Talking to Tibetans in Kham using the Chinese language, one often hears the phrase wenhua dageming. It translates to “Great Cultural Revolution,” which was a violent and extreme political movement in China, engineered by Mao, that started in 1966 and ended with Mao’s death in 1976. I often heard Tibetans say things like: during wenhua dageming this temple was used as a canteen, or that monastery had only a few caretaker monks, or my family’s home was confiscated, or some such thing.
The label “Cultural Revolution” is of course a complete misnomer because the movement was not so much revolution as annihilation — especially of “The Four Olds:” old ideas, old culture, old habits, and old customs.
Once, back in the 1990s, when I was giving a talk, a woman in the audience asked me very pointedly, “This ‘Cultural Revolution’ you keep talking about – isn’t that a euphemism for ‘genocide’?” To anyone familiar with Chinese history, the answer is: not exactly. The intent was more like wiping clean society’s collective software than eliminating particular races. Yet because it was carried like a virus from the Chinese interior into Tibet, and because it killed so many Tibetans, it could also be viewed as an intentional pogrom.
The history of the Cultural Revolution is still being written today as records come to light and people have become more empowered to tell their personal stories. A new documentary film I saw recently, The Revolution They Remember, shows hours of interviews of mostly Han people from every part of China who witnessed or even took part in torture. A new book by dissident Tsering Woeser, Forbidden Memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution, tells how it unfolded in Lhasa using interviews and searing photographs taken by her father.
But wenhua dageming was not the only time of violence and chaos: the decade and a half before the Cultural Revolution was also a period of almost continuous upheaval, starting in 1950 when the Communists arrived in Tibet. Amdo and Kham were much more impacted than Lhasa and the rest of what is now TAR, which the Party treated with kid gloves for some years due to its de facto independence. I believe that wenhua dageming is used by many of my friends in Kham as a fudge when speaking about events that happened well before the Cultural Revolution started. Chinese state authorities have more or less admitted that the Cultural Revolution was a horrendous mistake, and they have assigned a scapegoat, the Gang of Four, who are considered criminals and renegades. So it’s safer to unhitch all the atrocities of the 1950s from their proper timeline and lump them in with wenhua dageming.
When people say “during the Cultural Revolution“, I suspect that they really mean “during that decades-long ordeal that ended in 1979.” In my recent book about my NGO work in Kham, I simply call that period “the years of turmoil.” Fudging the timeline like that blurs the question of blame.
For amateur historians like me trying to piece together what happened in Tibet through the lens of people’s recollections, the fudging means that the 1950s are a void. Jiefang (“liberation”) is acceptable to mention and wenhua dageming can be talked about; what came in between, not so much. And of course, people who lived through it are slowing disappearing.
Which is why, when a work of history comes along focused solely on the 1950s based on archival Chinese government documents, such as Benno Weiner’s recent book, The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier, my head kind of explodes. Yes, it is an academic book. Yes, it is a bit dry and it certainly is apolitical. But, still, (or maybe because) — WOW. It draws back the curtain that has hidden the 1950s behind a wall of amnesia and euphemism. Who would think that it could ever be possible to go rooting around in dusty file drawers in the archives of Zeku County (Tibetan: Tsekhok) and read government reports written sixty-odd years ago? It takes huge huevos even to ask for access. Like the NGO work I did in Kham all those years, it sounds totally impossible. But Professor Weiner asked, and they said yes.
Another thing that grabbed me about this book is that it’s about Amdo. I never paid much attention to Amdo (unless you count biking over snow covered passes between Kumbum and Labrang in 1990-1). I have always been focused on Kham. But it turns out that a lot happened in Amdo, some of it similar to events in Kham, some of it quite different.
If you pick up this book (and you should), you’ll need to learn some new terms and ideas. Here are a few that stretched my thinking the most:
Herdlords. These are rich herders who have lots of animals and (mind blowingly) rent out their animals to poor herders for, apparently, rather high rents. They are lords of yaks and sheep, instead of lords of land. This was a thing in Amdo back then.
Subimperial. This word is not yet in the dictionary, and I’m not sure I dare to paraphrase the lengthy polysyllabic sentences with which Weiner discusses it, so instead I’ll give an example. The Qing Dynasty is an empire, and the Dege Kingdom (which Weiner would call a “chiefdom”) is subimperial, and it is so because the Qing emperors and the Dege kings were not in a purely master-subordinate relationship. The Qing projected their power outward from Beijing, but it frayed at the edges, so the Qing could not command absolute authority in Dege and other frontier regions. But nor were they completely powerless. The Dege kings worked out suitable accommodations with the Qing, for it was smart politics to live in a polite balance where both sides could pretend that they were fully in charge whereas in fact both had limits to their authority. In short, back then national borders were not clear and bright like they are today, they were broad and fuzzy, and everybody had to accommodate their neighbors. If you can bend your mind around this, then a lot of the conflicting discourse on the Tibet issue suddenly makes sense.
United Front. Students of twentieth century Chinese history know this already, but I didn’t understand it until I read this book. It’s the idea that the Chinese “liberators” and the residents of Tibet — including Tibet’s elite — were not opposed to each other, at least not from the Party’s idealistic, KoolAid-drinking perspective. Anyone who has heard much about Tibet’s “liberation” would think this preposterous, but when the Communist cadres went into Amdo and elsewhere, their work was guided by the principle that Tibetans and Han were supposed to join hands and together steer society to socialist paradise. It might sound like a scam invented to dupe naive Tibetans. Weiner, however, thinks it was genuine, at least in the beginning.
The documents that Weiner reviewed gave little indication of what was in the minds of Amdowa during this period, and Weiner is careful not to stray far from the written evidence. The documents had much more to say about the what the CCP did, or tried to do, in Amdo, and the challenges it encountered. Weiner allows the reader to ride along as Communist cadres labor to persuade influential Amdowa to embrace transfer of property from the traditional elite to the impoverished masses. Having partnered with Tibetan herders on several KhamAid projects, I could have told the cadres that this wasn’t going to work. Herders are extremely conservative and, above all, religious. So, when the CCP tells them they have to share their animals, and when it starts to pry power and resources away from their beloved Buddhist monasteries, there’s no question how they will react.
The culmination of Weiner’s book is the Amdo Rebellion, in which the United Front blows up, along with any pretense of local autonomy. The CCP’s claim to be effecting gradual change through a process of “consultation and persuasion” is laid bare as an empty fiction. Much bloodshed ensues — eight years before the Cultural Revolution even started.
I remember the Amdo grasslands, which I traveled across in 1991, as huge and bare and starkly beautiful. Weiner describes Amdo’s bitterly cold winters and the absence of any permanent structures on the grasslands when the Communist cadres arrived. The cadres were poorly trained and poorly paid, and they struggled to meet their own needs for bare subsistence. It’s hardly a shock that they were ineffective and often corrupt. Nevertheless, they eventually coerced Tibetans into turning their society upside down, which brought massive economic disruption, famine, and existential uncertainty. When they took up arms to protest, they were savagely beaten down.
The suffering of that era is hard to comprehend, but it is important. I’m grateful to Benno Weiner for pulling back the veil with this fascinating book.