CULTURAL REVOLUTION IN TIBET

CULTURAL REVOLUTION IN TIBET


The Cultural Revolution arrived in Lhasa in July 1966. Red Guards entered Jokhang Temple two months later and destroyed or desecrated everything they could. Over the next few years, temples and monasteries were destroyed with dynamite and artillery, libraries were looted and rare books and painting were burned. Buddhist scriptures was used as shoe soles or wrapping paper, monks were forced to wear blue Mao suits instead of their traditional robes. Some were put to work for 20 years on communes digging vegetables.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976 resulted in the massive destruction of virtually all monastic institutions and much of the religious art and literature as part of Beijing’s effort to to eradicate all traces of Tibetan Buddhist culture. Monasteries were closed and monks and nuns were forced to return to lay life. Buddhist clergy and landlords were forced to attend "struggle sessions" while both Chinese and Tibetan Red Guards — militant young Maoist activists — were busy destroying much of Tibet's cultural heritage. Many were killed those resisting the call to destroy the "four olds." But some took early action and hid a large amount of their portable art and books.

Tibet was particularly hard hit in the Cultural Revolution. Its antireligious orientation was particularly disastrous for highly religious Tibet. Religious practices were banned and over 4,000 monasteries were destroyed often with the help of Tibetan Red Guards. Buddha was declared a reactionary and the Dalai Lama was called a criminal. Festivals, pilgrimages and partying were banned. Some Tibetans were forced to cut their hair. Others had to learn a new "friendship language" that incorporated Chinese and Tibetan words in weird ways. By the time it was over 99 percent of Tibet's 6,000 religious monasteries, temples and shrines were looted or totally decimated and hundreds of thousands of sacred Buddhist scriptures were destroyed.

The Tibetan activist Woeser wrote: “The Cultural Revolution engulfed the TAR in the same way that it engulfed the whole of China; it was also home to the rebel faction that had started as a “cultural struggle” and then turned into a “violent struggle” and that was split into two completely incompatible but in essence very similar groups: the “rebel faction” and the “conservative faction”. [Source: “ Lhasa’s ‘Red Guards Graveyard’ and the Tibetan Cultural Revolution Controversy”, Woeser, August – September, 2013, highpeakspureearth.com

During the Cultural Revolution, the Communists not only confiscated animals from Tibetan nomads but also took their jewelry (ripping earrings right out of their ears in some cases), their robes and blankets they used to keep warm, and the yak tents that were their homes. One family with nearly 1,400 animals, had nearly everything they owned confiscated. "They left us only one pot, some barley grain, and a little tsampa," one family member said, "We were stunned. Our whole life's wealth was eliminated in minutes. We didn't know how were going to survive. Tibetan nomads on the plateau tried to hold off the Red Guard and the People's Liberation Army, but the nomad's matchlock weapons were no match for the automatic weapons of the Chinese.
[Source: Melvyn Goldstein, National Geographic]

Websites and Resources

Books” "On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969", by Melvyn Goldstein, Ben Jiao and Tanzen Lhundrup, University of California Press, 2009. Goldstein is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University. Ben Jiao and Tanzen Lhundrup are two China-based Tibetologists. This work offers a level of detail hitherto unavailable of events in Nyemo as well as in Lhasa at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. The heart of the research is 75 taped interviews conducted by the researchers with people who lived in Nyemo at the time of the incident (these interviews are part of a larger project by Goldstein and his co-researchers to produce a Tibetan Oral History Archive). The researchers also managed to obtain a set of Chinese documents from the time of the Cultural Revolution that contains reports written by teams sent from Lhasa to investigate the incident, including interrogations and confessions of villagers and cadres who had participated.


"Forbidden Memory" by Woeser is a book of photographs taken by her father during the Cultural Revolution. Published in Taiwan, the book provides a disturbing glimpse of the tumultuous decade that destroyed thousands of temples and laid waste to countless lives. There are pictures of trampled relics, jubilant crowds bearing oversized Mao portraits and a female living Buddha, head bowed in humiliation, as she is hectored in the streets. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 25, 2009]

Websites and Sources on Tibet: Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) www.tibet.com ; Chinese Government Tibet website eng.tibet.cn/; Wikipedia article on Tibet Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Tibetan History Wikipedia ; Tibetan News site phayul.com ; Snow Lion Publications (books on Tibet) snowlionpub.com ; Tibetan Cultural Sites: Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; White Paper on Tibetan Culture english.people.com.cn ; Tibet Activist Groups: Free Tibet freetibet.org ; Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy tchrd.org ; Students for a Free Tibet studentsforafreetibet.org ; Students for a Free Tibet UK /sftuk.org ; Friends of Tibet friendsoftibet.org ; Campaign for Tibet (Save Tibet) savetibet.org ; Tibet Society tibetsociety.com ; Tibetan Studies and Tibet Research: Tibetan Resources on The Web (Columbia University C.V. Starr East Asian Library ) columbia.edu ; Tibetan and Himalayan Libray thlib.org Digital Himalaya ; digitalhimalaya.com ; Center for Research of Tibet case.edu ; Tibetan Studies resources blog tibetan-studies-resources.blogspot.com ; Book: "Tibetan Civilization" by Rolf Alfred Stein.

Lhasa Government at the Beginning of Cultural Revolution

In his book “On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet,” Melvyn Goldstein wrote: While Mao supporters “were creating chaos in the schools in inland China, in Lhasa the Party Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region (hereafter called the Regional Party Committee) followed Mao’s lead and launched the Cultural Revolution in Tibet. By the end of May, the Regional Party Committee had formed the Leading Team of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in Lhasa, appointing as its director Wang Qimei, a PLA commander who had come to Tibet with the advance force of the Eighteenth Army Corps in September 1951.The minister of the Propaganda Department, Zhang Zaiwang, was appointed vice-director. At this time, the most powerful figure in Tibet was Zhang Guohua, the military commanderwho had come to Tibet in October 1951 as the head of the main PLA military force, the Eighteenth Army Corps. He had remained there since then and in 1966 was in control of the three main organs of power: the Regional Party Committee, the People’s Assembly of the TAR, and the Tibet Military Region Headquarters. [Source: Melvyn Goldstein, Ben Jiao and Tanzen Lhundrup,“ On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969,” University of California Press, 2009. Goldstein is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University]


“Under Zhang Guohua’s leadership, the Regional Party Committee held an enlarged meeting in Nyingtri (in Kongpo) from15 June to 5 July 1966 to discuss how to implement the Cultural Revolution. From the start, Zhang Guohua and the Regional Party Committee sought to manipulate the Cultural Revolution so that they, rather than local Red Guards or other revolutionary workers and cadres, would be in control of mass demonstrations and struggle sessions against the “holders of power” in the party. The Regional Party Committee, therefore, did not issue a call for the masses to mobilize and take the lead to search out capitalist-roaders.

“Rather, its members themselves decided who among the power holders were reactionaries, that is, whom to sacrifice. For example, at the meeting in Nyingtri, a few important party members such as Jin Sha (chief editor of the Tibet Daily Newspaper and deputy minister of TAR’s Propaganda Department)5 were accused and singled out to be examined and criticized by the masses. The meeting also instructed party members not to encourage large parades and demonstrations and to keep close control over all weapons. It similarly instructed the army to follow the instructions of the Regional Party Committee, not the revolutionary groups involved in the Cultural Revolution campaigns. Zhang Guohua’s idea was for the Cultural Revolution to be played out under the close scrutiny of the Regional Party Committee according to a carefully scripted score.

“Back in Beijing, the incipient chaos in schools in June and July prompted Liu Shaoqi to send work teams to “exercise leadership,” that is, to try to restrain the students and restore order. In Lhasa, a similar strategy was employed when the Regional Party Committee sent a work team to the Tibet Daily on 12 July to “lead” the work of the Cultural Revolution there, in other words, to control what was to be written about the Cultural Revolution and the Regional Party Committee. Mao, however, disapproved of work teams constraining workers and students, that is, controlling the Cultural Revolution, labeling this as an act of “white terror”.

Tibet at the Time of the Beginning of Cultural Revolution

A Han teacher who later became a top leader in the revolutionary Gyenlo group told Melvyn Goldstein: “The top leaders of China were still concerned that moving forward too fast with socialism in Tibet could be counterproductive, so they decided to eschew starting socialist agriculture (collectives) in 1959 in favor of allowing rural Tibetans to enjoy a period of private farming. Phündra, a senior Tibetan translator at that time, recalled a key 1959 meeting among Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, the Panchen Lama, and Ngabö at which this issue came up. [Source: Melvyn Goldstein, Ben Jiao and Tanzen Lhundrup,“ On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969,” University of California Press, 2009 ~]

“At this time they were implementing communes in China, and in Tibet some said we should implement them there as well. Mao and Zhou Enlai met then with Ngabö and the Panchen. I was the translator. Zhou Enlai spoke first, saying, “Do not implement communes in a hurry. First divide the land and give it to the peasants. Let them plant the land and get a taste of the profits of farming. In the past they had no land.” Then Mao said, “Do not start communes too quickly. If you give land to those who had no land in the past and let them plant it, they will become very revolutionary in their thinking and production will increase.”Zhang Guohua, of course, had been in charge of Tibet during the 1950s so not only understood how different Tibet was but also agreed with the view that it was important for all policies to take account of these differences.” ~

Beginning of Cultural Revolution in Tibet


On August 8, 1966, the Central Committee of the CCP issued the decision of starting the Great Cultural Revolution. On that day the Eleventh Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee (over which Mao presided) promulgated its famous “Decision concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”: Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds, and endeavor to stage a comeback. The proletariat must do just the opposite: it must meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie in the ideological field and use the new ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the proletariat to change the mental outlook of the whole of society. At present, our objective is to struggle against and crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic “authorities” and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and to transform education, literature and art.”

A future Red Guard leader said: “Students at our school pointed their spearhead at the school authorities. Our struggle frightened the leaders at the Regional Party Committee and the Party Committee of the Post and Communications Bureau.” [Source: Melvyn Goldstein, Ben Jiao and Tanzen Lhundrup,“ On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969,” University of California Press, 2009 ~]

Melvyn Goldstein wrote: “On 12 August, less than a week after the issuance of the Eleventh Plenum’s decision, the Tibet Autonomous Region’s Party Committee held a large meeting, which was attended by about fourteen hundred people who were active in the Cultural Revolution. At the meeting, Zhang Guohua called on all levels of cadres “to be brave enough to mobilize the masses, trust them, and depend on them to carry out the Great Cultural Revolution.” He also requested all organizations to establish Cultural Revolution leading teams and Cultural Revolution committees as soon as possible. On 18 August, an enlarged meeting of the Regional Party Committee issued its own decision on how to implement the Central Committee’s 8 August decision. ~

An official chronology of important events in Tibet said of this: “Since May of this year, people both inside and outside the party in the whole region actively studied the important instructions from the Central Committee of the CCP and the decisions from the Southwest Bureau and the Regional Committee of the CCP. A new upsurge of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution appeared in the whole region. The “decisions”. . . suggested that in the future, if the members of the Cultural Revolution leading team, the Cultural Revolution Committee, or the Cultural Revolution Representative’s Congress were not well qualified for their posts, they should be suspended or transferred. Every piece of work in the whole region should be arranged with the Great Cultural Revolution being placed at the center. First, put emphasis on the Great Cultural Revolution in the party and political organizations of the TAR, in the prefectures, and in the education departments. The work at the county level should be combined with the “three educations” and “four removes.” All the factories, mines, enterprises, farming and herding areas, towns, and counties with work teams should pay attention to fully mobilizing the masses to carry out the Great Cultural Revolution by themselves. The Cultural Revolution in the propaganda, culture, and school organizations of the army should be arranged by the Regional Party Committee according to the above spirit.” ~

Early Cultural Revolution Activity in Tibet

On August 24, 1966, at the Forestry Company in Kongpo, some young revolutionary workers led by a doctor in the public health clinic put up a big character poster attacking the company’s party committee. Melvyn Goldstein wrote: “A The party leaders responded furiously, calling a mass meeting, at which they proclaimed, “This is the limit. Openly writing a large character poster to incite the masses to attack the party is a counter-revolutionary incident.” This was followed by a purge of 127 workers (about one-quarter of the total), who were labeled as reactionary “monsters and demons” and were paraded through the streets wearing paper hats and so forth. These workers also underwent beatings and severe political repression, which for some included placement in the company’s own internal “reform through labor” camp. At least one died there. [Source: Melvyn Goldstein, Ben Jiao and Tanzen Lhundrup,“ On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969,” University of California Press, 2009 ~]


Red Guards

“Consequently, although the Regional Party Committee was able to keep the spearhead turned away from themselves and from the leadership in bureaus and offices and thereby keep the government and party functioning normally, beneath the surface anger was simmering among a segment of the revolutionary masses and Red Guards who felt that the Regional Party Committee was not adhering to Mao’s clear instructions to ferret out the capitalist-roaders who had sneaked into the party. They wanted to do more than attack the “four olds,” the feudal elite, and the lower-level employees in their work units. ~

“On 19 September, the first crack in the wall the Regional Party Committee had erected around the Cultural Revolution occurred when a big character poster openly advocated the bombardment of the Regional Party Committee itself. This poster was not only hung on the streets of Lhasa but also mailed to many different counties in Tibet. Written by Yue Zongming of the Cultural Items Preservation Office, the poster openly defied the Regional Party Committee and called for the revolutionary masses to point the spearhead at that committee, saying: “Bombard the party headquarters, set fire to the leadership of the Regional Party Committee, and seize the capitalist-roaders in authority.” Zhang Guohua and the party establishment realized the danger this posed and vigorously attacked the poster and its author, banning the poster from being shown in public or sent by post and labeling the author as a counterrevolutionary. ~

“On 25 September, for example, the Regional Party Committee’s Propaganda Department wrote an amazing twenty thousand–character handbill titled, “It is not allowed to bombard our proletarian revolutionary headquarters.” In this, the Propaganda Department laid out the Regional Party Committee’s ideological rationalization for banning the 19 September poster, arguing that since the Regional Party Committee was a proletarian headquarters, anyone who advocated bombarding it was a counterrevolutionary. Yue Zongming, therefore, was subjected to severe criticism at struggle sessions, where he and others involved were forced to recant and make self-confessions. ~

The following week (on 30 September), at an enlarged meeting of the Regional Party Committee, Zhang Guohua enunciated some of the reasons why he felt that the situation in Tibet required a different operationalization of the Cultural Revolution. The official summary of his comments reported: Zhang Guohua talked about how to implement the spirit of the Central Committee’s Eleventh Plenum. He said that the upsurge of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet had appeared and the current work was to welcome and promote the Cultural Revolution. [However] [i]n Tibet, individual [in contrast to collective] economy prevailed, and the struggles at the border were sharp and complicated. The problems of nationalities, especially the problems of religion, obviously existed. There are great differences among the organizations in the cities, counties, townships, and farming and herding areas, as well as the interior areas and the border areas. He said that we should firmly support the students in Tibet, but we should persuade them not to seize reactionaries among the troops or search the soldiers’ quarters and should persuade the troops not to go out into the streets. Despite the massive government response to the 19 September poster, a month later, on 21 October, a revolutionary group calling itself the Red Guard Combat Team wrote a big-character poster demanding that the Regional Party Committee call a public meeting to vindicate the 19 September poster and rehabilitate its authors. ~

Cultural Revolution in Rural Areas of Tibet

Tsering Shakya wrote in New Left Review: ““As soon as things looked like getting out of hand the Central Committee issued an order that, in these zones, the struggle should not be formulated as a fight between the "two lines". Such conflict was thus essentially confined to the towns, especially Lhasa. The result was that, in most rural areas of Tibet, the ferocity of the Cultural Revolution was shifted away from the battle between the two factions and directed instead towards an attack on tradition, under the call to smash "The Four Olds". In this effort, no stone was left unturned. The Red Guards may not have entered far into the countryside but CCP rule penetrated every crevice of the vast Himalayan landscape. The Party's hegemony was so deeply entrenched at this time that even the way a peasant slept was said to indicate ideological orientation — someone who lay with their head towards the west was accused of turning away from Chairman Mao, since he was "the Sun that rises in the East". One of the crimes of which the Panchen Rinpoche was accused during his trial by Red Guards in Beijing was of having anti-Party and reactionary dreams. (The Red Guards here, it should be noted, were not Tibetans but Chinese students.) [Source: Tsering Shakya, New Left Review, May-June 2002 ^*^]

“Far from seeing Mao as a god, in some rural areas of Tibet the people did not even know who he was. Their first encounter with the colonizer was usually through the local PLA and Party cadres. There is a scene — fictional, but revealing — in a Tibetan novel, Joys and Sorrows of an Ordinary Family, by Tashi Palden, which describes a meeting convened by the Party to initiate the Cultural Revolution. The stage is decorated with portraits of Mao and, as the crowd gathers, the heroine asks the person sitting next to her who he is. A local Party activist has to inform her that he is Mao Zedong. Later in the narrative, when Mao dies, the local Party issues a decree setting out the exact form of behaviour and mode of dress required. In the evening, Party activists secretly spy on every house to make sure the correct rituals are being observed. ^*^

“Such uniformity of behaviour, dress and outward expression of loyalty is clearly indicative not so much of a peculiar Tibetan mindset as of life under a totalitarian regime. When the Tibetan peasants carried pictures of Mao and red flags to their barley fields, they were merely going through the motions required of them. If they really found this behaviour as emotionally gratifying as Wang suggests, we would have to ask why they discarded it as soon as they had the opportunity to do so. The fact that, the instant it was permitted, Tibetans not only shook off the uniforms of the Cultural Revolution but pulled down the red banners and hoisted prayer flags in the valleys, discarded the Chairman's "Thoughts" and brought out long-hidden prayer-books, restored their native gods to their altars and sent thousands of young people to join the monasteries, hardly supports the notion that Maoist rituals were psychologically irresistible to them. It rather suggests that, given the choice, Tibetans will prefer their own religion.” ^*^

Destruction of Tibet’s Monasteries in the Cultural Revolution


Damage to Depung monastery near Lhasa

Phuntsog Wangyal wrote in the Report From Tibet in 1980: :In Peking, the Chinese authorities acknowledged the widespread destruction of monasteries that had taken place during the Cultural Revolution. They expressed their regret at the loss of part of ‘their’ national heritage and treasures, and explained how, in an effort to preserve what remained, they had passed decrees to protect them. The delegates could see ruins of monasteries in the distance everywhere they went. Even some of the larger ones, that housed 7–8,000 monks, are now completely non-existent, and the delegates had to be told when they were standing on the spot where once the main temple had been. In some monasteries, the main temple is still standing, in very bad condition, and devoid of statues, paintings or books. Such buildings that do remain are used for storing grain or fertilizer, as cowsheds. [Source: buddhism-controversy-blog.com, April 21, 2013]

“The official Chinese explanation is that all religious objects and monuments were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and by the Tibetan people. From their own enquiries and interviews with hundreds of people all over Tibet, the delegation formed the following picture of what had actually happened. Most monasteries were destroyed between 1959 and 1961. The larger, more famous ones remained until the Cultural Revolution in 1967, when they too were destroyed. The destruction of monasteries and religious objects was carried out systematically. First of all, special teams of mineralogists were sent to religious buildings to find and extract all the precious stones. Next, experts on metal arrived and marked all metal objects which were subsequently removed. Then, trucks were sent from local commune headquarters, the walls were dynamited, and all wooden beams and pillars were taken away. Clay images were destroyed in the hope of finding precious objects inside them. Finally whatever remained—bits of wood and stone—were removed by the local people. Sometimes the main temple was used for storage, in which cases, the paintings on the walls would be rubbed out—or at least their eyes—whitewashed, or covered with human excrement.

In their three and a half month journey, the delegates saw temples or monasteries in only three places; Gyangtse, Shigatse and Lhasa. There were no sign of any other places of worship, but in spite of the physical destruction of monasteries, temples and shrines, there are still signs of the existence of a strong religious faith in Tibet.”

Tsering Shakya wrote in “The Dragon in the Land of Snow”: By the beginning of 1970, all the monasteries and temples have been vandalised by the Red Guards and left to ruin.”

Nyemo Incident

The Nyemo incident refers to an event in which Trinley Chödrön, a young nun believed to be possessed by deities, led attacks on government and army compounds throughout the Nyemo region during a period of several weeks in June 1969 and organized a wave of brutal maimings and killings aimed at cadres regarded as enemies and local Tibetans that ridiculed her. Thrinley Chodron told the PLA after her capture that she had been visited by a bird who had come as a messenger from the Dalai Lama, and who had told her to drive out the Chinese. Other rebels claimed to be reincarnations of Ling Gesar, the mythical hero-king of Tibetan epic who fought for the Buddhist religion. Many historians view the event as a local rebellion launched against local officials and PLA troops along the lines of the 1959 revolt that resulted in the Dalai Lama fleeing to India. Anthropologist Melvyn Goldstein rejects this interpretation and instead places the events in Nyemo within the context of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet.


Image of Chokyi Dronma in the Nyemo monastery

Ronald Schwartz wrote in China Perspectives, “The inter-factional conflict played out in rural areas such as Nyemo as well, with established local leaders, both Tibetan and Han, usually siding with Nyamdre. Villagers were angry over excessive grain sales to the government and feared the impending collectivisation of agriculture. Gyenlo sought to channel this anger against the Nyamdre leaders, promising to relieve the burden of these policies once in power, and used Mao’s own revolutionary ideology to justify rebellion against the authorities. The conflict between Gyenlo and Nyamdre thus provides a master narrative for interpreting the events that took place in Nyemo. The authors acknowledge Tibetan resentment over the prohibition on religious practice, the dismantling of temples and monasteries, and the house-by-house searches for and destruction of religious objects. But mainly we are offered a picture of Gyenlo leaders using religion as a way to motivate the masses for rebellion. [Source: Ronald Schwartz, China Perspectives, January 2011 ]

“Trinley Chödrön’s followers believed that she was possessed by Ani Gongmey Gyemo, aunt of the legendary deity-hero Gesar, defender of Tibet. She promised supernatural protection and commanded her followers to make war against the enemies of Buddhism. At the same time she praised Mao, whom she regarded as a manifestation of Manjusri, and claimed to be acting on his behalf as well. From this the authors conclude that Trinley Chödrön and her followers accepted the sovereignty of the Chinese Communist state and did not have a separatist agenda.

“Gyenlo’s “Army of the Gods,” as they came to be called,initiated attacks on government and army compounds throughout the region over the course of several weeks in June 1969. At the same time, the nun orchestrated a wave of brutal maimings and killings aimed at cadres she regarded as enemies, as well as local Tibetans who had ridiculed or offended her. PLA reinforcements were eventually sent to Nyemo to re-impose order, and the fighters with the Army of the Gods were rounded up, along with Trinley Chödrön. Out of some 500 participants, according to Chinese records, 105 leaders were punished, of which 14 were executed, including Trinley Chödrön. The other 400 were made to attend political study classes before being released.

Book: “On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969,” by Melvyn Goldstein, Ben Jiao and Tanzen Lhundrup, University of California Press, 2009. Goldstein is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University. Ben Jiao and Tanzen Lhundrup are two China-based Tibetologists. This work offers a level of detail hitherto unavailable of events in Nyemo as well as in Lhasa at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. The heart of the research is 75 taped interviews conducted by the researchers with people who lived in Nyemo at the time of the incident (these interviews are part of a larger project by Goldstein and his co-researchers to produce a Tibetan Oral History Archive). The researchers also managed to obtain a set of Chinese documents from the time of the Cultural Revolution that contains reports written by teams sent from Lhasa to investigate the incident, including interrogations and confessions of villagers and cadres who had participated.

Cause and Aftermath of the Nyemo Incident

Ronald Schwartz wrote in China Perspectives, “With the arrival of PLA reinforcements imminent, the Gyenlo leadership attempted to distance itself from the nun and her followers, blaming the attacks by the Army of the Gods on “reactionary nuns, lamas, and class enemies, not on the actions of the revolutionary masses”. They insisted that the uprising was brought about through “materialist” causes – i.e., the implementation of the Democratic Reforms. Thus, the authors’ hypothesis that the leaders of Gyenlo were pursuing a political agenda and not a religious one, however compelling, is exactly what those leaders needed to say to save themselves following the reassertion of authority by the army and the state. In effect, once their own more ambitious combined religious/political strategy had failed, they needed the uprising to be seen as just another outgrowth of the political conflict that epitomised the Cultural Revolution. [Source: Ronald Schwartz, China Perspectives, January 2011 ]

Tsering Shakya wrote in New Left Review: “At first the Party ignored the massacre, thinking it was a manifestation of the Cultural Revolution as we know, murders could be exonerated if they fell under the rubric of class struggle. But the authorities soon realized that these Tibetan peasants were rebelling not in the name of the "newly liberated serfs" but in defence of their faith. What was more, they targeted only Chinese Party officials and those Tibetans seen as colluding with the colonizing power. The revolt spread from Nyemo through eighteen xians of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), and the Party was forced to send in the PLA to suppress it. Thrinley and fifteen of her followers were eventually captured and brought to Lhasa for public execution. Even today, the Party has expurgated this episode from the historical record. [Source: Tsering Shakya, New Left Review, May-June 2002]

Schwartz wrote in China Perspectives, “The PLA also wanted to bring the incident to a close, so it claimed that “most of the villagers who had participated had really been duped by the supernatural arguments of the nun and the other mediums”. The testimony of the participants collected by the researchers through interviews also declares the mediums to be frauds. But the pressure to reconstruct the Nyemo incident in line with the officially acceptable narrative – in both the interrogations documented by Chinese investigators immediately after the incident and in the recollections of participants many years later – is difficult to ignore. Confession and self-criticism are part of a well-worn script that provides for the lenient treatment and rehabilitation of those who go along. The material at the disposal of the authors is detailed and impressive, but making sense of Trinley Chödrön and the Army of the Gods is a little like attempting to describe and understand the heretical religion of the Cathars in fourteenth century Languedoc using the records compiled by the Inquisition.

“Goldstein’s main claim is that, unlike the 1959 revolt led by Chushigandru, which sought to drive the Chinese from Tibet, this was not a “spontaneous nationalistic uprising” or “a revolt aimed at creating an independent Tibet,” but an “outgrowth of a careful strategy orchestrated by a Maoist revolutionary faction (Gyenlo) to seize control of its county from a rival revolutionary organization (Nyamdre)” . They maintain that the villagers had in fact internalised the ideals of the new Communist state to the extent that they saw in Gyenlo a model for “revolutionarily acceptable revolt”. In this the villagers were both seeking and conforming to norms of socialist behaviour. At the same time, the use of religion by the Gyenlo leadership was both pragmatic and cynical, capitalising on the superstitious vulnerability of Tibetan villagers. The implication is that none of this would have happened if the Gyenlo leadership had not permitted and encouraged Tibetans to succumb to religious frenzy – what the authors themselves refer to as “Gesar hysteria”.

“In fact the authors gloss over the extent to which cultural practices suppressed by the new state reappeared overnight and quickly became widespread once it became clear that they were permitted – burning incense, prayers, the exchange of katas. But the same thing happened after 1980 following the post-Mao reforms and continues right up to the present whenever policies on religious practice are relaxed. The underlying memory of religious practice has never disappeared, and whatever its sources, it is deeply rooted in Tibetan culture and society. The revival of religion defies a strictly economic explanation – it recurs during periods of prosperity as well as during periods of deprivation. For the Chinese, of course, this indicates (now as much as then) the obstinate backwardness of Tibetan society. But it is not a question of the return of the “old society,” as the Chinese contend whenever unrest breaks out in Tibet. The events in Nyemo and elsewhere in 1969 are not altogether unlike the waves of protest that occurred after 1987 and again in 2008. If the economic objectives of Tibetans have indeed been realised in the years since the end of the Cultural Revolution, then how are we to explain this recurring protest and the cultural and religious forms that it continues to take?”

Tibetan Participation in the Cultural Revolution


In "Reflections on Tibet", Wang Lixiong argued that the Tibetan people were active participants in the destruction of their own culture during the Cultural Revolution. Wang asserted that supposedly devout Tibetan Buddhists willingly destroyed their own temples and holy statues because the Cultural Revolution was a liberating experience for the Tibetan peasantry, who "forcefully asserted that they would rather be men in this life than souls in the next". He also argued that Mao "replaced the Dalai Lama as the god in [the Tibetans'] mind" in a process of religious substitutionism and that the Tibetans were attracted to Mao's totalitarianism because they were, by nature, submissive.

In response to these assertions,Tsering Shakya wrote in New Left Review: “It is true that Tibetans played an active part in the Cultural Revolution, and this fact cannot be wiped out of history. It should, however, be put into proper perspective. The Cultural Revolution is a difficult topic not only for Tibetans but also for the Chinese. The question, "What did you do during the Cultural Revolution?" is not an easy one to put to Chinese of a certain age; it tends to bring any conversation to a halt, with much being left unspoken or passed over in discomfort. Tibet was swept up in the fervour of the times, just like the rest of China; many did go on to destroy religious buildings, to denounce friends and neighbours as reactionaries, or to revolt against their teachers. It was a mass movement from which no individual was exempt. Nor was there any question of watching passively from the sidelines: it was either denounce or be denounced the Party allowed no other option. The brave few who refused to participate in the madness paid the price of being branded as enemies of the people and subjected to mass-struggle sessions. Only the crudest notion of freedom could suggest that such participation was a "choice" for the ordinary men and women of the time. [Source: Tsering Shakya, New Left Review, May-June 2002 ^*^]

“Nevertheless, there were Tibetans who resisted, and faced the full wrath of the Party. In 1969 there was widespread rebellion throughout Tibet, eventually crushed by the PLA. The best-documented episode is the revolt led by Thrinley Chodron, a young nun from the xian (county) of Nyemo, who marched her followers armed with swords and spears to the local Party headquarters, and slaughtered both the Chinese officials and the Tibetan cadres working for them. ^*^

“Wang's argument that the Red Guards could not have reached remote areas of Tibet because of the lack of transportation and manpower also needs qualification. The Red Guards were charged with such revolutionary fervour that they would have walked barefoot through the mountains to get to Tibet, so desperate were they to bring revolution to its snowy peaks; but there was strong pressure from Beijing not to let them go. Far from being a period of mindless chaos, the Cultural Revolution was a carefully orchestrated affair in Tibet, and the Party was always in control. There were sound strategic reasons for keeping the Red Guards away from the border areas. This was the height of the Cold War in the Himalayas, India and China were on a war footing after the Sino-Soviet rift, the Russians had moved closer to the Indians and the CIA was still aiding several thousand Tibetan guerrillas based in Nepal. Tibet was a flashpoint and the Party did not want any disturbances in such a militarily sensitive region. Order reigned in the midst of disorder. ^*^

“Another aspect that Wang ignores was the overall division of the Cultural Revolution into two main factions. In Tibet, these consisted of the Rebel Group supported by Red Guards from China, and seeking the overthrow of the "power holders" and the Alliance group, made up mainly of the Party leadership and cadres in Tibet. The Rebels were strong in urban areas, with Lhasa, the capital, more or less under their control, while the Alliance dominated the countryside, forcibly preventing Chinese Red Guards from venturing into its zones. Members of the Alliance faction actually blocked the road leading from Chamdo to Lhasa, and Red Guards trying to enter the region from China were held and beaten up by organized Party mobs. These were the practical political realities of Tibet at the time. ^*^

“The Cultural Revolution was exported from China to the High Plateau by the Communist Party, much as opium was forced upon China by British gunboats — and eagerly consumed by the Chinese. Do we condemn the starving coolie for resorting to narcotics to escape the pains of his empty stomach, or do we censure the drug-pushing masters of a foreign empire who, despite endless pleas and petitions, directed the expeditions? There is no doubt that individual Tibetans committed despicable acts in the course of the Cultural Revolution; and many of them today hold senior posts in the regional Communist Party. In fact, such deeds are now viewed as a badge of party loyalty. ^*^

Image Sources: Everyday Life in Maoist China.org everydaylifeinmaoistchina.org, New York Times, Woeser, Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: 1) "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2022


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