VOC recently had the opportunity to interview Jianglin Li, author of Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959, which deals with the Chinese assault on Tibet in 1959. This is the second part of a two-part transcript. The first part can be found here.
VOC: In March 1959 the people of Lhasa were so worried about the Dalai Lama’s safety that they felt they couldn’t allow him to visit the PLA’s Tibetan military command. While the West is familiar with the Dalai Lama as a figure, few truly understand how important he is to Tibetan society. Could you speak about that?
JIANGLIN LI: I remember in 2007, the first time I went to Dharamsala, I interviewed a young girl. I asked many people this question, “What do you think is going to happen after the Dalai Lama?” She started to cry at the very question. “I don’t want to think about it,” she said. “He’s like a part of my family, like my father or my grandfather. You can never think about him not being there.” The Dalai Lama as an institution is over 300 years old. It’s everything to Tibetan culture. The songs, music, and paintings all feature him. So the Dalai Lama is not only the center of belief, but of Tibet’s social psychology, social consciousness, social identity… it’s everything. Take him out, the whole thing collapses.
VOC: After the Norbulingka Palace protests occurred, the Dalai Lama finally decided to escape because he believed that once he left the palace, people camping outside would disperse and the PLA would not have an excuse to attack these people.
JIANGLIN LI: However, Mao’s intention was just the opposite: he wanted to use this chance to wipe out all the ‘rebels’ in Tibet, and this was the reason they started the attack before Tibetan officials inside the summer palace had an opportunity to disperse.
To this day, the Dalai Lama said the decision was very difficult. He hesitated for a long time about going. At the time he thought that if he stayed, Beijing would need him to calm the situation down and so they probably wouldn’t attack. Unfortunately, Beijing had already decided to give up on him. No one outside of the PLA knew this. Finally, the Dalai Lama realized that bloodshed was going to happen no matter what. When I heard him say this, it was quite painful for him. I got depressed myself when I wrote this history. It’s a very tragic story.
VOC: How did you decide that the story of Tibet and the CCP’s war on the Tibetan people was the story you wanted to tell?
JIANGLIN LI: It’s a long story. In China we were brought up with a history narrative written by the government. We were taught certain very specific things. They don’t give you sources, they don’t give you analysis, they don’t tell you how this conclusion was reached, they just give you the conclusion and you just recite it and pass the exam. So for many years I really believed everything I was taught. The first breakthrough was when I was in college and we learned that the Anti-Japanese War [a common Chinese term for the invasion of China by Imperial Japan in World War II] wasn’t fought and won by the CCP, but by the Nationalists. That was my first shock. That made me think, “If this part of the narrative can be wrong, and it’s false, how can I trust the rest?”
I got into Tibet in 1999 when the Dalai Lama was in New York City having a public talk. Out of total curiosity, I went. I had been taught that he was a separatist, a splittist, all these negative things. But he wasn’t anything like what I was taught to think. Later I became the program coordinator in the library where I worked, so I invited many Tibetans to give lectures and performances. I started to realize that everything I knew about Tibet was taught not by Tibetans, but by the Chinese government. I realized that there was nothing in Chinese on the whole story of Tibet. In 2008, I quit my job after I decided that this was something worth pursuing. The Tibetan diaspora, the whole history, is like a modern epic.
VOC: What stories are told in the two as-yet-untranslated books you’ve written in this series?
JIANGLIN LI: The second book, When the Iron Bird Flies, is about the hidden war on the Tibetan plateau between 1956 and 1962. I think it may be more important than Tibet in Agony, because it covers all three provinces and tells the story of the war for the entire Tibetan area. What makes this story even more horrifying is how the war was fought: PLA troops, artillery, cavalry, and air force fighting monks, nuns, and nomads.
The third book is Secret Trip into Tibet. In the summer of 2012, my husband and I took an undercover trip to Kham and Amdo. We wanted to go to look for the locations of major battles. In interviews, some people told me when the Chinese army massacred thousands of Tibetans, they didn’t even bother to bury their bodies. We specifically looked for battlegrounds like that. We drove there by car, and for six weeks we didn’t use cell phones so we couldn’t be tracked.
It’s emotional to visit these sites, but I think it’s important to have the historical record. These hidden atrocities need to be known. I feel this is something I have to do, it’s the right thing to do, and I cannot say it’s too hard. I still have to do it.
VOC: Would you be able to point to one story or interview that personally affected you the most?
JIANGLIN LI: In 2010, I interviewed a monk in southern India who fought during the war and escaped to Nepal and India. He was probably 15 or 16 years old and fought in 33 battles over the two years it took to escape to India and Nepal.
He talked about a big argument on the way among the monks about whether fighting the Chinese was against Buddhist dharma [law] or not. In the end, they agreed that it was: killing is killing. But I’ve never seen a single Chinese soldier or cadre, in their memoirs or in interviews, approach this moral dilemma. Why is this? My answer is that because communist indoctrination dehumanizes everyone, the soldiers felt they were not killing individuals, human beings, but a “class.” So morally, they didn’t feel guilt anymore.
VOC: Though the most moving portions of Tibet in Agony are the personal stories, the statistics and the casualty figures you cite tell a story in themselves. Can you comment on some of the statistics that you’ve uncovered?
JIANGLIN LI: There were around 456,000 casualties. Most were simply innocent people caught up in the PLA attacks. You have to understand, the Tibetans are nomads. Nomads move as tribes, so when they try to escape, the whole tribe goes together. This includes women, children, the elderly, the monks. The Chinese would kill everyone, usually strafing or bombing them from the air. The final casualty figure is close to 16 percent of the total Tibetan population at that time. This is frightening, and it’s a massacre by any standard.
VOC: What’s your next project?
JIANGLIN LI: I want to research the cultural genocide China conducted against Tibet. The culture genocide did happen, but we need scholarly proof. I’d especially like to research the destruction of Tibetan Buddhism in China. Communism and Buddhism clashed on the front lines throughout the 20th century in Vietnam, Mongolia, China, Korea, Cambodia, Laos, and Tibet. In this conflict, Tibetan Buddhism was totally crushed. But now it’s reborn and expressed all over the world. As I said earlier, Buddhism is the foundation of Tibet’s culture. The CCP attempt to destroy it was, in every way, a cultural genocide.
VOC: Distilled to one single message, what you would tell the American people about Tibet and its history?
JIANGLIN LI: I’d tell the American people the story of Tibet, of 1959, and of the war. In a speech at the US State Department, the Dalai Lama once said that the Tibet issue is a moral issue and implored his listeners to let the American people’s hearts speak.
When I wrote these books, I had a voice in my heart saying, “Tell the world, tell the world.” That’s what I’m trying to do: tell the world that the suffering of the Tibetans is a moral issue. We talk too much about politics and territory, but it’s the human suffering that shouldn’t be let go. Some academic publishers wanted me to write a purely academic book, and I said no. History is not a pile of statistics, and dates, and events. History is a human story, and without the human story, history is just dead. History is not dead, it’s still unfolding, and we’re still a part of it. And I hope people understand that communism is not dead, not yet. As an ideology, it still has the capacity to commit atrocities like this. It still has the capacity to hide these atrocities. I fear there are many stories, like the story of the Tibetans, that we have not discovered yet.