Book Review: My Tibetan Childhood

So I haven’t been writing much recently, at least for the blog.  I’m working on cranking out my book on Tibetan vegetarianism as fast as I can, and that hasn’t left much time for side projects like blog posts!  But I thought I’d try to fix that by kicking off a series of occasional book reviews.  These aren’t going to be formal reviews, suitable for publication in a journal.  But sometimes a book comes along that really makes me think (or that I simply really enjoy), and this blog seems like a good place to share some of those thoughts in a relatively informal way.

I can’t tell you how refreshing this book is.  Religious life writing certainly has its own beauty, but it is really nice to read an autobiography that depicts the actions and concerns of people who are not elite religious practitioners.  Naktsang Nulo writes with the attention to narrative and emotion of a natural story teller.  And the the translators and editors, Angus Cargill and Sonam Lhamo (whose names do not, unfortunately, make it onto the cover), do a wonderful job of transforming his Tibetan into English prose that is both clear and compelling.

My Tibetan Childhood[1] is marketed as an account of “the lived experience of the forced and violent incorporation of the Tibetan heartlands into the People’s Republic by Chinese troops in the 1950s.” (so sayeth the back cover)  And the author’s depictions of atrocities committed by Chinese forces are indeed heartrending.  These stories, however, comprise only the second half of the book.  To my mind, the first half of the work, where the author speaks about everyday life as a nomadic child, is just as important as the second, if not more.  Naktsang Nulo provides a detailed, rich account of social customs, regional expressions and vocabulary, and the values that sustained nomadic life.  As regular readers know, I’m primarily interested in vegetarianism, so Naktsang Nulo’s depiction of nomadic eating habits was particularly welcome.  To give just one example, he recalls that after his father kills and antelope, his Aunt tells him, “don’t worry, its not a sin if it keeps us from going hungry.” (89)  Other scholars with other preoccupations with no doubt also turn up valuable material.

It’s also worth noting the publication history of this text.  Naktsang Nulo composed his autobiography in Tibetan, and published it in 2007 in China.  I don’t know how official this publication was (ie: from an official press or not) and 2007 may have been the last of the relatively relaxed years prior to the unrest in 2008, but it is still remarkable that this book appeared within China.  This simple fact means that the text not only gives us insight into what happened in the fifties, but also into the kind of material that people felt comfortable publishing (again, officially or not) in 2007.

So who should read this book?  I’d say pretty much everyone interested in Tibet.  It is obviously valuable for those interested in the history of twentieth century Sino-Tibetan conflict, but also gives important insight into pre-communist nomadic life.  And pilgrimage.  The author provides a fifty plus page description of a year-long pilgrimage to Lhasa, pure gold for those interested in Tibetan pilgrimage, and destined to be included in courses I teach on Tibetan religiosity.

As far as complaints go, I have few.  I would obviously like Naktsang Nulo to dwell more on dietary choices and possibilities, but that simply reflects my own obsessions.  The one thing I would really like are better maps.  Naktsang Nulo includes an fifty plus page description of a year long pilgrimage to Lhasa, but the accompanying maps are not nearly detailed enough.

For another, more thorough review, see Jonathan Mirsky’s review in the High Peaks, Pure Earth blog.  Also Woeser’s article on the Chinese version on the same site.

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[1] Buy the book directly from Duke University Press by clicking here.  You could probably save a few dollars by buying it from Amazon, but surely its worth putting those dollars into the presses that publish this material.

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Seriously Dodgy Street Tattooing in Chengdu

Update: August 20, 2012

Fig 1 - Making a selection.

This is a short post for those who fear that tattooing has been permanently co-opted by urban hipsters and sorority girls. A post for those who long for the days when getting a tattoo was a right of passage involving risking your life (or at least your health) by venturing into the darker corners of town. Fear not old-school aficionados: life-threatening tattooing still exists in the back alleys of your favorite Chinese city.

Near Chengdu’s north railway station, there is an epic wholesale market where everything from pantyhose to endangered animal parts is available on the street. Near the gate, several people had laid large sheets of flash on the ground (see fig 1). Passersby could then select their new tattoo from among these images. But where was the work itself being done? Fortunately, a courageous young Chinese man had decided on getting a rather ornate tattoo on his hand, and so I asked if I could tag along and take some pictures.

Fig 2 - Yes, this man is getting a tattoo in a dingy alley.

I had assumed that we would be lead off to an apartment studio somewhere, but instead we simply turned the corner into a small alley, and everyone squatted down in the muck (see fig 2). Not exactly a sterile environment. To his credit, the tattooist (I can’t quite bring myself to call him a tattoo artist) did use a new, disposable needle. But the machine and tubes that he used looked like they had not been cleaned in years.[1] The tattooist insisted several times that everything was “very clean”. Most definitely not true. About this time I realized the crazy foreigner taking pictures (that would be me) had drawn a bit of a crowd. Time to go. So I took one more picture of the tattoo, with the outline completed (see fig 3) and got the hell out of dodge. It’s also worth noting that this was this man’s first tattoo, and he decided to get it on his hand. In traditional western tattooing, the hands and face have always been pretty much off limits, as those are the only parts of your body you can’t cover up with clothes. In addition to the various communicable diseases this guy probably got, he’s also going to be stuck with a horrible tattoo, in full view of everyone, for the rest of his life. So if that sounds like your cup of tea, or if you’re just nostalgic for old-school back-alley scab-vending, now you know where to go.

Fig 3 - The completed outline. The box behind him contains the tattooist's supplies. His own personal disease transmission kit.

For the record, not all the tattooing being done in Chengdu is grim. In fact, I’ve seen some surprisingly good work being done, and if I can find the time, I’ll post about that as well.

UPDATE:

ick
For those of you wondering if you really can catch some kind of horrible disease from dirty street tattooing, check out the picture at right.

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[1]A tattoo machine consists of needles moving in and out of a tube – kind of like a mechanical pencil. It doesn’t do much good to have clean needles if your tubes are nasty. In this case he was also getting his ink directly from the bottle, mixing this guy’s blood in with the rest of the ink and getting the whole thing set for the next customer.