Revised Foreword to the 2016 (pocket) edition
of the collection of his short stories translated into French
By Brigitte Duzan
Pema Tseden (万玛才旦)
is famous today for his exceptional filmmaking career: he has
been the first Tibetan director to graduate from the Beijing
Film Academy, and, within ten years, has become the leading
figure in China of a Tibetan cinema which can truly be defined
as “cinéma d’auteur”.
This achievement is all the more exceptional since he was born,
in 1969, in a family of Tibetan peasants in a small village of
Qinghai province (or Amdo as it was previously called, in
historical Tibet), and he stands out as the only one in the
family to have pursued his studies.
These studies, however, were first literary studies, and his
films owe a lot to the quality of his scriptwriting. He
graduated first with a degree in Tibetan language from the
Northwest University of Nationalities (西北民族大学)
in Lanzhou (Gansu) which has become a hotbed of Tibetan
intellectuals in the area. He then worked as a translator for
the local administration, but, at the same time, in the early
1990’s, started to write and publish short stories.
Written in Tibetan, these first stories are steeped in rural
Tibet, its people and culture, and reflect the world around him;
but his is an inward gaze, and, from the start, a personal voice
with a deep sensitivity. However – as often is the case - these
early stories are experiments on form, and vary greatly in
style, especially at the end of the period, from the absurd,
Beckett-style, to the magical realist, Tibetan-style.
All along the years 2000, his writing has then evolved, and has
gradually switched to a subtle painting of present-day Tibetan
society, and the problems arising from the daily confrontation
with modernity: deep existential and identity problems for
people whose minds and day-to-day life still bear the prevalent
stamp of religion in spite of official clampdown.
At the same time – Beckett-like again -
has switched from Tibetan to Chinese and back, translating into
Chinese many of his stories written in Tibetan, until he
eventually chose to write only in Chinese – a choice he explains
in practical and linguistic terms. It is noteworthy that, as he
was writing more and more in Chinese, he was also (re)claiming
his Tibetan identity as a filmmaker as he signed his films with
the transcription of his name in Tibetan, instead of its Chinese
He now has published some sixty short stories, a selection of
which have been edited in several collections (in Tibetan and in
Chinese). The present translation into French is the first one
in a foreign language, and should be followed in due course by
translations into English and Japanese.
Selected in accordance with the author’s suggestions, the seven
short stories included in the present collection offer an
interesting outlook on the evolution of his writing over the
period, from 1999 to 2012. Three of the stories, written between
1999 and 2002, have been translated from the Tibetan, and four
from the Chinese, the most recent ones, published in two
collections, in 2011 and 2014. The change in style parallel to
the change in language used appears clearly as one reads on.
Among the stories
translated from the Tibetan, the first one, “Neige”
(“Snow”/”Gangs”), initially published in 1999, is often quoted
as an example of a kind of magical realist style adapted to the
: steeped in a mythical and supernatural aura harking back to
pre-Buddhist beliefs still lingering today, the story is the sad
tale of the decadence of the old beliefs in sacred mountains and
the deities dwelling on them, as they are customized into
“Hommes et chien” (“Men and Dog”) draws on the supernatural and
allegorical to depict an essentially realist story conjuring up
the desolate life of herders and their flocks in the loneliness
of the high Tibetan mountains, threatened by nature and wild
animals, especially wolves as is the case here.
translated from the Tibetan, « L’interview d’Akhu Thöpa » (“Akhu
tells the story of a journalist’s search for an old man who has
dedicated his life to the collection, transcription and
preservation of samples of oral literature and folk songs, and
whom the newspaper wants to pay tribute to. It is a long and
convoluted quest, each person encountered giving a personal
evidence different from, or even contradicting, the others.
The story is a
brilliant demonstration, at two main levels: it shows on the one
hand the difficulty of cultural transmission in the midst of
changing circumstances and political turmoil (here, unnamed but
looming, the infamous Cultural Revolution), and on the other
hand the impossibility of accurate historical records,
especially based on oral testimonies, not really for political
reasons, but simply because memory comes necessarily with a
distortion of the past. This is
at his best: master of the unsaid,
of the allusion and the relative.
The style of the remaining four stories of the collection,
translated from the Chinese, evolve from that mastery of the
unsaid, to draw a vivid picture of present-day Tibetan society,
viewed from a resolutely non-historical, and (at least
apparently) non-political, angle: rather from a psychological
angle, that includes religious remnants of the past.
These stories are lively vignettes of a Tibetan society in flux,
caught between tradition and modernity, countryside and urbs,
starting with “Eight Sheep” (《八只羊》),
a tender portrait of a lonely little shepherd, grieving the loss
of his mother and of eight sheep of his flock killed by a wolf –
then, one day, confronted with the world outside in the person
of a lonely foreigner passing briefly through his pastures, and
his life – yet the image of the outside is more traumatic for
the foreigner that for the little boy who is left to the care of
his lambs as if nothing could change his existence : the world
beyond his horizon makes no sense.
This story, set in a realist style, but with a slight sense of
suspense, appears as a transition. The more recent stories are
set in an urban environment, or in a transitory space between
country and small town, and have something new: a subtle sense
of humour that subverts reality and received ideas, in lieu of
the supernatural and the allegorical beforehand. This new
satirical style makes a modern, much lighter and smoother
reading, with varying tones.
“The Ninth Man” (《第九个男人》),
for instance, is written as a fable, cum recurring couplet,
which outlines the character of a woman forced by chance, or
circumstances, to be free, more than choosing to be so. This is
one of the many free women in Pema’s stories, but this freedom
comes with a cost, and there is some faint bitterness, here,
behind the lightness of tone.
A good example of Pema’s humouris “Urgyän’s Teeth” (《乌金的牙齿》),
first published in a literary review in May 2011: this is the
(autobiographical) story of a schoolboy whose best friend is
recognized as a tülku,
a “reborn lama”; after his death, his teeth have to be found to
be put in a stupa, but there is some uncertainty as to which
ones are the real ones… Pema offers a gentle satire of popular
religious creeds, bordering on blind faith, questioned through
the innocent eyes of the schoolboy.
The last story translated from the Chinese in the “Neige”
collection is “Tharlo” (《塔洛》),
which has now acquired worldwide fame thanks to the film which
has been adapted from it, and has received unanimous praise
since its original screening at the Venice festival in August
“Tharlo” is another of the recent portraits by Pema of lonely
shepherds confronted to a changing world where they have neither
place nor recognized status. This story marks a transition in
Pema Tseden’s work, being the first of his stories he has
adapted for the screen. Until then, his short stories were part
of his inner world, some kind of calm meditation, apart from the
noisy furore of the world, including filmmaking.
His short stories meanwhile tend to concentrate more and more on
subtle psychological analyses of individuals lost in the modern
world while preserving ancient modes of thinking and behaving.
He seems to be increasing the void in his stories, as in the
best Chinese paintings.
Neige, seven short stories by Pema Tseden, Philippe
Picquier 2012, pocket edition October 2016.
(three short stories translated from the Tibetan by
Françoise Robin, four short stories translated from the
Chinese by Brigitte Duzan)
Pema himself has translated into Chinese the former
three stories ; they were published in 2011 in a
collection edited in China titled “The Minstrel’s Song”
and Dog) p. 42,
《岗》(« Snow »)
p. 86, and
Thöpa’s Interview”) p. 112.