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Tibetans and the Cultural Revolution
by Grain

It is important to understand the involvement of Tibetans during the Cultural Revolution.

I have done some research on the subject of Tibetan involvement during the Cultural Revolution. One informative book is "The Struggle for Modern Tibet, the Autobiography of Tashi Tsering", by one of the foremost American scholars on Tibet, Melvyn Goldstein, and William Siebenschuh, and Tashi Tsering.

Melvyn Goldstein had known Tashi Tsering for over two decades, and finally helped Tsering write an autobiography which is now an important record of one Tibetan's life through the old Tibetan society to the modernization of Tibet.

This book also happens to relate many details about the life of a Tibetan serf boy who worked for the Dalai Lama, came to the U.S. to study, then returned to China to end up participating in the Cultural Revolution. I will attempt to give a brief overview of the riveting accounts given by Tashi Tsering in his book.

Tashi Tsering is quite an ordinary and common name in Tibet. Many boys have this name. In Tibetan, "Tashi" means "good luck", and "Tsering" means "long life". One boy given this name was born a serf in the traditional Tibetan system. At the age of ten, he became his village's tax to the Dalai Lama's ceremonial dance troupe. He said, "In our village everyone hated this tax, as it literally meant losing a son, probably forever." (p. 11, The Struggle for Modern Tibet.)

His mother cried for days, and tried to bribe the village elders to spare him from being chosen, to no avail. Tashi himself was actually happy at the prospect of joining the troupe. For him, the task was a chance for education. He wanted very much to learn how to read and write.

At the dance school, Tashi quickly learned that "the teachers' idea of providing incentives was to punish us swiftly and severely for each mistake." (p.17)

"They constantly hit us on the faces, arms, and legs. When we ran to line up at the beginning of morning, for example, the first boy in line got to punish the later-comers with a slap across the face. Each boy got to punish the one below or behind him. It was terrible. I still have some of the scares from the almost daily beatings." Tashie soon learned that, "the teachers' methods had been used for centuries. They did exactly what their teachers had done to them, so these methods were considered perfectly normal and reasonable." (p.17)

Once, when Tashi missed a performance, he had to strip off his trousers, and was stretched to the ground to be lashed across his bare buttocks with long thin switches made from tree branches. "This centuries-old Tibetan punishment was the most painful kind of beating." (p. 4)

In addition to being physically beaten, he was also sexually assaulted by monks in the monastery that schooled him to dance. He said, "The incident reawakened my ambivalent feelings toward traditional Tibetan society. Once again its cruelty was thrust into my life. I wondered to myself how monasteries could allow such thugs to wear the holy robes of the Lord Buddha. When I talked to other monks and monk officials about the dobods, they shrugged and said simply that that was the way things were." (p. 29)

Tashi was not the only one suffering. The old China was a feudal society with many landlord taking advantages of the poor peasants. All across China, the rich abused the poor; the landlords often owned servants whom they beat and raped. And the peasants across China revolted.

China was trying to fight her way out of feudalism.

However, having lived for all of his life in Tibet, Tashi did not know much about central China. Being uneducated, some local Tibetans believed in rumors. They heard that the communists were atheists and enemies of the rich. "Rumors of all sorts flew everywhere; some even said that the Chinese were cannibals." (p. 36)

This is only thing I do not like about this book. I noticed that, to the local Tibetans, the people from central China were considered to be "Chinese". The reality is in central China, there are many different ethnics of people, including Tibetans who had migrated there. However, I can see "the Chinese" as a provincial term used by the Tibetans.

According to Tashi: by 1952, the PLA were more of a presence in Lhasa. His account of the beginning is quite interesting:

"The first troops had appeared in the city in September 1951, but initially they kept a low profile. However, as their number increased, they became more active and visible. I became fascinated by the ways they did things, which were so different from our ways. They fished in the rivers with worms on a hook and set out to become self-sufficient in food by using dog droppings and human waste they collected on the river. These were things we would never have thought of doing and, to be honest, found revolting. The Chinese wasted nothing; nothing was lost. So despite the revulsion, I was also overall fascinated by the extent of their zeal for efficiency and their discipline. They would not even take a needle from the people." (p. 40)

Tashi observed a difference between the traditional Tibetan bureaucracy, filled with embezzlement, and the way the early PLA functioned in Tibet. Some passages of Tsering's book reminds us that the early Communists were idealistic:

"I was attracted not only by their efficiency and energy but also by their apparent idealism". (p. 41)

"The Chinese worked tirelessly and with a sense of dedication and purpose. Soon after arriving, they opened the first primary school in Lhasa and a hospital as well as other public buildings. I had to admit that I was impressed by the fact that they were doing things that would directly benefit he common people. It was more change for the good in a shorter period of time than I had seen in my life - more changes, I was tempted to think, than Tibet had seen in centuries." (p. 41)

While a few young Tibetans decided to join the communists, others were not so sure. Tashi himself chose to go to India for an education.

Tension increased in 1956 when China launched social and agrarian reforms. "The changes angered the regional landowners and the lamas, and they rose up in arms." People began to wonder what it would all mean to the religion. The monks and aristocrats and even most commoners resisted any change. Anti-Han sentiments grew. The Dalai Lama fled to Inda. During his absence fights broke out, rebellion erupted. Other aristocrats and monk officials poured out of the country to join the Dalai Lama.

Tashi was already in India, studying, but his studies were interrupted when he, too, joined the force to help the Tibetans.

He was proud of his work for the Dalai Lama's government in exile, because for him, who had been born a serf, it was a real honor and prestige to be able to work alongside some noblemen.

One of his tasks was to interview refugees to record Chinese atrocities. He spent two weeks in a camp going from tent to tent interviewing every refugee he could, but found very little. "It turned out to be more difficult than I expected. Most of the people I spoke to were illiterate and did not have an orderly or logical way of controlling and expressing their thoughts. Moreover, their experiences were quite varied. Many had not even seen the actions of the Chinese army in Lhasa. They had simply been a part of the general panic that gripped the country, and their stories were of the sufferings they had incurred on the journey through the mountains, not at the hands of the Chinese. I had a hard time getting concrete evidence of Chinese atrocities." (p. 57)

"We put the materials we were translating together with similar eyewitness accounts from other refugee camps, and eventually they were presented to the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1960. The commission wrote a famous report condemning the Chinese for their atrocities in Tibet." (p. 57)

I found this part of the book very interesting. It points out the potential unfairness of certain respectable reports. Other articles have since pointed out that CIA originated many aspects of the Tibet movement.

Tashi Tsering's book is a fascinating account of one Tibetan's soul searching. His disenchantment grew when he realized that the noblemen never treated him as one of them. He was denied an opportunity for education which he desperately wanted. He was simply expected to work as a clerk for the elite.

Eventually he left the Dalai Lama's government in India as he found his own way to study in America, where he met Melvyn Goldstein.

As I read this book, I felt Tashi Tsering has one of the most interesting lives, and the most painful. While he could have stayed comfortably in America, he made the mistake of returning to China to work for a better Tibet right before the Cultural Revolution broke out. He spent some time studying at an university in northwest China along with many other Tibetans who were being trained to develop Tibet. The day the Cultural Revolution touched his campus, it was an exciting day for Tashi. The Tibetans in his school made the Han teachers kneel. And all the punishment the Tibetan students dealt the Han teachers were approved by the communist government, who viewed it as part of the cleansing of class structure. (For lengthy details of this day, see p. 102 of Struggle for Modern Tibet.)

It would be a mistake for anyone to think that only Han people punished Tibetans during the Cultural Revolution, that no Tibetans burned down temples. Many Tibetans had participated in the Cultural Revolution actively.

The madness of the Cultural Revolution meant that anyone who was an agent of persecution on one day could easily become the target of persecution on the next day. This eventually happened to Tashi. He became a prisoner. Of this part of his life, he wrote:

"My fellow prisoners were mainly teachers, writers, intellectuals, and officials from the school. There were both Han Chinese and Tibetans there. The Cultural Revolution did not let ethnic background influence the targets." (p. 121)

One of the passages in Tashi's book recounted that, during an interrogation on Tashi, a Tibetan interrogator repeatedly hit him. (P. 137)

Please cross reference this with Dorje Shugden Buddhist James Burns' discovery that "the beating so graphically shown of Tibetan Monks in these monasteries in the late 80's were not being carried out by the Chinese as was being suggested but were actually carried out by Tibetans"
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Tashi Tsering's life in prison in central China was terrible, yet when he was eventually transferred to a prison in Tibet, food and facility became better.

"In spite of the extremely small cells, the physical conditions here were better than those of any of the prisons I had known in China. There were dim electric bulbs in each cell, and the walls and floors were concrete and a good deal warmer and drier than anything I had seen before. We got more food and freedom, too. There were three meals a day here, and we got butter tea, tsamba, and sometimes even meat,".. "Compared to what I'd been experiencing, these conditions amounted almost to luxury." (p. 132) He was given both Tibetan and Chinese newspapers while in the prison cell.

This is not to say China was reasonable during the Cultural Revolution, only that the CR was ethnic blind. Many bad things happened, and Tashi Tsering offered accurate accounts of many details.

Reading this book had helped me tremendously in understanding some realities of the Tibetan participation during the Cultural Revolution.

I would like to point out also, that this book is very riveting. Tashi's thirst for education came from a time when many in Tibet were uneducated. It saddened me to read how hard he struggled in his attempts to learn, and joined unfortunate events such as the Cultural Revolution.
Tashi gave an adventurous account of his youthful bravado, about a feud in his village that he later realized could have been avoided if people had better education. His longing for education eventually led him to his current task.

Here are some of Tashi Tsering's words: (p. 200)

"I don't pretend to have answers to the big questions anymore. I am in my sixties now, and as I look at the faces of the children at one or another of my schools, I worry about things that I didn't even think about when I was younger and had more energy and less experience. Who? or What? I sometimes ask myself now is the Tibet I am trying to help? Who represents Tibet? The Dalai Lama? The old elite now living in exile who made people like me wait outside the door when it came time to discuss important issues? The more progressive intellectuals in Tibet, or those in exile in India, America, and Europe?"

"I adamantly do not wish to return to anything like the old Tibetan theocratic feudal society, but I also do not think the price of change of modernity should be the loss of one's language and culture. The Cultural Revolution taught me how precious those things are." "Education is the key to these goals."

He is now over 60-years old, and living in Tibet, building schools for the Tibetan children to learn the Tibetan culture and language with the help of the Chinese government. At last count that I'd read in a news article, he's built 46 elementary schools in Namling, a county of 70,000 where he had been born. I have nothing but awe and respect for this man.

I highly recommend everyone who is interested in the Tibetan issue to buy and read this autobiography.

The Tibetan Movement propaganda claims that 1.2 million Tibetans were killed by "the Chinese". The reality is, not only did they exaggerate the number of deaths - a study on the Tibetan population showed the exaggeration; the violence had happened during the Cultural Revolution. Furthermore, Tibetans had participated actively during the CR.

What had happened in China was a class struggle. Millions of peasants chose communism to revolt against the landlords. This revolution was across China. Ethnic cleansing was never its purpose.

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