Beyond the Thangkas of Rebkong

On the outside, Rebkong, or Tóngrén(同仁)in Chinese, is just another dusty mid-sized city in Qinghai. It has a couple monasteries, the standard Tibetan majority and smattering of Huizu who run restaurants and buy 虫草 (the super expensive worms with fungus exploding out of their heads that people eat) to sell to Chinese people. But even after just two days there you get the impression that a lot more is going on.

We knew of Rebkong because it was frequently in the news in 2012 due to protests and a handful of local Tibetans and monks self-immolating in the city square just outside of Longwu Monastery (隆务寺). As a result, Rebkong locals began to learn to live with unfortunate standoffs with the police, communication lock-downs, and curfews, though things have been much quieter this year.

During our time in Rebkong we barely noticed any tensions, except for a minor annoyance when the first hotel we tried to stay in rejected us because we were foreigners (to be fair, there are only two foreigner-sanctioned hotels in Rebkong, which we didn’t find out about until we got there). We stayed at the Rebkong Hotel (0973-5936888, 河东村东格尔路1号), which is the fancy (by local standards) newish hotel. It was fine, though quite pricey at 320 RMB per night.

The funny thing about this region is that sometimes certain places run super hot with tensions and are completely locked-down with no foreigner entry. Then in no time, for seemingly no reason, things open up and if you traveled through an area you might not notice that anything is or was amiss.

To most tourists, Rebkong is known as ground zero for thangka paintings. The artists in Rebkong are the undisputed champions of the art form that dates back to the 11th century A.D. Master thangka artists can make a decent living, selling intricately painted thangkas that use precious minerals and gold as paint and selling them for upwards of 30,000RMB each.

Besides the thangkas and monasteries (i.e. Gomar, Rongbo, and Wutun), the best part of Rebkong is talking to the people. There are so many fascinating things to learn about Tibetan culture and politics and Rebkong is a particularly beautiful and unique place to do it. Moreover, the city itself won’t wow you at all on the surface, so you’ll need to do at least a little digging to find the magic. We also heard that there’s a lot of great hiking in the area, though we didn’t personally do any.

From Kanbula National Forest Park we got a car to take us to a bus station. The “station” ended up being an intersection where buses departing from Xining to Rebkong passed through. The only problem was that every bus was already full, so there was no way for us to get on mid-route. After standing on the side of the street for an hour watching full buses pass us by, we decided to hitchhike. We found a car in literally 5 minutes and were off in a very comfortable Chinese brand Lincoln Towncar lookalike. The guy charged us 80RMB for the 1.5 hour ride. Lesson learned – if you’re a guy or in a group, hitchhiking is definitely the best way to get around this part of Qinghai (especially true in the more remote southern and western areas).

 

Longwu Monastery

We had to start our Rebkong exploration with Longwu Monastery. It’s one of those things that you almost need to do just to get it out of the way (That’s not entirely fair, as it is a truly beautiful monastery and worthwhile an earnest visit. But, if you’ve been to a lot of monasteries, it is sort of just another monastery). “Longwu” is the Chinese name, but it’s really just a bad imitation of the Tibetan name, which is pronounced more like Rong Bo (Rong Bo is also the name of a river).

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Locals sit and spin a large prayer wheel well into the night outside of Longwu Monastery

If you sit out in front of the monastery you’ll eventually see a Chinese tour bus roll up. A dozen or so people will get out, take a bunch of group photos in front of the main entrance, and then leave. But the monastery really deserves more than that.

Start by hanging out in the square. It’s an awesome place to people watch particularly because older people sit or pray around in the square and occasionally circle the golden statute in the middle. As is true in all Tibetan areas, the older people in general wear the more traditional clothing and do indeed look the coolest.

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Rebkong Tongren 同仁

Rebkong Tongren 同仁

Rebkong Tongren 同仁

Rebkong Tongren 同仁

The monastery dates back to 1301 AD during the Yuan Dynasty and stands today as one of the biggest Gelug-sect monasteries in Qinghai. The monastery is also home to three academic institutes and over 700 monks. The main assembly hall, built in 1732, is the largest building in the monastery and can accommodate more than 3,000 monks.

Peeking inside each temple and getting lost in the alleys is a great way to experience the monastery. At almost any given time you’re bound to see locals circling a prayer wheel or walking the perimeter.

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Rebkong Tongren 同仁

Rebkong Tongren 同仁

Rebkong Tongren 同仁

Rebkong Tongren 同仁

Rebkong Tongren 同仁

Rebkong Tongren 同仁

Inside the temple of Kalachakra in the monastery, we noticed an interesting imprint on the wooden floor. Two feet and parallel ruts for sliding your hands forward from a kneeling position were carved into the floor symbolizing the prayer movement (which is really like an ab-roller motion).

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A local man who frequented this particular temple explained that it was a favorite spot for people to come pray, and some would indeed spend hours praying on the very spot where the imprints were made.

Also in the temple was a prominently displayed picture of the Dalai Lama. Initially we were surprised at this, as during our travels in central Sichuan and Labrang Monastery we were frequently told by locals that they weren’t allowed to display pictures of the Dalai Lama. In contrast, in Rebkong and most other places in Qinghai, images of the Dalai were everywhere. Varying accounts from locals explained that they were allowed to display his photo due to a local regulation or that they simply didn’t care to listen to officials when they were told to take the pictures down.

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Rebkong Tongren 同仁

We eventually made it up to the top of the monastery where Shartsang Palace and Skajhamoni Hall sit. Inside the Hall we ran into a very talkative and passionate monk. We went through our customary introductions, discovering that he joined the monastery when he was 15-years-old and had lived there for the past 30 years. As a young monk, he’d also walked to India, which took him 38 days. Though he warned us not to try it now, as you (if you were a monk coming from China) could be shot dead at the border.

First he told us all about the self-immolations that happened the previous year. According to him there were 15. Perhaps most heart-breaking was his account of one incident where a man had not successfully immolated and was taken into the monastery. Police surrounded the monastery and demanded the man, who after a month-long standoff with no professional medical attention died from his burn injuries.

We asked him what he thought of self-immolating as an act of protest and with strong conviction and no hesitation he stated that he was against it completely. Of course he sympathized with those who have self-immolated, recognizing that they simply “没有办法” (can’t do anything else).

We then asked him why things tend to happen in Rebkong as opposed to other neighboring areas. He explained that Longwu Monastery is pretty much one of the most important monasteries outside of Labrang, which means it’s a prime place to make a statement. Moreover, the people of Rebkong are particularly passionate Buddhists who aren’t scared to take a stand against the local government.

Smack in the center of the Hall was a picture of the Dalai, which the monk explained he’d fight to display even if the government told him not to.

Throughout our conversation the monk kept getting Weixin (WeChat) messages (an instant messaging app similar to WhatsApp) on his iPhone 4S. He explained that the iPhone has Tibetan and is really good quality, which is why he uses it. Across our travels in Qinghai and Sichuan, perhaps 95% of monks (who have mobile phones) have iPhones. A friend of the monk picked his 4S up in Beijing. He asked us if we had the iPhone 5, and said he’d get one next time he went to Beijing.

The monk wasn’t shy about talking about money. He fully acknowledged the wealth of many monks and condemned much of the way monasteries are run as financial institutions. He was particularly critical of the 活佛 (Huófó – Living Buddha) situation. Huofo often receive sizable donations from locals, who although are desperately poor are known to give the huofo a majority of their earnings. Not unlike the promises of Scientology, unscrupulous huofo will promise good fortune and health in exchange for monetary donations. Many of these fake huofo now have multiple apartments and cars in downtown Beijing and Shanghai.

The problem is not easily solved, as a solution would have to address both corruption within famous and influential monasteries as well as grassroots teaching about financial planning to a relatively uneducated population.

On the tail end of that topic, the monk mentioned how he was going to Japan soon, then Switzerland, and then the US. Clearly this monk had adequate financial means. And of course that’s not a bad thing, as there’s no rule that monks have to live in poverty and can’t travel. However, it was at least slightly ironic that he was criticizing the excessive wealth of other monks and huofo, while at the same time was somewhat boastful of his cosmopolitan ways.

We asked him what he thought the future would hold in terms of Tibetan-China relations. He sighed and wasn’t hopeful, acknowledging that the Chinese government has no reason to give up any control and that the Tibetan community really doesn’t have any strong bargaining chips. That sentiment is one that we heard time and time again talking to different Tibetans.

One of our final topics was the use of the word 藏族 (Zàngzú), which means Tibetan in Chinese. According to this monk he was a Bo (Boba 博巴 refers to the Tibetan people in Tibetan) not a Zàngzú. Apparently the Zang comes from the Tibetan word Gtsang in Dbus-Gtsang, which refers to Central Tibet. That name was of course assigned to the Tibetans by the Chinese (though the Chinese change basically every culture’s name into something Chinese-ified). In any case, we had never really thought about the potentially pejorative connotations of using the term Zàngzú, but indeed there understandably can be some. We found one good explanation online of the naming history of Tibetans (though I can’t vouch for the accuracy, it seems legit).

We spent a solid 2 hours talking to the monk and it was fantastic that he was so open and eager to discuss things. If you can track him down or some other equally chatty monk in Longwu, we’d highly recommend it, even if like us you only get to scratch the surface of most topics (this monk spoke perfect Chinese, which made things much easier).

 

Gomar Gompa

Our next stop was about 7km outside of the city. We hopped into a cab (which are easy to get anywhere in the valley) and set off for Gomar Gompa, which is home to a monastery and a large colorful stupa that you can climb to the top of.

The monastery is about 400-years-old and houses a little over 100 monks. This monastery is very peaceful and usually doesn’t have a lot of people walking around.

The stupa is really the main thing to see. While the colors and elaborate decorations are almost baroque in terms of gaudiness, it’s nevertheless fun to climb up in the standard clockwise direction. Inside the top of the stupa are some neat vintage photos of the Dalai when he was still in China.

 

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Rebkong Tongren 同仁

 

Wutun Monastery

From Gomar we took a pleasant 20-minute walk over to Wutun Monastery and village, where many of the thangka-painting monks and other artists live and work. Inside upper and lower Wutun monastery are a group of striking temples, some with beautiful thangkas inside. However, we can appreciate thangkas about as much as we can appreciate red wine, meaning the really good ones are easily identifiable and appreciated, but all the intricacies of the other grades are somewhat lost on us.

We found a relatively young monk who was in the middle of painting a thangka and started harassing him with questions. He was super friendly and willing to answer the same questions he probably gets all the time. He told us about all his materials, and how they mix things like gold and silver into ground up horns to make the paint.

He also went into the theory behind thangka painting and described how the act of painting was an act of meditation. He suggested that a truly great thangka was a reflection of the level of inner peace achieved by the painter.  He said his strokes were more smooth and precise when he was in a deep meditative state.

When we asked him how to spot a good thangka he recommended looking first at the faces, which he thought were the hardest to paint. Look for symmetry and whether the eyes line up. Also look at the expression and see if it evokes an emotive or serene feeling.

It’s great that thangka painting is alive and kicking. And since the art form is more about the process of painting and the symbolism within the thangka, the traditional form of the thangka is being preserved as well. Though given the rigidity of the format, it’s perhaps fairer to call the painters craftsmen rather than artists, as creativity is not a core element in thangka painting.

So preserving tradition is great, and making a living off of painting is clearly an admirable and difficult pursuit. However, on the other hand, the commercial nature of Wutun was a bit off putting. It’s not that monks or artists shouldn’t be able to sell paintings. That’s fine. Everyone’s got to make a living. I mean most of them aren’t raking it in anyway, as it takes them upwards of three months to do one good painting, so even if you sell it for 30,000 RMB, you’re not making boat loads of cash.

I think the more troubling thing is that the monks are diluting the very religion they’ve devoted their lives to. I honestly can’t understand how a monk can in good conscience encourage some rich Chinese guy in an SUV to buy a gold painted thangka to bring good fortune. Why not paint them out of simpler and cheaper materials? Are these uber-thangkas encouraging the very attachment that Buddhism tries to separate us from?

It’d be one thing if the monks were having the last laugh and were donating the profits to schools or providing rural medical care, but instead it seems like the money is being spent on building more gaudy concrete stupas and temples. In fact, at Wutun, a particularly ornate and over-the-top stupa was being constructed, not more than a 100 meters away from a golden stupa that looked like something out of Las Vegas.

Now we’re not suggesting at all that the Wutun monks and artists are corrupt or bad people, but there does need to be some serious introspection on the role of money in modern Buddhism and how to reconcile healthy fundraising and business growth versus natural inclinations to greed and materialism.

Anyway, judgments aside, Wutun monastery and the surrounding artist studios are definitely worth a visit.

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Rebkong Tongren 同仁

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Rebkong Tongren 同仁
Rebkong Tongren 同仁

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Food – Rebkong Home

Last but certainly not least is a food recommendation for Rebkong Home, a delicious Tibetan run restaurant about a 15-minute walk past Longwu Monastery.  Its Chinese name is 热贡藏家 and it’s located at 隆务镇唯哇村公路旁 (电话:13209734095, 87228235).

Unfortunately we didn’t have more people, so we could only order a couple things, but what we did order was fantastic. I still have dreams about that fried meat pie.

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For more information about Rebkong and Qinghai in general you should check out our friend Jonas’ most excellent blog, which is a lot more than just a travel blog, being probably the best and most insightful English-language blog about traveling through the Qinghai region. Jonas is an active non-promoter of his blog, but I can’t help but reference it as he personally gave us so much information while we were in Rebkong and generally got us excited about Qinghai.

2 thoughts on “Beyond the Thangkas of Rebkong

  1. Sunapati Thangka School

    Beautiful article and pictures.
    It is indeed very true that greed and bad business practices undermine what is the true meaning of the tradition of painting thangkas nowadays. However some schools and artists still try to promote this ancient art without distorting his nature. Our Thangka school would be proud to host you in our small village in Nepal.
    Thank you for sharing!

    Sunapati Thangka School

    Reply
    1. zac Post author

      That is so kind of you. Great to hear there are still pure Thangka painters out there! We will definitely think of you if we are ever traveling in the region!

      Reply

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