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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Story of Tibet: a Tibetan family in 6 decades

July 2, 2008

Translated by Pang Li, Zhou Jing, Wu Huanshu and Wang Wei
China Internet Information Center
China.org (People's Republic of China)
June 30, 2008


Editor's notes: Tibet, for many of us, seems so far away. Tibetans
are so mysterious. We should learn more about this land; even some
Chinese scholars have admitted ignorance about Tibet. The China
Newsweek magazine recently published a story about the struggles and
progress of an ordinary Tibetan family over the last 60 years. We
translated it and hope it can help you get a better understanding of Tibet.

Ngari, an administrative area in the western part of Tibet Autonomous
Region rests about 4,500 meters above sea level. As in many other
parts of China, the area, although harsh, has been undergoing a
historical transformation.

Tsering Gyalpo, now director of the Institute of Religious Studies,
Tibet Academy of Social Sciences (TASS), was born in the pastureland
of Ngari in 1961. The road that his family has traveled on from 1959
to the present day particularly reflects the changes in Ngari and in
Tibet as a whole.

Tsering Gyalpo's parents, Jampa and his wife Lhamo Tsering, are
traditional herdsmen. They have five boys and three girls. Like their
ancestors, they lived an isolated life before 1959. They did not own
any land and Jampa had to work extremely hard to support his family.

In 1959, Lhasa saw bloody riots initiated by Dalai Lama's followers,
causing the Dalai Lama to flee and the People's Liberation Army
entered the region.

When the PLA came to Ngari, terrible rumors arose that the Han people
would confiscate private property belonging to the rich and that all
the wealthy men would be eliminated. Consequently, most rich locals
fled to India. In Jampa's village, only about 30 households out of
more than 50 remained.

Like his fellow villagers, Jampa feared the Han army quartered in his
neighborhood. At the begin all the villagers did not dare to get
close to them at all. Once, in order to get a temporary job, Jampa
had no choice but to go to the Han community. When he came back, he
told his family and friends that Hans could reason and they were nice
people. From then on, this Tibetan's impression of Hans became favorable.

Most importantly, Jampa and his family began to embrace a new era.
His children would get many unprecedented opportunities for making a
good life. One of his sons would become a well-known scholar; another
son a successful businessman; one of his daughters a senior
governmental official.

Ngari during the 'Cultural Revolution' period (1966-1976)

Before 1966, Tsering Gyalpo's family owned their flocks and herds,
but under "mutual aid teams" formed to group the local people to work
together. This was the prelude of the "People's Commune System".

Some cadres of both the Han and Tibetan ethnic groups came to this
pasturing areas in the capacity of "a work team" designed to "help"
the herdsmen learn more about the outside world and Communist
policies. Cadres also bought flocks and herds from richer families
and then allotted them to the poorer.

Tsering Gyalpo and his foreign students. (File photo)

Tsering Gyalpo was helping his family feed the sheep at that time.
His eldest sister, 18-year-old illiterate Dorji Drolma, became the
accountant of the local production team. The young accountant knew
nothing about arithmetic and had to keep accounts using pebbles.
Tsering Gyalpo's eldest brother was sent to the city in the worker
enrollment plan in 1965 and became the first member of the family who
walked out of the pasturing area.

 From 1959 to the time nearly before the Cultural Revolution, Tsering
Gyalpo spent his days tending sheep and learning Tibetan language
from his second elder sister. "I scratched on the sands in the summer
and on snowy ground in the winter. My fingers even became bruised,"
he recalled.

Time passed by peacefully during his finger-writing days. But one day
he found his self-study materials had been secretly taken away by his
father and subsequently lost.

Tsering Gyalpo told the China Newsweek, "It was something like a
Buddhist scripture collection and included our local and family histories."

Later on, Tsering Gyalpo understood that the Cultural Revolution had arrived.

At that time he perceived the Cultural Revolution as meaning that
some of his richer uncles received criticism and were denounced at
the public meetings. He said, "Even the little children could kick
and abuse him, I felt very sorry for that."

Things like what happened to his uncle could occasionally be seen in
the political study meetings. Once Tsering Gyalpo's sister told her
family, "Our uncle's teeth were knocked out and his hair was ripped
off his head."

During this period of time, Tsering Gyalpo's eldest sister Dorji
Drolma organized local herdsmen to learn about the policy papers and
told them that exploitation and oppression from monks and landlords
made them hungry and poor.

On April 25, 2008, over 60-year-old Dorji Drolma recalled the past,
saying, "I myself also used to criticize and denounce the landlords.
The young and the poor all supported this kind of action."

In 1969, the pasturing area where Tsering Gyalpo's family lived for
generations changed its name to "Red Flag Commune" and all of their
flocks and herds were collectively owned.

Tsering Gyalpo's family was assigned to feed over 600 sheep, but they
couldn't eat or kill any animals. If the sheep were raised properly,
each family member would receive 10 points per day. At the end of a
year, the commune would allot meat, dairy food and butter to them
according to the points they had accrued. Under this system the local
people were still not rich but they did not starve.

Tsering Gyalpo was less than 10 years old then and he knew nothing
about what and why things happened. He kept on living his own life,
stealthily taking out the volumes of sutras handed down from
ancestors and reading them while feeding sheep. In fact, the kind of
scrolls he read were criticized and forbidden at that time.

He had to hide his reading materials in the legally published Tibetan
calendar during the day and in a cave at night. Because of his
reading habit, his father was so angry that he beat Tsering Gyalpo,
yelling: "Could this scroll feed you? You'll never become a monk, why
do you read them all the day?"

In the past, people in Tibet who read scrolls aimed to become a monk,
so that they could be provided with adequate food and clothing, and
be respected.

However, the Cultural Revolution changed all this. Tsering Gyalpo
remembered that so far his village Langjiu had only one person who
become a monk but later returned to secular life. Tsering Gyalpo
mused, "The Cultural Revolution is one reason, and another is that
the opening up policy has also made young people not yearn towards
religious life."

During the most heated period of the Cultural Revolution, people in
Ngari were busy breaking the "Four Olds" (old ideas, old culture, old
customs and old habits) just like what people did in the other parts
of the country. The "Red Guards" took the lead in smashing and
dismantling temples, leaving the Buddhist statues destroyed and
sacrificial jewels falling everywhere.

Monks were forced to resume their secular life, they participated in
the ordinary labor and fed flocks and herds like any other common herdsmen.

Destiny changed

Tsering Gyalpo's eldest sister Dorje Drolma was appointed as a cadre
of the Red Flag Commune in 1975.

She often went to the countryside with her colleagues to promote
Maoism. In order to help local herdsmen to understand more about the
Communist Party, Dorje Drolma worked together with herdsmen on their
land and told them that the Communist Party cared about them very much.

Ngari, an administrative area in the western part of Tibet Autonomous
Region rests about 4,500 meters above sea level. (File photo)

 From then on, Tsering Gyalpo's family changed a lot: his eldest
brother became an electrician; Tsering Gyalpo began his school life
due to his good Tibetan language foundation and the lack of
accountants and primary school teachers in his hometown.

At that time, the policy "set Dazhai as a model" was in process and
it encouraged people to develop agriculture. "Only three people were
allowed to be responsible for grazing the 600 sheep, other family
members had to work on the land as farmers according to the policy",
said Tsering Gyalpo's third elder sister Tsewang Drolma.

Thanks to the production team leader's support, Tsering Gyalpo went
to school as usual.

Two years later, he went to Gar Middle School because he had
excellent exam results. "Actually what we learned was quite
elementary knowledge except for an accounting course," said Tsering Gyalpo.

Meanwhile his 8-year-old brother, Wangdra, became the herdsman for his family.

"I admired my older brother very much and said to my father that I
wanted to go to school as well, I didn't want to tend sheep," Wangdra
– now the general manager of Ngari Prefecture's Tobacco company -- recalled.

His father never promised him this.

Regulations at that time stipulated that every year only four Tibetan
students could get the opportunity to receive higher education.
Fortunately, after two years of schooling at Gar, Tsering Gyalpo got
a chance to further his education at the Lhasa Teacher's College
(Tibet University nowadays).

The college was more like a training course at that time. Among 20
students, the eldest one was 60 years old and the youngest was 14.

Tsering Gyalpo studied pinyin and Mandarin from a teacher who was
from Shanghai. "Students would receive punishment if they did not
speak Mandarin at this teacher's office and it was very effective. He
ate only steamed bread and slept in his office, he was a good
teacher," Tsering Gyalpo recollected.

In 1981 Tsering Gyalpo took the University Entrance Exam. That year
the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing accepted 26
Tibetan students. Tsering Gyalpo was one of them.

Depart versus Back

In 1978, some policy changed. Herdsmen got their own cows and sheep
because of a new policy. "Production contracted to each household"
signified that people could have their own business.

The new policy disappointed one person -- Tsering Gyalpo's younger
brother Wangdra, who, at the age of 12 that year, was eager to go to school.

Wangdra's first dream at the age of 9 was to eat steamed bread and
wear Sun Yat-sen's uniform. "I met many difficulties trying to
achieve my dream and felt that my parents would never let me go when
new policy came into being," recalled Wangdra.

Wangdra's family had 300 sheep, 8 cows and a horse. He became the
main person to tend sheep because his eldest brother was an
electrician; his eldest sister was one of the area's cadres; his
second older sister was married and his other two older brothers were
studying in Lhasa.

His chance came in a summer's afternoon in 1978.

Wangdra saw a jeep parked near him, so he went to check on it. A man
looking like a bureaucrat approached him and asked if he wanted to go
to school. Wangdra answered without hesitation: "That is my dream,
take me please!"

Wangdra left his home without saying goodbye to his parents, because
he knew they would prevent his departure.

Later Wangdra found out that the man had come to Ngari to enroll new
students. The "production contracted to each household" policy caused
many parents to keep their children at home to help with farm and
herding work but the Gar government mandated that at least 36
students had to receive an education. These two reasons forced
education personnel to take children away without asking their parents.

He studied in Gar Middle School for one year and then went to a
teacher's course in Ngari Prefecture. After another three years he
went to the local post office to learn how to do code translation and
how to send a telegram. Eventually he became an official post office
worker after half year.

However, Wangdra was still not satisfied. He applied to go to the
inland for further education, and asked the post office to accept him
if he got his diploma.

Finally, he received an offer from the Chinese Language and
Literature faculty of the Henan Normal University. The school gave
him a preferential treatment and reduced his fees from 3,000 yuan to
1,200 yuan because of his Tibetan capacity. "I also needed to work a
part time job to support myself," said Wangdra.

He got his college diploma after two years and the post office as
promised accepted him again. He became a deputy director of its
administrative office.

Yet he still wasn't satisfied with his position. He wanted to be a
businessman and earn more money.

Compared with Wangdra's special experience, Tsering Gyalpo was more
regular. He studied Master course in Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences in Beijing after he finished the undergraduate degree.

In 1991, Tsering Gyalpo married a Tibetan girl, his classmate.

After getting his Master's degree, Tsering Gyalpo worked for four
years in Beijing. Because he missed his family deeply, he returned to Lhasa.

Wangdra: jump into the sea of business

Wangdra now is a successful businessman. He said that he "would like
to change a little bit" if he hadn't undergone a big operation two years ago.

In 1992, a strong business wind blew across the mainland.

Although his family members were quite satisfied with what they had,
Wangdra still "would like to change something".

The post office invested 300,000 yuan to open a little company,
called the "Communications Development Corporation", but it lost
250,000 yuan within five years. Wangdra proposed to renovate it. With
the remaining 50,000 yuan, a 70 or 80-square-meter shop front and a
hand-me-down Dongfeng truck as startup funding, he signed an
agreement with the post office. "During the contract period of three
years, 250,000 yuan must be returned in cash. Every year, 100,000
yuan must be remitted to the post office."

"I sold everyday commodities. I did whatever I could to earn money,"
Wangdra said. During the contract period of six years, he earned 3
million yuan.

The post office then decided to take over the company and invest 3
million more yuan to enlarge its scale. Wangdra was invited to take
the position of general manager, but he refused.

Wangdra had his own plans. "I bought a truck of ghee in Amdo. Some
cost ten yuan per bucket while others cost only six or seven yuan. I
sold them along the way, so they might be sold out before reaching
Ngari. However, if I do business for the government, a truck of ghee
has to be carried to Ngari and stored in the warehouse before sale.
That would greatly increase its cost and we could not make much
profit," Wangdra said.

Leaders admired his ability and invited him back to return to his
previous work.

In 1999, the local tobacco company was close to bankruptcy. The
prefecture administrative leaders believed Wangdra had a talent for
management, so he was invited to work as a manager in charge of
tobacco. In 2003, Wangdra was promoted as the director of the Ngari
Tobacco Monopoly Bureau as well as the general manager of the tobacco
company. To date the annual revenue of the tobacco company has grown
to 10 million yuan.

Indeed, Wangdra has been a successful businessman. He said that he
"would like to change a little bit" if he hadn't undergone a big
surgery two years before.

Since that surgery, Wangdra has realized that he should be more
concerned with his family.

"I especially need to help my younger brother, who still herds
animals in pastoral areas."

Topden's 2008

Compared with the prosperity of Shiquanhe where the Ngari prefectural
government is located, the Ngari pastoral areas seemed quite remote
and desolate.

Only sport utility vehicles could transverse the over two-hour
journey from Shiquanhe. After reaching a mountain more than 5,000
meters above sea level, vehicles were unavailable. Walking was the
only way. Over a desolate mountain hundreds of meters high, a black
tent was seen between mountains.

This black tent made of yak wool was Wangdra's home when he was a
little boy. The sky could be seen through mesh from inside the tent.
His younger brother, Topden, is 40 years old this year, but he seems
much older than Wangdra. His wife and elder daughter tend sheep at
home. His younger daughter Qu Drolma is 19 years old this year.

At the age of five, Qu Drolma was brought by Wangdra to Shiquanhe for
education. Staying in her uncle's home, she has graduated from a
technical secondary school. Now she is working as a clerk in
Wangdra's tobacco company.

"I couldn't get an education when I was little, but my elder sisters
and brothers all went to school. If I had also done so, no one would
have been available to tend the sheep. Nevertheless, I would like to
go to school," Topden said while drinking ghee tea. He could only
communicate with the China Newsweek reporter in Tibetan language.

"We have 30 head of cattle as well as 280 goats and sheep in my
family, we're average. Our living depends on these sheep and cattle,
whose meat can be sold in Shiquanhe. Barley does not grow here. My
elder brothers and sisters help support our life; otherwise, it would
be a little difficult for us," he said. In the present pastoral
areas, pastures have been distributed to different families. Topden's
family got grassland covering an area of nearly two to three square kilometers.

Since March, most of the young men here have been laboring in a
township between the pastoral areas and Shiquanhe. The local
government invested 6 million yuan to plant barley there. These guys
were responsible for moving stones and tidying up the ground, and
earned 40 to 50 yuan per day. "We can work on it until June," they said.

"He sometimes said to me, without him, I would be the youngest and I
would have to stay at home to tend cattle and sheep," Wangdra said.

In Ngari, a yak is worth 1,000 yuan and a sheep 250 yuan. In spite of
that, it's also important to have a nice year. Snow and wind
disasters continually happen. A big disaster could cause the death of
half of herd of cattle and sheep. A very good year can yield earnings
of tens of thousands yuan, but it seldom happens. In the worst case,
the annual revenue is no more than 10,000 yuan.

There was a ghee teapot as well as some small silverware, handed down
from Topden's parents, in his tent. Outside it, ten lambs kept
bleating in the sheep pen. Topden lit a cigarette and said, "I plan
to ask for some more money next year to mend the road in front of my
house. This road is too bumpy."

Last year, Topden asked for about 50,000 yuan from governmental
departments in Shiquanhe; the money was spent tidying up a stretch of
road. He planned to ask for 80,000 more yuan in the following year.
Wangdra said, "Topden got it all by himself. If he could get 60,000
yuan more this year, his tobacco company would offer him the
remaining 20,000 yuan."

Wangdra's second eldest sister, Tsering Drolma, also lives in the
pastoral areas, over an hour's drive away from Topden's tent. Her
life is more difficult. Her tent is made of piece goods. Around the
cushion are two dried sheep, red with dried blood.

There is a radio on the top of the tent, which can be turned on with
solar cells. A Buddhist scripture volume, wrapped up tightly, is a
keepsake handed down from her husband's ancestors. Tsering Drolma is
58 years old this year. She married at the age of 14 and it is said
that she taught herself Tibetan language.

The herding life is very isolated. The old woman has had great
difficulties in contacting the outside world. She is accompanied all
the time by an over 20-year-old Tibetan mastiff. Her elder son, who
has his own family, too is herding cattle and sheep in pastoral
areas. Her younger son works in a bank in Shiquanhe.

There are more than 1,200 sheep in her family. She seldom sells them.
"As long as there is enough to support my family, we won't sell
them," she said.

The third generation growing up in the city

The eldest brother Lobsang is now dead. When he was quite young, he
fell into a fire due to carelessness and was deformed. Because of
this accident his father kept teaching him scripture, hoping that he
could live independently in a temple.

Lobsang never became a monk, but finally worked as an electrician in
the city through his own efforts. He never married. He died in 1991.

The eldest sister Dorji Drolma is 60 years old. This previous
"activist" has retired from the position of the deputy director of
the Women's Federation in Ga'er County, with a pension of over 4,000 yuan.

Due to living in a poor family at a young age, the third eldest
sister Tsewang Drolma was sent to their relative's family for a
three-year fosterage. Later, as she "didn't like this family", she
came back to her own black tent family. She "learned a little
arithmetic" and once worked as a vice president in a local
Agricultural Bank. She wanted to take care of her family so she quit
her job but worked as a general teller. Her long length of service
ensured that Tsewang Drolma kept her previous pay scale; today she
has a monthly wage of over 8,000 yuan.

The second eldest brother Sonam Phuntsok has already been transferred
to Lhasa as the chairman of the Federation of Industry & Commerce in
the Tibet Autonomous Region. He left his hometown at the age of 12,
but he has led a successful political life along the way. His two
children are receiving schooling at the other parts of the country.
He was not willing to be interviewed in detail.

Nowadays young people in the pastoral areas would rather go to school
or go out to work but they often fail the entrance examinations to
senior high school after graduating from junior high school. When
then return to the pastoral areas, they might "have difficulties
readjusting to the way of life here". This has puzzled lots of parents.

Last year, Wangdra brought his four-year-old daughter back to his
hometown. Upon reaching the pastoral areas, Wangdra's little daughter
was not willing to get out of the vehicle. Wangdra asked her why. His
daughter said, "It's rather dirty." Wangdra choked up and felt quite sad.

Topden' second daughter Qu Drolma has been living in Shiquanhe for
over ten years and seldom returns to the pastoral areas. When asked,
"Which do you prefer, the pastoral areas or the city?"

She hesitated a little, and answered in broken Mandarin, "The city, the city."

Professor Tsering Gyalpo has also been a visiting professor at Vienna
University, the University of Virginia (2000-2001, 2004) and Harvard
University (2003-4).
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