If you read every page of Tsering Woeser’s latest book and skip the first and last chapters of Tsering Topgyal’s, the ultimate message about the situation in Tibet is often the same. Chinese rule, writes Woeser, is no less than “ethnic oppression,” while Topgyal asserts that “the threat and use of coercive force to meet ideological, political and military objectives in Tibet have been enduring and well-documented features of Chinese rule from the beginning.” He recommends to Beijing that to secure a more placid atmosphere in Tibet, it should staff the region’s administration with Tibetan members of the Chinese Communist Party instead of the often brutal occupiers it now relies on.
Woeser came to Western attention with Voices from Tibet (2014), the collection of essays she wrote with her husband, Wang Lixiong.* She is the daughter of a teacher who became a senior officer in the Chinese army. After her birth in Lhasa in 1966 the family moved to Tibetan towns within China proper. At school she learned only Chinese, regarded as the language of a higher culture. After studying at a university in China she returned to Lhasa, where she worked for the Chinese Writers’ Group. There she wrote poems that were praised in China for their pride in Chinese culture, although, as Robert Barnett wrote in his introduction to Voices from Tibet, they also show “an engagement with Tibetan landscape, history and people.”
By 2004 her sympathies with the Dalai Lama were clear enough for her to be dismissed from her job in Lhasa and placed under strict surveillance in Beijing—although from her recent book we learn that she returns to Lhasa every year. Woeser’s is now the most eloquent voice defending the dissidents inside Tibet; equally she has, at much risk to herself, praised China’s only Nobel Peace Prize winner, the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo. Perhaps because of influential protectors in the Party’s hierarchy she has stayed out of prison.
Now she has written about a most dangerous subject, the attempted self-immolation of 146 Tibetans between February 2009 and July 2015. The men and women who subjected themselves to these agonizing ordeals throughout Tibet and in exile had called for Tibetan freedom and praised the Dalai Lama, who was later condemned by Beijing as the “criminal splittist” behind the burnings. Among the 125 who died were monks and nuns. Woeser recalls the deaths by self-immolation of seven Buddhist monks in South Vietnam in 1963…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.