own demise.

Those who are aware of the problem should try and do something about it, so those who are unaware become sensitised and get a chance to adapt.

We could start with our own Phayul or our parents and grandparents birthplaces in Tibet. What is the old Tibetan name? What does it mean? What were the neighbouring places called? Which were important landmarks? And so and so forth.

Gradually we extend it to the phayuls of our friends, our neighbours and to any place we’ve heard of until we cover the whole plateau. A positive side-effect of this exercise is that in the course of time, a geography emerges for our identity, and the big topic “Tibetan unity” is filled with meaning.

Since it’s going to be Losar soon, we could make it a Tibetan New Year resolution to work on place names and add that to the list of action items of the Lhakar movement.

Losar Tashi Deleg!
Mountain Phoenix

All written content on this blog is coyprighted. Please do not repost entire essays on your websites without seeking my prior written consent. 


Anonymous said...

Great piece. May I suggest 'shallow' and 'frivolous' as perhaps clearer translations for LAPO?

Mountain Phoenix said...

I like "shallow". That conveys the meaning. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

fantastic. Thank you

Mountain Phoenix said...

In case the video doesn't work, you can view it here ->

Anonymous said...

This subtitling is almost definitely made for for Karaoke. Look at the way the light scrolls along the characters as they are sung - that's typical of karaoke videos.

Right now in a number of Karaoke parlours around China and Tibet, Chinese and Tibetans are probably singing along as you sit here reading this

In Chinese if you wanna dub foreign language words phonetically, there's no other way than to use the Chinese characters phonetically. Same as any language of course - only difference is Chinese characters have intrinsic meaning so the kind of confusion you have written might happen, especially with place names!

Japanese, which also has thousands of kanji characters, has a separate alphabet called Katakana reserved only foreign words. Katakana have no intrinsic meaning, so there's no scope for confusion of Japanified dubs... unlike with Sinified dubs...!

In my personal opinion,  it would be good if new Chinese names for places, the ACTUAL literal translation of the places names were adopted, and the phonetic approximations were chucked away

Mountain Phoenix said...

You are absolutely right about Karaoke. But it's still senseless to parrot without a clue whether sung or spoken :--) - The suggestion to use Chinese characters that reflect the original meaning rather than the sound is something worth discussing. Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply. I’ve been thinking about why Tibetan songs are phonetically subtitled in Chinese for Karaoke...

Does the company that makes these video subtitles not have any Tibetan subtitlers? Or isn’t there an incentive to subtitle in Tibetan?

Or do they subtitle them in Chinese for the benefit of the Karaoke-goers? If so, who are the Karaoke goers? If they are Chinese – or I should say ‘non-Tibetan’ (because there are also more than 100 million non-Han, non-Tibetan minority people in China), why are they singing Tibetan songs?

Ok, so I guess that the audience are Tibetan, and the video is subtitled in Chinese because it’s the language of the subtitlers and the second language of the audience: Tibetans who actually have karaoke nearby will be urban people and are more likely to have Chinese. Still, it looks like a lot of Tibetan music videos are partially made by the hand of local governments, with the purpose of increasing tourism by planting ideas of happy, singing, dancing Tibetans in their colorful costumes in the minds of non-Tibetans.

Domestic tourism is going to have a major effect on Tibetan regions going forward. I think whether it has a good or bad effect relates to the extent Tibetans are running the tours business, as opposed to immigrant Chinese or government agencies.

Are there legal restrictions on Tibetans overseas investing in Tibetan run companies in China? If a Tibetan who grew up in a western country had money and wanted to provide investment in a local-Tibetan run tour company in Kham or Amdo would that be possible?

Anonymous said...

Oh, I should read your profile. You and your husband actually already have had an enterprise in Tibet for a long time. How interesting