A Brahamic faiths have a marked tendency for destroying the older culture of the new lands into which they spread. After spreading into Europe Christianity nearly finished off the Greco-Roman Pagan culture of Europe. A dark age of nearly one thousand years descended on Christianized Europe when Europeans lost touch with Greek philosophical texts and were ashamed of their Pagan ancestry. The Dark Age lifted with the renaissance when they re-discovered their ancestral Greco-Roman writings on Science, Philosophy, Politics, Arts etc. Europe of today is proud of its Pagan ancestral heritage as much as of Christianity. (This interpretation of the Dark Age, being attributed wholly to advent of Christianity in Europe is entirely mine. Is there a lesson for Muslims and Christians of India in this?). Communism in China showed a marked inclination for destroying the older culture. In 1966 China was sent into a spin by the ?great helmsman? (read Prophet) Mao, who wasn'tsatisfied anymore with a crypto-religion. He wanted a full-fledged religion and launched the Cultural Revolution. Many symbols of the old culture, such as palaces, temples were partially or fully destroyed. In Tibet the Ganden monastery and the entire monastic city were completely destroyed (Richard 1991, p.58, 59). Richard gives a photo of the destroyed monastery (ibid, plate 11). Mao Zedong'sphotos were installed in Buddha temples and monasteries.
Mao campaigned against ?four olds?: Old Culture, old Thinking, old Ideas and old habits. He made intemperate and fanatical statements for uprooting these, ?If you make a mistake, there is no point in trying to correct it in piecemeal fashion, what you need to do is to wipe it out completely and create a new culture.?
What resulted was widespread destruction of cultural symbols all over China. This once again resembles the iconoclasm of the Abrahamic faiths which punctuates European and West Asian history. For instance, reformation and the rise of Protestant Christianity (Lutheran and Calvinist) saw North Europe's(Germany, Denmark, Scotland etc) churches being denuded of all idols and paintings. The Church of England, the moderate among the extremists, removed the idols from the altar but allowed it elsewhere in the church premises. The Catholic church, of course, worships a Christ statue installed on the altar. (That is why N. Europe is so barren in art forms. Most of Europe'sfamous classical sculptors and painters are from the Catholic countries of Italy, France and Spain.) I should also refer to the destruction of Inca culture and symbols in South America by the Catholics, and Buddhist culture and symbols in Afghanistan by the Muslims. The latest to bite the dust were the giant Buddha statues, curved on the mountain side, of Bamyan valley of Afghanistan (February-March 2001) and Swat valley of North West Frontier Province of Pakistan (November 2008). These works of art, declared World Heritage by the UN, were destroyed with the help of modern explosive technology by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and a local Mullah regime of same persuasion in Swat.
Tsering Shakya of the School of Oriental & African Studies, London, says (Fitzherbert 2001) ?Maoists thought traditional symbols and religious ideology was hampering progress in Tibet. So during the Cultural Revolution there was destruction of symbols in private houses , monasteries, temples, village prayer halls etc.?
Alberto Moravia, a Nobel laureate in literature and Leftist thinker of Italy (whose books were banned by the Fascist authorities during the 2nd World War and later put in the ?Index? by the Roman Catholic Church) traveled through China at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Moravia (1969, p.36 – 37) describes the Red book of Mao quotations as ?a substitute for conscience and at the same time the axis of a system of ritual behaviour?.. The book is carried around to show that one has it; thus we have demonstration?It is waved in the air at meetings, parades and gatherings; thus we have exultation of the book, or threat and challenge by means of the book. It is opened and glanced at, and thus we have consultation. It is read aloud in answer to someone, and thus we have citation, communication. Closed it is caressed with the hand or pressed to the heart, and thus we have affection. It is held in the hand during dances, songs, propaganda recitals, and thus we have symbolisation.?
Moravia depicts a pattern of individual, group and crowd behaviour, in the above passage, in which the little Red book plays a pivotal role. He stops short of calling it a holy book. But it is only a religious holy book that is caressed with the hand and pressed to the heart. The Red guards, about 50 millions of them, mostly youth in their teens, created a havoc and disruption in the society, and all that – ironically – in a pathetic search for conformity and one-dimensional order. Moravia even finds similarity (p. 49, ibid) with the Children'sCrusade in 1212, in which thousands of over enthusiastic children from Germany and France set out to liberate Jerusalem from the infidels (Muslims), with most of them ending up in captivity and slavery in North Africa. The Cultural Revolution was a greater disaster on a grander scale for the whole country – anyone of any importance in China now agrees both in public and private, all recent travelers report this, Richard (1991) included. There were destruction and plunder of the Buddhist temples and monasteries in the Sichuan province, bordering Tibet but populated by a mix of Tibetan and Han Chinese of strong Buddhist persuasion. Richard (1991, p.32) describes the Jin Ding (golden summit) temple at the height of 9700 feet as the only one.
??.. that had not suffered the damage that had been wrought on others lower down from the depredations of the Red Guards?.
For Tibet, however, the havoc let loose by the Red Guards was unmitigated. The Chinese admit that excesses were committed. But only that far and no further. Sudden removal of Hu Yaobang from office in 1987 is attributed to his expressing regret for ?misrule? in Tibet (ibid, p. 44). The Jokhang, the central cathedral in Lhasa is the most important religious building of Tibetan Buddhism. The Red Guards had taken it over during the Cultural Revolution and converted it into barracks, complete with a pigsty, the source of the Han'sfavourite food, pork. This was a deliberate insult by way of desecrating the religious nerve centre of the Tibetan people. After the ?excesses? of the Cultural Revolution the Jokhang again started attracting large crowds, not only of Tibetans but also a sprinkling of Han settlers in Tibet. In the whole of Tibet monasteries have been reduced from 1600 to perhaps 20, the exact figures are uncertain. The number of monks have again started to pick up, but they no longer have any control over secular affairs, and that has sounded the death knell for the Tibetan language and its alphabetical system of writing, brought over by Buddhist monks from India. As is the wont of the Abrahamic faiths (see Ghosh 1994, 1997, 1999) here again is an attack on language and script by a crypto-religion of the same family. In all important towns of Tibet the Han form a large part of the populace, often about 50 percent. They have scant regard for the Tibetan language. Till 1987 Tibetan had no place in any official and administrative work, that is, a period of 28 years of banishment. The knowledge of Chinese is essential for progress in this far from classless society. In 1987 Tibetan was once again declared to be the official language. Richard found only one Tibetan University and no educational infrastructure other than Chinese language schools. This means that the Tibetans either learn Chinese characters or remain illiterate, the monasteries being shut off from their traditional role of spreading education. Declaring Tibetan to be the official language is largely cosmetic. We recall that the Christian conquerors of South America destroyed the Inca language and writing system. The Muslim conquerors of Persia could not finish the language but did away with the pre-Islamic books, script and writing system. The Communist conquerors of Tibet attempted a similar feat but now have backed off. A few years ago I thought that the Tibetan language has a 50 per cent chance of survival. Now it seems that Chinese Communism is entering a more fanatical phase and Tibetan language would die a slow un-noticed unsung death in the long run, unless there is a political change.
What does all this have to do with China'sforeign policy, particularly vis-a-vis India ? The answer is, a great deal. Before the Cultural Revolution, China had made a reasonable offer for border settlement which India, still smarting from the military defeat of 1962, unwisely declined. During the Cultural Revolution no negotiations took place. The excesses of the revolution stopped at the end of the 1970s. But the feeling among China'sCommunist elite that Buddhism is a competitor faith persisted well into the 1980s. (In fact it is still around). That is when India'sPrime Minister Rajiv Gandhi offered to settle along the previous formula of the 1960s suggested by the Chinese themselves. This time round it was rejected out of hand. China rescinded her earlier implicit recognition of the McMahon line and made claims on Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. I suspect this volta-face took place because China'sCommunists regard India as the source spring of the rival faith, Buddhism. Additionally of course India keeps harbouring the Government-in-exile of Dalai Lama, even if on humanitarian grounds. The hostile posture to India is really for China'sdomestic consumption, to maintain a propaganda line against resurgent Buddhism, to create an atmosphere in which pilgrim travel to Buddhist shrines in India can be discouraged. In the first flush of proselytizing Communism in the 1950s, China had joined hands with all manners of tribal separatists in India'sNorth East, supplied them arms and other wherewithal, instigated Maoists of CPI(ML) to join hands with the separatists. In the post Cultural Revolution phase, fear of revival of Buddhism in China and the presence of the Dalai Lama in India drove China into a Pakistani embrace.
Richard (1991, p.52) mentions a few saving graces – Zhou En Lai, then Prime Minister of China intervened directly to stop the destruction of Potala, Dalai Lama'sresidential palace in Lhasa, a unique piece of architecture. I am sure there were others like Zhou who exerted quiet behind-the-scene influence to save many an art form. The Ramoche, Lhasa'ssecond temple, which traditionally housed the deity of Shakyamuni Buddha, was gutted and looted during the Cultural Revolution and its deity was supposed to have been destroyed. Recently half of the statue was found in a rubbish pit in Lhasa; the other half was saved from being melted for scrap metal in a foundry in Beijing. The two halves have been united and re-installed in a restored Ramoche (ibid, p.53). Has there ever been a luckier survival of an idol ? Richard found on the roof of the Ramoche a pile of metal-backed portraits of ?the great helmsman? Mao, crumpled and thrown in a heap. This is at once the proof that they had once been installed and now the society is showing signs of recovery with quiet over-the-roof de-Maoisation, so to speak. It is significant that Richard was travelling through Tibet in 1986-87, much after the fury of the Cultural Revolution had abated in 1976. He was one of the rare foreign travelers who spoke fluent Chinese, having read the language and literature for 2 years in Cambridge, and brings a superior insight into a society insulated not only by a cultural barrier but an archaic (pictorial and derivative thereof) writing system.
(To be continued)
(The writer is Professor in Aerospace Engineering Department, I.I.T. Kanpur)