Exploring Modern Magical Realism

Reconsidering the Origins of Tibetan Magical Realism:
Lo real maravilloso and magical realism in Tashi Dawa

b y   p a t r i c i a   s c h i a f f i n i   ~   p o m o n a,   c a l i f o r n i a

ALTHOUGH SCHOLARS may disagree in the ways they interpret Tashi Dawa's (b. 1959) national or political identity, or in the meaning of his stories, everybody seems to agree in the assumption that Tashi Dawa is a follower, if not an imitator, of Latin American magical realism. Almost inevitably, they associate his name with that of Gabriel García Márquez. The opinions of Sinologists such as Geremie Barme and John Minford (Seeds of Fire, New York: Hill and Wang Editors, 1988, p. 450) exemplify many critical responses toward Tashi Dawa’s works:
[Tashi Dawa] became known for a number of short stories that attempt to imitate the magical realist style of Latin American literature which was introduced to China during the early 1980s.
They then go on to say: “Tashi Dawa sees himself as the Chinese Gabriel García Márquez” (Barmé and Minford, p.452). Literary imitation is seen as the only plausible explanation for the appearance of magical realism in the works of this half-Tibetan, half-Chinese writer who, in the 1980s, shocked the Tibetan and Chinese literary scenes with a series of powerful and innovative magical realist short stories written in Chinese.

This essay proposes a different interpretation linking Tashi Dawa’s magical realism with his culturally hybrid identity. Although influenced by magical realism, 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 under Chinese culture. Tashi Dawa's case is like that of many Latin American avant-garde writers, such as Alejo Carpentier—considered by many to be the precursor of Latin American magical realism—who re-discovered their cultural heritages after being exposed to many European intellectual trends. By means of comparing the experiences of Alejo Carpentier and Tashi Dawa, this essay attempts to prove that Tashi Dawa’s arrival to magical realism was not based on a superficial stylistic imitation, as often charged, but rather on a process common to many magical realist writers around the world: that of looking at their native culture with a foreign-trained sensibility.

The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980) returned to Cuba after spending more than ten years in Europe, where he experienced World War II and became deeply involved (and, later on, deeply disappointed with) Surrealism and European culture. When Carpentier returned to Cuba he felt like a "tourist," astonished and delighted by the colors, images and diversity of Cuban traditions. Suddenly French culture was not inspiring. It seemed false and full of conventions. His own re-discovered culture, however, showed itself as authentic, as a never-ending source of marvels to explore.2 It was after his return that he developed his theory of lo real maravilloso (the marvelous real), which many critics see as one of the origins of Latin American magical realism. Without this exposure to Surrealism and European cultures, Carpentier would probably not have been able to detect the marvelous elements of reality in his own culture.

In Tashi Dawa's case, his early exposure to Chinese culture and Chinese translation of Western literature provided him with new perspectives and strategies for looking at Tibetan culture. Ethnically half-Tibetan and half-Chinese, he spent most of his childhood living with his Chinese maternal family. He moved to Tibet as a young adult and soon felt mesmerized by Tibetan traditions, which he began to reflect in his novellas in a way that Carpentier, forty years earlier, had considered lo real maravilloso (the marvelous real).

The theory of lo real maravilloso was formulated by Carpentier in 1949. In the preface to his novel, The Kingdom of this World (El reino de este mundo), he explained how his stories were inspired by the marvelous (but still real) phenomena of reality. He found lo real maravilloso in daily life, in indigenous beliefs, traditions or legends, in the extremes and wonders of nature, and in the cultural/religious syncretism of people. Everything that may sound unbelievable for the outsider, but that is believed by the insider, is considered lo real maravilloso. As Carpentier explains:

That which is marvelous begins to be so, unequivocally, when it arises from an unexpected alteration of reality (the miracle), [... …] from a rare illumination [... …] of an unnoticed richness of reality. [… …] To begin with, the perception of the marvelous assumes faith on it. Those who do not believe in saints cannot be cured by saints' miracles [… …] That is why the marvelous based in the non-belief ─as done by the Surrealists for so many years─never can be more than a boring literary cunning.3
Magical realism and lo real maravilloso both look to the "unbelievable" to challenge the reader, to take him/her to the boundary between reality and fiction. But the basic difference between magical realism and lo real maravilloso is that, while magical realism achieves that goal through the creation of a magic world, lo real maravilloso recreates the most marvelous events of the real world—everything that is unbelievable to the outsider is believed by the insider.4

Interestingly, when Tashi Dawa started looking at Tibetan life in (to borrow Carpentier’s definition) a “marvelous real" way, he was not aware of such an intellectual framework.5 Without knowing about Carpentier’s formulation of lo real maravilloso, Tashi Dawa arrived at the same conclusion: he wanted to portray the things that to him seemed marvelous but were believed to be true by many Tibetans. It would be later on, and based on the substratum of lo real maravilloso he found in Tibetan culture, that Tashi Dawa would begin experimenting and distorting reality in the way magical realist writers do.

“Tibet: the Soul Tied to the Knots of a Leather Rope” provides us with an example of the "marvelous real" world that inspired Tashi Dawa. The protagonist, Tabei, walks inside a labyrinth of deep ravines. His religious faith leads him to believe those are the marks left by the lines of the palm of a gigantic ancient god. It is explained to him that the god, in a fight with a demon, smashed the palm of his hand on the ground, leaving the marks of his palm lines there forever.6 As the explanation matches the indigenous mythological beliefs, it is believed by the insider. The writer does not need to invent a magic literary device; transcribing a popular belief already seems marvelous to outsiders. For Tashi Dawa, intellectually an outsider educated in China, but who at some level wanted to recover his Tibetan self and become an insider, this was one of the marvels of Tibetan reality that made Tibet so “mysterious,” not only for himself, but also for Chinese readers.

It is, first, Tashi Dawa’s hybrid cultural background and, second, his foreign-trained sensibility, which allow him to perceive the marvelous in Tibetan daily life. This is the prerequisite for any magical realist writer: a syncretic mind, keen senses and a wild imagination to go beyond the obvious and describe the other side of reality outside the box of literary realism. In the mid-1980s, after writing a series of realistic short stories, Tashi Dawa arrived at the conclusion that realism was not able to capture the richness of what he had been experiencing in Tibet.7 At this time, after discovering the “marvelous real” in Tibet, he turned to Magical Realism as the next step in his literary creation.

Enrique Anderson Imbert explains magical realism as an aesthetic process that consciously tries to transform reality:

Between the dissolution of reality (magic) and the copy of reality (realism), Magical Realism amazes you as if you were contemplating the spectacle of a new creation. [… …] The writer's strategy consists in suggesting a supernatural environment without leaving Nature; his tactic is to deform reality in the mind of neurotic characters.8
Besides the "marvelous real" instances in his earlier works, later short stories by Tashi Dawa show more and more magical realist traces. These are instances in which he is not focusing on real beliefs but intentionally distorting reality and defying logic to convey a message. In “Tibet: The Mysterious Years,” a man comes to a small village and during the night has a horrible dream:
Ciduoqi dreamed he was eating a fat human leg, which looked pretty much like the leg of a former lover he had, a woman who owned a small restaurant [… …]. However, it also could have been the leg of a maid who worked for his family when he was a child, and who used to doze off all the time. 9
When the newcomer speaks about his dream with one villager, the answer he receives could hardly be more astonishing: “Don’t worry. I have that kind of dream all the time. [… …] Everybody in this village has them.” 10

Obviously Tashi Dawa is intentionally creating a fictitious world where the dreams of people eating people are part of daily life. This is not, as we previously saw, an attempt by the writer to present Tibetan beliefs as they are felt by Tibetans (which Carpentier would define as “the real marvelous”). He has outgrown the period of pure astonishment in front of the newly recovered/discovered Tibetan culture, and he is now showing a deeper engagement with the problems of modern Tibet. Magical realism now serves him as the perfect medium to reflect on the complicated situation of Tibet without upsetting neither the Chinese nor the Tibetans. In this magical realist example Tashi Dawa is clearly borrowing the realistic writer Lu Xun’s (1881-1936) cannibalistic metaphor of “people eating people” (which Lu Xun meant as a symbol of the deepest maladies of Chinese tradition).11 What is intentionally ambiguous in Tashi Dawa’s use of Lu Xun's metaphor is to whom he is directing his critique.

CONCLUSION: The Insider-Outsider

In the mid 1980s, a decade after Mao’s death and when China and Tibet were experiencing arguably their most creative literary periods in their recent history, the young Sino-Tibetan writer Tashi Dawa acquired national fame for his magical realist stories. Tashi Dawa’s works, although contested by some Tibetans as inauthentic and exotic, became the only source of positive information about Tibetan traditions and ways of life for many educated Chinese readers.

This essay has attempted to show that Tashi Dawa’s magical realism cannot be understood only in terms of imitation. Although a certain degree of inspiration by Western literature cannot be denied (Tashi Dawa himself points to Faulkner as one of his favorite youth readings), his magical realist works are rooted in his personal experiences during the process of re-discovering Tibetan culture. It is relevant to point out that lo real maravilloso, his own amazement and portrayal of Tibetan beliefs, occurred prior to his exposure to Latin American magical realism and was one of the main sources for the development of his magical realist style.

Tashi Dawa's fascination for Tibetan culture, for the marvelous elements of its religion and traditions, reveals the curiosity and amazement of an outsider. Educated in another culture, the author found the world of his Tibetan father fascinating. But as part insider, he was much more knowledgeable about Tibetan culture than complete outsiders, and he used this knowledge as background for his literary creation. As an intellectual who had been exposed to other ways of life and thought, he could not (or perhaps did not want to) participate in Tibetan culture as a complete insider (i.e. the person who had never been exposed to other cultures and who had never left the native soil). But it was also true that a complete insider probably would not be able to recreate Tibet in the way Tashi Dawa did, because he or she would be too familiar with Tibetan reality to feel marveled or amazed by it.

Tashi Dawa’s magical realism draws upon both of his identities. What gives him inspiration is his Tibetan identity, the one that focuses on the richness of the native traditions and Tibet's dream-like sense of history. What finally helps to define his literary style, however, is his Chinese identity, the one that, in the 1980s—after the death of Chinese Socialist Realism—desperately needed to find new ways of literary expression. In that decade Tashi Dawa’s magical realism became one of the most successful literary voices in China, and a powerful innovative force in the process of developing a new literature of Tibet.12


Anderson Imbert, Enrique. El Realismo Mágico. Buenos Aires: Monte Ávila Editores, 1976.

Batt, Herbert ed. & transl. Tales of Tibet: Sky Burials, Prayer Wheels, and Wind Horses. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.

Carpentier, Alejo. Obras Completas de Alejo Carpentier 2. México: Siglo XXI, 1983.

______________. The Kingdom of this World, trans. Harriet de Onís. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.

Leal, Luís. “El realismo mágico en la literatura hispanoamericana.” Cuadernos americanos 153. 4 (1967).

Lu Xun. Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. trs. William Lyell. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

Padura, Leonardo. Lo real-maravilloso: creación y realidad. La Habana: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1989.

Tashi Dawa. Xizang: Yinmi suiyue (Tibet: The Mysterious Years). Wuhan: Changjiang wenyi chubanshe, 1993.

_________. Xizang, ji zai pisheng jieshang de hun (Tibet: The Soul Tied to the Knots of a Leather Rope). Tianjin: Baihua wenyi chubanshe, 1986.

_________. A Soul in Bondage: Stories from Tibet. Panda Books, Beijing, 1992. 41-106

1 For more on Tashi Dawa, see Patricia Schiaffini, Assistant Professor of Chinese, Pomona College and author of the doctoral dissertation, “Tashi Dawa: Magical Realism and Contested Identity in Modern Tibet” (University of Pennsylvania, 2002). E-mail Patricia Schiaffini

2 For more information about Alejo Carpentier’s “lo real maravilloso,” see Padura (1989).

3 Carpentier (1983): 15.

4 I use definitions of those tendencies that are commonly accepted nowadays. Nevertheless, there are some scholars of Latin American literature who do not see differences among those two genres. For an example see Leal, Luís (1967).

5 Personal interview with the author, Lhasa, October 1999. In this interview, Tashi Dawa said he was not aware of the existence of the “marvelous real” when he was writing these stories in the 1980s, although he had read works by magical realistic authors, such as Juan Rulfo and Gabriel García Márquez in Chinese translation.

6 Tashi Dawa, (1986): 190. For an English translation, see Herbert Batt (2001): 105-126.

7 Personal interview with the author (October 1999, Lhasa).

8 Anderson Imbert (1976): 19.

9 Tashi Dawa, (1993 ): 6. For an English version, see Tashi Dawa (1992): 41-106.

10 Ibid.

11 An English version of the story, “Diary of a Madman,” where the cannibalistic episode occurs, can be found in Lu Xun (1990).

12 In the Tibetan territories that now belong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), some Tibetan writers choose to write in Tibetan while others prefer to do so in Chinese. Tashi Dawa’s choice of Chinese was due to the fact that he was not able to learn written Tibetan during his childhood. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) education in Tibetan language was banned, so many Tibetan intellectuals were not able to become literate in their mother tongue. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, with the beginning of the reform era of Deng Xiaoping, Tibetan language was again allowed in Tibetan schools. Tibetan literature in the PRC has since then developed in these two languages with not much mutual influence or contact between the Chinese-medium and Tibetan-medium literary spheres. Tashi Dawa’s works have been most inspiring for other Tibetan or Sino-Tibetan writers who write in Chinese, while many Tibetan writers who write in Tibetan have been more critical of him and generally do not accept his works as real Tibetan literature. Nevertheless, to the extent that all Tibetan writers, disregarding in what language they choose to write, have read his works and commented extensively on them, either to praise them or to criticize them, nobody can deny Tashi Dawa influence in the development of modern literature in Tibet.



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