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.

[1] 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.

Millenarian Insurgency

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, or beyond. [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 Cultural Revolution.

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 Himalayan ecology:

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. [3]

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.

Mao Worship

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 population — 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 own religion.

Manichean Iconographies

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.


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