The Vulture Maiden

With the development of our socialist system, the social system for the natural extinction of religion was established.

— Ganze Prefecture Policy on Religious Freedom

Chapter 5, Section 1: “Freedom of Religious Beliefs is a Long-Term Policy That Will Prevail Until the Natural Extinction of Religion.”


The Spring Festival began at sunrise with the roar of a giant kangling carried by two monks and blown by a barrel-chested third who stood on the highest wall of the Shining Hill monastery’s central temple. Golden light, like the voice of the horn made visible, lanced into the gray shadows that covered the broad valley as the sun peered through a notch between distant peaks capped with violet snow. Frost evaporated from the tufted brownish grasses, mingling with low, icy vapors that made the sky appear to shimmer like a silken tapestry. In the hall below, the crashing of cymbals rose to overpower the kangling’s dying wail, and then came the low, deep-throated chanting of the monks. The rocky hill behind the monastery began to glow with a warm, honeyed light.

As the monks turned away from the sun and toward Shining Hill, carrying their immense horn back into the building, the sunlight touched a plume of dust rising from the road to the monastery. Along that road, from the direction of the nearby village, a convoy of six trucks drummed and rattled. Ahead of them walked a long procession of villagers bearing scarves and wildflowers, sacks of nuts and grain and other offerings. The trucks sounded their horns, scarcely slowing as they approached the crowd; villagers scattered quickly, pulling each other out of the way, shouting warnings to those ahead. They moved to the roadside and glowered at the passing vehicles, saying nothing, not daring to curse the drivers because they knew that such words hung in the air and joined with other unwise things they might have uttered in a moment of despair, and eventually ended up in an official’s file so that one day the speaker might be summoned to a brief “interview” and never be seen again in the village. This was even more likely now that the ledhon rukhag, the work gang whose trucks these were, had been dispatched to the village.

The trucks reached the Shining Hill monastery just as the hill began to lose some of its legendary luster. They parked on the rutted earth before the main building. When the engines died, the sound of chanting filled the silence. High-pitched bells were ringing and pure songbowls singing, their weird wavering notes as piercing as the thin air that scoured Zhogmi Chhodak’s nostrils, threatening him with yet another nosebleed, when he opened his door and stepped down from the first truck. This was spring? His feet were numb despite the heavy boots and thick woolen socks he had brought from Beijing; a shock of cold passed through his soles and up his legs, as if the very earth were trying to stab him, as if the elements of the Tibetan Autonomous Region harbored an irrational enmity and would strike him down if they could.

Full of regret at leaving the warmth of the heated cab, he surveyed the grounds of Shining Hill. The local Democratic Management Committee had promised to meet his work gang on the steps of the main building, but there was no sign of them. The compound was sorry-looking, half-finished, no better than some prisons he had toured, despite all the money the monks had requested for restoration so that Shining Hill might attract a tourist trade. That was no longer a priority, however. Tourists had brought welcome money into the TAR, but too many other contaminants traveled with them, diseases for which no inoculant existed other than total isolation. Capitalism was a greater scourge than the bitter winds that swept the high Tibetan plateau. Under the current protection of martial law, Zhogmi could act without caring how the propagandists of the Dalai clique would interpret his actions. He had a sort of freedom here.

Zhogmi Chhodak could not imagine a more isolated place. He longed for the busy streets of Beijing, the cultural center of the world. He shared a common ancestry with the villagers, but nothing else. The Party offered incentives to mainland Chinese who moved to Tibet, but so far there had been few migrants to this region. In Lhasa and some other parts of the TAR, the indigenous population was outnumbered more than ten to one by immigrants; would that it were so here. The villagers were a primitive, superstitious people. The shame they caused Zhogmi sharpened his determination to bring them forward, though still he cursed his Tibetan blood, which had landed him in this remote outpost. One could almost imagine that the Revolution had never reached this spot—except that the rubble of the monastery still showed the marks of mortar shelling, and the hill was in places torn by craters made when he was a boy.

The chanting in the temple continued unabated, and the villagers on the road were nearer. Zhogmi’s men stood shivering in their coats, stamping on the hard dirt, blowing on their hands. His driver had gone around a corner of the temple to urinate, so Zhogmi opened the driver’s door and bleated the horn. It sounded feeble after the kangling’s  roar, and had no apparent effect on the ritual. Nonetheless, within seconds there was a stir inside the temple entrance, and four men hurried down the steps to greet the trucks.

“Zhogmi! Welcome!” said a broadly smiling man, speaking in a hushed voice, as if not wishing to impinge on the sounds coming from the hall. Jowo Tenzin was Tibetan, paunchy and balding, and dressed very inappropriately in a native chuba that did little to disguise his bulk. As leader of the Democratic Management Committee, that agency which oversaw the functioning of the monastery, Tenzin was responsible for enforcing the policies of the Nationalities and Religious Affairs Bureau Commission. He seized Zhogmi’s hand and shoulder, bringing him up the steps toward the entrance. The other three DMC members, dressed more suitably in the khaki or dark-blue uniforms of the Republic, greeted Zhogmi more cautiously.

“The seasonal ceremonies are just beginning,” Tenzin said breathlessly. “If you wish to see—”

“I have no desire to see misguided displays of superstition.” Zhogmi pulled from Tenzin’s grasp and took a stand on the topmost step, just outside the temple entrance. He could smell a rancid burning odor and a perfume of incense. “Nor should you indulge in such behavior.”

“Indulge? I don’t encourage a thing—I merely permit what the law allows.”

The youngest DMC member, a Chinese man named Jing Meng-Chen, moved closer. “We monitor the ceremonies only to ensure their legitimacy. It is all too easy to subvert the rites with irrelevant commentary disguising a political purpose.”

Zhogmi nodded his approval, and waited to see if Tenzin agreed. Jing Meng-Chen clearly would have been a sensible choice to head the DMC, but it was not uncommon to secure the sympathy of locals by entrusting some authority to a malleable Tibetan. Such flexibility, inevitably, also played a part in counterrevolutionary conduct. Since Jing Meng-Chen did not seem the sort to compromise principles for the sake of personal gain, Zhogmi decided that he was the man to carry out his bidding.

“I appreciate your devotion,” he told Jing Meng-Chen. “However, further observation will not be necessary this morning.

“That’s fine,” Jowo Tenzin said happily. “They are a trustworthy lot.”

“On the contrary,” Zhogmi said, and watched sharp creases suddenly divide Tenzin’s broad brow. “The ritual will be stopped immediately.”

“But … but really!” Tenzin protested. “That’s quite illegal.”

“Not under the circumstances,” Zhogmi said.

He saw that Jing Meng-Chen did not question his command, and in fact seemed ready to carry it out. “Put an end to that racket,” Zhogmi told him.

“Yes, sir.”

“And take some of my men along if you think you’ll need help.”

Jing Meng-Chen glanced at the machine guns in the hands of the work team.

“That won’t be necessary, sir.”

“Nonetheless—it’s best for efficiency.” He signaled several men toward the temple.

“Appreciated, sir,” said Jing Meng-Chen. He turned back into the temple, followed by several soldiers of the work team. The other two DMC men also went inside, though Jowo Tenzin remained on the steps exhorting Zhogmi for an explanation.

“Last night I reviewed the monastery’s accounts, Jowo Tenzin, and I found much to trouble me. Government grants have apparently vanished; huge amounts were withdrawn to make purchases for which no invoices appear; and there are numerous unauthorized expenditures. Unless and until you can explain each of these discrepancies, I am seizing the monastery’s assets. No money shall be withdrawn from the monastic account either by monks or the DMC.”

“But—but there are day-to-day requirements. The monks must eat.”

“They shall earn a useful living doing necessary public works, as they should have been all along, instead of wasting resources on this ruin. What tourist would visit Shining Hill? It has no historic significance.”

“To the villagers—”

“Would you encourage nostalgia for the old days of feudal oppression? Buddhism itself teaches the danger of attachment to illusion and material things.”

Jowo Tenzin’s stricken look told Zhogmi that he had made the right first move in stanching further waste and uncovering deceit.

“What do you know of Buddhism?” Tenzin whispered.

“I have served in the Tibetan Buddhist Guidance Committee and the Tibetan Buddhist Association.”

Zhogmi had been aware for some time of the approach of the villagers. They stopped at the yard before the temple and anxiously looked toward the entrance. The presence of the work gang discouraged them. Zhogmi’s men faced the growing crowd, guns at the ready. They had seen such crowds before, and the villagers had seen such men. No one wished to move. But the day was warming, the hampering ice in Zhogmi’s joints beginning to thaw. The sky shimmered like silk, like a thangka painted in unreal colors.

In the temple the monks fell silent.

Jowo Tenzin said quietly, “Perhaps if … if you waited until later, after the ceremony, it would benefit your plans. Many of them have brought offerings that might make up for the debts—”

“This monastery is not permitted to tax or take donations from the people,” Zhogmi said sharply. “They already struggle to live with what they have. You dare not encourage religious parasites!”

“I only—”

At that instant, someone inside the temple let out a cry, scarcely muffled by the stone walls. A burst of gunfire answered it. Bullets must have ricocheted from the ceremonial bells and bowls, for a hideous, metallic, many-voiced music followed the sound of the guns. This fractured wailing was drowned out by the screams of the villagers, who in that instant rushed the trucks and crowded toward the temple steps.

Zhogmi’s gun was already in his hand, but the size of the mob startled him. He sprang back into the entryway while other men of his team ran forward to defend it. Broad pillars inside the door offered excellent cover while they fired down into the crowd. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jowo Tenzin dash down a side corridor; other monks rushed about, trying to find cover. He squeezed off several shots over the heads of the villagers, who, after their initial indignant charge, had realized the futility of their position and begun falling back behind the trucks. Most were already running down the road toward the village. A few bodies struggled on the bare ground before the temple, and then it was over.

Zhogmi called a cease-fire. There had been no answering shots from the mob, not even a flung stone. It occurred to him that they had charged the temple out of concern for the monks; but in the moment of their assault, he had felt claustrophobic, on the verge of being overwhelmed. Now that feeling passed. The work team was in control

Jing Meng-Chen stumbled from the interior of the building, holding his hand to a bloody shoulder. “One of your men fired,” he reported.

Zhogmi pulled the man’s bloodied hand away from his shoulder; the skin was gouged, but the wound looked minor. “How did this happen?”

“A stray bullet—it’s nothing.”

Gesturing to one gunman to follow, Zhogmi headed toward the central hall. “Are they still resisting?” he asked Jing Meng-Chen.


Beyond a row of columns, they came into a vast room where the smell and smoke of incense were inseparable from those of gunpowder. Several dozen monks lay prostrate, bald heads covered with their hands, trembling and whimpering. Zhogmi’s men stood over them.

“Good,” Zhogmi told them. “Did any run off?”

“One tried.” A lone monk sprawled in a corner; it was hard to tell where his maroon robes ended and the blood began. Zhogmi crossed the room to a hallway beyond it. There were small, dark alcoves here, plenty of hiding places. He indicated that his gunman should follow the corridor to the right; he went to the left with Jing Meng-Chen.

“Jowo Tenzin ran this way when the shooting started,” he said quietly. “I’m not sure I trust him.”

“He is not to be feared,” said Jing Meng-Chen. “At worst a coward.”

“A coward in his position can do much harm.”

Someone stepped into the corridor ahead of them—a man too wiry and small to be Jowo Tenzin. He carried a long dagger cocked in one hand, red wetness gleaming at the tip.

Zhogmi ducked sideways and fired a single shot. The figure slumped back through a doorway, letting out a wheezing cry. Jing Meng-Chen shouted and ran past Zhogmi, through the door.

“Careful!” Zhogmi cautioned, fearing that he had only wounded the assassin. He crept to the threshold and saw on the floor, by the light of a weak electric lamp, the object he’d mistaken for a dagger.

It was a paintbrush.

Inside the chamber, Jing Meng-Chen knelt beside the wounded man. The wall behind him was streaked with red—some of it carefully applied in the outline of a large figure, but the rest sloppily dashed and smeared and dripping. A red streak showed where the man had slid against the wall as he died. He was small and slender, with gray hair and delicate hands that had just stopped trembling.

Jing Meng-Chen turned toward Zhogmi Chhodak, his face unreadable. Zhogmi did not know what to say; but he need not explain himself. Any accident in these circumstances was excusable.

At that moment, Jowo Tenzin pressed into the chamber. “What happened here? What—oh my! Oh no!”

Tenzin rushed to the frail old man, cradling him in his arms. Jing Meng-Chen backed away and bowed slightly to Zhogmi before announcing in a neutral tone, “He’s dead.”

Tenzin cried, “Why Gyatso Samphel? What did he do?”

“He attacked Zhogmi Chhodak,” Jing Meng-Chen said sharply. Zhogmi shifted uncomfortably, despite being grateful for the support.

“Attacked? I—I don’t believe it. He never would have hurt a soul.”

“Perhaps we came too near his precious mural. You knew Gyatso Samphel. If he thought his maiden goddess was in danger, nothing would stop him from protecting her.”

Zhogmi looked at the wall with new interest. It was ancient stone, part of the original temple, the surface chipped and shattered. Traces of faded tints lingered among dabs of bright new color—mostly red—that had been so recently applied. The form of a maiden might have been taking shape there, but the lines were so vague and incomplete that he could hardly imagine her.

Tenzin went back to ministering hopelessly over the corpse. “This is terrible,” he kept saying. “Terrible.”

“We should get the bodies out of the temple,” said Jing Meng-Chen. “It will be best to dispose of them somewhere away from the village.” Zhogmi was glad for the young man’s efficiency. He felt that he could safely surrender this task to him.

“If you don’t mind,” he said, “I am unfamiliar with the area . . .”

“Leave it to me, sir. I would be pleased to see this through.”

Tenzin gave his DMC associate a look of utter horror. It was enough to convince Zhogmi that he had found himself a trustworthy aide.

Zhogmi went back to the central hall, where the monks still lay in abject surrender on the stone flags.

“The Shining Hill monastery is clearly the proper focus for our investigations,” he announced to them and to his men. “We will relocate from the village this afternoon and make our base here. All restoration work is hereby suspended until a full investigation has been concluded and approved by the United Front Work Department. I notice that Shining Hill is particularly rocky; once broken down to the proper size, the stones should make excellent material for roadbeds. I will distribute work orders for all monks, provided they can prove that they did not participate in this act of counterrevolution.”

There was no response, but he did not expect one. His men went to work with their usual efficiency, rounding up the monks. They ordinarily lived in cramped dormitories and shabby little outbuildings clustered on the hillside behind the temple; but until a system for monitoring them could be established, he ordered they be kept in the central hall for easy observation. Many of the TAR’s major monasteries were overseen by two or more army contingents. On a tour he’d taken of the Ganden monastery near Lhasa, he had passed through three checkpoints where pilgrims were identified and searched while approaching the monastery; the monks themselves required passes from the DMC in order to leave the grounds, and were always thoroughly searched before reentering. Given the primi­tive local conditions and the size of his force, Zhogmi could only dream of establishing such order—but it was something to aim for.

It felt good to cut through the administrative nonsense and take direct action. He was finally making his presence felt. Last night, wading through paperwork—confused ledgers and bank statements—he had nearly despaired of achieving anything here. But now it looked as if this would not be a wasted assignment after all.

Only one thing still troubled him: the memory of a small man darting out with a blade that had magically transformed into a paintbrush.

If he kept his mind clean and clear, his principles firmly in sight, then he need feel no pangs of conscience. What good was the old man’s mural, after all? It had no value, no purpose except to reinforce religious thinking. An aura of superstition clung to this place, like the soot of incense that smudged the temple’s walls. He must not let it cloud his thoughts.

Zhogmi strode down the steps of the temple, keeping his eyes away from the speckled trails in the dust where things recently had been dragged out of sight. He looked out over the quiet valley and took a deep breath. There was never enough air at this altitude to fill his lungs. At least his sharp headaches had ceased to come so frequently; he supposed he was finally acclimating, though he didn’t like the reminder that his ancestors had dwelt on this high plain, their blood adapted to absorb greater concentrations of oxygen than those of sea-level inhabitants. Biologically, he supposed he should have felt at home in Tibet. If he did well in his post—as he intended—the Religious Affairs Bureau would station him here indefinitely. He hated that thought, but hated even more the idea of being in conflict with his duty. He must strive to be at peace with himself. With sufficient promotion, he might one day return to a centralized post, a position of power in Beijing.

He walked around the side of the temple, looking up toward Shining Hill. As the day warmed toward noon, it looked like simply another bare Tibetan slope, a treeless mound, and the monastery merely a heap of ugly slabs and broken rock with tattered prayer flags flying.

Something else was flying, he noticed. Dark specks circled near the peak of Shining Hill.