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Eat the Buddha
Cover of Eat the Buddha
Eat the Buddha
Life and Death in a Tibetan Town
Borrow Borrow Borrow
A gripping portrait of modern Tibet told through the lives of its people, from the bestselling author of Nothing to Envy.

“You simply cannot understand China without reading Barbara Demick on Tibet.”—Evan Osnos, author of Age of Ambition 
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW AND THE WASHINGTON POST
Just as she did with North Korea, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick explores one of the most hidden corners of the world. She tells the story of a Tibetan town perched eleven thousand feet above sea level that is one of the most difficult places in all of China for foreigners to visit. Ngaba was one of the first places where the Tibetans and the Chinese Communists encountered one another. In the 1930s, Mao Zedong’s Red Army fled into the Tibetan plateau to escape their adversaries in the Chinese Civil War. By the time the soldiers reached Ngaba, they were so hungry that they looted monasteries and ate religious statues made of flour and butter—to Tibetans, it was as if they were eating the Buddha. Their experiences would make Ngaba one of the engines of Tibetan resistance for decades to come, culminating in shocking acts of self-immolation. 
 
Eat the Buddha spans decades of modern Tibetan and Chinese history, as told through the private lives of Demick’s subjects, among them a princess whose family is wiped out during the Cultural Revolution, a young Tibetan nomad who becomes radicalized in the storied monastery of Kirti, an upwardly mobile entrepreneur who falls in love with a Chinese woman, a poet and intellectual who risks everything to voice his resistance, and a Tibetan schoolgirl forced to choose at an early age between her family and the elusive lure of Chinese money. All of them face the same dilemma: Do they resist the Chinese, or do they join them? Do they adhere to Buddhist teachings of compassion and nonviolence, or do they fight?
 
Illuminating a culture that has long been romanticized by Westerners as deeply spiritual and peaceful, Demick reveals what it is really like to be a Tibetan in the twenty-first century, trying to preserve one’s culture, faith, and language against the depredations of a seemingly unstoppable, technologically all-seeing superpower. Her depiction is nuanced, unvarnished, and at times shocking.
A gripping portrait of modern Tibet told through the lives of its people, from the bestselling author of Nothing to Envy.

“You simply cannot understand China without reading Barbara Demick on Tibet.”—Evan Osnos, author of Age of Ambition 
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW AND THE WASHINGTON POST
Just as she did with North Korea, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick explores one of the most hidden corners of the world. She tells the story of a Tibetan town perched eleven thousand feet above sea level that is one of the most difficult places in all of China for foreigners to visit. Ngaba was one of the first places where the Tibetans and the Chinese Communists encountered one another. In the 1930s, Mao Zedong’s Red Army fled into the Tibetan plateau to escape their adversaries in the Chinese Civil War. By the time the soldiers reached Ngaba, they were so hungry that they looted monasteries and ate religious statues made of flour and butter—to Tibetans, it was as if they were eating the Buddha. Their experiences would make Ngaba one of the engines of Tibetan resistance for decades to come, culminating in shocking acts of self-immolation. 
 
Eat the Buddha spans decades of modern Tibetan and Chinese history, as told through the private lives of Demick’s subjects, among them a princess whose family is wiped out during the Cultural Revolution, a young Tibetan nomad who becomes radicalized in the storied monastery of Kirti, an upwardly mobile entrepreneur who falls in love with a Chinese woman, a poet and intellectual who risks everything to voice his resistance, and a Tibetan schoolgirl forced to choose at an early age between her family and the elusive lure of Chinese money. All of them face the same dilemma: Do they resist the Chinese, or do they join them? Do they adhere to Buddhist teachings of compassion and nonviolence, or do they fight?
 
Illuminating a culture that has long been romanticized by Westerners as deeply spiritual and peaceful, Demick reveals what it is really like to be a Tibetan in the twenty-first century, trying to preserve one’s culture, faith, and language against the depredations of a seemingly unstoppable, technologically all-seeing superpower. Her depiction is nuanced, unvarnished, and at times shocking.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book Chapter 1

    The Last Princess

    1958

    Gonpo could smell the smoke before she could see what was happening. Although she was just seven years old and not well versed in the politics of the day, it confirmed a nagging feeling she'd had for weeks that something was amiss. She was on her way home with her mother, sister, an aunt, and a convoy of servants. They had been away, attending the funeral rituals for her uncle. It had been summer when they set out for her uncle's village, but they'd been away for forty-nine days, the traditional mourning period between death and rebirth for Buddhists. Now it was early autumn, and the evening chill whispered of the snow that would soon creep down from the mountaintops. Gonpo wore a thick sheepskin robe trimmed with fur, but the wind whipped up from underneath her horse and made her shiver. Everybody was on horseback: Gonpo, like most Tibetans, was a seasoned equestrian at a young age. They followed the course of a road that had recently been laid out by Chinese military engineers, though not yet paved, heading due west, into the setting sun. Their route forked off at a stream that led north to Gonpo's home, and as they emerged from behind a thicket of shrubbery, Gonpo could see where the smoke was coming from. From her vantage point atop the horse, she had a clear view of half a dozen bonfires and a corresponding number of tents. As they approached, she could see that these weren't the black yak-hair tents used by Tibetans, but the small white tents of the People's Liberation Army.

    This was 1958, nine years after Mao Zedong had proclaimed the People's Republic of China, so it was not unusual to see encampments of the Red Army around the countryside. But this was on the family property, and that was surprising. Gonpo had been fighting off sleep on the last leg of the two-day trek, but now she was jolted awake by curiosity and a touch of fear. She was one of the first to dismount, sliding off her horse without waiting for the servants to help her. She ran up to the gate, wondering why nobody had come out to greet the returning convoy. She banged hard on the gate—a slab of wood twice as high as a grown man with a massive lintel across the top. There was no response, so she shouted at the top of her lungs.

    "Hello, hello. Where is everybody?"

    Her mother walked up behind her and called out as well.

    Eventually, Gonpo's nanny came and unlocked the gate. Instead of a warm welcome, the maid leaned over the child as if she weren't there, bringing her face close enough to Gonpo's mother to whisper directly into her ear. Gonpo couldn't hear the words, but she discerned from her mother's reaction that it couldn't be good. Gonpo had seen her mother crying a lot lately; the uncle who died had been her favorite brother—and Gonpo thought maybe her mother was crying again because she was still sad about his death. At least that's what Gonpo wanted to believe, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary—the smoke, the tents, the stone-faced maid. Her instinct told her that this was the beginning of the end of the world as she knew it.

    Gonpo was raised a princess. Her father, Palgon Rapten Tinley, a name that roughly translates as "Honorable Enlightenment Steadfast," was the fourteenth in a line of rulers in what was known as the Mei kingdom. Its capital was Ngaba, in what is now Sichuan province. When Gonpo was born, in 1950, Ngaba was a nondescript market town where traders came to sell salt and tea and where herders came to sell their butter, skins, and wool. This entire region was a patchwork of small fiefdoms governed by various chieftains and kings, princes, khans, and warlords. The...
About the Author-
  • Barbara Demick is the author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award and the winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize in the U.K., and Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood. Her books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages. Demick is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and a contributor to The New Yorker, and was recently a press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    June 1, 2020
    A portrait of one town reveals Tibet's tragic past. Demick, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who served as its bureau chief in Beijing and Seoul, offers a vibrant, often heartbreaking history of Tibet, centered on Ngaba, which sits at 11,000 feet on the plateau where Tibet collides with China. The author made three trips to the town beginning in 2013, and she interviewed Tibetans in Ngaba and many others living abroad, including the Dalai Lama and an exiled princess, who spoke candidly about the culture, religion, and politics of the besieged region. Tibet has long been vulnerable to Chinese invasion: In the 1930s, Red Army soldiers, after ransacking farms and slaughtering animals, caused widespread famine. Desperate from hunger, they discovered that votive statues in the monasteries were sculpted from barley flour and butter and were forced into "literally eating the Buddha." Demick chronicles decades of incursions, beginning in the 1950s, that resulted in cultural upheaval, economic hardship, and the deaths of about 300,000 Tibetans. Determined to sweep out religion, the Chinese demolished monasteries. Images of the Dalai Lama--or even mention of his name--incurred harsh punishment. Tibetans were herded into communes, where they could not even cook for themselves. Schoolchildren were indoctrinated to believe that the Communist Party "had liberated Tibet from serfdom." By 1968, protests arose, demanding the "dismantling of the communes, the distribution of livestock to the people, and the right to reopen the monasteries." Not surprisingly, the Communists refused, directing militias to intimidate and persecute the activists. The protests, Demick writes, "established Ngaba's reputation for rebelliousness," which intensified in 2009, when Ngaba became notorious for self-immolations, "an unequivocal register of discontent." Although many Tibetans are grateful for the economic growth and technology that the Chinese have brought, the loss has been tremendous. "I have everything I might possibly want in life," one Tibetan businessman told Demick, "but my freedom." Memorable voices inform a penetrating, absorbing history.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from July 1, 2020
    Journalist Demick does for Tibet what she did for Sarajevo in Logavina Street (1996) and North Korea in Nothing to Envy(2010): reveal the lives of individuals struggling against state tyranny and violence. Demick anchors her Tibetan chronicle to Ngaba, a town on the Tibetan Plateau in the former kingdom of Mei. Gonpo, a daughter of the last Mei king, who was deposed by the Chinese in 1958, is at the center of the group portrait Demick meticulously composes, weaving in defining details of everyday life as she recounts harrowing stories of brutality, loss, sacrifice, and love that embody the larger story of Tibet's long fight for freedom. A stellar student who tried to conform to the party line, Gonpo was nonetheless sent to a remote hard-labor camp, surviving to eventually join Tibet's government in exile. Readers also meet intrepid entrepreneur Norbu; the unofficial historian Delek; Dongtuk, a monk; and poet, teacher, and dissident Tsegyam. Writing with pristine clarity made possible by complete fluency in her complex material, Demick provides the missing human dimension in coverage of twenty-first-century Tibet, including the legacy of resistance that has engendered tragic protests by self-immolation, and all the anguish and paradoxes of lives heavily surveilled by the Chinese government, yet largely invisible to the greater world.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2020, American Library Association.)

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from July 27, 2020
    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.

  • Library Journal

    June 1, 2020

    This latest from Demick (Nothing To Envy) replaces the mystery that surrounds discussion of Tibet in the West with candid, heartbreaking stories of real Tibetans who have lived through periods of great tumult in their homeland. The stories are beautifully rendered and walk readers through the events that shook Ngaba, a town in Tibet that became synonymous in the 21st century with tragic self-immolations, and is geographically a difficult place to visit. By showing how people's individual lives unfolded and the hardships and dangers they endured, Demick sheds light on how Chinese oppression led many Tibetans to fight back, sacrificing their lives in the hopes of preserving their culture and their peoples' right to freedom. Readers will be moved by the tragedies and triumphs of these unforgettable individuals and will develop a greater understanding of those who call the "rooftop of the world" their home. VERDICT Taking a compelling approach to documenting Ngaba's history through the eyes of its own people, this wonderfully written book will leave readers with a stronger appreciation for why the movement to support the Tibetan people deserves so much more attention.--Sarah Schroeder, Univ. of Washington Bothell

    Copyright 2020 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    February 1, 2020

    Author of Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, a Samuel Johnson Award winner and National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, Demick tells the story of Tibetan resistance to Chinese occupation through the lives of six young people in the town of Aba, perched 12,000 feet above the Tibetan plateau and a wellspring of the nation's defiance.

    Copyright 2020 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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Life and Death in a Tibetan Town
Barbara Demick
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