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As everyone knows, the Chinese Communist Party is fully committed to reincarnating itself as the Qing dynasty, but with more aircraft carriers and a Communist Dalai Lama who tells choking city dwellers to be less materialistic. In today’s lead editorial, Huanqiu Shibao puts it this way: “众所周知，中国藏传佛教的活佛转世有一整套历史定制和宗教仪轨，持续三百多年，从清朝开始，新达赖的确定必须得到中央政府的批准。达赖这几年不断抛出人们闻所未闻的异端邪说，称他可以转世为外国人、女人等等。最近又干脆说他可以不转世了.”
In other news, women who believe in stopping sexual harassment on public transport in China have been targeted and detained by the state. It’s almost as if the Standing Committee of the CCP (where women hold 2 of the 25 posts) believes that Chinese women should take a cue from their North Korean counterparts and spend International Women’s Day busying themselves with statements about their good fortune to live in the glow of a brilliant patriarch.
As the agile voice of Barbara Hannigan recently wrote about conducting, another quasi-mystical field of leadership: “It is neither male nor female. Convention has kept the field dominated by men.” Maybe the next Dalai Lama will appear in female form, after all.
This essay was originally published as “Dalai Lama struggles to retain influence over troubled Tibet,” The Irish Times (Dublin), April 22, 2012, p. 14.
Northern Ireland is a long way from Tibet. But watching the Dalai Lama cross Derry’s “Peace Bridge” this past Thursday, one could be forgiven for imagining that the two worlds were, in fact, intimately related.
The Dalai Lama clearly has much inspiration to offer to Northern Ireland. However, the movement that he leads is experiencing massive stresses, and his peregrinations in Europe are just as important to him as they are for us.
The Dalai Lama is the head of the Yellow Hat sect, the fourteenth reincarnation of his office, and a “living Buddha.” As a child philosopher-king, he received gifts sent from Franklin D. Roosevelt, but made only desultory pushes for Tibet’s claims to sovereignty.
In 1951, the Chinese Communist Party broke Tibet’s isolation, occupying the plateau. 25% of all Tibetan males were monks, and the Chinese were ardent atheists, but efforts were made by both sides to accomodate the other. The Dalai Lama went so far as to meet with Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing. As Tibetans began to be assimilated into CCP’s matrix of “brotherly nationalities,” the Dalai Lama fled in March 1959, and has since led a government-in-exile based in Dharmsala, India.
Today, Tibetan-majority counties and regions are spread all over western China, an area targetted for heavy infrastructural investment. In Lhasa, the CCP pulls up stones worn smooth by decades of pilgrim prostrations, replaces them with new sidewalks and shopping malls, and expects gratitude. Similarly, the Chinese force nomads into new housing clusters that make surveillance easier. Police stations are built inside of monastic compounds and army soldiers do target practice within earshot of holy sites. Development is abetted by Chinese settlers, a new train from mainland China, and a host of new airports.
Tibetan writers are heavily censored; the most admired are sent to jail. Cultural erosion and “bilingual education” skewed toward Chinese is a particular sticking point. 2% of all men are monks, and they first need to undertake a secular state education. Riots are repressed. There are no discussions about the Dalai Lama’s return. The response by some Tibetans to these trends has been to bathe in gasoline and burn themselves to death in public spaces, more than 100 in the past two years.
The rise of self-immolations by Tibetans indicates that the Dalai Lama’s line for peaceful protest is beginning to erode. These acts, undertaken primarily by young Tibetans, underscore the attractions of more dramatic forms of protest. It is indeed shocking to speak with young Tibetans in China, who in one breath will laud the Dalai Lama, and in the next, talk about the need for gallant armed struggle against the occupiers.
Like the hunger strikers during the Troubles, the youth engaged in such protests have brought attention to underlying problems, but they also open up serious questions: What is the actual effect of the protest on the dominating adversary? How many martyrs does a given struggle need? The protestors simply want the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet, and the Chinese to leave, but these are incoate sentiments not to be confused with actual strategy.
Beijing has predictably responded with an uptick in policing, and harsh punishments for those who would abet the protestors. Beijing’s propaganda tags the Dalai Lama as the source of the self-immolations, asserting that he is directing a Tibetan resistance movement inside of China’s borders with the help of American and Indian intelligence organizations. It is difficult to have a reasonable conversation on these topics in Beijing.
Countries that allow the Dalai Lama to visit are occasionally held up for scorn, particularly when civic leaders meet with “His Holiness.” Mayors in Paris as well as Portland, Oregon, have been the targets in recent years of Chinese campaigns to stop so-called “splittist” activity, which can be defined as anything from meeting with the Dalai Lama to celebrations of non-communist-approved Tibetan culture. Accordingly, during the Derry visit, Martin McGuiness and Peter Robinson were nowhere to be seen, surely mindful of their upcoming trade mission to China.
The Dalai Lama is in Derry to celebrate dialogue, but his own movement is at an impasse. There are few viable paths forward for negotiations with Beijing, and the CCP seems merely to be waiting for the Dalai Lama’s death to step in and create a split in the search for his child successor. Radicalism is increasingly attractive to Tibetan youth.
Amid the complex passions of Northern Ireland’s identity politics, the Dalai Lama rings a bell of clarity and appeals for calm. But there are storm clouds over Tibet.
Image credit: The Dalai Lama waits for a ferry on the Thames River on 19 September 2015. Via the Office of the Dalai Lama.
Back in July, while on a late-night stroll through the 5th Arrdondisment looking for Rue Oberkampf, I chanced upon an announcement of the Dalai Lama’s mid-August trip to Toulouse, France, a city which appears to have become a kind of new Buddhist heartland.
To follow up: The Dalai Lama indeed went to Toulouse, and a short clip from a French television station captures very well the local excitement and the huge crowds (over 10,000 attendees, each paying over 100 Euros) garnered by the visit.
Although his speech is a touch impenetrable, I personally enjoy how the 20-something guy standing in line in his sports gear is there to learn from the Dalai Lama about compassion, a value which I also felt exuding from the somewhat drunk but indisputably kind (pre-Buddhists/sloshed Boddhisattvas?) of French origin who I sat next to while taking in the fireworks and getting an earful of Leonard Bernstein and Sinatra on Bastille Day near the Ecole Militaire.
Now that I mention it, there is a working paper to be written somewhere about the battle for hearts and minds, the soft power struggle, undertaken by the Chinese government and the Tibetan Government in Exile amidst the semi-employed post-collegiate white and French-born segment of Europe. (I say “white and French-born” because it may be that among African-born Francophones in France, Sino-African relations is the terrain upon which China is judged and found wanting, or exemplary; this may be speculation on my part, but a quick glance at the newsstands in France and the predominance of African affairs there argues for my correctness in this small argumentative vector. Of course white French readers of the press are also concerned with Africa — as are France’s armed and thoroughly multi-ethnic forces — but that is another debate altogether.)
The Dalai Lama’s visit to Toulouse is also an opportunity to contrast how French politicians handle such a visit, as opposed to their American counterparts. When the Dalai Lama visits Washington, American Republicans waste no time in smashing the administration for not showing His Holiness more respect. Tibet policy is one of the great unstated, but unquestionable, areas of extreme left-right agreement in the U.S.
On the other hand, France’s answer to the Tea Party, Marine LePen and her National Front, appear to have no comment on the Dalai Lama’s visit. There is, though, this video of Le Pen holding forth in a small press conference in Toulouse (which includes complaining of the “Islamicization” of France) in which neither China nor the Dalai Lama comes in for discussion (for more on the Petainist origins of the present permutations of the French right wing, see James Shields’ detailed book from 2007). However, this Marine Le Pen press release from spring 2008, singles out the main object of attack — following in her father’s footsteps of associating French left with the Cultural Revolution — is not the Chinese government but instead a French communist:
Mardi 08 Avril 2008
Du Tibet à Nanterre : le communisme incompatible avec la démocratie
Communiqué de presse de Marine Le Pen
Si les violences commises par le régime communiste chinois au Tibet ont été largement commentées et condamnées par la classe politique, pas une voix ne s’est élevée pour dénoncer les propos stupéfiants du maire communiste de Nanterre, Patrick Jary.
Réagissant le 7 avril dans les colonnes du Parisien au prochain déménagement du siège du Front national dans la préfecture des Hauts-de-Seine, l’édile communiste affirme “qu’il faut que les gens comprennent qu’il y a des lieux où le FN n’a pas le droit de venir”.
Au Tibet comme à Nanterre, le communisme, fidèle à sa vision totalitaire du monde, démontre une fois encore son caractère antidémocratique et la vision toute particulière qu’il se fait de la liberté …
Le Front National dénonce l’hypocrisie d’une classe politique qui sait être bruyante quand il s’agit de stigmatiser les violations des droits de l’homme à l’étranger mais reste étrangement silencieuse quand certaines libertés fondamentales sont bafouées en France.
So much for France.
A week after his Toulouse sojurn, the Dalai Lama was received at Goethe University in Frankfurt, an institution with an already-dynamic Asian Studies profile, particularly via its Interdisciplinary Center for East Asian Studies. Video of the visit is available here, via Goethe University.
By way of comment: As I was in China during both of these visits, it very much interests me how routinized (which is to say, ignored) the Dalai Lama’s global work has become in the PRC press. When a prominent French politician — say, the mayor of Paris — wants to make the Dalai Lama an “honorary citizen,” or an American mayor wants to commemorate Tibetan struggles in the month of March, a stink is raised, but by and large, the CCP lets these kind of appearances pass without comment, partially because they have already spent a great deal of their human rights pushback capital on cases like Ai Weiwei. It may also be because the Dalai Lama is so apparently indefatigable, and there is little that the CCP can gain from railing against his every move. It is one of the many instances in China where the “hard line” is in reality rather spotty, and applied only exemplary circumstances sufficient to inspire second thoughts about extending an invitation, second thoughts which are then rather easily pushed aside by the original impulse to broaden the scope of the inquiry and bend the ear towards the man in the crimson and gold robes from Dhramsala.
Here on Sinologistical Violoncellist, the subject of Tibet seems to be coming up with greater frequency, as it ought to. After all, the Dalai Lama remains floating through the universe (and the halls of Congress, Richard Gere in tow) dropping rhetorical bombs on Beijing, and Zhongnanhai makes no bones about shutting off all avenues of dialog with the 14th reincarnation.
And thus, apropos of well, this, allow me to state that people who have not read (or are in the process of reading and attempting to digest) Melvyn Goldstein’s relatively new tome on the Chinese Communist Party’s policies in Tibet from 1951-1955 are really missing out. I believe this is one of the most essential books that anyone can read, and should read, in order to understand the compromises that are both possible and historically relevant between the Chinese and Tibetan leadership, and the inherent conflict in their positions.
Thus, I bring you a few dozen questions (which, unlike most of the material on this blog, I encourage you to plagiarize and modify as you like):
Discussion Questions [by Adam Cathcart] re: Melvyn Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, Vol. 2: The Calm Before the Storm, 1951-1955 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
CHAPTER ONE – Chinese Perspectives
1. On pages 22-25, Goldstein lays out a set of points which are key to understanding the realistic conditions for CCP’s gradualist policy in Tibet. I presently believe that the CCP were gradualist because they had to be. Goldstein, on the other hand, never draws this explicit conclusion. Why doesn’t Goldstein want to discuss more about the motives of the communist leaders?
2. In describing “United Front” (e.g., propaganda) work of the PLA, Goldstein describes Mao’s “carrot-stick” approach toward Tibet. What are the carrots, and what are the sticks? Absent the tens of thousands of troops bearing down on Chamdo, could Mao have gotten the Tibetan government to agree to anything?
CHAPTER TWO – Tibetan Perspectives
3. What is the 1914 Simla Convention and why does Prime Minister Nehru get on the phone about it during his meeting with the Tibetans (p. 45)? Why isn’t India more supportive of the Tibetans in their hour of need?
4. In their first meeting with the new Chinese ambassador to India, Yuan Zhongxian, in September 1950, the Tibetans state that “there is no need to liberate Tibet from imperialism, because there are no British, American, or Guomindang imperialists in Tibet, and Tibet is ruled by the Dalai Lama (not a foreign power).” Is this a true statement? If so, then why does the CCP continue to insist that it is liberating Tibet from foreign imperialism?
CHAPTER FOUR – Dalai Lama to Yadong
5. In Tibet’s appeal to the UN (pp. 90-91), China is pictured as immense and inherently aggressive. In what ways is the memo’s ultimate suggestion – the dispatch of a UN fact-finding mission to Tibet – both a non-starter with the Chinese and a horrendously belated request for political recognition from the global community?
CHAPTER FIVE – The United States Intervenes
6. Why does Goldstein find it necessary to discuss China’s intervention in the Korean War in late 1950 (pp. 114-115)? Is it possible that the connection between the war in Korea and the events in Tibet is actually much, much bigger than Goldstein implies? Or is the Korean War irrelevant to events on the Tibetan plateau at this time?
7. In point one “Against the Embassy Proposal,” the author describes how the goal of U.S. policy in China for the past several decades has been to support the “territorial integrity” of China (p. 116). The Americans threw hundreds of thousands of troops and hundreds of millions of dollars into the Asian theater of World War II to support that policy and back up China’s right to exist. Why would the Americans have considered throwing out all of that history and investment of blood and treasure in order to advocate a separation of Tibet from China? Does the U.S. Executive Branch support China’s territorial integrity today? Does the Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, as she demands a consulate be set up in 2011 in Lhasa?
8. What is the major problem with the American statement (p. 117) that “we should encourage….Tibet’s orientation toward the West rather than the East”?
9. If it were possible to find enough information, the trip that never happened of “experienced explorer-scholar Schuyler Cammonn, University of Pennsylvania” to Tibet to spy out the situation in summer 1949 would be a fascinating and very publishable research paper topic (p. 119). If anyone is interested in hunting down more information about this thread for a possible guest blog post on Sinologistical Violoncellist, please let me know.
10. In U.S. Ambassador to India Henderson’s secret letter to the Dalai Lama, he recommends that his Holiness go into exile in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). Why does Henderson recommend this course of action? Why is this letter not a part of the Dalai Lama’s autobiography or his manga biography?
11. In the 1950s, is the Indian border city of Kalimpong really, as George Patterson called it, a “nest of spies”?
CHAPTER SIX “The Dalai Lama Returns to Lhasa”
12. At the three-day assembly and debate in Yadong, why are the Tibetan monks, including the abbots of the big three monasteries, nearly unanimous in demanding return the Dalai Lama’s return to Lhasa (p. 138)? How would you characterize the strategy of the three big monasteries in the eight years (1951-1958) of cooperation with the CCP?
13. Namseling is hardcore, the main advocate of rejecting the agreement, and therefore of the idea of perpetuating the notion of a political and cultural Tibet in exile. Why does Namseling oppose China? What is his particular view of the global role of the question of sovereignty in “keeping the flame of Tibetan independence alive”? Does history change at all if Namseling wins this argument?
CHAPTER SEVEN – Initial Contacts and Strategies
1. Zhang Jingwu arrives in Lhasa on 8 August 1951. Given that Mao had proclaimed the People’s Republic on 1 October 1949 (and with the republic, presumably, the victory of the CCP in civil war), doesn’t Zhang’s arrival in Lhasa seem awfully late? If so, then what does Tibet’s later timetable for consolidation tell us about China’s sensitiveness about “territorial integrity”?
2. Note the pre-arrival stereotypes of the Han Chinese among Tibetans: many Tibetans thought the Chinese might be “devils” of some kind. How are the imaginations of some Tibetans calmed, and others enflamed, by the appearance of actual Chinese in Lhasa?
3. Why were songs especially important in Tibet’s political culture? Hint: Because there were no newspapers in Lhasa before the Chinese showed up!
4. Who is Shelling, the source on pp. 171-172 for Zhang Jingwu’s appearance in Lhasa? Hint: he’s my old housemate in Cleveland! I was fortunate to live with linguistically talented and spiritually adept Tibetan aristocrats, via Dhramsala, when I was studying to become a Sinologistical Violoncellist in Cleveland in the late 1990s.
5. How does Lukhangwa fit into contemporary images of Tibet? Which “side” in the contemporary context is more truthful? Does Lukhangwa represent an incorrect approach among Tibetans toward relations with China? Is there such a thing as Tibetan xenophobia, or would that phrase be politically incorrect?
6. Would Tibet be better off had Sinified Tibetans like Lobsang Tashi been more assertive (p. 193)?
7. How does the fait accompli of the 17-Point Agreement make the sitsab even more hard-line in dealing with initial Chinese military officials in Tibet (p. 174)?
8. Chinese propagandists made promoted many positive images of Zhang’s first month in Lhasa. In what ways was Zhang’s behavior toward the monasteries patterned after the Guomindang/Nationalist precendent in Tibet? And why, generally speaking, was there no open Sino-Tibetan disagreement in this period?
9. Why doesn’t Lukhangwa’s threat involving “the three jewels and karmic cause” scare the Chinese (p. 176)? Hint: It’s because the Chinese officials are atheists!
10. Would you attribute the first-ever growth of what we would recognize as “civil society” in Tibet to the Chinese pressure (pp. 177-179)? Is it fair to say that the arrival of the CCP inaugurates a period of real political participation for Tibet’s non-official aristocrat class and others? If so, doesn’t this render the CCP as a positive force in Tibet?
11. What was Mao’s strategy with regards to the Dalai Lama? Does it seem likely, given the reasonably reliable information on p. 179, that the CCP threat to kill the Dalai Lama – a message delivered via his brother from Qinghai (see also Manga Biography pp. 64-69) – is simply false?
12. Were the communist leaders sincere in their desire to respect Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism (p. 180 ff.)? Or was the policy merely a necessary short-term accommodation that preceded their true desire: to wipe out the religion and therefore the basic civilization of Tibet?
13. In what ways is the CCP directive not to stir up class consciousness or attack landowners (p. 183) fundamentally at odds with concurrent political events in China at the time? What would scholars like Julia Strauss or the author of Words Kill have to say about CCP policy in Tibet in comparison to that in China proper?
14. In the early 1950s, the CCP leadership insisted that there be no specific timetable set up for Tibet’s fuller integration into the PRC. In what ways does this strategy mirror Sun Tzu or Chairman Mao’s tactics as described in their respective texts Art of War and On Protracted War? Does everything that important require a plan with a calendar? Or are flexible principles themselves sufficient grounds for acting efficiently and effectively? Did the Tibetans fail in the 1950s because of a dearth of ancient and indiginous military texts and strategies?
15. In what way is Lukhangwa the real father of “the Tibetan Resistance”? Can we speak of a “Lukhangwa model” of resistance today, or have times, tactics, and perspectives changed radically? In what ways has his strategy failed the Tibetans, particularly in the impulsive and independent character of the resistance?
16. What do you think of Goldstein’s implicit assertion that Tibet weakened itself by truncating the modernizing influence of British-educated Tibetans from 1914-1933? In what ways did Tibet’s “anti-imperialism” of the 1910s and 1920s – an outlook and violent activity for which the CCP lauds them still – paradoxically leave Tibet unreformed and thus open to Chinese allegations that they, the Chinese, are modernizing Tibet because the Tibetans are incapable of doing the job themselves?
17. On pages 192-193, Goldstein describes the minor wave of Tibetan students who went to study in the interior of China at places like People’s University in Beijing. While Goldstein seems to interpret this change positively (or at the very worst, as an anodyne development), Tibetan exiles have since depicted the associated actions as a form of “abduction” by the Chinese, part of a quasi-genocidal process of forced acculturation. In the long run, why does this topic of Tibetans studying in China matter at all? Shouldn’t we just be focused on what the Chinese are doing in Tibet itself?
18. When it comes to Tibetans who admired Chinese modernization and culture in the early- and mid-1950s, the Dalai Lama needs also to be considered (pp. 200-205). Didn’t these people understand that China was about to embark upon two massively destructive mass campaigns, known as the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which would be very harmful to Tibetans? If the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Sinified elites had had better foresight, wouldn’t they have gone into exile in 1951 instead of giving the Chinese Communist Party a chance to demonstrate its moderate nature? Conversely, what is the historical problem with criticizing the young Dalai Lama and others for pro-China tendencies in the mid-1950s?
19. Of the partially-Sinified and conciliationist wing of the Tibetan elites, few are more influential in the long run than Ngabo. Do you consider Ngabo a pragmatic patriot or a sell-out?
20. When is a scholar going to write a historically accurate rap battle between Ngabo and the culturally conservative obstructionist Lukhangwa, giving each man a verse which pivot around a chorus which starts with “khasey dingsey,” which is the Tibetan phrase for “say what your feel and think?”
In the orbit of the greater Los Angeles area, Long Beach serves a peculiar, often gritty, and vital function. A few months ago I experienced enlightenment in Long Beach thanks to two gentlemen who had just gotten out of prison for “just stabbing somebody” and were on their way back from an appointment to remove the white supremacist tattoos which were all over their faces. Slightly post-drunk on a wobbly train, they explained to me so beatifically their new lives in a halfway house: “We have meetings all the time, like ‘Dealing with Anger’ and ‘Growing Up Male’,” they said.
Since my father was, when he was living, a slightly post-drunk janitor who introduced me to more than a few ex-cons and societally marginal figures, and who himself ended up in a halfway house (in a way he never left, really), I think I was more open to the wisdom that flowed from these two men in Long Beach, even though they had horns inked on their temples. Maybe it was because they offered me some fried chicken and seemed understanding that I was, strangely, without a phone on the Long Beach rail line.
And thus, today, I was pleased to learn that another dispenser of wisdom of a sort, he of the ex-con hairstyle, and a man who lives in a perpetual state of “halfway” (between India and China, I suppose, or between mortality and sacred revolutionary immortality) arrives today in Long Beach!
Since I have been reading Huanqiu Shibao and the (ever-more attuned to the world!) North Korean Central News Agency for my foreign news these past few days, the story had almost passed me by.
As to the venue for the Dalai Lama’s arrival:
Your Holiness, Long Beach is indeed a place which is in great need of some spiritual uplift. The scientists and narcissistic TED fellows (but how would anyone know about them, were they not narcissists and hucksters of the modern age?) who momentarily clotted up its byways and convention halls were unable to transform this slow-chewing and rust-clotted industrial aperture of Los Angeles, but perhaps you, dear sir, having gone forehead-to-forehead with Chairman Mao, are up to the task.
And now for some footage of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama in Beijing, circa 1954-55!
Additional reading: JustRecently on Wang Lixiong, Tibet, and the indefatigable WOESER
A fragment of an unfinished op-ed I wrote in the Tibet Autonomous Region last fall:
As October advances, leaves scatter into Lhasa streets full of pilgrims weaving through the occasional knot of Han Chinese and foreign tourists. According to today’s Tibet Business Daily [西藏商报] , since the National Day holiday started on October 1, the Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR/西藏自治区 ] welcomed 343,770 tourists, a large influx given the region’s relatively sparse population. The figure, even if it is inflated (as Tibetan friends will assert), represents a 27.5% increase over last year’s official tourist figures from the same fall peak tourism week. Hotels are going up all over the city, and by next year, a Shangri-La will redefine Lhasa’s luxury market.
(The kindred hotel, the Shangri-La in Chengdu, fills a segment of the riverine skyline outside of my apartment in Sichuan. The hotel is downright sumptuous to walk through, inducing a kind of pleasurable guilt, sort of like listening to Debussy.)
What Tibetans think about the influx of tourists is a mixed bag. Does the fact that tourists spent 1.3 million yuan in Tibet this past week help a bit? Some will complain that Chinese are doing business illegally in Tibet, failing to register their cars and pay tax. Today’s Lhasa Evening News [拉萨晚报] reports that eleven people were arrested in the past week for failing to register, and for having such illegal items as fake train tickets to Beijing and business cards.
(One never has such a strong sense of the power of the small-scale printing industry as in Tibet; all the photocopiers are in the hands of Han businesspeople and even Tibetan hotels need to take several hours to make photocopies because they first need a Han to sign off on the action.)
In the Dico’s on the edge of the Barkor (the traditional center of the city) and one of the few fast food restaurants, Chinese tourists talk in exaggerated drama about the relative merits of buying real estate in Hangzhou versus that of Shanghai. Tibetan beggars walk in and are shooed away by the Tibetan employees clad in their Dico’s uniforms; the Muslim restaurant downstairs, by contrast, lets the beggars in freely, figuring that proximity to holy site should inure everyone to the practice. At night, the Tibetan policemen retire into big white busses, smoking and playing with their cell phones, while posts throughout the darkening city remain manned by People’s Liberation Army troops, Han Chinese from Sichuan, cradling their machine guns.
Since October 3, the public security presence in Lhasa has been less prevalent in the area around the Jokhang Temple, the traditional Barkhor area where protests against Chinese governance have tended to break out. An immense police station hides diagonally from the exit to the Johkang (newer and larger police stations are being built directly next to large monasteries, such as at Gyandan about an hour from Lhasa), but recently the PLA opened up a little “tea water and newspaper reading area” under the shade at the edge of the square, and a handful of off-duty PLA enjoy some shopping on a day off.
The contrast with spring 2008 was evident, but the scars of March and April of that year are still relatively fresh. In March 2008, Lhasa exploded into violence, revealing deep ethnic and cultural rifts between Tibetans and the central government in Beijing. The riots – and the Dalai Lama’s subsequent tour to Seattle – embarrassed China on the international stage and brought home once again the need for reforms on the plateau. Since 2008, the CCP has made changes, but along the lines of the following formula: Emphasize economic development, increase the number of domestic tourists, reorganize nomads into villages, heighten the political repression, and glaze everything over with gaudy celebrations of an “ethnic unity” which is inevitably led by the Han majority.
The Chinese Communist Party continues to build in strength and consolidate state power in Tibet. Education is a kind of battlefield of sorts; but is a new class of pro-Chinese Tibetans emerging to undermine the exile movement?
Perhaps this will all work. A new railroad to Shigatze. On the road to India, a huge PLA convoy comes from Chengdu. Tibet is always useful for a reason other than itself.
Robert Barnett, « Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet. Volume 2: The Calm before the Storm, 1951-1955. », China perpectives [Online] , 2009/3.
Susette Cooke, « Merging Tibetan Culture into the Chinese Economic Fast Lane », China perpectives [Online] , 50 | november- december 2003 .
[This is a guest post by Kristiana Henderson of Pacific Lutheran University, based upon research begun in Tibet in October 2010 and continued for the duration of that fall in Chengdu and western Sichuan province, PRC. Henderson uses some Tibetan characters in the post which, depending on your font sympathies and access, may not display in their entirety — a fitting enough irony considering the content of the post.
Speaking more globally, people whose scholarly gears turn along musicological lines should not miss next week’s conference on Asian Pop Music at Princeton University. It’s a great line up, with lots of papers about Japan. But without any papers about North Korean hip-hop [a subject about which, to my knowledge, I remain the sole academic to have published anything about] or an appearance from Tokyo-London by the art-music-and-“menstruation machine”-generator-provocateur Sputniko!, the conference may be just as notable for what it is lacking. And thus back to Tibet, and definitions in reference to absence. — Adam Cathcart]
བགྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས! Best wishes for ལོ་སར /Losar/Tibetan New Year.
Holidays connected to a particular ethnicity in China have a way of strengthening definitions of what it means to belong to that identity. Losar, usually sandwiched neatly between Chinese New Year and the Iranian/Kurdish/Zoroastrian New Year, is such a holiday: something uniquely Tibetan (or, at least, Himalayan). For Tibet in particular, this kind of cultural “spin cycle” of Chinese and indigenous holidays has gone even further into overdrive amidst the dual wash cycles of globalization and an increasingly strong presence of Han Chinese culture in Tibetan popular culture and media.
The metaphor of wash cycles, when applied to Tibet, however, may not contain the desired connotations. Dare I be more explicit in the connotation of white-washing, or, depending on one’s proclivities, ethnic cleansing?
[Having posed a heart-racing question, the author then proceeds to ignore it. – A.C.]
What interests me much more is how cultures — and all of the facets — that go into sculpting cultural identity, regional differences, complexities in beliefs and values, historiographies, and the interweaving of “healthy” and “not-so-healthy” parts of a culture all get instantly stripped into an easily definable “symbolic” package that can be instantly understood, and, in being instantly understood, become better able to be controlled and “sold” for a target demographic.
Tibetan dress, dialect, music and dancing styles, etc. that are unique to regions and class end up cherry-picked, boiled down into a nice jam that can be easily spread over the bland white bread of mass media. Couple this with China’s heavy hand in ethic minorities’ self-expression, and you have the questions surrounding Tibetan identity in a nutshell.
My own interests began with the policy side of things, looking directly at minority language education policy. In the midst of this research, I decided to “get in the mood” by finding some decent Tibetan music on QQ music, the Chinese portal, or, now back in the U.S., through YouTube, the perennial time death-trap of the collegian. My discoveries led me into a world of synthesizers mixed with traditional instruments, rap mixed with the soulful, plaintive traditional “warbling,” solo singers and mass performances, and music videos dominated by scenes of spinning prayer wheels, men singing in flower fields, and smiling women either dancing or herding yaks
(Occasionally there were some who tried to get a fresher “Hip Hop” image, but due to the lack of quality in the video itself and the self-consciousness of all the performances, it was too painful to continue watching. Interesting enough that in some of these incorporate a strange mix of “gangster” and “Abercrombie” images….my take-home message seems to be what I noticed just in my travels and interactions in Tibet: whatever is American sells, not only because it’s “cool,” but because it provides a viable alternative to Chinese mass culture.)
[I would also add that much of the Tibetan exposure to what is regarded as hip-hop on the plateau seems to be strained through South Korean idioms and fashion. — A.C.]
Regardless, the videos left me with questions. So, if the Tibetans were completely left to their own devices in creating these music videos, and there were absolutely no political constraints on the images and themes they are and are not allowed to broadcast, would there really be this many effing yaks on my computer screen right now?
Cleaned up for academic purposes, I believe it’s a good question to ask, because the implications behind the question are directly related to who is actually in control of how a culture is projected to a larger audience.
Are the images a result of constraints placed by Beijing? Then I’d call it stereotyping and boxing in of a minority culture for post-colonial styles of mass-commodification. If this was truly done free-willingly by Tibetan artists, then I’d suspect the free market, and if the Invisible Hand wants beat-box while milk some sheep on the Tibetan Plateau. If the latter is the case, then so be it.
How, then, was Losar 2011 presented? I’ve seen a variety of performances on YouTube already, some involving kids’ shows, some incredibly campy comedy routines centering on illiteracy, that seem more like a daytime slapstick show out of Taibei than Markham, although I doubt even in Taibei they would have a 2008 Beijing Olympics Gift Bag as a prop…. Some have varying levels of “traditional” Tibetan folk costume and dance routines. Some, including some of the advertisements, are in the Tibetan Language (although “surprisingly” many of these have even the tones and inflections of Chinese than even Lhasa Tibetan). Some of the programming is just done straight-up in Chinese and have a few interesting themes woven in besides (check out this one as well), and it’s interesting just to see the theme for comedy material in terms of language used. Also, let’s look at this gem of a bizarre and possibly paternalistic fashion show. Some shows geared for kids, opening up yet another Pandora’s box regarding how to teach kids “how to be Tibetan.”
Simultaneously, there are quite a few popular music videos (I can only guess this is also the case within the 雪城) circulating now around by famous Tibetan singers. The common theme is extolling the virtues of…Tibetan identity. Judging by the fact that these videos were taken from Chinese television channels and/or Chinese Youtube, I can assume that these 土豆videos weren’t TOO hot for the Harmonious Society to handle. But they could be deemed politically “sensitive” nonetheless.
One I have been enjoying particularly as of late has been a certain Lobsang’s song known in Chinese as 西藏同胞, or Tibetan Brothers/Compatriots…I find neither word to be entirely right, because 同胞 also has implications with coming from the same womb. Hmmm…but doesn’t that seem to stand in stark contrast with China’s concept of 国家, or nationality, that also implies familial ties? Oh, sure, in the background he doesn’t fly the Snow Lion flag, but rather the PRC-okayed multi-colored flag that nondescriptly symbolizes “The Other Chinese.”
But at the same time, considering how much I’ve seen the word “Honda” flashed across the screen, it seems he’s in love with the fact that his motorbike is Japanese as much as the freedom it gives him to roll with his homies (as one Tibetan rather impishly told me, “You see, I’m Tibetan, not Chinese, so I can like Japan!”).
This begs the question:
Is it just me, an outsider back in U.S. territory on the “other side” of the GFW [Great Firewall], or are the “unity themes” in Tibetan music becoming more and more prevalent? Even more, how have these even been able to get through the Chinese media — are they suddenly pulling a [reform-in-Tibet agenda of] Hu Yaobang again? Let’s couple this with the fact that Tashi Dhondhup, a popular singer from Amdo who was just released a few weeks ago from 15 months of “re-education” through hard labor. Considering that unlike most other protest songs in Tibet, which are generally far less blatantly political, I am frankly rather surprised that a singer whose album titled “Torture without Trace” expounded on the unfairness of the “Chinese occupation,” their colonial extractions of Tibet’s resources, the lack of Tibetan rights, sterilization, and other commonly voiced (but seldom published) concerns, received a sentence for “only” 15 months, and that at the end of it, he was released. On a sidenote, I wish he more extrapolated on his concerns about what was happening in Tibet rather than just sang in generalities, but that’s just the empirical part of me speaking; but considering that he didn’t back up his claims in his songs, it makes China’s imperative for his arrest all the more thought-provoking…
To put this further into perspective, it’s still been less than three years since the Tibetan uprisings. And similarly, let’s remember that while there were hundreds of arrests and surrenders in Lhasa, the Tibetan areas in ethnographic Tibet, there were even more outside of the T.A.R.
It’s well understood by both the Western media, Tibet activist groups, and a U.S. Congressional Report that Sichuan province, particularly southern 青海，Ngawa or 阿坝 prefecture in Amdo, as well as parts of 甘孜, or the Kham regions, were also especially strong hotbeds of protest. [The self-immolation of a monk in the Amdo region last week was reported on by both the New York Times and the China Daily. — A.C.] The take-home message here is that there is much to be said about hell-raising in the Tibetan areas outside of the T.A.R., and particularly from where Tashi Dhondhup hails. If anything, China should be more concerned (and probably is) about the greater, “Ethnographic” Tibet that includes Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan, since any Tibet independence movement would not be confined to where Beijing drew the lines on the map. And let’s not forget that these areas that also have many more Han Chinese residing…
To broaden the perspective further: as is commonly known both inside of China as well as worldwide, Liu Xiaobo, another protesting jailbird, won the Nobel Prize this year. Also…the snow is melting, and that means Spring, and historically for China, that means it’s Revolution Season. I recall a Chinese guide I met last August in Xi’an, who, on the way to the terra-cotta warriors introduced us to China by describing China as a chicken because of its shape, in which Beijing is the head, Xi’an the heart, Sichuan the stomach, “and Tibet, Well…” he said smugly. (大汉主义, much?) But in all honesty, considering these current trends in Tibetan music that seem to be kindling the flames of separatism, how much is China actually protecting “its ass?”
What, then, would be more subtle forms of subversion?
Correct me if I am wrong, and I’m especially addressing readers who can understand the Tibetan lyrics firsthand and all of their subtle nuances, but it is absolutely not difficult to find potential subversiveness in Tibetan popular music, albeit this is often done through far more subtle hints. Take Sonam Tashi’s song known in Chinese as 思念 or “Longing,” which, according to the translations posted at the bottom, are focused on the singer’s profound grievances that his Lama has passed on to somewhere he can’t go, and he wishes to follow him, asking to fly with the eagles to this distant place. He also sings of his estranged “brothers and sisters.” Am I reading too much into this, or do these lyrics strike anyone else as “saying it without saying it”?
Yadong/亚东, as well as his protégé Gunga/根呷, two other extremely popular Kham singers well regarded by both Chinese and Tibetans (despite the fact that some of his most popular songs, because of their Dalai Lama-related “innuendo,” have also been blacklisted), also wrote of his Lama-lessness. Essentially, the DL’s there, but still kept on the DL.
I should point out: Sonam also has a great motorcycle-based song about Tibetan identity (wonderful jogging music), and Gunga also has a song called 家乡, or Phayul (Homeland), that also extrapolates on a generic sense of Tibetan identity that seems meant more for “rallying the troops” and encouraging Pan-Tibetan pride than subscribing to the Chinese versions of nationality — I recommend just reading between the lines and seeing what they’re not saying about their identity that Hu Jintao would find 完全正确….or absolutely correct, as he said regarding ethnic minority policy back in September 2009.
Perhaps these are just my oversimplifications, but it seems that if you only change a few words around and make it sound like it was just your local guru who kicked the bucket, you can publish your music in China while your own interpretive community gets the last laugh. It’s interesting to note that they all have very popular songs sung in Chinese (think: 卓玛, 彩虹下的心愿, or 姑娘我爱你, or other rather mainstream, classic hits well known even to young Han Chinese), but these tend to be much more romantic, simple, and generic, the Tibetan themes more nicely “packaged” for enjoyment for a greater interest. It’s an easily commodifiable way to present being Tibetan. The songs in their Tibetan language extrapolate on many more religious and political themes, such as the aforementioned 思念¸which, frankly, I’m surprised to see even offered on my QQ playlist (and, frankly, if you’re on QQ music, you’ve won the seal of approval). Download commencing….now.
And again, mostly these political come in the form of rallying for “unity.” Ohhh! How nice! Says 和谐-obsessed Beijing, see? I knew we had something in common!
Suuuure we did, China, suuure we did, responds the rebellious side of Tibetan music.
I’m thinking especially about some of the songs by Sherten/谢旦, who on one hand won the 2009 Tibetan Music Artist of the Year award and has his songs available for download on QQ Music, but on the other, has published songs, the possession of which are considered “illegal” because of their “sensitive topics.” It’s not that he is stigmatized in the PRC, or at least not officially — but word on the street is that the Chinese were randomly stopping to check Tibetans’ cell phones to see if they were carrying his song about “Unity” that calls for Tibetans to put aside their regional differences and see themselves as part of a Pride movement in Pan-Tibetanism. And in this way, all those Chinese-defined borders of 自治区/ 所谓 “Autonomous Regions” would even more lose legitimacy as Tibetans are reminded of the traditional borders of their homeland that imply statehood. The PRC is walking a very thin line, indeed: on one hand, they are “giving the people what they want” by allowing for the natural supply and demand of the market for Tibetan popular music. Academically stated, allowing people to listen to what they want keeps them happy; if they are happy, in theory, they’re less likely to cause riots. But on the other hand, if the songs that make people happy subvert state authority in a nation that has historically had very major issues with handling political discourse, then the line has to be drawn somewhere.
In short: Sherten and Yadong good, but some of their songs bad. Again, we see China pulling a Hu Yaobang and not being straight with their policy on Tibet, because in the end, the Han Chinese may be more willing to chuck this popular culture out as either sentimental drivel or separatist nonsense (IF they are able to get the translations from Tibetan!!), and Tibetans will of course want to embrace the songs of all their compatriots, whether they sing of the women they love, the lamas they miss, or their pan-Tibetan identity on Japanese wheels. Tashi Dhondhup is free, and the 西藏问题continues.
For anyone reading this who knows Tibetan, would it be possible to:
A. Tell me where this performance by Sherten was held…? Was it in China, India, or elsewhere…?
B. Confirm for me this case about cell phone “confiscations” related to the Sherten song?
C. Tell me, what is Gunga singing in Tibetan in 家乡/ཕ་ཡུལ?
Any and all help, comments, or research materials on the above themes would be greatly appreciated.
— Kristiana Henderson, Tacoma, Washington, March 10, 2011