For centuries, Tibet was known as a hermit kingdom. Its charms were hidden by the natural barrier of the Himalayas to its west and by a reclusive theocratic government ruled by a succession of Dalai Lamas…Nowadays it is not the Tibetans shutting the door, but a paranoid Chinese Communist Party. China has ruled Tibet since 1950, and is a most unwelcoming gatekeeper.
In Eat the Buddha, Barbara Demick, award-winning author of Nothing to Envy, journeys to a small town high on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. The residents of Aba have been in an uneasy compromise with the Chinese for decades, living nomadically on the plateau in the summer and moving to concrete housing in the winter, sending their children to monasteries to be educated, practising polyandry as is their custom—yet all the time subject to oppressive restrictions.
Travelling in disguise to evade the Chinese authorities, Demick interviewed Tibetans over three years: among them a novice monk contemplating protest suicide, the last princess of the region exiled during the Cultural Revolution and a young woman trapped in a bigamous marriage.
Weaving together their stories with the history of China’s dominance over Tibet, she creates a vivid portrait of the lives of a people locked in a struggle for identity and independence.
In this heartbreaking and doggedly reported account, journalist Demick (Nothing to Envy) views the tragic history of Tibet under Chinese rule through the stories of people with roots in Ngaba County, the site of the Mei kingdom in the remote reaches of Sichuan province. Demick recounts the region's first violent encounters with the Red Army during its Long March in the 1930s, when starving soldiers "ate the Buddha," devouring Tibetan votive offerings made of barley flour and butter as they fled Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces. Her survey of the Chinese Communist Party's grinding, decades-long repression of Tibetans also includes the odyssey of the daughter of the last ruler of the Mei kingdom, who fled the family's palace during the 1958 crackdown that eventually forced the Dalai Lama into exile in India; the harrowing story of an elderly market stall operator whose young niece was killed when Chinese troops fired on civilians in a 2008 demonstration; and sketches of monks and nuns who set themselves ablaze in protest of Chinese rule. "For the most part," Demick writes, "they were regular people who hoped to live normal, happy lives in China's Tibet without having to make impossible choices between their faith, family, and their country." Demick captures her subjects' trials and sacrifices with superb reporting and razor-sharp prose. This poignant history could do much to refocus attention on the situation in Tibet.