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Disruptive Narratives: The Memory and Legacy of Tibetan Participation in the Cultural Revolution in Gyelthang

10/13/2023 @ 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm

Speaker: Dáša Pejchar Mortensen, Assistant Professor of History, Davidson College

Moderator: Palden Gyal, PhD Candidate, Dept of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University

Thousands of villagers in Gyelthang in Southeast Kham participated in burning Buddhist texts, destroying the town’s central monastery, and denouncing local religious and political leaders during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Chinese official historical accounts generally downplay the extent of Tibetan involvement in the Cultural Revolution, but many elderly Tibetans’ oral narratives offer a very different perspective on this traumatic period of history. Shame, anger, lament, and resignation underpin much of the language elderly Tibetans use today in interviews when reflecting on what took place in Gyelthang nearly six decades ago. Yet these emotions remain largely unacknowledged in print. Mao-era politics in Gyelthang cannot be fully understood by relying only on written documents, in part because most of what was voiced between non-elite and non-state agents in this region was never written down. The predominance of Party and state perspectives in written sources contributes to this limited understanding. Given the Chinese state’s tight control over the historical archives—and because the archival sources are themselves only part of the picture—oral sources are critical to understanding how and why Tibetans participated in the Cultural Revolution. This paper discusses the ethical dilemmas and methodological challenges that I faced between 2012-2018 while conducting interviews with Tibetan villagers, teachers, Communist Party officials, and monks about the Mao era. It also raises broader questions about voice, authority, orality, memory, and agency, and addresses the epistemological hurdles involved in evaluating and interpreting oral narratives about the Cultural Revolution.

Speaker’s Bio: Dáša Pejchar Mortensen is an Assistant Professor of History at Davidson College. Her research focuses on ethnic politics, memory, nationalism, and the construction of history in southeastern Tibet under Chinese Communist Party rule. She is currently revising a book manuscript about the twentieth-century history of Gyelthang, a multi-ethnic region in southeastern Kham. Between 2006-2020, she spent twenty-six months conducting oral history, ethnographic, and archival research in Gyelthang. In her manuscript, to contextualize oral sources and gain insight into how historical memory has been codified in written texts, Mortensen analyzes oral narratives alongside the perspectives recorded in local Chinese Communist Party publications in Gyelthang. These publications, which contain fragmented data about the Cultural Revolution, include the first county and prefectural gazetteers and Party newsletters compiled in Gyelthang during the Communist era. They also include local “cultural and historical materials” (wenshi ziliao), draft copies of unpublished Party histories of the area, and other internally circulated reports. Other sources include elementary and middle school textbooks published in Gyelthang during the Cultural Revolution, Gyelthang histories penned by Tibetan scholars in exile, and travel accounts written by foreign missionaries, researchers, and explorers, who traveled to Kham in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Mortensen has published book chapters in the edited volumes, Frontier Tibet: Patterns of Change in the Sino-Tibetan Borderlands and Conflicting Memories: Tibetan History under Mao Retold. She regularly teaches courses at Davidson College on Memory and Identity in the People’s Republic of China, Student Protests in China, War and Post-War Memory in Asia, and the modern history of Gender and Sexuality in Japan.

This event is hosted by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and co-sponsored by the Modern Tibetan Studies Program.


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Contact Information

Julie Kwan