On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution in 2006, award-winning Tibetan writer and poet Tsering Woeser had two books published in Taiwan about the decade of political violence from a Tibetan point of view. One was Tibetan Memories, an oral history of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in Tibet, a series of contemporary accounts compiled from interviews with 20 Tibetans, two Han Chinese and one Hui Muslim. Among them were Red Guards, rebels, activists, former Tibetan nobles, lamas, doctors and journalists. The following interview was with Jiuji (a pseudonym), a Tibetan woman in her sixties from Lhasa. It was recorded in 2003:
One day the neighborhood committee informed us that the next morning everyone had to wear a proper robe and attend the meeting, that we should bring hoes, picks and back-panniers. Nobody was to stay home, and any household where someone didn't attend would have its household registration and its ration card revoked. So we all showed up good and early, yet not really knowing what we were there for.
They told us that we there to attack the "Four Olds": old culture, old customs, old habits, and old ways of thinking. So we all got into rows and filed off.
They took some of us off to the Tsepak Lha-khang, which is a Buddhist temple, and others to the Gyume temple, and some to the Hizhu Lha-khang, which is near Jibenggang. The Tsepak Lha-khang was right next door to the Ramoche Temple.
They were all made of wood, like the rest of the neighborhood, and the Red Guards charged forward, smashing up two of the Buddhist halls at Gyume Temple, and putting the smashed-up Buddhas in our back-panniers, we carried on down the street. We also ripped up the scriptures, page by page, to be trodden on by passersby.
This was all arranged by the neighborhood committee. I was one of the people carrying a Buddha, upended in my back-pannier. If we hadn't gone, we wouldn't have just faced a telling-off; we faced losing our registration and our access to food rations.
Everybody went. Nobody dared not to go. We all did what we did out of fear.
The task of the No. 2 neighborhood committee was to smash up Ramoche Temple. The "Rinpoche" statue was brought here by a princess of Nepal, once upon a time. It was made of metal rather than clay, like the other Buddhas. It wasn't like the other statues, which could just be chucked out on the street once they had been smashed up.
This one had to be cut in half. It was chucked into a warehouse in Lhasa. After the Cultural Revolution, the upper part of the body was discovered in Beijing. The Panchen Lama sent people to bring it back to Lhasa, where he was reunited with his lower body and enshrined in the Ramoche Temple.
I was so afraid. Every time I threw out a Buddha or trampled the holy scriptures or statues in the street, I was so scared, but I couldn't talk about it. There was nothing else I could have done. Heavens, we even used the wooden covers of the scripture books to cover the latrine holes.
There were holy writings on those wooden boards, a vow to the Three Treasures. People pissed and shat on them. That is such a great sin.
Boards like that were used to cover latrines in Meru Monastery, and in the Ramoche Temple, put there by the Meru neighborhood committee.
Everyone was scared to go there to relieve themselves, but if they didn't, they would be yelled at by the officials from the neighborhood committee.
Buddha statues, thangkas destroyed
The Buddhas were smashed and the pieces thrown out if they were made of clay, and taken to an acquisition center if they were made of metal.
The commercial bureau had set up these special centers to buy the Buddhas in department stores. One of my friends had a large metal statue of Kwan Yin in her home, and she took it to one of these centers in a harness, as if she were carrying a child. I had several statues myself, in a sack, and we went together. But there was a very long line at the acquisition center ... so we went home again. We went back again the next day and dealt with the Buddhas. We weren't allowed to keep them in our homes.
Some people didn't take the Buddha statues from their homes to the acquisition center, but quietly threw them in the Lhasa River by night.
Some of the Muslims went fishing for Buddha statues, chest-deep in the water. Why did they want to fish them out again? They would smuggle them out to Nepal, and get rich quick. That's how a lot of those people with one Nepalese parent got rich.
All thangkas (Tibetan for Buddhist painting scroll) had to be burned. So we burned a lot of thangkas.
Those gold or silver brackets that held the butter tea bowls were also among the "Four Olds," so we had to take them down and take them to the bank the next day. The banks would buy gold and silver.
I had a shrine made of pure gold in my home. I removed the turquoise, red coral and other precious stones, then I sold the gold part to the bank, which only gave me 16 yuan for it.
Then I had to take the jewels, as well as other jewelry, to a special place that bought jewelry. Such a big hoard of things, and I only got a couple of pieces of soap and some rock sugar in return for it.
We had to make sure we handed over these things quickly, or our homes might be searched. We would be done for if they searched our homes and found a stash of things there.
The neighborhood committees were evil. The officials were Tibetan, but they were really nasty.
If you didn't comply with what the neighborhood committee told you to do, your food ration card would be canceled, and you'd have nothing to eat. What punishment could be more powerful? It wasn't possible to buy grain without it anywhere at the time.
There were still some people who remained Buddhists, reciting mantras and scriptures silently to themselves. If they saw your mouth moving, though, you'd be "struggled" against.
Some people hid their butter lamps in water bottles, and made their sacrifices that way. Others hid them in empty water tanks. Some hid them in the cupboard.
The neighborhood committees wielded enormous power. You would be criticized if you didn't attend meetings, and only the poorest people were allowed to become officials. We lived in fear every day of our lives.
I still feel that fear today. It wasn't until I got to Nepal that I calmed down a bit and started to sleep well at night. But the mere sight of a Chinese red flag is enough to make me feel fear again. It's very strange. I don't know why, but I also get anxious when I see soldiers. I think it's the trauma of the past that's still in my psyche. I'm still afraid even now.
Extracted from Tibetan Memories by Tsering Woeser, broadcast on RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.