“A Covered Up Past” By Woeser

2016 06 22 A Covered Up Past 1

High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser, originally written in 2002 in Lhasa, updated in 2015 in Beijing for the Mandarin service of Radio Free Asia and published on her blog on October 3, 2015.

In this long and thoughtful piece from Woeser, she describes certain places in Lhasa and the terrible events that took place during the Cultural Revolution. For more information about Woeser’s book “Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution”, see this earlier post from 2013.

“A Covered Up Past”
By Woeser


Covered up? Indeed, it is this term: covered up. And it is not just a little bit, or one part, it is too much, almost everything has been covered up. What I am referring to is history, the history of Tibet. The past 10 years or even more have been more or less completely covered up.

Whenever I talk about this, a certain feeling overcomes me; an image appears in front of me of a giant hand that floats above my head and covers up the sky. Whose hand is it? And why is it covering up the sky?

Where there is heaven, there is earth. This reminds of a Chinese idiom – blot out the sky and cover up the earth. And this “covering” is by no means passive, it is actively done by an external force.

But actually, aren’t “passive” and “active” both one integral whole, just like the giver and the receiver are bound together? If I stand against the wind and spit, my saliva will splash back into my own face.

And yet, this metaphor is not precise. It does not convey the hidden meanings of “covering up”, its ignorance and even conspiratory dimension. “Covering up” is not natural, it suggests intention and purpose.

So who is “covering up”? Who is “covering up? Indeed, who is “covering up”?


My father took over 300 photos documenting the Cultural Revolution in Tibet (Footnote 1); one of these photos is truly shocking and conveys a forceful message. It shows a raging flame continuously unfolding, burning thousands of book pages into ashes. Among them were many I don’t know how many years-old Buddhist scriptures. From the picture it does not become clear who lit the fire and who was just standing around watching; everyone was just mixed together. But their faces all looked excited. Images showing people dressed the same way, with the same facial expressions appeared from many other areas across China during the Cultural Revolution; but the Tibetan-style buildings in the background remind us: this is Tibet, this is Lhasa, this is the “Sungcho Rawa”, the special place to recite Buddhist scriptures of Jokhang Temple.

What could be stolen was stolen, what could be smashed was smashed, what could be burnt was burnt. But there were simply too many “four olds” to steal, smash or burn. So they were thrown onto the streets or into the toilets. My mother remembered: “One incident left a deep impression on me. Once, I went to visit Uncle Tsering to deliver some things. It was the first time that I left home after giving birth to you. From the Yabzhi Langdun home, at the military area backdoor to the Lubu Bus Station, from the east of the Barkhor all the way to the surveillance station, the streets were full of books, I didn’t know where from, from near-by temple halls that were destroyed or from monasteries that they were stolen from; they were all Buddhist texts; and there were many of them, more than autumn leaves; walking on them made a screeching sound. I was a little scared, felt that stepping onto Buddhist scriptures was a crime. But I could not help it, there were simply too many and no way to avoid them. I felt uncomfortable, wondered why people would even dare to walk on Buddhist scriptures, let alone crush them; they were all dirty and broken. It was in autumn, the book pages together with leaves were blown into the air by gusts of wind. This scenery really left a deep and long-lasting impression on me.”

My father’s cousin who now lives in Kathmandu also told me in a still fearful voice: “the broken Buddhist statues were put into backpacks and emptied onto the streets; the pages of Buddhist scriptures were torn out and randomly scattered onto the road. I was frightened. Every time a statue was smashed, every time I stepped onto a scripture page, this feeling came up. But there was nothing I could do. They even used engraved wooden manuscript covers as toilet lids. Kunchok Sum! People would defecate and urinate on them. What a crime! They had these toilets at Meru Temple and Ramoche Temple; another one was installed in the neighbourhood committee of Meru Temple. People were afraid to use these toilets, but if they didn’t they would be shouted at by the local officials.”

Many elderly Buddhists felt sorrowful when seeing all the important objects being destroyed, quietly wondering what the point was in living this long. By getting this old, they had even witnessed the death of the Bodhisattva, is there anything worse than that? When I was young my nanny, Acha Yeshe, shook her old and grey head and said: “It is really true. Even the Bodhisattva was killed during the Cultural Revolution…”


2016 06 22 A Covered Up Past 2My father took two other thought-provoking photos. They show how people were criticised and denounced publicly as “monsters and demons” at the “Sungcho Rawa” of Jokhang Temple. A Chinese cadre is shown with a smiling expression, he was clearly the person in charge of this denunciation. The two photos are not sequels. But his movements indicate continuity: his body is slightly bent backwards, his smiling expression does not change; he condescendingly points at the Lama who is standing in front of a pile of Buddhist scriptures and is subject to denunciation; this Chinese cadre may have taken down his pointing finger, but it looks as if he was ready to lift it up again any time.

His smiling expression is the only smile that we see on the photos. All the other people, all the “emancipated serfs”, do not appear as relaxed, their faces show distress, anger and also traces of fear, as if they did not dare to even imagine what was happening in front of their eyes. The other man who is placing his hand on the shoulder of the Lama was a Tibetan Red Guard; his posture and expressions are by no means violent, on the contrary, his tongue is strangely outstretched and he looks slightly stooped; it seems as if he is in unconscious fear and trepidation. Only the Chinese man is smiling to his heart’s content. It is the smile of a coloniser. It is the smile of someone who holds power. It is the smile of a new leader.

Who is this person? Some people claim that it is Li Fang the former head of the “Three Doctrines Work Group” and Party Secretary of Lhasa’s Chengguan district. It is said that he was not only tyrannical but also greedy. When he was transferred back to Chinese areas he selfishly took many cultural artefacts with him, but his car overturned on the way back and he was severely injured, while all the stolen goods were scattered across the ground, revealing everything. But is the man on the photo really the “long-bearded Party Secretary” (in Tibetan: Gyawu) with his massive sideburns? Even though we cannot say for sure, we must not ignore him and his smile. It is a symbol for arrogance.

The Lama wearing the long hat is also a symbol, including the precious scriptures hanging off his neck, the wooden vehicle with thangka and many other religious objects piled up on it that were all labelled as part of the “Four Olds”. Some people say that he was the “Kunyer La”, the keeper in charge of the Jowo Rinpoche Hall of the Jokhang Temple; other people say that he was Lama Geba, one of the four great Abbots of Drepung Monastery; again other people claim that he was a senior monk of Sera or Ganden Monasteries. In fact, we can also regard him as Demo Rinpoche who was forced to wear monk robes and parade in the streets; or Lhatsun Rinpoche who was beaten to death by Red Guards. What difference does it make!?

Out of the many onlookers circling around the scene, how many were overjoyed after being liberated and how many were frightened and confused? And how many were just thinking about themselves? We have no way of knowing. But we know at least something: slaves continued to be slaves. When faced with this new Chinese leader who turned a place formerly used to recite Buddhist scriptures into a courtroom of injustice, when seeing an innocent man facing groundless charges and being humiliated and punished, all these onlookers–men and women, the old and the young–looked tame and obedient, even if they did not actually join in themselves. But they essentially remained slaves who had never been genuinely liberated.

At this very moment, “Sungcho Rawa” lost its original meaning and religious spirit. At this very moment, in this era of the Cultural Revolution (“Rigney Sarje” is the Tibetan homonym), every single stone of this special place to recite Buddhist scriptures was infiltrated with shame and disgrace. It became a piece of evidence of the revolution that spread across Tibet from 1966 onwards.


What Tibetans call the “Barkhor” is often referred to as the “eight-cornered street” (ba jiao jie) in Chinese, which has caused misunderstandings and ambiguity. It is said that this goes back to 1950 when many of the Chinese soldiers who forcefully entered Tibet were Sichuanese. Perhaps it goes even further back to the Qing officials that were stationed in Tibet. But it is certainly related to Sichuan people, because in Sichuan dialect, the word “jiao” is pronounced as “guo” and so “Barkhor” was transliterated into “ba jiao street” (eight-cornered street). But this does not mean that this street has eight corners, its original name is also not “ba jiao Street”. On August 28, 1966, the old name “Barkhor” or, if you will, the Chinese name “ba jiao street” was replaced by a new revolutionary name. “Destroy the old and establish the new” – this heroic mantra manifested itself in the form of a new sign that appeared next to an old stone wall, displaying the new street name: “Establish the New Street”. In Tibetan it is pronounced as “Sar Tsu Langchen”. Today the old name of “Barkhor” or “ba jiao street” has been revived; it is once again a prayer path and commercial area, it is a place where tourists can experience exotic scenery and it is also the area with the highest number of secret police patrolling. This is because of the so-called “riots” that happened here in 1987, 1989 and 2008.

But it is not actually that easy to translate “establish the new” into Tibetan. Just like “revolution”, “class enemy” or “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, it is an ideology and no similar notions exist in Tibetan. The revolutionaries must have really racked their brains to find suitable terms that more or less convey the message of “establish the new” and they must have had a hard time to force brand new vocabularies into the “old” Tibetan language. It was extremely difficult for the majority of local people to pronounce and remember such new words. Sometimes they cracked jokes by using the Tibetan pronunciation of “pork” to refer to “political direction” and “lamb” to refer to “political line”. Never in the history of Tibet had so many new terms emerged in such a short period of time. So in order to remember them more effectively, Tibetans resorted to various mnemonic jokes. New ones, like the one above, emerged one after the other.

In fact, in this world, not only Tibetans have had to face up to the problem of “establishing the new”. Elie Wiesel, for instance, in his book “A Jew Today” recounted how the increasing debates revolving around the notion of “revolution” aroused the interest of a Hasidic Rabbi. When he asked his devout disciples “what is a revolution?” not one of them could answer because this idea had never appeared in any “Talmud” texts. They had never been interested. So the Rabbi found a renowned Jewish Professor and asked: “Tell me, what is a revolution?” The Professor hesitated and asked whether the Rabbi really wanted to know. Then he went on to explain what a revolution is: when the proletariat starts to struggle against the decadent ruling class, a dialectical process is triggered by which the masses become politicised and socio-economic changes are brought about. Upon hearing this, the Rabbi was even more confused. Before, there was just one word that he did not know; now, there were at least five words that he did not understand.

The renaming of the street was one important marker of “establishing the new”. Erasing the old name and inventing a new one was an important act and a common custom in the process of establishing a new world. It not only affected streets but also shops, villages, and even people’s names. My mother remembered: “They asked people to change their names because Tibetan names belonged to the “four olds”, carrying feudalistic and superstitious meanings. Our names were all changed by the security bureau and we had to report them to and get approval from the respective departments; our surnames changed to Mao or Lin, some were called Gao Yuanhong. I chose the name Mao Weihua but the security bureau told me that someone had already picked this. Then I thought of Yu Zhen, but was sure that there would be someone out there with that name, so I eventually went for Lin Yuzhen. I picked the same surname as our commander Lin Biao. Even though we were all supposed to use these new names, we would not do so, apart from during military roll calls. Many people even forgot them. My colleague, Little Dawa, was renamed Gao Yuanhong, but during roll calls, she would not react, so we would prompt her, ‘Little Dawa, they’re calling you’ upon which she would hastily repeat: ‘here, here, here!’ Hilarious! At the time, people were really crazy. Really! during the Cultural Revolution we were all crazy. If someone called for a parade in the middle of the night, everyone would be up and out immediately, energetically beating their drums and gongs and chanting slogans.”


The Indian female scholar Urvashi Butalia wrote in her work about the partition of India and Pakistan that one must not only understand an event through “history”, “but through its literary, fictional, historical, political representations, and through its personal, testimonial representations, for it is not only the ‘facts’ of any event that are important, but equally, how people remember those facts, and how they represent them”. And because these representations are often dark, we must return to this darkness, even the historian or writer has no alternative but to enter into this darkness.

I still remember how during interviews, I would often utter the following sentences to my interview partner: “Crazy, everyone was crazy, as if they had all been bewitched”. “Pathetic, our ethnic group is too pathetic”. And I would implicitly criticise all those who under the umbrella of revolution caused so much destruction. But when I sat at my computer and edited my records word by word, every single exclamation mark turned into a question mark. I came to realise that the grievances, worries, the heavy weight that all these people were carrying around with them left deep marks on their minds and these marks manifested themselves particularly through language; as soon as they speak, the language of a specific era, of a specific time period comes out, as if it has an extraordinary vitality that never disappears. Also, this language is foreign to most people here, it is not their mother tongue, it comes out awkwardly and stiff. I believe that if they used their own language, they would have easily got rid of these marks. But because they learnt them in Chinese, they could only monotonously repeat: “liberation”, “armed rebellion”, “destroy the four olds”, “monsters and demons” “people’s communes” and so on.

As an author writing in Chinese, there was a time when I did not really like to browse through the old photos with the old marks; I also avoided going through my old recordings of interviews; I was tired of entering the dark Tibet of the Cultural Revolution.


Indeed, almost without exception, whenever people recall the covered up past, they use one and the same word to describe the state of affairs back then: “crazy”.

“Crazy” is a physiological, but also mental state. Living under such conditions was undoubtedly full of shockingly strong violence. But to analyse this is not an easy task. If a few people go crazy, they can be diagnosed and cured. But if everyone goes crazy almost at the same time, how do we explain this?

There are, however, always reasons. We do not need to talk about people’s mental or physiological states. Losing one’s mind is always a matter of external influence. But what kind of external influence could turn people into non-human beings?

Is it “power”? Or more precisely, is it “absolute power”? During the Cultural Revolution or even before, the intricate web of absolute power was omnipresent; there was no escape. It was intrinsically interlinked with controlling and being controlled, with inspecting and being inspected, with obeying and being obeyed. It happened between two people, among 10 and ultimately thousands upon thousands of people.

Michel Foucault wrote that this form of power “is desirable, and this in the same degree to which it is absolutely redoubtable. The intervention of a limitless political power in the everyday relationship thus becomes not only acceptable and familiar, but profoundly wished for, and not without becoming, by the same token, the theme of a generalised fear … The power which will come to exercise itself at the level of everyday life is no longer that of a close and distant monarch, all-mighty and capricious, source of all justice and object of all forms of seduction, both political principle and magical potency”.

Hence, even though people may be indifferent, yes even ignorant towards power, they cannot in their everyday lives discard this generalised fear. Fear is caused by countless different powers; so the individual can try to not pay attention to or provoke power, but power will always sneak in and pay attention to and provoke you. You cannot escape, as much as you may want to.

Why did we go crazy? Why did we go crazy? Why did we go crazy? Well, this is the question and the answer, right?!


If only… no, of course there is no way that I could ever have witnessed these events myself. Unless there is a way to travel back in time while maintaining my current frame of mind; I would not have liked to actually be someone from that era. In their scattered and incoherent accounts, eye-witnesses often become more and more confused. Even though their language and expressions largely remain unchanged, there is always one point at which they lose control, as if a door suddenly slaps open and brings back memories, revealing a deeply buried world inside them; in the centre or corner of this world stands the silhouette of the young eye-witness: stunned, excited, out of mind, even overwhelmed by confusion. The sudden appearance of this silhouette makes it impossible for them to keep their composure and remain calm as they normally are. Now they are speechless and shed tears. But this state of mind is often no more than a momentary flash.

Some also constantly sigh, trying to cover up their feelings of remorse; they also carry the fear from back then into the present; that part of history is tied up in a complex knot, “I do not dare to talk” is what they say. But I have rarely observed any real conscience among the people who lived through those times. Isn’t the only reason for why we look back and sum up that history that we are looking for the conscience within individuals and eventually within an entire ethnic group? But how do we identify this conscience? Is it simply a matter of “distinguishing between good and evil”? Sometimes, the behaviour of the most ordinary and unimportant people can tell us a lot. For example while the capitalist roader, Uncle Lowang, was subject to public denunciation, an ordinary kitchen helper secretly brought him a jar of tsampa and nice and warm butter tea.

But is it really the search for conscience that urges us to investigate that time-period? Who are we or what gives us the authority to make these kinds of judgements? Let’s say that we happened to be born in that era, we would also be one of them, we would not have been able to escape it, not have been able to wash it off, we would have been forced to become one of them, whether we wanted it or not. It was not a matter of choice. Or to phrase it differently, in our efforts to investigate these times, we must always remember this sentence: “The moralist must praise heroism and condemn cruelty, but the moralist does not explain events” (Footnote 2). In other words, it is incredibly difficult to “explain events”; it poses various multilayered problems that are conditioned by many external and internal forces.

But isn’t the act of recording things, continuously recording and chronicling each and every facet the only way to turn these “events” that emerge from the scattered and incoherent accounts of eye-witnesses into an actual coherent “whole”?

Written in 2002 in Lhasa and in 2015 in Beijing.


[1] Since 1999, based on the hundreds of photos that my Father took in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution, I have been carrying out long-term research, conducted interviews and written articles in and about Lhasa and other places; over a period of six years during which I have visited over 70 people, in 2006, the Taiwanese publisher “Locus” published my two books “Forbidden Memory” and “Tibet Remembered”. “Forbidden Memory” was described as “40 years of forbidden memory, a photographical encounter with Tibet during the Cultural Revolution, are made public for the very first time”; it is a visual and literary commentary on Tibetan history. “Tibet Remembered” is an oral history of people affected by the Cultural Revolution in Tibet. The two books have been referred to as “the so far most complete and comprehensive photographic record of Tibet during the Cultural Revolution” and “research about the Cultural Revolution in Tibet is thus no longer a blank space”.

[2] This quote is taken from Huang Renyu’s book “Reading Chiang Kai-shek’s Diary from the Perspective of Macro History” in which he writes: “When writing history we are always overly careful not to be controlled by our own feelings. But this is extremely difficult to avoid, and this is true for my very own writings. It is impossible not to comment; even the choice of material already directs the reader … What this is means is that if we are controlled by the feelings of eye-witnesses, we run the risk of narrowing a larger scientific issue down to a moral question. Whether in a positive or in a negative sense or whether our judgement of these people is correct or not, we always compromise the required depth in our analysis of larger historical events.” He further writes: “…if we use moral standards to draw conclusions, we will never be able, as the French historian Georges Lefebvre writes, ‘to explain events.’”

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)