Reincarnation of all living Buddhas “must comply with Chinese laws,” Beijing reminded Tibetans last spring. At stake, of course, is the identity of the next Dalai Lama. Inconveniently for China, which sees the Tibetan spiritual leader as “a jackal in monk’s robes” and would prefer someone more pliant, he insists he will be reborn in exile.
The determination of the avowedly atheist Communist party to assert its primacy in the spiritual realm, as much as every other, illustrates a collision with Tibetan life that can be glimpsed through such incongruous official announcements but is rarely fully witnessed.
Eat the Buddha is a powerful exception: a deeply textured, densely reported and compelling exploration of Ngaba, Sichuan, a “nothing little town that had just gotten its first traffic light” but that became, horrifyingly, “the undisputed world capital of self-immolations.” More than 150 Tibetans, and at least 42 in Ngaba, have set fire to themselves in just over a decade.
While the eastern side of the Tibetan plateau can be visited somewhat more easily than the Tibet region (for which foreigners need special travel permission, not often granted to journalists), the cases led to intense security around Ngaba. At their height, communications to the town were almost severed and reporters hid in the boots of cars to document paramilitaries armed with semi-automatic weapons and fire extinguishers. It takes a certain kind of reporter to embark on an in-depth account of such a place, and Barbara Demick has form. Her last book, Nothing to Envy, was an extraordinarily intimate, detailed and moving account of life in North Korea. Here, surreptitious trips to Ngaba supplement the same technique of interviewing exiles.
As in Nothing to Envy — and her first book Logavina Street, on the siege of Sarajevo — she captures crushing historical events through the stories of individuals: the novice who thrives on the monastery’s intellectual debates but is also thrilled to find it “an oversized playground” where he can slide down a heap of dirt; the teenage girl with a soft spot for handsome soldiers who begins to feel “like a double agent;” the young man who relishes his job entertaining Chinese tourists with songs and dances but becomes disenchanted and turns to activism.
Beijing says life in Tibet was “hell on earth” before it became part of the People’s Republic of China in 1951. But if Tibetans in some places welcomed reforms and social changes, for vast numbers the encounter was devastating. The traumatic history of modern China has proved especially punitive for those who are not ethnically Chinese.
Demick brilliantly unpicks the connections between the self-immolations and Tibetans’ past. Ngaba is where Chinese communists were first encountered in 1934, as they fled nationalist foes in the retreat now commemorated as the Long March. The soldiers’ desperation led them to votive offerings molded from butter (hence the book’s title) and drove residents too into famine conditions, prompting Tibetans into battle. Many of the self-immolators are descendants of those fighters.
Having absorbed the Dalai Lama’s teachings on non-violence, they hurt only themselves — despite the taboo on suicide.
The grim early encounters chillingly prefigured the disasters to come, including the Democratic Reforms of the 1950s: forced collectivizations and brutal political campaigns that saw perhaps 300,000 people die. The recent turn towards increasing repression, intensified under Xi Jinping’s (習近平) leadership, has been expressed most ruthlessly in minorities policy. Demick notes that, while the first of the self-immolations in Ngaba happened in 2009, they gathered pace in 2011, shortly after the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself and triggered the Arab spring, one likely factor in China’s political tightening.
While the Uighurs have suffered most shockingly, Tibetans, too, have seen the greater degree of freedom allowed in the 1980s and early 90s swiftly curtailed.
The richness of this book lies in its nuance as much as its extraordinary detail. Ngaba’s residents are ambivalent towards the self-immolators.
“I feel like there has to be a better way to express oneself,” the brother of one says.
Many of those Demick interviews appreciate the material benefits the party has bought. But Han Chinese newcomers are doing better; inequalities rankle. And economics alone cannot compensate for the loss of culture and community, and the indignities of being treated as second class and suspect. A wealthy entrepreneur unable to obtain a passport tells her: “I have everything I might possibly want in life but my freedom.”
The scholar Robert Barnett, in his introduction to Tsering Woeser’s recent book Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution, notes that 30 years ago “protests called for independence, or China to leave Tibet; today such protests typically ask that the Dalai Lama be allowed to return and call for culturally sympathetic policies, support for Tibetan-medium education in schools, and environmental protection.”
The Dalai Lama himself insists that he seeks only real autonomy for the Tibetan people, though China calls him a “splittist.”
As Demick notes, China’s vilification of the Dalai Lama perversely reinforces his importance. But he is already 85. And although he has handed political leadership to the Tibetan government-in-exile, he has yet to formalize arrangements for identifying his next incarnation. As bizarre as the party’s insistence on policing the matter may appear to outsiders, she writes, the consequences could be deadly. It now seems almost certain that Tibetan exiles will select one Dalai Lama and Beijing another — as happened with the Panchen Lama in 1995. The six-year-old recognized by the Dalai Lama has not been seen in public since. The Tibetans’ next spiritual leader, she suggests, might not be as persuasive in conveying the message of non-violence.
Eat the Buddha
By Barbara Demick
Benjamin Chen (陳昱安) didn’t know how intense a hackathon could be. “You literally work non-stop. You don’t eat breakfast, you don’t eat lunch because you really need to finish the product,” the 10th-grader from Taipei American School says. “You feel the adrenaline rushing… It’s refreshing, I was like a new person.” Chen became fascinated by these round-the-clock competitions to create technology or software products, and participated in 10 more before he decided to start one that focused on his twin passions of economics and technology. He says there are many hackathons that delve into social and environmental issues, but few have
The town of Baolai (寶來) is located along the Southern Cross-Island Highway in the upper reaches of Kaohsiung City. After suffering a devastating setback at the hands of Typhoon Morakot, the town’s tourism industry is finally showing signs of recovery. While the town itself has many commercial hot spring offerings for tourists, the adjacent Baolai River also has at least five different wild hot springs available to those with a more adventurous spirit. SHIDONG AND WUKENG Just before entering the town of Baolai, make two right turns to reach the bridge across the Baolai River. Immediately after crossing this bridge, there is
Jan. 25 to Jan. 30 It was the beginning of the end when Dutch sergeant Hans Jurgen Radis walked out of Fort Zeelandia and surrendered to the besieging army of Cheng Cheng-kung (鄭成功, also known as Koxinga). The Dutch had already been trapped in the fort for nine months, and they were sick, hungry and in despair. After one defection during the early days of the siege, Dutch commander Frederick Coyett set up checkpoints around the fort’s perimeter, in what is today’s Tainan. Radis told his bunkmate he was going hunting, but by the time they realized where
“Well, if it cannot happen this year because of the pandemic,” Tourism Bureau Director General Chang Shi-chung (張錫聰) says at the end of his interview with Cycling Shorts last week, “at least we’ll be ready to promote it next year.” Chang is discussing the Year of Cycling Tourism (自行車旅遊年) that has long been planned for this year. He has spent the previous 30 minutes introducing the various infrastructure projects undertaken over recent years and those proposed for the next few. Essentially, the Bureau, under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC), has been pulling together resources from a wide range of