Category Archives: Tibetan

Black Flame by Gerelchimeg Blackcrane, translated by Anna Holmwood

Black FlameWinner of China’s National Children’s Literature Award, Black Flame is an engrossing, often heartstring-pulling adventure told from the point of view of a majestic, lion-like, blue-black Tibetan Mastiff. Two things kept going through my head as the pages turned swiftly: 1. the novel reads like an older child’s version of Helen Manos’ gorgeous picture book, Samsara Dog, except all the incarnations belong to a single pooch with one life to live; and 2. no child should go through life without a special pet (yes, we’re finally welcoming a little hypoallergenic – achoos away! – kitty arriving home this month!).

Kelsang loses his mother as a puppy and grows up the playmate of his Master’s young son as he develops into an expert sheepherder. Two strangers appear one day, ply the Master with alcohol, and Kelsang finds himself taken away in chains to a city far from the grazing grasslands. He’s made to brutally battle other dogs, finds temporary respite with an old painter who feeds him but barely notices him, is sold again to a greedy dealer who keeps him chained waiting for the highest bidder. Kelsang discovers his great strength, unfortunately in horribly violent situations; he watches other dogs die, some even of broken hearts.

When he escapes once more, he happens upon two campers, one of whom is Han Ma, a kind young man who literally frees Kelsang from his chains of bondage. Han Ma proves to be the master Kelsang has been waiting for, but he will have to endure many more complications before the pair can be permanently united.

For those unfamiliar with this part of the world (like me), Black Flame offers ample opportunity to learn about lifestyles unique to nomadic highlands and crowded cities, not to mention the magnificence of mastiffs. That Kelsang must face so many obstacles before he’s finally granted contentment grows somewhat tedious before book’s end, but his utter devotion and unconditional love for Han Ma is impossible to ignore, and unforgettable to behold.

Having never seen a Tibetan Mastiff, I went looking for Google images and learned that the world’s most expensive dog is believed to be … what else, a Tibetan Mastiff (!), who at 11 months old sold for $1.5 million! That’s not a typo! If the three-foot-tall, 180-pound “Big Splash” is anything like loyal Kelsang, he’ll prove to be someone’s priceless treasure indeed.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2005 (China), 2013 (Canada, United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Chinese, Mongolian, Tibetan

The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography by Tetsu Saiwai

Every new year seems to begin with a fervent prayer/wish/hope for true PEACE. So far in my own lifetime, worldwide peace hasn’t been achieved. Still, I have a few more years left in me and surely enough stubbornness to believe peace can truly happen before I’m off to the other side …

One of the leaders in the worldwide peace movement – and perhaps the only living person who embodies pure peace – is the Dalai Lama. Having been in the same room with him just once (with hundreds of others, too) is enough to make you believe in his peaceful power. And if you’ve ever heard him laugh (which he seems to do often), you can’t help but bask in a moment of … well … just true utter JOY. One giggle can leave you in a state of lasting gleeful waaaaaaah.

So what better way to start 2011 than to pick up this latest biography of the 14th Dalai Lama? It’s the first bio of His Holiness presented in manga (!), originally published by Emotional Content LLC and recently picked up by publishing giant Penguin in a new distribution agreement. The bio-manga – which artist Tetsu Saiwai created with “the kind contributions from The Liaison Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for Japan and East Asia,” and authorized by the Government of Tibet in Exile in Dharamsala – has been adopted by said exiled government, translated into Tibetan, and is being used as an official textbook in 62 Tibetan schools – including refugee schools in Nepal and India! This book couldn’t come with a higher stamp of approval!

The 14th Dalai Lama’s story is, in a word, remarkable. Born in 1935 as Llhamo Döndrub, he was identified at age 2 as the reincarnation of his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso. At 5, he was officially recognized and named Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso (which translates to “Holy Lord, gentle glory, compassionate, defender of the faith, ocean of wisdom”); he lived for a year in Norbulingka Palace in Llasa with his parents and recalls, “In retrospect, I think this may have been the happiest period of my life.”

At age 6, he formally ascended the Tibetan throne as spiritual leader and began his life as the 14th Dalai Lama at the famed Potala Palace (and yes, he missed his mother, as any young child would). At 15, he lost his freedom as he became the political leader of 6 million Tibetans confronting an invading Chinese army that arrived with a message of “emanicipation” and instead carried forth plans of near-annihilation. At 24, he lost his country, leaving Tibet in exile, an exile which continues many decades later. At 54, he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize with the words, “The true recipient of this prize for peace is none other than the Tibetan people.”

His teachings are deceptively simple, if only we would listen. They remain the best way to welcome in this new year (and every year): “We, human beings, have an innate gift to love and care about others. No complicated dogma or religious teachings are necessary to be able to love. Our own heart is our temple. Our kindness is our dogma. And our compassion will lead the world towards peace, generating hope for happiness.”

Read and believe: Peace is coming.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2008 (original U.S. boutique press publication), 2010 (Penguin)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Biography, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Nonfiction, Japanese, Tibetan

Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History by Canyon Sam, foreword by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Last night, six of my book hens (my mother likes to refer to my book club as “the chicken coop,” which has an amusing ring to it in Korean: “kkoh-kkoh-jang”) got together for a lively discussion of  Canyon Sam‘s debut, Sky Train. Even though I usually play dictator in naming the book, this one was chosen because two of the hens requested a title on contemporary Tibet … plus Sam is scheduled to come to the Smithsonian this fall (stay tuned for details!).

Sky Train was 20 years in the making for third-generation Chinese American Sam. The book went through multiple revisions, eventually whittled down from an original 36 interviews gathered over numerous trips to Tibet, China, and India, which shrunk in number to 16, then 12, then 9, to the four contained here.

Sam’s final four are phenomenal women: Mrs. Paljorkhyimsar, who was left behind by her husband who chose to escort a religious leader to safety over his own family, who survived 22 years of death-defying separation in horrific labor camps before being reunited with her family in Switzerland; Mrs. Namseling who began her adult life as the teenage bride of a much older government official, who spent nine years in prison for her lofty position, and was only released to save face when her son-in-law, the prince of Gangtok (today, the capital of India’s last state, Sikkim), arrived on royal visit; Mrs. Taring who became a major advocate for orphan children and education of the Tibetan diaspora in India; and Sonam Choedron who, in spite of the years of suffering and deprivation she survived in unlawful prisons, somehow was able to forgive the man who murdered her son, who asked for nothing more than her son’s driver’s license as that was the only picture she would have of him because all her family pictures had been previously been destroyed by Chinese security officials. Indeed, the true story of Tibet proves to be testimony to the immense suffering and even greater strength of Tibetan women.

As much as Sky Train gives voice to Tibet’s memorable women, it is as much – if not more so – Sam’s own life journey towards acceptance and ultimately forgiveness. “A Jewish woman commented years ago that my going to China for a year and coming back a Tibetan advocate was like her going to Israel for a year and coming back a Palestinian supporter,” Sam writes. “I didn’t see it that way. I had felt little affinity for China before I’d first visited.”

That first visit to Sam’s ancestral homeland left Sam “[o]utraged and saddened.” Indeed, the problematic history between China and Tibet is violent, vicious, tragic. China invaded Tibet in 1950, and the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India on March 10, 1959, which is commemorated annually as National Uprising Day. Tibetans were forced to scatter, and those who remained were trapped in cycles of indescribable brutality, genocide, labor camps, and decades of pervasive injustice. Subjugation continues today. The opening of the eponymous “sky train” now irreversibly links Tibet to China.

Sam takes us along on her own Sky Train voyage, sharing her palpable disappointment trying to get an uninterrupted shot of a once open skyline of natural wonders, her joyful if bittersweet reunion with the Tibetan family she calls her own in a chaotically transformed Lhasa she no longer recognizes, her ongoing search for the women who will finally allow her to finish her book, and eventually her own path towards her own brand of enlightenment. “Clean your heart. Keep the vision. ‘Tibet’ is a state of mind.”

Tidbit: This just in on September 21,  2010 … Canyon Sam just won PEN Prize’s annual Open Book Award, honoring books by writers of color. Whooo hoooo!!!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Chinese American, Tibetan

Stick Out Your Tongue: Stories by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew

stick-out-your-tongueFor the average American, Tibet is not so much a troubled faraway land, but an ethereal concept marked by the kind face of the Dalai Lama, often in the company of devotee Richard Gere.

“In the West, I have met many people who share the same romantic vision of Tibet that I held before I visited the country,” writes Ma Jian in the revealing afterword of his slim short-story collection, Stick Out Your Tongue. “The need to believe in an earthly paradise, a hidden utopia where men live in peace and harmony, seems to run deep among those who are discontented with the modern world.”

Given its history of Chinese domination, the Tibet Ma exposes in this mesmerizing five-story collection is filled with images of loss, violence, and death so disturbingly vivid as to make a reader almost thankful for the book’s brevity – which is not to say that this is a book to be avoided.

On the contrary, Stick Out Your Tongue is a rare glimpse into a mostly unfamiliar part of the world. It’s also a welcome addition to a slowly growing number of titles from and about Tibet available in English. Recent titles from major publishers include Red Poppies (2002) by Tibetan Alai, an epic novel about a once powerful Tibetan clan whose future survival amidst imminent Communist Chinese takeover depends on Second Young Master – a village idiot to some and a prescient sage to others, and Sky Burial (2004) by Chinese writer Xinran, about a young Chinese doctor who spends 30 years searching throughout Tibet for her missing husband.

Indeed, Ma’s own memoir, Red Dust: A Path Through China (2001), which details his three-year picaresque odyssey in search of personal enlightenment, concludes with a trek through Tibet in 1985. Stick Out Your Tongue could be viewed as the memoir’s companion piece in which Ma both repeats and enhances the fragments he introduces in Red Dust.While both titles stand alone as individual texts, to read them together is to get a much fuller understanding of Ma’s journey. With Ma’s only other title available in English, The Noodle Maker (2005), a satirical novel made up of interlocking stories within a story, the three make up a powerful oeuvre.

Stick Out Your Tongue opens with “The Woman and the Blue Sky,” in which Ma meets a Chinese soldier living in an army repair station near Yamdrok Lake in Central Tibet. Red Dust readers will recognize the events – but in story form, the tragedy of Myima, the soldier’s lost love, is utterly wrenching. Sold as a sickly child at age 6, raped by her adoptive father, and eventually wedded to two brothers as their shared wife, Myima dies at 17 in childbirth. Ma is allowed to witness her “sky burial,” a Tibetan funeral ritual in which the corpse is offered to sacred vultures.

In “The Smile of Lake Dromula,” a young man from the remote grasslands searches for his nomadic family from whom he has been separated while studying in the town of Saga. With reunion comes the sad realization of the wide gulf between his isolated roots and the student life with which he has become more comfortable.

“The Eight-Fanged Roach” is the collection’s most unsettling story. Ma recounts meeting an old man in search of redemption from the self-created horror of his pathetic life: he slept with his widowed mother at 16, fathered his own sister, only to rape that daughter in drunken violence.

Illicit relationships also populate “The Golden Crown,” in which Ma hears the allegedly 400-year-old story of a promising apprentice’s affair with his older master’s beautiful young wife whose greed leads to destruction.

The last story, “The Final Initiation,” introduces a female lama who is acknowledged as the current incarnation of the Living Buddha. Although she physically survives a brutal ritual rape, her psyche cannot recover and her body fails to endure “the final initiation” of standing in a river of ice for three days.

Published originally in China in 1987, Ma’s collection was almost instantly banned by the Chinese government as a “‘vulgar, obscene book that defames the image of our Tibetan compatriots.’” In actuality, Ma bears witness to the effects of Chinese brutalization: “Tibet was a land whose spiritual heart had been ripped out.” He leaves Tibet demoralized. “In this sacred land, it seemed that the Buddha couldn’t even save himself, so how could I expect him to save me? … I felt empty and helpless, as pathetic as a patient who sticks out his tongue and begs his doctor to diagnose what’s wrong with him.” 

Because Ma cannot dislodge these human ills and injustices from his memory, he has no recourse but to write them down. “People there [in Tibet] endure sufferings that are beyond the comprehension of the modern world,” he insists in “The Final Initiation.” “I am writing down this story now in the hope that I can start to forget.” Instead, Ma’s raw, all-baring prose makes forgetting impossible.

Review: The Bloomsbury Review, September/October 2006

TBR‘s Contributing Editors’ Favorite Reads of 2006: These Are a Few of My Favorite Things … in Print, That Is …,” The Bloomsbury Review, November/December 2006

Readers: Adult

Published: 2006 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, .Translation, Chinese, Tibetan

Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet by Xinran, translated by Esther Tyldesley and Julia Lovell + Author Interview

Sky BurialAll in the Name of Love in Xinran’s ‘Sky Burial’

Here’s the story: two lovers, marriage, and cruel separation by war shortly thereafter. The husband dies mysteriously, but the wife remains skeptical and embarks on a search for answers that lasts three eventful decades. She doesn’t give up until she finally learns of her husband’s ultimate sacrifice in the name of preserving peace.

Making its Stateside debut this month, Xinran’s Sky Burial is a remarkable testament to love. For two days in 1994, Xinran listened to Shu Wen’s story, after which Shu Wen, like her lost husband, disappeared. Almost a decade later, Xinran shares that haunting odyssey.

Xinran is no stranger to remarkable, often heartbreaking women’s stories. In her native China, she was a renowned journalist who hosted the first radio show in China to give voice to the everyday, personal issues of women. When she moved to London in 1997, those stories eventually became her best selling debut, The Good Women of China (2002). So important were these stories that Xinran fought off an assailant who attempted to grab her bag, which contained the only copy of the book’s original manuscript. While she admits today that “of course, life is more important than a book,” she vehemently recognized the need to preserve the stories of brave women who had been voiceless for far too long.

AsianWeek: The book ends with a touching letter addressed to Shu Wen. Do you have any updates on her whereabouts?
Xinran: I was told in Hamburg by a German journalist … that he had read on the Internet about a Chinese minister who met a Chinese woman who had been in Tibet for more than 30 years. I was so excited by this news that I contacted people in China immediately. Then I heard from a policeman about a Tibetan woman in Nantong, a small town near Shanghai, who went to Chengdu [the last Chinese city to which both Shu Wen and her husband traveled before entering Tibet] to search for news about her husband. So far, I haven’t heard anything [more]. By the descriptions, I feel that this Tibetan woman must be Shu Wen … [click here for more]

Author interview: “All in the Name of Love in Xinran’s ‘Sky Burial,’” AsianWeek, July 28, 2005 [This links to the issue cover – whoo hooo! Click here for full article.]

Readers: Adult

Published: 2005 (United States)

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Chinese, Tibetan

The Wisdom of Forgiveness: Intimate Conversations and Journey by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan

Wisdom of ForgivenessAn intimate memoir about a three-decade relationship between the Dalai Lama and the author Chan that begins with high-pitched giggles over Chan’s Fu Manchu-style mustache and ends with the gift of a single round cracker.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, December 3, 2004

Readers: Adult

Published: 2004

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Chinese American, Tibetan

Sera: The Way of the Tibetan Monk by Sheila Rock

SeraAbsolutely stunning collection of black-and-white photographs that document the lives of the Sera Jey monks of Tibet. Their Sera Monastic University, one of three great monasteries near Lhasa, Tibet, is now reestablished in South India.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, December 18, 2003

Readers: Adult

Published: 2003

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Tibetan

Rules of the House by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

Rules of the House“It is not the accuracy of the story that concerns us,” the author writes in the title’s opening poem. “But who gets to tell it.” Dhompa captures her fractured self through explorations of her Tibetan heritage, her immigrant coming-of-age, and all the stories in between in this elliptical collection.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, August 29, 2003

Readers: Adult

Published: 2002

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Poetry, Tibetan, Tibetan American

Red Poppies by Alai, translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin

Red PoppiesA sweeping saga of Tibet before the Chinese occupation, told through the privileged view of the self-proclaimed “renowned idiot son” of a Tibetan chieftain.

Review: “New and Notable Fiction,” AsianWeek, July 18, 2002

Readers: Adult

Published: 2002 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Chinese, Tibetan