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China and Inner Asia
In Session: China in Many Languages: Minority Literatures and the Politics of Translation
3: Science and the Yeti: On Döndrup Gyel's Translation of "The Magic Flute of the Snow Mountains"
Monday, March 22, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Columbia University, United States
Döndrup Gyel (1953–1985) was modern Tibet’s preeminent literary writer and a prolific translator. In his collected works, the volume containing his translations is dominated by historical documents and classical literature such as the Ramayana and the Tang Annals. The inclusion, therefore, of two short stories by the Chinese science-fiction writer Tong Enzheng (1935–1997) appears incongruous. What does his interest in this work tell us about Döndrup Gyel’s intellectual project and its relationship with Chinese literary modernity?
In Tong Enzheng’s “The Magic Flute of the Snow Mountains,” a team of Chinese archeologists in Tibet discover a yeti-summoning flute, a magical instrument that opens the door to a state-led scientific analysis of the mythical creature. Döndrup Gyel was steeped in the modernist ethos of the May Fourth Movement and was consistently preoccupied with the question of how Tibet and its traditions ought to engage with the modern world. This paper argues that Tong’s story provided him with a dramatic staging of these very questions, penned by a Chinese writer and set in a Tibetan context. I will place the story alongside some of Döndrup Gyel’s own works in order to examine their shared concerns of progress, evolution, and empiricism. I conclude, however, by considering how the story’s use of scientism to validate superstition represents an appropriate resolution for a writer who sought not to overturn or do away with Tibetan tradition, but to find ways to incorporate it into a modern world of science and industry.