Unfree Thinker


The demure-looking Woeser seems like anything but a threat to the Chinese state. Yet the government has banned the Tibetan writer's books, sometimes restricts her movements, and last summer shut down her two blogs. Still, the censors have not fully succeeded in silencing the prolific writer, who works away on a computer in her simple apartment in a Beijing suburb, surrounded by the many Tibetan religious and cultural images that cover the walls.


Tibet experts heap praise on the 40-year-old writer, who is living in self-exile in the capital, saying her writings on Tibet have had an enormous influence.

Robbie Barnett, professor of contemporary Tibetan studies at Columbia University, says Woeser is the first Tibetan to play the role of public intellectual in China in the sense of using modern media. He says thousands of Tibetans have expressed their opposition through demonstrations and leaflets, but Woeser's statements are "signed, enduring and have a very wide impact".

Professor Barnett says Woeser is more of a cultural figure than a 
political one, likening her to public intellectuals such as Harold 
Pinter and Arthur Miller. "She writes as a humanist, as an author 
struggling to describe the emotions and experiences of individualsshe's met in a world where many of their most important memories and wishes have been forbidden," he said.

Tseten Wangchuk, a journalist with the Tibetan Service of the Voice of America in Washington, says when he was in China, Tibetan intellectuals privately discussed the Tibet problem. "But she was the first one who really brought this from private conversational circles to the public domain," he said. "In that sense, this was a big breakthrough for Tibet."

Having never learned to read or write in her own language, Woeser is forced to express herself in Chinese. Wangchuk says Woeser is representative of a new generation of Tibetans who are using the Chinese language to challenge the central government in a highly articulate manner. He estimates there are between 200 and 300 blogs set up by Tibetans around the world. "It's no longer just a state narrative, and that in itself is pretty important," he said.

"Relations between the Chinese state and people and Tibetans arechanging. In the past it was a pretty straightforward relationship of the Chinese government dealing with Tibetans who were uneducated or who were loyal to the Chinese Communist Party, with anyone who didn't obey being struck down. But it's no longer black and white.

"Tibetans are challenging the Chinese state and this is the first 
time they have openly talked about the Tibet problem." Woeser wasn't always a free thinker. She was born in Lhasa to a Tibetan mother and a half-Tibetan, half-Han father who was an officer in the People's Liberation Army (PLA). She attended Chinese schoolsin Sichuan province , where she says she received "a red education". "I was brainwashed," she said. Woeser later studied Chinese literature at the Southwest Nationalities Institute in Chengdu .

Graduation in 1990 was a turning point in her life. She returned to Lhasa where she worked for a Tibetan literary journal and began 
writing poetry. She made many Tibetan friends and became interested in Buddhism. She also began to read translations of foreign books smuggled into Tibet, including a translation of John Avedon's In Exile From the Land of the Snows, a depiction of how the PLA took control of Tibet and of the Dalai Lama's harrowing escape into India. Woeser admits to at first being unable to believe what she read. She showed the book to her father, who said it was 70 per cent correct. An uncle, also in the PLA, gave it higher marks: 90 per cent, he said.

"As soon as I heard this, I stopped believing in the Communist 
Party," she said. "Those books had a huge impact on me.

"It was incredibly moving and completely the opposite of what I'dlearned in school. We had been taught that the old Tibet was dark and backward and a very frightening place, and that the PLA came and gave us a better life."

Woeser says she was also strongly influenced by the works of Edward Said, the author of Orientalism, and a long-time advocate of the Palestinian cause. Said's theory of post colonialism particularly gave her a new framework for looking at China's rule over Tibet.

Woeser says she's determined to write "the truth" about Tibet. "As a writer, I felt I needed to write about these things, the real Tibet,  and not the false Tibet presented by the government," she said.

In an interview with Radio Free Asia she described how, for years,  the party's literary and art workers had "revised Tibet, repainted 
Tibet, resung Tibet, redanced Tibet, refilmed Tibet, resculpted Tibet".

"Actual history was changed in this image, coloured by red ideology," she said. "The memories of generations of Tibetans were changed."

Woeser's biggest contribution to understanding Tibet's history is her work on the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). "A lot of young Tibetans don't know about the Cultural Revolution," she said, because the subject is taboo in Lhasa. "I want them to understand this period."

She spent six years researching the period in Lhasa, meeting secretly with more than 70 people. She says many were too frightened to speak with her. Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution is a collection of nearly 300 rare photos taken in Lhasa during the period by her father.

The book shows startling photos of Tibetan monks and nuns - some Living Buddhas - being abused. Typically a monk or nun stands, head bowed in fear, the face made more grotesque by Red Guards who drew moustaches, beards and glasses on them with black ink. They're wearing dunce caps with "reactionary" or "exploiting class" written in Tibetan. Some clutch pottery in their hands, apparently further proof of their decadence.

A courtyard inside the Jokhang Palace, one of the most holy sites in Tibet, is completely covered with the rubble of smashed religious items. One chilling photo shows a number of Tibetans standing trussed in a truck with their "crimes" written on long wooden planks that are shoved down the backs of their shirts. They're on their way to the killing field.

"When I first saw those photos, I couldn't believe it, I didn't think   they existed," said Wangchuk. "I thought we would never be able to show people what happened. These photos have great value."
One of Woeser's most popular books is Notes on Tibet, a collection of prose, literature, travel writing and reportage. The manuscript made the rounds of several publishing houses, but they demanded deletions, which she refused. Finally, a Guangdong company agreed to publish the book uncensored in 2003.

One piece describes the Tibetans' deep respect for the Dalai Lama,  whom the Chinese have denounced as a splittist, a terrorist and 
irrelevant. The Tears of Nyima is a bittersweet story of a lama who travels to Norway as part of an official Chinese human rights 
delegation. Tibetan exiles on the street denounce him as a "gyami   lama", or communist lama, a charge that stuns him. He's later reduced to tears after a young Tibetan woman grabs his hands and pleads with him not to return to China. 

The book went into a second printing before the United Front Office charged that it contained "serious political mistakes". It was pulledfrom the shelves and in 2004 Woeser was dismissed from her position at the Tibet Autonomous Region Literature Association in Lhasa for refusing to repent. 

"They wanted me to do a self-examination and admit that I made a mistake," she said. "But I couldn't do it." She lost her job, flat,   
medical insurance and pension. 

Her books banned at home, she found a company in Taiwan that would publish them. Three were published last March in Taipei. She wanted to travel there for the launch, but her application for a passport was rejected. She's now at work on several new books. 

Woeser established two blogs where she posted her poetry and essays on Tibetan culture. The blogs attracted hundreds of thousands ofvisitors before they were shut down on July 28. In the afternoon a call came from the Gansu company that hosted one of the blogs confirming that the United Front Department in Beijing had given the order. The host of her other blog wrote to her and said: "Freedom of expression is never absolute." 

She concedes there are many reasons officials would be upset with her blogs. When the Dalai Lama turned 71 on July 6, she wrote a birthday poem that she posted along with a photo of the religious leader. The opening of the controversial new Qinghai-Tibet rail line soon became another hot topic on her blog as she wrote about the possible negative effects on Tibet's already overburdened cultural sites should the region become inundated with tourists. 

She also posted news of the Dalai Lama's statement made last January in India urging Tibetans to stop wearing the fur of endangered species. The call spurred the mass burning of traditional Tibetan clothing that included fur. The Chinese government was enraged by the swift reaction to the Dalai Lama's speech. Woeser posted photos she had taken of Tibetans burning fur and police seizing furs in Lhasa.  Some 300 readers posted comments. Authorities were also likely not pleased by the 20 Cultural Revolution photos she had put online. 

Woeser laments that she has not learned to read or write her ownlanguage. She says she's tried several times to learn, but gave upeach time. "I'm not so young any more," she said, smiling with 

One story is told about a monastery in the Amdo region, where the monks, who can't read Chinese, wait for the frequent visits of a Chinese convert to Tibetan Buddhism. As soon as she arrives theywhisk her off to the small internet cafe near the monastery, wherethey sit her down and ask her to translate Woeser's latest writings. 

Woeser says her Chinese writing ability has enabled her to reach many Han Chinese. "There are many Chinese who write about Tibet, but 99 per cent of what they write is not correct because they have a Han mentality, which sees themselves as being benefactors of Tibet who gave the area everything," she said. 

"Tibet is not what you think. Tibetans were not waiting for you toliberate us. Tibet has a proud people and an extraordinary precious and unique culture. It's equal to all other cultures, and notinferior to any." 

Tibet watchers worry that the Chinese government may take stronger steps to rein in the Tibetan writer. 

"She is a unique voice representing the thinking and aspirations of a lot of Tibetans who have not said very much or have not found a forum in which they can safely speak," Professor Barnett said. "It would be terrible for Tibet if anything happened to her." 

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney