Tsering Woeser (b. 1966), who publishes under the single name Woeser, is a photographer, poet, blogger, and essayist, and is among the most active and best-known Tibetan public intellectuals active today. Born in Lhasa, she currently lives in Beijing under close surveillance and publishes in Chinese. Her work incorporates social and political criticism, reflections on Buddhist religious practice, and self-reflective explorations of a Sinophone Tibetan woman living in the dual Tibetan and Chinese cultural worlds. She is the recipient of numerous awards including the Courage in Journalism Award (2010) and the International Women of Courage Award from the US State Department.

Her earlier writing includes Notes on Tibet (西藏笔记) (Huacheng Publishing Press, 2003), Voices from Tibet (Hong Kong University Press, 2013), and her collection of poetry Tibet’s True Heart (Ragged Banner Press, 2008). In 1999 she began collecting and researching her father’s photographs, a process that culminated in the book Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution (Potomic Books, 2020). Woeser’s 2016 Tibet on Fire (Verso 2016) documents the acts of self-immolation that have taken place across the Tibetan world and serves as an extended meditation on the nature of cultural identity and resistance.

Woeser Poems
Translated by Ian Boyden:

︎︎︎“Flames of My Homeland”

︎︎︎“The Spider of Yabzhi Taktser”

︎︎︎“The Entire Night I Dreamt of Langchen-la”

︎︎︎“I Think of Returning to the Ruins but It’s Already in Vain”

︎︎︎“Absent, or Not Absent”

Photograph by Pazu Kong

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.
But there’s not a sound to be heard.
I think of the poet Pasternak,
who wrote “dipping my pen into ink,
I can not help
but cry.”

—Woeser, excerpt from “Flames of My Homeland”

The Spider of Yabzhi Taktser
Photograph by Tsering Woeser

(11 WORKS)

In 2013, Woeser visited Lhasa with Tsering Dorje’s Zeiss Ikon in hand to follow the traces recorded by her father almost five decades earlier. In August of that year, using a Gopro Hero3, she recorded a series of images from Yabzhi Taktser, former residence of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s family, then in a state of decay. 11 of those photographs appear below. One photo captured a dead spider in the foreground, creating a tableau that served as the catalyst for her poem ︎︎︎“The Spider of Yabzhi Taktser.”

Photographs Courtesy of Tsering Woeser

Yabzhi Taktser (ཡབ་གཞིས་སྟག་འཚེར།) is a title given to the family of the fourteenth Dalai Lama.

The fourteenth Dalai Lama was born in a farmhouse in Taktser, in the region of Amdo (now Hongya, in Pingya County, Qinghai Province, P.R. China) in the summer of 1935. In 1939, after being declared the reincarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, he was invited to Lhasa by the Tibetan government and people. The Dalai Lama’s family later shifted their residency to Lhasa and were given the title Yabzhi, the term of address historically granted to the family of the Dalai Lama, which means “the manor of the father of the nation.”

The Tibetan government built a mansion for the Yabzhi Taktser family, located to the east of the Potala Palace; it was completed in 1941. They used the finest building materials from all over Tibet, as well as iron railings and glass purchased from India.

But the world took a disastrous turn. At midnight on March 17th, 1959, the Dalai Lama, most of his family’s relatives, and government officials had to flee Lhasa, becoming refugees in exile in a foreign country. And the mansion of Yabzhi Taktser was occupied by a new power. In the years that followed it was given various names: first it was the Second Guest House of the Autonomous Regional Government; then during the Cultural Revolution it was the Headquarters of the Headquarter of Revolutionary Rebels and served as the stronghold of one of the two main Red Guard rebel factions, receiving Red Guards from all over China to Lhasa; later the compound was divided into multiple residences, and it became the Grand Tibet Workers Dormitory.  It is now known as the Tibet Pearl Garden Hotel. Its address is 31 Beijing Middle Road, Chengguan District, Lhasa.

The forest garden originally on the grounds behind the mansion became the seat of the United Front Work Department for the Tibet Autonomous Region. And the large forest garden at the front became a parking lot, restaurant, shower room, shopping mall, and garbage dump.

Because it was falling into ruins, in 2001 the Yabzhi Taktser mansion was listed by the authorities as part of the “Lhasa city-level cultural relics protection unit.” But it was not protected. The outer courtyard, now overgrown with weeds, became a place where immigrants piled up garbage and people parked their bicycles and motorcycles. For a time the owner of a local Sichuan restaurant raised his Tibetan mastiffs there. The roof of the main building surrounding the inner courtyard began to cave in.

Although the Yabzhi Taktser Mansion was 70 years old—relatively young as buildings go—the most important thing about it was not its age but that it had been the family home of the parents and family of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In April 2018, the building disappeared. It was demolished, flattened, thoroughly destroyed. And almost immediately, on the spot where it once sat, a new house was built out of reinforced concrete, almost identical in shape to the old one. The building that now stands in this place is a fake. The holders of power will write a new story about this building in grave and serious tones.

—Tsering Woeser
(translated by Ian Boyden)