Book Eat The Buddha by Barbara Demick tells story of people of Tibet

You can crush a country but not the people’s spirit: New book tells the tragic story of the people of Tibet

  • Eat The Buddha is by Barbara Demick and published by Granta and costs £18.99
  • Tibet, a former empire itself, was incorporated in 1950 into communist China
  • It is also the world centre for self-immolation — suicide as a political gesture 
  • Demick focuses on the lives of the ordinary citizens of the small city of Ngaba 

POLITICS

EAT THE BUDDHA 

by Barbara Demick (Granta, £18.99, 272pp)

The very word ‘Tibet’ has romantic, resonance. 

The ‘Roof of the World’ conjures the vast snowy wastes of the High Himalayan plateau, populated by yaks, nomadic herders, yetis and Buddhist lamas in russet robes, capable of levitation and clairvoyance.

Alas, there is a very different side to modern-day Tibet, a place of police checkpoints, arbitrary arrests and punishment beatings; of a sullen second-class citizenry subdued by a Chinese state equipped with advanced biometric data, facial recognition technology and, it is said, millions of closed-circuit cameras — one for every two citizens.

Tibet, a former empire itself, was incorporated in 1950 into communist China by force majeure as an autonomous region of the People’s Republic. 

Tibet, a former empire itself, was incorporated in 1950 into communist China. New book Eat The Buddha, by Barbara Demick, tells the tragic story of the region’s people

Today it is autonomous in name only.

It is also the world centre for self-immolation — suicide as a political gesture, with the protester dousing themselves with petrol and lighting a match. 

Since 2009, 159 Tibetans have chosen this excruciatingly painful death to demand autonomy for Tibet and the return of revered spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

Barbara Demick’s Eat The Buddha focuses on Ngaba, a small city on the eastern side of the Tibetan plateau where two-thirds of the suicides have taken place. 

To tell her story, the former Los Angeles Times Beijing correspondent homes in on the lives of its ordinary citizens.

It is also the world centre for self-immolation. Since 2009, 159 Tibetans have chosen this excruciatingly painful death to demand autonomy for Tibet and the return of revered spiritual leader the Dalai Lama (pictured)

By spinning their oral histories into a single narrative, she captures not just the events, but how they affect the daily lives of her protagonists. 

Woven between is a history of Tibet and its dramatic, tragic story of the past six decades.

She starts in 1958 with Gonpo, a seven-year-old Tibetan aristocrat’s daughter, who returns home to find Chinese troops outside. 

Woven between the story of the city of Ngaba’s people is a history of Tibet and its dramatic, tragic story of the past six decades. Pictured: File photo

Her parents are sent into exile — and to early deaths. 

We follow her through to her 60s, first as an enthusiastic Communist, through her exile in the Cultural Revolution, her happy marriage to a Chinese man and, finally, her role as an adviser to the Dalai Lama in exile in India.

There is also Tsegyam, an academic radicalised by his love of Tibetan history, who becomes the Dalai Lama’s private secretary; and Tsepey, a good-time boy politicised by the clampdown after rioting in 2008 who escaped to Shenzhen miles away, was then found and escaped again.

Demick does not dodge uncomfortable facts. Several of her subjects start out enthusiastic for the materialism the Chinese economic miracle brought. 

Demick does not dodge uncomfortable facts. Several of her subjects start out enthusiastic for the materialism the Chinese economic miracle brought

Even today some exiled Tibetans are drifting back, lured by the comfortable life China can provide.

To do so means accepting the daily indignities of Chinese racism, the bureaucratic barriers to Tibetan advancement and Beijing’s demonisation of the beloved Dalai Lama. 

It was these realities that first hardened Tibetan hearts and fostered a dogged resistance which, handled differently, may never have built up.

Eat The Buddha by Barbara Demick (Granta, £18.99, 272pp)

Time and again one is struck by the gentleness of Tibetan culture — rooted in a Buddhism characterised by non-violence and compassion. 

(Suicide as rebellion is deemed acceptable as it harms no one but the practitioner. Elsewhere, a prayer is said over a fly, drowned in a bowl of soup.)

Today, there are regrets too over President Xi Jinping’s hardline assimilation strategy. 

His more liberal father was sympathetic to the Tibetan cause, Demick writes, and for decades wore a watch given to him by the young Dalai Lama.

This remarkable book offers a unique insight into Tibet’s plight, allowing the reader to understand what it is like for its people to be tossed about in a political storm they neither want nor understand.

Demick’s title references the ravenous Maoist cadres who, during 1934’s Long March, ate the flour and sugar Buddhas made by Tibetans as votive offerings — symbolic of the cultural cataclysm to come.

‘All revolutions devour their children,’ as the old saying has it. 

But who was to know, back then, that the next meal on the Chinese revolutionary menu would be the Tibetan people themselves? 

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