Tibet has no history of self-immolation as sacrifice, religious offering, or political protest. Yet, in the last year alone, roughly thirty-five Tibetans have set themselves on fire. The overwhelming majority of self-immolators are inside Tibet, in the People’s Republic of China, and almost exclusively in northwestern Sichuan and southeastern Qinghai provinces (corresponding to the Tibetan regions of northern Kham and southern Amdo). In this special issue of Cultural Anthropology, we collectively ask why. Why are so many Tibetans resorting to the singular act of setting the body on fire? What combination of cultural, historical, political, and/or religious reasons inspire these acts?
Most of the self-immolators have been young Buddhist monks (or former monks), men in their teens and early twenties, but nuns have also immolated, as have both male and female laypeople. One of the self-immolators was a tulku/sprul ku, a respected Buddhist reincarnate lama in his forties. Two earlier Tibetan self-immolations are notable: Thubten Ngodup who in 1998 was the first Tibetan to self-immolate as a form of political protest, and Tapey who self-immolated in February 2009 following massive protests in Tibet the year before.
In the spring of 2008, protests rocked the Tibetan Plateau. These were the largest, most widespread protests in Tibet since 1959 when the Dalai Lama escaped to India. For a brief while, Tibet captured the world’s attention. The protests and accompanying violence received widespread coverage inside and outside of China. The media attention eventually moved on to the devastating earthquake in Sichuan and then the summer Olympics in Beijing. Much of the world might have turned their attention elsewhere, but Tibetans did not. Contributors to this special issue know from fieldwork, travel, and correspondence that things remained tense in many Tibetan areas. If we knew this, though, we did not know that a new form of protest was in the works. We did not anticipate these dozens of self-immolations. No one saw this coming.
As we compiled this issue over the last two months, the frequency of the self-immolations increased. Updating the numbers, however, did not necessarily put us closer to comprehending the acts. How does one write about self-immolation—an act that is simultaneously politically charged, emotionally fraught, visually graphic, individually grounded, collectively felt—and what does one write? How do we intellectually make sense of these self-immolations, and how do we do so while writing in the moment, but writing from the outside?
There are no anthropologists in the self-immolation zone right now. Nor are there any foreign or Chinese journalists. These areas of Tibet are closed. As a result, there is neither on-the-ground, first-hand ethnographic research nor professional media coverage of the self-immolations inside Tibet. If anthropologists usually conduct in-depth, in-person fieldwork followed by reflection and analysis, in this instance we are unable to for political reasons. We simply do not have access to the area. Monasteries and towns linked to self-immolations were locked-down, and military troops rolled into these places, ostensibly to “protect the people” and secure “social order.” Information and images coming out were initially exclusively via Tibetans sending them out to the exile community. The global media could not get to Tibet, and the Chinese media was noticeably silent; Time magazine declared the Tibetan self-immolations the #1 most under-reported story of 2011.
Foreign journalists began to sneak into closed areas to cover the story, but the self-immolations did not make the front page of the New York Times until Jamphel Yeshi set himself on fire on 26 March 2012 in New Delhi. Photographers from Reuters and the Associated Press were on the scene, and shot haunting, powerful images of his self-immolation. They were immediately published around the world. While the self-immolations are now an active media story, as well as scholarly and governmental concern, we still do not know how or when this series of self-immolations will end.
We turn now to the essays, a combination of poignant reflections on the impossibility yet necessity of interpretation, focused analyses of possible ways of making sense of self-immolation, and efforts to speak to broader audiences, to translate ethnographic knowing into meaningful commentary on life and death, on the all-too-real deaths of over thirty Tibetans. Each of these essays was difficult for their author to write, and we gratefully acknowledge their willingness to write about a difficult topic involving political risk.
Following the essays is a large compendium of background material and commentary; there is much good to think with in these links as well. Thank you to Kevin Carrico for invaluable assistance with the background links, translations, and more, and to Ali Kenner for making it all come together. Finally we thank Cultural Anthropology editors Anne Allison and Charles Piot for the invitation to put together this issue, and for creating this new forum for anthropological commentary on events as they take place.
Posts in This Series
Transforming the Language of Protest
The Tibetan region of Ngaba (Ch: Aba) in Sichuan province is engulfed in a wave of self-immolations by young Tibetan monks and nuns. At the time of writing, twe... More
The Political Lives of Dead Bodies
The recent spate of self-immolations by Tibetans protesting state repression in China has raised anew painful questions about the politics and possibilities of ... More
Discipline and Resistance on the Tibetan Plateau
There is history and a grim logic in it all, but any satisfaction we might find in recognizing these things is laced with unspeakable sadness. It is all about ... More
Social Suffering and Embodied Political Crisis
I tell you this To break your heart,By which I mean onlyThat it break open and never close againTo the rest of the world.—Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, V... More
Virtue and the Remaking of Suffering
In an old Buddhist tale, the Buddha encounters a tigress in the forest with her cubs. Alone, he witnesses the frailty of both the mother and her cubs, suffering... More
Five Armchair Reflections on Tibetan Personhood
I. Opacities Tibetan conceptions of personhood highlight an opacity of interiority as a native form of epistemology and perceptual regime. Opacity is not a ridd... More
The Geopolitics of Politico-Religious Protest in Eastern Tibet
It is clear that the recent wave of self-immolations and protests taking place in southern Amdo and northern Kham in eastern Tibet is a reflection of an extreme... More
The Place of Hope in Acts of Protest and Offering
Phone lines to Ganzi (Tib. Kardze) Tibetan Prefecture, Sichuan are down and the same message is replayed: nin suo bo da de yonghu zanshi wufa jietong, qing shao... More
On “Terrorism” and the Politics of Naming
“While I understand their desperation, this kind of self-damage seems a very far cry from the fundamental tenets of Buddhism,” observed an American acquaintance... More
Tibet Talk – on Life, Death, and the State
Several weeks ago I was invited by a friend to attend a large private dinner for an art opening in Beijing. He was smuggling me into a place I didn’t belong, fo... More
Self-Immolation and Slander, by Woeser
Looking back upon the recent series of self-immolations by Tibetans, we can see that the first such case occurred on February 29, 2009, in Ngamdo, Aba County, w... More
On the Questions of Why and to What End
Among the controversies surrounding the wave of self-immolations inside Tibet that began in February 2009 are debates over the motives of those committing these... More
The Information Gauntlet
The Tibetan self-immolations are one of the most intensely personal and complex acts of protest the world is witnessing today, and their growing frequency seems... More
Chinese State Media Representations
When the last major uprising in Tibet occurred in the spring of 2008, viewers of China Central Television were treated to repeat screenings of the “smashing, be... More
Due to restrictive internet controls inside China’s “Great Firewall,” the unprecedented wave of self-immolations inside Tibet that started in 2009 have not been... More
The Balancing Act of the Exile Tibetan Government
In a startling turn of events, at least thirty Tibetans in Tibet have set themselves on fire since 2009. Consequently, this has galvanized both Tibetans inside ... More
Online Debates among Tibetans in Exile
As the number of self-immolations in Tibet increases and spreads, there has been intensive debate in the Tibetan exile community. This debate has generally take... More
The Work of Art in the Age of Self-Immolation
Contemporary Tibetan arts have emerged in the past decade as a new cultural force asserting Tibetan identity and modernity both inside Tibet and in Tibetan comm... More
The Afterlife of Images
CONTENT WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES Self-immolations draw attention to a cause and rally support in part because of their powerful visual imagery. Seemingly ever... More
The Blazing Horror of Now
CONTENT WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGEI dread checking Facebook these days, but I fear not to. I login and scroll down past the witticisms of the proud parents of toddl... More
Teaching Tibet in a Time of Precarious Emotion
On more days than I could have ever anticipated, I start my Anthropology of Tibet class by saying, “Since we last met, a young Tibetan monk self-immolated and d... More
Background Links For 'Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet'
The Tibetan Self-immolations: Who, What, When, Where Tibetan: http://www.rangzen.net/downloads/maps/Map_TsampaRevolution_20120401_BO.jpg Chinese: http://www.ra... More