The Chinese Town That Became the Self-Immolation Capital of the World

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Nytimes.com reports: “Tibetans encountered Chinese Communists for the first time during the Long March of the mid-1930s when Mao’s Red Army evaded the Nationalist forces by heading west and north through the Tibetan plateau. The famished Chinese soldiers picked the fields bare. They stole yaks, sheep, and grain (though some of them, reluctant to jettison the Communist principle of helping the rural poor, left I .o.u.s). They swept through monasteries, melting down copper urns for shrapnel, ripping up floorboards for firewood, sitting on sacred scroll paintings, and eating boiled yak hide torn from temple drums. They were delighted to discover that tormas — votive offerings made of barley flour and butter — were also edible. Some tormas are sculpted in human form, and the soldiers, assuming they were committing a sacrilege but too hungry to care, believed they were eating statues of the Buddha.”

“Hence the title of “Eat the Buddha,” a brilliantly reported and eye-opening work of narrative nonfiction by Barbara Demick, the former Beijing bureau chief of The Los Angeles Times, on the history of Tibetan resistance to Chinese domination. Demick centers the book in and around the town of Ngaba, on the eastern plateau. I was initially disappointed to learn that Ngaba isn’t in the Tibet Autonomous Region — the territory, governed by China, whose capital is Lhasa and which most of us think of as Tibet — but rather in Sichuan, one of the four Chinese provinces in which the majority of Tibetans live. I assumed that Demick hadn’t focused on the TAR because of access problems: Visiting journalists must obtain permission from the Chinese government, which is rarely granted, and are usually required to travel with supervised tours. But it soon became apparent that Ngaba — which has access challenges of its own, though more surmountable ones — was exactly the right place to write about. Nowhere else, inside or outside the TAR, has been a more intense hotbed of Tibetan political unrest.”

“Ngaba currently has steel barricades at the entrances to town and surveillance cameras that record the license plates of all cars arriving and leaving, and, by one count, some 50,000 security personnel. (The town’s population is around 15,000.) Demick guides us through the phases of oppression and defiance, decade by appalling decade, which have led the Chinese government to exert such heavy-handed control.”

“In the 1930s, the Red Army brought famine; the local residents fought back with spears, flintlocks, and muskets. In 1958, at the beginning of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the Chinese government deposed a beloved regional king, forced the local people into collective farms, confiscated livestock, closed markets, requisitioned, or destroyed the monasteries and beat or shot those who refused to fall in line. Thousands starved. Demick writes, “Tibetans of this generation refer to this period simply as ngabgay — ’58. Like 9/11, it is shorthand for a catastrophe so overwhelming that words cannot express it, only the number.”

“Ten years later, the people of Ngaba rose up in a bloody rebellion that ended with mass arrests and more than 50 deaths. During the late 1980s, Ngaba residents who made or posted fliers supporting the Dalai Lama — their spiritual leader, who had fled Tibet for India in 1959 — were imprisoned. In 2008, in another Ngaba uprising, at least a dozen people were killed.”

The cycle of resistance, crackdown, resistance, crackdown — with the crackdowns serving mainly as goads for further resistance — culminated when locals, most of them current or former monks from Ngaba’s Kirti Monastery, found a new and uniquely public way to protest Chinese rule and call for the return of the Dalai Lama. In 2009, they started setting themselves on fire. Over the next 10 years, nearly a third of Tibet’s 156 self-immolations would take place in or near Ngaba. Many of the self-immolators have been the grandchildren of men who bore arms in earlier uprisings. “The older generation produced the fighters,” Demick writes. “The younger people, educated during the time of the 14th Dalai Lama, took his teachings about nonviolence to heart. They couldn’t bring themselves to kill anyone but themselves.”

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