A Chronicle of Elliot Sperling
Tsering Woeser, February 10, 2017
Woeser’s note: This essay was written in Lhasa in the summer of 2014, for a very special book. The volume, “Trails of the Tibetan Tradition: Papers for Elliot Sperling,” was a compilation of 31 essays from Tibetologists, paying respect to Elliot Sperling. There were 5 essays in Tibetan, 25 in English, and 1 in Chinese. On February 3, 2015, the book was launched at the Amnye Machen Institute [in Dharamsala]. Prior to that, Elliot didn’t know that this book had been in preparation for two years. It was presented as a gift to him as a token of respect and friendship, and most importantly as a testament to his preciousness and rarity: wise, kind, brave, righteous. And yet… those whom the gods love die young. The karma of life and death aches to the bottom of the heart. We miss you, our suddenly departed, dear Elliot Sperling! – February 2, 2017
On one occasion — I don’t remember when over these last few years, because Elliot has come to Beijing a few times; he couldn’t go to Lhasa, but he could come to Beijing — Elliot was holding a big thick English book, and he told me it was the memoir of Mme Mandelstam.
At that point, the book had not been translated into Chinese. That I was already familiar with the poems and prose of Osip Mandelstam made Elliot very pleased. Together we revisited one of the poems that was later to give the author great misery: “We live without feeling the country beneath our feet, / our words are inaudible from ten steps away. / Any conversation, however brief, / gravitates, gratingly, toward the Kremlin’s mountain man…”
I now realize that it was toward the end of March, 2011. On the 16th, the 20 year-old-monk Phuntsog in Amdo county bathed himself in flame in a terrible sacrifice to protest killings in Lhasa three years ago. A few days later I encountered Lobsang Tsepa, a fellow monk from the Kirti Gompa monastery. He choked back his tears as he told me of Phuntsog’s immolation. But soon, he’d vanished. It wasn’t until two years later that I found that he’d been taken away by police from a Chinese language school in Beijing.
I wrote a poem for Lobsang Tsepa, part of which included two lines from Mandelstam’s work. It went: “This verse was from a poet of conscience who died at the hands of Stalin, / and in it is portrayed the image of today’s China.” In the same poem I also recorded my exchange with Elliot over Skype:
In the depth of the night I mumble to myself:
“I don’t know if it matters or not, but I’m still gonna say it.
Actually, I know. Saying it is pointless….”A friend from the free world, sings it out:
“They always make people think that speech is pointless.
But speak we must!”
I remember the first time I met Elliot like it was yesterday.
It was the summer of 2010. After dropping off his luggage at the hotel, he took a taxi straight to Tongzhou, in Beijing’s eastern suburbs, to see me. Though he’s one of the few Tibetologists completely proficient in Chinese, he rarely, rarely spoke Chinese with me. My point isn’t to boast about the proficiency of my Tibetan — everyone knows that I still have a ways to go there — but to note that, it seemed to me, he spoke with me in Tibetan in order to help me improve.
That night I took him to the Makye Ame Tibetan restaurant at Jianguomen. The name of the place is ambiguous, and given to possible, sometimes erroneous interpretations. In any case, the food was quite good, despite not being all that authentic. They also had Tibetan wheat beer, shipped in from Lhasa. This, it must be said, was a comfort to Elliot, who hadn’t enjoyed a draught of it since his youth. As we savored it and spoke, he remarked that Tibetan dance performances were becoming popular, and the growing number of “Tibet fans” in the capital was creating a sense of Orientalism.
After that, it seemed that every time we met, it would be over food. We went to many restaurants in Beijing: Tibetan, Indian, Mexican. Of course, we frequented Chinese restaurants the most, including hotpot places and others. Apart from eating and drinking, we went to bookstores, art galleries, the Old Summer Palace, the Imperial College, Nanluogu Hutong (南锣鼓巷), the Songzhuang artist village, and so on. On two occasions we almost got sunstroke (he always come to Beijing during the height of summer).
We also took in operas together. On one occasion, Elliot (who at that point, because of his increasing resemblance to the mien of Lenin, I had taken to calling “Comrade Lenin”) invited me to the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing — known as the Giant Egg — to see the opera Carmen. He’s the kind of fellow who knows almost every classical opera inside out. He wore a white linen suit, and hummed along while keeping time. One time, my friend and I were celebrating our birthday, but the only thing playing was The Flower Girl, a North Korean propaganda classic that I’d grown up being brainwashed by in the Cultural Revolution. Wang Lixiong [王力雄, the author’s husband] took Elliot, me, and my good friend out, jokingly describing it as a session of Maoist era “remembering the sufferings of the past in order to appreciate the happiness today.” That night, Beijing was beset with an intense storm — like all the tears of North Korea were raining down on it.
I like to jokingly call Elliot “Genla” — a Tibetan honorific term for teacher. One time, we went to Chengde in Hebei to tour one of the seasonal imperial residences that a Manchurian emperor had given to his Buddha Dharma Grand Masters, the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama (they’re commonly known as the “Small Potala Palace” and the “Panchen’s imperial residence”). With the help of Elliot providing some casual advice, I managed to write a piece about Chengde that was not too bad.
The entire trip, in fact, was both instructive and delightful. We came across a fake “Tibetan Master,” peddling candles to the tourists waiting in line. Elliot approached him with the utmost courtesy and began asking him questions in Tibetan. The imposter quickly lost his composure and the ruse was over. Apart from individual swindlers, the government was swindling the public on a far larger scale, trying to revise history with political motives. For instance, they attempted to turn the eastward movement of the Mongolian Torghut tribe at the end of the 18th century into “returning to the embrace of the fatherland,” and had a special exhibition and new relief sculpture produced for the purpose. Elliot snapped a photo and sent it to a scholar of Mongolia, receiving the facetious response: “It looks like you have made new discoveries in Chengde!”
There was another amusing detail that was also discovered, of course, by Elliot. At the Small Potala Palace there was a Five Pagoda Gate, that is, a city gate that had above it five differently colored pagodas, which corresponded to the Five Dhyani Buddhas: central, south, east, west, and north. But the Chinese and English explanation in front of it was riddled with errors. It not only claimed that the five pagodas were the five main schools of Tibetan Buddhism — the Yellow Hat, Gelugpa, Karma Kagyu, and Yungdrung Bön (笨波派) schools — but also made an error in the Chinese characters for the latter school. It had substituted the Chinese character 苯 [pronounced “ben”] in Karma Kagyu, for the character 笨 in “stupid” (笨蛋). On top of that, the Chinglish translation on the plaque read: “The stupid wave sends.”
As a Chinese dissident loathed by the government, myself and Wang Lixiong often have our freedom restricted and suffer house arrest. I’m under more restrictions. This is shown by the fact that, for instance, Wang can get a passport (though sometimes neither a passport nor a visa does much good, because national security police can nullify your travel right when you are about to board a plane to depart), while I can’t. We suspect it’s because of our different ethnicities [the author is Tibetan; her husband Han].
There was a period when danger felt imminent, and I began to doubt we’d escape it. It’s just as Mme Mandelstam put it: “Being offbeat, talking too much, and putting up a resistance… it seems that this is enough to get you arrested and annihilated.” So Elliot called me every morning on Skype, to see if I’d made it safely through another day. He would happily hoot in Tibetan and then Chinese: “Not bad!”
Mme Mandelstam wrote: “We live among the kind of people that can disappear into another world, sent into remote exile, concentration camps, or jails…” Indeed — our close friend, the moderate Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, was on January 15, 2014, violently dragged away by dozens of police, in front of his two children, and taken from Beijing to Urumqi in Xinjiang and jailed. He’s still in prison. A week before he vanished, myself and Wang Lixiong met him at a Uighur restaurant near Minzu University in Beijing, then went to his house to call on his frail wife and sick mother.
Two years before he disappeared, Elliot and Ilham met for the first time, but hit off famously, at the same Uighur restaurant. In the group photo we all posed for, the feeling of trust and love of one another’s company we shared spilled out of the frame. Ilham’s daughter Jewher says that Elliot is “the best person in the world” — not just because he arranged for Ilham to spend time as a visiting scholar at Indiana University, but because when both of them attempted to board the plane, and Ilham was arrested, and the 18-year-old Jewher was suddenly alone on her way to the United States, Elliot took care of her. Her father had long prior entrusted her to Elliot’s care should it become necessary.
But Elliot wasn’t just solicitous and caring toward his friends. I once wrote in an essay: “Just like my friend and scholar of Tibet Elliot Sperling, though he studies the history of Tibet and its relations with China, he still pays utmost attention to Tibet’s political affairs and human rights. He once described his concern for Tibetan issues (he’d always correct you if you refer to Tibet in the Chinese term “xizang” 西藏, instead of 图伯特): It’s simply based on his support for the basic values of civil society and his wish to defend them, and has nothing to do with nation or ethnicity. It’s for this reason that he supports the Tibetan struggle for national survival and endurance.” This and the many other things he did seemed inspired by, as Albert Camus said in “The Rebel,” concern for others, rather than mere personal indignation.
I’ll provide simply two examples. Last May, in response to the Chinese government’s destruction of Lhasa’s old city in the name of “remodeling,” Elliot put out a call in the Tibet studies field and collected the signatures of 130 Tibetologists from around the globe, publishing “An open letter to Xi Jinping and UNESCO.” The letter stated: “This is not just a Tibetan problem; it is not just a Chinese problem. It is an international problem,” and that it would turn Lhasa into “an early 21st-century tourist town, shorn of its uniqueness and its innate traditional culture,” and called for immediate cessation of the destruction of Lhasa. Even though the calls didn’t stop the Chinese government, the protest itself demonstrated what an awful regime they are.
Another matter Elliot was involved in was the film “Duihua” (《对话》) produced by the independent Chinese documentary filmmaker Wang Wo (王我), completed in March this year [i.e. 2014]. It’s a documentary about Tibet, Xinjiang, and related ethnic minority issues, and features a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a number of Chinese intellectuals over the internet, as well as a dialogue with Wang Lixiong about his thinking on the question of minorities in China. Elliot not only helped review the subtitles, but organized the premier at Indiana University.
Ganden monastery Another time, Elliot’s daughter, C., came to Beijing. She is really a beauty; anyone who set eyes on her would agree. And Elliot knew it, so he would, with a big grin on his face, say in Tibetan: “Like daughter, like father.” I’d assume a dubious expression and give him a little smack.
Actually, Elliot’s Bohemian style as a youth was indeed rather winsome. And even though these days, from all appearances any residual hippiness has been successful transformed into the air of a scholar, I’ve always felt that there was still a bit of hippie left inside. If it were otherwise, he wouldn’t have gone last summer to a Mexican restaurant with myself and two other Tibetans, and end up drinking so much that we wound up weeping maudlinly on one another’s shoulders. When Wang Lixiong heard that one he laughed and exclaimed: Sperling really is a hippie! He went out on a bender with you guys, half his age!
I really like his daughter — and not just because she’s beautiful. It’s also because in the spring of 1995, when Elliot brought the 7-year-old C. to Lhasa (he went a total of eight times, the last occasion in 2004), he taught her the Tibetan sentence: “Bod Kyi Dhak po bod mi yin [meaning “Tibet belongs to Tibetans.”] And so, whether she was visiting the Potala Palace whose true owners have in exile for decades, or paying homage to the ruins of the Ganden monastery destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, this little angel would, whenever she saw a monk, an elderly person or woman on pilgrimage, call out in her clear and crisp voice: “Bod Kyi Dhak po bod mi yin” Tibetans hearing her were astonished, and many were moved to tears. The first time I heard this story, I also nearly cried.
I thought that we’d see each other again this summer. In anticipation, I had bought two books on Amazon: “Hope Against Hope: A Memoir,” by Nadezhda Mandelstam, Osip Mandelstam’s wife, and “Record of a Search for the Dharma in the Land of Snows: A Chinese Lama’s Oral History.” These were presents for a man who seemed to love books like his life depended on it. I also planned to take him to another Tibetan restaurant to try some truly Tibetan gourmet cuisine.
In June, when Wang Lixiong and I were traveling in southern Mongolia, Elliot sent a note that he’d received his visa without any problems. This really was a surprise, given that so many Tibet scholars, sinologists, and Xinjiang scholars, among others, have had their visas rejected for expressing views opposed to those of the Chinese government. Could it be that Elliot Sperling was a target of the communist party’s United Front work?
In the end, it wasn’t to be. In the afternoon of July 5, he arrived at the Beijing Capital International Airport after a 14-hour flight, and was not only denied entry to the country, but was forced into a small room by police, where he was photographed, interrogated, prevented from using his cell phone, followed to the toilet, detained for 90 minutes, and then put on the next flight back home. The following day when I saw him on Skype, ensconced again in his New York apartment like he’d never gone anywhere, it felt surreal.
Aside from the time and effort that had been simply wasted, just the visa and the plane ticket probably cost nearly $2,000. Was the Chinese government deliberately messing him around? Elliot, though, found time for humor. He held up the visa with a big black X through it and said: “Congratulate Elliot Sperling for receiving the Chinese Communist Party Human Rights Award!”
For my part, I was indignant. When I exposed the incident on my blog and on Twitter, media took note. The New York Times interviewed Elliot and quoted him saying: “I had a pretty clear notion about why I was being denied entry. For me, it was clearly about Ilham…. [It’s an] attempt to pressure those who speak in support of Ilham to retreat into silence, or at least to isolate them.” As for whether he would be able to come to China in the future, Elliot simply said: “I have done nothing wrong… and have no intention of conforming to authoritarian norms for the sake of a visa.”
Wang Lixiong said to me: “It looks like you two will only be able to meet on Skype in future.”
July 13, 2014
Articles by Elliot Sperling on Rangzen Alliance website:
Self Delusion, criticism of the Middle Way policy of the Tibetan exile government, Aug 12, 2014.
The Body Count, mass killings in Tibet in 1958, Sep 14, 2012.
Freedom and Independence…and Language, Nov 1, 2011.
原文《唯色：记埃利亚特·史伯岭》, translated from Chinese by China Change.