Growing Up Chinese:
Tsering Woeser was born in Lhasa, Tibet, but grew up in Sichuan province and was educated in Chinese—she speaks Tibetan but never learned to read and write in her native language. Her parents were Tibetan, but they were also members of the Chinese Communist Party. Her father was a commander in the People’s Liberation Army, and she was taught to defer to the Party always. In a 2008 interview with Jill Drew of The Washington Post
, she confessed “I used to believe the army came to Tibet to set Tibetans free.” Woeser earned a degree in Chinese literature at the Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu and emerged from university as an apolitical poet of the “art for art’s sake” school. In the same interview with Jill Drew, she said of her young self, “My way of thinking was not based on reality. All I wanted to do was write poems.”
Return to Tibet:
After college, Woeser moved back to Lhasa to take up a position with the state-supported Chinese-language literary journal Tibetan Literature. In 1999 she published a collection of poems, Xizang Zai Shang (Tibet Above). Living in Lhasa, she was exploring her Tibetan identity, developing her personal connections to Buddhism and Tibetan culture—and expressing those connections in lyric and metaphor. Witnessing the strict Chinese control of speech and religion in Tibet, she became steadily more and more politicized and more committed to documenting the truth of daily Tibetan experience in her writing. Her next book, a prose collection published in Guangzhou in 2003, Xizang Biji (Notes on Tibet), was much more direct in its treatment of the interactions between Chinese and Tibetans—very soon after publication it was withdrawn, and then banned, for “political errors.” When she would not disavow what she had written, Woeser lost her job, her income and her pension.
Documenting Tibetan Struggles from Beijing:
Woeser was at work on a collection of interviews for a history of Tibetan experiences during the Cultural Revolution when she was fired from the Lhasa literary journal and moved to Beijing. She married dissident Chinese writer Wang Lixiong and decided that if her books were banned in China, she would publish them elsewhere—so the book on the Cultural Revolution was printed in Taiwan, illustrated with photographs taken by her soldier father. She was told not to write about Tibet, but has devoted her blog postings almost exclusively to Tibetan stories, based on information from her many friends and contacts inside Tibet, and she has become one of the only Tibetan voices that is regularly heard in the outside world. High Peaks Pure Earth
has posted many of her blog postings and recent poems in English translation.
The Poet as Witness:
Woeser was a poet before she became a political commentator, and she remains a poet first and foremost. The Spring 2012 issue of Cerise Press
has a fascinating interview particularly focused on her life as a poet, her influences and inspirations: “An Eye from History and Reality—Woeser and the Story of Tibet
,” written with Dechen Pemba. Near the interview’s end, when asked if she misses writing poems amid all the blog posts and political essays she has produced in recent years, she offers these thoughts about poetry’s place in her life and the world:
“I’ve always believed I’m a poet. To a certain extent, I’ve always been writing poems. Regardless of whether prose, hybrid essay or novel, I always believe it to be poetry. In Chinese language, the character ‘poetry’ (诗) is composed of ‘speech’ (言) and ‘temple’ (寺). This also means that a poet is an orator, an orator who, at the same time, has a mission, upholds an aesthetic, and shares religious sentiments. Thus, to be a poet also means to be a witness, a memorist, so as to become an orator of authority.”
Woeser’s Poems in English: