Sunday 8 June 2008

The Tibetan book of the lurid, dirty, ugly, and cruel

The publication of Ma Jian's short story collection Stick Out Your Tongue got him exiled from China in the mid-1980s, apparently for presenting a disgusting, and officially incorrect, view of China's Tibetan subjects.

The problem, according to Jian's afterword in the book, was that China was invested in maintaining the world's idealization of Tibet and its people because it would reflect badly on its attempts to (forcibly) integrate Tibet if it was represented as something less than beautiful (which is ironic, given that this idealization is the source of the rest of the world's objection to China's presence in Tibet).

I don't know nearly enough about either Chinese or Tibetan history to know whether or not Jian was skewing the truth to defend himself. I do know that Stick Out Your Tongue flies in the face of the idealization of Tibet and Tibetans that socially conscious Westerners have been trading in for quite some time, especially in the Circle of Concerned & Beautiful Famous People headed by Richard Gere.

(Stepping back from the politics of Tibetan representation for a moment, I just want to say that these are really good stories, displaying a compelling and seamless combination of the mythical/magical and the hyper-real.)

But back to representation. Whether Tibet is being represented as beautiful, perfect, and Shangri-la-esque or dirty, desperately poor and full of people as selfish and desperate and cruel as people anywhere else, the fact is they're being represented not necessarily according to their best interests, no matter what Jian or Gere say.

In both cases, the politics of representation of Tibet, I think, point to a politics of self-representation that aren't necessarily as selfless as one could hope. Not that I'm sure that one can ever represent another without some kind of personal stake getting in there and skewing things.

That said, people also can't just stop talking about oppression knowing in advance that they're not going to get it entirely right...but I'll leave any further theorizing on this matter to my more educated Post-Colonial studying friends.

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