This essay was first published January 2013 in Hong Kong’s Open Magazine (here). CDT translated another essay by Tang in 2008 called Tibet: Her Pain, My Shame, which became one of CDT’s most popular and most commented-on posts ever.
Fire Between the Dark and the Cold
From the very beginning of my experience with Tibet, I fell in love with the Tibetan people, their culture, and their faith. Their unique hospitality, charm, good humor, and confident attitude moved me quite deeply. They convey a priceless character through their smiles and their eyes, and the way they serve their tea and toast their wine, the way they spin prayer wheels. It’s a special kind of character that makes one feel warm and think deeply. This special character of theirs is intimately related to their land and Mother Nature, to their language and wisdom, and to their faith and philosophy about the world. I cherish most their understanding of, and universal compassion for, the tough realities experienced by all forms of life.
But never in my life have I imagined that so many of these people whom I love, at this very moment that I am writing this essay, already over 100 men and women, wish to cover their bodies with gasoline, drink gasoline, and calmly walk down to the grasslands, or along small village paths, or to the gates of the local government building, or to the town roads, or to the gate of a temple, and on this land and under this sky that once belonged to them, set themselves on fire, to cry out in their language, and to die on this land and under this sky that was ripped away from them. What they cry out for, in a normal world, would make perfect sense. Any self-respecting people must have the freedom to possess its own language, culture, and faith, and the ability to determine its own leaders. But their dignity has been ripped away. Their language, culture, and faith have all been ripped away. All the legitimate rights of the Tibetans have been ripped away. Faced with such external, steely, unemotional resolve, perhaps they still hold out hope that their harrowing self-immolations will precipitate some change to the deaf and dumb status quo.
I can imagine the smiles and the familiar looks in the eyes of these self-immolators. I can imagine them singing and dancing, their demeanor as they serve tea and make toasts with their wine and their posture as they roll their prayer wheels. I can imagine how they open their scriptures, how they memorize the passages within, and how they worship the Eight Auspicious Signs. I can imagine how they give alms to beggars… I can imagine them, just like us, having their own tastes, favorite colors or smells, putting on more clothing as the weather gets cold just like us, recoiling when they touch something hot, just like us. I can imagine their many connections with this world. Surely they have loved ones. Surely they have loved ones whom they pity. Surely they have loved ones whom they fret over. Right?
I admit, I am unable to imagine how they could be so desperate. I cannot imagine the intense pain they endured while alive and the excruciating pain they suffered as they burned. I once tried to stick my finger into an open flame to better understand the pain. But after just one second, I pulled my hand away. How could someone possibly endure many minutes with every inch of her skin on fire? How could someone possibly be so determined? With such endurance, why not go on enduring your life?
Like many other worried people, I want to say, “Please do not protest in this excruciating way.” I have said before, “Stop self-immolating. Your light will not illuminate their darkness, your flame will not heat their coldness.” But this is nothing but a failed attempt to relieve some anxiety by someone from the outside world. I’ve never lived their life. My situation is completely different. My values certainly differ in some way from theirs. My parents’ peers were were not killed by another people. My country was never occupied by another people. I’ve never been forced to speak the language of my occupiers. I’ve never opened a scripture. I never had the habit of daily morning and evening prayer. I’ve never had a faith. I’ve never had to face the portraits of the “Four Leaders” in the temple halls. I’ve never had to hear those foreigners insult my masters. The rites of my religion were never abolished. I’ve never been forced to curse a deeply devoted lama. I’ve never had to face guns pointing towards my temple. I’ve never faced the barking and cursing of those heavily armed men… Perhaps it is precisely because of my inexperience that I cannot imagine the humiliation with which they live that makes them so resolute. But their own people understand the self-immolators. They gather around them and place hada all over their bodies in a display of extraordinary respect.
But regardless, these self-immolators among this people which I adore, are so close to their “enemies.” Those heavily armed people are right beside them. Those people who insulted their masters are right beside them. Those people who ripped away their freedom and destroyed their culture are right beside them. Yet they do not so much as lay a finger on their “enemies.” They merely leave a final testament, cover themselves with gasoline, set themselves alight, and call out: Dalai Lama come home; Free Tibet; Tibet Independence… And then, they die a tragic death. The atrocities they have endured, both spiritually and physically, far surpass what I can imagine. Self-immolation is a language of intense pain, an intensely painful denouncement–a way to communicate the extent of the atrocity they endure.
A mother seeing the blackened body of the child she once loved and cherished so dearly– I cannot imagine how heartbroken their mothers must be! A father facing the twisted deformation that once was his child–I cannot imagine how heartbroken their fathers must be! Children witnessing their scorched parents bodies burnt completely beyond recognition, never to feel their embrace or kiss again–I cannot imagine how heartbroken their children must be! I admit: I want them to stop. I’d rather they go on living, even if they live a horrible life. I’m actually scared of talking about Tibetan self-immolation. And I’ve nearly managed to maintain my silence.
I breach the topic here because those people, our fellow human beings, standing tall or struggling to run as flames rage and smoke billows, have not only shown me their determination for free will, but they’ve also shown me once again how that group of rulers known as “Communist Party members,” to protect their own power, would snuff out the free will of any who fight back.
All subsistence stipends, disaster relief assistance, and other public welfare policies enjoyed by the self-immolator’s family are to be revoked. The family is hereby permanently disqualified from such programs. All government financed and implemented projects are to be cancelled in the town of the self-immolator. Any and all current or planned projects are to be adjusted and cancelled.
Immediately investigate the identities of any local Tibetan who visits the home of the self-immolator’s family to offer condolences or donate money… Public security organs are to immediately take action and enact an intense crackdown.
Any civilian or monk who visits the family of a “self-immolator” to give condolences or donate money must undergo criticism and reeducation. Revoke subsistence stipends, disaster relief assistance, and all other public welfare policies enjoyed by those who organize trips to family homes or represent civilians or monks on visits family members.
Revoke subsistence stipends, disaster relief assistance, and all other public welfare policies for any village or temple which organizes large-scale donation or fundraising events. The village community and/or temple(s) are hereby disqualified from applying for any government financed or implemented project for three years. Any and all current or planned projects are to be adjusted and cancelled.
Those leading or organizing the visitation of civilians or monks to deliver condolences to family members of a “self-immolator” or institute apportionment… must be quickly and severely punished in accordance with the law. If the Party secretary or village head participates… immediately enact a political reshuffling of the town government. If any activities were organized by living Buddhas of local temples or management committees, the offending temple is to be closed in accordance with the law.
Cadres found ignoring Party discipline and state law who visit family members of “self-immolators” to offer condolences or donate money are to be immediately fired from their public post and transferred to the custody of judicial organs to be dealt with according to the law.
“Terminate,” “shall not arrange,” “intense crackdown,” “political reshuffling,” “close temples,” “fire from public post,” “transfer to judicial organs”… It’s too powerful! Its message for us: The Party not only can wipe out any free-willed person, but it can also wipe out that person’s entire family. It can even crush anyone who respects the rebel’s actions or feels compassion for the rebel’s family.
After the Party invaded the homeland of the Tibetan people, it looted their property, deprived them of their economic sovereignty, and caused them to fall into destitution. Now, it offers “sustenance stipends” and “welfare” in order to cast itself as a “savior.” But as soon as anyone defies the will of the Party, even if the dissenter never hurt anyone aside from burning his or her own person, the Party has the right and the power to condemn the self-immolator’s family–women and children young and old–to hunger and cold. The Party has the right and the power to cut off sympathizers and supporters for these women and children, young and old. The Party has the right and the power to cut off the warmth and comfort of the neighbors of these women and children, young and old, even after they’ve already suffered such a bitter loss.
Speaking of the Party, I must revert to speaking about it in terms of its people. After all, the Party is comprised of the people who draw up and implement all of these “measures” and “policies.” Communist Party members are human, too. They have voices and smiling faces. They have parents and children. Like all people, they have their own tastes, favorite colors or smells. Like all people they put on more clothing as the weather gets cold, and recoil away when they touch something hot. These Party members are also inextricably linked to this world. They have loved ones. They have loved ones whom they pity. They have loved ones whom they fret over. If something were to happen to one of these people, his loved ones would be heartbroken. And if something were to happen to his loved ones, he would be heartbroken, too. Although they are now the authorities, the rulers, there’s no guarantee that their sons and daughters won’t be the pieces of meat under the swords of those with even more power in the future. In some ways, they could not be more different than the self-immolators, but biologically they are members of the same species. And because those self-immolators recognize that these Party members are also living beings, they do not harm them when they decide to lay down their lives in protest. But these very beings then go and do harm to the self-immolator’s family and loved ones. Because the challenge of this test of will for freedom is this: these Communist Party members work to deny people their natural desire for their own rights. These Communist Party members wish to selfishly cling to their control of the world.
As one Tibetan after another sets herself on fire, I am made to see the lengths people will go to for freedom and dignity. We need only see with open eyes a nation occupied by another, colonized by another; we need only see with open eyes all the cherished cultural traditions of one group being trampled by another; we need only see with open eyes an ancient civilization being swallowed up; and we will therefore see the power of a steadfast will, the excruciating agony of ending one’s life by self-immolation, the pain of loved ones, so strong they no longer wish to live themselves, and individuals, one after another, deciding to self-immolate for dignity and freedom.
Looking at the unrecognizable bodies of these fellow human beings, standing tall or struggling to run as flames rage and smoke billows, no matter the difference of cultural or lot in life, it is hard to understand their fateful decision. It is hard to face such horrific tragedy. But evident to us all is the darkness and the cold behind the flames. That dark rock, that cold rock, is none other than those people holding the right to “revoke,” the right to enact “intense crackdowns,” the right to enact “political reshuffling,” the right to “close temples,” the right to “fire from public office,” the right to “transfer to judicial organs,” and the right to “punish.” No one ever entrusted them these rights. They and their predecessors plundered these rights through the barrel of a gun.
Translation by Little Bluegill. Read more about Tibetan self-immolations via CDT. For a more in-depth exploration of the topic, see a special edition of Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines which includes several articles (in English) about self-immolation by prominent academics.