Published: April 2002

Tibetans

Tibetans

Moving Forward, Holding On

Adapting to the realities of Chinese rule, Tibetans still manage to hold on to cherished traditions.

By Lewis M. Simons
Photograph by Steve McCurry

Watching his daughter on a homemade ladder smoothing varnish over the red-and-yellow trim of their large new log house, Norbu Choden smiled with the satisfaction that even if there was no getting the Chinese out of Tibet, he'd finally figured out how to benefit from their decades-long occupation of his homeland. "Once you understand that they’re never going to help us," he said, "you realize that you have to make your own future."

Norbu made his by transforming himself from a herdsman to a middleman. Like many of the five million Tibetans living under China's flag, he'd spent nearly all of his 48 years in eastern Tibet driving shaggy yaks through alpine meadows, eating their meat and butter, living in a tent woven from their coarse black wool, barely getting by from one brutal winter to the next. Now he leaves the hard work to others, while he buys and sells for profit.

The middleman has a long and storied history among Chinese, but his vital economic role has largely eluded the grasp of Tibetans. Before Norbu's metamorphosis, he would look on with envy as Chinese from neighboring Sichuan Province arrived each spring, buying up a wrinkled little fungus that he and other nomads had dug from the ground in their spare time. The Chinese then sold the brown Cordyceps, known as caterpillar fungus, for huge profits to traditional medicine makers.

Gradually the thought took hold: If the Chinese can do it, why couldn't Tibetans? Why couldn't he? The government in Beijing had long since declared that personal wealth was no longer a social evil; indeed, Deng Xiaoping himself had said back in the 1980s that to get rich was "glorious." So, nervous but hopeful, Norbu sold off his animals two years ago and went into the Cordyceps business.

Earning as much as $750 a pound from medicine makers in Chengdu, the Sichuan capital, Norbu made his risk pay off. Now he is by his own assessment a rich man. He displays the symbols of his new wealth: the coral-and-turquoise-studded jewelry he and his wife wear on their fingers and wrists, around their necks, and in their long, glossy black hair; the copper pots gleaming in the spacious log-walled kitchen; the sunny mountain mural in the main room. His rosy-cheeked wife still wears the chuba, the wraparound woolen robe traditionally favored by both women and men, but Norbu, tall and rugged, has switched to dark trousers and open-collared white shirt—what Tibetans refer to as "Chinese clothes."

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