Reviews / September 2014 (Issue 25)

The Mighty Pen: Tsering Woeser and Wang Lixiong's Voices from Tibet

by Michael Tsang


Tsering Woeser and Wang Lixiong (authors), Violet S. Law (editor and translator), Voices from Tibet: Selected Essays and Reportage, Hong Kong University Press and University of Hawai'i Press, 2014. 132 pgs.


"For the powerless, the pen can be wielded as a weapon."
                                                         – Tsering Woeser

In Voices from Tibet, Tsering Woeser and Wang Lixiong, with the help of Violet Law's flexible translation, show that the pen is mightier than the sword and that literature, in its various genres, can give voice to suppressed peoples and cultures. Recent literary reportage has been a key way to record happenings in China, and Woeser and Wang's essays in this important volume force readers to rethink notions of freedom, activism and the individual's relationship with the state.

Readers unfamiliar with Tibet's political situation will not be alienated by the contents of this book, thanks to Robert Barnett's extremely informative and comprehensive introduction. Barnett provides readers with the broad strokes of Tibetan history and geography, and extensively elaborates on the delicate backgrounds of the authors, the evolution of their thoughts and writing styles, and the roles they play in the fragile state of Tibetan affairs. For Barnett, Woeser is a Tibetan commentator, communicating Tibetan values and traditions that are currently at stake; similarly, he sees Wang as someone who also seeks to articulate the Tibetans' predicament from their point of view.

Like much other reportage literature, Woeser and Wang mainly focus on the stories of Tibetan individuals. However, their comments on China's policy towards the region can be piercing at times. There is, for instance, a daring directness in their exposure of "Beijing's lies about religious freedom" ("The Qinghai-Tibet Railway Conscripted") through documenting the stories of Tibetan monks in 2008.

The essays in Chapter 1 introduce the ethnic and political fractures between Tibetans and Han Chinese, and between the Beijing and Tibetan governments. At the same time, Woeser and Wang also make it clear that the sensitive issue of Tibet's self-rule cannot be separated from broader problems of governance in China. Woeser quotes Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo's saying that "so long as people in China proper are denied authentic self-rule, self-rule for Tibetans and other minorities will remain a pipe dream" ("Freedom for Chinese, Autonomy for Tibetans"). Thus, learning from the Wukan protests of 2011, where villages eventually got to elect their own representatives, Wang believes that Tibet is also capable of self-rule and proclaims: "a people's courage is the talisman of their triumph" ("From Self-Immolation to Self-Rule"). The issue that remains is how to put this courage to good use. While he has the utmost respect for the Buddhist monks who immolated themselves, he also reflects on the efficacy of such forms of struggle.

The rest of the book's four chapters portray how life in Tibet has been affected by Communist rule in economic, religious, ecological and cultural terms. In Chapter 2, the authors provide an accurate understanding of how Han Chinese are using a new form of colonialism—one involving soft, economic and cultural power— to wage a war without gun smoke in Tibet. They show how Tibetans are deprived of their livelihoods, job opportunities and living space under an ethnic hierarchy where Tibetans are "at the mercy of the Hans," an argument supported by examples like the displacement of Tibetan guides by party-approved Han ones and the influx of Han prostitutes into Tibet ("Winners and Losers under Tibet's Capitalism"). For the authors, the "modernisation" of Tibet is synonymous with the introduction of market principles, so that people can "mak[e] a living out of selling Tibet" to the rest of China and to the West("Merchants of Fake Culture"). It is no wonder Woeser has to conclude that modernisation is but an "invasion, a sugar-coated, disgusted act of violence" ("Railroad to Perdition").

Chapter 3 details specific aspects of religious suppression and offers an exposé of how monks and monasteries are often deliberately framed by the authorities for arms possession. According to the authors, there is traditionally a weapons chamber in many Tibetan monasteries, either to symbolise the protection of gods or to testify to the surrender of hunters; yet, although symbolic, these weapons have become a convenient excuse for the authorities to frame monks as terrorists. Another essay reveals how the tourist traps that have developed at some monasteries are not the doing of the monks themselves, but have rather arisen from opportunistic Chinese tourist agencies. Out of the five chapters, for me this one was the most enlightening, and did what good reportage literature should—present knowledge and information, so that the world can better understand the perspectives of a silenced people.

The penultimate chapter looks at the impact of economic exploitation on Tibet's natural environment, a topic which does not seem to be getting much international attention. The author remind us that the Yangtze River flows from the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, and point out that water transfer projects have led to the relocation of Tibetan herders and affected the ecology of the region. Mining projects and the fur trade have also resulted in irrevocable changes to the Tibetan landscape and wildlife; as a result, some Tibetans have started initiatives to campaign for sustainable development in the region.

In a sense, the last chapter brings together the issues raised in the preceding chapters to offer a critique of Han cultural hegemony. From the removal of Tibetan-language classes in schools (a policy looming over Cantonese in Hong Kong as well) to the forced celebration of Han Chinese festivals, Tibetan values and traditions are implied to be secondary to those of the national Han culture, often seen as "the only keepers of civilisation" ("Must Children Trade Roots for Books?"). Tibetans, Woeser writes, should be entitled to the right to their roots, traditions and customs, as well as to the creative expression of their culture (including through Tibetan rock 'n' roll bands).

The book also features 17 captioned full-colour photos that provide a glimpse into Tibetan life. What is interesting about many of these photos, however, is that there are very few close-ups. Most pictures are shot in wide angles showing the vast Tibetan landscape or a gathering of Tibetans, but the photos' main point of interest, often highlighted in the captions—whether it be a surveying helicopter, an exiled nun, debris turned into a shop sign or a uniformed police officer—may be easily missed due to the framing of the photos. This somehow escalates the idea that state intervention is everywhere, but looks diminutive to the precious natural resources in the Tibetan region. It speaks to the tension between the disturbing reality in Tibet and the state discourse of economic development and social harmony.

It is easy to assume that the Tibetan problem plays out through government policies on a political level, but, as the essays here show, the results of such policies have deeply social effects. Many Han have moved to Tibet under the instruction of the party or have been lured to the region by a Han-biased capitalist market developed by Beijing. The results of this influx have generally come at the expense of the Tibetan population. To take just one example: in 2002, a Chinese man engaged in the tourism business in Canada wrote a letter to the Chinese government complaining about the behaviour and attitudes of Tibetan guides, which consequently led to the purging of Tibetan guides from the region. This example shows that an individual's action may easily help perpetuate the violation of other people's rights, and perhaps also highlight that one is never completely innocent unless one chooses to actively speak against oppression. To do this, we should learn more and know more, and to this end, I look forward to more translations from the Chinese original of Voices from Tibet, which spans almost 400 pages.

There is no better way to end this review than to quote Woeser's moving epilogue. Through her and Wang's reportage, she reminds us that we can do something too:

Citizens of conscience all over the world can join hands
in redressing all injustices,
delivering everyone from suffering,
and restoring all rights to equality, liberty, and dignity.

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