The Defiant Ones By Yeshi Tenzin
A Book Review by Jack Wilson
On the surface, The Defiant Ones by Yeshi Tenzin seems to do little other than extol the values and ideologies of the Chinese Communist Party. Set in Yangde County, much of the story is centered on a peasant revolt staged in Dengye village against the tyrannical aristocrat and administrator of the region, Rinquin Jigme (Rinchen Jikme). In addition to the rebellion, the origins of which stem from class antagonisms, the narrative is extremely critical of the institutional practice of Buddhism that is rife with hypocrisy within the text. From the story, one could probably speculate regarding the author’s views on religion and the aristocracy in Tibet with some accuracy, but instead I will briefly recount the information provided about the author and limit my discussion to the major themes presented. Given the tone and nature of the text it comes as no surprise that Tenzin was trained at the Central Institute for Minority Nationalities in Beijing. That said it is also important to note that Tenzin was a victim of CCP persecution for his “criticism of ultra-leftist policies” and that “it was under these circumstances that he began to write The Defiant Ones” (1). The vitriol of the novel was at least partially intended to help its author escape further renunciation.
Even this limited information regarding Yeshi Tenzin’s life, which suggests that his vision of a communist Tibet differed with that of the central government in Beijing, provides us with a useful lens for considering the novel. But despite it’s overt anti-traditional posture, The Defiant Ones is not simple CCP propaganda. Rather, Tenzin complicates the values and motivations of the protagonists, allowing for a space in which regional cultural practices (that might otherwise be branded as feudal) can continue to operate.
The distinction Tenzin draws between the institution of Buddhism and the practice of local customs is stark. In the limited capacity that this book deals with Buddhism at all, the practitioners are portrayed at best as hopelessly naïve and at worst as opportunistic hypocrites. A few textual references will illuminate the point but first I will briefly set up the story. In the opening pages of the novel, the aristocrat Rinquin Chigme and his soldiers ruthlessly attack the protagonist Dege Sangmo’s village. The town is burnt to the ground, no one found is left alive, and the soldiers run wild indulging their despicable sexual appetites, raping their victims and even committing acts of necrophilia. Only Dege Sangmo escapes from the village along with her sister’s infant son who is left for dead after having been smashed to the ground by soldiers.
After escaping the carnage, Dege Sangmo takes her nephew (who, in adhering to Tibetan custom, she begins to identify as her son) to beg for food. Sangmo leaves the child alone for only a second, during which time he encounters a lama who attempts to kidnap him to be his disciple. Sangmo finds her son in the nick of time. When she refuses to allow him to be taken the lama chastises her for her bizarre decision: “Many people have offered their children to me as disciples, and some were quite heart-broken when the monastery refused them,” the old lama said in a reasonable tone. “I am not a bad man, and the child will not be mistreated. I used to have a disciple but the Buddha favoured [sic.] him and took him from me. Which goes to show that a boy who is clever and docile can be molded in my hands” (25-26). I realize of course that to describe the act of attempting to take a disciple as kidnapping may seem to misunderstand the cultural context. However, based on the negative representation of lamas throughout the novel in conjunction with the secretive way in which the lama first attempts to take the child, Tenzin judges the practice as such. Additionally, the final two sentences of the excerpt are clearly intended to mock the practice. The lama’s logic is blatantly flawed, as he uses the death of his previous disciple as evidence of his capacity for raising children.
Where this lama may only be misguided, the others portrayed are hypocrites. The lama Dungen is the only significant Buddhist practitioner in the text and he is devoid of moral fiber. He frequently defiles his station and has an insatiable lust. He is also the lap dog of Rinquin Jigme, an intimation by Tenzin that the Buddhist leaders act in consort with the aristocrats to oppress the peasants. Jigme enlists the help of Dungen to concoct a plan to murder his prisoner Dege Sangmo without antagonizing the other villagers who adore her. Initially Dungen refuses and the enraged Jigme threatens to expose the lama’s fornicating,“I know all about you. From the waist up you’re the holy man. From the waist down you’re a rutting donkey. Don’t tell me it’s the first time. There’ve been at least ten others. Who’s responsible for the three swollen bellies going around the town? And what about the two babies abandoned on the mountain? You have a knack for driving the devil out of young women” (254). The lama subsequently falls in line with Jigme and orchestrates an elaborate religious ritual claiming that the town is inhabited by an evil spirit (of which Sangmo is the living manifestation). The book ends with Sangmo bound to a raft of leather and drowning in a river. Within this text, the critique of Buddhism is scathing and unequivocal. The religious figures are hypocrites, cowards, fornicators, rapists, and murderers.
By contrast the practitioners and believers in regional practices in the novel are rebels against the feudal system. Sangje Puzhub, Sangmo’s son by the lama is first described as fearless and proud, an archetypal protagonist within a communist narrative. In our first encounter with the adult Puzhub occurs when he is arrested for plucking the eyes out of a statue of the Sangjeringbo Buddha (79). Puzhub is an outspoken non-believer, and refuses to apologize for defiling the statue. Another less than subtle jab is made at Buddhism with Puzhub’s name, which translates to “the child of Buddha” (27). In the same conversation that he is named, the lama predicts that Puzhub will save the world. This implications here are significant as Puzhub’s destiny lies in working with the rebel group to try and overthrow the oppressive aristocratic regime that is supported by the lama Dungen.
Despite his non-belief in Buddhism, Puzhub and the other rebels all retain some level of belief in local deities. In a declaration of vengeance, Puzhub swears by the holy mountain. In fact the rebel group first called the “Brave Sword Society” is renamed the “Men of the Holy Mountain” after they take refuge from Jigme’s soldiers in a nearby mountain’s caves. As far as I could discern, there is no satire intended in these depictions. Furthermore, Tenzin takes care to present these declarations as politically innocuous. Though the rebels swear to the holy mountain and adhere to the ritual practice of sky burials, there is nothing to suggest that they could not become ardent supporters of communism. If anything they are already imbued with the necessary understanding of class that precedes comprehensive revolutionary consciousness.
Tenzin’s tone in this novel is no doubt a response to his political troubles. It could even be considered an apologia of sorts. His hostility towards the core reactionary institutions of Tibetan society within the story is palpable. And yet, we must brood upon the fact that regional customs and practices escape his critique. In the context of his renunciation, this seems a risky decision. A reading of this text in tandem with a biography of Yeshi Tenzin would likely be enlightening on this issue, as it seems possible that the author’s refusal to conflate local custom with reactionary ideology could have caused his political renunciation. These details aside, it seems clear that Yeshi Tenzin, like Punwang, was both a committed egalitarian and a proponent of a distinct Tibetan cultural identity. In the face of looming central government oppression, he continued to advocate for the retention of aspects of regional Tibetan values and practices with this novel.