This obituary appeared in the Jan-Feb 2015 edition of Tibetan Review.
Tashi Tsering, 1929-2014
“Old” Tibet was devoid of self-made men. Your fate was sealed at birth and, as a result of deeds from your previous lives, supposed to be accepted with humility, whether you were peasant, nomad or aristocrat. The only way to amend it was to become a monk. Social class promotion of an individual could happen exclusively when, at the will of heavens or due to some political maneuvers, an important tulku was recognized in his family.
In that environment Tashi Tsering was a black sheep. Born in 1929 in a small village called Guchok, about a hundred miles west of Lhasa, he entertained an unusual dream: learning to read and write. Most probably he would have never fulfilled it. However, at the age of 13, he was luckily chosen to become a gadrugba, a member of the Dalai Lama’s personal dance troupe.
Lhasa was a place of greater opportunities than Guchok, although pursuing strange desires was not easy there either. At the dance school – as he noted in his autobiography, The Struggle for Modern Tibet, written with Melvyn Goldstein and William Siebenschuh – he was frequently whipped or beaten by teachers for minor infractions, and sexually abused by a well-connected monk.
After the end of his gadrugba term, and thanks to his literacy and connections, Tashi Tsering secured a job in the Potala treasure house. Soon his thirst for better education took him to India. After the 1959 uprising in Lhasa thousands of Tibetans followed there. At the request of the Dalai Lama’s brother Gyalo Thondup, Tashi Tsering took to recording refugees’ statements. Later, in Calcutta (Kolkata), he guarded the silver coins secured by the exiled rulers from the Potala’s vault.
But he still wanted more. To continue his studies, he went to the United States. He could have stayed there and run a comfortable life of an academic. Instead, in 1964, he did something Gyalo Thondup and all his friends called “madness”: he returned to Chinese-occupied Tibet.
Tashi Tsering was convinced thatto change, his country needed revolution, and if is a red one, so be it. In other words, Tibet could become a modernized society based on socialist, egalitarian principles only through cooperation with the Chinese…
During the Cultural Revolution, he, like many other Tibetans, joined Red Guards; but soon he was himself denounced as an American spy. Arrested in 1967, he spent six years in prison or doing forced labour. He was officially exonerated in 1978 and promoted from being a manual worker to an “intellectual”; and he came back to Lhasa.
Once a learner, teaching now became his obsession. He managed to compile his masterpiece: a Tibetan-Chinese-English language dictionary. Next, disappointed by the inability of the communist government to provide universal education to Tibetans, he pushed his way to build schools. The first one was in his family village; dozens others followed over the years. Tashi Tsering and his American friends granted funds, local governments gave building materials, and the local people provided land and work force.
In post-Maoist but still Chinese-occupied Tibet, Tashi Tsering became a part of the establishment. He received professorship of English at the Tibet University in Lhasa and a seat at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference of the Tibet Autonomous Region – a ceremonial gathering of local celebrities collaborating with Chinese authorities. And he kept praising the “progressive” government.
I met Tashi Tsering in the summer of 2001 in a tiny chang bar on the Lhasa Barkhor Square, managed by his reportedly illiterate wife.
The situation with education is good; everyone can learn, prof. Tsering said, while the vigorous women in traditional striped apron filled our cups up with a white, muddy liquid as soon as a single drop disappeared in our mouths. The biggest problem, he said, was that less and less Tibetans wanted to learn Tibetan language; they don’t find it useful.
I asked him where would Tibet be today without the Chinese invasion. At the same place where it was 60 years ago: in feudal, backward, dirty pit, he said, and set about exalting Chinese for building roads and airports.
Why the situation in Tibet is so tense? I asked. But his response was, “Well, the situation is normal, Tibet is developing fast…”
I did not hear irony in his voice. But there was no doubt that Tashi Tsering was feeling uncomfortable, and he betrayed it by stretching his limbs, rubbing glasses, looking around. He didn’t want to tell me to go away, because I came with a recommendation of a person he esteemed. At the same time he didn’t want to show that he was avoiding sensitive subjects – why would he? Tibet is free and he is a local VIP.
“We, Tibetans,” he said, “have no other choice but to accept the Chinese rule and try to save all we can of our culture.”
Sounds familiar… “It means,” I responded, “you support the ‘middle way’ of the Dalai Lama, who wants cultural autonomy for Tibet within China?”
“Yes, yes. Excuse me, but I am expecting someone.” With that the professor got up and it was time to leave.
When I came to see Tashi Tsering again several years later, he was even less keen to talk. I asked him how the schools construction went. “Fairly good, though now local authorities care less for private sponsors, because they get more funds from Beijing”.
He gifted me a DVD of a documentary about him made by a Chinese TV channel, and a leaflet on his school projects in Namling County. I could read on the leaflet read: “most of the children born in this mountainous region will never satisfy their persistent thirst for knowledge”.
“Don’t you think, sir, that something is wrong when after more than half a century of ruling Tibet, China is inept at securing basic education for several tens of thousands of rural children?” Tashi Tsering never answered my e-mail with this question. But I am sure that he was frustrated too. In a preface to a 2011 edition of his autobiography published by the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, Tashi Tsering called on his “dear fellow countrymen of the Han nationality” for “setting up an educational system using Tibetan language as the main medium of instruction in Tibet… This is a basic human right of Tibetan people”.
None of my interlocutors in Tibet whispered any critical word of Tashi Tsering. Collaborating with the Chinese authorities is widely accepted there. “There is no choice,” the Tibetans say, “We need to try as much as possible to change the system from inside”. The red line, beyond which the collaborator should expect ostracism, is attacking His Holiness – and to my knowledge Tashi Tsering has never crossed it.
All his life he stuck to his beliefs and goals. Taking easy on the principles would have brought him much more material comfort, but, unlike some other high-placed Tibetans, he did not seek much profit for himself. Until his last days he used to wear, out of sentiment more than necessity, his darned coat brought from America in the 1960s.
You can find more famous Tibetans of his name. Like Tashi Tsering from Lhoka prefecture, who on 26 August 1999 lowered the Chinese national flag in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. He was arrested and beaten, and later reportedly committed suicide in his cell.
Another Tashi Tsering, a 22-year-old nomad from Achok, Gansu Province, was recorded as the first Tibetan to set himself on fire in 2013.
My personal conviction is that what Professor Tashi Tsering did through 85 years of his life, before he passed away in Lhasa on December 5, was more beneficial for his countrymen than what the other two of his namesakes did. However… In Tibetan Buddhism each deity has a benign and a wrathful form. Maybe all Tashi Tserings are emanations of the same deity of patriotism?
* Robert Stefanicki is the author of a non-fiction book “Czerwony Tybet” (Red Tibet), based on his several journeys to the Land of Snows, recently published in Poland and awaiting translation opportunities.