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Tibetan Culture at the Foot of the Sacred Mountain
2004/01/30

Cilizhuoma is a 22-year-old Tibetan girl. Her home is in remote Yunling in Deqin County of the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in southwest China's Yunnan Province. She spent the latter half of 2003 as a local guide leading visitors and pilgrims to Kawa Karpo, a mountain held sacred by Tibetan people.

She kept a diary of these days. It runs to some 10,000 words and she shared it with a reporter from China Youth Daily.

Cilizhuoma's diary has attracted the attention of anthropologists for it is the first time a local girl's diary, carrying as it does a depth of insight into her cultural background, has come into the public domain in this way. It is an articulate account that opens a window on the daily life of a young Tibetan girl. Its pages tell of what she saw, heard and thought during her time on the sacred mountain.

It is the custom of Tibetan people, in an act of religious observance and respect for nature, to undertake a pilgrimage on foot around a sacred place. This might be a mountain, a lake or a temple. An "inner circumambulation" follows the shorter pilgrimage route within a sacred place, while an "outer circumambulation" follows a rather more circuitous route as the name would suggest.

Located in Deqin County, Mt. Kawa Karpo (Tibetan for white pillar) is also known locally as Meli Snow Mountain. It is one of the mountains held most sacred by ethnic Tibetans.

In the Tibetan calendar, 2003 was the year of the water goat, which occurs only once every 60 years. Tradition has it that in this year all the mountain-gods from 108 sacred mountains would gather at Mt. Kawa Karpo. So 2003 was a particularly auspicious year to make a pilgrimage there for it might confer the good fortune normally associated with separate pilgrimages to all 108 sacred mountains.

The 2003 circumambulations of Mt. Kawa Karpo became recognized as a significant cultural event not only by ethnic Tibetan people but also throughout China and beyond into the wider world. China Central Television (CCTV) and Yunnan Television documented the activities.

According to incomplete statistics from Deqin County, some 500,000 people visited Mt. Kawa Karpo in 2003. The number includes both pilgrims and tourists and the county attracted its highest ever number of tourists that year.

It was already late in 2003 when the reporter from China Youth Daily went to Yubeng Village in Deqin County to accompany a group of 18 pilgrims on their three-day inner circumambulation. Yubeng Village is in a part of world that is still inaccessible to vehicular traffic. It lies at the very heart of Yunnan's important World Natural Heritage Site of Sanjiang. Here the headwaters of three of the world's great rivers run parallel through an area of outstanding natural beauty and bio-diversity thought by many to have inspired the dream of Shangri-La.

Many pilgrims bought a Chinese-Tibetan book called Sacred Mt. Kawa Karpo considered locally to be the definitive pilgrimage guide. The book was written by Renqinduoji, a Tibetan from Yunling Village in Deqin County. He was formerly the head of the Diqing Prefecture Tibetan Hospital. When he retired he returned to Yunling Village and devoted himself to cultural research of the Mt. Kawa Karpo area.

His book Sacred Mt. Kawa Karpo was published in 1999. It presents a compilation of Tibetan literature on Mt. Kawa Karpo from long-past dynasties together with up-to-date information on the scenic spots and sacred places on the route of the pilgrimage trek. As the area is relatively unknown to the rest of the world the book also depicts recent events in the area. For example it records that between 1987 and 1996, foreign and domestic climbers failed in all five attempts on Mt. Kawa Karpo.

Renqinduoji's home plays host to a modest family museum. It displays some 70 Tibetan cultural relics he has collected at his own expense over many years. The exhibits include articles for everyday use, religious items, ancient cultural relics, Tibetan books, Tibetan medicines and historical documents relating to Mt. Kawa Karpo. In addition there are hand-written texts and copies of the local regulations on environmental protection.

Renqinduoji's family museum has been a source of interest to visiting anthropologists. They are well aware that all pilgrims following the "outer circumambulation" route must come by Renqinduoji's hometown, Yunling Village. So his museum provides an educational window on the traditional knowledge for the benefit of Tibetan people and tourists alike. It helps them better understand Mt. Kawa Karpo's local culture and the nature of its bio-diversity.

Although not a young man, he is now 61, Renqindouji led his family and friends around Mt. Kawa Karpo on foot in his quest to review the documented scenic spots and collect material for his museum. Three times he completed the 3 day trek of the inner circumambulation and three times he completed the 10 day trek of the outer circumambulation.
 
Faced with an increasing pace of intrusion by outside influences into their traditional culture, other local people in Deqin County have like Renqindouji looked for ways in which they too could help preserve the heritage. The Kawa Karpo Cultural Society is a grass roots initiative set up by six young people, every one of them sensitive to the ingress of cultural change.

Mingyong Village at the foot of Mt. Kawa Karpo is home to Zhaxinima, a well-known poet. The village is blessed with a wonderful backdrop in the form of the Mingyong Glacier, notable for its descent to a world beating low altitude. Mingyong has become a popular scenic spot due to this famous glacier. Local people now earn good money as their horses make the daily round with tourists and merchandise. But Zhaxinima speaks regretfully with the perception of a poet when he says, "It upsets me to see people from the village running along now crowded paths, their faces streaked with sweat and dust as they lead tourists on horses. The exploitation of the area's potential for tourism has brought many changes to our lifestyle and culture."

Xiaoma and Silanglunbu are members of the Kawa Karpo Cultural Society who are very conscious of having grown up unable to read and write Tibetan and knowing so little about their own history.

Xiaoma said, "I grew up in Deqin County, but never learned the history of our ethnic group. Even after graduating from college, my understanding of things Tibetan was still limited to knowing a bit about Songtsam Gambo who was king of the Tubo Kingdom in Lhasa and his wife Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty who introduced Tang Culture to Tibet after their marriage in 641."

Silanglunbu said, "When I was studying in college, my classmates asked me to write my name in Tibetan, but I couldn't. I muddled through by just scratching something down. I feel deeply hurt that I was unable to write my name in my mother language. This memory has remained fresh in my mind to this day."

And so Xiaoma and Silanglunbu were inspired to set up a Tibetan language class that has provided free study opportunities during the three years since the founding of the Kawa Karpo Cultural Society. It is attended by local elementary and middle-school students and by college students back home during their annual vacations.

The society has promoted Xianzi Dance over the past three years and hopes to prevent the disappearance of this rare cultural form.

"Xianzi Dance is an excellent example of Tibetan culture. It has survived for hundreds of years and represents the very soul of our ethnic group. People stopped performing the Xianzi Dance when modern entertainments like TV and karaoke were introduced," said Hai Zhigao another member of the Cultural Society.

Xianzi Dance, also called Xie, is danced to the accompaniment of an ox-horn instrument. It originates from Batang in Ganzi Prefecture. Girls wear long-sleeved silk gowns when dancing. The movements of Xianzi Dance are gentle and implicit, seemingly expressing a longing for love and nature. Lyrics are in four parts each comprising six words in precise but flowery language.

Guozhuang Dance is another popular dance among Tibetan people. Hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm, one side for men and the other for women, dancers sing to the beat of their pounding feet.

Many people now love to gather at the central plaza of Deqin County to take part in Xianzi Dance two days a week. This has been a regular feature since 2001, led and organized by the Kawa Karpo Cultural Society.

Members of the society come from various walks of life. They work in government organizations or companies or are in business. For three years they have spent their spare time trekking over mountain after mountain to collect cultural works dispersed among the local population before they become lost to future generations.

So far, they have collected some 200 Xianzi songs, 30 Guozhuang songs, 10 mountain folk songs, 10 six-letter tones, five love divination symbols and 20 examples of Ludiao, an ancient song of ethnic Tibetans.

A year ago in order to promote the popularity of the ancient arts among local people, members of the Kawa Karpo Cultural Society pooled their money to publish a recording of Sage Xianzi. It has been warmly welcomed in the local Tibetan area.

Xiaoma was the prime mover in setting up the society and plays a very important role in the running of the society. He has been in business on his own account since graduating from college.

He puts the money he makes into saving and preserving his ethnic culture. He contributed 100,000 yuan (about US$12,000) to buy 20 audio recorders, two digital cameras and a computer. The society makes a lasting digital record of everything it collects.

The good work of the Kawa Karpo Cultural Society has been making its mark and international organizations are now cooperating in local cultural preservation projects.

When Tibetan people worship their mountain gods, it is their custom to burn fragrant cypress branches. The surge of visitors in the 2003 circumambulations of sacred Mt. Kawa Karpo put particular pressure on this rare and endangered plant. Washington based, Conservation International, which has been cooperating with the members of the local society, has expressed the hope that the Kawa Karpo Cultural Society will, with the help of the government departments concerned, be successful in promoting the use of an alternative plant with stronger regenerative capabilities.

Also in 2003 US based, Nature Conservancy asked the society to help it investigate how local Tibetans protect nature according to their culture and beliefs. The organization regards knowledge of such experience as important in the area of conservation. During the investigation, a project official from Nature Conservancy listened to villagers talk about their sacred trees, sacred water and sacred mountains. He said this had helped him better understand the significance of cultural attitudes to the conservation of the natural environment.

"A multi-cultural society gives rise to many different lifestyles. Therefore, when people come to exploit the environment here, they should listen to the natural voices of the mountains and to the folklore of the local people. They should think carefully about how the ecological and cultural environment ought to be exploited," said Dr. Guo Jing, a famous anthropologist from Yunnan Province.

"The old interrelationships between people and mountains, trees and forests still operate today in these places. Traditional methods of managing the natural resources moderate most villagers' thoughts and actions towards their environment. For them the mountain is not just a resource to provide food and clothing but it is also a place for contemplation and reflection on their lives. So when drafting any new regulations that might restrict local villagers in their use of these natural resources, we should not forget that local people are part of this natural environment. They are the traditional custodians of their world and without their cooperation, all the outside experts and management staff in the world couldn't protect a single tree or bird," pointed out Dr. Guo.

Some scholars are of the view that Cilizhuoma's pilgrimage diary, Renqinduoji's family museum and the Kawa Karpo Cultural Society together speak eloquently on behalf of local cultural interests. Under the impact of outside cultural influences, especially when the environment is exploited as a making money resource, they are the voices of preservation that can be relied upon. "They express the values that are in danger of being lost; a reverence and respect for nature, cultural heritage and all living things," said Dr. Guo Jing.

Cilizhuoma gave three lectures entitled "Putting Cameras into the Villagers' Hands" in the closing days of 2003. She was speaking at Sun Yat-Sen University in south China's Guangdong Province at the invitation of the university's Department of Anthropology and Communications Institute. She showed pictures taken during the pilgrimage treks and expressed her views on local culture and bio-diversity. She turned out to be very well received indeed by her student audiences.

The success of her lectures has led scholars to recognize the potential for such an approach in raising public awareness. Let local people come down from the mountains, step up onto the platform and tell of the culture and bio-diversity of their region as they see them and in their own words. "The best way to preserve the culture is to maintain the impetus of education," concluded Dr. Guo.

(China.org.cn by Wang Qian, January 29, 2004)

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