Self-Immolation as Irreversible Speech: The Cost of Expressing Tibetan Aspirations

  • John Whalen-Bridge


To put one’s body on the line in a public protest, one in which there is some danger of harm, is a way of saying that the message is sincerely intended. According to Nadine Gordimer, “There is no moral authority like that of sacrifice” (13). It sounds very primitive; to the degree that we see it as primitivism, as issuing from some interesting but vestigial form of belief—to that degree we are not hearing people who are giving up everything to be heard. Tibetan self-immolation is an action that hardly seems to need definition, but we will better understand the aims and operative constraints to which Tibetan speakers are subject if we define and analyze the act carefully. No Tibetan activist is known to have burned herself in an act of political protest before 1998, and the regular series of events that we are calling the Tibetan self-immolation movement began in 2011: The fact of protest is not new, but the means is, and the shift to such a drastic manner of expressing Tibetan discontent marks a sharp turn in the free Tibet movement. The appropriateness of the means has also been questioned numerous times.


Compassion Fatigue Political Protest Public Protest Regular Series Chinese Policy 
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  1. 1.
    On “patriotic re-education,” see L. Wang’s “National Humiliation,” 2008:Google Scholar
  2. 11.
    See also Shakya’s “Politicisation and the Tibetan Language,” 1994.Google Scholar
  3. 17.
    See Whalen-Bridge’s “Angry Monk Syndrome,” Buddhism, Modernity, and the State in Asia, 2013.Google Scholar

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© John Whalen-Bridge 2015

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  • John Whalen-Bridge

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