Let me clarify at the outset that this is a hit piece on Jamyang Norbu, and a particularly underhanded one at that, because I write under a pseudonym. But since he is the ideological lodestone of the Rangzen camp, Norbu felt like the right target for challenging their intellectual legitimacy. Weekend marches and sloganeering may be great for letting off some workaday stress while gathering plaudits for being a freedom fighter, but I’m perturbed by the recent uptick in misappropriation of the Rangzen flag as a cover for anti-Gadhen Phodrang manoeuvres.
When pitted against contemporary opinionators, Norbu first strikes one as a piquant relic from a colonial-era publication, loaded as his writings are with turncoat-patriot terminology from an old-fashioned spy thriller. His dogged insistence on Tibet’s status as a nation, as if it were an unchallengeable fact of nature like the wetness of water, echoes the unreconstituted cruditities of the Akhand Bharat-is and Middle Kingdom-ites. Any scholar tracing the blurry lines of history of Tibet or any other nation isn’t discounting their national identity. But Norbu will not brook such academic delicacy and slams all such historians as if they were hacks for hire rather than serious scholars — Melvyn Goldstein, a veritable fountainhead of Tibetan studies, being his public enemy number one in that regard.
Next on the list of his Cultural-Revolution-style Thamzhi campaign of denunciation are traitors closer to home, most famous of them being the late great Bawa Phuntsok Wangyal Goranangpa. Again Norbu displays leaden sensitivity to the circumstances of Wangyal’s conversion to communism in the 1950s, at a time when it seemed like the panacea to all social problems to intellectuals and activists across America, Europe, and Asia. With his tunnel vision calibrated to a narrow traitor-or-hero lens, he doesn’t see the perspicacity shown by Wangyal in preempting some sort of compromise, and disrespectfully disavows all of Wangyal’s contributions and sacrifices.
There’s an incident in Wangyal’s memoir, from his decade-long house arrest, of him picking up a little pea from the floor and quietly putting it in his pocket avoiding the watchful eye of the guard. He talks about how he treasured it, fingering it in his pocket once in a while, perhaps as a consolation that this little pea was free from the glare of the totalitarian state.
There’s more pathos and poetry in that little scene than all of Norbu’s works. But I guess aiming at his literary talent is a low blow since Norbu never claimed to be Hermann Melville. Yet he is not exactly immune to self-inflation — in a blogpost he claims that his China book was later copied by a much more famous author. To make such a claim does betray a lack of self-awareness and excess of self-inflation, especially when there are innumerable Gordon Chang clones writing in the China-bashing genre.
Now before I fall too low, I’ll take a more appropriate tack, analysing some of his history-related writings. In the Aten memoir and perhaps a blogpost too, he recounts Nyagrong Gonpo Namgyal’s military campaign in Kham in the early 1900s and how Lhasa generals under the lure of a truce set Namgyal’s fort alight murdering them all. The picture portrayed is that of a warrior-princeling who could’ve united East Tibet and perhaps even forged a larger Tibetan polity but for the duplicitous and jealous Gadhen Phodrang. This is the same trope that colours the tales of persecution in exile that ChushiGangdrug partisans pass down as ancestral lore. But Norbu conveniently leaves out the absolutely crucial fact that it was actually the Dege prince and nearby Tehor chieftains who called upon Lhasa to protect them from Namgyal.
My second example is just another travesty of historical referencing. In a blogpost on Amdo Ngawa, he mentions the Qing-Gyelrong wars fought near it in 1775-6. After mistakenly assuming the great Bon scholar Prof Samten Karmay to be a Gyelrongwa (who is actually from neighbouring Amdo Sharkhog) and making a racist innuendo about pandas surviving in that region away from the rabid meat-gluttony of the Chinese, he criticises Lhasa for not helping the Gyelrongwas and implies that this was deliberate as Gadhen Phodrang was happy to see a Bon-dominated Gyelrong being subdued. Norbu needn’t have stretched his finger as far as Lhasa to find the villain for his favourite trope of fratricidal treachery, when it was actually the Nyagrong, Chatreng chieftain-Tuzhis beholden to the Qing empire, who actually fought beside the Qing against ethnically Qiangic-Tibetan Gyelrong. But of course Norbu doesn’t mention that as his criticism of the failings of our past leaders don’t cross east of the Drichu river.
These are two quick examples and I’m only an amateur Tibetan history buff, but people can search his blog with some of the keywords/names to verify. While I make no bones about my animosity here, I did turn to Norbu in good faith to understand his ideas. But what I found were racist slurs against the Chinese, diatribes against academic work that doesn’t toe his line, and unrelenting jibes at Gadhen Phodrang — anything but substantive ideas for his touted goal of Rangzen.
Chinese being an adversary for any Tibetan doesn’t need any defending, and real academics don’t pay Norbu any heed. But I am irked by how he pins our collective historical failure as a nation on Lhasa without uttering a word on the wilful waywardness of the petty eastern chieftaincies/principalities of which I’m a descendant too. Further, it is his recent conduct in our internal politics that finally goaded me into writing this piece.
If he is our Naom Chomsky and Vaclav Havel, where is his stance on the legal tussle that has recently racked our community? Don’t tell me it’s unfair to drag an intellectual into the muck of partisan politics, he lost that right a while ago when he actively endorsed Gyari Dolma. Also, I’m baffled by what her drawcard could be for Norbu. Apart from the very recent, and may I say opportunistic, fluffing up of Gyari Dolma as a hardliner in the press, what tangible action has that esteemed lady actually taken for his pet cause? How did a self-touted establishment cynic and fiery radical like Norbu develop such faith in an establishment insider, especially a dynastic one like Dolma (that too of a Tuzhi lineage, if I’m not mistaken, comme c’est drole, especially given his almost allergic aversion to anything remotely Chinese-related).
Rangzenpas deify his pronouncements without considering what ideas or actions they actually entail, but now when his opinion is warranted the spirit just won’t descend on our national savant.
14 August 2021
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily that of Tibet Sun