With my focus on Han Chinese culture, I rarely presume to venture into modern Tibetan history. But amidst the recent escalation in the plight of the Uyghurs, we should keep in mind the chronic tribulations of the Tibetans within the PRC. This was one of my early posts on Tibet; my attempts at gaining a basic education on the topic has since expanded into a series of reviews.]
Social and political change is a major element in studying the travails of expressive culture and religious activity—not least under authoritarian regimes, including the Han Chinese and ethnic minorities. So work on the Maoist era is particularly important, with local studies such as Chen village, the work of Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Mueggler’s The age of wild ghosts, my study of Gaoluo (Plucking the winds)—and, devastatingly, Guo Yuhua‘s study of a Shaanbei village.
For Han Chinese regions, accounts of factional fighting, armed warfare, and massacres are common for the Cultural Revolution—largely pertaining to the years 1966–68. Since the tension between religious practice and politics is one of my major themes, this disturbingly riveting book makes an extraordinary case-study for a rural Tibetan county near Lhasa: 
- Melvyn C. Goldstein, Ben Jiao, and Tanzen Lhundrup, On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo incident of 1969 (2009).
It’s the fruit of collaboration between Goldstein, leading scholar of modern Tibetan history, with Ben Jiao (Tibet Academy of Social Sciences, Lhasa) and Tanzen Lhundrup of the China Tibetology Centre in Beijing. Yet another instance of the vast amount of material that Goldstein has managed to unearth over a long period, the book prompts us to reflect not only on society, politics, and religion, but on the multiple viewpoints afforded by interpreting fieldwork material.
Since the 1980s, Tibetan studies have emerged impressively from an uncritical reified nostalgia for an idealized old culture, when few (either under Chinese rule or in the diaspora) were able or willing to document modernity and a changing society—a view that still tinges scholarship on Han Chinese culture, not least Daoist ritual…
Besides Goldstein’s own ongoing history of modern Tibet (the first three volumes of which take us up to 1957), the definitive single-volume study, from 1999, is
- Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows: a history of modern Tibet since 1947.
Chapter 12 makes a useful introduction to the Cultural Revolution. Note also this site; and vivid personal accounts of the period are found in the writings of Tsering Woeser, based on her father’s photos.  Also most authoritative on modern Tibetan society is the voluminous work of Robbie Barnett, going back to the early days of the ground-breaking Tibet Information Network.  He introduces the field in this 2014 interview.
Throughout the Tibetan populations—not just in the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” (TAR) but also in Amdo and Kham—unrest has been constant under Chinese rule. Serious armed conflicts broke out from 1956 (note the 10th Panchen Lama’s 1962 report to Chairman Mao, detailing severe sufferings among Tibetan communities);  and since the partial liberalisations after 1980, the disturbances of 1987–9 and 2008. Such friction is still ongoing today (see e.g. Eat the Buddha).
By the early 1960s the CCP leadership, including TAR Party boss Zhang Guohua, were anxious. Through much of the 50s they had sought for the “stability” of a “gradualist” approach for Tibet: collective farming was postponed after the rebellions of the late 50s, and when the Cultural Revolution erupted they made a case for controlling its volatility. But warfare inevitably broke out between the rival Gyenlo and Nyamdre factions, spreading out from Lhasa. The army sided with Nyamdre. In June 1968 a major battle took place at the Jokhang temple.
By summer 1969—by which time the major violence in inland China had been pacified—serious unrest had broken out in a quarter of the rural counties of TAR, in which ordinary Tibetans participated as much as Chinese-led revolutionary groups. On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet focuses on Nyemo county in Lhasa municipality, but outlines other disturbances in at least eighteen counties; most of the five for which the authors give brief accounts involved a religious element.
Using far more detailed material than previously available, the authors analyse the violence in Nyemo, which came to be led by the former nun Trinley Chödrön. Unlike the 1959 Khamba uprising, the authors argue, this was not explicitly a revolt against the Chinese occupiers. Assessing the balance of nationalist and economic elements, they find the latter more significant:
The Nyemo disturbance was not a spontaneous Tibetan nationalistic uprising against the Chinese “oppressor”, nor was it a revolt aimed at creating an independent Tibet. To the contrary, it was the outgrowth of a careful strategy orchestrated by a Maoist revolutionary faction to seize control of its county from a rival revolutionary organisation.
The power-struggle, they comment,
clearly had nothing to do with the now famous nun called Trinley Chödrön. Gyenlo’s move to wrest power from Nyamdre started well before the nun from Nyemo was involved, and it certainly would have continued with or without her presence. Moreover, at this time, Gyenlo’s strategy was not about religion or nationalism; it was about Gyenlo defeating its rival revolutionary faction with the support of village masses who were willing to join in this venture because Gyenlo was promising them that they would benefit by being allowed to keep more grain, by ridding themselves of officials they saw as corrupt and avaricious, and by stopping implementation of the collective system.
The authors seek to refute previous views of the revolt:
Rather than a simple dichotomy, angry Tibetans spontaneously organizing and striking back at hated Chinese or Tibetans rising to fight only for their material interests, there were multiple levels and multiple actors, Tibetan and Chinese, with different motives, using and manipulating each other for different end goals.
Some may have stood to gain following the “Democratic Reforms” implemented in Tibet after 1959, but the common people were soon hit by exactions, leading to food shortages (from which the Han peoples across inland China were also suffering terribly). The Gyenlo faction promised to postpone the threatened imposition of collective farming. But while the authors find economic factors more urgent causes of popular discontent, the widely-resented assault on religion was a further factor:
Notwithstanding the suppression of organized religion (monasteries and nunneries) after 1959, individuals had still been permitted to practice religion on a private basis. That freedom ended with the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.
Indeed, a work-team sent from Lhasa in 1987 (just as further waves of unrest were looming) reported on the negative consequences of the Party’s assaults on religion:
We used to talk too much but do too little to help people with their religious beliefs. Especially during the Great Cultural Revolution, religious beliefs were labelled as one of the “four olds”, and nobody was allowed to practise any religion. People did not like our policies, and once something tempting about religion appeared, the masses were easily fooled.
This is the tightrope from which the regime constantly falls.
The problematic figure of Trinley Chödrön
Among Tibetans and Westerners it may be tempting to view the nun who came to lead the violence as a heroic freedom fighter, a kind of Joan of Arc. The authors go to some lengths to describe her background and the development of her spiritual powers. Her family and fellow villagers themselves described her as having mental problems—which were doubtless exacerbated by the 1959 measures and the new campaign to destroy the “four olds”.
As she developed the powers of a trance-medium, claiming possession by deities, the book describes how she went (in 1968!) with her younger brother to a local lama called Chamba Tenzin for the tsago che initiation ritual. This briefly caused her to become more stable, and she herself applied to join the Gyenlo faction. It was now, as her trances became more frequent, that she gained a following. Still, when she claimed to be possessed by Jowo Rimpoche (the Sakyamuni Buddha whose statue in the Jokhang chapel in Lhasa was the most sacred in Tibet), orthodox lamas were sceptical, not least since trance-mediums channel local territorial deities, not Buddhas.
Of course, in local society mediums were by no means perceived as unbalanced; and a system was in place to distinguish fake mediums. The authors note how her claims to possession diverged from the those of mediums in traditional society; and it was not just atheist cadres who regarded her as a crazy charlatan.
Still, the authors claim, it was precisely because she was considered insane that she was given latitude to perform religious activities at this unlikely time; but gradually locals came to trust in her powers of healing. The most powerful god by whom she claimed to be possessed was to be Ani Gongmey Gyemo, aunt and adviser of the legendary King Gesar—although how she acquired this allegiance is unclear, since the Gesar story was not popular in Nyemo, and this seems to be a unique case. Anyway, as the authors note, Ani Gongmey Gyemo and Gesar
were not some mythical figures in folktales, nor were they simply local mountain deities; they were real and powerful deities famous for fighting for Buddhism in Tibet.
While Trinley Chödrön’s claim to be a medium for a figure connected to King Gesar was at the core of previous scholars’ understanding of her as primarily a religious or ethno-nationalist figure, the authors note that she now also began to praise the Thoughts of Chairman Mao in public. The pragmatic Gyenlo leaders, while themselves secular in mentality, now saw the value of utilizing her as a channel for the religious faith of local people, to earn them more support in their factional struggle. Still, they themselves described her as “the crazy one”, an assessment they shared with more devout Tibetans; and they were preparing to kill her once they had won victory.
Her following was consolidated with the formation of a group of adherents known as warrior-heroes (badü), who also went into trance in what the authors call a kind of “Gesar hysteria”. With the faction now known informally as Gyenlo’s Army of the Gods, she became crucial to their cause, and soon a series of brutal killings began.
The authors give a nuanced categorization of the “enemies” killed and mutilated, including not just Chinese and Tibetan cadres but those who had ridiculed Trinley Chödrön’s religious authenticity and other hapless victims of her personal vendettas. But still the Gyenlo leaders refrained from intervening to have her detained:
“It is not necessary to arrest the nun. She is just a common lunatic. We’ll have trouble if we take her to the Public Security Bureau. So don’t bother her. She is useful to us. We need to protect her.”
At last the PLA arrived, putting themselves in the firing line. Just like the Boxers in 1900, Trinley Chödrön’s adherents rashly claimed immunity from bullets. Locals, while disillusioned, were fearful of her powers. But eventually in June 1969 she was captured, her followers surrendering. Early in 1970, along with the other warrior-heroes and her lama, she was executed at the sand dune area below the Sera monastery near Lhasa. Gyenlo leaders managed to exculpate themselves until 1970, blaming the massacres on the very “religious reactionaries” whom they had exploited. Investigations continued in 1971; though in 1972 the Gyenlo faction was punished, revised assessments in the 1980s reduced the verdicts.
As the authors observe, the Nyemo disturbances would not have been possible without the state-sanctioned chaos that Mao unleashed with the Cultural Revolution. Yet disturbances of one kind or another have erupted constantly ever since the Chinese occupied Tibet.
It was, of course, very unorthodox for a revolutionary organization of the masses to ask a Tibetan religious medium to dress in costume, go into a trance, and summon a god to motivate them to undertake revolutionary work for Chairman Mao, but Gyenlo in Nyemo was pragmatic to the core, and the leaders found it easy to rationalize the temporary utilization of “superstition” (religion) as an acceptable price to pay for achieving their consuming goal of deposing Nyamdre and taking control of the county.
Though the authors are to some extent proposing an alternative explanation of the Nyemo revolt to those of previous scholars like Tsering Shakya, they conclude:
However, we should not minimize what clearly fuelled this incident: the anger many rural Tibetans felt at the direction party policies had taken, not only in the realms of taxation and economic freedom, but also towards religion and culture.
And to me this doesn’t look so far from Shakya’s own view (The dragon in the land of snows, pp.346–7):
The revolt of 1969 was inspired by the Tibetans’ desire to regain some measure of social, psychological, and cultural freedom. It was not, however, a conscious nationalist uprising, but a cultural response to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
A nationalistic interpretation of the events in Nyemo tends to stress the Tibetanness of the revolt and view it as an anti-Chinese uprising. However, at this stage we do not know how far the events in Nyemo can be separated from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, and it has to be remembered that it was the Chinese authorities who highlighted the revolt as a nationalist and separatist movement.
On first reading, Goldstein’s analysis seems perfectly convincing. But we can also learn from critical reviews by three scholars who have themselves made notable progress in documenting the travails of modern Tibet: Charlene Makley, Ronald Schwartz, and Benno Weiner. What they dispute is the balance of economic/materialist and cultural/nationalist explanations; the role of religion; and the very interpretation of local accounts.
Beginning with the latter, lessons from the book are not just in the extraordinary detail, but in the constant dilemma of assessing fieldwork material. As the authors observe, “We investigate the past not to deduce practical political lessons, but to find out what really happened.” In the years following the violence several investigation teams descended on Nyemo—reminding me of the 1974 visit to Gaoluo of a team seeking material on the Boxer uprising of 1900 (see my Plucking the winds, pp.37–42 and n.42).
The authors seek to assure the reliability of interviews by collating a wide range of accounts (including but not limited to interrogations and confessions), from victims and perpetrators, members of both factions, ordinary people caught up in the events, officials and soldiers.  So they claim:
“in the end we feel confident that we are able to represent the different attitudes and experiences in Nyemo accurately.”
Alas, multiple interpretations are always likely to emerge, depending on people’s experience of the society in question and their whole worldview.
Thus Makley argues:
Despite the complex and copious data which they present, the authors’ overwhelmingly statist perspective and the bluntness of their analytic tools obscure their conclusions and leave us with little against which to assess them. In the end, they echo the findings of the state teams charged with re-investigating and re-labeling the Nyemo events in the mid-80s. They refer throughout to “the Nyemo incident”, the term which the 1980s team used to re-categorise the events as isolated local conflicts rather than fundamentally ethnic “rebellion” against Chinese rule.
So she is
unconvinced by the authors’ easy assertions that they controlled for “bias” in their “private” interviews and were able to get at participants’ actual experiences during the violence.
Of course, she isn’t suggesting we should dismiss all the local accounts of the nun’s disturbed mental state as statements made under duress, as propaganda for which the authors have fallen—that might almost amount to questioning the validity of any field discussions within the PRC. After all, such accounts note both Trinley Chödrön’s instability and the faith that local people came to have in her.
I can’t presume to assess Makley’s criticisms, but they are worth citing at some length. She finds that Goldstein’s
preference for the clear contours of the social over the messy indeterminacies of the cultural—especially since the rise of the modern Chinese state critically depended on categorising and disciplining “ethnic minorities” as premodern Others mired in alien cultural worlds—subtly negates Tibetan concerns.
Although to me the book’s variety of views seem suitably messy, and not oblivious to the cultural, Makley comments that Goldstein is brought
face to face with the quintessential premodern Other: Trinley Chödrön, a young Buddhist nun turned deity medium who led brutal attacks, murders and maimings in the name of resistance to Chinese-led “democratic reforms”.
As she explains,
the authors aim to refute idealised or simplistic views that the nun was primarily an ethnic nationalist leading a Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, arguing instead that she accepted the administrative contours of the “new society” under Mao, only seeking to restore “religion” within it.
But she counters:
Their statist view from the outside gives us no real sense of Trinley Chödrön and her followers’ own, very Tibetan cosmologies and notions of personhood, agency, and power. There is no cultural history of Nyemo here as a specifically Tibetan locale, only testimonies gathered by successive waves of statist outsiders. Thus, despite a perfunctory nod to the basic features of deity possession as a “cultural script” among Tibetans, Trinley Chödrön ultimately figures as the marginal premodern Other par excellence. We come to view the defrocked nun’s unconventional mediumship, claiming possession by Gongmai Gyemo, the divine aunt of the great Tibetan epic hero Gesar, and ordering brutal attacks against her “Gyenlo” enemies, as the repulsive workings of a cult (as in Jim Jones, or Waco).
Of course, “the exoticized premodern Other” was precisely how Tibetan clerics were portrayed before the growth of serious scholarship. And there may indeed be scope for a more sympathetic portrayal. But surely it wasn’t just “statist” Chinese and Tibetan cadres, but ordinary villagers and lamas too, who described her as “crazy”; those whose limbs were hacked off might be reluctant to entertain a cultural defence. Perhaps one might say that Trinley Chödrön’s mental instability reflected that of Tibetan society traumatised under Chinese occupation.
The fate of Tibetan religion under Chinese rule has become a major field, with many detailed and sensitive case-studies. Goldstein may tend to favour economic explanations, but he is quite aware of the major role of religion (e.g. his 1998 co-edited book with Matthew Kapstein, Buddhism in contemporary Tibet: religious revival and cultural identity). Of course, Makley is not suggesting a return to the outmoded idealisation of Tibetan religion; critical ethnographies, such as her own, are to be encouraged.
She further unpacks the authors’ language:
Trinley Chödrön is “the nun” (never the god!) and, unlike other Tibetan youth who were “barely affected”, she is bitterly angry and thus “mentally disturbed” and “unbalanced” at the loss of Buddhist monastic life enforced with the Democratic Reforms. Faction leaders are “firmly committed” to their factions, treating each other as kin; Trinley Chödrön and her followers are “fanatically committed” to the gods, “immersed in imagined worlds”, or subject to “Gesar hysteria”. In essence, this is a stratigraphic approach to history; the Nyemo events unfold on “two planes”, the Tibetan cultural world of protector gods inhabited by Trinley Chödrön layered over the primary world of economic concerns and realpolitik inhabited by faction leaders and most other Tibetans. Culture never infects the faction leaders’ motives. Their brutality is understandable; Trinley Chödrön’s is an aberration.
Schwartz’s critique largely tallies with Makley’s. He finds the authors “at a loss to explain the syncretic and millenarian elements of Trinley Chödrön’s religious vision.” And
The testimony of the participants collected by the researchers through interviews also declares the mediums to be frauds. But the pressure to reconstruct the Nyemo incident in line with the officially acceptable narrative—in both the interrogations documented by Chinese investigators immediately after the incident and in the recollections of participants many years later—is difficult to ignore.
The authors gloss over the extent to which cultural practices suppressed by the new state reappeared overnight and quickly became widespread once it became clear that they were permitted—burning incense, prayers, the exchange of katas. But the same thing happened after 1980 following the post-Mao reforms and continues right up to the present whenever policies on religious practice are relaxed. The underlying memory of religious practice has never disappeared, and whatever its sources, it is deeply rooted in Tibetan culture and society. The revival of religion defies a strictly economic explanation—it recurs during periods of prosperity as well as during periods of deprivation.
Goldstein and his co-authors’ efforts to temper the overwhelming focus among Westerners on ethnicity and nationalism in the Sino–Tibetan conflict is laudable, but their own profoundly statist and modernist perspective forces them to swing the pendulum too far the other way. The particularly Tibetan violence of Trinley Chödrön and her followers in 1969 is just too great a challenge for them. Their efforts to cordon off Trinley Chödrön from the other characters whom they recognise as modern and rational leads to no clear sense of her character and motives: she is mentally ill, she is a hapless puppet, she is a cunning manipulator. In the end, we are left with no real means to assess the authors’ core claim that Trinley Chödrön accepted the “new society” under Mao, because they give us no systematic sense of local Tibetans’ own views and experiences of “the state” or of the Maoist factions. Only a decade after the trauma of the Democratic Reforms, we cannot assume with the authors that Tibetans had entirely assimilated the grounding premises and administrative geographies of the modern Chinese state. A clue comes when the authors comment incredulously at Trinley Chödrön’s “bizarre” statement that Mao is the incarnation of Manjuśri. Yet for centuries Tibetans across the plateau have recognised emperors as incarnations of the bodhisattva of wisdom; Trinley Chödrön here recognizes Mao as a commensurate imperial agent—far away and benign, yet under the jurisdiction of Buddhism.
This is a good instance of how carefully we have to read Goldstein’s text. The relevant passage from his p.81:
At the same time, the nun also said bizarre things like “I am the right shoulder [hand] of Chairman Mao” and “Chairman Mao will not treat us badly, since he is the incarnation of Manjuśri. It is the internal [local] people who are the worst.” Such claims and comments reinforced many people’s belief in her mental instability…
So whereas lamas and common people do seem to have been taken aback by her initial claim to be possessed by Jowo Rimpoche, and indeed by her mental problems, in this case the authors haven’t given a source to show that locals doubted the Manjuśri–Mao equation. Schwartz goes on:
The unfortunate, unintended effect of the authors’ modernist ttake on Trinley Chödrön is that it individualizes, pathologizes, and dehumanizes Tibetans’ shock, grief, and anger at the physical and cultural violence of CCP intervention in 1959. Trinley Chödrön as the emblematic premodern Other stands in for any misguidedly ethnic Tibetan left behind in the sweep of Chinese-led modernization. Indeed, throughout the book, although the devastating trauma of the 1959 Democratic Reforms is referred to, it is not considered as a major causal factor behind the Nyemo events ten years later during the Cultural Revolution. Such violence could only happen in the absence of the state. Cordoning off Trinley Chödrön as the aberrant premodern allows the authors to retain the ultimate value in the book: the modern, rational State that returns, legitimately, to restore Order.
* * *
Both the book and its reviews overturn the simplistic stories once told on both sides of the fence. As a mere onlooker, I take the reviewers’ points, but I like to think that the seemingly conflicting “materialist” and “cultural” interpretations can be mutually beneficial.
For me, branching out from the often reified realm of Daoist ritual studies, the intrusion of the Real World is most welcome—even if its interpretation is controversial. However lurid and “messy” the story may be, all this serves as a reminder of the importance of Tibetan studies. Both the book and the responses to it indicate the acumen that is now being brought to bear on the plight of the Tibetans, from which scholars of Han Chinese society and culture can learn.
As to the embattled condition of Tibetan expressive culture—particularly the traditions of ritual and soundscape that have somehow continued to evolve against all the odds—again there is a far more complex story to be told than the reified portrayals on both sides of the PRC–exile divide. It would be rash of me to attempt an overview, “reading between the lines” of research by Tibetan and Chinese scholars within the PRC. But here’s a preliminary attempt for Labrang.
With many thanks to Robbie Barnett
 For remarkable fieldwork on household ritual practitioners in Nyemo, see the work of Nicolas Sihlé, e.g. here.
 See also interviews by Ian Johnson (here and here, as well as Woeser’s 2013 book (with Wang Lixiong) Voices from Tibet. Indeed, following the initial lively debate between Tsering Shakya and Wang Lixiong, the latter has come much closer to Shakya’s viewpoint.
 See e.g. Robert Barnett and Ronald Schwartz (eds.), Tibetan modernities: notes from the field on cultural and social change (2008). Among recent volumes, note Conflicting memories.
 See A poisoned arrow: the secret report of the 10th Panchen Lama (TIN, 1998).
 See the Tibet oral history archive; cf. Wu Wenguang’s archive for the famine.
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