Keeping an epic alive on the Tibetan Plateau – Timothy Thurston
Suey Wan is an innocuous farmer’s village nestled among remote hills in the backwater heart of the fertile Pearl River Delta in Guangdong Province. My people’s six counties are collectively known as Toisan. Toisan’s origins are more legendary than historically established, but the first Chinese settlers are said to have arrived here during the chaotic last days of the Tang Dynasty, hoping to find peace in this then far-off corner of the expansive Chinese empire.
For a millennium, my forbears lived relatively unperturbed, rarely traveling farther than 20 miles away from their village, and eventually evolved their own version of the Cantonese dialect – the rustic, rough-sounding and salty jizz-juice tongue of Toisanese.
If I say “China” and “Tibet” in one breath, “comedy” is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. You may think of Buddhist monks, towering, snow-covered mountains and verdant grasslands – or you may conjure “cultural genocide.” If you are from China, meanwhile, you might think about Tibet as a feudal, pre-modern hell-on-earth liberated and modernized by the Chinese Communist Party, or a pristine, sparsely inhabited landscape contrasting noticeably with the urban metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai. These discourses, however, overlook the complexity of Tibetan cultural life in contemporary China. Tibetans in China do face mass surveillance, incarceration for political crimes, and cultural pressure, making it easy to overlook the dynamic cultural work being done in the region, from literature, to film, to hip-hop and, yes, comedy. Sometimes this work is done hand-in-hand with the Party, and sometimes counter to it, but much of it defies easy labels like “collaboration” and “resistance.”
“South Koreans treat us like foreigners … worse, they treat us like dogs!” shouted Li Zhangyan, a retired 67-year old chaoxianzu, as ethnic Koreans are called in Chinese. He and his friends had drunk a few too many bottles of soybean wine, making them welcoming to my reporter’s presence, but also easily riled up.
Li has worked in total for over a decade in different cities around South Korea, taking advantage of the higher salaries compared to his home in Yanbian, China’s ethnic Korean prefecture.
“There isn’t one of us,” he pointed at himself and his two friends, also retired, “who hasn’t bought a couple of houses here in Yanbian. We made all this money but South Koreans still look down on us!”
In 2015, linguist Ross Perlin helped bring something utterly novel into the world: the very first book (as far as he knows) that had ever been written or published in a certain language. The language was Trung, spoken by fewer than 7,000 people in a river valley of Yunnan Province, close to the border with Burma and Tibet. The book was a Trung-Chinese-English dictionary, of which a modest number were printed and distributed locally within the 60-mile-wide area of China where Trung speakers live. The dictionary is also available online.
Together with three Trung collaborators, Perlin began compiling the dictionary in 2009. “Working first in Chinese and then haltingly in Trung, I recorded ghost stories and folksongs, studied rituals and conversations, and teased apart fine points of grammar,” Perlin wrote of the experience in Harper’s. His work with Trung stems from a broad interest in endangered languages that began in 2003, after Perlin heard Sun Hongkai, China’s most distinguished linguist, speak at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing about China’s great diversity of languages – and the fact that many are disappearing. Perlin is now the co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance, an advocacy organization that helps New York’s immigrant and refugee communities keep their languages alive.