Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser (1966) is one of the winners of this year’s Prince Claus Prize. The honour is named after the late husband of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Woeser will receive the award, not only for her poetry and novels, but also for the blogs in which she gives the Tibetan people a voice. “If an ordinary Tibetan writes an article, he will be imprisoned immediately. This prize offers me protection.”
“Could you just not write about Tibet?” Tsering Woeser still gets angry when she thinks back on the question, put to her by a member of China’s state security service. Together with her husband, critical author Wang Lixiong, she was invited for tea, “a euphemism for threats, warnings and intimidation. Then that official suddenly said I shouldn’t write about Tibet. What right did he have to say that?”
Woeser now writes about one subject alone: Tibet. She wrote novels and poems until she came to prominence in 2008 through her blog. During the violent protests against the Chinese regime in Tibet, it gave a unique voice to Tibetans from the Tibetan territories themselves. The press have little or no access to Tibet. The information available is biased, coming either from the Chinese authorities or from the Tibetan independence movement in exile.
The writer has a vast network of contacts, who provide her with news of occurrences in small towns and monasteries. She has become a conduit for this news, in spite of herself: “The blog keeps me from working on my new novel. It was well under way in 2008, but since then the blog has been swallowing up my time and energy. Yet Tibetans are taking such great risks that I cannot permit myself to stop blogging.”
This year she has been switching on her computer with fear in her heart. On thirteen occasions she has told the world how monks and nuns have doused themselves in petrol and called for freedom for Tibet as the flames consumed their robes. “It is not suicide, but the self-sacrifice of a Bodhisattva [the Buddhist equivalent of a saint, MV] for the sake of the Tibetan people. In their despair, the last glimmer of hope for outside help shines through.”
However, the world appears to be indifferent. “In 2008 all eyes were on China in connection with the Olympic Games and China was sensitive to criticism. Now human rights are being pushed aside in favour of trade. There has been hardly any response to the self-immolations, yet the situation is more serious than in 2008.”
Woeser’s novels and poems describe her search for her Tibetan identity. As a “red daughter” of Tibetans in service of the communist state, this was something she did not discover until later in life. Her mother was a public official, her father a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army. At home they spoke Chinese.
It was only as a student in the 1980s that Woeser noticed she was “different”, despite being part of an elite. “Han Chinese students looked at me with an air of superiority.” She turned to writing to alleviate the pain of discrimination. And she decided to put her pride at the forefront. At home she began to initiate discussion: ‘My father advised me to walk on two legs: one that followed my own thinking and a second that acted to please the Han Chinese officials. He said that was the way to steer clear of damage.”
Woeser, who had just succeeded in getting a job at a literary magazine in Lhasa, rebelled. “If I walk like that I’ll break both my legs!” Many more conversations followed. Why did her parents never teach her to speak Tibetan? Were the foreign rumours about the oppression of Tibetans true?
Poor little Chinese girl
Her parents responded with painful silences. In Lhasa, she thought she would finally feel at home. In temples she burst out crying, overwhelmed by the emotion of being a Tibetan in Tibet. “Once a monk next to me said ‘What a poor little Han Chinese girl’. I was embarrassed: it was only in Tibet that I realised how Chinese I had become.”
It was then that her search for the language, religion and life of the 5.4 million people on the inhospitable high plateau in Western China began. Tibet has the status of “an autonomous province”, but every Tibetan official is outranked by a Han Chinese official in order to maintain the system of minorities united in solidarity under the wing of Beijing. She wrote her first book – the last she was ever permitted to publish in China. “It was full of ‘serious political errors’. I was questioned for three days and threatened with losing my job.”
Since then, Woeser has lived – as she calls it – “in exile” in Beijing. “Lhasa is dominated by fear. You inevitably become contaminated by it to the point where you dare not to do anything anymore. In Beijing I almost feel free. The scale of this enormous city dilutes the fear.”