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Long Narrative Songs from the Mongghul of Northeast Tibet

Gerald Roche
Li Dechun


Mark Turin

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1The World Oral Literature Series was established to serve two primary goals. First, by publishing original research through a range of innovative digital platforms, the series is changing the shape, format and reach of academic publishing in the fast-growing disciplines of anthropology and linguistics, and connecting this important scholarship with a distributed global readership. Launched in 2012 with a new edition of Ruth Finnegan’s remarkable Oral Literature in Africa,1 and celebrating its eighth volume with this publication, the breadth and quality of the scholarship in this series has made the study of oral literature more accessible. Second, a welcome consequence of the approach to knowledge distribution taken by the World Oral Literature Series and our partners at Open Book is the amplification of collaborative publishing partnerships between Indigenous intellectuals and outside scholars that more traditional academic imprints have been less able to support. The cooperation between Dr. Li Dechun — a Mongghul surgeon and established scholar — and anthropologist Gerald Roche is a case in point; and these trilingual texts in Mongghul, Chinese, and English, in the form of Long Narrative Songs from the Mongghul of Northeast Tibet, offer a rich lesson in the lasting value of respectful collaboration.

2Through Limusishiden and Roche’s partnership, the reader is treated to a selection of songs collected on the northeast Tibetan Plateau of western China, among the Mongghul of the Seven Valleys. Each one of the seven long songs is a cultural accomplishment of the highest order in the Mongghul oral tradition, full of insights into the aspirations of a community and the challenges that its members face. Alongside tales of love, valor and kin relations, the songs also bear witness to the impressive plurilingual repertoire of Mongghul singers, Marshaling Tibetan, Mongghul and Chinese in one breath with agility and dexterity.

Mongghul khan’s descendants,
Singing special Mongghul songs,
This is our Mongghul custom,
We joyfully make our lives,
Mongghul lives will be prosperous,
We keep our Mongghul customs,
And keep speaking our Mongghul language.

3In his introduction, Roche situates these Mongghul texts in their traditional social context, and provides helpful insights into the practices of multilingualism that have reinforced linguistic diversity in Tibet. The Tibetan Plateau has long been a site of great linguistic variation and intense language contact, and Roche is careful to introduce the reader to key concepts such as translanguaging, superdiversity, and a more nuanced reading of plurilingualism (in marriage, monasteries, and music) to help us to better make sense of contemporary language use in Tibet. Roche argues that it is through oral literature, and particularly through song, that language contact takes place, and that ‘languages were interwoven in the praxis of individuals’ in ways that helped constitute the emergence of the Amdo linguistic area.

4Theory and ethnography are not always happy bedfellows. Struggles between emic and etic perspectives, particularly in collaborative undertakings such as this publication, can destabilize and even derail a carefully constructed cooperation. Roche addresses this tension head on, noting that

the translator of the materials collected in this volume, Limusishiden, clearly views Mongghul as an independent language, and the endeavor to work towards its differentiation and elaboration is clearly an important motive for him; to speak of Mongghul as something other than a differentiated language would be to undermine the translator’s intentions in making these materials available.

5While not entirely defusing these representational and political challenges, Roche mitigates them by proposing an approach to plurilingualism and translanguaging that positions the linguistic area of northeast Tibet as ‘super-diverse’: not only were many languages spoken, but the region was home to a variety of social groups each of whom had different plurilingual repertoires and distinct translanguaging praxis.

6Given Tibet’s rich linguistic tapestry and cultural complexity, it is particularly fitting that Long Narrative Songs from the Mongghul of Northeast Tibet offers the reader three distinct points of linguistic entry: through Mongghul, Chinese and English. These three discrete pathways to knowledge help to generate the very access and connection to which our colleagues at Open Book Publishers are so committed: facilitating, for example, an American reader to order a hardback print copy to read on a train, a Chinese student to engage with the text through the web, or a Mongghul scholar to download the entire volume as a PDF. In short, the linguistic plurality of these beautiful narrative songs is matched by a diversity of access points and platforms by which the reader can discover the content. This synergy is what makes this wonderful volume an open book.

Heaven’s gate was closed,
This year’s smoke from burning juniper twigs was rising into the sky,
The smoke burst Heaven’s gates open,
And the gatekeeper found that the gate was opened.

7Traditional, ancestral and unceded Musqueam Territory, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

8August 2017.


1 Freely available at


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