Text and photographs by Chen Zhen
Resting atop the “roof of the world,” the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, is a “golden valley,” as its name, Rebgong, in Tibetan language literally means. Tongren (Rebgong) is the only state-class historical and cultural town in Qinghai Province. More notably, as the birthplace of renowned Rebgong Art, the area is home to myriad Tibetan artists. With the frequent aroma of yak butter floating through the air, the small county lying more than 3,000 meters above sea level is already mature in its fusion and development of art, business, and tourism. Those looking to explore the local untouched spiritual lifestyles should look elsewhere, because the Rebgong people choose to pursue the path of prosperity and material gains rather than sticking to humility like many of their nearby peers.
Offers for thangkas determine painting techniques
“How much is this thangka painting?” may be the most common question heard on the streets of Tongren, but Gendun Dargye turns the inquiry upside down.
As a child, Gendun Dargye learned the art of thangka (a traditional Tibetan silk painting with Buddhist theme) from his father, the late acclaimed artist Sharu Tsering. The son is now one of the most celebrated thangka masters in Rebgong, and he confesses that the price of a customer’s offer for a thangka determines the painting techniques he uses. “Different rates mean different brushwork, which has become an established rule within the industry,” he explains. “In my father’s era, such practices would be considered disrespectful to the Buddha as a result of excessive desire and an abundance of distracting thoughts. Back then, thangka paintings were created to be priced afterwards.” His own works sell well, including an offer exceeding a million yuan. In addition to local monasteries and ordinary people, increasing demand from buyers in large cities like Beijing and Shanghai, as well as foreign countries, has fueled the thangka industry. Those who purchase and resell thangka at a profit sometimes have no idea what is depicted in the painting, and most buyers care little about their content. Rather, enthusiasts are lured by a fantastic mix of colors and designs, adds Gendun.