The Fear in Lhasa


Potala Palace, Lhasa, photograph by linuts

by Woeser

A hurried farewell to Lhasa,
Now a city of fear.

A hurried farewell to Lhasa,
Where the fear is greater than all the fear after ’59, ’69, and ’89 put together.

A hurried farewell to Lhasa,
Where the fear is in your breathing, in the beating of your heart,
In the silence when you want to speak but don’t,
In the catch in your throat.

A hurried farewell to Lhasa,
Where constant fear has been wrought by legions with their guns,
By countless police with their guns,
By plainclothesmen beyond counting,
And still more by the colossal machinery of the State that stands behind them night and day;
But you mustn’t point a camera at them or you’ll get a gun pointed at you,
maybe hauled off into some corner and no one will know.

A hurried farewell to Lhasa,
Where the fear starts at the Potala and strengthens as you go east, through the Tibetans’ quarter.
Dreadful footsteps reverberate all round, but in daylight you won’t glimpse even their shadow;
They are like demons invisible by day, but the horror is worse, it could drive you mad.
A few times I have passed them and the cold weapons in their hands.

A hurried farewell to Lhasa,
Where the fear is now minutely scanned by the cameras that stud avenues and alleys and offices,
and every monastery and temple hall;
All those cameras,
Taking it all in,
Swivelling from the outer world to peer inside your mind.
Zap zap jé! They’re watching us” – among Tibetans this has become a byword, furtively whispered.

A hurried farewell to Lhasa:
The fear in Lhasa breaks my heart. Got to write it down.

August 23, 2008

On the road out of Lhasa

[Zap zap jé (Tibetan): “I beg you, be careful”] 

Poem originally published at Open Democracy |

About the Author:

Woeser is a poet, writer and blogger. She was born in Lhasa in 1966 and now lives in Beijing with her husband Wang Lixiong. Her books include Notes on Tibet (2003) and Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution (Locus publishers, Taiwan, 2006). Her blog is here

This poem comes from Woeser’s collection Tibet’s True Heart (Ragged Banner, 2008), translated from the Chinese by AE Clark.

Woeser was born in Lhasa in 1966, the daughter of a half-Tibetan, half-Han Chinese officer in the People’s Liberation Army and a Tibetan minor aristocrat. The family lived from 1970 in Sichuan province. Woeser studied Chinese literature at the then Southwest Institute for Nationalities in Chengdu, and worked for two years as a journalist in Kangding (Dartsedo) before returning to Lhasa in 1990. There, she worked as an editor for the magazine Tibetan Literature. A study of Tibet’s history and of Tibetan Buddhism, and the realisation that her newly deceased father had secretly been a Buddhist, led her towards a deeper discovery of her Tibetan identity.

Woeser published her first book of poems, Xizang zai shang (Tibet Above), in 1999. Her documentation of the effects on Tibet of repression and skewed economic policies was collected in her book Notes on Tibet (2003), which was banned by the authorities. She moved to Beijing, where she married the writer and human-rights activist Wang Lixiong. She lives and writes there under severe restrictions of surveillance and movement, which she continues to challenge.