x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Tibet's foremost poet of freedom and exile

Books A new collection traces the poetic and political evolution of a Tibetan dissident, Paul Mooney writes.

A voice in the wilderness: Woeser, a Tibetan poet and writer, publishes in almost any medium she can find, much to the chagrin of the Chinese government.
A voice in the wilderness: Woeser, a Tibetan poet and writer, publishes in almost any medium she can find, much to the chagrin of the Chinese government.

A new collection traces the poetic and political evolution of a Tibetan dissident, Paul Mooney writes.
Woeser Tibet's True Heart: Selected Poems Translated by AE Clark Ragged Banner Press Dh81
When anti-China protests broke out in Tibet last March, a demure, 42-year-old Tibetan poet working from a small apartment in the suburbs of Beijing pumped out real-time news of the situation on her blog, providing some 3 million readers with an alternative to the propaganda being churned out by the state media machine. "You have guns, I have my pen," she wrote defiantly at the peak of the trouble.

Today, the blog's author, Tsering Woeser (who is typically referred to simply as Woeser), is still largely unknown outside Tibet. But in recent years - and in large part thanks to the internet - she has gained a small but intensely devoted following among Tibetan and Chinese intellectuals around the world. Tibet's True Heart, a new collection of 42 of her largely autobiographical poems, beautifully translated from Chinese into English by AE Clark, traces her 20-year poetic and political coming of age.

Woeser is the daughter of a Tibetan mother and a half-Han Chinese, half-Tibetan father who served as a deputy commander in the People's Liberation Army. She grew up in Sichuan, where she received a Chinese education; to this day, she cannot read or write Tibetan. In 1988, she graduated from the Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu, where she studied Chinese literature. Two years later, she moved to Lhasa, the administrative capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region. There she made Tibetan friends, became interested in Buddhism, started working for a Tibetan literary journal, and wrote her first poems. She also began to read translations of foreign books smuggled into Tibet, including John Avedon's In Exile from the Land of Shadows, which describes how the PLA took control of Tibet, forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India.

Woeser was sceptical at first. Avedon's book was the complete opposite of what she had learned in school, where she was taught that old Tibet was a backward kingdom ruled by a feudal Tibetan Buddhist aristocracy, and that the PLA had done Tibetans a great service in liberating them. She asked her ex-PLA father about Avedon's book: he described it as 70 per cent correct. An uncle, also ex-PLA, gave it higher marks: 90 per cent. She immediately stopped believing the Communist line.

Tibet's Secret, one of Woeser's most openly political poems, glosses her upbringing and eventual political transformation in a style not far from straight prose: I generally keep my mouth shut, since I know so little From birth I grew up to the bugle calls of the PLA A worthy heir of Communism But the egg laid under the red flat got crushed. As one reaches middle age, a fury late in coming rises in the throat. Tears, too, but only for compatriots who, Though younger than I, have fallen into evil hands.

This "late in coming" fury didn't take long to get Woeser in trouble. Notes on Tibet - her 2003 collection of fiction, travel writing and reportage from Tibet - sold well and went into a second printing before the government charged that it contained "serious political mistakes". They demanded she repent. She refused, and was fired. In 2004, she retreated in a self-imposed exile in Beijing, where her writing took on a more explicitly political edge.

In Panchen Lama, written in 2005, Woeser reflects on the Chinese government's abduction of the six-year-old Panchen Lama (the second highest-ranking Buddhist Lama) in 1995, and his replacement with another six-year-old boy, the son of two Party members. If time can cover a lie, Is ten years enough? A child matures into a clever youth But like a parrot, mumbles by rote The phrases that will please his masters. The other child, where is he? The scar-like birthmark on his wrist recalls His previous life before, when for ten years He sat trussed with tight handcuffs In some Beijing cell no ray of light could reach. What bruises mar him now? The child no one hears from?

As Clark notes in his detailed notes, the real Panchen Lama is still in "protective custody" at some undisclosed location. Meanwhile, his replacement - chosen, oddly, by the avowedly atheist Communist Party - spends most of his time in Beijing. According to Clark, the Chinese refer to this young man as the "Fake Panchen."

In one of the collection's more recent poems, Return to Lhasa, Woeser describes flying home to Tibet's capital after a year away. Her excitement is quickly dampened when she crosses a bridge guarded by heavily armed soldiers. Worse yet, she finds her city under cultural siege by a deluge of Chinese immigrants: every identical new house along the motorway flies "the red flag with five stars". The poet overhears one Han Chinese tourist gush that "Tibetan citizens are so patriotic!" She replies sarcastically: "Yeah, right. If they're not patriotic they get fined."

She goes on to describe department stores selling every kind of souvenir, all purporting to be "distinctively Tibetan", but most produced by cottage industries in the Muslim town of Linxia, in Gansu province. She spots a group of Sichuanese busily plaiting Good Luck Knots. "The craftsmanship is not bad, it's comparable to monks' work: they say even monks come here to place orders." On one street, she sees 40 or so young, fierce-looking Sichuanese men with crew cuts and dark suits - "A cast of godfathers, bodyguards, flunkies and molls - like a film from Hong Kong or Taiwan."

In the opening section of Tibet's Secret, Woeser ponders the fate of Tibet's political prisoners: Palden Gyatso, "locked up for thirty-three whole years", Ngawang Sangdrol, a nun "imprisoned from the age of twelve", Phuntsok Nyidron, "who has just been released", and Lobsang Tenzin, "still captive in some prison". She confesses to simultaneously feeling guilt that she is not sharing their fate - and fear that she could never stand it.

What I fear most is pain: one slap and I'd crumble. With shame I count down their practically endless prison terms. Tibet's true hearts beat steadfast in a Hell that's all too real.
"Still," she concludes, "I keep my mouth shut, as I'm long accustomed to do." "I'm afraid," she says. And later: "the air has long been charged with fear, real fear". But this self-description is far too modest: Woeser is not silent. Her books are banned in China; she has them printed in Taiwan and sold in Chinese bookstores around the world. An earlier incarnation of her blog was shut down by the government in 2006; she relaunched it on an overseas server. Last March, the new blog (Invisible Tibet) was temporarily disabled by cyber-attacks from Chinese nationalists; she continued to publish wherever she could (sometimes while under house arrest with her husband, the writer Wang Lixiong), and reached more readers than ever through English translations of her articles on sites like China Digital Times and High Peaks Pure Earth. Last year, the Norwegian Author's Union awarded Woeser its annual Freedom of Expression prize, but she could not attend the award ceremony because Beijing refuses to issue her a passport. Today, with help from the renowned human rights lawyer Mo Shaoping, she has filed suit against the Chinese government.

"One should write," she concludes Tibet's Secret, "if only that they be remembered."
Paul Mooney is The National's Beijing correspondent.