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Funeral Games

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Saturday, Jul 10, 2010
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Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. That and all the recent news from North Korea, especially the rumour that “dear leader” (Kim Jong-Il) was seriously ill, brought back memories of the time I was editor of the Tibetan language newspaper MANGTSO in Dharamshala in 1995 when “dear leader’s” father “Great Leader” (Kim Il-Sung) died and I had to scribble a quick report. Inevitably I came out with something way too extravagant and long for our small paper. The other editors, Lhasang Tsering la and Tashi Tsering la in their editorial wisdom replaced it with a brief report in the news round-up column. My original piece is now, fifteen years later, admittedly not du jour, but the reader can have it for whatever entertainment value it might have retained.

Few pleasures can beat the funeral of someone you loathe. It is, I admit, not a very Buddhist sentiment, but I think karma (the hardcore, not the new age version) will, this once, overlook my rancor, when I add that the someone in question is the late Kim Il-sung.

Time has softened the image of this genuine monster, who modeled himself on Mao Zedong. Starting off as a Stalin protégé, Kim along with Pol Pot, became one of the most enthusiastic and successful practitioners of Mao’s theories of social engineering. In essence, this was to destroy or mutate everyone who presumed to individual aspirations, and bring society to the condition of a “blank sheet of paper” on which the leader could then brush-stroke in his new concept of a classless society. Kim’s deeds are not as well known as those of Pol Pot, primarily as Kim, his cronies and progeny have managed to hold on to power in the same way as the Chinese Communist Party has done.

Like Mao’s monumental mass murders, Kim’s crimes will probably be played down and gradually forgotten in the interests of international trade and diplomacy. What does it matter that Mao probably slaughtered more people in peace time than Stalin and Hitler put together? The victims were Chinese (and Tibetans), who don’t really feel pain the way a white man does, or understand or appreciate abstract concepts like freedom and democracy. Look at Hong Kong. An average person there would rather have a Mercedes than be free of Communist Chinese rule. But that’s all by the by.

Kim’s enthusiasm for Chairman Mao and his teachings seemed boundless. In the late sixties and seventies “The Great Leader” even attempted to physically look like “The Great Helmsman” and managed as well as anyone possibly could, short of undergoing plastic surgery. Bearing in mind that Kim had the considerable disadvantage of nowhere resembling Mao in the first place, it was quite the coup de théâtre.

I saw Kim’s funeral on TV. What I found particularly hilarious was the sight of North Korean marshals and generals — hundreds of them — beating their breasts in frenzied mourning, and flinging themselves before the colossal statue of the “Great Leader” in the main square in Pyongyang. Till then I had assumed that “beating one’s breast” was merely a figure of speech. All those North Korean military leader had their chest completely covered, à la Marshall Zhukov or Timoshenko, with rows upon rows, én echelon, of medals and other decorations. I suppose there must have been a lot of bruised knuckles after that funeral.

How genuine was all that display of grief? When someone, no matter how evil, has been your absolute leader, role-model, father-figure, teacher, bogeyman and God, continuously for over forty years, it is more than probable that you would succumb to some degree of trauma on his death. Genuine sadness? I think not.

Tibetans who were in Tibet at the time of Mao’s death (1976) told me that even before fully absorbing the implications of the news, their overriding concern was not to reveal their feelings to those immediately around them. Decades of practice had, of course, made them skilled at this. But now and then someone would slip up. A friend of mine from Lhasa (who is still there in an official position of some consequence, so no names will be revealed) told me that his work unit had to stand at attention, out in the sun for a full day, as a mark of respect for the departed Chairman. They stood lined up in formation. Just in front of my friend was someone with a large bald patch on the crown of his head. No hats or caps were permitted, of course. As the fierce Tibetan sun got higher and stronger, the back of the bald man’s head began to redden, and beads of sweat started to trickle down. My informant was standing alongside a friend of his who on noticing the discomfort of the person before them, started to go into a fit of giggles. This affected my informant too, who desperately tried to control himself. His friend unfortunately lacked similar resolve, for after a desperate struggle he burst out in a fit of laughter. He got eight years of “Reform through Labour”.

Another friend of mine, a former incarnate lama now living in New York, told me this story. As an ex-prisoner he was part of a probationary labour unit (laeme rukha) in a village outside Lhasa. Their team leader was an older woman, who was a real stakhanovite (Ch. jijifenzi), or hurtsunba as they are known in Tibet. Although no better off than the other wretched ex-prisoners in the unit, she was an absolute enthusiast for the party-line. This was in the period following the Cultural Revolution when everyone in the PRC had been reduced, mentally and physically, to near yidak (preta) state and Tibet was in the grip of a second famine. The work team heard the news of Mao’s death over the loudspeakers when they were out in the fields. Everyone responded predictably, doffing their caps, lowering their heads, and keeping their thoughts to themselves. Except for the hurtsunba.

She started off predictably, weeping and wailing loudly. Gradually she worked herself up into a hysterical frenzy, screaming and shrieking at the top of her voice, and climaxing in a total collapse. She then lay spreadeagled on the ground, foaming at the mouth, only an occasional convulsion or moan indicating that she had not completely left this world. Her co-workers, including the Lama, carried her to her bare hut in the village and laid her on her bed. One of them pointed out that her “wind” condition (Tibetans believe that an imbalance in the “wind humour” or loong is the cause of hysteria) had to be lowered. Someone else volunteered the traditional cure for “wind imbalance” — massaging the temples (Tib. yama) of the head with butter. The supine hurtsunpa paused a moment in her moaning. Raising her head she wailed “There is no butter in this house”.

* * *

*The title refers to the ancient Etruscan and later Roman practice of holding lavish gladiatorial and wild beast games (where many prisoners were slaughtered) as a funeral rite to honor a dead leader or dignitary.

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