Tibetan Women: Thrinley Chodon & The Nyemo Revolt

I am currently taking a class on Tibetan women visionaries at Columbia. In all my years taking Tibetan studies classes, I have never run into one focused solely on women, so I was pumped from day one! Through these last few months, we’ve read  biographies and a few extremely rare autobiographies of extraordinary Tibetan women who  — whether as saints, hermits, consorts, or even activists — were all rebels in their time living on the fringes of society.

What I didn’t realize before was that Buddhism has been a place for women to break out of their traditional roles ever since it began along the eastern banks of the Ganges some 2500 years ago. Women, at that time of  rapid urbanization, in the Age of Wanderers, were looking for a life of the mind and meditation. The Buddha and his gang (they were seen as a cult initially) eventually provided this space for women, and in Tibet, some women continually turned to the religion as a means of escaping a life of marriage, children and servitude to the patriarchy – a life of dependence on father then husband then son etc.

We in the Tibetan community have begun to notice the lack of awareness and valorization of our hereos, our great ancestors. The ignored include the Khampa guerilla fighters (some of them still living in abject poverty in the camps of Pokhara, Nepal), and the great men who helped to build our ancient civilization (Gendun Chopel, Shakabpa, the Great 5th Dalai Lama etc.). Contemporary Tibetan heroes in Chinese incarceration are now being highlighted here. Yet while the men of Tibet are at least known about nominally, women are marginalized in our historical knowledge more so. This is partly due to the lack of documentation about women — because as relatively equal as women could be in Tibet, this was still a patriarchal society. Well, I’m not an expert by any means, but in the last few months I’ve learned that there are at least a dozen or so women we must all learn about, if only to know where we come from, who blazed these trails before us.

One particular woman’s story that I want to briefly introduce to you today is Thrinley Chodron, a nun who lead a revolt against the Chinese invasion! A friend and classmate likened her to the Joan of Arc of Tibet as we discussed her biography. And this isn’t a crazy parallel either. Like Joan, Ani Thrinley, so young — around the age of 28, claimed that she was possessed by a divine entity as she led the 1969 Nyemo Revolt. This revolt appeared to begin as a fight between revolutionary factions of the Cultural Revolution. However, Thrinley Choden’s group, the Gyenlo faction, was actually targeting the Chinese.

The group captured and killed fourteen Chinese cadres and soldiers and seems to have triggered a chain of revolts in neighbouring areas that were drastically repressed (Women in Tibet 168).

She was from Pusum Village in Nyemo, and claimed to be the emanation of Labja Gongmo, a holy bird from the Gesar epic when she started the movement. Invoking the great epic, she attracted many followers (some 30,000 according to French Tibetologist Ann Riquier) and even named her male partners after Gesar’s counsellors.

For a more materialist and skeptical interpretation of Ani Thrinley, read Melvyn Goldstein’s On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident in 1969. He, along with his colleagues, argue that the rebellion was not ethnically driven and that Tibetans have romanticized it as the epitome of Tibetan rebellion against China. In class, my professor talked about this academic discomfort with religious views, this inability to incorporate people’s religious views  into today’s academic’s discourse. If it doesn’t fit into a materialist worldview, it must not be true! Perhaps this is a major weakness in Goldstein et al’s interpretation. I’m itching to poke around and decide myself.

During a criticism session of the female Buddha.

Tsering Shakya has written about Thrinley as well in his famous back and forth dialogue with Wang Lixiong. He frames Thrinley’s story in the context of Tibetan  resistance to the Cultural Revolution — discounting Chinese claims that Tibetan participation was proof of their allegiance to China:

As Wang should know, there were Tibetans who resisted, and faced the full wrath of the Party. In 1969 there was widespread rebellion throughout Tibet, eventually crushed by the PLA. The best-documented episode is the revolt led by Thrinley Chodron, a young nun from the xian (county) of Nyemo, who marched her followers armed with swords and spears to the local Party headquarters, and slaughtered both the Chinese officials and the Tibetan cadres working for them. At first the Party ignored the massacre, thinking it was a manifestation of the Cultural Revolution as we know, murders could be exonerated if they fell under the rubric of class struggle. But the authorities soon realized that these Tibetan peasants were rebelling not in the name of the “newly liberated serfs” but in defence of their faith. What was more, they targeted only Chinese Party officials and those Tibetans seen as colluding with the colonizing power. The revolt spread from Nyemo through eighteen xians of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), and the Party was forced to send in the PLA to suppress it. Thrinley and fifteen of her followers were eventually captured and brought to Lhasa for public execution. Even today, the Party has expurgated this episode from the historical record as it fails to conform to their image of liberated peasants or, indeed, to Wang’s portrayal of Tibetans joyfully “casting off the spectre of the afterlife that had hung over them for so long”.

Dr. Shakya la makes me rethink my reason for highlighting Ani Thrinley’s story. Thrinley Chodron is important not only because she was a remarkable woman who led a resistance against incredible odds, she matters too because she is part of a battle against the revision of our history. The Chinese have attempted a million ways to distort the true desires of the Tibetan people. Their favorite go-to is the claim that the any resistance was and is an act of the Dalai clique of aristocrat feudal landholders. Ani Thrinley, with her humble roots and her following, shows how the Tibetan people fought even in those early days against the Chinese invasion. She is a precious example of our history, and histories can only survive if we remember.

Here is the video footage of 35 year old nun Palden Choetso’s self-immolation and funeral in Tawu, eastern Tibet. She sacrificed her life on November 2, 2011.