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24th January, 2018

Ludic Modernism: Comedy and the Making of Modern Tibetan(s)

Dr Timothy Thurston, University of Leeds

In his lecture on ludic modernism in today's Tibet, Dr Timothy Thurston explained the importance of comedy in the Tibetan New Culture Movement through the lens of a comic form known as Tibetan xiangsheng, focusing specifically on a four-part series known as "Careful Village". Resembling the Han version of the form, Tibetan xiangsheng generally consist of a dialogue in which two performers stand before an audience and tell jokes, recount humorous anecdotes, sing songs, do imitations, and in general do their best to provoke laughter. The dialogues are not only bolder than the more traditional forms of entertainment, but also much quicker to reflect popular concerns. In "Careful Village", such concerns include modern technology, gender (in)equality and free choice marriage, religion, and education.

By comparing the lexical structure of "Careful Village" with more traditional texts, Dr Thurston demonstrated how various signs of tradition have disappeared from Tibetan xiangsheng, and been replaced by new discourses of modernity. For example, while a traditional wedding speech is laced with religious language, in "Careful Village" these references vanish, giving way to lines that condone ideas of secular education and gender equality. "Praise the silk knot of love!", one such line exhorts. "Praise the creamy white path of free marriage." Such discourses have served to shape a dichotomy between a uniquely Tibetan version of modernity in which the "modern" polyglot performers, who use plain speech devoid of oaths, stand in contrast to the "backwards" monolingual villagers, who speak in verse and use oaths and curses.

Post-lecture questions for Dr Thurston ranged from those on penetration of the Tibetan xiangsheng into Tibet's more remote rural areas - are the dialogues widely listened to in the countryside, and if so what are the differences between the way they are received and interpreted in urban and rural areas? - to those on how new technology and social media have shaped the evolution of this unique comic form. According to Dr Thurston, while Tibetan xiangsheng are no longer widely performed, having been overtaken by other forms of media such as film, many of their lexical components have already become deeply embedded in everyday language in many parts of Tibet, specifically Amdo.

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman