The most fundamental aspects of Tibetans' lives have gone unnoticed and undocumented in the Western academic literature which, in part, reflects the striking lack of local Tibetan voices in Tibetan studies in the West. This important work begins to remedy this lamentable situation.Contributing to a growing opus of English-language ethnographic studies produced by Tibetan graduates of the English Training Program (ETP) in Xining City, Qinghai Province, China, the authors provide a rare view of the complex practices among Tibetans in rural southeast Qinghai associated with the hair-changing rituals that announce the sexual maturity of teenage girls.
The hair-changing ritual was once widely practiced inthe Tibetan farming and semi-pastoralist communities of eastern Amdo, the region now divided among the rural counties of China's Qinghai and Gansu provinces. It was arguably the only major rite-of-passage that put girls front and center; there was no equivalent rite for boys. Yet its significance for Tibetans seems to have largely escaped the Chinese and western observers who wrote about the region from the early twentieth century on. As this study makes clear, these practices are about much more than just girls and their hair. In fact, in the days-long rite of passage, the preparations and festivities engage a whole cosmological nexus of fortune, purity, fertility, sexuality, and exchange, recruiting the participation of men and women across the community and entailing future (mutual aid, kinship, and affinal) relationships among them. As such, the hair-changing ritual strikingly demonstrates that gender and kinship relations are not marginal concerns but core aspects of all Tibetans' social lives in these regions.
This study's rich detail, and its description of a particular instance of the rite, is fruitful food for thought,especially in light of the rapid social and economic changes now taking place in rural Tibetan regions of China increasingly experiencing development and urbanization. For one thing, unlike other studies, here we have a full text of a ritual speech contextualized along with the accompanying actions, objects, and exchanges. The study thus gives us away to link local Tibetans' systems of metaphor, cosmology, and value with the contemporary circulations of gifts and guests that are subject to so much flux under new forms of state-sponsored consumer capitalism. For another, as Tibetan women are increasingly called upon to hold up rural localities and household economies as men travel to seek cash and wages, this study provides us an invaluable baseline against which to consider the fundamentally gendered implications of socioeconomic change for rural Tibetans.