Laying down the lore

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am

When Sonam Dorje took his microphone to the windswept grasslands of eastern Qinghai province in September, he just wanted to record local folk tales. It had been many years since the Tibetan elders of Xunhua county had had an audience for their stories, but when they saw Dorje's recording equipment, they clammed up.

'They thought we were making a television programme, so I had to quickly explain we were just recording their voices, and then they felt more comfortable,' Dorje says. They were finally won over when he explained that he was trying to save the region's oral folklore - stories that are dying out because young Tibetans are now more interested in television, films and the internet.

'Grandparents used to tell these stories to the children before bedtime. But young kids now just want to watch movies rather than listen to folk tales. The oral tradition is in danger,' explains Dorje, 26, who recalls his own childhood in Xunhua not so many years ago, falling asleep while his grandparents told him similar tales.

That's why he wants to record these tales. Altogether, he and an assistant recorded 50 stories that month from four women and six men, all former farmers except for one retired teacher. In the past two months, all except one of the tales, which had too many gaps, have been transcribed into written Tibetan, translated into Chinese and English, and are about to be published and distributed free of charge as trilingual language-learning storybooks to 25 primary and middle schools in Xunhua.

The storybook idea first occurred to Dorje last year as he was trying to think of a way to make language-learning school books for Tibetan students more interesting and relevant to their own culture.

'When I visited primary schools, I found that most of the Chinese and English textbooks contain material just related to [Han] Chinese or Western culture,' he says. 'So I think if we can provide teaching about Tibetan culture in English or Chinese, then students can learn the language and our culture at the same time.'

Dorje is also re-recording the stories with Tibetan voice actors, to add some drama - 'the elders told the stories just like they were having a chat', he says - and to put them into the Amdo dialect, he says. Amdo is the subgroup of Tibetans who mainly live in Qinghai and Gansu provinces. These audiobooks will be given to local kindergartens and loaded onto online digital archives on Cambridge University's World Oral Literature Project.

One of the best storytellers, chosen for his fluent, vivid style, was 77-year-old Sangdak (who, like many Tibetans, has only one name). Blind in one eye, Sangdak told Dorje he was happy to take part because even his own grandchildren now ignored him when he tried to tell them his stories.

'The elders haven't told their stories now for several years,' Dorje says, adding that the hiatus has affected their memories. 'They got quite a lot of them mixed up, and so we had to go back to re-record some of the bits that were missing.' The stories have been handed down orally through the generations, and he says that some of them could be hundreds of years old.

'It's hard to say exactly how old these stories are, but some of them include characters from the time of Songsten Gampo,' Dorje says. Songsten Gampo unified Tibet's empire in the 6th or 7th century.

Dorje has been working 18-hour days, juggling his master of arts thesis with his work on the folk tale project. He's studying translation with a focus on Tibetan literature and language at Qinghai University for Nationalities in the provincial capital, Xining. While the book project was his idea, he's not doing it alone: Sherab Gyaltsan, a fellow master's student, is on board as a partner, and a swathe of volunteers are also helping out, including some overseas English teachers.

Money comes from the Canada Fund, which donated around 190,000 yuan (HK$231,200) for Dorje to hire translators and editors and foot publishing and production costs. To make sure everything is above board, Dorje is administrating the project though the government approved Wendu Education Association, which was originally set up by local businessmen to sponsor poor children to go to school.

Although Xunhua is the birthplace of the 10th Panchen Lama, it is not a very prosperous region. Dorje recalls that it wasn't until he was in grade three in middle school that the bookshop in his Tibetan township stocked Tibetan dictionaries. The situation is a little better now, he says, but schools still lack interesting and culturally relevant texts, especially ones with stories culled from local sources.

Despite his simple background, Dorje has spent most of his spare time over the past few years creating and running his own small-scale charity projects. He has applied for and secured small grants to run health care training in villages, a solar heating project, and an architectural heritage preservation programme for schoolhouses. Last year, he set up a small English library in a middle school in Luhuo, a Tibetan town in Sichuan province.

There have been many oral folk tale collection projects in Tibetan regions, but Dorje's is the first one in Xunhua.

He's turned to preserving his hometown's folk tales because, never having been written down, they are in very real danger of disappearing, he says.

'Before the 1950s, the system of education in Tibetan areas depended on the monasteries, which largely focused on literary works, herbal medicine, Buddhist philosophy and other religious rituals,' Dorje says. 'They never paid any attention to oral folk heritage. After the 1950s, when we started to receive modern education in schools ... Tibetan language class was the only chance for a Tibetan student to learn about their own culture at school, but the texts mostly focus on improving reading and writing skills and literary works. There are no folk tales.

'Our stories are similar to those from other Tibetan regions, but there are many Han and Salar people in my hometown, and these appear in our stories, and you certainly wouldn't find them in folk tales from Lhasa [Tibet's capital].'

For hundreds of years, Tibetans in Xunhua have lived alongside Han Chinese and members of the Salar Muslim ethnic group. Administratively, Xunhua is classified as a Salar autonomous county.

Like folk tales from around the world, these stories contain a strong moral element, in this case derived from the ethnic group's Buddhist beliefs: that compassion is rewarded; that heartless children pay the price for not taking care of their parents; and that brains always win out over brawn.

The storybook's contents page is intriguing. There's Foxy Sister-in-Law and the Brothers, The Dog Man and An Old Lady and a Demon. They are a mixture of the macabre - wolves get their eyes glued together, men have their hearts ripped out and are turned into zombies, and parents are fed their own baby in a stew - and absurd humour.

Dorje's personal favourite from the collection is a short tale called The Melon Killers, which pokes fun at his own ethnic group. A Tibetan farmer, who has never seen a watermelon before, attacks it with a sword thinking it is a giant insect that has just eaten up his field of wheat. Rather, the melon was left by a Salar fruit seller to apologise after his donkey had gorged himself on the Tibetan's crops.

Dorje hopes his storybook will have an influence on the young and - as he sees it - wayward generation. 'The world is changing. The mind of the young is changing. Their thoughts are not the same as the elders',' he says. '[People of] my generation still feel like we are responsible for taking care of our parents, but I am sure that our kids won't feel the same way.

'These folk tales teach us that we should respect the elderly, respect our parents and respect nature ... If this is taught to the younger generation, then perhaps their minds won't change so quickly.'