Interview: Dechen Pemba on Centering Tibetan Voices Through Translation and Film

Dechen Pemba

Starting in March 2008, Tibetans across the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan took to the streets to call for religious freedom and an end to oppressive political and social controls and economic inequalities. The People’s Armed Police cracked down, sometimes violentlyarresting thousands. Chinese authorities expelled foreign journalists from the TAR, locked down monasteries, blocked YouTube and foreign news sites, and closed the border with Nepal, cutting off a primary route for refugees. Many of these restrictions have remained in place for the last 15 years. Since 2009, at least 155 Tibetans have self-immolated in desperate protest. (For more about the 2008 uprising and subsequent crackdown, see reports from Human Rights Watch and the Central Tibet Administration)

When he came to power in 2012, Xi Jinping intensified a policy of Sinicization and assimilation, whereby the languages, religions, and cultures of ethnic minority groups are subsumed into the larger Chinese historical narrative. In Tibet, this is partnered with intense securitization and pervasive surveillance. Family members of those who defy authorities are punished. Any behavior that asserts Tibetan identity is seen as a political act. Local schools have been replaced with colonial boarding schools where at least 80% of Tibetan children are cut off from their families, language, and culture. At the same time, a targeted censorship and propaganda campaign has sought to erase Tibetan identity and advocacy from global consciousness. Freedom House has ranked Tibet the least free region in the world.

In such a repressive environment, how do Tibetans in Tibet hold onto their cultural identity? How does the world find out what is happening there? How do exiles stay connected with their families and homeland? Where can we find hope for the future of Tibet and Tibetans? CDT has launched this interview series as a way to explore these questions and to learn more about current conditions in Tibet, efforts to preserve Tibet’s religious and cultural heritage, and the important work being done every day by activists, writers, researchers, and others to help and support Tibetans inside and outside the region. Read all interviews in the series.

Dechen Pemba is the founder and editor of High Peaks Pure Earth, a website that translates Tibetan social media and blog content into English. Born in the UK, Pemba has worked with the International Campaign for Tibet in Berlin and studied in Beijing for two years. She has a masters degree from SOAS in London, and also writes a personal blog. In an interview conducted by email, Pemba spoke to CDT about her work amplifying Tibetan voices, through both her website and the Tibetan Film Festival, while also offering her recommendations of recent Tibetan films, books, and resources for learning more about the region.

This interview is part of an ongoing, periodic series by CDT which aims to focus the spotlight on the important work being done by activists, writers, researchers, and others working on Tibet. Read our previous interview with Tsering Yangzom Lama, author of We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies.

China Digital Times (CDT): The uprising across Tibetan regions and the subsequent crackdown by the Chinese government in 2008 marked a turning point for the region, and it is much harder now for both people and information to flow across the regional borders. I believe this was the period when you launched High Peaks Pure Earth. Can you discuss the circumstances that led you to create that site, and what the original aim of it was? Who is the primary audience?

Dechen Pemba (DP): The website was launched as a simple blog towards the end of 2008 by myself and my uncle, the Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya. We had made the observation that in 2008 too little attention was being paid to what was happening online and on social media, particularly on blogs. In fact, it was China Digital Times that had shown us in 2008 that a web platform was crucial in disseminating information, especially in translation.

One invaluable resource during 2008 was the blog of Tibetan writer and poet Tsering Woeser. From her apartment in Beijing Woeser blogged almost every day, documenting the uprising. At the same time, because of the language barrier, it was her translations into English published on China Digital Times that brought her work and all the important information to a much wider audience.

It was our aim through High Peaks Pure Earth to provide a platform for her translated blogposts as well as provide an accessible place for English translations of social media posts, essays, songs, poetry, prose and all things originating online from Tibetans. 

The clampdown on the uprising in 2008 meant that there was very little news coming out from on the ground. We continued to monitor the situation and realized that the voices on the ground had not stopped, in fact, there was a significant increase in the use of online spaces and phone technology, such as SMS, to transmit messages and communicate both inside and outside Tibet. 

Through my uncle’s network, and also mine, we were able to monitor blogs and online spaces while also getting high quality English translations done of writings originally in either Tibetan or Chinese. Our original goal remains the same today: to center voices on the ground and amplify them.

Our primary audience was (and remains) anyone who had any language barrier and could not understand the original writing and to anyone interested in contemporary Tibet, whether they were scholars or journalists, students, exile Tibetans, or China watchers.

CDT: Where do you get the original materials that you translate?

DP: All of the materials translated on High Peaks Pure Earth originate online, including content from websites, blogs, or public posts on social media. Towards the beginning of the project, the materials would almost always come from blogs which were publicly available to read. Later on, microblogging platforms such as Weibo and mobile apps such as WeChat became more popular. Every piece we translate is posted with an introduction that provides some general context and includes a link to the original.

CDT: Has this process changed in recent years, with the ongoing crackdown on speech throughout China and especially in Tibet? Is it more difficult to find source material now? And are Tibetans using any new platforms or media to express themselves and evade censorship?

DP: These days there are hardly any active bloggers anymore or blog platforms which is in line with the global trend away from blogging. Another shift has been the move away from written content to audio. Nowadays, a lot of material is created while speaking in large group chats or live streaming on chat apps such as WeChat. It’s more challenging to monitor, not to mention the time it requires to analyze and translate. It’s for this reason that we’ve not been able to regularly translate materials that originate on broadcast platforms such as Douyin and Kuaishou, even though Tibetans are active there.

Despite crackdowns and censorship, Tibetans still consistently produce online content with artists, writers, and activists alike using digital means to express themselves or to air grievances. For content that we know is of a more sensitive nature we are sometimes able to save content before it is taken offline, although we do need to be quick for that. Where content has been censored, we are careful to note this in our introduction and provide links to the posts that we have managed to archive.

CDT: I believe you co-organize the Tibet Film Festival in London every year. How would you characterize the films currently being made by filmmakers inside Tibet? What are a couple of highlights of films you have seen at the festival in the past couple of years?

DP: I have always been interested in film and began to co-organize the Tibet Film Festival in London in 2019 as a continuation/extension of the Tibet Film Festival that had been started in 2009 in Zurich and is also now in Dharamsala and Berlin. The Tibet Film Festival is unique as it highlights and shows the work of Tibetan filmmakers both in Tibet and in exile. It was important to me to make the London edition also have that format, so we were able to show a wonderful film called “Wangdrak’s Rain Boots” by Lhapal Gyal as well as stand out films made in exile, such as “Royal Cafe” and “The Sweet Requiem.” At the most recent edition of the London Tibet Film Festival, we premiered the documentary “Amala” about His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s sister, Jetsun Pema, and also had the first UK screening of the film “Ala Changso” from Tibet by Sonthar Gyal.

The Tibet Film Festival also encourages new filmmakers by holding a short film competition and being able to show those were a highlight for me. There were great entries from Tibetans in the US, India, Switzerland, Canada, Belgium to name a few. I love that by attending the Tibet Film Festival you are able to have a snapshot of the Tibetan experience all over the world through a creative medium; it always feels like a celebration despite the heavy subject matters at times.

CDT: What kind of interest have you seen among Tibetans in the diaspora who are younger than you in learning about Tibetan culture through your website and through the film festival? Do you feel like there is a concerted effort to protect Tibetan culture among the young generation, who may now be a generation or two removed from having lived in Tibet?

DP: I have been nothing but impressed by younger Tibetans who have a keen interest in their heritage even though most of their parents were not born in Tibet, and perhaps not even their grandparents. I envy the tools and resources the younger generations now have at their disposal to provide connections to Tibet. These just didn’t exist when I was growing up, such as online Tibetan language classes, YouTube, Tibetan language baby and children books, not to mention the much larger and more connected and active exile community.

I’m always happy when younger Tibetans tell me that they feel closer to Tibet by reading High Peaks Pure Earth or by seeing films at the Tibet Film Festival. Some have even shared how much they love the subtitled music videos on High Peaks Pure Earth and appreciate being able to understand the lyrics and how much meaning they carry. This is also the power of music and film and art that can really bring Tibetans all over the world together, at least in spirit!

CDT: How widely is Tibetan language still spoken among younger generations, both inside Tibet and in exile?

DP: An anxiety around Tibetan language is something shared by all Tibetans all around the world. There are Tibetan nomads and farmers in Tibet worried about how to transmit their language to the younger generation and there are Tibetans living in the West in urban centers, equally worried about the same issue.

The Tibetan language is undeniably under threat as few Tibetan children growing up today anywhere in the world will be educated exclusively in their mother tongue. However, having said that, languages can be resilient and in many ways the future of the Tibetan language is in our own hands. Even though I was born in the UK, I grew up speaking Tibetan in my family just at home. While my reading and writing levels are not great, I can speak Lhasa Tibetan and understand without too many issues. I will always be grateful to my parents and family for instilling Tibetan language in us from a young age. I am enjoying seeing an emphasis on, and a renewed awareness of, Tibetan literacy from an early age, both in Tibet and in exile. New books and toys and cartoons are being produced by individuals and private initiatives to get Tibetan children used to hearing and seeing the Tibetan alphabet. All of these new initiatives and tools are incredibly exciting and fun for children as well. In these critical times, we shouldn’t forget that teaching and learning is fun and enjoyable, we should be able to thrive in our own language and many other languages too!

CDT: Since 2008, and especially in the past ten years, there has been much less news and discussion about Tibet in the global media, due largely to the ongoing crackdown there and the lack of access for journalists and researchers. What other factors contribute to the lack of news coverage about Tibet in recent years?

DP: That’s certainly true that the lack of access for journalists and researchers has played a part in the lack of news coverage. However, news coverage in itself is not always a good thing, I’ve also been dismayed at journalists who have been given access to Tibet and then their coverage manages to completely miss the point on many levels. 

Of course I understand that it’s not easy to cover a complex place where so much of what’s going on is not visible or not safe to talk about for people on the ground. There is also an overwhelming trend that journalists seem to prefer to speak to western China or Tibet experts, and I’m disappointed that so many media articles will not carry quotes from a single Tibetan person, even those outside of Tibet with whom it is safe to be in contact. 

As I mentioned, a lot of what happens in Tibet is not immediately obvious or visible, and on the surface it can look like a beautiful and happy place. The fact that there is often no “breaking news” aspect in Tibet means that it is always not in the top 10 or even top 100 things the news could be reporting about that day. This is also the nature of the fast-paced news cycle today. Sadly, news coverage today does require a shock factor but even over 150 self-immolation protests in Tibet didn’t register on a global level. 

That’s why I think that news coverage in itself is not the most helpful lens through which to understand the Tibet situation today …. Books, documentaries or academic studies that often take a long time to put together can give a fuller picture of what’s happening on the ground as they have been worked on long enough to tackle complexities and present nuances. That’s also a reason why on High Peaks Pure Earth there is a Tibet Reading List published twice a year to point to interesting reads.

CDT: What sources (organizations, websites, journalists or activists, etc) do you recommend to find reliable information about what is happening inside the region now?

DP: There are several organizations doing solid research work such as Human Rights Watch, Tibet Action Institute, Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy and Tibet Watch. Their websites are very informative.

As the main website translating the work of Tsering Woeser, I’d have to point people to her social media accounts where she updates frequently on the situation inside Tibet from her perspective and she is a rare outspoken voice inside the PRC.

CDT: What recent developments or events give you hope for the future of Tibet and Tibetans?

DP: I am fortunate that the work I do can, hopefully, contribute to a stronger, confident and healthier Tibetan society that looks to the future in a positive way. In the past fifteen years I’ve seen many new initiatives in exile that expand our understanding about a multitude of issues, including gender equity, women’s empowerment, mixed heritage Tibetans, mental health, LGBTQ+ issues and diversity in general. 

I’m constantly impressed by Tibetan youth inside and outside Tibet who maintain a strong sense of their identity in environments that are challenging and not always welcoming.

Additionally, Tibetan creatives and artists continue to produce more interesting and varying work so “Tibetan culture” is constantly evolving with the times. Perhaps one day we will even have Tibetan subcultures! 

Even though we suffered a massive blow recently with the untimely passing of Tibetan film director Pema Tseden, he will be remembered and celebrated as a world-class director with his exceptional body of work. He’ll also be remembered for training a new generation of cinematographers, actors, writers and producers which means that the best is yet to come. I recently re-watched his films “Balloon” and “Tharlo” and they are both phenomenal. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how Tibetan cinema and storytelling evolves in the future. 

Dechen Pemba’s recommendations of what to read or watch to learn more about Tibet:

Wangdrak’s Rain Boots by Lhapal Gyal (Read a review; Watch the trailer)
Royal Cafe by Tenzin Dasel, one of the first female Tibetan filmmakers (Read an interview with Dasel; Watch the full film)
The Sweet Requiem by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam (Read New York Times review; Watch on Amazon Prime)
Amala by Geleck Palsang. Chronicles the life of the Dalai Lama’s sister, Jetsun Pema (Read a review; Watch the trailer)
Ala Changso by Sonthar Gyal (Read a review; Watch the full film)
Tharlo by Pema Tseden (Read a review; Watch on Amazon Prime)
Balloon by Pema Tseden (Read a review; Watch the trailer)

Human Rights Watch
Tibet Action Institute
Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy
Tibet Watch
Woeser’s social media accounts

Language and culture:
LapLao – online language classes
Nornor – Tibetans books for children
Tibetan Nursery Collection – cartoons for children
High Peaks Pure Earth list of books and toys for children
Nerhi Studio – Tibetan lifestyle brand
The Yakpo Collective – Tibetan contemporary art


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