“Collecting Eyewitness Accounts in Lhasa”: An Interview That Made Me Continue to Think About the Cultural Revolution in Tibet – Part 7 By Woeser

The female Tibetan doctor Tsephel came from Lhasa’s famous Nyarongsha aristocratic doctor’s family. During the Cultural Revolution, she and her parents who were also famous medical doctors and educators and her elder brother were denounced by marching through the streets. (Photo taken by Woeser at the time of interview in February 2003)

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 April 27, 2018. This is the seventh essay in a long series of posts about the Cultural Revolution in Tibet.

In this post, we hear about the fate of prominent aristocratic Tibetan families during the Cultural Revolution. Woeser further explains how it came about that she was able to interview so many people for her book but also mentions those who declined to be interviewed.

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

 

“Collecting Eyewitness Accounts in Lhasa”:
An Interview That Made Me Continue to Think About the Cultural Revolution in Tibet – Part 7 By Woeser

 

During the interview series with the New York Times on the occasion of the publication of the new version of “Forbidden Memory” two years ago, the interviewer, Luo Siling, asked me if I had also talked to the people being denounced on my father’s photographs. In fact, I had done so many times and even specifically gone out to look for them.

My father’s photos show about 40 people being denounced by Red Guards and the general masses during the Cultural Revolution. They include former senior monks, officials, merchants, doctors, military officers and rural landlords. Denunciation scenes include collective denunciations at mass assemblies, denunciations by marching through the streets and denunciations of smaller groups by local neighbourhood committees. They all happened between August and September 1966. But in actual fact, the denunciations went on for as long as three or four months. And even afterwards, the violent conflict between the two factions led to the continuation of the struggle and those labelled as “monsters and demons” had to labour and study at neighbourhood committees for an even longer time.

Those who were denounced during the Cultural Revolution were basically the people that belonged to the upper levels of society, because they had been the main “targets of the United Front” between 1950 and the Cultural Revolution. But a more important reason was that they had not followed the “Dalai Separatists” or “defectors” during the “armed rebellion” in 1959 and thus often received special treatment from the Party. In other words, they had, in fact, been CCP collaborators (one high-ranking lama was even a spy in the Tibet Military District). But during the Cultural Revolution, they were denounced as “monsters and demons”. The result was madness, sickness and death–some people in the photos died during the Cultural Revolution, some afterwards and only very few are still alive today. Among those, some have left Tibet and gone abroad, while others have stayed and now work in the Political Consultative Conference or the Buddhist Association, enjoying good positions and decent salaries as “targets of the United Front”, essentially being used as the political decorations that the CCP is so much in need of.

Considering this, the people I interviewed were mainly the relatives of those shown in the photographs, including their children or former husbands or, in the case of denounced Lamas, their disciples. These interviewees did not only know what their family members had gone through, they also knew about other people’s fates and were sometimes even acquainted with Red Guards and other zealots. They told me many emotional and sad stories.

One of the people who was denounced was the aristocrat Sampo Tsewang Rigzin. He belonged to the most famous aristocratic family in Tibet that once produced a Dalai Lama. In the 1950s, Sampo was cooperating with the CCP and even benefitted from it, but during the Cultural Revolution he suffered miserably. On the photos, we see the Red Guards and “zealots” denouncing him, making him wear apparel of a fourth or higher-ranking Tibetan government official. This served as a reason to humiliate him to the point that he lost all his dignity with mucus coming out of his nose in front of everyone. His youngest son tried to escape to India, but was caught. At the time, many Tibetans went on the hard journey to India and if they were caught, they would be accused of particularly severe “treason”. Sampo’s son was executed by firing squad when he was not even 20 years old. Sampo himself died after the Cultural Revolution.

Or the female reincarnation Samding Dorje Phagmo Chokyi Dronma (the term “reincarnation” or “Living Buddha” is actually wrong, we call them Rinpoche, which means treasure). There are not many female reincarnations in Tibet, she was probably the most famous one. In 1959, she joined the Dalai Lama’s escape to India, but was persuaded by CCP cadres to return soon. She was then honoured as a “chastened” “patriot” and even met Mao Zedong. But during the Cultural Revolution, she became a “monster and demon” of the Hebalin neighbourhood committee and was denounced and humiliated. On the photo, when the only 24-year-old is being denounced, she had just given birth to her third child and her body was still fragile. Her husband was the son of a big Kashopa aristocrat, but they later divorced. It was him who told me about the bitterness that she and her parents experienced during the Cultural Revolution. I also showed him the photograph. Today, Dorje Phagmo is still alive; she is the deputy head of the TAR People’s Congress and a member of the standing committee of the Chinese National Consultative Conference; she often appears in the news, attending various different conferences. I really wanted to visit her and show her the photo, but was advised not to.

On the photo, Dorje Phagmo is wearing a black hat. In Tibet, there are only two kinds of black hat: one of the Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu school; and another of Dorje Phagmo the female reincarnation. According to tantric teachings, the dakini plaited it with her own hair and it was thus believed to possess special blessings. This black hat, decorated with golden portraits, threads and pearls, is in itself highly valuable. But in the photo, these golden decorations had already been removed and later, so it was said, the hat was burned by the revolutionary masses.

Another person is the son of Horkhang Sonam Palbar, an aristocrat who was denounced. During the Cultural Revolution, he was not in Lhasa, he only heard that his parents were being criticised, but didn’t know about the exact circumstances. He asked his parents, but they did not really tell him anything. It was when I showed him the photos that he saw his parents being denounced for the very first time. He was already 60 years old and he was shocked, looking at the photos over and over again before suddenly breaking down in tears. He was suppressing his grief, his whole body was shaking, tears were streaming down his face, but there were no sounds. He also told me many stories.

What is also worth emphasising is that I managed to interview many of the people actually seen in the photographs. For example the Tibetan female doctor Tsephel whose father was a renowned aristocratic doctor in Lhasa who established a famous medical school, which used to be the largest and most excellent non-religious private school in Tibet. In 2003, I interviewed the 66-year-old daughter. She pointed at the photo, telling me how she had just given birth to her daughter when Red Guards and other zealots stormed into her home and forced herself, her parents and elder brother out into the streets where they were denounced. She said that they did not take the slightest bit of pity; when she was forced to stoop to be denounced, her blood was pouring onto the street. She did not cry when she saw the photo, she was just surprised because she did not think that someone had captured the moment. She then pointed at the zealots and said that they were like fascists, searching houses and stealing things and even randomly painting on people’s faces. Tsephel passed away a few years ago.

The New York Times journalist asked me how I found the people being denounced on the photos or their relatives. That was not actually too difficult. Lhasa is not big, maybe 20 or 30 thousand people who were born in the 1950s. The total population counts hundreds of thousands, but more than half is made up of new immigrants. I am from Lhasa, even if I grew up in eastern Kham and went to university in Chinese areas. There are many of my parents’ relatives in Lhasa and I used to work at the Tibetan Literary and Arts Circle for over ten years, so I know many people. I started from the smallest circle, like relatives and colleagues. When they saw the photos, they would recognise many people from back then, tell me stories and then introduce me to the them. I did not interview many complete strangers and I did not show them the photos. I was afraid that if the local authorities found out about these photographs, it would cause trouble. So I only showed them to people I trusted.

I remember when a scholar researching Tibetan folklore saw the photos, both of his hands started trembling. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution he was studying at the Shanghai Theatrical Institute. But many of his former classmates were on the group photo showing the smashing of the Jokhang Temple. He immediately called one of them and also another person whose father had been denounced as a “monster and demon”. They all provided me with many valuable accounts. For instance, the fact that the Red Guards from Lhasa Middle School went to smash the Jokhang Temple on instructions given by the TAR. When the student Red Guards were still performing a show on the prayer recital square, other Red Guards already started smashing the temple. “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.”

The folklorist had also kept a military hat of a female Red Guard that was shot by the PLA on June 7, 1968. It was completely bloodstained. He also had a red armband from a Lhasa Red Guard, a Tibetan newspaper printed by the “rebel faction” and a Mao Zedong badge. He let me take photos of all of the items. But while I was interviewing him, I could sense a certain emotion, it was that fear that none of my interviewees had yet been able to get rid of.

This is because in Tibet, the Cultural Revolution is a sensitive topic; it is still a taboo among officials and many implicated persons. This is also why I always visited my interviewees at their homes or in other secret places. As for my father’s photographs, I carried copies of the originals with me that Wang Lixiong had developed in Beijing. A friend once asked me why I did not film any of my interviews. Well, it was already difficult enough to get permission to record them or to even take a photo, so how could I have filmed? There was, for instance, one middle school teacher who was still a child back then who, after our interview, repeatedly warned me not to write that it was her who had recognised some of the zealots in the photos, “otherwise they will definitely take revenge”. When she said this sentence, I saw the fear in her eyes; it was that Cultural Revolution fear that still lingers on. Another interviewee said: “You can write this kind of book, because you didn’t experience it; We don’t dare to write it. There are certain things, if you write them down, they will just cause trouble. I am still afraid when I think back, but also need to be careful”. And so on. These statements were all first-hand information. I recorded all of them. And their fear also infected me, every time. I would also start feeling that fear. So each time I finished an interview I would not dare to do another one for some time.

Apart from that, I also wanted to interview those that denounced other people and those that looted and smashed temples. But this was difficult. I found some, but was rejected. There is one woman in my father’s photographs who was a cruel zealot during the Cultural Revolution. She did not only plunder people’s homes, but also burnt the hand-written manuscript left behind by Tibetan scholar Gendun Chonphel. A Tibetan intellectual once said that this was the biggest crime ever committed against Tibetan history and culture. This zealot later became the Hebalin Neighbourhood Committee Branch Party Secretary. I went to find her at the neighbourhood committee. She was short and small and looked ordinary. But when I mentioned the Cultural Revolution, her face changed immediately, she refused to be interviewed or photographed and never again showed her face. Another retired cadre did not actually do anything during the Cultural Revolution. She did not become a Red Guard because she was the daughter of a merchant and thus of inadequate social status. But she was a student at Lhasa Middle School and thus joined the smashing of the Jokhang, we clearly see her in the photo. When I showed it to her, she was surprised, but did not agree to be interviewed.

For Tibetans, the smashing of monasteries or the burning of scriptures is an extraordinary and unforgivable sin. So when talking to them about these events, they feel extremely ashamed and guilty. In fact, many zealots changed dramatically after the end of the Cultural Revolution, starting to once again become Buddhists; many of them describe the process as being as intense as the destruction of religion before.

I interviewed a former monk who participated in the looting of a stupa and the burning of manuscripts. He later volunteered to work as a cleaner at the Jokhang for 17 years. He said to me: “Without the Cultural Revolution I think I would have been a good monk, would have worn my robes for all my life. The monasteries would have been well maintained and I would have spent my life concentrating on reading texts. But the Cultural Revolution came and I was no longer allowed to wear my robes. Even though I never found a wife, never returned to normal life, I still have no right to wear robes again, this is the most painful thing in my life…”