Austin Barney

A Review of Tibetan Childhood

Tibetan Childhood is a well-written and engaging book which recounts the childhood memories of Gongboo Sayrung, a native of Kandze TAP, Sichuan. It begins with his birth in 1984 and ends with his acceptance to Kangding Normal School, and was published in 2005 with editorial assistance from Dr. Kevin Stuart. Humorous and introspective, Sayrung’s narrative covers a wide range of events and illuminates various aspects of life growing up in a series of rural townships in a Khampa Tibetan area within contemporary China. Anyone interested in or studying about Tibet would benefit from reading this book it as it helps to answer the question “who are contemporary Tibetans?”

The reader will find it hard not to laugh out loud while reading this book. In the chapter ‘I Start School’ Sayrung writes, “…My sudden interest in the school bag magnetized my attention. I put my pencils, notebooks and nonsensical pictures that I had drawn in the bag and carried it around the room.” (60) A natural storyteller, Sayrung is also a keen observer of human behavior and is not afraid to reflect critically on the actions of his elders, or himself for that matter. This makes the narrative all the more enjoyable to read. The rich detail presented in the book brings the author’s childhood world to life and offers the reader an important firsthand perspective of rural Tibetan childhood, as well as insights into Tibetan life in general.

One of the more significant aspects of the work is the way in which it illuminates the subjective experience of rural Tibetan life. In this way Sayrung’s narrative unravels preconceptions of archetypical ‘Tibetanness’ and presents a more suitable representation by highlighting specific cultural strategies and social institutions from a particular Tibetan society. The book implicitly deconstructs the idea of Tibetans as embodiments of an unchanging cultural paradigm, and depicts them instead as individuals who participate in a shared discourse of cultural ideas. This shared discourse provides a means for its participants to negotiate the tension between traditional cultural values and the often contradictory events of ordinary life.

It is not clear to what extent the editor, Dr. Stuart, has influenced the narrative or its sequencing, yet this unresolved question does not detract from the value of the work by any means. The book will be of value to anyone interested in Tibetan Studies, and especially those engaged in Kham regional studies, rural Tibetan studies, and Tibetan education. The book can be read alongside other accounts of life in rural Tibetan regions or even Sayrung’s own native area in order to supplement a framework of contemporary life in rural Tibetan areas. As a well written, informative and entertaining work the book deserves to be studied in the context of contemporary Tibetan literature. In the event that the author publishes further material in the future, this book will serve as an important point of reference and comparison for following the developments of his career. This reviewer looks forward to following his career developments.

Book reviewed:
Gongboo Sayrung, ed. Kevin Stuart: Tibetan Childhood. Plateau Publications,, 2005. Pp. iii, 135.