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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Timely journey into the real Tibet

May 11, 2008

Peter Gordon
The Standard (Hong Kong)
May 7, 2008

Writer and filmmaker Sun Shuyun's recent book "A Year in Tibet" is so timely that its appearance on my desk, and in the bookshops, appears almost pre- destined.

A companion of sorts to a BBC documentary, the book is the story of the filming, but also an introduction to the lives of several ordinary, yet extraordinary, people in Gyantse: "A shaman, a village doctor, a junior party official, a hotel manager, a rickshaw driver, a builder and two monks."

It is impossible to read the book independently of recent events, news and commentary that has been long on symbolism and rhetoric.

But by taking us "into the most intimate aspects of village life, and beyond - the strength of the Tibetans' beliefs and the importance of their rituals; the joy they take in life; their battle to be educated, and in their own language; the pitiful standards of health care; the success of the few in the midst of poverty and lack of opportunity; the palpable political tensions; the animosity between Tibetans and Chinese," Sun provides some perspective: Tibetans are not symbols but people with barley to bring in and children to raise.

She has the cameraman's eye for composition, and evokes her characters with a novelist's flair. Honest and forthright about her own role in this story and what is known in physics as the "observer effect," that the mere act of observing will impose changes on the phenomenon being observed - her interactions and observations are of acute interest since she is, after all, Han Chinese.

Sun also knows a good topic when she finds one. Polyandry, or brothers sharing a single wife, is still (or once again) commonplace. It is of course an exotic if not bizarre custom to Western, and indeed Chinese, sensibilities - and if there is any subject that brings out the contradictions of Tibet, it is this.

Although traditional - Sun repeats a Tibetan saying that "a good family is one where the brothers share a woman; a good wife is one who unites the brothers" - fraternal polyandry is hardly something a modern equal rights campaigner would find appealing.

The women in Gyantse affect happiness with the arrangement, but Sun is not quite sure: "As we head down the stairs [to take photos], Yangdron [the wife] tugs at my shirt ... and whispers shyly in my ear: `Do you think I could have one just of Dondan [her `first' husband] and me?"' It is here that Sun excels.

Little seems as black and white as polemicists on either side would have it. "Ninety percent of Tibetans live in villages and on the pastoral land ... It is among them that faith is still nurtured, the culture is maintained, and tradition flourishes. This is the real Tibet."

It is also a place where the dedicated village doctor is so underpaid she cannot afford to treat her own ailments; she visits the shaman.

Sky burial - dismembering the dead to be consumed by vultures - is another venerable tradition, but those performing the ritual were considered so polluting that one couldn't invite them for meals.

The BBC documentary has, apparently, caused something of a row - there is an online petition calling it a "whitewash." And as Rebecca Seal wrote recently in The Observer: "If the recent riots in Tibet had not taken place, or the traveling circus that is the progress of the Olympic torch hadn't drawn further attention, it's unlikely that A Year in Tibet would be widely seen as anything other than a charming look at ordinary Tibetan life, rather than as an irresponsible sop to Chinese sensibilities."

But one can also well imagine many Chinese taking offense at Sun's recognition of "the sufferings of the people and the almost total destruction of Tibetan culture" and her pro-Tibetan sympathies. "I do not imagine the villagers will forget or forgive the past," she writes, "but they have been warm and kind to me."

A Year in Tibet manages to be interesting, enlightening and moving.

One can always quibble about Sun Shuyun's largely apolitical approach to her material, but she has given us a sensitive book at a time when sensitivity is greatly needed yet always not much in evidence. Peter Gordon is the co-founder of
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