An irony — and perhaps also a triumph — of China imposing its language on Tibet is that today a Tibetan literary elite are authoring highly-acclaimed books in Chinese. The woman writer and poet, Woeser, is at the forefront of this New Literary Movement. Having studied Chinese literature in the Chinese Department of South-West Nationalities Institute, Chengdu, and worked as an editor with the Lhasa-based Chinese language journal Tibetan Literature, Woeser has the education, background, and talent to be one of the bright stars of China’s ‘New Tibet’. Instead she is now unemployed, living in self-exile in Beijing.
Her downfall came with her second book, Notes on Tibet — a compilation of 38 short stories published in Guangzhou in January 2003, and banned around nine months later for revealing opinions “that are harmful to the unification and solidarity of our nation.” Her work unit, the Tibet Autonomous Region Literary Association, commented that “…the author has abandoned the social responsibility that a contemporary writer ought to have and lost her political commitment towards the progressive civilization movement.” The official indictment accuses Woeser of “stepping into the wrong political terrain” and “praising the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa, encouraging belief in religion” and generally “having the wrong political stance.”
In a letter of reply to her work unit, dated 14 September 2003, Woeser said she was “temporarily” leaving Lhasa, because to deny her belief in Buddhism and confess that she should not have “used my own eyes to observe Tibet’s reality” would “violate the calling and conscience of a writer”.
Born in Lhasa in 1966, Woeser was raised and educated in Kham-Derge during a post-Cultural Revolution in schools with Chinese-medium curriculae. After her higher studies in Chengdu, and before her transfer to Lhasa in 1990 to work on Tibetan Literature, she was a reporter on Ganze Daily in her native province of Kham.
It is this winning combination of journalistic observation and objective recording of reality, plus her fluency and grounding in Chinese literature, that make Woeser one of a handful of outstanding members of Tibet’s ’Chinese Writers’ Group’. This force of hundreds of Tibetan authors and poets have a command of Chinese that readers and critics find superior in many cases to the work of today’s Han writers. The majority of them grew up in Chinese-populated border regions of Tibet and China and received highly-Sinicized educations.
In the words of the Beijing writer-scholar Wang Li-Xiong, “The fact that they have paid the high price of losing the language of their nation to gain such fluency in Chinese can also be interpreted as a reversal of something negative into positive.” The feeling among Tibet Watchers like Wang is that up until now the experience of Tibet has been voiceless within China due to censorship, the language barrier and the distortions created by Beijing propaganda. They see writers like Woeser as Tibet’s ’public intellectuals’ who have the literary and linguistic skills to play an important role by interacting with China’s populace and authorities through publishing, the media, the Internet, and by mixing in the PRC’s mainstream.
Their articulation of Tibet’s ’otherness’ is seen as a powerful weapon to regain national equality and resist, and even disarm, the ’cultural imperialism’ imposed upon Tibet under Chinese rule.
In one poem, composed in Beijing in November 2004, Woeser reveals her political awakening for the first time. “Far from home, amidst foreigners, eternal strangers” she bravely and openly expresses the reasons for her “concern from afar”.