In New York, everyone is an artist. The city is a melting pot of musicians, writers, painters, poets, printmakers, and the like. The streets are flooded with guerilla art, words and pictures scrawled onto sidewalks, spray paint dripping off the brick, and posters peeling from the plaster. Museums aplenty. Neighborhood cafes and restaurants, whose walls are lined with the work of local artists, act as second homes to caffeinated writers busily scribbling over cups of coffee, and at nighttime they become meeting places where muses emerge, a cacophony of traffic, chatter, and music filling the air.
Countless invisible artists, some craving international recognition, creating to hearts’ content without having to worry about being imprisoned for a seemingly simple act of self-expression.
In Tibet and China, writers and artists strive for a different kind of recognition—not one bred out of a vain self-interest, but of the innate human desire for freedom. It is work created under unimaginable stress, work that the artists realize could cost them their very lives, and even the lives of their families.
Pema Rinchen, a 25 year-old writer from Eastern Tibet was arrested on Tuesday, July 5th. Rinchen had been a monk when he was a child. He began writing, and self-published a Tibetan language book titled Look, which commented on China’s policies in Tibet, the crackdown in 2008, and criticized the government’s reaction to the Yushu earthquake. Two thousand copies of his book were printed, and Pema Rinchen personally traveled around Tibet to distribute them. When he was detained on Tuesday, police beat him so severely that he was hospitalized the following day. His family rushed to see him when they heard, but police blocked their way. His whereabouts and his fate are currently unknown.
One month prior, another Tibetan writer had been sentenced to four years in jail. Tashi Rabten was nearly done with university when he was detained over a year ago in April. A writer and editor for a Tibetan-language magazine called Shar Dungri—or Eastern Snow Mountain in English—he also co-authored a series of essays entitled Written in Blood. The magazine had been banned, along with the essays, given that they boldly addressed China’s policies, and the crackdown after the 2008 uprisings. Three other Tibetans who worked on the magazine with Rabten were also detained and given similar sentences.
Dhondup Wangchen was arrested in March of 2008 and is serving a six-year prison sentence in a labor camp. His crime? Creating a documentary film, Leaving Fear Behind, which recorded Tibetans’ thoughts and views of the Beijing Olympics and the situation inside Tibet. In prison, he has been tortured and contracted Hepatitis B. His wife, Lhamo Tso, fled to India with their two young daughters, where she actively campaigns for his release.
In Tibet and China, writers and artists are enemies of the state. “Splittists,” is what they call them, their only crime being that of free speech and self-expression. Once upon a time, in July in the 1770s, the United States was founded on the pens of writers and artists like Thomas Paine, Jefferson, and Franklin, whose words and ideas sparked a revolution and wrought independence from Great Britain. Over 200 years later, a Tibetan renaissance is exploding across the plateau, with writers and artists emerging through monastery walls and prison bars, pen in hand, producing exquisite and bold works in the face of China’s iron fist–knowing full well of the possible consequences.
Artists and writers are dangerous, their work contagious, and they can only be contained for so long.