The Political Potency of Tibetan Identity in Pop Music and Dunglen

Anna Morcom

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Since their beginnings in the 1980s, Tibetan pop music and dunglen (lute songs of northeastern Tibet) have shown strong expressions of Tibetan identity. They also represent a flourishing area of Tibetan language cultural production. This is significant after the repetitive propaganda songs of the Cultural Revolution and given the pressures and restrictions in Tibet on language and religion in particular. However, in this article, I critique straightforward interpretations of the Tibetanness of Tibetan popular music as representing a zone of assertion or resistance, arguing instead that the political potency of Tibetan pop music and dunglen is far more double-edged, coopted and complex. Drawing on ethnography, I describe how state institutions and largely Tibetan cultural workers have in fact played the leading role in its genesis and production and are still a powerful force in its production and dissemination. Moreover, while it is often said that the state is against Tibetan identity and culture, in fact, the attitude is far more ambivalent and contradictory, with China a unitary multi-ethnic state where 55 minority nationalities with distinct culture and identity are recognized, including Tibetans. I argue through the analysis of song lyrics that expressions of Tibetan identity per se are not censored; rather, it is when these expressions are linked to particular political demands. As I explore, a number of reasons can be identified as to why the state does not censor Tibetan pop music and dunglen more harshly, and furthermore, there are reasons why Tibetan language assertion has had so much more success in the realm of pop music than it has had in schools.
Original languageEnglish
Article number16
Pages (from-to)127-144
Number of pages18
JournalHimalaya, Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 21 Jun 2018

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