Ten years ago, near the end of 1999, the Chinese author Wang Lixiong received a package from a young woman of Tibetan origin named Tsering Woeser. It contained several hundred black-and-white negatives.
“The negatives are of pictures taken by my father, who died in 1991,” she wrote in an accompanying letter. “They are of Tibet during the Cultural Revolution. I am aware of how extremely important they are, but I have no idea what use to make of them. I have never met you, but I have read what you have written about Tibet, and I present you with these negatives in the belief that you might be able to make some effective use of them.”
Wang replied that he would be more than happy to help her, but that the process of bringing such a crucial witnessing of history into the public eye should not be left to someone like him, an ethnic Chinese, adding, “You should take this on yourself.”
Woeser, who has since become a major poet and a significant spokesperson of her people’s plight, published a Chinese-language book in Taiwan in 2006 containing many of those photos, together with a detailed and highly informative narrative that not only elucidates their context and import, but also tells the story of the Tibetan nation devastated by its Chinese overlords during the so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
Last month, this book was published in Japanese by Shukousha. Having just finished reading its 410 pages, I am still reeling from what is one of the most fascinating documents of recent history I have ever encountered.
In Chinese, the title of the book is “Shajie,” which is rendered — in a highly unusual combination of kanji characters — as “Sakko” in Japanese. As Woeser explains in her foreword, the ko of sakko is a Buddhist term for eternity. Since the first character is the one for “to kill,” perhaps a faithful rendering of the title’s meaning into English would be, “The Eternal Cycle of Killing.”
A look at this eternal cycle is instructive in putting the ravages brought about by the Cultural Revolution in Tibet into context.
The current communist regime in China is not the only one of that country’s governments to wreak havoc on Tibet. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, successive Chinese governments invaded Tibet and regions in western Sichuan in order to “subdue” the ethnic population there.
During the communists’ disastrous, self-styled Great Leap Forward (1958-61), however, the Chinese government put down rebellions in those regions and inaugurated a regime in which private property was largely banned, more than 6,000 monasteries were denuded of their treasures and their religious objects, and land holdings were confiscated. Add this to the devastation wrought in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and the result is that fewer than a dozen Tibetan monasteries in the country have survived largely unscathed.
Woeser’s father had been an officer in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, and as such had access to both public events and private incidents. Whether it was his intention or not, he documented what his daughter subsequently called — in a poem titled “Tibet’s Secret” — “a Hell that’s all too real.”
The naive young rural workers and ecstatic city youths who made up the bulk of Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s Tibetan Red Guards are shown in numerous photos, shouting as they raise their little red books (“Quotations of Chairman Mao”) in the air. Even children with red neckerchiefs to match their books were recruited into the cause of “destroying before you can rebuild.” Processions of middle-school pupils in Lhasa wielding steel broomsticks on their way to a temple are little soldiers advancing in the cause of smashing the so-called Four Olds.
The Four Olds earmarked for destruction were supposedly old ways of thinking, culture, morals and customs. In Tibet, naturally, the focus of this campaign was to be the religious establishment that had been the cornerstone of Tibetan cultural and social life for more than a millennium.
A photo on page 59 of Woeser’s book is telling. It shows a temple courtyard strewn with smashed religious objects, while young Tibetan Red Guards stand around with the long steel sticks in their hands. Behind them can be seen older “supervisors,” probably Chinese, whose job it was to egg on the young zealots. Another photo shows a burning of books such as we have all seen before.
For his book, Woeser conducted scores of interviews with people who witnessed the events of the time. These are integrated well into the visual narrative, forming a harrowing record of the politics of frenzy.
There are many photos here of people branded as enemies of the state — including monks, nuns, so-called bourgeois elements and ordinary citizens — being paraded in front of the masses, some of whom were wearing elaborate traditional gear it would rarely have been their custom to don. All of these “enemies” were humiliated publicly and punished, their lives destroyed; and among them are more than a few who were tortured and executed for the crime of being associated with a past deemed decadent, dangerous and useless.
Tibet was of supreme strategic importance to Chairman Mao as China’s southwest fortress to protect the homeland against American imperialism, Soviet revisionism and Indian reactionaries. The many photos in this book showing Tibetans clutching and displaying portraits of The Great Helmsman of the Revolution attest to both his supreme power over the minds and behavior of the people and to the propaganda value placed on this iconic ritual. It is in these photos that Woeser’s father’s dual role of objective chronicler and serving propagandist rears its ambiguous head.
The photo of Zhang Guohua (1914-72), secretary of the Tibet Committee of the Communist Party of China at the time of the Cultural Revolution, is a prize beauty. In Kim Jong Il-style shades, this leading comrade is shown addressing a crowd of some 50,000 impassioned revolutionaries in August 1966 with mouth as agape as a La Scala tenor’s, singing the praises of a policy that will shatter bourgeois and reactionary elements so thoroughly “they will not reappear till the end of time.” Ironically, time in Tibet ran out for Zhang much earlier than that when, in May 1967, physically and mentally exhausted from the roughshod trials he had put Tibet through, he was transferred elsewhere.
The author of this remarkable book ended up not only meeting Wang Lixiong but marrying him. Both have dedicated their creative lives to the peaceful formation of genuine democracy in China. Wang, who had been living in the United States, returned to Beijing last month, and the two are now together there. Woeser, denied a passport by the Chinese government, has taken the amazingly courageous step of suing it for withholding this right from her.
In her collection of poetry, “Tibet’s True Heart,” translated beautifully by A.E. Clark, she speaks of Derge, or Dege, in the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in western Sichuan Province, the town in which her father was born and died. One verse reads: Derge, ancestral home! / Would that it meant nothing / Would that no road led there!
This book, with her father’s photographs, is a testament to the fact that the Tibetan homeland and its people do, in fact, mean something to her: the world.
No army or government can, in the long run of history, match that.