Skip to content
from the July 2017 issue

How Dorje Tsering Saved Tibetan

The following excerpt is from the tentatively titled Doring: Remembering Dorje Tsering, Pema Bhum's memoir of coming of age in Tibet during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, in which the author recalls a resilient teacher in Rebkong who kept the Tibetan language and traditions alive.


When I first came to Dharamsala as an exile, the question that I kept hearing from Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike was how I had managed to learn such decent Tibetan when I came from inside Tibet. For an ordinary person from an ordinary nation, it would be incredible for this kind of question to arise—the question of how he had come to know, to know well, his own language. But for us, Tibetans who had lost control over our destiny to others, this had become a very normal everyday question. Indeed, this question had become especially commonplace for someone like me who had grown up (in Tibet) during the Cultural Revolution. 

As the Chinese state claimed, the Great Cultural Revolution of the Proletariat “turned the sky and the earth upside down,” “overturned the universe,” and was a revolution that “touched the very souls of men.” This was no empty claim. If the events of the Cultural Revolution were related to a person who had no idea what the Cultural Revolution was, the person would think the storyteller was a madman, so extreme were the events of the period. Let me give you this example from Tibet. Before the Cultural Revolution, Tibetans so revered their Lama that there were those who considered even his urine to be blessed, to be holy water. But during the Cultural Revolution, the very students of these Lamas called them oppressors and exploiters—the students attacked their Lama, spat in his face, and even forced him to drink his own urine. There were many such incidents. This “revolution” left nothing untouched—not Tibetan religion, not culture, not language, not even Tibetan clothing and utensils. 

It may not sound like an unusual thing for a Tibetan teacher to teach his Tibetan students the Tibetan language and to encourage them to learn Tibetan. But during the Cultural Revolution, it was an extremely unusual thing. When the Cultural Revolution had just ended, there was an older Tibetan man who happened to teach at the same school with me. He was a scholar of Tibetan and he didn’t know any other languages. He always told his students not to learn Tibetan but to learn Chinese instead. He told them in class, “You must learn Chinese as well as you can. Now it will be only fifteen, twenty years before we have a fully Communist system. When the Communist system arrives, no one will have to go to the store to buy what they need, they can just get it from the storeroom. But you have to know how to write a letter for the item you need. And there will be only Chinese at the time, no other languages. If you don’t learn Chinese well now, when the Communist system is here, you won’t even be able to get things you need from the storeroom.”

Who knows if this old teacher really believed in his heart that a true Communist system would reign in fifteen or twenty years? However, in those days, no matter who you were, no matter what you believed, you had to be a revolutionary. There was no way around it. And everyone knew that the way to become a revolutionary was through the Chinese language and not Tibetan. The government and the people both believed this, so that even though there was never any clear and official announcement that Tibetan should be banned, it just naturally happened that it was no longer possible to learn Tibetan in many Tibetan regions. Those who wanted to learn Tibetan became fewer and fewer indeed. This old Tibetan teacher had three children himself, and he sent them all to Chinese school instead of Tibetan school. And so a new generation came of age in Tibet, a generation who cried, “You bet the three jewels I am Tibetan! You bet the three jewels I can’t read Tibetan!” 

At a time when such things were going on, there was a Tibetan language teacher at the Teacher’s College in Malho Tibetan Autonomous County in Rebkong, Amdo. His name was Sir Dorje Tsering. Dorje Tsering’s philosophy, as he expressed it, could be summed up in the following sentences: If you wanted to be a revolutionary, you had better know Mao Zedong Thought. For a Tibetan, it was certainly easier to learn Mao Zedong Thought by studying it in Tibetan rather than Chinese. Thus, the Tibetan students had to learn the Tibetan language as best they could. 

During the Cultural Revolution, whatever end one had in mind, if you could demonstrate that it was for the sake of Mao Zedong Thought, then no one could place any obstacle in your way. Even the elements were powerless—water couldn’t have flooded it and fire couldn’t have burned it. The Tibetan language was considered contemptible and there were obstacles to overcome if you wanted to learn it. But if anyone had tried to stop someone else from studying Mao Zedong Thought in any language whatsoever, that gesture would have been as vain as a moth striving with its wings to put out the flame of a butter lamp. 

So Sir Dorje Tsering taught us with Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book standing in for our Tibetan language textbook. This was so that we would learn Mao Zedong Thought. Then Sir taught us the fundamentals of Tibetan grammar with the basic Sumchupa Tibetan grammar. This was also so that we would learn Mao Zedong Thought. Then we worked on Dhagyig Sheja Rabsel (The Clear Rules of Tibetan Orthography) for a long time. This, too, was so that we would learn Mao Zedong Thought. The fact was, at that time it wasn’t allowed for someone to even look at a book of Tibetan grammar and orthography, let alone to teach it. 

Sir Dorje Tsering and his colleagues Dorje Rinchen and Jamyang persisted in teaching the Tibetan language in Rebkong during the Cultural Revolution, and it was their teaching which kept the heart-root of Tibetan alive in Rebkong during the Cultural Revolution. After the Cultural Revolution was over, many Amdo townships depended on these Tibetan students of Rebkong to resuscitate Tibetan language in their areas. Later even places like Chamdo in Kham and towns in Utsang had to bring in teachers from Rebkong. But Sir Dorje Tsering didn’t have a great many volumes to his name like the scholars of old nor did he have essays and short stories like contemporary writers today, and so his reputation dimmed. Now there are only a few of us, we who are his former students, who know of his great legacy.
 

*** 

 

Dorje Tsering was born in the year 1934, in the Wood Dog year of the sixteenth sexagenary cycle, to a couple named Namtsek and Manitso in the village of Gengya in Trangyarnang, Rebkong. He had one sister named Chomotso. Whether he had other siblings or not, I’ve been unable to ascertain. 

The elderly folk of Gengya remember that Dorje Tsering was a brave and strong-hearted boy who stood up for the weak. Whenever he saw a bully pushing around a weaker kid, he would confront the bully. 

Dorje Tsering’s father, Namtsek, was one of the poorest men in the village. He made a living by working as a laborer in the neighboring villages. It was in the village of Bayan, now called Hualong by the Chinese government, that Namtsek met Manitso and married her. Namtsek brought his bride back to Gengya village. Since he owned no land in the village, the two of them ended up in nearby Chuma Thang. Here they fenced in a small plot of wasteland, tilled and reclaimed it as farmland, and built a small house where they settled down. 

Namtsek died when Dorje Tsering was still very young. From the age of around ten till he reached sixteen or seventeen, Dorje Tsering herded the family’s sheep and goats. I have heard his family say that he herded the animals with the same dedication and commitment that he brought to everything else he did; while he was the family herder, not a single sheep or goat ever went missing. 

It was in the first half of the 1950s that the Communist power began to make itself felt in Rebkong. In order to raise a Communist cadre from among the Tibetan people, the government required each district to send a quota of young boys and girls to school in Xining. At the time, Tibetans thought it was the most terrible fate to send their children to the Chinese schools. In Gyengya town, the people had to resort to drawing straws to determine which children would be sent to meet the quota. Dorje Tsering and Chomotso escaped; their names were not drawn in the lottery. However, the news soon spread throughout town that Dorje Tsering’s mother Manitso had sent off her two children to the Chinese school to take the places of two children whose families didn’t wish for them to go. 

There were those who said that Manitso was paid by the families whose children were drawn in the lottery to send her kids in their place to the Chinese school. However it happened, in the early Fifties, Dorje Tsering and Chomotso went to school in Xining. Here Dorje Tsering majored in Tibetan and Chinese languages in the Language Department of the institution that we now call the Qinghai Nationalities University. Then he studied at the Northwest Nationalities University in Lanzhou. After graduating from Lanzhou, he returned to Xining to teach.

This was a time of violent rebellion by the Tibetans who rose up against the Chinese rule that was being newly established across Tibet by the Communist Party. The government responded by sending in the People’s Liberation Army to brutally suppress the rebellion. Dorje Tsering was called upon to translate for the Liberation Army, and as translator, he assisted in the “resolute pacification of rebellion” in areas such as Golok in Amdo and Zachukha, Jyegundo, and Karze in Kham. 

As the Chinese Communist Party established itself in Tibet, they began their campaign to seduce people to their cause by first winning over the poorest of the poor. As Dorje Tsering’s family was one of these poor households, the Party wooed his mother Manitso and installed her into the ranks of the Gengya village leadership. Later she was assigned to lead other villages as well. Manitso was a blunt, rough-spoken woman, but she was very capable and she had a kind heart. The villagers feared her because she wielded the power of the Chinese government, but they also respected her because she truly cared about the villagers’ welfare. She became quite famous for a time in Trangyarnang in Rebkong.

Dorje Tsering’s sister Chomotso worked in the broadcasting services of the Qinghai National Radio Station in Xining. Before the Cultural Revolution, the Tibetan service used to broadcast the epics of King Gesar of Ling and traditional Tibetan folk tales. Chomotso had excellent articulation and great facility with imitating the voices of various characters in the stories, male and female, young and old, and she became famous all over Amdo. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, the program was brought back on the air and in fact I have listened to Chomotso a few times telling children’s stories and folk tales on the radio.     

I heard Sir Dorje Tsering’s name a couple of times before I saw him for the first time. I had heard people say that there was a scholar from Rebkong called Dorje Tsering who lived and worked in Xining because a small place like Rebkong offered him no opportunities to use his scholarship. He must have been teaching in Xining at the time. In 1970, I was accepted into the Malho Trik National Teacher’s College in Rebkong. I can’t remember whether it was that same year or another year when the news spread at school that the great Tibetan scholar Dorje Tsering had just joined our faculty. Of course no one knew exactly how he was a great scholar or in what field, but the story that the students told again and again was how he had once gone to Dzongkar monastery in Upper Rebkong and sat in a debate against all their monks and roundly defeated them. 

I was wondering when I would catch a glimpse of this famous teacher when I finally saw him for the first time; I still recall the day clearly. The first time I saw him, I felt fear before I felt respect. He was talking with some teachers in the courtyard of the staff room.  He was the tallest of all of them. He also had the longest face and the darkest. His hair was as black as pitch. 

When we addressed our teachers, we addressed them with the Chinese word for teacher, “Laoshi,” after their name. In the school, there were two teachers whose names were Dorje and “Dorje Laoshi” could have meant either of them. So we addressed Sir Dorje Tsering as Doring Laoshi, the “Do” from Dorje and “Ring” from Tsering forming the word “Doring,” the Tibetan word for a stone pillar. Whenever we heard the name “Doring,” we felt instinctively that the word also referred to his figure and his face. 

Just as Sir Dorje Tsering had a physique unlike all the other teachers, so he had a personality that was all his own. We could tell he had a unique personality from the way he dressed alone. Ever since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution when Mao Zedong greeted the Red Army in his olive green military uniform, it had become a trend for everyone in China and Tibet, for everyone under Party rule, to wear an olive green shirt and an olive green cap. At first people were making do with just wearing the olive green color because it was impossible to get your hands on a real army uniform, but after a few years, everyone began trying desperately to get a real army uniform without the insignia, and would pay soldiers very high prices for old army caps and so on. In our school, for instance, there were only a very few folks among the teachers and students who wanted to wear Tibetan clothes; the rest of us were doing what we could to find an army uniform. But in all those years, we never saw Sir Dorje Tsering in anything that was olive green. He always wore a pale blue Chinese suit until winter arrived. Then he put away this pale blue suit and came to class wearing a lambskin burgundy Tibetan chupa. 

When he came to class in Tibetan clothes, we always felt awed and intimidated by him. We were awed because at that time everyone wore Chinese clothes to appear as Chinese as possible, and everyone wore army clothes to appear as revolutionary as possible, but Sir Dorje Tsering went around wearing not only a Tibetan lambskin chupa, but a burgundy chupa that was almost the color of a Tibetan monk’s robes. And we were intimidated because, as I mentioned earlier, Sir Dorje Tsering was very tall with a long, dark, forbidding face. In his Tibetan chupa, he looked even more imposing and intimidating.

Just as Sir Doring had no interest in fashion himself, so he had no liking for the students who were interested in being fashionable and stylish. He often said that these students were like butterflies. Because Sir Doring was absolutely unconcerned about his clothes, the fact that he bought a new pair of leather shoes became hot news at school one day. A student saw him at a shop buying a new pair of leather shoes and immediately rushed back to school to broadcast the news so that, before Sir Doring and his new shoes had even stepped foot on campus, all the students already knew about them.

He would tell us again and again that of all the subjects we were studying, the most important was the Tibetan language and the second most important the Chinese language. His view was that if you knew one of these two languages well, then your language helped you become naturally good at the other subjects such as math and geography and history. Before Sir Doring became our Tibetan teacher, math was the subject that I liked the most and the subject that came most easily to me. But when Sir Doring became our Tibetan teacher, Tibetan became my favorite subject and my flair for Tibetan also increased greatly. 

In our class there were about ten students from a village of Rebkong called Togya Bokor. The people of Rebkong called them Dordos and the government called them the Hor people. They didn’t speak Tibetan. Instead they spoke the Dor or the Hor language. They had no problems learning Tibetan but they had poor pronunciation. Their village was close to a large Chinese town called Togya. Even though their curriculum was different from the Chinese, they went to the same school as the Chinese, so the students from Togya Bokor had better Chinese than the rest of us in the class. We Tibetans looked down on the Dordos for having poor Tibetan pronunciation and envied them for their good Chinese, and the Dordos looked down on the Tibetans for our poor Chinese and envied us for our crisp Tibetan pronunciation. As our class was divided into two factions, so it was with our Chinese and Tibetan teachers. The Chinese teacher favored the Dordos and the Tibetan teacher favored the Tibetans. Even though Sir Doring constantly advised us that it was imperative for us to study Chinese well, if we had to choose one or the other, then he thought Tibetan was the more important.

Although we had heard many stories about Sir Doring’s excellent Chinese, we had no idea how good it actually was. We found out the extent of his Chinese expertise at an event that brought tears to our eyes. At that time, there was a campaign launched all over China called “Remember the Past Suffering and Be Happy for the Present,” to recall the suffering of the old society and to be grateful for the happiness of the new society. To ensure that we didn’t forget the evils of the old society, every once in a while the school invited people who used to be destitute in the old society to talk about how the landlords and the rich people used to oppress and torment them.

As we listened to these talks on the evils of the old society, many of us tried to cry to show our hatred for the old society and our love for the new. At that time, if anyone accidentally laughed for any reason, that person was considered to have committed a political crime. There were definitely more than a few students who had to swipe some saliva over their eyes during these sessions so as not to look so dry-eyed. 

One day the school called in a Chinese laborer to talk to the teachers and students about his suffering under the old society. The Chinese had been talking for about ten minutes when our teachers started crying. Then they began to take their handkerchiefs out of their pockets and wipe their eyes. Now the students from the two Chinese classes began to cry and wipe their eyes. As more and more people began to cry and the sound of crying got louder, the Chinese man also raised his voice, which now had a new note of tears in it. His face was wet. At times he would stop and pause, unable to speak for a moment, and during these pauses, the sound of his listeners crying got even louder.

The rest of us students who had only the most basic Chinese watched this scene unfold. Some of us kept staring at the Chinese guy’s face. Others stared at each other, and yet others stared at the teachers and students who were crying. Perhaps an hour went by. The majority of us who didn’t know Chinese were still dry-eyed. There were some girls who were now weeping. It wasn’t that they were saddened by the Chinese man’s sorrow; it was seeing and listening to the crying that pulled forth their tears. 

Seeing my teachers weep made my heart heavy. I wanted to know whether Sir Doring’s face was wet or not. I think many other students were also eager to see his reaction. But he was standing far away from us, all the way at the front of the lines. His face was turned toward the podium and we could only see the back of his head. If we had seen a stray tear on his long and dark face, then his tear would certainly have caused most of us to cry as well.

The Chinese man finished his narration of the old society’s evils and all the teachers and students wiped their eyes and gave him a long and thunderous round of applause. The principal thanked the man and then the teachers and the students from the Chinese classes all left the hall to go to class. Now it was just us students who didn’t know Chinese left in the hall. Sir Doring went to the podium, opened a little notebook in front of him, and began interpreting the entirety of the Chinese man’s talk into Tibetan.

I scanned Sir Doring’s face but saw no signs of tears at all. His eyes were bone dry. His face was long and dark as usual, with no sign of any sorrow or joy. For over an hour, Sir Doring talked, translating the Chinese man’s speech of the evils of the old society. Sir Doring’s voice sounded as if a glob of saliva were clogging his throat but apart from that, his voice betrayed no hint of joy or sorrow.

Sir Doring had not been speaking for long when some of the female students started crying. A few of the male students also began to cry. I started wondering whether the notes in Sir Doring’s notebook were in Chinese or in Tibetan. Whether he had taken those notes in Tibetan or in Chinese, I thought it was wonderful that Sir Doring had listened to the Chinese man tell his story for more than an hour and then after the man had finished, reproduced the same talk in Tibetan, interpreting for over a full hour. 

After the function was over, I marveled with my friends over Sir Doring’s display. And that’s what we talked about, Sir Doring’s skill as interpreter and translator; hardly anyone talked about the Chinese man’s story of his suffering in the old society. 


From Doring: Remembering Dorje Tsering. © Pema Bhum. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Tenzin Dickie. All rights reserved.

Read more from the July 2017 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.