Happy Year of the Horse, from a Tibetan

On Friday, January 31, 2014, in Recent, by Bhuchung K. Tsering

Machu horse festival

Armed forces at the Machu horse festival.

Happy New Year (Tashi Delek or as is said in Chinese, Xin Nian Kuai Le) to the Chinese people on their New Year, which is being celebrated on January 31, 2014. I hope the Year of the Horse will be good to the Chinese people as well as to all others who are celebrating it.

In the days prior to the New Year, there have been media reports about the mass annual migration of people in China, those going back to their homeland to celebrate the festival with their family. There are many other people (hint! hint!) who want to return to their homeland, but cannot.

I understand that in China this year the celebrations might be a little subdued as there is emphasis from the highest level not to be extravagant. This is good as it gives the people some opportunity for introspection.

One of the many Chinese Government websites on Tibet reports on the atmosphere in Lhasa at this time and quotes a Tibetan from Shigatse as saying “that the Chinese New Year falls on the Tibetan New Year of Shigatze [sic]this year.” Something is certainly lost in translation here; I do not believe Shigatse itself has its own New Year. Rather, January 31, 2014 coincides with the first of the 12th Tibetan month, which is also celebrated by sections of the Tibetan community as Farmer’s New Year. While on it, Tibetans in Kongpo celebrate their New Year on the first of the 10th Tibetan month.

The actual Tibetan new year, Losar, comes almost a month later this year, and is being celebrated on March 2, 2014. It is also the Year of the Horse (Male Wood-Horse Year, to be specific) to the Tibetans.

In any case, I understand that the horse symbolizes restlessness in the Chinese zodiac system. Going by the situation in China and Tibet I can find more meanings into the symbolism even before the Year of Horse has begun.

Horses play some role in Tibetan culture, too. You would be familiar with Lungta, Windhorse, a spiritual symbol that Tibetan religious practitioners have used to bring forth auspiciousness and good luck.

The history of horses in Tibet seem to go way back. An article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America talks about “a well-preserved skeleton of a 4.6 million-year-old three-toed horse (Hipparion zandaense) from the Zanda Basin, southwestern Tibet.” This article even had a lofty title, “Locomotive implication of a Pliocene three-toed horse skeleton from Tibet and its paleo-altimetry significance.” Zanda seems to be the Chinese name for the Tibetan region of Tholing.

The horse is also identified with a certain region of Tibet, in terms of popular culture. A description for the three traditional Tibetan provinces identifies Dhomey (Amdo) as being province of the horse (Kham is said to be province of people, while U-Tsang is said to be province of the doctrine).

You would have heard of Tibetan breeds like “Nangchen horse’ and “Riwoche horse” that a Western explorer, Michel Peissel, was credited with being the first to draw the attention of the international community to them. As Peissel told the New York Times, the Riwoche horses “looked completely archaic, like the horses in prehistoric cave paintings.” Nangchen and Riwoche are places in eastern Tibet where the horses continue to be prized.

You would also have heard about the annual horse festivals that are popular in eastern Tibet, including in Lithang and Yushu. I guess it is a product of the agro-nomadic background of the Tibetan society. If you have the time, you should go and experience the atmosphere at such festivals to get a taste of why Tibetans cherish such events. In the process you might get to know the Tibetan people a little better.

But to be frank, except for those Tibetans who reside close to the physical Chinese border and have cultivated the custom of celebrating the Chinese New Year as their New Year, most of the other Tibetans have only come to know of this in the post-1959 period.

Celebrating the “New Spring Festival” and everything that is identified with it is a new identity that Tibetans in Tibet acquired. So the Chinese people should not be too surprised if Tibetans, whether in Tibet or outside, do not show too much enthusiasm in welcoming the Year of the Horse with Chinese characteristics.

Tagged with:

1 Response » to “Happy Year of the Horse, from a Tibetan”

  1. It is good that Tibetans try reaching out to Chinese people, and Tibetans certainly ought to be able to live in the way they want to, with their language and customs respected and promoted.

    Unfortunately for the Chinese state, at the heart of contemporary Tibetan culture is the existential demand for independence (and let’s be honest: “true autonomy” is but a call for independence in fact if not in name). Such independence would only encourage other regions, most notably Xinjiang, to demand similar concessions of Beijing, which isn’t too worried even about mainstream Han Chinese sentiment in most things.

    What’s the solution?

    Seems to me that one could for China to eventually democratize and then for the Chinese people to eventually understand and accept Tibetan grievances and claims, or wait for a grandly grave strategic miscalculation by China that results in war with the American security apparatus in Asia to provide the opportunity for armed resistance. Both these possibilities will take time.

    In the meantime, it is good that Tibetans try reaching out to Chinese people.

Leave a Reply