Born and raised in Lhasa, Yangdon (Ch. Yangzhen) (1963-2017) took an interest in literature from an early age and began publishing in Mandarin in her teens in the Lhasa-based magazine Xizang wenyi (Tibetan Literature and Arts). After finishing high school, Yangdon won a place at Beijing University where she would major in Chinese literature. Upon graduation in 1985, she returned to Lhasa to begin work as an assistant editor for the prestigious literary journal Xizang wenxue (Tibetan Literature). Her short stories began to appear in this journal in 1986, including ‘Wanzi de bianyuan’ (The Edge of the Hooked Cross), which earned Yangdon a national prize for new minority writers in 1991.
Yangdon’s rise to prominence as a female Tibetan writer during the 1990s was not unique. The declaration of martial law in Lhasa in 1989 in response to pro-independence demonstrations saw many established Sinophone writers (both Tibetan and Han) leave the city to take up posts elsewhere. Patricia Schiaffini notes that this absence of prevalent male Sinophone Tibetan voices in Lhasa during that period opened the door for the emergence of a small group of talented female Tibetan writers. As a result, despite the tight censorship and repression that characterised Lhasa’s literary environment during these years, the 1990s came to be known as “the age of the Goddesses.” Yangdon was part of this cohort of female writers who had largely trained in Mandarin at prestigious academic institutions in Beijing and been exposed to broader literary trends within China and elsewhere.
Her big break came with A God without Gender (wu xingbie de shen). Originally published as a short story in June 1988 (an English translation is available here), it was later radically reworked into a full novel by the same name with China Youth Press (Zhongguo qingnian chubanshe) in 1994.
The novel, set in mid-20th century Tibet, explores the life in Lhasa from the perspective of a young orphaned girl who is sent to become a nun. It describes in rich detail gender roles, Tibetan Buddhist beliefs and customs, and the various predicaments of the Tibetan aristocracy on the eve of China’s ‘peaceful liberation’ of Tibet.
A God without Gender made Yangdon famous and established her as one of Tibet’s most influential female Tibetan writers in recent decades. It is often described as the first modern full-length novel written by a Tibetan woman. Attracting much critical attention across China, the book was later ranked in China Youth Press’ list of most influential novels of the 1990s - the first time in history that a female writer from Tibet made the list. It was later translated into English and even adapted into a popular 20-part TV series named “The Tale of Lhasa’s Past” (Lasawangshi) in 2001 as part of a collaborative effort between CCTV and Tibet TV. In 1997 Yangdon was awarded the Literature Prize for Minorities. In the same year she became a member of China Writer’s Association.
Throughout her work, Yangdon challenged standard depictions of Tibetans and pre-Communist Tibet in popular media and sought to reclaim ownership of Tibetan cultural representation. Like many of her contemporaries, her work was particularly interested in themes concerning Tibetan culture, Tibet’s past and the lives of Tibetan women. Her meticulously researched stories often focused on historical subjects such as Songtsen Gampo, the founder of the Tibetan Emprise, and Tseyang Gyatso, the Sixth Dalai Lama, and sought to retrieve and re-create a glorious Tibetan past. She also worked hard to challenge Tibet’s male-dominated literary tradition. In an interview with a fellow Tibetan writer named Sochung (Ch. Suoqiong), she noted “A Tibetan literature without female representation is an incomplete Tibetan literature.”
In 1994 Yangdon joined the Chinese Centre for Tibetan Studies in Beijing, where she worked as an editor-in-chief for China Tibetan Studies Press for many years.
In October 2017, Yangdon passed away at her home in Beijing at the age of 54.
Séagh Kehoe is a PhD candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. They tweet @seaghkehoe and blog at www.seaghkehoe.com. Image credit: Tibet Online