Book review: My Tibetan Childhood, by Naktsang Nulo

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 October, 2014, 11:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 October, 2014, 11:32pm

My Tibetan Childhood: When Ice Shattered Stone
by Naktsang Nulo
Duke University Press

Released in 2007 in China, My Tibetan Childhood was a bestseller before Beijing banned it three years later. The tragic memoir by an invasion survivor who became a Chinese government official is touted as the most reprinted modern Tibetan literary work.

This English translation begins in hauntingly pacifist fashion. "'Nukho,' my father told me often, 'if you want to be a real man, do not kill fish, frogs, birds, insects, and other weak animals but have compassion for them.' His words stayed in my mind. Even small animals felt joy, sadness, and tears, and each of them had parents and children. I believed I shouldn't kill them needlessly'," Naktsang Nulo recounts.

His story centres on his upbringing in Tibet's eastern plateau during the 1950s. The early chapters, which read like a warm-up with ominous overtones, recall pilgrimages to monasteries, including a 2,000-kilometre horseback trek his nomadic clan makes to and from Lhasa.

One year on, his family retraces its steps in flight from advancing Chinese troops. Next, Nulo's father joins the 1958 Amdo uprising but is slain; Nulo and his brother are detained in a cramped camp wracked by hunger. In plain style, Nulo documents the squalor and the starvation; wolf is in their diet.

Despite the romantic title, Nulo's take on China's increasingly forgotten invasion is harrowing. One source he cites reports that the Chinese kill people by day and dogs at night. "If you surrender, they will cut off your head, and if you run away to the mountains, they cut off your legs."

But Tibet was no paradise even before the Chinese reign of terror, Tibet scholar Robert Barnett writes in the introduction. In fact, Nulo shows some Tibetans perpetrated class violence with ferocity. The Tibetan killers of leading lamas Ganden Wula and Sera Lama reportedly murdered them with glee, Barnett writes: the perpetrators ripped the bodies apart, apparently riled by past exploitation.

Still, the Chinese, who tortured Tibetans with tools including hot metal, seem worse. After invasion in 1950, Nulo writes, Tibet was subjected to a methodical programme of slaughter and torture - remember that when you read Land of Snows travel industry puff or "social harmony" propaganda.

The true-life account's US publisher has given Nulo's memoir a new lease of life amid the distracting development the Dalai Lama reproves in the preface. "Everything now must be about the future: the new towns built for resettled and displaced nomads, the endless miles of newly paved roads and new railways, the growth of the tourist industry, and the mines that allow minerals and other resources to be stripped from the ground," he writes in a surprising burst of sarcasm.

The trend he berates seems suspiciously like an Asian strain of Holocaust denial. Nulo reminds us to never forget.