A Look at the Margins: Autobiographical Writing in Tibetan in the People’s Republic of China

  • Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy


The practice of writing one’s life was well rooted in pre-modern Tibet2: biographies (Tib. rnam-thar) and autobiographies (Tib. rang- rnam)3 of religious masters were, and still are, very popular readings, for monks as well as literate lay people. Some of these texts, written in prose, prose interspersed with verse, or entirely in verse, are even often read aloud because of the musicali ty of their composition The earliest known examples of autobiographical writing, only a few dozen folios long, date back to the twelfth century, but auto/biography as a historical and literary genre exploded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, both in length and quantity.4 This was a pivotal historical period, which saw the emergence and consolidation, in Central Tibet, of the regime of the Dalai Lamas, and, in outer Tibetan regions, of large monastic centres. There are at least 150 book-length autobiographical texts that are accessible today,5 most of which contain several hundred folios


Qing Dynasty Life Story Oral History Produce History Master Narrative 
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  1. 11.
    For a first survey and content analysis of 12 of those in English, see Laurie Hoveli McMillin, English in Tibet, Tibet in English: Self-presentation in Tibet and the Diaspora (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 113–232.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 12.
    A Chinese translation, intended for restricted circulation (Chin, neibu) but rapidly leaked among Tibetans, of John Avedon’s In Exile from the Land of Snows: The Definitive Account of the Dalai Lama and Tibet since the Chinese Conquest (New York: Knopf, 1984).Google Scholar
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    Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, tr. W.J.F. Jenner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987Google Scholar
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© Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy 2013

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  • Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy

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