Focus: A Portrait of China Emerging
The narrative of China's emergence that has predominated in the Western press over the last decade is one of a racially homogenous economic superpower in ascendance; the West seems to characterize China simply in terms of its potential as a huge untapped market to be exploited or as a threat to Western cultural and economic hegemony. This month, eRenlai hopes to offer an alternative perspective on China's emergence, wherein the reality of China's racial and spiritual heterogeneity and multicultural legacy can be borne witness to on a level more fundamental than that of Nationalism. Away from the rhetoric and scare-mongering of politics and economics is the space where one can experience China on a more personal and experiential plane. eRenlai has picked a variety of stories that span the last decade which paint an alternative picture of China in its period of rapid development, focusing primarily on rural life.
The narrative of China's emergence that has predominated in the Western press over the last decade is one of a racially homogenous economic superpower in ascendance; the West seems to characterize China simply in terms of its potential as a huge untapped market to be exploited or as a threat to Western cultural and economic hegemony. This month, eRenlai hopes to offer an alternative perspective on China's emergence, wherein the reality of China's racial and spiritual heterogeneity and multicultural legacy can be borne witness to on a level more fundamental than that of Nationalism. Away from the rhetoric and scare-mongering of politics and economics is the space where one can experience China on a more personal and experiential plane. Here, eRenlai has picked a variety of stories that span the last decade which paint an alternative picture of China in its period of rapid development, focusing primarily on rural life.
First we get a snapshot into the lives of the nomadic people who now populate the birthplace of the legendary Tibetan King, King Gesar, and the remnants of the Barge Wall and the Funeral city which once stood in Shiqu. Then we move on to Shangri-La to experience the growth of eco-tourism in the Tibetan village of Napa. In Chengdu we hear of the hardships experienced by Yi migrant workers, faced with discrimination and being taken advantage of by employers. We then arrive in Yongren County to bear witness to the more colourful side of the Yi people, with their annual fashion show. Then on to Yangjuan village to monitor the progress of the school built there in 2000, with two different perspectives on the village and the project, one from the Summer of 2006 by Liang Zhun and the second from Father Duraud in Winter 2010. We also take a look at China's Muslim Hui people as they celebrate the feast of the birth of the prophet Muhammad in Pi County and attend the rebuilding of the Tibetan Buddhist Kangwu Temple in Muli County. We also discover how the previously thought to be defunct Tibetan Buddhist school of Jonang, turns out to be very much alive in Dzamthang.
Photo by Liang Zhun
I have travelled many times to Liangshan Prefecture, home of Sichuan’s Yi minority. Reporting on festivals in Zhaojue, Puge or Meigu counties, I have taken countless photographs and made many Yi friends, whom I like to visit each time I am back in Liangshan.
It was only during the summer of 2006, however, that I went to Yanyuan County, in the western corner of the prefecture. I was accompanying a French scholar, Benoit Vermander, to Yangjuan village. Yangjuan has more or less become a household name in Liangshan and Chengdu, as a school has been built there thanks to the efforts of Benoit, Professor Stevan Harrell (University of Washington in Seattle) and many friends from Chengdu and other parts of China. Not only does Yangjuan enjoy the benefits of a good primary school, it has also embarked on a variety of experiments: summer educational courses, hydraulic works, sheep rearing and following the lives of young migrant workers… Most of these experiments are small-scale, which is actually an advantage because it allows for trial and error, involvement of the villagers, and potential duplication in other places… Even if the experience remains limited in scope, Yangjuan is a kind of social laboratory.
In fact, “Yangjuan” is not the official name of the place. This community is officially part of Baiwu Township, in the north-central part of Yanyuan County. The area is beautiful, with streams and cliffs, fields of buckwheat, corn and sunflowers. There are mountains on all sides, rich with forests of Yunnan Pine and hundreds of species of plants. Sheep, goats, horses, cattle and pigs graze in the pastures. However, I know that in wintertime, things are different. Everything is barren, water is sorely lacking, people are cold, malnourished and often sick without reliable medical care. Development is needed, but local people must be the actors of the development process.
What made summer of 2006 so special was also that Benoit was not alone this year. He came with his younger sister, his brother in law and their four children (7 to 13 years old); all of them arriving directly from France. Going to Yangjuan when this is your first trip to China is most certainly not a banal experience!
These pictures document this extraordinary summer at a remote village in Liangshan, where friends come together every summer, to forge a tiny part of a better future…
The photographs gathered here gives testimony to a world with no equivalent. The Barge wall, 53 kilometers away from the district township, is located between a mountain and the sacred waters from which emerges the Yalong River. Started in 1640, repeatedly repaired and expanded since then, the wall now extends over a length of 1.7 kilometer, and its height ranges between two and three meters. The majority of stones that adorn the building are Mani stones (or simply "manis"), which are so called because they are carved with the famous mantra “om ma ni padme hum” ("the mantra of the six syllables" or “drug yi ge pa” in Tibetan). But the Barge wall also comprises more than three thousand stones decorated with representations of Buddhist deities, and about seven thousand stones inlaid with various sutras.
As to the "funeral city" of Songge, it is composed of a wall nine feet high surrounding an accumulation of stupas, through which the visitor circulates as in a maze after having entered through a back door. Its wall (which extends 73 meters from west to east and 47 meters from north to south) is also composed of Mani stones, sutras carved in stone and a sacred iconography, among which the few scholars who have been able to come there are able to identify representations of King Gesar and thirty-General of the State of Ling of which he was the overlord. At the very center of this construction stands a well, the depth of which has not been probed. The construction of this "city" began around the eleventh or twelfth century. It is probably a kind of memorial for the heroes fallen during the wars fought by King Gesar. The epic sings the repentance finally shown by the uncle of King Gesar, his hardened opponent, after he had killed several heroes. The funeral city would then have been built as a sign of atonement.
Nomadic tribes still live in the area. They bring along with them sacred vessels and erect a “portable temple” in a tent wherever they have decided to camp. The whole region is marked by such extremes of hardship, poetry and faith…
Muli is a tiny multi-ethnic county at the southwest corner of Sichuan province, nearby Yunnan province. On its west, lies the Ganze Tibetan autonomous prefecture. Muli itself is officially called a “Tibetan autonomous county”, though it is located within the “Yi Prefecture” of Liangshan, the Yi being another important ethnic group of Southwest China.
In this multi ethnic county, and contrarily to their neighbors, the Tibetan population is little prone to migrations, as tourism prospects are opening up (although much more timidly than in adjacent Yunnan province) with the re-assertion of the Tibetan character and culture of the area. Overall, one third of Muli’s population is Tibetan, around 28 per cent is Yi, 22 per cent Han, with a number of other minorities completing the census. Tibetans in Muli take advantage of this cultural trend and of the investments that go with: rebuilding of the main three Tibetan temples of Muli County, stupas and other Tibetan artifacts constructed near the mountain lakes… Other minorities, especially Yi people, are prone to leave the area in search for job, especially since state industries have been closed. If the mountain landscape is stupendous indeed, Muli township looks to the passer-by as a sad little place, cut off from the outside world during the rainy season from mid July till end of September.
Before 1949, Muli’s Grand Lama was the main political power in the area, a fact attested by Western travelers such as J. Rock and A. David-Neel. Muli housed three major Tibetan temples. In late July 2007, I went to one of these temples, Kangwu (Kulu in Tibetan language), and discovered the ruins of an imposing building burned down during the Cultural Revolution. Before this period, up to 550 monks were staying there. In the eighties, a small temple was built nearby, and 16 monks were living there at the time of my visit. They were in charge of supervising the rebirth a new, imposing Kangwu temple… This was the beginning of the second year of this large-scale endeavor. Tibetan craftsmen from neighboring Daocheng county had recently arrived. The structural work having been completed, it was now the turn of sculptors and painters to enter into action.
On this particular afternoon, the current Grand Lama of Muli was supervising the work. I had the feeling of being at a special moment in time, standing between past and future, taken between the shadow of a temple existing no more and the mirage of a new one slowly coming to existence… These pictures testify to this enlightenment, to my sudden grasp of the impermanence of things.
All pictures taken in July 2007
The Yi People (彝族) in Yongren County, Yunnan Provinve, annually organize a grand fashion show during the month of January. The fashion show begins when the women most renowned for their expertise in the art of embroidery walk and dance in a parade, to display both their embroidered costumes and dances. Later on, other women join them, while the men just watch on. When evening comes, unmarried youths go to dancing parties. The fashion show day is therefore a day of beauty contest and lovemaking.
Though the numbers change according to economic circumstances, an estimated 150-200 million Chinese rural workers are living and working in cities. They often face discrimination in housing, education, healthcare and employment due to their temporary status, though several cities are working towards improving their conditions. Employers often take advantage of internal migrants’ vulnerable status by withholding billions of Yuan in unpaid wages. Also, school and healthcare fees have a disproportionate impact on migrant workers, whose incomes are on average lower than other urban residents. For migrant families, various additional fees make attendance at state schools unfeasible. Furthermore, most migrants in China’s cities live without health insurance, rarely visit a doctor, and only go to the hospital in the most extreme cases of illness or injury.
The above is especially true when it comes to “ethnic minority migrant workers.” Altogether, 56 "nationalities" are officially recognized in China, the Han and 55 “national minorities". The Yi nationality is one of these national minorities. The various subgroups belonging to entity are spread throughout the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou, totaling more than seven million people (five million in Yunnan, two millions in Sichuan). In Sichuan, most Yi people live in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture. The Autonomous Prefecture covers over sixty thousand square kilometers. It comprises seventeen counties and about five hundred major villages with a total population of more than four million, more than 2 million of the inhabitants being Yi. The relative prosperity of its capital, Xichang city, does not hide the fact that the Liangshan Prefecture is the third poorest among the 30 autonomous prefectures in China. The altitude ranges on the whole from 2000 to 3000 meters, with the highest peak at 5,959 meters.
One can find migrant workers from Liangshan in most of the major cities of China. Many group together in Sichuan’s capital. There are no statistics on the number of Yi migrant workers living in Chengdu, mainly because of the very high volatility of this population (many migrants only stay a few days or a few weeks), and of the low visibility of the Yi community (Yi migrants don’t wear ethnic clothes and look very similar to other migrants). The proximity with Liangshan makes Chengdu one of the natural destinations for inexperienced migrants who want to benefit from the presence of Yi fellows in the city, and older migrants who favor the possibility of returning home regularly to take care of their family.
In contrast with the Tibetan community, Yi people in Chengdu seem very scattered. There are almost no Yi shops, only 1 or 2 Yi bars, almost no place where Yi people particularly enjoy gathering (except the Southwest University for Nationalities). The surroundings area of the two railway stations are known for attracting a number of poor Yi migrants who don’t know were to go and how to get started in Chengdu. The very poor east part of the city used to have some quasi-slums inhabited by drug-addicts, and it is said that many of them were Yi. But it seems that most Yi people in Chengdu are spread out in the city, or in suburb factories, and have relationship with small groups of friends from their native area. They are not strictly enclosed in Yi networks; on the contrary most of them also socialize with local Han people and migrants from other ethnic groups.
These photographs focus on a group of workers coming from the small township of Baiwu, the most distant part of Liangshan, in the Yanyuan district of Sichuan Province. Their ancestors’ lives consisted in farming and grazing sheep, a lifestyle that kept them working from sunrise to sunset every day. Later, through the acquaintances of relatives and friends they went to Chengdu and began to hire themselves out as workers.
As many have not even graduated from primary school and are without any special skills, most of them can only do hard physical labor, such as construction workers or furniture movers. Some also work in restaurants or as security guards. The work is strenuous, the labor very intense and income is low (around 700-800 Yuan per month or even lower, food and rent not included).
The Yi workers range in age from 20 to 40 years old, so they are carrying the twin burdens of supporting their elders and caring for their children, who sometimes number three or four (minorities are exempt from the one child policy). They still have to send money back home (around 500 Yuan per month) in order to satisfy the demanding expectations and desires of their families back in their hometowns.
To save money, several workers rent a single room together so each one only pays 50 to 60 Yuan per month. The living conditions are barely adequate and the hygiene extremely poor. They buy their own food and cook extremely simple meals themselves. When someone from the same province celebrates his birthday, everyone goes together to a small restaurant to share a meal. This is their most extravagant luxury in this big city. Sometimes they allow themselves the pleasure of going to watch a movie. Their social interactions are constricted, with little room for intimacy, but they help each other whenever one of them gets sick or has problems.
The majority of the workers who are currently working in Chengdu are satisfied with the current situation because they consider it to be better than farming in their hometown or grazing sheep. It could be better, it could be worse: the workers are generally of a placid spirit. They frankly say that although the city of Chengdu is pleasurable, bustling and lively, they are only passing by. In the end, they will return to their land where their roots are.
Working as hired men gives them an opportunity to experience another style of life, and shows them their own deficiencies and shortcomings. All the workers also assert that they will do their best to allow the future generations a greater chance to study. Although each worker has his own aspirations and expectations concerning the future, the general wish is just to earn a little more money and go back home, in order to improve their own lives and those of their families.
Minority migrant workers are often the first victims of overall economic difficulties. If their experience in the cities is to be a meaningful one, it is urgent to teach them the skills that will later on help them build a sustainable future once they are back on their land.
The Hui people see the different tasks surrounding the festival as good works, therefore, they often strive to outdo each other. Everyone takes part to decorate the gate, the main hall and the surroundings of the mosque with lanterns and streamers, and banners, the banners commemorate the calligraphy of Muhammad with Arabic writing, as well as incorporating slogans celebrating the festival. The festival normally lasts for two days, on the first day people come to the mosque in the evening to recite scriptures in praise of the Prophet, after the worship ceremony a symposium is held, the second day is a more formal commemoration. At the appointed time, the Muslims bathe and change their clothes, dressing up and congregating at the mosque to recite scripture, praise the Prophet and worship. The imam pronounces the main events in the life of Muhammad, his achievements and his moral character, as well as exciting historical tales about the hardships undergone in missionary work, of wisdom and bravery, of skill at debating and of war, instructing the Hui people not to forget the teachings of the Prophet, and to be good Muslims.
On this day Muslims also have to "taw/ba" (توبة rendered in Chinese as 討白 tǎobái), which means to repent. The Hui people believe: "Men are not sages or saints, how are they not to sin? To know thy sin and to correct it, that is the greatest of acts." (Chunqiu Zuozhuan: Xuangong Ernian). "Taw ba" consists of making up for their former misdeeds, asking God's forgiveness, promising not to continue in sin, and commiting oneself to this new course in life through good works. After the ritual, they dine together. Dozens of table laden with dishes are spread, everybody makes merry, in a feast together. As to those who had contributed to the meal by donating in the spirit of Niyyah (نیّة rendered 乜貼 niètiē in Chinese: the intention one evokes in his heart to do an act for the sake of Allah) but are unable to come themselves have to rely on friends, relatives and neighbours to bring a flour-and-salt cake for them to try1.
What makes the feast of the Prophet so special is that the people come together to praise the Prophet, the people donate things for a common goal and that the people eat together, which shows how united the Hui people are, and how they celebrate the festival imbued with the spirit of friendship. The Hui people of Pi County invite Muslims from the surroundings of Chengdu and even Aba Prefecture to celebrate the feast of the Prophet with them. As well as its ritual significance, this day is an opportunity for Muslims to interact with each other, the imams discuss theological issues and preaching methods with each other, and the Hui people wish one another well, and talk about all kinds of things, in an atmosphere of great joy. A group of students who, off their own backs, set up a Muslim student society at Sichuan University and Southwest University for Nationalities, volunteered to serve as stewards for the festival.
Translated from the Chinese by Conor Stuart, photos by Liang Zhun
Besides a renowned temple and the ruins of another one, the township proper has not much to offer the passer-by. But its surroundings are full of stunning human and natural wonders. One of them might well be Napa village, about 12 km from the township. It is in the middle of a natural reserve, set up by the government in 1980. There are 41 families, farmers and hunters, totaling a little less than 300 inhabitants, whose houses are grouped together. A gate signals the entry to the village. The lake below it is called “Napa Sea” and is renowned for the back-neck cranes that spend the winter there. It is not even a lake actually, but rather a depression, totally filled with water during the rainy season.
The primary school in Napa village stops at the third grade. Volunteers, coming mainly from Shanghai, have been offering summer courses for a few years already. Whenever possible, teachers supported by outside funding try to offer courses during the year, so that children may get a more advanced education. The same volunteers’ team also offers physical check-ups and other services aimed at local, sustainable development.
Ascending the mountains that surround the village, visitors can discover the enchantment of Tibetan forests and pasture. Now more open to the outside world and mastering the Mandarin language, young villagers act as guides, slowly developing an “eco-tourism” from below. Still, the life is far from being rosy: young girls are still carrying heavy loads of wood in prevision of the harsh winter months. Though eco-tourism is on the rise, the illegal cutting of trees occurs on a large scale. Paradoxically, it is even on the rise, because of the boom on constructions in traditional Tibetan style coming from the rise in tourism activities. Like in the whole of southwest China, the model of development is still debated, and a choice has to be made between rapid enrichment and the preservation of resources that prove to be rare and precious, even in the privileged natural environment of Shangri-la.
I went to Yangjuan beginning of December 2010. During these 10 years I have been more or less10 times to this little village…
This time my purpose was to see the state of the school we help to start in 2000. The school does not need outside subsidies any more. Now schooling is free and the government is also paying for textbooks. But there is at least one reason to worry: this semester the school has only 6 certified teachers. According to the number of students the school should be entitled to get 11 certified teachers, but the local government or the bureau of education is always short of personnel. Consequently the gap is filled with substitute teachers. They receive a monthly salary of only RMB 600 which is not high (RMB1100 for a unqualified work, construction work for example, is not considered that much). Nothing surprising that a there is a great turnover of substitute teachers. How to help in the management of the school is another question that none of us presently can answer properly. There is an informal network of friends that may provide some ideas. It seems to me that we cannot only focus on the management of the school. From the beginning, ten years ago, we came with this idea that the school could become a center for local development. The school itself has its own goals but the shelter it provides every summer has been instrumental for working on the development of this small place.
In 2001 we started to bring Taiwanese students for animation and tutoring. In 2001 and 2002 two nurses and two medical students came to make a health survey of the children. After the health survey we started “waterworks” in order to provide cleaner water. The idea of a French engineer during a trip to Yangjuan has been at the origin of this endeavor. He thought it could be possible to build a dam along the river feeding a small power plant. That idea brought to Yangjuan the following years a team of “Hydraulic without borders”, an organization founded by a retired hydraulic engineer, Mr Wang, born in Canton but brought up and educated in France. Our first practical realization was to dig a well. That was a failure and a good example. A failure because the well dig during summer (when underground water is at its highest level) became dry three months after. It was a good example because we told the people that the water from the well was much cleaner and healthier than the water from the river. Thereafter, especially in lower locations of the village, people dig wells in their courtyards to keep water supply at hand and alleviate the chores of fetching water from the river (most of the time this burden is allotted to women and children).
The next step was very interesting. One year after digging the well we were ready to dig another one the following summer. We were served a flat refusal. People from the 3rd brigade belonging to a “lower class” in the “old Yi society” asked us if it could be possible to help them in order to fetch water more easily. The fact that the initiative came from them is noteworthy. After discussion we decided to build a very simple network of water supply serving about twenty households. Unfortunately this network is less efficient during the “dry season”, but it was successful enough to inspire later the 6th brigade who asked for help in turn. This new water network has not been a success either for the same reasons but led the people of the whole village to look for a more satisfactory solution.
During these years my back and forth travels were always reported to the Liangshan Friendship Association. People from the office knowing what we were doing in Yangjuan and what we were planning to do sent me an estimate asking if I was willing to finance a project intended to provide water to the whole village. The price tag was well above our means and the realization of the project would have been entrusted to an outside company. This outsourcing could deprive the villagers from appropriating the technology, so to say, and from being involved in the maintenance of the network. Of course that would have also guaranteed a more reliable construction and for sure that would have sent money in private pockets.
This year, on December 7, I could see that the work had been done: a small dam on the creek of a remote valley tributary to the river running down the school secures water intake and brings it 20 meters down below to a water tank. About 1500 meters down below from the first water tank another one was built above the houses of the 6th brigade (the highest houses in the village). Most lines for distribution seem to start from this water tank. While I was in Yangjuan, one morning, water ran from the faucets for about half an hour. I guess by now distribution of water is ensured.
Though impressive and as far as I can judge well built, this water supply is not absolutely perfect. After a survey I found out that 4 houses from the 3rd brigade were left aloof though the main pipe runs only 200 meters from their houses. After pondering the matter I decided to give them RMB 1,000 to buy the pipes needed for the extension.
This very remote village, Yangjuan has been affected all these years by the changes in Chinese society and the effects of globalization. Ten years ago very few people had left the village to pursue studies outside and even to work outside. Now it is obvious that the trend for young people is to go out for temporary work. People went even as far as Pakistan and Burma, with the company they were working for. Most of the people go to places like Shanghai, Beijing or Canton and Shenzhen. Three years ago, an acquaintance from Taiwan operating a factory in Shanghai tried to hire about 30 workers from that village. That was a failure. Despite seriously warned about the necessary requirements they left the village unprepared (lack of documents like ID card, health certificate, under age etc.). After one year they were all back to Yangjuan or headed on for other destinations. On of their main complains was the weather conditions in Shanghai (very cold in winter and unbearably hot during summer). During that year a friend of ours in Shanghai tried to accompany them. Their salaries were spent in sophisticated electronic objects like cell phones but it seemed that there was no plan whatsoever to use the earned money to improved their livelihood back home.
While in the village, I had a conversation with one villager. He has been going out for work for 20 years. He is now 42 years old, father of three children (one in Senior High School, one in Junior High School and the third one is attending classes in the elementary school of Yangjuan). He has been working all over China. So his Mandarin is devoid of the Sichuan’s accent. During these twenty years his longest absence from the village was a full year. Now he does not venture farther than Chengdu and only for periods of three to four months. He usually does not go alone but with other villagers.
Another phenomenon affecting the village is that people from the upper part buy land halfway between the village and the nearby township. The reason is that communications with outside is easier. They nevertheless continue to cultivate their plots of land in upper locations. Moving down the village these people find themselves now deprived of the benefit of the last water supply improvement. They came to me asking for subsidies in order to extend the network up to their houses. I did not give a definite answer as I don’t know clearly the capability of the newly built system. If the network is extended for 2 kilometers it may require the construction of another water tank in order to secure enough pressure. In the coming months this is a matter to consider.
This last trip showed me also that living conditions were improving. Nobody builds anymore adobe houses. They all use cement bricks, and in many houses they cement the front yard, which is cleaner and more practical to dry the crops.
After this trip I can see that further action from our side could be the improvement of the water supply. Water supply is not only of importance for good health condition, it is also a factor that makes life in Yangjuan more sustainable particularly if part of the young labor force is outside to secure some cash income. Water supply makes life of those left behind (often children and grand parents, women) less painful.
Another line of action is education. The general trend is to go outside to work. This task force unfortunately inflates big cities underclass. Mr Ma, mentioned above, who has been working outside for 20 years thinks that a monthly salary of RMB 1,100 for construction work is indeed not a good salary. It could be that helping young people getting skills will allow them to emerge from the underclass. It might be a better option than sponsoring studies up to Senior High School that don’t secure anyway access to good Universities. A skilled worker can make much more than the basic RMB 1,100 a month and can, if smart enough, start his own business. There is a Japanese foundation running a school not far from Yangjuan providing short trainings to boys and girls in different crafts and businesses. That could be a possibility to explore.
Photos by J. Duraud
The lineage was born at the end of the 13th century, when Kun spangs Thugs rje Brtson ‘grus , a Kalacakra pratictioner, settled in the valley of Jomonang. Focusing on the Kalacakratantra teachings and with a particular vision of emptiness, this man and his further disciples were the first jonangpas.
The valley of Jomonang became their main centre, so that those who adhere to the practices that were preserved and transmitted in that place were later called Jonangpa.
The lineage continued in central Tibet until the second half of the 17th century, when the uler of central Tibet and of the Gelugpa school, the 5th Dalai Lama, substained by the Mongol Army began the reunification of the country. Taking control of the places under the Jonangpa influence, the 5Th Dalai Lama also converted their temples and monasteries into Gelugpa, sealing their texts and banning their teachings. However, since the end of the 14th century, the tradition began to spread into eastern Tibet: the areas of Kham and Amdo, corresponding today to big parts of Sichuan and Qinghai.
Thanks to the fact that Gelugpa political and military power did not reach also these places, too far from central Tibet, the Jonangpa temples and masters were safe, free to maintain the transmission of their teachings and tantric practices. Their tradition was strong enough to survive not only the 17th century persecution, but also the chinese cultural revolution. In that rough period the Jonangpa lineage was kept alive by masters and disciples gathering secretly and practicing as yogis in the countryside of Amdo and Kham.
This being the subject of my specialist degree, I spent the year in Chengdu doing some bibliographical research, then June and July travelling and interviewing in Sichuan and Qinghai, mainly around the areas of Ma’erkang, Rangtang, Aba, Banma and Jiuzhi. These places are wonderful, with a medium altitude of 3500 metres above the sea level the air is thin and the nature is stunning, the people are quite poor but friendly and happy to share with you what they have. However, travelling is not so easy, because the massive presence of Chinese police and the constant controls you are subject to. I came unprepared, unsure what I was going to do and how to reach them but as soon as I arrived in Dzamthang (壤塘), the biggest and most important Jonangpa monasteries are found today, I found the monks were interested in my presence as much as I was in their lives and traditions. Thus it wasn’t hard to find people willing to talk about themselves, especially when, chatting together, they became aware that I knew something about them and that this was the reason of my visit. Almost everywhere I’ve been, the monks have been happy to help with my research, always allowing me to visit their monasteries and meet their most relevant figures.
The Jonangpa areas in Sichuan are a little bit different, as are their inhabitants, from those in Qinghai. The people in this part of Sichuan generally live in houses built with rock and wood and grow barley. Although the area is quite poor, the government is actuating a Chinese-style modernisation: entering a town you can often see a sign illustrating the new urban plan, with huge white buildings mimicking the traditional Tibetan architecture. As you get nearer to Qinghai, the landscape changes, until you find yourself on the plateau, where there are more ‘black yak wool tents’ than mud houses and a big part of the population is still nomad, moving from a pasture to another with yak herds. Even if, with people mainly speaking Tibetan languages, my poor Chinese sometimes became useless, I’ve always found some milk tea, barely flour and an extreme quantity of butter ready to be mixed in my honour.