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Voices from Tibet. Selected Essays and Reportage

Voices from Tibet. Selected Essays and Reportage

Martin Lavicka27 Feb 2015Leave a comment

Written by Kamila Hladíková

Tsering Woeser, Wang Lixiong. Voices from Tibet. Selected Essays and Reportage. Ed. and transl. by Violet S. Law. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, and Honolulu: University of Hawai´i Press, 2014. 132 pp.; ISBN 9780824840082; 55 USD (hardcover)

There hardly is a more courageous woman among the Chinese (let alone Tibetan) literary and intellectual circles than Tsering Woeser. After the ban of her book Notes on Tibet (Xizang biji) in 2003 she was forced to leave Lhasa and moved with her husband Wang Lixiong to Beijing, where they both started to comment on contemporary Tibet and all related topics. They were very effective during the Tibetan protests of 2008, when they gathered and published online information about what was happening in Tibetan areas, so that they became often the only reliable source for the western media, who did not have access to first-hand information. Both of them have been active on the internet and on social media, such as Twitter or Facebook, sharing information and comments, and thus attempting to establish a wider dialog between Chinese and Tibetan intellectual elites, between Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet, and between the Chinese dissent within the PRC and the West. This is something that modern technology has enabled only in the last ten years.

The book, Voices from Tibet, includes an exhaustive and skilfully written introduction by one of the utmost authorities on contemporary Tibet Robert Barnett, from Columbia University, and around forty short essays, most of them just one or two pages long, by either Woeser or Wang Lixiong. The relatively long introduction explains the historical background of the contemporary situation in Tibet, upon which Robert Barnett casts the life stories of both authors, introducing their works, and describing their personal evolution to become China’s most prominent dissidents (some kind of international celebrities often quoted in the western media, similarly as, for example, the artist Ai Weiwei). The essays and reportage pieces, originally published on Woeser’s blog or on certain Chinese-language independent online media, were selected and translated from Chinese by Violet S. Law. Although it is not differentiated in the text who wrote which part, the “Source list” at the end gives a clue, not only who is the author of a particular text, but also about the source from which the text was translated. About half of the essays have already appeared in the Taiwanese edition of Voices from Tibet (Tingshuo Xizang) published in Taibei in 2009. The rest are more recent texts written for Woeser’s blog or for the Mandarin version of Radio Free Asia.

The texts are roughly sorted into five chapters, namely “Old Lhasa Politicized”, “Economic Imperialism with Chinese Characteristics”, “Religion under Siege”, “Wrecking Nature”, and “Culture Twisted, Trampled”. These represent five groups of actual problems that endanger Tibetan culture and challenge the Tibetan identity as such. The first chapter has focused on the general policy of the CCP and its propaganda, either in Tibet or in the whole country. Woeser and Wang Lixiong comment on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, on the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo or on the new “agenda” concerning the “Chinese dream” introduced by the new CCP and country leader Xi Jinping. However, the last three essays in the chapter are addressed more directly to Tibetans. In the “Let Go of the Dalai Lama” Woeser explains the Dalai Lama’s several decades’ effort on democratization of Tibetan society and the Tibetan government in exile in an attempt to avoid a similar dispute about his successor as it happened with the 10th Panchen Lama. And she continues in a similar way in the two essays that follow, where she critiques the Tibetan passive attitude of day-dreaming and nihilistic resignation, which only intensifies the frustration, and in the end leads so many young people to the desperate act of self-immolation.

In the second chapter the authors describe the impact of Chinese “social capitalism” with the consequent economic boom, re-shaped in Tibet into a form of merciless cultural imperialism. They mention some of the most apparent phenomena of the contemporary economic situation in Tibet, such as the inability of Tibetan entrepreneurs to break through the Chinese competitors, the Tibetan chase for the precious Caterpillar Fungus that has had negative impacts on the traditional way of life of rural communities as well as on the relations between or even within families, or the omnipresent expansion of prostitution in all Tibetan areas.

The following chapter has focused on the official restrictions of religious life, showing how hard is it be a monk or a nun in Tibet after the series of demonstrations in 2008, originally staged mostly by the clerics. One of Woeser’s essays remembers the young 11th Panchen Lama who has been missing for almost twenty years having disappeared at the age of six, and several texts comment on the situation in Tibetan holy places and temples that have been changed into attractions for tourists, drawing huge amounts of money from them into private pockets, and disturbing the monks and worshippers in their daily prayers.

The fourth chapter is on environmental issues, introducing some of the Chinese “development projects”, which unbalance the fragile Tibetan ecosystems, and mapping the enforced “modernization” of Lhasa that has already almost ruined the last residues of the original Tibetan buildings in the eastern part of the city. The last chapter touches upon several culture-related issues, such as education for Tibetan children from rural areas and the future prospects of traditional Tibetan style of life, or the domination of the Chinese culture promoted through official celebrations of traditional Chinese festivals and holidays.

This short publication does not bring much new information, nor does it present many sharp new insights into the problems of Tibet, but it still represents a valuable and highly informed reflection on the contemporary situation from the Tibetan perspective. As the title suggests, it is first of all an attempt to let Tibet to be heard on the international scene. The prevailing attitude of the western media towards Tibet is mostly that of ignorance. But now, Tibet has found a strong voice that wants to be heard. Most of the problems referred to in this book are not completely unknown to western readers with an interest in Tibet, but Woeser presents them with an emotional and subjective attitude of an insider, who is at the same time well versed in Chinese ideology and policy, and is familiar with both cultural environments. This makes her writings quite matter-of-fact, and much more reliable than the sometimes too simple propaganda-like expressions of the exile-born Tibetan activists and exiled intellectuals. There are not many people today, who can see and analyze the situation in Tibet more clearly than Woeser and Wang Lixiong, and their predictions about the future are rather pessimistic. Their writings are thus not only attempts to let Tibet be heard outside of the PRC, but primarily an attempt to let it be heard inside, to prevent the next tragedies that are inevitably to come, if things do not change.

The book is closed with Woeser’s “Epilogue”, where she comments on her receiving the International Women of Courage Award from the US State Department in the spring of 2013. At the end she dedicates this award “to all the Tibetans who have perished in self-immolation”. Apart from the “List of sources”, the book has included a short “Bibliography” of publications the authors have quoted from or have used as reference materials.


Weise 唯色, Wang Lixiong 王力雄. Tingshuo Xizang: Fa zi Xizang xianchang de duli shengying 聽說西藏:發自西藏現場的獨立聲音 (Voices from Tibet). Taipei: Locus Publishing, 2009.

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