In Beijing, author treads fine line as she tells Tibet's story
Woeser has sued the government, investigated Tibet's March uprising, and flouted the official line about Tibet.
Woeser's fans have plenty of reasons to worry that she'll be thrown in jail soon.Skip to next paragraph
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The famed Tibetan writer has sued the Chinese government. She's investigating the March uprising in Tibet. She articulates the repression that many Tibetans feel, flouting the official line that they like Chinese rule – all from a modest, high-rise apartment in Beijing.
The government here bans her work. But from Tennessee to Tibet, her fans hang on every unauthorized poem, essay, and blog. To them, she risks her life to tell the "real" Tibetan story – a narrative that unites the Tibetan community even as it diverges over politics, a hot topic this week at a rare summit in Dharamsala, India, called by the Dalai Lama.
"She brings a unique combination of experience and ability at the moment, [and] she's willing to stand up," says Elliot Sperling, a Tibet expert at Indiana University in Bloomington. Her writings "contribute significantly to the general perception of what's going on in Tibet."
Woeser, who like some Tibetans goes by one name, occupies a rare space in China, expressing the resentment Tibetans feel at the government's effort to control their homeland and religion.
Even her home – which she shares with her husband, Wang Lixiong, a non-Tibetan Chinese who takes the rare stand of criticizing Beijing's approach toward Tibet – channels her defiance. An illegal photo of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader revered by Tibetans but denounced by China as a "splittist," hangs amid Tibetan furnishings and colorful pillows. Photos from 1960s Tibet and a framed map of ancient Asia, whose thick black border marks an independent Tibet, cover a wall.
"If I didn't write [about Tibet], I might get sick," she says, her arms folded across a gauzy, gold-and-purple skirt.
Yet her intense gaze and confidence belie her delicate position in China. Supporters can only guess why the government hasn't acted to silence her yet; many fear they soon will.
China's Olympic spotlight, under which the state hoped to avoid ugly incidents, may have given her a reprieve so far, says Professor Sperling.
But the authorities keep an eye on her. During the March violence in Tibet, they put her under house arrest. In a visit to Lhasa during the Summer Games, she was detained by police for a day. During last month's Asia-Europe summit in Beijing, she was put under house arrest for a week.
Seeing beyond a Han identity
Yet Woeser wasn't always under the government's watch. Nor was she always so adamant about her Tibetan identity.
Her half-Han, half-Tibetan father served in the People's Liberation Army in Tibet, where Woeser was born in 1966.
She was too young to remember much from the Cultural Revolution, which started that year. But like the rest of her generation, she was taught to love Chairman Mao and to read and write in Mandarin, the language she still uses to expresses herself.
As a young woman, Woeser says, she began to see beyond her "Han education." People in her college town of Chengdu, in central China bordering Tibet, would mock Tibetans, saying they smelled, she recalls. Western literature exposed her to their second-class treatment.