Academic journal article China Perspectives

Memories of Life in Lhasa under Chinese Rule

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Memories of Life in Lhasa under Chinese Rule

Article excerpt

Tubten Khétsun, Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule, translated and with an introduction by Matthew Akester, New York, Columbia University Press, 2008, 344 pp.

Over a long period, classical Tibetan literature drew extensively upon Indian Buddhist sources; but there is one genre, autobiography, in which it has given undeniable proof of creativity. Autobiography, always rare in India, has been widely practised in Tibet. Yet, for several centuries, its exclusive focus was the spiritual masters and a few important public figures, people whose religious or political careers were considered exemplary. Common people, lay figures, were not deemed suitable subjects.

Since the 1950s, however, the historic and often tragic upheavals that Tibetans have experienced have inspired the publication of autobiographies by lay people, mainly exiled aristocrats and high-ranking figures and, to a lesser extent, ordinary Tibetans.(1) Even so, the nonTibetan-speaking world has generally had to be content with "semi-autobiographies"; indeed, most of the texts published in Western languages have been co-authored with Westerners who were more or less well acquainted with Tibetan affairs, and written in English. Very few autobiographies have been written in Tibetan, by Tibetans and for a Tibetan readership (a brief list of them is to be found in the translator's introduction, pp. xvi-xvii); still fewer have subsequently been translated into English. In this regard the present text published by Columbia University Press is exceptional.

The work originally appeared in India under the title Dka' sdug 'og gi byung ba brjod pa (An Account of Painful Events). Until now it had gone relatively unnoticed, even by specialists. Matthew Akester's excellent translation gives us access to a unique testimony of "Life in Lhasa under Chinese Rule," to quote the title of this rich autobiography with its wealth of dates, place names, figures, and named people. Moreover, it documents a period in Tibetan history (1959-1980) that has rarely been described and remains obscure.

Some of the facts reported in this work may not be new to readers familiar with Chinese accounts of the two dark decades, the 1960s and 1970s; but testimony from Tibetans themselves, relating specifically what happened in the Tibetan region, has been sparse. Tibetans inside Tibet, for many reasons, rarely speak of these matters, in public or in private, and few older Tibetans have left their country since the Cultural Revolution (a few thousand, some of whom had been in prison since 1959 or 1966). This largely explains our meagre acquaintance with the events of 1959-1966 in the Lhasa region (or, for that matter, in the whole of Tibet). We may estimate the vast memory work still to be accomplished in the field of Tibetan contemporary history by recalling that not a single Western historical study has yet been devoted to the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: the first book on this subject is expected next year.(2)

The present work is precious for a further reason: it teems with references to events that until now were scarcely reported or, indeed, were completely unknown even to specialists: the revolt by the Hui Muslims of Lhasa in 1961-1963 (ch. 12), the pro-Chinese paramilitary organisation administered by the Tashilhunpo monastery (ch. 13), the denunciation campaign against the Panchen Lama waged in Lhasa in 1964 [ibid.), the formation of three Tibetan resistance groups during the Cultural Revolution (ch. 21), and the attempt, swiftly abandoned as a failure, to publicly defame the Dalai Lama in 1971 (ch. 29). Then there was the campaign to re-evaluate class groups in 1974: ^ all Lhasa's inhabitants were grouped into nine categories according to their past history. Seventy percent of the population fell into a bad category from the revolutionary point of view, signailing the failure of Chinese policy in Tibet after 15 years of frenzied reforms (ch. 30).

Apart from the new light it throws on Lhasa's historical and political background during this period, this autobiography may be considered to reflect the fate of a lost generation. …

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