LHASA, April. 9, 2008 -- In Tibet, it is maybe likely that many people haven't heard of William Shakespeare's famed dramas such as the "Merchant of Venice" or "Romeo and Juliet", among others. But mention the works of Soinam Cering and almost everyone has several names of his crosstalks or dramas on the tip of their tongue.
Always seen under his trademark leather hat, the 63-year-old is known as the first playwright writing in the Tibetan language, the compiler of the first record of folk vocal art in Tibet, and one of the initiators of Tibetan crosstalk.
He initially showed his versatility in folk arts while at primary and middle schools in Tibet. He further pursued his dreams of performance by studying at the Shanghai Theater Academy.
More and more, as he learned, he couldn't help wondering why Tibetans, among whom he is a member, didn't have their own playwrights.
"I was asking myself, can we find a new way of rejuvenating our traditional dramas?"
Inspired by the vast ocean of folklore in the plateau region, Soinam Cering finished his six-scene Romeo and Juliet-styled tragedy "Saigyi and Baigyi".
The story was based on the Tibetan folk tale of love birds, and told of the ill-fated lovers Saigyi, a blacksmith, and Baigyi, the daughter of a landlord. Saigyi was killed when he failed to rescue his lover, and Baigyi committed suicide. The pair became two beautiful birds crying "Saigyi Baigyi" and flew into the sky.
The drama stirred Tibet and was a big success in the early 1980s. It was performed more than 30 times, attracting a combined audience of about 120,000.
His second drama, a satirical comedy like the "Merchant of Venice", was "Ngagu Dainba" and was completed in 1981. It depicted an intelligent, humorous and brave Tibetan unyielding to an evil landlord.
"In Xinjiang they have the legend of Naiserden Atainde. In Tibet, we also have our own folk hero," he said proudly.
The comedy was the peak of Soinam Cering's work as a playwright. It has been performed 100 times consecutively in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, a record in the performance history of the autonomous region.
"Many people from other counties traveled to Lhasa by bus especially for the show, and returned the next day," said the playwright, still recalling the moment.
Dissatisfied with his achievements and numerous prizes, the ambitious Soinam Cering set about a new task in 1988 -- to compile a record on folk vocal art in Tibet.
"I agreed readily, believing it to be no big deal at the time," said Soinam Cering, who, in retrospect, described himself as "a bold newborn calf making little of tigers".
The promise took him 17 years to fulfill.
During the years, Soinam Cering visited almost every county in the 1.2 million square kilometer Tibet Autonomous Region and met more than 200 folk artists.
Luck proved to be an important factor when in search of folk artists scattered in the region. "During the years, we had some unexpected excitement, but most of the time, disappointment."
In 1989, Soinam Cering heard there was a man near Mount Xixabangma who was good at a kind of masked mono-drama. When the delighted scholar arrived at the mountain after a long and tiring trip, he found it was still quite a long way to the home of the old artist.
Danger also lurked along his odyssey.
In a separate case, Soinam Cering drove across a wooden bridge in Nyingchi. "In the middle of the bridge, we heard the cracks of it breaking," he recalled. "We were so scared that no body dared to speak for fear of adding weight to the vehicle."
He felt that they "winged" it to the other side of the valley. "Looking back, we saw the deep valley under our feet. Sweat dripped down our faces."
In 1995, when he was recording a religious performance of monks in the Sanyai Monastery, which was said to be the first monastery in Tibet, a sandstorm blew over him.
"Sand went into my right eye, but I didn't pay attention to it," he said. Later, Soinam Cering's eye felt uncomfortable. He thought it was a natural result of fatigue as he had been writing more than 10 hours a day.
Nine years later when he had a business trip to Beijing, he went to the prestigious Tongren Hospital where doctors told him his cornea was broken.
"Now that the new cornea would 'protest' if I work for too long, I had to obey its order to rest," Soinam Cering said with a wry smile.
His efforts, however, paid off.
Soinam Cering called it a miracle for him to find a folk artist who had touched him some 40 years ago.
"I first saw her when I was in primary school. She dressed like a nun performing in front of a tanka (mural) at a square in Lhasa," he said.
The artist was called Cering Qoinzom from a performance family. "Her uncle was liked by the 13th Dalai Lama, who gave him a tank a of Princess Wencheng, the princess in the Tang Dynasty who married Songtsan Gambo, king of the Tubo Kingdom," Soinam Cering said, enraptured by his findings.
Now that record was completed, the old man has a new goal.
"I am going to compile a Chinese-Tibetan dictionary on folk arts to have more people understand and appreciate Tibetan culture," he said.
He also wanted to do something to promote the development of Tibetan folk arts.
"Folk arts in Tibet are in their golden era now for development. The central government has spent lots of money and energy in its resurrection."
However, like other traditional art forms in China, Tibetan folk arts also faced the conundrum of a talent shortage. "Many famous artists, like singer Cedain Zhoema and crosstalk performer Tubdain, are growing old and without apprentices," he said.
"It is my greatest wish to have Tibet become a sea of song and dance, and to have Tibetan culture shine in the assemblage of Chinese culture," said Soinam Cering.