High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser written on January 28, 2014 for the Tibetan service of Radio Free Asia and published on her blog on February 19, 2014.
This post was written in memory of the Tenth Panchen Lama on the 25th anniversary of his passing. The tenth Panchen Lama is still a very revered and missed figure amongst Tibetans and his words are remembered and often quoted, such as in the introduction to this recent music video “Speak Tibetan” by Ngawang Tenzin.
Some interesting articles were published online at the time of the 25th anniversary, see Thubten Samphel’s Huffington Post piece and also an English translation of a tribute to the Panchen Lama published in the People’s Daily in 1989, written by Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun titled “In Fond Memory of Buddhist Great Master Panchen Lama, a Loyal Friend of the Communist Party”.
Screenshots from the documentary “The Tenth Panchen Lama”, showing a scene of the Panchen Lama speaking to teachers and students, just like he did to me, the young high school student at the Southwest College for Nationalities.
“Nevertheless, What Will You Do About Your Flesh and Bone?”
I often think of the sudden passing of the Tenth Panchen Lama in his prime, I always think of the first time I saw him many years ago. The memory of it is still profound, even though I was only seventeen or eighteen at the time, in my second or third year at Southwest University for Nationalities, on one day around 1983 or 1984. Before then, I, who had been educated since childhood to be a red successor of revolution had, in fact, almost no idea about the Tenth Panchen Lama, I only knew that he was called “Panchen Lama”, Tibet’s second highest lama.
When we heard that he was coming to the university, my classmates and I, along with other students who were senior to us, on arrangement of the university authorities and teachers, went to the gates of the university first thing in the morning to greet him. I think it was winter time, we waited in line two abreast and it was freezing, I wasn’t happy at all. At that time we all weren’t wearing Tibetan dress, although there were quite a few Tibetan Tibetan students at the university, but I don’t recall anyone wearing Tibetan dress. I only remember that not far from us there were two Mongolian male students, wearing particularly gorgeous Mongolian robes, which made them really stand out.
Finally the Panchen Lama arrived. It was the first time that I had ever seen him, tall and burly, healthy and radiant, and not wearing robes but instead dark-coloured Tibetan dress. Whether the Tibetan students amongst us started to clap or shout welcome, I don’t remember. I just remember that all of a sudden the two Mongolian male students kneeled on the ground, lifted blue khatas over their heads and started to sing a song that sounded like a Mongolian song with very long drawn out tones. Moreover, when the Panchen Lama walked, they both stood up and bowed down, almost knocking their heads on the ground. I was thinking at the time that those two students were very superstitious!
After that, we all went inside the college auditorium. Because we were Tibetan students from Kardze and Ngaba Tibetan Middle School, we were placed in the front seats, therefore we would have the opportunity to listen deeply to the Panchen Lama’s speech. It seemed as though all the people gathered in the auditorium were the Tibetan students and teachers, originally the Panchen Lama wanted to speak in Tibetan but when he asked if we could understand, the audience was silent, so the Panchen Lama carried on speaking in Chinese, very fluent Mandarin, which we could all understand, and he started to criticise us, criticise us very harshly, he criticised us for two or three hours, the student next to me whispered, oh, such harsh scolding.
The Panchen Lama was really banging on the table and criticising us. You are supposed to be Tibetans but you don’t know any Tibetan, and you don’t wear Tibetan dress, is it too inconvenient to wear Tibetan dress, is it too much of a bother? He was speaking with his arms raised, hands shaking, the long silk sleeves sliding down. As he rolled up his sleeves he said, so studying, work, is that easy? Do you think it’s shameful to wear Tibetan dress? If you discard your own traditions and culture then you are not Tibetan. And so on and so on… I didn’t feel happy deep down, at that time I did not feel ashamed, I just felt uncomfortable and harshly scolded, and thus remember these words.
Later I heard that originally, the Panchen Lama was prepared to donate money to our university, much needed funds. After the Cultural Revolution, the previously imprisoned Panchen Lama resumed his public actions, and whenever he went to Tibetan areas, thousands upon thousands of Tibetan believers crowded together to worship him, making countless offerings. I heard that the money for offerings was wrapped in burlap and the Panchen Lama gave all this money to schools and local education projects. This fact was well-known among the people and our university also hoped to benefit from this. But instead the Panchen Lama, being so disappointed about the university and the Tibetan students, did not donate a single penny.
Only many years later when I remembered that story I felt ashamed, it was a belated feeling of shame. Many years later, I saw the famous quote from the Tenth Panchen Lama being spread among netizens: “My ability to speak Mandarin is a manifestation of my knowledge and capability, but if I did not have these capabilities, it would not be a humiliation; but if I cannot speak or read Tibetan, it would be a lifetime of humiliation, because I am a Tibetan.” “ If you are ashamed to wear Tibetan dress, you don’t have to wear it. If you are ashamed to speak Tibetan, you don’t have to speak it. Nevertheless, what will you do about your flesh and bone? You can never change the fact that you were born into a Tibetan family. Your ancestors are Tibetan. But your current behaviour is causing the assimilation of your own ethnic group.” I could not help but sigh, it was like reliving the scene of the Panchen Lama looking down at us young Tibetans with an expression of resentment for having failed to meet his expectations.
January 28, 2014
(Commemorating 25 years since the Tenth Panchen Lama passed away)
This post is also available in: English