Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution

Tsering Woeser

448 pages, 2020, $ 31.26 (Hardcover)

Potomac Books

Reviewed by Kamila Hladíková

“Sometimes even just to look back on those times is painful.”

Almost fifteen years after the first Taiwanese edition and more than twenty years after the daring project was born, the English language translation of Tsering Woeser’s book Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution finally saw the light of day amid the first wave of the plague of 2020. Edited by Robert Barnett and translated by Susan T. Chen, it is the third foreign language edition of the unique photographic, oral history, and research material after Japanese (2008) and French (2010) (moreover, the Tibetan version was published in 2009). The original Chinese-language version work is divided into two publications. The first one is Sha jie (杀劫) based on photographic material left behind by Woeser’s father Tsering Dorje accompanied by his daughter’s thorough explanations and commentaries based on her own long-time research. The title is a chilly pun with literal meaning “kill and loot” phonetically “translating” as the Tibetan word gsar brje གསར་བརྗེ, which means “revolution.” In this sense, as it is explained in the opening of both the original book and its English edition, the Tibetan term for the Cultural Revolution (rig gnas gsar brje རིག་གནས་གསར་བརྗེ; Ch. wenhua geming 文化革命) reads in Chinese as “plundering of humankind” (renlei shajie 人类杀劫). The Taiwanese edition was accompanied by another volume called Xizang jiyi (西藏记忆; Tibet’s Memory), which includes twenty-three interviews with people, Tibetan, and Chinese, who experienced the Cultural Revolution in various roles, from former Red Guard leaders through manipulated members of Tibetan “masses” to both former and present government cadres and military personnel.

The English edition follows the layout of the original Sha jie – it is divided into five parts covering the breakout of the Cultural Revolution, the civil war between the Red Guards’ fractions, the military rule in Tibet, establishment of people’s communes, and an epilog called “The Karmic Cycle.” Moreover, there are two bonus chapters, “The Return to Lhasa” and “Jampa Rinchen’s Testimony”. The former is the author Tsering Woeser’s personal account of her own complicated journey back to her Tibetan ancestry – following her father’s footsteps, she moved on to document some of the disappearing ruins, the last testimonies of the painful history in the “new flourishing Tibet” almost fifty years after the Cultural Revolution. The latter is one of the most touching – or even shocking – testimonies from Xizang jiyi told by an uneducated old former monk who took part in the sacking of sacred religious sights as one of the Red Guards. At one point, Jampa Rinchen, who passed away soon after conducting the interviews in 2003, says: “I have no right to wear the monk’s robe anymore” (2006b: 211; 2020: 366).

In her introduction to Xizang jiyi, the collection of interviews and testimonies, Woeser writes: “Isn’t there the one and only objective behind bringing back the memories and making conclusions regarding that particular part of history? Aren’t we just searching for conscience of a human being – or more broadly – conscience of a nation?” (2006b: 10) And then she goes on asking: “What right do we have to judge?” (2006b: 11) These questions sum up the basic attitude of the writer to the much complex topic, troubling not only politically, but also emotionally. And Woeser – a daughter of a PLA officer of mixed Sino-Tibetan origin – almost constantly wonders: what were the thoughts of her father, when taking the photos of Tibetan people destroying their own sacred temples, attacking their authorities, lamas, and neighbors; what was on his mind as he was making pre-arranged propaganda pictures of a happy life in the communist utopia right after that. In Robert Barnett’s words: “[…] much of her effort is not so much the chronicling of abuse as an attempt to understand what led people to become involved in their perpetration” (2020: xxxv).

The book, featuring rare photographic material along with hardly available archivalia and oral testimonies, is an extremely valuable document of the historical period which has until now been kept taboo in Chinese history books. However, it is at the same time a highly personal quest of the author to understand the history of her family and her own identity. In the final analysis, it was mainly “the unending sequence of disruptive revolutions [that] had disinterred the roots of the nation from deep in the soil of the Snowland, scarring the bodies of Tibetans through impoverishment, and wreaking havoc on their inner lives, causing loss of tradition and faith, fissured hearts, and emptied souls” (2020: 310), which defined and directed her life from the first days after her birth in August 1966, just around the time when the Red Guards sacked Tibet’s most sacred temple Jokhang.

Transcending the conventional interpretation of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet as a tragic project carried out exclusively by the fanatical Red Guards coming from mainland China, Woeser, far from denying the government’s full responsibility for what happened, attempts to provide a deeper understanding of the whole situation, including the participation of Tibetans themselves. In this regard, the testimonies collected in Xizang jiyi – parts of which are included in the text accompanying the photographs in Forbidden Memory – are especially revealing. While the account of the old disrobed monk Jampa Rinchen might represent the apparent mindset of broad Tibetan masses, supposedly the “liberated serfs” in Chinese ideological vocabulary, the memories of persecuted members of both lay and religious elite or their family members next to the accounts of former Red Guard leaders and Tibetan cadres show a different kind of self-reflection. 

Indeed, the most appalling is the fact that many of those who either held power before the start of the Cultural Revolution or climbed higher in their career were still in their positions in the early 2000s when Woeser was collecting material for her book. As elsewhere in the PRC, the “leftist” ideology of the Cultural Revolution was denounced after Mao’s death in September 1976, but everything that happened was blamed on the so-called “Gang of Four” led by Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing and the “extreme leftist elements” under their guidance. However, in Tibet, the same people stayed in local or regional leadership for decades after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and many active members of one of the two competing Red Guard fractions, the “Alliance” (Ch. Da lian zhi, Tib. sNyam ‘brel), which had strong support in the military, have developed a successful political career.

Therefore, it is not a coincidence that when Woeser tried after more than forty years to document some of the places her father photographed, she suddenly felt an “[absurd] sense of temporal dislocation” accompanied by a feeling “that the Cultural Revolution has not finished.” (2020: 326) She saw the “traces of the past” in “countless details” of her photographic objects as well as the contemporary Tibetan reality and elsewhere, comparing her aim to “that of Urvashi Butalia in her efforts to comprehend the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 […] ‘through […] personal, testimonial representations, for it is not only the ‘facts’ of an event that are important, but equally, how people remember those facts, and how they represent them.’” (2020: 322)

The Cultural Revolution in Tibet is a highly “sensitive” topic, not just because of the systematic and brutal censorship of the Chinese Communist Party, but also because of the depth of trauma it left in Tibetan people. The harm it had caused to both material and immaterial Tibetan culture is immeasurable, yet the psychological impact on those who went through it and their descendants maybe even more tragic. And this “sensitive” topic is touched upon in her book with the highest possible sensitivity. Woeser’s writing is always admittedly subjective, imbued with the same “strange engrossing beauty” (2020: xxxiv) as are her father’s photographs of those atrocities, and with what I would call compassion: a deeply human attitude, trying simply to understand. Moreover, in this particular case, the reader is presented with absolutely rare historical material, which — for many reasons — would be almost impossible for anyone else to collect and publish.

Works cited:

Weise 唯色. Shajie. Sishi nian de jiyi jinqu 杀劫。四十年的记忆禁区 (Forbidden Memory. 

Tibet during the Cultural Revolution). Taipei: Locus Publishing, 2006.

—. Xizang jiyi 西藏记忆 (Tibet’s Memory). Taipei: Locus Publishing, 2006b.

Kamila Hladíková is an assistant professor of Chinese literature at Palacky University in Olomouc, Czech Republic. Other than academic articles, she has also co-edited and co-translated an anthology of short stories from Tibet Vábení Kailásu (The Lure of Kailash, 2005), and her Czech translation of Tsering Woeser’s Notes on Tibet was published in 2015.