Jane Macartney in Yushu
Tsedang is reluctant to don his traditional Tibetan fur-trimmed robe at the Yushu annual horse-racing festival. It is not what the Dalai Lama would want.
But the 20-year-old student has no choice. The command has come down from the Government of the remote Chinese county that he must defy his spiritual leader.
Tsedang has been practising traditional dances for two months to perform at the biggest such festival to be held in Yushu county. His brown robe, or chuba, is trimmed with blue-and-gold brocade. It is also edged with otter skin, a detail over which he has agonised and that has divided the crowd of 20,000.
“I don’t want to wear this skin but we have to,” he told The Times. “It’s an order from the Government. I hate wearing this. It’s a terrible thing. The Dalai Lama said we must not wear skins.” He dropped his voice to a whisper: “The Dalai is our king, you know.”
Thousands of Tibetans have travelled for days and hundreds of miles to pitch their tents on the slopes surrounding the festival grounds in a remote corner of western Amdo [Ch: Qinghai] province, which ethnically is majority Tibetan. Strings of pink, blue, green and yellow prayer flags flutter in the breeze as spectators stand in banks five or six deep for a glimpse of the dances. They unfurl umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun blazing through the thin air in this corner of the Roof of the World, about 3,800 metres (12,500ft) above sea level.
The only cloud over the picnickers,riders, dancers and visitors dressed in their finest is the order to wear furs. Entertainers who ignore it face being fined their appearance money of 3,000 yuan (£200), a huge sum for a Tibetan farmer.
The question of whether to wear traditional fur was sparked by the Dalai Lama last year. He told Tibetans who gathered for a Buddhist festival that he was ashamed of photographs showing his people dressed in robes decorated with tiger skins and other animal pelts. Within days people across the Himalayan region began to set alight mounds of fur-trimmed chubas.
Chinese officials were furious. The display of obedience by ordinary Tibetans to the Buddhist monk, exiled in India since fleeing amid an abortive anti-Chinese uprising in 1959, shocked the authorities, denting their increasing confidence about having established control over the restive region.
The Communist rulers are swift to respond to displays of loyalty to the Nobel peace laureate. His picture is banned. Officials accuse him of seeking independence for his homeland under the pretence of autonomy.
China’s response to his order was not without irony. Officials had been pursuing a policy of trying to discourage Tibetans from wearing their traditional dress as a way of stemming the trade in skins. But the priority for authorities in Yushu county was to counter the Dalai Lama. So they told locals that they must wear skins.
This has led to difficulties for some ethnic Tibetans. At the edge of the parade ground a friend helped Zhouma to put on her many layers of heavy ceremonial robes, including a chuba decorated with otter skin. “We have to wear this because we are dancing. But people who aren’t performing don’t do so.” By way of explanation, and in an oblique reference to the Dalai Lama, she added: “He said we shouldn’t.” Any government official or state employee who does not don his fur at the five-day festival would be sacked, Tibetan sources said.
Dancers and performers taking part in the opening ceremonies faced stiff fines if they appeared without a skin trim. Mostly students and nomads, they have been paid 50 yuan a day to take part in training and will lose it if they leave their furs at home.
Not everyone at yesterday’s festival agreed with the Dalai Lama. One well-dressed merchant in a gold brocade chuba heavily decorated with otter fur voiced pride in his dress: “I wear this for important ceremonies. It’s unreasonable to burn something like this or to listen to someone who says you shouldn’t wear fur.”
A crimson-robed monk looked nervously around him when asked his view of the order to wear furs. “I think it’s bad, but we have been told not to discuss this. Personally, I think it’s important to protect the environment and animals. Plus the Dalai Lama said we should.”
But Qiuren, who is 19 and has just completed a stint in the army, strode proudly in a magnificent tiger hide. His younger brother was dressed in a leopard skin. Both young men wore their long hair braided with coral and bone and twisted around their heads.
Qiuren said that his robe weighed 20kg (40lb), cost his family 80,000 yuan and came from India. Like many Tibetans, he was reticent about the new rules. “It’s hard to say why so few people are wearing skins this year. One reason is because of the environment. There are other reasons but it’s hard to say what they are.”
China is so sensitive to any sign of the Dalai Lama’s continued influence that it has ordered conservation offices to block public mention of the drive to persuade Tibetans to stop wearing skins. A rock group in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, was called in by officials because one of its hits was a song critical of the slaughter of wild animals. After the musicians had reassured the officials that the tune predated the Dalai Lama’s call, they were released. Their song was banned.
Price of tradition
— Tiger, leopard, lynx, otter and fox fur may all be used in making a chuba. Fur is used for decoration and insulation
— A single garment may call for the pelts of 20 foxes to line the main body and three otters for decorative trim
— With a single fox pelt costing 500 yuan and otter skins 6,000 yuan each, a basic chuba, without prized tiger or leopard fur, can cost 28,000 yuan (almost £2,000). The average income of Tibetan farmers last year was less than a tenth of that
— The world population of tigers, used to make the most prestigious chubas, has fallen by as much as 95 per cent since 1900, from 100,000 to 5,000-7,000.
Sources: WWF; China Tibet Information Centre; Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama