Plateau Rouge: On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet (2)

A few weeks ago, I finally received my copy of the new French translation of Tibetan writer Woeser’s text of oral histories on the Cultural Revolution in Tibet.

This past Saturday night in Seattle, in between a Schumann Violin Concerto unearthed in unearthly manner and a celestially brutal Bruckner Symphony, I had a chance to read a single testimony and wanted to share a few impressions of the text.

Woeser’s interloctor in one long episode (pp. 72-115) is “Joenyi,” a Tibetan functionary in the TAR (and an old friend of Woeser’s father) who gave Woeser his testimony in February 2003.  Joenyi worked in an unspecified area of military logistics and , somewhat surprisingly, is rather pro-People’s Liberation Army for the duration of this long interview.

(This is of course one of the beautiful things about oral histories – rarely do they conform strictly to what one might consider logical.  Why would a dissident Tibetan writer allow praise of the PLA in her book which is ostensibly about Chinese destruction of Tibet?  Because she has fidelity to what she was told, and because this man has recollections of her father as well.  The testimony is simply an individual narrative, a single set of data points, a single voice.  And if it occasionally moves in tandem with a master narrative espoused by the State, then so be it.)

Joenyi proceeds at the outset of his interview to dispel any notion that things proceeded more slowly with the Cultural Revolution in Tibet due to its extreme remoteness (reculeé / 遥远).  No, indeed, news spread quite quickly across the plateau (p. 72-3).

Joenyi describes the struggle against PLA General (the man in whom Japanese colonial parlance would have been called Tibet’s “Governor-General”) Zhang Guohua.

The Red Guards arrived in localities looking to upend “local emperors,” and Zhang was at the apex of their target list.  Posters in Lhasa called him Zhang Guihua 张鬼猾 [“Zhang the Cunning Devil”], and it took little time at all for Tibetans to follow in the chorus of denunciation and complaint against the Han administrator (p. 74).

While the 18th Army remained loyal to their commander, an inner-military opposition arose around the person of Yu Xin, a “director of logistics” who had worked closely with Zhang Guohua during the 1962 border war with India (p. 76).

Yu, the interviewee describes, probably would not have beaten Zhang to death, but had Zhang Guohua not fled to Beijing, he certainly would have been object of a public trial (p. 80).

Joenyi takes a moment to raise the demonic parallels made by the traditional Tibetan government in regarding communist troops as monsters, effectively reprising the 13th Dalai Lama’s famous 1931 last testament.  Instead, Joenyi asserts, that the PLA members in Tibet were not Han monsters but rather regarded as “Buddha’s Soldiers.”  The interviewee mentions time and again that the PLA left a positive impression on the Tibetans, and that for most inhabitants of the plateau (in fact “as one mind”), the Army was the key institution through which they understood the Chinese Communist Party (p. 82).

One possible complication to this pattern, however, are troops on the very frontiers of the PRC, where factional struggles could become bloody rather quickly (p. 83).

At this point Woeser, who has primarily been asking shorter questions in a linear fashion, interjects with a point about her own father, an acquaintance of the interviewee, and his experience in Beijing (where, perhaps, he was forced to stay?).  The Lhasa-Beijing polarity is thus examined from another angle (p. 84).

I’ve got another three or four pages of Bruckner-inflected scribbles to transcribe, but this text is already nicely suprising: thus, readers can expect more to come with reference to the “Nyemo Incident” (which involves, among other things, a possessed shamanness who claims to be an adjutant both of the Tibetan mythic-king Gesar and Chairman Mao)…

Related Posts: No Silence for the Unsubjugated: Woeser in the Parisian Press,” Sinologistical Violoncellist, 17 January 2011.

Christopher Hughes, “From Centre to Periphery: Rewriting the Cultural Revolution: From Centre to Periphery,” China Quarterly (2006) [scholarly review of Woeser’s Chinese version of the same text of testimonies — loads as pdf.]

The True Story of Maoist Revolution in Tibet,” Revolutionary Worker, #752, 17 April 1994 [orthodox Maoist treatment of the matter which calls monks “class enemies,” etc., but is useful for understanding justifications of various kinds…]

Update: Just an interesting film from University of Michigan I was sent recently by Gavin Strassel, an Asianist bibliographer there, about art during the Cultural Revolution, added mainly for some red color in this entry, not for its connection to Tibet.


  1. One thing you appear to have failed to mention was the time frame in which the events were taking place. That is, was there a particular wave of the Cultural Revolution that the influx of Red Guards to Tibet? I seriously doubt that the movement had some sort of universal spontaneity, so was there a particular time in which the Red Guards effectively began moving towards Tibet, or was it just sort of a general emigration to the region?

    1. Thanks; the Cultural Revolution erupts in early summer of 1966, but the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa isn’t sacked until 1968 and the Nyemo Incident doesn’t hit until 1969. So all events occurring in that window of violence from 1966-1969. I don’t recall offhand when Zhang Guohua and Ngabo flee to Beijing (under Zhou Enlai’s patronage, apparently) but would assume it is fairly early, I’ll check it.

      1. Okay, thank you for checking for me.

        Having studied little of Tibet myself, any such knowledge on the topic is much appreciated.

  2. It is my understanding that Culture Revolution and Red Guards were not as destructive as they were in other China provinces. Red Guards were really rude to former slave owners, local monks, and some many Han Chinese government officials, like Zhang Guohua. They really treated common Tibetants very fair. ‘Cause Red Guards all seriously believed most common Tibetants were slaves. Today’s novels or dramas of this topics are more or less overstate the impact of Cultrure Revolution on Tibet Province.

  3. Quick question for clarification, but if the Tibetans were left with a good impression of the PLA army, why were they so quick to denounce Zhang Guohua? It seems contradictory or at least a survival tactic to avoid public humiliation by the Red Guards.

  4. Thank you for noting the contradiction between the State’s narrative of Tibetan history (be it the Chinese Communist State or even the Tibetan government in exile) and these oral histories. Goldstein makes a similar point in _On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969_, arguing that some Tibetans participated in the politics of the Cultural Revolution. It’s interesting how both Woeser and Goldstein, while interviewing Tibetans living in China/The T.A.R., uncovered testimonies which contradict the narrative that the Chinese destroyed traditional Tibetan culture during this period.

    These works brings up an interesting question: if individual testimonies contradict the State’s narrative, how does one version of an event become history while the other fades into silence? Specifically in the case of Tibet, what is the role of the Tibetan diaspora community in crafting these cultural narratives?

  5. I find it incredibly interesting how through the first comments we see a denial of time moving slower in Tibet during the cultural revolution. So many texts makes us want to think Tibet is always behind in the race no matter the situation although they were active in the Cultural Revolution this sparks my interest why they were anything but slow in the opinion of Joenyi. Never ceases to amazes me the connections Woeser has.

  6. After reading this we really do get a grasp about the difference in opinions within Tibet. So many accounts make it seem that Tibet opposed all Communist actions and yet Joenyi agreed with the PLA. Furthermore I agreed with Aylynn, I find it interesting that Tibet has always been portrayed as the “special case” and also the project to take slow and yet word spread very fast across the plateau about the revolution. I think it is best to understand history by being able to get a firsthand glimpse from someone who was actually there and experienced it!

  7. I found it interesting but not totally surprising that Joenyi was Pro-PLA. It reminded me of something we read in the Goldstein text; to me Joenyi related a lot to some of the youth in Tibet who were in favor of the communist and being educated. Like many of the student’s and youth Joenyi thought that the Chinese were doing good and helping better Tibet. Just out of curiosity, I was wondering how old Joenyi was during the Cultural Revolution? I’m just curious as to see if he was part of the youth who were open to the idea or whether he would have been the individual sticking out in a group of elders who opposed the Chinese in Tibet.

  8. Although a pro-PLA Tibetan does not shock me. What does surprise me is that Joenyi referred the the PLA as “buddha’s soldiers”. It seems strange to me that someone living in such a religious area could ever justify using the term “buddha’s soldiers” to describe an atheist group living in their country.

  9. It really comes as a shock to me that the PLA soldiers were so highly praised considering the fact that they were there for the destruction of Tibet. I would be very curious to see how other Tibetans felt about the PLA at this time.

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