Abstract: Aten Doghya Tsang was born in 1915 in Nyarong, Eastern Tibet. As a typical Khampa warrior, he opposed the Chinese in their oppression of Tibet. However, unlike a typical Khampa warrior, he was a close confidante of the Communists and was provided a Chinese education. In 1960, following his flight from Kham to Dharmsala, he relayed his story to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who insisted his tale must be told. In 1974, Jamyang Norbu expanded Aten’s refugee statement into a full biography. His story is so compelling because it is one of the few accounts from an Eastern Tibetan, and integral to Tibetan history because Kham incited the revolt against the Chinese. Aten’s story is simple in its delivery, but powerful in its message against Chinese oppression, and in favor of peace and independence for Tibet.
Kham holds an integral place in Tibetan history, but was of particular importance in Tibetan opposition of the Chinese Communists. Aten Doghya Tsang was one of the leading Khampa figures in the restructuring of Eastern Tibet under Communist rule, from both a Chinese and a Tibetan perspective. Born in 1915, the Year of the Female Wood Hare, officially named Rapten Dorje, or “Steadfast Thunderbolt,” Aten rose to prominence in his village Dhunkhuk. The grandson of a Tibetan government official, and the son of the Dhapon or tribal head, of Wuya county [in Nyarong], he lived a simple but comfortable life. He had a strong Buddhist upbringing, his younger brother was an incarnate and was brought to a monastery early in life, and his sister was a nun. Aten was loyal to the Dalai Lama above all else, and defined politics and religion as inherently complementary, “The Dalai Lama… is the living embodiment of the eternal principles of Buddhism, and also the vital epitome of what every Tibetan, from the most debauched harlot in Lhasa to the saintly ascetic, is striving and longing for–freedom, the total freedom of Nirvana” (8). The Chinese had occupied Eastern Tibet from the time of Aten’s birth on. His family instilled in him a deep aversion to the Chinese, prompted by decades of observed Chinese cruelty against the Tibetans.
Aten soon witnessed the cruelties he had heard of, but found salvation in the Dalai Lama’s unification of Eastern and Central Tibet. Aten rejoiced at Lhasa’s military intervention on behalf of the Khampas, against the Chinese warlords such as Liu Wu Hen and Zhao Erfeng , saying, “Today, after 30 years of living under the hated Chinese, we were again part of our fatherland, Tibet,” (20). As the Tibetans fought along side with “his” people, Aten respected and admired the Lhasa government even more due to their efforts to further Tibet as a nation-state. Aten especially respected the Tibetan General, Sonam Wangdu, with whom he and his father held a private audience. General Sonam said it was by the grace of the Dalai Lama that Eastern Tibet was reunited with Central Tibet, delivered from the alien rule of Chinese tyrants. General Sonam’s sincere message of Central and Eastern Tibetan equality had a lasting effect on Aten, who mulled over the meeting with his father, who declared to Aten, “You must always bear in mind your great heritage, your race and your leader. Never forget your duty as a Tibetan and never give way to the enemy,” (31). With these words, young Aten became a committed Tibetan nationalist, loyal to the Lhasa government, its army, and its leadership in both Central and Eastern Tibet.
Tibetan unification, in Aten’s mind, was short-lived. His conception for a united Tibet was derailed in 1932 when the Tibetan army was pushed back and the Chinese Nationalists flooded into Eastern Tibet. Aten echoed the anger and sadness of his father when seeing the defeat of the Tibetan Army, mulling, “It was not the national defeat or the loss of our independence that affected me, for I was too young… It was rather a bewildering personal sadness… My young mind had identified itself fully with them [the Tibetan army]. It was my army, my flag, and my general; their conquests were my conquests and I wanted to see them win even more,” (39). Further compounding Aten’s sadness was the passing of the Great 13th Dalai Lama, who gained independence for Tibet, expunged injustice in all of Tibet (the aristocracy, the monastic system, and the common people), and created a renewed sense of belonging to his race and his nation. Though Tibetans grieved the loss of the Great 13th for many years, Aten found refuge in his marriage to Nyima Tso, the daughter of a chieftain clan leader of Kongshe. Years later, he married her younger sister as well. The unification of these two familial clans embodied a theme of the importance of clan throughout Tibet. Traditionally, political disunity and constant feuding of clans characterized Tibet. Though the Chinese had occupied Nyarong for years, they could never truly subjugate the Tibetans, nor break their cultural and religious traditions. Even the fiercest of enemies would unite against the Chinese invaders.
The civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists waged on, allowing Aten and other Tibetans to continue with their normal lives. In 1935, the Communists first came to Eastern Tibet and pushed back the Nationalists. The Tibetan female leader Chime Dolma successfully drove out the Reds, but the Nationalists returned and she was punished. With this seeming return to the norm in Eastern Tibet, in 1939, Aten decided to fulfill his lifelong desire to make a pilgrimage to Lhasa. Upon nearing the Holy City, Aten heard news that the 14th Dalai Lama had been discovered in Amdo, and had made the journey to Lhasa. Aten and his sister safely arrived in Lhasa and spent their time in Central Tibet traveling to various monasteries, paying homage to various deities and doing reverence to holy relics and images. The conclusion of Aten’s stay was marked by the Tibetan New Year and the Great Prayer festival. This Great Prayer festival was to be particularly spectacular for it coincided with the coronation of the 14th Dalai Lama. Aten was present for the Sertri Ngasol and was permitted an audience with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama blessed him with a tassel-tipped stick. This trip to Lhasa and Aten’s contact with the Dalai Lama furthered his devotion to the Dalai Lama as the supreme leader of Tibet, and he sought refuge in him even in his darkest hours, prompting his eventual flight into exile.
For Aten, the Communist occupation should have meant business as usual for Tibet. In 1950, the first Chinese Communists marched into Tibet, through Kanze. Aten and his compatriots did not believe this, the newest Chinese occupation, would be any different from those prior. Aten stated, “To us Tibetans, it made no difference. Chinese armies of many regimes had come and gone through our land. All of them had been brutal and tyrannical, yet thankfully indifferent, inefficient, and corrupt. Of course, we expected some changes in the beginning, but then the Reds would settle down, reveal their all too human weaknesses, and leave us Tibetans alone. They were Chinese after all” (68). Aten then told of Communist activities and efforts in Tibet, which were characterized, initially, by respect of Tibetans. On October 7, 1950, the People’s Liberation Army marched into central Tibet, prompting the Lhasa government to surrender. At the end of October, the PLA marched into the Holy City. A new era of Chinese rule over Tibet had begun.
The Chinese changed the political structure of Kham, allowing greater Chinese oversight of Tibet. The “People’s Government” was established, which declared Nyarong was a hsien (pinyin: xian) or Chinese district, divided into four subdistricts or chues (pinyin: qu). In the Wulu chue, Aten was essentially forced to accept the post of assistant administrator. This marked the beginning of a close relationship between the Chinese and Aten. Aten was essentially a messenger for the Party. He was assigned the initial task of preparing and convincing Wulu that the CCP’s goal of converting Tibet into a “Democratic” nation was worthwhile and in Tibet’s greatest interest, under the policy of self-determination and self-rule. The Tibetans were also required to help build an airfield at Kanze (Tib. Kandze) to facilitate the transport of supplies to their other regiments in Chamdo and elsewhere. Though the Tibetans opposed working for the Chinese, they were finally convinced to give in, under the threat of retaliatory military action, solidified by the allocation of fair wages.
These break-through moments of Chinese ultimatums and force were overshadowed by the message of peace, and Tibetan independence, put forth by the Party members. Trou Shoka, or Trou the Commissar, was the main vehicle delivering Chinese propaganda about self-determination to the Tibetans. Trou would say to the Tibetans, “Tibet must be ruled by the Tibetans. We Chinese are only guides here to help you. In a year or two we will leave and you will have to manage on your own. At that time, even if you ask us to stay, we will not do so” (72). That earnest claim, combined with the maintenance of existing political and social hierarchies, as well as a professed respect for Buddhism, created a Chinese façade of sincerity in Tibet. Aten reflected, “It is a humiliating admission to make, but we really believed him then….We had no reason to doubt their intentions” (72). The Chinese perfectly orchestrated the beginning steps of their invasion and squeezing of Tibet. Though they erred in the redistribution of fallow land, granting land to professional beggars, oblivious to the fact that it takes more than land to make a farmer or a nomad, the Tibetans mostly laughed off these incidents as Chinese ignorance.
In 1954, the Chinese took their first step toward destroying Tibetan social structure. They redistricted the chues of Nyarong into smaller hsiangs (pinyin: xiang), under the control of Tibetan puppets of Party officials. Notably, nomads and their pasturages were excluded from this program. In 1955, Aten and other Tibetan officials for the Communist government were sent out on another publicity mission, “Food for the starving, clothes for the naked, and perfect justice for all.” When each family received its share of food and clothes, the head of the household had to declare the amount of property and possessions they had. The Chinese did not directly question the responses, but rather infiltrated each town, questioning residents about their neighbors, in non-threatening ways that caused all to report the wealth of their compatriots. Once again, Aten reflected on what he considered to be the naivety of his people, “In retrospect, it does seem surprising how easily the Chinese managed to exploit our naivety and our only too human greed and follies. Their smooth talk, their presents, and their silver blinded us while they drew their noose around our necks” (76).
The Chinese tightened their grip over Tibet by attempting to reeducate Tibetan leaders. By having their Marxist philosophy perpetuated by a trusted Tibetan community leader, it allowed their philosophies to permeate the Tibetan social hierarchy. In 1955, Trou the Commissar summoned Aten, and declared that he was being sent to Chengdu’s Southwest School for National Minorities on a scholarship provided by the Communists. At the school, Aten was taught Chinese and a contorted, rewritten and sinified tale of Communism and modern history. The school was composed of Tibetans and Lolos, with a large Chinese constituency, perhaps to keep the true minorities in line at school. Aten gave several examples of excessive Chinese ignorance at the school, which included an instructor’s declaration that, “had it not been for Communist China, the entire world would have been subjugated by the Axis Powers” (82). As Aten’s year of Chinese schooling progressed, the Chinese instructors’ claims of Chinese ethnic, cultural, and civilization preponderance grew. Nge Tung Wing, an instructor whose task was to enlighten the students about the “Policy for National Minorities,” made ludicrously competing claims, such as, “Under the leadership of the Great Chinese race, all the different nationalities have been entitled to racial equality, cultural preservation, and private property…Our [Chinese] superiority is not just a dogma we are imposing on you, it is a historical fact. The Chinese are the most culturally advanced pioneers of civilization” (86). Another teacher, Nge Tu Ring, was called upon by the school’s administration to clarify Mao’s “Policy of Nationalities” to the students. When the students questioned Nge Tu Ring’s contradictory position, he retorted, “ ‘You have come here to learn from us, not to make policies…You are a backwards people and thus, must be taught to do away with antiquated systems, and adopt advanced ones. It is only when a country has undergone such a revolution that we can regard it as an advanced nation. Your questions and impertinent arguments clearly illustrate how backwards and old fashioned your minds are. Learn from the Great Chinese People’s Revolution – Learn from the wisdom of Chairman Mao” (89).
Aten further learned of Chinese brutality and excessive expectations under Communism, which included having all people, regardless of age, ability, and health, work and wondered how these mandates could be fair, to which his instructor responded, “Everyone is capable of working… Anyone who expects food without working is a parasite and an enemy of the people. We officials work with our minds, the workers must work with their bodies” (92). He further claimed that World War III would be necessary for a “Socialist Utopia” to be achieved, but for the time being, unbounded happiness could be attained in China with the greatest deployment of the communes. Aten did learn a lot at the university, but he did not learn what the Chinese wished for him to learn. Rather than becoming a proselytizer of Marxism, he became an emissary of bad news: the Chinese wished to suppress and subjugate Tibetans to their culture, rule, and political ideology. In 1956, Aten completed his education, and returned to his homeland, Kham, which was engrossed in a bitter revolt against the Chinese.
The Chinese had, through their brutality, their misguided “Democratic Reforms,” and their eradication of all elements that made Tibet, Tibet, united all of Eastern Tibet. Aten explained the “Democratic Reforms” were meant to, “…sound the death knell of our religion, and the end of Tibetans as a distinct race and religion” (94). In the face of extinction, the Tibetans rallied against the Chinese. For the first time, clan rivalries and overall violent tendencies were abandoned in favor of banding together to rise against the common enemy. Upon Aten’s return to Nyarong, his family was elated for they feared he had been murdered by the Chinese, but Aten faced a new reality at home. His family was labeled as “serf owner,” which was essentially the label the Chinese gave to any community leader they perceived as threatening, in order to undermine his authority. His wives’ jewelry, and most of his property, grain, herds, and horses had been confiscated. Upon meeting with other community leaders, Aten and company decided that further revolt was necessary. Further affirming their need for revolt was Colonel Len’s explanation to Aten of why women and children of rebels needed to be slain alongside their men, “As far as rebels are concerned, our instructions are very clear. We are to exterminate them all, even the women and children. I mean, who will feed the women and children, anyway? It is better that they die. Little rebel children will grow up and make trouble in the future; if you squash the nits, there will be no lice” (102). This was the Chinese policy of “Peaceful Suppression of Rebels.” Aten then realized he and his compatriots needed to bring the fight to the Chinese regardless of their chances of victory, for they would be destroyed regardless of their actions.
As the Chinese military bases grew and the Tibetan rebels lost territory, Aten realized it was time to take action. After making a report on the progress of the Experimental Lower Class Communes to a large Party audience, and guiding Party geologists to a deposit of iron ore, Aten decided to flee. On the 18th day of the 8th moon, 1958 Aten and 15 others fled at night. They were pursued from the beginning, and decided a route to Lhasa was their best choice. They joined with a larger group of rebels who sent a message to the Tibetan government informing them of the situation, and hoping to join with the biggest guerilla force, operating in Lhokha, to the south of Lhasa. This appeal coincided with a reversal of the Communists’ position on religion. In 1956, the year of their arrival in Tibet, they claimed to support freedom of religion. They even recognized the Lord Buddha as a true proletariat hero, for his renunciation of his royalty and wealth. Alas, only three years later, they reversed their approach, claiming, “Freedom of religion is only for individuals… All monks and priests must work…Religion is based on ignorance and fed by blind faith…Religion is the opium of the people. All monks and lamas are exploiters and enemies of the people. The Red (clergy) and black (aristocracy) enemies must be exterminated” (121). This declaration against the monastic system ignited the “Revolutionary Struggle” sessions, in which Chinese soldiers would humiliate, demoralize, and dehumanize all people, particularly monastic members. All were forced to accuse their superiors and neighbors of imaginary crimes; aged lamas were forced to fornicate with prostitutes, victims of the trials were spat and urinated on. This further invoked the rage of the monks and lamas. Three hundred Chinese soldiers were residing at Dzokchen Rinpoche’s monastery, in the labrang building. The monks of the monastery decided to attack the Chinese in their outrage, and stormed the building with their axes, hacking away at anything that moved. In response, the Chinese soldiers panicked and shot indiscriminately at everything they saw, massacring the monks. However, the monks’ plan was still effective in one way. They called all of their surviving colleagues out of the building and piling flammable materials against the labrang’s side, set it on fire, killing all Chinese inside.
In the face of Chinese oppression, religion still prospered, and Aten and his fellow “rebels” sought refuge in the Lord Buddha. Gongsha, the abbot of Shichen monastery, gave a special initiation called the Mani Lung to those in the Dzachukha area and initiated the people into the mysteries of the most sacred tantric initiation, the Sem Tri. The rites uplifted the people and marked the absolution of tax and payment mandates that traditionally prevented the masses from receiving such sacred rites. Once again, the Chinese had managed, through their oppression, to actually unite and consolidate the Tibetans and Tibetan culture. Aten felt that death was imminent, but, “Even in our misery, we were granted this great teaching, and thereafter felt we would be able to die with less bitterness in our hearts” (124).
The airstrip the Tibetans were forced to build was used against them. The Chinese dropped propagandist pamphlets to them, which claimed the “reactionary rebel bandits” had kidnapped the Dalai Lama, and staged an uprising that the Chinese quelled within three hours. Though the quashing of the rebellion did dishearten the Tibetans, “we were overjoyed to learn that our [their] beloved leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, was safe and not in the clutches of the Chinese anymore” (126). Aten and company were constantly on the run. Aten said of the constant battle, “The actual fighting wasn’t so bad. It was the breaks in between that kept us so fearful and apprehensive, waiting for that inevitable cry, ‘The Chinese have come!’” (127). In their pursuit of weaponry and their assaults on the Chinese, the Tibetan rebel company came to Dzachukha. They were immediately stricken by the odd, inexplicable silence, but upon riding to the scene, understood, when they were “…greeted by a scene of total devastation. Blood-stained and rotting corpses of men, women, and children lay sprawled across the ground in grotesque and pathetic positions….There must have been at least 400 corpses,” (128). Aten’s little daughter, upon viewing the scene, asked, “ ‘Father, why do our people have to suffer so much. We have given them our homes and all our possessions. Why do they still have to kill all these poor people?’” (129). At that, Aten recalled the “Peaceful Suppression of Rebels” program, and it became clear to him.
On the 15th day of the 6th moon, 1959, the Chinese laid siege on the Tibetan camp. An airplane from the airfield the Tibetans built flew low to the ground and bombed the rebels and assailed the herds of sheep and yaks with machines guns. In the cross fire, his younger wife and daughter were hit. His wife was able to flee, but Aten held onto his daughter, who was mortally wounded. It was at this time Aten displayed the most horror for the actions of the Chinese. Formerly a perpetually stoic figure, he finally broke down, “My daughter was sweating and groaning with pain… I gently laid her on the ground and tried to make her as comfortable as possible. In a weak voice, she begged me to leave and save myself. I held her to me gently and kissed her. I guess it is karma to love one’s offspring, even animals care for their young. As she lay dying, disemboweled, on that cold snow patched ground, I felt for a moment a great pity and sadness in my heart, leaving me empty and forlorn” (132).
With the death of his daughter and the flight of his wives, he was left to fight for their survival. He was hit twice in the shoulder and once in the calf by Chinese bullets, and struggled to stay alive. Eventually he and his cousin Dowong found each other and escaped into the mountains. Aten’s leg wound contracted gangrene and he struggled to survive. The cousins eventually met up with eight additional survivors and decided to flee to India. The resistance fighters had safely guided the Dalai Lama to India. Aten saw this as their supreme task, for, “…if His Holiness had failed to get to India, the Tibetan National movement would surely have ended” (139). They battled fierce conditions, pursuit by the Chinese, and starvation as they continued onto India through Nepal. During the crossing into Nepal, Aten allowed himself to shed a few tears for the first time in his tale, and ended his account, stating, “I will not bother my readers with any further accounts of my various experiences in exile” (140). He states that of the sixteen people who set off in his company, only four survived, and that as an old man, all he can do now is pray. He requests that all of his readers, “…join me [him] in this prayer, so that the sufferings of my people may soon end, and the ancient nation of Tibet become free once again” (140). When reading his biography, I wondered why he ended the story when he did. I have now realized this was a rhetorical device, meant to emphasize his experiences in Tibet, rather than outside of Tibet. His heart, home, and family lived and died by Tibet, and he did not want to detract from his tale and the history of Tibet under Communist rule by telling of his time in exile. His life ended in Tibet. In exile, he was only preparing for death, praying for peace and a return for his people. His heart was forever in Tibet.
The title was also of interest to me. Though Aten rode horses, he did not seem like the Horseman in the Snow the title declared him to be. In the final battle he participated in, the one that claimed the lives of his wives and only child, he came upon an old chestnut mare that was calmly nibbling on the grass of the meadow, in the midst of battle. He mounted her and tried to escape. Suddenly he felt an immense pain in his calf; a bullet had gone through his flesh. Trying to flee, he pushed the mare to journey on. At first she was speedy in their flight, but suddenly slowed down, “I grabbed the reins hard and urged the old mare onwards. After sometime she began to falter and stumble. Finally she made one last valiant effort, struggling on a few more steps, after which she fell down and died” (134). The bullet that had passed through Aten’s calf had struck her in the abdomen. This was the most definitive recollection of Aten as a horseman. I do not doubt the veracity of his concluding battle story, but I do see a great metaphor for Tibet through the mare. In the midst of decades of foreign occupation, Tibetans journeyed on, trying to peacefully continue with their daily lives. However, when adequately provoked, Tibet, like the old mare, rode to battle, and made a valiant effort against the Chinese, even when mortally wounded. As the horseman, Aten tried to navigate the delicate field of diplomacy and resistance to the Chinese, but like the mare, eventually fell in the face of such resistance. Aten hopes that Tibetan independence will someday be realized; commemorating his memory and remembering those fallen helps to support such efforts.