Monks Expelled From Yushu?

According to the New York Times‘s official sources and a statement from the State Council, Buddhist monks have been asked by the government to end their relief work in Yushu. Maybe. The same article also says that the governor of Yushu doesn’t know anything about it:

“We did not give or receive any orders of such kind,” the governor, Wang Yuhu, was quoted as saying. “Actually, we are very grateful for the role Tibetan monks played in the relief effort.”

Furthermore, the China Daily (official state media) is running a piece on their front page today about how crucial the monks are to the relief process:

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Tibetan Buddhist monks in crimson cloaks and jackets have joined the soldiers and rescue workers since the afternoon of April 14.

“A total of 900 monks from our temple alone have joined in the rescue and relief work. The first group arrived at epicenter at 4 pm, a few hours after the earthquake happened,” he said.

“We rescued more than 700 survivors, and helped find more than 1,000 bodies under the ruins.”

So what’s actually going on here? It seems probably the monks really have been asked to leave (I’ll believe an official State Council statement over a local governor any day), but why is still very much up for grabs. The New York Times posits a few theories:

[O]fficials disputed complaints from some monks that they were being expelled for political reasons, saying that better-trained workers were required for tasks like disease prevention and building reconstruction.

In a written response to questions from The Associated Press, the central government’s State Council Information Office expressed gratitude for the monks’ rescue efforts. But “it would bring more difficulties to disaster relief work if lots of unprofessional personnel were at the scene,” the statement added.


For days, the monks conducted their work with little or no interference from officials. But some complained this week that Chinese Army personnel and other government officials had begun to elbow them out of rescue and relief efforts. They said the government wanted to cast the rescue operations not as an indigenous effort, but as a generous gesture from the central government to the region’s ethnic Tibetan population.

Hmm. Well it certainly doesn’t seem like the government is trying to cast the rescue effort as something all their own when they’re running stories with passages like this in official state media:

A Sichuan-based Tibetan temple donated 11.27 million yuan to quake-hit Yushu county on Friday, including 10 million yuan from the temple’s Tibetan living Buddha, Tripa Rinpoch.

“We had planned to use the money to repair our temple, but now, it is our responsibility to donate it,” Tripa Rinpoch told China Daily.

“I see so many Han people and Tibetans carrying out the rescue and relief effort together, and I am deeply touched by them,” he said.

The Sershul Temple, located in Ganzi of neighboring Sichuan province and 110 kilometers far away from Yushu, had also provided relief supplies worth about 1.2 million yuan, including 200 tents, food and water.


Ngawang Kunkyap, a 19-year-old monk of Sershul Temple, didn’t realize his fingers were bleeding after hours of searching for survivors under ruins.

“I used my hands to dig into ruins, and I continued my work even though those underneath clearly had to be dead. Finding their bodies still would be a comfort for their family members,” he said.

Absurdity, Allegory, and China has a collection of some other Western reports that also paint the decision to remove the monks as a political one. And, as much as I love cynicism, doesn’t the government’s argument actually make a good deal of sense here? Monks were undoubtedly instrumental in the first few days, but now that the national and international community has had time to mobilize, it seems quite possible — likely, in fact — that monks are getting in the way of the professionals, if for no other reason than that their traditions are different.

For example, in the early aftermath of the quake, deaths were underreported in the media because the government rescuers didn’t know that the monks had already begun cremating bodies at their temples. That isn’t a huge problem, but extra confusion while trying to coordinate a massive search, rescue, and relief effort is understandably something the government wants to avoid. And anyone who has ever tried or get a large group of unskilled people to do something knows that it’s often easier to work with a much smaller crew of experienced people.

This is not to say the intentions of the monks are not good, or that they have not performed admirably. But they are not trained or, presumably, experienced at all in disaster relief, and many of the other rescue workers in Yushu are highly trained and experienced. Given that the government is running fluff pieces about how great they are as it’s asking them to leave, I think all the skepticism might be a bit premature. But what do you think? This is destined to be one of my more unpopular opinions, so get rippin’ on it in the comments.

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0 thoughts on “Monks Expelled From Yushu?”

  1. You’re not in China now, are you? If you were, you would have seen the 24-hour Yushu memorial coverage playing simultaneously on every single Channel here on Wednesday, and in it, you would have seen that it didn’t do much to showcase the help of the non-Han locals, other than letting us see them clapping at Hu’s speech and gratefully accepting the PLA’s aid.

    Okay, the China Daily said something that doesn’t quite fit with the NYT’s narrative (and it wasn’t just the west reporting on this; Hong Kong media was too). But think about it, what’s Farmer Wang in Henan or Worker Zhang in Shanxi going to follow–an English-language analysis in the China Daily, or the one feed that came through on every TV (in homes and on buses), radio, and website in China? (We weren’t even allowed to use the Google Music service!)

    This doesn’t need to be made too complicated. You don’t need to be an expert to scoop rice from a big pot, or to hand out a jeep full of blankets, or even to find bodies in the destruction. Of course special personnel would have to deliver medical aid and other technical work, but I don’t buy it that a nation that prides itself on raw manpower suddenly thinks there are a few hundred too many people in a county that needs all the help it can get.

    Let’s be real here. This is about power. This is about being the one that 900 million peasants see serving food, digging through rubble, saving the day.


  2. Zhuge Jiong,

    I would like to see the Hong Kong article about it. If it is I would not be surprised that it comes from anti China media Apple Daily. I mean that China faced a earthquake that was much much more devastating than this one. The Chinese government and the PLA would probably have some experience in dealing with such disasters. Maybe these Monks are being ‘pushed’ out, but by people whom are more qualified in their jobs. Could that be a bad thing? Unfortunately, NY times with their Anti-China propaganda lacks any objectivity.


  3. First thought that came to my mind was why can’t they just use the monks in a different capacity? If the monks are already there, and you only need so many grunt workers, stop bringing in grunt workers. Bring in the “skilled” workers, place them in positions which they can help, and continue to utilize the monks for grunt work.

    I think the CCP is having flashbacks which include an HBO documentary, collapsed schools, and a big ol picnic in front of Zhongnanhai.

    They wanna better control the info coming in and out, and shutting off the interwebz Xinjiang style might not look so good, especially with all those Monks there to complain about it.


  4. It seems like the benefits of willing and able workers, even though they may be untrained, would outweigh the organizational problems related to handling them.

    I almost feel that if the government does indeed want to “control” Tibetan monks it would do well to put them to work rather than marginalize them. The more religious authorities feel part of the system, the more they have at stake in making sure it is secure. As it stands, the monks have no reason to thank the government for anything other than regular political education meetings.


  5. I dunno that the CCP believes it can “control” the monks themselves, but I would venture that controlling what type of info comes out of Yushu is easier without the presence of a few thousand monks at ground zero


  6. 90 monasteries collapsed in earthquake and 8 thousands monks left homeless. Considering the area is not densely populated, the number of young males devote themselves to monastery business is astonishing. And they are in the age should be contributing economically to their families and society, yet they sit around in monasteries citing Buddhism passages and expecting the locals, tourism and government to support them. So who to blame for the economic backwardness? And if the west thinks pulling out small male boys from families and depriving them from ‘modern’ education is proper cultural practice, that shows the bias of western media. And yes, for their limited skill set, to the least, they should help out to dig for earthquake victims. And where were they after the Sichun earthquake?


  7. Chris,

    Ignorance is your blessing.

    A lot of monks traveled from different parts of Tibet to the Yushu, a place in neighboring province. They do deserve the credits of making efforts to help; but Sichuan was neighboring province too and a part of quake zone was dwelled by minorities including Tibetans. Haven’t you got any impression the crimsons robe wearing monks were among the volunteers in the last earthquake?

    And to your education.

    Buddhism probably makes some sense to the over-consumed post-modern western societies. But in China’s past; it was nothing more than a ruling tool to control the mass. It’s almost criminal when the ppl lived in stern poverty, were preached to seek ‘happiness’ outside of material means, when ruling class enjoyed plenty material abundance.


  8. @ trial checker: saying Buddhism was nothing more than a ruling tool to control the masses is a pretty vast oversimplification, although I think we can all agree your dedication to Marx is impressive and you probably took very good notes in politics class.

    Certainly, religion has been exploited as a means of control in China’s past, as it has been in every country. But saying that’s all Buddhism was is just not true. For one thing, Buddhism was not always approved of by the government (i.e. the imperial crackdowns against the Buddhist establishment in the Northern Zhou and Tang dynasties, esp Wuzong in 845). In fact, aside from the Qing, I’m not sure any dynasty cited Buddhism as an official religion or anything.

    With ANY religion or belief system, there are things you can point to and claim they’re just used as a means of control. You could probably make a stronger argument about Confucianism than Buddhism in that vein, especially since so many Chinese emperors adopted it officially. But saying it’s “just a means of control” is a vast overstatement, and kind of misleading. Generally speaking, it was monks who were preaching “happiness” outside of material means, and corrupt monks aside, Buddhist monks are pretty 一无所有. The ruling class didn’t give a fuck about the common people’s happiness one way or the other (generally speaking), they certainly weren’t going to bother wandering around villages in monk costumes begging for food and preaching about the path to happiness…


  9. 🙂 C. Custer,

    I got more education about Marx by living in the west than in ‘Communist’ China. I do agree my statement about Buddhism was a vast simplification. I guess it’s precisly because I grew up in China, I naturally rebel against any sort of authoritative preaching, in ideology or in religion. And I did try to participate Buddhism learnings( by Tibetan ‘master’ and other factions), only found the rigid rituals annoying when they expect you to surrender reasoning, and to be overly humble, even in physical posture, to receive teaching.

    Before I process into criticizing Tibetan Buddhism, I want to state, as a liberal, I am all for Tibetan independency, if that’s what majority of Tibetans want. Actually I think China should be ruled by minorities, instead of by the majority Hans, (if democracy is not a possibility). Historically, like during the Tang, Yuan, or Qing, China enjoyed long period of ‘stability’ because minorities were not marginalized.

    I agree that Buddhism wasn’t much integrated into ruling class during the dynasties mentioned by you. But in Tibet, they did have a theocratic system. And what make me think the Tibetan Buddhism has a lot of hypocrisy? Very simple, look at the Portola palace, or other monasteries, if the lamas were really full of ‘compassion’, they probably should had themselves lived in the yak tents, and had the poor sheltered in the palace, instead of the other way around.


  10. @trial checker
    My point is that it is safe to assume, judging from the similarity of these two circumstances, that monks did in fact help during the 2008 earthquake. Just because we have no news article on hand showing us that they did help, does not mean that they didn’t. What is likely is that they simply did not receive as much media attention two years ago than they are now (for reasons that have nothing to do with Tibetan monks and everything to do with the media).

    Regarding Buddhism:
    Why are you mentioning this to me? If you have pegged me for an overzealous Buddhist or Tibetan studies grad student that will defend anything a Tibetan monk does, you have got me wrong. (Or maybe you have another reason for telling me that, in which case please let me know).


  11. Zhuge Jiong’s first point was a good one. China Daily is not directed at Chinese people; it is directed at English-speaking foreigners. So, that newspaper in particular needs to acknowledge the efforts of monks in some way, as those efforts have already been acknowledged in the NY Times and elsewhere. This does not clash with the government’s simultaneous effort to push monks away from the cameras in terms of the coverage that Tibetans and ordinary Han Chinese receive.

    As to whether the existence of lots of monks is a waste of resources in a poor society… well, that smacks an awful lot of colonial attitudes to me. The narrative it suggests is: enlightened Han coming in to rescue poor religious zealots from their backward traditions and to help them toward modernity, similar to British “rescuing” Indians from practices like sati, Westerners in general “rescuing” Chinese from foot binding a century ago, or Americans “rescuing” Afghanis from the burka—all without any financial or strategic interest on the part of the occupier, of course!

    The problem is that Tibet is still the poorest part of China and the most unequal in terms of distribution of wealth, meaning, I suppose that a) Han have largely failed on the modernizing part, at least in comparison to Han areas of the country (though, of course, Tibet, like just about everywhere else in the world, is better than it was 50 years ago in some ways), b) that Tibetan traditions are so backward that they are still holding up the modernizing efforts of the Han, or c) raising Tibetans incomes was never really a priority for the government.

    Anyway… I hate these arguments. I shouldn’t get into them!

    Just one more thing: I wouldn’t bash Marxism’s power to explain China (or the West). I think it’s the best guide right now for what’s going on, albeit an incomplete guide.


  12. I just have two points to make.

    1. A CCTV news anchor Zhao Pu has witnessed the crimson robed monks elbowed out Chinese soldiers and rescuers in several cases, not vice versa. He reported this in his microblog.

    2. Yushu is not a poor region. China Business Weekly has an article – The Wealth of (Yushu) Herders is Astonishing!


  13. Leo…You CLEARLY have never been to Yushu prefecture. If you think these herders living at 4000 to 4500m are wealthy, you are clearly mistaken. I have spent over 8 years living, working and traveling in this area and have NEVER heard something as ridiculous as your “statement”. Yushu is a large 6 county Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and is larger than many Chinese provinces. A large majority of the 275,000 to 300,000 people who live in this region are EXTREMELY poor. If you don’t believe me, then go there yourself. In fact, I would be happy to take you myself.


  14. I think Tibet monks are one of the most devout people in China, or in the world. I believe they are going to save much more lives and souls rather than our governors(masters). Would you like to move to the poorest county, suffer from starve and thirst, embrace and help the victims, regardless of your personal gains and loss? The only reason that they are expelled, is that the governor feared them to discover some truth, they are also afraid that the monks heals more trauma than they do—I mean, people in desperate will fall in love with any helping hand, which is unacceptable by this hamony government.

    I saw the news from internet that monks were blocked by “policeman” and “plainclothes” 2 years ago in 512 Sichuan earthquake as well.
    And many parents that lost their beloved child in the Sichuan earthquake were blocked from the media, from justic and care. What’s worse, most of them were captured and imprisoned. At some county, a dead pig gets more pension than a dead child. That’s the logic in China….

    I hope you know what I mean…


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