- Editor’s Note
In his essay “The Spirit of Freedom,” published after a trip to America in the 1920s, Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “When freedom is not an inner idea which imparts strength to our activities and breadth to our creations, when it is merely a thing of external circumstance, it is like an open space to one who is blindfolded.” The ways to talk about freedom are as numerous and complex as freedom itself. Writers may be no more qualified to define freedom’s manifestations than people in other lines of work; but they have the insight and skill to represent freedom as an actualization, moment by moment, in the lives of individuals, rather than as a concept divorced from the blood and breath of people in specific situations. By expressing aspects of freedom in the language of story and poetry, the authors in this volume bring us closer to understanding why freedom seems so essential.
Among the authors in On Freedom is Woeser, a Tibetan journalist whose books, essays, articles, and blog have, for many years, annoyed and frustrated Chinese officials. The author of ten books and an internationally recognized voice for Tibetans, Woeser was living in Lhasa in 2004 when, as punishment for her outspoken views, she was removed from her editorial position and “exiled to Beijing,” as she puts it.
When we corresponded with Woeser in connection with this issue, she had just been notified that she had received the Netherlands’ 2011 Prince Claus Award, for her reporting on Tibetan culture. Not surprisingly, the Chinese authorities immediately put her under house arrest to prevent her from going to the Dutch embassy in Beijing to accept the award at a small, private dinner.
For decades, Chinese officials have discouraged the media that they control—and this includes the Internet—from recognizing writers the government disapproves of. More and more, their efforts only bring greater attention to the writers they wish to suppress and the words they wish to mute. Woeser’s detention, as a result of winning the Prince Claus Award, was reported in the global media and brought her more notice than the award by itself would have.
One reason Woeser provokes the displeasure of the Chinese censors is [End Page vii]
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that she is a master at using irony to reveal the contradictions in the government’s authoritarian behavior and propaganda.
Woeser’s essay in On Freedom, “Garpon La’s Offerings,” tells the story of a Tibetan master’s loss and recovery of freedom. On one level, the narrator speaks in the voice of a slightly distracted reporter attempting to describe the “rehabilitation” of the political criminal Garpon La—the last acknowledged master of the Tibetan performance ritual known as Gar. On another level, Woeser uses irony to describe the government’s restrictions on physical, spiritual, and cultural freedoms.
Woeser writes that when Garpon La returns to Lhasa after twenty-two years in the notorious Gormo Re-Education Labor Camp—to which he had been sentenced during the Cultural Revolution for being an “insurgent”—Party officials pleaded with him to restore the very performance ritual he had been imprisoned for practicing. Garpon La’s response is to praise the Party for its past effectiveness in re-educating political criminals like himself. “Sorry,” he says. “Because the ‘re-education through labor’ I received at Gormo was so thorough, I’ve completely forgotten Gar.” When the officials repeat their request, Garpon La shows them the scars he received in the camp. Embarrassed, they eventually leave him alone.
Years later, official restrictions on travel visas are eased, and Garpon La is able to go to Dharamsala, where he performs Gar for the Dalai Lama. His Holiness is not physically or politically free to return to his homeland, but is spiritually free in India. Garpon La dedicates his final performance of Gar to the Dalai Lama and vows never to perform again. The Dalai Lama, however, binds him with a promise: to teach Gar to a new generation of Tibetan children. When Garpon La returns to Lhasa, his position as...