Robert Barnett, Benno Weiner, and Françoise RobinApr 13, 2022
Tibetan History Under Mao Retold: Essays and Primary Documents
After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, history under him was retold: for example, the Cultural Revolution was rebranded as “Ten Years of Chaos” and its policies were deemed “ultra-left.” In comparison to these changes in national narratives, how was the local history of Tibet under Mao retold after his death and in the subsequent decades of economic reform?
To answer this question, the edited volume Conflicting Memories: Tibetan History under Mao Retold (Brill, 2020) explores the writings of a range of both Han-Chinese and Tibetan writers, including official historians, unofficial autobiographers, memoirists, filmmakers, fiction-writers, and oral raconteurs. In addition to providing translated extracts from their work, the volume contains chapters of essays by renowned scholars of modern Tibetan history discussing the narratives produced, what types of people were producing them, what means they used, what aims they pursued, and in what ways did Tibetan accounts differ from those of Han-Chinese writers.
What the editors and contributors of the volume found was: “… unsurprisingly, none of the published texts or films of recent Tibetan history in this volume express direct opposition to the state or question its legitimacy, if they were produced within China.” Even oral accounts, both privately and anonymously delivered, “do not go that far.” However, the contributors of the volume have also found that upon closer look, memories of Tibet under Mao after Mao’s death “seek to make nuanced, sometimes almost imperceptible, adjustments to official narratives about China’s recent record in Tibetan regions.”
The thirteen chapters of the volume explore how these adjustments to official narratives can flow in varying directions, whilst providing translated excerpts from the original source text. For narratives produced by Han-Chinese and Tibetan officials, scholars, and retirees, they generally energetically reaffirm the core values of the Chinese Communist Party’s project in Tibet, while interestingly re-centering those accounts around themselves or previously less focal themes.
In contrast, vocal notions of defiance within Tibet have been rare but not nonexistent. The editors of the volume point out that some senior Tibetans within the Chinese system, such as the Tenth Panchen Lama (1938-89), did indeed make public comments that contested official narratives, however only in the final years of their lives. These episodes represent symbolic, microscopic pushbacks against versions of history, the editors of the volume remind us. At a deeper level, as editor Barnett has argued, these Tibetan reconstructions were a form of “promissory transcript,” or “veiled reminders that the original terms for Tibetans’ recognition of Chinese sovereignty in 1951 had been in return for a contractual undertaking by Mao and the CCP to respect Tibetan culture and religion.”
This volume also shows that in the other post-Mao histories told by Tibetans, the state is often displaced from the core position, and history is retold with a Tibetan figure at the center – this could be a Tibetan lama, writer, prisoner, or the narrator herself. Intriguingly, as the contributors of the volume reveal, in these Tibetan narratives the CCP and the state have been “removed or reduced to an inanimate or malignant force, and in which Tibetan agency has been restored, but only as a question of endurance and at an individual, local level.” Unlike the writings of memories of the Mao years and the Cultural Revolution by Han-Chinese writers, “the Tibetan versions do not offer hope of rescue or resolution; their travails often seem to have no end.”
As demonstrated in the chapters of this volume, the disappearance of political ideology seems to be another important characteristic of the Tibetan retellings. Socialist, national, or modernizing discourses were not mentioned nor rejected – they were simply omitted from discussion. In the retellings of Tibetan religious figures, however, we do see that “in place of the political, a cultural project is given priority, and the emphasis in those recollections of the Tibetan past is placed on Tibetan religion, heritage, and community.”
Robert Barnett is currently a Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and an Affiliated Lecturer at King’s College, London. He founded and directed the Modern Tibetan Studies program at Columbia University in New York from 1999 to 2018 and was the author and editor of a number of books on modern Tibet.
Françoise Robin teaches Tibetan language and literature at Inalco (French National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisations). She has been engaged in Tibetan studies for the last 25 years, observing the evolution of Tibetan society under the political, economic, linguistic, and cultural domination of China. Her Ph.D. was the first to explore contemporary Tibetan Literature and its relevance to our understanding of today’s Tibetan society.
Benno Weiner is an Associate Professor of Chinese History at Carnegie Mellon University. He is the author of The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier, which came out in 2020 with Cornell University Press. His other writings include, most recently, an essay entitled “Centering the Periphery: Teaching about Ethnic Minorities and Borderlands in PRC History,” which was published by The PRC History Review.
Daigengna Duoer is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation is a digital humanities project mapping the history of transnational and transregional Buddhist networks connecting early twentieth-century Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Republican China, Tibet, and the Japanese Empire.