Poetic Solidarity Across the Himalayan Divide in Burning the Sun’s Braids

The Chinese state . . . is unable to extinguish the fire of protest among Tibetans in exile and Tibet.

For the poets who bear witness, language has been both weapon and shield, but perhaps most importantly, it has always a chance to reach both inward and outward, so that the defiant strength against cruelty may arrive from any direction. The Tibetan poems collected by Bhuchung Dumra Sonam in Burning the Sun’s Braids is a testament to this endless realm of perseverance. In the following essay, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Tibet, Shelly Bhoil, writes about the urgent and moving works in this formidable collection of resistance and courage.

Bhuchung, which means “a little boy” in Tibetan, was ten or eleven years old when he was smuggled out of Tibet for a better life as a refugee in India. During his escape with a group of familiar strangers in the winter of 1983, this little boy, for no particular reason, held on to the visions of black boots from his fantasies, but had no idea that he would never get to see his parents again. Years later, in a moment of existential rage, he tore apart a notebook of poems he had penned during his college years. Lines from one of the earliest poems he recalls having written are telling:

Like a stray dog I cling
to the dry worldly bone . . .
In a blossoming garden of hatred
this little boy
drowns in tears of sorrow . . .

From the torn pages of this notebook were to emerge Bhuchung Dumra Sonam as a prolific poet, essayist, publisher, and translator.

To be a writer in China-controlled Tibet could mean a life of imprisonment and torture. In contrast, Tibetans in exile have freedom—metaphorically declared in the title of the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, Freedom in Exile—that is denied to those inside Tibet. Taking advantage of this relatively free space in his host country, Bhuchung sought to make the censored voice of writers from his home country audible through translating and publishing their poems in Burning the Sun’s Braids. Published by Blackneck Books in Dharamsala, India in 2017, this bilingual anthology is primarily an act of solidarity in resistance to the occupation of Tibet.

As an urgent matter, however, there is a Translator’s Note on the opening page of the book:

None of the poets featured in this collection knows his/her work is rendered into English and published in exile. I decided not to get in touch with or to relay to anyone of them this translation project for reasons that Beijing knows best.

Bhuchung’s primary concern, as a translator, is not the regular author/publisher permission protocols but the safety of those whose works sing in chorus within his book. He might have never met these poets in person, but he worries for them, much like for his family left behind—there are dangerous political implications of maintaining contact with exiled Tibetans, who are essentially seen as ‘separatists’ by the government in Beijing. The aforementioned Translator’s Note thus gestures that Burning the Sun’s Braids is a book of familial solidarity, with Tibetan exiles’ paramount care and concern for those living across the Himalayan divide under hostile conditions.

Most of the poets translated in Burning the Sun’s Braids have already borne the brunt of state censorship—Theurang served four years in prison for documenting the 2008 uprising in Tibet in his self-published book Written in Blood; Kyabchen Dedrol was fired from his school job for a pro-independence protest staged by his students; Gartse Jigme, a monk poet, was jailed for six years for his work The Courage of Emperors; Nyen was detained for his essay, ‘What Human Rights Do We Have Over Our Bodies?’ and subsequently sentenced to four years in jail; Jado Rinchen Sangpo had drafts of his book Tears of Hot Blood confiscated; and Gartse Jigme finished his six-year jail sentence this May. Curiously, all these poets belong to Amdo, one of the former three provinces of Tibet, which is outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and thus lesser repressed or controlled than TAR. One can fathom how difficult it must be for writers within TAR, where even tourists cannot walk unaccompanied by state-certified guides! The narrator in Chen Metak’s poem ‘A Stranger’ assures the visitor, in his/her guesthouse of comfort, of security, and most importantly of “No interrogation here,” even though

After you go away,
Shutting the door tightly
I will have to cry—
For that person
Whose shadow the moon erased
Whose colour the rain washed away
Whose name the crow plucked out,
For people like me, and
For ownerless who survive outside the door.
Without a sound
I have to cry once.
[Emphasis added]

The Machiavellian State surveillance in Tibet is indeed intimidating for a writer, paradoxically enough for the very reason that the barrel of the pen is intimidating for the State.

Scholars of modern Tibetan literature have demonstrated the many political calculations of metaphors and styles employed by writers to escape censorship in Tibet. While this applies to a few poems in Burning the Sun’s Braids, such as the satirical poem ‘Monks are the enemies of the Communist Party’ by a poet with the pseudonym Mar Jang Nyung, most poets featured here are explicit in their clarion call for Tibet’s freedom, notwithstanding the implications. The book contains poems of action and confrontation that sets it apart as strong resistance poetry. For example, what can be more undaunting than the direct reference to the 11th Panchen Lama, who disappeared under State custody when he was six years of age, in Theurang’s ‘Prisoner in Hell’ (Mother says amongst the prisoners is / My young kid brother / Who is said to be the youngest prisoner in the world) or the tribute by one political prisoner to another political prisoner in ‘Writing Rungye Adak.’ Bhuchung informs us in the Translator’s Notes that Adak was imprisoned for eight years after he called for the Dalai Lama’s return and the release of the Panchen Lama and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche in a gathering of several thousand Tibetans.

Noted exile Tibetan poet Tsering Wagmo Dhompa writes in her introduction to Burning the Sun’s Braids that the poems reveal “the absurdities and unfreedoms that make the life of a Tibetan an impossible condition.” Chen Metak’s poem ‘Grass Man’ reflects on this impossible condition of Tibetans and the lost meaning of freedom for those expected to be unfeeling, heartless, spineless, or vegetative beings. His poem blurs the boundary between the sanity of a vegetative-like “grass man” who walks freely and the insanity of a “madman” who lives behind the iron gate of the hospital:

Knowing I was not mad and
Moving freely
Outside that iron gate,
I was happy
Like the madman who was happy
Not being
Turned into a grass man

The madman in this poem is the counterfoil of the vegetative grass man and could also be interpreted for the political prisoners in Tibet. In comradeship with resistance fighters in Tibet, exile poet Tenzin Tsundue has had at least fifteen prison terms for his protests in India against Tibet’s occupation. Not only does he consider it “an honor receiving a jail term, however small, for having worked for a cause as noble as a freedom struggle”, but also important for his “personal growth” (Tsundue, ‘Lathi Charge and Dal-Roti’)—thereby asserting his non-vegetative, activist stand as a Tibetan poet. The exile poets and those featured in Burning the Sun’s Braids stand in solidarity as rangzen (freedom) poets despite living across the Himalayan divide.

The two-way solidarity of Tibetans in both Tibet and exile surfaces with recurrent references to the Dalai Lama and exiles in several poems in Burning the Sun’s Braids. It is satirical that even though it is illegal to possess a photo of the Dalai Lama in Tibet, these poets are vocal about “the heaviness of missing those in exile” (Dedrol, ‘A Realm’), paying tribute to the Dalai Lama, “the precious jewel on six million” on the fiftieth anniversary of his exile (Gartse Jigme, ‘Moon of the Heart’), and pine for reunion with the exiles:

Since the day you left, I never really had a single day of
Sunshine; each thought like rain, windstorm, chill, blizzard
And swamp knocks at my chest; exile, why is it that you are still
so far away from me?
(Chakmo Jam, ‘Exile’)

All the poets featured in Burning the Sun’s Braids are born after 1970, the years towards and after the end of the Cultural Revolution, when China had liberalized its policies in Tibet. The new generation Tibetans, however, had very little access to the institutional resources of their heritage, as most of it was destroyed under socialist reforms and even replaced by Chinese infra-structures of education. And yet several poems by these new generation Tibetans in Bhuchung’s collection endorse their identity as singularly Tibetan, for they have their parents and grandparents as a home source of their history. The poems are replete with references to the generations before (and even after), and often coalesced with historical sites and topographical particularities of Tibet, bringing the book a dimension of inter-generational solidarity. In the poem ‘Do you know the tales of our forefathers?’, Dhi Lhaden urges his niece to “write this single word ‘Freedom’/ on the mountain peak” where her forefathers “sacrificed their lives for their rights.” In the poem ‘My Vision of the Potala,’ Lhaden takes comfort in thinking that the Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lamas in Tibet, “built with sweat and blood of our ancestors,” “may remain in people’s hearts for ages.” Nyen’s ‘In Memory of the Wild Yak’ brings out the nostalgia of older generation:

Before the red wind raged
That bend on the mountain was where the wild yak roamed
Today, my grandfather stares at the bend
Remembering that animal called the wild yak

In Mar Jang Nyug’s poem ‘My mother told me,’ a grandson recalls the heart-wrenching sufferings of his mother who, orphaned at merely nine years of age, had to look after her younger siblings after the cold-blooded murder of his grandmother. When the grandson locates the dhursa (charnel ground) where the grandmother was shot dead to fulfill his mother’s wish to “install some mani stones” and “hoist some prayer-flags” there, he senses “the eyes of the dead in the dhursa still alive.” The history is haunting, unforgivable, and inescapable.

A poem, ‘Lhasa’ by Re Kangling, in the collection also speaks of Tibetans’ regional solidarity in face of foreign occupation. Even though Tibetans in the former eastern provinces of Tibet—Amdo and Kham—had no political allegiance to Tibet’s traditional government in Central Tibet, the capital city Lhasa had served as cultural capital for Tibetans across the plateau. Re Kangling’s poem records an Amdowa’s journey to Lhasa, which “(resembles a newborn baby, its umbilical cord still uncut),” to realize the sleeping soul’s “dream of history.” The initial journey—“Like a snake my mind moves towards Lhasa little by little”— becomes interesting as he moves ahead “greedily/taking big steps,” and then disappointment comes when he is asked, “Hey Amdowa, what pass do you have?”

Interestingly, the first case of self-immolation in Tibet in protest to occupation was reported in Ngaba of China’s Sichuan province, which was the former Tibetan area of Amdo. Since then, there have been more than one hundred and fifty cases of self-immolation by Tibetan monks and laymen, mostly in Ngaba. Theurang’s poem ‘Ngaba Logbook’ brings alive the horrors of a Tibetan getting ablaze and “warming the entire snow land’s chest to a feverish pitch.” Tenzin Dorjee writes in the Afterword of Burning the Sun’s Braids:

For many of us, it is impossible to light a stove without thinking of Tapey, Lama Sobha, Thupten Ngodup. One can no longer light up an incense stick, or a cigarette without thinking of Palden Choetso standing in the blazing red flames before sinking, as if in slow motion, into her maroon robes.

Coincidently, just as I am reflecting on self-immolation as an extreme but non-aggressive form of resistance, I received Bhuchung’s compilation of news, views, and global response on Tibetan self-immolation in the 1108-page long book Tibetan Self-immolations: 1998 to 2018, published by Kirti Monastery in Dharamsala. The Chinese state, despite placing its security personnel in Tibetan regions that outnumbers the local population and preventing international media from coverage on Tibet, is unable to extinguish the fire of protest among Tibetans in exile and Tibet.

Burning the Sun’s Braids is a book of solidarity—cross-border, familial, intergenerational, and regional—where poetry turns into action and action into poetry against the illegitimate occupation of Tibet. “The poems in this collection,” writes Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, “are heartbreaking, groundbreaking and revolutionary; readers need courage.” Indeed, one needs but courage to read the irony in ‘Farewell Prostrations’ by Khawa Nyingchak, who drowned young while attempting to haul in the net of Chinese poachers to get evidence, so as to prevent them from killing endangered golden fish in Tibet’s Kokonor Lake:

I stand stiff near the river alone
Raising my hand high to signal
That if in time I do not go back,
I’ll sleep forever in this riverbed
Where my flesh and bones become offerings
To nourish budding trees and blossoming flowers.

Shelly Bhoil is a poet and scholar, living between India and Brazil. Her forthcoming works include Resistant Hybridities: New Narratives of Exile Tibet (Lexington Books).

*****

Read more on the Asymptote blog: