It appeared to be a typical New Year in Rebkong county, a remote part of Qinghai province in western China where the countryside is dotted by Tibetan monasteries and white stupas.
At Gomar monastery, colourful prayer flags flapped in the wind and the faithful spun rows of large brass prayer wheels and tossed pieces of coloured paper squares from a tall stupa, sending countless prayers swirling into the sky. Meanwhile, a steady line of pilgrims carried out an exhausting circumambulation of the temple, prostrating their bodies fully across the ground after every three steps.
But not everyone was joyful. Losar, the Tibetan lunar new year, comes 11 months after unrest broke out in Tibetan areas of China last year, and despite government attempts to erase the memories, few families seem in the mood to celebrate.
Calls for a boycott of the Tibetan New Year began spreading months ago via blogs, mobile phone messages and word of mouth, travelling from Tibetan communities in Dharamshala, India, London and New York to rural villages and towns in western China. Some Tibetans celebrate the New Year according to the Chinese lunar calender, which began on Jan 26 this year, while others follow the Tibetan lunar calendar, which marks the first day of 2136, the year of the Earth Ox, on Feb 25.
The sense of fear is palpable in this area, which saw disputes break out between Muslims and Tibetans last February and then again in March. But those who are willing to talk essentially tell the same story.
“It wasn’t a joyous New Year,” said a Tibetan farmer standing in the courtyard of the Nyentog Temple, dressed in a black Tibetan robe with a red sash tied around his waist. “Last year was not a good one,” he said. He then slowly brought his two fists together to express his meaning before disappearing into the crowd.
“Few people celebrated the New Year this year,” said one outspoken monk, standing in the corner of another monastery. “A lot of young people were killed last year and people are sad. There is no feeling of happiness.”
A former monk who produces tankas, Tibetan religious scroll paintings, said most people chose to remember those who lost their lives in last year’s melee rather than mark the new year.
“We didn’t set off any fireworks, bathe, or put on our best clothing,” he said. “We didn’t sing, play music or dance. We didn’t put couplets on the doors. We normally give gifts at New Years, but we didn’t do that either.”
Woeser, a popular Tibetan writer, said the Chinese government is pressuring Tibetans to celebrate the holiday. “This is to give an impression to the outside world that Tibetan areas are calm and harmonious, and that people are happily celebrating.” She described how local cadres demanded farmers sign or put their fingerprint on a statement saying they will hold festivities.
In other areas, officials offered bribes and gifts and distributed fireworks, lanterns and couplets, more a part of the Chinese New Year than the Tibetan one.
Woeser said the government effort has been a failure, describing how some 2,000 Tibetans showed up at one temple wearing old and worn-out clothing, a clear sign of civil disobedience. Monlam Chenmo, the Great Prayer Festival, went ahead this year in Qinghai much as it has since it first started in 1409.
On Thursday at Gomar monastery, monks prepared for the traditional mask dance, donning their yellow hats and other elaborate accessories worn on special occasions. They played three-metre long horns, clanged large brass cymbals and beat drums. Crowds of Tibetans arrived continuously from the surrounding countryside, wearing elaborate costumes and silver jewellery embedded with turquoise and coral stones, watching as monks emerged from the temple, wearing demon-like masks as they performed their dance to exorcise ghosts.
The next day monks at the Nyentog Monastery held the Sunning of the Buddha ceremony, in which a massive tanka was shouldered to the mountainside by dozens of people, where it was unfurled down the mountain, exposing a huge image of the Buddha in the bright afternoon sun.
The call to cancel Losar celebrations kicked off an outpouring of comments on Tibetan blogs, with most expressing support.
A blogger named Lobsang, supported the boycott, arguing that Chinese injustices have not stopped.
“Why should we put on this fake smile on Losar? Why should we give the Chinese government the satisfaction of their decades of brutality on us by smiling and celebrating Losar as if nothing cruel has happened to us.”
Gelek Badheytsang opposed the idea in a commentary posted on the Tibet Talk blog, saying one way to resist Chinese oppression “is to be happy”.
“Happiness is a force that buckles the steely reins of dictators and seeps effortlessly through the shackles and cloaks of oppression,” he wrote, adding that by celebrating Losar every year, it “is a victory for a small nation of people numbering less than two per cent of China’s total population”.