High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser written in August 2015 for the Mandarin service of Radio Free Asia and published on her blog on September 14, 2015.
In this post, Woeser returns to the subject of Shideling in Lhasa, a monastic school she wrote extensively about in March 2013, in “Rewriting the History of the 5th Reting Rinpoche and Shideling” and “How was Shideling Destroyed?”. Those posts were more about Shideling’s recent years while this post contains a more historical background, prompting reflections on the ruins, memory and the importance of documentation.
“The Ruins of Shideling”
Shideling is not a monastery; it is a Dratsang (a monastic school) also known as Shide Dratsang. In the past, it used to be one of Lhasa’s Four Royal Colleges, namely Tengyeling, Tsemonling, Kundeling and Shideling. Some also regard Tsemchokling, situated near Lhasa River as part of the Four Royal Colleges.
Shide Dratsang is one of the four earliest Buddhist schools in Lhasa. But how old is it? Does it go back to the 7th century AD, the time of Songtsen Gampo? Some historical findings indicate that this is the case. But according to the “Genealogy of Tibetan Kings”, it was the predecessor of Kawa Temple, and thus one of the six Buddhist halls. According to the biography of the 7th Dalai Lama, however, it was first built by King Relpachen. In any case, Shide Dratsang came into being during Imperial times and belonged to the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism; it was situated in the vicinity of Lhasa’s centre: the Jokhang Temple. In the early 15th century, according to the historical text the “Yellow Annals”, during the Sakya Dynasty, Tsepa Gongkar Dorje extended Shide Dratsang. Subsequently, during the time of the 7th Dalai Lama it was rebuilt and from then on part of the Gelugpa School of Tibetan Buddhism, belonging to Reting Monastery, near Phenpo.
In the 19th century, the 3rd Reting Rinpoche became the Regent of Ganden Phodrang government and both Reting Monastery and Shide Dratsang became famous under the reigns of the 3rd and 5th Reting Rinpoche. But they only very rarely resided in Reting Monastery, but mostly lived in the Rinpoche Labrang located behind Shide Dratsang that, as we learn from old photos, used to be surrounded by trees and flowers. In the 1950s, the building was occupied by the main mouthpiece of the Party, the “Tibet Daily”.
Shide Dratsang’s main building used to be four storeys high, located close to the northern end of the complex, displaying the Buddhist doctrine and including several stupas in memory of Reting Rinpoche. The eastern, western and southern sides were two storeys high and functioned as monk residences. During the most prosperous times, Shide Dratsang was home to 500 monks and particularly famous for its “Cham” ritual dance. Once I wandered through the old town with the descendent of an aristocratic family; my friend suddenly pointed at an area of shiny solar heaters on the roofs of courtyard houses and said in a sorrowful voice: in the past, we would hold Buddhist ceremonies here, I have never seen such beautiful “Cham” dances again in my life. Indeed, at the most prosperous point, things can only go downhill; today, Shideling is referred to as “Chamgo” which means ruins; in fact, it is one of Lhasa’s most eye-catching scars, a most painful open wound.
Shide Dratsang was heavily damaged in March 1959. In the name of “pacifying a rebellion”, the PLA arrested monks from Shide Dratsang and other nearby small monasteries as well as many lay people. During the Cultural Revolution, Shide Dratsang was even more severely damaged and used as a radio station and propaganda base; further, actors from a Henan opera group, local Red Guards, and pro-Tibetan rebels were stationed there. When the violent struggle was over, the originally four-storey high Buddhist hall was left with only three shattered floors. The surrounding monks residences were soon turned into quarters for PLA soldiers and several theatre troupes from Tibet and Huangmei County.
10 years ago, one could still see Mao Zedong’s quote – “Be united, alert, earnest and lively” – on the interior walls of Shide Dratsang together with various messy graffiti. On the walls of the 2nd floor, some of the variegated murals were still visible; you could actually make out Lama Tsongkhapa, wearing his yellow hat, his hands folded. A few years ago, however, when I went into the ruins, the murals were gone, only Mao’s quotes remained. Some more Chinese sentences had been added to the walls, including advertisements and telephone numbers.
In 1997, the 6th Reting Rinpoche, Tenzin Jigme, passed away. Standing members of the district-level Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the Deputy President of the Buddhist Association and other officials appealed to the local authorities to return Shide Dratsang and even expressed that they were willing to finance restoration work themselves, but were always ignored. In fact, Shide Dratsang has already become a property of the local authorities. Last year, I read on the “Tsemonling Community Shideling Compound Notice Board” that 80 families live in Shide Dratsang, “37 permanent families and 43 migrant families;” a total of 260 people, of course none of them are monks.
Every time I return to Lhasa, I take the same picture of the ruins of Shideling. I am familiar with each and every corner of it, just as the poet Osip Mandelstam who was persecuted by Soviet Communists wrote: “I’ve come back to my city. These are my own old tears, my own little veins, the swollen glands of childhood.”
Some people say that I am “paying homage to Tibet” and when I think about it carefully, I cannot say that I am not. My recordings of the ruins of Shideling are a form of “deep mourning”. In the process of mourning, the disappearing Shideling somewhat comes back to life; or rather, as it slowly disintegrates, it is given the energy to be reincarnated. The ruins of Shideling, but also other ruins such as those of Yabshi Taktser (the Dalai Lama’s family’s home), are open wounds marked by historical twists and turns that were violently inflicted upon the city of Lhasa. They are proof of the many changes that happened, illustrating the weakness of material life. In Buddhism, we call it impermanence. We can thus say that these ruins are “a space that has the potential to become an environment for reflection”.
Regardless of whether the ruins of Lhasa, this ancient ever-changing city, are covered up, concealed or even prohibited to enter, it is always an act of “confiscating memory”. This is why in the process of recording the history of these ruins, I have to pay attention to the larger picture as well as the details. I have produced much photographic material since 1998. For example, the first time I saw the statue of Dorje Jigched located close to a broken wall, it still had its big bull-head and a heavily damaged body. When I returned another time, I saw the big head on the floor, smashed into several pieces; I saw that all its fingers had been broken off. I heard later that the arm was taken away by a Chinese man who was running a pub and used it to decorate his bar and to show off. Moreover, the already weathered murals inside the ruins were further peeled off by tourists.
Another example: The children that I would occasionally meet at the ruins have already grown up. The elderly people are probably no longer with us. In fact, my photographs show more children, but their transformation is worrying. Once, a slightly older child tried to steal my camera; I used Tibetan to shout at him to keep his hands off. He did, but only because he realised that we were fellow Tibetans. What if we had not been?
In his “Moscow Diary” from the 1920s, the famous German philosopher Walter Benjamin refrained from generating any direct ideological and theoretical conclusions and instead presented detailed and seemingly direct descriptions of everyday objects, because, as he thought, the narratives of actual things tell us much more about the story of the Soviet Union. This inspired me and made me realise that we must always describe and introduce the various “things” that we find inside the ruins; we must act like a museum guide who introduces Tibetan artefacts to visitors.
For example, at the entrance of Shideling’s ruins there is a portrait of Lei Feng and propaganda posters about the “Chinese dream”, reading “China is strong because of the Communist Party”, reflecting the ideology and arrogance of colonialism, while the newly built shopping centre next door displays the hegemony of consumerism. Today, around 80 families live around the ruins: some locals, some Tibetans from the border regions and some Chinese migrants or Hui traders; they live close to each other, sharing their daily lives every single day to the point that “there is no clear dividing line between public and private matters.”
Benjamin writes: “In ruins, human history is physically merged into the natural setting”. But this history is not one-dimensional, but multilayered and a symbiosis of many different factors.
Next to the ruins of Shideling, a massive shopping centre has appeared that seems to stand for economic success and modernity. Once, I stood on the roof of the mall and for the first time had a complete look over Shideling. It appeared like a giant scar in the midst of the various buildings that have been constructed over the years. It was just like when I stood on yet a different shopping mall and looked down upon the ruins of Yabzhi Taktser and the five-starred red flag on the near-by Potala Palace. These images evoke a number of contrasts: commemoration vs. consumerism, history vs. colonialism, politicisation vs. commercialisation etc. From a different angle, when standing right in front of Shideling and looking to the right, the massive glass facade of the shopping mall reflects the golden evening light and makes the ruins look even more like ruins.
Earlier on, when this massive “Shenli (Divine) Times Square Department Store” was being built, slowly but continuously emerging from the ground, it engendered a lot of criticism. Lhasa people were upset about how the facade would damage old Lhasa’s urban scenery. They were worried that the continuous extraction of groundwater would eventually lead to the subsidence of old Lhasa. Many people said that they would boycott the shopping mall. At the end of 2012, however, it was claimed to be “Lhasa’s commercial landmark”, “a commercial highland that the entire world looks up to” or “the holy land of commerce”; it was decorated with red lanterns and the initial criticism had already ebbed away. Many Tibetans must have completely forgotten about the original outrage when they happily went into the centre to consume hot pot. Today, most Lhasa people are already used to this massive fortress-like shopping mall, it has even become an integral part of the “remodelled” “Ancient Barkhor”. The ruins of Shideling seem ever more miniature, ever more broken under the menacing gaze of this centre. If one day Shideling collapses completely, it will make Times Square appear even more powerful and divine.
In fact, compared to the ruins of Shideling, the divine shopping mall represents the ruin of utopian modernity, displaying humanity’s desires. The ruins of Shideling, in contrast, emerged long before this commercial monster had even taken shape, they are a product of the destructive forces of imperialism. So in Lhasa’s old town, at least in this area, we already find two kinds of ruins that remind us in an astonishing way of Buddhism’s impermanence: for one, we have the divine ruin, displaying the illusion of success and wealth; and then there are the ruins of Shideling that harbour the everyday life that takes place deep inside the small alleys and that is almost unknown to outsiders. When one emerges from the ruins, one enters a newly decorated and embellished old Lhasa, it is like entering a stage. The only thing that the “Divine Times Square Department Store” and the commercialised “Old City of Barkhor” cannot cover up, however, is the moral importance of the ruins of Shideling.
A scholar once said the following sentence: “The basis for any new project is the erasure of collective memory. The establishment of any new symbol is always preceded by collective amnesia.” Back then, when I was on the roof of the divine shopping centre and had finished taking photos, I decided to visit the nearby offices of the store staff. I realised that one of the auditoriums is, in fact, a Christian chapel. Even though, I had heard before that many of the Wenzhou business people in Lhasa were Christians, this was the first time that I came across an actual church. Unfortunately, I had no opportunity to enter it because it was guarded by a young business man who, judging from his Chinese, must have been from southern China.
“A lost paradise is a new paradise.” Or rather, when one paradise is lost, a new one will emerge. But the question is: whose paradise is lost and whose paradise emerges?