Monday, August 10, 2009

Be Cool—Be Tibetan

By Therang Buengu

In my life there have been a few rare occasions when I wished I were younger. Such futile sentiments are usually followed by a mixture of nostalgia and regret. Sitting now in a coffee shop, watching the Tibetan pop vocal group Yudruk perform Milam, I am struck by these feelings once again. I wish I were experiencing this as a younger man. I wish I had had the chance to be cool and be Tibetan when I was a young college student in Beijing.

In those days, I struggled to express who I wanted to be. Looking back, I can see that I was searching for a way to be “cool” and be Tibetan at the same time. Of course, back then, the term cool didn’t exist, either in Tibetan or Chinese. And whatever it was, “coolness” was the last thing associated with Tibetans in the Chinese imagination. As a young Tibetan who grew up in the Chinese education system, we didn’t yet know how to live outside Chinese imagination.

I still vividly remember my first journey into the Chinese heartland. In the barren city of Golmud in the Tsaidam desert, I had a conversation with my fellow Tibetan travelers—all freshmen headed to college— about how to be a Tibetan in this new land where we would spend the next four years. One student had already been to China as a soccer player. He told us that we needed to carry a Tibetan knife and act a little savage. For some reason, there happened to be an abundance of Tibetan knives to buy in the dusty market of Golmud. I think I was the only one who did not rush to buy a knife. I just couldn't picture myself with a big Tibetan knife dangling at my waist, swaggering around the Chinese capital.

I was dreaming of something else—of finding a way to be both Tibetan and modern.

But soon after we arrived, I found out that in China's national imagination there was no space for me to be both. Who I could be was already predetermined.

From the early days of China’s rule in Tibet, a dark and savage image of Tibetans was created and propagated: dark skinned, greasy, barbaric and in need of civilization and liberation. This image became widespread through the mute character Champa in the classic film Nongnu. As the story goes, when the People’s Liberation Army finally liberated Champa from his slave master, this man who hadn’t spoken for years cried out in gratitude, “Long live Chairman Mao!” That caricature not only became ingrained in China's national imagination, it also became an integral part of modern China's national narrative.

In fact, in the mad drama of contemporary China, there were only two sanctioned Tibetan characters scripted by the Party. We had the option of being either the pre-liberation savage or the post-liberation political sycophant, indebted to the Party for rescuing us from ourselves.

Most of us were too smart and too proud to play the post-liberation sycophant. So that left us with the role of savages. Back in Tibet, we tended to be quiet, mild-mannered, even nerdy students. But in China we became street fighters. We brawled in restaurants and beat up other students in school. Everyone pretended to be frightened of us and we pretended we were untamed wild men. We were Tibetan.

Meanwhile my dream of becoming a cool, modern Tibetan remained shrouded in the distance.

Nowadays, I understand that Tibetan college students in China have their own set of challenges in being Tibetan. But as the story of China becomes more diverse and complicated, Tibetans are also coming out from the shadow of the liberation narrative. There are now extraordinarily conflicting images of Tibetans settling into the Chinese mind. Now we are rioters, learned Buddhist scholars, corrupt party bosses, smart college kids, the best looking man in China, stubborn religious fanatics—and of course, we are also cool like the four young men of Yudruk.

The Yudruk phenomenon shows not only that Tibetans can be cool, but that it is cool to be Tibetan. This is a radical shift. But not only does it show a kind of Tibetanness that is on the cutting edge of cool. It also makes it clear that a Tibetan image can be created and exist entirely outside of the Chinese imagination. This is a kind of Tibetanness that was made by and for Tibetans.

Last night I had a beautiful dream,
I dreamed about Bod, the Land of Snow
Dream about five colors of the flowers bloomed
Dream about blue dragon land on grand

As I watch these intensely Tibetan and coolly hip young performers, I can see that they have a new audience in mind: other young Tibetans. They are no longer just trying to fit into the Chinese national story; instead they are creating their own.

It is a new cultural moment, and I am excited about what new possibilities this might offer young Tibetans. They are starting to have the chance to be many things and at same time still be Tibetan. Still at the same time, I also feel a tug of sadness for my own lost youth, wandering in the shadow of oppressive stories that I could not control and yet found hard to escape.

Watch Yudruk's Milam :


  1. 很惊讶地看见这篇新的帖子!。。。遗憾的是,我需要用google,糟糕的google,聊胜于无。。。想要说的是,在798,正有一个博巴画家的画展,哦,主要是博巴画家,4个人,很年轻,Cool。。。他们的画展叫“心镜”,不同于更顿群培,他们叫美隆。。。我们在一块儿度过了很是Tibet的时光,o(∩_∩)o...

  2. Melancholic Therang Buengu,

    Beautiful! Between admiring your exquisite articulation and anguishing at what you and many others like you lost in the midst some group's madness for power and control, your writing is a mirror to the past, present and future. Keep writing

  3. This is so ingteresting and witty. Wish you would write a book.

  4. We, the Tibetans outside Tibet face the same issue of Tibetan identity being imposed on us and how we navigate that to create our own. Very happy to hear the views from Tibet and the positive steps that seem to be blooming.

    Thuk je chey.

  5. ཤིན་ཏུ་བདེན་ནོ་

  6. thank you so much for sharing, real progress in china is so slow. Thats what this is to me, progress.

  7. Thanks for sharing us....

  8. This is a great post, personal and poignant.

    However, there seems to be some confusion about two separate spheres, Tibetans in the Chinese imagination and Tibetans solely in the Tibetan imagination. So from a wider perspective the question must be asked as to how much of what is "cool" is dictated by the political climate? The blogpost alludes to the events of last year, when almost overnight, Tibetans went from being the favourite "minzu" of the Han Chinese to being rioters and killers.

    For every Yudruk, Kunga and Namchag, there's also Han Hong, Sonam Wangmo and Tseten Dolma - which ones are the cool Tibetans? And which ones influence how Tibetans are perceived in the Chinese dominated mainstream?

    Tibetans are undoubtedly the best looking men in China but I do not share the author's optimism about the cool status of Tibetans in the PRC!

  9. Interesting comments in the last post. But I think you've missed the larger point the blogger seems to be making. As I see it, the whole post seems to be about how politics dictates the limits of who you can be under the oppressive constraints of the Chinese state. I don't think the point here is really about the cool status of Tibetans in the PRC. To me anyway, what's being conveyed here is not necessarily an uncomplicated optimism, but a restrained optimism about an emerging complexity.

  10. Thank you for sharing this with us. Cool is different thing to different people. In my part of the world the cool is you.

  11. Therang Buengu la,我要推荐一群更Cool的Tibetan,他们那么小,小小的男孩女孩,在帕廓街头跳街舞呢,你一定熟悉那样的声音,那样的味道,看得我是津津有味,忍俊不住地笑了。。。对了,还有那一声“鼓掌”。。。。

  12. Very interesting and valuable to hear your perspective from your part of the world. Yes I agree Tibetan men (and women) are the most beautiful in China and most of the rest of the world as well, unbiased statement of fact.
    I enjoyed your writing and look forward to reading more of it.

  13. Cool is being true to your root. You absolutely nailed it when you said "Be Cool Be Tibetan".

  14. WM, Australian academicAugust 30, 2009 at 5:41 PM


    You are the hope. Tibet needs to air top-grade articulations of its plight, not only to appeal to the world's finer spriritual feelings. Be proud! Your culture is worth defending, and worth exporting. May Manjushri smile! May 21 Taras join in!

  15. I am English & my dream life would have been to grow up in a Gelugpa monastery. I would give all the luxuries in England up for that. I dont know if it is cool being a Tibetan nowadays I very much doubt it but being a Tibetan in the past. I believe I may even have been in a past life I feel such an affinity. This feeling makes no sense as I was born into 100% English family & am 100% English. I was raised protestant. Yet I want to be a Gelugpa living in a monastery. So many people in the West feel like this. Tibetan buddhism isnt Tibetan in truth. The real Tibet is in all of us & we will all long for it until we feel it more & more and more strongly & its very cool.

  16. Thank you Therang la for sharing with us pain Tibetans go through by trying to fit into colonizer's civilization. Tibetan have be down graded to lowest form of human race by the massive Chinese govt Propaganda that when we meet Chinese in American Universities there are quite shock to see Tibetans can study and compete with them in the same universities. Some of them are shock to see a Tibetan and they hate when we say word " I am Tibetan" for them we have to say "I am chinese"

  17. Thank you for your post. I thoroughly enjoyed your piece about the Tibetan identity. Look forward to more of your writings. Bhod Gyallo!

  18. Thanks for the post.

  19. Since it is the early worm that gets eaten by the bird, sleep late.............................................

  20. When will you be free?

  21. Hi Therang, I'm a from a Singapore-based online magazine.

    Thank you very much for writing this. We'd very much like to republish this article on our website. Please get in touch with me at debby[at]theasiamag[dot]com

    Thank you.

  22. I really liked your post.. I saw a part of myself in you.... Be cool and Be Tibetan....

  23. This journalist also takes the opportunity to express her concern:

    - I -


    As far as the news in the Press are concerned, the Theosophical Society has been trying to involve the Dalai Lama in the Theosophical Society, always by way of invitations for lectures, or supposed hommages to the Dalai Lama, in one or other of the Theosophical Society compounds.

    Such has been the case in the past, involving the Theosophical Society compound in India, as also recently, when the Theosophical Society invited the Dalai Lama to the Theosophical Society compound in the United States.

    The fact is that the Theosophical Society is involved with crimes:

    a) - stealing of intellectual property;

    b) - stealing of sacred Tibetan Buddhist Manuscripts;

    c) - literary fraud;

    d) - pedophilia disgracing hundreds of boys of the Theosophical Society;

    e) - stealing of bank accounts;

    f) - terrorism;

    g) - human sacrifices in the Kali Temple of the Theosophical Society compound.

    Under the principles of investigative journalism, this journalist investigated them all.

    The case of terrorism involving the Theosophical Society was revealed to this journalist, when she interviewed two members of the Theosophical Society, and whose testimonies were thus registered, directly linking the Theosophical Society with terrorist activities in India, of the infamous LTTE, whose members killed the Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Ghandi, son of Indira Ghandi.


    Between 2000/2002, this journalist filed three complaints in the FBI against Radha Burnier, president of the Theosophical Society, for other crimes commited, of which this journalist could present material evidence, i.e., documented proofs. This journalist also filed one complaint in the FBI against Pedro de Oliveira, International Secretary of the Theosophical Society, for his involvement with the stealing of the bank account of an old-aged British citizen.

    The above mentioned victim came to this journalist and presented not only her oral testimony but also documented proof of the crime commited by the Theosophical Society against her.

    Consequently, in my opinion, the Dalai Lama, as any of his representatives, as well as any of his faithfuls, should carefully avoid any more involvements with the Theosophical Society.

    First, because it will be necessary to take the Theosophical Society to an international court of justice, by way of which the Theosophical Society shall be forced to return to the Dalai Lama the sacred Buddhist Manuscript that the Theosophical Society stole from a Tibetan Buddhist Temple, in Tibet.

    This journalist investigated this crime, and therefore she has documented proofs.

    She is also willing to make a donation to the Gelug-pa School of Buddhism, in order to assist in taking back to them, their sacred Tibetan Buddhist Manuscript, stolen by the Theosophical Society.

  24. I stumbled upon this site by accident. I'll come back for more. By the way stereotyping are part of human nature. Even the Hans stereotype themselves. Read this:

  25. I am amazed and excited to read this. I've never heard such an articulate voice coming straight out of Tibet before. And in perfect English. I notice that you have not written anything since 2009 and I hope you are safe and well. I am Australian but married to a Tibetan. I am gearing up to undertake doctoral studies around Tibet in post-colonial theory and would very much like to hear from you. You can find me on facebook: Julie Marron. Cheers :-)

  26. Brilliantly written posts are still attracting comments... I read your writings back in 2009 and have remembered them till now. The work by Nortse which you have been using on your blog also shows that you are linked to the best in Tibetan modern culture - he is one of very few contemporary artists I like a lot. Why not to be consistent :) and go on writing? I really hope you are fine. erdem

  27. Thanks for sharing!! wangchu la. lots of thoughts! I need to send this to more friends, our younger friends, who have the chance and opportunities to build a new future.

  28. it was thought to buy knife but not the perfect, anyhow i support

  29. it was lovely thought to buy knife but not the perfect, anyhow i support