33 Questions About the Cultural Revolution in Tibet

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Chinese communist party / history and memory / Tibet / World War II

The key point of departure for today’s discussion is the text On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969, co-authored by Melvyn Goldstein (Case Western Reserve University), Ben Jiao (Tibet Academy of Social Sciences, Lhasa) and Tanzen Lhundrup (Beijing Tibetology Center).

The book was published by University of California Press in 2009; a free copy of Chapter 1 is provided here (opens as pdf.) by the press. All of the following questions refer to Chapter 1.

The following questions are intended primarily for discussion of the text by readers who are semi-familiar with the issues arising out of the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1951 and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India eight years later, in other words, intelligent undergraduates or reasonably-well informed readers.

1. On pages 3-4, Goldstein describes the orthodox Tibetan position on the Nyemo incident.  Why would the Tibetan government in exile, the Dalai Lama, or supporters of Tibetan indepenedence wish to see the Nyemo incident as a black-and-white case of Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule?

2. To what extent was the Nyemo incident a cry for religious freedom in Tibet?

3. What is a female medium? And what does the acceptance by Tibetan villagers of the nun Trinley Chodron’s posession by a holy Tibetan deity as medium say about the effectiveness of Chinese secular education in Tibet between 1959-1966?

4. More of a note than a question: Goldstein uses Tibetan terms for the rebel factions, but in English, Gyenlo, the most left-wing radical faction means red (in Chinese, it is known as the “rebel faction/造反派”); the Nyamdre faction simply means blue.

5. As far as historical sources go, what kind of problems do Goldstein’s oral histories — by far the largest repository of sources he has at his disposal —  present?  (pp. 7-8)

6. In 1966, when the Cultural Revolution begins, what is the response of the Party Committee of the Tibetan Autonomous Region?  For how long had the TAR been in existence?  If you were a radical Red Guard at the time, what might you have thought about the fact that Wang Qimei, who had been in leadership positions in Tibet since he arrived with the PLA 1951, was placed at the top of the Cultural Revolution committee in Tibet?

7. What is Zhang Guohua still doing in Tibet in 1966?  Given the tensions that he had had with conservative and reformist Tibetans in 1952, don’t you think he should have been back in Beijing?

8. Why, on page 12, do Zhang Guohua and his group go after journalists (of Tibet Daily/西藏日报) as their first target?  What are they worried about?

9.  How do the developments in Beijing in summer 1966 work against Zhang Guohua’s desire, in Goldstein’s words, “for the Cultural Revolution to be played out under the close scrutiny of the Regional Party Committee according to a carefully scripted score”? (p. 13) What historical conflict is Mao evoking when he compares Zhang and other’s actions to contain the Red Guards as an act of “white terror (baise kongbu / 白色恐怖”)?

10. How does Lin Biao’s terse call on 14 August 1966 to “smash the four olds” (破四旧), augmented by Jiang Qing at the Beijing Middle School the next day, portend negatively for, say, monasteries in Tibet?  (p. 14)

11. Why does Zhang Guohua, in spite of the fact that he had just led a meeting of 1400 people the prior week with the ostensible goal of furthering the Cultural Revolution, not want to allow the spread of Red Guards throughout Tibet?   (p. 15)

12. Would it be fair to say that by promoting the Cultural Revolution in Tibet, Mao effectively abandons his policy of “gradualism” on the plateau?  (p. 16)

13. Why might the return of ethnic Tibetan Red Guards from the Tibetan Nationality Institute in Xianyang (咸阳西藏民院) as well as Beijing have served as a galvanizing moment in the Cultural Revolution in Tibet? It may seem like a simple question, but where these students carriers of radicalism, or guardians of traditional Tibetan culture?

14. Why did the student leaders assume that CCP leaders in Tibet had ended the 1966 school year early? (p. 17)

15. Goldstein singles out the appearance of the 19 September 1966 big wall poster as a pivotal moment in the Cultural Revolution in Tibet.  Do you find it at all significant that this revolutionary act, easily the most significant anti-Party action in Tibet since the 1959 revolt, was done not by a Tibetan, but by a Han cadre?

16. Why is Ngabo such an easy and logical target for the Red Guards?  What is his response to his accusers?  Do you find it strange that Goldstein, who has spent so many years of his own career chronicling Ngabo’s unique place in contemporary history, spends only about a page dealing with this particular saga before shuttling Ngabo off to Beijing?

17. In early November 1966, a group of radical Han students called the Blazing Prairie Red Guard teams (燎原战斗团) arrive in Lhasa from Beijing.  What does it tell you about the domestic situation in China that even the order of Premier Zhou Enlai to keep non-Tibetan Red Guards out of Tibet is not honored?  Or is Zhou Enlai’s decree just for show, and actually part of the massive CCP conspiracy to eliminate Tibetan culture in total?

18. In response to the arrival of the “Blazing Prairie” group, the Regional Party Committee links up with some Tibetan Red Guards (known as the “Thousand Serf Fighters [农牧战; perhaps actually 农牧战士].  They form the group known as Nyamdre, and almost immediately a group splits off, attacks the Regional Party headquarters and calls themselves Gyenlo.  Do any of these alliances seem to be explicitly ethnic?  What does the dizzying speed and variablility of organizations, allegiances, and tactics, tell you about the growth of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet?

19. In December 1966, the Central Government’s drive to expel Han Red Guard groups from Lhasa and Tibet nearly succeeds, but is thwarted.  Who is behind the failure of the government to extract or otherwise “deport” the Han Red Guards?  (p. 21-22)

20. Page 23 contains an important meditation on the role of regional and local experience in Tibet.  On the one hand, Red Guards criticized Zhang Guohua for being a “local Emperor [土皇帝]” (e.g., a local despot, corrupt, abuser of power), but on the other hand, Zhang and his lieutenants stand up for the value of local experience in administering Tibet.  Who has the upper logical hand in this argument?  Who seems destined to win, and why?

21. Reading the mission statement of the Gyenlo Red Guards from late December 1966 (p. 24), it appears that the group is not only radical in its tactics, but radically utopian in its aims.  Do you think that Red Guards groups were bent not only on violence against existing power structures, but also seized by a utopian vision of a true communist society?  Why did they think they could accomplish this in Tibet of all places?

22. On page 25, the background of Nyamdre is described as having at its core a group committed to the “defense of Mao Zedong thought.”  What does it tell you about the contour and scope of the political debates in Lhasa in early 1967 that the two main factions are the “rebel” and the “Mao Zedong Thought” factions?  Why is there no third faction calling for a renewed Buddhism under communist control, or a Red Guard faction centered around that old magnet for Chinese power struggles, the Panchen Lama?

23. Woeser’s collection of Cultural Revolution testimonies indicate that the speed of communications across China was a major factor in the connecting of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet with actions in China proper.  On page 27, Goldstein describes how the “January Storm / 一月风暴”) violent takeover of the Party Committee by students in far-away Shanghai has almost immediate repercussions in Lhasa.    Why again is the newspaper the target of left-wing action?

24. Pages 29-30 contain as clear a statement as you are ever likely to see from Red Guard groups in Lhasa about why their loyalties are with Mao in Beijing, and not with the CCP machinery in Lhasa.  What is the problem with putting Mao in charge, at least nominally, in Tibet?  Does the 74-year-old Mao appear to be highly detail-oriented at this point of the struggle insofar as Tibet is concerned?

25. What kind of violence breaks out between the two main factions in Tibet during the “big debates” of February 1967?  Does this situation sound essentially like a civil war on the plateau?

26. Finally, on page 33, Goldstein explicitly raises the question of what the PLA was doing in Tibet, and their attitude toward the violence.  What do you think about the fact that the PLA occupies the Potala Palace in Lhasa, thus preventing its destruction, and is then acting as a “third force” in Tibet, mediating disputes when possible?  Why doesn’t the army simply re-invade Tibet in full and impose martial law in every city and village?

27. Gyenlo’s near-success in peeling away factions within the PLA into their struggle indicates the sway of that organization in Tibet in 1967.  However, by mid-1967, the PLA had moved to suppress Gyenlo.  Does this therefore mean that the PLA was acting during the Cultural Revolution to protect Tibetans from Han violence, or is that an incorrect statement?







The Author

Lecturer of Chinese history at University of Leeds, and Editor-in-Chief of SinoNK.com.


  1. Jeanette says

    Your comment on point 4 indicates that Gyenlo means red and Nyamdre means blue. Were these two revolutionary groups originally both part of the Red Guard? That is, were they once unified under the name “Red Guard,” but upon their arrival in Lhasa split into two groups of differing opinions on the Regional Party Committee?

  2. Fatih Ketenci says

    In answer to question 11. Why does Zhang Guohua, in spite of the fact that he had just led a meeting of 1400 people the prior week with the ostensible goal of furthering the Cultural Revolution, not want to allow the spread of Red Guards throughout Tibet?
    Zhang wanted to keep the region stable. After all they went through; the uprising of 1959 that the TAR was still recovering from and going through Democratic reformation, he was afraid that the Red Guards spreading throughout Tibet would cause chaos and destabilization.

  3. Jenny Snipstead says

    In response to question 5:
    Although personal narratives or testimonies about a particular historical event offer an alternative to the hegemonic discourse of “History”, they are still limited in and of themselves to provide a complete understanding of what happened. To acheive a more just representation of history, it is important to include subaltern voices, such as the voice of a Tibetan yak herder, but that perspective cannot be the be-all, end-all.

  4. Ho-Duong N. says

    In response to question 7 & 8:

    7. What is Zhang Guohua still doing in Tibet in 1966? Given the tensions that he had had with conservative and reformist Tibetans in 1952, don’t you think he should have been back in Beijing?

    8. Why, on page 12, do Zhang Guohua and his group go after journalists (of Tibet Daily/西藏日报) as their first target? What are they worried about?

    Zhang Guohua stayed in Tibet in 1966 because he was in control of three main sections of power: the Regional Party Committee, the People’s Assembly of the TAR, and the Tibet Military Region Headquarters. I think that because he had so much power over these positions, he didn’t want to leave Tibet because of tension with the conservative and reformist Tibetans. To show that he was in control he had his group go after the journalists because he wanted to demonstrate their authority and to prevent the Red Guards or any other revolutionary workers to start a mass demonstrations. They were worried that things would go out of hand if they did not act first.

  5. Lycurgus says

    In regards to Question 6,
    Zhang Guohua and the Party Committee of the Tibetan Autonomous Region showed great concern for the implementation of the Great Cultural Revolution within Tibet. Zhang and company felt that Tibet’s recent liberation and state of affairs provided an unstable atmosphere for the hard-pressed, people driven “struggles” that were sweeping through China during that time. They feared such a hard driven revolution could spark chaos and violence among the Tibetan people. The Tibetan Autonomous Region had only been established for a little less than twenty years and many uncertainties still lingered. Moreover, if I were a radical Red Guard at the time when Wang Qimei was appointed director of the “Leading Team of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in Lhasa” I would have asked myself why he was more fit to lead than Zhang Guohua, who had been a leading official in Tibet since the arrival of the People’s Liberation Army. I think Zhang being appointed second-in-command of this organization might have given some revolutionary organizations the wrong impression that China did not feel that Zhang was fit to lead the revolution in Tibet. This may have inadvertently opened doors to his criticism in the years to come.

  6. Christina says

    In response to question 2: To what extent was the Nyemo incident a cry for religious freedom in Tibet?
    By calling the Nyemo incident a “cry for religious freedom” are you saying that the main reason for the incident to have happened was because of the restrictions placed on religion in Tibet at the time? If so then it seems to be true because within the book is discusses the resentment that the Tibetan people were feeling over the prohibitation of the religious practices and how that pushed the Gyenlo leaders to use the resentment from the people to help motivate the people for a revolution. From this we get to the Nyemo incident which happened in occurrence of the Gyenlo’s attacking the government. The nun that led the murders in the Nyemo incident does seem to be a part of the Gyenlo’s group which could show that since the Gyenlo’s were originally using the restrictions placed on religion as their point for motivating the masses then the Nyemo incident does seem like a cry for religious freedom.

  7. In response to question #1:

    1. On pages 3-4, Goldstein describes the orthodox Tibetan position on the Nyemo incident. Why would the Tibetan government in exile, the Dalai Lama, or supporters of Tibetan indepenedence wish to see the Nyemo incident as a black-and-white case of Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule?

    The Tibetan government in exile, the Dalai Lama, and supports of Tibetan independence would wish to see the Nyemo incident as a black-and-white case of Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule because if it truly was as simple as that the incident would be a great thing to bring up to show the severe level of unrest caused by the Chinese occupation, and that Tibetans were motivated and willing to fight back, even if it was a losing cause. Admitting that it may not have been a revolt against the Chinese would just imply internal conflict within the Tibetan populous, and made it look like Tibet was far less united and organized.

    • Adam Cathcart says

      他们都正在学西藏自治区和中国,印度藏族的二十世纪的历史;有的学生还没学好,不了解西藏自治区和县的区别,但是他们基本上就学的很认真,读很多 Melvyn Goldstein的书。当然没有一个(除本人之外)机会区西藏,但是将来我希望他们都要去,所以我继续鼓励他们。

      • 嗯,我也看出来了。告诉他们西藏之所以叫Tibet,是汉语里的吐蕃。吐蕃是西藏历史上第一个真正意义上的王朝。作为大唐的附属国,大唐皇帝赐名吐蕃。在藏语里,发音为Tibet。

        拉萨最早叫喏萨。文成公主建大昭寺的时候,藏民用了很多的山羊来运送土料。”惹”在藏文里是羊的意思,”萨”是土的意思。后来改为”拉萨”, 表示藏传佛教里的圣地。




        • Adam Cathcart says


  8. Adam,把北京和台湾的历史书合起来看,你才能看到一个完整的,准确度在90%以上的亚洲历史。

  9. Hans Dorte says

    Many questions for one chapter :)

    I did read the book and have a mixed impression. Here some comments on your questions:

    9., 11. and 20. Regarding Zhang Guohua and why he stayed in Tibet: Without the full support of Mao he could never have managed to maintain his position at that level for such a long time. Mao obviously wanted to have a few experienced persons still in charge to avoid a total collapse of the administration in Lhasa. That intention also explains why on one side he promotes the Cultural Revolution while limiting the number of Red Guards. After leaving Tibet he was promoted first to Sichuan and then to Beijing. Had Mao not decided that Zhang Guohua had done a good job while in Tibet he would not have been promoted to a more important position.

    18. Many groups fighting each other during the Cultural Revolution happened anywhere from Kashgar to Harbin and down to Guangzhou. It would have been surprising if Tibet was any different.

    26. and 27. The PLA was not united at that time in Tibet. It was divided into units loyal to Lanzhou and Chengdu military districts. Lanzhou and the 11th Division were supporting Gyenlo while Nyamdre is supported by Chengdu and the Tibet Military District with the 52nd and 53rd Division. See for example page 189 of “Memories of Life in Lhasa under Chinese Rule”. Therefore the “army simply re-invade Tibet in full and impose martial law” is not possible.

    In general the book contains a lot of speculation what people may have been thinking but not enough facts from archives.

    • Adam Cathcart says

      Thanks, Hans! I think the text does necessarily lean primarily upon oral histories/interviews. I am hoping to get into some of the transcribed interviews in Cleveland early in 2012, as this (to me in any event) is fairly important stuff.

      I have been slowly working through the book you recommended, “Memories of Life in Lhasa,” so it’s good to see that marshaled.

      Your point about Tibet not being particularly unique is precisely the line used in China to, paradoxically, reduce central responsibility for destruction of cultural artifacts in Tibet. “It was bad everywhere!” (so stop complaining) seems to be that particular refrain (which is certainly not what you are saying, but your comment about uniqueness did remind me of this point). The same point can be seen in the film “Love Song of Kangding” where the anti-rightist campaign causes untold pain to the main Han Chinese character, displacing the traumas of the intervening years between 1950-2010.

      Thanks again for the comments, hope to see you back again.

  10. Hans Dorte says

    It’s good if you plan visiting Cleveland to check the transcribed interviews. Many more people will be interested to read a firsthand experience here :) It has been claimed that many such transcriptions should be available but as far as I know no researcher has reported how it works and what is available.
    My point about “Tibet not being particularly unique” can also be used in the case of Germany during 1918 – 1919. Once all political factions and parties have plenty of weapons the fighting starts and many will get killed.
    If your focus is on the destruction of cultural artifacts in Tibet better concentrate on the 1958 – 1962 period. Far more was destroyed during that time but later it became convenient to blame the “Gang of Four”.

    • Adam Cathcart says

      Thanks Hans. I just got a grip on Carole McGranahan’s new book, which has a chapter on the destruction in Kham in the period you mentioned. Still lots of linkage work to be done!

  11. Hi Adam, What do you think about the self-immolation issues happened this year in Tibet?
    What are the reasons? Why this year? Do you think they are related to Dalai Lama’s retirement?

    • Adam Cathcart says

      Those are some pretty big questions, Tina! I haven’t had a chance to delve into the current affairs as much as I like — immolations being so far from my field of true expertise of history. But according to my Tibetan sources they don’t actually have a good word in their language for immolations, and (as Woeser has been pointing out on her essential Twitter feed [@woeser]), most of the monks/nuns burning themselves have been rather young. I am hoping to get out to Kangding and Aba at some point in the next few months to learn more about the region and the people. But whatever I have to say about the current situation in western Sichuan or eastern Tibet at this point would be pure conjecture.

      Your last question seems to suggest a connection that I hadn’t made: are you getting at the idea that the immolations are intended to put pressure on Beijing to bend on the issue of succession? I hadn’t seen evidence along those lines, but perhaps you have and could share a link. Thanks again for the comment.

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