Tibetan Orientalism

Chinese pop star Sa Dingding has big plans for taking her blend of Tibetan Buddhism and world music international. Is now the right time?

By Andrew Leonard
Published April 2, 2008 11:58PM (UTC)
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Watching the Sanskrit version of Sa Dingding's video for her song "Alive" I found myself asking the question, "What would Edward Said think?"

No one gets agitated when an Ang Lee or Zhang Yimou exploits Chinese history and mythology for traditional images reeking of exotica. But what happens when a half-Mongolian pop singer mostly raised in Beijing makes Tibetan Buddhism a staple of her oeuvre? Does that qualify as a type of internal Orientalism, an example of the dominant culture mining the traditional trappings of a subjugated nation -- along the lines of how Chinese entrepreneurs profit from Tibetan tourism?


Sa Dingding is being pitched as China's bid for an internationally famous world music pop star -- in the Independent, Jonathan Brown even dubs her "the oriental equivalent of stars ranging from the ethereal Hibernian crooner Enya to the fiery Icelandic chanteuse Bjork." Which, depending on your taste for traditional Chinese musical stylings and trip-hop dance beats, could be deemed either provocative or an auditory nightmare. (Thanks to China Digital Times for the link.)

But put the music aside. Brown's profile is fascinating: Sa sings in Mandarin, Tibetan, Sanskrit, the nearly extinct Lagu language and a made-up dialect all her own. And despite her love for Tibet, she is no Tibetan independence activist, at least publicly.

"I am a musician so I concentrate on making music, but I am also Chinese so I definitely support our government policy on this issue," she said. "I think everyone has their own country and they will hope their country can be peaceful and develop well."

But one passage rings some serious alarm bells:


She also plans a major appearance in Beijing to coincide with the Olympic Games, where she will be a target for the massed ranks of the international media as it trains its cameras on all things Chinese.

Björk caused a ruckus in China in March when she chanted "Free Tibet" at the end of her song "Declare Independence." What kind of ruckus will be stirred up, internationally, by a "major appearance" at the Olympics by a Chinese pop star who likes to sing in Tibetan? I'll bet she sticks to Mandarin.

Here's the video for "Alive":


And here's a video for "Lama Chenno" -- which gets about as trippy as anything I've ever seen originating from the People's Republic of China.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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