The demure-looking Woeser seems like anything but a threat to the Chinese state. Yet the government has banned the Tibetan writer’s books, sometimes restricts her movements, and last summer shut down her two blogs.
Still, the censors have not fully succeeded in silencing the prolific writer, who works away on a computer in her simple apartment in a Beijing suburb, surrounded by the many Tibetan religious and cultural images that cover the walls.
Tibet experts heap praise on the 40-year-old writer, who is living in self-exile in the capital, saying her writings on Tibet have had an enormous influence.
Robbie Barnett, professor of contemporary Tibetan studies at Columbia University, says Woeser is the first Tibetan to play the role of public intellectual in China in the sense of using modern media. He says thousands of Tibetans have expressed their opposition through demonstrations and leaflets, but Woeser’s statements are “signed, enduring and have a very wide impact”.
Professor Barnett says Woeser is more of a cultural figure than a political one, likening her to public intellectuals such as Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller. “She writes as a humanist, as an author struggling to describe the emotions and experiences of individuals she’s met in a world where many of their most important memories and wishes have been forbidden,” he said.
Tseten Wangchuk, a journalist with the Tibetan Service of the Voice of America in Washington, says when he was in China, Tibetan intellectuals privately discussed the Tibet problem. “But she was the first one who really brought this from private conversational circles to the public domain,” he said. “In that sense, this was a big breakthrough for Tibet.”
Having never learned to read or write in her own language, Woeser is forced to express herself in Chinese. Wangchuk says Woeser is representative of a new generation of Tibetans who are using the Chinese language to challenge the central government in a highly articulate manner. He estimates there are between 200 and 300 blogs set up by Tibetans around the world. “It’s no longer just a state narrative, and that in itself is pretty important,” he said.
Woeser says she was also strongly influenced by the works of Edward Said, the author of Orientalism, and a long-time advocate of the Palestinian cause. Said’s theory of post colonialism particularly gave her a new framework for looking at China’s rule over Tibet.
Woeser says she’s determined to write “the truth” about Tibet. “As a writer, I felt I needed to write about these things, the real Tibet, and not the false Tibet presented by the government,” she said.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia she described how, for years, the party’s literary and art workers had “revised Tibet, repainted Tibet, resung Tibet, redanced Tibet, refilmed Tibet, resculpted Tibet”.
“Actual history was changed in this image, coloured by red ideology,” she said. “The memories of generations of Tibetans were changed.”