Draining Away

Phillip Kim
Sep 13th, 2014

The young Chinese PLA soldier, dressed in camouflage uniform and spiky haircut, stepped out from the ramshackle shop into the harshly bright sunlight. The local Tibetans ambling along the dusty sidewalk glanced askance at him and at the large brown trout that he dangled from his right hand.  The fish was sleek, meaty and as long as his forearm. He crouched down and laid it on a Styrofoam slab. He then inserted the tip of a large butcher’s knife into the underside of the gills and, with a swift and assured motion, sliced the fish’s head from its body. As expert as this movement was (the soldier had clearly done this many times before), the sight and sound of the decapitation – the trickling of blood and milky fluids, the severed head flopping away, a lifeless eye coming to rest gazing up at the sky, the snapping of bone and cartilage – were nevertheless sickening. After he had gutted and cleaned the fish, the soldier rose and placed it in a clear plastic bag held open by a comrade. The pair then walked back into the shop, leaving the oozing fish head and entrails on the sidewalk for someone – certainly neither of them – to clean up later.

The Tibetans paid scant heed to the soldiers, focusing instead on scratching out a meagre trade with the tourist-laden SUVs and vans that stop here in Narkartse for lunch and butter chai on the drive from Lhasa to Gyantse. Perhaps such butcherings are common sights around town. Or perhaps the locals have learned to treat them as mundane, disregarding how such acts hack against long-standing Tibetan traditions. Never mind that a precious living soul had just been dispensed with to provide a meal for a small gathering of Chinese soldiers, or that the fish had most likely been taken from nearby Yamdrok Lake – one of Tibet’s three most sacred bodies of water. Forbearance towards uncouth Chinese manners seemed to be the Buddhist – or maybe just prudent – thing for Tibetans to do.

On clear days in this part of the Himalayas, Yamdrok Lake shines a brilliant turquoise, as if lit from within by its own sun. The lake is said to be inhabited by deities and spirits (called Naga) and possibly even by a dragon. The water embodies a female Guardian of Buddhism in Tibet and is connected to the ‘life power’ of the people. Legend has it that, if the lake waters run dry, Tibet itself will no longer be inhabitable. Pilgrims regularly travel on foot from afar to Yamdrok in order to earn merit by a circumambulation of its shores. Its pristine waters have long teemed with shoals of fish that hold little fear of humans, since Tibetans traditionally do not eat small creatures that have unfavourable soul-to-calorie ratios. This dietary abstinence is particularly remarkable given that Tibetans live in one of the most inhospitable climates on Earth, where marginal quantities of nourishment can separate the living from the dying. Tibetans who occasionally stray from the staple diet of barley flour, yak and mutton to indulge in a meal of fish generally love the taste. They are human, after all.

As with much of Tibet over the past half century under Chinese rule, Yamdrok Lake and its residents – nomads, shepherds, trout – have struggled against rapid and irreversible change. Chinese leaders have long placed enormous strategic value on Tibet’s water resources and their life-giving and commercial properties. In the late 1990s, the Chinese government bored several huge tunnels down through the mountains surrounding Yamdrok Lake to a hydroelectric plant built along a river, thereby pilfering lake water to generate electricity. In so doing, the Chinese ignored the outcries from environmentalists and spiritual leaders that Yamdrok is only fed by monsoon rains and snowmelt from a few surrounding glaciers, and that a draining of the lake might put the foreboding legend to an unwelcome test. As a further snub to Tibetan customs, the Chinese have developed commercial fisheries at the lake in order to meet the voracious appetite for fish from Tibet’s rapidly swelling Han Chinese population. Lastly, locals have been fighting – successfully, at least for now – against developing the lake into a holiday resort for Chinese tourists.

The Chinese Communist Party regularly declares that it “liberated” the Tibetans from the tyranny of serfdom in 1959. However, hardly anyone outside China considers the treatment of Tibetans since then to be a campaign of a thousand kindnesses. To hear locals describe it, the treatment has been more akin to a thousand torturous droplets of water. They still tell stories of how, in the early years following occupation, the Chinese authorities tried to subjugate the masses by harshly denigrating the indigenous culture. Pages from holy books were used as toilet paper. Young people were encouraged to sit on the prone heads of senior monks. Semi-precious prayer beads were thrown to the ground and smashed underfoot. Yes, the Chinese leaders eventually came to recognize that wielding a heavy club would do little to bring a stout-hearted people into line and achieve “national” unity. Therefore, a policy of measured tolerance and limited autonomy was adopted a couple of decades ago in order to sway Tibetan hearts and minds. More recently, China has also pushed economic development, hoping that a new appetite for wealth will blunt the cravings for independence.

Nevertheless, the topic of Chinese rule continues to elicit pained looks and hushed grumblings amongst the locals. It’s as if refurbished temples and monasteries, increased tourist dollars and job creation are akin to fish dangled in front of Tibetans, inviting them to a meal they are reluctant to eat. Meanwhile, evidence of continued repression abound. Travel restrictions have been further tightened – passports have been confiscated to prevent locals from going abroad, and frequent checkpoints and laughably slow speed limits make domestic travel a chore. Crowds of protestors that gather to air grievances are still jailed or shot at, some fatally. And insensitivity towards core spiritual values remains high, both in small everyday indiscretions and more jarringly in grand symbols such as PRC flags hung from all major religious sites, and the enormous square and monument celebrating Tibet’s “liberation” constructed directly in front of the Potala Palace in 2006.

If, as Albert Camus famously said, culture is the cry of people in the face of their destiny, then the Tibetans may never be at peace unless they are allowed the freedom to keep their rich and vibrant culture closely bound to their strong belief in fate. Any other view seems fanciful and naive. Presumably, China’s true aim is not to drain the water from Tibet’s spiritual lakes, consume all of its fish and leave the country a barren land. If China’s intentions are even somewhat enlightened, then its leaders may need to find the courage to allow the calling of Tibet’s other divinities to be heard more openly.


Phillip Kim
Last blog date: Oct 3rd, 2014


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