“The ‘Mani Stones’ in an ‘Environmental Migrants Village'” By Woeser

High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser written on September 27, 2012 for the Tibetan service of Radio Free Asia and published on her blog on January 31, 2013.

Woeser writes about her encounters with the people directly affected by the Chinese government aims since 2006 to “Build a New Socialist Countryside”, with the policy of re-settling nomads and herdsmen, based on her travels in 2007 and also 2012. The issue is particularly timely as the policies have been in the spotlight this past week thanks to a Human Rights Watch report titled  “‘They Say We Should Be Grateful’: Mass Rehousing and Relocation in Tibetan Areas of China”. Follow the above link for the press release for the report as well as links to the full PDF report for download, 31 photos accompanying the report can be found here and a short video here.

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I wrote this article for the Tibetan service of Radio Free Asia, it was written last year between
August and December while I was in Lhasa. It records the experiences during my visit to Chumarlep Three Rivers Area’s Ecological Migrant Village when passing through Gormo. A pool table had been inscribed with scriptures and used as a Mani Stone, placed underneath a field of sacred prayer flags. This left a long-lasting impression on me.

“The ‘Mani Stones’ in an ‘Environmental Migrants Village'”
By Woeser

In August 2012, I drove back to Lhasa in the car of my friends and spent one night in Gormo, a man-made city with a very short history.

Five years ago, I also stopped here to visit fellow Tibetans living in the outskirts of the city in the Gobi desert. The word “living” is not really accurate, they were migrants who had “been moved” there, approximately 200 to 300 households; all of them had lived in “the first county of the Yellow River”, in Yushu Prefecture, Chumarlep County and were then moved to this place, arranged to live in a migrant village in barrack-like housing. This many Tibetans who used to be herdsmen, keeping livestock, had been forced to integrate in what is referred to as a modern environment. Their language, food and lifestyles underwent great changes, not to mention that there was no place to practice religion in this new place; it becomes clear that this kind of “integration” was extremely passive and painful.

I will never forget the sad conversation that I had with these Tibetan migrants. I asked: “When you moved here did your mountain deity move with you?” My Tibetan friends, dressed in cheap western suits, lowered their heads and said: “How is that possible? We abandoned our deities, we abandoned our livestock, and all that for 500 Yuan per month.”

But in fact, it was not at all because of this little bit of money that these Tibetans abandoned their ancestors and deities of their homeland. In 2003, the Chinese government persisted in claiming that the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau were degenerating, caused by Tibetan herdsmen’s several thousand years of nomadic lifestyles, so they launched a massive, never seen before project, moving Tibetan herdsmen from the sources of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong River to the fringes of towns and cities. To put it positively, they tried to give the Tibetan grasslands some time off to breathe. But the result is probably the elimination of nomadic lifestyles, which is such an important part of Tibetan culture.

According to reports, this project, which is called “Three Rivers Area National Nature Reserve Environmental Migrants Village Project”, migrated 16,129 families, 89,358 people, affecting over 10 towns and counties and autonomous prefectures. Of course, all those people were Tibetan herdsmen, described as “leaving their horsebacks and flocks of sheep”, these people actually transformed into “‘outsiders’ living at the edge of cities”.

When I was in thie newly built migrants village back then, what made me feel particularly desolate was that in this place there was not a single Mani Lhakhang or stupa for Tibetans to practice Buddhism; neither were there any resident monks who could have helped these Tibetan migrants overcome the emptiness in their hearts.

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When I entered the migrants village once again last year, I realised immediately that on the once spacious and empty Gobi desert had appeared many tent-shaped sacred flag masts, massive in size and extending seemingly endlessly into the distance, fluttering in the evening wind. Near those flags was a purple-red house, in its centre there was probably a big prayer wheel, existing to comfort those that went to turn it. Opposite to this, there was a building that looked a little bit like a monastery, which was separated from the rows of migrant housing by a road.

I stopped a man who was passing by and got to know that he had been living here for six years but had still not got used to this place. Every year, each household only got about 5000 Yuan, which was nowhere near enough. He was sometimes able to find a job at a building site, digging holes or removing stones, which would earn him no more than 20 or 30 Yuan per day. “Since the monastery is here, I feel much more at ease”, he said turning his head towards the purple-red building that was disappearing in the dim light of the night. “We raised money ourselves to build it, what we are worried about now is whether the government will approve it, they should agree I think, but I really don’t know, I just don’t know.” After he had explained all the possibilities of what may happen, I felt full of sympathy.

I also went to visit a family; a woman dressed in Tibetan clothes was raising three children, all of them were going to school, they could speak Mandarin, their clothes also resembled those of Chinese kids from the city, only that they were wearing protection cords given to them by lamas around their necks. The woman said that her husband could drive, but they still didn’t have enough money to buy meat and real butter, so they had to buy artificial butter to make butter tea.

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When I was leaving the migrants village, I once more looked at the field of sacred banners and was surprised to see that underneath them there were large mani stones; but they were not real stones, they were turned-over pool tables on which there had been engraved the six words of truth (Om Mani Padme Hum). I suddenly understood what had been going on. The migrants, facing the difficulty of having endless time but not knowing what to do, spent their time drinking, gambling and playing pool and then the pool table had somehow turned into a mani stone. Maybe this happened because of the enlightenment of lamas who passed on the Buddhist teachings, or maybe it happened more because of the strong belief of these Tibetans who had never wanted to abandon their homelands and deities; and only this is what really matters, it indicates the revival and continuation of vitality and the spirit to not perish.

September 27, 2012, Lhasa

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified), Tibetan