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Torture Without Trace: Five Songs by Detained Tibetan Singer Tashi Dhondup

October 17, 2010

Issue dedicated to freedom of musical expression
High Peaks Pure Earth presents five music videos by Tibetan
OCTOBER 12, 2010

High Peaks Pure Earth is grateful to Index on
Censorship for kindly granting us permission to
publish their translation of Woeser's article
"Tradition in Protest" as published in their
Volume 39, Number 3, 2010 issue titled Smashed
Hits 2.0 dedicated to musical free expression. We
highly recommend the whole issue and it is available online for sale on Amazon.

Woeser has published the article in the original
Chinese today over on her blog. The article is
about Tibetan singer Tashi Dhondup, currently
imprisoned for his songs. To read our blogpost
from March 2010 about Tashi Dhondup and to see
his music videos, see this link:

At the end of the article, Woeser recommends
three of her favourite Tibetan songs.

Performing political songs can lead to severe
punishment in Tibet.Woeser celebrates a singer
who is not afraid to confront taboos.

"Tradition of Protest"

Until 2008, I had never heard of Tibetan singer
Tashi Dhondup. Like many others, I first became
aware of him because of one particular song about
the protests spreading through Tibet. It
described not only 2008, but also 1958 – the
entire five decades of Tibetan suffering. The
lyrics were short, but each line was explosive.
What other Tibetan singer within China’s borders has sung so plainly?

The year of 1958
Is when the black enemy entered Tibet
Is when the lamas were put in prison
That time was terrifying ...
The year of 2008
Is when innocent Tibetans were beaten
Is when people of the world were massacred
That time was terrifying.

I listened over and over to that song, ‘The
Terror of 1958–2008’. The accompaniment Dhondup
plays is crisp and pleasant, his voice full of
painful memories and a desolation beyond his
years – he is in his 20s. A friend of mine in
Beijing, who is a musician, told me that he
preferred Amdo and Kham to Lhasa when he visited
Tibet, as he was enchanted by the
mandolin-accompanied singers. He said that the
mandolin – which originated in Italy – seemed to be

more popular there than anywhere else in the
world, with countless skilled Tibetan musicians.
You hear it played not only in the countryside,
but also by monks singing in monastery
courtyards. Many fund their own simple
recordings, a sign of real passion. The mandolin
is now known by the Tibetan word dranyen, meaning
guitar or lute, and instruments are decorated
with bright local colours and motifs. Tibet has made the instrument its own.

Someone sent me a photo of Dhondup. Round-faced,
with long narrow eyes, he appeared fashionable,
dressed in black hunting gear with lightened
hair. Apparently he used to sing songs of love
and home: now that he was breaking the silence of
a dark night, would he become a target for
hunters? I heard that he was once detained and I
would not have blamed him for opting to fall
silent – falling silent at gunpoint is normal for
us now, with many talented singers opting to
stick to traditional songs and propaganda in exchange for fame.

But Dhondup chose not to castrate himself that
way – the next time he sang it was not one song,
but 13. The album Scarred Heart sold 5,000
copies, selling out in many parts of Amdo.

Tipped off that the police were preparing to
arrest him for performance and distribution of
‘reactionary songs’, Dhondup fled his home. He
had just got married. Several days later, the
road-weary policemen caught up with him in a
Xining hotpot restaurant as he was drinking with friends and detained him.

One of his relatives is a monk at a renowned
lamasery. He has access to the internet and told
me over Skype that the album was available
online, with videos of Dhondup singing on
mountain-tops and grasslands. ‘He looks great in
Tibetan clothing, just like a star.’ His admiring
tone turned my sorrow into joy. I really wanted
me, as if at a secret time we were burdened with
the same fate. The lyrics brought tears to my eyes.

I’ve never seen the Dalai Lama
So I feel that I’m a poor Tibetan
I didn’t join the protest in 2008
So I feel that I’m a useless Tibetan
I didn’t hoist the Snow Lion
So I feel I’m useless even as a man.

The recordings banned in Tibet are of course not
to be found in Beijing, but I could hear and see
Dhondup online. Young Tibetan commentators
praised him as an ethnic hero and applauded his
courage. But as news of Dhondup reached the
outside world and reports started to appear, the
songs were deleted. At this point I met a Tibetan who had studied in India.

It seemed as if he had appeared simply to
translate the lyrics – I never heard from him
again, very mysterious. He translated two songs
into Chinese, and anyone hearing them could not
fail to be moved. I noted down this passage:

The sorrow that a man of the Holiness doesn’t return home
The sorrow that my fellow became separated
The sorrow that freedom doesn’t come to Tibet
This is my pain without a wound ...

This is considered a reactionary song. I remember
at the end of 2008 the deputy head of the Lhasa
Public Security Bureau announced the arrest of 59
‘rumour-mongers’ for ‘inciting ethnic sentiment’.
These particular rumours were spread by
‘illegally downloading reactionary songs, and
selling them to the public on CD and as MP3 and
MP4 files’. But this may confuse many – the
concept of ‘reactionary songs’ is not a common
one. It has its own unique meaning. As a Chinese
commenter once said: ‘Many ask what
totalitarianism means, but it’s like asking what
rain means – it’s hard to express, but you know
when you’re caught in it.’ So when a Times
reporter asked me what constituted a reactionary song, I could easily

list at least ten. Perhaps she was only surprised
by the strict ban on songs that merely mentioned
our exiled spiritual leader. Straight-talkers
like Tashi Dhondrup are rare, but he dared to sing:

Your holiness Dalai Lama
Please no longer be a wanderer
There are many pious people in Tibet
We are always waiting for you by the side of your throne.

Other reactionary songs are more oblique, using a
white tower or golden sun to refer to the Dalai
Lama. If we view reactionary songs as a product
of the past 50 years, it has clearly already
become a tradition: a tradition of protest, a
tradition of not submitting, a tradition that
spreads endlessly. Many of these songs are
written by Tibetans in exile, but also by those
within China’s borders – at all times and in
every region, not just today or only in certain
cities or villages. Some songs are blunt and
immediately banned, some more subtle and so
tacitly allowed to circulate. It would be an
interesting topic for an academic study. But for
us – that is, for my generation – memories of
reactionary songs go back to the 1980s, such as these popular lyrics from 1989:

We haven’t bought India
Nor sold Lhasa
The Dalai Lama is not homeless
The Norbulingka will be yet more splendid
We Tibetans are looking forward
And in one or two years
We’ll return in freedom

I’ve been told that normally servile Tibetan
cadres from the local Academy of Sciences once
got drunk at a festival celebration and choked
back tears as they sang these words.

It seems normal to us now when the authorities
stamp on reactionary songs. But only in Lhasa did
they arrest as many as 59 at once for
distributing music, and I heard they were mostly
students. What was the purpose? Were they so
angry at the popularity of these songs that a
major arrest was necessary to serve as a lesson
to the rest? Or could they not come up with any
‘splittists’ and had to make downloading a few
songs of home and the Dalai Lama into a major
crime? Or are those who rely on the ‘anti-splittist’
struggle for their living, creating enemies for the great Party?

Dhondup was swiftly punished – sentenced to 15
months of re-education through labour and sent
back to his home village, once populated by
nomadic herders. One day a Tibetan friend of
mine, whom I hadn’t seen for a long time, came to
visit me. He is a fine poet in our native
language and has travelled widely. But I had no
idea he was also related to Dhondup.

However, the Dhondup he spoke of was a wayward
youth who liked to get drunk, sing, and chase
grassland girls. At a meal to celebrate his
release from detention for singing ‘The Terror of
1958–2008’, he even needed stitches after a
drunken fight with a young Rimpoche (reincarnated
Tibetan lama). Not without pride, my friend told
me: ‘He’s a hero now. When I ask at roadside
stalls in Xining if they’ve got his songs they
make sure I’m not police or undercover, then pull
out a big bag full of his recordings. They’re all copies of course.’

Woeser’s playlist:

The Terror of 1958–2008
Tashi Dhondup
Available on

Available on YouTube

Chak Sum Tsel
Phurbu T Namgyal
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