Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Sera Monk's Petition to Hu Jintao

In the mid-1980s, unsuspecting tourists to Lhasa suddenly found Tibetans thrusting crumpled pieces of paper into their hands requesting them to pass them onto the United Nations. Sometimes these documents contained names of prisoners and others, written in florid style, detailed human rights abuses and appealed for the UN’s intervention. Such appeals barely made the news and were often seen as no more than naive and misplaced hope on the UN.

High Peaks Pure Earth received a copy of a petition submitted to President Hu Jintao by a monk from Sera Monastery in Lhasa. The petition is the first detailed account of the incident of 10th March at Sera Monastery and refutes Chinese media coverage of the protest. The Tibetan version of the petition can be found on the Tibetan language website Khabdha. More information on Sera Monastery can be found here:

An Appeal Made to President Hu Jintao and Concerned Leaders Based on my Personal Experience of Suffering

I am a very ordinary student of the central seats of Sera and Drepung [monasteries], a centre for traditional Tibetan education that has become a blissful realm for the core psyche of all Tibetans. I have the desire to honestly express some of the present problems faced by the Tibetan monasteries that I have seen, heard and experienced. That is because I am a citizen of the nation and you people are the leaders who work for the welfare of the citizens.

Are we entirely responsible for the events of March 14th?

This year in March, trouble arose everywhere in Tibetan areas, principally starting in Lhasa and, through a series of tragic events, caused great loss of life as well as property for both the protestors and those protested against. I believe that the statement by the authorities that the cause of the incident is solely due to the instigations of the ‘separatists’ is an incomplete one. That is because such an approach of stubbornly laying all blame upon the Tibetan people is widely seen as being irresponsible among the intellectuals within the country as well as among the international community.

Otherwise, it may be asked why is it that the so-called ‘Splittists’, for their own selfish ends, disregarding the actual fate of the Tibetan people, were able to orchestrate the Tibetans both in and outside Tibet with such ease; and why were the Tibetan people who, according to the central government, are supposed to be enjoying a happy and enriched life that is akin to a change of heaven and earth, thought nothing of risking their very lives to be so ready and receptive to such separatist activities being promoted. Moreover, even though the government claims that under the instigation of the Dalai Lama, the leaders of the present protests were the monks of Tibetan monasteries led by Sera, Drepung and Ganden, yet in reality the real cause is the desperation we experience in our daily life, on account of oppression, fear and restrictions. It is a cry for freedom.

In the minds of senior monks who have been long term residents of monasteries studying the scriptures, and particularly the bulk of monk students, the causes and conditions of the current or the past and presently unfolding events need to be looked at from two perspectives.

The bullying and forcible expulsion of students:

For a monk to study Buddhism is the only way to seek one's ultimate goal. As it is clear from many hundred years of history, for us the large monasteries, with deep foundations in traditional education, like Sera, Drepung and Ganden, are the best educational institutions even in the present time. But for any monk, whether coming from far away or living nearby, the opportunity to study in these large monasteries is very rare because of governmental restrictions. Even for the small number of monk students in these monasteries they have been facing restrictions on their stay and experiencing expulsion campaigns even to the extent of their beddings being thrown out of their quarters by the officials. Such incidents are not a one-time matter. For example there have been many such incidents in the central seats of Sera, Drepung and Ganden monasteries, Serta Larung monastery in Kham (Sichuan), and Ngaba Kirti monastery in Amdo (Qinghai). Likewise the monastery management officials, assigned specifically by the government, randomly enter the monks' quarters for inspection. They not only whimsically search the quarters, but also indulge in countless acts that are irritating and insulting to us, such as stepping on beds and even beddings with their shoes on.

The spiritual relationship between a teacher and his disciples and forcing one to protest against one's teacher:

One of the many campaigns like this is the so-called "patriotic re-education campaign". In general, even though it is a very common phenomenon of life for a country’s citizen and a religious practitioner to cherish one's nation and love one's religion, the government, rather than protecting our faith, do not even have respect and forcefully order us to attack His Holiness the Dalai Lama, thus creating disturbances in the minds of the monk community. Consequently there have been many cases of quite a few monks being expelled from monasteries when they refused to write denunciations [against His Holiness]. For a religious community, such pressure is seen as the deliberate destruction of our educational opportunity and faith by the concerned authorities of our nation. What is His Holiness the Dalai Lama or what is our relationship with him? He is the human manifestation of Arya Avalokiteshvara in the form of a monk. He is the wish fulfilling jewel who in every life comes in the form of a human that bestows the elixir of compassion and wisdom in the clean clear hearts of all sentient beings in general, and feeble Tibetans in particular. The Tibetan saying, "If one possesses a wish fulfilling jewel then depending on it all of ones wishes will be fulfilled spontaneously" is quite true. He is truly the victorious wish fulfilling jewel or the Dalai Lama. Why does the government persist in forcefully making us attack His Holiness the Dalai Lama? For what reason is our faith and devotion being trampled like this? Why are obstacles being placed directly or indirectly to our educational facilities?

The Condition of Sera, Drepung and Ganden monasteries before the Cultural Revolution:

The education system of Tibetan monasteries that has at least more than one thousand four hundred years of history is the heart of Tibetan religion and literature (culture). Through a long history of ups and downs it has continued to the present. It has become like a heart jewel of this nationality which is quite backward in terms of material civilization. Moreover, due to the influence of Je Tsongkhapa, who was born in Amdo and studied in central Tibet, the development of Tibetan religion and literature received unprecedented encouragement and inspiration. This doctrine of Lobsang Dakpa or Gelugpa tradition refers to the attainment of extraordinary experience by him who, devoted to his teacher and much more devoted to the meaning of reality than to his teacher, through his profound analytical investigation and in-depth evaluation of this more than seven hundred year old Tibetan Buddhist culture by keeping the profound teachings of the Buddha and the Indian scholars as the base or reference point. He who had accomplished the path of scholars and siddhas, along with his immediate disciples, had newly established the monasteries of Sera, Drepung, Ganden, Tashi Lhunpo etc., which had a huge impact on Tibetan culture. Even at present the popularity of Sera, Drepung and Ganden monasteries is well known not only in Tibet but also nationally and internationally.

The Tibetan monastic educational impact from these three monasteries is not only great in the central U-Tsang area of Tibet. For instance, the all-knowing Ven. Jamyang Shepa Ngawang Tsundue, who established Labrang Tashi Kyil monastry which is famous in Amdo area, had studied at Lhasa's Drepung monastery. Similarly Kirti Khabgon, who established Ngaba Kirti monastry which now stands in Amdo Ngaba in Sichuan province, had also studied at Drepung monastry. Likewise Shar Kalden Gyatso, who established Rebgong Rongpo monastery in Qinghai province, had studied at Ganden monastery in central Tibet. In brief, for almost all of the famous Lamas and intellectuals of the Gelug sect in all three provinces of Tibet, namely Kham, Amdo and U-Tsang, their main alma maters have been Sera, Ganden and Drepung. Furthermore, even speaking in terms of schools of thought, those who have enrolled in these monasteries for study were not only Gelug tradition holders but also reincarnate lamas and monks from all other traditions such as Sakya, Kagyud, Nyingma, Jonang and Bon. (As I have lived and studied for many years in these monasteries, I am only mentioning Sera, Drepung and Ganden as examples here. Otherwise almost all other monasteries in all three provinces of Tibet, irrespective of their traditions, face similar problems).

The need to implement the policy of real freedom of religion:

To ignore a cultural tradition that accords with the actual interests of Tibetan people, who are spiritually devoted and culturally rich, while limiting the number and expelling the monks and nuns in general, and monk and nun students in particular, are practical evidence that the policy of religious freedom remains just rhetoric and not being put into actual practice.

Following the March 14th incident more than a thousand monks from Sera, Drepung and Ganden monasteries - centres of Tibetan Buddhist learning - were forcibly evicted and individual quarters ransacked at night by the hundreds of thousands of military men who forcibly entered into the monasteries by breaking all the doors of colleges and monks' quarters with weapons such as guns etc. in their hands. There were apparently many instances where pictures of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, cell phones, electronic calculators and money were lost or stolen. I was told that in some other areas of Tibet the military confiscated all the pictures of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, spread them out on a ground near the monastery, trampled them with their feet and then went away. Another surprising thing I heard was that vegetable-knives in the kitchen of some monks were also taken away. Later on we realized that those were taken as evidence to prove us as violent. In this way the monks were beaten, arrested and detained for more than six months. Even after their release they were not allowed to return back to their monasteries. While in the prison the monks made several verbal and written requests stating that they don't mind staying there as long as needed, but later send them back to their monastery where they study. But all their requests fell on deaf ears like stones thrown in the water. How true is the Tibetan proverb that says, "Tibetans are betrayed by hope and Chinese are betrayed by suspicion." In this manner more than thousands of ordinary monks, without protection and livelihood, suddenly had to stop treading on their chosen-path of life in, on account of fear, hardship and sorrow. Now, where will these monks, who, leave aside other things, were not even able to put their shoes on and just went out with their slippers during the time of their arrest by the military policemen from Sera, Drepung and Ganden, go? There is no monastery in one's native locality. Even if there is one, there is no facility to study. Where does such an ordinary monk – who has no monastery or individuals to depend on as his family members and relatives have died - go?

The law must not create obstacles but should instead suppport the survival and development of this Tibetan Buddhist tradition:

In this age of information, Tibetan monks also should be provided by our country a universal educational facility (opportunity), according to their choice, and not create obstacles to receive an education. Largely some of these depend very much on the services and opportunities provided and created by the government.

Firstly, the one child family planning policy has not only put the Tibetan nationality, which is small in population and large in area, in danger in terms of numbers, but it has also automatically limited the number of ordained population as well.

Secondly, the law that restricts anyone becoming ordained before eighteen years of age has closed one of the doors for a religious community.

Thirdly, because of the restriction imposed on the number of monks in many of popular monasteries with excellent Buddhist studies environment the opportunity to study has been curtailed for many monks who yearn for learning, just as a thirsty person yearns for water. On the contrary, I believe that counting people permitted to prostrate, to go for circumambulation, and to erect prayer flags as the representation of the enjoyment of freedom of religion (from the disk entitled "Tibet from its Historical Perspective" produced by the government) is a mere external gesture to deceive others but it displays one's real face rather than help benefit the actual work of our country and nationalities. Even while the path of the foundation of religious activities is becoming smaller and smaller every day as the younger Buddhist followers face problems entering the monasteries and face difficulty in getting opportunity to study even after entering the monasteries, reconstructing a few temples and giving Geshe Lharampa degrees etc., including many other activities, conducted by the authorities in the name of restoration of monasteries, are merely external displays. There is absolutely no definitive guarantee that such activities help sustain and develop this rich and profound Tibetan Buddhist cultural heritage. Compared to the period before the Cultural Revolution the Tibetan monastic population has fallen ten times: Sera had 9900 monks before but has merely 850 monks at present, Drepung had more than 10000 monks before but fewer than 1400 monks at present, Ganden had 5400 monks before but has less than 400 at present. According to the government, the present total number of the ordained population is about 74500 and there are more 1700 religious establishments. This is the figure only for the Tibet Autonomous Region. Compared to the monk population of the region, since not more than only ten percent of the monks are able to receive the opportunity to study, how is it possible for the monks who are ignorant about the philosophical tenets of the Dharma be able to preserve and develop this Buddhist tradition? How can we make this religious tradition in accordance with socialist society?

The Tibetan monasteries are the centres for the practice of Buddha Dharma:

It is a matter of great joy that the government has spent and is still spending a huge amount of money to restore the monasteries. Far more important than that is to help create an effective education facility in the monasteries and not create obstacles, and I will keep waiting with much hope and evidence that the bright rays of the Party’s policy of freedom of religion will shine on the actual life of the common people.

To look at Tibetan monasteries as mere museums is to set the standard too low. If that remains the case, then not only does it betray the conditions for the survival of the monasteries but it also goes against the need of establishing them in the first place. Why is there a need to establish a monastery? Because it is a traditional school or a spiritual practice centre where Lord Buddha's profound and sublime teachings - brightened by the works of many standard Indian Buddhist scholars and adepts led by the Six Ornaments and Two Supremes and further enriched by a unique Tibetan way of life known as Tibetan Buddhism whose fundamental essence is based on the view of interdependent origination and the conduct of non-violence - are studied. It is also a place where the genuine practitioners of this profound doctrine are nurtured. The external cosmetic displays, such as flying prayer flags, doing prostrations, circumambulating a temple, painting deities and constructing temples that are the outer expressions of some parts of the culture, cannot represent the survival and development of Tibetan Buddhism. Hence if the monasteries remain merely as tourist spots and museums, then there is no need for monasteries as there is no reason why the museums run by the government cannot serve the same purpose?

Distortion and the accusations of splitting nationalities:

We were really greatly hurt and disappointed by the fact that during the March 14th incident the official news media, based on a few people who appeared in the scene wearing monk-robes, propagated, not only nationally but internationally as well, by stating that Tibetan monks had beaten, broken into places, robbed and burned. For example, during the peaceful demonstrations by the monks from Sera, Drepung and Ganden on March 10th, 11th, and 12th,etc. thousands of military men, with lethal weapons, surrounded the monks who were tear-gassed and beaten. Such photos were nowhere to be seen. On the contrary, when the police sprayed tear-gas on the assembly of monks the monks tried to throw water on themselves to wash away the effects of tear-gas, but a distorted photo was shown saying that the monks threw water on the policemen. Similarly a couple of people, getting desperate and threatened by the overwhelming power of weapons, with rocks in their hands, were described as violent and aggressive. Likewise many incidents of March 14th have been distorted and propagated nationally and internationally. Even though such deceptive and short-sighted actions are a matter of real surprise and disappointment, this will be a temporary phenomenon as history will definitely clear everything. What I have heard is that presently whenever Han travelers see monks or even Tibetans traveling in buses in the cities around the country, the Han Chinese get off the buses. Alas, what strong distortion is being created by the government or its propaganda agents whose eyes of wisdom to see the effects of causality are blinded! More than a billion honest and diligent people of China have been deceived in such a way at once! As this ever present talk of national harmony and protection of the motherland continues what purpose is there, while talking of national unity, to spread such rumours and create dissension between the nationalities? Isn't this the real separatism?

The government must support in practice to fulfill the expectations of the people rather than merely talk about people's expectations:

In recent times what the government repeatedly expects from religious institutions is that this religion should be in accordance with socialist society. I believe that this is a really good idea. Any culture that remains separate from the service of society becomes devoid of essence. Likewise, religion also survives and develops for the benefit of society, and to adapt to the changing time and society not only has a strong connection with the prospects of religious activities themselves but also relates to the benefit of the general devotees. But it is not enough merely to say that religion needs to be in accordance with socialism. Rather, providing the devotees a meaningful freedom of religion or opportunity to study remains the crucial question of whether the above rhetoric will materialize into concrete action. Therefore, we hopefully await the time when through the farsighted wisdom and pragmatism of the concerned leaders, in the twenty first century bright rays of the central government’s policy of openness and liberalization will immediately fall on our actual cold life.

Finally, I pray that the stability of the Peoples Republic of China and the unity of the different nationalities may sustain without degeneration and the warm sunlight of freedom shines on all of China.

I have honestly and openly submitted the above mentioned problems, practically being faced by thousands and thousands of people like myself, to the higher authorities, working for the benefit of the people, for your reference and consideration. I hope this appeal will enable [the authorities] to see some of our fundamental problems in our actual day to day life. Nevertheless, since I was unable to receive an opportunity to study until I was seventeen years of age and on top of that due to my little knowledge and lack of inherent wisdom I might have been unable to express myself or I might have been unable to put into writing what I intended to write. In brief since this is merely an opinion of an ordinary citizen, please feel free to advise me if the higher authorities deem this an overstatement or if there are any conflicts with the views of the authorities.

Submitted by Ven. Gedun on October 7, 2008. Tashi Delek

Rendered into English by Pema Tsewang Shastri from the Tibetan original.
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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Two poems about the Panchen Lama by Woeser

These two poems about the Panchen Lama by Woeser were written ten years apart. The original poems (written in Chinese) can be read here on her previous blog. The translations of the two poems are taken from "Tibet's True Heart", copyright 2008 Ragged Banner Press and are used here by kind permission. Below is a short introduction by Woeser.


One poem was written one day in December 1995. It was a day when I was working at my first position at the Tibet Autonomous Region Cultural Association when I received news about the new Panchen Lama being recognized, whereupon I immediately wrote this poem.

One poem was written one day in October 2005 when I’d finished reading "The Search for the Panchen Lama" by a female British journalist.

The Panchen Lama

If time can cover up a lie,
Is ten years enough?
A child matures into a clever youth,
But like a parrot, mumbles by rote
The phrases that will please his masters.

The other child, where is he?
The scar-like birthmark on his wrist recalls
His previous life, before, when for ten years
He sat trussed with tight handcuffs
In some Beijing cell no ray of light could reach.
What bruises mar him now,
The child no one hears from?

If there are nine levels to the darkness,
At which one are they trapped - he, and the other?
If there are nine levels to the light,
To which do they aspire - he, and the other?
Perhaps, in each phase of darkness and of light,
Where one is trapped, the other aspires.

Kunchoksum! The world's turned upside down,
That the pain of impermanence,
Of samsara, has struck home to the Panchen Lama!

12 October 2005, Beijing


"Hear ye!" The big lie shall blot the sky,
Two sparrows in the wood shall fall.
"Tibet," he says, "Tibet is fine and flourishing!"

The furious girl will not bite her tongue.
Everywhere the monastic robe has lost its color.
They say: It's to save our skin.

But that one, oh,
The steaming blood poured out, the hot blood!
In the next life, who will grieve for him?

Storm clouds! Doom!
In my mind's eye I see.

I know if I don't speak now
I'll be silent forever.

Sullen millions,
Lift up your hearts.

He was sacrificed once,
That man of deep red hue.

But as the tree of life is evergreen,
A soul is always a soul.

A worse defeat!
Thouands of trees, blighted as never before.
The little folk are quiet as a cricket in the cold.

The pair of praying hands
Was chopped off
To cram the bellies of kites and curs.

Oh, that rosary unseen,
Who is worthy with a firm hand
To pick it up from the slime of this world?

December 1995, Lhasa
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Sunday, October 26, 2008

China and the Recurring Genitive

There must be a psychological condition that describes an anxiety so acute that there is an overwhelming need to constantly state and re-state that something belongs to you - that you own something. Where does this need come from? How does it start? How can it be cured?

First a little fun exercise, see if our readers can spot the difference here:

Reading the wonderful 丁丁在西藏 (photo on the left, pinyin: Ding Ding zai Xizang, English: Tintin in Tibet) seems an unlikely starting point for such musings until you remember that - until the Herge Foundation complained - in China it was published as 丁丁在中国西藏 (photo on the right, pinyin: Ding Ding zai Zhongguo Xizang, English: Tintin in China's Tibet).

Which brings us to the interesting phenomenon of China and the recurring genitive. Isn't this something that children are prone to do, we all have our schoolbooks from primary school where we add a possessive article after our names like Tenzin's textbook. It looks like Tintin has fallen victim to China's rather childish and possessive nature!

Have any readers seen the Chinese government website devoted to all things Tibet? It's called China Tibet Information Center. Do readers know what the Chinese government's centre for Tibetology is called? That would be the China Tibetology Research Center. There was a fun exhibition held this year at Beijing's Cultural Palace of Nationalities all about Tibet and it was called "Tibet of China: Past and Present". At least this one was called Tibet of China and not the same old boring China's Tibet, they are getting imaginative!

Speaking of China's Tibet, take a look at this magazine published regularly in Chinese, Tibetan and English from Beijing:

International readers will recognise it as the glossy magazine that you flick through when you wait for your visa at your local Chinese Embasy or Consulate. Other readers and intrepid travellers (like Tintin!) may have picked up a free copy on the train when travelling from China's Beijing to China's Lhasa, tens of thousands of extra copies were printed expressly for this journey. When you look at who publishes this magazine it's no wonder really, China's Tibet is proudly produced by the United Front Work Department of the CCP.

If any High Peaks readers have any idea any insights into this phenomenon please feel free to share, meanwhile learn about China's other anxieties here and here.
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Friday, October 17, 2008

One Year On... A Letter from Lhasa

It's hard to believe that a year has gone by since the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold Medal on 17th October 2007. I remember very clearly staying up and watching the ceremony online at a ridiculous hour because of the time difference. It has been a turbulent year for Tibet since then. Last weekend, as I was procrastinating from doing any real work, I stumbled across a letter I had received from Lhasa written around this time last year which I thought I'd share here. The Congressional Gold Medal ceremony is hinted at in the letter. Some of the names and details have been changed but basically this very sweet, personal letter conveys the feelings of many young Tibetans today who have been educated in China and then return home to Tibet.

Lhasa, October 21st , 2007

It has been over three months since I left Beijing. It is good to come back and work in Lhasa after spending eleven years studying in China. During the past three months, I have been experiencing so many things (positive and negative) emotionally.

Up to now my personal life in Lhasa is fantastic. I am living with my relatives and go back to my own home at weekends. My relatives have a huge apartment building and I have a private room for free. My relatives are people who have a lot of things in common with me in terms of many things. They are quite interested in my job and believe that this job perfectly suits my personality. So I share my working experiences with them. They often encourage me to go abroad for further study in the near future.

I am lucky enough to have my best friend TK with me in the same city. We hang out together as we did back in Beijing. We share our happiness and sorrow. Therefore, on the whole we are as happy as we were before. Besides, TK is as “rude” as before. One day, we went to attend the opening ceremony of a new restaurant together. We took a bus to the restaurant. When we sat down and began to talk, we suddenly realized that a lot of fellow passengers were looking at us curiously. We looked around and saw that we were the only Tibetans on that bus. Naturally, I could not helping feeling as if we were on a bus in Beijing where this kind of situation often occurs. Then TK burst out: "What are you looking at?! Why is it so strange that we speak Tibetan?!?!" The Han Chinese seated beside us did not set curious eyes on us any more. Haha….so this is typical TK. I am sure a lot of people never expected such a character as hers from her cute face.

No matter how well my life is going in Lhasa, there is always a dark or painful side deep in my heart. I believe this is a universal case for Tibetans like me. Never in my life did I realize that the political situation is so intense and so serious here in Lhasa. The ongoing 17th National Party Conference is greatly affecting Tibetan people’s routine life. During the conference, police have been scattered everywhere. On my trip to Lhasa, I found that the Qinghai-Tibet railway was safely guarded by police. Rumour is hard to be blocked among the gossip-natured Tibetans.

Although few Tibetans have a clear idea of what is going on on the international stage, most Tibetans know that something good and exciting is happening. I heard that a good many Tibetans dressed up on special days and went to burn incense as usual in spite of the hard restrictions. I also heard something that happened on that day. A group of nuns were spotted getting off a bus and disappeared around Karma Kunsang (a Tibetan residential area). Immediately, police made raids on every Tibetan household in that area in order to find the nuns. Finally, the nuns were found in a Tibetan house. It turned out that the family had invited the nuns to hold religious activity. Unfortunately in another Tibetan house, police caught twenty monks who were also invited to read Tibetan scripture. So we can imagine what kind of great changes will take place in these two families.

Such kinds of things are happening as life seems to go on happily here. Yesterday, one of my friends from Drepung monastery called me. They told me that during this conference the monastery had been guarded by the police. Monks are not allowed to leave the monastery and enter the city. So this is also what is going on in this seemingly peaceful city. In this city, I guess those who turn a blind eye to what is going on in real life is the happiest person.

There are also a lot of cheerful things occurring here. Nowadays, Tibetan music is becoming more and more popular among Tibetans, especially young Tibetans. Many new-faced Tibetan singers have popped out. I am also enjoying buying any newly published music videos. Apart from music videos, recently a video which advocates vegetarianism is popular among Tibetans. The video shows how the innocent animals are cruelly killed for the sake of human beings’ luxury. I was shocked by the bloody scenes in that video. I felt shameful for human beings’ mercilessness and cruelty. However, it is very difficult for me to be a vegetarian especially when I go for field work.

Just a few days ago, I listened to the Karmarpa’s teaching on vegetarianism. Kamarpa suggested that we can try to eat less meat than before by eating meat in only one meal a day. I realized that his teaching is very reasonable and practical for people like me. So now I do not eat as much meat as before and I found myself rejecting meat from my deeper heart. Whenever I eat meat, I feel guilty. I do intend to become a vegetarian but I try not to eat meat if there is another choice. I observed that nowadays to become a vegetarian is very popular among Tibetans. Luckily, there are two very good vegetarian restaurants in Lhasa now.
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Thursday, October 16, 2008

"How did my mother participate in the revolution?" by Woeser

This is a translation from Chinese to English by High Peaks Pure Earth. The original article was published on Woeser's blog on 26th January 2007 and can be viewed here. This is the first time that it has been translated into English. In addition to being a fine poet, Woeser writes moving prose and is an accomplished essayist.

Year: 2005

Place: Beijing

People: My mother and I. Below are my mother’s words.

The first time I saw Chinese people was maybe in 1952. They were Chinese people who were preparing to build the roads, carrying banners, whistling and holding various instruments. The adults all called them “Gyami Serbo”, meaning they were yellow Chinese as the clothes they wore were a yellow army uniform. Before that time we had heard about Chinese people, that they ate babies and were devils. So when the Chinese arrived at the village, children in the village were both frightened and excited and went fearfully and secretly to look at them. The interpreter was a Tibetan. He grabbed a young boy and asked him a question, the young boy was frightened and spluttered some nonsense that made all the Chinese laugh. The children were all surprised and whispered in each other’s ears: look, look, the laughter of Chinese people is the same as ours.

Our village is now Wu Yu Township’s Tashi Gang village which at the time belonged to our family Kangga. Kangga is the name of my father’s original family, and after my father lived apart from his family and established a new family, the new one was named Dejang. I was born into Kangga family in Wu Yu Township in 1943. Below Tashi Gang there was some wasteland where barley can not be grown, and it was all rock and sand. Later, during the period “Agriculture learns from Dazhai” a lot of energy would be exerted to reverse it from this state but barley still wasn’t to grow there. At that time, a great many tents of the construction teams were tidily pitched there, which gave us the feeling that they would be there forever.

The arrival of the construction teams was perhaps in 1953. At first they were all Chinese and later they enlisted some local Tibetans. The highway was built from Lhasa to Shigatse, but this is not the same road as the present new highway. The old highway being built at that time is on the whole not used anymore but can be used from time to time. In the past there had been an army depot near the village which was now abandoned.

The Han Chinese road workers wore blue so everyone called then “Gyami Ngonbo” meaning “Blue Chinese”. At that time, our Dejiang family had started to build a new house which later became Wu Yu Township’s village government, now it’s already been torn down. My father was the owner of Numa manor and would often receive dinner invitations from the road teams. Maybe because I had a nice appearance, my parents always took me along to attend these banquets. It was at these occasions that I ate fried peanuts for the first time. They were so fragrant and tasty that I could not help stopping eating. An official of the road team placed a bowl of fried peanuts in front of me, I was very happy and put the fried peanuts into the front pocket of my chuba. As a result, the chest part of my chuba was stained with oil. At that time I had just turned 10 years old.

Han Chinese people from the road teams often came to our home, and their translators were always Tibetans. My older sister fell in love with one of the translators called Gonpo Tseten, an Amdo Tibetan. He was tall and wore a peaked cap and a Mao jacket. The first time he came to our home, my sister fell under his spell. However our parents had already promised her to an ugly, dark skinned, big-nosed man from an aristocratic family in Shigatse. When he and his father visited our home, I had a good look at him whilst pretending to pour tea and then rushed to describe his appearance to my sister, who could not appear before them. My sister absolutely did not want to marry him.

The road team’s cook liked our family’s barley beer, so I would often take a servant and go and deliver barley beer to him. I was just at the age of being very curious and liked to look at strange things. On seeing them eat white rice with black peas it looked far worse than our food at home. The cook often repaid us with a bowl of Sichuan spicy bean sauce which doesn’t taste the same as Indian peppers and tastes very good. The bowl was white with red Chinese characters written on it, later when I fell in love with your father I saw that he also had this kind of bowl.

The road teams stayed at my home village for over a year, they had headquarters and a hospital. They even built a stage and a basketball court. The road teams would sometimes show films. The first time I saw a film my eyes opened very wide in amazement but I have forgotten what film it was that they showed, also I didn’t understand a word of Chinese. Propaganda teams would often come and perform carrying various coloured goose feather fans in their hands during their dances. I cherished these performances and after returning home would make these fans out of wool and learn their dances.

In 1953, my older brother came back from Lhasa. He had been sent to Lhasa very young and went to study in a private school run by Nyarongsha doctor. My brother is 6 years older than me, and at that time he was already very revolutionary in character. At home whilst 20 or 30 servants were eating he sat among them and said that he wanted to divide the land and animals amongst them. The servants all lowered their heads and smiled stealthily and must have all thought that the young Dejiang master was mad. My parents were very angry and later scolded my brother; they told him that if a flood flooded the whole village, it would not leave a dry rock but seeing as that situation had not yet occurred what nonsense had he been spouting?

At that time, my brother had already cut his hair into the revolutionary cropped hairstyle. He took a pair of scissors and to cut everyone’s hair. He cut the maid’s plait and he also cut mine. I didn’t agree to it and as soon as my brother cut my plait off with his scissors I could only cry and accept my fate. I was so shy, my family members called me “Gyami Go” meaning “Chinese head” and from then on I always wrapped my head in a scarf.

On the second day after the haircut, Han Chinese men from the road team came to our home to buy tsampa. The highest ranking official with a camera wanted to take a photo of me as soon as he saw me. So my photo was taken on the roof of the house. I was wearing everyday clothes and was leaning against the ladeng (Shigatse dialect, in Lhasa dialect it is called lazu and it’s a long narrow pole to insert a tree branch with prayer flags on the roof during Tibetan new year). Later, my mother saw the photo and was not happy, she said that I could lean anywhere but not against the ladeng.

The official who took the photo only had one eye. He always wore sunglasses with deep dark lenses so you could not see his eyes. The village children all wanted to see him without his dark glasses, one time they really saw him and in his blind eye’s place was something that looked like a crystal ball which frightened them all. Thinking about it, at that time among the Han Chinese it was he who looked like a devil so when he wanted to photograph me, I didn’t dare to refuse but when he took the photo I wasn’t even smiling a little bit.

At that time, the translator that came with them was not the Amdo one that my sister liked, it was a Dartsedo Tibetan called Palnor who later served as the Director of the district’s traffic department and is now retired. Sometimes we would bump into him on mahjong playing occasions. A few days later, he brought over the developed photo to give to us, he had developed a few copies.

Photo of my mother taken when she was a young girl
(Photographer: My father)

Soon after, I was taken to Lhasa by my brother to go to school. We lived in our Uncle’s home which was around near Meru Temple. My Uncle had been the governor of Pali County. When the PLA advanced into Tibet. he was Chamdo governor Ngapo’s bodyguard. After the Chamdo battle was over, he was also held captive by the PLA. I started to attend the newly established Lhasa Primary School but I missed home very much. When I received my Chinese woollen suit I cried out to go home but my brother did not agree to that and simply forced me to study almost one term. Then it happened that my father came to Lhasa for some work. I went back home with my father and gave the Chinese woollen suit to the servant’s son.

The happy days at home didn’t last long, my brother came back again after which he took me back to Lhasa again to continue studying at Lhasa Primary School. My brother was becoming more and more revolutionary and joined the Lhasa Youth Federation which was a very fashionable group at the time similar to a group of performers. Many young aristocratic boys and girls were part of their activities but I was still young and not interested in those kinds of things. I just wanted to go home. In 1955, my brother went to Beijing to study at the Central Institute for Nationalities. As soon as he left I returned to Wu Yu Township on horseback.

In 1956, my father was poisoned and killed. The next year my sister and I went to Lhasa and it would be many years before returning to Wu Yu. My sister was escaping marriage and I did not like the new stepfather. The two of us started to attend the Tibetan Cadre School which was a school for training Tibetan Cadres. It was at this point that I started to participate in the revolution.
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Friday, October 10, 2008

Romance, Revelations and Revolutions - A review of “Tibet’s True Heart – Selected Poems by Woeser”

Newspaper headlines describe Woeser as Tibet’s most famous woman writer and blogger and a lone Tibetan voice, intent on speaking out. Until now, Woeser has perhaps been best known as a Tibetan dissident writer whose blogs are banned and have either been repeatedly shut down in China or hacked by Chinese nationalists. Her collection of poems, short stories and essays published in 2003 by a renowned publishing house in southern China entitled “Notes on Tibet” was subsequently banned and, refusing to be subjected to political re-education, she left her prestigious job as editor of a literary journal in Lhasa, as well as all the security such a job brought, and went to live in Beijing, where she still continues to live today.

In March 2008 she was briefly placed under house arrest, during which time she became the main source of information regarding the wave of protests and demonstrations that swept Tibet, as chronicled in the daily Tibet Updates on her blog. The threats to her personal safety have been well documented and translations into English of her Tibet Updates, published online on China Digital Times, have brought Woeser and her work to a wider audience. In July 2008, her decision to sue the Chinese government for their continued refusal to grant her a passport was a brave, audacious move, testing China’s legal system and bringing the plight of Tibetans as second-class citizens within China to the world’s attention.

Now a new volume of translations of Woeser’s poetry is available to English readers thanks to the efforts of scholar and translator A.E. Clark. “Tibet’s True Heart”, published by Ragged Banner Press, brings together original translations of 42 poems written by Woeser spanning a period of 20 years. It is a remarkable volume of poetry with translations that not only do justice to an eloquent, moving literary voice but also enlighten and educate with the copious notes, explanations and maps included in appendix.

The earliest poems contained in this volume were written in the late '80s during Woeser’s days as a student of Chinese literature in Chengdu’s South West University for Nationalities. Although born in Lhasa during the Cultural Revolution and spending her first four years there, her family moved to Kham and she spent most of her childhood in Tibetan areas of Sichuan province, Chengdu being the provincial capital. Woeser candidly writes about growing up Sinicised – her father was a high-ranking officer in the People’s Liberation Army and she grew up very much in a Chinese-speaking environment. In her 2004 poem “Tibet’s Secret” she writes “From birth I grew up to the bugle calls of the PLA / A worthy heir of Communism".

Through the poems included in “Tibet’s True Heart”, the journey of this girl, born into a privileged cadre family in Lhasa to school girl and student in Kham, back to Lhasa as a government employee and ultimately to Beijing in self-imposed exile, is mapped out not only in these places but also in the personal geography of several parallel journeys, the most remarkable being the journey of self-discovery and spirituality conveyed in the text through memories, people and heavy doses of personal experience. The year the poem was written along with the place is documented by Woeser and has been diligently translated by Clark with good reason, these details are crucial to the reader’s understanding of the context of the journeys. “Remembering A Battered Buddha” begins with: ‘Twenty days since I left Lhasa…” whilst “Return to Lhasa” begins by stating "It’s been a year. I was somewhat excited about going home". In addition to being useful markers for the reader, places in Woeser’s poetry are imbued with significance for personal reasons. Derge, in Kham, for example, is evoked more than once in painful memories:

“Derge, ancestral home!
Would that it meant nothing,
Would that no road led there!”

As Clark writes in his notes, "Derge was the birthplace of her father and was associated, in her mind, with his death".

Travelling is a recurring theme associated with pilgrimage, escape, voyages of discovery. Woeser is sketching the inner and outer contours of Tibet and Tibetan landscapes are a source of inspiration in themselves. In the achingly moving 1994 poem “A Mala That Was Meant to Be”, although written in the third person, Woeser’s physical journey to Amdo is internalized with memories of her father’s death three years earlier, personal struggles with identity and a re-discovering not only of her father’s past but also of her own – all interwoven with Tibetan Buddhist imagery symbolically evoked in the poem. She describes the woman at the beginning of the journey:

“She lacks the root of wisdom.
She finds it hard to visualize
An image of the Buddha or
A letter of Tibetan

On a leaf.”

By the end of the poem, the personal revelations and discovery of spirituality stemming from grief and a deep sense of loss have made their mark:

“Inside the gem-encrusted tower, a transformation:
A hundred thousand Buddha-images,
Or one hundred thousand letters of Tibetan,
Morph into as many leaves upon a tree”

These epiphanies are also to be found elsewhere in the poetry, the personal and the political slowly merging as the poet develops and forges her new identity. Subtle allusions to the Dalai Lama appear in the poetry from the late 1980s but clearly the growing discovery of faith runs parallel to the political awakening. Thus the overtly political subject matters gradually start to appear, for example the episode of the two Panchen Lamas that was both religious and political. They are metaphorically alluded to in the 1995 poem “December”, written in Lhasa, as “Two sparrows in the woods” but ten years later in the 2005 poem, written in Beijing, boldly and directly titled “The Panchen Lama”:

“If time can cover up a lie / Is ten years enough? [...] The other child, where is he?”

As mentioned previously, it was in 2004, again in Beijing, that Woeser wrote the poem “Tibet’s Secret” dedicated to Tibet’s political prisoners, some of whom she knew personally. She poses the question: “of the people in prison, why are so many more wearing the red robe than not? [...] we’re glad to leave the suffering to our monks and nuns […] With shame I count down their practically endless prison terms. / Tibet’s true hearts beat steadfast in a Hell that’s all too real.” Realising that due to her background she could easily have never heard about their fate, (“what’s the connection between them and me?”) she reflects on what they represent and compares her upbringing with theirs ending with their shared fates of exile and isolation, “Far from home, enmeshed in a race forever alien, [...] Considering it carefully, how can there not be a connection between them and me?”.

The lines connecting the disparate true hearts of Tibet are as much virtual as psychological or emotional – technology has played a crucial role and undoubtedly created new space for reflection and self-education. Woeser’s knowledge of a political prisoner’s plight comes from “a biography I downloaded in Lhasa” and “It was only on the Web I saw, spread out before an old lama, An array of handcuffs, leg-irons, daggers…”. In “Remembering A Battered Buddha” her memory of that Buddha is kept alive digitally, “I only took some pictures, So when I miss it I can turn on my computer and have a look.” The contemporary feel is refreshing and at times provides relief from the overwhelmingly melancholy tone of the poetry. In “Spinning Wheels”, the wheel metaphor is not only the classically Buddhist circle, or Kora, or Mani wheel but also “Mitsubishi tracker wheels, Beijing jeep wheels, Dongfang truck wheels, long-distance bus wheels, Minivan wheels, red taxi wheels, Walking tractor wheels.” These observations also give the reader an accurate impression of life in Tibet today where wheels symbolise the development and changes taking place as much as the religion. Woeser’s details also identify the greatest changes taking place in Tibet today, the poem “Return to Lhasa” mentions “little fake zebras [...] a pink fake lotus [...] I saw the celebrated Qinghai-Tibet railway on a concrete overpass”, even noting that the taxi drivers speak in Sichuanese dialect portrays Lhasa today exactly.

Leaving aside the Tibetan themes and subject matter, there are universal themes of love, loss, grief and struggling for identity and meaning in the poems. A highly literate poet, Woeser’s points of reference are very accessible for English-speaking audiences as she keenly cites Allen Ginsberg, T.S Eliot, Gabriel García Márquez and at least one poem owes a great debt to Jack Kerouac. It is also rare that a translator can disappear to leave the poet’s own voice resounding and A.E. Clark’s translations, sensitive and true to the originals, must be commended for their elegance. Woeser is a prolific writer, blogger and poet who has given up a great deal in pursuit of the truth in her own time and on her own terms. Overcoming both prescriptive and prohibitive censorship to ironically become a truly free thinker, Woeser is a unique and much needed Tibetan voice. In the burning house of the People’s Republic of China, Woeser has so far managed to find and make use of every fire exit and trap door in order to be heard. “Tibet’s True Heart” goes some way in ensuring that these remain open for a while longer.

Review by High Peaks Pure Earth

"Tibet’s True Heart" – Selected Poems by Woeser
Translated by A.E. Clark
Published by Ragged Banner Press, 2008

Available for purchase online at:
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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Twittering Tibet

Earthquake in Tibet. An earthquake measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale jolted 'dam gzhung (Ch: Damxung), 82 km from Lhasa, Latitude: 30.274°, Longitude: 90.711°, at 4:30 pm on October 6th. 'Dam gzhung is part of Lhasa Municipality. Read a report about the earthquake from Chinese state media in English here and in Tibetan here.

As misleading reports come through about houses being razed down to the ground in Lhasa, where else to hear the news but from the horse's mouth? Someone in Lhasa has been twittering regularly about daily life in Lhasa and has the following to say about the events of that day:

An earthquake was felt in Lhasa just a minute ago, the quake lasted for only 3 seconds, people were running on the street, dogs barking.
04:33 PM October 06, 2008

And now people were laughing on the street, as if something "exciting" happening.
04:35 PM October 06, 2008

Historically Lhasa wasn't an earthquake zone...", said **** of **** Hotel. It seemed that most people weren't feeling panic.
08:30 PM October 06, 2008

The epicenter of the recent quake was in Damxung County (82km away from Lhasa), the qake measuring 6.6 degress on Richter scale.
09:56 PM October 07, 2008

More than 100 bldgs were destructed in Damxung County, > 30 dead. Nothing much happened in Lhasa, students had a half-day leave.
09:57 PM October 06, 2008

Had hotpot again till 4am, met 2 primary school students on the way back home, they were scared of quake & decided to sleep at Jokhang Sq.
04:47 AM October 07, 2008

And I have to emphasize that the quake only had an extremely minor effect on Lhasa, **** & the buildings around were affected at all.
05:42 AM October 07, 2008

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Monday, October 6, 2008

Chinese Spoken Here!

Although there is a vibrant Tibetan language publishing industry, there is still considerable pressure for Tibetans to learn and speak Chinese. Here are some pictures of banners hanging on the school gates of Lhasa.

1) I am a child of China, I like to speak Mandarin

2) Establish the Consciousness of Standard Language and
Raise the Consciousness of National Culture

3) Mandarin is the Language of our School

The 3rd picture says spyid skad (meaning common language) in Tibetan. In Chinese it says putonghua which means Mandarin.

The last word, however, goes to a student from Tibet who has this on her blog:

Language is a nationality's source of honour
Language is a nationality's precious jewel of knowledge
Language is a nationality's treasure house of knowledge
Language is a nationality's radiant ambrosia
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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Harry Potter Goes to Tibet

Last week Forbes magazine announced that J.K Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, a story about a boy Wizard is the highest earning author and number one celebrity author in the world. Did we Tibetans contribute anything to this? It seems that the Tibetans will be making a modest contribution to her monthly income of three million dollars.

I always look forward to the arrival of a neatly packed box of books from Tibet; this has been rudely interrupted since March. Last week, to my surprise, the supply resumed and I excitedly opened the box. On the top of the pile of books was a Tibetan translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, (published in the United States as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone). Actually, don’t you think this is a bit of an insult to the Yanks? The publisher may have assumed the word “philosopher” could confuse American readers. Anyway, the Tibetan translation retains the original title. The photo above is the Tibetan cover of the book.

At quick glance it is clear the book has not been translated from English but from Chinese. This often happens these days. The rendering title sounds like “Haru’s Potter” in Tibetan. The translator Norkyil Buchung Gyal (ནོར་དཀྱིལ་བུཆུངརྒྱལ་) in his preface writes that the chief motive for translating is to provide Tibetan language reading materials for junior middle school age groups. Certainly, there is a total lack of reading materials in Tibetans for young people. I for one welcome the publication.

Hopefully, there are many more to come!

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Spyware found on Tibetan website

We all know about the Great Firewall of China which blocks internet users in China from accessing certain websites. What about the websites that users in China can access though? Are they safe? What about the sites that are most popular with Tibetans? What's in them to make Google warn a user outside of China - with a full screen in RED no less - about accessing them for security reasons (see picture above or better yet, try to access that page yourself)?

For readers unfamiliar with the realms of the cyberworld that Tibetans in Tibet are floating around in, is one of the most popular Tibetan websites and run from Xining, Qinghai Province. It has pages on news, photos, music, videos, travel, blogs and healthy doses of gossip and trash too. Surfing any of those pages brings up Google's security messages and yet surfing for news on the Chinese Google, Baidu, seems fine.

And finally, as if that wasn't enough to put you off surfing Chinese websites, the news is unveiled this week about the Chinese version of Skype confirming what most of us have known all along - that Chinese Skype is highly dodgy.

Happy melamine-free surfing all!
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