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Authenticities East and West
March 30 - April 1, 2001

The Outsider's Gaze and the Insider's Will: The Origins of Tashi Dawa's 'Magical Realism'
Patricia Schiaffini (
Department of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, University of Pennsylvania

Although scholars may differ on the ways they interpret the Sino-Tibetan writer Tashi Dawa's national or political identity, or the meaning of his stories, everybody seems to agree on the assumption that Tashi Dawa is an imitator of Latin American magical realism. This paper proposes a different explanation of the origins of Tashi Dawa's alleged magical realism, not in terms of a direct influence of Latin American magical realism, but in terms of similar socio-political environments, as well as similar intellectual processes on the part of culturally hybrid writers.

Magical realism originated in Latin America among young writers who were strongly opposed to the monochromatic way in which traditional literary realism and colonial writing had portrayed their lands. Coincidentally, the Chinese "search for roots" movement and Tashi Dawa's 'Tibetan magical realism' emerged as an alternative to socialist realism and a way to emphasize local cultures. Besides their will for literary innovation, magical realistic writers all over the world usually share a culturally hybrid background which allows them to see their native cultures in a different light.

Contrary to the common interpretation of Tashi Dawa as an imitator of magical realism, this paper intends to prove that Tashi Dawa's main source of inspiration came from Tibetan traditions and beliefs, seen with the eyes of a person who, although partly Tibetan, was first educated in Chinese culture. Similar to many Latin American writers educated in Europe, Tashi Dawa's "magical realism" is the result of a foreign education and his own astonishment in front of the Tibetan traditions, religious beliefs and ways of life he rediscovered as an adult. The paper will compare Tashi Dawa's case with that of Alejo Carpentier, a Latin American avant-garde writer who, after being exposed to European ways of thought, rediscovered his own culture and began writing in a style that mixed marvel and reality. A foreign-trained intellectual/aesthetic sensibility allowed Carpentier and Tashi Dawa to feel admiration before many phenomena of native reality, things that for insiders were part of normal life and for them seemed full of magic. A commitment to their lands lead them to search for literary ways to better represent the many shades of native traditions and beliefs, those nuances that realism, socialist realism, or colonial writing were not able to reflect.

It would be foolish to deny that Tashi Dawa, as well as a whole generation of young writers in China and Tibet, was influenced by the huge amount of Western literature translated into Chinese during the 1980s. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that the comparatively few works of Latin American literature available in Tibet at the beginning of the 1980s Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo and García Márquez A Hundread Years of Solitude were enough to sustain a 'Tibetan magical realism' based solely on imitation. Analyzing their works as mere products of a "direct influence" from Latin American literature misses a couple of important points: first of all, it overemphasizes the power of a few original texts, ignoring important issues such as how much of the intended meaning of a literary work may have been lost in often incomplete translations. Moreover, "direct influence" tend to forget the universality of people's emotions, experiences and reactions, which can well explain why Tibetan authors can express themselves in ways similar to those of Latin American or African writers. The aim of this paper is to de-emphasize direct influence as the sole explanation for alike literary styles developed in different parts of the world, as well as to point out that similar socio-political situations colonial or postcolonial writers educated under the culture of the colonialists, cultures in which legendary native traditions mix with imported or imposed "modern" beliefs etc can produce similar literary responses.

Currently Patricia Schiaffini is a Ph.D. Candidate (ABD) at the Department of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, University of Pennsylvania. Her Ph.D. dissertation deals with the works of the Sino-Tibetan writer Tashi-Dawa. She received her M.A. degree in Chinese Studies at the Center for East Asian Studies, Stanford University. She also took four years of graduate level courses on modern Chinese history and literature at Peking University. Her research interests include modern Chinese literature and modern Tibetan literature.

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