Tenzeng Nyima, manager and chief
accountant, Baiya Monastery.
Xiong Xiong at 50-odd years old
is an old-fashioned Tibetan, the chief engineer for the KAF/CERS monastery conservation
project. A dusty, fur-hatted, chuba-clad character, he hails from Dege, way out there in
the middle of eastern Tibet. I have called him down to Kangding, at the edge of the
plateau, to save me half of the seven-day round trip journey.
He has brought Baiya Monasterys manager, Tenzeng Nyima, a monk dressed in maroon
robes, likewise dusty with a lingering aroma of yak butter about him. The two have come to
report on expenditures for the preceding seventeen months of construction at Baiya. This
is something we do periodically, and its one of my responsibilities as Project
Neither Tenzeng Nyima nor Xiong Xiong has ever been to accounting school; nor,
for that matter, have I. But we all understand the importance of receipts, and Tenzeng has
some 200 to show me. Here is a sampling of some items (all amounts are given in rmb, which
are currently running about eight to the US dollar):
96.7.12 Gauze to protect murals during construction, 420.
96.7.10 Cigarettes for officials, 204.
96.9.2 Food for carpenters, 1,671.
96.10.2 Transportation of injured workers, 2,325.
96.10.20 Rope, 70.
96.11.7 Coal for heating, 144.
96.11.25 Wages, Stone-cutters, 300.
96.12.3 Medical care for injured workers, 1,352.91.
96.12.25 Wages, Unskilled laborers, 522.
97.3.10 Nails, 350.
97.3.25 Beer for driver who worked overtime, 60.
97.4.1 Yak-hide coracle ferry for transportation
of workers across the upper Yangtze, 106.
97.5.11 Medical care for driver injured in fistfight, 123.
97.5.15 Wages, Clay workers, 1,290.
97.6.16 Paint, 46.
97.7.20 Wages, new driver, 1,300.
97.8.19 Wages, carpenters, 18,260.
97.9.16 Telegram to Chengdu, 26.64
97.10.26 Travel expenses, roundtrip, for two to Kangding, 1,450.
There are stories behind many of these entries. For example, in May the driver for the
monasterys tractor got into a fistfight with another man. Xiong Xiong fired him, but
decided to pay his doctor bills. (I informed Xiong Xiong that we will no longer cover
injuries resulting from brawls).
In China, its a standard practice to give cigarettes to officials, or
indeed anyone whom one is friendly with, and however much I dislike this custom its
necessary to get things done. Its also customary to feed the senior carpenters. They
earn the lions share of wages, not because they are expensive (20-45 yuan per day
per man), but because we need so many of them. Its gratifying to know that so much
of the money we spend is going directly into the pockets of these backcountry workers.
One big expense item that I didnt include in the sample is our tractor. The
receipts tell the story of a long-suffering, cantankerous machine, kept barely alive by
its loving but parsimonious owners. Tractor parts account for no fewer than sixteen
receipts, for a total of rmb1,483.54, not counting the new engine (rmb2,980). The driver,
who is also the mechanic, earns 16 yuan a day and has the most regular employment of
anyone except Xiong Xiong himself. CERS bought this machine for Baiya three years ago, for
14,800 yuan. It is, I am proud to say, a deluxe tractor, with a handsome engine cover,
enough power to haul some 10 adults, and an exhaust pipe that does not spew fumes directly
into the face of the driver as the standard tractor does.
The entry for Dec 12 arose from an accident during transportation of some
villagers who had volunteered to help with the construction. Because of bad brakes, the
tractor overturned on a steep slope. Three people were injured, including the driver, and
one elderly woman was killed on the spot. Xiong Xiong immediately contacted Baiya
Rinpoche, the incarnate lama who is the religious leader of Baiya Monastery. He came at
once, making the long trip from Chengdu to Baiya in March, one of the worst seasons for
travel. He visited the bereaved family several times, offered prayers for the dead woman
and gave her family a cow among other gifts. They pronounced themselves satisfied, and
willingly applied their thumbprints to a letter stating so. Xiong Xiong explained the
whole thing to me very straightforwardly, saying Ive got to tell you the bad
news as well as the good as he showed me the letter.
The first time I reviewed project receipts, in 1995, Tenzeng Nyima had grouped
them according to no discernible system, and folded each stack into square origami. The
origami squares were then tied into a cloth of yellow silk. As Tenzeng untied the
accounting bundle and dumped all the receipt-squares onto the table, I sensed that here
was an accounting system unlike any Id ever seen before.
We went through all the stacks, tallying each receipt one by one. Some were offical
receipts, written in Chinese, dated and stamped on a special form of a pattern used
throughout China. Most, however, were handwritten on scraps of tissue-thin paper. They
were written in Chinese, Tibetan, or a mixture; most were undated, and some had only
thumbprints for signatures. The Tibetan receipts often had only Tibetan numerals on them.
Of all the sums that Tenzeng Nyima and Xiong Xiong had calculated, not one was correct.
This year the system has been improved: we have now graduated to
envelopes. The receipts are numbered, most are dated, and Xiong Xiong keeps a separate
notebook listing each. I still have to carefully check their arithmetic, but the success
rate is up to around 70% and errors have decreased in magnitude.
Baiya, too, is doing well, and soon the construction work will be
complete, and we will be able to put back the murals we peeled off from damaged walls last
year. A few more months, and these receipts that I so carefully tally will add up to a new