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Two Translations of Modern Tibetan Literature: Jangbu and Naktsang Nulo

Two Translations of Modern Tibetan Literature: Jangbu and Naktsang Nulo

Martin Lavicka07 Jul 2015Leave a comment

Written by Kamila Hladíková

Two Translations of Modern Tibetan Literature: Jangbu and Naktsang Nulo

Jangbu. The Nine-Eyed Agate. Poems and Stories. Transl. from Tibetan by Heather Stoddard. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010. 228 pp. ISBN: 978-0739128756. Hardcover 85 USD.

Naktsang Nulo. My Tibetan Childhood. When Ice Shattered Stone. Transl. from Tibetan by Angus Cargill and Sonam Lhamo. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014. 344 pp. ISBN: 9780822357261. Paperback 24.95 USD.

Translations of modern Tibetan literature into Western languages are still so rare that each of them deserves proper attention, especially when it is a translation of works of author(s) living inside the PRC. Quite a number of modern Tibetan short stories and some poems have been so far translated into English, the majority by Lauran Hartley and Riika Virtanen. Apart from the English translations, there are several publications in French and German, many of them made available thanks to Françoise Robin (French) and Franz Xaver Erhard (German). Recently, two new interesting books in English have appeared in bookstores, both of them benefiting from trans-continental and cross-Atlantic cooperation.

The first book is a collection of selected poems and short stories by one of the most original contemporary Tibetan writers Jangbu (ljang bu) translated by Heather Stoddard from the Department of Tibetan language, history and literature at INALCO, Paris. Jangbu is the pen name of a Tibetan poet, writer, and filmmaker of Mongolian ancestry, Dorje Tsering Chenaktsang (rdo rje tshe ring lce nag tshang). He was born in 1963 in Malho (Ch. Henan) Mongol Autonomous County in Qinghai province, a high-altitude grassland area inhabited by Tibetan-speaking communities of Mongolian origin, whose ancestors settled here in the seventeenth century under Gushri Khan. Jangbu, bilingual and educated in both Tibetan and Chinese, has begun to write modern style free-verse poetry in Tibetan during the 1980s, the era when modern Tibetan literature started to emerge after the restrictive years of political campaigns. He published in local newspapers and journals and quickly became one of the most prominent poets in Tibet. For several years he worked as editor of the most important Tibetan-language literary journal published in Lhasa, Tibetan Literature and Arts (bod kyi rtsom rig sgyu rtsal). During the 1990s he started to travel abroad regularly and since then has taken part in numerous festivals of poetry and film. He also worked or cooperated on the production of several documentary films about north-eastern Tibet. Between 2002 and 2008 he lived in Paris, where he taught Tibetan language and literature at INALCO and cooperated with Heather Stoddard and François Robin on the translation of his poems and short stories.

The book The Nine-Eyed Agate consists of three parts. The first part is dedicated to the collection of poems of the same name (Tib. Gzi mig dgu pa), published in Hong Kong in 2001; the second part consists of selected poems from other sources; and the third part includes Jangbu’s selected short stories. Both his poetry and short stories clearly reflect contemporary trends in Chinese literature from the reform period after the end of the Cultural Revolution and show that the author is not only deeply versed in modern Chinese and classical Tibetan literatures, but also confirm his erudite knowledge of Western poetry and prose. His poems show a strong influence of Western symbolism and modernist poetry, but their ornamental (though vernacular) language and sensually rich images remind us of the author’s admiration for classical Tibetan poetry. The motifs he uses in his poems are firmly rooted in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and the poems themselves, which according to Tibetan tradition are written primarily to be recited aloud, flow as a melodious song, produced by the poet’s “thigh-bone trumpet”, a powerful “symbol of freedom from the fear of death, the instrument of a lone Tantric practitioner dwelling far from human society, who masters the difficult techniques that lead to liberation from the cycle of birth and death” (Stoddard 2010: xxv). Jangbu’s poetry is sometimes called “obscure” (Tib. rab rib, Ch. menglong), which is a term referring to the Chinese post-Cultural Revolution poetic movement of the same name (Ch. menglong shi). This kind of free-verse poetry inspired by modernist and avant-garde poetic trends from the West, provides the poets with a kind of “safety zone”, where the “obscured meaning” enables them to express highly subjective, but often socially or politically challenging themes.

Because of the speed with which modern Tibetan literature emerged and developed, more or less during only one decade, even exceeding the rapid rise of modern Chinese literature which needed several decades (with a rupture of almost 40 years of socialist realism) to establish itself as a notable part of modern world literature, Tibetan authors had to go through a decade of experimentation with various literary styles and techniques known from the development of literature in the West. Jangbu is one of the most courageous examples, not only in poetry, but also in fiction. His short stories bear a strong modernist flavour, and some of them are inspired by magical realism, a literary style originating from the Latin American countries, which was very popular among young Chinese (and a few Tibetan) writers in the late 1980s. As with his poetry, Jangbu’s fiction is highly symbolical and sophisticatedly touches upon many sensitive topics that reflect the author’s subjective perspective on the complex reality of contemporary Tibet.

The book is accompanied by several introductory texts, including prefaces by the author and one of his colleagues, Gönpo Kyap, from the Northwest Nationalities University in Lanzhou. The most appreciable is the introduction by the translator Heather Stoddard, a scholar who witnessed the emergence of modern Tibetan literature from its very beginning. Her text provides readers with valuable information on the author, his life and work, as well as on the basic trends in modern Tibetan literature from 1980 onwards. The translation includes the translator’s notes that clarify certain terms from Tibetan culture, history and religion, often providing original Tibetan words and names in Wylie’s transliteration. The book also includes a very useful comprehensive list of translated works, poems and short stories by Jangbu, providing the original Tibetan titles and information on the original publication.

The second book is a memoir by Naktsang Nuden Lobsang or Naktsang Nulo (nags tshang nus ldan blo bzang). It is the first such work covering the period of the 1950s in Amdo – that is the “Peaceful Liberation” and the “democratic reforms” launched in Tibetan areas of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan by the Chinese Communist Party – to appear in the PRC. The English translation includes a short foreword by the 14th Dalai Lama, and an exhaustive introduction by Robert Barnett, one of the most renowned scholars on contemporary Tibet, its history and culture. Both the memoir itself and its English translation are interesting and in many ways unique publications, which deserve to be read and talked about.

 The author of the work, Naktsang Nulo, was born in 1949 into a traditional nomadic family in one of the relatively remote “kingdoms” of eastern Tibet, Madey Chugama (rma sde chu kha ma) (today’s Machu county in Gansu province), in the area close to Golok region. For the most part of his life he worked as an official in the Chinese government and retired in 1993. This book, which can be categorized either as memoir, or autobiographical novel (for its indisputable literary qualities and skilful narration from a child’s point of view), is the author’s literary debut. It was published in 2007 under the title “The Joys and Sorrows of the Naktsang Child” (Nags tshang zhi lu’i skyid sdug), and it is probably the first Tibetan work written completely in the local nomadic dialect of Amdo Tibetan. Later it was rewritten in Lhasa Tibetan in Dharamsala, India (Nags tshang, 2008), and even translated into Chinese and published in Taiwan (Nacang Nuluo, 2011). Reportedly, the book was banned in the PRC in 2011 (Barnett 2014: xxxvii; Robin, 2011), after it gained enormous popularity among the Amdo Tibetans. As for the genre, the book fits well with several similar books of Tibetan provenience published since the late 1990s mostly in exile (some of them mentioned by Robert Barnett in his introduction), that can be categorized either as autobiographical novels or as memoirs (or something between those two, as is the case with Naktsang Nulo’s work). Such books often use literary techniques to narrate real historical events from a subjective point of view. Thus, Naktsang Nulo’s book can be appreciated not only for the accuracy with which it relates the tragic events that took place in Amdo during the 1950s, and for the detailed description of the life of a nomadic family from north-eastern Tibet, but also for its literary qualities, which, together with a certain narratorial persuasiveness while representing details from the author’s childhood that probably could not be recalled by the author himself, as he was too small in that time and thus come close to fiction, allow us to call the book a “novel”.

Naktsang Nulo tells us stories from his childhood, when he was living with his relatives as a nomad in the grasslands of Amdo. He describes his own birth and early life on the grassland with his family, the death of his mother and the life with his brother and uncle in a monastery while his father travelled through Amdo in an effort to secure their living by trading and hunting, the pilgrimage to Lhasa which he undertook with his father and brother, and finally, the tragic end of the Naktsang family after the invasion of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The author’s father was killed by the Chinese after several weeks’ escape from their native land in an attempt to flee to safety beyond the reach of the Chinese army, and the two boys were arrested and put in jail. After their release they were sent to a grassland “school” for Tibetan orphan children in Chumarleb in the far north of the Tibetan plateau, far away from their Golok home. Here they became two of barely a dozen survivors of a man-made famine, which struck the area killing thousands, after the lives of local nomads got into enormous chaos due to the Chinese “liberation”. Even after that the author could not return back to his homeland and had to live in Chumarleb for most of his adult life.

Besides the fact that a book with such content could be published within the PRC, there are several notable facts about Naktsang Nulo’s work. Firstly there are the actual historical facts described in this book, a subjective but sincere depiction of the situation in the vast areas of Amdo inhabited by the nomadic population before, during and after the Chinese “liberation”. These events were tabooized and almost forgotten even by the survivors themselves. As noted by Robert Barnett, anything like that has so far not appeared in the PRC and only very limited reports have been available from the exile community or Western academia. Secondly, it is the original language – the spoken dialect of Amdo Tibetan that does not have a written form and probably has never before been used as a tool for writing such a book of literature. Considering the fact, that the writing in vernacular Tibetan made its first hesitant steps only after the events described in this book had taken place, and modern Tibetan literature in the vernacular language (based upon the Lhasa dialect) had not yet been born before the dawn of the reform era of Deng Xiaoping, this book can be seen as another important step into the unforeseen realm of modern Tibetan literature. Thirdly, the narrative style of the book has a stunning Tibetan flavour. Reading it feels as if meeting the narrator in person and listening to his oral narration. Just to mention two significant features: the narrator carefully builds a relation between himself and his readers (presumably people of the same origin, the local nomads of Amdo) by addressing them directly and by explaining his motivation to narrate these events, and his own narration as well as the direct speech of his characters is interspersed with typical phrases and idioms of everyday spoken Amdo Tibetan, such as various entchantments, swearwords and curses, etc., which are well known to his “implied readers”.

The English translation would never be complete without the extensive and exhaustive “Introduction – A Note on Context and Significance” by Robert Barnett. He not only introduces the author and his work, but also provides a highly informative introduction into the complex situation of the Tibetan areas in the historical period of the 1950s. However, his effort is mainly focused on two important questions. Firstly, he highlights the important contribution of the work confirming the sense of common identity among Tibetans in the “pre-Liberation” times, arguing that, as is evident from Naktsang Nulo’s memoir, there was a strong sense of “the shared cultural heritage of the Tibetan peoples, […] their common links with the high plateau and its mountains”, as well as “the shared religion, geography, and customs” (Barnett 2014: xix). Such a concept of the “ethnographic” or “cultural” “Tibet”, as the situation has often been described by Western scholars, or the Tibetan notion of the “Land of Snows” (Gang ljongs), gets into juxtaposition with two other, rather “political” conceptions of “Tibet”. First is the traditional differentiation between the western part of the Tibetan plateau, Central Tibet (dbus gtsang in Tibetan or the “Western Tibet” ˗ Xizang – in Chinese) ruled by the Dalai Lamas and the Lhasa government, and the “eastern Tibetan areas”, sometimes referred to as “Inner Tibet” (Ch. nei Zang, from the Chinese perspective), which include the regions of Amdo and Kham. This concept was misused by the Chinese government, who considered only the western part of the Tibetan plateau as “Tibet”, when “liberating” Tibetan areas and later establishing the Tibetan Autonomous Region, thus excluding large areas inhabited by Tibetans in the east and dividing them into four Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan. The second of the “political” concepts of “Tibet”, “refer[ing] to the entire Tibetan snow-land as a political unit, one that was ruled in the past by a single administration” (Barnett 2014: xix) has been used by the exile Tibetans and their supporters, as well as the Central Tibetan Administration. Naktsang Nulo’s book, as pointed out by Robert Barnett, “suggests that this idea of a single Tibetan polity was remote from the lives of eastern Tibetans when he was a child: he was unaware of any political linkage between the Tibet ruled by Lhasa and his area of Amdo” (ibid.). Nevertheless, as indicated by the final part of the book, these attitudes have started to change after the events of the 1950s, as described by Naktsang Nulo.

Secondly, Robert Barnett deals in much detail with Tibetan histories and memoirs of the recent Tibetan history written mostly by the exile Tibetans, pointing out the uniqueness of Naktsang Nulo’s book. He writes that “the histories that have been written both by exile Tibetans and by the CCP have presented relatively simple narratives about the Tibetan past” (Barnett 2014: xxv), both showing just one of the many perspectives and omitting – intentionally or unintentionally – a part of the information. In this light, Naktsang Nulo’s memoir is the first such work, which provides a “detailed account of political and military operations [in Amdo] in that time” (Barnett 2014: xxvii), telling about events that, on one hand, have been completely tabooized in the PRC, intentionally omitted from the official historical accounts, and, on the other hand, have not gained enough attention from the exiles, who focus mostly on Lhasa and Central Tibet or on the Tibetan resistance movement in Kham. As such, the book serves as an important source of information about the Chinese strategies of subjugating the area and local people, about the native response to these strategies and about the tragic consequences of these events.


Barnett, Robert. “Introduction. A Note on Context and Significance.” In Naktsang Nulo. My Tibetan Childhood. When Ice Shattered Stone. Transl. from Tibetan by Angus Cargill and Sonam Lhamo. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014, p. xv-li.

Ljang bu. Gzi mig dgu pa (The nine-eyed agate). Hong Kong: Gyiling Press, 2001.

Nacang Nuluo. Na nian, shi shi fanzhuan: Yige Xizangren de tongnian huiyi (The year the world turned upside down: Recollections of a Tibetan childhood). Taipei: Xueyu chubanshe, 2011.

Nags tshang Nus blo. Nags tshang zhi lu’i skyid sdug (Joys and sorrows of the Naktsang boy). Xining: Qinghai Xining yinshuachang, 2007.

Nags tshang Nus blo. Nags tshang zhi lu’i skyid sdug (Joys and sorrows of the Naktsang boy). Rewritten in standard Tibetan by Gser rta Tshul khrims. Dharamsala: Khawa Karpo Tibet Cultural Centre, 2008.

Robin, Françoise. L’histoire au miroir de l’art: (D)ércire la catastrophe au Tibet (Literary creation and history: Writing/describing the Tibetan catastrophe). Fourth Congress of the Asia Pacific Network, September 14-16, 2011, Paris, France. http:// (accessed June 18, 2015).

Stoddard, Heather. “Introduction”. In Jangbu. The Nine-Eyed Agate. Poems and Stories. Transl. from Tibetan by Heather Stoddard. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010, p. xvii-xxviii.

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