In This Review

The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier
The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier
By Benno Weiner
Cornell University Press, 2020, 312 pp
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Conflicting Memories: Tibetan History Under Mao Retold; Essays and Primary Documents
Conflicting Memories: Tibetan History Under Mao Retold; Essays and Primary Documents
Edited by Robert Barnett, Benno Weiner, and Françoise Robin
Brill, 2020, 712 pp
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Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution
Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution
By Tsering Woeser. Translated by Susan T. Chen. Edited by Robert Barnett
Potomac Books, 2020, 448 pp
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Beijing’s difficulty incorporating Tibetans into the Chinese nation goes back to the earliest days of communist rule. These three books offer precious insights into a hidden history, hinting at the range of stories that will be told if the region’s archives are ever opened. During a brief period of access, Weiner was able to conduct research in the government and party archives of the Zeku Tibetan Autonomous County, in Qinghai Province, poring over documents dating from 1953 to 1960. Once the new communist government had pacified resistance, it merged two organizational systems: Tibetan tribal chieftains and religious leaders manned the government, and Han cadres from outside the region staffed the more powerful Chinese Community Party organization. Beijing was unsatisfied with the results of that system. The party sought to persuade the local communities to identify with a larger, multiethnic Chinese nation but faced various forms of passive and active resistance. In 1958, the party moved decisively to destroy the local power structure and create pastoral collectives. The Tibetans and the Hui Muslims in the region rebelled but were repressed with great violence, which was followed by a severe famine. Parallel events occurred across the Tibetan Plateau, creating a legacy that shapes Han-Tibetan relations today.

Conflicting Memories interweaves translated excerpts from 15 sources from the post-Mao era—speeches, memoirs, film scripts, oral histories, fiction, narratives of spiritual journeys, and others—with 13 interpretive essays by impressively qualified Western and exiled Tibetan scholars. Several documents present the official Chinese view that the imposition of Han rule in the 1950s and 1960s was essentially benevolent and successful, even if some mistakes were made. But most of the sources, chiefly those published unofficially or outside China, offer the victims’ perspectives on forced labor, imprisonment, torturous “struggle sessions” (during which people were forced to publicly confess to various misdeeds), and the destruction of monasteries and religious relics. All the contributions by Tibetans express an intense commitment to their distinctive culture and religion.

Woeser’s book takes up the story with the arrival of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Her father was a military propaganda officer who used his personal camera to document the public humiliation and torture of leading monks and aristocrats, the destruction of historic sites, triumphal rallies and marches, and posed images of smiling Tibetan youths holding portraits of Mao. Years after her father’s death, she decided to publish the photos abroad. Her close reading of each picture tells readers as much as she could find out about who is portrayed, what happened to them, and the memories triggered in survivors when she showed them the images.