Magazine article World Literature Today

Of My Tibetan Days

Magazine article World Literature Today

Of My Tibetan Days

Article excerpt

In 1985 I wandered in Tibet for three months.

At that time, Tibet was celebrating the twentieth anniversary of its "peaceful liberation." Full martial law was implemented in Lhasa. Machine guns mounted on trucks ran their eyes over the crowd. It was purely an armed political show: the processions were censored and the street celebration participants were hand-selected. The hostility between the rulers and the ruled was palpable. Having reached its limit, the Tibetans' antipathy toward the Chinese was clearly on the verge of eruption. Once, when I slipped out at night for a walk, Tibetan cadres and peasant soldiers caught me immediately and did not free me until daybreak.

After my wanderings, I landed penniless in the plateau. I had to come up with three months of travel expenses before I could head north. I stayed in the dormitory of my friend, Liu Wei, and began to look for work. First, I drew two propaganda posters concerning economic development on both sides of the Tibet Autonomous Region Television Station gate. After a week or so of work, I ended up shrouded with dust. Yet these new and flamboyant commercials managed to attract countless Tibetan onlookers. As I now recall, those commercial advertisements were the first to appear in the streets of Tibet. How I wish I had not painted them. Along with the economic boom in the nineties, the dirt roads on both ends of the TV station were paved over with asphalt. Buildings and shopping malls were constructed. A square under the Potala Palace was renovated, while either side of the boulevard had turned into a modern tourist must-see. Old Lhasa was gone. People were busy making money for a better life. Sino-Tibetan conflicts were reduced to episodes of an impoverished minority creating trouble, while the large majority-particularly the young Tibetans-would rather westernize or sinicize than return to their Tibetan roots and past.

After earning five hundred yuan for the posters, the Tibet Bureau of Minerals contracted me for an exhibition on natural evolution. I painted several gouache pictures of daily products made from ore extraction. I also made paintings depicting human evolution. I earned an extra two hundred yuan for some ten days of work. Since I was able to spend my nights in the exhibition hall and could easily steal beer and roasted chicken from the canteen with my friends, I also managed to save some money.

Later, I chose two paths to follow through Ü-Tsang, where I wandered for two months or so. Other than the sky burial, my most unforgettable experience was seeing a Buddhist land without Buddha, with most of its six thousand monasteries destroyed. All the monasteries I stayed at were controlled by the atheist "Religious Affairs Executive Committee," with walls that displayed scrolls of rules for the monks: "For those aged eighteen and beyond, love the country, love the Communist Party. . . . Once ordained, you must learn Marxism, and recognize that idealism and materialism are two opposing world views."

As a Buddhist who just took his vows, I couldn't help but feel the omnipresence of communism. Buddha was no different from me-a prisoner. Neither of us was able to "save" each other. Like an embarrassed patient forced to stick out his tongue for the doctor, I often felt my self-esteem crushed. I was perplexed by politics and ancient religious beliefs, especially Tibetan Buddhism, and confused by questions related to personal freedom. The primitive nature of religion and the barbarism of politics hindered me from seeing the light of civilization.

Back in Beijing, my mind still a blank, I started to seek an inner equilibrium through writing. From the perspective of a wanderer in search of freedom, I decided to write five stories that expressed the primitive life in Tibet and the plight of modern man, so as to rethink how love, sympathy, ethics, and faith led to our loss. For this, I visited the Beijing University Library on several occasions to look up religious materials, social surveys, and subjects such as plateau vegetation. …

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