Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

A showcase of Tibetan culture serves Chinese political goals

December 21, 2015

By Edward Wong

New York Times, December 19, 2015 - Women came in finery, wearing bright silk dresses, silver belts and necklaces with turquoise and coral. Men sauntered across the field in boots and cowboy hats. Some nomads had ridden motorcycles for days from valleys in Sichuan Province.

They came to this green-carpeted plain for the annual Tibetan horse festival, three days of horse racing, yak riding and archery.

But Tibet being Chinese-ruled Tibet, the Himalayan rodeo also had a display of martial force.

On the second morning, between races beneath an azure sky, two dozen ethnic Han members of a Chinese paramilitary unit marched through the middle of the race grounds. They held batons and wore helmets and black body armor over green camouflage fatigues. An officer with a walkie-talkie barked orders. 

These days, horse festivals on the Tibetan plateau are not just about equestrian prowess. They are political affairs with a propaganda goal — Chinese officials hold them to signal to people here and abroad that traditional Tibetan culture is thriving, contrary to what the Dalai Lama and other critics say.

The image of Tibetans showcased by the festival is one that China has long promoted of its ethnic minorities, that of dancing, singing, happy-go-lucky, costume-wearing, loyal citizens of the nation. But there are dissonant notes, including the presence of Han soldiers, who have been posted to horse festivals across the plateau since a Tibetan rebellion in 2008.

The festival this year on the Batang Grasslands, at 12,000 feet near the market town of Yushu, or Gyêgu in Tibetan, drew thousands of nomads, monks and merchants. But even as they were swept up in the excitement of the races, for many the occasion was tainted by its role as a tool of government propaganda.

“Many people might think Tibet is developing well and in the right direction after watching the horse race,” said Tashi Wangchuk, 30, a businessman in Yushu who is fighting to preserve Tibetan culture. “The government holds this kind of big horse-racing festival to advertise Tibetan people’s lifestyle to the outside world — that our life is very happy and joyful.”

The government promotes this image, he said, even as it restricts the teaching of Tibetan language, tries to control Buddhism and presses Tibetans to assimilate into the dominant Han culture.

“So much of our lives is controlled by the government,” said a Tibetan man from Sichuan. “This festival is no different.”

The festival here celebrates the Kham culture of eastern Tibet. Kham, a region of valleys, ravines and hillside monasteries, was traditionally home to Tibet’s fiercest warriors. Although they were conquered in 1950 by the People’s Liberation Army, the people of Kham have remained feisty. Many took part in the 2008 uprising that spread from Lhasa across the plateau, and there have been self-immolations protesting Chinese rule in recent years. On July 9, only two weeks before the horse festival, a young monk in Yushu died after setting fire to himself.

The first of the recent government-run Kham festivals was held in the Yushu area of Qinghai Province in 1994 in an effort to “establish Khampa culture as an international brand, to continue the traditional friendship and to promote mutual development,” according to an official Yushu County news website.

Four counties took turns hosting it every four years. Recently, they began holding the festival annually, with Yushu hosting it both last year and this year, in part to show that the town has recovered from a 2010 earthquake that killed at least 3,000 people.

The opening ceremony was held in town. Most residents could not get tickets because the event was limited to officials and government employees. Mr. Tashi said that had been the case last year, too.

“In this way, they ensure that only reliable people can go,” he said.

The grasslands where the main events were held are by an airport about a half-hour drive south of Yushu. On the road there, Chinese flags fluttered from posts, and President Xi Jinping smiled at travelers from a billboard. 

Many people drove motorcycles or sport-utility vehicles. Some held tailgate parties in the parking fields. Entrepreneurs sold steamed buns, watermelon slices, bottled water and yak meat from the backs of their cars.

In the crowd, too, were monks liberated that day from the obligations of monastery rituals. “You don’t want to miss it,” said one, Phuntsok.

There were dance performances daily. The number that closed the first day’s events featured a wide circle of dancing Khampa men who wore traditional black robes and red tassels in their hair. The same men returned for a campfire performance at the festival’s end.

Horse acrobatics on Day 2 opened with a Khampa man on a galloping horse holding aloft the red flag of the People’s Republic. Tibetan music played over loudspeakers. Other riders followed, one by one. Some shot at a bull’s-eye with a rifle while on a moving horse; others bent to the ground to pick up a white scarf as they raced past.

Most of the announcements were made by a woman speaking Chinese rather than Tibetan, even though the only ethnic Han attending were a handful of journalists, photographers and tourists. They were ushered to front-row seats so they could get good photos.

Wrestling matches had been scheduled next. But in the late afternoon, an announcer said the event had been canceled. People jeered.

“They treat us like their children, but this is our land,” one man said.

Police officers in black uniforms, most of them Tibetan, told spectators to go home and pointed to the main road back to town, which soon began filling with cars.

Lian Xiangmin, a senior researcher at the China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing, said in an interview later that “there is nothing traditional about this horse festival,” adding, “It’s a tourism event organized by local governments.”

In the early days of Communist rule, horse festivals were local affairs that had minimal government input, if any, said Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer. During the decade-long Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, the festivals shut down. When that period ended, local governments revived the festivals and maintained control over many.

“The political connotation of the government-held festivals was very strong,” Ms. Woeser said. “For example, the once-famous horse festival in Litang was chosen to be held on Aug. 1, which is the day to celebrate the founding of the People’s Liberation Army.”

The Litang festival in Sichuan has been canceled since 2007, when a former nomad and father of 11, Runggye Adak, delivered an impromptu speech at the festival calling for the return of the Dalai Lama. Police officers later arrested him, and only this July was he released.

“From the outside, if people see there’s such a horse festival or event, the world thinks this area is very open and free,” Mr. Tashi said. “But it’s not like that.”

Jonah Kessel, Sarah Li, Mia Li and Adam Wu contributed research.

CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank