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Mastiffs of the Plateau, by Yang Zhijun

translated by Jiang Lin

ACA Publishing Ltd, 2018

Publisher's Blurb

When a blood feud endangers seven young children, one Tibetan mastiff must prove his worth to save their lives. Old blood feuds on the Tibetan plateau flare up when seven children and their Tibetan mastiff, Gangri Senge, follow a Han journalist to a rival tribe’s territory during the early days of the People’s Republic of China. As the tribe plots to punish the children for their forefathers’ crimes, it is up to Gangri Senge and the journalist who befriends him to rescue the children from a grisly fate.

Based on first-hand accounts from author Yang Zhijun’s father, this tale follows the lives of Tibet’s legendary mastiffs as Gangri Senge and the dog-loving journalist struggle to save the captured children. Together they embark on an extraordinary journey across the vast Tibetan wilderness that will change the plateau and its tribes forever.

Mastiffs of the Plateau is a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era and a moving tale of love and loyalty that explores what it means to be human in a world filled with beasts.

Yang Zhijun was born in 1955 on China's Tibetan plateau. He has been hailed as China's finest storyteller about the Tibetan highlands, and his writing has been widely acclaimed as the definitive work embodying the spirit of the Tibetan plateau and its people. Mastiffs of the Plateau began as Yang Zhijun's own search for spiritual redemption. Drawing on his deep knowledge of Tibet, this novel became an instant bestseller that sparked China's fascination with Tibetan culture, especially their legendary mastiffs. Based on this novel, the animated film The Tibetan Dog, screened at France's Annecy International Animated Film Festival, marked the first joint production between Chinese and Japanese film companies.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Andy Thomas, 20/8/19

This is a story about the behaviour of the Tibetan mastiff dog in its relationship with human society – Tibetan and Han - on the Tibetan plateaus, in approximately 1950 and subsequently. It is told as a first-person narration about the narrator’s father, who is presented as a People's Correspondent assigned there. The cover of the book suggests he is the author’s father.

Brief and solemn dialogue appears at key moments in an otherwise dense narrative about dogs. It is not a direct allegory about Tibet, but its portrayal of canine spirit, in fight and sex, serves as a metaphor for human virtue. Above all it is the story of a Tibetan mastiff, Gangre Senge, and a female dog, referred to as his “wife”, Nori. This is not anthropomorphism in that the human should see him or her self in the dog, but that in this account the dog sees itself in the human. It is Yang’s description of human society that is judged against that of the canine.

Tibetan virtue, evidently, comes from ancestral legend, spirit (both human and canine) and place such as mountain or plain. Buddha intercedes between the Han human and the Tibetan dog. The “foreign Han people…brought miracles to the West Jiegu prairie”, it is asserted without challenge, and by the end of the novel an “Ethnic Affairs Commission” has been appointed in the new Qinghai province. We therefore read in passing how the political conflicts are handled, in a remarkably colonialist way, by the Han political structure.

Thus, the Political Commissioner is the “highest ranking government official on the prairie” and the Director, who heads the West Jiegu Working Committee comes second. The Commissioner advises that “the conflicts between tribes and prairies is tricky” and at a time of tension “If we don’t make our alliances clear, it could destabilise our entire strategy of isolating the Upper Arna Prairie tribes”, who are rivals on the plain.

The Political Commissioner advises that “Although Tibetan mastiffs cannot participate in government and political affairs, we shall never neglect their existence, power and well-being.” A junior Han officer reflects without rancour that “My relationship with my leaders is the same as the relationship between Tibetan mastiffs and their masters. It is my greatest virtue to be absolutely obedient”.

Arriving into this political control is our narrator’s father, who considers in a Buddhist tradition that he must have been a dog in his previous life, and whose studies of the Tibetan mastiff were burnt with him on his death as useful information for him to have in the next world. He says “The dogs are like humans to me, and to them I’m like a dog.” Drawing close to Buddha, he becomes acutely aware of the world of dogs and the rules of the prairie.

I was struck by the Mowgli-like character of the little boy in this Kipling-esque novel about a colonialist administration and the key character almost, in the British colonial phrase, “going native”. But the vast majority of Yang’s text describes the behaviour of the dogs, as I think it it is written to be read.

A special mention should be made of artist Rebecca Hartstein’s six inspirational, uniplanar and superflat drawings, monochromatic in line and shade, which give iconic reference to the main story, and act as precursor images to the animal story as it would be in animé.

Reviewed by Andy Thomas