My Tibetan Childhood: When Ice Shattered Stone

by Naktsang Nulo

Summary Abstract

By Constantine Lignos

My Tibetan Childhood, whose title in Tibetan directly translates to “The Joys and Sorrows of the Boy from Nags tshang” (nags tshang zhi lu’i skyid sdug), is a semi-autobiographical account of Naktsang Nolu’s upbringing in rural Amdo, Tibet, and subsequent capture by the Chinese armed forces in 1958-1959 while en route to Lhasa with his father, brother, and clansmen and women. The piece, written originally in eighty-eight short chapters, recounts episodes from Nulo’s life with startling accuracy: from day-to-day housekeeping, to the early death of his mother, to his clan’s first encounter with Chinese forces, to his horrifying recollection of death and disease in a Chinese prison. Nulo’s work, bravely written without regard for any potential retaliation by the CCP, serves as a chilling first-person account of a period of intense change as Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution infiltrated the Tibetan plateau.

Naktsang Nulo’s My Tibetan Childhood: When Ice Shattered Stone

Even the most stoic heart would struggle to remain intact while reading Naktsang Nulo’s powerful autobiography, My Tibetan Childhood: When Ice Shattered Stone. “I was born during an exceptional historical period,” Nulo humbly writes in the author’s preface. “Perhaps because of my karma, or the changing times, I experienced and witnessed much suffering.”[1] This understatement does little to prepare the reader for the alternating highs and lows of thrilling excitement and devastating disappointment that make reading this piece an engaging and enlightening adventure bound to tangle your heart strings until they are inextricably knotted. For the reader to whom Tibet is the mystical and mythical Shangri La, My Tibetan Childhood serves as a rude awakening to the frightening reality of ethnic conflict in the Himalayas. For the reader more acquainted with the Tibetan plight, this text is a refreshingly honest and breathtakingly scary primary account of the bloody Cultural Revolution as it unfolded in the nomadic grasslands of Northeastern Tibet. For all, turning the cover of this book, minimally adorned with a seemingly innocent photograph of the author and his brother dressed in uniform on their first day at their Chinese middle school—a photo that will, at the end of the text, don a new meaning—is a call to a very simple action, one Nulo takes very seriously: remembering.
“It is difficult to write history,” Nulo says, “and even more difficult to write one’s own history, especially if it incorporates the joys and sorrows of one’s own lifetime.”[2] My Tibetan Childhood, whose Tibetan title, nags tshang zhi lu’i skyid sdug, literally translates to The Joys and Sorrows of the Boy from Naktsang, begins with a short foreword by the 14th Dalai Lama; a more in-depth foreword by Ralph Litzinger, an Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University who focuses on socialism in China; an introduction by Robert Barnett, the director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University; and the translators’ note, a curatorial outline noting the translation schemes and reason for omissions from this edition of the text. Each of these pieces help situate the reader, especially one for whom this may be a first exposure to Tibet, in the world of the text and the world of post-1950’s Tibetan history at large. Additionally, these pieces give Western readers unacquainted with nomadic life a sense of what living in the remote grasslands of the region is like. The text also contains numerous photographs of the Tibetan grasslands and monastic communities in which Nulo resides to further help the reader get a sense of the landscape of Tibet.
In the author’s preface, one finds a sort of epilogue that, for one reason or another, is placed just before the prelude text of the autobiography, but would be much more meaningful if situated as a proper epilogue at the end of the text. In it, Nulo gives a quick overview of his life: born on the fifteenth day of the eighth Tibetan month in the year of the Earth Marmot in Machu County in Gansu Province, located in the Amdo region of Northeastern Tibet. In 1959, he attended Chumarleb Nationalities Middle School in present-day Qinghai Province and graduated from Jyekundo Normal School in 1964. The next year, he entered Tsongun Nationalities University before becoming a teacher at his middle school alma mater. In 1971, he became a police officer and, in 1979, deputy chief judge in the Chumarleb County prison. He went on to study in the CCP school before being appointed the deputy leader of Chumarleb County where, some years later, he collected enough money to construct a Buddhist institute. Now, he is the director of the Qinghai nationalities folk research team and says, “I am a son of the Tibetan people. If something is for the benefit of the Tibetan people, I will do it to the best of my ability…”[3] It is without doubt that writing the story of his childhood experiences at a time when Tibet was entering the hands of Mao Zedong was important to Nulo, not only for himself, but for future generations of Tibetans, both those within the Tibet Autonomous Region and other parts of China, and those growing up in exile.
Part one, “Born on the Wide Tibetan Grasslands”, introduces the reader to various generations of the Naktsang family, noting how Nulo’s father and mother met and were married. Importantly, this is all framed as a conversation between a very young Nulo and his aunt and uncle with whom he is living. The little Nulo repeatedly asks his aunt what happened to his mother who, at the start of the piece, is already passed. Reluctantly, she tells him of his mother’s death, telling him that, as a baby, Nulo would not stop crying. Worried for his spiritual health, his father takes him to the nearby Madey Chugama Tashi Chulong Monastery—his mother is sick in bed—to be put under the spiritual protection of the monks and deities there; however, his mother sneaks out after they have gone and walks to the monastery. Shortly after, her illness worsens and she passes away in her family’s arms. His mother’s death, and the recollection of the details of her sky burial, would become a recurring theme in Nulo’s life as he takes to different women, both within the family and without, and looks to them for their maternal care, though his mother’s passing also makes Nulo and his brother, Japey, very independent. Later in part one, Nulo also loses his grandfather: “Now only my dear father, my brother Japey, and I were left in the family.”[4]
Part two, “A Childhood with Herdsmen, Bandits, and Monks”, gives the reader a sense of day-to-day life in Amdo for a young Tibetan child. For example, a young Nulo steals torma, sees his first wild dog, cares for a foal, adopts a little black puppy, and is gifted a lamb to look after on his own. They are mostly refreshing scenes of a young child’s unbridled joy at what will soon be the very simple things in nomadic life. Part three, “By Yak Caravan to the Holy City of Lhasa”, sees the young Nulo and his brother begin a pilgrimage to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, with their father. It is through the descriptions of their pilgrimage to Lhasa that one gets such a clear sense of nomadic life and the politics of chiefdoms and familial lineages—visiting “sworn friends”, avoiding enemy territory, fighting wild animals. Most notably, though, in part three, the caravan first encounters the Chinese army. It is on the lands of the Wujud chiefdom, in Sewo Jyachen Sumdo, that pilgrims were required to get their travel authorization from the Chinese soldiers and Wujud chief while handing over any guns and ammunition. Finding it nearly impossible to traverse wild Tibetan grasslands without weaponry, the pilgrims surround the Wujud and Chinese camp, outnumbering them significantly, and confiscate their weapons and take hostages. The pilgrims seek out the Wujud chief and make amends, returning their weapons and freeing their hostages, forming an alliance with the Wujud and obtaining their required travel permits.
Eventually, the pilgrims make it to Lhasa and the young Nulo gets to see the Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery, the Potala Palace, Samye Monastery, Ganden Monastery, and Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace where Nulo obtains an audience with His Holiness. Nulo tells the reader about Lhasa in a way that fills one’s heart with as much joy as one can imagine Nulo feels seeing the big city for the first time, celebrating Losar, the Tibetan new year, with a traditional medzagad, or fire teapot ceremony.[5] Shortly thereafter, Nulo and his family leave Lhasa and go to Labrang Monastery on pilgrimage to see the Tenth Panchen Lama. While at Labrang, the family sees a movie that contains scenes of many soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). After the film, Nulo notices a number of PLA soldiers lining the streets of Labrang, thinking, “They are like the soldiers in the movie,” to which his father responds eerily, “No, they aren’t…that movie was Chinese magic—a fairy tale”[6]: a bleak foreshadowing of the events yet to come in part four, “Witness to Massacre on our Tragic Journey Through Desolate Places”.
Upon returning to Madey Chugama, Nulo hears everyone talking about a “time of great changes” or “age of revolution”[7]. It seems as though, before he even has time to fathom what this could possibly mean, his village and the monastery are taken over by Chinese troops and his father enlisted in the army, though he hides in his tent to avoid serving. In one particularly harrowing passage, Nulo recalls the Chinese soldiers forcing the local Tibetans to destroy their monastery themselves by forcing them into thinking that the monastery is unnecessary. While some resist the Chinese and are beat, others, in a fit of fear, begin throwing statues and relics and burning scriptures. “This ‘time of revolution’,” Nulo says, “had unleashed a cruelty that we were unable to oppose.”[8] Thinking that Lhasa may, in fact, be safer than rural Tibet, Nulo’s family and a number of other local Tibetans decide the escape the village in the veil of darkness. As they make their way to Lhasa they find that every chiefdom has surrendered to the Chinese and each monastery destroyed, making it more and more difficult to get to Lhasa unnoticed. Numerous times, the caravan is spotted by the Chinese but the group is able to ward off the army and continue on their trek.
In one particularly difficult battle, the caravan encounters countless Chinese soldiers who shoot at them from afar, grazing Nulo’s head with a bullet. In an effort to protect him, Nulo’s father drags him over a hill where he will be safe. Nulo’s father mounts his horse and charges at the Chinese but is taken down by a Chinese soldier who, from the ground, shoots his horse. Nulo’s father falls to the ground, holding the bullet wound in his stomach. The Chinese, for the most part, stop shooting and begin to approach the caravan. Recognizing that this is the end of his life, Nulo’s father bids the caravan to surrender to the Chinese and tell them that he was their chief so the Chinese go easy on them. Nulo recalls, “As the stars grew brighter in the sky, my father’s breath left his body, and he slowly departed, leaving my brother and me behind. He left for the realms of peace, never to return to this world..Later I came to know that the day of our destruction was the ninth day of September 1958 by the Western calendar.”[9] With the death of his father, Nulo begins part five, “Torture and Imprisonment, Starvation and Survival”, by far the most appalling and angering part of the book, a section that is impossible to neatly summarize.
Nulo, his brother, and those still left in the group are taken by the Chinese to a Tibetan prison camp. While the Chinese offer to bring Nulo and his brother, the youngest in the group by far, to a Chinese school instead of the prison, the boys insist on staying with their companions. The children, along with their companions, are tortured by the Chinese army in an effort to glean who the real chief of the caravan was. They are sent to Chumarleb prison in Chumarleb County where they are forced to live in small underground rooms that were “perhaps wide enough to allow eight or nine people to sit side by side, but long enough to allow maybe 50 people to sit in the same way. There were about 360 prisoners jammed in there, and in the center there were three wooden pails for the prisoners to defecate and urinate in.”[10] Dead prisoners are only occasionally removed the rooms, and only twice a day the prisoners are taken to a latrine dug into the side of a mountain where they are beat with a stick just as they begin to urinate or defecate. Nulo and his brother are eventually taken from the prison and sent to the “Joyful Home” school where, at first, they are properly fed until a devastating famine forces people to eat the leather from their yak saddles and kills the majority of students and teachers. Nulo and his brother, Japey, are able to survive the famine using the skills they learned as nomads, like killing a calf, retrieving a dead yak, et cetera. Eventually, the reminding children are sent to a Chinese school built in Chumarleb where Nulo remains for many years. Of this Nulo says, “If my father could only see Jabey and me enjoying such happiness, he would be content.”[11] Nulo ends his autobiography with a sort of epilogue where he says that he and his brother are grown up now and able to practice Buddhism. “We are also certain that we will have the chance to return to our native land, and all our relatives will greet us. ‘How wonderful that the Naktsang boys have returned to their native land alive,’ they will say. My dearest hope is that this day will come.”[12]

[1] Naktsang Nulo, My Tibetan Childhood: When Ice Shattered Stone, trans. Angus Cargill and Sonam Lhamo (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 1.
[2] My Tibetan Childhood, 4.
[3] My Tibetan Childhood, 7-8.
[4] My Tibetan Childhood, 39.
[5] My Tibetan Childhood, 116.
[6] My Tibetan Childhood, 128.
[7] My Tibetan Childhood, 134.
[8] My Tibetan Childhood, 143.
[9] My Tibetan Childhood, 180-181.
[10] My Tibetan Childhood, 209.
[11] My Tibetan Childhood, 268.
[12] Ibid.