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Mao in Tibetan Disguise: the Social Truths in Excesses

On February 28th, 2013, Professor Carole McGranahan presented a puzzling story that painted an unusual picture of Mao Zedong in Tibet. McGranahan, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, was part of the Tibetan Studies Student Association Lecture Series sponsored by the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, Department of Central Eurasian Studies, Sinor Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, and the Indiana University Student Association. In this story, told to her by a Tibetan in exile named Sherab, Mao Zedong and Zhu De came to Tibet during the Long March of the Chinese Communists as they retreated from the Kuomintang troops in the 1930s. Passing through Sherab’s hometown of Rombatsa in eastern Tibet, the Communist army was in dire straits.

“Many of the Chinese died of starvation, and they had only grass shoes to wear.”

They received supplies of food from the head of a nearby monastery, Getag Tulku, on the condition that they leave Tibet. From there, Sherab’s story takes an unexpected turn:

“At that time, Mao believed in religion. He and Zhu tried to teach communism, but they were Buddhists. They went to Gedag Tulku for advice, and he did a mo, a divination, for them. He told them not to continue on with the army, but to return to China. They should send the rest of the army north, towards Amdo, but they should return to China wearing Tibetan clothing, disguised as Khampa traders. So they followed his advice, returning to China in Tibetan dress, while the rest of the army went north where most of them were killed.”

This story, first told to Professor McGranahan in 1994, challenged her to look beyond historical veracity to the social truths it brought to the fore.

“Sherap’s story was not a story of Mao Zedong I had ever heard or read before. Mao enters the story in the expected attire of a Chinese communist revolutionary but departs hastily in the clothing of a Khampa, or eastern Tibetan, trader.”

According to conventional histories, Mao and his army never entered Tibetan regions, but rather those of Zhu De and Zhang Guotao did. Yet the story is not entirely without a basis. According to an eyewitness Chinese account cited by McGranahan in her research on the role of Getag Tulku: 

“Getag Tulku hid wounded Communist soldiers after the rest of the troops had left, so that they wouldn’t be captured by the Kuomintang.”

Not only that, quoting the work of anthropologist, Melvyn Goldstein:

“Geda disguised the Communist wounded in Tibetan clothes and treated their wounds.”

The story told by Sherap in exile thus replaced the figure of Zhu or Zhang with that of Mao. This narrative that troubled the conventional history, McGranahan argued, had a larger purpose.

“It felt to me that it wasn’t just that he was getting the story wrong. There was something to the story beyond just ‘oh he just made a mistake’…. What does it mean for a Tibetan outside of Tibet to cloak Mao in Tibetan disguise? What position does this stake in the world?”

“The iconic Mao was the one who claimed that he liberated Tibet, bringing socialism, destroying Buddhism, and causing the Dalai Lama to escape into exile. Sherap’s story of Mao in Tibetan disguise is of a different Mao, of a younger man, one not yet powerful, not yet an enemy of Buddhism. This pre-triumphant Mao does not make many appearances in Tibetan history, instead Mao usually appears at the time of invasion, in the period of the People’s Republic of China, and with his image and his story highly structured by the Chinese state.”

To understand this gap between the histories that become recorded for posterity and the many smaller histories that do not, McGranahan responded to anthropologists Giovanni Da Col and David Graeber’s call for a “return to ethnographic theory” as “a pragmatic inquiry into conceptual disjunctures.”

“By this I understand them [Da Col and Graeber] to mean that ethnographic research is an effort to identify and make sense of those cultural moments and events where things that matter are reconfigured rather than continuing on as always, and that this often takes place in the encounters between different worlds.”

Such a site, where different worlds come together, produced excesses of meanings, “wonders that arise when worlds are happily, productively out of joint.” The bringing of a young, Communist Mao into an encounter with Tibetan Buddhist figures in Sherap’s story was just such a site.

“Sherap’s history of Mao in Tibetan disguise is such a conceptual disjuncture. It is not a counterfactual history. This is not a “what if” sort of history. Sherap narrates Mao into Zhu De’s story of meeting Gedak Tulku and generates, by doing so, an excess of meaning. That is, his narration exceeds historical truths and brings us back to Taussig’s concern with the social being of truth.”

Taussig’s social being of truth is not concerned with determining the authenticity of facts but rather with the politics of interpretation and representation that often governs what is deemed authentic and real.

Posing the question, “How do Tibetans explain and react to the appearance of Mao Zedong in their country and on their altars?” McGranahan explored various expressive mediums and events in which Tibetans placed Mao within a Buddhist framework. These unconventional juxtapositions generated new possibilities for repositioning Tibetans in relation to Mao, and thereby to China. Such frameworks, whether Buddhist or not, were drawn from recognizable Tibetan cultural forms.

“People do not always need to act or speak in such registers of excess. However at the times when they do need them, such spaces and strategies of excess to exceed norms and conventions are available and are culturally recognizable.”

To illustrate her point, McGranahan drew on the works of Tibetan exile artist, Karma Phuntsok. Several of his recent paintings resituated Mao within such culturally recognizable Tibetan Buddhist registers in a way that was jarring in its familiarity that exceeded the expected.

“For at least some Tibetans in exile, making sense of the present involves refiguring and reassembling the past through new and unexpected engagements with Mao Zedong. At first, the irregularities they generate are shocking, then at turn, they become familiar. Mao in deity pose is at first unexpected, but eventually fits Tibetan sensibilities.”

Such refigurings, even if they were not accepted as historical truths, did the work of bringing social truths into a social dialogue.

“It is to know, and to name, and to explain power through familiar cultural practices of storytelling or criticism, or compassion.”

“Sherap tells Mao’s history freed from the constraints of modern, linear history, but unselfconsciously claims its truths. It is unrealized possibility, and it is also what happened. It is a story whose power and whose potential is still unfolding.”