On Mastiffs, Typography and the Taming of Tibet

"The Call" By Alan Dawa Dolma: Single Cover

After last week’s Shapale excitement, I’m going to write about a music video that is most definitely not banned in China, in fact quite the opposite. It’s the music video called “The Call” and it’s for a new animated feature film “Tibetan Mastiff Dorje”, set for cinema release in China this year on June 28. The singer is Alan Dawa Dolma.

According to Chinese state media, “Tibet Mastiff Dorje” is the debut cooperation film between China and Japan on animation, which explains why Alan Dawa Dolma is singing the theme song. For those of you down with contemporary Tibetan pop culture, you’ll know that Dartsedo born Alan Dawa Dolma is a bit of a pop sensation in Japan. She is also properly famous, having done the theme songs for John Woo’s two episode film “Red Cliff” back in 2008. If anyone can explain why she calls herself Alan though, I’d be interested in knowing that!

I’m sorry I made you watch the video and listen to the music but there are a couple of things here that are worth a closer look I think. First of all, there’s the matter of the mastiff, according to this news article,

“Tibetan Mastiff Dorje” is adapted from a best-selling novel, which described the story of Tian Jin, a ten-year-old boy and a mastiff he saved on the plateau in southwest China’s Tibet.

Given the huge appetite nouveau riche Chinese people seem to have for Tibetan mastiffs, both in real life and in cultural matters related to Tibet, it makes sense for a major animation film to feature a Tibetan mastiff! Hardly a month seems to go by without some kind of headline describing how a rich Chinese business person paid an obscene amount of money for a Tibetan mastiff, they are really obsessed with mastiffs as a status symbol. I think the most recent news story was last month, a Chinese coal baron paid $1.5 million for a Red Tibetan Mastiff.

Tibetan mastiffs have also been voraciously consumed in Chinese language fiction, over the last few years there have been several bestselling novels focusing on mastiffs, am posting the covers of two below, the book on the left is “The Tibet Code” by He Ma and on the right we have “Tibetan Mastiff” by Yang Zhijun on which the animation is based. “The Tibet Code” series of books already runs into 8 or 9 volumes and every single one has been a huge bestseller since the first volume was published in March 2008 (somewhat ironically!). I have only read the first one but basically the whole plot centres around a mythical Tibetan mastiff creature which the protagonists spend the whole novel searching for…

My personal favourite Tibetan mastiff cultural treat is the two-part 2009 graphic novel called “Tibetan Rock Dog” written by a Chinese rock star called Zheng Jun who had a huge hit in the 1980s with a song called “Return to Lhasa”.

The story is about a Tibetan mastiff called Metal who grows up in a monastery in Tibet and is then taken off to Beijing by a “Tibet Drifter” type rocker where he forms a rock band! All pretty silly stuff but I find it quite cute and it also leads me nicely into the next thing I want to take a closer look at – FONTS!

Take another look at the fonts on the book covers above, “Tibetan Mastiff” and “Tibetan Rock Dog” are good examples of the Chinese font that is trying to look like Tibetan script! There is a term in typography for one style of writing trying to imitate the stereotypical letter forms of another language: simulation fonts. Here is a link to a font called Al-Andalus, an Arabic simulation font.

Over the years I have been obsessively saving any of this kind of font I have come across so am excited now that the collection can be viewed here below:

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The only thing I have found written specifically about Chinese and Tibetan is this 2007 post from Danwei.Org, they call it Tibetan-style Chinese. It’s widespread in the PRC and you can see it from book covers to food packaging to album covers, basically for anything packaged as “Tibetan”. This brings me back to the Alan Dawa Dolma video as it’s the first time that I have seen an entire music video subtitled in this font. The font is fascinating, as is her singing in Chinese, Tibetan and English. Alan Dawa Dolma fan forums also suggest that there is a Japanese version of the song somewhere.

The mastiff, the singer, the music and the simulation fonts are all connected – they all exoticise Tibet and Tibetans. From being amused by the things I have mentioned above, I am going to move to a more scholarly interpretation… The traditional Chinese image of Tibet is of wild and cultureless natives so this exoticisation in a way neutralises and pacifies Tibetans. Even the font turns Tibetan script into nothing more than a novelty. This is also a way in which uncomfortable politics can be evaded. The backward natives have now been turned into exotic natives – could this be the taming of Tibet!?


7 thoughts on “On Mastiffs, Typography and the Taming of Tibet

    • Thanks Jigdal! It must be something like that… here’s a message I just received about it which is quite interesting:

      There are places in Khams in which some personal names are abbreviated with a prefixed “A.” Think of the protagonist of Jamyang Norbu’s “Horseman in the Snow”: Nyarong Aten, i.e., Nyag-rong A-bstan, from Bstan-’dzin. That being the case, I think the name Alan, if it is influenced by this practice, is some Sino-Tibetan hybrid.

  1. As she has sings in PRC army before. Do you think she might be a communist party member? Or in a lesser extent, is she just a tool of propanganda by the chinese government?

  2. I want to know whether Alan can speak English or not. If yes, can she speaks English fluently ?

    And is it true that she interviewed The Black Eyed Peas when they came to Japan ? Because a Youtube user said like that.

  3. Oh I’m not sure if she knows English or not… or about the Black Eyed Peas, sorry! Seems like I need to do more research hehe

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