Seventy years of Tibetan stories behind “Dromas”

By Norbu Tsering, Wang Qin’ou

“You have the name of a flower, beautiful Droma La.

You have the smile of a flower, beautiful Droma La.”

These lines are from Droma, a popular Tibetan song celebrating the beauty of Tibetan women. In Tibet, women are often referred to as “Droma,” and many use it as a given name.

The word “Droma” has become iconic. But who are Dromas? What are Dromas like? What forces shape them? We trekked across the vast Tibetan plateau in search of Dromas and found profound stories against a backdrop of changing times.

Residents of the Khesum Community of Nedong District, Shannan City, Tibet, at the annual spring plowing ceremony, March 16, 2019. (PUBU ZHAXI)

Out of Stables

Deqen Droma turns 65 this year. She inherited the word Dolma from her mother’s name.

In traditional Tibetan culture, Droma represents the image of a goddess. Deqen believes that her parents included Droma in her name to bring blessings from the goddess.

Unfortunately, they had to wait for the blessings. Both of her parents were born in cowsheds in local nobles’ manors because of their status as serfs in a feudal theocracy. 

Before 1959, Tibet practiced feudal serfdom under a theocratic system. Deqen and her mother were serfs of Khesum Shika (Manor) in Nedong County, one of the six manors held by Galoin Surkang Wangqen Geleg of the Gaxag (local government of old Tibet). A total of 302 serfs at the manor were forced to till land assigned to them and perform heavy labor without even basic compensation of ample food and clothing. Sometimes, they were beaten by their masters. Deqen grew up as thin as a skeleton, sleeping with cows in a barn.

March 1959 was a turning point in Deqen’s life. The central government carried out democratic reform to abolish feudal serfdom, heralding a new era with brighter prospects for people of all ethnic groups in Tibet. Thus, Deqen was able to move out of the barn. Her hometown, today’s Khesum Community of Nedong District in Shannan City, is known as “the birthplace of democratic reform in Tibet.” 

“We didn’t have to live in barns after that,” said Deqen. “Also, my family was given one of the oxen as family property.” Deqen and her mother couldn’t believe that their family was granted ownership of land, housing, and livestock.

Reform of the social system brought true liberation and equality to women and all people in the lowest stratum of society in Tibet. The 13-Article Code and 16-Article Code specified women as “the lowest rank of the lower class.” Female lives were valued at about the price of straw rope. In 1959, such codes were canceled.

Eventually, Deqen was able to attend school in her village. After China began reform and opening-up, with the gradual improvement of agricultural production efficiency, her family bought a tractor, as many others did. During the busy farming seasons of spring sowing and autumn harvesting, the community would provide the villagers with free agricultural machinery services. The family ox was happy to retire. 

The world of Deqen, who spent most of her life in barns and fields, has been turned upside down. Her three daughters all work in the urban area of Shannan City, just 15 minutes from her home by car. Her eldest daughter and son-in-law run a transport business.

In Khesum, the agricultural mechanization rate has reached 98 percent, so farmers no longer have to manage their plots year-round. Many have sought outside employment as migrant workers or opened businesses in neighboring cities.

Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012, the central government has invested nearly 40 million yuan (US$6.15 million) in building Khesum into “a demonstration community of ecological progress.” All of the community’s infrastructure including sewage pipes and street lights have been upgraded. A new community service center and a library have been built. In 2017, the remaining poverty-stricken households in the community were lifted out of poverty. In 2020, per capita annual income in the community reached 25,000 yuan (US$3,845). 

Deqen Droma said she represented the fourth generation of the family to be born in barns. “I was certainly the last,” she said with a smile.

Witnesses of Change

Ten years after the democratic reform commenced, a girl who would become Tibet’s top meteorological expert was born in Xigaze just north of Mount Qomolangma (known as Mount Everest in the West) and named Droma. 

A decade later, Sloan Droma was born in Qamdo in the valleys of eastern Tibet. She would later join Tibet’s first generation of railway workers.

What kindled the “Dromas” ascent from the mountains to the forefront of development on the Tibetan Plateau?

In 1986, Droma passed the national entrance exam to get admitted to what was then the Nanjing Institute of Meteorology, reputed to be the “cradle of Chinese meteorological talent.”

“Graduates from the institute in the late 1980s are now all heavyweights of meteorology in Tibet,” said Droma.

After graduation, Droma was assigned to a weather station at the foot of Mount Qomolangma managed by Dingri County Meteorological Bureau. In all weather conditions, observers at the station were expected to collect data accurately and send it by cable to the meteorological bureau. Droma witnessed the generation before her who had been braving wind and snow from the mountain during the few hours of daylight to collect data from instruments on the ground. She was inspired to understand how important meteorological work actually was.

“Our work directly affects the harvest and personal safety of farmers and herders,” said Droma, “There is no margin for error.”

Sloan Droma realized the weight of her responsibility in 2006 when she welcomed the first train into Tibet at Lhasa Railway Station.

Sloan, who turns 40 this year, vividly remembers walking three days through the mountains and spending another in the back of a truck to travel from her village to the primary school in the county seat. She attended secondary school education in Yueyang City, central China’s Hunan Province, a much longer trip. It took 10 to 15 days traveling by bus, boat, and other means. It was tough.

“I don’t regret it,” said Sloan. “Without getting educated in Hunan, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

In the 1980s, Tibet could not meet an increased demand for talent with its weak educational infrastructure. The central government made the decision to cultivate talent for Tibet in other parts of the country. In September 1985, the first group of primary school graduates from the Tibetan ethnic group were enrolled in Tibetan classes (schools) in inland areas as part of a new model of education in Tibet. During her four years of schooling in Hunan Province, Sloan never made the long journey home to visit her parents, and her village did not have access to phone lines back then. At one point, her parents worried they would never see their daughter again.

Recalling the past is bittersweet for Sloan.  

When ground broke for the stretch of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway from Golmud to Lhasa in 2001, Sloan was still in high school. Upon learning that Southwest Jiaotong University was planning to enroll a group of Tibetan students for future management of the railway, she jumped at the chance. Even though it would require traveling further from home than she ever had, she was determined. “I wanted to witness trains operating in my hometown.”

Since the Qinghai-Tibet Railway opened, Sloan has been working at the Lhasa Railway Station. The former farmland surrounding the station has developed into the Lhasa High-tech Development Zone.

Tibet’s operational railway mileage has now reached 954 kilometers, and its highway traffic mileage exceeds 117,000 kilometers. Over 95 percent of townships and towns and 75 percent of villages throughout the autonomous region now have paved road access.

Every year, Sloan welcomes streams of passengers from all over the world to her station. She also sends off passengers including students traveling for education. Many schools and universities have cooperated with her station to provide tailored services for students.

“I really envy them!” said Sloan. “Sending them to far-off destinations makes me value my work.”

Today, Tibet has female judges, female lawyers, female pilots, and female professionals leading myriad other fields. Females account for 33.3 percent of all civil servants in the autonomous region. Women in Tibet are playing important roles as “half the sky.”

“I often think about the reasons my mother gave me this name,” said Droma, now chief expert of climate monitoring and assessment with the Tibet Meteorological Bureau. “My mother wanted me to be kind and brave. She wanted me to do my best to help others with whatever strength I could muster.”

“More than 30 years have passed. I think my work today would meet my mother’s expectations,” she asserted.

Dream Chasers

When Losang Droma, a Tibetan woman born in the 1990s, found an opportunity to begin a career in the modeling industry, a big fight broke out with her mother, who did not approve. Her mother considered it a disgrace for a university graduate who majored in law to opt for a catwalk and displaying clothes.

And when 13-year-old Dorji Droma began to excel at football in the pastures, her parents were not impressed. “Girls should behave in a manner befitting girls,” they said.

Should the Dromas chase their dreams?

Losang has been interested in modeling since childhood. When she attended university in Shaanxi Province, she used some of a student loan to participate in model training. After graduation, she repaid the debt by modeling at fashion shows and training other models. In 2011, she entered the 25th International Supermodel Contest and finished 4th in the China finals. In 2016, she established a children’s modeling and aesthetic education training institution in her hometown of Lhasa. Launching a business in a field no one had yet tried, she had to start everything from scratch.

Losang faced various challenges such as a lack of confidence in the industry from trainees’ parents and a lack of training staff. When she took her trainees to contests, she would spend the entire night finalizing details such as hairstyles, cosmetics, and costumes. Some trainees would be so nervous that they would cry backstage. “You better make sure the catwalk is where you want to be,” she would say to encourage them.

“I cherish fostering independence and confidence in kids,” said Losang. She felt lucky to be able to work on her passion and hoped her trainees would find the same passion despite constant opposition from the people around them.

In the pastures of Dangxiong County more than 4,300 meters above sea level, Dorji Droma’s mind often drifted away while she was herding cattle. She liked playing football, but her parents didn’t offer much support. She had been using the same pair of hard shoes for both herding and playing football. Her coaches warned her that the shoes were not good for football and could cause injury.

Her teachers provided her full support. Dorji’s school, Longren Township Primary School, offers extra-curriculum training for its students in football, basketball, roller skating, dancing, and more. It is also working to organize a girls’ football team.

Built on pastureland, Dorji’s school is equipped with modern classrooms for music, art, computer, and other specialties, a trend that has become mainstream in Tibet. During the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-20), Tibet continuously upgraded its teaching staff in music, sports, and aesthetic education, and all middle schools completed teaching plans for math, physics, chemistry, and biology courses. Over the last 10 years, the state budget has invested a total of 165.69 billion yuan (US$25.49 billion) in education in Tibet with an annual average increase of 17.96 percent. 

The increasingly open and inclusive social environment in Tibet is encouraging young people to be braver in chasing their dreams. Statistics show that during the 13th Five-Year Plan period, Tibet’s market entities increased by a factor of 1.3 to 365,000. Increasing numbers of people are starting their own businesses. Since 2012, more than 4,000 university graduates from Tibet have been hired in other parts of the country. Changes are taking place to traditional employment patterns for university graduates in the autonomous region.

Losang has received messages from trainees’ parents claiming that modeling training have made their kids more confident in expressing their views and being themselves. Eventually, she noticed that her mother started hanging her credentials in a prominent place on the wall at home.

“The ‘Droma’ in my name means fostering girl power,” said Losang. “I hope I can serve as an example for other young people to find the courage to chase their dreams.”

As the annual football matches were about to kick off in the pastures around Longren Township Primary School, Dorji’s mother rushed to hand off a pair of brand-new football shoes. Even though the chilly plateau wind was numbing everyone’s face, the spectators remained enthusiastic. Wearing brand new shoes, Dorji joined her team with another girl player. School rules require such 7-on-7 matches to include two girls on both teams. The girls kept right up with the boys on the pitch 4,000 meters above sea level with inspiring passion.

“Droma, forward pass!” urged onlookers. “Droma, shoot!”

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