A few years ago, I heard a Chinese anthropologist speaking about her work in Tibet. She recalled an incident where she tried to give her Tibetan interlocutors some Chinese apples, until they gently explained that they preferred local fruit, which could be more easily sliced up and distributed to their relatives, typically much more numerous than in ethnic Chinese families. ‘Sometimes’, she explained to us, ‘we need to stop trying to give people our apples and find out why they prefer their own apples.’ This gnomic comment suggested a nuanced understanding of the way that Tibetan lives under Chinese communist rule have been shaped by orders from Beijing rather than by Tibetans themselves. Sadly, such self-awareness is a rarity among the region’s rulers, as Barbara Demick shows in her lucid and poignant account of the tensions that have shaped modern Tibet. The book’s title comes from the story of how Chinese soldiers, during the Long March of the 1930s, discovered that votive statues in Buddhist temples were made of butter and promptly turned them into emergency military rations. As a metaphor for cultural assimilation of the most insensitive kind, it’s hard to beat.
Eat the Buddha traces the slow degeneration of the status of Tibetans in China through the experiences of the inhabitants of one town, Ngaba. Ngaba is actually in Sichuan province, on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, a reminder that traditional Tibet stretched well into what is now ethnic Chinese-dominated territory. Demick has interviewed a remarkable range of Tibetans, many of them living in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s home in exile, and has reconstructed from their stories a history of the past seventy years. In 1950, China took over Tibet (in Beijing’s terms, resumed sovereignty), but only really started cracking down in 1959, when a spate of arrests and persecutions led the Dalai Lama to flee to India. Ever since, Tibetans have been faced with a Chinese state that has resorted to a mixture of coercion and bribery in an attempt to eliminate their desire to maintain their distinctive religious, linguistic and cultural lives.
Among the most poignant tales is that of an elderly woman named Gonpo, whose humble appearance conceals her past as the crown princess of the Mei kingdom and her descent from a royal dynasty that originated in the western reaches of the Tibetan plateau. She remembers having to leave her palace under Chinese pressure in 1958, being rushed out of her home without having time even to pick up a plastic apple, her favourite toy. Gonpo tried to find ways to accommodate herself to the regime, but ended up in despairing exile. She declares, ‘We have given them all the political concessions we can. We have come to the bottom of the well.’ Other, younger Tibetans have seen even fewer ways out. The most disturbing sections of the book tell the story of the early 2000s, when despairing young Tibetans began to burn themselves to death in protest at Chinese rule, despite the traditional prohibition in Tibetan Buddhism against suicide. One young monk, the half-brother of an interviewee of Demick’s, set himself on fire in 2009, declaring on his deathbed: ‘I don’t regret what I did. I did it for the sake of all Tibetans and sentient beings.’
The self-immolations show that the Tibetans’ unwillingness to use violence against others does not make them passive or cowardly; very much the opposite. Although a small number of Han Chinese have been hurt in confrontations over the years, it is remarkable how consistently Tibetan resisters have used nonviolent tactics, particularly in the face of Chinese intransigence towards the ‘Middle Way’ proposed by the Tibetan leadership in exile, which would see sovereignty conceded to China but allow the region genuine autonomy and protect its way of life. Beijing’s obsession with the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese authorities insult as a ‘wolf in monk’s robes’, is particularly puzzling when, as Demick notes, there were repeated low-level talks between the Chinese and Tibetan exiles in the first decade of the 2000s. Even more intriguingly, Xi Zhongxun, the father of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, was himself fascinated by Tibet and actually befriended the Dalai Lama in his younger days. When his son came to power, there was a brief hope among some Tibetans that this might mean a more constructive relationship with Tibet. So far, there has been little to justify such hope.
These days, as Demick explains, Beijing points to the money that it has poured into Tibet and complains that the locals do not show more gratitude for Chinese largesse. Those espousing the economistic view have little understanding of the real and sensitive issue of ethnic diversity in China; Tibetans are tolerated when they are wearing exotic costumes and folk dancing on a New Year television special but deemed troublesome when they demand political autonomy or, conversely, point out that they have no presence at the top level of China’s government. Now the Xi administration is tightening up control on all those deemed Chinese. The likelihood that it will provide more freedom to Tibet at the same time as it is restricting freedom in Hong Kong is close to zero. Demick’s account is fair-minded, making clear that some Tibetans have indeed benefited from economic progress in the region. However, the overall tone of her book is melancholic. Eat the Buddha is a beautifully written study of a people whose way of life has been eroded over the years and seems unlikely ever to be restored.