'Reactionary' Ringtones Spark Arrests In Tibet

Woeser is one of Tibet's most outspoken authors. i i

hide captionWoeser, pictured here at a Buddhist temple in Beijing, is one of Tibet's most outspoken authors. She has recently blogged about underground Tibetan protest music.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Woeser is one of Tibet's most outspoken authors.

Woeser, pictured here at a Buddhist temple in Beijing, is one of Tibet's most outspoken authors. She has recently blogged about underground Tibetan protest music.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

Police in Tibet have swept markets in recent months looking for banned music. Chinese state media report that police have arrested several suspects for allegedly downloading to their cell phones music that the government considers "reactionary."

Woeser, who goes by only one name like many Tibetans, is one of Tibet's most outspoken authors. Recently, the Beijing-based writer has been blogging about the hidden world of reactionary ringtones, subversive songs and dissident downloads.

"Ama Jetsun Pema," a very popular Tibetan song, is one example.

You have endured all sorts of hardship for the sake of the children of the Land of Snows.
How can we forget you, whose kindness to us is as deep as the deepest sea.
All the children of the Land of Snows pay tribute to you, Ama Jetsun Pema.

"As soon as this song came out, everyone was very excited," says Woeser. "We all ran down to the markets to listen to it and buy it, as if it would disappear if we didn't. When it was eventually labeled as reactionary, everyone said, 'Oh, it's finally been exposed.'"

Until her retirement in 2006, Jetsun Pema ran the Tibetan Children's Villages, a network of schools and orphanages for Tibetan exiles in India. She also just happens to be the younger sister of Tibetan's exiled religious leader, the Dalai Lama.

Some songs are dead giveaways, Woeser explains. They're usually sung by Tibetan exiles who aren't afraid to sing their god-king's name loud and proud — such as this one, titled "Dalai Lama."

But Woeser, poet that she is, prefers another kind of song, which refers to exiled gurus allegorically. They usually sound melancholy and express a feeling of loss.

"The sun is a traditional metaphor for the Dalai Lama, the moon for the Panchen Lama and stars for the Karmapa Lama," she explains.

"[The song "Gandong" refers to] how the sun, moon and stars are no longer in Tibetan lands. The lands are now very dark and we are sad that we can't see them."

Woeser notes, though, that more militant music is marching onto the Tibetan plateau.

"Now, a lot of young Tibetans living in the West are adopting Western forms of popular music, such as rap. These kinds of songs may gradually become a stronger voice in the exile community," she says.

Straight out of Queens, N.Y., Namgyal Yeshi raps about an onslaught of beggars, thieves and migrants flooding into Tibet from other parts of China, and of birds, fish and trees disappearing from the land in his song "No Next Time."

But even before digitized music and cell phones arrived in the Himalayan highlands, there was already a tradition of protest music.

In 1989, protesters took to the streets of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and many of them sang this song about the need for Tibetans to unite, regardless of their place of birth or religious beliefs.

Woeser says the whole idea of slapping political labels on music is absurd.

"Just by categorizing these songs as reactionary, we can see that the thinking of the authorities in Tibet is still stuck in the [1966-1976] Cultural Revolution," she says. And the current atmosphere in Tibet of captivity and terror is similar to that era."

There's no public list of banned tunes, Woeser notes. State media reported that police in Tibet detained two suspects last month for reactionary ringtones, but it didn't say which ringtones.

Ultimately, a song's reactionary tone may be in the ear of the listener. On the other hand, to an aggrieved singer, even a mellow ballad can blaze like an angry anthem.

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