When The Division of Heaven and Earth: On Tibet’s Peaceful Revolution was first published in Tibet in 2010, the Chinese authorities arrested its author, Shokdung, and banned the book immediately. The writer was imprisoned for six months. Gradually, copies of the book began to circulate underground in Tibet.
Shokdung’s book is an account of the revolution of 2008, a wave of peaceful protests that took place in Tibet, in particular at the region’s Chinese frontier. The book is divided into two parts: in the first, the author recounts the protests through the feelings of joy, sorrow and fear—a nod to an ancient Tibetan folktale; in the second, he describes methods of non-violent protests that Tibetans could undertake in the future. In the following extract from the book, Shokdung recalls the torture that Tibetans have faced in the past—and which they continued to face in 2008—for speaking out against the Chinese regime.
As this hidden realm of the human world, embodiment of ten million wonders, this Tibet, known as the last pristine land on earth, became a twenty-first-century slaughterhouse, none of the peoples of the world came to our aid; even the Dharmapalas and protectors, the territorial spirits and local deities on whom the Tibetan people rely, the Dakas and Dakinis, none intervened to avert disaster and terror. Did humans like myself raise doubts or objections? What I have descriptively called the lord of death’s slaughterhouse, has there ever been such a massacre, covering the entire Tibetan plateau? Not to die but to have to keep living through the direct experience of this slaughterhouse, how to survive this other than with the fatalistic expression used by Tibetans, “Karmic destiny.” ‘By light of day there is no outlet for grief, nor for cries of woe in the dark of night, the helpless bereaved seeking solace is all there is.’
How about the cycle of slaughter unleashed in Tibet fifty years ago? From even a glance at the following accounts, we can see how Tibet was turned into the lord of death’s slaughterhouse in the past. In his autobiography, A Tibetan Revolutionary, Bapa Puntsok Wanggyé wrote:
Not only was I imprisoned, but those involved in my case, including my younger brother Tubten Wangchuk, who spent 14 years in prison, my wife Dzélek-la who died as a result of mistreatment, and our children were also imprisoned and forced to do Reform through Labour for many years (the eldest son Punkham was imprisoned for six years). Due to this, my kind father Goranangpa Yeshé eventually died tragically of grief and bitterness, and dozens of our relatives were also imprisoned in connection with my case. My fellow fighter comrade Topden and others also died from abuse, and comrade Ngawang Kelsang was imprisoned and forced to do Reform through Labour for 16 years.
Thousands and thousands of people were driven into prisons like sheep, innocent people mown down like hay, rolled like paper, kneaded like hide, crammed into the dark recesses of dungeons; bound with steel wire when there were no handcuffs and leg irons left; their socks and belts confiscated; made to wear black hoods; subjected to wooden and iron clubs and mechanical and electrical punishment devices, a degree of torment possible only in the worst of hells. It was not a matter of just getting knocked about; with deliberate malice, they went for the genitals of those who father the next generation, the laymen, and for the vital organs of those who do not, the monks. The henchmen of the lord of death made threats like spitting bile: “These guns of ours are made to kill you Tibetans. If you take a single step I will shoot you dead, and your corpse will be thrown on the rubbish heap”—the words of the Labrang monk Jigmé, as reported on the website of the Voice of America’s Tibetan language service. Destroying people’s dignity by hanging them upside down from the ceiling and stamping on their foreheads is something one might expect to see only in a film about fascist or Nazi atrocities. Never mind that “Chinese prisoners are allowed to learn literacy, but Tibetans are not … Tibetan prisoners are only allowed to speak to each other in Chinese, not in Tibetan … not allowed to speak their own language or to express their own identity”—from Jamyang Kyi’s, A Sequence of Tortures—even to describe being deprived of sleep during days and nights on end of interrogation to break the will, and the physical beating, hitting and lashing, these three, could barely match even a small fraction of the torment.
As we read in Te’urang’s Written in Blood, “The hardest thing to endure is not the physical torture but the invasion of one’s thoughts”; and in Jamyang Kyi’s A Sequence of Tortures, “One day during interrogation, the thought suddenly came to me that, rather than go through this, I would prefer to be shot dead with a single bullet. My family and relatives might be upset, but for me at least it would be over and done with,” this is the kind of torment one would rather die than endure, and under this constant, unthinkable torture, many brave Tibetan souls with the limitless courage of the imperial spirit were broken and maimed, and came to the end of their lives. The torture of deprivation of food and water, designed to turn them all into hungry ghosts, drove people to the edge of life and death, and for those not finished by hunger, the torment of thirst led “more than 60 among us to drink their own urine”—from Gartsé Jigmé’s The Courage of the Emperors, volume 1. This inhumane brutality of torturing people through hunger and thirst is no different from the past. Not only did innumerable people die of hunger, for the living too:
with the flames of the suffering of hunger blazing bright, even things like Bacha [the cake residue of pressed oil seeds] and Pukma [the chaff of harvested grain] which used to be given to horses, donkeys and cattle became like nutritious food and hard to obtain. To maximise the amount of food and relieve hunger, those running communal kitchens used to quite openly pick not just edible grasses but inedible tree bark and leaves, grass roots and grains, and after processing them, mix them with a little food grain and make a kind of slop like pigswill, which they fed to people. Eventually, when even this became limited, there was not enough of it for people to eat to satisfaction.
Thus when the torments of hunger passed beyond all limits, those in prison were said to have “grown a tail”—become like herbivorous cattle, a term taken from Tsering Dondrup’s Raging Red Wind. Even worse things happened, for example:
During the 1958 famine, since he was a ‘hatted’ reactionary, he was given the job of carrying out corpses. One day, one of his friends, who was about to die of starvation asked him to bring back some human flesh when he went to dispose of the corpses. He tried once or twice, but could not find any flesh to bring back, because the dead were people who had also died of starvation, and their bodies were just skin and bone, with no flesh at all. One day, he found a body with a little flesh on it and brought some back. Next day, that person told him “That meat you brought yesterday, I cooked it up with a piece of willow bark and drank the soup, and last night I slept very well.” (The Courage of the Emperors, volume 1)
Or again: “The prisoners were driven by hunger to eat flesh taken from human corpses,” (My Homeland and the Peaceful Liberation). So isn’t this just like revisiting the years when we were driven by starvation even beyond the refusal to eat the flesh of human corpses? Throughout the history of the Tibetan people, far from having to drink their own urine and eat human flesh, one cannot even find records of people starving to death. The incidence of such total horrors in recent history is the accomplishment of those who claim always to be “serving the people.”
Up to now, famous, knowledgeable, capable, courageous, brave and farsighted Tibetans have been falsely accused by the dictators and punished with deprivation of freedom. For example, the tenth Panchen Lama expressed limitless praise and flattery for them, saying things such as: “In the case of our own Tibet region, we are on the point of transforming from the old society to the new, from darkness to bright light, from suffering to happiness, from exploitation to equality, and from poverty to progress, and have started on a new and brilliant era in our history,” but even he was locked away for almost a decade. Likewise, no end of able individuals were unfairly sentenced and imprisoned, and in this year’s peaceful revolution too, more than 200 people have been sentenced so far, as can be seen from unofficial reports published on the internet. Since this was simply for breaking laws passed by the dictators with the sole intention of preserving their hold on power, it is only the continuation of their practice of legal prosecution in violation of morality and principle. From time to time, autocratic régimes pass various legal edicts designed to consolidate their hold on power that violate universal values, and these edicts that they hold to be vital are precisely edicts from hell for those who favour freedom, equality and democracy.
While subjecting those detained in the course of the peaceful revolution to brutal discipline and terrifying intimidation, they were interrogated about which organisation they belonged to, what was their plan, who supported them, who were their collaborators; and when these investigations proved fruitless, innocent people were and continue to be charged under whichever provisions from the relevant edicts from hell, and prosecuted in secret. From start to finish, their crimes were given as nothing other than: “seeking to split the country,” “seeking to overthrow state authority,” “leaking state secrets,” and so on. They are ever sensitive to anything concerning “the state” and “state authority,” regarding it as vital, and whoever they decide has jeopardised the state or state authority is punished with anything from several years in prison to execution.
This is supposed to be like the saying “If the head is tied down, the body will tremble (with fear).” The dictators always and in all respects conflate the particular interests of their faction with those of the state and state authority, and constantly use these terms to enforce their power over the people. For them, this year’s peaceful revolution was ‘not about nationality issues or religious issues or human rights issues, but about the issue of state authority. Anyone they charge with opposing a basic principle of their rule, such as state authority, becomes what we would call a political prisoner. The given charge of “endangering the state and state authority” really means that the accused is suspected of posing a threat to the power of the dictators.
In a totalitarian state, there are many examples of crimes that would never be considered as such in the rest of the world, like the political offences for which five-year-old children and 81-year-old seniors have been imprisoned. A few years ago, the five-year-old eleventh Panchen Lama was put under house arrest, and during this year’s peaceful revolution, the 81-year-old printer of religious books, Peljor Norbu, was sentenced to seven years in prison. Never mind robbing the youth, who have just begun to experience life’s joys and sorrows, of their liberty, where else would one see a judicial process so barbaric as to insist on prosecuting an 81-year-old, in violation of all moral, natural and humane norms, but under a totalitarian régime? The youngest political prisoner in the world is to be found in Tibet, and the oldest. It is because the Tibetan people are human cattle that they have to bear the burden of such imprisonment, and it is because Tibetan heads are made of stone that they must be labelled with false accusations.
This excerpt has been edited and condensed.
Shokdung is the pen-name of Tibetan author Tra-gya, who has written several controversial books and essays on the relation between Tibetan culture and modernity.