The Tibetan Genocide (Part II)8 min read

HT on Tibet’s Chinese revolution, 1949-1976

Ed: Don’t miss part one of this series of reviews on Tibet’s experiences in the Mao era, part of a fortnight at the China Channel reminding readers of the horrors that Tibet underwent during the Chinese and Cultural Revolutions. Last week Robert Barnett and Susan Chen talked to Tsering Woeser, who also presented a number of her father Tsering Dorje’s photographs from the era.

Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959
Li Jianglin (2016, orig. 1959 Lasa!, 2010)

Li Jianglin is the daughter of CCP officials. She moved to New York in the 1980s, became a librarian, got to know some Tibetan people in Queens, and eventually set out to write a book about what happened in Lhasa in 1959. Unlike Benno Weiner, Li Jianglin has no time for United Front dialectics – her book is an open polemic. She tells us: “This book will document and show that Mao had active plans from very early on to impose his policies throughout Tibet despite the promises of the ‘Seventeen-Point Agreement’ [that guaranteed Tibetan self-rule within the PRC], even though he was aware that this would entail bloodshed. His explicitly stated view was that he welcomed Tibetan unrest and rebellion – and even hoped it would increase in scale – as it would provide him with an opportunity to ‘pacify’ the region with his armies.” Li Jianglin has a librarian’s command of Chinese-language sources. To cut through the tangle of conflicting claims about what took place, she reads from official histories, classified CCP communications, PLA memoirs, propaganda pronouncements, plus a host of published memoirs by Tibetans in exile, and supplements the story with interviews of survivors.

There’s a lot of who-said-what-when-why, and the general course of events is not radically new information, but Li Jianglin has an epic story to tell. She begins in eastern and north-eastern Tibet (Kham and Amdo). Covering the same cycles of communization, famine, revolt and repression that Benno Weiner does, she calculates based on published PRC statistics that between 1957 and 1963, the population of Qinghai province alone dropped by over 20%, or 120,000 people – not counting internal dislocation, imprisonment, immiseration, and so on. Strikingly, even official PRC reports admit that in some areas, over 70% of rural Communist Party members defected and fought on the rebel side. Li then moves the spotlight to the Dalai Lama’s capital, as starving Khampa and Amdowa survivors begin to pour into the city, telling terrible tales.

The Battle of Lhasa is a story that’s been told elsewhere, but Li’s version is an excellent collation of the different accounts – Tibetan, Chinese and foreign. The armed Khampa and Amdowa refugees surrounded the Dalai Lama’s residence at the Norbulingka park, fearful that he would be kidnapped by the Chinese. Both sides frantically prepared for war. (At this point, an unexpected hero emerged in the form of the Tibetan Women’s League which, originally organized by the Communists, rapidly went rogue and ended up burning effigies of Mao Zedong in the streets while the all-male Tibetan government dithered.) Finally, on the fateful night of March 17, 1959, the Dalai Lama climbed the back wall of the garden, crossed the Kyichu river on a yak-skin coracle, and escaped into the Himalaya.

Between 1957 and 1963, the population of Qinghai province alone dropped by over 20%, or 120,000 people”

When his disappearance was discovered two days later, Lhasa erupted. There were some striking images amid the atrocity: the Dalai Lama prostrated before the wrathful protector Mahākāla before he escaped; the elite monks of the Higher Tantric College formally renounced their Buddhist vows, took up rifles, and joined the fight; the Tibetan Medical College on Chakpori Hill overlooking the city was shelled into rubble by PLA artillery; a massacre in the courtyard of the ancient Ramoché Temple; house-to-house fighting through the center of Lhasa; and finally a last stand at the Jokhang Temple, Tibet’s holy-of-holies, where the encircled defenders surrendered at dawn on March 20, as the city burned around them.

There are some problems with this book. What Li Jianglin calls her “narrative style” can be a little jarring in a history book: “The primeval nighttime stillness of the valley and the soft gleam of the ripples on the water created the illusion of safety.” More importantly, if Benno Weiner is too careful in his judgements, I worry at times that Li has over-dramatized her condemnation of the Communists – although the book does come with copious footnotes to back up its story. Overall, it’s a gripping read. If you’re looking for a one-stop introduction to the 1959 Tibetan uprising, Tibet in Agony is your book.

Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution
Woeser (2020, orig. Shajie/Sarjé, 2016)

Since the riots in Lhasa in 2008, Woeser (her full name is Tsering Özer) has become something like a professional mourner for Tibet. Given that she’s a Beijing-based blogger who writes only in Chinese, I’ve been a little bit wary of her celebrity abroad in the last decade. (If you’re looking for a readable first-person account translated from Tibetan, Tubten Khetsun’s Memories of Life in Lhasa under Chinese Rule covers most of the events of the same period Woeser writes about.)  Thus I picked up Forbidden Memory as a skeptic, and was thirty or forty pages in before I realized that I had become completely engrossed.

Forbidden Memory consists of albums of photographs by Woeser’s father, Tsering Dorjé, a half-Chinese Khampa who joined the PLA at age thirteen, alongside Woeser’s own annotations and meditations on the photos. As a piece of historiography, Forbidden Memory picks up the story after Li Jianlin’s book leaves off: in post-uprising Lhasa in the early 1960s, where the last vestiges of pre-Revolution life could still be seen. By the second album of photos, however, the Cultural Revolution is in full swing, and we have entered what the child Naktsang Nulo called the dülok, the “times turned upside-down.”

A number of themes wind through this history. One is Woeser’s own family story. Her mother remembers how the morning after her birth, the whole of Lhasa was filled with scraps of fluttering paper – Buddhist scriptures from the Jokhang Temple, piled up and burned by Red Guards. Meanwhile her father was in the temple courtyard, taking pictures of the ransack. These photographs would play a central role in Woeser’s own life: as a young woman she mailed her father’s albums to a dissident Han writer named Wang Lixiong, whose book on Tibet she admired. The two are now married, and they live together under periodic house-arrest.

Another theme is beauty, and its relation to violence. Woeser struggles with the fact that her father was a genuinely talented photographer. Examining his sumptuous propaganda photos of the newly communized Tibetan countryside (Tubten Khetsun would note that his sister’s family in the villages had become “beggars who were neither able nor permitted to beg”), Woeser wonders: “Did he really believe in the new era of Tibetan rural happiness that he tried to capture with his camera?” In her post-script, she fixates on one particular photograph. The image shows an old man named Sampo Tsewang Rikdzin, wearing a gorgeous embroidered robe and a Tibetan aristocrat’s hat, flanked by a young Tibetan boy and an adult Chinese man, both in Mao suits, their expressions cold. From Sampo Tsewang Rikdzin’s nose, catching the light, swings a bright cord of snot.

Woeser returns to Lhasa with her father’s camera, where she is constantly tailed by secret police”

Woeser calls the Cultural Revolution “mass performance art”: The victims of the Red Guards’ struggle sessions would be dragged through the streets wearing symbols of their crimes, fine brocaded clothes to represent their ill-gotten riches, ancient Buddhist holy relics to represent their superstition, and foreign objects like cameras and silverware to represent traitorous Western sympathies. These displays were beautiful – even the Tibetan on the denunciatory placards around the necks of the accused is in elegant ümé calligraphic script – and Tsering Dorjé’s photos are composed like poems. When the image of Sampo Tsewang Rikdzin was exhibited in Germany, the photo printers airbrushed out the string of un-wiped snot, assuming it had to be a scratch on the negative; the aesthetics of brutality in this historical performance had become almost incomprehensible. Woeser says, “One can see that the Cultural Revolution is remembered for its lyricism rather than its horror.”

A third theme is memory, and 21st century China’s war against the past. In the final chapter, Woeser returns to Lhasa with her father’s camera, where she is constantly tailed by secret police. Nevertheless, Woeser’s own “performance art” is to re-create her father’s photographs amidst the “colonialized commercialism of the present.” Red Guards have become tourists, mass rallies have become ticket queues, and Lhasa has become a sinophone city. Of her father’s photographs, Woeser quotes Joseph Brodsky: “This is, at the road’s end, a mirror by which to enter.” ∎

Li Jianglin, Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959 (Harvard University Press, October 2016).
Tsering Woeser, Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Chinese Revolution (Potomac Books, April 2020).

Correction: This post has been amended to date the beginning of Tibet’s occupation by the PLA in 1949 (in its northeastern territories) not in 1952, as well as other small corrections of tone and detail.