Marching on one’s stomach

March 24, 2008

What with people still being shot in Tibet, it seemed only appropriate to attend another protest on Saturday. This time, instead of staying in one place and being angry, the cause was due to march from Park Crescent to Trafalgar Square whilst being righteously indignant.

I was feeling rather full of cold, but resolved to go along regardless in case I missed an interesting riot. I did manage to miss the start of the protest, and had to walk hurriedly after the riot vans to make sure I found it again, protests being surprisingly easy things to lose. I caught up with it on Regent Street, and attempted to sidle in.

It’s remarkably tricky to join a protest in midflight without looking suspicious. You start off on the edges and slowly saunter towards the centre as it marches along, all the while slowly increasing the volume of your chanting in order to fit in. One of the things I like about the Free Tibet movement is that it’s small enough for everyone to loosely know everyone else, and indeed I met someone I hadn’t seen for seven years in the middle of the four-hundred-strong throng.

There were speeches at the end, telling the marchers about all the terrible things that were happening in Tibet, exhorting them to write to their MP and indeed MPs saying we were all very good for coming out and doing this marching. I never thought I’d hear myself cheering on Kate Hoey, but some things do transcend party divisions.

At the end of the speeches, the Tibetans in the crowd started singing their national anthem, while the white people looked on in an encouraging and slightly mystified fashion. The sonorous sound of Tibetan singing filled the air, and in my mind I was back in the temple in Sonada at sunset, watching my monks spin the wheels of Dharma. Snow began to fall, and for a moment, Trafalgar Square became a little piece of the Roof of the World.

In other words, YOU SHOULD’VE BEEN THERE.

Anyway, why is all this happening? I think an analogy would be helpful here. Izzard teaches us that a more authoritarian Church of England would force its adherents to choose between tea and cake or death. In many ways, that’s a lot like the situation in Tibet.

Bear with me while I squeeze metaphors to make a mildly amusing analogy work. In the 1950’s in China, the Tea Party, fresh from victory in World War 2 and over the Kuomintea, turned their eyes to their mountainous neighbour to the south. Despising the Tibetan practice of making butter tea with yak’s milk, the Chinese invaded and imposed both the Tea Party and Collective Cake Baking on the Tibetans, believing them to superior. While previously most baking in Tibet had been very small scale and mostly on the back of a horse, it had, at least, been under the control of the Tibetans. Deprived of their tea and of their cake by the Chinese they chose death, which the Chinese gave to them in abundance.

Once the rebellion was over and the Tibetans’ Tea Master had fled, the Chinese continued to choose death on behalf of an awful lot of Tibetans, particularly during the Teabag Revolution. It eventually became apparent to the Chinese that Collective Baking wasn’t producing cake in enough quantities to satisfy their own people, let alone rival the mighty bakeries of the West. They began to gradually import the Western notion of Free Baking, while making sure demand for the typically associated idea of One Man, One Cup was repressed.

To facilitate this, across China and its conquered territories the ideal of having one’s cake and eating it was promoted. More and more Chinese began to bake for themselves, and the bakeries of the West started to eye China’s iced buns with relish.

In Tibet, the Tea Party still retained control, and any butter tea that was drunk was done so only under its auspices. The younger generation of Tibetans, knowing little of butter tea, lusted after the cake the Tea Party promoted. But there was a problem. The Chinese still considered all Tibetans to be fundamentally butter tea drinkers, and thus quite unsuitable for eating cake. They could help in its baking and perhaps even catch a whiff as it came out of the oven, but they would never be allowed to eat it.

The Tibetans were once again faced with a choice. They could not drink their tea, and they could not have any cake. Their only remaining option was ‘Or Death’. And so they chose it. But they chose it in different ways. The recent protests can be divided into two stages, in accordance with who took part. The ones that chose the tea, frequently the monks and the older Tibetans, took part in the initial peaceful protests. The Chinese very rapidly chose death for them, as this is the year of the Great Tea Dance, when the Chinese hope their bakery will be accepted amongst the great bakeries of the world. The younger Tibetans saw this, and in their anger at not having cake and, indeed, not having cake where their ancestors were once free to drink butter tea, took out their anger on those that did have cake. And so the Chinese chose death for those too.

To claim that all Tibetans seek a kind of Himalyan Arcadia, as many Westerners seem to, is to grossly oversimplify a nation of many different people with many different desires. Many young Tibetans seek economic success – and why should they not? We cannot keep an ideal of Tibet as a kind of spiritual playground, a last bastion of adventure – that sort of thinking led to our invasion of it. It is worth fighting for Tibetans to be able to have tea, certainly – but it is also worth fighting for them to have cake.

What happens next? The Chinese are still giving the Tibetans death, and I suspect that for a while yet the Tibetans will have chicken rather than choose the other. But the Chinese have still removed the other choices from the Tibetans, and the Tibetans will never be able to live peacefully without those choices – not for the all the tea in China.

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