Cultural Suppression from Political Imperialism
Due to its bad reputation and being rejected by civilized societies, imperialism is no longer mainly about the simple expansion of territory or robbing the wealth of other nations. While still adhering to occupation and colonization, imperialism now has to disguise itself under the appearance of benefiting the ruled minority, which includes handing out economic assistance. While assuming its civilizational superiority and material benevolence, today imperialism manifests itself more often through those aspects of life termed cultural.
Culture is the focus of current debates on the Tibetan issue. Responding to world criticism, the Chinese government enumerates its efforts to protect Tibetan culture such as renovation of the temples, conservation of the cultural heritage, promotion of Tibetan language education, usage of both Tibetan and Chinese in the Tibetan autonomous areas, and rescuing the endangered arts. On the other hand, it is these subjects that are invoked by the international society and Tibetans in exile to criticize
In my opinion, because the culture of a nation is primarily from and about its self-articulation, this kind of debate on culture is itself a distraction from what ought to be the focus. The articulation of a nation is not only about repeating its history or acting out its traditions. More importantly, it addresses how the present reality of one's nation is felt, thought through, and pursued. Only when derived from the position of a given nation, and closely connected to its sense of reality, does the expression of that nation's history and tradition become a part of a living culture. Otherwise, the culture that loses the nation's sense of self, or that is disconnected from the present reality, is but an empty shell or a puppet left as a form without life.
For example, no matter how carefully a nation's language is preserved, if that language is only allowed to reiterate the voice of the ruling empire, but not to articulate the true feeling of the nation, then how much can the language remain culturally meaningful? Therefore, to decide whether a nation's culture is properly protected, the main measurement is not the conservation of its tradition; it has even less to do with the abundance of economic investment from the empire.
From such a perspective, the damage and suppression that Chinese rule has done to Tibetan culture becomes apparent. No matter how much it has tried to achieve other benefits, it has categorically suppressed Tibetan self-expression. The empire wants to control expressiveness of any kind; any breakthrough invites punishment. What has recently happened to the Tibetan woman writer Woeser (Weise in Chinese) is just an example.
Woeser is a Tibetan author writing in Chinese. Born in Lhasa in 1966, she grew up in the Tibetan region of Sichuan Province. She graduated from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at the Southwest Minorities College in 1988. After working as a reporter for Ganzi (Kanze in Tibetan) Daily, in 1990 she was transferred to Lhasa to work as an editor with Tibetan Literature (Xizang Wenxue), an official journal of the Literature Association of the Tibet Autonomous Region (Xizang Wenlian). She has so far published Tibet Above (Xizang Supreme), Map of Burgundy Red (Xianghongsede Ditu), and Notes on Tibet (Xizang Biji). It is Notes on Tibet that has caused her troubles.
Notes on Tibet is an anthology of Woeser's prose writing, which was first published in 2003 by Huacheng Publishing House in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. While the book was popular, and soon went into a second printrun, it also attracted the attention of the censors. At first, the United Front Department of the Chinese Communist Party considered the book to have made "serious political mistakes." This accusation was followed by the demand from those in charge of ideological work in Tibet to examine the book. At the same time, its sale in TAR was banned. Finally, the Bureau of Journalism and Publication, Guangdong Province, was ordered to completely ban the book. The TAR Literature Association, the working unit to which Woeser used to belong, concluded its comments on Notes on Tibet by writing:
It exaggerates and beautifies the positive function of religion in social life. Individual essays convey the author's faith in and reverence for the Dalai. Certain contents reveal a rigid thinking on nationalism and opinions that are harmful to the unification and solidarity of our nation. Some of its contents render the great achievements of Tibet Reform in the past decades invisible; meanwhile, it indulges in nostalgia for the old Tibet without tangible examples. The book appears to have made false value judgments and divorced itself from the correct political principles; the author has abandoned the social responsibility that a contemporary writer ought to have and lost her political commitment towards the progressive civilization movement.
Shi Jifeng, Deputy Director of the General Bureau of Journalism and Publication in China, outlined the official charges against Notes on Tibet in a business meeting:
The book praises the XIV Dalai Lama and the XVII Karmapa, and it encourages reverence to, and belief in, religion. These are serious mistakes in the author's political stance and her point of view. Some of the chapters have, to a certain degree, stepped into the wrong political terrain. For instance, in "Nyima Tsering," the author depicts the confusion that the famous religious figure Nyima Tsering had when he encountered the supporters of the Dalai in an international conference. It reflects that the author is not clear about the essence of the Dalai's splittism and promotion of Tibet independence. Also, chapters such as "Tenzin and His Son" reveal her misunderstanding of the history of the Sino-Tibet conflict in the 1950s. (Publication Newsletter 22; posted on www.intelnet.com at 02/23/2004)
The charges cited here come from a totally imperialistic attitude, which denies the Tibetan nation's consciousness of self. It is unthinkable in any society to define "reverence to, and belief in, religion" as serious mistakes in a writer's political stance and viewpoint. Woeser herself is a believer in Tibetan Buddhism. It is natural for her to praise her religious leaders like the Dalai Lama and Karmapa. Only a colonizer who has the need to suppress the minority nationality would think that such an attitude towards religion is a crime. Does it not sound like a violent domination and an imperialistic manipulation to accuse a publication of having "made false value judgments and divorced itself from the correct political principles," and its author of having "abandoned the social responsibility that a contemporary writer ought to have and lost her political commitment towards the progressive civilization movement," only because she does not sing the praises of "the great achievements of the past decades," but "indulges in a nostalgia for the old Tibet without tangible examples?"
To a certain degree, the publication of Notes on Tibet under Chinese censorship is itself a miracle. Perhaps it is due to the fact that Guangdong Province currently has the most commercial environment in China, with a relatively relaxed political atmosphere, that the book had a chance to reach the public. A chapter such as "Nyima Tsering," that was singled out for criticism by the General Bureau of Journalism and Publication, has articulated in depth the repression and lack of choice that the suppressed nationalities are facing. We can see the sympathetic response the story received from a Uyghur reader's email to Woeser -- in not very good Chinese:
I am reading your book. Nyima Tsering in Norway after the little girl talked to him, I feel very sad. I could not control myself and naturally allowed myself a good cry. I read several more times. Who knows why when reading the paragraph on Nyima Tsering's answer to the girl, I could no longer control myself. I cried loudly. I was alone crying for a long time, feeling something pushed into my heart badly. It is unbearable to my weak heart. I want to shout loudly, but I don't have the courage. I have much more pity than Nyima Tsering's. (See the translator's note at the end of this article.)
Woeser happened to be in Beijing attending an advanced seminar on journal editing at Luxun Literature Institute when the ban was imposed on Notes on Tibet. Prior to the incident, the TAR Literature Association was considering promoting her to vice editor-in-chief of Tibetan Literature. However, as soon as the book got into trouble, her study was immediately suspended. She was summoned back to Lhasa. A "Helping and Teaching Group (Bangjiao Xiaozu)" was organized for her "education in thinking (sixiang jiaoyu)." She was asked to "examine (jiantao)" and "jump the hurdle (guoguan)."
These phrases that I have put in parentheses are the special terminology of the Chinese Communist Party. They form a set of methods of mental control that are vividly described as the tools for "fixing people (zhengjen)." The essence of them is to make individuals bend their knees in front of dominant authority and surrender their independence and dignity. He or she is repeatedly interrogated and forced to confess, while the authorities have already compiled their own record on the person anyway. Only after the Party is satisfied is the subject granted the chance to "make him/herself a new person (chongxin zuojen)." Presumably, he or she would not dare to transgress again and would sincerely bow before the Party's mercy. The Party has operated such a mechanism for decades, which permeates every level of the system; it is automatically utilized as soon as the need arises. When getting into trouble, the majority of the Chinese population might just surrender to this system in order to sidestep the problem. This has been the practice in China for years; people have long gotten used to it and do not experience any shame.
While Woeser had no more chance of promotion, and was even facing the threat of re-education in the countryside, she may have at least been paid her monthly salary, which is seen as so essential in Tibet when the space that allows individuals to survive and develop outside the system is so narrow. There is a Tibetan saying that "Having a salary is just like keeping a cow; it guarantees one's daily milk supply." However, Woeser was unable to overcome this setback, because at first she could not repudiate her own faith.
Since she had been accused of "praising" the XIV Dalai Lama, the only way to redeem herself was to attack him, or at least to repeat the utterances of Li Ruihuan, an ex-member of the Party's Politburo in charge of the affairs of minority nationalities, that "the Dalai is the head of the splittist gang for Tibetan independence, is the loyal instrument of the international campaign against China, is the fundamental root and origin that inspires social unrest in Tibet, and is the biggest obstacle to Tibetan Buddhism establishing a normal order."
How could Woeser repeat such a criticism of her own religious leader? Would it not be topsy-turvy to say the Dalai Lama has created social unrest in Tibet and blocked the establishment of Tibetan Buddhism's normal order? No matter whether it is because of her religious belief or her conscience, Woeser could not utter charges of this kind. According to Buddhism, attacking one's guru creates serious negative karma. And after all, who chased away the Dalai Lama, killed hundreds of thousands of Tibetans, and destroyed nearly all of the monasteries in Tibet? They are indeed the leading criminals in creating social disorder in Tibet and interrupting the establishment of Tibetan Buddhism's normal order!
During his "reorganize monasteries (zhengdun simiao)" campaign, Chen Kuiyuan, the previous Party Secretary of the TAR, ordered all Tibetan monks and nuns to copy by hand Li Ruihuan's charges against the Dalai Lama. Whoever resisted the order would be kicked out from their monastery. However, the difference between "is" and "is not" in written Tibetan is just a dot. Many monks added a barely visible light touch on top of "is," to complete the task without attacking their guru. Yet Woeser could not do so. She writes in Chinese, and in this language "is not" is not merely an extra dot but involves an extra character. She could not pass the test so easily.
Various officials took turns to "do the thinking work (zuo sixiang gongzuo)" with her and her family. (In substance, it is to torture and damage one's morale.) The constant harassment by the authorities was stressful and became an unbearable burden for Woeser. Meanwhile, since she had always taken a critical stance on the issue of the Amdo-Tibet Railway, she was ordered to "receive education (jieshou jiaoyu)" at the construction site of the railway. Knowing that she did not have the strength to directly or indirectly fight against the system, she chose to go away, to leave Tibet.
Upon her departure, she left a letter for the TAR Literature Association's highest decision-making circle, the Party group. The letter is entitled "I am forever a Tibetan writer believing in Buddhism." Following is the letter in its entirety:
Wenlian Party Group:
The charges against Notes on Tibet have mainly centered around my points of view on religion and Tibet's reality. Asking me to "jump the hurdle" is to demand that I state that my believing in Buddhism is false, that I should not have used my own eyes to observe Tibet's reality, and that in my future writing I must renounce religion and keep in tune with official directives to describe Tibet... Regarding all of these demands, I can only say that I am unable, and also unwilling, to jump this kind of "hurdle." From my perspective, to cooperate is to violate the calling and conscience of a writer. Under the current circumstances, staying in Lhasa to receive the re-education that I am not going to accept would not create any positive result; and it would add too much unnecessary trouble to everyone and make it difficult for the Association to close the case. Therefore, I think the best choice is to have me temporarily leave Lhasa and wait somewhere else for the final outcome to be announced by the concerned offices. I am willing to face any result of my own decision.
Until now, Woeser has been punished: 1. In the name of voluntary resignation, she was removed from her post in the TAR Literature Association and deprived of her income. 2. The housing assigned to her has been confiscated; she now stays temporarily with her mother. 3. By the suspension of her medical and retirement insurance she is left with no social security. 4. She is restricted from applying for a passport to leave the country. So, in spite of not being thrown into prison, she has been deprived of everything that can be taken away from her.
For people living in free societies or in today's inland China, the significance of this kind of punishment to Tibetans might not be clearly understood. Society within inland China has now diversified into different options. There are enough opportunities beyond the official system to allow many people to survive and prosper without dependence on the system. In contrast, the modernizing of Tibet and its society has been structured to completely rely financially on Beijing. There is no real social stratification there. With the monastic sector as the sole exception, nearly all other kinds of cultural workers and intellectuals have been entirely recruited into the system. In other words, only when inducted as a part of the system can one have a chance to become a professional working in the fields of culture; otherwise, there is even no guarantee of basic survival.
I had been puzzled that while dissenting intellectuals were active in the public sphere in the previous Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and are now in inland China, this has not been the case in Tibet, despite the suffering Tibetan people have experienced, the international support they have received, and the fact that they have the spiritual leadership (of the Dalai Lama – trans.). Why have we so far only heard about the quiet resistance from the monastics or at a very grassroots level? I think one important reason for this is Tibetan intellectuals' lack of space to survive outside the system. The system therefore retains the power of deciding an individual's life and death. The system that feeds all of the cultural professionals is also the system that disciplines all of them. When one is scared by the system, there is no chance to be against it. The current suppression of Tibetan culture is carried out through this kind of control from within the system. To punish Woeser is to send out an alarm to the rest.
The Egoism of Cultural Imperialism
Imperialism in its contemporary state is neither only about military force and politics, nor only regarding the acts of a handful of colonizers. It is also about culture and involved with the participation of ordinary people in the empire. Political imperialism has been extended and transformed into cultural imperialism. If the collapse of political empire is a very predictable affair, and the empire might someday be ended by an institutional revolution, the same kind of "drastic change" is unlikely to happen to cultural imperialism because it has taken root in the mind of every member of the ruling nation. Since it has become a collective subconsciousness, to change it is de facto a difficult task.
Cultural imperialism is first of all presented as an egoistic pride, the kind of pride that has, collectively or individually, consciously or unconsciously, permeated every aspect of life. On the way from Lhasa's Gongkar Airport, at the headquarters of Qushui County (Chushur in Tibetan) stands the "Taizhou Plaza," a "helping Tibet project (yuan Zang xiangmu)" that shows typical characteristics of cultural imperialism. The plaza is huge and is a result of swallowing up acres of good farming land. Besides being a showcase for the builder's great wealth and crude taste, it is hard to explain the necessity of the plaza's existence. It features a pavilion, stone bridge and artificial creek. All of these are a part of the Han-style landscape design and do not merge well with the local surroundings.
In the middle of the plaza there's a metal sculpture on top of which a large stainless steel ball symbolizes the mainstream ideology of science and progress. Peripheral billboards are painted with portraits of the Party leaders and slogans of the Party ideology. The investment in the plaza must have been immense; yet, it apparently has nothing to do with the locals. One would even wonder if it was indeed made for anyone.
I walked over the plaza once. The reflection from the paving of white concrete bricks irritates one's eyes and makes you feel you are standing on a baking tin. The grass is fenced with a sign prohibiting access; the artificial river runs through a deep concrete ditch and is out of human reach. There are only two stone benches sitting opposite each other on this huge open space. They only need to be there, exposed under the intense sun without any shade; they are not made for sitting and resting.
I was there on a Sunday. In theory, one would expect it to be a busy day for visitors. However, there was no trace of anyone on the plaza; the wide streets that surround the plaza are all deserted and look very ghostly. Such a plaza embodies the bird's eye from which the empire looks down, the pride of the empire's own culture, and the extravagant display of its wealth. The local people and their culture are not within the empire's horizon; they are not relevant and not worth the empire's consideration or self-restraint. Or, one can suggest that the plaza is designed to make the locals feel inferior and have them look up to and follow the model and direction imposed by the cultural imperialism. Either way, it is a symbol of naked cultural violence and occupation.
The cultural pride among the Chinese officials ruling Tibet appears everywhere. Most often we hear their complaints that the locals are lazy, conservative, short of or low in cultural qualities, having neither an understanding of science nor a grasp of business and the marketplace. By the same token, they exaggerate their own achievements in forcing the locals to change their concepts, reorganizing the local way of doing business, encouraging hard-work and punishing laziness.
A "helping Tibet (yuan Zang)" cadre who was in charge of agricultural production in the TAR once showed me a photo he had taken to prove Tibetan peasants' "laziness." According to him, besides being lazy, what else could explain Tibetans' refusal to remove those palm-sized stones from the field? He apparently did not know that the summer rain in the farming areas of Tibet is usually heavy and intense, and that the rain can quickly wash away the topsoil. On the other hand, the sun is extremely strong and penetrating on the plateau, which leads to fast vaporization. Leaving those stones in the field is the Tibetan way to protect the earth -- to make sure it won't be washed away when it rains, and to keep it moist under the intense sun. The problem is that it never occurred to the Han official that Tibetans could be smarter than himself.
Yang Song, the present Secretary of the Party's Bureau of Politics and Law Enforcement in the TAR and the Chief Director of TAR's Bureau of Public Security, has claimed: "The Dalai has not seen Tibet for decades. What is his right to talk about Tibet? I have crossed through every county in Tibet; I have more right than he does to speak." Let's ignore the lack of conscience in such a claim -- Yang seemed to have forgotten that the Dalai Lama's not seeing Tibet for decades is precisely the result of imperialism. The claim reveals the lack of commonsense.
What Yang might have grasped by traveling widely in Tibet is merely information. Yet, information does not necessarily deliver understanding. Real understanding starts from culture. But it is often the case that the officials sent by the empire dig and maintain the chasm that separates themselves from the culture of the local nationality. They are full of prejudice. Yang's claim perfectly illustrates his ignorance of the cultural factors that the Tibetan issue has involved. Such shallowness cannot explain even the simplest phenomenon that while many colonizers eventually die in their colony without understanding its people, the long 27 years of imprisonment did not cause Mandela to lose his right to lead South Africa.
This kind of imperialistic pride does not only exist among the officials; all sorts of Han people in the Tibetan region consider themselves superior to the locals. Rickshaw drivers, fruit vendors, construction laborers, they all tend to look down on Tibetans seeing them as stupid and backward. A female writer who had traveled extensively in Tibet once told me that she had nearly completely given up her writing profession to advise on economic development everywhere she had gone. She worked hard to instruct the local officials, telling them how to develop a market economy, thinking for them how to invest, and even designing the practical details. She was upset by the local officials' indifference, which, she concluded, was due to their conservatism and laziness. In my opinion, it is amazing that upon arriving in Tibet, a writer of poetry and prose began to think herself omnipotent. What else can explain this kind of over-confidence, besides imperialistic cultural superiority and egoism? I believe in her good motivation. Yet, such motivation makes me feel ashamed.
I have many friends among those who voluntarily went to Tibet after college graduation in the 1980s. They were different from their predecessors who had surrendered their careers and lives to be determined by the Party; they were also different from those opportunists who headed to Tibet later, purely for the purpose of self-profit. The mark they (and their romanticism – trans.) have left on modern Tibetan history cannot be erased. However, viewed from an analytical perspective of cultural imperialism, they remained members of the empire and conspirators in its cultural intrusion. While they were no longer the screws of the nation-state, but highly individualistic, they viewed themselves as Robinson Crusoe, the one who controls and enlightens Man Friday.
Tibet was only the prop and backdrop to prove their cultural superiority. They were in Tibet, keeping themselves separate from Tibetans and clustering in a small social circle with other Han Chinese. Many of them had traveled all over in Tibet, including the rural and nomad areas and sacred mountains and lakes. Nevertheless, they were still nobody but hunters of the exotic from outside or diggers of treasure who used writing and filming to appropriate Tibetan culture. There is an oil painting depicting 23 figures to represent this small circle. The painting is entitled "A Toast to Tibet (Ganbei, Xizang)." Besides three writers who are half Tibetan and half Chinese knowing no Tibetan and writing in Chinese, everyone else appearing in the painting is from inland China. By adapting the style of religious art in "The Last Supper," the painting emphasizes the great commitment that has sent them to Tibet. But we can relate one story about Yu Xiaodong, the artist of the painting, to demonstrate their attitude toward the religion and culture of Tibet:
Yu Xiaodong lived in a dorm converted from a classroom. The room was huge and Yu used giant prayer flags to divide it.... He said that those giant black-and-white flags could only be found next to a holy river or on top of a sacred mountain where Tibetans left them. It took him a lot of planning and hard work to "furtively acquire (shun)" the new flags when Tibetans had just put them up during the Tibetan New Year celebration (Zhang Ziyang, 2004. Tibetan Cultural Geography 1: 86).
To use these prayer flags that carry Tibetans' devotion, reverence, and wishes to the divine to decorate and divide one's room! This can happen only when there is absolutely no cultural understanding and respect. Moreover, Yu was not the only one who had done this; it had become a habit in their small circle. If one has a chance to see these people's collections, it could be found that nearly everyone owns piles of stolen objects.
I do not mean that I myself am outside the influence of cultural imperialism. The wish not to be a part of it is not always up to the individual. Tsering Shakya, a U.K.-based Tibetan scholar, once commented on my publication in the following words:
It seems that asking some Chinese intellectuals—be they Communist Party officials, liberal democrats or dissident writers—to think about Tibet in an objective and reasonable manner is like asking an ant to lift an elephant; it is beyond their capabilities and vision. Their perception is impaired by racial prejudice and their imagination clouded by the convictions and certainties of all colonial masters. ("Blood Stained Snow Lands: A Response to Wang Li-Xiong" New Left Review 15, May-June 2002).
I can understand the radical emotion in Tsering Shakya's writing, since the consciousness of cultural imperialism still exists among even those democratic figures who, compared with others, have so far paid more attention to the questions of national identity. They typically take Great Unification (Da Yitong) for granted. While believing in and promoting democracy, they still subliminally take the superior position, assuming that they have the right to judge the claims of minority nationalities. They draw the bottom line that allows demands for democracy but not independence. There is no openness to consideration of, and understanding, the position of the suppressed nations.
Democratic Han Chinese in general deny the existence of suppressed nations within China anyway. According to their rationale, there is only autocratic suppression, and since the Han people are also suffering under it, they want the minority nationalities to join forces with the Han to fight for China's democratization. Therefore the minority peoples ought not pursue only the goals of their nationalities. Yet, the fact is that even the autocracy is discriminatory in dealing with different nationalities. For instance, the Han scholar who wrote "Criticism on the Propaganda Department in the Central Government" and the reporter who made critical comments on the Party Secretary in a public letter were both tolerated. Their positions within the system were not affected. In contrast, Woeser's single sentence praising the Dalai Lama and her exposure of Nyima Tsering's confusion are enough to result in her losing everything. How can we say the suppression is all the same?
Minority people who have traveled to inland China commonly experience the difference: "We would have been thrown into jail long ago if, as a minority, we dared to articulate what you Han are saying." On the other hand, even among democratic-minded Chinese, there is an unspoken common agreement that in order to maintain a united nation-state, a future democratic China would not mind waging wars against any minority nationalities that demand independence. It would no longer be a case of each nationality suffering a shared autocracy; it comes back to the scheme of the Han nation's domination over the minorities.
When it comes to the issue of minority nationality, the ordinary Han people under autocracy often also follow the lead of the empire -- particularly in the areas where they are mixed with residents of other nationalities. For instance, the civilian workers that were recruited from the inland by the Production and Construction Troop in Xinjiang were not only under the empire's orders to participate in the exploitation of the locals, but many of them seemed to have exercised this with great fervor.
A fair-sounding concept has been around for a while. It emphasizes the shared humanity and plays down the unique features of different nationalities. It proposes that there should be an objective standard, and that the law and democratic procedures should be the same for everyone. In order to avoid conflicts, no nationality should be given special treatment. However, no standard, law, or procedure can be completely objective; they are all intimately connected with culture.
Cultural imperialism is not going to disappear due simply to the progress of democratization. Instead, it will survive for a long time in the consciousness of most members of the majority nation, because democracy without considering national differences can only mean a domination of the majority nation, which in substance creates inequalities for the minority nationalities. Most especially, when there is a large population gap between the majority nation and the minorities, the representative democracy is more likely to ignore the rights and interests of the latter. When that day comes, and once there is no insistence on nationalism, the culture of a minority group can just suffocate under the domination of the majority. At the same time, the minority peoples will lose their right of resistance to the banner of democracy and the discourse of modernization.
As Edward Said has acutely analyzed, cultural imperialism is still prevalent in democratic societies of the modern world. It does not have to exercise political suppression or violence, and can merely depend on democratic methods to form the "mainstream," which is enough to push the minority other and their culture to the margin and leave them there withered and even completely obliterated. Many people's anti-globalization stance is to oppose this kind of mainstream. Therefore, there is a reason for the minority nationalities' need for nationalism to support their cultural resistance. As long as it is not politicized or turned into violence and conflict, nationalism can have its positive significance for a nation's cultural resistance. This kind of cultural nationalism should be allowed a reasonable place in an open and fair society.
Articulation of Minority Nations and Disarming Cultural Imperialism
The best way to protect national culture is, of course, to build an independent nation-state. However, the conditions to achieve independence are not always available and usually exact a high cost. Its feasibility could become minimal when there is a severe disproportion of power distribution between the majority and the minority populace. On the other hand, if independence is perceived as the means to protect a nation's culture, if the goal of protecting the national culture is accepted and carried out, the question of independence might become less important.
Then, how would the protection of a minority nationality's culture be actually put into practice within the bigger nation-state? Besides the very essential political system that has to be responsive to the issue, it would also be decided by dissolving the majority nation's imperialistic attitude. While any possible political mechanism that can actually relax national tensions has to be supported by the majority nation, it is a long shot to expect that cultural imperialism would automatically disappear with the enlightenment generated from within the majority nation. Therefore, the necessity for a minority nationality to be competent to articulate itself becomes high; it requires the cultural strength, the outspoken persistence and the patience of the minority nationality to actively disarm the cultural imperialism of its majority adversary.
Competence of articulation can be multi-faceted. Here I am emphasizing the ability to utilize the language of the majority nationality. I am sure that many people question why Tibetans have to learn the Han language, rather than the other way around and have the Han Chinese study Tibetan. It is indeed unfair when the majority nation does not bother to learn the language of the minority nationality due to its own cultural pride and the lack of necessity. However, if the minority people, in a tit for tat, refuse to master the majority's language, they will then lose the ability to express themselves -- since the expressive space and the media within the imperial system are dominated by the majority nation's language.
It is a dignified and justifiable demand to ask the majority nationality to study the minority people's language and to take the initiative to understand the latter. Yet, the possibility of such a scenario is very slim. And in the long run, the minority group would still be lWoesers in the game. But if the direction of thinking can be modified, to grasp the language of the other is to gain a confident position of interaction. It is not different from embracing and developing air and sea power invented by the enemy. The issue of a minority people's linguistic competence could then become less entangled with questions of national pride and identity.
Articulation is not for solitary contemplation. Articulation means to be heard by others. Quietly clinging to one's national culture is a form of passive resistance. But finally it cannot stop the expansion of the dominant culture or reverse the fate of being subsumed by it. Violence is equally useless when facing cultural imperialism. The Manchu conquered China, but were at last swallowed up by Chinese cultural imperialism.
Only culture itself can be used to fight against cultural imperialism. By demonstrating one's national culture to impress and convince the imperial other, the imperialistic attitude may be abandoned, respect generated and equality regained. Active engagement of this kind is the best protection for a national culture and would help its further development. Seen from this perspective, the articulation of a national culture is even more vital, and the need for the minority nation's competence in expression is even higher. Such a competence is to a large degree decided by being able to use the imperial other's language to a sophisticated literary level.
In this regard, a coming together of historical events has created many talented Tibetan writers. There are hundreds of Tibetan authors, poets and poetesses, who are known as Tibet's "Chinese Writers' Group" (Xizang de Hanyu Zuojiaqun). Woeser (Weise), Methuk (Meizhuo), Serpo (Sebo), Alai and Tashi Dawa are the outstanding ones whose command of Chinese is better than that of many Han writers.
There have been different arguments about this phenomenon among Tibetans themselves. Some feel that it is a result of colonialism. Certainly, when the upbringing of these writers is analyzed, the relevance of colonialism becomes very evident. First of all, the majority of them grew up in the so-called "Tibetan areas of Sichuan Province (Sichuan Zangqu)," which are one result of China's decision to divide the Tibetan region neighboring to China into the four provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan.
The degree of Sinicization in Tibetan areas of Sichuan is high; and the education in Tibetan language has been poor. The authors listed above do not write in Tibetan; some of them cannot even speak the language. Besides Methuk, none of them is pure Tibetan: Woeser and Serpo are both a quarter Han Chinese; Tashi Dawa is half; and Alai is half Tibetan and half Muslim. All of them have Chinese names that are regularly used. Including Methuk, they all have Han spouses. Secondly, apart from Alai who is from a peasant family, the parents of the rest are all Party cadres. The fathers (and mothers in some cases) of Woeser, Serpo and Tashi Dawa were Khampa Tibetans recruited into the pioneer troop when the CCP military force first arrived in the area.
Should these writers be simply viewed as an embarrassment to the nation, or as its treasures and weapon? The answer to such a question becomes apparent if it is admitted that the articulation of a nation can make a contribution in resisting and disarming cultural imperialism. As a matter of fact, Tibetans have made great achievements in expressing their national identity – particularly when compared with Uyghurs.
Only thirty or even twenty years ago, Han Chinese commonly viewed Tibetans as being from the darkest and most backward society where the punishments to criminals were to peel their skin and gouge out their eyeballs. However, many Chinese now see Tibet as the desired destination for pilgrimage and are ready to salute Tibetan culture and religion. The Tibetan people's self-articulation has, to a large degree, led such a change.
On the one hand, there are the Tibetan exiles who over the decades never let up in their international information efforts, which the West then became a bridge in conveying to re-opened China. On the other hand, the contribution of the Tibetan cultural and religious professions in Tibet should not be underestimated. Uyghurs have neither of these two assets, although the co-existence of a multi-ethnic population in Xinjiang makes Chinese as a common language more necessary in practical terms. Many Uyghurs speak fairly competently in Chinese but so far I have not known any Uyghur author who writes in Chinese or religious teacher who preaches in Chinese. Compared with Tibetans, this is the big difference in the Uyghur case, which might be explained by their adherence to their culture.
There is unanimous agreement among Uyghur intellectuals to deny the use of Chinese language in the media and other public spheres. Not only has the Uyghur language reform during the 1960s and 1970s been abandoned in writing today, but also a large amount of Chinese vocabulary that had been absorbed into oral Uyghur is now gradually replaced by English. It seems there is no deliberate networking to promote such a process; instead the social atmosphere of nationalism spontaneously drives it. Even in prison other inmates laugh at anyone using Chinese.
I have a Uyghur friend who grew up in Beijing and at one point was sent back to Xinjiang by his parents. They expected him to learn Uyghur there. However, because his Uyghur was so poor, other Uyghurs thought he had lost his "Uyghurness." So while there was no one willing to help him study the language, everywhere he went he was looked down on and excluded. In the end, this friend never really learned his own language. It can be understood that in such a social environment no one would want to become an author by writing in Chinese.
Although there are more Han Chinese in Xinjiang than in Tibet, the Uyghurs appear to be more successful than the Tibetans in terms of preserving their national language and avoiding linguistic assimilation. The nation's internal solidarity also seems higher. However, from the perspective of national articulation to examine issues, success seems to by and large go to the Tibetans. Firstly, the Uyghurs do not think it is worth making themselves heard by the Han population. Even in foreign countries, where one does not have to worry about the possibility of political persecution, the exiled Uyghurs still refuse to engage in dialogues with Han Chinese or to participate in their activities. Moreover, Uyghurs lack articulation skills that can be transcended to an aesthetic level. Their very limited Chinese expression usually stops at political claims or slogans, which is neither moving nor convincing, and can easily stir up conflicts.
There is a common phenomenon that when books about Tibetans are piled up in high-class bookstores in inland China and often stay as best-sellers for long periods of time, books on Uyghurs are few and rarely of interest to anyone. While the Uyghur population is larger than the Tibetan, and like Tibetans they also have a long and rich culture, why is there such a difference in the attention they attract? In fact, during the 1980s there were few publishers who were interested in topics related to Uyghurs and Islamic culture. But the few books that expressed their Han authors' uneasy feeling about Muslims led to strong protests and street demonstrations by Muslims including Uyghurs. Some even went as far as issuing fatwas -- as Ayatollah Khomeini did against Salman Rushdie. The lives of those books' authors and editors were threatened.
Since then, writers and the media of inland China have tended to keep a distance from any contents that might have anything to do with the Muslim population. On the other hand, there is a lack of Muslim writers who write and publish in Chinese. This becomes an unhelpful cycle: The less that Muslim-related subjects are published in Chinese, the less the Han population might have the opportunity to understand Uyghurs and it becomes harder to develop an interest and market for publications on such subjects. The Chinese media then further loses motivation to understand the people and their culture. The current situation is that Uyghurs are total strangers to Han Chinese, who know nothing about Uyghur history and culture and are completely led by official propaganda on the Xinjiang issue. The majority of the Han population does not understand (or have any desire to understand) Uyghurs; they only feel fear and enmity. In turn, this situation is in least beneficial to Uyghurs themselves.
On the contrary, the inclusiveness of Tibetan religion (and its commonality with Han religion), the Dalai Lama's active efforts to reach a reconciliation with the Han Chinese, the number of Tibetan cultural professionals who write in Chinese to explain Tibetan culture and establish close cultural communications... all of this helps Tibetan culture to become a hot topic and even a symbol of being fashionable in today's China. Many Chinese have joined the subculture called "friends of Tibetan fever (Xizang fashaoyou)."
In the meantime, this cultural articulation at an aesthetic level has brought Tibet's political agenda to the attention of the Han Chinese; it makes them gradually understand and feel sympathy towards Tibetans' position. The Tibetans' strength in using their gentleness and flexibility to overcome a dominant power should provide some lessons to other minority nationalities. Here, I recall Genghis Khan's great military might that no nation was able to confront. However, the Tibetans were not defeated. Rather, it is the Mongolians who were converted to Tibetan Buddhism. This proves the power of culture.
Compensating for the Lack of National Language
Being unable to master the Tibetan language is admittedly a common problem among Tibetan intellectuals whose major competence is in Chinese. As a result of colonial education, many of them cannot write or even fluently speak in Tibetan. Woeser's generation went to school during the period of the Cultural Revolution. At that time, there was almost no Tibetan taught in most of the schools in the Tibetan areas of Sichuan Province. On the other hand, the pay-off is that their Chinese became good enough for them to choose writing as their profession.
While it is generally accepted that one can only master a single language to the degree of becoming a writer in that language, Chinese is indeed these Tibetan writers' first language. It is also the reality that when Tashi Dawa, as chairman of the Tibetan Writers' Association, met with Tibetan exiles overseas, the two sides could only communicate through Chinese, the language that signifies China's colonialism. No wonder the exiles question how, if a nation's language is the carrier of its culture, someone who is unable to master the language can grasp the culture and spirit of the nation and even speak for the nation.
It is true that nation is not race, and that culture rather than blood is the essence of a nation. When one can no longer communicate with the culture of one's own nation, no matter how good their Chinese is, these Tibetans' linguistic achievement would have nothing to do with the Tibetan nation but only help add more converted members to the majority nation-state. They would culturally become the Han Chinese.
Not having a good command of Tibetan is indeed a major handicap of Woeser's generation. But it is the result of history, for which the authors themselves cannot be responsible. On the other hand, because of their nationalism and faith in religion, I still have high hopes in these writers' potential to shoulder the burden of articulating the Tibetan nation's aspirations. These two factors compensate for their lack of Tibetan language, keep them connected with their nation's culture, and nurture their desire to speak for it.
Nationalism is the most important component of a nation's consciousness; its articulation does not have to only be based upon the inherited culture (including language). As far as one identifies with one's nation, one can speak -- though not necessarily in the nation's language. Instead, using Chinese to express what the nation means there is a better chance to be heard by the Chinese officialdom and the rest of Han society. Tibetan consciousness is prevalent among Tibetan authors writing in Chinese – a sentiment which is usually not openly articulated in the political domain but can be felt everywhere in various forms of their cultural expression.
Employing aesthetic cultural forms to articulate nationalism is admittedly not done out of choice. Yet it might be more effective than having the sentiment appear in its pure political form. While political nationalism can be used to make claims, or as a force of resistance, its major objective is to demand power. It is, by and large, about purge, confrontation, and exclusivity. What could be missing are compassion, compromise, and peace. As a result, rather than aiding the relationship between different nations it tends to enhance enmity and conflict. In contrast, cultural nationalism is primarily an embodiment and manifestation of one's passion for, and commitment to, the culture of one's nation. It does not have to confront other nations, and thus creates a condition that would allow a simultaneous blooming of diverse cultures. From this perspective, the current way in which the Tibetan writers who write in Chinese use cultural forms to express their national concerns might in the long run generate a better result.
On the other hand, culture undeniably comes from the accumulation of history and, to a large degree, relies on language to be passed down. For these Tibetan writers who cannot write in Tibetan, the nation's belief in religion becomes the only connection that they have with their culture, since the national culture of Tibet is largely centered on religion, which in turn becomes the focus when national consciousness is formed. While folklore tradition is becoming a formality inherited from the past, religion is a present reality that exists and continues developing. Therefore, in spite of their lack of the nation's language, as long as their ties with its religion are maintained these writers are still very connected to the nation's consciousness and capable of reaching to the depths of their nation's culture.
In this regard, the belief in Tibetan Buddhism among the Tibetan intellectuals who are literate in Chinese becomes particularly important. I am not talking here about the importance of religion per se, but about religion as the sole link between these intellectuals and the culture of their nation. The key that has made Woeser a narrator of the national sensibility and a defender of its culture is exactly her devotional belief in Tibetan Buddhism.
It should be clarified that the discussion above is only about a very specific group of the Tibetan population whose command of Chinese as their first language has made them successful in speaking for the Tibetan nation. The fact that they have paid the high price of losing the language of their nation to gain such fluency in Chinese can also be interpreted as a reversal of something negative into positive. However, such logic does not stand up when the issue comes to average Tibetans who are not burdened with the responsibility of expressing nationhood. To have them lose their Tibetan language can only be a bad thing. The nation as a whole should learn from the Uyghurs who defend their language and every detail of their culture on a daily basis.
Beyond Whispering within the Nation
Some people might suggest that even without these Tibetan writers who write in Chinese, Tibetans' articulation of their national consciousness is always out there. It is true that even under the severest suppression, Tibetans have never stopped privately expressing their discontents by complaining, joking or passing around "the news of small venues (xiaodao xiaoxi)." However, this kind of expression is often restricted to whispers within the family or among friends and relatives. At best it can be transformed into "private talks within the nation (minzu neibude siyu)" circulated on the occasions when Tibetans gather together.
Just as there is no way for their voices to be heard in this way by the Han majority, the authorities can even take the silence on the surface as evidence to claim "unprecedented stability." The function of this kind of expression is thus very limited. Instead of whispers within the nation, it is more important to articulate publicly and face the audience of the Han masses, the Chinese authorities, and international opinion. Otherwise the average Han Chinese can only follow the government's propaganda to (mis)understand Tibet. The Chinese authorities themselves can only rely on the colored spectacles of the intelligence agents and the so-called policy study to control Tibet. The reality of Tibet is either distorted or ignored due to it being voiceless.
For instance, the well-known Chinese swimmer Zhang Jian once swam across Tso Ngonpo, which Tibetans view as a sacred lake. For Tibetans, to swim in the lake is an insult to it. Similar incidents have also frequently happened to other sacred waters and holy mountains. Even though most Tibetans felt distaste for this kind of behavior, they only expressed their complaints in private. After swimming over Tso Ngonpo without any awareness of Tibet's sacred geography, Zhang declared that he was going to do the same at Nam Tso, another of Tibet's sacred lakes. This time, "Cultural Web of Tibetans" (Zangren Wenhuawang; www.tibetcul.com), a Chinese website run by and for Tibetans, posted a public letter to the departments-in-charge. At the same time, Woeser drafted a petition which demanded that Zhang cancelled his Nam Tso project. The public letter and the petition were immediately passed around from one Chinese web to another and became widespread among the on-line Chinese population. Woeser's petition gathered hundreds of signatures. Nearly half of them were from Han Chinese. The overseas Chinese media also reported the story, which by then had become a major focus of attention. Facing criticism from the public, Zhang did cancel his Nam Tso swim. After being mentioned in Woeser's petition, the popular singer Han Hong also gave up her "Descending over the Potala (Kongjiang Budala)" concert. These incidents prove that to let the articulation go into the public domain can lead to a result that is very different from what whispers within the nation can achieve.
The Dalai Lama and the Tibetans in exile have been speaking out for a long time, and international coverage of the Tibetan issue relies upon this. However, because of censorship and the language barrier, their influence on Han Chinese thinking is very limited. Furthermore, the Chinese often think that overseas Tibetans cannot represent the Tibetans in Tibet, and that their statements are aimed at propaganda rather than addressing reality. Therefore, in order to better target the Chinese audience, articulation in Chinese by Tibetans inside Tibet is necessary.
What happened to Woeser is no doubt the price that Tibetans inside Tibet have to pay in order to speak out. It would be very strange if there had been no cost to pay! It is a necessary sacrifice and inescapable in a nation's fight against imperialism. Until now, articulating their nation's consciousness only manifested as sporadic dissent in the Tibetan case. While many anti-imperialist movements around the globe have been led by the activists of minority nations, there is still a long way to go for Tibetans to form such a movement. However, instead of being totally silent, it is at least desirable to have the nation's thoughts being publicly and continuously voiced.
"Going into the public (gongkai)" and "being able to last (ke chixuxing)" are two crucial principles. By "going into the public," I mean not only utilizing public occasions but also using Chinese as the medium of communication. Several years back, when the National Olympics of the Minority Nationalities was held in Lhasa, one Tibetan slipped through the security, mingled into the dance performance during the opening ceremony, and shouted out "Boe Rangzen Yin (Independent Tibet)!"
Because there was no loud speaker nearby, not many people knew what he was doing. Even those guests who heard him did not understand Tibetan and thought he was a part of the program. This Tibetan was clearly very brave but did not create much effect. No one knew what happened to him afterwards. His shouting vanished, and this incident was only orally related among Tibetans. Another incident took place at a New Year concert in Urumchi. A Uyghur walked straight up on the stage and recited a political poem in Uyghur. Although it was a public occasion, the result of his action ended up the same as that of the Tibetan guy. Once again, the majority of the audience did not understand the Uyghur language. Thus, there was no way for them to know what had happened. These kinds of incidents were eventually reported outside of China. However, because they were no longer "news" the media lost interest in investigating them.
Protests of this sort have happened all the time. But they were all isolated events without any lasting effect. After being arrested, and locked up in prison, the one who staged the event was silenced. Moreover, what is involved is usually no more than a few slogans that express one's courage but are not persuasive, emotionally moving, or capable of generating cultural interaction. The events can make an impression on some people, but they can hardly be transformed into the reasoning that has the potential to force others to think.
The ones who are most likely to bear the responsibility for the public and lasting expression of their nationality's consciousness are still the nation's public intellectuals who are literate in Chinese. There are three reasons for this: Firstly, they are able to directly communicate with the Chinese population and authorities. Secondly, they are able to employ the media to spread their voices. Even when they are banned by censorship, there is still the internet connection for communication. Thirdly, they are able to participate in mainstream society in China, and through it enter the horizon of the international attention towards China. To a certain degree, they are protected by China Watchers in the international society. Therefore, they have more chance than the average citizens to test the bottom line of the autocracy.
Being public intellectuals means their acts and deeds can be seen by the public. Their testing of the bottom line can in turn encourage people. Although courage among a populace can only be slowly accumulated, just as a continuity of droplets can pierce through rock, so large changes can come about in society. Compared with the situation twenty years ago, today's Chinese are much less fearful. This is not because the authorities' ability to control society has weakened or the nature of the autocracy has altered. Instead, the autocracy itself is facing the major obstacle that "its law can no longer rule the people (fa bu zhi zhong)." As long as the majority of the people remain united, what the tyranny can do will become very limited. With the lead taken by public intellectuals who are relatively better protected, there is a chance to lift up an entire people's courage to move forward together -- so long as the collectively agreed bottom line is not transgressed. This is most likely an effective path to expand the space of freedom under autocratic rule, to transcend the loss of the nation's language, and to activate the mechanism of a dissenting movement.
Because all of its intellectuals have so far been recruited into the system, Tibet has not produced public figures of this kind in the past. Meanwhile, it is impossible for dissidents to co-exist with the system. Furthermore, the cultural space in Tibet is nearly completely dominated by the system, and the cultural market has not yet emerged in Tibet. Under these constraints, the existence of Tibetan intellectuals who are fluent and talented in Chinese constitutes another layer of significance.
In principle, the public intellectuals have to be able to make a living in the market; they can then shake off the controls of the system and realize the freedom to articulate their alternative voices. The intellectuals who have Tibetan as their main medium of expression can only be confined to the Tibetan areas where the cultural market does not exist. For them to distance themselves from the system is to lose their means of basic livelihood. In contrast, a large cultural market has been developed in inland China. Tibetan intellectuals who are competent in Chinese can first use their language skills to solve the problem of survival; they can then have the means to rid themselves of the system's control.
The Woeser incident should not be seen as a simple case of human rights violation. To do so merely adds one more case to the many. Rather, it can be an inspiration for various ways of thinking: How can Tibet challenge these two kinds of imperialism? How can public intellectuals with the ability to articulate a nation's wishes and desires be produced? What is the function of those Tibetan intellectuals who are skilled in Chinese?
As a part of the empire's policy, China has nurtured its Tibetan allies through a Sinicized education system. While the policy has in some ways been successful, it has also produced no small number of Woeser-like figures. Instead of eroding their national consciousness, the Sinicized education has in fact enhanced it. At the same time, they have grown up with a good command of the empire's language.
This generation is gradually becoming the backbone of Tibetan society. In the future, some of them might become the leaders and initiators of various professions in Tibet. Will a group of dissenting intellectuals who have rational minds and are excellent in Chinese arise on Tibet's horizon--or perhaps a Tibetan Andrei Sakharov or Vaclav Havel? How should the concerned Han Chinese consider such a horizon's implications for both Tibet and China in solving the Tibetan problem? How should such a future possibility be welcomed and responded to? How should each of us reflect upon, and clean up, the cultural imperialism that has been hidden away deeply in our minds?
August - October 2004