Tsering Woeser

Flames of My Homeland

Life-force Tree Reliquary, 2020
Partially burned name

Sound recording of Woeser reading her poem “Flames of My Homeland”
Recorded December 21, 2020, Beijing
Length: 2:19 minutes
Courtesy of Tsering Woeser


[1] The flames in this poem are the flames of Tibetan self-immolators. Since 2008, a wave of self-immolation has swept across Tibet, to date 152 individuals have burned themselves alive, many of them Buddhist monks. The majority of these self-immolations have been expressions of political protest against China’s occupation of Tibet, as well as its oppression and systematic destruction of Tibetan culture. Woeser discusses this topic in her extraordinary book Tibet on Fire (Verso Books, 2016).

[2] This line is from Boris Pasternak’s poem “February” written in 1912. There are many translations of this poem into English, however, they are all quite different from how the poem was rendered in Chinese. So, to this end, I have translated the Chinese translation of this poem, as it carries a tone not present in English translations made directly from the original Russian.

March is peculiar.
The sweeping winds are long in coming,
and dust-filled air obscures a flame
in my homeland.
From where I sit, my view is limited,
the flame bright then dark.
But even if I were nearby
I couldn’t approach it.
To behold such a sight
would break my heart.

Even more houses destroyed
by an invisible hand.
Even more prayers disappeared
in the din of harsh and alien accents.
Even more pillaging and unstoppable negotiations.
Drifting, destitute and homeless.
This world of dust, a story
full of grief.

From where I sit
at the window
on the twenty-first floor of a high-rise,
it is as though I’ve placed myself
in a perilous frame
of the twenty-first century.
No need to distance myself.
The flames are almost within reach
but obscure.

Outside the window, the poison air
seethes and boils.
No wonder all the living creatures
of this country rot
one after another.

I bow my head to record
my homeland’s flames
that spark suddenly and extinguish suddenly.
One by one by one, one hundred fifty-
two flames and counting, unstoppable.1
But there’s not a sound to be heard.
I think of the poet Pasternak,2
who wrote “dipping my pen into ink,
I cannot help
but cry.”

And I also see this:
in the ashes,
a reborn soul
beautiful beyond compare.

Tsering Woeser
March 25, 2017, Beijing

Translated by Ian Boyden, March 27, 2017

This poem was first published on Radio Free Asia, April 5, 2017.