“Every day there’s something new in Lhasa,” many who have been to Lhasa will say. I would like to give two examples of the new face of Lhasa.
If you are in Lhasa facing east, Jiangsu Road will be on your right, slicing at an angle through Lhasa’s right flank like a bayonet.
This association with a bayonet is not gratuitous. One of the most important places on the long Jiangsu Road is the Tibet Military District, entrenched there for half a century. The icy gleam of the bayonets was an unnerving sight for the ordinary citizens of Lhasa. I spent the first four years of my life in there. I am the daughter of a soldier in the “jinzhumami” (金珠玛米), as we call the People’s Liberation Army, and was born during the Cultural Revolution. One of the pictures my father took at that time is of a group of heavily armed soldiers marching on the street. That was a sunny day, and in the sun was a field of densely packed bayonets, resembling a forest and outnumbering the scattering of trees on the side. Trees, however, do not glisten with the alarming icy gleam of a bayonet. The shining bayonets rested on the shoulders of the young soldiers as they held up Mao’s Little Red Book and chanted its slogans. Even though the photo is in black and white, one can picture the kind of scene that these countless Little Red Books and glittering bayonets created. Even the Potala Palace many miles away would be powerless to defend itself.
Today, Jiangsu Road is packed with the myriad things that make up your average Chinese city: Party offices, government buildings, administrative agencies, schools, hospitals, newspaper bureaus, factories, hotels, restaurants, and a heavily-guarded military district that occupies a huge swath of land. From its nickname, “Computer Street,” one can well imagine how many computer related stores there are here. I almost forgot—it was once called “Party, Government, Military, and Prostitutes Street.” Jiangsu Road used to be full of brothels, their pink lights flashing as soon as the sun went down. Perhaps because the name was damaging the Party and government’s image, the brothels were replaced with computer stores.
I, too, once took my computer to a shop there to be fixed, and have gone there to burn CDs of movies and songs that would be categorized as “reactionary propaganda.” One of them was the Hollywood film Seven Years in Tibet, which came into the Lhasa DVD market disguised as an action movie from Hong Kong or Taiwan. To be honest, some parts of the movie are cartoonish, like the PLA officer with a mole on his chin, an allusion to Mao Zedong, charging at a young Dalai Lama and running over a sacred sand mandala. Even though the Communist Party has done all the things depicted, the over-artistic presentation is still an exaggeration. They obviously did not understand the Chinese cultural values of diplomacy before force, submission before advance, and deference before conquest.
As a name, “Jiangsu” is lethal like a bayonet, yet I do not remember quite when the street became associated with Jiangsu Province—probably more than 10 years ago. Those who know about the “Tibetan problem” know that the street name indicates that Jiangsu Province is a designated provider of “Tibetan aid” to Lhasa. In reality, providing “Tibetan aid” is a way for provinces to mark their territory. Various Chinese provinces have divided Tibet like a cake into numerous pieces, with each province taking on a piece in order to enrich itself in the Western Development Plan. To permanently mark their glorious achievements in the region, these provinces assigned names to buildings and streets, or changed their names. Names such as Guangzhou Street, Shanghai Plaza, Taizhou Plaza, and Shandong Building quickly covered the map of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
In addition to Jiangsu Province, Beijing is also a designated provider of “aid to Lhasa,” although Lhasa had a “Beijing Road” even before the Cultural Revolution. It replaced the road’s original Tibetan name “dejinanga 德吉囊嘎” (Happiness Road). Name changing became common practice during the Cultural Revolution: “Pakuo 帕廓” (the road leading to Jokhang Temple) became Lixin Avenue, “Duosenge 朵森格” (stone lion) became Xinhua Road, “Yutuo 宇妥” (Turquoise Roof) became People’s Road, etc. Even the mountains have new names: “Jiabori 夹波日” (Bhaisajyaguru Mountain) became Mount Victory. And His Holiness’ summer palace, Norbulingka, became People’s Garden, and Potala Palace was almost renamed the East is Red Palace. As one can see, Lhasa is submerged in a pile of new names that have nothing to do with its history, tradition, or culture. The outsider “liberators,” came and took over the old city of Tibet that had nothing to do with them, and have constructed a logic for reassigning revolutionary names that is unoriginal and completely domineering.
Nowadays, the naming and name-changing scheme is more aggressive than that during the Cultural Revolution. Instead of using names with ideological connotations, they simply started giving names of various places in China to the landmarks of Tibet. And what is their motive or goal? Is it to make the indigenous Tibetans feel the might of the empire through these unfamiliar names, and lose the memories and heritage of their native land in the course of becoming accustomed to them? Or is it to enable the ever greater number of migrants to live in the imagined empire that is made up of the names of their hometowns? Every name taken from a part of China is an attempt to further Sinify Tibet, to let Tibet gradually disappear into the signs of China. All said, this is entirely an act of colonialism.
To have the original, existing geographical names that belong to you changed is a very terrifying thing. It is a conspiracy to obliterate memories, a pair of scissors that severs your connections to the past, a tragedy of overnight change beyond recognition. Every time I return to Lhasa from Han China, it feels like I am not returning to the territory of the Tibetans, but running back and forth through the streets of Han people. Most of the street names are names of places in Han China, and the shop names are basically names of shops in Han China. The people I see before me and bump into, and those I catch a glimpse of behind me, are all Han Chinese who could not be more familiar to me. It is as if I have never left Han China, as if I am trapped in its palms no matter how long or how far I travel.
I have always been quite interested in Sun Island, which is in north Lhasa. Sun Island is the most bizarre nook in Lhasa, and can be seen as a miniature of Lhasa today. I highly recommend it to tourists and foreign press doing reporting in the region.
Sun Island was once called “Jiangmalinka 江玛林卡” (a forest thick with reeds that could be used to make brooms). There are trees and sandy beaches, and the Lhasa River flows by serenely. Tibetan prayer flags hang on both ends of footbridges. Locals jokingly called the place “Gumalinka 古玛林卡”—a forest hideout for thieves. In 1994, on the recommendation of the most renowned Han painter in Tibet, a developer from Macau worked with the Lhasa government to transform this wild field into a casino. Afterwards, a Chinese magnate took over and built Zhonghe International Town, which quickly became Lhasa’s biggest and most public red light district, with as many as a thousand prostitutes.
A popular local saying cited by an online investigative report on sex workers in Lhasa goes, “The poor go to the Second Ring Road, the middle class to Tianhai Night Market, and the rich to Sun Island.” The report went on to say, “Countless numbers of young women from Sichuan, Chongqing, Hubei, and Hunan walk Lhasa’s Second, Third, and Fourth Ring Roads, as do a number of middle-aged women, forming a unique landscape in Lhasa.” A Shenzhen frequenter of Lhasa brothels gleefully shared his whoring knowledge online, “Zhonghe International City is the real red-light district of Lhasa—there are high school and low class girls, Nepali girls, Russians. The foreigners are expensive and ugly. I suggest you support domestic merchandise. I don’t know how many girls there are in Zhonghe International City—I have never counted them. Anyway, most of the shops within a five-kilometer radius of Zhonghe International City are in the flesh trade, haha.”
In Sun Island there are restaurants selling various regional delicacies, shops selling Tibetan Mastiffs (it has a huge photo of the 10th Panchen Lama on the wall, and a framed photo of Mao Zedong on the table), four-star hotels with Chinese, Tibetan, and Indian restaurants, sex shops, Lhasa People’s Culture and Art Museum, and temporary offices of the Lhasa municipal government.
I once went to a restaurant called “People’s Commune” that had portraits of Mao Zedong and his slogans hanging on the wall. The servers all wore green army garb with Mao buttons. They looked like part Red Guard, part Kuomintang special agents in Cultural Revolution era propaganda films, and part monster. A couplet hung on the wall on both sides of a Mao portrait draped in a spotless white Tibetan ceremonial scarf that said: “Don’t forget Chairman Mao when your fortune changes; don’t forget Deng Xiaoping when you get rich.” I have been told that the owner of the restaurant is from Deng Xiaoping’s hometown. He must have gotten rich.
I also saw a performance of the musical Himalaya at the Lhasa People’s Culture and Art Museum, which was a joint government-business venture. The performers were mostly from mainland China. The acts included acrobatics and magic mixed in with burlesque that looked like Indian dance, Thai dance, and Arabic belly dance. Also mixed in were the Qinghai-Tibet railway, Chinese flag, and Olympic torch. The only thing missing was a request that the whole audience stand up and sing the Chinese national anthem. Especially vulgar was when they asked a “Tibetan girl” named Something Dolma to the stage to find a husband. If the Han Chinese man from the audience invited to the stage agreed to three conditions, he would become the “King of Guge.” If not, the “Tibetan girl” would put on a saccharinely sweet voice and proclaim, “He must kowtow in punishment!”
That line was truly awful. It instantly gave away the real point of the musical that proclaims itself to be “representing Tibetan culture.” What was the significance of the kowtowing? What kind of people would make pilgrimages to Lhasa kneeling and kowtowing every three steps during their long journeys? Are they all being punished? What crime did they commit? To Tibetans, those who kowtow are remarkable pilgrims. They hurt themselves physically to express their extraordinary faith, and they deserve our bows in tribute. For this hodgepodge of Tibetan cultural symbols to portray something that is originally a sacred act of immeasurable virtue as “punishment”—even as a joke, is going too far. In this joke, the real Tibet is clearly being degraded, dishonored, and desecrated.
English translation by Human Rights in China.
Tsering Woeser, also known as Woeser, is a Tibetan born in Lhasa during the Cultural Revolution. She has lived and studied in Kham, eastern Tibet, and other places in China. After graduating from the Chinese language and literature department of the Southwest University for Nationalities in 1988, she worked as a reporter and editor for a newspaper in Kardzé (Ganzi). She returned to Lhasa in spring 1990 to work as an editor for the Tibet Literature magazine. In 2003, the authorities banned a collection of her essays, Notes on Tibet, for "political errors"; she was dismissed from her position in June 2004. She writes in Chinese and is the author of 10 books, including collections of poems, essays, stories and oral histories, and her works have been collected in three other volumes. Her books have been translated into English, German, French, Spanish, Catalan, Japanese and Tibetan. She is the recipient of many international awards. She currently lives in both Beijing and Lhasa, and considers herself a Tibetan exiled in China.
 Translator’s Note: Guge is an ancient kingdom of west Tibet.