by Sara Novak Lerner
My chosen object for this project, the Black Tent is unique because it’s been photographed in its natural environment, which gives me the opportunity to discuss its surroundings as well. I also want to take this opportunity to do a bit of research on the Tibetan nomads, who comprise more than three-quarters of the population (Benson 1).
As suggested, I began this assignment by taking about 30 minutes to look at the image and “decelerate” (three hours was not going to happen). I mostly used this time to explore the photograph with a fine-tooth comb, if you will. I zoomed in and really tried to take in every detail. I finished this process by zooming out and taking in the image as a whole. This process was a bit frustrating, because it left me with a lot of questions regarding objects in the photo I was unable to identify. But I also gained a perspective on the object that I might not have gotten if I had began writing immediately. I got the sense of isolation. I will elaborate on this a bit later but for now, some information about the tent itself:
The black fabric is hand-spun yak wool (Namkhai 34). The tents take about a year to construct (“Nomadic Tents”). They typically are held down with anywhere between 8-16 Wooden poles that circle the perimeter (Namkhai 34; “Nomadic Tents”). There is a large opening in the center of the roof of the tent called a kung that is used during the day for sunlight (Namkhai 34). It also serves as a vent for smoke from a small fire or stove and it is also kept open for religious purposes, to represent the sky god Khunglha (Namkhai 34; “Nomadic Tents”). The inside of the tents are rather bare, but they always contain a few staple items: blankets and mats for sleeping, the aforementioned stove, a table, some clothing and some food stores. These items seem like the bare essentials, but there are two other items that are also found in these tents and that are also considered essential to these homes. There will always be a picture of a local lama and a thangka hanging inside. There will frequently be a picture of the fourteenth Dalai Lama on display as well. These images are a source of protection for these families. According to Janet Gyatso, sacred images are frequently placed inside a residence prior to any other material belongings (174). Another important element that is always present near nomadic tents is yak dung, seen here: http://menzelphoto.photoshelter.com/image/I0000wNVs7AcHOuI , an important source of fuel, and even sculpting material for Tibetan Buddhist images (“Nomadic Tents”). You will also typically see Prayer flags like these hanging from the roofs of these tents.
The people who reside in these tents are known as འབྲོག་པ། (ndrogba) in Tibetan (“Tibetan Nomads”). Although they are found living all over the Tibetan Plateau, the majority live in Nagchu and Ngari in the West and and Golog and Yushu in Qinghai and western Sichuan. A documentary called “Summer Pasture” produced by PBS in 2010 provides an insider’s perspective on the Tibetan nomadic lifestyle. This clip from the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MnLWflGD-Ycaptures a few aspects of the nomadic experience that I found relevant for this project. The clip begins when it’s still dark outside. We see a family loading up a herd of yaks with all of their belongings, presumably to move to a new temporary home base whose distance requires them to get an early start. The loading up of the family belongings on the backs of their yak herd is an excellent example of the ways in which the relationships of Tibetans and their animals are symbiotic. Besides using yak hair for tent material, it is also used for clothing and ropes (Benson 8). Yak meat and butter are staples of nomadic diets and yak dung is used for fuel and sculpting material, as mentioned before. Sheep are also very important to nomadic families, and they are herded as well as the yaks. Their wool and meat are utilized. In this clip we see the family riding horses alongside the herd of yak.
Another unique resource I found in addition to the video for learning about Tibetan nomadic life is Tibetan literature from the 20th century. Tibetan herders and farmers are a subject of choice in these works (Hartley and Schiaffini-Vedani xxi). Interestingly, the writers of these works are typically from urban centers. Lauran Hartley has dubbed this trend “anticipatory nostalgia” for the simple Tibetan pastoral life which is threatened today, (anticipatory because most Tibetans still live in this manner as mentioned before despite the threat which I will return to later in the paper). I found one example in Journal of The Grassland, by Yangtso Kyi. Kyi provides us with insight into numerous aspects of nomadic life. In this story we see the type of work that the female members of the family typically took care of, cooking and milking (unsurprisingly). We also see the practice of marriages being arranged by the patriarchs of the respective families. These are just two examples of hundreds that can be revealed within this literary genre, the scope of which unfortunately is too great for me to cover in the context of this assignment.
Returning to the photograph, the absence of snow and the presence of little white and yellow wildflowers indicate to me that this is a mild climate, and potentially this nomadic family is setting up shop in their summer pasture, just like the family in the clip from “Summer Pasture”. Nomads typically move up and down in altitude because of the extreme weather found in areas of higher elevation. Summer pastures tend to be higher in elevation (“Contemporary Issues”).
This tent is located here: in rtse khog country (Chinese: Zekong) in Qinghai (“Zekog County”). The approximate elevation of this area 12,139 feet. This is consistent with typical Tibetan pastoral lands, which tend to be in the 12-16,000 feet range (“Contemporary Issues”). Tibetan nomads move in one of two patterns, either transhumance or normadic pastoralism. The former move twice a year between a higher-elevation summer pasture and a lower-elevation winter pasture (“Transhumance”). The distances traveled in these types of migrations tend to be somewhat limited in comparison to nomadic pastoralism, around 200 km(“Nomadic Pastoralism”). Pastures used in nomadic pastoralism can vary as opposed to the fixed summer and winter pastures of transhumance.
Now that we have established who, what, and where we are talking about, we can return to this idea of isolation in the photo. I noticed this isolation not only in terms of other people, but in terms of resources as well. One of the first ways in which this isolation struck me is with regard to the wood in the photo. The tent is held in place with several wooden stakes, and yet, there are no trees visible in the photo whatsoever. This wood was probably very difficult to come by. Indeed, nomads frequently have to travel to settled communities in order to obtain the wood (Namkhai 34). Luckily yak dung is an excellent fuel for fires that would be impossible without it.
Additionally, we don’t see any other tents, animals or people in the photo which seemed odd to me. Nomads frequently camp with groups of anywhere between 11-30 other families for protection from thieves or other enemies (Namkhai xiii). The fact that no other animals are visible is also odd. Typically, yaks and dogs are tied up to the tents at night with ropes attached to wooden stakes (“Nomadic Tents”). Since it’s daytime in this photo, I knew that the animals wouldn’t be tied to the tent, but I did assume that they would be visible grazing in the nearby pastures. Perhaps this nomadic family has so much land to graze on that the animals have the freedom to travel a great distance from the tent. There appears to be a fence in the distance, although it’s hard to make out. According to Namkhai there is typically no set limitation on the land on which animals are allowed to graze (42). Namkhai wrote Journey Among The Tibetan Nomads in 1983 however, and since then much has changed. An example would be the Chinese “Go West” campaign in 1999 which was ostensibly created for environmental protection purposes but which also gave the Chinese a measure of control over this elusive population (“Contemporary Issues”). This policy resulted in the division of grasslands and pastures into zones with grazing restrictions and it might explain the fence in the picture. Potentially the herds belonging to this family have been restricted to grazing in another zone.
It’s still not entirely clear to me why this photograph is so empty. One obvious possibility is that it this was an artistic choice that was made by the photographer (whose name I was unfortunately unable to uncover in my research). Perhaps this photographer made this choice in order to give the eye of the beholder a strong focal point to focus on, the beautiful black tent on an idyllic landscape. Another possibility is that the photographer intended to make a subtle but powerful statement about the nature of nomadic life today. This can be interpreted in two different ways. On the one hand, the photographer might have wanted to communicate the extent of the isolation of Tibetan nomads from the developed world, in which case he or she would have been focusing on the isolation of this family from outsiders. Another possibility however is that the photographer meant to convey the gradual thinning of nomadic populations who are being forced by the Chinese government to resettle and to change their lifestyles to assimilate more with the PRC’s market economy goals (“Contemporary Issues”). Perhaps this photograph was intended to highlight the slow undoing of this rich Tibetan culture.
In any case, this photograph is indeed worth a thousand words (actually 1838 according to my analysis) and our interpretation is our choice to the degree that our own personal biases will allow. Meaning is always found in the eye of the beholder.
Benson, Sandra. Tales of the Golden Corpse: Tibetan Folk Tales. Northampton: Interlink Books, 2007. Print.
Hartley, Lauran R, and Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani. Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change. Durham: Duke UP, 2008. Print.
“Independent Lens | Summer Pasture | Clip 3 | PBS.” YouTube. True Walker Productions, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
Kyi, Yangtso. “Journal of the Grassland.” Mãnoa. Ed. Herbert J. “Song of the Snow Lion Batt. N.p., 2000). Print.
Namkhai, Norbu. Journey Among the Tibetan Nomads: An Account of a Remote Civilization. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1997. Print.
“Nomadic Pastoralism.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 27 Nov. 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.
“Nomadic Tents.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 22 Oct. 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.
“Tibetan Nomads.” The Land of Snows. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
“Transhumance.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 11 Nov. 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.
Tuttle, Gray. “Contemporary Issues: Settlement, Education, Uprisings, and Immolations.” Introduction to East Asian Civilizations: Tibet. Columbia University. New York. 10 Sept. 2015. Lecture.
“Zêkog County.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 29 Nov. 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.