Dalai Lama Foundation in Taiwan Unveils Exhibition Honouring 166 Tibetan Self-Immolators: ‘Those Who Give Fearlessly

By Tsering Choephel

The artist, Ho Tsung-hsun’s exhibition features 166 calligraphic artworks honouring each of the 166 Tibetans who have self-immolated in defiance of Chinese rule in Tibet. Image: Ho Tsung-hsun

DHARAMSALA, 11 Dec: The Dalai Lama Foundation in Taiwan has opened an exhibition featuring 166 calligraphic artworks by Ho Tsung-hsun, honouring each of the 166 Tibetans who have self-immolated in defiance of Chinese rule in Tibet, as reported by Radio Free Asia on Sunday.

The exhibition, titled “Those Who Give Fearlessly,” documents the name, place of birth, identity, and age of each Tibetan who self-immolated. Each piece is written on 13×7-inch paper, with beautiful Mandarin calligraphy matching the style of ancient official records.

The artist, Ho Tsung-hsun expressed concerns about potential misinterpretations as “encouraging self-immolation.” He states that his artwork on the subject is to highlight the despair and helplessness of those who use ‘self-immolation’ as a form of protest. He added, “You can’t erase an entire nationality from the historical record who have made such sacrifices in pursuit of their freedom.”

Recalling the inspiration for “Those Who Fearlessly Give,” Ho said, “Lobsang Phuntsok, who was only 20 years old at the time, self-immolated on March 16, 2009, which happened to be my birthday.” Ho continued, “From then onwards, it seemed as if our souls were connected, and that was when I started to pay attention and care about what was happening.”

The work process cost Ho both time and emotional pain as he conducted research. The project’s text is based on Tibetan writer Woeser’s book “The Tibetan Self-Immolation Files,” published in Taiwan in 2013, and cross-checked with records from the Tibetan government in exile.

Kelang Gyaltsen, the Dalai Lama’s envoy to Taiwan, stated that the self-immolators “sacrificed themselves for their country and for their people.” Describing the title “Those Who Give Fearlessly” as akin to the highest level of almsgiving in the Buddhist tradition, he said, “It means to give your life for a just cause.” 

Speaking of the painful process during his work on the project, Ho mentioned how the news of Tibetans burning themselves “shocked, saddened, and outraged” him, especially during the nearly 90 self-immolations that took place in 2012.

When writing the 115th record, Jugtso from Amdo Ngaba, who self-immolated on April 16, 2013, Ho broke down. “I started weeping… so I went to read her story again. She was just 20 years old, a young wife, and mother of a 3-year-old son,” he said.

Ho contrasted Taiwanese publisher Chen Nan-jung’s self-immolation in 1989 and his annual memorials against the 166 Tibetans who sacrificed themselves in resistance against Chinese rule in Tibet.

In 2020, Ho Tsung-hsun wrote the names of Tibetans who have self-immolated in defiance of Chinese rule in Tibet. Image: Ho Tsung-hsun

In calls for ‘remembrance’ as a significant movement, Gyaltsen views those who considers ‘speaking’ of the self-immolations as encouragement of the act as engaging in pro-Beijing “cognitive warfare.”

“Who is it who most wants to forget them? Who doesn’t want us to cherish or remember them? It’s the brutal Chinese Communist Party regime,” he said, calling for the anniversary of the first self-immolation – Feb. 27 – to be marked as “Tibetan Self-Immolation Day.”

Ho’s exhibited works on Tibetan self-immolation began with Thupten Ngodrup, who set himself on fire on April 27, 1998, in Delhi, after Delhi police put a stop to the Tibetan Youth Congress’ indefinite hunger strike.

The 166 self-immolations, with 156 taking place in Chinese-occupied Tibet and 10 taking place outside in exile, occurred between 1998 and 2023, with the most recent on February 25, 2022, when popular 25-year-old Tibetan singer Tsewang Norbu self-immolated.

The artist, who began his calligraphy study 40 years ago and has worked on writing slogans and banners over the last three decades for various campaigns, including environmental, educational, and political works had previously created an artwork based on Tibetan self-immolation in 2020. In it, the names of each individual are arranged around the outline of the Tibetan map.

Thupten Ngodup, (27 April 1998) and Tapey (27 Feb 2009) were the first Tibetans to self-immolate in exile and inside Tibet respectively.

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