A Tibetan childhood

*Part of my education in the history of modern Tibet*

Nulo cover

Since I reviewed Shawo Tsering’s “auto-narrative”, I’ve been reading

  • Naktsang Nulo, My Tibetan childhood: when ice shattered stone (English translation 2014, by Angus Cargill and Sonam Lhamo).

Nulo Tibetan cover Another account of the catastrophe that befell the Tibetan region of Amdo, it contains harrowing material of a kind only hinted at by Shawo Tsering (cf. When the iron bird flies).

Remarkably, the original, in Amdo Tibetan (title translated as “Joys and sorrows of the Naktsang boy“), was published in China “for internal distribution” in 2007, near the end of a relatively relaxed period in the region. It was soon pirated widely; versions were published in standard Tibetan by Tibetan exiles in India in 2008 and, in Chinese, in Taiwan three years later—by which time it had apparently been banned in the PRC.

As Robbie Barnett observes in his substantial and typically wise introduction,

As the first uncensored recollection published within Tibet of events erased by a half century of enforced forgetfulness, it epitomised the process of collective remembering that appears to have transformed and energised Tibetan cultural life at this time, fuelling a reemergent and potent sense of nationhood.

Outsiders had little access to the voices of ordinary Tibetans (especially those from the eastern regions) until the 1990s, when accounts of Amdo history since the 1950 Chinese occupation began to surface, led by Charlene Makley, Li Jianglin with Matthew Akester, and later by scholars such as Benno Weiner. Robbie also refers to other Tibetan accounts from the period when Naktsang Nulo’s memoir was published.

Amdo map
Northeastern Tibet, showing places and territories mentioned in the text,
with routes taken by the author to Lhasa, fleeing the Chinese army, and on march to prison.

It’s always important to bear in mind the usages of the word “Tibet”—as ever, Robbie gives a cogent account:

Today, in the era of nation-states, single terms for the whole area are much more in vogue, and the northeastern part of the Tibetan plateau is now referred to by Tibetans most frequently as Amdo, while the name Kham is used for the eastern and southeastern areas. Amdo and much of Kham were not consistently ruled by Lhasa after about 1700, although in brief periods up until the 1930s the Tibetan army was able to regain control of one or other border zone in Kham. In this period most of the numerous localities, chiefdoms, and so on within Amdo and Kham fell under the administration of the western Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan. But Chinese rule in these Tibetan areas was largely nominal until sometime in the late 1950s, as Naktsang demonstrates in his book.

As he explains, exiles and their supporters now commonly use the word “Tibet” to refer to the entire Tibetan snow-land as a political unit, one that was ruled in the past by a single administration. Ironically, by the late 1950s, “facing the experience of invasion, many eastern Tibetans reverted to a probably half-forgotten or perhaps half-invented memory of political unity”.

There are thus at least three Tibets—one recognised by China as the administrative area ruled by the Dalai Lamas until 1950 and limited to the western and central parts of the plateau, another referring to the common cultural and historic heritage found throughout the plateau, and a third implying a single political entity covering all the Tibetan areas. […]

Whether intended or not, the moral logic of his memoir implies a sense of common purpose among Tibetans, irrespective of their location on the plateau, fuelled by their similar experience of Chinese policies in the 1950s.

Robbie reminds us of the seminal importance of Amdo in Tibetan religion, economy, and literature (see e.g. chapters in Conflicting memories).

Born in 1949 in Chugama village in Machu county, Ganlho Prefecture, just east of the Golok region in south Gansu, Naktsang Nulo spent most of his childhood in nearby Chumarleb county, in Yushu (Jyekundo) prefecture of Qinghai province. The memoir describes his early life until he entered school in 1959. For most of his later career he was based in Chumarleb, serving until his retirement in 1993 as an official in the Chinese government, with successive positions as schoolteacher, police officer, judge, prison official, and county leader.

Robbie identifies the significance of the book—in particular the impact of the PLA’s arrival in the area, “the first time that Tibetans there had experienced administration by outsiders at the grassroots level”.

It reinserts long-erased memories into the knowledge bank of younger generations in his community, who until now have had severely limited access to information about their past. And it gives an account, in all senses, of the costs of China’s initial state-building project in Tibetan areas a half century ago: with little comment or condemnation, it records the price paid in lives and lifestyles by the author’s family and community for their incorporation into modern China. It also serves for outsiders as a vivid reminder that events, even those involving widespread atrocities and occurring at pivotal moments in a nation’s history, can be removed from the record in the aftermath of nation-building, lost in the waves of deliberate erasure, ideological preference, and state-driven selectivity that take place at such times.

He contrasts exile Tibetan and Chinese historiography:

The Tibetan version involved much eliding of their complex relations with China in the past, as well as of stark inequities in their social system, while the Chinese narrative involved overlooking Tibet’s history of separate governance, its largely autochthonous cultural and social evolution, and earlier forms of obvious national spirit and belief. These forms of forgetfulness were not equivalent: the Tibetan exiles promoted their version through propaganda and persuasion, often with endorsement from the work of foreign scholars, while the Chinese version of history was implemented more or less coercively. […]

Naktsang Nulo’s memoir provided an account of history that undermined to some extent the versions told by both sides. It did this not by making any statements about Tibet’s political status in the past but by telling that story with some degree of nuance and complexity.

And he elaborates:

My Tibetan Childhood thus represents a moment of coalition between two generations. The older Tibetans, schooled in the necessary arts of silence by their witnessing of numerous state-inflicted deaths and punishments in earlier years, looked across Naktsang’s narrative toward the younger generation, already energised by a growing awareness of a distinctive cultural and religious heritage that seemed to them endangered. The story that it told seemed to say, though not in so many words, that there was a substantive historical basis for the sense of loss and deprivation, and for the feeling that a future had been denied, implicit in the dissatisfactions expressed among Tibetans in the Amdo area, as in Lhasa too, after the turn of the millennium. Before Naktsang’s book appeared, the only knowledge that could have given substantial basis for such ideas would probably have been largely limited to private conversations, smuggled exile propaganda, and ambiguous pop songs about unity, long-lost friends, and separation from one’s homeland. With its patient, detailed, uneditorialised accounting of historical atrocities, seemingly inflicted without reason or explanation by an outside force fifty years earlier, Naktsang’s book provided an intellectual foundation for thoughts and emotions already circulating within his community, a story of the past that made sense of those emotions. […]

In many senses, it is a naive story, the chronicle of a world seen through a child’s eyes. But to readers within Tibet, it was a revelation. It told of epochal events that had rarely if ever been described before in print, and it used a style and approach that ignored the conventions and requirements of history writing in China, let alone in its Tibetan regions.

Thus his child’s perspective is “free of the rituals and requirements of socialist writing practices”. Presented as a story about a boy’s wish to return to his home, the book seems to downplay political messages.

The words “China,” “the Party,” “Communism,” and “policy” are not found in the text. Even the place-names Gansu and Qinghai do not appear, although the action takes place within those provinces; it is as if they have no meaning or significance for the author. There is no reference to class, local lords are not described as feudal, the Tibetan administration in Lhasa is not referred to as a “local government,” exploitation and abuse are criticised in moral terms but not politically, and the concepts of oppression and liberation are not invoked. […]

The teacher in charge of the “Joyful Home” tells the author, “Thanks to our leader, Mao Zedong, we have enough to eat and drink,” just before the famine starts, and again, after the famine has concluded, when the same teacher announces to those who have survived, “Thanks to Chairman Mao Zedong, we will have rice soup to drink, starting tomorrow”. There is no hint as to whether these profoundly grotesque statements should be considered ironic, innocent, forced, or tragic, or even if they should be judged at all. Political terminology has been removed from the text along with judgment, separating it from the body of public writing about history in China. This is thus a book in which what is not said about the past is as important as what is declared.

For more, note Xénia de Heering, “Re-remembering the day ‘times turned around’: the arrival of ‘Chinese soldiers’ at Chukhama in 1958”, Chapter 10 of Barnett, Weiner, and Robin (eds), Conflicting memories: Tibetan history under Mao retold (2020).

* * *

As Robbie notes,

There was clearly little if any presence of Chinese or Hui forces in the author’s area before 1958, even though the PLA had taken over Qinghai nine years earlier, and in most ways people in the nomad areas still ruled themselves.

Naktsang’s early life in his nomad community was permeated by encounters with Buddhist monasteries and lamas. As the family made a 1,500-mile pilgrimage over six months to and from Lhasa, Naktsang gives

an unusually frank impression of life in Lhasa and central Tibet, where the Golok pilgrims are shocked by scenes of utter destitution and by forms of corporal punishment that even they, no strangers to punitive violence, appear to consider extraordinarily brutal.

But on their return, just as he was becoming a monk at the Chugama monastery, his father was arrested by the vindictive head of discipline there and subjected to 1,500 lashes “for what seems to have been a breach of etiquette”.

Until around 1956 the PLA troops were still considered “relatively benign”; when Naktsang was taken to see the Panchen Lama on another pilgrimage to Labrang monastery, it was a PLA soldier who helped him receive a blessing (this was the very Panchen Lama who in 1962 denounced the desperate circumstances of Tibetans in his native Amdo).

But by 1958 tensions were escalating rapidly, and the story becomes ever more harrowing. Back in Chuguma again, a local army was formed to protect the community from the PLA. As Naktsang’s father told him:

Everyone in our chiefdom went to the army as the chiefs ordered. Men over 15 and under 60 have been sent to Sogpo. Our army has already driven out the Chinese land surveyors and killed at least 100 soldiers. But a few days ago all the lamas and chiefs in Tsu were arrested secretly by the Chinese. All the monasteries in the Achong Lhade chiefdom have been destroyed. I heard that about 500 Chinese troops are marching to attack us, and they’ll probably be here tomorrow.”

Recalling his experiences at Labrang, young Naktsang can’t envisage the threat:

I had seen the Liberation Army many times before, when we were staying at Labrang monastery. They had given us beans and candy, and smiled at us as they marched past. Because of that, I had no fear of walking near the soldiers. When the troops arrived at the line of monks, all of them were given darkhas. They applauded in return and handed the darkhas back to the tulkus and lamas.

But as the PLA occupied Chugama, arresting the principal lamas and tulkus, people realised how grave the situation was. As resistance was crushed, in detailed chapters Naktsang tells how the locals were intimidated into destroying their own precious monastery. He now embarked with his father in a group of twelve monks and laymen, including several teenagers (Naktsang was only 10), on another pilgrimage to Lhasa—this time in search of refuge from the Chinese invaders. On their perilous journey they learned of further Chinese atrocities, and were fearful that Lhasa might be in the midst of similar destruction. Along the way they fought off PLA troops; but Naktsang’s father died after being wounded, and the others were forced to surrender.

The final section, “Torture and imprisonment, starvation and survival”, tells of the consequences of that failed flight over the following year, as Naktsang and those around him were integrated into the dominance of the Chinese state.

Nulo Chumarleb

In captivity he was taken under the wing of the kindly lamas Ganden Wula and Sera Lama (“Ganden Wula is respected by the Chinese. He’ll be able to chant rituals—they’ll let him.”). They were taken back to Chumarleb in a group of about 300 prisoners, roped together in lines of six. On the way, in reprisal, Chinese troops cajoled the local crowd into beating the two lamas to death along with four of their followers.

When they arrived at Chumarleb they were thrown into a hole in the prison yard—one of nine such holes, each containing about four hundred prisoners. Five or six died every day. As famine further intensified their desperation (for the appalling devastation in the PRC, see this roundup), after 18 hellish days Naktsang and his older brother were released, staying briefly in the nearby town before starting school, consisting of large tents housing around a thousand children—most of whose parents had been arrested.

The school still apparently functioned quite normally over Chinese [sic] New Year, but three months later food supplies dwindled severely; as they resorted to eating leather and sheepskin, people began to die. Those from erstwhile wealthy families succumbed more quickly; poor children like Naktsang, more capable of fending for themselves, had to dispose of the corpses. Within three months, only fifty-three children remained from over a thousand, and only ten old people from six hundred.

Nulo 1959
This is the book’s only image from the period described in the memoir;
other illustrations show archive photos of Amdo and Lhasa from before the Chinese occupation.

As the famine eased, Naktsang found some of his recently-released fellow prisoners, who took him to herd sheep and calves at the grazing commune where they had been released. On 30th December 1959 he became a student at Chumarleb County School. He ends the book innocuously and astutely:

Now we have grown up and are able to practice our religion and dedicate prayers to him. We are also certain that we will have the chance to return to our native land, and all our relatives will greet us.

Nulo and brother 2012
Naktsang Nulo (right) with his older brother Japé, 2012. Photo: Xénia de Heering.

* * *

In his introduction Robbie Barnett updates the story:

In 2013, five years after his book was published, [Naktsang] wrote a column that spoke out for the first time about the wave of immolations that had swept across Tibet. It was unprecedented in its explicitness. […] We can now see him not as an autobiographer who dared to speak about the past or an intellectual who speaks truth to power but as a strategic communicator and conciliator, an ex-official who pioneered unique pathways by which to negotiate the contours and crevices of the state system in the quest to widen public debate and understanding on topics never previously allowed. Where he had used the convention of childish innocence to enable the act of public recollection, he now uses concession to others’ values to plead for moderation in policy. A project that began as a handing down of the past to coming generations has become a quiet search for ways to nurture a thinking Tibetan public, rich with knowledge of its history as well as of its responsibilities and limitations.

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