The relentless stream of breaking news stories in today’s media can make it seem like we live in a constant present. Every event seems urgent in the moment, but then disappears with the next news cycle. But from time to time, an episode from history surfaces to remind us that you do not have to be a character of William Faulkner’s to think the past is never dead—or even past.
The publication of the 1619 Project by The New York Times is a case in point. The author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, was already well-known for her coverage of contemporary issues of race and education, but her foray into history unleashed a far larger public reaction than she had ever experienced. When she proposed replacing the standard origin story of America in 1776 with a story about the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in 1619, a firestorm of controversy ensued. Perhaps the best-known objection took the form of a “1776 Commission” by the Trump administration to rebut the “reckless ‘re-education’ attempts that seek to reframe American history around the idea that the United States is not an exceptional country but an evil one.”¹
Disputes over memory were part of the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century, and today’s “new nationalism” has rekindled interest in places like Hungary, the United States., and Russia. A common feature of these discussions is that they are as much about identity in the present as about events in the past. It makes a difference in how Americans think of themselves, after all, if their origin story is about slavery instead of the Declaration of Independence. More generally, the connection between national memory and identity motivates the massive resources modern states devote to history education in schools, museums, and the media.
Through an ingenious use of photos, Tsering Woeser shows—rather than tells—readers how the past can continue to haunt the present in Tibet, even in the face of the efforts of an authoritarian state to erase it from memory.
These efforts play out differently in different places, something I learned firsthand as an exchange scholar living in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There, authorities disseminated official history in ways that were simply not conceivable in the United States. For example, they mandated the specific pages of the official history textbook every fifth-grade student across all eleven time zones was to study on any given day. This is not to say the effort always succeeded. Indeed, it sometimes backfired. One of the more striking conversations I had in Moscow during the Cold War, for example, was with a friend over the account his Soviet history textbook pesented of the origin story of the USSR—the Russian Revolution of 1917. After telling me that he had mastered every detail of it, he went on to say the story itself was not true. Surprised, I asked him why, and he responded that it was precisely because the story was in the official textbook!
This encounter opened my eyes to how discourse about national memory can vary from one society to another, especially when it comes to criticism and resistance. In her fascinating book Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution, Tsering Woeser takes up these issues in a setting that will be largely unfamiliar to many readers. Through an ingenious use of photos, she shows—rather than tells—readers how the past can continue to haunt the present in Tibet, even in the face of the efforts of an authoritarian state to erase it from memory. Some aspects of what she discusses are part of how national memory operates everywhere, a topic I take up in the next section. But Tsering Woeser also wades into new territory by showing how authors can resist official accounts of the past even in the most authoritarian of settings.
National Memory Studies
In a classic 1882 lecture, the French historian Ernest Renan listed a “rich legacy of memories” as a bedrock criterion for defining a nation. By “memories” he had in mind something like a site of contestation rather than a collection of facts. It is a site where state authorities have the advantage of being able to use holidays, schools, and other institutional resources, but other voices still manage to be heard. In the process, these voices use discursive strategies that make up some of the most interesting aspects of memory studies.
Renan viewed mnemonic debates as involving the suppression, as well as the dissemination of information, famously asserting: “Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation.”² In reflecting on the forces that challenge official accounts of the past, he focused on the academic study of history, which can become so troublesome as to “pose a threat to nationality.”³
More recently, memory scholars have expanded on Renan’s claims to consider other forms that such challenges can take. The historian Carol Gluck⁴, for example, coined the term “memory activists” to describe Koreans who have led public campaigns to resist forgetting and historical error in Japanese accounts of sexual violence against “comfort women” during World War II. Political movements of the sort Gluck envisions differ from the more analytic approach of academic history Renan had in mind, pointing to a distinction between memory and history.
Rigorous historical scholarship can lead to overturning an established narrative on the basis of new archival evidence, but national narratives are notoriously resistant to change, no matter what evidence or argument we adduce.
This distinction is between two ways of relating to the past and is more complex than first meets the eye. Some scholars even question whether it should be made at all. Most memory scholars, however, continue to view it as a distinction that not only can, but must be maintained. What they have in mind is not some crudely drawn difference between objective truth and mythic falsehoods. Instead, it is a difference between two forms of discourse. At least in its aspirations, history is guided by objective evidence and rational argumentation, whereas collective memory is more likely to be subjective, impatient with ambiguity, and committed to an identity project.
In reality, the two forms of discourse often blend into each other, largely because they both rely on narrative. The narrative tools involved in the two cases, however, operate in different ways, a point that can be summed up as: history (i.e., academic historical study) tends to sacrifice a narrative to preserve evidence, whereas national memory tends to sacrifice evidence in order to preserve a preferred narrative. Thus, rigorous historical scholarship can lead to overturning an established narrative on the basis of new archival evidence, but national narratives are notoriously resistant to change, no matter what evidence or argument we adduce. In the end, however, the distinction between memory and history is relative, and they are often used in tandem.
The blending of history and memory can be seen in the 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones sometimes sounds like a memory activist committed to the political project of challenging the standard version of America’s origin story. Instead of an Enlightenment-driven quest for freedom story, she argues that the real narrative is about slavery and race, and in pursuing this claim, she emphasizes the presentist consequences of slavery such as a continuing racial gap in wealth. This takes her into territory that academic historians tend to avoid. At the same time, however, she insists on the importance of objective, fact-checked evidence, making her effort look more like academic history.
Forbidden Memory similarly uses a hybrid approach, but it differs from the 1619 Project on several counts, including the fact that it deals with a different notion of origin and a different notion of nation than in the American case. Tibet existed for well over a millennium as a “hermit kingdom,” not a modern nation, and its origin story can therefore be traced into a past that existed long before it became part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But Tsering Woeser’s focus is on the statelet that emerged with the annexation of Tibet by the PRC in 1950. This event marks a different sort of origin than that found in many national narratives with their assumption that a nation emerged out of some sort of cultural and political vacuum.⁵
Forbidden Memory has been effectively canceled in the PRC in a way that goes beyond anything that is possible in the United States.
There are also differences between the projects of Hannah-Jones and Tsering Woeser in how their efforts play out in the public sphere. The 1619 Project was met by a full-throated public outcry by conservative groups in America, which then morphed into a debate over Critical Race Theory. Critics tried to rebut the claims of Hannah-Jones and to belittle and silence her entirely through debate and government edicts to keep the project out of school curricula. These included a campaign to “cancel” Hannah-Jones herself, as witnessed in the dispute over granting her tenure at the University of North Carolina. Throughout this conflict, powerful forces tried to silence her and her publication, but in the end, she and her supporters proved more than capable of holding their own in a very public dispute.
Tsering Woeser, by contrast, has operated in a quite different setting. Neither Forbidden Memory nor its earlier Chinese language versions have ever been published in the PRC, and there is no reason to expect that to change. As a result, Tsering Woeser has had to find ways to publish her account outside of Mainland China. Namely, she turned to publishers in Taiwan to produce a 2006 Chinese language version of the book, and to this day neither Chinese nor English language versions can be ordered or imported into the PRC. On the few occasions when friends of Tsering-Woeser tried to bring a copy into Mainland China, it was confiscated at the border. In short, Forbidden Memory has been effectively canceled in the PRC in a way that goes beyond anything that is possible in the United States.
This is only part of a more general effort by PRC authorities to silence Tsering Woeser. For several years, she has been the only major Tibetan activist, poet, and essayist living in Beijing. In today’s PRC, public criticism of the government’s handling of Tibet, along with Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, is strictly forbidden, making Tsering Woeser’s project another chapter in a life of living close to the edge. Even before starting the work on Forbidden Memory, she had spent periods under house arrest, and she has had her blogs closed down by order of the government for acts such as sending birthday greetings to the Dalai Lama. As of this writing in August 2021, her Facebook page seems to remain active, but some of her social media accounts have been hacked in an apparent effort to create confusion about her work.
Before the project got underway, Tsering Woeser was encouraged privately by the Chinese writer Wang Lixiong, whose book Sky Burial: The Fate of Tibet ⁶ she admired as the work of “a scholar willing to study Tibet in a balanced way.” (xii) Indeed, she initially invited Wang to use photos in her possession that were “the most complete private record of [the Cultural Revolution in Tibet” (xi) so he could undertake a project of his own. But when she sent them to Wang, he returned them, saying that they “belonged to the yet-to-be-rediscovered memory of Tibet” (xii) and as an outsider he resisted taking on the task alone. Wang and Tsering Woeser decided to collaborate on the project, with one happy outcome being that they eventually married.
Tibet existed for well over a millennium as a “hermit kingdom,” not a modern nation, and its origin story can therefore be traced into a past that existed long before it became part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But Tsering Woeser’s focus is on the statelet that emerged with the annexation of Tibet by the PRC in 1950. This event marks a different sort of origin than that found in many national narratives with their assumption that a nation emerged out of some sort of cultural and political vacuum.
In reviewing all this, one cannot help but wonder how Tsering Woeser managed to continue her efforts in the PRC. After all, state authorities there have extraordinary powers to monitor citizens and have stopped all sorts of activists and authors through threats and jail time. My best guess is based on what colleagues who know China much better than I have speculated, namely that highly placed relatives in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may be lending her, along with Wang, some protection, at least for the time being.
Whatever the case, Tsering Woeser has produced a text that challenges the official PRC origin story of today’s Tibet. This origin story is grounded in a mix of Marxist-Maoist ideology and Sino-centric cultural assumptions according to which the CCP raised up a backward Tibet whose primordial origins can be traced back to China. Robert Barnet provides the contours of this official narrative in his introduction to Forbidden Memory. There he writes that the official CCP account of Tibet starts with the claim “that Tibet has been part of China ‘since ancient times’” and then goes on to say that “life in Tibet before the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] arrived was ‘hell on earth’” and concludes with the assertion that “life under the CCP since then has been a record of extraordinary and ever-improving contentment.” (xix)
This official account seems to be widely held in China, at least by members of the CCP. The current Chinese ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, for example, has used it to draw parallels between China’s efforts in Tibet and Lincoln’s efforts to free enslaved Americans and preserve the Union. In 2009 Qin went so far as to assert that as an African American, Barack Obama should be able to appreciate China’s effort to liberate Tibetans and preserve the territorial integrity of the PRC by making sure Tibet is part of it.⁷ This is an analogy that is dubious, if not risible on several counts, but it reflects the Chinese nationalistic setting in which Tsering Woeser works.
Tsering Woeser’s book points to several blank spots of memory that are embarrassing for the CCP for two reasons. First, the Cultural Revolution was a historical episode in which the CCP failed miserably in maintaining basic social order in Tibet and in the PRC more generally. And second, her account points to ethnonational tensions between Han Chinese, which make up about 92 percent of the PRC’s population, and Tibetans, who make up about .5 percent. These issues make the Cultural Revolution in Tibet a particularly sensitive topic in the PRC, “a taboo among taboos,” (321) according to Tsering Woeser.
The suffering and social disorder unleashed by Chairman Mao in the Cultural Revolution remains difficult to understand to this day for citizens across the PRC, not just those in Tibet. This is true even for those who played an active role in it.
The suffering and social disorder unleashed by Chairman Mao in the Cultural Revolution remains difficult to understand to this day for citizens across the PRC, not just those in Tibet. This is true even for those who played an active role in it. In off-the-record interviews with Tibetans, Tsering Woeser reports that she “could not but feel the constant pull of the darkness of their words.” (322) Interviewees “sighed, or said things like, ‘It was madness, back then we were all mad!’ or muttered, ‘It was as if we had been drugged,’ or sighed, ‘Such a shame. How pitiful we were!’” (322) These are not reflections that would be welcomed by today’s CCP, but they echo comments I have heard in private conversations with Han Chinese colleagues, including CCP members and individuals who held responsible positions in the government during the Cultural Revolution.
Tsering Woeser does not dwell at length on ethnonational tensions between the Chinese and Tibetans, but she does make some revealing observations. For example, her Tibetan interviewees often used terms associated with the Cultural Revolution such as “liberation,” “rebellion,” “destroy the Four Olds,” “ox-demon-snake-spirit,” and “people’s communes,” but their use of terminology had a particular twist.
None of these [terms] was uttered in Tibetan: they switched automatically to the Chinese terms—jiefang, panluan, posijiu niugui, sheshen, and renmin gongshe—whenever they needed to refer to those ideas using terms that are alien and invasive, as if, were they to use their own language, it would wipe out these reminders of that ugliness. (322)
Tsering Woeser’s account of such issues makes one wonder what audience she had in mind for her book. She obviously hoped to have readers in places like Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States, and Europe. Given that the book is banned in the PRC, however, it might seem that she was not trying to address readers there, at least those who are not Tibetan. But this is where her strategy as an author becomes particularly interesting. She could not help but know that government and party officials in the PRC would read the volume, but this did not lead to simple self-censorship. Instead, she includes sensitive points but in a way that reveals facts and does not engage in ideological commentary. Photos play a crucial role in this, but they are part of a broader effort to show, rather than tell her readers what the past was like.
Showing and Telling
I can only speculate, but it would appear that Tsering Woeser faced a dilemma when writing Forbidden Memory. She had to decide how to present a distressing chapter of history without crossing a red line that would simply get her arrested and bring her work as a Tibetan activist to an end. To the extent she succeeded in threading this needle, she did so by showing rather than telling her readers what happened during the Cultural Revolution in Tibet.
The distinction between showing and telling is fuzzy, but it has been used by literary analysts such as Henry James and Wayne Booth for over a century. A common theme in these discussions is that showing brings readers closer to the events being depicted than does telling, and when it is done well, can be more powerful in its impact. Applied to nonfiction texts like Forbidden Memory, showing can occur in its most literal form—photos. Sophisticated readers know full well that photos involve framing and editing and can be altered, but photos nonetheless provide an extremely effective tool for creating—and challenging national memory.
Forbidden Memory includes hundreds of photos that are quite compelling in their own right, but they gain additional power because of how they found their way into the volume. Most were taken by Tsering Woeser’s father, Tsering Dorje, an officer in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Her father had a Tibetan mother and a Chinese father, whereas her mother had two Tibetan parents, suggesting that the context in which Tsering Woeser grew up reflected multiple perspectives on the world. Tibetan was spoken at home during her early years, but as a child of the Cultural Revolution, she was educated only in Mandarin. All this seems to shape her ability to “tell a particular story [with the] potential to tell the opposite at the same time” (Robert Barnett, Introduction, xxxiv).
Tsering Woeser discovered the photos she used in Forbidden Memory in a trunk she inherited upon her father’s death. Her volume contains around 300 of these, along with additional photos she took between 2001 and 2013. When taking the latter, Tsering Woeser made an effort to use the same location and perspective her father had used decades earlier and even used his old Zeiss Ikon camera. The result is that readers sometimes feel like they are channeling her father as he witnessed events in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution.
Forbidden Memory includes hundreds of photos that are quite compelling in their own right, but they gain additional power because of how they found their way into the volume. Most were taken by Tsering Woeser’s father, Tsering Dorje, an officer in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at the time of the Cultural Revolution.
Many of the photos in the volume capture events that have powerful emotional and political overtones. This is particularly so when it comes to “struggle sessions,” which were hallmarks of the Cultural Revolution. In these sessions, individuals—usually former officials—were publicly humiliated for some real or imagined political transgression by forcing them to wear demeaning costumes in a public setting and bow down before their accusers. In some cases, the sessions extended to physical abuse and even the death of those who were “struggled against.” This was all in the service of “liberating Tibetans from imperialism,” but the specific charges changed over time, as did the individuals carrying out—and undergoing the punishment. Indeed, many of the same individuals were first perpetrators and then victims—or vice versa—of the struggle sessions.
The vagaries of fate that individuals in the Cultural Revolution experienced come into clear focus, for example, in the case of Sampo Tsewang Rigdzin He, who was struggled against starting in 1966. Sampo was a Tibetan and a member of the Seventh Dalai Lama family, and he rose to the rank of commander in chief of the Tibetan army in 1950. He then collaborated with the CCP and became a major general in the PLA, and deputy commander of the Tibetan Military Region of the PRC. The high positions he attained in the PRC would seem to suggest that he would be protected from attacks by the party or the Red Guards. However, like many others in that chaotic environment, he instead came to be branded as an “ox-demon-snake-spirit” and was struggled against.
Tsering Woeser provides an extended description of Sampo and uses a haunting photo of him in 1966 as a humiliated 62-year-old man dressed up in a purposefully offensive mix of traditional Tibetan folk costumes. The photo shows “a forlorn figure with mucus dripping from his nostrils,” bending over in a sort of bowing posture, who had been charged with “organizing rebellion, aiding foreign powers, and opposing the Party and the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (123) Sampo and his wife were repeatedly struggled against over the next few years, and Tsering Woeser writes that in 1973, “riven by depression, he died. His wife passed away not long after.” (123)
The real power of the volume stems from the fact that the photos bring readers close to the events of a violent and distressing chapter in the history of China and Tibet. The rarity of the photos and the special way in which they have been handed down to Tsering Woeser and then to readers makes us feel like we have had a private viewing of haunted events and individuals.
Stories of figures such as Sampo may be hard to understand, even for those who played a role in them. And for readers outside of Tibet and China, it is hard to fathom even their basic outline. But it is also nearly impossible to look away from the photo that Tsering Woeser’s father took (plate no. 90) in 1966, making the memory of Sampo and his fate vivid and lasting. In presenting this photo, Tsering Woeser refrains from telling us how to interpret it. Instead, she uses straightforward, nonjudgmental descriptions and leaves readers to do the rest.
Forbidden Memory is divided into chapters organized around galleries of photos and accompanying commentaries, and the whole adds up to a rough chronological guide of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet. But the real power of the volume stems from the fact that the photos bring readers close to the events of a violent and distressing chapter in the history of China and Tibet. The rarity of the photos and the special way in which they have been handed down to Tsering Woeser and then to readers makes us feel like we have had a private viewing of haunted events and individuals.
The volume makes it hard not to sympathize with Tibetans, but to her credit, Tsering Woeser makes it clear at several points that Tibetans were not simply victims of Chinese authorities; they were also guilty of transgressions in the Cultural Revolution. Her larger point, though, may be that humans in any group are capable of acting in ways that can shock others, and even themselves. And she provides a sort of redemptory coda to her account by describing how Tibetan interviewees often expressed remorse for their deeds. Decades after the Cultural Revolution, she found these individuals returning to more traditional ways of living in their community and ruefully talking about their transgressions. The result is that this captivating volume not only fills in blank spots in memory, but does so in a way that reveals how multifaceted, haunting, and enduring memory can be even in the face of the best efforts of an authoritarian state.