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Marriage Customs in Central Tibet

Date:2012-05-04 17:01 Hits:



Marriage is the institution through which people join their lives in emotional and economic ways by forming a household. It confers rights and obligations with respect to regulating emotional intimacy and love, raising children, holding property and passing on inheritance, maintaining kinship ties and prescribing the household unit’s position in and relationship to society.

The Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is located on the central part of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is the largest and highest plateau in the world, and a large part of it is flanked by mountains that are from 4600 to 4900 meters high. The average altitude of the plateau is 4000 meters, and Tibet is therefore called ‘the roof of the world’ or ‘the third pole of the earth’. 
Tibet was traditionally divided into three regions: Tö (sTod, ‘Upper’), U-Tsang (U-gTsang, ‘Central’), Do Kham (mDo Khams, ‘Lower’). Today the Upper, the Central and part of the Lower regions are part of the TAR. Most Tibetans, however, live outside TAR, in Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu. Thus Tibetan culture and language stretches over a huge area and there are big cultural differences from region to region.

Local customs are of great importance for an ethnic community, and China encompasses more than 56 nationalities. Local customs are connected to the nationalities’ history, psychology and character, and understanding local customs is important if you want to do research on nationalities. Tibet was in the past a distinct nation with its own religion, language and customs. People living on the Tibetan Plateau, such as Tibetans, Monpas, Lhopas and Tibetan Muslims, have their own ways of living and their own marriage, burial or other ceremonies. Tibetan local customs exist not only in the Tibet Autonomous Region, but also in the aforementioned provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan. At present many scholars and tourists come to Tibet and want to know more about Tibetan culture.

Tibet’s ‘traditional’ culture has changed throughout the ages through contact with neighbouring peoples, and changes have been particularly dramatic during the last half century. Tibet’s unique culture is today heavily influenced both by Western and Chinese culture, and today Central Tibet is a multiethnic society, where the main groups are the Tibetans and the Han Chinese. There is also a Muslim community consisting of people of Han Chinese and Kashmiri identity. The Tibetan language has also changed by adopting many words and expressions from Chinese, as well as some from the English language.

Many Tibetans, especially young Tibetans, are easily influenced by other cultures, and along with the various changes of social structure, people’s lives and marriage customs are inevitably influenced. It is therefore urgent to study the ‘traditional’ marriage customs, the rich oral song traditions, the dances, the speeches, the costumes, the rituals and the marriage arrangements – before they possibly disappear altogether.

Despite the hardships of traditional life in Tibet, Tibetans have managed to keep their culture and customs alive, and even today, in a situation with rapid social and economic changes, we still find the old marriage customs continued in Tibet, particularly in the countryside.

1.1. Types of Marriages
Across the Tibetan populated areas we will find some common cultural patterns. Regarding marriage, there are two main types:
1. Monogamy (bza’ tshang or khyo gcig shug gcig)
2. Polygamy (bza’ gsum or khyo mang shug gcig and shug mang khyo gcig)

The prevailing marriage form is monogamy.  Counting in terms of family units, 90 % or more of the marriages are monogamous. The newlyweds live with their parents and grandparents, if they are still alive. The custom is generally that the wife moves to the husband’s family, and this is called ‘patrilocal’ or ‘virilocal’ residence.

Since polygamy still exists in Tibetan communities, it will be briefly described here. Polygamy is when a person is married to more than one person at the same time. This is against the law of the People’s Republic of China, but is still practiced in Tibetan societies because such unions were formed before the promulgation of this rule. In recent years polygamy has also increased in certain areas (Fjeld 2007). There are two types of polygamy: polyandry is when there are two or more husbands and one wife, while polygyny is when there are two or more wives and one husband.

Polyandry is an ancient custom in Tibet, and it is still common in the countryside. Polyandry is widely practiced in the western parts of Tibet, in the Shigatse (gZhis kha rtse) area. One form of polygyny, or multi-wife families, is when a man marries his wife’s sisters (sororal polygyny). In some of the families, the man marries his step-daughter, but these families are very rare in Tibet. The prevailing form of polyandry is the marriage with the wife’s sister (sororal polygyny) or husband’s brother (fraternal polyandry). A man’s marriage with his wife’s sister may happen if the husband is married into the wife’s family (mag pa) and her younger sister wishes to stay with them; then the husband will cohabit with the younger sister as well. As mentioned earlier, marriage with a step-daughter is also possible, it happens in cases when a man marries a widow with a young daughter. When the step-daughter grows up, the man has the right to cohabit with her as well. 

Fraternal polyandry, the most common form of polygamy in Tibetan areas, is practiced in order to maintain a household and avoid dividing up the property. After the elder brother marries a girl, and the younger brothers grow up, they share the wife. Usually, it is considered to be a good indication of the harmony of the brotherhood for them to marry a single woman. The offspring of the wife will be considered as the offspring of the senior husband. The child will call the main husband ‘father’ (pha la), while the junior husband will be addressed ‘uncle’ (a khu). Sometimes, though very seldom, the husbands are not blood-related. Usually, the wife will have her own bedroom and a sign will be posted outside (e.g. a shoe) when she is available.

Polygamous marriages are common in some areas, particularly in Tsang, but since quite a bit of research has already been carried out on the topic (Goldstein 1971, Penjor 2001 and Fjeld 2007), this will not be the main focus of my thesis. My interest is primarily the wedding ceremony itself, and the wedding songs, and not the type of marriage arrangement. In my thesis, I want to write about the marriage ceremonies that are most typical in Central Tibetan villages. As far as I know very few scholars have written about wedding customs in Central Tibet.

Most Tibetan families, regardless of the marriage form, are patriarchal, meaning that the men usually make the important decisions, but this does not mean that women are without rights in their families. In most of the families, women arrange the revenue and expenditure, they are the mainstay of family life and are busy from morning till night milking cows, making tea, roasting and grinding barley and making butter, curd and clothes. Looking after children is the responsibility of women. In cases where a man moves to his wife’s family upon marriage (as mag pa), this happens generally when there is no male offspring to bring the family lineage on. In such cases, the wife has high authority in the family and the position of the mag pa is generally low, at least in the early years of marriage.

1.2 Sources and Secondary Literature
In Tibetan and Chinese

Several books and a series of articles have been published in Tibetan about Tibetan marriage customs. The Nationality Publishing House in Beijing published an anthology entitled Bod kyi dmangs srol gces btus (‘The Selected Customs of Tibet’) in 1999. In this book, there are three articles about marriage customs in Tibet: one by bSod tshe, Bod kyi sngar srol gnyen sgrig las long chang skor (‘Tibetan Marriage Customs in Old Times and the Ceremony of Asking for the Beer’), one by Tshe lbang gTsang khul gyi gnyen sgrig byed srol skor (‘The Marriage Customs in the gTsang Area’) and the last one by ‘Bri gung rong pa’i nor rgyus, Bod byang phyogs kyi bag ma gtong len gyi rgyun srol (‘The Custom of Receiving and Sending Brides in Northern Tibet’).

Since the first and second articles do not give much new information about marriage customs in Tibet, there is no need to give a broader presentation of these articles. The third article describes how nomadic boys and girls have free contact before marriage and how parents do not interrupt their children’s choice of lovers and marriage partners. The article also describes arranged marriages among nomads, the bride dowry and the general ages of the bride and groom. The author also describes the wedding stages: the maternal uncles sending the bride to the groom’s home, the songs and speeches that are given and the other recreational activities that are held during the wedding. The information is, however, of a general nature and not very precise.

bSod nams chos dar’s Lha sa khul gyi gnyen sgrig lam srol (‘Wedding Customs in Lhasa’) published by the Nationality Publishing House in Beijing in 2003, mainly portrays wedding customs in the Lhasa area. It includes the stages of courtship, engagement, roles of the matchmaker and the maternal uncle, and gives a description of the wedding day. The author focuses on banquets, but he also includes descriptions of wedding preparations, such as making the food and receiving gifts from guests. Regarding the banquets, the author describes how the bride is sent to the groom’s home, how the bride is received and how songs and speeches are offered during the banquet. The portrayal of the process of the banquet is meticulous and the wedding preparations are described in detail. This book, however, is written like a novel rather than a scholarly book. The author gives several dramatis personae in this book, so although the book contains much information about wedding ceremonies, this seems hardly to be formal data and should only be used in this thesis to supplement other information.

P.W. Barshi and Thubten Sangay have compiled abundant information about marriage ceremonies in gNa’ rabs bod kyi chang sa’i lam srol (‘Tibetan Marriage Customs in Old Times’), published by the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala, in 1979. This book mainly focuses on traditional wedding customs in Central Tibet and it gives an overview of the Tibetan marriage system, including looking for a daughter-in-law (mna’ ma), methods and procedures for asking for a girl from the boy’s side, the offering of the girl by the girl’s family, beer ceremonies, sending and receiving the bride, the content of the wedding ceremony, and finally the sending off of the daughter-in-law after she has stayed half a year in her husband’s home (gnyen phrad). The book also provides general information about ways of asking for a girl. The compilers include descriptions of marriage customs in western Tibet (sTod phyogs), in the southwest part of Central Tibet (gTsang khul) and the central region of Tibet (dBus khul). Even if information given in this book deals with marriages in ‘traditional Tibet’, i.e. before 1959, the customs are somewhat the same today in Tibetan villages. Even though the compilers base their information on memories from Tibet, the data seem largely accurate and will be used in my presentation and discussion of marriage customs along with other sources.

One of the main sources in my research on marriage customs in Tibet is Blo bzang Byams dpal’s dBus gtsang khul gyi bag ston goms srol (‘Marriage Customs in Western and Central Tibet’), published in Lhasa by the Tibetan People’s Publishing House in 2003. Two sections of the book describe wedding ceremonies, in the Tsang area and in Lhasa, respectively. The contents of the two sections follow the same structure: the author describes the whole marriage procedure in these two localities (Tsang and Lhasa) and introduces the ways in which marriages in Central Tibetan society have traditionally been arranged, from spouse selection to the marriage being mutually agreed to by both sides, and from the prenuptial engagement to the wedding ceremonies.

In Sangngag Dorje Gaba Pasang’s Bod kyi yul srol rnam bshad (‘On Tibetan Local Customs’, 2004), there is a short section on marriage in Lhasa, while Tsering Yangdzom, in Xi zang gui zu shi jia (‘The Aristocratic Families’, 2005), describes marriages in the aristocracy in Lhasa.  In addition to this, some marriage songs from Ngari (2000) have been published digitally by Professor Tsering Gyalpo at the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences, Lhasa. 

In Western Languages

Several ethnographic studies of customs in Tibet have been carried out by western scholars, and some of these contain collections of Tibetan songs which have been translated into western languages. Giuseppe Tucci ([1949] 1966), has collected and translated folk songs from Gyantse (rGyal rtse) and western Tibet, and among the songs in his collection there are several marriage songs. Studies of marriage rituals and songs have also been published in French and German, including an article in German on eastern Tibetan festival traditions by Dieter Schuh (1973), an article in French by Katia Buffetrille on a marriage ritual written for the wedding of the prince of Derge (sDe dge) in 1970 by Kong sprul blo gros mtha’ yas (1987), and a book in German about festival traditions in Ladakh by Martin Brauen (1989). Unfortunately, since English is the only western language I can read, I do not have access to the contents of these works. Loten Dorje, presently an M.Phil. student at the University of Oslo, published a digital book in English in 2007, in collaboration with Kevin Stuart, on marriage customs and songs in Qinghai entitled Life and Marriage in sKya rgya Tibetan Village: sKya rgya sa khul du dar ba’i gnyen ston gyi cho ga dang yul mi’i ’tsho ba. Since marriage customs in Qinghai lie outside the scope of my investigation, this book, and its numerous translated marriage songs, will only be used for comparative purposes, and particularly for information on nomadic marriage traditions.

Anthropological studies of marriage customs and marriage types in Tibet and the Himalayas are also available and they include studies by scholars like Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark (1963), Barbara Aziz (1978), Melvyn Goldstein (1971), Nancy Levine (1988), Ben Jiao (2001) and Heidi Fjeld (2007). Several of the anthropological works are concerned with social structure and polyandry and do not focus on marriage songs. These studies are therefore consulted for context and for background information for understanding marriage rituals and marriage songs.

In addition to the primary sources on marriage songs and speeches in Tibetan already published, I gathered some complementary information on marriage songs and rituals during a field visit in June 2006 to Lhasa and to Tagtse (sTag rtse) County, east of Lhasa. The interview data will be used in this thesis to support or contrast the information provided by the textual sources.

To sum up, I mainly base the information of my thesis on the three Tibetan textual sources mentioned above: bSod nams chos dar’s Lha sa khul gyi gnyen sgrig lam srol (‘Wedding Customs in Lhasa’), P.W. Barshi and Thubten Sangay’s gNa’ rabs bod kyi chang sa’i lam srol (‘Tibetan Marriage Customs in Old Times’) and Blo bzang Byams dpal’s dBus gtsang khul gyi bag ston goms srol (‘Marriage Customs in Western and Central Tibet’). I will give a description of a typical marriage procedure in Central Tibet, but my main focus will be on the marriage songs and speeches, which I translate and annotate. In the introduction to each song, I will provide information about the context for when the song or speech is given, then I give the song or speech in transliteration (Wylie), followed by a translation. Since only a few marriage songs from Central Tibet have been translated into English, the main body of my thesis will be the translation of the songs. Wedding rituals and customs cannot be properly understood until we analyse the song and speech traditions that constitute an important part of all traditional Tibetan weddings.

1.3 Theory and Method

Since the primary data on which this thesis is based are oral texts in the Tibetan language, the ability to read, understand and translate the songs and speeches are basic skills that are necessary to write this thesis. In order to fully understand the songs I am translating, I interviewed, during my field work in Takse and Lhasa during the summer months of 2006, a number of old Tibetans about the meaning of the songs. In some of the speeches and the songs there are metaphors and expressions hard to understand for a young man like me, and I have greatly benefited from the information from old Tibetans. Furthermore, the reading of secondary material published by Tibetan, Chinese and Western scholars has provided the necessary context for my understanding of the songs. Translating songs and speeches requires an intimate knowledge of the culture that produced them, and in my work with these songs I have continuously moved from text to context and back to text again in an ongoing hermeneutical process.(cont......)
 (editor:Pe ma)