The Kham region of China covers a massive body of land, spanning from the western Sichuan province to the Tibetan Autonomous Region, through windy plains, frigid marshes and barren mountains. Up until 60 odd years ago, large civilizations tended to avoid settling the region. Barring the intrusion of a few wayward armies over time, the Kham’s only regular inhabitants have been an ethnically diverse group of nomadic herders, who, after 4000 years, continue to use the region’s abundant pastures to feed their yaks.
In the 2010 documentary Summer Pasture, filmmakers Lynn True, Nelson Walker III and Tsering Perlo portray Tibetan nomadic society in a historical transition: from a patchwork of small, independent herding communities to a culture contained in cities, washed over by Chinese modernization.
The filmmakers’ vehicle in this anthropological inquiry is a small family of three: Locho, the father; Yama, the mother; and their tiny daughter, who have staked out their summer camp in a field between two hills. Why they’ve picked the spot is unclear. The documentary only tells us that each year, many families like Locho and Yama’s migrate between designated pastures to feed their livestock. They’ve brought with them their most important assets — a brigade of yaks, which provide the food, milk and wool needed to sustain them.
But Nomads do not simply live to sustain themselves. They also engage in a small commodity trade that ties them to the outside world, but do not seek a profit. “No need to become rich like a king,” Locho tells the audience. “As they say, ‘it takes three years to become rich and it takes only three nights to become poor.’” Locho values the security of the nomadic lifestyle, which is guaranteed by abundant livestock — their “life savings.”
In order to maintain their existential security, the nomadic family must endure a strenuous lifestyle, industrially regimented such that, through a division of labor between the husband and wife, no task goes uncompleted. At various points throughout the film, Yama stresses about time constraints that she faces while doing chores. If she falters, nothing gets done. Yama spends all day producing the food; the film captures her churning butter from scratch several times, taking care of her child, fertilizing the field and heating the house. Sometimes, she admits, she doesn’t even have time to attend to her daughter.
“It’s the woman’s fault if there is not enough dung to feed the fire, but man’s fault if there is nothing to eat,” Yama says. Gender roles are well defined, according to the story that the directors tell us, and crucial to maintaining a balanced domestic economy.
Yet because Locho, Yama and their daughter live a relatively solitary life, they seem extra-sensitive to changes both in nearby towns and within the community of herders.
Part of the film captures a trip that Locho makes to the county seat, Dzachukha, six hours away from their pasture. There he haggles for goods, sells caterpillar fungus — a valuable commodity that he and Yama collect — and retrieves medicine from the doctor to alleviate Yama’s chest pains.
Both he and Yama indicate a discomfort interacting with the Chinese, which occurs on these types of trips. Neither one can speak or read the Chinese language and do not see their culture as compatible with Chinese development in the cities.
Yama encounters cultural barriers during her visit to Xining City, the largest city on the Tibetan plateau, just after her first religious pilgrimage to Lhasa.
“We talked to everybody, but nobody understood us. We didn’t know what to do. We walked around all day, but we never found where we wanted to go. We don’t understand Chinese, you know? We were like yaks.”
Outside the Tibetan area, the language barrier makes her feel like an animal.
“Even yaks know where to go. We didn’t even know that.”
Yama and Locho maintain their unfamiliarity with Chinese culture in good humor. They laugh about customary differences, like eating with their hands, not utensils. But behind the jokes lies a colder feeling of uncertainty about the future. Both hold their nomadic lifestyle very dearly, but still want their baby daughter to attend school in the city to gain literacy and become a nun. They do not suggest whether or not this entails abandoning their nomadic lifestyle or simply refining it, leaving the viewer neutral about whether it’s possible to reap the economic benefits of the modernizing towns while maintaining a traditional lifestyle. But as more nomads give up their summer pastures, the answer appears to be negative.
In the face of the global attention paid to Tibetan independence, the macro political currents infused in Tibet’s steady, coerced modernization, Summer Pasture’s greatest success is the dispassionate view that the directors achieve. Any political ideas that emerge in the film are laid out by the characters themselves. They open up to the audience about problems they face, but only in the context of their daily lives.
Some of the most candid moments occur when the Tibetans involve the filmmakers in the discussion, suggesting a strong sense of autonomy even as they answer politically charged questions. A group of males jab at Locho during a meeting between nomad males. “Locho and Yama will be in the west, even after they die,” they exclaim, displaying an awareness of their audience. “Locho must think he has become different.” The film suggests that, despite the changing social context facing the nomads, they still have a clear hold on their position in the world.