This is part three of a four-part series. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.
Jisang (Photo courtesy Tang Danhong)
In the summer of 2010, writer and filmmaker Tang Danhong and the young Tibetan translator Sangjey interviewed older Tibetan refugees in India, people who had fled their homes as the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibetan areas and slowly tightened Beijing’s grip. Some of the interviewees joined the Tibetan volunteer army Chushi Gangdruk in its armed rebellion against the Chinese Communists, with the aid of the CIA. Others told harrowing stories of imprisonment, flight, and survival. The refugees Tang interviewed called this period Dulog Yung, the “Troubled Times.”
Last summer, Tang began to publish some of the interviews, translated by Sangjey into Chinese, on her blog, Moments of Samsara. Today, CDT begins a weekly four-part series of excerpts from three interviews, translated into English.
Tang hopes to make a documentary from the interviews, and welcomes correspondence from filmmakers via Twitter @DanHongTang.
Kyisang was born in the 1920s to a herding family in Jyekundo, Amdo (Jiegu Township, Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai). As a young man, he became the right hand man to the chief of the Lutri tribe in Nangchen, Kham (Yushu). Kyisang experienced the Chinese Communist Party’s wooing, then terrorizing of the Tibetan leadership. In his interview, Kyisang recalls his time in prison and his escape to India.
This interview has been broken into two parts. The second part will be published next week.
I was probably born around 1927, because I was 22 or 23 that year when the Tibetans were defeated in Chamdo. My old hometown was really close to Yushu, in a place called Chungchun. When I was ten years old, a conflict broke out within my tribe. My big brother and I killed someone during the fighting, so my father moved our entire family to Drungto inNangchen, where we sought asylum with the Drungto Lutri tribal leader Lutri Sonam Dakpa. After we moved into the Nangchen Lutri tribe, my father was killed by Ma Bufang’s men. When I was 14, I became sworn brothers with Lutri Sonam Dakpa.
Before the Han [ethnic Chinese] Communists arrived, of course I’d experienced a full array of the beauty and hardships of life and death. There were always minor conflicts among the tribes, but generally speaking everyone acted well towards each other—we were respectful of elders and looked out for the children, we revered the gurus, and we were devoted to the Dharma. You could do business, you could go on pilgrimage. We had the freedom to come and go as we pleased. The wealthy families raised over ten thousand sheep and thousands of yaks. The rich helped the poor, providing them with food. People lived their lives freely and without worry. After the Han Communists arrived, they destroyed all of this. From that point on, the Tibetan people were finished.
The Han Communists arrived in our hometown when I was around 23 or 24. They brought with them a large amount of supplies, which we heard were things from the Panchen Lama. Most of it was food, rice, flour, etc. They hired locals to haul the supplies towards Ü-Tsang. We were all very curious, and many of us went to see what these Han Communists looked like. When we saw them, they didn’t seem much different than us. They didn’t wear military clothing—some of them wore dogskin vests, others wore fur-lined coats, and others wore gray-colored clothing. The Han Communists told us, “Communism is very good. You are human, and we are also human. We’re all the same. We believe in Communism… You’ve probably heard people say Communism is bad, or say bad things about Communism, but you mustn’t believe them. That is the slander of spies and bandits. Don’t believe the talk of spies and bandits.” The Han Communists seemed very good-natured and honest. They needed a lot of workers to transport their supplies, and they paid their Tibetan transport workers in large amounts of silver—much more than we would have expected. If the market price was 100, they would pay 1,000, so we were very inclined to work with them. Those Han said, “We should get along like brothers. You all must not listen to the talk of spies and bandits.” They were good talkers. We didn’t notice any malicious intent. And they paid really well, so we all felt like Communism couldn’t be that bad. Like this, the Han Communists were able to hire many local workers.
At that time [after the death of the 13th Dalai Lama], the power [in Tibet] was held by the bureaucratic nobility. If only they had stayed true to the vision of the 5th and 13th Dalai Lamas, Tibet would have never suffered the catastrophe of the Troubled Times. Under the 13th Dalai Lama, foreign ambassadors came to Lhasa. They even established schools. But the nobility didn’t allow foreigners to stay in Lhasa. Instead, they forced the foreigners to leave. The nobility told school children playing soccer that they were actually kicking around Buddha’s head. They closed the schools. They didn’t follow the vision of the 5th and 13th Dalai Lamas, and Tibet started having problems as a result. All of this was caused by those Kashagaristocrats.
The Han established an office at Tsangma Saso. They called it the Shogpa Government. The leader of our nine Greater Drongpa tribes, Panyi, was named Dzatö county head. Panyi became the middleman between the Drongpa Tibetans and the Han Communists. His main job was to show up and mediate when Tibetans opposed something the Han Communists were doing. His salary was 3,000 silver at the time.
My sworn brother, Lutri Sonam Dakpa, was named head of the Shogpa. “You are a good man!” they told him. They had him live at the Shogpa government building, and they gave him a salary of thousands of silverpieces every month. His main job was to hold meetings. During these meetings, he would educate the people of the tribe: “The Communist Party is good, we must listen to the Communist Party,” and so on.
One Tibetan and one Han were appointed to each official position. Although Lutri Sonam Dakpa was the Shogpa head, there was also a Han Shogpa head. Panyi was county head, but there was also a Han county head. At the time, County Head Zhang held the most power. The Han appointed me to the position of “cooperation group” leader, and each month they gave me a salary of 500 silver pieces.
…I went with Chief Panyi to Kyegundo. All the leaders of the Nine Great Tribes of Nangchen went. The meetings were called the “First Conference of the First Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture People’s Representative Congress.” Leaders and high-ranking monks from all of the tribes of Yushu Prefecture took part in the meetings—over 5,000 people in total. The objective of the Han Communists was to gather all revered Tibetan figures in Kyegundo so that no one from any area would oppose them, as the populace in each area would be too concerned about the safety of their important lamas and leaders to revolt. They dared not revolt. This was why the Han Communists called us to the meetings.
The meetings were held in the Kyegundo People’s Auditorium. The subject of the meetings were the same as it was back at the Shogpa government building. They told us that we were to walk the socialist path and establish communes. Wealth was to be shared equally; no one could retain any private property, as all property belonged to everyone. Everyone was to eat together, use public utilities, and labor together. They also repeatedly told us that there was no such thing as reincarnation, and that the lamas were lying to us. If you plant melons, you get melons; if you plant beans, you get beans. When people die they just die, no different from when a dog dies. They also said that the leaders who were once the running dogs of Ma Bufang and Chiang Kai-shek were being allowed to stay in their leadership roles by the Communist Party, even granting us cadre status and high salaries. Now, they said, some of you still forsake the Communist Party, oppose Party policies, and don’t listen, and this is shameful. Opposing the socialist path would be as futile as a praying mantis raising his arms to stop a passing car. Obey Communist Party leadership, and everything will go smoothly. Capitalism is a failure waiting to happen. During the meetings, they made everyone declare that they would uphold and protect the Communist Party. They said a whole mess of things like this.
On the second day of meetings, the Communists suddenly took me, Panyi, and 30 or 40 other people in attendance to a village in Kyegundo called Chuwa Tsang. There, we saw the corpse of Rabshey Chungje. Rabshey Chungje was the leader of the 18 Rabshey tribes. He was also called to attend the meetings. On the night after the first day of the meetings, he and Ayang Dechungescaped on horseback with guns. Their own servants sold them out. First they returned to their home, and after they left, their servants tipped off the Communists. The Han Communists immediately sent people to wait for them at Achila Mountain Pass. Rabshey Chungje and Ayang Dechung rested for the night at the foot of the mountain, and as they attempted to traverse Achila pass at dawn the next morning, Rabshey Chungje was beaten to death. The Communists took us to see the corpse and said, “This is Rabshey Chungje. He was just sitting comfortably at the meeting. He didn’t have to die. But why did he want to flee into the mountains? He had a devil in his heart and considered the Communist Party his enemy. But he had nowhere to run. The Chinese Communist Party is everywhere, the Chinese people are everywhere. He miscalculated, had nowhere to run, and this is the result!”
During the meetings, Panyi and I originally stayed with a local family, the Dorpo family. On that day, the Han Communists said, “It’s not convenient for you to stay in someone else’s home. From today on, do not return. Stay in the housing we’ve provided for you.” “Don’t worry, we’re staying close by,” we replied. “No, it’s better you all stay in the rooms we’ve arranged for you,” they said. We were arranged to stay in a huge building left behind by Ma Bufang’s militiamen. Each large room could fit 70 or 80 delegates. At this point, the Han Communists said, “There’s no need for you to carry weapons. We will keep your weapons for you. Just come pick them up yourself after the meeting is over.” Just like that, we had become prisoners. When we went to the meetings, Han followed us with rifles in hand. Tens of thousands of soldiers surrounded the meeting area—three circles deep! Surrounding the meeting area on all sides were PLA soldiers carrying guns or machine guns. We attended our meetings in the center of this circle of soldiers.
On the third day, the meeting convener announced, “Some of you are in armed rebellion against the Communist Party! In fact, some of these bad people are at this meeting right now, sitting in their chairs, pretending they have no knowledge of this, speaking their innocence more beautifully than if they were to sing it. If you come out and say candidly who organized and planned this insurrection, we’ll be lenient with you. If you don’t, the punishment will be severe!” When the convener finished speaking, no one in attendance uttered a sound.
Then, a Han Communist suddenly said, “Who should have their faces flattened and their fingers smashed? You two!” Panyi and I were grabbed on the spot, and right in front of 5,000 people, we were tied up and beaten. They pulled out our hair and knocked out our teeth. They pointed to the two of us, saying, “You still play dumb! The head of that tribe of yours already ran away with all his belongings—You really expect us to believe that you didn’t know? You and Lutri Sonam Dakpa planned it all out when you were in Dzatö, right? They killed Han and destroyed a Han camp. Now Lutri Sonam Dakpa already ran away with his tribespeople! And you two are here acting like you don’t know, drinking tea and eating snacks. Be honest and fess up. What have you and Lutri Sonam Dakpa planned? What’s your goal, coming out here to this meeting? Tell us everything!”
Here’s what had happened. When Lutri Sonam Dakpa returned to Drongpa, some of the tribe had already fled into the mountains and began revolting against the Han Communists. The Han Communists in Kyegundo quickly learned about our tribe’s resistance and arrested Panyi and me.
Speaking to Panyi, the Han said, “You lead over 5,000 herding families. How could you possibly be unaware of your tribespeople fleeing into the mountains and revolting?” Then, to me, he said, “You are so close with Lutri Sonam Dakpa—you eat and drink together. You are together every day. Now Sonam Dakpa is gone, and you’re still here acting like you don’t know anything about it? I bet you agreed to come here and give him cover, right?”
“If we wanted to revolt, we wouldn’t have come to this meeting. We came here on our own. No one dragged us here with ropes around our necks. We uphold and protect the Communist Party. We have in the past and still do now. When our tribespeople fled, we were here. How could we have known?” we replied.
The two of us remained in captivity, standing alone on one side of the meeting. The Han Communists told the more than 5,000 in attendance that “the 900 million people of the People’s Republic of China are all moving down the bright avenue of socialism, yet these two are walking the path of capitalism. If you still refuse to fess up, you’ll end up like these two. So, everybody, take the initiative to be honest. Admit your mistakes…”
And just like that, we were taken captive.
The meetings proceeded as normal. Those not arrested sat on chairs; those who were arrested could only sit on the floor. The Han Communists said, “You aren’t walking socialist path of the People’s Republic of China. Instead, you’re walking the crooked path of capitalism, so you don’t have the right to sit on chairs!”
Those who were arrested were held in prison. One large cell fit 60 or 70 people, all leaders and lamas who had come to the meeting. When the cell door closed, it was pitch black. We couldn’t see a thing. The Han threw their leftover food into the cell for us to eat along with the water that they used to brush their teeth and wash their faces. Panyi and I were in prison, with no way to find out anything about the situation back home.
One day, we heard the sounds of scrambling and gunfire outside, and then the Han launched a counterattack. Both sides were fighting intensely. Gunfire sounded day and night. From our prison window, we could see a dense mass of people and horses up on the mountains in the distance. They were all Tibetans. From the sounds of their guns, it seemed as if they could attack all of Kyegundo. Then, the Han airplanes arrived. Five or six aircraft began bombing and strafing… Before long everything went quiet. No trace of even a single person could be seen over on the mountains. By then, we were well into the Troubled Times.
In prison, we labored every day. One day I attempted to play dead. I lied down in a pit, looking for an opportunity to run away. But I was discovered and called to work. I said that I had fallen into the pit. I escaped punishment that time, but I realized the chances weren’t good that I could escape by playing dead like this.
While we worked during the day, the prison would send a few Han to bring us lunch. Those people were horrible. Often times they would take the food away before the prisoners had enough to eat. One day, the food was brought to us by a Han from Xining I had known in the past. He used to be one of Ma Bufang’s men. He later defected to the Communist Party. When he saw me, he called me over. Holding a whole bunch of documents in his hands, he said to me, “Take these files over to so-and-so barracks. When you go, make sure to stay on public roads, otherwise you’ll be killed.” At first I refused, saying, “Do I have to be the one to go?” He said, “Go, go, just go. You must remember stay on public roads. If you take random routes or get off the public roads, you’ll be shot on the spot!”
As I walked, I thought to myself: If I don’t make a run for it today, surely I won’t have another opportunity. At that time, us prisoners wore the same clothing as the Han. The only difference was that prisoners had to wear a hat. I kept walking and walking, and about halfway there I passed a military camp. I saw there were a few horses at the camp, and I thought that this was my chance. I took off my hat, put it into my pocket and started toward the camp. [Chinese Source]