The Place of Hope in Acts of Protest and Offering

From the Series: Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet

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 shaohou zai po (Ch., the subscriber you dialed cannot be connected, please redial again later). Even from the capital city of Chengdu, a call to mobile phones and landlines is met with a dead click. News circulates, nevertheless, as local people travel in and out of these areas, communicating and sharing what they know and feel. And as more acts of rong lui mesed (Tib. self-body burning in fire) occur across the Tibetan Plateau, news is circulated under an increasing heat of emotions. A friend from Ganzi Prefecture currently living overseas told me that she felt too sad to follow the news and confused over how to understand it all. Part of this lies in whether to view the self-immolations as suicide for the sake of something greater or, as Western media report, a form of protest. As my friend understood it, suicide is a terrible sin in Buddhist practice and not justifiable under any circumstance.

Confusion, both in terms of a jumble of emotions and of how to make sense of the acts, exists because self-immolation-as-protest is unprecedented within Tibetan areas of China. To be sure, protest itself is common and, while living in Ganzi Prefecture, I often encountered news on village-level demonstrations at the unfairness of local land distribution or the corrupt practices of local officials. Then, burning oneself was neither done nor discussed as protest; to my knowledge, it was not an option people discussed before 2009. Local Tibetans face a novel situation because self-immolation-as-protest creates a tension with Buddhist views on suicide. Yet self-immolation itself has a place in Buddhist practice. In fact, the word “self-immolation” was not always synonymous with burning oneself. With its roots in the Latin molare (to make a sacrifice of grain), self-immolation primarily conveys a sense of offering. Benn’s work on self-immolation examines the practice of offering in Chinese Buddhism to show that in the period from the late fourth century to the early twentieth century, several hundred Chinese monks, nuns and laypeople made offerings of their bodies for a variety of reasons. As others in this collection note, the Buddha offers himself to a hungry tigress, and the Medicine Buddha burns parts of his body as an offering to the gods. Lama Sobha’s important message emphasized his “offering of light”. Offering is thus an important perspective with which to understand the Tibetan self-immolations. Yet the framework provided by either protest or offering does not fully capture the complexity of the situation.

For another starting point, let us turn to the event that Biggs (2003) has marked as the origin of modern self-immolation. In central Saigon, June 1963, the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, publicly set himself alight. Accompanying his act was a letter to then-president Diem asking him to be kind and tolerant towards his people and to enforce a policy of religious equality (Biggs 2003: 173). Thich Quang Duc’s act inspired a poet, four monks and a nun to self-immolate before the Diem regime was finally brought down that November (Biggs 2003: 180). Modern self-immolation is thus characterized by the fact that one acts on behalf of a collective cause, and this act inspires others to perform similar deeds. Through self-contained and fiery expressions of self, Tibetan self-immolators communicate their cause and inspire others to do the same. They are thus similar to other actants of suicide for a collective cause, such as suicide bombers.[1] In this sense, the acts of Tibetan self-immolation can be understood as a social fact in the Durkheimian sense, arising not from individual impulses but from the specific social conditions of being Tibetan in present-day China.[2] Most of the self-immolators have been under the age of thirty-five, emphasizing that they were born after the economic reforms of 1976 and in a time of relative material well-being. Despite this, they evidently perceived the social space as restricting their freedom. Their collective cause seeks to transform limitation into possibility, to open up the space of being.

The transformative power of the social imaginary is, as Crapanzano has noted, vital to the distribution of hope in any society. This is about hope as “the alternative rather than anticipation of projected change” (Browne 2003). Through their acts of protest and offering, the Tibetan self-immolators present to us the challenge of imagining alternatives to the present trajectory of life on the Tibetan plateau. Their acts speak in an alternative register. To people in Ganzi Prefecture who continue to live there, as well as to those of us outside Tibet, this register may be confusing, but confusion is rewarding if it causes us to imagine and search for the possibility of a different future.

28 March 2012


[1] The key difference, it must be emphasized, is that Tibetan self-immolators do not intentionally harm others.

[2] See Hage (2003) for an application of Durkheim’s social fact to Palestinian suicide bombers.


Benn, James A. 2007. Burning for the Buddha: Self-immolation in Chinese Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Biggs, Michael. 2005. "Dying without Killing: Self-Immolations, 1963 – 2002." In, Diego Gambetta (ed.). Making Sense of Suicide Missions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp 173 – 208.

Browne, Craig. 2003. On Social Hope: Reconciling Normative Principles and Temporal Practices. TASA Conference Proceedings, The University of New England, 4 – 6 December 2003.

Crapanzano, Vincent. 2003. "Reflections On Hope as a Category of Social and Psychological Analysis." Cultural Anthropology, 18 [1]: 3 – 32.

Hage, Ghassan. 2003. "‘Comes A Time We Are All Enthusiasm’: Understanding Palestinian Suicide Bombers in Times of Exighophobia." Public Culture, 15 [1]: 65 – 89.

Gillian G. Tan, Research Fellow in Anthropology, The University of Melbourne, Australia. She is the Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow whose research combines long-term ethnographic fieldwork among nomads of eastern Tibet with theoretical developments in phenomenology, the anthropology of nature, and science and technology studies.