Gan, A Tibetan Monk In Chengdu
Chengdu, March, 2011. When I first meet Gan I was resting in front of a bank outside the Wuhouci with a friend as I chain smoked in the fresh Chengdu air. We were drinking whiskey and chatting about the Chengdu we had experienced that day: the swanky Bookworm, the open-aired spicy noodle shop, the enormous size of the dishes, the massive bowl of oil for dipping that they served at the hot-pot place.
That’s when a white passenger car stopped in front of us. The door slid open and Gan got out. Short and well-groomed, he wore a fake orange Northface fleece over the maroon monk robe reaching all the way to his ankles. He had white gym socks and a pair of orange shoes; resembling the standard cloth shoes that monks wear, but with one exception, a big white Adidas emblem on the heels.
Noticing us sitting there, he threw a friendly smile to me from the side pavement. I waved to him with a smile and he replied me another one. After several silent exchanges of expressions and signs, I invited him to come over and sit with us. Without hesitation, he walked over and sat next to me. I offered him a cigarette and then a pull of whiskey. He politely refused both while glancing curiously at the bottle. He told me that he thought I was Tibetan, confused by my savage style of roadside resting.
Earlier that evening, we had had dinner in a Sichuannese restaurant nearby. It was full of people, mostly Tibetan. Around one of the big round tables that you would see in just any other Chinese restaurant, sat three monks with their golden tall taper hats and maroon robes. They were joined by two middle aged Han-looking couples. There were plastic cups of beer in front of all of them and plenty of meat dishes scattered across the table, many of them unfamiliar to me but they looked promising. Cigarette smoke floated about the top of their hats, like mountains in the clouds. At that moment, they reminded me of all the fake monks sitting in the ‘commercialized’ temples all around China, whose life seems more like profession than a religion.
I asked my new monk friend about my confuse earlier in the restaurant, and he explained to me in simple conversational Mandarin: “Must not harm a life, but OK to accept an offer or have meat in a restaurant, or buy from a wet market and cook it for yourself.” He told me that there are three sacred rules of his branch that can’t be violated: No killing; No lies; No stealing. The others can be altered according to situations. “I already went again rituals by dressing up like this”, he pointed at his orange sweater that has the word ‘training’ on the back, “but it’s not a big deal.”
Interviewing a Tibetan monk has been a dream of mine for some time, so I was delighted when he said yes to my request. He chose Gan for a pseudonym.
We met the next day at three thirty outside the Wuhouci, as decided. He suggested we go to a tea house in Jinli nearby. It was Saturday, and the street was jammed by window-shoppingers. There was a wide range of products and services available, from candies to ear-picking. I caught myself gawking like a typical tourist at each along the way.
I’ve lived in China for twenty one years and still can’t get used to the crowds. Meanwhile, Gan from the grassland of Sichuan, wasn’t fazed. He swayed and swung with the crowd, slowly but steadily moving towards the tea house. “I get used to the crowds in Lhasa. If you happen to be there on a ritual day, you will see a sea of people, it’s enormous compared to this.” Gan looks back with ease, his broad shoulders dance a perfect rhythm with the wave of flesh in front of me.
The first thing Gan looked at after entering the tea house was the menu. Although I already said it would be on me, he jumped from the seat and stole the bill from me.
I learned that in 1982, Gan was born into a nomadic family in the Tibetan quarter of Sichuan, close to the famous ‘tourist trap’ Jiu Zai Gou. He was the third child of five. His 30-year-old sister has now married, and his 30-something brother remains at home to help tend to the grazing, hunting and farming. His 26-year-old little brother makes a living as a singer in a Tibetan ‘bar’ in Lhasa.
When Gan was five, a monk from the nearby temple visited the family. He was an amiable old man and Gan really loved him. Gan’s family are serious followers, and his father had always wished to have a monk emerge from the family. Tibetan families are usually more than willing to offer their child to Buddhism (if they had more than one male child). It is because the respect that monks receive in Tibetan culture is tremendous and there is a growing shortage of monks to serve the nomadic people who scatter across the plains, Gan explain to me.
So when Gan’s father saw they got along so well, he asked Gan if he wanted to be taken away by the monk to join the temple. Gan agreed without hesitation, but the old monk refused to take such a young boy. He told the father that he would come again after Gan had grown a little older. He then bowed down and reassured Gan before leaving, “If you really want to be a Buddhist, no one can stop you.”
With his words in mind, Gan went to a Chinese preschool at the age of nine and joined the local temple three years later. After eight years of studying Buddhism, he followed his teacher to Lhasa for another three years. By the age of 18, Gan was a monk. That’s when he returned to his local temple. After three years of meditation training, he became a teacher for his temple.
Gan’s mission in Chengdu that day was to make fliers and an annual magazine for his temple. He spent a full day on a sleeping bus to get here. The magazine looks like a small note book with a thin color cover illustrating a temple in the grasslands. The writing inside was printed in black on smooth white paper, all in Tibetan. The design was simple and seems was done by a small print shop. He told me that all the articles inside were written by various converts explaining their grasps of the doctrine, mixed with life applications.
On the middle section of the flier, a picture of a big, smiling abbot siting on a chair was largely printed out under the portraits of two living Buddhas next to an old drawing of a Rinpoche of Gan’s sect who lived on earth a thousand years ago.
I turned it over to find another picture of his temple sitting on flat grasslands at the foot of a mountain with hundreds of tents densely clustered around. Below the image was written the name and address of his temple in Chinese.
He told me that although the Tibetans value their language, they prefer to send their children to Chinese-oriented public schools. When faced with the choice between a Mandarin education and Tibetan education, most of the families will choose Mandarin. According to him it is a painfully misleading path for their children, but a concession parents make to ensure of their survival in an increasingly urban, Han-dominated world that threatens life on the grasslands.
According to Gan, most Tibetan youth in their 20s and 30s may have an undergraduate-level understanding of Chinese, but their Tibetan skills were left behind in primary school. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find young speakers of Tibetan these days.
Apart from the language problem, the quality of Tibetan-based education is also dropping fast. With the government support of the Han public schools, teachers in Tibetan schools usually earn significantly lower pay, and the schools have fewer resources to provide students.
As I write, China is cracking down on the voice of the subversive, the dissident, and in-harmonious. The freedom of speech is being squeezed, the security of the out-spoken is shaking with every disappearance, arrest, house arrest, and detention, especially in the case of Ai Weiwei, Tan Zhuoren and Gao Zhisheng…
“Unfortunately”, during the interview, our conversation inescapably went onto address the presence of the Chinese government in Tibet. A rough topic for both of us.
Since the birth of the new republic, Tibet’s economy has been developing at a stunning pace. Newly paved roads are lengthening; train tracks expanding all the way up to Lhasa; running water, electricity, gas and many other things that many families, nomadic and stationary, never used before, are now a reality. Welfare, healthcare, and accessible accommodation have also been provided to the Tibetan people. Urbanization, with all of its challenges and benefits, is now facing this once nomadic, grassland people.
But this is just one side of the coin. Gan’s family together makes around twenty thousands RMB annually, the same as twenty years ago, while inflation has sky-rocketed since. They had more than three hundred cows in 1983, but were forced to reduce their holdings by half under the name of ‘preventing environmental damage from large scale grazing’. The government were successful at mandating the policies’ implementation, but terrible at communication and PR.
“Such a big plain, how can 150 cows eat all the grass? Compare to the felling and the farming the government is doing, our way of life is much more in line with mother nature. I think they just wanted to force us to move into the city, so it would be easier for them to ‘stabilize society’,” he told me.
But this is not what annoys him the most. The fading of Tibetan culture and language caused by waves of Han migration flowing into the Tibetan Plateau is his prime concern.
He told me that the Tibetan language was in oppression and there were demonstrations organized and performed, because the scholastic situation. “Why can’t we learn our own language?” he said to me.
In August 2010, in the southern part of China, Guangdong, the most open and free province in China, thousands of Guangzhou citizens flooded the streets repeatedly to fight for their right to use their language. The incident was triggered by a new regulation meant to reduce the usage of Cantonese in Guangdong media. After two big demonstrations, the provincial party secretary Wang Yang ended the whole movement with the cancellation of the new rule and a promise, “Even I am learning Cantonese, who dares to desert it!?”
Two months later, the Qinghai provincial government followed suit, deciding to make Mandarin the prominent teaching language in middle schools for all courses except English and Tibetan. On October 19th, a group of middle school students in Tongren county, Qinghai marched in the streets in their school uniforms. They wrote slogans on small teaching blackboards to protest the new changes that were threatening to destroy the last cornerstone of the Tibetan language.
It was well organized. In order to not leave any soft spot to the authorities, no monks or adults were allowed to participate. With its clear demands and peaceful nature, the movement blew across Qinghai to Gansu, and all the way to Beijing without fierce government interference that such demonstrations usually suffer. In the end, the Qinghai provincial government suspended the implementation of the policy.
Apart from cultural intrusion, it’s the intensive security pressure that also disgusts Gan. As a Tibetan monk, he has trouble applying for a passport. He must apply for a “monk license” before being officially proved to participate. He told me that he has been constantly singled out and checked by police at the highway checkpoints while on long-distance buses.
While we walked together on the streets in the Tibetan quarter in Chengdu that afternoon after the interview, he pointed to the police cars parked along the road and asked, “Have you seen so many police in other parts of Chengdu?”
The amount of security shocked me. One evening, late at night, I walked along the dusty, illuminated streets of the Tibetan quarter. I saw policemen with shotguns standing on all four corners of each intersection, and silent patrolling police vehicles passed me slowly every five minutes, flashing their alarm lamps.
The locals told me hesitatingly that there was a riot in Chengdu in 2008, and that the police presence has remained “to prevent” such things. The funny thing is, while one person told me it’s not safe on the road because of the Tibetans, another one told me it is super safe because of the police.
Once, Gan and his monk friends decided to travel by airplane. As they passed through security, they were wearing their standard orange monk robes and sky-pointing hats. A young police officer stationed by the entrance was so stunned by the endless flow of monks appearing from the crack of the gray glass panel that he shouted. “Look! There is a Dalai Lama! Oh, look, here! Another Dalai Lama! There is one there too!”
I was very curious about Gan’s take on the 2008 Tibetan riots, It seemed like he’d be somebody who might be able to provide some facts and insights. What followed my questioning was quite unexpected. While he had watched the incident closely, his sources were limited to the “media mouthpieces”. He told me that he had seen some monks on CCTV with knives in their hands chasing innocent-looking Han people. He couldn’t believe it, and thought they weren’t doing the right thing. Then he said that he then heard from some friends in Lhasa that those armed monks were actually Uighurs in disguise.
Like most Tibetans, he doesn’t know how to use internet and has never listened to any foreign radio, even the short-wave channels available in China. Limited by language and technical barriers, he struggles to find out the truth by watching CCTV, and compare that to what he hears through the grapevine with a open mind. QQ is the only thing he uses, which is pre-programmed into his cellphone. He uses it to communicate with his friends in miss-spelled, simple Chinese.
On the last day of our stay in Chengdu, he invited me and my friends to a traditional Tibetan restaurant. The waiter guided us to the far back room. A stout Tibetan in full monk garb followed by a Chinese boy in a bright blue jacket, followed by a tall Arabic girl, a petite blond German girl, and a long-haired Taiwanese girl we were like a parade.
The Tibetan waitress brought in the milk tea. She served Gan first in his distinguished, decorative tea cup, then me and then the ladies. They spoke in hushed Tibetan for a few seconds and our order was done. While waiting for the dishes, he played a DVD of a popular young Tibetan music video for us. In the video, the performer was dressed in a traditional costume, singing with a big group of Tibetan kids around him. The kids appeared poor and malnourished compared to the tall, handsome, soft-skinned pop star. It was a Tibetan song calling for unification and peace between different Tibetan tribes, urging them not to forget their own culture and language.
During dinner, he invited me to spend the summer with him on the grasslands. We would eat tsampa, drink butter tea, ride horses, sleep in tents, and watch the stars at night while chatting by the camp fire. A truly nomadic life that I would love to experience, but not to live.
Suddenly I heard a sharp metal sound, like someone pulling a sword from its sheath.
“SHRRR RRR RR.”
I turned my head quickly to see where it came from. It’s was only the ringtone of his cell phone.
“It reminds me of my days on the grasslands, it sounds like home,” he explained quickly before answering, “Wei, ni hao”.
September 17, 2011 at 1:29 pm