The main protagonist of my new novel, Champa, is a young, modern, Chinese-speaking Tibetan man. He grew up in the cosmopolitan city of Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. The novel in this sense is about Tibetan and Han relationships, but it will defy easy stereotyping. It is one of the intentions of the novel to be as uncompromisingly realistic and anti-romantic as possible.
Aside from the Han Chinese, the only Chinese ethnic group that I have some familiarity with is the Tibetans. I knew very little about Tibet until 1989, when I was commissioned by an American company to produce a movie based on the life of the 13th Dalai Lama and an Englishman called Charles Bell. The movie never got to production stage, but during pre-production, I met my Buddhist teacher Dzongsar Rinpoche, and that led me to visit different diasporic Tibetan communities in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Europe and North America. Since 1992 I also started visiting Lhasa and other Tibetan areas in China and over the years developed friendships with Tibetans in Lhasa and Beijing. I always wanted to write about Tibet and the Tibetan-Han relationship – a poignant and sometimes difficult co-dependent relationship seldom reflected realistically in literature.
My last novel, The Fat Years, was a dystopian political novel about present-day China, a genre that allows discussion of big issues. But I didn’t touch the ethnic issue in China at all in The Fat Years, because I wanted to save it for another novel. Right after I finished The Fat Years, I started working on a saga entitled The Conformist. It was about an idealist-turned-cynic Han Chinese cadre stationed in Tibet for 30 years who witnessed all the vicissitudes of relationships there.
I dropped The Conformist and by 2012, I started to work on a new story, Luo Ming or ‘Naked Life’, renamed for its English edition as The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver. The year 2012 was difficult for Tibetans in China, and I wanted a raw and pungent way to express my feelings, and the main protagonist needed to be a Tibetan.
Champa, the main protagonist, has two very different but equally bumpy relationships with Han women (over 90% of Chinese are Hans; Tibetans belong to one of the 55 official minority groups in China). He was a tourist driver before he became the ‘kept man’ of an attractive, affluent middle-aged Han businesswoman in Lhasa. Life was good for Champa until he fell for an enigmatic young woman, an event which made him give up on his cushy Lhasa life and drive to Beijing, his dream city. Nothing in Beijing turned out as expected.
I intended to capture at least a fraction of the complicated relationships between the Han Chinese and Tibetans and cut across five kinds of stereotypes when it comes to Tibet and Tibetans:
The romantic stereotype –Tibet as Shangri La, an exotic, timeless touristy region of simple, peaceful folks.
The spiritual stereotype – Tibet as the spiritual Buddhist holy land. Tibetan Buddhist gurus have many followers in other parts of China.
The patronising stereotype – Tibet is pre-modern, China is modern. The Communist Party liberated Tibet from medieval backwardness. Tibet depends on aid from the Chinese state. China’s affirmative action policies are beneficial to the Tibetans, maybe too generously so.
The statist stereotype – Tibet has always been a part of China from time immemorial. Foreign imperialists are always there trying to encourage Tibetan separatists to divide the Chinese motherland.
The victim stereotype – Tibetan culture is under threat, all because of the Chinese rule: non-Tibetan migrants, ‘Han-ification’, assimilation policies, bureaucratic nepotism and state violence. But traditional culture is also changing inside Tibet because many Tibetans want modernisation and welcome economic growth. Many Tibetan families urge their children to learn Chinese and young Tibetans love hybridised popular culture. (Though, of course, I am not unsympathetic to this victim stereotyping because Tibetans are now indeed a minority culture under stress.)
It was one of my wishes to write a novel that defies and examines stereotyping about Tibet, Tibetans and Tibetan-Han relationship and I hope that through Champa and his complicated adventures, I managed to shed some light on this difficult issue.
You can also buy Chan Koonchung’s previous novel, The Fat Years.
Chan Koonchung appeared, alongside Bi Feiyu, at ‘Chinese Fables’ at the Free Word Centre, London. You can read about the event at the English PEN website.