Initially, I was sceptical when I received Eat the Buddha as a Christmas present. Although Barbara Demick’s previous book, ‘Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’, is one of my favourites, and highly regarded as one of the most eye-opening books on North Korea based on defector testimony (it was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2010), I am not familiar with Tibetan history and culture whatsoever. I had no clue whether Tibet was even considered a country, and I was sure my ignorance of Tibetan issues would hold me back. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have doubted Demick’s journalistic talents.
Like ‘Nothing to Envy’, Demick focuses on microhistories of ordinary people who are interspersed throughout the Tibetan community of Ngaba, whilst seamlessly weaving in big-picture concerns and historical context which affects her chronological narrative on a larger scale. This style of storytelling is why Demick’s books are so gripping and easy to read; her approach revolves around the extraordinary lives of individual Tibetans, born at different stages of the larger story. As she herself puts it, in the notes section at the end of the book, ‘this is primarily a book of oral history stitched together from the recollections of Tibetans from Ngaba’.
Demick was drawn to Ngaba as a focal point due to its restricted nature, which isn’t a surprise after her previous work on the secretive state of North Korea. Ngaba is situated in what the Tibetans call ‘Amdo’, the northeastern part of the ‘Tibetan plateau’, which is now Sichuan province in China; Demick explains that although this does not technically fall within the modern-day Tibet Autonomous Region (created by the Chinese), it is nonetheless considered Tibetan in terms of culture, language, history and religion. After the Chinese Communist Party claimed sovereignty over Tibet in 1950, they stopped foreigners, and even Chinese citizens from other regions, from accessing Ngaba due to the town’s controversial resistance to the Communist government.
Demick’s first microhistory centres on Gonpo, the last princess of the Ngaba royal family (as the capital of the Mei Kingdom), before the brutal Communist takeover of Ngaba in 1958. Referred to by Tibetans as ‘dhulok’, or ‘the collapse of time’, this was an early iteration of Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward which resulted in widespread death and destruction. This early encounter with the Communist party was imprinted in the memories of many young Tibetans from Ngaba which sowed the seeds of discontent and future resistance. Demick also tells the story of Delek, a poor orphan living at the same time as Gonpo, and highlights the similarities and differences of their experience.
Part One of the book follows Gonpo throughout her life, from her last days in Ngaba in 1958 to her assimilation to Chinese customs in Chengdu as a young schoolgirl, to her persecution and exile to Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution for her royal heritage. Though the political tide turns against her time and time again, Gonpo perseveres through unthinkable hardships to survive and arm herself with a formal education, whilst having access to hardly any resources and being denied a university place due to her political background. Part Two, ‘Interregnum’, covers a period of relative tolerance by the government after Mao’s death in autumn 1976. The story follows several individuals, including Norbu and Hua, a young Tibetan-Chinese couple who endure struggles due to their inter-ethnic pairing, Kunga, an entrepreneurial monk, and Tsegyam, a radical Tibetan intellectual.
Part Three focuses on the real controversy of Ngaba: the town’s tradition of self-immolation (setting oneself on fire) as a form of protest. Demick’s narrative follows the story of Dongtuk, and his education as a monk in Kirti Monastery in West Ngaba, along with his friend Phuntsog and half-brother Rinzen Dorjee. His experience chronicles the rise in anti-government sentiment in Ngaba, which was often centred around religious institutions, as a response to Chinese interference with monastic life, such as the introduction of ‘patriotic education’ sessions, increased persecution of monks, and a crackdown on Tibetan language and Buddhist customs, especially their veneration of the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader. The grisly tradition of self-immolation highlights the self-destructive nature of Tibetan resistance; as Demick puts it, ‘they had so thoroughly incorporated the Dalai Lama’s teachings of non-violence that they hurt nobody but themselves’.
Part Four covers from 2014 to the present day, and Demick details her travels within the Tibetan community in exile in Dharamsala, India. This is the home of the Dalai Lama’s exiled government, which is trying to shore up international support for Tibetan issues. In this final section, Demick explains in more detail her journalistic efforts in reporting on Ngaba, including run-ins with Chinese police, her struggles to adapt to poor sanitation and the almost insurmountable differences between rural Tibet and the Western world.
As someone who knew next to nothing about Tibet before reading this book, it is certainly an eye-opening account. Most of all, it provides a multitude of perspectives from several generations of Tibetans living in different circumstances, which Demick weaves together to give the reader as much of a comprehensive view of this isolated area that is currently possible. It is clear from the notes section at the end of the book that Demick has undertaken wide research on Tibetan culture and history, she has worked with several scholars and Tibetans to compile her work, and she has used her journalistic talents to the best of her ability to portray the lives of Tibetan refugees accurately. Like her work on North Korea, Demick focuses on contemporary issues that are still ongoing, and centres normal people as the protagonists of her story to highlight the contrasting realities of our current world. I am eager to read and learn more about Tibet, and I am highly anticipating Demick’s next work.