“The Intrinsic Link Between Photos Taken in the Same Location at Different Times”: An Interview That Made Me Continue to Think About the Cultural Revolution in Tibet – Part 4 By Woeser

Photo taken by my father in August 1966 in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. Bottom: My photo in front of the Jokhang Temple in August 2013.

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 January 31, 2018.

This is the fourth essay in a long series of posts about the Cultural Revolution in Tibet. The subsequent posts will be published in the coming weeks.

To read the first three parts of the series please go to:

Part One: http://highpeakspureearth.com/2018/the-cultural-revolution-has-by-no-means-ended-part-one-by-woeser/

Part Two: http://highpeakspureearth.com/2018/those-who-took-photos-of-the-cultural-revolution-in-tibet-by-woeser/

Part Three: http://highpeakspureearth.com/2018/about-the-photos-taken-and-published-by-my-father-an-interview-that-made-me-continue-to-think-about-the-cultural-revolution-in-tibet-part-3-by-woeser/

To read the original 2016 New York Times piece in English that sparked this series here, please follow this link: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/04/world/asia/tibet-china-cultural-revolution-photographs.html
 

“The Intrinsic Link Between Photos Taken in the Same Location at Different Times”: An Interview That Made Me Continue to Think About the Cultural Revolution in Tibet – Part 4
By Woeser

 

In August 2016, the New York Times published an interview series with me on the occasion of the publication of the new edition of “Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution”. The interviewer, Luo Siling, asked me: How do your photographs and your father’s, taken in the same locations, differ?

This is a question worth talking about because at first glance, these photos do indeed display a significant difference. I did use the same camera to take photos in exactly the same locations, but there are 40 years in between them and without the Cultural Revolution scenes, my photos seem a lot more monotonous. However, they are still full of invisible stories and is actually an intrinsic link between my father’s and my own photos.

For example, in 1966 and 1967, my father took photos of mass meetings and rallies of Red Guards and the P.L.A. in front of the Potala Palace. In 2012, when I went to the same place to take photos, two self-immolations by Tibetans had taken place in Lhasa that May. As a result, the government tightened its policy of ethnic segregation and took more security measures against Tibetans, especially those from other provinces. The measures were first implemented in March 2008, when protests broke out across the Tibetan region, and became more severe in 2012. As I took my photos, I noticed a curious phenomenon: the square in front of the Potala Palace was filled with men in black. They had umbrellas on their backs, which they would use to block people from taking pictures if an incident broke out. They lined up in rows and monitored the people passing by. They prohibited anyone from sitting in the square.

Another example: In 2014, I was standing where my father had taken photos in front of the Jokhang Temple. What did he see back then? Red Guards trying to hang Chairman Mao’s portrait on the roof of the temple, where the Chinese flag was also planted. Though I didn’t see any Mao portraits there, the flag was waving in the same place. Also, there were quite a few pilgrims kneeling and praying, as well as a crowd of tourists fascinated by their actions. On the roof of a house diagonally across from the temple there were sharpshooters from the armed police. Ever since 2008, sharpshooters have been deployed on the roofs of buildings around the temple. Comparing today with the Cultural Revolution, there were no pilgrims kneeling back then, and the temple was ruined, while today the temple offers a bustling scene where pilgrims may freely worship. But these are only superficial differences. Religious worship is still strictly controlled. Furthermore, there is now commercialised tourism, with gawking tourists who treat Tibetans like exotic decorations and Lhasa as a theme park.

In fact, the meanings of these kinds of scenes today are multilayered and more complex. But they clearly are an extension of the scenes that my father captured. Especially since once again, when walking through Lhasa, one hears the sound and lyrics of Cultural Revolution songs being played loudly. The absurdity and inappropriateness of this becomes all too obvious. When I was taking the photos, I had the following very strong feeling: the Cultural Revolution has by no means ended, what we see in today’s Lhasa is a kind of Tibetan Cultural Revolution.

The interviewer continued to ask: So, what is the Chinese government’s narrative of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet?

In fact, one only needs to understand that history to know that it is simply a blank space. For example, as Wang Lixiong remarked in the preface to the 2006 edition of “Forbidden Memory”: “When facing the world, the Cultural Revolution represents an embarrassment to the CCP; Tibet is another different kind of embarrassment. This is why the Cultural Revolution in Tibet has become a double no-go area that one should even less come into contact with. The picture album ‘100 Years of Tibet in Pictures’ edited by the Central United Front Work Department in 1999 contains hundreds of photos, but none of the Cultural Revolution. As if the ten years between 1966 and 1976 have never existed in the history of Tibet!” But the Cultural Revolution in Tibet is not only a blank space in the political discourse, it is also a blank space in related research. In 2002, the Chinese University of Hong Kong published the to date most comprehensive collection of materials on the Cultural Revolution entitled “Cultural Revolution Library Disc”, which contains thousands upon thousands of documents, speeches and other materials, but only eight about Tibet; moreover, “A New Collection of Red Guard Publications” published by the Center for Chinese Research Materials in Washington D.C. contains 3100 Red Guard newspapers, of which only four are from Tibet.

At the time, I had an official certificate from the Tibet Literature Editorial Department where I was then working and went to the TAR archives to find some information. But the person in charge told me that there was a gap in the materials from 1966 to 1971 and that there were only  three documents for that period: 1. A report on the agricultural production in Tibet from 1966; 2. A Record of the Standing Committee in Tibet from 1968; 3. A report on the work in Tibet by the Tibet Party Secretary Ren Rong from 1971. Plus, these three documents could only be consulted by district level Party committee members. I further asked a friend to help me go to the “Tibet Daily” storage and borrow the bound volume containing the “Tibet Daily” between 1966 and 1970. I read everything very carefully and even copied all the important parts. For example, from August 26 until August 31, 1966, on six consecutive days, the paper featured eye-grabbing headlines about Red Guards “Destroying the Four Olds” on the front page. They even included some photos, but none of them actually showed scenes of how “Four Olds” were actually destroyed.

In other words, these reports have provided us with a grand picture of the beginnings of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet. But the tragedy that was caused by red terror and the turmoil that infiltrated and permeated everything has completely disappeared in the official narrative. Only the memories of eyewitnesses serve as testimonies of what happened at the time. And so my father’s photos are precisely what the books “Forbidden Memory” and “Tibet Remembered” have later been celebrated as: they grant first-hand and never-seen-before access to the Cultural Revolution in Tibet under Chinese rule. They have also been referred to as “the so far most comprehensive collection of folk pictures on the Cultural Revolution in Tibet” and “thus provided the Tibetan part and filled the blank space in the research on the Cultural Revolution”. What I need to emphasise, however, is that these two books that were originally published in 2006 are really only a modest beginning, my work is still very much just touching the surface.

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)