Lhasa in the Cultural Revolution: A Photo Essay18 min read

Tsering Woeser presents her father’s photographs of Tibetan struggle sessions

In her new book Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution, the Tibetan essayist and poet Tsering Woeser dissects the impact of China’s Cultural Revolution on Lhasa, her birthplace, five decades ago. This photo essay features 18 of the more than 300 photos in the book, accompanied by Woeser’s comments (translated by Susan Chen); these are based on her interviews with Tibetans and Chinese in Lhasa who lived through the events shown in the photos. All of the photos were taken by Woeser’s father, Tsering Dorje (1937-91), who was a PLA officer and photographer serving in Lhasa in the early 1960s. His photos, which came to light only after his death, are the only known visual records of the struggle sessions, humiliation parades, and mass rallies staged during the Cultural Revolution in Tibet. For our previously published interview with Tsering Woeser about her book and her father’s photographs, please read here. – Robbie Barnett

Female Red Guard
Tibetan Red Guards with their armbands, lined up in the Sungchöra, the teaching courtyard beside the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, just before or just after going into the temple to smash up much of its contents. They are holding their red-tasseled spears, an insignia of the Red Guards. The one in the foreground was from a wealthy trading family and normally would not have been able to join the Red Guards, but an exception seems to have been made in her case. She is said to have later become a devout Buddhist practitioner after the Cultural Revolution. (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa, 1966.)

Texts thrown into fire
Activists in Lhasa burn religious texts that have been taken from Buddhist volumes in homes and temples. The fires have been set in the Sungchöra, the former teaching courtyard outside the Jokhang temple, the most famous shrine in the Tibetan Buddhist world. (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa, 1966.)

Struggle parade with Ribur Rinpoche
Targets of struggle sessions are paraded along an alley leading from the Tsemonling temple to the Ramoche temple in Lhasa, on their way to or from a struggle session. The man with the crudely painted face was a famous lama from Sera Monastery, Ribur Rinpoche, who was the struggle target in some thirty-five struggle sessions. On this occasion his face has been daubed with paint to make him look like a villain and he has been made to carry a small Buddhist shrine in his hands, with a set of ritual cymbals draped around his neck. His given name, “Ngawang Gyatso,” and the words “ox-demon-snake-spirit” are legible on the tall hat he has been made to wear as a sign of criminality. He was released from prison in 1976 and was able to get to India eleven years later, after which he spent the rest of his life teaching Buddhism outside Tibet. (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa, 1966.)

Phunkhang as struggle target
A former aristocrat-official, Phunkhang Tsering Dondrub, is paraded through the streets of Lhasa. A moustache has been painted on his face and he has been made to wear the single long earring in the left ear that was a mark of noble rank in the traditional Tibetan system. His father had been a kalon or minister in the four-person cabinet of the government of the Dalai Lama in the 1940s, and his older brother was a son-in-law of the king of Sikkim. He had held only a mid-level position in the Tibetan government when it was disbanded in 1959, seven years before this photograph was taken. He has been made to carry a case of  knives and forks, probably with ivory handles, either to show that he was a member of the exploiting class or that he was attracted to foreign or Western lifestyles. After the Cultural Revolution was over, he was rehabilitated and given token positions in the Chinese system until his death in 1990. His house is now a Chinese-owned hotel. (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa, 1966/67.)

Crowd accusing Samding Dorje Phagmo in the courtyard of her house
The woman whose head is lowered with her torso bent over is Samding Dorje Phagmo, the best known of all female reincarnate lamas in Tibet. A crowd of accusers has been taken to the courtyard of her house in Lhasa to conduct a struggle session against her. From what can be seen, the banner behind her says “must carry out the great Cultural Revolution in Tibet.” She was twenty-four years old then and had given birth to her third child less than two months earlier. Before ending up in the situation recorded here, she had been hailed across China as a “patriot.” This is because in late 1959, just six months after following the Dalai Lama into exile in India, she had chosen to return to Tibet and had been a guest of honor at the celebrations in Beijing that October for the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic – where she had been received by Mao himself. After the death of Mao in 1976, she was again given honorary positions in the government, and appeared in public praising the Party’s policies, a role known in Tibetan as “performing as a political flower-vase.” (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa, August 1966.)

Samding Dorje Phagmo with fists
Samding Dorje Phagmo, the same female reincarnated lama from the previous photo, is struggled against in the courtyard of her home in Lhasa, together with her mother and father. Her father, Rigdzin Gyalpo, a former steward to a noble family, had not joined the Lhasa uprising against China in 1959 and had been recognized by the Chinese as an “outstanding patriot.” However, he was still a target in the Cultural Revolution. For years he was regularly beaten because of a rumour he had once said something while drunk about Chairman Mao needing to eat shit. He was punched so severely that his shoulders were fractured. He came to regret his “patriotic” deeds in the past and died in 1977 or 1978. As for Dorje Phagmo’s mother, she was very timid. Other than quietly attending the daily reform-through-labor session, she did not dare to say anything. (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa, 1966/67.)

Struggle session in the courtyard of Samding Dorje Phagmo
A young man with a cap and wearing a watch reaches for the ga’u or amulet box that has been placed on the bumpa or ornamental vase that Samding Dorje Phagmo has been made to hold during a struggle session outside her home in Lhasa. The young man later became the commander of the Peasants and Nomads Headquarters, one of the radical factions that engaged in street fighting during the Cultural Revolution in Lhasa. Thirty years later, he was running a mahjong business. The woman next to him was a shoemaker in the cooperative and also an activist, but the older woman behind, holding a small flag in her hand, was known to be very mild in character and so had probably been ordered by the Neighborhood Committee to be there. (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa, August 1966.)

Kashö presented to the crowd
Two young activists hold down Kashö Chögyal Nyima, who had been a cabinet minister in the former Tibetan government, during a struggle session in Lhasa. He was popularly seen as a collaborator with the Chinese regime, but he was still made a target in the Cultural Revolution.  The words on the tall hat read “Kashöpa, an ox-demon-snake-spirit, a power-seizing bad person, to be completely destroyed.” He is dressed in official silks with jewelry usually worn by Tibetan noblewomen draped round his neck, and he has been made to carry a big wad of Tibetan paper currency, together with a damaru, a two-sided drum used in religious rituals. He was subjected to continuous struggle sessions over fourteen successive evenings, between each of which he had to do hard labor in the fields during the day. Throughout these he was forced to keep his head down and his torso bent. After the Cultural Revolution, he was used again by the CCP as a token Tibetan dignitary until he died in 1986 at the age of eighty-three. (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa, 1966.)

Struggle session against Tsadi Tsedan Dorje
A well-known Tibetan activist named Tsamchö or “Lugu Aja” (Elder Sister from Lugu) denounces Tsadi Tseten Dorje, the former mayor of Lhasa, during a struggle session in Lhasa. Tsamchö had been a beggar before 1959. After the Cultural Revolution she ran a small business, and is said to have become a religious devotee. The big-character poster hung from Tsadi’s neck lists his crimes: “Counter-revolutionary Tseten Dorje, deceptive ringleader and promoter of turmoil, butcher, murderer and slaughterer of the working masses.” Behind Lugu Aja’s head is a vertical signboard in Chinese and Tibetan, on which one can just make out the words “the great Chinese Communist Party.” This struggle session is taking place in the Sungchöra, the former teaching courtyard of the Jokhang Temple, the foremost shrine in the Tibetan Buddhist world. Written in Chinese on the board just below the eaves of the temple wall is the new Chinese name for the courtyard: Lixin guangchang, the “Establish-the-New Square.” (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa,1966.)

Struggle session against Sampo
Sampo Tsewang Rigdzin, the former commander in chief of the Tibetan army before the PLA invaded in 1950, is paraded in public during a struggle session in Lhasa. After 1950, he had been given a token position in the PLA as a major general, and in 1959 he was nearly killed when a crowd of Tibetans tried to stone him, accusing him of collaboration. He was then promoted to an even higher, but nominal, position in the new Chinese system, that of deputy director of the Tibet Military Control Commission. But in August 1966 Sampo was singled out as an “ox-demon-snake-spirit,” and accused of “organizing rebellion, aiding foreign powers, and opposing the Party and the dictatorship of the proletariat.” He and his wife were repeatedly struggled against and all their property was confiscated. In 1973, deeply depressed, he died. His wife passed away not long after. The photograph shows him wearing khalkhasug, the richly embroidered brocade robes in Mongolian style worn by lay officials of the fourth rank or above in the traditional Tibetan governmental system. The hat he has been forced to wear, known as a chagda, with its gold braid and precious stones, is summer wear: it is not part of the traditional khalkhasug set. The single long earring or sogchil is also a symbol of his status, and the long-necked tassel or domdom hanging down from his chest was used for horses ridden by officials of the fourth rank or above. The activist on the left, known as “One Eyed” Thubten, became an official in the Barkor Neighborhood Committee after 1987. (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa, 1966.)

Struggle session against Nyarongshag family
A struggle session in an alleyway near Tengyeling monastery in Lhasa against three traditional Tibetan doctors. The oldest of the three, Tsojé Rigdzin Lhundrub Paljor, known as Dr. Nyarongshag, had also founded the largest lay school in Tibet before the Chinese take-over. The young woman who is lending her arm to the old man is Dr. Nyarongshag’s third daughter, Tsephel; also a doctor. She had given birth to her daughter just three or four days earlier. The man on the left of Dr. Nyarongshag was his second son, Kungyur. Decades later he was able to flee to India where he served as the personal doctor to the Dalai Lama in exile. The struggle targets here have had small but heavy medicine pouches called menku hung around their necks. The stacks of Indian banknotes hung from the neck of the old man were fees that he had been paid when he had practiced medicine in India. On this occasion the three doctors were paraded through the streets and forced to smash a prayer-wheel shrine. The old man was severely beaten in the struggle sessions and remained more or less bedridden (but still treating patients) until he passed away in 1979 at the age of eighty-two. Among those shouting slogans in the crowd, the man in the lower right-hand corner, wearing glasses and a cap, is Lobsang, the deputy head of the Barkor Neighborhood Committee, a former tailor who became a local official after the Cultural Revolution. Just behind the crowd taking part in the struggle session two PLA soldiers are walking past. (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa, 1966.)

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Woman being struggled against
A Tibetan woman named Shatraba Dechö is presented to the crowd during a struggle session in Lhasa. She is wearing a traditional patrug headdress, heavy jewelry has been draped around her neck, and a big-character poster has been attached to her, listing the counts against her: she is accused of “spreading rumors” and “of claiming to be an activist while concealing items belonging to counterrevolutionaries.” Her fourth crime is that “she has sold silver, gold, and other valuables to foreigners.” The Tibetan writing on the tall hat she has been made to wear says “ox-demon snake-spirit Dechö.” Of the two women with their hands on her neck, the one on the right is Penchung, an activist from the Barkor Neighborhood Committee who was reputed to be particularly vicious. The one on the left was a student at Lhasa Middle School who later became a tailor. (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa, 1966/67.)

Public humiliation of a village oracle
An unknown village woman is paraded in a struggle session in a rural area outside Lhasa. She is holding a two-sided drum or damaru in one hand and in the other a portable shrine in which tsatsa or clay figures of the protectress Palden Lhamo and the gonpo, or protector deity. She was probably an oracle who would go into trances when requested to perform divinations and so had been branded as a “swindler” or “vampire” by Cultural Revolution activists. (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa, 1966/67.)

Boy with his fist raised
A boy holding a scrap of paper and shouting slogans at a rally or struggle session in the teaching courtyard of the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. He apparently was later made a leader in the local militia. After the Cultural Revolution, when he was in his fifties, he is said to have become a religious practitioner. The man visible sitting just behind the boy’s left shoulder, wearing what looks like a sun hat or topee, is Pomda Topgyal, a member of a leading business family, who himself would soon be taken away to be struggled against after this photo was taken. (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa, 1966/67.)

Smiling “Chinese boss” in a struggle session
A smiling man, who from his appearance seems to be Han Chinese, and probably a cadre, directs a struggle session against a Tibetan lama in Lhasa. The Tibetan Red Guard whose hand is on the left shoulder of the lama appears to be sticking out his tongue, the traditional gesture of extreme respect, and in another photograph is slightly bent over, suggesting that he might be feeling uncomfortable about abusing the lama. A number of people who appear to be cadres or soldiers are standing on the steps looking down at the spectacle. As for the lama, we can tell from the writing on the hat only that one part of his name was Gyatso. A stack of pages from sacred texts has been tied to his shoulders and the cart is full of Buddhist scroll paintings and other ritual objects, now known as “Four Olds” that have to be destroyed, which the lama would have had to push through the streets. (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa, 1966/67.)

Slogan reciter at rally
A representative of the “emancipated serfs” is taking the lead to call out slogans at a rally for the crowd to repeat. He has a piece of paper in one hand, probably with the slogans, and in the other hand he is holding up a bouquet of flowers made out of colored crepe paper and tied onto a stick. Paper flowers were common accessories used at Cultural Revolution events and can be seen in many of the photographs of rallies in this period. The pen clipped inside the breast pocket of his white shirt, worn as a jacket, was a widely envied status symbol at that time and indicated that this man was probably a cadre. (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa, 1966/67.)

Women march past leaders at rally
Tibetan Women march past the new Chinese leaders of Tibet after a rally in Lhasa on October 1, 1966, held with fifty thousand people to mark the seventeenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The marchers carry pictures of Mao, placards with quotations from Mao, and Chinese national flags.  On the panel to the left is written, “Study Chairman Mao’s writings, obey what Chairman Mao says, behave according to Chairman Mao’s instructions, be good warriors of Chairman Mao.” The panel on the right says, “Study the Sixteen Instructions; familiarize yourself with the Sixteen Instructions; grasp the Sixteen Instructions; implement the Sixteen Instructions,” a reference to a decision by the Party’s Central Committee on August 8, 1966 which called for struggle against “people in authority who are taking the capitalist road,” repudiation of “the reactionary bourgeois academic ‘authorities,’” and the transformation of education, literature, and art. (Tsering Dorje, Lhasa, 1966.)

A senior Han Chinese military leader hands out portraits of Chairman Mao to a line of waiting Tibetan “emancipated serfs.” (Tsering Dorje, Tibet, 1967.)

Tsering Woeser, Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Chinese Revolution, trans. Susan Chen, ed. Robert Barnett (Potomac Books, April 2020)
Header: Crowd accusing Samding Dorje Phagmo in the courtyard of her house in Lhasa, 1966 (Tsering Dorje, courtesy of Tsering Woeser)