Thomas: the painter from Qinghai

UPDATE: Since writing this opening post, I’ve decided not to follow Thomas on this blog. This is for a variety of reasons, chief of which is the fact that Thomas and I are a thousand miles away. Too far for us to keep in the kind of regular touch which I would need to write accurately about his life and what he is feeling as he lives it.

For Thomas has lived – and I’m sure will continue to live – a fascinating life. Three months ago, he was working as a scribe in a wood printing office near the Potala Palace in Lhasa: he was paid 0.5 RMB for one word, writing almost 400 words a day. Now he is a cofounder of a French language teaching school in Xining: he doesn’t speak a word of French.

Another reason not to write is that should the situation arise that in talking about Thomas I am talking about Tibet, I put him at risk. Anonymity always has its chinks, and a 1% risk is occasionally one you really shouldn’t take. Under these circumstances, I choose silence over self-censorship.


Thomas, 27, is a Tibetan from eastern Qinghai, one of China’s most westerly – and stunning – provinces. I have known him since the summer of 2007, when I taught English in the middle school of his village. As with William and Mary, I will be keeping Thomas anonymous on this blog.

Thomas has just finished teaching English to nearly a hundred children in the grasslands south of Qinghai lake, not far from the town Gonghe. Every winter, the grasslands community organises a local holiday school for a couple of weeks, inviting a teacher and paying him keep plus whatever is left over from their funding pot when the lessons are over. Thomas was this year’s teacher: no doubt he passed on to his pupils the same enthusiasm (and grammar mistakes) with which he lives his own life.

A friend and I visited this school a fortnight ago, and Thomas invited us – with all of three minutes notice – to teach his students for an hour. From this I offer a warning: don’t give out sweets unless you’ve got enough for all … and an inspiration: almost a hundred students CAN fit into one small classroom.

Thomas has studied and painted Tangkas (the traditional Tibetan art form, depicting symbolic Buddhist scenes) since he was a kid. Here is one he painted last year: