Killing of humans | Allan Au Ka-lun

Published (HKT): 2021.01.31 09:51

There are some books that you know you have to read, but you just need to read them at the right time. The book “Forbidden Memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution” has been in print for more than a decade, and should be read now.

As the book cover says, this book is an untouchable forbidden zone of memory, the first disclosure of Tibet during the Cultural Revolution seen through the eyes of a camera. Tibet is the rocky terrain of ethnic conflicts, and the Cultural Revolution is the crux of the ugly nature of dictatorship. From her father’s belongings, the Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser had found the negatives to hundreds of photographs taken of Tibet during the Cultural Revolution. With the old photos in her hand, she walked in her father’s footsteps again, interviewing those Tibetans in the photos whose faces were overwhelmed with excitement or bewilderment amid the tide of historical events, and reconstructing the tales of the destruction of the snowy Buddha-land.

I yearned for the snow-capped mountains of Tibet and admired the simplicity and sincerity of the Tibetan people. I used to dream of traveling and studying in this vast land, but I have recently realized that I will never be able to visit Tibet again in my life. Besides, the land of snow has changed and there is nothing left to love. The book “Forbidden Memory” takes us on a journey back in time to half a century ago when Tibetan culture was decimated, desecrated and destroyed.

The sky was originally clear and the faith was originally peaceful, but the forms of destruction are always the same. When the flames of the Cultural Revolution spread to Tibet, the state newspaper opened the way with the strike of a gong and photos showed people reading out their “Letter of Determination” and pledging their allegiance on the street. Outside the Jokhang Temple, Buddhist statues, artifacts and other religious objects were thrown out and burned, replaced by giant portraits of Mao Zedong and the communist flags. Slogans are always appealing. The banner read “policy of freedom of religious belief,” but there were always contradictions in the slogans, at the same time, “political unity must be enforced,” declaring full governing authority.

The campaign to “Destroy the Four Olds” was aimed at the very core of Tibetan spirituality. While Buddhist ritual implements, scriptures and sacred texts, Dharma chakras, and stupas ransacked from monasteries were destroyed, there were those who seized on the chaos and stole the gold, silver, and jewels from the Buddhist altars. In the photo, you can see the legendary “Tang willow” which is said to have been brought to Tibet by Princess Wencheng to witness the relationship between the two countries when the Tang Dynasty and the Tubo Kingdom were on an equal footing since ancient times. On the day of the destruction of the Jokhang Temple, the crowd casually broke the willow branches and leaves to start the fire, burning Buddhist scriptures and artifacts. After that, different factions fought each other by throwing pesticides at one another, and the pesticides were scattered on the ancient willow tree. The 1,300-year-old tree perished as a result.

In the photo, lamas have taken off their traditional red cloaks and replaced them with semi-military uniforms, holding the Little Red Book with quotations from Mao in their hands, while the young faces of the Little Red Guards walked down the cloisters of the sutra wheel. Several decades later, Woeser revisited those who had participated in the destruction of the temple. Some became more religious, fearing that after their death, “even vultures would not eat their corpses at their sky burials.” Some monks were remorseful for the rest of their lives and dared not wear their robes again for decades because they felt they were no longer qualified.

After the destruction of the Buddhist artifacts and temple, a new divinity was born. A photo shows portraits of Mao Zedong erected around agricultural lands, serving as scarecrows to chase away birds. When faith is destroyed, it is replaced by another belief, and then it is quickly shattered and replaced by nothingness.

Why is this book called “The Killing” in Chinese? In fact, in Tibetan, the word “revolution” is pronounced like “to kill” in Mandarin, while “culture” is pronounced like “human” in Mandarin. Therefore, when the word “Cultural Revolution” is translated into Tibetan, it sounds like “killing of humans.”

The tragedy of history must be retold over and over again, otherwise it will repeat itself.

(Allan Au Ka-lun, veteran journalist)

Click here for Chinese version

We invite you to join the conversation by submitting columns to our opinion section:

Apple Daily reserves the right to refuse, abridge, alter or edit guest opinion columns for accuracy, length, clarity, and style, and the right to withdraw and withhold columns based on the discretion of our editorial page editors.

The opinions of the writers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial board.


Apple Daily’s all-new English Edition is now available on the mobile app:

To download the latest version,



Or search Appledaily in App Store or Google Play