Some details about Tubo (Tibet) in Gyanak (China)

  by Woeser


One afternoon I went to the post office to mail some books. They were my books: one copy of Tibetan Memories, published by Dakuai on Taiwan, and one copy of Poem In Tibet’s Name translated into Böyik (Tibetan), a volume that arrived not long ago from America. I wanted to send these two books to a friend in Amdo. Not long before — well, a bit more than a month ago — I had mailed some books, the Taiwan magazine Unitas and a copy of my Invisible Tibet. On that occasion they had gone out with no fuss after the comrades at the Post Office thumbed through them perfunctorily — not like that spell during the Olympics, when even a single piece of paper would get taken apart for analysis. And this was November, now, even further removed from the Olympics; who would have thought they’d have grown edgy again?

The two women comrades at the Post Office were quite young. They said, “Ah, Tibet, this book’s about Tibet, that’s pretty sensitive.”

Suddenly on my guard, I asked, “How come? Is there a rule?”

“Well of course,” one of them said, “These days Tibet’s gotten very sensitive. You can’t just go and mail anything you want about Tibet. This book of yours, where was it published? It’s in the traditional characters.” The other chimed in, “And this one hasn't got a single word of Chinese, it’s all in Tibetan. Where was this published?”

I got annoyed at the way they were taking turns grilling me. “What’s wrong with traditional characters? What's wrong with Tibetan? They’re both formal publications.”

“Even if they are, we can’t do it,” they said firmly. “Got to ask our boss for instructions. We’ll find out whether we can mail ’em for you.” They both wore a relaxed, pleasant smile. One of them actually picked up a phone and started telling the person on the other end: two books on Tibet, can they be mailed, one in traditional characters and the other all in Tibetan yada yada. I asked the other one whether no books about Tibet could be mailed.

“No, it’s not that,” she said. “Anything published in our country can be mailed, like, you know, from the China Youth Publishing House and so on, that stuff can be mailed.”

The other woman put down the phone and said to me, “You leave these books here with us. The boss will check them out for you, OK?”

“Why should I do that?” I almost had to laugh. “Thanks a lot! I won’t mail them; someday I’ll deliver them myself.” I picked up the books and walked out somewhat discouraged.

When I got home, I told W. it seemed this country was starting to view Tibetans in a very different light. He answered nimbly: “What’s there to feel glum about? If this were a rational world and irrational things were happening, that would be bad news. But in an irrational world, irrational phenomena are perfectly normal — it’s only if rational things started happening that there would be something wrong.” With a little thought, I saw the truth of this, and it made me feel better.


A few days ago I passed through Xidan. There’s a small shop which sells clothing and accessories from India. A few years back, I bought a skirt there, genuinely ‘MADE IN INDIA.’ But this time I didn’t see any goods from India, and I asked the pudgy, heavily made−up shopgirl for the reason. Can you guess what she said? “It’s ’cause of that Dalai, he ran off to India; now there’s fighting going on, things can’t get through no more.” I almost choked.

Both amused and irritated, I said, “Don’t you know the Dalai Lama went to India long ago, so many years ago… what does this have to do with whether you sell things from India?”

She opened her innocent eyes as wide as saucers and tried to explain, “Well, that’s what our supplier over there says… um, wait, now I remember: Didn’t the Dalai go to Nepal? It’s got something to do with this, I swear.”

I could only shake my head. O my fat little made−up Chinese young lady: whatever you say! In any case, after what we’ve gone through this year, it looks as though our Tubo (Tibet) has found quite a place in people’s hearts.


I have a good friend in Lhasa whose mother wanted to go visit her son, a college student in a certain inland city, for the National Day holiday. But her son had heard that hotels were turning Tibetans away, so he phoned his mother to tell her that, to avoid the hassle, she’d better not come. But the mother missed her son too much, and asked friends and relatives what she should do. One relative, who worked as an official, photocopied for her Document Number Such−and−Such, which handed down a high−level directive from the summer meeting of the Central Sizhung (Central Government). The key point was that the Fatherland is a big family, with 56 flowers, all of them are nationalities of China and to take away even one would be no good. Therefore you couldn’t discriminate against any one flower, you couldn’t treat a single flower roughly, and if anyone did, that would be a violation of the Party’s nationalities policy… and so on.

Well, my friend’s mother thought she was all set. She put this photocopy of the high−level directive in her purse and on the birthday of the Great Fatherland she set forth a little nervously on her long journey into Gyanak (China).

Later, I heard from my friend that, sure enough, the mother had not been able to stay in any hotel outside the college and had had to make do with a few days in the college guesthouse. Alas, it seems that all these documents are of little use, and anyway it is hardly possible for every Tibetan to lay hold of an official document before venturing away from home.  Even if he could, who’s going to care?

November 8, 2008

Translator’s Notes

In this article, Woeser uses a number of Tibetan terms:

Gyanak is a Tibetan word for China.

In the Tang Dynasty, Chinese referred to the Tibetan Empire as 吐番, which might have been pronounced either tufan or tubo. In modern usage, though written with different characters, the name Tubo alludes to that history and provides a designation for Greater Tibet, which is useful since the most common Chinese name (Xizang) properly designates central Tibet.

Böyik refers to the Tibetan written language.

Sizhung is the Tibetan word for ‘government.’

Böpa is a Tibetan word for Tibetans.

Xidan is a shopping district in Beijing.

Whatever you say. The original is idiomatic and recognizable as a line from the 1996 Hong Kong film Dahua Xiyou, a parody of the legend of the Monkey King. The film, starring Steven Chiau, was written and directed by Jeff Lau.

56 flowers. Officially, the People’s Republic of China contains fifty−six different ethnic groups.

National Day October 1, the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.