A Review of Red Star over Tibet
Red Star over Tibet is a personal account of a young Tibetan who lived in Tibet during the first nine years of the Chinese occupation. He attempts to describe the political realities before and after 1950 and evaluate the eventual political outcomes with respect to modern Tibetan history. Dawa Norbu succeeds in his attempt by focusing on his own experiences in the town of Sakya at that time. Even though this account might not be representative of the events that took place in other parts of Tibet, it is very successful in conveying a nuanced picture of how Tibetans perceived and dealt with the situation in this particular area. It also gives a very interesting insight into the beliefs and thoughts of a young Tibetan boy who is caught in the interim between Chinese propaganda and traditional Tibetan culture.
The book mainly focuses on events that took place in Sakya during the 50s, but also covers the Tibetan way of life before and after the Chinese invasion. In the first part of the book, Norbu concentrates on introducing Tibetan culture and traditions that had been maintained by his family and many others during independence. He describes legal practices as well as religious customs and marriage traditions as he experienced them in his own family. This safe world is suddenly shaken when the first Chinese soldiers arrive in Sakya and constitute the beginning of the Chinese occupation. From the perspective of a young man living in exile, Norbu recounts the events that took place and evaluates their political implications. He presents his observations as a young school boy at that time as well as information he acquired through interviews with Tibetan refugees in Exile. In the last part, he describes the family’s escape from Tibet and their new life in India which enabled Norbu to acquire a Western education. For this last part, the author added two additional chapters in 1981, which he focus on the destructive effects of the Cultural Revolution and other political developments in Tibet after the invasion.
Norbu’s account of this particular period in Tibetan history is interesting because it explores the contrast between existing Tibetan traditions and socialist structures that the Chinese tried to enforce upon Tibetan society. By giving a rather lengthy introduction to Tibetan culture, the reader gets very well acquainted with the Tibetan way of thinking. The practices of the Chinese government then contrast sharply with these traditions and this contrast makes it clear how difficult it was to simply replace old traditions with new ones. As Norbu points out, Buddhist rituals carried out by his family were an important of their daily life. Even when the Chinese prohibited the use of resources such as butter for their butter lamps, his mother would nevertheless carry on with her rituals in secret. Even greater resistance was met when the Chinese officials began prosecuting high Lamas as “elitist oppressors”. The Chinese could not convince the Tibetan people that the lamas were exploiters of the people (167). These incidents show the deep-seeded religious devotion of the people in Sakya and the refusal of the people to give up their traditions.
At the same time, the book also makes clear that persecution only slowly increased in severity. Apparently, a popular nickname for the Chinese policy was the “wet-hide-helmet; as it dried out, the hide helmet became tighter and tighter until it crushed your skull (174)”. In the first years, the Chinese had done nothing drastically harmful to the commoners (159). Therefore, when the Chinese invited all ecclesiastical and governmental officials to the Dolma Palace for ‘political education’, all of them attended without any suspicions. As a result, they were put under house arrest by the Chinese and later persecuted as political prisoners (160-162). Everyone in Sakya was petrified. It seems people had not realized the severity of the situation. Even the highest and most enlightened authority in Sakya, the Sakya Lama, thought that Tibet would somehow regain her independence soon (152). According to Norbu, most of the Tibetan nobility in Sakya believed the rhetoric of the Chinese and fully embraced the new ideology. Only later, many of them realized how naïve they had been. As a Lhasa aristocrat told Norbu: “the Chinese Reds were the fox; we were the ass (124)”. As time went by, religious and political freedoms were further curtailed and most people were forced to work in a collective, suffering from hunger and exhaustion. According to Norbu, “we had time for two things only: forced hard labor, and indoctrination. We were exhausted mentally and physically (207)”.
Therefore, even Norbu can easily testify the positive effect the Chinese propaganda had on him in the beginning. As a young boy, he admired the Red soldiers for their iron discipline and all the exciting new things they brought along. When Norbu’s mother sends his brother Abu to do road work near Sakya, he envied him tremendously (112). His experiences only exemplify how many young Tibetan had great expectations for the modern developments in Tibet (116). Norbu himself was considered a progressive among the students and selected for membership in the Young Pioneers. However, school was a place that was extensively used by the Chinese government to influence the minds of the Tibetan youth. However, with increasing propaganda and some reformed Tibetan youths being sent to study in Beijing, many of these students quickly resented the heavy indoctrination and even became more nationalistic (138).
Norbu’s account of this time in history is interesting because he experienced both the religious old and the progressive new Tibet. As a result, he is very critical of both. He describes the Tibetan government as decadent, inefficient and feudal; at the same time, the Chinese government is colonial, inhumane and tyrannous in his opinion. Even though he is sympathetic with most of the reforms that were carried out by the Chinese Communists, he questions their ulterior motives. Even though the wealth of the lamas and lords was rightly distributed among the poor, the Tibetan proletariat mainly received the useless objects while the real wealth was taken to China. He concludes that everyone would have welcomed a true democratic reform, but that the Chinese ‘liberation’ did not really constitute democracy. As a result, people are worse off under the Chinese than they were under a Tibetan government.
However, even though Norbu certainly accounts for the injustices committed by both the Chinese and the Tibetan government, his story tends to be biased towards a nationalistic view he might have acquired in exile. As a result, he contradicts himself. Attempting to offer a cultural explanation for the easy occupation of Tibet by the Chinese, Norbu states that “no traditional Tibetan would have believed you if you had told him that the government sometimes lied”. As a result, when the Chinese violated the seventeen-point agreement, “the Tibetans got the biggest shock of their political lives” (124). In a similar way, he asserts that the relationship between ruler and ruled invariably matured into friendship under the old system (174). At the same time, he states that even before the arrival of the Chinese, “the ordinary Tibetan regarded the aristocrats as social parasites (167)”. Since most of the government officials were recruited from among the nobility, these statements clearly contradict themselves. In this light, it does not seem realistic to assert that all Tibetans believed in the integrity of the Tibetan government. As a result, it is not clear whether Tibetans actually trusted and believed in the old society, or despised it.
Instead, it seems that Norbu tries to portray the former Tibetan government in a better light than the Chinese forces. To accomplish that goal, he states that Tibetans had developed a system of government “in which religion and politics ran parallel without conflict (190)”. What he describes as a “happy marriage of religion and politics” does not accurately portray the political realities of Tibet pre-1950s. Contrary to his statement, politics and religion were very much in conflict at that time and this conflict was probably one of the main causes that prevented the thirteenth Dalai Lama from implementing modern reforms in the early 20th century. This nationalistic agenda becomes apparent at various points in the book, especially when Norbu interrupts his narration to make a political statement, give a lengthy account of Tibetan national history or persecute the Chinese for their atrocities. However, such nationalistic statements dilute his otherwise quite objective and personal account.
However, despite this point of weakness, Norbu succeeds in conveying a convincing personal account of his experiences. Even though his personal story is only based on the experiences of the people in Sakya, it provides a small, but important part of a larger picture. Through this personal account, the book successfully conveys the political realities in this part of Tibet before and after 1950. Therefore, Norbu’s Red Star Over Tibet provides a very valuable account of Tibetan history. In a very rare occasion, the reader is given the perspective of a young Tibetan who lived under both the Tibetan as well as under the Chinese government, and is able to evaluate both of their actions somewhat critically.