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politics - 18 12 2003 - 22:47 - katatonik

Maoist blood, golden urns and tsampa balls

Yesterday and today, I heard two excellent lectures touching upon the issue of propaganda: maoist rebels in Nepal, and the representation of the ritual selecting the 11th Panchen Lama in Chinese government TV and in a BBC documentary relying prominently on the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.

The propaganda by Maoist rebels is striking because of the constant emphasis of blood: rivers of blood run down the mountains, bodies slain by the hand of evil imperialists and foreigners, like the Indian Congress Party and the USA. One propaganda poster had the English “yankee go home!” written in Devanagari script right below a blood-feast.

The idea of Maoist propaganda, at least of that aimed at the rural (and tribal) population, is to express empathy with the exploited peasants and at the same time motivate them to martyrdom: join us, fight with us, die with us, your blood will soak the soil and generate power. This is perhaps the most remarkable feature of all these posters, leaflets, slogans: the idea that the blood of dying martyrs generates power. The martyrs are not asked to die because a better life expects them (in another world) or their community (in this world), but because their blood is a source of power.

I asked myself (and still do) whether any revolutionist propaganda in history was similar in this respect – motivating the people not through utopian goals (strong arm of the worker crushing the capitalists), but through the call for common death. Palestinian or radical islamist propaganda springs to mind, but here too, the goal is otherworldly, which it is not in the Nepalese case.

On the other side, there was the propaganda wielded by the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama, both institutions that are already (somewhat) in power. In both cases, the decision about which of three boys was, or was to be, the 11th Panchen Lama, was made by a mechanical ritual shown on TV or film. As is (perhaps) well-known, the two parties selected different candidates, and as of today still insist that their chosen one is the real Panchen Lama.

It seems, as one attentive listener of the lecture pointed out, that the Chinese show the entire process as one of appointing a Panchen Lama, and not as discovering one, which might be due to the difference in ideological background between the Chinese government and the Tibetan government in exile.

In the Chinese case, a ritual was revived which the Chinese ambassadors to Tibet had suggested in 1792, but which in the past hundred years had hardly ever been used: three tally sticks with names on them are, placed in a golden urn. They are placed in front of a statue of Buddha Shakyamuni. A high lama stirs them around and picks one. This ritual was revived and enacted in 1995, allegedly in a carefully crafted, and well-rehearsed, ceremony that involved party officials, local leaders, central government representatives and the Buddhist clergy. It took place in a building surrounded by heavy security, guards armed to the teeth.

The boy in Dharamsala was chosen through a similar ritual: three slips of papers are molded into tsampa (barley gruel) balls. These balls are put into a large bowl which then gets swirled around by a high lama. The Panchen Lama is the boy whose ball falls out first. This has to be confirmed in three consecutive runs. I don’t know where this ritual originates, but was told by more knowledgeable people that it is not obligatory – earlier Panchen Lamas were chosen simply because of the general procedure of questioning boys, analysing dreams, confronting them with possessions of the deceased Panchen Lama, and so on. This raises the question as to why it was decided to use the “mechanical” ritual in this case, and currently there seems to be no definite answer.

In the Chinese TV program, the stirring of the tally sticks was shown in close-up, evidently to make transparent to the viewers that this was an entirely legitimate process free of manipulation. Similarly, the BBC documentary showed the swirling of the bowl in Dharamsala in close-up, obviously with the same intention, though the impression of authenticity was undermined because this was not the actual event shown, but a demonstration of it shot afterwards. Nevertheless, that both parties focus on the visual representation of mechanical rituals designed to involve an element of chance which bestows legality on a process that might otherwise be believed to be manipulated, is striking.

The strategy didn’t quite work, in the Chinese case. People in Tibet soon noticed that one of the three tally sticks looks longer than the others and accused the government of manipulation, and this was not the first case where Chinese propaganda backfired. In an attempt to control public perception, TV stations and filmmakers invest their documentaries, news bits and fiction films with a large amount of historical detail and employ strategies to make things as transparent to the viewer as possible. But precisely this effort moves the perception out of control – technology backfires.

On the other hand, the official Chinese handling of the case is somewhat weird. A booklet was published by the former governor of the Tibetan Autonomous Region where, looking back at the Panchen Lama dispute, he openly declares that a consensus with religious representatives on the selection procedure was to be reached with pressure. Evidently, it is not felt necessary to conceal that force is being applied in ruling Tibetans.

Governing authorities use propaganda by demonstrating power and creating an air of transparency, while rebels motivate their audience with blood that generates power.

Does the use of blood in the Nepalese maoist propaganda mentioned above have deeper roots in Nepalese culture (e. g. is it a religious motive)?

gHack (Dec 19, 06:55 pm) #

Indeed, it would seem obvious to search in that direction, as some participants of the lecture (and the ritualistic wine-slurping afterwards) pointed out: parallels to sacrifices.

But the orthodox Hindu sacrifice (if one can say there is such a thing) works differently: the sacrificer, like a king, has an animal killed for his power and benefit, in the world and in supernatural terms. It's not the blood itself which generates power, and it's certainly not the blood of the one who sacrifices. In Buddhism self-sacrifice has hardly a place, though one might want to look at the ideological background of self-immolation e.g. on the part of Vietnamese monks.

At any rate, the answer, if there is one from that area, is not an easy one.

katatonik (Dec 19, 07:03 pm) #

Strikes me as enigmatic, too. Anyway, thank you very much (as always) for the interesting account!

gHack (Dec 19, 07:29 pm) #

I want signal to you a page where there are the contacts of every chinese embassy in the world to protest for a free Tibet.
The site is: http://marcioman.altervista...

ernota (Jun 4, 08:03 pm) #

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