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Long Narrative Songs from the Mongghul of Northeast Tibet

Gerald Roche
Li Dechun


Translanguaging in Song: Orature and Plurilingualism in Northeast Tibet

Gerald Roche

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  • 1 Thiong’o (2007:4) defines orature as ‘the use of utterance as an aesthetic means of expression’, a (...)

1The present work contains a selection of songs collected amongst the Mongghul of the Seven Valleys, on the northeast Tibetan Plateau, in western China. In this introduction, I examine how this collection of texts, and an understanding of their traditional social context, provides insights into the practices of multilingualism that supported linguistic diversity in Tibet (Roche 2014, 2017; Roche and Suzuki 2017). In particular, I feel that these songs may provide fresh insight into the ways in which orature,1 specifically music, provided a forum for language contact, and may have contributed to the formation of a local linguistic area.

The Seven Valleys: 1. Saishigu valley; 2. Shde Qurizang valley; 3. Naringhuali valley; 4. Tangraa and Shgeayili valleys; 5. Darimaa valley; 6. Wuxi valley; 7. Shdazi valley. Letters show modern towns, all in Huzhu County, except A, in Datong County, and J, in Ledu County: A. Dongxia Township; B. Nanmengxia Town; C. Weiyuan Town, the capital of Huzhu County; D. Donghsan Township; E. Donggou Township; F. Danma Town; G. Dgon lung Monastery; H. Wuxi Town; I. Hongyazigou Township; J. Dala Township. The thick black line separates the two regions of the Duluun Lunkuang: Fulaan Nara (right) and Haliqi (left). Altitude ranges from 2200m (darkest) to 4200m, with each shade representing a change of 200m in altitude. The southern border of the shaded area is the Huang River. Map by Gerald Roche, CC BY 4.0.

  • 2 A more accurate sequence would be Turkic, Tibetic, Mongolic (Shirongolic), Turkic, Sinitic, Mongol (...)

2The existence of a linguistic area on the northeast Tibetan Plateau is well documented (Tas 1966; Nugteren and Roos 1996; Nugteren and Roos 1998; Dede 2003; Slater 2003; Faehndrich 2007; Janhunen et al. 2007; Sandman 2012; Dwyer 2013; Simon 2015; Sandman and Simon 2016). Within this area, languages of numerous, divergent genetic stock, including Tibetic, Mongolic, Turkic, and Sinitic, have been in intense contact over a relatively long period of time. This contact has resulted in the exchange of linguistic features — lexical, syntactic, and phonetic — as well as other forms of contact-induced change. The Tibetic Amdo language functioned as a ‘model’ language in this context, meaning that it had greater and more unidirectional influence on the region’s other languages (Sandman and Simon 2016). This suggests that a constellation of languages (Calveat 2006) existed within the region, with Amdo serving as a central language, and other languages occupying more peripheral positions in the language ecology, meaning that their interactions with each other were likely to be less intense than their interactions with Amdo (though interactions amongst these languages did occur, see, for example, Sandman 2012). Research by Janhunen (2005) and Dede (2003) has also given a temporal dimension to our understanding of the Amdo linguistic area, suggesting that Turkic forms the oldest language stratum, followed by Tibetic, Mongolic, and Sinitic.2

3This view of Amdo as a linguistic area, currently the predominant stance amongst Anglophone scholars, relies on a model that treats languages as discrete entities which, whilst capable of exchange and interaction, are nonetheless clearly differentiated linguistically, spatially, and demographically. In this perspective, individual bilingualism or multilingualism exists as command of basically equivalent communicative codes, typically considered to be both written and spoken. Individuals are considered to have a componential linguistic repertoire consisting of multiple languages, each of which is clearly separable from the others and can essentially be used interchangeably to the same ends, depending on context. We might think of, for example, a bilingual resident of Delhi who speaks, reads, and writes Hindi in Delhi, but uses English when doing business in Utah, or an Italian of Arabic descent who speaks Arabic at home and Italian at work, and watches Arabic TV at home with her family whilst watching Italian movies in the cinema with her friends. In this framework, societal bilingualism and multilingualism are thought to equate to the maintenance of multiple, distinct languages in a sociopolitical space. In this case, we might think about Switzerland as a multilingual country where French, Italian, German, and Romanch are spoken, or marvel at the 251 languages spoken in Melbourne. Diversity, in this perspective, is considered as the sum total of languages in a place. These views of individual and social multilingualism are then extended into the past, providing a model of linguistic history as essentially the interaction between languages over time, typically in terms of distinct populations that are considered either monolingual or dominant in a particular language. We might, for example, consider the history of the English language according to the various influences of Celtic-, Latin-, and French-speaking populations, or the history of minority and regional languages in France as being gradually replaced by French.

4Sociolinguists are increasingly critical of such perspectives on language, multilingualism, and (to a lesser extent) historical linguistics. Over the past thirty years, they have assembled a toolkit of alternative concepts for thinking about languages, individual and social multilingualism, and linguistic history. Makoni and Pennycook (2007), for example, advocate an approach of ‘disinventing languages’, encouraging us to see languages as non-natural, institutional constructs that have been created to meet specific ideological goals in particular regimes of power. What constitutes a language is therefore context-bound and subject to change — a ‘convenient fiction’ in Haugen’s words (1972). Authors such as Garcia and Kleyn (2016) have extended such perspectives into the study of individual multilingualism, advocating a focus on ‘translanguaging’ — the process by which individuals assemble unique repertoires of linguistic resources, which form a non-componential whole. This perspective encourages us to transcend ‘the two named languages of bilinguals… and to think of bilinguals/multilinguals as individuals with a single linguistic system… that society… calls two or more named languages’ (Garcia and Kleyn 2016:10). In amplifying this perspective on language to the macrosocial level, sociolinguists such as Arnaut, Blommaert, Rampton, and Spotti (2011) have begun characterizing social contexts as linguistically ‘superdiverse’ — characterized by an unprecedented ‘level and kind of complexity’ (Vertovec 2007:1024), which cannot be described simply in terms of the number of languages, but must be examined in terms of the numerous ways of ‘languaging’ employed by people in a given context. Meanwhile, Canagarajah and Liyanage (2012) have projected these critical, post-structural sociolinguistic perspectives into the past, to explore ‘pre-colonial multilingualism’. They see ‘pre-colonial’ contexts as being not only more diverse, but diverse in fundamentally different ways. They contrast this view with traditional multilingualism by referring to ‘pre-colonial’ situations as ‘plurilingual’, a term which ‘allows for the interaction and mutual influence of… languages in a more dynamic way’ than multilingualism, which ‘keeps languages distinct’ (Canagarajah and Liyange (2012:50). Critical, post-structural sociolinguistics therefore offers insights into our view of languages as entities, of individual and social multilingualism, as well as the nature of linguistic history, all of which are united by a common focus on the praxis of individuals rather than demographic patterns formed by social collectives.

  • 3 This narrative, based on interviews with residents of the Seven Valleys, follows the fortune of a (...)

5I will use the concepts of translanguaging, superdiversity, and plurilingualism to provide a new perspective on language use in Tibet, which might help us to understand the practices that not only maintained the diversity of the region, but also gave rise to the structuring of this diversity into linguistic areas. I argue that the Amdo linguistic area emerged not as a result of long-standing interactions between basically monolingual populations but through the ways that languages were interwoven in the praxis of individuals. This collection of Mongghul orature provides a unique opportunity to undertake such a task, because, as I argue below, orature, particularly song, was one of the key venues through which language contact took place. Temporally, my discussion of these issues focuses on the recent ‘pre-colonial’ past, prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. My sources for this discussion include ethnographic accounts from the early twenty-first century (Schram 2006 [1954, 1957, 1961]), contemporary ethnographic accounts (Limusishiden 2008, 2015), and a piece of creative non-fiction, Passions and Colored Sleeves: Mongghul Lives in Northeastern Tibet (Limusishiden and Jugui 2012).3 Finally, videos of Mongghul orature performances, filmed primarily in the early twenty-first century and available online, were also consulted (see Appendix 1).

6My exploration of Mongghul languaging practices and orature through the concepts of translanguaging, superdiversity, and plurilingualism comes with one caveat. Namely, I employ these terms whilst avoiding the incitement to ‘disinvent’ languages as distinct, differentiated objects, and will thus seek a rapprochement across the theoretical divide between multilingualism and its post-structuralist critics, for two reasons. First, in examining the texts presented in the volume, we find ample evidence that languages were considered, or at least spoken about, as if they were discrete, independent, and stable. The fluid, mutable, fuzzy logic of post-structuralism might, in some ways, more accurately describe linguistic realities; however, in this case, it also does ontological violence to the worldview expressed by these texts, which not only posits discrete languages, but also assigns social significance to these differentiated codes. A second reason, which I return to in the Conclusion, is 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.

  • 4 The term ‘oracy’ refers to competence in oral media, in the same way that literacy refers to compe (...)

7Recent work by Singer and Harris (2016) has employed a similar approach, seeking to acknowledge Indigenous views of languages as discrete and differentiated, while also examining individual and social multilingualism beyond traditional sociolinguistic frameworks. Specifically, they engage with literature on ‘small-scale’, ‘traditional’, or ‘egalitarian’ multilingualism — the maintenance of multiple languages in social contexts where functional specificity of different codes is not maintained (as in classical models of diglossic multilingualism). They describe such contexts as being defined by the following features: 1) multiple languages with small numbers of speakers; 1) universal or widespread individual multilingualism; 3) obligatory or preferential linguistic exogamy; and 4) multilingualism within households. This suite of features, they argue, make classical notions of the maintenance of multilingualism through diglossia and ‘domain specificity’ inapplicable. And whilst the case of the Mongghul, and the context of the Amdo linguistic area more broadly, do not fit Singer and Harris’s criteria for ‘small-scale’ multilingualism, nonetheless their work is relevant in that it highlights the extent to which classical models of multilingualism, derived primarily from European nation-state contexts, need to be iterated to fit other social, political, and historical contexts. With this in mind, I turn to the question of how the Mongghul practiced plurilingualism, and the unique role that orature and oracy4 played therein.

8Classically conceived social multilingualism, where individuals have full communicative command of multiple codes, did exist in some Mongghul communities. For example, the Mongghul singer Lamuzhaxi states (Limusishiden 2015:84-85) that:

Mongghul, Tibetan, and Chinese people live mixed together in my village… In my childhood, I spoke Mongghul with Mongghul children and Tibetan with Tibetan children when we played together in village lanes or herded on the high slopes. By doing this, I learned Tibetan. I rarely played with Chinese children, so my Chinese language, including my reading and writing, was mostly learned in school…

9Far more common, however, was plurilingualism that was largely restricted to three contexts — marriage, monasteries, and music — only one of which (marriage) involved what we might consider ‘communicative command’ of a language, and even then, only the spoken form. Examining these three contexts will show how language contact in the Seven Valleys, and the formation of a larger linguistic area in northeast Tibet, was primarily constituted through gendered translanguaging practices and the construction of individual plurilingual repertoires.

10Marriage amongst the Mongghul, as with most groups in northeast Tibet, appears to have been preferentially endogenous. Marriage between linguistic groups did occur, but was generally considered hypogamous — a form of downward social mobility — and was therefore uncommon, while strong proscriptions existed regarding marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims. Women who married into a household that spoke another language typically shifted to the household language, and although they might have spoken their natal language to their children, offspring typically obtained only passive fluency, and so such women’s opportunities to use their natal tongue in conversation were limited after marriage. Women who married outside their language group can be said to have experienced ‘life-cycle bilingualism’, speaking one language in their childhood, and another in their adulthood. For these individuals, opportunities to speak their natal tongue were limited to occasional, typically annual, visits to their parents’home, their birthplace. Participation in this life-cycle bilingualism was gendered, since although men did marry out, they did so far less frequently than women: linguistically exogenous marriage of men was perhaps the least desired form of marriage for most groups in northeast Tibet.

11Limusishiden and Jugui’s Passions and Colored Sleeves provides some insights into women’s inter-language marriages in the early twentieth century. They relate the story of Zhualimaxji, a Mongghul woman who, after disputes with her husband’s family, returns to her natal home, only to encounter further conflicts, this time with her brother’s wife. She therefore goes into self-imposed exile, wandering to distant villages, begging, looking for somewhere to make a new life. She eventually comes to a village where Chinese is spoken, a language she cannot speak or understand. She meets a villager as he is cooking dinner at a mill which he operates, and tries to beg some food from him, speaking Mongghul, but he cannot understand her. The two nonetheless manage to communicate via gestures, and Zhualimaxji then stays with the man for several days, before wandering off to beg again. Zhualimaxji then learns some Chinese during her travels, and when she later returns to the miller’s home she is able to communicate with him. She moves in and they ‘become a family’. At the book’s conclusion, the authors of the novel go to visit the real-life Zhualimaxji, and find that although she has lived in a Chinese-speaking village for most of her life (they meet her at the age of 87), she is still able to communicate in Mongghul. When asked how it is that she could still speak her natal tongue, she replies, ‘How could I forget? I would not forget it if I lived another sixty years’ (Limusishiden and Jugui 2012:269). Nonetheless, it is made clear that her children speak Chinese. Although Zhualimaxji’s experience of flight and exile are by no means typical, they do capture the nature of the life cycle bilingualism that some Mongghul women experienced, switching language, more or less permanently, when they married into their husband’s home.

  • 5 To the best of my knowledge, there were no nunneries in the Seven Valleys, though there are likely (...)

12Beyond marriage, a second significant venue of plurilingualism was the monastery. This context primarily involved males and, for the most part, did not involve alternating languages according to different stages in the life cycle.5 Mongghul participation in formal institutions of Tibetan Buddhism was significant. Rgulang Monastery was a large and politically significant institution at the heart of the Seven Valleys and, at its peak, probably housed around 2,000 monks, mostly from the Seven Valleys (Sullivan 2013, 2015).

Rgulang Monastery (2010). Photo by Brenton Sullivan, CC BY 4.0.

13Several other monasteries were scattered throughout the Seven Valleys, and Mongghul monks also travelled to live in other monasteries, for example in Hgunbin Monastery near Xining, and Yonghe Monastery in Beijing. Every Mongghul household strove to have at least one monk amongst its members, if possible. Therefore, although no statistics exist, it seems fair to say that a large proportion of the male Mongghul population was involved in monasticism; Samuel’s (1993:582) estimate that the population of monks in Tibet ‘would seem to have been in the region of 10 percent to 12 percent’ is perhaps the closest we can get to an estimate of the monastic population of the Seven Valleys.

14We know very little about the languaging practices within Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. In monasteries like Hgunbin, where monks spoke numerous languages (at least Amdo, Mongghul, Mangghuer, Oirat, and Halh), some form of Tibetan was likely to have been used as a lingua franca. In monasteries like Rgulang, however, where the majority of monks were Mongghul speakers, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that Mongghul was used in monks’everyday life. As Limusishiden and Jugui (2011:60-61) report, ‘Of the several hundred mostly Mongghul monks in the monastery, few could speak Tibetan well. They used Mongghul in their daily lives, and only used Tibetan when chanting scriptures.’

15Regardless of which language was used for daily communication, monks in all monasteries spent large amounts of time reading and reciting scriptures in written Tibetan. Memorization of a text, and its correct enunciation through chanting, were the focus of such exercises, rather than comprehension. This is because rather than being primarily considered vessels for meaning, scriptures were predominantly props for the transformation of reality via sonic means (Ekvall 1964, Thurston 2012). Accurate and melodious recitation of a text was considered efficacious, having the capacity to create prosperity, remove obstacles to fortune, and even improve one’s karmic storage, future births, and progression towards enlightenment. Foley (2002:72), drawing on the work of Klein (1994), describes the role of texts in this situation as ‘vehicles for creating a holistic acoustic experience, not visual keys to revelatory thought’. Mongghul monks in monasteries therefore would have chiefly focused on memorizing and chanting texts in order to maximize their efficacy, which primarily required a fluid, sonorous delivery, rather than intimate understanding of content.

  • 6 Brenton Sullivan (personal communication) notes that within the vicinity of the Seven Valleys, the (...)
  • 7 An interesting parallel to this is the nature of improvisation in the singing of Tibetan songs, pa (...)

16In addition to chanting, monks in certain monasteries, such as Rgulang, also participated in debates in Tibetan.6 As with scriptural recitation, however, participation in debates largely relied on the memorization rather than comprehension or analysis of text (Lempert 2012). A debater’s skill lay primarily in knowing which piece of memorized text to deploy at which moment in the debate, rather than synthesizing a novel answer to an opponent’s questions, based on an analytical understanding of scripture.7

17For most Mongghul monks, at least those who stayed in monasteries in the Seven Valleys, bilingualism appears to have taken the form of translanguaging that involved the memorization of chunks of Tibetan language, encoded in text, and their deployment in specific ritual and performative contexts, rather than command of a spoken language that was used for communication. The written language, moreover, was used primarily as an aid to memory — a prop for recitation — and there was probably little to no expectation that monks would attain any significant competency in producing the written language beyond writing words and copying texts (as opposed to composing original texts). The translanguaging of Mongghul monks was essentially a form of text-mediated oracy which provided them with a plurilingual repertoire that included elements of spoken Mongghul and recited written Tibetan.

18This phenomenon of text-mediated plurilingual oracy extended to the lay population to some extent, with recitation of Tibetan and Sanskrit mantra being one of the most common aspects of Mongghul lay religious practice. The extent to which this saturated daily life in the Seven Valleys can be seen in the following passage from the missionary Louis Schram, whose discussion of the use of the mantra Om mani padme hum was based on observations of Mongghul life in the early twentieth century (Schram 2006:286-87):

Om Mani Padme H’um… is repeated by old and young, both men and women, hundreds of times a day, under all circumstances. The mind of the Monguor appears to be fixed on religion in a most unusual way. Mothers, kissing and cuddling their babies, like to say happily, over and over, ‘Om Mani’, ‘Om Mani’, as if thanking Buddha (Avalokita) for the baby. The sick… find relief in sighing Om Mani the whole day, hoping to be cured. When hailstorms threaten crops, Om Mani will be said hundreds of times by every terrified farm family, in the hope that Buddha will make the wind change the course of the clouds. When someone in the village dies, all the villagers gather at night in the courtyard of the deceased, where they sit for many hours saying the Om Mani for the deceased… A farmer becoming angry at the lazy oxen, while plowing his fields, will beat them and swear furiously with a well-articulated Om Mani; gamblers, on losing the game, their patience wearing thin, will say Om Mani in a blasphemous tone. While weeding fields, if a lascivious song is enjoyed, farmers say Om Mani, meaning the song is well sung. When a smutty joke is told, listeners will say Om Mani, laughing, to indicate it is a good joke. It is said that thieves and robbers say Om Mani as an aid to their practice of larceny. Foreign travelers jest that, if robbers kill their victim, he will have the consolation, when dying, of hearing the killer saying Om Mani. Om Mani can be and is offered under all circumstances: riding horseback, working in the fields or at home, while laughing, gambling, singing, conducting business, and even sleeping.

19Not only was this short Sanskritic formula an integral part of daily life, but much longer texts were recited in Tibetan on a daily basis by Mongghul people, sometimes with the use of manuscripts as aids, but often not. To some extent, there was a life-cycle element to this praxis, with elders spending more time chanting than adults and youths. Lamuzhaxi highlights the extent to which chanting can basically become a fulltime occupation for Mongghul elders (Limusishiden 2015:86):

I get up at seven o’clock in the morning… After washing my face, I sit down on the bed and chant Buddhist scriptures while I drink my morning tea. After I eat bread for my breakfast, I continue chanting Buddhist scriptures while other family members go to work in the fields… After lunch, I chant Buddhist scriptures until I go to bed at about nine o’clock in the evening… From early morning to late night, I can chant Zhualima more than twenty times. In a word, my daily work is to chant Buddhist scripture.

20Every single Mongghul person, therefore, translanguaged at least to this extent, of being able to recite scriptures. This aspect of lay religious translanguaging varied throughout the lifespan, with chanting often taking up more and more time as people grew older.

21By far the most widespread platform for plurilingual practices in Mongghul society, however, was music. Music involved both lay and monastic populations, and although it was to some extent gendered, with differential participation in genres and contexts, music, with lyrics in Mongghul, Tibetan, and Chinese (or, as reported by Qi and Levy 2015, in both Chinese and Mongghul), was performed by both men and women of all ages. Music saturated daily life, accompanying agricultural work and domestic tasks. It also permeated longer time-cycles, including the annual cycle and its ritual punctuation, and the sequence of life-cycle rituals, including weddings and funerals. The ubiquity of song, and near universal participation of lay people in it, meant that most Mongghul people, to the extent that they encountered other languages, did so through the medium of song and the translanguaging practices associated with it. This was not only the case of the Mongghul, but also for speakers of numerous other languages throughout Tibet, including Salar, Mangghuer, Manegacha, Ngandegua, Khroskyabs, Rta’u, Choyu (Queyu), Gochang (Guiqiong), Nyarong Minyag, and Darmdo Minyag. As with the monastic context, translanguaging in song was primarily achieved through memorization, which could occur either with or without the aid of texts. Plurilingual repertoires throughout Tibet therefore consisted primarily of a combination of spoken languages and sung memorized texts, rather than spoken and written communicative command of languages.

22Two case studies from the writing of Limusishiden are instructive regarding not only how songs were learned and performed, but also their relationship to individual and communal identities, as well as broader linguistic repertoires. In a 2015 paper, Limusishiden introduces Lamuzhaxi, ‘the last outstanding Mongghul folk song singer’. Lamuzhaxi, born in 1932, grew up in a community where both Mongghul and Tibetan were spoken, and is thus bilingual in the traditional sense of the term. He was one of the first Mongghul to study written Chinese at school, a skill he later used in learning songs. Although his song repertoire is entirely in Tibetan, he compiled it by listening to singers and transcribing what they sang in Chinese characters. Lamuzhaxi took every opportunity to learn songs from a wide range of teachers, both laymen and religious practitioners. The most important of his teachers was a monk, named Losiza, in Mantuu Monastery, within the Seven Valleys, who taught him the important songs Szii and Rdang from Tibetan texts (which Lamuzhaxi transcribed in Chinese). In assembling his repertoire, Lamuzhaxi strove for scale, both in the number of songs he performed and in their length, as a large repertoire was not only a source of personal pride, but also the foundation of a singer’s public reputation, whilst command of longer songs enabled one to defeat singing opponents more easily. For Lamuzhaxi, the relationship between singing and reputation is paramount, as he states in Limusishiden’s (2015:88) article: ‘One learns folksongs in order to show one’s ability in public gatherings, such as weddings, family affairs, or village or household celebrations.’Lamuzhaxi describes his singing abilities as peaking in his 50s, at which time his reputation ensured that he was frequently invited to sing at various communities’events throughout the Seven Valleys. The capacity to master a large song repertoire, and the translanguaging that undergird it, therefore served as a vehicle for both physical and social mobility in the area. Moreover, the importance of written Tibetan in this repertoire highlights its status as a local prestige language.

  • 8 On these festivals, see Tuohy (1988) and Mu (1994).

23Passions and Colored Sleeves also provides insights into the music-plurilingualism nexus in Mongghul communities. Much of the narrative focuses on the life of a man called Sixty-Nine, who, as a youth, is given the responsibility of representing his family at communal events such as weddings. He therefore needs to learn to sing in order to maintain the family’s reputation and protect its honor, an aspiration that once again lay bare the connection between song, reputation, and social mobility. Sixty-Nine studies under a locally renowned singer, Xoshidosirang, who sends him to learn written Tibetan from a Mongol living in Rgulang Monastery, as all of the most important Mongghul folk songs are in Tibetan. Throughout his life, Sixty-Nine sings at love song festivals in the summer8 and weddings in the winter. He hears funeral laments sung by women following the death of loved ones. On one occasion, he engages in a song competition that lasts several days, and which he manages to win by playing a linguistic wild card, singing in Mongghul in a forum where the more prestigious Tibetan language was expected. In this case, it is Sixty-Nine’s capacity to draw on the full range of his plurilingual repertoire, rather than his command of any particular language, that affords his prestige and social mobility.

24These brief biographies demonstrate how singers in the Seven Valleys drew on both musical and linguistic repertoires as a means to bolster prestige and attain both social and physical mobility. They also show the ways in which deft translanguaging and a broad plurilingual repertoire were socially valued. Taken together with the efficacious, sonorous translanguaging that was fostered in monasteries, but also widely practiced in lay life, as well as the life-cycle plurilingualism of hypogamously married women, translanguaging in song forms the third, and perhaps most significant arena in which Mongghul of the Seven Valleys developed their plurilingual repertoire and practiced translanguaging.

25This focus on plurilingualism and translanguaging enables us to imagine the linguistic area of northeast Tibet as ‘super-diverse’. It was not simply an area of ‘diversity’, where many languages were spoken, and where the population could be demographically sorted into distinct linguistic clusters. It was also ‘super-diverse’, consisting of a variety of social groups with different plurilingual repertoires and distinct translanguaging praxis. The most obvious divide was gendered, with women more likely to experience life-cycle bilingualism and men more likely to engage in sonorous translanguaging. These profiles were also tied to age, with sonorous translanguaging increasing over time. They were also tied to personality, with devoted singers being motivated to accumulate more complex plurilingual repertoires and engage more frequently in translanguaging. In this volume, Limusishiden also shows that plurilingual repertoires in the Seven Valleys were localized, with use of Chinese more common in some areas, Tibetan in others.

26Taking into account this ‘super-diverse’ view of language practices, linguistic history can be viewed as more than simply the interactions between different populations speaking different languages, stemming from their relations through trade, conquest, and other forms of contact. It suggests that we also need to consider the ways in which language contact comes about through the practices of individuals, including, in this instance, the ways that mothers spoke to their children, the way that monks chanted, and the way that singers sang. In attempting to understand how a linguistic area was formed on the northeast Tibetan Plateau, we therefore need both top-down and bottom-up approaches. A top-down approach would look at long-term historical processes of migration, trade, warfare, and rule. It would examine broad-scale patterns of how linguistic diversity was spatially organized. From this perspective, language contact is both demographic and spatial. A bottom-up approach, meanwhile, would, first of all, ground its analysis in local perceptions of what constituted a distinct language, and how these differentiated languages were valued, and therefore likely to be acquired and used. It would look ethnographically at the daily lives of speakers and how daily rhythms were embedded in annual and life-cycle patterns. It would examine how individuals engaged in translanguaging, and assembled plurililingual repertoires that varied with gender, age, location, and other social positions. From this perspective, language contact is intensely intimate. It takes place in the mouths and minds of individuals, and in moments of symbolically loaded exchange, between mothers and children, monks and patrons, and singers and their audiences.

27A focus on translanguaging, plurilingualism, and super-diversity is particularly revealing in considering the ways in which the song texts in this volume have been presented, and what this tells us about the contemporary language regime on the northeast Tibetan Plateau. The songs presented here were originally in Chinese, Tibetan, or Mongghul, or sometimes in both Chinese and Mongghul. As presented here, however, each of the songs is given in three versions: Mongghul, Chinese, and English, with no ‘mixing of languages’. I argue that what we see in Limusishiden’s presentation of these texts are processes of elaboration, purification, and standardization. These processes enable Limusishiden to speak to distinct audiences, namely, a Mongghul audience, a national Chinese audience, and an international audience, and thus work towards respective projects of nativization, nationalization, and globalization, each of which I examine below, before turning to look at the broader political implications of these projects.

  • 9 The Mongghultexts are presented in Mongghul Latin orthography. SeeLimusishiden and Dede (2012), Sh (...)

28The project of nativization, or vernacularization, is aimed at a Mongghul audience, and has several goals. First is the transferal of what is perceived as Mongghul patrimony firmly into the realm of the Mongghul language, via the translation of song lyrics from Tibetan and Chinese into Mongghul. The nativization project therefore seeks to reinforce exclusive relations between ethnic identity and language, based in Romantic ideologies of nationalism, filtered through the lens of the Chinese state’s minzu paradigm. The process of nativization seen in the presentation of these texts also works towards the elaboration of the Mongghul language. The texts provide a forum in which the language not only continues its expansion into the written domain,9 but also expands its lexical breadth in order to articulate concepts previously expressed through borrowing. This is closely linked to purification, which not only refers to lexical purification, but also to the clear separation of linguistic codes in discourse. None of the texts presents any examples of ‘mixed languages’. For example, the original use of both Chinese and Mongghul in the Ballad of Marshal Qi, with alternating lines in the two languages, is purified by translation, with the three texts of the song — Mongghul, Chinese, and English — all containing only a single, differentiated linguistic code. This is achieved in part through standardization, not of the language, but of the presentation of the texts, with every text presented in the same order of Mongghul, Chinese, and English. This standardization also entails a certain amount of erasure, as texts that were originally in Tibetan are now presented only in Mongghul, Chinese, and English.

29Inherent in the project of nativization is a parallel one of nationalization — of placing the Mongghul people, and Mongghul linguistic and cultural patrimony, in the context of the Chinese state. In erasing the presence of the Tibetan language, the translation strategy used here suggests a realignment of the language ecology of northeast Tibet. Amdo is replaced as the central language, its place taken by Modern Standard Chinese. The elaborated Mongghul language and reclaimed Mongghul patrimony are viewed vis-à-vis a state identity that is essentially Han, and a linguistic context that is ‘Chinese’. Although the standardizing of the translations as elaborated, purified texts consisting of simplified characters to some extent represents the subordination of Mongghul within a new language hierarchy, it can also be viewed as a strategic maneuver aimed at presenting the language as functionally equivalent to the nationally dominant script, and Mongghul people therefore as equals of the Han.

30This interpretation is further strengthened if we look at the third translation strategy, that of internationalizing Mongghul identity and patrimony through English. Presenting the texts in this globally dominant medium of communication is, to me, suggestive not only of an attempt to locate Mongghul people, language, and tradition within a universal forum of peoples that transcends state boundaries, but also to gain prestige for Mongghul as rightful members of this international community. So, in this light, I would interpret the translation processes of elaboration, purification, and standardization, and the projects of nativization, nationalization, and internationalization, as being part of a broader endeavor towards ‘language emancipation’ —’ the process through which the dominated language is brought into use in various sectors of public life… while the status of the language is enhanced’(Huss and Lindgren 2011:2).

31The strategies used to present these texts and the broader goals these represent are indicative of the ways in which the language ecology and language culture of northeast Tibet have changed drastically since its origins as a linguistic area. Instead of translanguaging and plurilingual repertoires, we see instead the emergence of multingualism as the establishment of fully elaborated, interchangeable, distinct linguistic codes. This will inevitably change the languages in question, not only disentangling them from their complex mutual engagement, but also reembedding them in a new, centralized national language constellation in which all languages interact primarily with the national standard language — Modern Standard Chinese — and in which horizontal interactions are minimized. It also signals a change in the language praxis of individuals in which the text-mediated translanguaging performed in orature, both chanting and song, are likely to be stigmatized as imperfect command or impure mixing, rather than celebrated as a prestigious achievement leading to mobility. The effects of these changes on languages like Mongghul remain to be seen. Whilst the elaboration of the Mongghul language is probably necessary to its survival in this new linguistic regime, the attitudes of purism that accompany this process will probably be inimical to the practices of translanguaging that once played such an important role in plurilingual practices, and the maintenance of relatively small languages such as Mongghul.

Coda: The Corpus

32The songs transcribed in this book represent the apogee of Mongghul orature. All of the seven songs are long songs, defined in terms of their length rather than their coherence as an emic genre (i.e., in contrast to the Mongolian genre of long song, urtiin duu — see Pegg 2001). Most of the songs are narratives, relating stories of romance, bravery, or family relations. Two of the songs deal with the nature and structure of the world, as well as the origin of certain cultural practices. All of these texts provide, to varying extents, insights into the internal lifeworlds of Mongghul people — their hopes, dreams, and concerns. They also bear testimony to the impressive plurilingual repertoire commanded by some Mongghul singers.

33The first two songs presented here are ballads of martial heroism. The Ballad of Taipinggoor (sung in a mixture of Mongghul and Chinese) relates how a virgin-born hero appears in the Seven Valleys. He travels to Beijing to suppress a rebellion, acquiring both technical and magical assistance along the way. After successfully quelling the rebellion in Beijing, he returns to the Seven Valleys to live with his mother. Meanwhile, The Ballad of Marshal Qi describes the exploits of a Mongghul ‘chieftain’ (tusi) who is summoned by imperial edict to battle ‘rebels’ (actually soldiers of the Later Jin) to break the siege of Luoyang. Marshal Qi travels from the Seven Valleys to Luoyang with his Mongghul army, meeting difficulties along the way, but eventually arrives in Luoyang and retakes the city. He and his soldiers then travel home, once again overcoming challenges to reach their destination.

34The third song in the collection, Laarimbu and Qiimunso (in Mongghul), tells the story of two star-crossed lovers. Laarimbu is a herder from a poor family, whilst Qiimunso cares for the livestock of her wealthy family. They meet while out herding and fall in love, but their plans to unite as a couple are thwarted by Qiimunso’s brother. Finding Qiimunso’s choice of a lover unacceptable, he murders Laarimbu. Qiimunso thereafter commits suicide by throwing herself on Laarimbu’s funeral pyre. Reunited in the afterlife, the two lovers take their revenge on Qiimunso’s brother.

35The next two songs, The Song of the Dildima Bird and The Song of the Calf, each deal with family relations, especially between parents and children, themes that also appear in other songs presented in this book. The Song of the Dildima Bird is a lament, sung by a woman after marrying into her husband’s home. She describes her miserable existence — her decrepit appearance and the poor treatment she is receiving — to a bird, the eponymous dildima, asking the bird to carry her message back to her parents in her natal home. The Song of the Calf, meanwhile, tells the story of a calf and her mother. The two animals live as domestic livestock in a valley, and the calf dreams of escaping to freedom in the mountains. The mother discourages the calf, but she nonetheless escapes to the mountains, where she is surrounded by wolves. The mother appears to rescue the calf, who flees and, returning one week later, finds her mother’s remains. She then meditates on death, impermanence, and filial piety before returning to the valley to continue her life there.

36The final two songs, The Crop-Planting Song and The Song of the Sheep, are as much maps as they are narratives. They provide descriptions of space, place, and culturally important objects and procedures. The Crop-Planting Song describes the origins of agriculture amongst the Mongghul. It begins with humanity living in cold, hungry darkness, and then describes how the Buddha created the sun and moon, bestowed crops upon people, and taught them how to farm. In doing so, it also provides a map of the cosmos — the heavens and celestial bodies, Mount Sumeru, the Earth and its regions, and so on. The Song of the Sheep, meanwhile, is a musical omnibus depicting various aspects of life on the northeast Tibetan Plateau, and in the same way as The Crop-Planting Song it spends considerable time mapping space at various levels: the cosmos and its bodies, the earth and its social and political organization, as well as individual landscapes and their inhabitants.



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Appendix: Mongghul Orature Online

Mongghul Funeral Lamentations:​details/​MongghulFuneralLamentations

Mongghul Weeding and Love Songs:​details/​MongghulWeedingAndLoveSongs

Mongghul Singing and Dancing:​details/​HuzhuMongghultuDancingAndSinging1997

Mongghul Love Song Meeting:​details/​HuzhuMongghultuLoveSongMeeting

Mongghul Drinking Songs:​details/​HuzhuMongghultuDrinkingSongs2002

Mongghul Women Sing Drinking Songs:​details/​FourHuzhuMongghultuWomenSingADrinkingSong

Shgeayili Village Mongghul Wedding:​details/​ShgeayiliMongghultuVillageWeddingIn2004

Huzhu Mongghul Wedding:​details/​HuzhuMongghulWedding

Mongghul Bo Ritual:​details/​MongghulBospiritMediumRitualInHuzhuCountyQinghaiProvince

Mongghul Love Songs:​details/​HuzhuMongghultuMonguorLoveSongs

A Mongghul Love Tragedy, Wedding Lamentation, and Funeral Lamentation:​details/​AMongghulLoveTragedylarinbogAndQiminsuuFuneralLamentationsAnd

Xeojinhua and Jiuyahua Sing Mongghul Drinking Songs:​details/​XeojinhuaAndJiuyahuaSingAMongghultuMonguorDrinkingSongIn2004

Mongghul Weddings in Wushi and Danma:​details/​MongghultuWedding2005InWushiAndDanma

Mongghul Women Sing in Tibetan:​details/​MongghultuMonguorWomenFromHuzhuSing​

Qijia Yanxi:​details/​QijiaYanxiAMongghulNarrativePoemSungInQinghaiChineseDialect


1 Thiong’o (2007:4) defines orature as ‘the use of utterance as an aesthetic means of expression’, and traces the term’s origin to the Ugandan linguist, Pio Zirimu. Finnegan (2010) provides background on the debate surrounding the term ‘orature’ as an alternative to ‘oral literature’.

2 A more accurate sequence would be Turkic, Tibetic, Mongolic (Shirongolic), Turkic, Sinitic, Mongolic (Oirat).

3 This narrative, based on interviews with residents of the Seven Valleys, follows the fortune of a single family over the course of the twentieth century, and contains rich details of daily life in the area, including details of languaging practices, as well as numerous, contextualized examples of orature.

4 The term ‘oracy’ refers to competence in oral media, in the same way that literacy refers to competence in written media (Wilkinson 1970).

5 To the best of my knowledge, there were no nunneries in the Seven Valleys, though there are likely to have been some Mongghul nuns in nunneries elsewhere.

6 Brenton Sullivan (personal communication) notes that within the vicinity of the Seven Valleys, the following monasteries had philosophical colleges, and therefore probably also held debates: Gser khog, Chu bzang, Stong shags bkra shis chos gling, Mchod rten thang, The thung dgon chen, The thung brag, The thung rdo rje ‘brag, The thung dgon chung, Se rtsud chu lung, and Sems nyid.

7 An interesting parallel to this is the nature of improvisation in the singing of Tibetan songs, particularly layi (la gzhas), ‘love songs’. Skal bzang nor bu (2015:4) describes how singers needed to have ‘a rich database of memorized lyrics’ which they would ‘improvise for a given situation by modifying the lyrics, using similar patterns or elements’. As with debate, we see here a form of improvisation by the reorganization of components, rather than through spontaneous creation.

8 On these festivals, see Tuohy (1988) and Mu (1994).

9 The Mongghultexts are presented in Mongghul Latin orthography. SeeLimusishiden and Dede (2012), Shoji (2003), and Hugejiltu (1987) for details on the development, teaching, and use of this writing system. For a selection of materials published in the Mongghul orthography from 2008 to 2011 in the magazine Chileb, see

Table des illustrations

Légende The Seven Valleys: 1. Saishigu valley; 2. Shde Qurizang valley; 3. Naringhuali valley; 4. Tangraa and Shgeayili valleys; 5. Darimaa valley; 6. Wuxi valley; 7. Shdazi valley. Letters show modern towns, all in Huzhu County, except A, in Datong County, and J, in Ledu County: A. Dongxia Township; B. Nanmengxia Town; C. Weiyuan Town, the capital of Huzhu County; D. Donghsan Township; E. Donggou Township; F. Danma Town; G. Dgon lung Monastery; H. Wuxi Town; I. Hongyazigou Township; J. Dala Township. The thick black line separates the two regions of the Duluun Lunkuang: Fulaan Nara (right) and Haliqi (left). Altitude ranges from 2200m (darkest) to 4200m, with each shade representing a change of 200m in altitude. The southern border of the shaded area is the Huang River. Map by Gerald Roche, CC BY 4.0.
Fichier image/jpeg, 212k
Légende Rgulang Monastery (2010). Photo by Brenton Sullivan, CC BY 4.0.
Fichier image/jpeg, 187k


Currently a Discovery Early Career Research Award Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute. He is an anthropologist, and researches linguistic and cultural diversity in Tibet. Gerald’s publications include Introduction: The Transformation of Tibet’s Language Ecology in the Twenty-first Century. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 245 (2017): 1–35. The Mangghuer Nadun: Village Ritual and Frontier History on the Northeast Tibetan Plateau, in The Silk Road: Interwoven History, Vol. 1: Long-distance Trade, Culture, and Society, ed. by M. N. Walter and J. P. Ito-Adler (Cambridge: Cambridge Institutes Press, 2015), pp. 310–47.


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