Gyami: Our Chinese Imagination

The Chinese army officer sits on an old jerrycan with a wide nasty smile, legs stretched, cigarette in one hand; the Tibetan translator, bespectacled, moves around with a file blabbering something; the Chinese soldiers all grim faces, dressed in olive Liberation Army uniforms, with a red star on the caps, point brooms, spades and walking sticks as guns at the Tibetan prisoners.

This was a scene at a Tibetan refugee camp during a dramatic presentation of the Tibetan issue. The elder Tibetans tell their stories of living under the communist Chinese in Tibet to the youngsters; the younger ones born in exile, who have never seen Tibet, grew up with these stories in their minds.

I remember watching Aku Thondup, a great Khampa warrior who kills all the Chinese soldiers on the stage with a dagger. I so much wanted to be that hero. Later, in our children’s games in the refugee camps and schools, we often killed each other in our Sino-Tibetan war. The Chinese were usually the weaklings.

Living in exile, far from the realities of Tibet, it is interesting to examine the imagination of China that we have built up over half a century. I feel such examination is also useful in our continuous growth. In one of my earlier columns I wrote on our imagination of Tibet and this time I will attempt to observe our Chinese Imagination.

“Gyami” is basically a Tibetan racial adjective to mean Chinese. In Tibet, there is even an exclusive racial term “Gyarik”, meaning Chinese race. Since their imperial claims made over Tibet and subsequent occupation of land and suppression, Gyamis are looked at as the “Tendra” enemy of Buddhism, a cunning race, untrustworthy, unethical and absolutely cruel.

So, the Gyamis eat anything: all creepy-crawlers, insects and animals; their children are named after throwing utensils on the floor, therefore the Chinese names: Ching Chong Ling Zing. On our exile theatre stages, we never saw any Chinese other than soldiers. They are just gun-brandishing brutal soldiers, and not individual characters. The Chinese army officer’s role is usually awarded to somebody who is fair, preferably a little chubby. He is invariably a smoker. These are our racial prejudices.

Along with the image of Chinese as soldiers ready-to-kill types another image of China was slowly occupying space in our minds, and that was the kungfu master. I loved to watch kungfu films. In our school, after such filmshows, children flooded the playground in groups of twos and threes exercising, enacting the kungfu steps inspired from the film. Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee are favourites. Even though they’re Chinese, we loved their martial art.

The resurgence of Tibetan uprisings in 1987 and 1988 in Tibet saw the Chinese police the special task force called PSB (Public Security Bureau), clamping down brutally on the unarmed protesters. To the youngsters who grew up with those terrible stories of torture can now see the reality on video. This reinforced the image of China as a red dragon fuming smoke.

After this our theatre stage saw new images of China. The olive-clad-Liberation Army soldiers have been replaced by double yellow striped jacketed police. Images copied from video clippings have helped update reality. The continuous flow of escapees from Tibet also brought us the latest information.

But one thing was constant the image of the Chinese remained the same: brutal, unsmiling; an unreformed stereotype is still being put up in the exile stage. Decades of brutality on Tibetans and systematic destruction of all that they owned has left unforgettable memories of torture and death. Generations will come, but this genocide and destruction will forever be remembered, the deep-scarred public memories, the un-healing wounds are ingrained and unforgiving.

Tiananmen Democracy Movement of 1989 brought in a completely new image of China to Tibetans. This was a sneak preview of another Chinese community brought straight into our households via television. I was in school, as a school-boy then, was shocked as I watched in disbelief the Chinese soldiers armed with guns and tanks marching into the Tiananmen Square, killing their own students.

This must have been an eye-opener for the Chinese too. They had never believed our claims and protests over military aggression, torture and violent suppression. The Tiananmen Square Massacre changed our imagination of China forever. We came to accept that China has other faces.

Today, the Tibetan public knows of the various issues within China: The freedom struggle in Islamic East Turkistan (Xingjiang) and Inner Mongolia. The sorry state of Manchuria where the native population has been outnumbered 80% by Han migration, the various underprivileged minority communities in China and also the millions of farmers and workers struggling for basic human rights.

The diasporas of Chinese democracy activists demand a free and democratic China. But some still insist that their “minority nationalities” like Tibetans and Mongolians should remain an inseparable part of China. How can China be free without freeing its occupied colonies? What freedom and democracy are they talking about when they wish to continue their imperialistic control over nations they invaded?

Beijing treats its so called “minorities” as babies; incapable, dependent, underdeveloped, and genetically barbaric. Only their development schemes can help them. With such a condescending attitude where today’s leaders, the Han, are the masters, the big-central star in the red flag, and the others the minority stars at the periphery the basic conflict will never be solved.

Taiwan’s gesture in dissolving its colonialist “Mongolian-Tibetan Affairs Commission” and recognizing the rights to nationhood of the Tibetan people was a path-breaking shift achieved between the two communities. Taiwan no longer claims the imperial inheritance of overlordship of Tibet. This shift in Taiwanese policy and the visit by HH the Dalai Lama to the island nation has brought us together as friends today.

From 10 March 1959, when the irate Tibetan multitude gathered around the Norbulingka palace in Lhasa and killed Kenchung Sonam Gyamtso mistaking him for a Chinese by his dress, to the recent Tiananmen Square Massacre solidarity vigil in Dharamsala, it has been a long journey of shifting Chinese images for exile Tibetans.

And yet, the suspicion; The Tibetans support the Middle Way Approach being led by HH the Dalai Lama in looking for a negotiated solution over Tibet, only because of their tremendous belief in their god-king leader, and definitely not because they have any trust in the Chinese. This latent distrust of Beijing will always be there.

China is changing. And it’s changing beyond anybody’s control and imagination. There is a huge revival of spirituality; Christian and Buddhist cultural parades are a fashion in China now. Many Chinese are going to Tibet seeking spiritual guidance from Tibetan lamas. The democracy momentum in Hong Kong and Taiwan will open up China and one day leave her freed from the corrupt communist regime which is today running the country without the mandate of the people.

The Resolution of our issue, I believe will come out of changes in China. We must tie up with these democracy seekers living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the USA, Europe and Canada, and must observe the real China closely. Tibetan youngsters must take special responsibility here.

Tomorrow, when China experiences a solar eclipse, we shouldn’t be so fixated by the soldiers that we miss the bus.


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