(Click picture to enlarge)
Jianglin Li and Matthew Akester
Following the recent protests in their homeland, the Ngaba people have again reminded us that it is because this was the first region of Tibet to be visited by the Red Army that the tradition of opposition and animosity to Chinese Communist rule there runs particularly deep (see Kirti Rinpoché’s address to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the US Congress, Washington DC November 3rd 2011). The fugitive 1st and 4th Front armies traversed the Gyalrong and Ngaba regions of eastern Tibet in 1935-6 on the last and most gruelling stage of their ‘Long March’, from Sichuan to the northwest. Ravaged by hunger and fatigue, they were still quite capable of overcoming any military opposition from the local inhabitants, who fled their villages and monasteries for the hills. The Red Army left a trail of pillage, desecration and famine in these regions, and apparently failed to build any local support. These wounds would have still been fresh when PLA soldiers returned in the early 1950s, as the national army of a new Communist republic bent on the annexation of Tibetan territory.
With the recent publication in Tibetan of a collated oral history of Ngaba under Communism (The wounds of three generations, published by Kirti monastery in exile, Dharmshala 2010), the first of its kind, we are in a slightly better position to rediscover these little known events. A translation of the relevant section of this work is presented here alongside translated passages from the memoirs of Long March veterans, mostly also recently published. These describe experiences on the march through Gyalrong up to Mugé (Ch: Mao Er Gai, 毛儿盖), rather than Ngaba itself, but nonetheless paint a vivid picture of the state of the Red Army at the time, and of relations with its future Tibetan subjects. In addition, ordinances passed by the leadership in this period give us some idea of early Communist approaches to winning over minority peoples.
In the early summer of 1935, the 4th Front Army under Zhang Guotao was joined on the march through the Tibetan borderlands by the beleaguered and numerically inferior 1st Front Army led by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, over which Zhang attempted to gain control. A power struggle ensued, which was temporarily resolved by Mao breaking away, in September, and leading his troops north, through Gansu towards Shaanxi. Zhang’s objective was to return south to re-establish a base area in western Sichuan, which he then proceeded to do, leading his forces to a devastating defeat in a series of battles with government troops that winter. Thus when Zhang’s army, the ‘western column’ of the Communist advance through Gyalrong, pushed northwest onto the high plateau and entered Ngaba in June-July 1935, it can only have been with one objective, as these accounts confirm: to plunder desperately needed food supplies.
It may have been on entering Ngaba that the Communists encountered the strongest Tibetan military resistance. The Tibetan account mentions that the king rallied Ngaba’s forces south of Tsennyi monastery to block their advance, and Wu Faxian’s account confirms that this was initially successful, the 1300-strong 6th regiment involved in that action was repulsed, and only half came back alive. As reinforcements arrived, the Tibetans were outnumbered and fled to the mountains, where they remained for the next four months. The ‘eastern column’ marching through the valleys, to which Wu belonged, was subject to guerilla attacks by local fighters that claimed many lives.
The defeated 4th Front army, whose leaders had established themselves as a rival Party command known as the Northwest Bureau, retreated again into Tibetan territory in February 1936. They went further west this time, through Tawu and Litang, reaching Kandze (Ch: Ganzi， 甘孜) in the Trehor region of Kham in March, where they were joined by the 2nd Front army and other units. This episode is somewhat better known, as it was later depicted in Party history and propaganda as a political coup. The revolutionary army managed to enlist local supporters, most notably the Geda Lama (dGe rtag sprul sku sKal bzang bstan ’dzin) of Beri monastery, and establish a ‘Tibetan Peoples Republic’ (in May). It was these troops, who started to leave Kandze in early summer for Gansu, that returned through Ngaba, this time from the west, and put the population to flight for a second time. They continued through Dzorgé and Tewo, following the route taken by the 1st Front army a year earlier and, says the Tibetan account, leaving a trail of pillage and facing guerilla resistance.
This account emphasises the looting and desecration of monasteries. It is not clear how much Tibetans in Ngaba would have known of Communism at the time, or differentiated the Red Army from the other Chinese frontier armies that had plagued the region for years (Guomindang, Liu Wenhui, Li Tazhang, Ma Bufang etc.), but this account describes them as intent on destroying religion, as well as seizing supplies. Jatsok Tulku recalled, for instance ‘The Chinese had made a toilet by piling up a large quantity of scriptures and placing wooden beams on top, and many pages had footprints and so on in the middle, so everyone got the idea that the Red Chinese were coming deliberately to smash sacred objects and extinguish Buddhism.’
There is no sign of anti-clericalism or militant atheism in the Chinese accounts. There, the temples are mentioned for their spectacular wealth and exotic contents, but above all as a source of food and shelter. The most detailed of these accounts, by Wu Faxian, admits to destroying temple drums, but only to eat the leather. In one black comic incident, he describes his fellow soldiers discovering that votive Buddha figures placed on shrines as offerings were edible! It is difficult to see this silence as anything other than denial, since there can be no doubt that the temples, palaces and monasteries abandoned by fleeing Tibetans were thoroughly and deliberately desecrated.
It is therefore remarkable to find that the Communists were already committed to a tactical policy of tolerance for religion in Tibetan areas. The articulation of this policy seems to have been largely the work of Zhang Guotao and the leadership of the 4th Front Army, which spent by far the longest period in Tibetan regions. Due to his defeat in the internal power struggle and subsequent defection, Zhang was defamed in the official history of the Long March as it came to be written, yet the approach pioneered under his command (see e.g., the ordinance issued by the Kandze Peoples Government) contains the main elements of CCP religion policy as pursued 1949-64 and from 1979 to the present: these are upholding the freedom to believe or not to believe in religion, and the protection of Buddhist monasteries that have no economic or legal powers over secular society and submit to government supervision. Clearly these principles were, like the provisional ‘Tibetan Peoples Governments’ themselves, more aspirational than real, and did not apply in areas where the Red Army faced local opposition. The fact that the Red Army had indulged in the pillage and desecration of monasteries, not only in Ngaba and Gyalrong but Kham as well, while nominally committed to their protection, makes Tibetan scepticism of the ‘liberal’ nationality policy of the 1950s seem quite natural.
Moreover, the leadership clearly was aware that pledging Communist support for local independence (‘from both China and Britain’) was the best hope of winning Tibetan converts and popular foundations for their ‘Peoples’ Republics’. In the ordinances passed by these fledgling institutions, and even in a policy document issued by the central leadership, we find the Communists flirting with the progressive Khampa nationalism advocated by the leading political figures in the region at the time, most of them affiliated (at least nominally) with the Guomindang. Behind this promised accomodation of local aspirations, however, lay an onerous programme of grain requisitioning and taxation, emphasising class expropriation, and apparently little adapted to the prevailing conditions and attitudes of Tibetan society. Kandze, of all the Tibetan regions visited by the Long Marchers, seems to have provided the most fruitful conditions for this project, perhaps because it had been in the frontline of recent military confrontations and intrigues between the Lhasa government, Nationalist forces and regional warlords: there is no sign of such radicalisation among the Tibetans of Ngaba and Gyalrong in the available sources.
There is no trace of any constructive approach in the memoirs presented here though. For the soldiers of the revolution facing adversity in the wilderness, the Tibetans were simply alien, occupants of a world beyond the struggle in which they were engaged, upon whom they were obliged to impose themselves by hunger and the pursuit of their goal. In contrast with the “integral part of China” to which the Communists laid claim after the 1949 revolution, Tibet was still another country, with no common language or shared history, and a strange, deeply held religion. Far from the ‘feudal hell’ of unredeemed poverty and oppression projected by later propaganda, the Long Marchers encountered a self-reliant and confident people whose resources they coveted. These accounts show attitudes ranging from the ideological stand that Tibetans opposed the advance of the Red Army because they had been ‘duped by the GMD reactionaries’, to humane recognition that opposition to a marauding foreign army is natural. Mao himself was famously recorded by Edgar Snow as saying “This is our only foreign debt...some day we must pay the Miao and the Tibetans for the provisions we were obliged to take.”
Given that the project of building support for the CCP among the Tibetans was associated with one of Mao’s main rivals in an internecine leadership struggle, we could take this remark as less surprisingly humane than first appears. Nonetheless, in the ‘Boba Peoples’ Governments’ established by Zhang’s Northwest Bureau, the main contours of subsequent nationality and religion policy - tolerance of state-supervised religion, encouragement of minority languages, cultivation of influential and ‘progressive’ figures in minority communities through the United Front, and so on - are already apparent. The promise of ‘national self-determination’ and even ‘independence’ offered in these programmes from the 1935 Party Central Committee, however, had turned into the prospect of ‘nationality autonomy’ within the PRC no later than the foundation of the new state in October 1949.
Download full text
(Click File - Download as to select pdf format)
 In one of the standard English language accounts, based on Chinese rather than Tibetan perceptions, Dick Wilson wrote: ‘Some small part of the tragedy of Communist China’s role in Tibet in the 1950s and 60s may be owed to these experiences in 1935 when Tibetan hostility made the difference between death and survival for many comrades and(?) soldiers who survived to take high positions in the government and armed forces after 1949’ (The Long March 1935. New York, Viking 1971). An example of this is given in Wounds of three generations (p.109): ‘When the Red Army came through (the Shingra Dewa area of present Tewo county in Gannan prefecture) in 1935 the local people fought them, killing and wounding many, so at the time when the Communists seized control of all Tibet in 1958, they saw this area as deserving punishment, and many people there were killed or suffered starvation and torture as terrible as hell on earth.’
 Zhang admitted in his memoirs that the Peoples Governments were ‘empty in all but name’ (quoted in Red Army’s first encounters with Tibet - experiences on the Long March by Elliot Sperling, Tibetan Review, October 1976). The author notes: ‘Zhang’s concept of autonomy for the Tibetan governments, however, was no doubt rooted in paternalistic feelings for he didn’t have a high opinion of Tibetan culture: “The culture of the Tibetans is relatively low...and their language is especially incomplete. They can’t express many relatively complex concepts” (he wrote).’
 This issue is addressed in some detail in Bapa Puntsok Wangyal’s polemical essay denouncing the betrayal of the CCP’s early, Soviet-inspired nationalities policy, In Memory of Comrade Tashi Wangchuk (see A Witness to Tibet’s history (trans. Tenzin Losel) Delhi: Paljor publications 2007 p.1-9). He cites the constitution adopted by the First National Soviet Representative meeting in November 1931 as the first commitment to these principles: ‘The Chinese Soviet authority recognises that all the nationalities within its territory have the right to self-determination until the time they separate from China and establish a highly independent state of their own...’
 See e.g., Frontier process, provincial politics and movements for Khampa autonomy during the Republican period by Peng Wenbin, in Khampa Histories: visions of people, place and authority, (ed. L. Epstein), Leiden: Brill publications 2002 p.70-74. Puntsok Wangyal wrote (In Memory of Comrade Tashi Wangchuk p.5): ‘Although the Tibetan Authority was established under special historical conditions while the Red Army was passing through Karze in northern Kham, and was short-lived, in terms of China’s nationality relations and problems with Tibet, politically it planted a precious revolutionary seed of nationality among local people - especially among young Tibetan intellectuals’ like himself. It was of course a similar accomodation by the pre-revolution CCP that led to the declaration of an autonomous national republic in Inner Mongolia in 1947 on principles of national self-determination no longer respected after the Party came to power (see e.g., From inequality to difference: colonial contradictions of class and ethnicity in ‘Socialist’ China by Uradyn E. Bulag, Cultural Studies 14 (3/4) 2000).
 The situation was of course different in other parts of A mdo, more directly affected by the Ma clan’s devastating wars in the 1920s and 30s, which drove local leaders into tactical alliances with the GMD and even CCP. On the case of the Alo clan leaders of Labrang, see Xuan Xiafu’s memoir Northwest Traverse (first published in 1930, Tibetan translation published by Nationalities Publishing House, Beijing 1984) and Labrang: a Tibetan Buddhist monastery at the crossroads of four civilizations by Paul Nietupski, Snow Lion publications 1999 p.81-93.