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History professor takes important work on Tibet to a wider audience

by Chuck Gordon

Dr. Susan Chen, visiting assistant professor of history, has translated into English a work of vast significance to Tibetans.

Until now, Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution, by Tsering Woeser, had been published in Chinese only, though it has never been available in China, where the Cultural Revolution is a taboo subject. Chen’s translation, which took a decade to finish, is now available as an ebook on, where you can also pre-order a hardback copy.

Chen says it took her just one evening to read all of the nearly 300 pages of Forbidden Memory, in its original Chinese.

“Violence, humiliation and fears triggered by the revolution – they are all subjects of pain,” Chen says. “Yet Woeser managed to make stories told in Forbidden Memory so intriguing. I admired what she had accomplished and wanted the book to be appreciated by more people.”

The book deals with a difficult time in the history of Tibet and China. The Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and continued until Chairman Mao’s death in 1976, is a stain on the country’s history that has been largely treated as a taboo subject in China. To Chinese leaders, it is as if the Cultural Revolution never happened.

But it did, of course, and Forbidden Memory provides written and, perhaps more important, photographic proof. Photographs of Tibet during the Cultural Revolution are as rare as the Chinese tiger, and Forbidden Memory features hundreds taken by Tsering Dorje, father of Woeser, a prominent Sinophone writer who grew up in Tibet during the revolution. After interviewing people who had witnessed or participated in many of the events of the decade, Woeser blended her own commentary with the words of her interviewees to create a compelling narrative that accompanied her father’s pictures.

Having an English-language version of Forbidden Memory available is no small deal for Tibetans. The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, and a year later the Chinese military was sent in to take over Tibet. Tibet was forced to recognize Chinese rule but was allowed to keep its political system and religion. That all changed in 1959, when the Dalai Lama was forced into exile, after which many drastic changes were made in Tibet.

But the real horrors began in 1966, with the Cultural Revolution.

Photos from Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution

Photos (above and below) by Tsering Dorje, from Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution.


The revolution, the handiwork of a resurgent Chairman Mao, was brutal, especially for minority groups in China. From 1966 to 1976, Tibet’s history was rewritten and Tibetan norms were outlawed. The interior of Jokhang Temple, Tibet’s most sacred site, was severely damaged. Tibetans who were accused of practicing or promoting the “four olds” – old thoughts, old customs, old habits and old cultures – were subject to “struggle sessions,” or public humiliation, often at the hands of fellow Tibetans who were drafted into the Red Guard.

As shown by the photos that form the backbone of Forbidden Memory, statues, ritual objects and religious texts important to Tibetans’ practice of Buddhism were set on fire, while Mao’s Little Red Book and portrait were widely distributed. According to the words of those who took part in or watched the “revolutionary” actions, ordinary monks were left no choice but to give up their monastic commitments and, along with other Tibetans, to destroy religious sites.

Book burning in Tibet. Photo in Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution

“The book shows the only known images of the most crucial part of modern Tibetan history – the first time in a thousand years that an attempt had been made to wipe out Buddhism in Tibet,” says Dr. Robert Barnett, the book’s English-language editor and a noted Tibetan scholar.

Woeser took on this subject at great personal risk. She had already lost her job at a literary magazine after publishing,in 2003, a collection of short stories and prose pieces in which she wrote about her reverence for the Dalai Lama. She and her husband, also a writer, now live in a small apartment in Beijing, watched constantly by police.

Those who lived through the Cultural Revolution have suppressed their memories for decades. But now the forbidden memories Tsering wrote about are getting an audience in one of the world’s most widely spoken languages.

Chen became the translator for such an important work mostly because she just decided to do it. While working on her doctoral dissertation, Chen lived for a while in India. With Woeser’s popularity among Tibetans on the rise, Chen wound up translating some of Woeser’s shorter works for Tibetan exiles she knew living in India. Then she stumbled across Forbidden Memory.

“I was overwhelmed by it and naively said, ‘OK, I will translate it,’ not thinking what it will take,” she says.

“Her effort was extraordinarily meticulous and precise,” Barnett says of Chen. “Her strength is background knowledge of the cultural divergences between Chinese and English ways of conveying ideas and information. She’s extremely attentive to nuances that can get lost in the process of translation, but also somewhat visionary in realizing that a translation necessarily becomes a different beast from the original.”

For Chen, the work will hopefully help Tibetans overcome the oppression of the ’60s and ’70s, a time when their history was stolen from them. Their memories were suppressed for years, and Chen believes that Forbidden Memory has helped them reopen the wounds so that healing might begin.

“The people were subject to the humiliation and confusion of that moment,” she says. “Once they had the opportunity to talk, basically the gate of memory was opened. Coming out of it was the very tangible human emotion. It feels like a tsunami. It’s so powerful!

“The wound is very, very deep. It’s very, very real. Our hope is if we can bring this painful experience to the surface one more time, one way or another, the healing can begin.”

May 29, 2020