Writers of all stripes tend to dislike discussing their formative years and experiences. Getting to grips with the job of translating one’s understanding of a subject into something publishable tends to be painful enough, without then raking over the process in retrospect. This can lead to a sense, however, that somehow writers arrive fully-formed, with a gift for observation and understanding which requires little practice or refinement. This feeling can be particularly acute in regard to those who write on China, the “university in which no degree is ever granted”, to adapt Stanley Karnow’s phrase, where the gulf between ignorance and understanding often appears so vast.

There are various translations of the Life of Milarepa available, but since Garma C Chang issued his translation of the Hundred Thousand Songs in 1962, there has been a gap of more than fifty years, and Tibetan Buddhist scholarship has made a great deal of progress over that time, which makes 2017 an ideal year for a new translation of this work.

On November 18th of this year, a blaze killed nineteen people in a textile manufacturing district of Beijing. Most of the victims were migrant workers, scores of whom continue to live peripheral lives in makeshift, pop-up neighborhoods on the outskirts of major cities across China. In response to the tragedy, the city government instituted a forty-day effort to demolish the capital’s “unsafe” buildings, the result of which has been mass evictions with tens of thousands of homeless migrant workers freezing in wintry Beijing temperatures. Described in official documents as the “low-end population”, these workers—battalions of couriers, cleaners, day laborers, trash collectors—provide the essential service jobs upon which Beijing’s more affluent residents rely.