When Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer living in China, found a collection of negatives in a suitcase she left for her dying father, she had no idea she was looking at one of the most important legacies that would change her life.
Tsering Dorjee, this writer’s father, was an officer in the Tibet-based branch of the People’s Liberation Army when the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966.
Thanks to his privileged position in the Army, his father was able to photograph first-hand and in great detail various events that affected the Tibetan people. But what caught her daughter’s attention the most, developing her negatives, were the black-and-white images, meticulously capturing the devastation caused by the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in her homeland.
Through the photos, carefully developed, Woeser discovered the moving images of public purges against religious leaders, personalities linked to the former ruling class, as well as the destruction, looting and looting of temples and the burning of numerous books and symbols of Tibetan Buddhism.
Woeser, an intellectual renowned in China for his writings and poetry, was not only unaware that his father had been a direct witness to this sad period of history, but also that Tibet had been so affected by the movement launched from Beijing to eradicate the “anti-revolutionary” forces.
His father, a low-key member of the military elite, had never mentioned these events to his family. In the education received in Chinese schools, this subject was completely absent from the classes, and Woeser grew up ignorant of these events, like most of the other Tibetans of his generation.
Instead of handing over the negatives of his photos to the CCP authorities, as required by law in China, the father kept the evidence of the events he witnessed silent, without profaning their secret, until the day he died.
The excesses that took place in China during the years of the Cultural Revolution are well known to the world, thanks to the testimonies and files that have been released, some even by the Beijing government. However, the world did not know what happened in Tibet until the publication of Forbidden Memory, the book that Tsering Woeser compiled, with the images that his father bequeathed to him.
The book, which features three hundred previously unpublished photographs, revealing the violence of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet for the first time, was initially published in Taiwan in 2006 under the title Massacre – as Tibetans call the years of the Cultural Revolution – without much international impact.
Today, this valuable historical archive has reached a wider audience with the publication in 2020 of its English edition. [por Potomac Books, editorial de la Universidad de Nebraska en Estados Unidos]under the title Forbidden Memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution.
At times, the reader may forget that the exceptional images in this book – which unfortunately has not yet been converted to Spanish – were taken by an officer of the Popular Liberation Army. Not even her daughter knows for sure about his father’s purpose: “It is likely that the government gave him permission, convinced that he would use the photos for propaganda purposes.”
Woeser was educated in the Chinese system, she writes in Mandarin Chinese, she completed all of her studies in regions of the interior of the country. After finishing her university education, she worked as an editor for official literary magazines, all this, before stumbling upon the photos that she left her parent.
This random publication marked the beginning for her and her husband – fellow writer Wang Lixiong, who helped her in her research – of a precarious and turbulent life in Beijing, where they live under constant police surveillance.
“Today, memory can no longer be hidden…and in this sense Woeser occupies a unique position as a chronicler of modern Tibetan memory. His blog and his writings have become the voice of Tibet,” says Tsering Shakya, author and professor at the Institute for Asia Research at the University of British Columbia and past president of the International Association for Tibetan Studies.
For Shakya, the value of the book lies not only in its testimonial power, but also in its ability to preserve historical memory.
The impressive work embodied in this four hundred page book consists of five chapters structured around annotated photographs with analysis of the people, events and places that appear in them.
Some of the most shocking photos are probably those that illustrate the destruction of Tibetan cultural heritage. In the chapter entitled “The looting of the Jokhang Temple”, Woeser writes: “Jokhang is not a monastery. It is the house where all the deities meet, as the Tibetans say. A few pages later, we see the Red Guards marching through the streets of Lhasa, the capital of the autonomous region, and posing with a portrait of Mao Tse-tung, in front of the holiest temple in Tibet.
Other sad images show the burning of medieval Buddhist manuscripts, some modern, some ancient, lost forever; the destruction of stupas and monasteries, and the Red Guards setting fire to objects and writings belonging to the Jokhang.
The temple, located in the center of Lhasa, was later rebuilt, but most of its original statues and architectural features have been lost.
Another element of the book, perhaps the most bloody, portrays the public humiliation of monks, aristocrats and members of the elite of the old Tibetan regime. They were paraded before the public, dressed as jesters, wearing hats on their heads with inscriptions describing them as “demons” and “enemies of the people”, while the crowd was incited to spit on them and throw stones at them.
As part of his research, Woeser records the lives of many of the protagonists of the purges recorded on his father’s camera. In her book, the Tibetan writer points out that many of them were killed, others committed suicide and some ended up in prison.
It should be noted that the Tibetan region, or what is now called the Tibet Autonomous Region, was occupied and conquered by the People’s Republic of China in 1950.
The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s supreme spiritual leader, fled China in March 1959, crossing the border into India, after an epic 15-day journey on foot and horseback through the Himalayan mountains. It is estimated that around 100,000 Tibetans later joined the exodus initiated by their spiritual leader.
In other words, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, after more than 15 years of occupation, the inhabitants of Lhasa, the capital of the autonomous region, had learned to live with the regime, or at least many of them had become resigned to it. the Chinese government and its policies.
In previous years, Tibetans were often asked to sign documents condemning the Dalai Lama and supporting the Chinese takeover. Many of those who opposed the CCP had fled to India several years earlier. What many of those who stayed did not predict was that, despite their signatures and their apparent “collaboration” with the regime, the Cultural Revolution would also be on them, Tsering Woeser points out in the notes accompanying the harrowing images. .
According to research accompanying the book, the Red Guards who committed atrocities in Tibet during this period were not all Chinese; in fact, a large contingent was made up of Tibetans recruited to join the ranks of the rebels.
“Many acted out of fear or saw no other solution that they joined the movement to avoid becoming victims,” says Tsering Woeser in an interview for this article.
“Many former Red Guards showed great remorse and pain for having achieved destruction and violence against their own people,” says the writer.
Woeser concludes that some believed that Mao was a new deity, Maoism a new religion, and that they did not always understand the teachings handed down by local CCP authorities.
Published accounts of events during this period in ethnic minority regions, especially Tibet, are scant or non-existent, as many documents have been destroyed or locked away in inaccessible CCP archives.
No one thought that the father, a member of the People’s Liberation Army, would keep these negatives and leave them as a legacy to his daughter, as a hidden message that conveyed the atrocities committed against his people.
Thanks to the work of Tsering Woeser, who found, researched and published these hundreds of photographs documenting one of the most infamous moments in Tibetan history, we can now know and remember this tragic period, excluded from the annals of Chinese official history.
Unlike many countries, which have created Truth Commissions to clarify traumatic events, China remains extremely secretive to this day when it comes to the Cultural Revolution and other tragic events in its recent history.
In true Orwellian fashion, the Beijing government consistently discourages attempts within the country to critically examine the official version of history.
One of the “no-go areas” has been, and continues to be, the Cultural Revolution. While it is true that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, negative narratives were encouraged, it was on the condition that the criticism was directed against the Gang of Four and not against Mao.
The official version acknowledges that this period was bloody and chaotic, but they give few details of what happened, especially with regard to the human cost, the murders and other excesses. State school museums and textbooks often do not mention the events at all.
The reason is obvious: any attempt to revise the official narrative could undermine the historical foundations and legitimacy of the Communist Party.
It is in this context that the work of Tsering Woeser, heartbreaking and revealing, is presented as a valuable personal and literary reflection on the nature of memory, violence and intellectual responsibility, it requires an intimate vision of the condition of a people whose history is still censored in present-day China.
Despite the many risks, there are many people in China who are dedicated to preserving photos, testimonials, interviews, editing underground magazines, and doing documentation work that the Chinese government has prohibited most historians in the country from doing.
These “independent chroniclers” have found their space, not in the public sphere, nor in the private, but in the secret realm.
Publishing your work is equivalent to exposing yourself to constant police surveillance, jail, and in many cases, a life of great precariousness.
Tsering Woeser claims to be aware of these dangers, but says he is willing to take the risk.
For China’s independent chroniclers, documenting history is the only way to ensure that these tragedies are not forgotten, go unpunished and are not repeated.
*Journalist, writer and researcher specializing in contemporary China and contributor to Análisis Sínico at www.cadal.org.