The dialectics of being sheep
Eli Wallach the Hollywood character actor died this Tuesday at the age of 98. As a boy in Darjeeling I had see him in a number of classic Westerns: How the West was Won, Mackenna’s Gold, The Good the Bad and the Ugly and my favorite The Magnificent Seven. He invariably played the bad guy, but in a funny, nasty, scruffy and hugely memorable fashion. He also had some great lines. In the Good the Bad and the Ugly he is waylaid in his bath by an enemy who talks at length on why he’s going to kill him. Eli Wallach has a pistol hidden in the soapsuds and guns him down. His parting advice “When you have to shoot…Shoot. Don’t talk.
The last film I mentioned, The Magnificent Seven, is an underrated classic. It is perhaps not as monumental a film as Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, from which it was re-made, but it has one profound line of dialogue where the Mexican bandit chief, Calvera, played by Eli Wallach, explains to Chris (Yul Brynner) the leader of the “Seven” defending the Mexican village, why he robs peasants: “If God had not meant them to be sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”
Which brought to mind a “sheep” moment in modern Tibetan history.
All Tibetans have heard the story of how when the Chinese invaded in October 1950 and the cabinet secretary in Lhasa was informed of this by radio from Army HQ at Chamdo, he is said to have replied that the kashag could not be disturbed as they were having their annual party (or picnic). Okay, this is not good, but then I suppose nobody likes to bust up a good party. There is actually another event, leading up to this exchange, which is far more disgraceful, and which clearly reveals the sheep mentality endemic within much of the Tibetan leadership then.
None of the Tibetan frontline units at the Drichu river had radios, so the first news of the long-feared Chinese invasion arrived at Chamdo military headquarters only five days after the first attack. The exhausted army messenger from General Karchung rode into the residency of the Governor-General just before midnight on the 11th of October. Ngapo immediately informed the kashag in Lhasa. On the 12th evening when Radio Lhasa went on air at 5 p.m. with the news in English, Tibetan and Chinese, there was no mention of the invasion. Robert Ford, our chief radio-operator and other Tibetan officials at Chamdo who were waiting anxiously for the announcement, were stunned and dismayed. The next day and the day after that there was still dead silence from Radio Lhasa. Ford found it difficult to comprehend the Tibetan government’s silence, and later in his book Captured in Tibet (1957) wrote:
The actions of the Lhasa government would have been easier to understand if it had intended to offer only a token resistance to the Chinese and then sue for peace, but it was not doing anything of the kind. The resistance was real … there was never any question of surrender. I could only think it was a matter of habit. The Lhasa government was so used to the policy of saying nothing that might offend or provoke the Chinese that it kept it up after provocation had become irrelevant. It was still trying to avert a war that had already broken out.
If you think that’s bad in terms of sheep-like behavior, then how about the mentality of our leadership now, pretending that nothing terrible has really happened in the last sixty five years. That the Chinese are “our brothers and sisters”, and that all we have to do is not to raise the issue of Tibetan independence or democracy, prohibit all exile groups and organizations from protesting against Beijing, and then China will surely come around to inviting us for another round of talks (the 26th?) in Beijing, or at least permit His Holiness go on a pilgrimage to Wutai Shan, to which end so many exile officials and Chinese intellectual friends are working their fingers to the bone.
This is worse than sheep behavior, this is dead sheep behavior. China’s greatest modern writer, Lu Xun, who wrote essay after essay bemoaning the sheep-like nature of the Chinese people, pointed out in one zawen that there was perhaps a way that even such a stubborn character trait could be fundamentally altered:
You tell me ‘sheep will always be sheep. What else can they do but obediently walk in line to the slaughterhouse? As to the pigs, which have to be dragged, which jump squeal, and try to run away, in the end they still cannot escape their fate. Why such desperate efforts? Is it not a sheer waste of energy?’ But this is to say that even when faced with death, one should behave like sheep; thus the world will be in peace, and everyone will be spared much trouble. Very well, this is perhaps an excellent solution. However, have you ever considered wild boars? With their tusks they can force even experienced hunters to keep at a distance. Actually all that an ordinary pig needs to do is run away from the sty where the swineherd was keeping it locked, and reach the forest – and in no time it will grow such tusks.
It is time for all Tibetans living in the free world to start grow tusks – or something else. In the last couple of years nearly everyone I know in the exile community (including inji supporters) seem to have crawled into their personal funk holes, nervous of being accused of “hurting the feelings of the Dalai Lama”, or “causing him to live only to the age of 108 and not 113 as he had intended” (Penpa Tsering), or of being a secret Shugden propitiator. I personally live in relative peace and seclusion in the mountains of Tennessee so it would be wrong of me to tell my friends, who probably live cheek by jowl with maroon ayatollahs and fundamentalist yahoos, what they should or should not do. This task would perhaps be better left to the inimitable Lu Xun:
“If there are still men who really want to live in this world, they should dare to speak out, to laugh, to cry, to be angry, to accuse, to fight – that they may at least cleanse this accursed place of its accursed atmosphere!”