Laughter from the Grasslands: A Diachronic Study of A mdo Tibetan Comedy and the Public Intellectual in Western China


Timothy Thurston

PhD defended at: 

The Ohio State University



The post-Mao reform era brought massive social and cultural changes to the Northeastern Tibetan region of A mdo, located in Western China. In response, minority intellectuals modeled a uniquely Tibetan engagement with modernity through the unexpected vehicle of comedy. Performed on state-sanctioned stages and broadcasts, A mdo Tibetan comedies— and their messages about modernity—do not remain constant, but adapt to emergent conditions through the first three decades of China's reform era (1980-2010). This dissertation traces the development of Tibetan-language comedy from dialogues to sketches in a shifting constellation of popular discourse, lived experience of social changes, state frameworks, and minority intellectual concerns.

Chapter One takes Tibetan comedies as a point of entry into the ethnolinguistic region of Northeastern Tibet, known as A mdo. The laughter these comedies inspire questions both Western perceptions of Tibet as a hermit kingdom solemnly working towards spiritual enlightenment, and Chinese state narratives of old Tibet as a hell on earth. The next three chapters proceed decade by decade through this comedic genre as the region experiences state-led modernization. Chapter Two, “The Early Years,” analyzes the rise of Tibetan comedic dialogues to cultural prominence in the 1980s,
discussing the emergence of an intellectual field in China and A mdo in this decade, and also providing close readings of two early comedic performances. Chapter Three, “Ushering Society into Modernity,” examines the genre’s growth into a popular art form in the 1990s. A close reading of favorite sketches reveals top comedian Sman bla skyabs and his peers as proponents of a modernizing project that draws upon the state-supported Chinese version but posits language practice as a shibboleth for Tibetans. Chapter Four, “Leading Society into a New Political Consciousness,” details the role of 21st century sketches in fostering a distinctly Tibetan modernity based in culturalist discourses of linguistic purism, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. Chapter Five examines the cumulative impact of these three periods, with performances from each period persisting, coexisting, and influencing cultural stances in the present.

The comedies examined in this dissertation cover a variety of topics ranging from marriage to international encounters, and provide immense entertainment through witty banter and satire. Over the course of three decades, however, we find that language is at the center of comedian and intellectual concerns, shifting perceptibly from an initial concern with language maintenance in the 1980s to purism in twenty-first century.