This is Drolma Yangchen, born in Danma, Upper Kham. She writes under the pen name Danza Drolma, and on September 1st, she (with the backing of her NGO devoted to releasing animals) bought 6387 sheep headed for the slaughter*. That’s where the controversy started, at least this time around. And that’s when she became “Drolma Girl.”
This is certainly not the first time Tibetan social media has debated this ‘hot topic.’ Should the increasingly common practice of purchasing and ‘releasing’ animals continue, or is it a misguided, albeit Buddhist attempt to save animals that ultimately increases the cycle of death and suffering by contributing to economic demand?
This is, however, the first time (to my knowledge) that a female laywoman such as Danza Drolma has been the public face of such a monumental ‘releasing’ event. That led to my current exploration of how gender is shaping the discourse around this issue. How are people reacting to a laywoman’s large-scale release of animals, as opposed to the more common (male) lama-led releasing parties? Not that the latter are without their detractors. But why now, why her, and why is she suddenly Drolma Girl (sgrol ma bu mo, 卓玛姑娘)?
Let me sketch out a rough timeline of the events so far:
On Sept. 1st, 6387 sheep purchased by her NGO, Snowland Releasing, for over 5 million RMB.
Subsequently, pictures, including the above, were published on their WeChat platform by herself and the NGO. Initially she received a lot of praise for her act, with the traditional Tibetan feminine virtues of compassion, generosity, and beauty being consistently (and somewhat predictably) invoked.
Then the 6387 sheep were released. Accounts differ as to whether they were released ‘into the wilderness,’ as it were, likely allowing animal traders and butchers to re-capture and re-sell them, or whether the sheep were responsibly distributed to nomad families (who would be bound to care for them but not permitted to kill them). That’s when things really got heated, as Tibetans all over social media started taking this issue apart point by point.
Currently, the voting public agrees with Danza Drolma, with 44% preferring her to use the 5 million RMB for ‘releasing,’ 30% saying the money should go towards education, and 12% in favor of buying medicine with the funds (two of the major arguments made by the opposing camp).
Why is this situation seemingly coming to head at this moment in time? This is certainly not the first time Tibetan social media has taken up the issue of releasing animals (see pretty much anything Prof Thubten Phuntsok has done on social media since 2011). However, this seems to be the first time that a ‘releasing’ has been performed by a woman on this grandly orchestrated scale, with such a public (female) face fronting it. Dare I suggest that denizens of social media may feel more comfortable criticizing a laywoman than a male monastic? Or is it, to some detractors, merely the most obvious abuse of this already dubious system of accumulating merit?
How is the lens of gender affecting the public’s perception of her performative ‘releasing’ act?
There is certainly a possibility in my mind that the female performance of what seems to some to be a rejection of a key element of traditional Tibetan pastoralist culture (the largely female-driven maintenance of the family livestock from birth to death) was received more critically by laypeople far more accustomed to listening to the Buddhist arguments of monks and lamas than the impassioned pleas of a pious laywoman. I get this impression from reading the tone and content of the arguments made, as well as the comments.
For those of you interested in what I am basing these thoughts on, below are some of the relevant social media posts.
The responders seem to fall into two camps. The pro-life camp is epitomized by leading public intellectual Khenpo Tsultrim Lodru, who advocates strict adherence to no-killing by using Buddhist religion as a justification, and who regularly leads large groups on ‘releasing’ trips. He has written much on the subject, and as I mentioned earlier, he was not without his detractors (see Prof. Thubten Phuntsok as mentioned above). The second camp can be generally described as pragmatists (although they themselves use the word “rational”). Their arguments follow economic, social, and occasionally cultural lines (i.e. the destruction of pastoralism as a viable way of life if all nomads adopt such practices).
For a good discussion of the pragmatist camp, see Twelve Rashomon’s page, the article “Discussing Rational Release: Drolma Girl’s Release,” by Tashi Dorjé. Translated here in a great blog post by Tricia Kehoe.
Here is a piece by Rongwo Rangtsol agreeing with Danza Drolma’s performance of release by arguing that she’s bringing the livestock back to the grassland and therefore supporting the continuation of nomadic life.
One of the more popular satirical representations of the controversy of Drolma Girl can be found here.
This creepily cheery cartoon depicts her as a well-meaning dupe, tricked (likely by the oft-maligned Serta-based anti-killing movement) into advocating enlightened values, while the duplicitous butchers take the opportunity to fleece the locals twice over. The image, while of her smiling happily attired in traditional robe, is a negative representation. While her motivation may be virtuous and compassionate (if a bit air-headed), her grasp of the situation is less than would be desired by, say, an economist. This is, unfortunately, not the place where I can delve deeper into the representation of the ‘muslim butchers’ on the right-hand side, but please note it is also clearly problematic. Nobody comes out of this cartoon unscathed; nomads, butchers, and female performers of social change all come out looking bad.
Many comments extol her beauty while mourning her supposed lack of wisdom (a recurrent theme), like this one left by commenter “Sonya.”
“桑娅 – 我认为，美女应该把这笔巨资投入到藏区教育，会有更多的福报，而且还能起到切实的作用。无奈！有钱也可以这么的仁心！
Sonya – I think this beautiful woman should invest heavily in education in Tibetan areas; there will be more merit, but [the money] can also be used more pragmatically. How frustrating! So many benevolent acts also [could be done] with money.”
I find it informative that many of the arguments against her ‘releasing’ of the 6387 sheep invoke the very same traditional Buddhist ideas of religious merit and virtue that Danza Drolma herself is hoping to promote, as she says, through words and images, with the support of her organization.
Leaving her the last word, as surely I should, here Drolma-la, in response to the controversy, says:
“Even if this doesn’t result in virtue, it’s impossible for it to become a sin.”
I see some very gendered language and cultural concepts in operation here, and will be keeping a close eye on how this controversy develops. There are those who are calling her a khandroma…
For those of you unfamiliar with modern Tibetan practices, the purchase and release of livestock is considered a very meritorious activity as it saves the lives of animals who are about to be killed. Many Chinese (Tibetan) Buddhists who are students of Khenpo Tsultrim Lodru of Serta Larungar also engage in this practice, sometimes purchasing and releasing thousands of fish into the lakes and rivers around Chengdu.