Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Artistry of Tibetan Folk Songs

Tibetan folk songs, in common with folk songs of other nationalities, share a popular use of mood, imagery, metaphor and simple language. But Tibetan folk songs are unique in their form of expression and description. Here we will examine five characteristic rhetorical devices commonly employed in the songs.

Figurative expressions are widely used in Tibetan folk songs, adding a vivid touch by describing the nature of one thing in terms of another. For example.

Blame not the tree for being felled,

Blame not the bird for being left nestles;

For the tree has been cut to the root

By the powerful noble we fear.

Here, “tree” and “bird” act as metaphors for two youngsters in love, hence the “powerful noble’s” cutting down of the tree is the cause of their separation.

Tibetan folk songs use things with familiar characteristics to express abstract concepts such as feelings or the inner nature of people. Popular analogies are taken from the nature of environment, e. g. flowers , grass, trees, birds, animals, the sun, moon and stars, mountains, rivers and lakes, wind, rain and lightning, and sometimes gods, demons and spirits from the supernatural word. The Tsangpo River, Kampala Pass, Lake Yamdok Tso, and the goddess Tara and Princess Wencheng also often occur in folk songs, and are closely related to the lives of the Tibetans. Vivid analogies make the songs more appealing, easier to remember and thus easier to spread.

More rhetoric devices are applied in Tibetan folk songs by means of “open analogy,” “hidden analogy” and “borrowed analogy.”

In open analogies the actual object and analogical object are clearly distinguished by the use of formal comparison. For example:

The life of a maiden

Is like an early spring blossom;

Before it is offered up at the altar,

It is spoiled by snowflakes.

In a hidden analogy the actual object and analogy both appear but there is no formal comparison. This kind of metaphor has a greater effect on the imagination. For example:

By bringing the game to bay

The hunter shoots innocent beasts;

By bringing the tenants to bay

The noble robs innocent people.

The borrowed analogy consists solely of the analogy used as a substitute for the actual object. For example, in the song Hope the Clouds Will Gather For Rain the terms “rain”, “mist,” “heavy snow” and “willow catkin” all stand for beloved ones and enemies. This device requires effort on the part of the listener to deduce the actual object, and is thus more powerful.

In Tibetan folk songs,, such rhetoric device as substitution is used in a way that animate or inanimate objects are substituted for a human subject. This makes for vivid, revealing language. Note its vivid use in these two verses:

If I were a fish in the river,

I’d twist in the same stylish way;

But I’m only a bird in a cage

Unable to soar free with the flock.

The vultures at the sight of a corpse

Forget their rocky mountain eyras,

But as ninth approaches

They return to the rocky mountains.

Here these striking substitutions express the feeling of the author and deeply affect audiences. In Tibetan folk songs, substitution is customarily used when expressing inner feelings.

Known as “exaggeration ornament” in Tibetan rhetoric, hyperbole is a commonly used device in Tibetan folk songs. Its application should have a solid foundation in fact, when it creates a vivid effect. An example is :

O you are fairer than goddess,

But your gruel is thinner than water;

You have no need of a mirror,

For your face is reflected in your gruel.

Where the woman’s beauty and the meagerness of her gruel are described using hyperbole. The exaggeration is couched in simple and straightforward language which serves to highlight the device.

Known as “explanatory ornament” in Tibetan rhetoric, using puns as a way to express meaning on two levels, literally and figuratively. Take these verses for example:

The flavorsome nettles of spring

Are sought after but elusive;

The stinging nettles of autumn

Are everywhere but shunned.

Think not that the raspberry

Bears no berry;

Is not today’s white blossom

Tomorrow’s berry?

In the first song the “nettle” also has the meaning of “love.” It is a warning to young people not to be too disdainful otherwise the day will come when nobody will want them and their attempts to gain attention will meet with rebuff. In the second verse, the discussion of the raspberry concludes with a philosophical truth: we should be aware of innate capacity for change as well as external appearance. This kind of aphorism offers much food for thought to the audiences.

Language is of vital importance in any discussion of Tibetan folk songs. The characteristics of the language used in these songs can be summarized in two words: simple and clear. Most folk songs are vividly worded, yet simple and straightforward. Avoiding fanciful phrasing and a plethora of facts, the song becomes a lively work of art. Note how these few, simple words sketch a vivid, if rather nauseating, picture:

A nice fat corpse

Draws vultures in flocks,

When only bones remain

The vultures fly away.

Molded by Tibetan history, the natural environment and conditions of life, the characteristic language of Tibetan folk songs comes from the hearts of the people, and in the process of oral and written transmission have been honed to perfection. This song was sung by a serf on a curve arrange:

As the evening twilight fills the sky,

And the owls come out from rocky mountains,

How I long for the smoky fire of home,

With mother waiting by the cozy hearth.

The words describe not only the pitiful scene of the serf on his errand of forced labor but also his misery. Audiences would sympathy not only with the serf’s situation but also with his forlorn mother left alone by the fireside. This talent for sketching a scene redolent with meaning in plain and simple words is by no means a rarity among the folk songs of Tibet.

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