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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Funeral Games* -- Jamyang Norbu

June 28, 2010

Shadow Tibet
June 26, 2010

Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the start
of the Korean War. That and all the recent news
from North Korea, especially the rumour that
"dear leader" (Kim Jong-Il) was seriously ill,
brought back memories of the time I was editor of
the Tibetan language newspaper MANGTSO in
Dharamshala in 1995 when "dear leader’s" father
"Great Leader" (Kim Il-Sung) died and I had to
scribble a quick report. Inevitably I came out
with something way too extravagant and long for
our small paper. The other editors, Lhasang
Tsering la and Tashi Tsering la in their
editorial wisdom replaced it with a brief report
in the news round-up column. My original piece is
now, fifteen years later, admittedly not du jour,
but the reader can have it for whatever
entertainment value it might have retained.

Few pleasures can beat the funeral of someone you
loathe. It is, I admit, not a very Buddhist
sentiment, but I think karma (the hardcore, not
the new age version) will, this once, overlook my
rancor, when I add that the someone in question is the late Kim Il-sung.

Time has softened the image of this genuine
monster, who modeled himself on Mao Zedong.
Starting off as a Stalin protégé, Kim along with
Pol Pot, became one of the most enthusiastic and
successful practitioners of Mao’s theories of
social engineering. In essence, this was to
destroy or mutate everyone who presumed to
individual aspirations, and bring society to the
condition of a "blank sheet of paper" on which
the leader could then brush-stroke in his new
concept of a classless society. Kim’s deeds are
not as well known as those of Pol Pot, primarily
as Kim, his cronies and progeny have managed to
hold on to power in the same way as the Chinese Communist Party has done.

Like Mao’s monumental mass murders, Kim’s crimes
will probably be played down and gradually
forgotten in the interests of international trade
and diplomacy. What does it matter that Mao
probably slaughtered more people in peace time
than Stalin and Hitler put together? The victims
were Chinese (and Tibetans), who don’t really
feel pain the way a white man does, or understand
or appreciate abstract concepts like freedom and
democracy. Look at Hong Kong. An average person
there would rather have a Mercedes than be free
of Communist Chinese rule. But that’s all by the by.

Kim’s enthusiasm for Chairman Mao and his
teachings seemed boundless. In the late sixties
and seventies "The Great Leader" even attempted
to physically look like "The Great Helmsman" and
managed as well as anyone possibly could, short
of undergoing plastic surgery. Bearing in mind
that Kim had the considerable disadvantage of
nowhere resembling Mao in the first place, it was quite the coup de théâtre.

I saw Kim’s funeral on TV. What I found
particularly hilarious was the sight of North
Korean marshals and generals -- hundreds of them
-- beating their breasts in frenzied mourning,
and flinging themselves before the colossal
statue of the “Great Leader” in the main square
in Pyongyang. Till then I had assumed that
"beating one’s breast" was merely a figure of
speech. All those North Korean military leader
had their chest completely covered, à la Marshall
Zhukov or Timoshenko, with rows upon rows, én
echelon, of medals and other decorations. I
suppose there must have been a lot of bruised knuckles after that funeral.

How genuine was all that display of grief? When
someone, no matter how evil, has been your
absolute leader, role-model, father-figure,
teacher, bogeyman and God, continuously for over
forty years, it is more than probable that you
would succumb to some degree of trauma on his
death. Genuine sadness? I think not.

Tibetans who were in Tibet at the time of Mao’s
death (1976) told me that even before fully
absorbing the implications of the news, their
overriding concern was not to reveal their
feelings to those immediately around them.
Decades of practice had, of course, made them
skilled at this. But now and then someone would
slip up. A friend of mine from Lhasa (who is
still there in an official position of some
consequence, so no names will be revealed) told
me that his work unit had to stand at attention,
out in the sun for a full day, as a mark of
respect for the departed Chairman. They stood
lined up in formation. Just in front of my friend
was someone with a large bald patch on the crown
of his head. No hats or caps were permitted, of
course. As the fierce Tibetan sun got higher and
stronger, the back of the bald man’s head began
to redden, and beads of sweat started to trickle
down. My informant was standing alongside a
friend of his who on noticing the discomfort of
the person before them, started to go into a fit
of giggles. This affected my informant too, who
desperately tried to control himself. His friend
unfortunately lacked similar resolve, for after a
desperate struggle he burst out in a fit of
laughter. He got eight years of “Reform through Labour”.

Another friend of mine, a former incarnate lama
now living in New York, told me this story. As an
ex-prisoner he was part of a probationary labour
unit (laeme rukha) in a village outside Lhasa.
Their team leader was an older woman, who was a
real stakhanovite (Ch. jijifenzi), or hurtsunba
as they are known in Tibet. Although no better
off than the other wretched ex-prisoners in the
unit, she was an absolute enthusiast for the
party-line. This was in the period following the
Cultural Revolution when everyone in the PRC had
been reduced, mentally and physically, to near
yidak (preta) state and Tibet was in the grip of
a second famine. The work team heard the news of
Mao’s death over the loudspeakers when they were
out in the fields. Everyone responded
predictably, doffing their caps, lowering their
heads, and keeping their thoughts to themselves. Except for the hurtsunba.

She started off predictably, weeping and wailing
loudly. Gradually she worked herself up into a
hysterical frenzy, screaming and shrieking at the
top of her voice, and climaxing in a total
collapse. She then lay spreadeagled on the
ground, foaming at the mouth, only an occasional
convulsion or moan indicating that she had not
completely left this world. Her co-workers,
including the Lama, carried her to her bare hut
in the village and laid her on her bed. One of
them pointed out that her “wind” condition
(Tibetans believe that an imbalance in the “wind
humour” or long is the cause of hysteria) had to
be lowered. Someone else volunteered the
traditional cure for "wind imbalance" --
massaging the temples (Tib. yama) of the head
with butter. The supine hurtsunpa paused a moment
in her moaning. Raising her head she wailed “There is no butter in this house”.

* The title refers to the ancient Etruscan and
later Roman practice of holding lavish
gladiatorial and wild beast games (where many
prisoners were slaughtered) as a funeral rite to
honor a dead leader or dignitary.
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