Ama Adhe: The Voice That Remembers
The Heroic Story of a Woman’s Fight to Free Tibet
by Adhe Tapontsang, as told to Joy Blakeslee
Review by Erin Marino
8 December 2009
Adhe Tapontsang, A Living Piece of History
Ama Adhe is the captivating testimony of Adhe Tapontsang, a heroic Tibetan woman with a deep religious conviction who was imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese for twenty-seven years in Communist labor camps for resisting their occupation of her homeland. Her inspiring and deeply personal account about the power of the human spirit provides a voice for all the Tibetans unable to tell their own stories. It is written in honor of those who life-stories came to an end under ruthless Chinese Communist imprisonment. Though Adhe suffered great tragedy, which mirrors that of her fellow Tibetans, she recounts her life with an indescribable calmness sure to tug on the heartstrings of any reader. Her autobiography is a rare glimpse into the history of the Chinese occupation in Tibet during the twentieth-century, the unshakable spirit of Tibet’s people and their strong religious beliefs that kept their spirit intact even in the face of such a tragedy.
The book starts with a foreword by the 14th Dalai Lama, followed with a preface by Joy Blakeslee, to whom Adhe recounted her story. The main body of text is split into four cohesive sections, pertaining to major events in Adhe’s life. It closes with an epilogue, followed by an appendix, glossary, bibliography, and list of resources on Tibet for the reader.
“If I carefully examine all the beings, distinguished and lowly, who lived in the past, I find that now only their names remain. And of all the beings who are living now, every one of them will someday pass away. Since my present status, house, relatives, friends, possessions, and even this body must all pass away without remaining for long, to what am I attached in this dream-like present? A good life that is truly meaningful is always difficult to find, and even when found is impermanent and will quickly be destroyed like a dewdrop that clings to a blade of grass.” –A prayer of the lama Tsongkhapa’s Essence of Nectar (134).
In times of hardship, Adhe Tapontsang, a Tibetan woman who lived under Chinese occupation, looked to the prayer above for strength. Adhe’s strong Buddhist belief is evident from the first few pages of her story when she refers to the importance of the interconnectedness of all beings. “Although the world is a bigger place than I had dreamed,” she reflects, “it is not so large that all its inhabitants are not somehow connected” (3). After reading her personal account of roughly three decades of imprisonment and suffering, it is impossible not to feel deeply connected to Adhe, a courageous and deeply religious female. Perhaps that is why Joy Blakeslee, a westerner who came in contact with Adhe through a close friend, and to whom Adhe recounted her story, titled the book Ama Adhe (“Ama” being an affectionate Tibetan term for mother). I believe Adhe would want the reader to keep this emphasis on interconnectedness in mind throughout the reading, for the book isn’t a call for sympathy or pity but an acknowledgement of the need to help our neighbors—those adjusting to new life in exile and those still suffering under imposed Communist rule. This book is a terrifying yet genuinely inspiring account of the life of Adhe Tapontsang.
Adhe was born in 1932 in a farming community in Amdo, a region in northeastern Tibet that shares a border with China. In the summer season, her family along with the other families in the village brought their herds to graze in the mountains. They lived a largely self-sufficient lifestyle and would trade with nomads for life’s necessities. She recalls peaceful summers like these, her family life, and the rest of her childhood fondly. Her most affectionate memories are of time spent with her elder brother Jughuma, of whom she speaks of adoringly, and whose advice had a lasting impact on the young girl. Though Adhe did not attend school, like most children in her village, she learned the history of the land, its people, and their religion through listening in on the conversations of elders around her. The most intriguing of those stories were tales of the holy city of Lhasa, Tibet’s main cultural spot and the residence of the Dalai Lama, three of the most famous monasteries, and the Jokhang shrine. In descriptions of pre-Communist Lhasa (and overall daily Tibetan activities), the book provides rare insight into Tibetan culture and tradition, precious pieces of life later destroyed by the Chinese. While still a young child, Adhe and her family moved to the village Lhobasha in Karze, a politically and culturally enriched area of Kham. “In those early years,” she says when recalling time spent with family, “we could not have foreseen the events to come, and we lived and grew as a family in happiness and peace” (27). That calm peacefulness did not last for Adhe, her family, and the rest of Tibet.
In 1948, in an arranged marriage, Adhe married Sangdhu Panchen, a handsome and kind Tibetan. Two years later, in the spring of 1950, well-armed Chinese troops appeared in Lhobasha. They spoke of helping to liberate the people and teach them to rule their land by implementing an evidently phony policy of “self-determination and self-rule” (45). The friendly words of the Chinese had been purely propaganda and five years later, in 1955, Communist persecution of the Tibetans and their unique religion began. Adhe, who had a one-year-old son and another baby on the way, planned to escape to Lhasa with the help of her husband. However, mysteriously, her husband passed away right before their planned departure. The weight of Adhe’s desperation for help is moving. It is at this devastating point Adhe remembers the value of properly directed determination that her brother Jughuma had taught her when she was young (63). The precious sibling bond that Adhe and Jughuma share is easy for any reader to relate to.
With the Chinese occupation, men from the village hid out in the surrounding forests to aspire to ideas for freedom. A moving testimony to her courageous determination, Adhe visited them in secrecy to tell them information about the present situation in the village and provide them with supplies and food. Because of this, she was brutally taken away by Chinese policemen and separated from her children. She compared the Chinese presence in Tibet to leprosy—which “kills one slowly as the fingers fall away from the hand” (63). This metaphor mirrors the next stages of Adhe’s life, as she physically and mentally deteriorates in prison and labor camps. Adhe was placed in a Karze prison and was later transfered to concentration camps for what the Chinese referred to as rehabilitation, which would rid her of reactionary ideas. In both prison and the labor camps, she was brutally tortured by officers and forced to memorize proverbs of Communist leader Mao, punishments shared by all those who defied the new Chinese occupation. Her recollections of these difficult times are heartbreaking, almost unreal. Adhe, like most Tibetans, looked toward religion—one of the most personal elements of society that the Chinese were trying to destroy—to keep her afloat. Her deep religious conviction and news that the Dalai Lama was safe in exile in India provided her with a glimpse of hope for herself and her people.
One of the book’s major themes is life in the Chinese labor camps, of which Adhe paints clear descriptions, providing the reader with not only a heart-breaking story, but also rare historical information about daily life for imprisoned Tibetans. In Gothang Gyalgo, a brutal labor camp, she compared the situation to the realm of the hungry-ghosts, one of the three Buddhist hell realms: “the prisoners’ faces were like skeletons, with deeply sunken eyes and sharply protruding cheekbones” (117). Malnutrition made even activities such as standing difficult. When opportunity for conversation presented itself, Adhe was too exhausted to even talk. She does describe with great joy the rare friendships she was able to make behind the backs of Chinese officers. A friend in which to confide in such a terrible time was a precious gift. She recalls, when in a fit of desperation, she begs a guard to kill her but instead of quick salvation, she is told she must “suffer properly and thoroughly” (124). Adhe is living in a literal hell on earth. Did the Chinese believe they would eventually change her ‘reactionary’ ways, or did they purely want her to suffer to show their great authority over Tibet? The extreme torture Adhe went through on a daily basis is sure to make any reader thankful for their current situation. It also helps to paint a clearer portrait of Adhe Tapontsang, an immensely determined and hopeful woman, which is revealed not only through her past actions but also through her calm demeanor when describing these horrific memories. The Chinese—for the purpose of interrogation, exploitation, and free labor—kept the Tibetans alive with scraps of food. “Often I awoke in the morning to find that the next prisoner, whose body had afforded some measure of warmth, had died in her sleep,” Adhe recalls (129).
She was later transferred to Shimacha Labor Camp where she was expected to spend her small amount of ‘free time’ memorizing parts of Mao’s Red Book. She describes the Chinese Communist approach to the Tibetans “like pouring water on a stone: the inside of the stone does not become wet” (154). They could not replace Buddhism with Communism in the hearts and minds of the people. Adhe’s mental and physical exhaustion is evident in the text, “the act of working seemed heartless…. Living for an uncertain future did not bring comfort…. The perishability of our existence was obvious to all the prisoners” (169). In March of 1979, came the “first wave of freedom” due to the approaching visit of the Dalai Lama’s government in exile’s official fact-finding delegation (189). All prisoners were released except for those whom the Chinese officers referred to as the ringleaders, which included Adhe.
However, Adhe hears her brother Jughuma is alive and safe in Nepal, and feels the emotion of excitement for the first time in years. In the winter of 1985, after twenty-seven years of imprisonment, she is finally released. After traveling to Nepal and seeing her brother for the first time in thirty-three years, she travels to Dharamsala, India, to have an audience with the Dalai Lama at his government in exile. “The moment we were ushered into the audience room and I saw His Holiness,” she recalls vividly, “the cries of my inmates who had prayed to him as they were dying of starvation came into my mind” (225-6). During this emotional journey, it is the Dalai Lama who tells Adhe she should record and publish her story to inform the world of what was really happening in Tibet and ultimately to honor her deceased companions from the concentration camps.
In April of 1989, she attended the first international hearing concerning Tibet held in Germany. She was surprised by the technology there and the sense of peacefulness, vastly different from the environment in the dirty concentration camps. Having never seen an elevator before, she thought it was a windowless bus and became frightened when it moved upward (230). Her genuine humor in her lack of modern knowledge, after living through such horrific experiences, shows Adhe’s triumph over the Chinese. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful in breaking her spirit. This book, in which she shares her most personal experiences, furthers necessary international awareness of the devastating situation of the Tibetan people, the same way the conference Adhe attended did. Every voice counts, and Adhe’s is the voice of thousands that did not survive life at the Chinese concentration camps. She speaks now for them. Adhe currently resides in Dharamsala, working at the Tibetan Office of Reception welcoming Tibetans into exile and helping them adjust to their new lives in India. She finds happiness in living in the same area as the Dalai Lama and in the ability to help her fellow Tibetans. She has not returned to Tibet, however, she stresses the importance of both Tibetans in exile and under Chinese occupation retaining a sense of identity to educate future generations—for “the heart of a culture lives in its people” she believes (4). Supplied on the last page of the book is a list of organizations working to help aid the Tibetan people for inspired readers to contact. Fortunately, Adhe’s life provides for a very inspiring story.
Tapontsang, Adhe. Ama Adhe: The Voice that Remembers: The Heroic Story of a Woman’s Fight to Free Tibet. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1997.