Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Flame of discourse burning

 "There are thus at least three Tibets-one recognized by China as the administrative area ruled by the Dalai Lamas until 1950 and limited to the western and central parts of the plateau, another referring to the common cultural and historic heritage found throughout the plateau,[ethnographic Tibet] a third implying a single political entity covering all the Tibetan areas"(p.18)-    
                                                                a quote from  Robert Barnett’s master piece introduction 

 On the wake of Virgina declaring a state of emergency ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Joaquin, the streets have been awashed with the ceaseless rainfall for the entire day. As a gloomy evening descended upon us, it is all wet and windy.  But several of D.C Tibetan book club members braved the ferocity of the weather and converged at the house of the host for Friday’s book discussion. It was a sheer determination to keep the flame of book discussion burning, come rain or shine. 

Nestled in the cozy and comfort of the host's immaculate house, four of them eagerly awaited to engage in a discourse on reading, “My Tibetan Childhood" by Natsang Lulu. The moderator Jigme la opened the discourse by skillfully summarizing the gist of the story.

In summing up, the memoir has several broad sections: Featuring the nomadic life prior to Chinese arrival in Eastern Tibet, the arrival of the Chinese soldiers on the scene, the struggle of survival, and failed second flight to Lhasa, followed with imprisonment and finally the release and rehabilitation of Natsang. Ones the moderator, opened floor, it was like opening the gate of a flood water. Nonstop, the discussants weighed on the various talking points, which the moderator mooted for further discussion and analysis.
 To give you a little background, Natsang Lulu,The author's birth place is Madey Chugama, in  Machu county,  Ganan prefecture. He was being captured and imprisoned in Chumarleb [in Yushul county, Qinghai province] in 1958 along with his brother and father, who managed to cover on horseback in their desperate forty-eight -day flight from  Chugama (p.20). The narrative is the unvarnished evidence of a young- child-what he saw, what he heard, and what he thought. (p.59).  On the following,  you get a taste of some of the major issues we discussed in relating to the book. 

 General Impression:
 The readers have felt that given the popularity of the book, it must be interesting and worthwhile for reading. Consequently there are many important takeaways from it.  The book has shed light upon the carefree life of a child in the vast pasture land of the Tibetan plateau with its up and downs. But the depiction of the life and the society of the old Tibetan were not as rosy as some readers expected. Such as one particular scene where a monk peeing on someone's head and the father of the author, was flogged with hundreds of lashes for showing disrespect and on the flimsy excuse of carrying weapon in the vicinity of the monastery by the head disciplinary of the monastery. These took place in 1950s at eastern Tibet. “The Golok area that time saw little penetration by outside forces, Tibetan or Chinese, apart from occasional military raids, until the PLA finally established its authority there in 1950s "(p.19). The author's experience in his first visit to Lhasa was no better, "The government's executioners know all kinds of tortures: burning, skinning alive, and beheading. There are more punishments than the world knows."  Lhasa was a place of both joy and sorrow.  " Here joy is intense and sadness deep. The strong are too strong and can do whatever they want. The weak are too weak and have no protection. The rich are too rich, and their butter and meat are rot uneaten. The poor are too poor and eat plants beside the  is our karma".(p.183)

 The Ruling Class:
 The monastery and chiefdom is the ruling class. When discussing about the particular incident of monk's cruelty, some thought provoking exchange occurred. Readers pointed out on the strength and weakness of Tibet's theocratic rule. That political system in the past has provided room for abuses. It is also come up that the Tibetan society never had a overhaul of its governing system.  Such a lack of true reform has stunted the Tibetan people's intellectual and political awareness. As all the western society has been revolutionized and started a new, Tibet society lacked that sophisticated transformation, despite numerous efforts including by the 13th Dalai Lama. However a real revolution is unfolding in exile initiated by the His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama's voluntary devolvement of the political authority to a elected political leader.
But questions raised again that in the absence of the Dalai Lama, can there be an united front movement for all Tibetans inside and out. 

Scar literature:
The reader also has mixed reaction to the content of the book. The book has merits and also seemingly downfall in its narrative style.  In terms of the literary value of the book, it doesn’t have the intellectual prowess of a robust literary work. Narration at some points drag on and rambling nonsensically and overall fail to sustain readers’ interest. But the work fits in what is known as scar literature. The English version of the My Tibetan Childhood is a bridged from its original Tibetan language publication. So the translation might have lost some of its nuance and precision of meanings that is why the reader find some part of the book pretty dry and dull. But Robin Bernette’s long introduction have strategically put the story into context and it added much value as well as the His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s forward buttresses its credibility and significance. 

The Nomadic Life:
 One reader eagerly shared how he was mesmerized the by sights and sought of the nomadic life and the contour of depiction of a Tibetan life prior to the Chinese arrival. it drives home a point that the nomadic life was sustainable and successful in its own term. A considerable time is spent on the Tibetan's nomad in the context of the current China's policy of resettlement. The readers agreed that Tibetan nomad need to adapt to the modern life of way, by educating their children and improving their life style and hygiene, while maintaining their profession of nomadism. The Chinese forced resettlement policy over the excuse of the overgrazing is not a valid argument. This policy has been counterproductive, by uprooting the nomadic life and decimating their very source of livelihood that is the livestock and herds. It is also opined that this forced nomadic resettlement is a political strategy aimed for easy controlling of the Tibetan nomad, who is known to be “ferociously independent nomads, ruled by local chieftains and often associated with banditry and violence"(p19).
Unlike in the past, the Tibetan nomad today has to bear the brunt of Chinese modernization, by integrating and assimilating with the town people, where they have little nor skills for survival, such as Chinese language competency.

Destruction and Denial:
The suffering the author has under gone through is a reflection and reminiscence of all the suffering of Tibetan under Chinese colonial rule. Both Tibetan male and female are imprisoned "there are 2300 male prisoners and 1600 females"(p.304).The starvation of the kids is heart wrenching, where the author has saved many by killing pikas to feed them.  In the prison, the author shared little piece of his dough Tsampa ball, which the elderly Tibetan touched on their mouths, forehead and sniffed, to stay alive with a smell to fill their stomach. “it makes you feel wonderful when you smell it, even if you dont eat it. That feeling is enough (p.282)
Even though, the majority of the story is attributed to life in 1950s, but certain Chinese solider forced monastery monks, in dismantling statues and other destruction and denial are no different from what was unleashed during the Cultural Revolution madness in 1966-1976. The author is nonjudgmental in his narration of the personal memoir. The true depiction of the audacity of the Chinese solider and their merciless attitude toward Tibetan people's religious sentiments is a powerful reminder of Chinese atrocity in Tibet. The stories we hear here is comparable to that of human suffering in Nazi’s concentration camp.

Record and Recovering:

 As the author stated in the beginning that he wishes to leave a legacy for the future generation to recollect what has happened. This book has indeed fulfilled that goal and beyond. “Writing these stories in the form of a book has its disadvantages, but if they are not persevered in print, no one in the future will know what happened.  if they want the next generation to know what happened in the their lifetime, the previous generation must write down and hand it on to the next one”.(p.59)

 Finally, on this soggy evening, we are really fired up, by the content and hospitality of the host. the passion of the readers have kept us warm with lots learning and  Ah ha moment. But what we were able to present here is a just the tip of an iceberg. For greater appreciation of the work, the readers have to imagine or read for themselves.  As the discussion is wrapped, with a delicious meal on the table, we clinked  late into night defying the Virgina’s state of emergency.