Kondro Tsering (mkha’ ‘gro tshe ring), the youngest son of an Amdo Tibetan peasant family, spent his childhood in an isolated farming community in Zorgay (mdzod dge) County, Ngawa (rnga ba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province, in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2003, Kondro Tsering was selected to study English at the Qinghai Normal University in Xining, where he wrote his autobiography in English with the help of his teacher. Kondro Tsering recounts his life growing up in the village up to his graduation from middle school: doing well in school and being bullied, losing his mother as a child, tending to animals and inventing the practice of herding pigs on a pasture, and being drawn away from his grandmother’s old Tibetan legends by Chinese films and television. In his autobiography, one can see how modernization and Sinicization gradually affected cultural and religious practices in his village at that period, and how Kondro Tsering and the villagers around him related to various governmental, educational and religious institutions in that locality.

The exact year of Kondro Tsering’s birth is not mentioned in the book, but 1985 would be a good estimate[1]. Kondro Tsering’s family is poor, and subsists on farming, such as growing barley (99), keeping yaks for their milk (119), and rearing pigs for their meat (84), as do the other villagers. The village, Lhacar (lha kha), lies “on a high hilltop” away from of the main town, in a township situated in a poor, agrarian valley (45).

Kondro Tsering's household consists of his parents, his grandmother, two brothers, Gaga (dkar skal) and Tjobajo (gcod pa skyaps), and a number of unnamed sisters. Additionally, there is an eldest brother that was sent into monkhood in a local monastery. In the middle of the book, Kondro Tsering’s mother dies of a sudden illness while he is in primary school, affecting him deeply, but also motivating him to study hard and go to college, as she had wished him to (57, 60).

Kondro Tsering spent much of his early childhood with his grandmother, who entertained him with stories of the mythical Tibetan King Gesar (ge sar), while she deloused him (17). Storytelling played a central role in familial recreation and cultural life during Kondro Tsering’s early childhood: he would sleep with his brother Tjobajo on weekend nights, and they would tell each other Tibetan folktales (22). Stories told by the elders occasionally included personal remembrances; these stories provided a rare glimpse into the recent historical memory of the community. One example was when, while on a pilgrimage to the sacred Heart-Shaped Mountain, Kondro Tsering’s father recounted how, during the Cultural Revolution, officials would remove the ladder from below one’s feet after one had climbed up to the sacred cave with that ladder (43). Kondro Tsering’s mother also once mentioned how the family, once rich, lost its wealth “during New China’s period of social turbulence” (56). Otherwise, Kondro Tsering’s narrative mostly deals with his lifetime and is forward-looking; there is very little about traumatic historical memories, although these anecdotes suggest their existence.

Another form of entertainment for the children in the village was playing house in the forest, where they would divide themselves into two imaginary families, and reproduce the social and familial customs of village life, such as one of the families marrying off their daughter to the other, or the son and the daughter-in-law picking strawberries and mushrooms for the elderly parents (27). This rather closed, self-mirroring cultural world was disrupted by the introduction of television later in Kondro Tsering’s childhood, after which, as he poignantly recounts, children no longer played house in the forest, but instead acted out violent fighting scenes from television (108). Kondro Tsering also no longer found his grandmother’s Tibetan stories about King Gesar interesting; taking the place of King Gesar was Jacky Chan the Chinese action movie star, or the Chinese television series about the Monkey King (107). People in the village chatted less to each other in their free time, and would rather stay at home and watch television (108-109). Nevertheless, Kondro Tsering also wittily notes that the village women talked more to each other when they worked together, albeit only about what they saw on television (106).

Other than mass media, one other institution by which the modern Chinese state made its presence felt in the village was the local school. Kondro Tsering’s primary school catered to the teaching of Chinese to the local Tibetan children, who are taught to write Tibetan only in fourth grade (47). Both Chinese and Tibetan teachers were employed to teach a variety of subjects (47). Kondro Tsering reports being “intrigued,” at the start of the first proper year of school[2], by “books that had unfamiliar Chinese characters and colorful illustrations” (47). Kondro Tsering also preferred the Chinese teachers much more to the Tibetan ones, who were less dedicated and tried to “go through the books as quickly as possible” (47-48). Being at the top of his class in primary school, Kondro Tsering was constantly bullied and ostracized by his classmates as a result (52, 104).

Despite his love for school and Chinese class, parts of Kondro Tsering’s narrative betray a subtle sense of anxiety over his Tibetan identity. Kondro Tsering recounts a dream in which the family visits Lhasa, only to find the monk at the entrance of the Potala saying “welcome” to them in Chinese (71); in the same dream, his father also admonishes him for spurning tsampa (rtsam pa), a Tibetan barley-based food, for Chinese food, like other Tibetan youngsters did (71). At other times, however, Kondro Tsering, like the other young people in the village, willingly discards other aspects of Tibetan tradition under the influence of contemporary Chinese culture: the wearing of Tibetan straw boots was thought to be “shameful” after the advent of Chinese television (108).

In other cases, the opposition between local Tibetan practices and more modern Chinese state institutions is less clear-cut. While the tension between religious practice and modern medicine is highlighted by how the neighbors squabbled over whether to take a sick boy to the doctor, or simply to offer incense to the gods (75), it is also interesting to note that the local hospital was headed by an incarnate lama by the name of Wodzer (od zer), who was invited by the villagers both to perform religious rites and to diagnose illnesses (58). Wodzer had some unhappiness with Kondro Tsering’s father, and when the latter took Kondro Tsering to the hospital for a headache, they ran into Wodzer, who spitefully pronounced, despite his being a doctor, “Medicine will not work for your son’s illness. He is destined to become a monk, or he’ll die soon” (77). Wodzer’s prophecy set up a dispute within the family, with the brother Gaga and the “Eldest Sister” distrusting the lama’s words, and with the more religious and conservative grandmother deferring to the lama’s authority (78).

Nevertheless, a belief in ghosts and spirits was shared by young and old alike in the village, and religious rituals often involved the participation of the entire community, and provided a ground for communal bonding: at a spectacular exorcism of a possessed tree, people left their homes unlocked and ran into each other’s houses to capture the escaped ghost (113). There is also some sense of communal self-rule in the village: the villagers met to discuss when to begin the harvest each year (100), and people had to pay fines of barley should they break certain communal rules (80,100).
Towards the end of the book, the presence of the Chinese state and the forces of modernization made themselves more strongly felt in village life: the villagers started watching television, farmers began to use tractors for the harvest (101), the local government built a water supply system (118), and the Chinese government decided to offer the farmers grain in exchange for converting their fields into forests (101).

Most interesting is seeing how Kondro Tsering, as a child who had great sympathy for animals, reacted to and questions the norms and practices in the village, and sometimes even tried to change the state of affairs: while his attempts to treat the family dog more humanely than local custom dictated earned him the rebuke of the elders (87), Kondro Tsering successfully innovated the practice of herding pigs on the pasture, which made his family's pigs fatter, and which was soon emulated by the rest of the village (85). Nonetheless, Kondro Tsering also relates how he felt upset and how his tears "splattered on their bodies" when the pigs he had raised on the pasture were eventually slaughtered (84).

In conclusion, Kondro Tsering’s biography provides not only insight into life in an Amdo Tibetan community that was changing under modernization and Sinicization in the 1980s and 1990s, but also an account of how a young man made sense of the different forces and institutions in the area, and how he moved forward in life pursuing his goals.

[1] Kondro Tsering mentions being selected for the English Training Program (ETP) at Qinghai Normal University in 2003 (7), the news of which earned him “the first embrace [he] got from Father after [he] turned fifteen” (123). Hence he should not have been born later than 1988. Assuming that the “examination” (123) that allowed him to go to Qinghai Normal University was the Gaokao, which is usually taken the last year of high school, 1985 should be a good estimate of his year of birth.
[2] There was a “pre-school” year called xueqianban (学前班) that the students had to attend before the first grade (36). In the xueqianban the students are taught hanyu pinyin (Chinese romanization) and Arabic numerals. Kondro Tsering reports that the teachers, who were exclusively local Tibetans, were less interested in ensuring that the students learn anything than in trying to “tame” them (38). Kondro Tsering contrasts them to his Chinese teachers in the first grade, who ensured that the students absorbed what they were teaching (47).