Tibet in 2008

Introduction

In the months leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a series of riots took place in Tibet.  Such is the most succinct and neutral statement I can conjure with respect to the events that took place on and around March 14 in Lhasa and elsewhere in Tibet.  Even in this one sentence synopsis, however, I elide some details while emphasizing others, perhaps even implying a unity of intent or agency shared between individual uprisings.  Such a narrative, inadequate and problematic as it may be, begins the complicated task of piecing together bits of primary and secondary sources into a coherent history of 3.14.  Although photographs and media footage provide evidence of violence and unrest, even these bits of evidence have been appropriated and re-appropriated into various (and often contradictory) narratives.  For the outsider to these events and the debates behind them, the riots that took place in Tibet in 2008 might seem to reflect a sort of “Rashomon Effect,” with the narrative altered depending on the disposition of the source.  In the film to whose name this effect alludes, several witnesses relate their perception of an event that took place in the woods – each of the accounts conflicting with the others.  In addition to these perceptions, the viewer occupies an extraneous position from which he or she may attempt to piece together some cohesive narrative, or rather, to entertain each of the competing narratives for what they say about their speakers.  With respect to the events that took place in Tibet on March 14, 2008 – and all the narratives that attempt to piece them together in the media, analytical articles, and personal blog posts – we too might try to occupy the extraneous position of an outside viewer either piecing together a narrative of our own or entertaining each for what it says about the perceptions of its author.

One account of the Lhasa riots comes from Qianba Puncong, who filled the position of chairman of the People’s Government of the Tibet Autonomous Region at the time the events took place.  Qianba states, in the official press conference about the riots,

The riot was a violent crime premeditated, well planned, carefully organized and instigated by the Dalai clique and arising from a conspiracy jointly concocted by domestic and overseas separatists who are advocating ‘Tibet Independence.’[1]

In his short synopsis of the 3.14 riots, Qianba attributes the agency (and therefore the blame) to a group called the Dalai Clique that somehow masterminded the riots.  His statement evokes a series of questions: What does it mean to ‘instigate’ these events?  Did the Dalai Lama (or the undefined cohorts who form his clique) send emails or phone calls encouraging violent the violent actions that took place in March?  Or rather did they ‘instigate’ the attacks indirectly by promoting a more general kind of unrest through their advocacy of autonomy/independence for Tibet?

Whatever the truth or untruth behind these statements, the author’s message is clear.  The crimes were violent, and thus in deliberate conflict with human rights as well as dangerous to the stability of Chinese society.  In addition, the guilty party was tripartite, composed of the ‘Dalai Clique,’ ‘domestic separatists,’ and the broadly defined ‘overseas separatists.’  The methods and media utilized by these individuals are left unstated.  Were there direct orders that proceeded through a hierarchy all the way to a kind of unofficial army?  Or was the impetus for action ‘instigated’ more broadly through the aggravation of various pro-separatist sentiments?  The omission of these details and explanations perhaps fails to satisfy those historians who would seek cohesive narratives based upon solid evidence and logic, but Qianba’s narrative does cue us in to the ideology of its speaker; the ‘Dalai Clique’ and all those who seek to draw a boundary between Tibet and China have ‘instigated’ acts of violence that failed to achieve a revolution and are thus akin to terrorists or criminals.

On the other hand, Woeser, the prominent Tibetan poet and blogger, has posted on the internet an interview with an eyewitness to the Lhasa riots, going under the name “DZ” that directly contradicts this ‘official PRC’ view.  DZ states,

On TV there were only programmes showing Tibetans beating, smashing, looting or burning but there were never any programmes about how Tibetans were killed or arrested.  All those officials are lying, claiming that the troops had never fired on people…[2]

His account emphasizes the violence that arose from the other side of the conflict, enacted by ‘soldiers’ that were presumably under the command of the central government of the PRC.  Most perplexing is his ambiguous statement, “It never mentioned how many Tibetans were killed or arrested.”  His passive voice suggests that the arresting and killing were probably done by soldiers under official command, while his lack of concrete data suggests that the numbers were both quite large as well as significantly distorted by either the PRC or PRC controlled media.  DZ’s statements take the accusations of writers like Qiangba Puncong and spin them 180 degrees; according to his account, the crimes committed were those linked to the sovereign body of the PRC and the terrorism – if we could call it that – would be that enacted by one nation onto another.

We must remind ourselves, though, that the history of this event was and is recorded and written not only by those two competing parties – China and Tibet – but also by the journalists and commentators of an international audience.  Amongst those voices, at least one appears to have witnessed the Lhasa riots firsthand.  James Miles of the Economist was one of the few foreign journalists in Tibet at the time of the riots.  When asked to describe the question he receives most regularly about the riots, Miles states, “The question I get asked most is what happened, and then why.  “What happened in Lhasa from midday on the 14th to late on the 15th did not fit the normal pattern of unrest in Tibet.  It was not monk-led, it displayed little explicitly-stated political purpose, and it was violent.”[3]  His statement confirms the one consistent observation that seems to arise around the event – that it was violent.  With respect to the intentions, motivations, and central characters in our narrative, though, Miles is deliberately vague.  The riots were not ‘monk-led’ and not explicitly political, he reassures us.  His statement comes into direct conflict with Qian Puncong’s statement that these were separatist activities.  At the same time, it conflicts with DZ’s statement that “for a few hours, Tibet seemed to be independent.”[4]

In the closing sentence of his interview, Miles denies that the events were those organized by a handful of people such as the ‘Dalai Clique:’ “It wasn’t a handful, and I saw no evidence to suggest anything other than spontaneity…” His observation, although it appears to be relatively ‘neutral,’ refuses to answer his own question of why the event took place.  His statement brings to mind the metaphor of the “prairie fire” used to describe the Communist Revolution in China and the Boxer Rebellion, by Mao Zedong and Joseph Esherick, respectively.  This sort of narrative refuses to ascribe agency to a particular person or group behind the event, and instead emphasizes broadly experienced tension that erupts suddenly due to an often-arbitrary spark.  Perhaps the kind of ‘spontaneity’ Miles refers to is akin to the arbitrary spark, providing an excuse for the expression of latent desires.  His narrative, then, exonerates both potential parties (if they can even be called such).  With no ‘instigation’ from either the Dalai Clique of the PRC, we are instead dealing with an event with complex causes and motivations, arising between ethnicities, religions, classes, individuals, and imagined communities of all varieties.

In spite of the fact – or perhaps because of the fact – that the eyewitness accounts of the Lhasa riots are so polarized into narratives of either terrorism or oppression, they make an interesting case study in the way boundaries are imagined in contemporary Tibet/China.  Were we to wade through all the narration from various media sources to try to piece together a historical account of these events, we would most likely face a sort of ‘Rashomon Effect’ distorting 3.14 into a confusing amalgam of things that may or may not have happened.  If, instead, we choose to evaluate the media reports as primary documents that reveal a great deal about imagined boundaries through their imagined narratives, we might begin to piece together a cohesive sence of contemporary Tibet, whether it is imagined to be a part of China or imagined to be its own nation.

This is not to say that the actual event is arbitrary.  Quite the contrary, the perceived truth behind any narrative is central to its power in convincing its audience.  Because we are dealing with several contradictory accounts, though, we have no choice but to evaluate the rhetoric of each, paying careful attention to the way boundaries are drawn through class, race, religion, history, and modernity.

Imagining Race, Religion, and Culture in the 2008 Riots

When writing about 3.13, many – if not all – reporters refer to a conflict between ‘Tibetans’ or ‘monks’ and ‘Han,’ ‘Chinese,’ or ‘soldiers.’  Far from monolithic identities, each of these terms is composed of a variety of contributing factors.  Ethnicity, religion, culture, and language all play a part in bounding out ‘them’ from ‘us’ – or alternatively bounding all of ‘us’ in as ‘Tibetans’ or ‘Chinese’ against some outside other.

“The reality is that they are they and we are we,” states a poster on Woeser’s blog who goes under the name ‘Tsedrup.’  This writer’s statement draws a firm boundary around the “us,” who read the post and feel a sense of shared identity with this group, and meanwhile excludes all those who do not so self-identify.  Although Tsedrup does not provide any criteria for this boundary-drawing, we must remember that the original posting appeared in the Tibetan language on a blog whose primary concern is writing for and about the Tibetan people.  Aide from those curious enough to log onto the blog and those well enough acquainted with the Tibetan language to read it, the de facto audience of this message is the “us” that the writer refers to.  If we wished to complicate this grouping, though, we might include the English-speakers who have read the blog post in translation – thus the “us” grows more complicated, perhaps including ‘allies’ to the political cause within the identity at question.

In his article “The Clash of Civilizations?” Samuel Huntington draws boundaries between competing civilizations whose broadly defined ‘cultural’ qualities form the basis for their identity more than the nation-states created by the Treaty of Westphalia or the ideology that took precedence in the Cold War.  His prediction reaches its most succinct admonition in the statement, “the next world war, if there is one, will be a war between civilizations”[5] Within this framework, Huntington outlines a conflict between the ‘Islamo-Confucian’ states of what might have once been called the ‘East’ and the ‘world community’ of what was once called the ‘West.’  Although I do not really know how Huntington would classify Tibet within this paradigm, I imagine factors like the Nobel Peace Prize would align the Dalai Lama (and his clique? And his ‘nation?’) with the culture of liberal, secular democracy that he associates with the ‘world community.’  Thus, when Tsedrup’s ‘us’ reaches an Anglophone world audience, the boundary for his ‘us’ becomes much more layered than a simple Tibetan-Chinese us/them dichotomy.

In another article posted on the blog, Jamyang Kyi identifies another signifier of this ‘us-ness’ and ‘them-ness.’ “The Chinese would stare at Tibetans with hatred,”[6] she writes, sharing an anecdote about a 6-year old Chinese child harassing her young daughter for wearing a traditional Chuba. With her daughter’s other-ness indicated by the cultural and ethnic associations of her clothing, a schism arises between the Tibetan daughter and the Chinese boy who harassed her.

In the Beijing Review, we find a starkly different conception of ethnic identity.  “The Tibetan people are inseparable members of the Chinese family,”[7] states a writer, discussing the implications of a study that traced blood antigens from the Tibetan ethnic group to ancestors in the Southern Gansu and Qinghai provinces.  This ‘scientific argument’ bounds ‘us’ from ‘them’ on a broader scale.  Although the article does not mention explicitly any European, white, or ‘Western’ races, by including Tibetans in something called the “Chinese Family,” it implies that there are other racial families not to be included within this boundary.  Does the Chinese family include Middle Eastern races in an Islamo-Confucian civilization-rallying reminiscent of Samuel Huntington’s portrayal of contemporary world politics?  Or does it extend filial piety to an imagined world-family reminiscent of Kang Youwei’s Datong utopia?  My guess is that the writer most likely refers to some kind of racial family that extends to the boundaries of the PRC, but no further into the rest of Asia.  After all, Japanese, Vietnamese, and other inhabitants of Asia might also trace blood antigens back to some common ancestor with the Han – and thus form a race like the one Liang Qichao called, alternatively, the Huangren (yellow people) and the Huazu (flower race):

“Liang argued that both the Manchus and the Han belonged to the same yellow race and that even the Japanese separated from China by an ocean, should be accepted because they belonged to the same race and used the same writing system.”[8]  In some sense, the early 20th Century debate over who to mark as “us” and who to mark as “them” continues in the rhetoric surrounding contemporary Tibet.  Although the specific terms of the rhetoric have changed, we still see a variety of identities imagined from Han and Tibetan on the micro level to pain-Asian, Islamo-Confucian, or the “world community” drawn on a larger scale.

In an article titled “How to Think about Tibet,” Donald Lopez provides a guide to the understanding of the riots in Tibet specifically designed for an unfamiliar audience viewing the conflict from an outside third party.  He draws a parallel between Tibet’s relationship with China and Latvia’s relationship to the Soviet Union.  He elides any culturally or geographically specific factors of this conflict in order to emphasize the dynamics of a distinct smaller culture asserting its ‘nationalism’ in the face of a larger nation.  Within this framework, he emphasizes the importance of the Buddhist identity in asserting Tibetan-ness: “Monks have always been accorded respect in Tibetan society; since the Chinese takeover of Tibet, to be a monk is to be a patriot, the red robes and shaved head marking a certain defiance of the avowedly atheist Chinese state.”[9]  Looking past his presumption that Tibet and China are separate states to begin with (and all the issues that come with this description as a guide to ‘how to think about Tibet’), Lopez emphasizes religion as an important factor for determining nationalist sentiment.  In conflict with the secularism of the PRC, Lopez tells us, practicing Buddhists assert a kind of independence that may or may not arise out of ‘patriotism’ – but certainly becomes a patriotic symbol.  In his own narration of the 3.14 riots, WD states in an interview with Woeser that rumors of violence and arrests against monks and Buddhists became a prominent myth amongst Tibetans living in Lhasa at the time of the riots: “Were they looking for rosaries? If a person was wearing rosaries on one’s wrist, if one is not a monk, then one is somebody who believes in Buddhism.  Later I heard there were people who were arrested because of rosaries.”[10]  Because there exists little evidence of the criteria for arrests – particularly to the international audience of which this writer is a part – the best marker for this kind of discrimination is that of the hearsay WD describes.  Regardless of whatever verisimilitude between this account and the actual events of 3.14, WD creates a mythology that induces fear for those who practice Tibetan Buddhism within the Chinese state.  The narrative may or may not reflect the actual actions of Chinese police, but it draws a boundary between Buddhists and the state that strengthens whatever sense of ‘patriotism’ Lopez describes around monkhood in Tibet.

How, then, do these racial, ethic, and religious boundaries play a role in the 3.14 riots?  Even though James Miles might claim that there was “little explicitly-stated political purpose” behind the events he witnessed, the narratives drawn around the event must describe some of the actors, forces, sides, or causes for the violence that all seem to be agreed upon.  If we conceptualize the riots as those ‘instigated’ by the ‘Dalai Clique,’ then the conflict is one that arises within the ‘Chinese Family,’ representing criminal acts – or even those of separatists or terrorists.  If, on the other hand, we narrate them in terms of a Han-Tibetan, Buddhist-PRC, or China-Tibet conflict, then we implicitly draw boundaries in the very telling of our narratives.

Drawing Boundaries by Writing History: The Historical Narratives that Shape and Are Shaped by the 2008 Riots

Aside from the central characters of our narrative, another factor is of equal importance: the time frame.  In narratives of the variously titled “Tibet Problem” or “China’s Tibet” or the “Chinese-Tibetan Conflict” the writers extend the time frame of the 3.14 riots back to riots earlier in the year, to the uprising of 1959, to the Seventeen-points agreement, to precedents for Chinese sovereignty over Tibet in the Ming Dynasty, or even earlier.  With each of these narratives comes a set of boundaries that divides Tibet from China, unites both, or ends up so convoluted that we can scarcely imagine the nations united and divided.

In his attempt to write an ideologically ‘neutral’ history of China’s relationship with Tibet (with the fittingly uncertain title “China’s Tibet?”), Warren Smith begins with historical and mythological sources that describe conflicts between the Proto-Tibetan Qiang and the Chinese of the former and Latter Han dynasties (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E).  As we have seen, even the ethnic and linguistic origins of Tibet are disputed between those who take opposing sides on the issue of Tibet’s national identity.  In an attempt to resist either side of this boundary drawing, Smith traces a history of conflicts and agreements between this amorphous, boundary-less Tibet and the succession of rulers and dynasties that has possessed varying degrees of sovereignty over it.  Even in his descriptions of the earliest community-consciousness on the Tibetan plateau, Smith states, “The characteristics that define Tibet as a nation – a shared ethnicity, territory, culture, language, and religion – were all consolidated by the shared historical experiences of the empire.”[11]  He refers to Sino-Tibetan military conflicts that reached a treaty in 822 to divide their territories and guard one another’s borders.  In the development of his narrative, he finds repeated indicators of separate subjective identities between these two nations. Perhaps he divides ‘China’ from ‘Tibet’ partially as a matter of convenience. (How, after all, would he write a history about the conflict and cohesion between the two without drawing some kind of line between his central characters?)  On the other hand, the treaties and agreements he cites all navigate the China/Tibet question by acknowledging different identities for each of these empires.

According to Smith, the 1950’s brought with them the ‘democratic reforms’ of Mao Zedong, ushering in new ways of defining identity between Tibet and China.  He provides several examples of rhetoric used in the PRC to describe conflicts like the 1959 uprising, most of which conceptualize the conflict in terms of religious, class, or ethnic conflicts arising from within the Chinese nation. For example, one commentator states in 1959, “Since religion is harmful to the socialist construction of the mother country, it will inevitably prove harmful to the progress and development of the minority nationalities.  Religion is not a condition for the formation of a nationality, still less is it a condition for the development and advance of a nationality.”[12]  Such a statement once again raises the issue of the Buddhist religion as a vehicle for Tibetan nationalism.  If we look through a Marxist-Leninist lens that envisions the creation of class-consciousness out of the confines of the nation, then religion becomes a competing ideology that creates a schism that threatens this communist ideal.  If, on the other hand, we conceptualize the conflict through a the lens of a practicing Buddhist, the PRC committed grave attacks against basic human rights in the 1950’s.  Article 8 of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”  By restricting or attempting to restrict the practice of Buddhism in Tibet, the Chinese government undertakes actions that place it in direct conflict with the body Huntington has called “the world community.”

If we look at these historical narratives on a broader scale, we see that writers variously weave narratives that describe the struggle of a people to preserve their nationality, the struggles of classes to resist ‘Feudal Serfdom,’ or the seemingly neutral descriptions of ethnic and political bodies defining their own subjectivity.  In one striking example, John Avedon writes a history of Tibet given the title In Exile from the Land of Snows, dedicated “For the People of Tibet,” with chapter titles that include, “Before the Fall,” “Occupation,” and “Tibet Enslaved.”  Whatever the content of his argument, these chapter titles have already utilized loaded language to evoke a sense of enslavement against the will of “the People of Tibet.”  These titles make explicit references to practices that are condemned in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”  In article 9, arbitrary exile is prohibited.  In article 4, slavery meets a similar prohibition.  Although his titles speak broadly about the abstract history of a ‘people,’ his language evokes feelings of human rights abuses with morally loaded implications.

Interestingly, these histories both shape and are shaped by events like 3.14.  In one account of the riots, Charlene Makley describes her status as a so-called ‘eyewitness’ at a riot in Tongren on February 21.  Her own narrative recounts initial confusion over some kind of conflict between a balloon vendor and his customer.  This confusion, she tells us, was reflected in the “deep schism among Tibet watchers, exploited handily by Chinese state media, over attributing motives to Tibetan participants in the unrest.”[13] As her essay progresses, the narratives become more and more complex, with revisionist ‘histories’ of the event arising side-by-side original Reuters reports with ‘consensus narratives’ just as convincing as personal recollections and some divergent media reports even misinterpreted as descriptions of separate events – or “shadow events,” as she calls them.  Such confusion brings to mind the historiography that Paul Cohen uses in History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth.  In the final section of his book, Cohen describes the way the Boxer Rebellion was ‘mythologized’ in appropriations and re-appropriations of the original event with rhetoric that often possesses an exhortative quality.  He writes: “Once assertions about the past enter deeply into people’s minds (and hearts), it is arguable that they acquire a truth of their own, even if this truth does not at all coincide with what actually happened at some point in past time.  At the very least such assertions are true statements about what people believe and therefore must occupy a central place in any history of human consciousness.”  The experiences, events, and mythologies that Makley describes surely have not had enough time to acquire the breadth of these factors in the Boxer Rebellion.  That said, the various mythologies around the 3.14 riots have already acquired competing ‘truths’ of their own, each simultaneously influencing and influenced by competing conceptions of Chinese/Tibetan history.

Imagining Teleological Boundaries in Competing Conceptions of Class and Modernity

Further complicating the time frames we draw around the narratives of 3.14 and of China and Tibet in general are the competing teleologies that set these peoples (and nations?) on starkly different trajectories in their ‘modernity.’  The end-goal projected uponTibet’s future plays a strong role in determining the perceived (in)justice of the 3.14 riots.  Looking through the lenses of Marxist-Leninist thought, ‘harmonious society’ ideals, or human rights frameworks, we find, in turn, different perceptions of the ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ that determine the trajectory of whatever progress narrative we would like to ascribe to this situation.

The most prominent example of this kind of argument I have encountered comes in the “Materials on the March 14 Incident in Tibet” put out by Beijing’s Foreign Languages Press.  Each of the three volumes discusses, in some way, Tibet’s transformation from pre-1959 Feudalism to a post-1959 ‘modern economy.’  “The GDP of Tibet “Soared 59 times in 48 years” claims the compiler of these statistics.[14]  Elsewhere, the contributor Ye Xiaowen paints a picture of pre-1959 Tibet as a place characterized by ‘theocracy,’ ‘religious extremism,’ ‘narrow-minded nationalism’ that is now ‘marching into the ranks of modern societies with a growing economy, interesting welfare, and lengthening average life-span.  In opposition to these obvious markers of progress, Ye Xiaowen posits, “The Dalai Clique is not willing to see Tibet modernized.”[15]   Later, his rhetoric becomes even more heated: “Why doesn’t the West see that what the Dalai Clique is trying to do is to turn the clock back?  Is anyone in the West willing to return to the benighted Middle Ages?  How could we let serfdom clamp its fetters on the Tibetan people and theocracy cast its black shadow over the region of Tibet again?”  He paints a portrait of a past where values and practices are anathema to any standard of ‘modernization.’  They restrict religious freedom, fail to provide minimum standards of welfare, and, according to his rhetoric, literally ‘turn the clock back.’  Within the world imagined in this text, the standard rubrics for modernity and progress, whether economic, rights-based, or associated with general welfare, all impart a sense a failure – or even immorality – to the so-called ‘Dalai Clique.’  As we have seen before, the definition of the central characters in the 3.14 riots is already convoluted with competing narratives. With the addition of this notion of contested modernity, the actions of 3.14 become even an even more complicated narrative to unravel.

In an article titled “At war with the Utopia of Modernity,” Pankaj Mishra confirms some of the findings of this progress narrative.” Indeed, he tells us, “Tibet’s economy has surpassed China’s average growth rate, helped by generous subsidies from Beijing and more than a million tourists a year” And elsewhere, he writes “As for religious freedom, the Tibetans have had more of it in recent years than at any time since the Cultural Revolution.”[16]  With this in mind, Mishra attemts to imagine just why Tibetans might feel the need to rebel against the Chinese government that subsidizes this growth.  He concludes that the type of modernity offered to Tibetans is not necessarily the kind they want.  “Like predominantly rural ethnic minorities elsewhere, Tibetans lack the temperament or training needed for a fervent belief in the utopia of modernity – a consumer lifestyle in urban centers – promised by China.”[17]  This modernization, Mishra argues, threatens the ‘traditional’ identity associated with an earlier way of life in Tibet.  Despite the efforts to ‘re-traditionalize’ Tibetan culture as an integral part of Chinese/Tibetan identity with symbolic icons like the Olympic mascot Yingying – who symbolizes the culture of Tibet and Xinjiang – and the refurbished temples Mishra calls “Disneylands of Buddhism,” Tibetans seem to have rejected these efforts as inauthentic or otherwise not truly Tibetan.

In Martin Jacques’ piece about ‘Contested Modernity’ in “When China Rules the World,” these perceptions of tradition and modernity don a further layer of complication.  The particular social, political, and cultural situation China, he tells us, makes for a different kind of ‘modernity’ than the one we commonly speak of in the ‘West.’  He writes, “The arrival of modernization in different parts of the world and in diverse cultures obliges us, therefore, to rethink what is meant by modernity and to recognize its diversity and plurality.”[18]  Within this framework, we must also keep in mind places like Tibet, where that ‘modernity,’ ‘hyper-modernity,’ or some other permutation of technological and economic change is less readily accepted as a positive force.  When writing narratives of events like 3.14, the ‘diversity’ and ‘plurality’ of ‘modernity’ create competing notions of progress and retrogression that inform the ways we conceptualize the event – either as steps forward toward religious freedom, economic growth, and basic welfare, or retrogressions into various kinds of ‘feudal serfdom’ or economic hardship.

Concluding Remarks

Returning to James Miles’ Challenge to “look at the bigger picture of unrest in Tibet and beyond,” and to reexamine the ways we have attributed motives and agency to an event with that “did not meet the normal pattern of unrest in Tibet,” we arrive at several competing notions of precisely what happened in Tibet and for what reason it happened.  Are we looking at a prairie fire?  A class struggle? Human Rights abuses?  Carefully planned political moves?  In some sense we are looking at all of these, and more, conceptualized variously by participants, witnesses, and outside analysts.  In another sense, we are looking at something confusing, spontaneous, and enacted without explicit political motives.

By dividing these narratives into opposing sides, we begin to see a sense of Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ arising in the boundaries between ‘Imagined Narratives.’  Although I have often neatly divided narratives according to their competing rhetoric, the actual conception of the 3.14 riots are just as varied as the participants, witnesses, and analysts that have attempted to interpret them.  That said, the divergent descriptions of class, race, religion, history, and modernity all draw imagined boundaries with very tangible effects.


[1] Qianba Puncong in a press conference reprinted in Materials on the March 14 Incident in Tibet. Vol. I, 30.

[2] DZ, via an interview with Woeser, posted as “The Fear in Lhasa, as Felt in Beijing” on Friday, July 4, 2008 on the blog High Peaks Pure Earth.

[3] Miles, James via an interview with China Beat posted 3/29/2008, as reprinted in China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, 38.

[4] Op. Cit. “The Fear in Lhasa, as Felt in Beijing”

[5] Huntington, Samuel. “The Clash of Civilizations?” from Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, 39.

[6] Jamyang Kyi, “They,” translated into English and posted on the blog High Peaks Pure Earth.

[7] “Tibetans Related to Norhtern Chinese,” Beijing Review 6 August 1990, 30; cited in a footnote of Warren Smith’s China’s Tibet?, 16.

[8] Kai-Wing Chow. “Narrating Nation, Race, and National Culture: Imagining the Hanzu Identity in Modern China,” Constructing Nationhood in Modern East Asia, 55.

[9] Donald S. Lopez Jr., “How to Think about Tibet,” via China in 2008, 43.

[10] Interview between Woeser and WD, “The Fear in Lhasa, as Felt in Beijing,” Friday, July 4, 2008, via the blog High Peaks Pure Earth.

[11] Warren Smith, China’s Tibet?: Autonomy or Assimilation, 5.

[12] “Communists are Complete Atheists,” Nationalities Unity, no. 18 (March 1959), in Ling, Tibet, 271.  Reprinted in Smith’s China’s Tibet?, 43.

[13] Charlene Makley, “Ballooning Unrest: Tibet, State Violence, and the Incredible Lightness of Knowledge,” via China in 2008, 46.

[14] “Materials on the March 14 Incident inTibet,” Volume I, 74.

[15] “Materials on the March 14 Incident inTibet,” Volume II, 14-15.

[16] Pankaj Mishra, “At War with the Utopia of Modernity,” via China in 2008, 40.

[17] Ibid., 41.

[18] Martin Jacques, “Contested Modernity,” in When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order.

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About T Anderson

I am a graduate of Amherst College. I taught for a year in Harlem and now teach in Brooklyn.
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