No Silence for the Unsubjugated: Woeser in the Parisian Press

Han ideograms of self-praise tattoo the walls of the echo chamber of the PRC; millions of yuan are tilted downward as if out of dump trucks, rushing into the cultural bureaucracy which promotes an official and commodified version of Tibetan culture.  China is engaged in a great and perpetual project of unification, of 融合 [rong he].   Within that deafening and totalizing discourse of the People’s Republic of China, itself mixed in with no small amount of orientalism diffused in the form of cheap novels and exotic travel magazines, Tibetan writers who attack subjects at variance with the master narrative are, not surprisingly, marginalized.

The Chinese state is itself completely maladroit at self-administering a counterbalance, although small efforts are occasionally made.  A big-budget film about the 1950 liberation of Kangba (western Sichuan/eastern Tibet, which tellingly is administratively shorn from the Tibetan Autonomous Region) includes an oblique apology to Tibetans for the neglect caused by the 1957 anti-rightist movement.  Another small step forward: Melvyn Goldstein (the Rinpoche of Case Western Reserve University, of whose wisdom I partook in Cleveland in the 1990s, living with his Tibetan colleague, a former member of the government in exile and Chinese political prisoner) is allowed to collaborate with colleagues from Lhasa on a ground-breaking and must-read newly-published history of the most significant episode of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet.

But mostly, Tibetans are supposed to keep their mouths shut, or rather, fixed in a rictus while dancing, preferably to a pentatonic tune.

Woeser, the foremost modern Tibetan writer in the PRC, works to a different tune.  Her blog is a tremendous compendium of sources and discussion of Tibet’s past, present, and future, and, more importantly, it is wed to a tremendously productive drive in the realm of publishing.  You know, books! long arcs of data collection, synthesis, revision upon revision, reams of paper, daily experiments in form and expression…  Her new book of Cultural Revolution testimonies is a case in point.  And fortunately, she continues to produce (though under difficult circumstances) and her work has found an ever-wider audience in the West, particularly in Germany (this remarkable book on the Tibetan Aufstand of March 2008) and France/Canada.

And so to my task: a translation of a mainstream Parisian political magazine (roughly the equivalent of Newsweek, but mercifully bereft of Jonathan Alter and the other usual suspects and professional Beltway bloviators) and its profile of Woeser.  The tone is, like many pieces of French journalism which have a quasi-hagiographical function, a bit breathy, but it is nevertheless of interest to me and hopefully of use to you.  Given this blog’s consistent but not fully voluminous attention since mid-2009 to the (rather important) Sino-French dynamics of the Tibet issue, at the very least, it fits.

Ursula Gauthier, “La voix des sans parole: Depuis les emutes de Lhassa (2008) et d’Urumuqi (2009), Pekin a reussi a faire taire les insoumis.  Sauf une Tibetaine et un Ouigour, qui vivent et bloguent dans la capitale [The Voice of Those Without Words: After the Demonstrations in Lhasa (2008) and Urumuqi (2009), Beijing Succeeds in Silencing the Unsubjugated, Except for a Tibetan and a Uighur Who Live and Blog in the Capital],”] Le nouvel observateur, No. 2407-2408 (23 Dec.- 5 Jan.): 51.  Translated by Adam Cathcart.

For all the Tibetans, she is the voice of resistance to the red empire.  Her blog, “Invisible Tibet,” constantly under attack, blocked many times and now hosted abroad, has become the platform for an inventory of the daily violence inflicted on her compatriots.  For her courage, in 2007 Woeser received a Norwegian prize for freedom of expression, and in 2010 an American prize for courage in journalism.  Nevertheless, she does not take on an exalted air.  With her silk scarf, her ethnic jewelry and her fragile grace, she retains the look of a melancholic poetess of 20, broken between two identities.

On the one side, one quarter of her blood is Han: her grandfather was a member of the Kuomintang, her father was a high-ranking communist in the army, she had an exclusively Chinese and atheist education, a “naive belief in the generosity of the Party” extending into the very Chinese characters in which she writes.  On the other side: her “Tibetan soul,” her Buddhist faith and infinite respect in how she, like all of her compatriots, views the Dalai Lama.

It is such an allusion which was found in one of her books in 2003 which deprived her of her post at a literary magazine in Lhasa.  She moved to Beijing and married the writer Wang Lixiong, who is passionate about Tibet and Xinjiang.  These two succeed in putting the condition of China’s ethnic minorities “on the radar of writers” in pro-democratic circles, to render more powerful their interest in the question.  The violations of cultural and religious rights of the non-Han, their brutality, are the subjects of debate in her treatises.

When, in March 2008, the events burst forth in Lhasa, Woeser’s blog, the sole source of information not controlled by the Communist Party, received 3 million clicks: “For my Chinese readers who believed like steel that Mao had ‘liberated’ Tibet, 2008 was a shock, an occasion to discover a bit of true history.”  Did a “pro-minorities” stance successfully follow?  “Not to exaggerate,” she says with a nervous smile.  “There is today a certain sympathy for Tibetans.  It is enormous, if one compares it to the Uighurs who do not receive even a shadow of sympathy.  As for the Mongols, no one gives a damn [tout le monde s’en fiche]…”

On Twitter, where she has 12,000 followers, for the most part Han, Woeser maintains a desperate chronicle of the Tibetan intellectuals who have been arrested — some for a sole article in a scholarly journal [revue savante] — tortured and totally condemned to heavy labor.  Like Kunchok Tsephel, an English professor who was condemned in 2009 to fourteen years in prison for “divulging state secrets” on his literary site.  “I have counted at a minimum of 60 or 70 cases, which do not include similar cases which no one has talked about,” she explains soberly.  “The elites are systematically watched.  But [the authorities] say it is not deliberate.”

There is, sadly, no online version of the above article with which you can check my French.  As compensation, please accept a little outro music for the other side of the Earth…


  1. This is not the first time in history that a ruling class has suppressed the ideas of a minority, nor tortured and imprisoned individuals simply because of their beliefs. Unfortunately, this theme seems to repeat itself again and again in history. Gathering of information and dissemination of the truth is the most effective way to combat this oppression. Policies and practices like these must be exposed. Although this method is slow, education and illumination of these issues will be the only way to bring about change.

    1. Thanks for the insights, Thomas. It is indeed interesting to look at Woeser within the larger flow of the quest for freedom of expression, what we might call the search for a more perfect expression of universal human rights. I think in particular in the case of China, slow illumination is absolutely the way to go. There are no real silver bullets although, (to use Mao’s phrase), the “sugar-coated bullets” of capitalism have already gone a long way in thirty years toward widening the field of allowed expression in China. But there is still a long way to go, particularly for ethnic Tibetan writers writing in Chinese.

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