Two Stories: Notes from Leaving Lhasa (Part 2) By Woeser

High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser written on December 2, 2012, for the Tibetan service of Radio Free Asia and published on her blog on December 19, 2012.
The post was published in two parts on Woeser’s blog with the title “Notes from Leaving Lhasa”, the first part “Humanisation” and “Hype” was published earlier this week on High Peaks Pure Earth.

2013 04 02 Humanising and Hype 2
My 19 120 ASA Fuji film rolls had been replaced with 10 135 ASA Kodak film rolls and 5 Fuji rolls of negatives (see photo). After I returned to Beijing I developed one of these rolls, there was nothing on those negatives.

Two Stories: Notes from Leaving Lhasa (Part 2)
By Woeser

Let me first tell a story about some rolls of film: I have always had one wish, namely to use my father’s old Zeiss camera, which he used to take photos of Lhasa more than 40 years ago, to take a series of photos of the city of Lhasa today. This has no political connotations, it can simply be taken as a kind of “art-activity”. So this time I returned to Lhasa I took with me a pile of film and wanted to try to carry out this art project.
Everybody in Lhasa knows that the military police are randomly checking people’s cameras to see if there are any photos in which police can be seen. I used a camera with a film roll, so quite different from digital cameras, my camera could not be checked – once the film is exposed it is irreparably damaged. This is why I was extremely cautious while taking photos not to run into military police. But there were so many of them, it was extremely hard to avoid them. Under Lhasa’s scorching sun, I was rushing around Lhasa, eventually taking 19 rolls of film. Since I wasn’t leaving Lhasa any time soon, I gave the film rolls to a Han Chinese girl who was travelling to Lhasa to take them out of Tibet to get them developed as soon as possible.
When the girl came to my place the night before she was leaving Lhasa to say goodbye, I gave her the film rolls. No one else was present at the time, we also never mentioned this when we were talking on the phone before. However, when she was going through security at the airport the next day, the police accused her of hiding a small fruit knife in the bag in which she was carrying the film rolls, yet she had never seen this fruit knife before. The police took the bag away without giving her any chance to explain herself and “subjected it to further examination” in a place that she couldn’t see. The girl had to wait outside and only when the plane was about to take off did the police give the bag back to her. The girl did not have enough time to check the bag, she had to run to her boarding gate. When everything had calmed down, she took a closer look and realised that my 19 120 ASA Fuji film rolls had been replaced with 10 135 ASA Kodak film rolls and 5 Fuji rolls of negatives. Now these 15 secretly substituted film rolls are in Beijing at my place. The piece of art that I had tried to produce by rushing through Lhasa for several days has disappeared into the vast black hole created by the state machinery.
Indeed, the country’s security is able to penetrate everything, but how they got to know that this girl was helping me with the film rolls I really do not know. Did they install a hidden microphone or camera in my living room? Or could they see into my window with one of the many newly erected high-powered telescopes? But it doesn’t really matter, no matter what high-tech method they used, what made me more surprised is that the department representing the law of this country used this method to take away my film rolls.
Dear security gentlemen who talked to me at Lhasa train station, you said that you want to be friends with me; being fellow Tibetans, even from the same town, I am not going to frown, I am willing to shake hands with you, to talk to you, but please do never use the word “friend”. You know it, I know it, everyone knows it, this kind of relationship has nothing to do with friendship. But since you are fellow Tibetans, I know that during the day you are operating according to and are following orders given to you by this repressive apparatus. But during sleepless nights you might also be confronted with reality, might also feel the pain of love for our countrymen. That people are after wealth and fame is nothing strange, you also live in this system, this is absolutely understandable. But I want to tell you another story: after the former East Germany collapsed, the German government tried those that persecuted the citizens of East Germany and a former East German soldier who had shot someone trying to climb the Berlin Wall explained himself in court, saying that he had just been a soldier following orders, if he was guilty so should be his superiors. The judge still sentenced this soldier and his explanation was that the superiors had not ordered him to not raise his gun by one centimetre.
What this story illustrates is that even under a repressive authoritarian system, those within the system that try to protect themselves and their interests are not devoid of any conscience. All that is necessary is to slightly raise one’s gun by one centimetre when no one is paying attention and thus save many fellows to be met with such great disaster. In my opinion, this would be a true act of being “human” and I am sure that our fellow compatriots will always remember this side of humanity.
December 2, 2012


  1. This is actually pretty scary, it’s simply like 1984. My friend did ask a guy who was working at the State Security Bureau if he had read this novel, the guy said no, then… my friend simply told him, “This is a book related to your job, you should really read it.”

  2. Ms. Woeser:
    Yup, I sort-of agree with above post: “1984”-ish. That, B/T/W is a novel about a man caught up in a soulless authoritarian society–an awful lot like Soviet Russia, or contemporary P.R. of C. however, We’ve seen horrific, prime examples of (?) Public Security Bureau (P.S.B.) mis-applying P.R. of C.’s laws to prosecute (& thereby persecute) survivors of self-immolators in Tibet.
    While trying to promote/ get support for an idea for dealing with self-immolations & feelings of isolation & desperation in Tibet, I was told (by a rather elderly Tibetan-Liberation activist, of Western-European descent) “…Oh, everything’s illegal in Tibet!” & I suppose it is. In a regime which distorts its own laws for ideological reasons, no one has any “rights, under Law”, since the laws are a joke. Your sad example is only scary, if one assumes the security forces (P.S.B?) & their Tibetan “fellow-travelers” are going to abide by laws…:-( @ least you got to keep your dad’s old Zeiss-Icon camera!! 🙂

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