Tharlo and The Sacred Arrow • Part 1

     blob.pngTharlo: Pema Tseden (Pad+ma tshe brtan ;director and screenplay), Lü Songye (cinematography), Gdugs dkar tshe ring  (sound designer), Song Bing  (editor), Stag rtse don 'grub  (production designer), Zhi bde nyi ma and G.yang phyug mtsho (performers), and Wu Leileiand Wang Xuebo  (producers). 2015 Tharlo. International sales: Asian Shadows. 123 mins. B&W.

    blob.pngThe Sacred Arrow: Pema Tseden (Pad+ma tshe brtan   director and screenplay), Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho(executive producer),Hodoyama Yiho (Chengshan Yifan)  (production designer), Luo Pan (director of photography), Ricky Ho (He Guojie) (music), Gdugs dkar tshe ring (sound),Liu Fang  (editor), Rin chen don grub , Bsod nmas nyi ma, and Bde skyid , Stobs rgys, Blo bzang chos 'phel (performers). Production company: Beijing Himalaya Audio & Visual Culture Communication Co., Ltd.97 minutes.

     Pema Tseden was born in 1969 in, at that time, the relatively remote Mdzo sna (Zuona) Village, La shi wa (Laxiwa) Township, Khri ka (Guide) County, Mtsho lho (Hainan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Mtsho sngon (Qinghai) Province, China in an area of great natural beauty on the banks of the Rma chu (Yellow River). Pema Tseden recalls his grandfather as an adept lay tantric practitioner whose compassion and warm-heartedness deeply affected him: My grandfather believed that I was the reincarnation of his grandfather. He told me that my previous life was that of a meditator. Grandfather showed me the scriptures that his own grandfather had used in his life and my great-grandfather's meditation place in our home. My grandfather's grandfather was very good to him and he felt that he owed him a debt. Grandfather insisted my previous life had gained a great deal of religious knowledge. Thus, he also wanted me to be well-educated. At that time, you could be employed after junior middle school so very few students continued on to senior middle school, let alone attended college (Feng 2015).[i]

    Pema Tseden continued schooling after graduating from his village school and completed a college education, thanks to significant financial and emotional support from his grandfather. This was at a time when many rural Tibetans questioned the value of formal state-sponsored education.

    Folktales have played a vital role in Pema Tseden's literary endeavors and filmmaking. In his childhood, there were few media entertainment resources, however, folktales such as those in the Ro sgrung'Enchanted Corpse'[ii] told by older family members in his family were an inspiring source of entertainment. Pema recallsaccidently finding a torn, worn-out old book on the road by his village when he was in junior middle school. At first, he did not know what the book was, but then he later realized it was a Chinese-language version of One Thousand and One Nights. Its compelling stories created an invisible world and deeply attracted Pema Tseden. In addition, colorful images drawn from local folktales, like hundreds of invisible movies projected on the black screen of his imagination, further occupied Pema Tseden's childhood. 

    During this time, Pema Tseden frequently watched films in his village, which were organized by the Mobile Screen Team. Berry (2016:2) commented on this: During the Mao era and into 1980s, when the film industry was state-owned and directed, these films depicted the 55 recognized minority nationalities of the PRC in ways that communicated the government's message about its policy toward them.

     At a small hydropower station near his village, Pema Tseden had the opportunity to watch films that differed from those he saw in the village. One of the most memorable was Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936). All of the films were projected on a screen with a film projector operated by the station employees.

    In many rural areas during the 1970s in China, there was often a lack of knowledge of events in the outside world. Pema Tseden's grandfather gave him a luxury - a small transistor radio - that became his best friend, enlivening the days he spent herding on the mountains. He was fascinated by the vivid characters conjured by sounds emanating from his little box. He was particularly spellbound by dramas. Pema Tseden told me, "The power of radio story telling strongly impacted me in my childhood. Now that I think about it, I never expected that those seemingly insignificant childhood incidents would impact my future career."[iii]

   After entering the Nationalities Middle School in Khri ka County, Pema Tseden was able to watch even more films each week that were organized by the school. He also used his pocket money to go to the county town cinema every weekend. In three years of junior middle school, he estimated that he watched over 300 films. Watching films continued along his education journey from junior middle school in the county town, senior middle school in the prefecture town, and Northwest University for Nationalities in Lanzhou, Gansu Province.[iv]

    He studied Tibetan Language and Literature while at university and worked as a primary school teacher and a civil servant. He later studied at Beijing Film Academy,China's most prestigious film school, thus becoming the Academy's first ever Tibetan student (Asia Society 2010).

    In 1991, Pema Tseden began composing literary works and was a well-known writer and novelist in A mdo before entering film school. "His short stories have appeared in the literary magazines such as Light Rain, Mang tshogs sgyu rtsal (Folk art and literature), and Lho kha'i rtsom rig sgyu rtsal (Lhoka literature and art)" (Virtanen 2008:252). He has written novels and essays in both Tibetan and Chinese, some of which have been translated into English, French, Japanese, Czech, and (Tibetan versions) Chinese. He also actively translates Tibetan to Chinese, for example, Song of the Life by Stag 'bum rgyal, which received the 2011 Minority Literary Award in Beijing. He has also translated selected Tibetan popular folktales into Chinese(Frangville 2016:11).

    Pema Tseden began making films in 2006, while continuing to write. In Pema Tseden's Grong kyer gyi 'tsho ba'Life in Town'"we see a striking contrast in the way the relationship between the traditional and the modern is portrayed" (Virtanen 2008:253). Some elements of Pema Tseden's literary works are depicted in his films consequently, both his film and literary works share similarity in their interpretations of social change and its impact and meaning. In dealing in both literary and film productions, Pema Tseden crosses between the two worlds of "letters" and "images," representing Tibet's conflicts and bewilderments.

    Much contemporary Tibetan literary and art work share a sense of losing rootedness in a time of rapid social change. Many writers, including Pema Tseden, have left their rural homelands and dwell in towns and cities. "I go back home frequently, and sometimes I go back and stay there for a while. I have been living outside, mostly in Beijing, for many years now. When I consider my home, I see it through the lenses of an outsider, a bystander. It is inevitable, but that allows me a more objective, calmer perception."[v]

    However, it seems difficult to return to one's roots in terms of the physic, inner world: "It's hard to return with real soul" (Pema Tsedan).[vi] Along the journey farther away from "home" in a village to county town, to Lanzhou City, to Beijing, a multifaceted sense of identity also has become a general concern in his work.

     When dealing with the question of what compels him to engage film, he said, "I have been inherently very interested in film since childhood."[vii] ... "There are so many Tibetan related films today, however, very few present real Tibetan life and reflect Tibetans' inner world. Whatnon-Tibetan directors who never lived in Tibet usually see is on the surface, for example, landscape, customs, and so on. This is another motivation that encouraged me to make films" (Feng 2015).

      When I made similar inquiries during an interview, Pema Tsedan said:

     Cinema is a burgeoning culture in Tibet so there is a lack of awareness. I hope by making films that I can promote this sprouting culture in Tibet. There are thousands of films coming out annually, however, it is very difficult to achieve a high artistic level. I'm trying hard to produce films that can reach an international level based on Tibetan culture and exploration of movie art.[viii] (To be continued)

Originally published in Asian Highlands Perspectives at 


[i] This is my abridged translation of the Chinese. Pema Tseden also shared parts of this same narrative when I interviewed him in May 2016.

[ii] The "Enchanted Corpse" collection of tales have long interested scholars involved with Buddhism and verbal culture in southern and central Asia (Mikos 2012:5). For a modern version retold in English, see Benson (2007).

[iii] Based on my interview with Pema Tseden in late May 2016 via Wechat.

[iv] Based on my interview with Pema Tseden in late May 2016 via Wechat.

[v], accessed 6 April 2016. What I present here is my abridged translation.

[vi], accessed 23 June 2014.

[vii], accessed in 2009.

[viii] Based on my interview with Pema Tseden in late May 2016 via Wechat.


       Khasham Gyal graduated from Qinghai University for Nationalities with a major in Tibetan Literature. He is the founder of the Amilolo Films, dedicated to  educating young Tibetans about digital video production and encouraging a new generation of Tibetan filmmakers. Khasham Gyal has directed numerous documentaries and short films about Tibetan life and culture. Valley of the Heroes is his first full-length documentary film.