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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Woeser: The Tibetan writer, who goes by one name, regularly takes on controversial topics.
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Woeser's fans have plenty of reasons to worry that she'll be thrown in jail soon.

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.

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"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.

Shocked into a new view of herself and her country, Woeser dedicated herself to recording the Tibetan experience. She returned to Tibet in 1990 and wrote poems and essays while also working as a literary editor.

Broaching such a taboo topic, though, had costs. When her 2003 anthology, "Notes on Tibet," mentioned the widely known fact that Tibetans revere the Dalai Lama, she was fired from her job as editor of a literary journal in Lhasa and lost her pension. Her books were banned in China.

Despite the punishment, Woeser kept exploring sensitive topics. After relocating to Beijing and finding a publisher in Taiwan, she released hundreds of stunning photos from the Cultural Revolution in Tibet, of which few records remain. The grim images, taken by her father, showed Red Guards drawing moustaches on slumped monks, and Tibetans loaded onto trucks heading for the killing field.

Blogging and dodging

Woeser also started blogs, hosted on servers outside China but available in the country. In the past two years, four have been shut down.

When violence erupted in Lhasa last spring, her website became a go-to source for information that the authorities tried to block by barring foreigners from Tibet.

"Her updates after the events of mid-March helped to inform a lot of people who did not have immediate access to Tibet or to eyewitness accounts, and she was very important in helping to get the facts straight," says Sperling.

The writer is still working with Western journalists to reconstruct the event.

"We don't even know how it started," she says. But what she does know she shares with the world in long, detailed blog posts.

Despite the risk, Woeser says telling the story is key. Chinese-Tibetan relations are so hostile because the government has successfully portrayed Tibetans as backward and evil, she says. Indeed, few Han Chinese show any tolerance for her perspective.

"This stinking face, if anyone sees her, give a ferocious beating to this drowning dog for me!!!!!!!!!" an Internet user, identified as China Hackers Association, wrote in May on a social-networking website.

Even Woeser's Han friends won't hear her out, she says. Tibetans have berated her, too, saying she's "causing trouble," she adds.

Works translated

But outside China her work – which has been translated into Tibetan, English, and French – has an adoring audience. Her most famous book, "Notes on Tibet," had 11,000 copies printed.

Even as the Tibetan diaspora has become divided over politics – some, like the Dalai Lama, hope to reconcile with China, while a growing faction wants independence – her writing resonates across the spectrum.

"It's really important because it deals with ideas of identity and ideas of freedom.... I think as long as Tibetans keep doing that, we have some hope," says Jamyang Norbu, a pro-independence activist who has openly criticized the Dalai Lama.

"Of course I'll argue with her about that," he laughs. But "I'd love to meet her."

Like other fans and Tibetan exiles, though, he has little chance of that. The Chinese government has effectively banned Woeser from leaving the country. Her application for a passport, filed in 2005, is still pending.

So in July the writer tried another genre: a lawsuit over the right to travel abroad.

The effort has been stalled for months. But it makes a point, her thinking goes.

Not that her literary work until now hasn't.

"She's not someone who's primarily political. Her reactions are of somebody who's actually interested in the way they feel through language and culture," says Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University in New York.

Still, he continues, Woeser is "trying to create a space for expression, and everyone knows that in China that's hugely political."

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