Nationalism and Famine: The Role of Hunger in the Tibet Conflict



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Hunger and Tibetan nationalism

After outlining of the role of famine in nationalist narratives, the second part of the article will focus on the relation between hunger and Tibetan nationalism. It will analyze English language memoirs and the website of the Tibetan exile government. Against the background of the internationalization of the Tibet conflict since the eighties, these sources are aimed to reach Western audience and to mobilize the support for the independence of Tibet. Since 1988, the Dalai Lama is promoting the self-governing of Tibet in association with the PRC. The degree of “autonomy” which the Dalai Lama claims is so far unacceptable for the Chinese government. In order to support his goals, the Dalai Lama created a nationalist counter-narrative to the official Chinese version of history. In the western media, the exile Tibetan vision is often repeated without any critical considerations.


The rise of Tibetan nationalism

Tibetan nationalism is a relatively new phenomenon. According to the official Chinese view, Tibet has been a part of China since the 13th century. John Powers describes the propaganda war fought on the battlefield of historiography between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Tibetan exile government in India. While the Chinese historians make huge efforts to find proofs that Tibet was a part of China, the Tibetans in exile try to emphasis the fundamental differences between both cultures. Between 1911 and 1951 Tibet was in a stage of de facto independence against the background of civil war and Japanese occupation in China, but no country officially recognize Tibet as an independent state de jure.41 This status changed after the foundation of the PRC in 1949 and the so-called “peaceful liberation” of Tibet as a result of the “17 Point Agreement”. From 1951 to 1959, Tibet enjoyed a special status within the new socialist state. The head of the Tibetan government, the 14th Dalai Lama, acknowledged the “unification with the motherland”. In return, the Chinese government agreed that the traditional theocracy could stay in power. The political mass campaign and reforms that had been enforced in the rest of the country would not be implemented in Tibet. In 1954, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama even became Vice-chairmen of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. No other minority leaders were fawn over by the Chinese government in such ways at that time. The alliance between the Communist Party (CCP) and the Tibetan elite collapsed in April 1959 as the result of the uprising in Tibet and the escape of the Dalai Lama to India.

In Dharamshala, the Dalai Lama established a Tibetan government in exile. Various authors have argued that the people in Tibet hardly considered themselves as a nation before 1951. Nationalism developed mainly in exile. “In Benedict Anderson’s terms, the Chinese incursion into Tibet, their shared suffering under Chinese rule, and the experience of being forced to live together in exile have allow them to ‘imagine’ themselves as Tibetans, rather than Kampas, Amdowas, Golokpas, and so on and have also made it possible to think of people from distant regions of the Tibetan plateau as compatriots.”42 The Tibetan government in exile created a secular nationalism with is linked to religious symbols. Every year the government organizes a national ceremony on March 10, the day of the uprising in 1959. In the schools, patriotic education that is based on symbols like the flag and national songs is enforced. Nationalism was also been enforced by the introduction of the central Tibet Lhasa dialect as the national language, the promotion of ethnic endogamy and high birth rates. Furthermore, the government discourages the Tibetans to assimilate with the host population.43

The Tibetan exile government defines Tibet very different to the Chinese authority (see maps on page 34). The Chinese government identifies Tibet with the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) established in 1965. This region is called U-Tsang by the Tibetan exile government and presents the part that was traditionally the fiefdom of Lhasa and the Dalai Lama. (In the following, I will identify this era with Tibet.) By contrast to Beijing, the exile government defines the Tibetan nation within the boundaries of “ethical Tibet” or “Greater Tibet” which includes Kham and Amdo. These regions are located in the provinces Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan. “Greater Tibet” would cover almost one third of the Chinese state and the Tibetans present less than 50 percent of the population. Important parts of the Kham were already placed under administration of Sichuan in 1728 by the Qing government.44 However, the Tibetan exile government established the myth that the communists divided Tibet in five provinces in order to harm it. The narrative and statistics of victims under “Chinese rule” of the exile government included the Tibetans in Amdo and Kham. Like in the case of the Ukrainian famine, the remembering of the suffering of all Tibetans serves the effort to create national identity and the mapping of the nation.


The master narrative: “No famine before the Chinese came”

In the nationalist historiography, the suffering under “Chinese rule” plays the major role. Central arguments of this narrative have already been established by the Dalai Lama in his autobiography “My land and my people” in 1962. The key argument is that the Tibetans were forced to sign the “17 Point Agreement” and to collaborate with the Chinese. After the “illegal occupation”, Tibet was transformed into a Chinese colonial. Furthermore, the Dalai Lama accuses the PRC to committed genocide against the Tibetans. The famine that took place in U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo is considered as part of this genocide. According to official exile statistics over 1.2 million Tibetans died as a result of the Chinese “occupation” between 1949 and 1979. 342,970 people would have starved to death. The statistic distinguishes between 131,072 deaths by starvation in U-Tsang, 89,916 in Kham and 121,982 in Amdo.45

In his autobiography, the Dalai Lama wrote in 1962: “First, although our territory was large, there were only 7 or 8 million Tibetans and over 600 million Chinese […]. They often suffered from famine, and they wanted Tibet as extra living space. In fact, they already settled hordes of Chinese peasants in Tibet, and I have no doubt they look forward to a time when Tibetans will form an insignificant minority. Meanwhile, Tibetan peasants are reduced to conditions worse than those of the peasants of the conquering race. There had never been famine in Tibet, in all its recorded history, but there is famine now.”46 The Chinese statistics only show a Tibetan population of 2,753,000 in 1953 and 2,501,000 in 1964 in the whole of China.47 Despite the increase of Han Chinese migration to the cities in Tibet, at no time after 1951 the Chinese government allowed a large number of Han peasants to settle in the region and to cultivate land. The argument, “they want our space for their hungry peasants”, lacks any historical evidence. However, the argument that no famine occurred in the traditional Tibetan society is repeated over and over again. On the official website of exile government one could read: “Year after year, the Chinese Government claims great economic advancement in Tibet; bumper crops, industrial growth, improvement of infrastructure and so forth. These claims were made even when Tibet was suffering its only famines in the nation's recorded history (1961-1964 and 1968-1973) […]. In the periods 1961-1964 and 1968-1973 famine became widespread in Tibet's pastoral areas. Thousands upon thousands of Tibetans had to survive on rodents, dogs, worms and whatever they could forage for survival.”48 Like in the case of the Irish famine, the exile Tibetans argue that the occupier forced them to eat things which humiliated them as human beings. The Tibetans would have been reduced to a “nation of tsampa49 beggars”.

The same report claims: “Famine and starvation were unheard of in independent Tibet. There were, of course, years of poor harvest and crop failures. But people could easily borrow from the buffer stock held by the district administrations, monasteries, aristocrats and rich farmers […]. From 1950 onwards, the Chinese military and civilian personnel were fed on the state buffer stocks and, they forced the Tibetan populace to sell their personal holding of grains to them at nominal prices.”50 The argument that the Tibetan would face starvation, because they had to nourish the PLA is also another popular argument in the narrative of the Tibetan exile. In his book “The story of Tibet: Conversation with the Dalai Lama” Thomas Laird even affirms that after the PLA march into Lhasa in 1951 they stopped paying for grain altogether and began requisitions without compensations.51



The narrative that no famine occurred in the traditional Tibetan society abroad already up in the most important Tibetan document on the famine of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961): In the 70,000 character petition of the 10th Panchen Lama to the Chinese government from 1962. This document, which was published in the full version for the first time in London in 1997, is one of the most open descriptions of the famine by a high-ranking PRC official.52 After the escape of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959, the Panchen Lama was appointed as the chairman of the Preparatory Committee Tibet Autonomous Region. In contrast to the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama welcomed officially the crack down of the uprising by the PLA and supported the following “democratic reforms” which transferred land for the monasteries and aristocrats to the Tibetan peasants. Therefore, many exile-Tibetans considered the Panchen Lama as a “Chinese puppet” for a long time. In the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, the Panchen Lama made an inspection tour of the Tibetan-speaking areas in Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan and Gansu. In contrast to Tibet (U-Tsang), which was excluded from the Great Leap, the Tibetans in Amdo and Kham experienced all campaigns such as the introduction of the People’s Communes, the public dining halls and the steel campaign. The report of the Panchen Lama was written carefully in a language of a state official. While the report acknowledged the improvements of the food supply situation and moderate taxation in Tibet53, it drew a horrifying picture of mass starvation and political repression in the “brother provinces”. Peasants told the Panchen Lama that they only received five kilo of grain per month or even less. The people started to eat the fodder for horses and donkey, grass roots and grass seeds. “After processing this, they mixed it with a bit of foodstuff, made it into a thin gruel like pig food and gave it to the people to eat, and even this was limited in amount and could not fill their stomach. Because the anguish of such several hunger had never been experienced in Tibetan history and was such that people could not imagine it even in their dreams, the masses could not resist this kind of cruel torment.”54 This statement implies that the Tibetan herdsmen and peasants had serious difficulties to deal with famine, because they had never experience this kind of hunger before. The Panchen Lama warned: “… for a period, because the life of the masses was poverty-stricken and miserable, many people, principally the young and old, died of starvation […]. Consequently, there has been an evident and severe reduction in the present-day Tibetan population.” This development would be a “great treat to the continued existence of the Tibetan nationality, which was sinking into the state close to death.”55 In the report linked the famine with the threat of the existence of the Tibetan nationality and their culture. Without using the term, this definition is close to genocide.

Later, we will see that the Chinese version of this story is very different. According to these sources, the CCP undertook many efforts to feed the PLA and the Tibetan population.


Hungry for butter tea: Food in the Tibetan exile memories

In the memoirs of the Tibetan exile food and hunger plays a surprisingly important role. In these context, I will analyze the narrative of food and hunger the three memoirs: “Red star over Tibet” by Dawa Norbus, “New Tibet: Memoirs of a Graduate of the Peking Institute of National Minorities” by Tsering Dorje Gashi and “Life in the Red Flag People’s Commune” by Dhondub Choedon. All three eyewitnesses worked for the Chinese state and fled to India during the Cultural Revolution. The memoirs that were translated in English and addressed to Western audience were published a decade before the Tibet issue became internationalized and the rise of the Dalai Lama to a global pop star.

In his book “New Tibet”, Gashi describes the transformation of his eating habits while studying in the mid fifties at the elite institution for the training of minority cadres, the Institute of National Minorities. After his arrival in Beijing the old students offered him hot water in cups and told him jokingly: “Nowadays we do not have to dirty ourselves by lot of grease and oil as we used to do in Tibet. We need not trouble ourselves with luxuries like butter tea.”56 In the propaganda of the CCP, consumption of butter tea and the burning of yak butter for religious purpose served as symbols for waste and corruption in the traditional Tibetan society. In a discussion, other students argued against religion: “Religion is poison. Religion has given us neither anything to eat or drink. On the contrary tsampa and butter have to be wasted as offerings of mud and bronze.”57 In his memoirs, Norbu describes the situation in the rural cooperative near Xigaze after “democratic reforms” in 1959. The served tea was now black and bitter. According to Norbu, they were not allowed to drink chang58 anymore, because it was considered as “anti-Motherland sabotage” .59 The Tibetans had to learn to make self-criticism of their “wasteful” habits. A peasant women said: “How foolish and backward I have been to waste butter on the lamps before my altar, when I don’t have butter for my tea.”60 Norbu acknowledges that in the past the Tibetans workers could drink thick buttered teas and strong chang only on special seasonal working days. However, the “Chinese overlords” would drive them to despair and hunger.

The CCP established a narrative of waste around food offering already during the land reform campaign in the Han Chinese eras. In the famous propaganda movie Baomaonü (The white haired girl, 1947), a girl, who is driven into the mountains by the oppression and abuse of a landlord, tries to prevent starvation by stealing offering food from a monastery. The director of the movie Nongnu (Serf, 1963) worked with the same metaphor in the Tibetan context. In the story, a hungry Tibetan serf steals offering food from an altar. As a result, monks are demanding to cut out this tongue as a punishment for stealing “Buddha’s” food. In contrast to the Chinese propaganda, the Tibetan authors are describing how the critique of the tea butter and the reduction of food to starvation rations went hand in hand. Norbu mentions the joke that the two reductions (which meant the reduction of loans and interest rates according to the CCP) would turn out to be on chang and tea.

Choedon who belonged to the serf class (wulagpas) and had served as a local cadre in the rural co-operative describes in her memoirs how the Chinese introduced a system to save food after the establishment of the People’s Commune in 1965. The peasants were required to make schemes for their livelihood that were too low to feed the family adequately. “The Chinese will then ask: how will you live by this amount? We have to answer: ‘not eating dry but drinking liquid- meaning we will not eat pahg (tsampa dough) but drink thugpa (porridge type); substituting greens for grains – less grain and more vegetables; drinking no chang and eating no ‘Yoe’ (roasted barley)’ – because, the Chinese say, it is not food and hence a waste.”61 This narrative also appears in “Tibet under Chinese communist rule: A compilation of refugee statements 1958-1975”. This volume that was published by the Tibetan exile government includes a statement of Tesum, a former beggar who fled to Kathmandu in 1961. He told the following story: After the distribution of alms after a death of a head of a wealthy family forty Tibetans cooked thukpa (a broth prepared with dough, meat and vegetables) outside his house. All of sudden, Chinese accused them to waste food by practicing “reactionary” customs.62

The idea to reform the eating habits in order to accumulate resources for the modernization of the country is quite typical for the whole Mao era. Under the slogan “eat less to build the country" (shaochi jianguo), the party accepted sacrifice from every citizen and launched several campaigns to save grain. For example, during famine of the Great Leap in 1960, the government called to save food. Another famous example is the campaign “Prepare for war, prepare for famine, for the people” (beizhan, beihuang, wei renmin) in which the population was educated to prevent any waste of food. In the memoirs of Choedon, she describes this regime of saving and sacrifices in ethnical terms. She argues that the Chinese forced “us” to change our eating habits by drinking watery porridge and eating more vegetables for the purpose to explode Tibet.

Let us now focus on the presentation of famine in the Tibetan-exile memoirs. Gashi experienced the famine of the Great Leap Forward by himself at the Institute in Beijing. By the end of 1959, the relatively ample food supply was reduced to a ration, which was just enough for 25 days a month. The authorities of the institute told the students that the country was going to a difficult time and only by eating less and increasing inner strength hardship could be overcome. The students should remember the suffering of the Long March when the soldiers of the Red Army were forced to eat dead bodies, dead horses and dogs.63 Despite the fact that it would be very unlikely that a party official would talk about cannibalism in the Red Army, this argument is very similar to the narrative of the PLA soldier who marched into Tibet in 1951. For the sake of the unity of the motherland, they tightened their bells and even ate mice. After the party sent the Tibetans students back to Tibet in the winter of 1961, Gashi realized that the situation in the countryside was much worse. The railway station in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, was filled which starving people. Nobody gave food to the starving or helped each other. After working for the Xizang Ribao (Tibetan Daily), Dashi went back to his hometown Phari in the South of Tibet, located near the Indian border. According to his memoirs, he became more and more disillusioned with the New Tibet after he realized the level of political oppression and the low standards of living. Despite the fact that his family could hardly be feed with the food rations, Dashi emphasized that Pahri was much better off than the rest of Tibet, because border areas were allowed to cultivated larger private plots and they did not have to pay the “patriotic grain tax” (aiguo liang) and the “surplus grain sales tax”. 64 Finally, in 1966 Gashi fled to India. Like Gashi, Norbu does not mention any death by starvation in his memoirs, but he describes hunger in detail. According to him, the harvest of 1959 was excellent, but the peasants were hungry. In the past, the peasants were able to borrow grain from the upper classes and the rich. This practice became under attack during the “democratic reforms”, because of the extra ordinary high interest rates. Norbu remembers that the peasants ask “the Chinese” to borrow grain from the People’s granaries, but the authorities refused it. Using an almost Marxist argument, Norbu points out that he supported the land reform and the distribution of wealth among the poor, but he realized that “the Tibetan proletariat received mainly useless objects while the real wealth was taken by the Chinese.”65 Furthermore, he concludes that China would “milk” Tibet.

The memories of Choedon are also packed with complains about low food rations and hunger. Such as Norbi, she claims that despite of the improvement of production after 1959, the Chinese did not provide the people with a full stomach. She describes in detail the working and living conditions in the Red Flag Commune established in 1965. “Since essential items like meat, butter and oil are very scare more foodgrain has to be eaten to make up for our bodily requirements. But where can one get more foodgrain? Especially in summer and autumn we have to cut down our intake of food grain and eat lots of wild vegetables. On many occasion this scarcity of food made people’s faces odourless and greenish, which no outsider would have recognized. Many people became sick and their faces got swollen. Many died of starvation.”66 Like the Chinese propaganda, Choedon operates with a comparison of the food supply in the past and the presents. Unlike the Chinese narrative, she uses data of food ration to show that the Tibetans had less to eat after the “democratic reforms” and the establishment of the People’s Communes. Paradoxically, the Chinese organized “remembering bitterness”-session in which the Tibetans had to recall the hunger of the past. “They even introduced all over Tibet a ‘Dug-gnal Drenso Thugpa’ or Remembering suffering Thugpa watery thin porridge of tsampa, without salt, which is given to all Tibetan […]. During this occasion, some Tibetans youths will ask their elders: Was this want you really received in the old society? They have to answer: The masses had only this type of thugpa because the three serf-owners gorged themselves during extravagant banquets.”67 The CCP had introduced practice of “remembering bitterness” during the land reform in order to launch class struggle in the villages. According to Choedon, the cadres even prepared watery porridge in order to demonstrate the terrible level of consumption in the “old society”.

The memoirs of Gashi, Choedon and Norbu are in some ways within the framework of the master narrative that the Dalai Lama had established in his autobiography. The Chinese would have occupied Tibet and would exploit the country for their own good while the standard of living of the Tibetans are reduced to the level of starvation. Furthermore, the books of Gashi and Norbu have even been published by the “Information Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama”. However, the stories differing from the Tibetan exile narrative of today to some extent. The authors set the focus not on the abuse of human right and genocide, but on the hardships of the Tibetan population and they struggle against hunger. The main accusation against the “Chinese masters” is that they did betray their own ideals and did nothing to improve the standards of living. The fact that all three authors emphasize their own believes in the Chinese modernization effort in the beginning makes the argument even stronger. In the memoirs, the Tibetans were forced to change their habits of food consumption for the sake of the Chinese exploitation and as a result of hunger.

The journalist Jasper Becker who interviewed some eyewitnesses of the famine of the Great Leap Forward even makes a comparison with the Ireland. According to Becker, cadres did not only force Tibetan nomads to settle in Amdo, but also forced them to eat unfamiliar and unsuitable grains instead of tsampa. “Much like the peasants in Ireland, who could not make bread from the wheat imported after the potato crop failed, the Tibetans, especially the nomads, had no idea how to eat wheat or maize. And, while many Chinese peasants knew from experience how to endure famine, this was a hardship virtually unknown among Tibetans.”68 On the one hand, Becker reflects the two standard arguments of the exile-Tibetan discourse (“No famine in independent Tibet” and “They forced us to eat strange things”). On the other hand, Becker also mentions that more Tibetans would have died, if the Han Chinese immigrants would not taught them how to eat leaves or wild grasses. According to Becker, Tibetans and Han suffered a like in Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan. This conclusion contrasts the memories of the exile Tibetans in which the line is also drawn between the Tibetans and the “Chinese masters”.



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