*Part of my education on modern Tibet*
translated by Hannibal Taubes in the promising new journal of Tibetan studies Waxing Moon, makes a significant addition to our understanding of Tibetan people’s lives.
It’s the “auto-narrative”  of Shawo Tsering (1932–2015), a high-ranking regional leader from the Tu (Monguor) minority in the Repkong (Chinese Tongren) district of Qinghai province—part of the greater region of Amdo, an increasingly prominent focus of Tibetan studies (cf. Conflicting memories; for further leads, see under Labrang 1; see also When the iron bird flies). Written in Chinese, it was edited by local historian Zhao Qingyang and published in 2010.
Benno Weiner provides an Introduction, noting ways in which authoritarian states manage memory and history, and the various forms of “unofficial memory” circulating just below the surface of state historiography (cf. my China: memory, music, society). He unpacks the agendas of the series of local “cultural and historical materials” (wenshi ziliao, where Shawo Tsering’s account was published) that thrived irregularly in the PRC (cf. Paul Katz on Wenzhou).
The translator’s own introduction is lucid. Tibetans who have fled into exile have written numerous accounts of the iniquities of Chinese rule, but while publication is far more strictly controlled within the PRC, as Hannibal observes,
Students in a class on Chinese or Tibetan history should be exposed to the forms of moral-historical discourse produced by the CPC for and about itself, and have an understanding of how those Chinese, Tibetans, and others who serve the PRC justify themselves as ethical actors. For better or for worse, people like Shawo Tsering made China and Tibet what they are today, and they will shape these nations’ futures; their experiences are correspondingly important. Students should be schooled in the “hermeneutics of suspicion” necessary to read such texts, including the ways that subtle forms of criticism and dissent are coded within the “public transcript” of authoritarian states. In point of fact, Shawo Tsering himself explicitly warns us to read his own words critically. Of a speech he was forced to make in 1978, he comments: “In fact human affairs are always like this. You can’t say what you want to say, and you must say what you don’t want to say—this is what’s called ‘words that violate the heart’ (Ch. wei xin zhi yan).”
Despite Shawo Tsering’s frank account of the Maoist cataclysms between 1958 and 1978, “the fundamental legitimacy of PRC rule on the Tibetan plateau is never questioned”. Still, scholars of the PRC are used to reading between the lines (see my review of the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, and under Yang Yinliu). Shawo Tsering’s account of his life from the 1930s to the 1990s subtly challenges “some of the fundamental discursive pillars upon which the post-Mao narrative of Amdo’s incorporation into China rests”.
Hannibal provides most useful summaries before each chapter.
Chapter 1, “A childhood of many difficulties”, covers the period from the early 20th century to the 1949 Communist victory in China, with complex power relationships. Major figures include the controversial Muslim leader Ma Bufang, and the Tibetan monk, reformist educator, and modernist politician Sherap Gyatso.
In Chapter 2, “Setting out on the revolutionary road”, Shawo Tsering recalls the early years of Chinese occupation until 1958, when he became a prominent cadre under the new regime, serving as a “crucial linguistic and cultural bridge to the complex societies of Tongren”. He married with a grand ceremony, headed educational work in the county, and became vice-director of the prefectural Bureau of Culture and Public Health.
As Hannibal writes,
Shawo Tsering’s narrative journey towards “liberation” climaxes in his 1956 interview with premier Zhou Enlai, a scene that perfectly encapsulates the mixture of cult of personality, religious fervor, patronising cultural essentialism, Marxist developmentalism, resource-colonialism, and rhetorical CPC assumption of the imperial mantle that characterises the Chinese Communists and their relationship with Tibet.
Nevertheless, Shawo Tsering’s account is not entirely sycophantic. As is typical in such PRC publications, he refers to negative or politically sensitive events obliquely, and criticises state actions by praising people or policies that he feels resolved such problems.
Chapter 3 relates his bitter experiences of the “leftist storm” between 1958 and the end of the Cultural Revolution. As monasteries were closed, revolts broke out and labour camps were filled; Shawo Tsering’s assessment “is given force by the fact that, while imprisoned himself, he was given the task of reading out the verdicts and sentences”. Amidst heavy loss of life, the Great Leap Forward led to severe famine. He recalls that during his imprisonment from 1958 to 1962,
my family had experienced unimaginable change. In 1959, my three sons all contracted infectious measles. They were not able to see a doctor. One after another they were carried away by the god of death. In 1960 a natural disaster occurred. There was no grain harvest. During the hardships of that time, my mother, wife, and little brother all left this world. Another younger brother had only been able to escape starvation because he was studying at the prefectural teachers’ college. My little sister recalled to me the scene of my mother’s death: When my mother died, my sister was laying in her arms, but how my mother died, how her body was carried away, these things my sister was unable to remember. After my mother’s death, my sister had become an orphan, begging for food every day at the doors of village houses.When I heard how each member of my family had cruelly perished, when I saw the scene of cold desolation before me, all of my spirit collapsed. It was as if I’d suddenly lost consciousness, and become a man made from wood. I spent over a month at home. Many people from the village came to see me, telling me how my family had died, as well as who else in the village had passed away, so and so, and so and so, and on and on.
Further campaigns culminated in the mass hysteria of the early Cultural Revolution, whose vicissitudes he also recalls in detail.
Chapter 4 describes Shawo Tsering’s later career, from being rehabilitated in 1979 to his retirement in 1995. Charged, “quite simply”, with the rebuilding of Amdo, he became “an indispensable figure in restoring some legitimacy” to the Party’s attempts at post-Mao good governance. As the monasteries began to re-open, he hosted the 1980 visit of the Panchen Lama, and confronted practical problems. He led a Tibetan opera troupe on a tour of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
In Chapter 5 he reflects on his life after retirement, and outlines the fortunes of his family. Again, Hannibal provides useful context.
By its final pages, the book has revealed itself as an extended plea to a Sinophone audience not to allow the catastrophes of Mao’s reign to happen again—in this moment, the composite narrator Shawo Tsering speaks with a moral and historical authority that is both Tu, Tibetan, and Chinese.
Two years before the account was published in 2010, new protests had erupted in Lhasa and throughout the Tibetan plateau. Tibetan-language education had already begun to be replaced by Chinese. Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, the climate has deteriorated drastically. As Hannibal concludes,
The Tibetan regions generally have seen growing surveillance, militarization, media censorship, and arrest and intimidation of activists. It is unlikely that Shawo Tsering’s frank discussion of his experiences between 1958 and 1978 would be published in the PRC today.
With his detailed footnotes, Hannibal’s translation contains a useful glossary and bibliography. It’s a fascinating story that requires us to abandon simplistic views of Tibet’s modern history.
 I note that the Chinese zishu (“auto-narrative”) often has an element of “confession” from the Maoist era—cf. Kang Zhengguo.