Childhood in Batang
I was born in January 1922 in Batang, a remote and beautiful village in Kham (Eastern Tibet) roughly five hundred miles from Lhasa and twelve hundred miles from Beijing. Batang is located in a valley at about eighty-five hundred feet, sandwiched between the tiny Ba River on the west and a range of mountains to the east. It has a relatively mild climate for Tibet and is predominantly agricultural. Though rugged and beautiful, the area has always been politically troubled, and my later life as a Tibetan revolutionary is rooted in its turbulent history and the experiences of my childhood there.
Had things gone the way my parents planned, I would have been a monk, not a revolutionary. When I was four years old I went to live in the local monastery with my uncle, a learned monk who had studied at Ganden, one of Lhasa's great monasteries. In our area it was common for older monks to recruit a young nephew to live with them, and I loved being with him. I didn't take any formal monastic vows, but I remember that they cut my hair like a monk's and I began to memorize prayer books. In fact, I was well on my way to a life of religious study and practice when my uncle suddenly died. I don't recall the circumstances clearly, but hisdeath resulted in my leaving the monastery, since I was very young and we had no other relative there to look after me. Not long afterward, my parents enrolled me in the Batang government school, a decision that dramatically changed the course my life would take.
Batang was unusual for Tibetan areas because it had a formal school system. The Chinese government had built a modern school there in 1907 and made attendance compulsory for Tibetans. Surprisingly, Batang also had an American missionary school (and orphanage) that a number of Bapas [people from the Batang area] attended as well. Because of these schools, many Bapas learned Chinese and even English, and some became important officials in the Chinese government.
I began attending the Chinese school when I was about seven years old and continued until I was twelve. My teachers were Tibetans who were fluent in Chinese, and the curriculum we studied included Chinese, Tibetan, and mathematics. The routine was relatively simple. We had class for about two hours in the morning and then for two hours in the afternoon after a break for lunch. We didn't have homework like children do now, and we had no clocks; we judged the time by the position of the sun.
I liked school and learning, and I worked hard. My parents wanted me to be proficient in the Tibetan language and therefore arranged for me to take extra language instruction from a former monk who had set up the first library in Batang. Because one of my best friends lived in the Christian orphanage, I also learned many Christian songs and Western stories that the missionaries had translated into Tibetan. I remember delighting in songs like "Silent Night" and in the tales of Ali Baba.
For a while it looked like I was going to have a more or less normal, happy childhood. But the current of events in the region was simply too strong. Our people—the Khampas—have always deeply resented being ruled by outsiders, and there were repeated uprisings against the Chinese officials and troops in our area. My father was active in the anti-Chinese resistance, and I grew up hearing stories of past battles and brave Khampa heroes. I can pinpoint fairly exactly the time when I began to develop my earliest feelings about issues like independence, autonomy, and resistance. It was when Kesang Tsering came to Batang in 1932. I was ten years old at the time.1
I remember Kesang Tsering's arrival in Batang vividly. He rode into our village on a large Chinese horse, looking glorious in his shiny government uniform. His official mission was to set up a GMD Party headquarters in Batang, but he had his own agenda, which included overthrowing the region's warlord, Liu Wenhui, and returning the governance of Kham and Batang to Tibetans. He lost no time in securing the support of the key Tibetan political forces in Batang: the Chöde monastery and the local Tibetan militia (a volunteer organization comprised of about 150 men who came together only when there was a war or a disturbance). But even with their support, gaining control of Batang required defeating a Chinese garrison of three hundred to four hundred troops. Kesang therefore decided to use guile, not force, and he chose a classic ploy: he invited the Chinese commander and his officers to a banquet.
Kesang was an important central government (GMD) official, and the garrison had to take his invitation seriously. The commander was away, but the next in command, Captain Zhou, came with some top aides. As soon as they arrived, Kesang ordered them to hand over their weapons, telling Zhou that if he complied, he and his men could leave peacefully, but if they did not, they would all be killed. Zhou had no choice and complied, but the Chinese soldiers stationed at the garrison refused to turn over their weapons or let the Tibetans enter the garrison. It was a standoff, and the fighting began early next morning.
Our house was not far from the garrison, and I was terrified when the shooting began. It was the first time I had heard the gunfire of battle, and the noise was so deafening that my younger brother and I covered our heads with our quilt. My mother was also frightened because my father was with the local militia, and she immediately made offerings to the protective gods in our family's chapel.
The fighting continued long into the morning hours before the Chinese troops finally surrendered. When the smoke of battle had cleared, Kesang summoned everyone to the Chöde monastery. When he was ready to speak to the crowd, he fired his pistol into the air several times to get everyone's attention. He then proceeded to tell us that he was the governor now and that Tibetans again ruled Batang.
Not long after the victory celebration, Kesang summoned everyone to the school and taught us a new song he had composed called "The Song of the New Kham." I don't remember all the words, but the idea was that we Tibetans should adhere to Sun Yatsen's "Three Principles of the People" [ch. san min zhu yi—nationalism, democracy, and livelihood] and that a new era had arisen for the people of Batang and Kham.
Spirits were high, and there was much to celebrate. None of the Tibetan (or Chinese) soldiers had been killed, and literally overnight Kesang had obtained six hundred to seven hundred rifles, with ammunition. Tall and strong, with a dark mustache, Kesang was a heroic figure to me and the other youths. (The people used to say of him, "Commander Kesang's mouth is like the central government's order" [ch. and tib. zhongyang gi ga, kesiling gi kha].) But of course it wasn't that simple, and that was part of my learning process, too. The fighting wasn't over. The Chinese weren't going to take such a defeat lightly, and other forces began to gather against Kesang almost immediately.
In our politically volatile region, alliances were shifting and unstable and promises unreliable. Kesang had come to Batang via Yunnan and Tsakalo, an autonomous Khampa area in Tibet, southwest of Batang on the Yunnan frontier. On the way, he had discussed his plans with the Gonggar Lama, an important lama whose support would have been valuable to him. At the time, the lama had appeared to approve Kesang's actions, but when he heard that Kesang had disarmed the Chinese soldiers and driven them out of Batang, he had a sudden change of heart. To hedge his bets, he secretly sent a letter to Liu Wenhui at Liu's headquarters/garrison in Tartsedo disavowing any support for Kesang's activities.
Events moved swiftly after that. By a series of coincidences, Kesang's men caught the lama's messenger and found the letter. Kesang was so furious when he read it that he shot the messenger on the spot and immediately began making plans to mobilize the Batang militia and move against the Gonggar Lama, who he felt had betrayed him. Things quickly went from bad to worse.
Intent on teaching the traitor a lesson, Kesang sent his militia—including my father—across the Drichu River and south toward Tsakalo. Unbeknownst to him, however, the Gonggar Lama had learned of the impending attack, mobilized the Tsakalo militia, and, critically, secured the support of a regiment of the Tibetan army that was stationed in Markam. Then they set a trap for Kesang.
Kesang and his soldiers suspected nothing. When they crossed the Drichu and headed south toward Tsakalo, they noticed Tibetan government troops at the foot of a mountain in the distance, but they didn't think anything about it because the main Tibetan army base was just beyond that mountain range and the territory here was part of political Tibet. However, as they started to move up toward the pass that led to Tsakalo, they suddenly found themselves under heavy fire from the Tsakalo militia, who were deployed above them.
Immediately realizing the weakness of their position, the Batang militia quickly began to retreat downthe mountain. However, when they reached the valley, they were shocked to find the Tibetan government troops they had noticed before now shooting at them from the flanks. The Tibetan government troops had also flooded the fields behind the Bapas to impede their retreat. Kesang's main force managed to escape across the Drichu only because some of his militia stayed behind and fought an effective rear-guard action that temporarily kept the pursuers at bay.
When word of the defeat reached Batang, my family had a more immediate worry, because we were told that our father was part of that rear-guard force and that a number of that unit had been killed. (We were also told that the Tibetan government troops had cut off the heads of our dead fighters and had taken them back to display in their garrison at Markam.) It is a painful memory. As the main body of militia returned, my mother and I watched, hoping that my father would appear, but he was not among them.
After the last of the stragglers returned, she started crying and told me she was sure he was dead. She organized the final prayers for him and told me that now it was my responsibility to take over his job of doing the family's morning prayer rites, which involved cleaning and filling the religious water bowls and butter lamps. I was proud to be doing a man's job but also so very sad and angry. It was hard to accept the idea that my father was dead. I remember taking an oath before our protector deity that I would avenge his death, and I prayed to the Buddha each day to tell me the names of the people who had killed him. Fortunately, however, our sorrow was short-lived. A few weeks later our sadness turned to elation when a local trader from Markam told us that my father was alive and wounded. He had been shot in the leg in the battle and taken to Markam to recover. His wound was not serious; he was improving and would eventually come home.
Kesang Tsering's problems, however, continued to multiply. Not satisfied with driving him away, the Tibetan government soldiers pursued him across the Drichu River and, together with the Tsakalo militia, attacked Batang itself. Kesang's forces regrouped at the outskirts of the town and stopped them there. But they could not drive them back. Fighting continued for the next three months (roughly mid-April to July 1932), neither side able to gain an advantage. The fighting was so near and went on for so long that I actually learned to differentiate the sounds of the guns. I remember that the Tibetan army's English guns made a different sound than the Chinese ones our militia used.
The stalemate ended abruptly when word arrived that Liu Wenhui had sent an army from Tartsedo to retake Batang. Kesang had counted on Liu being too busy with challenges from rivals in Sichuan to move on him, but he had miscalculated. When word came that Liu's army was approaching the mountain pass into Batang, Kesang realized that the situation was hopeless and fled, taking about twenty soldiers with him. We heard afterward that he went to Yunnan and then back to Nanjing. I have no idea what he told his superiors in the GMD, but after a while he managed again to secure a position of authority in the Chinese government bureaucracy. For the people he left behind in Batang, however, there were hard days ahead.
The Chinese soldiers took possession of the town uncontested. When they approached, the Tibetan government troops withdrew across the Drichu River and returned to the garrison at Markam. Again we were under the direct control of the Chinese, who took their revenge on us by executing Yangsin, the head of the local militia, and two other leaders.
I did not actually see the executions, but I remember the day vividly. I was playing with Yangsin's son at the time. His name was Dawa, and we had gone to knock down walnuts from a huge tree. While we were laughing and having fun throwing rocks into the tree, I heard some shots but paid no attention. The fighting was over, and I thought it was just someone testing a rifle. A few minutes later a villager saw us and called me over. I knew something was wrong the minute I looked at him. In a lowered voice he told me not to take Dawa home by the same road we had come. I asked him why, and he said that Dawa's father had been executed and that the execution site was on that road. I did as he asked, of course, but I was shocked and sickened by the news.
I got details about the execution later. With their hands tied behind their backs and heavy placards hung around their necks, the condemned were paraded through the streets of the town and then shot. But they died proudly and defied the Chinese by loudly singing the "Song of the New Kham."
After the executions, Batang went back to normal and I returned to my classes and household routines. (Soon after this, my father was released by the Tibetan government in Markam and returned home.) However, feelings were running high about the killings and the rule of General Liu. I hated Liu Wenhui and dreamed about someday getting revenge. I also dreamed about following in the footsteps of these great heroes and fighting for the rights of Khampas to rule themselves. The whole episode made a deep impression on me, and I think my desire to become a modern, educated Tibetan like Kesang Tsering began to form itself at that time.
1. In 1927-1928, the Nanjing-based Guomindang (GMD), or Nationalist government, led by Chiang Kaishek, set out to subordinate the many "warlords" who controlled much of China. One of these warlords was Liu Wenhui, the ruler of Kham (or Xikang Province, as the Chinese called it).
In 1931, Chiang Kaishek sent a Tibetan from Batang named Kesang Tsering to bring Liu Wenhui into line. Kesang Tsering had graduated from the Batang government school and had gone on to high school in Yunnan Province and then to the Provincial Officers' Training Institute. He was bright and ambitious and joined the GMD Party in 1924 as its first Tibetan member. By 1927 he had moved to Nanjing, then the capital of China, and was appointed a commissioner in the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission (ch. Meng Zang weiyuanhui), the Chinese government office that dealt with Tibetans. At twenty-nine, he was sent back to Batang with the title of Xikang (Kham) Party Affairs Special Commissioner. Officially, his task was to strengthen the authority of the GMD Party central government by organizing a Xikang GMD Party branch there, but for Chiang Kaishek, this was to be the first step in weakening Liu's control.—Goldstein, Sherap, and Siebenschuh