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My Tibetan Childhood: When Ice Shattered Stone 
by Naktsang Nulo, translated by Angus Cargill and Sonam Lhamo.
Duke, 286 pp., £17.99, November 2014, 978 0 8223 5726 1
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Last August​ , speaking at an international forum on development in Tibet sponsored by the Chinese government, Neil Davidson, a Labour peer and former advocate general for Scotland, criticised the Western media for bias. The story they had failed to tell, according to Davidson, was that of the remarkable economic development the Chinese government had brought to Tibet in a ‘short time’, by which we must presume he meant the more than sixty years since its ‘liberation’ by Chinese military force. Davidson’s name was attached to the forum’s collective statement, the ‘Lhasa Consensus’, which claimed that the participants had agreed that Tibet ‘enjoys sound economic growth, social harmony, deep-rooted Tibetan culture and beautiful natural scenery, and the people enjoy a happy life’. Davidson has not dissociated himself either from his reported remarks or from this document, though others who took part in the forum have.

A few months later, a Tibetan monk called Kalsang Yeshe set fire to himself in the town of Tawu in what was once the Tibetan province of Kham, and is now Sichuan province. He was the third person to set fire to himself that week, and the 136th since 2009, when Tibetans began to burn themselves to death. The police confiscated Kalsang Yeshe’s remains to deny him his final religious rites. So far, the state has responded to the self-immolations by equipping police patrols with fire extinguishers and arresting anyone who survives the flames. The authorities have also extended criminal responsibility for the act to families, communities, villages and monasteries. These measures have slowed the rate of self-immolations, but have not stopped them. That any Tibetan citizen should choose an agonising death over life under Chinese rule falls some way short of an endorsement of the harmonious society of the Lhasa Consensus. That so many have done so might have caused Davidson to hesitate. In the absence of any public explanation of his remarks, we are left to judge him a fool or a knave.

Arguments over the ‘truth’ about Tibet aren’t new. There is a striking lack of agreement, outside official propaganda, on almost every aspect of the country and its history. All are disputed between Beijing and its supporters, the exile community in India, scholars around the world and activists of many different persuasions. In this contested territory a voice such as that of Naktsang Nulo, author of My Tibetan Childhood, is extremely rare. Naktsang is a Tibetan, a retired government official who worked as a teacher, a police officer, court official, prison governor and county leader in Qinghai, a vast province that stretches across the eastern part of the high Tibetan plateau. This isn’t a wild-eyed rebel, or an ill-informed Western journalist, but a man who was a state official all his working life.

Knowing this background, the reader might anticipate an account of joyful liberation from feudal serfdom and a journey towards the prosperity and social harmony of the Lhasa Consensus. But that is not the story he tells. Naktsang’s narrative plunges straight into a close encounter between a column of Chinese troops and a fugitive group of Tibetans, who discover the aftermath of a massacre:

Dogs were wandering around, eating the corpses of dead sheep and yaks, and the bodies of dead men lay scattered on both sides of the river. They were naked and dark blue. When we rode away from the river towards a cliff, we kept finding more dead people, young and old, lying on the ground … Farther on there were many dead children lying alone, and mothers and children still holding each other in death.

The dead were pilgrims returning from Lhasa, massacred with all their animals. Naktsang was ten years old, and while he was still a boy he witnessed the military occupation of Tibet, Tibetan armed resistance, civilian massacres, the destruction of monasteries and of a way of life that had endured for centuries.

Naktsang was born in a tent in 1949, as a storm raged on the high plateau. He was the second son of a relatively well-off nomad family in Madey Chugama, a settlement of some seven hundred families living on either side of the Machu River in what is now Gansu province in northwest China. The family were Golok, tribal nomads with a fearsome reputation, whom successive governments had prudently left largely to their own devices. But in October of the year of Naktsang’s birth, Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic and the new regime’s intention to ‘liberate’ Tibet.

Nomad life, described in detail here, was not a pastoral idyll: Naktsang’s family were part of a complex and sometimes violent network of clan relationships; in the harsh conditions of the high plateau, death – from disease, accident or weather – was a close companion. But for the nomad child in a family that moved at least twice a year, his place of birth was ‘rich in grass, water, mountains, valleys and soil’, with gazelles and deer in the mountains. Everyone had food and clothing, he writes; people were treated well, and Madey Chugama was ‘the happiest part of all the provinces of Tibet’. It was a place, in his memory, in which ‘religion prospers, and chiefs and lamas are authoritative.’

The family gave its spiritual allegiance to the nearby Tashi Chulong monastery, with its five hundred monks, and lived under the loose political authority of their clan chiefs. Spiritual protection was essential: the day after his birth, his mother and grandmother took Naktsang to the monastery to be blessed, and when he was seven months old, his mother undertook the much longer journey to the great monastery of Labrang Tashikyil in Xiahe. His mother died shortly afterwards, probably of tuberculosis.

In 1951, two years after his birth and almost a year after Chinese troops had defeated the Tibetan army at Chamdo, representatives of the then teenage 14th dalai lama signed the ‘17 point agreement on the peaceful liberation of Tibet’, a treaty between Beijing and the government in Lhasa that set out the conditions for the future relationship. Beijing promised cultural and administrative autonomy to the dalai lama’s government, and in the subsequent reorganisation of the country’s administration allowed Lhasa to retain authority over central and western Tibet, today known as the Tibet Autonomous Region. Beijing further promised that the central government would not carry out ‘socialist reforms’ – land reform and class struggle – in these areas until at least the early 1960s, but would expect the Lhasa government to undertake its own reforms.

The rest of Tibet – including the provinces of Kham and Amdo, where Naktsang’s family lived – was divided between several Chinese provinces, and did not benefit from any such guarantees. Tibetans in Amdo had resisted the arrival of PLA troops in 1949 and fighting had continued there until 1953. In 1954, Amdo’s Tibetan leaders met the dalai lama as he returned from a visit to Beijing to request that the province also be placed under Lhasa’s authority and that it be exempt from socialist reforms. Those leaders were later arrested, and in 1955 reforms began.

Reform is a deceptively mild term. The destruction of rival centres of belief, wealth and power was neither gradual nor consensual, although doctrine dictated that it be described as fulfilling the desire of the people to overthrow their oppressors – the oppressors being the religious authorities, the clan chiefs and any who sought to defend them. The ‘reforms’ took the form of a sustained assault on the monasteries of eastern Tibet, provoking a rebellion in Kham in 1956, widespread armed resistance in Amdo in 1958, which Naktsang lived through, and, eventually, the uprising in Lhasa in 1959 and the flight of the dalai lama into exile.

In the Chinese account of these events, the rebellion in Kham was the work of the United States. That the CIA did support Tibetan resistance in Kham after 1958 is uncontested, but by that point the fighting in response to Chinese imposed reforms had already begun. The events in Amdo that Naktsang describes owed nothing to American training or material support: the fighters in his story are his family and their friends, but they were part of a much wider pattern of resistance. One official account records that 55,000 people were detained in Qinghai for involvement in armed resistance, many of them imprisoned for up to twenty years.

Naktsang describes his father as fiercely self-reliant, a skilled shot and expert tracker, able to read a landscape for hidden dangers. He thought little of killing animals for food even when on pilgrimage, a particularly sinful time for a Tibetan to take a life. After his wife’s early death, he gave away the family’s possessions and moved his two young sons to the vicinity of the monastery where their uncle was a monk. He supported them by hunting and trading, which required long absences from home.

Amdo was a borderland, almost equidistant from Lhasa and Beijing. Lhasa had exercised nominal authority over the western plateau from the 17th century; Beijing was the nominal authority over the eastern plateau, where the substantially Tibetan population lived alongside other ethnic and religious groups. But the region had historically been largely beyond the concerns of either Beijing or Lhasa, and Amdowan Tibetans still speak a dialect that is barely understood in Lhasa. As Robert Barnett explains in his extensive introduction, they bowed to the holy city of Lhasa, but ran their own temporal affairs, negotiating the shifting tribal and clan allegiances, and accepting obligations and protection from local religious figures.

When Naktsang was six, his father took his two sons on a pilgrimage to Lhasa, a six-month journey in each direction. They brought food and a tent, packed onto three yaks and two horses. They travelled in a convoy of a hundred families, the men armed for protection against bandits and wild animals. How much force was needed depended in part on the network of clan relationships: where they were known, they could secure safe passage. Without local friends, the convoy was fair game. Even in Lhasa, as Naktsang describes it, the nomadic clansmen refused to accept external authority: when one of their number was arrested, they snatched him back from the police, so that he could be punished by the appropriate tribal leaders rather than the Tibetan authorities. Nor did Naktsang’s father accept the discipline of the local monastery if he considered it unfair: his defiance in response to an accusation of minor rule-breaking by the monastery’s head of discipline earned him a punishment of 1500 lashes.

Four years later, the family again attempted to reach Lhasa, this time fleeing for their lives. In 1955, Mao had declared that China’s ‘minority nationalities’ were ready for socialist transformation, a violent process involving the destruction of local leaders in the name of an oppressed majority. Rumours began to reach Naktsang’s community that Chinese troops were destroying monasteries and killing anyone who resisted. There was no reason to suppose that their own community would escape. As the Chinese army came closer and the news of its operations grew worse, local clan chiefs began to organise armed resistance.

As fighting began, the local monastery decided not to resist, in the hope that it might avoid destruction. Naktsang was cheered when the arriving troops were identified as the People’s Liberation Army; he had met PLA soldiers before and they had given him sweets. This time it was different. The PLA occupied the monastery, detained several monks and called a meeting that everyone was obliged to attend on pain of arrest. It was a necessary fiction for the Chinese Communist Party that the demand for socialist transformation come from the people. How this worked in practice was soon revealed.

A Chinese officer explained to the monks and villagers that they must decide whether they ‘needed’ the monastery. The terms of the discussion were stark: ‘If you do not say anything, you will show your unhappiness, and if you are unhappy, you will show that you intend to resist. So if you are not a rebel, you must speak.’ At the end of the meeting, the officer announced that he was agreeing to the ‘request of the majority’ of both monks and laymen to close the monastery. The monks were immediately forced at gunpoint to begin the destruction of the statues, sacred objects and finally the building itself. By the next day, many of the villagers had been driven away or killed, the monks were under arrest and the remaining population was confined inside a military cordon.

Naktsang’s family and some other survivors opted for flight. Creeping out of the village under cover of darkness they began a desperate journey across a devastated landscape: burning monasteries, abandoned robes scattered across the roads, fragments of smashed religious objects lying in the dirt, nomad settlements where entire families had been slaughtered, along with their animals. Lhasa proved unreachable. When Naktsang’s story breaks off, his father has been killed and he and his brother have experienced imprisonment, beating and desperate hunger. He has never been allowed to return to his birthplace.

In one​ of the most shocking scenes in Naktsang’s book, a Tibetan mob under Chinese supervision beats three senior lamas to death during a ‘speak bitterness’ meeting. Naktsang does not relate the events of the next twenty years, in which Tibetans were forced into communes, monks and nuns were obliged to resume a lay life, imprisoned, sent to labour camps or executed. (According to the late panchen lama, between 1959 and 1962 some 15 per cent of the population of Qinghai was imprisoned; half did not survive.) When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, the remaining monasteries were looted and destroyed and anyone associated with traditional culture risked months of public humiliation and abuse, if not worse. Even without this, Naktsang’s is a shattering story, the only published account of the experience of ordinary families during the Chinese assertion of control in Amdo, or of the nomads’ doomed resistance against an overwhelming force of PLA regulars.

These are all forbidden memories in China, direct challenges to the official story that Tibetans longed to be liberated from a world of medieval darkness and oppression, in order to reap the great benefits of the Chinese revolution. Naktsang’s story also challenges the understanding, still widespread in China, that the Chinese went to Tibet in a spirit of self-sacrifice to help the natives and that the rebellion across Tibet in 2008 was a sign of rank ingratitude.

The book was written in Amdo dialect and published locally as a neibu (‘internal’) publication in June 2007. Neibu texts are restricted to official circles and only three thousand copies were printed, but permission was given for its publication and it was allotted an official publication code. It was quickly pirated – it may have sold tens of thousands in pirate editions – then translated into standard Tibetan, and into Chinese for publication in Taiwan in 2011. In his preface, Naktsang describes it as the ‘unvarnished evidence of a young child – what he saw, what he heard, and what he thought. There was no grand description in it, or purpose behind it.’ If such stories ‘are not preserved in print’, he goes on, ‘no one in the future will know what happened.’

Naktsang’s approach – telling the story through the eyes of the child he was – means that the narrative can ignore the larger story of what he calls a time of great change. This allows him to make moral judgments, while avoiding political ones. His book tells of a family, buffeted and eventually destroyed by violent upheaval, but he avoids such sensitive questions as the prior independence of Tibet, since it’s not something a child would have been concerned about. (The official history insists that Tibet was incorporated into China in the 13th century; suggesting otherwise can still lead to imprisonment.)

Much has now been written on the brutal state-building of the People’s Republic’s first two decades. There has been some relaxation of historical censorship: the Cultural Revolution is acknowledged to have been a grave blunder and it has lately become possible to mention the mass starvation of the early 1960s without insisting it was caused by bad weather. But as Barnett explains, the official history of Tibet has not been rewritten, nor have Tibetans enjoyed the same latitude to tell their own story. Some authors have had their work published illegally and have been punished, leaving Naktsang’s as the only legally published account of the dramatic events of the 1950s in Amdo written from the Tibetan perspective. As Barnett writes, My Tibetan Childhood is both ‘a project of recovery and an act of recordkeeping’.

The level of detail and verbatim reported speech, however, must raise questions about the nature of the exercise. Does he really remember all this, or is it a reconstructed and perhaps fictionalised account? The author insists that it is pure recollection, with nothing added. Although the degree of detail is surprising, the facts of the narrative have not been challenged.

Since the book was first published the situation in Amdo has deteriorated. It was again a place of resistance in March 2008, when unrest swept across the Tibetan areas. These disturbances had a profound effect on the view of Tibet in the Chinese public mind. If Tibetans had been patronised previously as simple but lovable people, short on personal hygiene but pure in heart, after the disturbances, in which several Chinese were killed in Lhasa, they have been seen as the enemy within. Depressingly familiar myths started to be recounted by Chinese nationalists: one angry Han nationalist insisted to me that he had seen photographs of Han Chinese babies impaled on meat-hooks by Tibetans, people he characterised as the ‘world’s worst terrorists’. Generations of Chinese schoolchildren have been taught that old Tibet was a medieval hell, so it isn’t surprising that the average Chinese citizen believes Tibetans were grateful for their liberation. In addition, the Chinese state has invested billions in infrastructure, building roads, railways and high-rise buildings, and has sent enlightened officials to raise Tibetans out of poverty – surely gratitude must be due? How, then, to explain Tibetans’ continuing devotion to their exiled spiritual leader or the degree of despair that the self-immolations demonstrate? Since 2008, restrictions on religious practice and on lay freedom of expression have grown. This has served only to make stronger the sense of nationhood that the Chinese occupation has forged in this scattered and disparate people.

The resource extraction and inward migration that the Chinese roads and railway facilitate, the marginalisation of Tibetans in Tibet, and the settlement of nomads in bleak, regimented villages: these rarely figure in the official account. The plateau itself is changing: climate change threatens the permafrost and the water supply, and massive engineering works have transformed the region into a transport corridor along which Han migrants and Tibetan resources pass in opposite directions.

Memories of the culture of the nomads of the plateau, and of their fate, are now confined to an ageing generation. As one of that generation, Naktsang clearly feels his responsibility to history. Since My Tibetan Childhood was published, he has emerged from retirement and has become an online voice for Tibetan culture. In 2013, in a blog post in which he discussed the self-immolations for the first time, he wrote: ‘whether one has the courage to articulate one’s opinions depends on various factors … For someone like me who has even lost the power over his life and death to an external authority, I do not have the freedom to express any critical opinions on an issue which is linked to the one who pays me my salary.’ But, he continued, ‘I do not have the habit to tell lies and smile over a cup of tea to fool myself and others.’

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