The Mandarin Chinese word for “nine”, jiu, sounds much the same as “to last forever”. No surprises then that it is regarded as particularly lucky or auspicious. But the history of China since the People’s Republic (PRC) was declared in Beijing on 1 October 1949 offers up a somewhat different reading into some portentous years that ended in nine.
Take 1959, when Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual (and formerly temporal) leader of Tibet fled its capital, Lhasa, with 80 000 followers and made a perilous crossing into India, where he set up a government-in-exile in Dharamsala.
Or 1969, when former president Liu Shaoqi died in prison – a fact concealed from the nation until 1979. Liu, together with then Chinese Communist Party secretary general Deng Xiaoping, had tried to set the country on a “capitalist road” but fell foul of Mao Xedong who, reasserting his control and revolutionary mission, called the Cultural Revolution into being in 1966.
The year 1989 saw the Tiananmen Square Massacre on 4 June, when army tanks rumbled through the square and over protesting students – many still in the tents that they had pitched there. Soldiers had earlier shot at, wounded or killed anyone blocking the advancing tanks, as well as students trying to flee the scene. At least 2 000 pro-democracy protesters were slaughtered but the real number will never be known because, for 30 years, the Chinese government has refused either to give a death toll or to release any of the names of the dead.
In the same year, Tibetans rose up once more against the PRC, but to no avail. Their struggle was recognised in the most oblique and irony-laden way when the Dalai Lama was awarded that year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
As 4 June 2019 looms, the ghosts of Tiananmen Square remain unappeased. But far from unresolved is the question of Tibet’s future. Realists (and cynics) would say that it has none, not even in its current form as the Tibet Autonomous Region given that the “autonomous” is a gross misnomer. Tibet has been Sinicised, the number of Han Chinese now vastly outnumbering Tibetans.
Mao and China have always claimed that they were liberating Tibet from theocratic medieval rule that oppressed the majority of Tibetans. It is certainly true that life for monks in Tibet was far more pleasant than it was for the rest of the populace, which was geared to serving and providing for the religious elite. And for its part, the West should recall that it was far preferable in “democratic” Athens of the 5th Century BCE to be an Athenian citizen than to be a slave or a non-Athenian.
None of that, however, excuses the exile of at least 100 000 Tibetans since 1959, the deaths of 1.2 million Tibetans since then, and the wholesale destruction of tangible and intangible Tibetan culture. The results of China’s liberating actions are what the Dalai Lama has labelled “cultural genocide”.
Even in that gloom, though, the Dalai Lama has persisted in hope. He has said that even if Tibet ceased to exist – a condition in which there would be no such place as Tibet, no such people as Tibetans, and the total obliteration of the language, culture and history of Tibet – the idea of Tibet would continue to exist. South Africa’s Steve Bantu Biko said as much: paraphrasing, that one can kill the man but not the idea. The Pharisees and the Romans, too, found out that you could kill Jesus Christ but not his ideas.
So, while tangible Tibet might disappear, the equally important realm of the idea of Tibet will not. In recent weeks, that notion has become more urgent. Earlier this month, the Dalai Lama was admitted to hospital. Born in 1935, he will be 84 on 6 July this year.
When he dies, there will be two searches for his reincarnation as Dalai Lama. One will be the traditional seeking by high lamas for a child who will recognise objects and signs that only the now-deceased Dalai Lama could have known. The other search will be conducted by agents of the PRC, racing to find the “reincarnation” of the 14th Dalai Lama. The “lamas” heading the PRC search will win, of course. But the idea of Tibet will survive despite that trickery.
The Dalai Lama has written and contributed to many books. The most pertinent for readers living in South Africa is without doubt The Book of Joy (Hutchinson, 2016), created by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams. Tutu travelled to Dharamsala in 2015 to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, accompanied by Abrams, with whom Tutu had frequently worked as co-writer.
The book is a record of the time – five days – and the talks the two men shared. It is divided into three main sections: The Nature of True Joy, The Obstacles to Joy and The Eight Pillars of Joy. After those is a series of Joy Practices in the last 40-odd pages. Even the most secular of readers will find wisdom and true humanity here.
Here is a snippet of the conversation the two had that is recorded in the chapter “Despair: The World is in Such Turmoil”.
Tutu: “Yes, there are many, many things that can depress us. But there are also very many things that are fantastic about our world. Unfortunately the media do not report on these because they are not seen as news.”
… Dalai Lama: “When we look at the news, we must keep this more holistic view. Yes, this or that terrible thing has happened. No doubt, there are very many negative things, but at the same time there are many more positive things happening in our world. We must have a sense of proportion and a wider perspective. Then we will not feel despair when we see these sad things.”