Film Review: Valley of the Heroes
Reviewed by Lugyal Bum
Khashem Gyal. 2013. Valley of the Heroes. Documentary, color, 53 minutes. USD219 (institutional); USD2495 (home use), Documentary Educational Resources.
Khashem Gyal’s film, Valley of the Heroes, focuses on language and cultural change on the northeast Tibetan Plateau. I watched the premiere at Qinghai Nationalities University in May 2013, and have since watched it several times. The film has been screened at various venues in the USA and internationally. As a Tibetan from the area Valley of the Heroes focuses on – Hualong Hui Autonomous County – this film is of particular interest to me.
Kashem Gyal’s (Mkhar byams rgyal) debut film was made while he was an undergraduate at Qinghai Nationalities University in 2013. The film’s promotional materials describe the content:
Valley of the Heroes offers a rare glimpse at a pivotal moment of cultural and linguistic transition among Tibetans and Muslims in Hualong County, a remote community in Amdo, Tibet, part of what is now eastern Qinghai Province, China. Over the past several decades, Tibetans living in Hualong have experienced rapid cultural shifts, accelerated by language loss – today, more than 30% are unable to speak their own native language. The film spends time with an assortment of village residents and elders who reflect on the changes taking place in their community, and also documents a unique Tibetan language program that is attempting to address the situation. Valley of the Heroes serves as both a warning call and glimmer of hope for the future of Tibet.
The film has subtitles in English, Tibetan, and Chinese. Japanese will be added for the DVD release. The subtitles use different colors for Chinese and Tibetan, allowing audiences who do not speak Tibetan or Chinese to appreciate how these languages are used together in everyday conversation.
The film focuses on the complex relations between language, religion, and ethnicity. We meet several elderly Muslims who speak Tibetan fluently, and who claim that they were originally Tibetans who subsequently converted to Islam. The film shows how all local youths now speak only Chinese, or speak Tibetan mixed with Chinese. It also shows a group of Tibetan student-volunteers who teach Tibetan to local children, under difficult physical conditions. The volunteers clearly consider that the Tibetan language and culture will soon disappear from the communities they are working with. Additionally, the film shows several experts (Tsering Thar, Gyur me, and Tenzin Sangbo) discussing aspects of Hualong’s history and culture. Finally, the film depicts gambling, smoking, and drinking alcohol among Tibetans in Hualong.
In terms of the subtitles in different language that indicates the intended audiences are Tibetans in general, people in China, and foreign audiences. And although the film focuses only on two villages, it is clear that it is intended to speak about issues of language and culture endangerment in Tibetan society more broadly.
While appreciating Khashem Gyal’s passion for Tibetan language and culture that motivated him to make this film, I disagree with certain aspects of this film, which I wish to discuss here.
I will begin with the poster for the film (see above). The poster shows an elderly man wearing a white skullcap, staring out over a valley from a mountaintop. The skullcap tells us he is Muslim and it seems that what he is gazing at is the Valley of the Heroes. I also feel that there is the implication that Muslims are socially and culturally the dominant group in Hualong. This poster makes me uncomfortable, and I assume many other Tibetans from my hometown would feel similarly.
Many aspects of the film misrepresent the reality of Tibetan life in Hualong in a number of significant ways; for example, I disagree with the suggestion that the Chinese term ‘Hualong’ is derived from the Tibetan ‘Dpa’ lung’ ‘Valley of Heroes’. There are no historical records or explanations of this term. The correct Tibetan name for Hualong is Ba yan. There are different perspectives about the term ‘Ba yan’. For some, ‘Ba’ here means ‘cows’, and it is claimed, in jest, that Ba yan used to have more cows than people, suggesting that it was a poor, backward area. Others suggest that Ba yan is Mongolian meaning ‘rich’ ‘prosperous’.
In recent years, when people ask Hualong Tibetans, “Where are you from?” some answer “I am from the Valley of the Heroes.” Some say this to be humorous, and the name ‘Valley of the Heroes’ sounds impressive, implying that Hualong residents are heroes. Another reason is because of widespread prejudice against Hualong Tibetans by certain A mdo Tibetans since Hualong was designated as an autonomous Hui county in 1931 (Shengkui and Chenggang 1994). Consequently, certain Tibetans consider Hualong to be an area devoid of a Tibetan population: When a Hualong Tibetan says, “I am from Hualong,” Tibetans from other counties sometimes ask, “Oh, have you converted to Islam?”
Such prejudices cause Hualong Tibetans to feel uncomfortable, because there has been a history of Tibetan-Muslim conflict in the area, dating to at least the time of the Muslim warlord Ma Bufang (1903-1975) in the early twentieth century. Local Tibetans also have a strong feeling of pride in their ethnic identity, and feel insulted and humiliated when others suggest that they are not ‘authentic’ Tibetans. For this reason, such beautiful names as ‘Valley of the Heroes’ were created, along with supportive background stories. People who don’t know the real situation of Hualong Tibetans take these inventions seriously, as the Chinese name Hualong sounds similar to the Tibetan for ‘Valley of the Heroes’. The Chinese term ‘Hualong’ has no particular meaning and is just the official name given to the county.
Secondly, the film generalizes by using just a few villages to represent all of Hualong. The film shows scenes of several different areas, but does not clearly indicate where those places are. At the start of the film, a village is vaguely identified as ‘Chukhor Village, Qinghai Province, China’. Other places in the film are not named. However, my observations from watching the film suggest that the film was mostly shot in two villages. The first part of the film was shot in Qunke Village, Qunke Town, Hualong County, where the main ethnic group is Hui Muslims. The second part was filmed in a village of Zhaba Town, Hualong County, where the main ethnic groups are Hui Muslims and Han Chinese. In the second village, there are about fifteen Tibetan families among a total of more than 200 families. Using these two villages to represent the Tibetan experience in all of Hualong County is problematic.
In 2014, Hualong had six towns, seven townships, four Tibetan autonomous townships, and a total of 362 administrative villages. There are twelve ethnic groups in Hualong, such as Hui, Han, Salar, Tibetan, Tu, and so on. The population of Hualong is about 220,000, among whom more than 60,000 people are Tibetan. This means that its Tibetan population is close to the Tibetan population of Rebgong County and larger than the entire population of such ‘Tibetan’ counties as Jianzha (54,000) and Zeku (53,000) counties.
Thirdly, the topic of Tibetan conversion to Islam is controversial, and there are no reliable materials to illustrate the truth of the situation. Some people believe that those Tibetan-speaking Muslims were originally Tibetan, because they speak Tibetan well. In that case, if I speak Japanese very well, should I be considered Japanese? And because I speak and write in English, should I be considered English? Another reason is that Hui do not have their own ethnic language, and so speak the dominant language of their environment. The large Tibetan population in Hualong perhaps influenced them to speak Tibetan. In the film, an old Hui man kept saying that his parents spoke Tibetan and that he was originally a Tibetan who converted to Islam. It is implied that General Ma Bufang forced him or his parents to convert to Islam. However, if he identifies himself as Tibetan, why doesn’t he want to convert back to being a Tibetan? There is no longer a warlord like Ma Bufang or anyone else forcing him to be Hui. That man is free to be anyone he thinks he is. What is he waiting for? This highlights Hualong County’s complicated ethnic mosaic. It is difficult to discuss such historically complex issues without conducting more thorough research.
Fourthly, as a film addressing the situation of Tibetan culture and language in Hualong, by avoiding introducing the local Tibetan culture, the film gives a very limited view of Tibetan life in the county. Local Tibetans have unique dress compared with other counties, and their Tibetan dialect is slightly different, since it contains many elements of archaic Tibetan. Therefore, it is sometimes difficult for Tibetans from other Amdo regions to understand the local dialect. Furthermore, Hualong has the well-known monasteries Bya khyung, Dih tsha, and Dan tig and many small monasteries (Lama Cairang and Renqing Kanzhuo 2010). Hualong has also produced an enviable number of knowledgeable Tibetans, including three Dga’ ldan throne holders, Bla chen dgong pa rab gsal (832-915), and Gsong rab rgya mtsho (1896-1982). Some communities in the eastern part of Hualong County have now begun to enthusiastically practice and promote Tibetan culture in the past ten years. For example, some villages in Jinyuan and Tajia Township fine people who do not speak pure Tibetan or who do not wear Tibetan robes in the village. In 2013, these places invited Ldong yon tan rgya mtsho (b. 1974), a great monk, lecturer, and writer, famous for promoting Tibetan culture and language. Afterwards, his lectures were made into DVDs and distributed in local communities and townships in Hualong. These lectures proved influential and the daily topic of conversation among many local Tibetans turned to promoting their culture and language.
Admittedly, schooling in the Tibetan language is not good in Hualong. Nonetheless, the schooling situation does not necessarily influence the spoken language, which is still maintained strongly in most Tibetan communities in Hualong. I noticed in the film that a Tibetan woman is asked that if youths can sing Tibetan folksongs. Loss of traditional music is a global phenomenon (Grant 2014) and to single out these young Tibetans for not knowing traditional folksongs seems to be almost blaming them. It also gives a misleading impression about Tibetan culture in Hualong, which is actually very strong.
A final criticism is that this film lacks narration. Instead, it is largely an interview-based documentary focusing on conversations between the film-maker, local people, and several experts. The lack of narrative creates difficulties that could have been solved if a narrator had provided background information. The pace of the film is slow, and much of the content is repetitive. Several experts provide superficial background information about Tibetans in Hualong.
While it is difficult to represent Hualong County’s diverse population in a fifty-three minute film without narration, it is crucial to provide accurate representations and avoid generalizations. As this film gains popularity through social media, both in and outside of China, the only thing many viewers will know about Hualong is what they see in this documentary, which offends Hualong’s Tibetans through its misrepresentation. Promoting awareness of Tibetan language issues is laudable, but it is crucial to give correct information and a more holistic picture of Tibetans in Hualong.
Grant, C. (2014). Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help. NY: Oxford University Press
Lama Cairang and Renqing Kanzhuo. (2010). Hualong Zangzu Xianzhi: Qiannian Tuzhu Wayanba. Qinghai, Xining: Qinghai Nationalities Publication.
Wang Shengkui, & Liu Chenggang. (1994). Hualong Xianzhi. Shanxi, Xi’an: Shanxi Nationalities Publication.
Kashem Gyal/Mkhar byams rgyal མཁར་བྱམས་རྒྱལ།
Ba yan བ་ཡན།
Dpa’ lung དཔའ་ལུང་།
Ma Bufang 马步芳
Bya Khyung བྱ་ཁྱུང།
Dih tsha དྷི་ཚ།
Dan tig ཏན་ཏིག
Lama Cairang 拉麻才让
Renqing Kanzhuo 仁青侃卓
Dga’ ldan དགའ་ལྡན།
Bla chen dgong pa rab gsal བླ་ཆེན་དགོངས་པ་རབ་གསལ།
Gsong rab rgya mtsho གསུང་རབ་རྒྱ་མཚོ།
Lugyal Bum/Klu rgyal ’bum ཀླུ་རྒྱལ་འབུམ།
Ldong yon tan rgya mtsho ལྡོང་ཡོན་ཏན་རྒྱ་མཚོ།
Dorjie kyid རྡོ་རྗེ་སྐྱིད། ཚེ་རིང་ཐར།
Tsering Thar ཚེ་རིང་ཐར།
Gyur me འགྱུར་མེད།
Tenzin Sangbo བསྟན་འཛིན་བཟང་པོ།
Pen Jun 朋骏
Wang Shengkui 王生奎
Liu Chenggang 刘成刚
Many thanks to Dr. Gerald Roche, Tim Thurtson (PhD Candidate), and Dr. Kevin Stuart for their editorial assistance.
 Qinghai Province, China.
 A preview of the film is available at http://vimeo.com/103383084.
 Director of the College for Tibetan Studies Chinese University for Minorities
 Professor at the college for Tibetan Studies Qinghai Nationalities University
 The village name is not mentioned in the film.
 Dorjie Kyid provides the number of Tibetan families in the film.
 The number of total households in the village is mentioned by Pen Jun in the film.
 A Tibetan county in Qinghai that has the biggest Tibetan population among Qinghai counties.
 The most senior degree in Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy. There have only been 102 such degree holders to date.
 One of the three wise men, who have significant contributions of revitalizing the Tibetan Buddhism.
 He played an important role in funding the Qinghai Tibetan Radio and Television Station, Tibetan newspaper, and the development of Tibetan language Education in Qinghai