Blood In The Snows (Reply to Wang Lixiong)
(by Tsering Shakya | New Left Review | May-June 2002)
In a landmark exchange, Tibet's outstanding national historian replies to
China's dissenting writer Wang Lixiong (NLR 14), setting out his own view of
Tibetan society and religion, and the PRC's record in his country.
The starting point of Wang Lixiong's "Reflections on Tibet" is the proposition
that the Tibetan people have been active participants in the destruction of
their own culture.
 The logic of the argument is one often employed by those
responsible for injustice that is, to heap the blame on the victim.
It is reminiscent of the view once advanced by apologists for the
apartheid regime in South Africa:
since blacks made up the majority of the police force, and since
hundreds of thousands of black people flocked from neighbouring countries to
work in South Africa's dust-choked mines, the system could not be as bad as its
critics supposed. But colonialism and injustice are never consensual:
they are always achieved through the use of force, and perpetuated through the
brutalization and degradation of the native people. It was, after all, Mao who
announced that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
It is true that Tibetans played an active part in the Cultural Revolution, and
this fact cannot be wiped out of history. It should, however, be put into proper
perspective, and the actual nature of their participation subjected to
examination. The Cultural Revolution is a difficult topic not only for Tibetans
but also for the Chinese. The strategy of China's leaders has been to blame it
all on the Gang of Four, with nothing more being said about the others who
plundered or killed.
The question, "What did you do during the Cultural Revolution?"
is not an easy one to put to Chinese of a certain age;
it tends to bring any conversation to a halt,
with much being left unspoken or passed over in discomfort.
Tibet was swept up in the fervour of the times, just like the
rest of China; many did go on to destroy religious buildings, to denounce
friends and neighbours as reactionaries, or to revolt against their teachers.
It was a mass movement from which no individual was exempt. Nor was there any
question of watching passively from the sidelines: it was either denounce or be
denounced the Party allowed no other option. The brave few who refused to
participate in the madness paid the price of being branded as enemies of the
people and subjected to mass-struggle sessions. Only the crudest notion of
freedom could suggest that such participation was a "choice" for the ordinary
men and women of the time.
Nevertheless, as Wang should know, there were Tibetans who resisted, and faced
the full wrath of the Party. In 1969 there was widespread rebellion throughout
Tibet, eventually crushed by the PLA. The best-documented episode is the revolt
led by Thrinley Chodron, a young nun from the xian (county) of Nyemo, who
marched her followers armed with swords and spears to the local Party
headquarters, and slaughtered both the Chinese officials and the Tibetan cadres
working for them. At first the Party ignored the massacre, thinking it was a
manifestation of the Cultural Revolution as we know, murders could be exonerated
if they fell under the rubric of class struggle. But the authorities soon
realized that these Tibetan peasants were rebelling not in the name of the
"newly liberated serfs" but in defence of their faith. What was more, they
targeted only Chinese Party officials and those Tibetans seen as colluding with
the colonizing power. The revolt spread from Nyemo through eighteen xians of the
Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), and the Party was forced to send in the PLA to
suppress it. Thrinley and fifteen of her followers were eventually captured and
brought to Lhasa for public execution. Even today, the Party has expurgated this
episode from the historical record as it fails to conform to their image of
liberated peasants or, indeed, to Wang's portrayal of Tibetans joyfully
"casting off the spectre of the afterlife that had hung over them for so long".
Wang concedes that there was widespread revolt in 1969 although this contradicts
his perception of a docile and submissive Tibetan peasantry but attempts to
portray it in a very different light. His account secularizes the rebellion,
explaining it in utilitarian terms the peasants wanted to protect the gains of
the initial land reforms from the extension of People's Communes while stripping
it of the cultural and religious elements that reveal its nationalist content.
In doing so, he grossly distorts the historical record. For example:
Thrinley Chodron told the PLA after her capture that she had been visited by a bird who
had come as a messenger from the Dalai Lama, and who had told her to drive out
the Chinese. Other rebels claimed to be reincarnations of Ling Gesar, the
mythical hero-king of Tibetan epic who fought for the Buddhist religion.
There can be no mistaking the symbolism here. Indeed, we can describe the revolt of
1969 as a millenarian uprising, an insurgency characterized by a passionate
desire to be rid of the oppressor.
Before Wang claims this as fresh evidence of the retarded mind of the native,
he might wish to consider the broader historical record of peasant and national
revolts that have begun with visions and voices. If the Maid of Orléans
is the best-known European instance, similar cases are to be found even in
Chinese history. The leader of the Taiping Rebellion Hong Xiuquan, from rural Guangxi,
was said to be the Son of God and the younger brother of Jesus Christ. His
illiterate disciple, Yang Xiuqing, claimed to have spoken with the Holy Ghost
while in a trance. Foreign gods thus inspired the Chinese uprising against what
they saw as alien and despotic Manchu rule; the Tibetans can at least claim to
have heard native voices. Wang is surely familiar with the heroic status
attributed to such psychotic figures as Hong Xiuquan and Yang Xiuqing within
Chinese national narratives —
their promotion to the pantheon of modern revolutionary heroes.
Yet he balks at Tibetans hailing the revolt of 1969 as a
national movement against a colonial oppressor. Wang tries to suggest that the
Cultural Revolution was a "liberating" experience for the Tibetans,
who could now cast off their gods and spirits.
But the millenarian nature of the revolt suggests something else:
that it was induced, rather, by the deep fracturing of
the self caused by the Cultural Revolution, which attempted to erase every trace
of Tibetan identity.
Wang's argument that the Red Guards could not have reached remote areas of Tibet
because of the lack of transportation and manpower also needs qualification.
The Red Guards were charged with such revolutionary fervour that they would have
walked barefoot through the mountains to get to Tibet, so desperate were they to
bring revolution to its snowy peaks; but there was strong pressure from Beijing
not to let them go. Far from being a period of mindless chaos, the Cultural
Revolution was a carefully orchestrated affair in Tibet, and the Party was
always in control. There were sound strategic reasons for keeping the Red Guards
away from the border areas. This was the height of the Cold War in the
Himalayas, India and China were on a war footing after the Sino-Soviet rift, the
Russians had moved closer to the Indians and the CIA was still aiding several
thousand Tibetan guerrillas based in Nepal. Tibet was a flashpoint and the Party
did not want any disturbances in such a militarily sensitive region. Order
reigned in the midst of disorder. Another aspect that Wang ignores was the
overall division of the Cultural Revolution into two main factions. In Tibet,
these consisted of the Rebel Group supported by Red Guards from China, and
seeking the overthrow of the "power holders" and the Alliance group, made up
mainly of the Party leadership and cadres in Tibet. The Rebels were strong in
urban areas, with Lhasa, the capital, more or less under their control, while
the Alliance dominated the countryside, forcibly preventing Chinese Red Guards
from venturing into its zones. Members of the Alliance faction actually blocked
the road leading from Chamdo to Lhasa, and Red Guards trying to enter the region
from China were held and beaten up by organized Party mobs. These were the
practical political realities of Tibet at the time.
Wang's assertion that most of the destruction in Tibet took place during the
Cultural Revolution also fails to tally with the historical record. As he
himself admits, the monasteries and temples had been emptied long before, and
"the PLA had bombed them as it re-established control" after the 1959 Rebellion.
In fact, the destruction of religious sites in Eastern Tibet —
outside the TAR —
had begun in 1956, under the guise of suppressing local uprisings in Gansu, Qinghai,
Yunnan and Sichuan. In May 1962, the Panchen Rinpoche submitted a long
memorandum to the Party Central Committee, detailing the terrible failures of
Chinese government policies throughout the entire Tibetan region. Two passages
prove categorically that much of Tibet's cultural heritage had already been
destroyed. The Panchen Rinpoche writes:
Our Han cadres produced a plan, our Tibetan cadres mobilized, and some people
among the activists who did not understand reason played the part of executors
of the plan. They usurped the name of the masses, they put on the mask [mianju]
of the masses, and stirred up a great flood of waves to eliminate statues of the
Buddha, scriptures and stupas [reliquaries]. They burned countless statues of
the Buddha, scriptures and stupas, threw them into the water, threw them onto
the ground, broke them and melted them. Recklessly, they carried out a wild and
hasty [fengxiang chuangru] destruction of monasteries, halls,
"mani" walls and stupas, and stole many ornaments from the statues
and precious things from the stupas.
Referring only to the area within the boundaries of the TAR when he speaks of
"Tibet" the situation was probably worse in other Tibetan districts the Panchen
Rinpoche goes on:
Before democratic reform, there were more than 2,500 large, medium and small
monasteries in Tibet. After democratic reform, only 70 or so monasteries were
kept in existence by the government. This was a reduction of more than 97 per
cent. Because there were no people living in most of the monasteries, there was
no-one to look after their Great Prayer Halls [da jing tang] and other divine
halls, or the lodgings of the monks. There was great damage and destruction,
both by man and otherwise, and they were reduced to the point of collapse,
[A Poisoned Arrow: The Secret Report of the Tenth Panchen Lama,
London 1997, pp. 51-2 (translation modified)],
This memorandum to the Central Committee was written four years before the
There is no need to resort to the kind of cheap psychological analysis Wang
adduces to explain why Tibetans turned against the sacred symbols of their
religion during the Cultural Revolution. The real reasons are far more
straightforward. One of these lay in the Party's need to restrict the
inter-factional struggle in an area which, as we have seen, was highly sensitive
militarily. As soon as things looked like getting out of hand the Central
Committee issued an order that, in these zones, the struggle should not be
formulated as a fight between the "two lines". Such conflict was thus
essentially confined to the towns, especially Lhasa. The result was that,
in most rural areas of Tibet, the ferocity of the Cultural Revolution was shifted
away from the battle between the two factions and directed instead towards an
attack on tradition, under the call to smash "The Four Olds". In this effort,
no stone was left unturned. The Red Guards may not have entered far into the
countryside but CCP rule penetrated every crevice of the vast Himalayan
landscape. The Party's hegemony was so deeply entrenched at this time that even
the way a peasant slept was said to indicate ideological orientation —
someone who lay with their head towards the west was accused of turning away
from Chairman Mao, since he was "the Sun that rises in the East".
One of the crimes of which the Panchen Rinpoche was accused during
his trial by Red Guards in Beijing was of having anti-Party and reactionary dreams.
(The Red Guards here, it should be noted, were not Tibetans but Chinese students.)
The Cultural Revolution was exported from China to the High Plateau by the
Communist Party, much as opium was forced upon China by British gunboats —
and eagerly consumed by the Chinese. Do we condemn the starving coolie for resorting
to narcotics to escape the pains of his empty stomach, or do we censure the
drug-pushing masters of a foreign empire who, despite endless pleas and
petitions, directed the expeditions? There is no doubt that individual Tibetans
committed despicable acts in the course of the Cultural Revolution; and many of
them today hold senior posts in the regional Communist Party. In fact, such
deeds are now viewed as a badge of party loyalty. Wang fails to mention the fact
that in China, in the 1980s, the CCP purged "three categories of people"
who had committed crimes during the Cultural Revolution, but that in Tibet, despite
repeated appeals by leaders such as the Panchen Rinpoche, no such purge took
place. Hu Yaobang noted in his speech at the Tibet Work Forum in 1984 that he
had received written submissions from both traditional leaders and CCP members,
urging the Party to expel such people; instead he promoted them, saying they
could be reformed. The real reason was that the Communist Party could not find
anyone else they could trust to run Tibet so dutifully. The stark contrast
between the policy implemented in the TAR and that applied to the rest of China
highlights the classic colonial tactic, often observed in Western imperial
practice, whereby the hegemonic power seeks to cultivate loyal and servile
natives to guard its interests. China rules Tibet differently from China,
because there it faces the problems of being a colonial power.
Colonial Attitudes of the Chinese Intelligentsia
How, Wang asks, was it possible for supposedly devout Tibetan Buddhists to
destroy their temples and smash their holy statues? The answer he urges upon us
is that the Cultural Revolution was a liberating experience for the Tibetan
peasantry, who now "forcefully asserted that they would rather be men in this
life than souls in the next" —
a fine phrase but utterly meaningless,
since it ignores the fact that such choices were made by people with
bayonets at their back.
Wang is, indeed, quite unable to explain the actions of these newly
liberated men once the bayonet was removed and — as Wang himself attests —
the peasants rushed to rebuild the temples and monasteries and reinstate the
Buddha's statue among the ruins. Complaining that "the Tibetans' reaction to the
liberalization of the eighties is hard to understand", he offers some convoluted
remarks about how the native now needed to atone for his sins.
Given Wang's current stature among the Chinese intelligentsia, such propositions
raise a much more serious and pervasive issue. It seems that asking some Chinese
intellectuals — be they Communist Party officials, liberal democrats or dissident
writers — to think about Tibet in an objective and reasonable manner is like
asking an ant to lift an elephant; it is beyond their capabilities and vision.
Their perception is impaired by racial prejudice and their imagination clouded
by the convictions and certainties of all colonial masters. Wang's essay
exhibits the same arrogance of reasoning and contempt for the native mind —
into which he purports to have delved deep, and to have felt the heartbeat of a
simpleton. His Tibetans are governed by demonic gods and live in a permanent
state of fear, in awe of terrifying spirits — a state Wang ascribes to the
Encountering, alone, this savage expanse of earth and sky inevitably produced a
feeling of being overwhelmed by such preponderance, a terrifying sense of
isolation and helplessness, repeated down the generations. Fear provoked awe,
and awe gave rise to the totem of deities and monsters . . . Fear formed the
core of the Tibetans' spiritual world. 
This approach will be familiar to anyone who has studied the implantation of
Western colonialism in Asia and Africa, or read the works of early Christian
missionaries on the religions and cultures of the peoples they subjugated.
The strategic positioning of the natives as living in "fear" and "awe" of the gods
drains the people of agency. It is a device used by colonizers to strip their
subjects of their humanity and of the ability to reason. Wang's text accordingly
reveals next to nothing of the native worldview but divulges a great deal about
the mindset of the colonizer. This seeks to reduce the native's status to that
of an infant —
allowing the colonial master, by contrast, to assume the position
of a wise adult, and thus justify his rule. The crude environmental determinism
of Wang's imagined Tibetan Weltanschauung is, in fact, a redaction of the works
of such early Western colonial cadres as Austin Waddell, whose book on
"Lamaism", as he disparagingly called it, was published in 1904 —
the year of the British invasion of Tibet,
in which Waddell played a leading role. It is still
used as an authoritative source in China. Wang's use of language and tone are
strikingly similar to Waddell's. Yet the concept of an awe-inspiring and
terrifying physical geography begs an obvious question: is it really the native
who is intimidated by the surroundings in which he and his ancestors have lived
for thousands of years, or is it rather the foreign visitor to the Tibetan
plateau who is struck by the unaccustomed expanses of the grasslands or the
scale of the mountains? If anything, history suggests that human beings,
far from being intimidated by their environments, have always sought to control
their different natural surroundings in order to carve out a living. Wang's
theory of Tibet is a romanticized description of his own urban ennui &dmash;
little more than pop psychology, presented as serious thought.
What is more worrying is Wang's failure to reflect upon his own culture and
society. His description of the Mao cult is typical of this. Mao, he argues,
"replaced the Dalai Lama as the god in [the Tibetans'] mind" in a process of
religious substitutionism —
the natives were in awe of the new foreign god, and
saw him as more powerful than the local deity. Such simplistic reasoning is,
again, reminiscent of Western colonial and evangelizing views —
Wang's version of Friday, worshipping the footsteps of his white master:
the native is struck dumb
with wonderment at what befalls him. As evidence, Wang cites the ludicrous
examples of Tibetan peasants marching behind portraits of Mao at harvest-time,
and of Mao's picture adorning every household wall —
as if this was unique to the Tibetan peasantry.
Was it they alone who elevated Mao to the level of a god?
Wang — who, as a citizen of China, has had to live in the midst of totalitarianism
for much of his life —
is peering so deep into the native soul here that he loses
sight of where he's standing. In a delirious moment, he is akin to the man so
entranced by the buttercup in front of him that he has no perception of the
forest he is in.
In fact, there was nothing peculiarly Tibetan about the ritualistic treatment of
Mao. Every schoolchild in China sang:
The sun rises in the East,
No, it is not the sun,
But the brilliant rays of the Chairman.
Didn't everyone in China sport a badge of Mao? Didn't the Chinese peasant labour
in the paddy field with a banner of Mao fluttering in the wind, and didn't the
Chinese, too, recite quotations from Mao when they jumped out of bed every
morning? Such behaviour was to be found throughout the People's Republic,
carefully choreographed by the CCP. Wang can hardly be unaware that Mao worship
was not simply a Tibetan experience. Indeed, the fanatical devotion extended
towards the Great Helmsman and the Party by elements of the Chinese
where we find instances in which the corpses of "class enemies" were
cannibalized, as proof of dedication to Mao —
exceeded anything in Tibet.
If we applied Wang's own logic, not to the colonized natives but to these members of
his own society, we would apparently have to conclude that their preference for
eating each other, rather than living in filial obedience to their ancestors,
was a sign that they were liberated men.
Wang's argument that the Tibetans were attracted to Mao's totalitarianism
because they were, by nature, submissive is identical to that used by Western
Sinologists when they explain Mao's sway by essentializing the Chinese peasantry
as, again, naturally obedient and submissive to authority. In fact, it was a
young Tibetan, the Panchen Rinpoche, who put forward by far the most extensive
criticism of Mao's policies of communization and the Great Leap Forward —
when millions of Chinese apparently accepted that melting down their household
utensils would enable them to overtake Britain in steel production. Similarly,
it was the people of Eastern Tibet who staged the most extensive revolt in China
against the imposition of People's Communes. This hardly suggests a subservient
people, taking Mao into their hearts.
Far from seeing Mao as a god, in some rural areas of Tibet the people did not
even know who he was. Their first encounter with the colonizer was usually
through the local PLA and Party cadres. There is a scene —
fictional, but revealing —
in a Tibetan novel,
Joys and Sorrows of an Ordinary Family,
by Tashi Palden,
which describes a meeting convened by the Party to initiate the Cultural Revolution.
The stage is decorated with portraits of Mao and, as the crowd gathers,
the heroine asks the person sitting next to her who he is.
A local Party activist has to inform her that he is Mao Zedong.
Later in the narrative,
when Mao dies, the local Party issues a decree setting out the exact form of
behaviour and mode of dress required. In the evening, Party activists secretly
spy on every house to make sure the correct rituals are being observed.
Such uniformity of behaviour, dress and outward expression of loyalty is clearly
indicative not so much of a peculiar Tibetan mindset as of life under a
totalitarian regime. When the Tibetan peasants carried pictures of Mao and red
flags to their barley fields, they were merely going through the motions
required of them. If they really found this behaviour as emotionally gratifying
as Wang suggests, we would have to ask why they discarded it as soon as they had
the opportunity to do so. The fact that, the instant it was permitted, Tibetans
not only shook off the uniforms of the Cultural Revolution but pulled down the
red banners and hoisted prayer flags in the valleys, discarded the Chairman's
"Thoughts" and brought out long-hidden prayer-books, restored their native gods
to their altars and sent thousands of young people to join the monasteries,
hardly supports the notion that Maoist rituals were psychologically irresistible
to them. It rather suggests that, given the choice, Tibetans will prefer their
Frantz Fanon has famously described the colonial mentality as dominated by a
Manichean set of oppositions —
white and black, good and evil, salvation and damnation, civilization and savagery,
superiority and inferiority, intelligence and emotion, self and others,
subject and object.
Wang offers a rather neat
illustration of this type of perception in a footnote in which he contrasts the
Chinese representation of the Buddha of Compassion as "a beautiful woman"
to Tibetan pictures of her as "a dark giant wearing a necklace of skulls" —
the classic colonialists' view of their own deity as benign, while their subjects'
god is dark and wrathful. As well as a total ignorance of Tibetan Buddhist
iconography, the comparison reveals a sad lack of knowledge of Chinese cultural
history and tradition. The religion prevailing in Tibet was also the court
religion of Chinese emperors for several dynasties, and many in China shared the
same faith and pantheon. In fact, hundreds of Chinese came to study in Tibetan
monasteries throughout the centuries; some still do.
The religious icons Wang finds so alien were therefore the same as those
propitiated by many Chinese followers of Buddhism. The worship of Mahakala,
a wrathful form of the Buddha, was introduced to China during the Tang Dynasty,
and Chinese monks at the time recorded its widespread popularity. For centuries
there existed a Mahakala temple in Beijing, decorated with murals and statues of
the same fierce deities that Wang finds so abhorrent. It was destroyed by the
Communists in 1970; the Capital Stadium stands on the site today. Such religious
imagery is therefore not as alien to the Chinese mind as Wang supposes, and his
portrayal of these practices as peculiarly Tibetan only reveals how successful
the Communists have been in erasing China's memory, so that the younger
generation now suffer from a sort of amnesia in respect to their own traditions.
The great Urdu-Hindi writer Premchand wrote in his novel
Godan ("Gift of a Cow")
that when one is being trampled by a giant tyrant, there is not much one can do
except tickle his foot. The mass adoration for Mao in both China and Tibet was
the product of a frenzied fervour, generated by the Party and ritually
reinforced by its propaganda machine. Besides the coercion from above, there was
overwhelming group and social pressure to conform, coupled with a dismissal of
any individual sentiments. A similar, uniform outward loyalty can be found among
all those who endure life under a totalitarian regime —
it is a form of foot-tickling.
The speedy rejection of the Mao cult is the clearest indication
that the Tibetan peasants were feigning compliance. I agree that there may have
been moments of fervour or frenzied emotion and that, under such circumstances,
deep and long-buried resentments can resurface. Indeed, the Party clearly sought
to provoke such feelings, and it could be argued that its entire mobilization
strategy thoughout both China and Tibet was in large part based on them. But as
we know, such behaviour is often temporary and does not necessarily indicate a
deep shift in people's sentiments or in what they hold sacred. In his discussion
of Malay peasants in
Weapons of the Weak,
James Scott makes a more perceptive
point about the behaviour of those who face overwhelming odds: they resort to
"everyday forms of resistance", which typically involve a fake compliance and
dissimulation. The Tibetan peasants went along with the demands of the Party
largely because they knew very well that to do otherwise would meet with cruel
punishment. It was not that they felt "liberated" from their religious bondage,
but rather that their fear of the wrath and retribution of the Party was greater
than their fear of the afterlife. Visiting temples and monasteries in Tibet
today, one often finds old statues and paintings reinstalled on their altars
with notes that indicate which ones survived the Gang of Four's destruction
because the local people had hidden them away. In other words, the outward
display of compliance concealed strongly held values and strategic decisions.