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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Tibetan history, as sung by the victors

August 24, 2008

The Los Angeles Times
August 22, 2008

In an attempt to show the world that China is peace-loving in dealing
with Tibet, Beijing will present a Tibetan-Chinese opera as part of
its Olympics spotlight on Chinese culture.

Princess Wencheng opened yesterday and tells the story of a
seventh-century Chinese princess who acts as a bridge and civilising
influence on what is now Tibet, driven by duty, friendship and
personal sacrifice.

Some of the nuanced lessons from Chinese history may elude foreign
audiences. But the opera's director, Gao Mukun, hopes spectators will
take away the message that Tibet has always been part of China, which
has Tibet's best interests at heart.

Just in case, Mandarin- and English-speakers can follow the story
with subtitles. There are none in Tibetan.

China came under sharp criticism from foreign governments and human
rights groups in March, when its Communist Government cracked down on
Tibetan demonstrators.

"I believe if Princess Wencheng and [her Tibetan husband] King
Songtsan Gampo knew about the March events, they would blame the
rioters," Gao said. "I want to show that China is a big family that
needs to have peace and harmony and oppose war."

The Chinese Government has long used art to deliver political
messages, including its decision to expose President Richard Nixon to
the Red Detachment Of Women ballet, with its themes of patriotism,
national glory and military devotion, during his seminal visit to
Beijing in 1972.

Gao knows a thing or two about the politics of culture, having
survived the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. The then-Beijing opera star
avoided a long stint in the countryside, a fate other artists
suffered. Instead, he won the top male role in the revolutionary
opera Azalea Mountain, commissioned by Chairman Mao Zedong's wife,
the Gang of Four member Jiang Qing.

Gao said it was his idea to produce Princess Wencheng during the
Olympics. While that may be the case, analysts said, it almost
certainly went through serious vetting.

All things Tibetan are particularly sensitive now given the
demonstrations. Moreover, President Hu Jintao has a personal interest
in Tibet because of his former tenure as the region's Communist Party
secretary.

The opera is due to run for three days at the Mei Lanfang Theatre in Beijing.

While the Chinese version of the Princess Wencheng story paints a
picture of harmonious relations and Chinese altruism, Tibetan history
tells a different story, said John Powers, an Asian studies professor
at the Australian National University.

The Chinese emperor married off the princess out of necessity because
the Tibetan king had just conquered nearly a third of China's
territory, Dr Powers said. This strongly suggests Tibet was not
always part of China, he said.

Far from being a sophisticated cultural ambassador, Princess Wencheng
was 12, by some accounts, when she moved to Tibet. As the second of
the Tibetan king's four wives, the princess probably had limited
cultural influence on her husband or new homeland. "Basically the two
versions tell a very different story," Dr Powers  said. "The Chinese
want to show the world that their version is the truth."

Many Chinese did not know much about Tibetan history and went to
operas and other "minority performances" for the spectacle, said
Dechen Pemba, a Tibetan living in London after being deported from
China as part of the country's pre-Games visa-tightening policy.

"They're very selective with their history," she said. "They always
say China has sovereignty over Tibet, as shown by the princess story.
They also want to show that minorities are part of a big happy
family, all loyal to Beijing."

A researcher for the Chinese National Academic of Arts, Jia Zhigang,
said China was not trying to send a message by staging the production
now. "This opera provides one more choice for Olympic audiences, with
a focus on ethnic harmony," he said. "It's just a performance."

The Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai reportedly inspired the
Princess Wencheng opera in 1955, shortly after the People's
Liberation Army marched into Tibet and a few years before Tibet's
spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India. But it was not
produced until 2005, marking the 40th anniversary of the Tibetan
Autonomous Region.

Princess Wencheng, a joint production of the National Peking Opera
Theatre and the Tibetan Opera Troupe, attempts to meld two very
different operatic forms. Tibetan opera has a 600-year history,
compared with the Beijing Opera's 200 years.

"The union between our two peoples is now seen in the union of these
two art forms," Gao said. Zhu Shaoyu, the opera's composer, said the
key to this artistic marriage was music. "Tibetan Opera and Peking
Opera have totally different systems, language, instruments, and
styles," he said. "I have used many [musical] techniques to overcome
these differences and we succeeded."

Gao said people everywhere should perform the same "bridge function"
that Princess Wencheng served in her day.

"If people have an incorrect understanding of this issue, I hope they
can learn," he said.
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