“Dawa, a Red Guard from Lhasa: ‘That Day, The Jokhang Temple was Only Destroyed on the Surface, The Real Destruction Happened Later'” By Woeser

This was originally a place to recite prayers, debate or to teach Buddhism, it is located to the south of Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple. During the Cultural Revolution it became an assembly place for Red Guards and a place to publicly denounce Buddhist monks and Tibetan upper classes.

High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser, originally written for the Mandarin service of Radio Free Asia and published on her blog on October 30, 2016.

2016 marked the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution and 10 years since Woeser’s two books on the Cultural Revolution in Tibet were published in Taiwan. 

To read more about Woeser’s “Forbidden Memory” containing photos taken by her father, see this post which also has information on how to download the Tibetan edition. For more background read this New York Times interview with Woeser from October 2016 and a previous essay titled “A Covered-Up Past”.

“Dawa, a Red Guard from Lhasa: ‘That Day, The Jokhang Temple was Only Destroyed on the Surface, The Real Destruction Happened Later'”
By Woeser


Note by Woeser: In 2006, at the time of the 40th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, the Taiwanese Lotus Publishing House published my two books “Forbidden Memory” and “Tibet Remembered”. The latter looks at Tibet during the Cultural Revolution through photos and commentaries, I have introduced it many times; the former is an oral history of people affected by the Cultural Revolution in Tibet. Of the more than 70 people that I interviewed, the stories of 23 of them make up this book. 20 of them are Tibetans, two Chinese and one Hui. Among them were Red Guards and also founders of the rebel faction, those I interviewed criticised people from the old Tibet, such as aristocrats, Lamas and doctors, but also Cultural Revolution journalists and officers from the PLA. 2016 is the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, so I would like to take the opportunity to review one important interview in the following essay.


Dawa (pseudonym): male, Tibetan, graduated from Lhasa Middle School in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution broke out; he was one of the heads of Lhasa’s student Red Guards and partook in the first revolutionary movement–smashing Jokhang Temple; later, he became the person in charge of “Lhasa’s Revolutionary Rebel Headquarters”. Today, he is a retired cadre belonging to some official work unit in Lhasa.

The first time we met was at the home of one his classmates. I brought along hundreds of Cultural Revolution photos, which shocked this classmate to the point that his hands began to tremble and he called two other classmates to take a look. They were all over 50 years old and they all began telling me about the Cultural Revolution. I didn’t even know who to listen to. Every single story was a story of pain and suffering, making my heart palpitate. Later, I met all of them individually many times and carefully recorded their stories… below, I review Dawa’s story of how Jokhang Temple was smashed.

Interview time:

First: October 6, 2002, morning
Second: October 8, 2002, afternoon
Third: February 20, 2003, afternoon

Before we went to Jokhang Temple, it was already home to a Red Guards command centre, located in the cultural palace, which now serves as a dormitory for staff of the trade union. The command centre asked Lhasa Middle School and Lhasa Normal School to each send one representative; I was the representative for Lhasa Middle School and the representative for Lhasa Normal School was a tall guy, apparently from the Shigatse area, but I don’t remember his name. Some of the chiefs of the military area, like Ren Rong and Zeng Yongya also seemed to be members of the centre. There were even some officials of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). At the time, the chief of the propaganda department, I think his surname was Pan, was in charge. These Red Guards command centres existed from the very beginning of the Cultural Revolution. The commanding officer was either Tao Changsong or Xie Fangyi, I don’t remember clearly any more.

The evening before, the command centre, following orders from above, convened a meeting at Lhasa Middle School. “Above” refers to the TAR, but who exactly gave orders I am not sure. They said the next day we had to go to Barkhor (after 1950 it was renamed into “Ba Jiao Jie” and the former residents committee and police station are until the present day referred to as “Ba Jiao Jie Residents Committee” and “Ba Jiao Jie Police Station”) to run a propaganda campaign, the residents committees had to participate as well. But they also warned us not to touch or destroy anything. They didn’t say that we should smash Jokhang Temple, they only told us to disseminate propaganda. This was all very well. The next morning, very early, a large group of people from the residents committee arrived, all youths of Chengguan district’s residents committees had been called to Lhasa Middle School, more than one hundred people. First we held a meeting, gathered together, formed a line to then set out together. Students and teachers from the school amounted to almost 700 people, altogether there must have been near to a thousand. I remember when we set out, the sun was huge, we were walking along, shouting slogans.

When we reached the “Sungcho Rawa” (the special place for prayer reciting) to the south of the temple, we began to act and disseminate our propaganda; then we held a huge meeting. Teacher Xie was up on stage giving a speech, but before he had even finished, things started to get messy. When I raised my head, I saw many people appearing at the top of the Jokhang, I think they were people from the residents committee, later I heard that enthusiasts from various counties had also joined in. How all this happened I wasn’t sure, they were all ordinary people, carrying pickaxes, spades and the like, no idea how they had got into the temple. We had all been standing outside. The walls were covered in murals, some young guys started to use the axes to hack at these murals. Those of us downstairs were even scolding them, asking them how they could just destroy murals. But no one listened. And as we were talking, someone had already started destroying the golden summit at the top of the roof and threw it down. This was when it also started to get messy downstairs. We had no way of organising people, everyone just stormed towards Jokhang Temple and I followed them. But the main gate was closed, so we ran around the temple and got to the gate at the eastern side, near “Meru Nyingba” (a small temple named Meru), which was wide open and we entered.

Inside, there were people everywhere, all kinds of people. Some were from the Barkhor residents committee. They were all young. Some enthusiasts were particularly eager to get into the limelight. Quite a few of them were Chinese. At “Sungcho Rawa” I had not seen any Chinese people, but inside the temple there were many. Perhaps they were from the “Three Religions Work Group” (in September 1963, the TAR launched the so-called “three religions education” campaign, focusing on class, patriotism and socialism; they sent many officials to form work groups in all areas, including villages and pastures, where they remained for many many years). It seemed that one work group had been inside the temple for a long time, but we had never been in contact with them. I even saw people filming, it was a group around the vice-head of the provincial radio and television department whose name was Migmar Tsering. They had come from the Film Academy, but were all dressed in military uniforms.

I ran up to the roof. A classmate came up to me and said that this was all wrong, some people even particularly went to steal some valuables like gold and silver. My first thought was that all these things belonged to the country, so they were cultural relics of the nation, a notion that I didn’t understand at the time, but I always thought that precious objects were property of the country, which is why I began to put things in order. I arranged my classmates to stand guard at different levels of the temple and make sure that no one randomly enters or takes objects away. I spotted an old man who was holding a Buddhist statue whose head was covered in a hat, he was about to leave. The hat was made from pure gold and precious gem. I asked him what he was doing. He uttered hastily: this is part of the “four olds”, I will throw it away. Put it down, I said, you cannot throw it away. He did as I said and walked away. Next to Jokhang Temple’s main hall there was a “Dolma Lhakhang” (Tara Temple). One of the classmates told me that over a hundred people were gathering outside it, Tibetans and Chinese, requesting the “Kunyer La” (monk in charge of the temple management) to open the gate. But he wouldn’t do it, because the palace treasured many Buddhist statues and valuable gold and silver objects. As a result, some Tibetans started to argue with him. My classmates told them that I was the head of the Lhasa Middle School Red Guards and that the objects inside were very precious and property of the country and that they were not allowed to just take them away. They even especially approached the Chinese among them and explained that everything inside belonged to the country. So the Chinese left. The few remaining Tibetans, when realising that what they were doing wasn’t right, also walked away. So “Dolma Lakhang” was saved that day. But later, as I heard, it was still smashed.

“Jowo Khang” (Jowo Rinpoche’s room) was also spared, because its front gate had been locked with a chain and the monks in charge refused to hand over the key. Later it was said that Jowo Rinpoche was knocked down by Red Guards from Lhasa Middle School; that day all students from my school were at Jokhang Temple, but I am not sure if anyone knocked down Jowo Rinpoche. I never heard anything about it, but it is true that much was destroyed. We also see it on these photos.

Because I was thirsty, I went over to my older brother who was a monk at the Jokhang, staying together with a few older monks who were not in good health. The young ones had all left. In fact, during the Cultural Revolution, many monks did not dare to stay at monasteries or temples. The same happened to my brother. He had been at the Jokhang from a very young age, but was not able to stay there. Later, I tried to get him back into the residents committee, so he could no longer continue his life as a monk. When they saw a Red Guard entering their room, they got scared, but when they saw that it was me they were relieved. I drank two bowls of tea and went out again. The smashing was already coming to an end when an instruction was given from “above”. The TAR commanded that all Chinese were to leave so as to not negatively affect ethnic relations. They followed the order and left. After that there was a message from the Premier. In the afternoon the whole thing was over and we went back to school.

As for how all these people had actually got to the top of the Jokhang, we didn’t know. The commander had clearly told us not to touch or destroy anything, but when we entered, there were already so many people everywhere. Also many Chinese. Actually, later the monks told me something that you should remember. They said that that day, the Jokhang Temple was only destroyed on the surface, people had simply thrown a few things down into the courtyard, where they remained for a while; it’s the mess we see on those photos. But not long after, they started to slowly clear out the entire temple. They cleaned for three months, took away all precious objects from within the temple. They first sorted the precious gold and silver things and then the copper and iron items; clay figures they did not want, so they simply threw those away.

There was a department called “Chochey Lekhung”, in Chinese it was “Old Goods Station”, which traded with other places and was specialised in collecting things from monasteries. Actually, all these old and rotten things were actually good things. In Jokhang Temple, for instance, it was only Jowo Rinpoche that remained, everything else was cleared out within three months. So that day, the Jokhang Temple was only destroyed on the surface, the real destruction happened later. The government sent in work groups to “clear out” everything. But this “Old Goods Station” also purchased objects from people’s homes. The government would buy it from people for very little money; many people would take their most precious things from their homes and sell it to that station; sometimes because they were too scared, other times because they had to in order to survive. Of course, there were also some brave people who secretly kept their precious things; those were better off later on, while the scared ones suffered.

The same happened at Ganden Monastery. Before the destruction, it was home to a grain depot, where all of Lhasa’s work units had to get their grain rations from; it was guarded by the military. After the “Old Goods Station” had taken anything of value away, the military smashed Buddhist statues into pieces. They would tie a rope around the neck of statues and then pull them over; all gold, silver, copper and iron was loaded onto trucks and taken away. What was left was wood, which was subsequently also taken away by people from Taktse, Lhundrub, Meldro Gongkar, Toelung Dechen and other counties. Whatever was left would then be taken by locals from down the hill. In fact, the local villagers would later be blamed for destroying the monastery. Once I bumped into a local driver who was from the village at the bottom of Ganden Monastery. When the smashing happened, he was still young and would go up to the monastery to play with other kids, he said that they would see piles of religious instruments and objects and soldiers using stones to smash things; but the kids weren’t allowed to take anything away. In the end, he recalled, the popular narrative said that Ganden Monastery was destroyed by common people from the village. Haha! The locals were given the blame. The case of Jokhang Temple is the same. In the end, the students from Lhasa Middle School were blamed for its destruction. But in reality, we never did anything like that because our commander had told us not to smash anything. I was one of them, so I am very clear about this.

In a nutshell, the government did not try to stop the destruction of Jokhang Temple. But in fact, as the monks told me, that day Jokhang Temple was only destroyed on the surface, the real destruction happened later. As for restoration work later on, the government certainly set aside a sum of money to finance it, but it was also many ordinary people who donated. Plus, much of the physical work was carried out by locals. Some would pull their handcarts which would usually earn them 50 Yuan a day, but they refused, instead only taking 2.5 Yuan as a salary for any work related to restoring the temple. Others would even work for free, they were very genuine. Some also donated all the money they had left. The restoration of most Tibetan monasteries was achieved mainly through the help of devotees. Only when the state felt embarrassed, it would also put in a little bit of money, which was then wantonly propagated to the public; so in the end it seemed as if the state had been the main actor in restoring Tibet’s monasteries.

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)