Tubten Khétsun wrote Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule in 1996, in response to an open call by the Dalai Lama for Tibetans to record their personal experiences of life under Chinese occupation. The bulk of the narrative takes place in Lhasa—and nearby prisons, work camps, and farms—between 1959-1976, with brief accounts of both the author’s childhood and his eventual departure from Tibet. He vividly describes his inhumane imprisonment by the PLA, the failures of communist economic policy in Lhasa following his release, and the terror of daily life during the Cultural Revolution. His brief time as a low-ranking official in the Ganden Po-trang government earned him a four-year prison sentence, and shackled him to a life of “animal servitude” for 15 years following his release. His story serves to illustrate not only the tangible detriments forced upon the Tibetan people by the PRC, but also the devastation wreaked upon their spirit. As Tubten Khétsun reminds us, “After working as a servant you end up being unfit for anything else.”
Tubten Khétsun was born in 1941 to a respected East-Lhasa family with a long history of government service. While the country still enjoyed de facto independence he was enrolled in Tibetan private school, but following the signing of the 17-Point Agreement, Tibetan schools were gradually replaced by those run by the PRC. This episode provides the author an opportunity to dispel a common misconception about the ‘old’ Tibetan society, when he explains that Tibetan schools accepted children from all classes of families (not just the aristocracy). In fact, he contends that it was quite common for the children of servants to study alongside the children of their masters. When the PRC took over education in Lhasa the Tibetan language was no longer taught, and classes focused mainly on indoctrination of communist beliefs. Many families, including Tubten Khétsun’s, chose to remove their children from school altogether rather than subject them to the Chinese model.
Tubten Khétsun’s uncle, Khendrung Tubten Changchup, was a monk at Drépung monastery who served the Taktra regent and was later appointed chief secretary of the palace secretariat for the Dalai Lama. In 1956, Tubten Khétsun and his siblings accompanied their uncle to India for the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s nirvana, and stayed in Kalimpong for a few weeks before returning to Lhasa. While in Kalimpong, Tubten Changchup took meetings with several Tibetans who would go on to form the ‘Tibetan Rebel Army’. Whether or not they discussed counterrevolutionary plans at that time, the fact that they met would cause much suffering for both uncle and nephew—at the hands of the Chinese—just three years later. When they returned from India, Tubten Khétsun passed the government’s entrance examination and began work as a low-ranking official in the palace secretariat’s office.
Tubten Khétsun was standing guard at the Norbu Lingka on March 20th, 1959, when the PLA began their attack on Lhasa following the flight of the Dalai Lama. He sustained multiple injuries attempting to flee the palace and was eventually captured following a devastating bombardment. After being identified as a government official, he was arrested and transferred to the military headquarters outside Lhasa. Conditions at the military prison were abysmal, and prisoners were denied medical treatment for weeks. After a few days, questioning by Chinese officials began and Tubten Khétsun was targeted to provide damning testimony against his uncle. However, he had not been present at any of the meetings in Kalimpong and thus was unable to provide any useful information (even if he had information, it was unlikely that he would testify against his uncle). After several days of alternating threats and promises of clemency, his interrogators returned him to the general population to begin “reeducation” and “reform through labor”.
After nearly eight months in the military prison, he had still not received a sentence (nor a description of his ‘crimes’), but was nonetheless sent to Nga-chen to work on the new power station being built there (just outside Lhasa). This was the beginning of nearly two decades of intense physical labor for Tubten Khétsun, and the extreme arduousness of the work was initially rather shocking to him. For several months, he toiled for 15 hours per day hauling baskets of rocks on his back, witnessed the deaths of fellow prisoners from rockslides and suicide, and was forced to work through a dislocated calf muscle before being transferred to Téring Prison in Lhasa.
The prisoners at Téring lived with 40-50 men in a single cell, defecated in a common bowl that was rarely emptied, and subsisted on three ounces of tsampa per day. During his stay at Téring, Tubten Khétsun witnessed the deaths of Tibetans from starvation for the first time—an event that would soon become almost commonplace. He was sentenced to four years of “reform through labor” and sent on to Drapchi Prison in June of 1960. The primary occupation of the prisoners at Drapchi was gathering firewood, which was sourced from the mountains around Lhasa. The supply was very limited, so they soon had to begin harvesting in far more remote—and thus far more dangerous—parts of the mountains. Like the work at Nga-chen, this work was very dangerous and Tubten Khétsun watched several of his fellow workers die while attempting to meet their daily quota. When the Chinese finally conceded that the mountains had been picked clean, they ordered their prison labor force to begin tearing down temples and other sacred buildings for the wood. The author makes a point here to dispel the notion that the majority of sacred structures were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Instead, he points out, many had already been torn down for firewood years before the war on the ‘Four Olds’ began.
Punishing labor was not the only challenge for the workers at Drapchi; food was increasingly scarce during this time and prisoners could not live off their rations alone. Families were allowed a very brief visit every two weeks and it was during these visits that the prisoners received the lion’s share of their tsampa (and other supplies, such as bedding and clothes). Thus, the prisoners whose families lived in Lhasa were able to survive on the support of their loved ones, while prisoners from remote regions often died from starvation. Tubten Khétsun estimates that nearly two thirds of prisoners without local families starved to death at Drapchi. Those that managed to survive the many challenges of prison life were subjected to nightly ‘reeducation’ sessions and endless admonishment for their ‘crimes against the people’. Sadly, as the author would soon find out, life outside of prison would be filled with more of the same.
Tubten Khétsun was released from prison on March 21st, 1963—just two weeks after his uncle had succumbed to the perpetual torture and abuse at Drapchi. He returned home to find his family living in squalor after having their house—and nearly all their possessions—seized by the Chinese. Work was scarce, wages were meager, and the rations provided by the government were not enough to sufficiently nourish a person. Deeply indebted to his family for sustaining him during his days in the labor camps, he resolved to find work so that he might provide for them. But Tubten Khétsun was considered a “class enemy” following his time in prison, and wages were fixed at a paltry 0.9 yuan per day for those carrying that designation. Furthermore, the only work he could find was intense manual labor, and he reluctantly took a construction job in the Kongpo region—where he first witnessed the brutal deforestation of Tibet by the Chinese. Due to suspicion of ‘foreign spies’ infiltrating the area, the construction project was shut down and left unfinished, and Tubten Khétsun was sent back to Lhasa.
In the summer of 1966, the Cultural Revolution began and the call for destruction of the ‘Four Olds’ unleashed havoc on Lhasa. Sacred buildings and religious items were destroyed, and teams of ‘Red Guard’ youths ransacked homes looking for any remnants of the ‘old society’. Those found with religious paraphernalia were decried as ‘spirit monsters’ and paraded through the streets to be publicly humiliated. Neighborhood committees were formed, and ‘class enemies’ were conscripted for hard-labor projects around the city. At that time, the primary concern of the governmental organizations (i.e., committees) was political activities, and as a result administration of the city suffered greatly. Major work projects (e.g., canals, power stations, etc.) were mismanaged, workers were assigned to jobs for which they had no skills, and the control of food rations alternated between rival Red Guard factions. When the conflict between the factions reached the point of civil war, many civilians lost their lives (the city was rife with bombs, mines, and starvation), and the city was reduced to “an unredeemable hell.”
By 1969, things had reached the nadir. Tubten Khétsun describes conditions in Lhasa at that time as “worse than prison.” The homes of ordinary Tibetans were randomly searched, and those who were found with religious items or other ‘instruments of Tibetan Nationalism’ were arrested and executed in front of their families. Loudspeakers were installed in every home, communist propaganda blared throughout the city at all hours, and everyone was required to carry books of Mao Zedong’s quotations at all times. The Chinese even coerced former high-ranking monks into defaming the Dalai Lama in public, in a failed attempt to separate the Tibetans from their faith.
In 1971, Tubten Khétsun and other class enemies were ordered by their neighborhood committees to begin work on a massive power station at Tölung. The author worked at the power station for three years and he describes the working conditions as similar to those at Nga-chen, except that the treatment of ‘class enemies’ was worse than the treatment of prisoners. There might have been little regard for prisoners’ lives by the PLA, he explains, but the cultural revolutionaries who were in charge at Tölung had such contempt for ‘class enemies’ that they treated them “worse than beasts”. Once again, Tubten Khétsun witnessed many deaths of Tibetans from workplace accidents, starvation, and suicide.
In 1974, the people of Lhasa were subjected to “Social Transformation” (which was essentially a reassessment of each individual’s ‘class’ assignment), and Tubten Khétsun’s categorization as a member of the former ‘ruling class’ was simply reinforced through an intense ‘struggle session’. Work cooperatives were formed following the reassessments, and Tubten Khétsun was assigned to work at a rock quarry—although he had no experience with that type of work—where he eventually became the cooperative’s most profitable employee (while still earning only 0.9 yuan per day). Although he begged to be reassigned, he would be forced to toil at the quarry for nearly four years.
Mao Zedong died on September 9th, 1976, and reforms began in Tibet roughly one month later. Prisoners were released, political rights were reinstated, and a policy of “to each according to his labor” was enacted. The Tibetan language was reintroduced in grade-school curriculum and Tubten Khétsun was offered a teaching position. But although change was coming quickly to Tibet, he was still a ‘class enemy’ and the neighborhood committee refused to let him out of quarry duty. However, by 1978 the neighborhood committees had lost much of their former power, and when Tubten Khétsun was offered a position restoring texts at the Potala Palace, he took it without consulting his committee. While working at the Potala, he met with the exile government’s delegation to Lhasa and was presented with a letter from his eldest brother—whom he had long feared was killed at the Norbu Lingka in 1959—that confirmed he was alive, well, and living in New Jersey. In 1983, Tubten Khétsun was granted permission to visit Nepal, and after arriving in Kathmandu, he headed immediately for Dharamsala, India. He was granted an audience with the Dalai Lama, and one month later he departed for the United States. Reunited with his brother, he has lived in the U.S. since 1983.
In the Epilogue, Tubten Khétsun tells us that his story is not exceptional—not a tale of miraculous survival—but “simply the story of what an ordinary Tibetan suffered under the Chinese occupation.” His narrative’s lack of exceptionalism is what gives it strength, and it should give us pause.