The 50th anniversary of China’s disastrous Cultural Revolution this year received considerable media attention, but little of that attention focused on what a catastrophe it was for Tibet.
Following Mao Zedong’s unleashing of the Cultural Revolution in the spring of 1966, Tibet became the target of a Chinese campaign “to create the new by smashing the old.”
Most of Tibet’s monasteries had already been destroyed prior to the Cultural Revolution. Now what was left was ransacked and looted. Red Guards broke into homes to search for religious objects.
The first Red Guards to emerge in Tibet included Tibetan students who had been educated, indoctrinated, and radicalized at “nationalities universities” in China. They then returned to Tibet as devout Maoists determined to help launch the Cultural Revolution.
The Red Guards at a teacher training college in Lhasa put up posters demanding “the eradication of feudal culture.”
They and other radicals advocated the destruction of Tibetan prayer flags, religious art, incense burners and sacred texts along with all photographs of the revered Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama.
On Aug. 25, 1966, Red Guards called on schools to take part in the destruction of Tibet’s holiest shrine, the Jokhang Temple located in the center of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.
“The Red Guards went into the temple and started ransacking sacred ritual objects and ranting against ‘superstition,’ recalls Drikhung Chetsang Rinpoche, whose account appears in a biography focused on his life story titled From the Heart of Tibet.
Then children rushed in to dismantle shrines and dragged sacred statues with ropes through the streets.
'Theater of cruelty'
Historian Tsering Shakya explains that many Tibetans were swept up “in the fervor of the times, just like the rest of China” and went on to denounce friends, relatives, and teachers as “reactionaries” or “capitalists.”
“The brave few who refused to participate in the madness paid the price of being branded as enemies of the people and subjected to mass struggle sessions,” he said.
Tibet became a “Theater of Cruelty,” according to Drikung Chetsang Rinpoche.
From May until the end of 1967, two armed rival factions in Tibet, each claiming to include true followers of Mao Zedong, fought numerous battles in the streets of Lhasa.
Red Guards, meanwhile, ousted Party cadres and took over their positions. Chaos ruled.
In early 1968, Mao dispatched People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops into Tibet to contain the fighting and establish control. The troops took over the schools and began a series of public executions.
But Tibetan culture itself, in all of its manifestations, continued to be the target of a battle to destroy the “four olds”--old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits.
In 1969, the PLA disarmed the Red Guards across China.
Then, with Mao’s death in 1976, the Cultural Revolution officially came to an end.
Fifty years after the launch of the Cultural Revolution, public discussion of Mao’s role in unleashing a violent chain of events is banned.
In 1981, the Communist Party issued an official resolution concluding that the Cultural Revolution was a catastrophe and that Mao had made mistakes during those years.
But the Party has suppressed discussion ever since, apparently because of a fear that any public debate over that dark decade might irrevocably damage the reputation of Mao Zedong, the founder of China’s communist state.
Fortunately, although many would prefer to forget, the memory of what happened during those years has been kept alive by elderly survivors and a number of Tibetan scholars, such as Tsering Shakya.
Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan activist and blogger, who was born in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution began, has little direct personal of the events that tore Tibetan society apart.
But she has kept others’ memories alive, partly through interviews with survivors, intensive research, and finally through black-and-white photos taken by her father, who was a high-ranking PLA officer during the period.
Although five decades have now passed, Tibetans of a certain age can still recall the beatings, public denunciations, and “struggle sessions” which their friends and relatives endured through during the Cultural Revolution.
A scholar’s personal story
A Tibetan scholar in exile told RFA of his experience as a child during the period from 1966 until 1976, when members of his entire family were designated as “class enemies” or as a part of a “black class.”
In 1968, he was 13 years old.
The children along with everyone else in his family had to be “re-educated.”
“Every evening we had to go to meetings and read Mao’s writings and slogans,” he said.
“We were asked, ‘what did your family do today? What did they say?’”
“They wanted us to spy on our families.”
“I often had to apologize because I hadn’t watched all of my family’s activities on that day. I told them that I would be careful to do so the next day.”
His family lived on the Barkhor, the street circling the sacred Jokhang Temple in the center of Lhasa. It was a goal of pilgrims coming from outside Lhasa to prostrate themselves on the Barkhor as they followed the circuit around the temple.
One day the boy encountered an astonishing sight.
“I was playing with the other children. Then I saw my grandfather dressed in a kind of costume…He held heavy metal in his hands.”
These were irons used to restrain horses’ legs so that they wouldn’t stray.
“My grandfather was a businessman and a trader. He used horses for his travels,” he said.
“He was wearing a paper hat. I was excited, because I thought he had become an actor.”
But this was no play.
Some people in the crowd claimed that he had used the irons he was holding to restrain serfs, or slaves.
“They spat on him and hit him with their fists,” the grandson said.
“He survived the beating, but his health was never the same.”
The Tibetan scholar who recalls these events cannot be identified because he fears that his relatives in Tibet may suffer retaliation if he makes his identity known.
Tibetan Buddhism Today
Following the Cultural Revolution, many Tibetan monasteries were rebuilt, but police controls over them have increased in recent years.
Tibetan monks and nuns have also been forced to denounce the Dalai Lama, a painful ordeal for many Tibetans, who regard him as their spiritual leader.
And in 1995, rather than respect Tibetan tradition, China chose its own Panchen Lama, a religious leader long recognized in Tibet as second in stature only to the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama had selected another Tibetan boy as Panchen Lama. That boy quickly disappeared and is believed to be under a kind of house arrest somewhere inside China. Chinese spokesmen say that he is leading a normal life but that he and his family do not want to be disturbed.
Another cause for Tibetan distress today was a Chinese government decision in 2007 that China would begin to oversee the recognition of all reincarnate Tibetan lamas, or “Living Buddhas,” as the government calls them.
This is presumed to include the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama himself.
Dan Southerland is RFA’s executive editor.