Tibet: conflicting memories

Coming soon after the English edition of Woeser’s Forbidden memory, another fine contribution to our understanding of modern Tibetan history is the magnum opus

  • Robert Barnett, Benno Weiner, and Françoise Robin (eds), Conflicting memories: Tibetan history under Mao retold (2020, xxix + 681 pp.!).

Covering the periods since the Chinese occupation in 1950 and the death of Mao in 1976, it presents a wealth of original material in the form of memoirs and oral narratives, histories and official sources, fiction and film, dovetailing perceptive essays and primary documents. Besides the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), Amdo and Kham are especially well represented.

As Robert Barnett explains in yet another of his exemplary introductions, the book presents the candid narratives of a range of Tibetan and Chinese writers—by contrast with the historiography of the Chinese state, with its “logic of legitimization”. Before the reform era since 1980, the main periods, in an escalating sequence of violence, were the early years of occupation; the crises of 1956–59; and the Cultural Revolution (notably 1966–69).

Oral accounts and memoirs—from Tibetan and Chinese officials, some early Tibetan Communists and progressives, and ordinary and elite Tibetans—“seek to make nuanced, sometimes almost imperceptible, adjustments to official narratives about China’s recent record in Tibetan regions”. While they don’t go so far as to challenge CCP rule over Tibet, they are “historical retellings in which the state has been removed or reduced to an inanimate or malignant force, and in which Tibetan agency has been restored, but only as a question of endurance and at an individual, local level.” In all such accounts, we need to “read between the lines”—just as for material on Han Chinese regions (see e.g. here, and here).

Part One, “Official retellings and revisualisations of the ‘Liberation of Tibet’ ”, opens with chapters by Benno Weiner (whose recent book The Chinese revolution on the Tibetan frontier is another important contribution to our knowledge of the modern history of Amdo) and Alice Travers, exploring changing agendas in the published “cultural and historical materials” (wenshi ziliao)—also a revealing source for Han Chinese areas (cf. here).

Compared to the extreme violence that was to come, Western, Chinese, and Tibetan authors have tended to portray the early years of occupation as relatively genteel. But Bianca Horlemann’s scrutiny of an account by the Chinese leader of a “Work Group” for the pastoralist Golog region in south Amdo adds to a growing body of evidence that “liberation” was far from smooth.

And Robert Barnett’s own chapter describes in detail the change of emphasis in mainstream Chinese “Tibet-encounter” films and TV dramas from the Maoist era to the reforms (cf. his Columbia course). Setting forth from the beguiling voyeuristic notion (Western as much as Chinese) of Tibet as “mysterious” and “exotic”, he notes a shift from tales of socialist military valour to commercially attractive stories of romance and self-discovery.

He suggests that the rationale for the early films was

in large part to explain and justify to the wider nation the abrupt and large-scale interaction then occurring between Chinese forces and Tibetans. That contact was, after all, on an unprecedented scale and involved entirely different and unfamiliar cultures, languages and social systems. Chinese citizens who were sent to Tibet were being asked not just to risk their lives fighting Tibetan troops and rebels in deeply unfamiliar and difficult terrain, but also in many cases to dedicate decades of their lives as cadres, teachers, doctors, road-builders, labourers, and so forth in order to administer and colonise an area which, unlike other minority areas within China, had had its own government, military and ruling institutions for centuries and where few Chinese had ever lived or worked before.

Throughout the various periods, many films portray Tibetans as grateful allies of the Party; and they dwell on the exploitation of the masses at the hands of the old ruling classes.

At its simplest, films in the Mao era vilified Tibetan culture and the Tibetan social system, while those produced in the reform period beautified Tibetans, their environment, and, increasingly, their bodies.

TV series Love song of Kangding, 2004.

Ever attentive to gender issues, Barnett notes the trope of the “orphan–heroine”. And while Chinese characters have come to be explored in more depth, there remain no credible portrayals of the Tibetan side of the story.

In Part Two, “Rereading the past: stories told by documents”, Alex Raymond again reinterprets the initial “liberation” of Tibet, showing that any “gradualism” in Chinese policy was a matter of expediency and logistics. Chung Tsering assesses a variety of accounts of the ambiguous political career of Ngaphö Ngawang Jigme (1910–2009); Document 4 translates his 1989 speech. And Document 5 is an important addition to work on the Tenth Panchen Lama—a hitherto unpublished speech also from 1989, a critique not just of the Cultural Revolution but of the whole three decades of occupation.

Part Three, “Speaking the past: oral remembering” addresses the uprisings in Amdo from 1958, and the Cultural Revolution there. Dáša Mortensen unpacks ongoing historical amnesia through public and private accounts of the 1966 destruction of Gandan Sumtsenling, the main Tibetan monastery of Gyalthang in Yunnan province, showing how “the politics of memory and forgetting are shaped by both official and individual agendas, competing to produce an acceptable memory at a time when grievances are still deeply entrenched and inconvenient for any side to air”.

Charlene Makley, with two pseudonymised contributors, unpacks an oral account of the years following 1958 by a senior Tibetan village leader (“G.” below) in Rebgong (southeast Qinghai)—using a detailed system of transcription to evoke the subtle messages of his language and his interactions with the participants, which rarely emerge in interview transcripts. A sample (asterisks denoting Chinese loanwords):

T: How many years were you in the *labour camp*?
G: Four and a half years.
T: For four and half years? Oh so that means ’58, ’59, ’60 and ’61?
[11:38 G explains how central Party officials came to investigate Qinghai during the post-famine rectification process. Here he goes into the most detail so far. T had never heard this; T and CM are entranced.]
G: [until] ’62… ’62… that’s how long I had to stay. Not just for 1958, but for ’59, ’60, ’61 and ‘62. – T: Oooh. – Until August of 1962, in *September I returned. – CM/T: Mmm/Oooh – The one who reported [the situation] to *central leaders* was … Wang Zhao came, Wang Zhao, the *deputy head* of the *Central Management Department* (Ch.: Guanlibu). – CM/T: Oooh. – So Qinghai *province *sent a delegation down*, and the *Management Department* officials accompanied them. When they came, they *investigated everything. They disbanded the *cafeterias. All those sent to the *labour camp* were released. Wang Zhao said a few words: “Just as for the People’s Militias, keep the *‘group leaders’* (Ch.: banzhang) imprisoned, and release the ‘militia members’.” He used that kind of metaphor, he didn’t say more than that … What did he mean by a *‘group leader’*? He meant the traditional Tibetan leaders, of course. By *‘group leader’,* he meant Tibetan *landlords, or lamas or lay leaders. [Wang] ordered everyone but them to be released. But *half [of those leaders] had already died, They died! They all died! That region was harsh because of the high altitude!

The same period is discussed in an excerpt from a remarkably frank book by Rinchen Zangpo (Shamdo Rinzang).

Shamdo Rinzang (left).

Documents 7–10 are excerpts from the 2016 Living and dying in modern Tibet­, an important collection of oral memoirs from the 1930s to the 1970s for northern Kham.

 Part Four describes “Literary retellings”—the short stories, novels, literary memoirs, and fiction from the reform era that served as a necessary, not optional, forum for Tibetan critiques of the terrors following 1958. Françoise Robin discusses literature recalling the period in Amdo:

Fiction and literature confirm their use by Tibetans to counter official memory and circumvent the hegemonic memory engineering that has been going on for over fifty years. Still facing too many risks to offer directly a revised account of lost events, these works of fiction not so much mark what has been forgotten as delineate the history of state erasure of that past, and its silencing of the generation that experienced it.

Xénia de Heering introduces Nagtshang Nulo’s autobiography Joys and Sorrows of the Nagtshang Boy, set in Machu county, Kanlho, interspersing official documents.

Part Five, “Religious remembering” focuses on history recollected through the lens of faith. Nicole Willock, Maria Turek, and Geoffrey Barstow describe accounts by lamas, Buddhist scholars, hermits, and a religious artisan. Even those who accommodated with the new regime suffered terribly, but they continued to view their role as guardians of Tibetan culture and religion, recalling ultra-leftist violence merely in terms of obstacles to spiritual development.

The volume is further enriched by extensive references, detailed maps, glossary, photos, and an exhaustive index. Hefty as it is, I still wonder how Brill still manages to charge such astronomical prices for their fine books, mitigating against the wide readership they deserve.

Again I marvel at the enterprise, energy, and nuance of recent scholarship on Tibet, so very far from the simplistic, polarised work of the 1980s. But the emergence of a certain space for alternative versions of this traumatic history can be of little consolation for Tibetan people amidst their current plight, as Chinese state control continues to intensify.

See also Labrang 1; How not to describe 1950s’ Tibet; and Tibet and Uyghur tags.

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