A Year in Tibet by Sun Shuyun

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A Year in Tibet by Sun Shuyun

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Despite the criticism levelled at the television documentary associated with this book, author Sun Shuyun does voice some of the problems faced by indigenous Tibetans still under the yoke of Chinese occupation. She does so quietly, however, and does ignore some of the more obvious targets. It is still a book worth reading - if only to understand what is at risk.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: April 2008
Publisher: HarperPress
ISBN: 978-0007265114

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Tibet is an emotive word these days. Rightly so.

Since long before the dawn of Communism, China has been adept at numbering the rights and wrongs of history, with the three this and the seven that. Sadly, she does not yet see the invasion of Tibet as a wrong. I am in no position to know what the majority of ordinary Chinese know about Tibet, nor what they think of their government's official standpoint on it. Along with many others, I can only hope that one day they will have full and free access to the internet and other media where they will be able to read the many and varied opinions of people from around the world, and will be allowed not only to make up their own mind – but to then debate that standpoint, publicly and freely.

For myself: I take the view that Tibet is no more Chinese than Nepal or Bhutan or Northern India. The mountain people of the Himalaya are very different from the peoples of the southern plains and the eastern coasts. Climate and geography alone would tell you that. They are racially distinct, linguistically separate, culturally divorced, religiously askant and politically alien to the conglomerate that is China. I personally hope, not having faith enough to pray, that one day China will recognise her error, and be brave enough to lose a little face in granting Tibet the freedom that the smaller country is owed.

I would not normally use a book review to make a political point - and have freely granted The Bookbag the editorial freedom to delete these introductory paragraphs should they wish. The views are mine and do not necessarily represent those of the site or anyone else connected with it. But in this case I do feel they are pertinent to one's understanding of the book.

In 2006 Sun Shuyun got a chance to go to Tibet, to spend a year filming the lives of ordinary Tibetans. The resultant documentary was shown on BBC4 during March/April 2008. Sadly I missed it.

Having missed the programme but read the book I was astonished at the invective aimed at the filmmakers that I discovered on the internet. Apparently the film distorted the reality of life inside Tibet and ignored the political and cultural suppression of Tibetans to the extent that there is an on-line petition whose statement commences We, the undersigned, wish to express our concern regarding the content, style and motivation of the BBC4 series…

I quote this because on the basis of the book alone I wish to raise an alternative voice.

In her own introduction Sun Shuyun does make the point that it is not the book of the film and acknowledges that the film had to focus on the action of life, whereas in the book she has had greater scope to step beyond the merely visible and express the thoughts and feelings not only of her characters but also of her crew and herself.

She is only partly right, I suspect. It is not the book of the film. It is, however, the book of the making of the film. Much of what she describes is the background which explains how she discovered the stories she wanted to shoot, and how and why some of them never came to be shot. There is also a suggestion at times that those which did make it into the final cut only told part of the story.

None of which addresses the issues raised by the petitioners. Their gripes are:

· that as a Chinese, Sun Shuyun is an inappropriate person to have been given this opportunity

· that she suggests she was given free access to film, which is unlikely given the standing requirement for official permission to film and the experience of other film-makers

· that the views expressed regarding the Chinese one-child policy are factually inaccurate

· that the circumstances in Gyantse are very different from those portrayed (including the omission of the notorious Gyantse detention centre)

· the references to the Panchen Lama omit any reference to the 'contested' nature of the current incumbent(s) of the title

…to which a large part of me responds: Yes! Quite!

But in reading the book, I didn't feel any of this. Was I simply taken in by Sun Shuyun's skill as a writer, or by my own fantasies about the survival of culture against the odds? Did I simply extrapolate what I had seen in Bhutan and assume that, despite the might of China, it could continue to exist across the border in Tibet? Or was I perhaps a little more prepared to read between the lines, accept the author's restrictions and find that her take is not as uncritical as it at first appears?

In so many words, we filmed a wedding in which the bride and the grooms [sic] had no say…The monastery was burgled…the village doctor found herself sick…and turned to a lama and a pilgrimage in hope of a cure…the builder was trying to get a contractor's certificate for which he had to pass an exam in Chinese, a language he did not speak. In other places, she talks of Tibetans worrying about finishing their education in the better schools because all of their teaching will be in Chinese and they will lose touch with their roots. Equally the proven fact that teaching Tibetans in Chinese limits their ability to learn any subject, including basic maths so their chances of even getting into such schools is limited.

When she speaks of the rituals performed to protect against hail, or to ease the passage of the soul to the next life, she does so with all of the scepticism of a true communist – but how many western secularists truly take a different view?

On the other hand: however much science there is behind the idea of firing into clouds to provoke rain & therefore prevent hail – my understanding is that you need something a little more sophisticated than a ground-based ack-ack gun that the crew are only allowed to fire once a month because of the cost of the shells. The official Chinese line can hardly be said to escape criticism (not to say mockery) in this account.

It is true that the author/director's questioning of her subjects rarely reaches above the naïve. She is very careful throughout not only (one assumes) not to breach any terms of her permit, but also not to offend the people with whom she is working. If you want to spend a year following someone around you have to be a little sensitive to their feelings. Some questions either cannot be asked, or simply will not be answered.

Of course you can leave that silence hanging tellingly in the air. Or you can try to gain the trust of the people you are working with, refrain from opening them up to any repercussions following your departure and hope that what comes across in the unguarded moments that are friendship's reward tells its own story.

Interpretation aside, what does Sun Shuyun tell us of this community?

We have insights into the Rikzin family where, in accordance with the tradition, three brothers share a single wife. The eldest brother is mentally a child and presumably lives en famille as a sibling / uncle to the others with no complications ensuing. Of the two younger brothers, the middle one (although an 'arranged' partner) would appear to have turned out to be a love-match for the woman of the family. The youngest is a Shaman, and spends a great deal of his time away from the homestead. Between the family small-holding and the Shaman's income, they get by. Of the four children two are clearly from the middle brother, the clear implication is that the younger two are from the younger brother. Sharing is sharing. It takes a long time for our film-maker to put the questions we'd really like to know (what is it really like in these relationships) and she gets the kind of evasion you might expect – but for a single aside, which says everything you really want to know.

We meet the entrepreneurs of the community. The hotel owner and the builder. The fact that these two success stories are least Tibetan in some of their attitudes (particularly in their sobriety) can easily be taken as propaganda – until you realise that in other ways their lifestyle hardly fits the official preferred Chinese model. Maybe they have their own reasons not to drink?

Above all, Sun Shuyun uses the lives of the people as a route into exploring Buddhism. She has the non-believer's fascination for its very survival in this place where its extinction has been (is?) so systematically and vehemently sought. She takes us through the (at times admittedly selective) history of the religion in Tibet, compares it with the personality cult of Mao and I believe genuinely seeks to understand something which must be more alien to a Chinese of her generation than to a westerner brought up in the plethora of free religious practices which surround us, even if we do not partake. How can she hope to fully understand what it means to be a monk – but less to be an ex-monk who lived through the Cultural Revolution and condemned his former brothers?

To a large extent the author does ignore the political and cultural suppression of the Tibetans. I can't help but feel that to a large extent, so do a large number of Tibetans. However they feel about the injustices levelled against them, and whatever processes the politically active undertake, for many the simple fact is that ultimately they have to get on and live their lives. Sometimes, for some people, doing that in accordance with their own traditions irrespective of the law (polyandry is illegal, the one-child policy does apply) is protest enough. The very fact that any of these things still happen at all is surely evidence that there is yet hope.

There is no outright condemnation of China's presence in Tibet – nor of the policies being pursued there. If we pay attention however there is evidence of some of the results: the comparison of educational achievement between Tibet & China; the woeful medical provision; the calling off of the winter festival. Really disappointed is not an appropriate response to the state banning of the one annual opportunity local people have to associate with far-flung neighbours & relatives and to trade for better quality goods than are available locally. A stronger reaction IS called for. But as readers and television viewers I feel we also have a duty to read between the lines of diplomacy and to interpret the stories and facts for ourselves.

I make no apologies for taking up the defence of A Year in Tibet. Firstly and primarily because it is a thoroughly readable and enjoyable book. Secondly, however, because we need to know how much of the culture could still be saved. If the only information that escapes is patchy and censored, it is still better than the option of none at all which would imply that the battle had truly been lost.

It may be a vision through an imperfect lens… but it is still a vision of what is being fought for.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you have an interest in this part of the world then you might also enjoy The Cave of the Yellow Dog by Byambasuren Davaa.

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Buy A Year in Tibet by Sun Shuyun at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Year in Tibet by Sun Shuyun at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy A Year in Tibet by Sun Shuyun at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Year in Tibet by Sun Shuyun at Amazon.com.


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