‘I was criminalized for expressing my views’: Writer Tashi Rabten in a recent interview a year after release from prison

Tashi Rabten aka Theurang
Tashi Rabten aka Theurang

Tashi Rabten is a Tibetan writer and poet  in the Tibetan province of Amdo, present-day Sichuan Province. He was released last year in March after serving a four-year sentence at Mianyang Prison in Sichuan. He was a student at the North-West University for Nationalities and wrote for the now-banned Tibetan language journal Shar Dungri (‘Eastern Conch Mountain’) and also published Trag-yig (‘Blood Letters’), a compilation of his poems, notes and writings on the situation in Tibet following the 2008 protests.

In a recent conversation that is being circulated on various social media sites, Tashi Rabten talks about his experiences as a university student and political prisoner, and his newfound faith in the power of poetry.  Below is a translation of the interview that originally appeared in Tibetan on this blog :


Theurang’s Livelihood: ‘I don’t have any enemy. I follow my own will’

“My name is Tashi Rabten. Theurang is my pen name. I am from Dzoege, Amdo. Call me a person who has refused to be part of the Chinese Dream. There is no connection between the Chinese Dream and me. I don’t want to be part of any government or organization. I love freedom.

“At present, I am running a ja khang (teashop) at Ngaba, Amdo. It’s called སླའོ།.[*] It offers a variety of Tibetan and Chinese tea. I believe one needs to have an independent livelihood. I am sure people within and outside the country are observing me. So, I don’t want to hear them saying, “Look at Theurang. He can’t even feed himself!” To the cynical critics, I want to send this message: “Although Theurang does not possess an iron bowl, he’s not going to die out of starvation. He wants to have an independent livelihood.”

You were a political prisoner of Tibet. What are your views about political prisoners?

“Political prisoner” is a heavily loaded term. To be honest, I don’t understand politics. I was imprisoned for composing literary works. In other words, I was criminalized for expressing my views. Even during my trial, I told the judge that Tibetan writers should have an open space to express themselves. I still stand by this view. Whether in Tibet or anywhere else, if someone tells me to abandon my pen, I will never give in. I might tolerate anything, but I don’t think I can tolerate if I were asked to cut any ties with Tibetan literature.

Tell us a bit about your experience in prison? We heard you read many books.

Yes, I was able to read many books in prison. Call it ‘turning adversity into friendship’, if you like. Most of the books that I read were in Chinese. Normally prisoners have no time to sit down and read books. Everyone has to work. If you secure many ‘stars’ [prison grading system] for your work, then your prison sentence shall be reduced. But I kept writing to the prison authorities, saying that I hadn’t committed any crime and that I couldn’t work. Fortunately, the head of our prison, compared to heads of other prisons, was not unsympathetic to Tibetans. He was a reasonable man. He allowed me to read books. When I was in prison, I told a friend of mine that I have no enemies. The fact that I lived in prison was due to a choice that I made. Since I exercised my own choice, I don’t have any hatred against anyone. Nor do I have any regrets.

Who is your biggest inspiration in life?

My mother. She can’t read or write but she is a strong and honorable woman. Especially in times of adversity, she is very strong. She supported all the decisions that I made in my life. She never opposed them. She always stood by me and encouraged me. Apart from the fact that she loved her child, like all mothers do, as a person she has a broad vision. For this, I am very grateful to her.

Given a chance, is there anything that you want to do?

I want to travel to all the regions of Tibet and portray in words the joy and suffering, pleasure and pain of my fellow countrymen. I want to study Tibetan tradition and English language.

Can you reflect upon your life at the university? What was your greatest reward as a university student?

I was a student at the North West University for Nationalities in Amdo. While at the university, I was ‘transformed’ into a political prisoner. From a student, I became a prisoner. That was sort of my reward. Besides, as a university student, I had a chance to reflect on everything, raise doubts and debate about all sorts of ideas. I was happy that I found such a special academic environment.

Your book Trag Yig (‘Blood Letters’) is received well by readers in Tibet. What is your assessment of this work?

Trag Yig is my first book. It was well received by readers. The book gave expression to the terrible time that we had to go through. I believe a writer should be able to stand up and express his views about the life that he is living. I had to compose Trag Yig in haste. I was forced to write it after becoming a witness to the bloodshed of Tibetans from all the three provinces. I had to do it, because the voices of other Tibetan writers were being muzzled. The book bears witness to the truth.

What does poetry mean to you? Will you continue to write and publish?

I will continue to write. In the past I tried to write essays and poems. Now I want to concentrate only on poetry. Despite the hardships of prison, it was poetry that saved me. Writing poems gave me courage and vision. Poems gave me solidarity and solace. In the past I loved poetry. Now poetry is my faith, my religion. I can never renounce this faith. I might appear as someone pursuing a business venture (with my teashop). But this is just a temporary need. It is not my faith. It appears that one or two of my fellow poets are disappointed by the fact that I opened a teashop. That’s because they placed too much hope on me. I believe no matter what job one does, one shouldn’t give up one’s faith and dream. If I gave up poetry after opening a teashop, then my fellow poets and readers should be disappointed. But this is not the case. I have faith in poetry. In future, I will express my feelings in words and turn them into texts.

[*] སླའོ། is the ultimate source of melody and music found in Tibetan vowel and alphabet system. Children are first taught to recite this word before learning Tibetan alphabets and vowel sounds.

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