El horror del progreso sólo puede medirlo el que ha conocido un paisaje antes y después que el progreso lo transforme.
The horror of progress can only be measured by someone who has known a landscape before and after progress has transformed it.
– Nicolás Gómez Dávila
The jagged peaks, brackish lakes, and arid steppelands that comprise the Tibetan Plateau may look like geological features formed by eons of river erosion, plate tectonics, and glacial discharge, but appearances can be deceiving. Journeying back into the deepest recesses of mytho-history, we find that the land situated between the Himalayas and the Taklamakan Desert, which we now call Bod, Zangqu, or Tibet, is no mere accumulation of rock and sediment strata, but rather the very embodiment of a colossal she-demon by the name of Srin-mo. The Mani Kambum, a collection of historical, doctrinal, and ritual texts compiled by the 7th-century king Songtsen Gampo, informs us that the “snow land country” of Tibet is actually the “Srin-mo demoness lying on her back,” the “lake in the Plain of Milk is the heart-blood of the demoness,” and the “three mountains surrounding the Plain of Milk are the demoness’ two breasts and her life-line.” Thus, the supine Srin-mo, stretching herself out across the Roof of the World, presided from time immemorial over a sinister kingdom teeming with feral beasts, minor demons, ravenous ghosts, and mysterious spirits like the serpentine klu, the arboreal gnyan, and the sky-dwelling lha, though no people whatsoever.
Tibet, languishing under the rule of this terrible ogress, would come to be known not just as the “snow land country” or the “snow domain to the north,” but the “land of bad ones,” the “land of hungry spirits,” and even, sad to relate, the “land of the red-faced, flesh-eating demons.” It was, according to the Mani Kambum, no more than a “vast darkness,” and “all who die there turn not upwards but, like snowflakes falling on a lake, drop into the world of evil destinies.” Dissatisfied with primeval Tibet’s marked lack of moral progress, the Śākyamuni Buddha dispatched one of his votaries, Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa, a simian incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, with instructions to populate the region with human beings versed in Buddhist doctrine. The bodhisattva set about his new responsibilities with heroic dedication, coupling with the demoness and siring six offspring who would establish the six principal clans of the Tibetan people. Avalokiteśvara’s descendants soon found, unsurprisingly enough, that living atop a gargantuan, ill-tempered monster had distinct disadvantages, and, with military precision, they commenced a geomantic campaign to subdue Srin-mo once and for all. “To keep the limbs of the prostrate she-demon under control,” as one Tibetan chronicle relates, “twelve nails of immobility were driven into her,” nails that took the form of twelve temples and monasteries strategically located at the creature’s hands, feet, shoulders, and hips. The gilt-roofed Jokhang Temple, in what is now the Barkhor sub-district of Lhasa, was erected in 652 A.D. directly above the demoness’ cavernous heart, and would from that time onward serve a corresponding role as the beating spiritual heart of Tibetan Buddhism.
It was on Aug. 24, 1966, in the relatively early days of the Chinese Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, that the Red Guards descended upon the Jokhang Temple with malice aforethought. The orgy of destruction that ensued would last five days. Statues were decapitated, murals were vandalized, relics were thrown down from the temple’s upper gallery into the courtyard below, wooden board bindings from prayer books were repurposed as latrine seats, and ancient scriptures, prayer flags, incense burners, and mani wheels were all consigned to raging bonfires. The central statue known as the Jowo Rinpoche — a depiction of Śākyamuni at the age of 12 — was demeaningly topped with a dunce’s cap and stripped of its gold paint and jewels, while the clay effigy of the Eleven-Faced, Thousand-Armed Chenrezig with One Thousand Eyes, said to have been fashioned by the great Songsten Gampo himself and subsequently infused with his consciousness, was shattered by the iconoclasts, though some fragments were secretly preserved by devout Buddhists and later offered to the Dalai Lama. Pigpens were installed in the main temple, while the upper stories were turned into barracks, and a broadcasting station was installed on the building’s third floor, blaring violent propaganda courtesy of the Gyenlog Red Guards faction stationed therein. The dissident writer Tsering Woeser described how the streets of Lhasa were “covered with broken statues and torn prayer books,” while ordinary Tibetans, stricken with grief, wondered aloud: “What’s the point of living to such an old age? Living for so long that I even had to witness the death of the bodhisattvas…. When the Cultural Revolution came, even bodhisattvas were tortured to death.”
Statues were decapitated, murals were vandalized, and relics were thrown down from the temple’s upper gallery into the courtyard below.
The sack of the Jokhang Temple may have come at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, but it in fact represented the culmination of the communist “Pacification of the Counterrevolutionary Rebellion” campaign that had been going on for nearly a decade, and which resulted in the elimination of the traditional aristocracy, as well as 97 percent of all Tibetan temples and monasteries. Tibetans often refer to the cultural devastation wrought by Mao Zedong, the Red Guards, and the local hurtsonchen (collaborators) as the dhulok, the historical juncture “when time collapsed,” “when time was overturned,” or “when the sky and earth changed places.” The spiritual underpinnings of Tibet had literally been torn up, the old demons had been untethered, and total societal upheaval was sure to follow. Looking back on the dismantling of the temples that once constrained the demoness Srin-mo, Woeser lamented how
[S]ince 1950 and especially during the catastrophic Cultural Revolution after 1966, almost everything has been drowned in disaster, almost everything has sunk into ruins. And doesn’t this mean that the original nails holding down the demoness have been lifted and the demoness has struggled back to life to once again cause mischief? Even though many monasteries were rebuilt after the Cultural Revolution, the magical power is inferior to before. So who holds the power of the released demoness? The self-appointed “saviours” and “liberators” came uninvited and those liberated were not the millions of Tibetans, but the demoness in the body of a pretty woman.
By torturing the bodhisattvas and unleashing the demons, the communists were attempting to completely reshape the Tibetan spiritual landscape.
Eradicating “feudal culture,” as the Chinese Communist Party had set out to do, necessitated the liquidation or suppression of Tibetan Buddhist institutions, using the same tactics employed in the Bolshevik Red Terror, the Spanish communist Terror Rojo, the Khmer Rouge Year Zero purges, and so on, though on an even greater scale. Premier Zhou Enlai, in an Oct. 15, 1966, speech to the Central Nationalities Institute in Beijing, demanded that Lamaism in particular be “broken into pieces,” though he acknowledged that “to eliminate superstition is a long-term task. Until it is replaced by new thoughts, there is no way that superstition can perish immediately. The process of remaking will be long.” Zhou is often considered to have been a moderating influence on the Cultural Revolution, but in his 1966 speech we see that moderation is a relative term:
Now, the campaign to destroy the Four Olds [ideas, culture, customs, and habits] is ongoing in Tibet. It’s good to target monasteries and Lamaism. But should monasteries be completely destroyed? Shouldn’t they be converted into schools or warehouses? As for the Buddhist statues, some of them can be destroyed to meet the demands of the masses. But should we also consider protecting some of the major monasteries or temples? Otherwise, what we are doing might upset the older generations.
Such an approach was entirely in keeping with Marxist-Leninist doctrine, which holds that religions are (as Lenin put it) “organs of bourgeois reaction” designed to encourage “the exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class,” but are fated to disappear when communist regimes succeed in the “creation of a paradise on earth.” While pious Tibetans recoiled in horror at the turmoil and bloodletting of the dhulok, and the prospect of the sky and earth changing places, the communist regime welcomed the bouleversement, even if scores of millions of souls had to perish to make it happen.
As temples like Jokhang were being defaced, ransacked, or reduced to rubble, Tibetan Buddhists worried that the demons that had been kept in check for 1,300 years would be unshackled, and their concerns would prove well-founded. There was something truly deviant, one could even say demonic, about the behavior of the Red Guards and their fellow communist acolytes, who demonstrated a twisted inversion of the religious values of their victims. They ranted and raved about reactionary “cow demons and snake spirits,” staged outlandish confessional struggle sessions, committed untold massacres, engaged in widespread cannibalism, and worshipped Mao as the “Red Sun,” the “Great Steersman,” and “the Messiah of Working People,” venerating depictions of him and quietly confessing political sins in his symbolic presence each night. As Jiping Zuo observed in her 1991 study “Political Religion: The Case of the Cultural Revolution in China”:
[T]he songs the children sang [about Mao] were reminiscent of Western hymns in praise of Jesus. One song proclaimed, “My love for my parents is great but greater still is my love for Chairman Mao.” Another said, “We think of you every minute, Respected Chairman Mao.”…Catching a glimpse of him in public left observers with unforgettable memories, and many were reduced to tears by the experience. The masses would spend the night in the street if they knew Mao’s route the next morning would take him past them. When Mao finally appeared, the people would jump, shout, cry out, and wave the “Little Red Book” in agonies of joy. This experience of ecstasy is not unlike the uncontrolled outpourings of emotion that sometimes accompany religious revivals in the West.
Few at the time publicly questioned why such outpourings of endearment and slavish devotion, to the point of willingness to commit crimes on a scale unknown in human history, should be lavished upon a lecherous sociopath responsible for somewhere between 15 and 55 million deaths during the Great Leap Forward period alone, a man who dismissed all the suffering he would cause by breezily professing that “long-lasting peace is unendurable to human beings, and tidal waves of disturbances have to be created in this state of peace…. We love sailing on a sea of upheavals. To go from life to death is to experience the greatest upheaval. Isn’t it magnificent!” “People like me,” Mao once wrote, “only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people … I have my desire and act on it. I am responsible to no one.” A curious sort of messiah indeed, but one whose conviction that China must be “destroyed and then re-formed” still informs communist policies to this day.
Chairman Mao died on Sept. 9, 1976, and his bloated, embalmed, flag-draped body lay in state for a week in the Great Hall of the People beneath a banner that read “Carry on the cause left by Chairman Mao and carry on the cause of proletarian revolution to the end.” Deng Xiaoping, who had been discredited during the Cultural Revolution, had other ideas, declaring an era of boluan fanzheng — “eliminating chaos and returning to normal” — and at the Sixth Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, held on June 27, 1981, it was determined that the Cultural Revolution “could not come up with any constructive programme, but could only bring grave disorder, damage and retrogression in its train.” There would, however, be no concerted effort at truth, reconciliation, accounting, recompense, or public penance. The human rights activist Liu Xiaobo would later complain that “few reflect and apologize. The terror of the Red Guards, the armed fights between the rebellious sects, the teams established to ‘cleanse’ the social classes, and all the bloody massacres are simply left to rot in China’s memory.” Ma Jian, an exiled novelist and the author of Beijing Coma (2008), put it this way:
Mao died aspiring to exterminate Chinese culture. His Cultural Revolution alone killed as many as two million people, shattered traditions, uprooted spiritual and ethical values, and tore apart family ties and communal loyalties. People who experienced it seal off the memory, for the pain, worse than a bullet to the heart, overwhelms souls. Worst of all, Mao’s crimes against civilization, unlike those of, say, Hitler, are ongoing. The Communist Party still uses his brainwashing methods, and his legacy continues to be officially revered. His portrait and body remain on display in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and his face appears on banknotes in the wallet of every Chinese, many of whom saw parents, children, and other loved ones die under his knife.
For Liu Xiaobo, the Cultural Revolution was a moral catastrophe that still festers in the depths of the Chinese body politic, while for Ma Jian it was a cynical campaign that continues to this day, regardless of Deng’s efforts at boluan fanzheng. Both were entirely correct in their assessments.
While the CCP can apologize for the bedlam brought about by the Cultural Revolution, it can hardly repudiate its predilection for cultural genocide and religious oppression.
Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, and the new “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” are all predicated on the notion of inexorable leftward progress. “Marx and Engels’ analysis of the basic contradictions in capitalist society is not outdated,” maintains paramount leader Xi Jinping, “nor is the historical materialist view that capitalism is bound to die out and socialism is bound to win…. The fundamental reason why some of our comrades have weak ideals and faltering beliefs is that their views lack a firm grounding in historical materialism.” The disappearance of traditional culture and religion — suddenly or gradually, as the case may be — is a fundamental aspect of historical materialism, and while the CCP can apologize for the bedlam brought about by the Cultural Revolution, it can hardly repudiate its predilection for cultural genocide and religious oppression. “Superstition” still needs to be eradicated, it still must be “broken into pieces,” so as to pave the way for a true heaven on earth.
Communists have always insisted that their ideology is a “form of practical humanism that liberates people from false consciousness,” but the result of their political program is invariably a death cult. Adrian Vermeule, in his 2019 essay “All Human Conflict Is Ultimately Theological,” compellingly demonstrated how leftism is “an essentially religious movement and set of commitments, with a distinctive soteriology, eschatology and ecclesiology,” and which is “incapable of respecting this constraint because to do so would betray its inner nature, which is to publicly and conspicuously celebrate its great liturgy, the Festival of Reason, the dynamic overcoming of the darkness, superstition, and slavish authoritarianism of the irrational past. That is a benchmark which necessarily changes with each celebration of the liturgy, requiring new enemies to play the part of the villain.” Despite Deng Xiaoping’s efforts, the Cultural Revolution could never really end, so fundamental is it to the political program of the communist regime.
When Chinese religious affairs officials, referring to members of the Turkic minority population, speak of the need to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins. Completely shovel up the roots of ‘two-faced people,’ dig them out, and vow to fight these two-faced people until the end,” we see the Cultural Revolution continuing apace. When Christian preachers like Henan Province’s Chen Lijun are arrested for having “purchased Christian books online without authorization,” and when pastors like Yang Jianxin are sentenced to jail time for creating an atmosphere of “spiritual pollution” — a phrase typically used in the context of pornographic publications — just for contacting a printer to produce extra copies of the Bible, again we see the Cultural Revolution in full swing. Given the ongoing effort by the Religious Affairs Bureau effort to demolish churches, even some belonging to the state-run Three-Self Church, it is understandable that many churchgoers, like the anonymous Yinzhang villager interviewed by Bitter Winter’s Tang Feng, feel that “Xi Jinping’s religious persecution is harsher than Mao Zedong’s.” The victimization might at times differ in degree from the initial 1966–1976 operation, but not at all in kind.
The Cultural Revolution could never really end, so fundamental is it to the political program of the communist regime.
In Tibet, the dark days of 1950–1976 have returned, with regional administrators announcing that any “offenders must be punished hard and swiftly, public security and cultural market administrations must investigate and prosecute them with awesome power.” Political oppression is mounting, monks have been evicted en masse from the largest Tibetan Buddhist institution in the world, the Larung Gar “City in the Sky,” and forced to sign documents affirming that they will “uphold the unity of the nation.” In addition, the heritage district that surrounds the Jokhang Temple is increasingly threatened by massive construction projects. The statue of Padmasambhava at Chanang Monastery, the statue of the Maitreya Buddha at Gaden Namgyal Ling Monastery, and other works of religious art have been destroyed in recent months, and when the 99-feet-tall statue of the Buddha located in Drago, in the Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, was dismantled alongside 45 traditional prayer wheels over the course of nine days, monks and other locals were forced to watch the demolition work; one onlooker later said that it was “just like the Cultural Revolution, when the Chinese government destroyed everything that was old in Tibet.” Xi Jinping, meanwhile, congratulates himself for having “combined the Marxist concept of human rights with China’s concrete reality and excellent traditional Chinese culture,” as historical materialism and the sinicization project go hand in blood-stained hand.
In the run-up to the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party — which opened on Oct. 16, 2022, and came to a memorable crescendo with the image of Xi Jinping’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, being forcibly escorted from the premises in a shockingly unfilial display of power politics — the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Committee issued a report on the continuing efforts being made to sinicize Chinese Christianity. The document, clumsily entitled “Ten years of sharpening the sword to continue to promote the sinicization of Christianity,” is full of the usual waffle about the “three loves,” “four histories,” “five identities,” and “four progresses” one regularly finds in communist propaganda, but it makes for fascinating reading all the same. After providing a short history of the attempted sinicization of Christianity as advocated by figures like Zhao Zichen (1888–1979) and Liu Tingfang (1892–1947), the report, signed by Pastor Xu Xiaohong, lays out a Five-Year Work Plan for Promoting the Sinicization of Christianity in China (2023–2027), which will “actively guide religion to adapt to the socialist society and the new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” in large part through “planning and promotion of podium propaganda.” Standardized sermons and total subservience to the Party will ensure that the Three-Self Church does not run afoul of Xi Jinping’s rules for Chinese Christianity, namely that it “accepts that its role in China is to persuade believers they should support the CCP,” that it “should not interfere with social life,” and that it must “stay away from the education of the younger generations.”
As underground house churches are raided, Christians are deprived of old-age subsistence allowances unless they abjure their faith, and merely possessing an electronic bible player can lead to six years imprisonment, regime-friendly pastors like Xu Xiaohong are busy figuring out how to remove crosses and decorated door arches from church buildings while tailoring sermons to please the CCP, all as part of a five-year sinicization plan. It is a paradigmatic instance of feeding the crocodile, letting religious dissidents pay the price, often the ultimate price, for their beliefs while state-run churches temporarily reap the benefits, albeit under circumstances that will all but ensure their eventual extinction. The regime promises stricter surveillance, further crackdowns on proselytization, and the enforced subordination of religious belief to the principles of historical materialism, offering nothing remotely spiritual in return, just political domination, economic efficiency gains, social credit scores, and coronavirus lockdowns, with drones flying over locked down housing development where residents lack basic necessities blaring the prerecorded message: “Please comply with COVID restrictions. Control your soul’s desire for freedom.” The CCP evidently awaits the day when the people once again “turn not upwards but, like snowflakes falling on a lake, drop into the world of evil destinies,” and is doing everything within its power to bring it about.
Carl Schmitt, in his treatise Roman Catholicism and Political Form (1923) surmised that “no political system can survive even a generation with only naked techniques of holding power,” but Xi Jinping and his acolytes are putting that proposition to the test. Perhaps there will come a day when the Chinese will look back on this era of religious oppression just as Deng Xiaoping did in regard to the Cultural Revolution, asserting in 1980 that “much disgrace was brought upon the party, the country, the people.” In the meantime, we can recall those pious monks and ordinary Tibetans who, amidst the wreckage of the Joking Temple in 1966, painstakingly gathered up the clay and wooden shards, the jewels, the medicinal herbs, and the consecrated grain that once constituted the statute of the Eleven-Faced, Thousand-Armed Chenrezig with One Thousand Eyes. Those brave souls, an embattled minority in a land where even the bodhisattvas were subjected to torture and evil spirits roamed freely, kept the scattered pieces safe despite house-to-house searches and extrajudicial executions, and, over the years, managed to convey them to Dharamsala, where they could to be reconsecrated by the exiled Dalai Lama, in a profound repudiation of the demons of progress.