FEATURE: Rich tapestry of tenacity
BEIJING (China Daily/ANN) - The story of Wei Yaping and her husband, Tsetan Sharpa, who run a thriving Tibetan-rug business, is also about overcoming cultural differences and succeeding.
It was butter tea－not fluent Tibetan or clothing－that changed Wei Yaping’s life. Her parents are ethnic Han and come from Jiangsu province. They came to work in the Tibet autonomous region in the early 1960s. Wei was born there.
Wei’s husband, Tsetan Sharpa, was originally from Yaleb township in the region’s Nyalam county. He was raised and educated in Nepal, and was in the wool-rug business when they met.
Tibetan people are fond of drinking butter tea, a mix of leaves produced around the country and the yak butter produced on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
While Wei was working for a hotel in Tibet’s Zhangmu land port on the border with Nepal, her future husband, Tsetan, visited often for a taste.
“The butter tea she offered was delicious. It was hard to believe she was Han. To me, she seemed like a Tibetan because of her personality and her way of speaking,” Tsetan says.
It wasn’t love at first sip, however. Wei had her doubts.
“When we met, I felt he was a man who would be hard to get along with. But as time went by, he was cheerful and kind to me,” she says.
The tea led to love－and eventually marriage. And then more tea. And rugs.
Wei and Tsetan were married in the early 2000s and lived in Nepal for a time. There, they continued the rug-making business.
Facing an economic depression in Nepal early on, however, they started thinking about returning to China, where businesses were thriving thanks to the country’s reform and opening-up.
At first, Tsetan didn’t think the move was a good idea. Nepal was his second home. But an economic conference in Jiangsu’s capital, Nanjing, in 2004 changed his mind. And that led them to Lhasa.
With little business experience in China, and with a limited staff, the couple encountered many difficulties.
In Nepal, Tsetan handled most of the business duties, but in Lhasa, Wei took on a much greater role.
“He had difficulty communicating in Mandarin,” she says, adding that he had few friends and was always thinking about returning to Nepal.
Tsetan speaks Tibetan, Nepali and English fluently, but he didn’t know Mandarin. So, Wei handled most of the paperwork and co-ordinated business.
“I felt a little embarrassed at first,” Tsetan says. “In Nepal, it’s not right for a man to stay at home with a woman doing all the work.”
Problems and solutions
Many experts consider Tibetan wool to be best for rugs. It’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer. But a lack of qualified workers is a major headache. The rugs produced by the local people were very rough and attracted insects, Wei says.
Tsetan recalls the problems and solutions: “The carpets produced by Tibetan people using ancient skills would last a long time in Tibet, but they’d become moth-eaten in the summer in other places.” So, the couple’s enterprise, Tibet Pangyenmedo Industrial and Trading Co, adopted new processing methods.
But one thing didn’t change: They continued to weave by hand to ensure quality.
Over two decades, local residents were trained in rug-making, with guidance from Nepali and Indian associates in the company. Now, the company has more than 70 employees. Its rugs have gained popularity in the region and other parts of China.
Products include Tibetan mattresses, backrests, tapestries, phone mats, placemats, rugs, saddle pads, automobile pillows, seat cushions and khata, scarves that Tibetans present to guests as a symbol of purity and sincerity.
With Tibetan, Han and Nepali artworks and furniture in their living room, Tsetan and Wei engage three cultures every day, from food to thought.
Tsetan gave his wife a Tibetan name, Losang Chodron, and she gave him a Han coat.
“I think I was a Tibetan in my previous life,” she says. “Others also consider me a Tibetan.”
Carpet to culture
They drink butter tea or coffee in the morning, eat Chinese or Western food for lunch and drink Chinese green tea in the afternoon.
Their four children have graduated from university. Wei has seven brothers and sisters. They all live in Lhasa, speak Tibetan and are married to Tibetans.
At first, they only communicated in Tibetan, but in recent years, Tsetan has learned Mandarin. Wei also learned to make Nepali food, and she and her husband share Nepali tastes.
On the surface, the trading company is a business, but from another perspective it’s a cultural-preservation undertaking.
Turkish, Tibetan and Persian carpets are considered the world’s best. Tibetan rugs are widely sold in the United States and Europe.
Tibetan rug-making dates to the Shangshung Kingdom 3,000 years ago and was promoted by Tashi Tobgyal, the grandson of Langdarma, the 40th king of the Tubo Kingdom in the region’s Gyalze county in AD 623, Tsetan says.
“Half a century ago, the craft declined in Tibet, but it was revived in Nepal between the 1960s and 2000s. It declined again afterward, and now, it’s very developed in Nepal,” he says.
The pair plans to open a Tibetanrug museum in Lhasa in the next few years.
“It’s an invaluable asset inherited from Tibetan ancestors,” Tsetan says. “It’d be a great pity if it vanishes one day. It can never be replicated.”