March 19, 2007
A Review of New Tibet: Memoirs of a Graduate of the Peking Institute of National Minorities
Abstract: When Chinese forces began to occupy Tibet during the mid-20th century, it became common for members of the Tibetan aristocracy to send their children to pursue their studies in China. Tsering Dorje Gashi was among the select individuals that had the opportunity to be schooled at the Peking Institute of National Minorities located in Beijing. He also traveled extensively though parts of China and Tibet and later escaped from Tibet to Bhutan. This paper reviews the experiences detailed in Gashi’s autobiography, which spans the period from 1949-1966. Throughout his book, Gashi declares his critiques on Chinese governance and the suffering inflicted upon the masses. By looking carefully at Gashi’s autobiography, this essay aims to explore his motives for writing the book.
This book offers a unique lens through which to view the circumstances in Tibet under Chinese occupation and the effects of policies implemented by the Chinese Communist Party. Tsering Dorje Gashi, a native of Phari, Tibet, was sent to study in Beijing, China, between the years 1956-1961. This memoir details his experiences as a minority student in the Peking Institute of National Minorities, the events he witnessed during his stay in Beijing, as well as his experiences upon returning to Tibet—first to Lhasa, and later to Phari. While his account provides readers with varying interpretations to the situations discussed and is careful to avoid making the material seem one-sided, it is in essence a critique of China’s policies towards Tibet. Gashi makes clear his intent to inform readers of the sufferings the Tibetan people were subjected to under Chinese governance and emphasizes the fact that even Tibetan youths educated in China continue to rebel against Chinese domination. His argument is strengthened by his unique situation—that of an individual caught in the crossfire between his motherland and the country to which he owes his schooling—and deserves further examination.
The narrative begins by depicting the extent of Gashi’s early education in Tibet, and spans the period between 1949, the year he first enrolled in school at the age of nine, to 1966, the year he escaped from Tibet to Bhutan. During this period, Gashi left Phari to travel to Beijing, passing through Lhasa and Chengdu along the way before arriving at his destination. Upon departure from Tibet and arrival to Beijing in 1956, Gashi was initially preoccupied with the programs of study offered by the Peking Institute of National Minorities, as well as with the recreational activities in and around the city of Beijing. Readers get a sense of the relative autonomy granted by the Institute, and the high standard of living enjoyed by the students during this period (14, 15).
Beginning in 1957, however, conditions began to change as China became engulfed in the “anti-rightist” campaign. Gashi provides a thorough account of the shifts in living standards, providing readers with a thorough list of changes in consumption which had been enforced. Rations and shortages notwithstanding, the true hardships during this period centered on the systematic struggle sessions (thamzing) carried out on those individuals labeled as “reactionaries” involved in underground nationalist movements. Gashi’s depiction of the incredible suffering endured by Amdo Gyakok, a fellow student victimized at violent struggle meetings, highlights the abuse that minority students were subjected to during this period (42, 43). Through this example, the pressure to yield to Chinese indoctrination becomes quite evident, with ensuing events furthering the reasons for Tibetan distrust of the Chinese.
Gashi’s summary of the 1959 Revolt in Tibet is particularly noteworthy in that it not only provides a Chinese account of the incident, but also offers one of his own, complete with citations from outside sources. This approach highlights his efforts to avoid presenting the events in a one-sided fashion, as well as his desire to unveil what really happened during this time. The fact that the details recorded in the Chinese sources do not match those in the foreign ones raises doubts about the reliability of the sources in question, and suggests there is certainly more than one interpretation of the incidents discussed (66, 67).
Moreover, this book also provides a detailed description of the sufferings endured by the Chinese people during severe food shortages, as well as a general assessment of the shortcomings of socialism. While en route to Lhasa in 1961, Gashi passed through Chengdu, where he witnessed the effects of starvation on the city’s residents. He states, “…in a socialist society everyone must act according to the orders given from above. Such a society does not leave room for a person moved by human sympathy to come to another’s help” (75). Upon arrival in Lhasa in December of 1961, Gashi worked for about a year for a publishing press before returning home to his native town of Phari, where he remained for about four years before making his escape to Bhutan on the 26th of September, 1966.
Having cultivated the ability to raise doubts about Party policies and the lack thereof of reforms applied to their home country, students such as Gashi posed a degree of threat to the ideologies endorsed by the Chinese Communist Party. Contrary to the expectations of the Chinese, the students became more politically conscious as they became better educated. They did not merely succumb to the Party’s goal of procuring individuals that would return to their motherland as agents working in favor of the Party. Rather, they learned to ask questions about the policies implemented and did not become blind and obedient followers of the State (49). As Gashi’s example shows, many graduates from the Institute were not assigned jobs commensurate with their abilities or qualifications. This was not so much due to their incompetence, as it was a lack of trust on the part of the Chinese (50).
Gashi’s comparison of the conditions in Phari before and after the Chinese takeover presents striking differences in the standard of living and highlights the negative impacts Chinese occupation has had on Phari’s economy and agricultural productivity. His discussion of the farming techniques and system of taxation depicts “Old” Phari as a region which subsisted predominantly off of commerce and trade. Adding to the picturesque descriptions of the seasonal changes, the religious harmony which existed between the various sects enhances the sense of pastoral tranquility in this town. On top of his own depiction as a native of Phari, Gashi once again references the views of outsiders in order to strengthen his arguments (98).
In contrast, life in “New” Phari is fueled by an urge to improve conditions plagued by hunger. The land is desolate and seldom bears crops, and the Party’s unsuccessful attempts to increase food production merely add to the misery of the Tibetan people (105). By contrasting the circumstances of “Old” and “New” Phari, Gashi manages not only to critique the Party’s futile and unwelcome attempts to “liberate” the Tibetans from the old way of life, but also provides a thorough documentation of life before and after the Chinese takeover.
With these points in mind, this book serves as a good source for information on the situation of minority students in Beijing prior to the Cultural Revolution, as well as the circumstances of the Tibetan people throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The book clearly takes a critical stance towards various policies of the Chinese Communist Party, and depicts Tibetans as the victims of Chinese “slave drivers” under the new Republic. Although much of the material is based on Gashi’s own recollections and may thus be questionable in terms of accuracy, the fact that he repeatedly references outside sources serves as a means of validating his assertions. When speculating whether his motive for telling this story may be driven by purely personal or political reasons, the simple desire to contest the view held by the “outside world” of Tibet having benefited from Chinese influence seems a sufficient answer.
Tsering Dorje Gashi. New Tibet: Memoirs of a Graduate of the Peking Institute of National Minorities.New Delhi: Model Press Pvt. Ltd., 1980.