The Strange History of the Dalai Lamas

Tibet and its God-King

By Gwydion M. Williams

Stand By Your God-King

The 1940 Enthronement

Lost Opportunities

Some Surprising Ignorance

Dubious Morality

The Other Thirteen Bodies

Tibet After 1911.


Stand By Your God-King

The Dalai Lama is officially ‘God-King of Tibet’. This overblown usually title gets omitted nowadays. It was still being used in the more-hierarchical 1950s – in a 1959 article by US Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, for instance.[AQ] It was also not seen as an overblown title when it was first used, seven centuries ago. Lots of rulers in those days were defined as being in some way or other God’s Representative. Christian monarchs ruled ‘by the grace of God’. The Chinese Emperor was ‘Son of Heaven’, the Japanese Emperor was (and still is) viewed as a direct descendent of the Sun-Goddess. The distinctive feature of the Tibetan god-king is a claim that this is a single individual, a superhuman controlling his own rebirth into a new body when the old body dies.

A general belief in reincarnation is very old, found in many different cultures. Among major religions, it has been developed as a systematic belief by Hinduism and Buddhism. At a popular level, the understanding is that after you die, you get reborn as someone else. I think the core concepts in both Hinduism and Buddhism are actually more complex, with a denial that there is really a ‘self’ to be reborn. Still, in the popular version it was a comforting belief for those faced with death, or missing someone who was close to them. As a creed it is also an aid to morality – good deeds with no immediate benefit may be rewarded in your next life. Likewise sin and crime might get you reborn as some lower animal, or else a human rebirth in which your past will catch up with you. (Oddly enough, both Buddhism and Hinduism also have heavens and hells – I assume you get reborn into them if you have enough merit or guilt.)

Reincarnation would be nice if it were true. The known universe is mostly not nice, allowing life as we know it in very small pockets amidst a beautiful but chillingly vast and lifeless wilderness. Reincarnation is probably just another bit of wish-fulfilment, an alternative to the equally comforting notion of dead people alive and happy in Heaven. And though I see merit in some versions of Buddhism, the Tibetan version includes a lot of rent-a-miracle stuff, stuff that is not at all credible because it comes much too easily, but only where fraud is easy.

Rebirth can be a basis for better morality. But it can also be understood in a callous manner, used to justified inequality and injustice. Hindus and Buddhists would have had an easy answer for Job in the Old Testament – his misfortunes must be due to something he did in a previous lifetime. Someone born rich probably earned in a previous life. Whether this is correct Hinduism or Buddhism is moot: there are many varieties of both faiths. But what exists can serve as a justification for gross inequality, and did so in Tibet.

Buddhism began on the Indian subcontinent, but has mostly vanished from there, swallowed by a resurgent Hinduism. Meantime Buddhism split into several sects, most of which vanished. The Southern or Theravada tradition considers itself a purified Buddhism that discarded non-Buddhist ideas that had been picked up across the centuries. The name could be translated as “the Ancient Teaching”. The alternative Mahayana or ‘Great Vehicle’ tradition is much more popular, in part because it could co-exist with and absorb existing religions. In Tibet, Mahayana Buddhism was originally introduced by a Chinese princess, perhaps with help from Nepal. It later merged with the native Bon religion and with Tantric ideas from India. Lamistic Buddhism became a distinct branch of the Mahayana creed, powerful among Mongolians and Manchus as well as Tibetans, though Tibet was always the spiritual core.

Tibet also saw an inflation of spiritual claims. There is a very old Buddhist tradition of a ‘Future Buddha’, but the orthodox teaching suggests that the ‘Future Buddha’ would appear far in the future and after all memory of the original Buddhism had been lost. This did not stop some crazy claims being made, especially where there was no independent educated class able to question it.

Tibet in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries of the Christian era developed the idea of Tulkus, also known as ‘Living Buddhas’. These individuals are deemed to be able to keep continuity in a series of bodies. Various Tibetan monasteries go looking for the reincarnation of their former boss. When the search succeeds, they solemnly enthrones a child in that position, on the assumption that this is the same person. No other branch of Buddhism makes this claim.

The line of the Dalai Lamas did not invent this tradition, but they currently dominate it. The 3rd and 5th Dalai Lamas obtained a lot of secular power, partly by alliances with various Mongol tribes. The Manchu dynasty, seeking to consolidate its grip on the Chinese Empire, conquered those Mongol tribes but chose to work with the 5th Dalai Lama, whom they accepted as ruler of Western Tibet. As I mentioned earlier, the Chinese Emperors of the Manchu dynasty had a loose but definite control of Western Tibet and the office of Dalai Lama from the 1720s.

The current Dalai was ‘discovered’ in what Tibetans viewed as the province of Amdo, but which had officially been Qinghai Province in the Republic of China from 1928, and before that Kokonor or Xining Prefecture, a part of Gansu province. It had long ceased to be purely Tibetan, if indeed it was ever anything other than an ethnic mix.

The finding of the new Dalai Lama resolved a political stalemate in Western Tibet. This was described in the Encyclopaedia Britannica Book of the Year 1939, which reported events in 1938:

“The administration of the country during 1938 remained, at least in theory, in the hands of the regent or Jjaltseb, until his death in Lhasa in September, no new Dalai or Tashi Lamas having been identified since the death of the last holders of those offices in 1933 and 1937 respectively.” [A]

The 13th Dalai Lama had died in 1933, the 9th Panchen Lama (Tashi Lama) in 1937. The Panchen Lama had been in exile since 1924. Traditionally the two high lamas recognised and legitimised each other’s ‘incarnations’, but those two had been political rivals and the system had broken down. Politics became dangerously factional:

“A struggle for power appears to be in progress between three parties: the heads of the greater monasteries and their followers, who favour the traditional policy of exclusion of foreigners: the ‘Young Party’, who stand for a progressive nationalism, and, while upholding the old religious organisation, would open the country to international trade and seek the development of its mineral wealth; and the followers of the late Tashi, or Panchen, Lama, who were exiled from Tibet when their leader felt to Mongolia after his unsuccessful attempt to gain political domination…

“Until one of these groups has gained a definite ascendancy it seems unlikely that new occupants of the Dali and Tashi Lamaships will be recognised.” [A]

The solution was to find incarnations of both High Lamas in China’s Qinghai province, seen by Tibetans as a suitable source for new leaders. The new Dalai Lama went to Lhasa and the new Panchen Lama stayed in Qinghai, under control of the local warlord. I strongly suspect that a lot more happened than the mere payment of a large sum to the ruling warlord, the part of the deal that the Dalai Lama and his supporters admit to. Those people have never been very candid, as John Gittings explains in his obituary of the Dalai Lama’s elder brother:

“Norbu was no ordinary apprentice monk, but had been recognised by the 13th Dalai Lama (predecessor of the current Dalai Lama) as the Taktser Rinpoche, one of the highest reincarnates in the region of Amdo (eastern Tibet), which was already under Chinese Nationalist rule. The subsequent discovery of his younger brother as the new incarnate Dalai Lama was not quite so amazing as the usual story makes out. The family was already known in religious circles: the previous Taktser Rinpoche was their father’s maternal uncle and one of their own uncles was treasurer of the great monastery of Kumbum.” [AR]

If the family of the future Dalai Lama had good connections, there were also powerful outside forces keen that the Tibetans should benefit some sort of little miracle. With the outbreak of World War Two, Britain must have anticipated that the Sino-Japanese War would soon merge into the European war, a merger which happened after Japan attacked the USA at Pearl Harbour in December 1941. The situation in 1940 made China a potential ally and gave Britain an interest in encouraging the rival factions in West Tibet to put their house in order and get on good terms with the Chinese central government. Before the Fall of Singapore in February 1942, the British Empire was very much the dominant power in Asia. There may have been a deal between Britain and China over Tibet’s future, with a dropping for the time being of Britain’s long-term ambition to make it a dependency of British India. The Encyclopaedia Britannica Book of the Year 1940 describes it thus:

Tibet: Nominally a Chinese dependency, it is in practice independent…

“At last an authentic reincarnation of the Dalai Lama has been discovered after three years’ search, and has been officially recognised by the Viceroy and Government of India. He is the son of peasants, Lhamo Dhondup born … in the Chinese province of Kansu [Gansu – but since 1928, Qinghai province]…

“The acceptance by the Tibetans of Lhamo Dhondup … as well as the actual journey, was strongly forwarded by the Chinese authorities, and it is probably that another effort will now be made to reassert Chinese influence over Tibet which, owing to Tibetan resistance, has waned in recent years. The future of the country, and of its ruler, is, however, uncertain; the former because there is a powerful Nationalist party working towards the transformation of Tibet into a modern state, and the latter because in the past Dalai Lamas—the 13th, who lived to a good age, being the exception—have usually died mysteriously before reaching manhood.” [B]

The Britannica still floats the notion that Tibet might be separated from China, though it was certainly not independent under the accepted norms of international law. Much of the territory of the Chinese Republic was in practice self-governing between 1911 and 1949, with 1940 being a low point. The Kuomintang government had lost the coastal cities and had taken refuge in Chongqing in Sichuan, on the borders of Tibet. It needed to have Tibet secure, and Tibet was not at that time claiming to be a sovereign state. Of the various territories not actually under central government control, only the territory that had been Outer Mongolia consistently insisted that it was actually independent, though after the emergence of a Communist government it was widely seen as a Soviet puppet.

Manchuria was another disputed territory. Manchukuo from 1932 was undoubtedly a puppet of the Japanese, and most of its inhabitants were Han rather than Manchus. The territory had been opened to immigration in the 1860s by the Manchu rulers when they feared losing it to the Tsarist empire, so separating it from the rest of China was ridiculous. Manchukuo did however get some international recognition. By contrast the Lhasa government made no real attempt to claim legal independence and sovereignty after its 1912 attempt was ignored. They were ready to accept a Dalai Lama favoured by the Chinese central government. They accepted the legitimate role of a government that continued to insist that Tibet was part of its territory.

Note also that there was no talk then about a Greater Tibet including Amdo and Kham. The Dalai Lama is said to have come from a Chinese province, there is no ambiguity about that. Unless you accept the literal truthfulness of the claim that each Dalai Lama is a single superior reincarnated being, it looks like a deal in which Western Tibet would keep its traditional autonomy but would not deny that its status as part of the Chinese Republic.


The 1940 Enthronement

An interesting report about the Dalai Lama’s enthronement was written at the time from Chongqing, then known to English-speakers as Chungking:

“The exotic ceremonies of religious ritual centuries old will go hand in hand with symbols of a new-found political unity between Tibet and China with the new dalai lama, fourteenth of the line, is enthrones at Lhasa…

“China is making efforts to use the ceremony for greater strength in the new political ties between Tibet and China, and the Chinese government will be represented fully. Chungking officials have shown great interest in the selection of the new Dalai Lama, who will come to be the principle force in his semi-autonomous region of China.

“Tibetan circles have revealed that the portrait of Dr Sun Yat-sen, ‘father of the Chinese republic’, will have the place of honour in the main ceremonial hall, surrounded by Buddhist pictures.

“The Kuomintang’s party song, which is also the Chinese national anthem, will be sung by Tibetan masses for the first time in history at the general enthronement ceremony on the first day of the festival.

“The ‘white sun in the blue sky’ flag on the Chinese government will hang in the main ceremonial hall, while the streets of Lhasa will be decorated with the flag and similar bits of bunting.

“All these, Tibetan sources pointed out, mark ‘the cordial friendship and political ties between Tibet and the central government’…

“The Chungking [Chongqing] government was quick to take advantage of an invitation to participate in the enthronement ceremonies. China hopes to establish better political and economic relations with its Tibetan provinces, and ultimately open up new trade routes making available the vast mineral resources of the area.

“Greater friendship and cooperation also is aimed at growing Japanese influence in Tibet… 100 Japanese ‘lamas’ are now studying at various monasteries. Nominally they are disciples of Buddha, but actually they act as Japanese secret service agents.

“These ‘lamas’, the Tibetans sad, have been fomenting anti-Chinese and anti-British feeling in Tibet, although ‘not too successfully’. Their activities, it was reported, had created enemies for them who are starting an anti-Japanese movement to clear Tibet of all Japanese influence…

“The boy is a pure Tibetan, son of a well-to-do land-owning farmer…

“There are two other children who theoretically have an equal chance of being chosen. Both were born near Lhasa at the time of the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s death. However, Tibetan and Chinese officials favor the Kokonor boy… the belief that he was foreordained to be the next spiritual ruler of Tibet, without the usual ceremony of drawing lots from the 150-year-old golden urn in the central temple.” (Boy, 6, becomes fourteenth Dalai Lama in weird ageless rites on Thursday. [C])

I’d assume that the faction that installed the current Dalai Lama lacked control of the Golden Urn and did not wish to leave it to chance, or risk someone else having control. His elder brother, born in 1922, had been already recognised as a reincarnation of the former head of the large and important Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai province. Finding two incarnations in one family had few precedents, but they managed to get it accepted and even find a third incarnation among one of the Dalai Lama’s younger brothers. [D]

Tibet was certainly one of Imperial Japan’s objectives, but not an immediate target. The various factions of the Lhasa government may have felt they needed support from both Britain and the central Chinese government to get their choice of Dalai Lama accepted. They later proved uncooperative, refusing to let a railway be built up from India through Tibet and down to the territories where the Kuomintang government held out against the Japanese. A rail-link from India up into Tibet might have made a major difference to post-war politics if it had been built, but it did not happen. China’s current rail link to Lhasa comes from the north and there are plans to extend it to Nepal. Politics will probably stop any link being made to India, the big problem being the refusal of the Republic of India to drop its claim to a region known as the Aksai Chin, the Chinese Desert of White Stones. This area, incidentally, is in the Far West of Tibet and got a marker-stone when the Chinese Imperial government saw a threat from Kashmir, which had taken by treaty some territory that had traditionally been Tibetan and which seemed to be still interested in expanding further.

The current Dalai Lama was enthroned with the approval of a Chinese Republic that saw the Lhasa government as no more than a regional authority within its own territory. ‘Free Tibet’ sources evade this awkward matter, since it cannot be squared with the claim that Tibet was always and traditionally independent.

The article does, of course, speak of China and Tibet as two separate entities, as well as describing Tibet as a “semi-autonomous region of China”. The problem in English is that ‘China’ is the normal name for the state and ‘Chinese’ the normal name for its majority people. In Chinese these are ‘Zhongguo’ and the Han people, with non-Han affirming their own identity but mostly accepting that ‘Zhongguo’ is their country.

Both the report from Chongqing and the Britannica 1939 mention the mineral wealth of the Tibetan plateau. Mountains are crumpled landscape: the Tibetan plateau is terrritory raised and deformed across millions of years by the Indian subcontinent bumping into Asia. The Himalayas are the most obvious product, but there are many waves of mountains and a lot of mineral wealth in an otherwise poor and thinly populated land. The Tibetan plateau is also important as a source of fresh water, but in 1940 water wasn’t often seen as a limited resource.

As the article says, the current Dalai Lama was not chosen using the ‘Golden Urn’, the traditional system when there was more than one candidate. Another source explains in detail how the central Chinese government excused them from this system, originally created by a Chinese emperor after a previous succession had been disputed.

“After the discovery of the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s reincarnate soul boy, the Tibetan regent Rating Hutuktu sent a telegram to the Central Government on December 12, 1938, saying that “on the occasion of lot-drawing from the gold urn ceremony when the three soul boys arrive at Lhasa, the Central Government should send representatives to participate in the ceremony so as to make it more dependable and pleased by the people far and wide.” The Central Government attached great importance to this request. The Nationalist Government issued an order on December 28, 1938, saying that “The Chairman of the Commission for Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Wu Zhongxin would be sent to preside over the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s reincarnation together with Rating Hutuktu.” Wu Zhongxin and his party arrived at Lhasa on January 15, 1940 and were accorded a warm reception. On January 26, 1940, Rating applied for approval about the exemption of lot-drawing from the gold urn to the Dalai Lama’s reincarnate soul boy Lhamo Dondup. Wu Zhongxin transmitted the application to the Central Government for approval. In the meantime, he went to the Norbu Lingkha Park to examine the soul boy. On January 31, Chiang Kaishek, Chairman of the Executive Yuan, applied the Nationalist Government for issuing an order to the effect that Lhamo Dondup was approved to succeed the thirteenth Dalai as the fourteenth Dalai Lama. On February 5, the Nationalist Government of China issued an order, saying that “Lhamo Dondup, the soul boy from Qinghai, is very intelligent and exceptional extraordinary. It is proved through investigation that he is the reincarnate of the thirteenth Dalai Lama and should promptly be exempted from lot-drawing, thereby ratified to succeed as the fourteenth Dalai Lama.” And the Central Government appropriated 400,000 yuan as the expenses for the enthronement ceremony. On the eve of holding enthronement ceremony, there broke out a tea-cup storm due to the seating of Wu Zhongxin. The Kashag planned to arrange the seat of Wu Zhongxin the same as the Silon or Rating. It was sternly refuted by Wu Zhongxin, stating that he was representing the Central Government. His seating should follow the old practice of the Qing Dynasty, namely, to sit side by side with the Dalai Lama to embody the authority and position of the Central Government. The Tibetan authorities agreed to act accordingly. During the duration of his stay in Tibet, Wu Zhongxin decided through consultation with the Tibetan local government to set up “the Office of the Commission for Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs in Lhasa”. The relations between Tibet and the Central Government thus furthered, Wu Zhongxin and his entourage were accorded a grand send-off ceremony by the Tibetan local-government when they left Lhasa. According to practice the Tibetan social government sent Ngawang Gyaltsen leaving for Chongqing soon afterwards to express thanks to the Central Government as well as to express the strong aspirations of the Tibetan populace to support the war against Japan and for national salvation.” [E]

Details might be argued about. But there was definitely a strong presence by central-government officials who considered they were asserting that Western Tibet was autonomous, not an independent country.

“The reincarnation (“soul boy”) of the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was supposed to have occurred in a peasant family in … Qinghai Province, in 1935, when Tenzin Gyatso was identified as the soul boy by the government of the Republic of China, at the request of the local government of Tibet Central Government ordered Ma Bufang, warlord of Qinghai, to send troops to escort the boy to Tibet, at a cost of 100,000 yuan. To manifest its sovereignty and to follow historical tradition, the Nanjing government also sent Wu Zhongxin, chairman of the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission, to preside over the confirmation and enthronement ceremonies. On February 5,1940, the government of the Republic of China issued an order announcing that Tenzin Gyatso was the 14th Dalai Lama, and allocated 400,000 yuan for the enthronement ceremony. On February 22, 1940, Wu Zhongxin presided over the enthronement ceremony, held in the Potala Palace, on behalf of the Central Government of the Republic of China. Britain, which at that time was seeking to wrest Tibet from China, also sent a delegation to offer congratulations, but the government of Tibet made an appropriate arrangement which clearly indicated that Tibet was an inalienable part of China. [E]

“Traditionally, the Dalai Lama, the Bainqen Erdeni [Panchen Lama] and other high Living Buddhas had to be recognized and appointed by the central government in order to secure their political and religious legal status in Tibet. Despite the fact that incessant foreign aggression and civil wars weakened the central government of the Republic of China, it continued to grant honorific titles to the Dalai Lama and the Bainqen Erdeni. On many occasions the Dalai Lama and the Bainqen Erdeni expressed their support for national unification and for the central government. In 1919, the 13th Dalai Lama told a delegation sent by the Beijing central government, “It is not my true intention to be on intimate terms with the British…. I swear to be loyal to our own country and jointly work for the happiness of the five races.” In his later years (in 1930), he said, “My greatest wish is for the real peace and unification of China.” “Since it is all Chinese territory, why distinguish between you and us?” He further elaborated, “The British truly intend to tempt me, but I know that our sovereignty must not be lost.” He also publicly expressed his determination “not to affiliate with the British nor forsake the central government” (Liu Manqing: A Mission to Xikang and Tibet). The 9th Bainqen noted in his will, “The great plan I have promoted all my life is the support of the central government, the spread of Buddhism, the promotion of the unity of the five nationalities and the guarantee of national prosperity.” [AU]

This leaves out the claimed independence. But the claim was not persisted with when the outside world failed to recognise it. Given the actual break-down in government in the former Chinese Empire, the Dalai Lama could have functional independence while accepting the nominal authority of the central government. But problems arose when it came to replacing him with his supposed reincarnation:

“The death of the 13th Dalai Lama in December 1933 was reported to the central government by the Tibetan local government in the traditional manner. The national government sent a special envoy to Tibet for the memorial ceremony. It also approved the Living Buddha Razheng as the regent to assume the duties and power of the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan local government also followed the age-old system in reporting to the central government all the procedures that should be followed in search for the reincarnation of the late 13th Dalai Lama. The present 14th Dalai Lama was born in Qinghai Province. Originally named Lhamo Toinzhub, he was selected as one of the incarnate boys at the age of 2. After receiving a report submitted by the Tibetan local government in 1939, the central government ordered the Qinghai authorities to send troops to escort him to Lhasa. After an inspection tour in Lhasa by Wu Zhongxin, chief of the Commission for Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs, in 1940, Chiang Kai-shek, then head of the central government, approved Tibetan Regent Razheng’s request to waive the lot-drawing convention, and the chairman of the national government issued an official decree conferring the title of the 14th Dalai Lama on Lhamo Toinzhub.” [AU]

The ‘Free Tibet’ crowd fail give their own version, talking as if the Enthronement was a purely Tibetan event. They do admit that Chinese central government officials were there [G], but fail to explain how this could have happened if Tibet was an independent nation to which the Chinese government had made an unreasonable claim. The Kuomintang government always counted Tibet as part of China, and has even maintained its claim to the former Outer Mongolia for decades in its Taiwanese exile. The Mongolian People’s Republic was kept out of the UN until 1961 by the Kuomintang Government, which was officially the government of all China and had China’s great-power veto until 1971.

The Lhasa government had very seldom claimed to be independent between 1914 and 1949. There was an incident at the Indian independence ceremonies in 1947, in which a Tibetan flag was found to be flying and the Kuomintang government protested and got it taken down. There was no systematic attempt to assert independence until very late in the day – which makes sense if the Lhasa government had dropped the idea when they wanted to enthrone a new Dalai Lama and needed to avoid a disputed succession of the sort that has plagued other lines of supposedly reincarnated lamas. The faction that created the present Dalai Lama must have decided it was better to work with the central Chinese government and have secure power with traditional autonomy. The doubtful claim to independence was allowed to lapse.

Heinrich Harrer in Seven Years In Tibet tries to explain this away:

“Hitherto China’s claim that Tibet was one her provinces had remained without contradiction. Newspapers and broadcasters could say what they liked about the country: there was never an answer from Tibet. In conformity with their policy of complete neutrality the government had refused to explain themselves to the world.” [H]

Heinrich Harrer has a garbled account of the Dalai Lama’s enthronement – since he wasn’t in Tibet at the time, someone must have given him a version which he’d have had no reason to disbelieve. He mentions the risk that when the new Dalai Lama was found “the Chinese could then have insisted on sending an escort of troops with him to Lhasa”. [J]. He also refers to “the district of Amdo in the Chinese province of Chingnai” as the place where the Dalai Lama was found. The Chinese province of Qinghai includes only part of Amdo, as well as some other territories that were never Tibetan. Probably no one told him about the Golden Urn.


Lost Opportunities

The new Chinese People’s Republic was determined to unify and pacify the whole of ‘Zhongguo’, but was also sensitive to the differences between the majority Han and the various minorities. Out of 56 recognised nationalities, 54 settled down quite happily in the new state. Only Tibetans and the Uigurs included major factions that sought independence.

It was never reasonable to expect any Chinese government to drop its claim to the Tibetan Plateau, which remained an undisputed part of the Chinese Empire when it was forced into the European system of distinct and sovereign states.

When Mao established the first strong government China had seen since the Opium Wars of the 1840s, he had to do something about the various territories inhabited by Tibetans. In the early years, Mao made a genuine attempt to work with the young Dalai Lama. And the Dalai Lama unexpectedly showed a huge enthusiasm for Mao as a man and national leader, as I detail later on.

Sadly, the Dalai Lama’s enthusiasm for Mao did not extend to freeing his own Tibetan subjects from the mix of serfdom and slavery that supported the aristocracy and high lamas, with himself at the top. The Chinese Empire had been rather late in ending legal slavery, though only two generations than the freedom-loving USA. Slavery in China was abolished in 1910, just before the Empire’s fall. In Nepal it lasted till 1926. In autonomous Western Tibet, the laws of the central Chinese government had limited authority until 1959 and both slavery and serfdom survived till then.

Tibetan slavery is yet another topic that the ‘Free Tibet’ crowd evade, or may be genuinely ignorant about, though the Chinese news media have documented it well enough in English translations.

The Tibetan rulers were not at all keen to change their own legal ownership of other humans. A peaceful advance towards modern politics was always unlikely. But it could have happened, and there are some positives that are worth mentioning.

As Mao’s armies were decisively winning the Chinese Civil War, there were some US citizens who tried to convince the Lhasa government that the USA would help and support them if they claimed independence.[M] Whether they were dishonest or over-bold is uncertain: what’s definite is that the US government never did recognise Tibet as independent. Nor has any other sovereign state or official body – the ‘International Commission of Jurists’ are a self-appointed bunch whose name makes no sense unless it was intended to mislead.

There were also Tibetans ready to wage war with US support even without official recognition. In 1951, at a time when People’s China was fighting the USA in Korea – giving them the worst drubbing the USA has ever got in a war with a foreign power – the Dalai Lama was lurking on the border of Sikkim. Sikkim was then an independent principality: the Republic of India swallowed it in 1975. In 1951 it was a convenient place for the Dalai Lama’s people to talk to US diplomats from India. A book called The CIA‘s Secret War in Tibet gives details.

“The Dalai Lama did not take long to respond… Among other things, the monarch wanted to know if Washington would grant him asylum and if the United States would extend military aid to a theoretical anti-Chinese resistance movement after his departure fro Tibetan soil.” [N]

Did the Norwegian politicians who awarded him the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize know about this? Their citation says: “the Dalai Lama in his struggle for the liberation of Tibet consistently has opposed the use of violence. He has instead advocated peaceful solutions”.[Q] It was fair enough to give the prize to Mandela in 1993, even though he freely admits in his biography that he planned and desired a massive war against the government, of the sort that did actually happen in Rhodesia / Zimbabwe. Mandela secured a peaceful hand-over when war was generally expected, and the award to him and de Klerk accurately states that it is for “peaceful termination of the apartheid regime”. But the Dalai Lama? Never very effective in waging war, he has also been incapable of securing peace.

Back in 1951, he seems to have aspired to wage war. A US vice-consul from Calcutta drove up to the border on the pretence of taking a holiday. He tried to find out whether the run-away Lhasa government was worth backing:

“Very quickly, the vice consul was struck by the lack of realism displayed by Lhasa’s envoys. ‘There was a sense of the absurd’ he later commented. ‘They were talking wistfully in terms of America providing them with tanks and aircraft’…

“The Tibetans found little reason for cheer. The offer of U.S. asylum, for example, was to be granted only if Asian options were exhausted, even though the Dalai Lama was adamant he wanted exile only in America. Military aid, too, was moot, because it was contingent on Indian approval – a near impossibility, given New Delhi’s desire to maintain cordial ties with China.” [P]

On top of that, I’d have thought that ordinary Tibetans would have been discouraged by a leader who fully intended to flee thousands of miles away and expected others to fight and die for his cause. In the event there was no deal, though contacts made at that time laid the basis for the later battles fought mostly by Khampas. As I mentioned earlier, Khampas were viewed as a bunch of bandits by the inhabitants of Western Tibet, and parts of the Khampa homeland had been split between Chinese provinces well before 1949. Meantime the Dalai Lama went back to Lhasa and accepted that he ruled Western Tibet as just an autonomous part of China.

The Dalai Lama best effort was between 1951 and 1959. Had he stuck to it and done his best to keep Tibet peaceful and autonomous during Mao’s turbulent quarter-century, he might actually have merited a Nobel Peace Prize – though he’d probably also not have got it. He did make a sensible beginning, when it became clear Tibet’s claim to independent wasn’t going to be seriously supported. I’ve already mentioned the Seventeen Point Agreement, which conceded that Lhasa was only a local government within China. But autonomy for Western Tibet was part of the deal, and for a time it held. Western Tibet continued to have much the same social system. As ruler, the Dalai Lama managed just one important reform:

“So I decided firstly [in 1953] to abolish the principle of hereditary debt and secondly to write off all government loans that could not be repaid.” (Freedom in Exile, page 86) [K]

The Chinese army was meantime building roads into Tibet, something the Dalai Lama approved of. He found the part-built system useful when he went to Beijing in 1954 for the first session of the first National People’s Congress, where he was made Vice-President of the Steering Committee of the People’s Republic of China (Ibid, page 99). The post carried no significant power, but the Dalai Lama’s real power over Tibetans was recognised and respected. Mao seems to have made great efforts to fit him into the new politics. Like many people from traditional backgrounds, the Dalai Lama found capitalism distasteful. He also found Marxism attractive in the abstract:

“The more I looked at Marxism, the more I liked it. Here was a system based on equality and justice for everyone, which claimed to be a panacea for all the world’s ills. From a theoretical standpoint, its only drawback as far as I could see was its insistence on a purely materialist view of human existence. This I could not agree with. I was also concerned at the methods used by the Chinese in pursuit of their ideals. I received a strong impression of rigidity. But I expressed a wish to become a Party member all the same. I felt sure, as I still do, that it would be possible to work out a synthesis of Buddhist and pure Marxist doctrines that really would be an effective way of conducting politics.” (Ibid., page 98).

No one let him into the Party, which insists on atheism for all its members. But he was one of many distinguished non-Communists that were fitted in. The widow of Sun Yat-sen was the most notable, and later the writer Han Suyin became a useful overseas supporter. At the time it must have seemed possible to fit the Dalai Lama into the same pattern and an effort was made, with Mao giving it his personal attention. He and Mao had no common language and so needed a translator:

“Phuntsog Wangyal… had been converted to the Communist cause many years back. Before coming to China, he had acted as an agent for the Communists while teaching at a school run by the Chinese Mission in Lhasa. When the Mission was closed down following the expulsion of its members in 1949, he and his wife, who happened to be a Tibetan Muslim, left too…

“Phuntsog Wangyal turned out to be a very able man, calm and wise, a good thinker too. He was also very sincere and honest, and I enjoyed his company a great deal. Evidently, he felt very happy in his assignment as my official interpreter, not least because of the access it gave him to Chairman Mao, whom he idolised. However, his feelings towards me were equally strong…

“He told me the Dalai Lama should not rely on astrology as a tool with which to govern the country.” (Ibid, p 96)

There was a brief period of harmony that could have avoided a lot of suffering if it had lasted:

“In all, I had at least a dozen meetings with Mao, most of which were at large gatherings, but a few of which were held in private with no one but Phuntsog Wangyal in attendance…

“I found [Mao] a most impressive man. Physically he was extraordinary. His complexion was very dark, but at the same time his skin seemed shiny…

“In contrast to the distinction of his manner were his clothes, which looked completely worn out. His shirts were always threadbare at the cuff and the jackets he wore were shabby. They were identical to those worn by everyone else, save for the colour, which was a slightly different shade of drab. The only part of his attire that looked well kept were his shoes, which were always well polished. But he did not need luxurious clothes. In spite of looking down-at-heel, he had a very emphatic air of authority and sincerity. His mere presence commanded respect. I felt, too, that he was completely genuine as well as decisive.” (Ibid, pages 96-97.)

“At a later private meeting with Mao, he told me… ‘You have a marvellous history. Long ago you even conquered a lot of China. But now you have fallen behind and we want to help you. In twenty years’ time you could be ahead of us and then it will be your turn to help China.’ I could hardly believe my ears, but he seemed to be speaking out of conviction and not just for effect. (Ibid, p 98)

“Some of the Communists I met were also extremely nice people, totally selfless in their service of others and, personally, very helpful to me.” (Ibid, p 101-2.)

But there was one curious exception. As the Dalai Lama tells it, he was unexpectedly summoned to see Mao. At this meeting, Mao supposedly said:

“Religion is poison. Firstly it reduces the population, because monks and nuns must stay celibate, and secondly it neglects material progress…

“I hoped that he would not sense the horror I felt: it might have broken his trust in me. Luckily, Phuntsog Wangyal was not, for some reason, interpreting between us on this occasion. Had he done so, I am sure he would have discovered my thoughts – especially as we invariably discussed everything together afterwards.” (Ibid, p 108-9)

It’s very hard to believe that Mao really said ‘religion is poison’ to a young man whose whole life had been religious and whose importance was based on the superstitious belief that he was a religious leader reincarnated. Mao is not known to have said anything similar to anyone else, even to non-religious foreigners or in circles where atheism was the official creed. But the Dalai Lama accepted the remarks at face value, despite not having his usual translator. Yet it’s really hard to believe.

(By analogy, if one of Britain’s Olympic medal-winning yachtsman met the Prime Minister and then reported that the Prime Minister had said ‘I regard yachting as a total waste of time’, would this not seem odd? Especially if that Prime Minister was not on record as denouncing yachting to anyone else – or at least not so violently.)

It is also notable that Mao’s supposed remarks were translated by someone other than Phuntsog Wangyal, who wanted harmony and unity.

Why didn’t the Dalai Lama get his proper translator to write to Mao and ask if there had been some misunderstanding? Brought up to believe himself supernaturally wise, the Dalai Lama seems never to investigate or cross-check. This may have had led to a tragic misunderstanding in his last meeting with Mao. It’s conceivable that Mao was quoting Marx about ‘religion is the opium of the people’ –much less hostile than it sounds, if you read the whole of what Marx said. Or the whole meeting may have been connived by Tibetan reactionaries seeking to create trouble, with the poisonous words substituted for some routine remark by Mao.

It’s also possible that the Dalai Lama was not deceived but is simply lying. The more I look at this supposed saint, the more I get suspicious of his honesty. Maybe the absence of Phuntsog Wangyal just gave him the chance to claim Mao had said something that Phuntsog Wangyal would have denied was ever said.

It would be interesting to check just when the Dalai Lama first mentioned Mao’s supposed remark that ‘religion is poison’. Treating it as real, you might expect the Dalai Lama to have mentioned it privately to his supporters during his visit to India, or else immediately after his flight in 1959. Maybe he did: but if he did not, that is significant. If the story only surfaced well after 1959, then it is very unlikely to be true.

In any case, the Dalai Lama was willing for the time to work with Mao, though not to reform Western Tibet. It was one thing to abstractly admire Marxism as “a system based on equality and justice for everyone”, something else for a member of the ruling class to apply it in his own backyard. He was also not pressed to do so. It was events in Eastern Tibet caused a breach, even though the Dalai Lama should have know that no Chinese government would see Eastern Tibet as ruled from Lhasa. The Communists set up ‘Autonomous Prefectures’ and similar lower-level government organisations within existing Chinese provinces, but they also insisted on reform:

“Disturbing news began to reach my ears about the activities of the Chinese authorities in Kham and Amdo. Far from leaving the people be, they had begun to press ahead unilaterally with all kind of ‘reform’… large estates were confiscated and the land redistributed by the local Chinese cadres in accordance with their own political ideology. Landowners were publicly arraigned and punished for ‘crimes against the people’; to my horror some were even put to death…

“The Khampas, who were not used to outside interference, did not take kindly to Chinese methods: of all their possession, the one they valued above all other was their personal weapon. So when the local cadres began to confiscate these, the Khampas reacted with violence. (Freedom in Exile, pages 114-115)

“At the end of 1957, a Chinese official informed me that Phuntsog Wangyal would no longer be coming to Tibet… when he had lived in Kham, before coming to Lhasa, Phuntsog Wangyal had organised a separate Tibetan Communist party which was not open to Chinese nationals. For this crime he had been demoted and prevented from returning to Tibet.” (Ibid, page 129).

If the Dalai Lama’s account is accurate – and the man’s own account supports it – then Phuntsog Wangyal had been guilty of a major breach of the rules of Leninism. The norm is that you organise a single party for each existing state, which is supposed to include everyone living there. And Kham had no legal precedent even for autonomy, unlike Western Tibet, which had become the Tibetan Autonomous Region within the People’s Republic.

It’s also unlikely that any landowner would have been executed except for some serious crime, usually murder. That was how it was done in purely Han areas, though Western sources never mention this.

The new government created a new system in most parts of China, but let Western Tibet stay as it was. This uneasy balance lasted for a few years, during which the Dalai Lama investigated if the USA was ready to back him in a secessionist movement. The problem at the time was the Kuomintang remnant on Taiwan, which still insisted it was the legal government of all China, including Tibet and also the Mongolian Republic. Despite this, contact was made during the Dalai Lama’s visit to a Buddhist gathering in India:

“My two brothers were adamant that I should not return to Tibet… They believed that with the very existence of the Tibetan people under threat, it was essential to confront the Chinese in any way possible. The best way to do this, they felt, was for me to remain in India. It would then be possible to seek foreign support, which they were sure would be easy to obtain. They were convinced that America would help us.

“Although there was no talk at this time of an armed struggle against the Chinese, my brothers, unbeknown to me, had already made contact with the American Central Intelligence Agency. Apparently, the Americans felt that it was worthwhile to provide limited assistance to the Tibetan freedom fighters, not because they cared about Tibetan independence, but as part of their worldwide efforts to destabilise all Communist governments.” (Ibid., p 133.)

This sounds like sentiments written with hindsight, with the CIA having dropped the Tibetan cause after Nixon normalised relations with China in the 1970s. As I mentioned earlier, leaked CIA sources indicate a much earlier and closer connection than the Dalai Lama admits to. We also know that all such operations were heavily infiltrated by Communist agents, including Kim Philby in Washington as the MI6 liaison to the CIA. Probably Beijing knew all about it but let the situation run to see how it would work out. By normal rules, the Dalai Lama was guilty of high treason just for not reporting such a conversation, but I’d suppose that the Communist leadership took a political view rather than a legalistic one. It was also a fairly low-level risk. The CIA came to be very disappointed in the Tibetan ‘freedom fighters’, who were parachuted in at great risk and expense and were never heard from again – presumably caught quite easily by a population that had no wish to rebel.

The Dalai Lama’s actual flight from Tibet was caused by an uprising led by people from Eastern Tibet, who came to Lhasa to protest. It wasn’t about anything that had happened in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, though there was a mysterious panic over a belief that the central government representatives were about to kidnap the Dalai Lama. Since they’d let him go to India a few years earlier, the idea seems unlikely. But a major protest started and put forward a claim that Tibet had always been an independent country – a claim that no other state ever recognised, regardless of their hostility to the People’s Republic. Pro-Beijing sources also mention a puzzling letter from the Dalai Lama in which he said he had been kidnapped by ‘reactionary forces’. He fails to mention this letter in his own account – if the story were a lie, you would expect him to say so.

Beyond this, most of the facts are disputed. The ‘Free Tibet’ crowd regard the Dalai Lama’s flight as a great triumph, while the Chinese government insist that they let him go. He arrived in territory with strong links to Tibet, including what was then the ‘North-East Frontier Agency’, viewed as ‘South Tibet’ by the Chinese government and not marked as part of British India until the 1940s. It’s notable that India did not let the Dalai Lama stay there, but instead shoved him far to the west, to Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, the same place the 13th Dalai Lama had taken refuge in the 1900s. It was a region with historic connections to Tibet, but also overwhelmingly Hindu. He has waited there ever since in the hope of a return on his own terms. He missed the best chances of getting back in the early post-Mao era, when the Central Chinese Government was weaker and needed him more.

The ‘Free Tibet’ crowd never do ask how many Tibetans were actually ‘unionist’, convinced that Tibet should remain part of China. The Dalai Lama has never asked that Tibet be allowed to choose its own future by referendum, the common demand of secessionists who think they’d win such a vote. Obviously the Chinese government would be very unlikely to allow such a thing – no different from lots of other Asian countries where demands for non-violent secession are illegal. But the Dalai Lama and his people prefer to stand on his position as ruler-for-life of a supposedly independent state, rather than risk asking the people of Tibet to decide.

The Dalai Lama was created God-King in 1940 and seems content to hang onto the empty title until he dies. The term ‘God-King’ is nowadays avoided, but it used to be used by well-informed commentators like US Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, whom I quoted earlier. Douglas also accepts the view that a number of Dalai Lamas were murdered, though he blames the Chinese government. Douglas fails to mention the British invasion, and says that “China always showed Tibet on Chinese maps as a Chinese province.” [AQ] There are no known maps from the 18th century onwards that show Tibet as anything other than a part of China, apart from some produced by the Free-Tibet crowd.

Western Tibet was also never a Chinese province, always accepted as autonomous. Maybe that would have changed if Tibet’s last Amban had lasted longer, but in real history Tibet’s legal status remained unaltered. Part of China but not under total control in the way the provinces were supposed to be: it’s a difference you’d have thought a lawyer would be aware of. And this fellow was the longest-serving justice in the history of the Supreme Court, quite well respected despite having upheld the detention without trial or specific charge of Japanese settled in the US during World War Two. There’s nothing unusual in this, Western ‘Jurisprudence’ has always been partisan and frequently irrational under its cloak of legal verbiage.


Some Surprising Ignorance

People credit the Dalai Lama with great wisdom. I didn’t find it in his writings, I didn’t even find run-of-the-mill common-sense. His book Freedom in Exile shows some surprising ignorance about Chinese culture and politics. There are puzzling references to a senior Chinese leader called ‘Lu Rau-Chi’. Only when he mentioned this man as one of the Communist Chinese ‘Big Four’ (Page 107) did I realise that this was his version of the man known in the West as Liu Shaoqi or Liu Shao-ch’i. It’s a ludicrous error to get into print, but it’s not the only goof. He also says:

“The Tibetan calendar is rather complicated… we follow a sixty-year cycle, each one of which is assigned to one of the five elements, whose order is earth, air, fire, water and iron; and one of twelve animals: the mouse the ox, the tiger, the hare, the dragon, the serpent, the horse, the sheep, the monkey, the bird, the dog and the pig, again, in order… So for example, according to the Tibetan calendar, the year 2,000 AD will be the Iron Dragon year.” (Freedom in Exile, page 43)

He fails to recognise this as a derivative of the Chinese system, which has almost the same animals and where the year 2000 is the Metal Dragon. Historians think that the system begun as a system for counting days during the Shang Dynasty, and was extended to years under the Han Dynasty. [R] It is best known in the West in connection with astrology, but it is also the normal system for counting years. Variants of this system are used in Korea, Vietnam and Japan, while a Uighur variant was used for many centuries by Iranians and various Turkish peoples. In Tibet it probably arrived with Princess Wencheng, the 7th century Chinese princess who married a Tibetan King and helped promote Buddhism.[S]

The Dalai Lama leaves out the Chinese connection when he talks about Tibetan Buddhism. The traditional Tibetan story tells of a Tibetan king who was married to both role a Chinese and a Nepali princesses. The Chinese lady is confirmed from Chinese records: Princess Wencheng’s shrine at the Jokhang Temple was and remains one of Lhasa’s most important religious centres. The Dalai Lama says that Buddhist teaching “were introduced to Tibet during the fourth century AD. They took several centuries to supplant the native Bon religion.” (Ibid, page 10.) That’s not the version anyone else gives, nor does he give a source.

The Dalai Lama’s admiration for Mao’s communists seems to have applied only to what they were applying Marxist principles far away and among people he did not know. When it came to Tibet, he saw things differently:

“Tibetans were much happier. This was due to a number of cultural factors I feel. Firstly, the relationship between landlord and serf was much milder in Tibet than in China and conditions for the poor were much less harsh. Secondly in Tibet there was never anything like the barbarisms of foot-binding or castration, which until recently had been widespread throughout China. However, I think that these points were lost.” (Ibid, pages 111-112).

This talk of ‘happy slaves’ reminded me of what plantation-owners said about their slaves in the South of the USA before their secession and Civil War. It’s never explained why the slave-owners would be unwilling to free them, if they were really so loyal and contented and willing to continue obeying their masters.

As for Chinese foot-binding, this had been made illegal in 1911. Castration had mostly been for men seeking to serve in the imperial palace, was often voluntary and had long vanished by 1954. Other abuses remained, and the Dalai Lama was happy to see the Communists correcting them in unfamiliar places. But Tibet’s feudal order was another matter.

The man is also gullible. He takes very seriously an omen he thought he saw before his trip to Beijing:

“A statue of one of the protector divinities of Tibet, which is represented as having a buffalo’s head, had clearly moved. When I had first seen it, it was looking down with a rather subdued look on its face. Now, it was facing East, with a very ferocious expression.” (Ibid., Page 91.)

Unless you want to believe it was a real supernatural event, you have to suspect an articulated statue with exchangeable heads. And as I said before, the Dalai Lama never seems to check facts and can’t have anyone close to him to correct his blunders. Thus he says:

“Not only had Tibetan forces extracted tribute from the Chinese in the eighth century, but Mongolia had actually ruled China from 1279 to 1368, following the successful invasion of Kublai Khan, the Mongolian warlord.

“At this time, there was an interesting historical incident. Kublai Khan became a Buddhist and had a Tibetan guru. This lama persuaded the Mongolian leader to stop his practice of controlling the Chinese population by drowning thousands of them in the sea. In doing so, the Tibetan saved many Chinese lives.” (Page 104).

The conquest of China was begun by Genghis Khan, who defeated the Jin Dynasty and in 1215 captured Beijing, then known as Yanjing. The Jin were finished by 1234, but the Southern Sung remained powerful south of the Yangtze. Kublai Khan did complete the conquest of the Southern Sung, and then in 1271 set himself up as emperor of a new Chinese dynasty to be called the Yuan Dynasty. Great Khans before Kublai had little interest in Chinese tradition, but he chose to embrace it, while also discriminating against the ethnic Hans whom he viewed as untrustworthy. Many Tibetans served Kublai and they ranked second in a racial hierarchy, with Mongols first, Tibetans and other Central Asians second, North Chinese third and South Chinese lowest.

A date of 1279 for the start of the Yuan Dynasty is defensible, because only then were the Southern Sung extinguished. But Kublai Khan grew up a Buddhist, in as far as he had any definite faith. The business of drowning seems to confuse two quite separate events. There is a disputed story about the Sinicised Khitan statesman Yelu Chucai stopping a general massacre of the North Chinese under Genghis Khan, supposedly proposed with a view to turning it back into grazing land. There were also many troops lost and drowned in Kublai Khan’s two unsuccessful invasions of Japan, long after both Genghis and Yelu Chucai were dead.


Dubious Morality

The Dalai Lama generally avoids taking a moral stand on subjects unrelated to Tibet. The main exception I’ve been able to find is an appeal on behalf of General Pinochet.[V] Pinochet was at that time under threat of a fair trial in democratic Spain for acts of murder, political killings that went a long way beyond the immediate need to secure the country after the coup. Like Franco when he was running Spain, Pinochet was trying to change the culture to eliminate left-wing thinking. (And like Franco he failed, with power passing to moderate socialists among the people he once oppressed and tortured.)

Some people will appeal for mercy for anyone who’s in trouble with the law, that’s fair enough. The Dalai Lama has enough moral authority to do a lot of good for people outside of Tibet, and has not done so. Only Pinochet attracted his attention, suggesting he has indeed been run as a ‘CIA asset’ for most of his life. A well-cared-for asset, a man who has got a reputation for saintliness without doing very much for it. Not even living with the degree of religious commitment routine in other branches of Buddhism – vegetarianism, for instance. Most Westerners think of Buddhism as a vegetarian creed, but in fact practice varies:

“In the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, monks are allowed by the vinaya to accept almost any food that is offered to them, including meat unless they suspect the meat was slaughtered specifically for them; while in China and Vietnam, monks are expected to eat no meat…

“In Tibet, where vegetables have been historically very scarce… vegetarianism is very rare, although the Dalai Lama and other esteemed lamas invite their audiences to adopt vegetarianism when they can.” [W]

Actually Tibet grows plenty of barley and also produces a lot of milk and butter, but the monks prefer meat, the most prized food among the ruling class in almost all countries. In Tibet the top monks were the rulers and intertwined with the traditional aristocrats. The actual killing was done by Kashmiri Muslims, who always had that role in Tibetan life. But almost all of the market demand was created by Tibetan Buddhists. Which doesn’t stop the Dalai Lama from trying to string along Western vegetarians, at least one of whom protested publicly:

“You spoke movingly of your deep compassion for animals and your desire that as many people as possible, including Tibetans and Buddhists, adopt a vegetarian diet as an expression of Buddhist compassion for all sentient beings.

“Less than three weeks after this interview… at a dinner at the Elysee Palace for Nobel Peace Prize laureates, you refused the vegetarian meal that you had been served with the comment, ‘I’m a Tibetan monk, not a vegetarian,’ and insisted on being served the same entrée that the other guests were having, which was reported to be braised calf’s cheek and vol-au-vent stuffed with shrimp.” [Y]

The more you look at him, the less the Dalai Lama looks holy and the more he seems like a fool manipulated by those close to him. The Dalai Lama’s elder brother – already established as the reincarnation of a lesser but powerful lama called the Taktser Rinpoche – may have fixed his original ‘recognition’. This ‘Taktser Rinpoche’ brother became an advocate of separatism after he lost his position as a religious-feudal ruler in East Tibet. He quickly opted for an alliance with the USA, and in the end brought his little brother with him – he was 13 years older and remained to the end of his life an open advocate of Tibetan independence, as distinct from the autonomy which the Dalai Lama currently claims to be after.

The Dalai Lama has never been very consistent on anything. From 1959 till the early 1970s, he called for an independent Tibet, declaring that Tibet was a sovereign state that had been invaded. From the early 1970s, when the USA made peace with Beijing, he shifted a little and began saying he was only seeking autonomy. This is not hugely convincing: it looks more like a way of hanging onto residual US support, since the US will not tear up the rule-book for Tibet even though it has considered doing so for Kosovo.

Western news-sources claim that the Dalai Lama has dropped the earlier claim that Tibet is independent. In fact he’s been deceptive, saying that he is not seeking independence but also reaffirming the false claim that Tibet was an independent country before 1951. Thus in his Nobel acceptance speech he said:

“The suffering of our people during the past forty years of occupation is well documented. Ours has been a long struggle. We know our cause is just. Because violence can only breed more violence and suffering, our struggle must remain nonviolent and free of hatred. We are trying to end the suffering of our people, not to inflict suffering upon others.

“It is with this in mind that I proposed negotiations between Tibet and China on numerous occasions. In 1987, I made specific proposals in a five-point plan for the restoration of peace and human rights in Tibet. This included the conversion of the entire Tibetan plateau into a Zone of Ahimsa, a sanctuary of peace and nonviolence where human beings and nature can live in peace and harmony. [T]

Would he also advocate that the USA give Texas back to the Apache? He has said a few things about the rights of aboriginal inhabitants of what are now European settlements, but he’s never questioned their current legal status.

The 1987 speech is worth quoting, because it plainly does not accept that Tibet was part of China:

“When the newly formed People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet in 1949/50, it created a new source of conflict. This was highlighted when, following the Tibetan national uprising against the Chinese and my flight to India in 1959, tensions between China and India escalated into the border war in 1962. Today large numbers of troops are again massed on both sides of the Himalayan border and tension is once more dangerously high.

“The real issue, of course, is not the Indo-Tibetan border demarcation. It is China’s illegal occupation of Tibet, which has given it direct access to the Indian sub-continent. The Chinese authorities have attempted to confuse the issue by claiming that Tibet has always been a part of China. This is untrue. Tibet was a fully independent state when the People’s Liberation Army invaded the country in 1949/50.

“Since Tibetan emperors unified Tibet over a thousand years ago, our country was able to maintain its independence until the middle of this century. At times Tibet extended its influence over neighboring countries and peoples and, in other periods, came itself under the influence of powerful foreign rulers – the Mongol Khans, the Gorkhas [Gurkhas] of Nepal, the Manchu Emperors and the British in India…

“As the most authoritative legal studies have shown, in Tibet’s case, the country’s occasional subjection to foreign influence never entailed a loss of independence…

“It is my sincere desire, as well as that of the Tibetan people, to restore to Tibet her invaluable role, by converting the entire country – comprising the three provinces of U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo – once more into a place of stability, peace and harmony.” [AT]

The Dalai Lama doesn’t mention which ‘authoritative legal studies’ said that Tibet remained independent. The nearest was Britain arguing at the Simla Convention that Western Tibet was under Chinese ‘suzerainty’, with Chinese sovereignty over Eastern Tibet not disputed. The International Commission of Jurists – which is self-appointed and has no recognised authority – found fault with the way Beijing ruled Tibet. They never said that this was the invasion of a foreign country, since no part of Tibet had ever been recognised as such.

Western Tibet’s status under the Ming Dynasty could arguably be viewed as ‘influence’ rather than rule, the records are vague. But the Mongols and Manchus were much more than ‘influential’, they were conquerors and rulers and they decided who was allowed to rule under them in Lhasa. This was very different from the Nepali invasion that tried to establish their own candidate for Dalai Lama, or the British invasion that never denied that this was part of the Chinese Empire. He also makes it clear that when he says ‘Tibet’ he means Greater Tibet, Eastern Tibet as well as Western Tibet, even though Eastern Tibet was mostly included in Chinese provinces. The man was talking complete rubbish back in 1987. And as far as I know, he hasn’t denied anything he said then, despite remarks that all he wants now is ‘autonomy’.

The Dalai Lama also wasn’t an advocate of nonviolence before violence had been tried in his name and had failed miserably. Nor has he ever taken a firm line about the anti-Han violence that Tibetans have practiced on occasions. In his book he mentions some riots that occurred in the late 1980s:

“The whole Tibetan quarter of Lhasa was now in uproar [in 1988] and, during the night, about twenty Chinese shops, whose owners had repeatedly expressed negative attitudes towards Tibetans, were burned down. (Freedom in Exile, p 283)

“Unfortunately, Tibetans [in 1989] reacted to this not only by attacking the police and security forces, but also, in a few instances, innocent Chinese civilians. This made me very sad.” (Ibid, p 287)

The Han people have been targets of rioters all round the world. The difference in Tibet is that they see Tibet as part of their country, and international law is entirely on their side. If there were a serious global movement to revise international law and give more rights to aboriginal and tribal matters, that would be another matter. But all that’s happened is that a pack of lies are told about Tibet, and the legal reunification of a divided country presented as an invasion. The issue is used as a stick to beat the Chinese, or rather than was the intention. Chinese stood up under Mao in 1949, and in the early 21st century they are well aware of their growing strength.

The Other Thirteen Bodies

The Dalai Lama is officially a single entity born fourteen times over the centuries. And murdered five or six times, to judge from the short lifetimes of Dalai Lamas who exercised real power. [Z]

Born Died Lifespan
1 1391 1474 83
2 1475 1541 66
3 1543 1588 45
4 1589 1616 27
5 1617 1682 65
6 1683 1706 23
7 1708 1757 49
8 1758 1804 46
9 1806 1815 9
10 1816 1837 21
11 1838 1856 18
12 1857 1875 18
13 1879 1933 54
14 1935 79 as at April 2015

From the death of the Great 5th Dalai Lama to the 13th Dalai Lama assuming power was 213 years. For most of that period, the Dalai Lamas had no real power. Far too many died young for it to be natural:

The first two ‘Dalai Lamas’ did not use the title and were regular abbots of a large Tibetan monastery. It was Number Three who raised the profile of the office, converting a lot of Mongolians to Lamistic Buddhism and also getting very political. He died in Mongolia of a ‘sudden illness’ after a visit to a Ming emperor. He was then deemed reincarnated as the great-grandson of a Mongol ruler, an event that could be seen as a Mongol take-over. This 4th Dalai Lama caused a Tibetan civil war and died young, died suspiciously.

The next Dalai Lama was ‘found’ in another noble family, this one Tibetan. The Great 5th Dalai Lama worked with some Mongolian tribes to establish himself as Tibet’s ruler, but later accepted the new Manchu dynasty as rulers of the Empire. His death was kept a secret for many years by his deputies. His ‘reincarnation’ behaved unsuitably, openly consorting with women. The early death of this 6th Incarnation was probably not natural.

The 7th and 8th Dalai Lamas seem to have been content to be figureheads, which may have helped them to last as long as they did, dying in their 40s. The death at nine of the 9th Dalai Lama was probably just bad luck, but the 10th, 11th and 12th dying when they were old enough to take over caused a scandal. Following this, the 13th Dalai Lama was the first for a couple of centuries to exercise real power for a significant number of years

For comparison, the Panchen Lamas are just as ancient a line but less concerned with politics. The first ten have had a more natural pattern of deaths:

Born Died Lifespan
1 1385 1438 53
2 1438 1505 67
3 1505 1568 63
4 1570 1662 92
5 1663 1737 74
6 1738 1780 42
7 1782 1853 71
8 1855 1882 27
9 1883 1937 54
10 1938 1989 51

The eleventh Panchen Lama is still alive – rather, there are two current claimants. [AA] It’s worth noting also that some Tibetans count the line as beginning with the man I’ve listed as 4th, who was the first to be closely associated with the Dalai Lama. The short-lived 6th Panchen Lama was much more political than most of them. His death from what was officially smallpox has been suspected of being poisoning.

Many people believe in rebirth as a general possibility, part of Hindu and Buddhist teaching and also some tribal or traditional religions. But the Tibetan system is much more specific: a particular young boy is ‘recognised’ as being the same person as some high lama who has recently died. No other branch of Buddhism claims to produce miracles so neatly and predictably.

Claims for rebirth are apparently taken seriously. The ‘reborn’ child is supposed to recognise objects like a hair-brush or mirror belonging to the dead man, while ignoring similar objects that belonged to someone else. It would be an excellent test, if done honestly. The suspicion is that the selected child is first trained to claim those objects:

“The envoys after conferring together come to the conclusion that the boy having remembered clearly and minutely so many things concerning the late Grand Lama [is the same person reborn]. This is what the Thibetans [sic] say and believe. When I spoke about this to several persons they said they were convinced that it was a fraud arranged between the child’s relations and some Lamas and monks to deceive the credulous Thibetans; that they secretly instructed him and only let him speak when he knew his lesson well.” [AS]

Children don’t usually remember anything that happened before they were 4, so the child himself might be sincere. But the parents would have to be in on the fraud, and they’d also have to be confident that the whole business of reincarnated lamas was a fraud. If it were real and you messed with it, you could expect terrible consequences in your next lifetime, or maybe sooner. So either the whole business is a cynical fraud by senior religious officials, or it is exactly what it claims to be. There is no middle ground.

The pattern of suspicious early deaths also suggests that Lhasa had become like Christian Rome in some of its more corrupt periods, where the high clerical officials believed in nothing very much. In mediaeval times, it was commonly said ‘the closer to Rome, the less Christian. In the case of the Lhasa rulers who may have murdered their God-King, they must have been confident that the next Dalai Lama wouldn’t be saying “didn’t you murder my previous body?” They’d need to take it for granted it was all nonsense, including the standard Buddhist notion of a ‘karmitic burden’ for acts of murder and treachery.

Of course the nonsense didn’t begin with the Dalai Lamas:

“The institution of the tulku as reincarnate lama developed during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, as various Tibetan schools of Buddhism began to accept the possibility that exemplary figures might remain within the human world as institutional teachers, manifesting from one lifetime to the next out of compassion… The most dramatic—and, at the time, controversial—innovation here was the idea that a tulku could inherit the estate… of their previous incarnation. This rule of inheritance allowed for the rise of hugely wealthy estates belonging to the lineages of reincarnating tulkus.

“The first recognized tulku of this kind within the Vajrayana traditions was the Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism; precisely, the first to be recognized as a re-manifestation was the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1204-1283). The Karmapa is now in his 17th incarnation.

“By far the most politically powerful tulku lineage for the past several hundred years have been the Dalai Lamas, which has seen a total of fourteen incarnations.” [AB]

Senior monks who had had contact with various ‘tulkus’ – there were about a thousand in traditional Tibet – might be expected to notice that the supposed reincarnation was a completely new person and could not in fact ‘remember’ anything without being trained and rehearsed. They’d lose faith in the system, which seems to be an oddity produced by the isolation of Tibetan Buddhism, where the monastic hierarchy and the aristocracy were deeply connected. It can become a matter for power struggles – there are two current claimants to be 17th Karmapa, and also a magic ‘Black Crown’ that has gone missing.

Western reverence for the Dalai Lamas became widespread only in the second half of the 20th century, when it suited the CIA and others to build him up. As I mentioned earlier, even though the Shangri-la of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon was based on Tibetan legends, it is not Buddhist.

The fictional Shangri-la reflects the values of 1930s Britons. The long-lived elite are almost all of European origin. It’s very much a Eurocentric fantasy of superior whites and friendly subserviant natives. No actual religious discipline comes into it:

“Until we reach an age when care is advisable, we gladly accept the pleasures of the table, while–for the benefit of our younger colleagues – the women of the valley have happily applied the principle of moderation to their own chastity.” [AC]

A town in East Tibet that’s now part of the Chinese province of Yunnan has been given the honour of calling itself ‘Shangri-La’ in what may be in the area Hilton had in mind.[AD] Hilton shows no interest in the actual Buddhist hierarchy that existed in his day.

Other outsiders who took any notice of the Dalai Lama did not take the office very seriously. Before he current Dalai Lama became a useful Cold War figurehead, the system was mostly viewed as ridiculous:

“Then the names of the three children whose births had been attended with miraculous signs were placed in an urn; each inscribed upon a slip in Chinese and Tibetan characters… the dalai lama was chosen by lot…

“There are not many more pathetic sights on earth than the sight of a dalai lama seated on his throne. For generations the grand lamas have been mere boys, many of them said to have died mysterious deaths.” (The Fort Wayne Evening Sentinel, November 26th 1904, [AE])

Newspapers mostly took their view from the Britain’s ‘Younghusband Expedition’ of 1904. The British invaders were unimpressed by the Dalai Lama, who had fled to Mongolia rather than sign the treaty the British wanted to impose:

“Lhasa itself is squalid and filthy, undrained, unpaved. Not a single house looks clean or cared for. The streets after rain are nothing but pools of stagnant water, frequented by pigs and dogs searching for refuse…

“Above all this squalor the Potula [sic] towers superbly. Its golden roofs shining in the sun like tongues of fire…

“Since the assumption of temporal power by the fifth Grand Lama in the middle of the seventeenth century, the whole history of the Tibetan hierarchy has been a record of bloodshed and intrigue. The fifth Grand Lama, the first to receive the title of Dalai, was a most unscrupulous ruler, who secured the temporal power by inciting the Mongols to invade Tibet, and received as his reward the Kingship. He then established his claim to the godhead by tampering with Buddhist history and writ. The sixth incarnation was executed by the Chinese on account of his profligacy. The seventh was deposed by the Chinese as privy to the murder of the Regent. After the death of the eighth of whom I can learn nothing, it would seem that the tables were turned, the Regents systematically murdered their charges, and the crime of the seventh Dalai Lama was visited upon four successive incarnations. The ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth all died prematurely, assassinated, it is believed, by their Regents…

“The country is governed on the feudal system. The monks are the overlords, the peasantry are their serfs. The poor are not oppressed. They and the small tenant farmers work ungrudgingly for their spiritual masters, to whom they owe a blind devotion…

“No doubt the Lamas employ spiritual terrorism to maintain their influence and preserve the temporal government in their hands, and when they speak of their religion being injured by our intrusion they are thinking, no doubt, of another unveiling of mysteries, the dreaded age of materialism and reason when, little by little, their ignorant serfs will be brought into contact with the facts of life.” (The Ogden Standard, November 12th 1904 [AF])

A British force from India invaded Tibet on the pretext of opposing Tsarist Russian influence, which seems to have been marginal. The British in India probably wanted to detach at least Western Tibet from the Chinese Empire, but the British government back in London balked at this. British trade with the Han majority was considered much more important.

The Chinese Central Government also made an effort to re-establish effective control, at first with the Amban (Chinese Imperial resident) working with the Dalai Lama:

“The circumstances surrounding the flight from L’hasa [sic] of the now deposed dalai lama are as follows:

“The dalai lama, following his wide wanderings, arrived at L’hasa in December with authority from Pekin [Beijing] to take over the government from the provisional governors who were appointed following the invasion of the Holy City in 1904 by Colonel Sir Francis Edward Younghusband…

“The dalai lama was installed at the palace and monastery of Polasta [sic] amid popular demonstrations. The ruler, who was again given civil power at the head of their hierarchy, pardoned all the Tibetans who had given the oath to Colonel Younghusband, and all went well for a month, when the lama protested to the Chinese in charge of military affairs because of the excesses of the Chinese troops on the Sze Chuen [Sichuan] frontier, where they were sacking the monasteries and killing the monks. This protest served to stir up the whole question of the status of Tibet. The amban declared that it was a Chinese province, and said he would deal with the rebels as it pleased him to do. Other questions of authority arose, and finally the amban ordered to L’hasa 500 Chinese troops who were encamped on the outskirts of the capital. A few companies composed of the dalai lama’s followers were hastily enrolled under the name of ‘golden soldiers’. They opposed the Chinese soldiers, but, being indifferently armed, were shot down with much bloodshed. Meanwhile the dalai lama, with three of his ministers and sixty retainers, fled through a gate at the rear of the palace enclosure, and were fired upon as they escaped through the city.

“The dalai lama does not intend to appeal to the Indian government, his motive in coming to India… this way offers the shorted route to Pekin [sic], where he can personally lay his grievances before the Chinese throne.” (The Galveston Daily News, February 7th 1910, [AG])

It’s a consistent pattern, a Dalai Lama inciting violence and then fleeing well away from the resultant danger. The same events are summarised in the Encyclopedia Britannica (1911 edition):

“In January 1908 the final instalment of the Tibetan indemnity was paid to Great Britain, and the Chumbi valley was evacuated. The Dalai Lama was now summoned to Peking, where he obtained the imperial authority to resume his administration in place of the provisional governors appointed as a result of the British mission. He retained in office the high officials then appointed, and pardoned all Tibetans who had assisted the mission. But in 1909 Chinese troops were sent to operate on the Sze-ch`uen frontier against certain insurgent lamas, whom they handled severely. When the Dalai Lama attempted to give orders that they should cease, the Chinese amban in Lhasa disputed his authority, and summoned the Chinese troops to enter the city. They did so, and the Dalai Lama fled to India in February 1910, staying at Darjeeling. Chinese troops followed him to the frontier, and he was deposed by imperial decree. The British government, in view of the apparent intention of China to establish effective suzerainty in Tibet, drew the attention of the government at Peking to the necessity of strictly observing its treaty obligations, and especially pointing out that the integrity of the frontier states of Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim must be respected. To the Dalai Lama, who had attempted to obtain British intervention at Peking, it was made clear that he personally had no claim to this, as the British government could only recognize the de facto government in Tibet.” [AL]

Then as now, Eastern Tibet and Western Tibet are not clearly distinguished. The central Chinese government accepted Western Tibet as autonomous, but Eastern Tibet had been absorbed into various Chinese provinces, including Sichuan. In 1910 the Amban of Tibet was a man called Zhao Erfeng, the last Amban of Tibet.[AH] He was also acting viceroy of Sichuan province, two roles that would normally have been separate. Zhao Erfeng played a part in provoking the Wuchang Uprising in neighbouring Hubei Province, which led on to the fall of the Manchu dynasty.[AJ]

In 1911, Zhao Erfeng faced rebellion in Sichuan. According to Han Suyin, the main issue was control of a planned railway that would have linked Sichuan to the rest of China. He summoned troops from Wuchang, which was seen by rebels as an opportunity to rebel. This was the background to the Wuchang Uprising, the official start of the Xinhai Revolution (Chinese Revolution of 1911). Zhao tried to work with the rebels, but on 22nd December 1911 he was overthrown and beheaded.


Tibet After 1911.

Had the Chinese Empire successfully reformed itself in the way that Ottoman Turkey was doing before World War One, it is unlikely that Tibet would ever have claimed independence. The same would have been true if the Chinese Republic had formed a stable and unified government in its early years. The British in India had continuous ambitions to add Tibet to their realm, at least as a protectorate. But the government in London took a wider view: Britain’s other interests in China were vastly more important than Tibet. Britain dominated Shanghai and had a privileged position in the enormous and populous Yangtse Valley – something that lasted in a reduced form until the ‘Amethyst Incident’ in 1949. Britain during the days of the pro-Western Chinese Republic thought it best not to antagonise Chinese public opinion by seizing Western Tibet. It did slip out of central government control, because the Han Chinese in Sichuan overthrew Zhao Erfeng, who was both Amban of Tibet and Sichuan governor. After he was killed, no one person was able to replace him:

“By the end of December 1911 there were two governments in Szechuan [Sichuan], one in Chengtu and one in Chungking. The Chungking one adhered to Sun Yatsen, the Chengtu one was not even pretending to be revolutionary. But neither of them wanted the Manchus back.

“For the next twenty-eight years, from 1911 to 1939, like the medieval barons of Europe, the warlords of Szechuan… were to fight each other, town by town.” [AM]

The Dalai Lama benefited from this general fragmentation of Western China (as indeed did the Communists twenty years later, during that portion of their Long March.) In the summer of 1912, the exiled Dalai Lama declared that Tibet was independent. His followers managed to drive out the Chinese army, which would no longer have had any strong reason to stay. But the Dalai Lama only secured control of Western Tibet: Eastern Tibet was ethnically mixed and mostly controlled by various non-Tibetan warlords. Tibet’s claim to independence was recognised only by another secessionist regime, in what was then Outer Mongolia.

“From 1691 to 1911, Outer Mongolia was ruled by the Manchu Qing Dynasty. In the first decade of the 20th century, the Qing began implementing the so-called New Policies, aimed at an integration of Outer Mongolia into China. Upset by the prospect of Chinese colonization akin to the developments in Inner Mongolia during the 19th century, the Mongolian nobility turned to Tsarist Russia for support. In August 1911, a Mongol delegation went to Saint Petersburg and obtained a pledge of limited support. When they returned, the Xinhai Revolution had begun in China, and in December 1911 the Mongols deposed of the Manchu amban… and declared their independence under the leadership of the 8th Jebtsundamba Khutugtu, who was appointed Bogd Khan of Mongolia. Attempts to include Inner Mongolia into the new state failed, partly due to Russian intervention (Russia was bound in Inner Mongolian affairs by Secret treaties with Japan), partly due to lack of support from Inner Mongolian nobles and the higher clergy. In the Khiagt agreement of 1915, China, Russia and Mongolia agreed on Mongolia’s status as autonomous under Chinese soucerainty.[sic]

“However, the Republic of China was able to use the Russian revolution and the ensuing civil war as pretext to deploy troops in Outer Mongolia, and in 1919 the Mongolian government was forced to sign a paper that abolished Mongolia’s autonomy. It was under Chinese occupation that the Mongolian People’s Party was founded and once again looked to the north, this time to the Soviet Union, for help. In the mean time, White Russian troops led by Roman Ungern von Sternberg had occupied Khuree in early March 1921, and a new theocratic government once more declared independence from China, on March 13th. But Ungern von Sternberg and the remaining Chinese troops were driven out of Mongolia in the following months, and on July 6th, 1921, the Mongolian People’s Party and Soviet troops took Khuree. The People’s Party founded a new government, but kept the Bogd Khan as nominal head of state. In the following years though some violent power struggles, Soviet influence got ever stronger, and after the Bogd Khan’s death, the Mongolian People’s Republic was proclaimed on November 26th, 1924.” [AN]

This Bogd Khan as eighth ‘Jebtsundamba Khutugtu’ was the spiritual leader of Mongolia’s Tibetan Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama was happy to work with him. The Bogd Khan abandoned his claim to independence in the Khiagt agreement of 1915: the Dalai Lama was ready to do the same with the Simla Agreement of 1914, but Simla was rejected by the Chinese Republic. With most of China fragmented between rival warlords and no single strong ruler in Western China, the Dalai Lama’s government was left alone, though never recognised as sovereign.

During the Sino-Japanese War, which began in 1937, Chiang Kai-Shek was driven out of the coastal cities and moved to Sichuan. By then the 13th Dalai Lama was dead and there was no agreed successor. This gave him a reason to want to get some sort of control over Tibet, which was both a possible supply-route and a possible back-door for the Japanese. Japanese designs on Tibet had been suspected, and the death of the 13th Dalai Lama created a power vacuum. A US newspaper described it as follows in 1935:

“With the death of the Dalai Lama in sacred Lhasa… the present plans of the Panchen Lama to return to the Great Closed Land, a new element – religion – projects itself into the picture of Far Eastern political affairs…

“The Manchu Emperors… welcomed Tibetan spiritual control in Manchuria and Mongolia. And it was this they were able to exercise political control not only over the Mongols and Turkestan tribes but also over the Tibetans themselves.

“It was only after the Manchus had fallen into decadence, with their eventual complete collapse in the revolution of 1911, that the Tibetans as well as the Mongols withdrew their allegiance to the Celestial Empire.

“But the Tibetans and Mongolians have never formally recognised this overthrow of the Manchus from the Dragon Throne. The Manchus they regard as a people with a kindred religion – in contrast with the present ‘irreligious’ republican government in China…

“In 1912, after the Chinese revolution and the overthrow of the Manchus, the Dalai Lama backed by the British, returned to his priest-kingship in Lhasa. In return for this friendship and patronage Britain’s position in Tibetan affairs has been well-nigh unchallenged ever since.” [AL]

The article doesn’t mention the claim to independence that the Dalai Lama made at this time. As I mentioned earlier, his government and a traditionalist government in Mongolia recognised each other as sovereign nations, but no one else did. By 1935 it may have been supposed that the claim had lapsed. But the US paper takes an interest in the possible role of the Panchen Lama:

“Observing that the Panchen Lama (though spiritually entitled to rule Tibet and Buddhism jointly with the Dalai Lama) would not fall in line with certain progressive political idea, a plot was engineered, with the result that the Panchen Lama was forced to flee Tibet in 1924.

“During the past decade he has lived in Manchuria and Mongolia. He is reputed to receive a subsidy of approximately $150,000 [equivalent to more than 2 million in 2007 dollars] from the Chinese, who believe the money well spent in consideration for the extreme spiritual influence he exercises…

“Though he is somewhat obligated to the Chinese for their hospitality during his 10 years exile, the Japanese hold tantalisingly before him the promise of a great All-Asia Buddhist Empire – a Holy Roman Empire of the Orient – with himself as Supreme Pontiff, under the temporal protection of the Buddhist Emperor of Japan…

“The Tibetans have been observing with increasing favor the growth of Japanese prestige in the Orient. Their defeat first of the Chinese in 1895 and then the Russians in 1905 elicited respect and admiration. In recent years too, because Japan is diametrically opposed to Russian Sovietism – abhorrent to the Tibetans – and not too friendly with the Chinese, Japan is drawing closer to Tibet.

“Should Japan come to some ‘understanding’ with the Panchen Lama, not only does annexation of Mongolia become an immediate certainty, but also she may find her influence suddenly extending right on through Tibet down to the Indian border. Small wonder that world statesmen are watching uneasily.” [AL]

As it happened, the 9th Panchen Lama died before he could return to Tibet. Died in 1937, the year the Sino-Japanese War started. Died at a place called Gyegu (Jyekundo to Tibetans) which was part of Qinghai Province, controlled by Ma Bufang. Since this Panchen Lama was only in his 50s, I can’t help wondering if his death was arranged. There was certainly a lot of murder and conspiracy in Republican China. Chiang Kai-Shek in his early days had shot and killed a political rival who was in hospital at the time.[AP] You can imagine the noise that Western writers would make if Mao or one of the other leading Communists had done such a thing. Because Chiang Kai-Shek was their man – their lackey – the event is seldom mentioned.

Imperial Japan had asserted Shinto at the expense of Buddhism, but Buddhism was still part of the creed, respected and used where it was usable. The Chinese Communists are not mentioned in the article, but Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China tells how the Red Army were treated as enemies in the small portion of Eastern Tibet they had to cross, whereas elsewhere else they were able to make friends with the various minority peoples.

As I detailed earlier, successors for the two High Lamas were found from the Chinese province of Qinghai, ruled by the warlord Ma Bufang from 1931 and before that by Ma Bufang’s father Ma Qi, who had been in control from 1915. Chiang Kai-Shek must have been happy to accept nominal control for the time being: his authority was weak in huge sections of China, including Ma Bufang’s warlord realm. By 1940, he had abandoned the notion of seriously fighting the Japanese, planning just to hold what he had and let the US do the hard work. His main target remained the Chinese Communists, whom he was blockading even though they were officially allies against the Japanese. No doubt he hoped to be the real ruler of all China in the long run, which would have included Tibet. But Tibet was a very minor issue, poor and distant and with a tiny population. Tibet could be left alone with its new little God-King.


[A] Encyclopaedia Britannica Book of the Year 1939, page 671.

[B] Encyclopaedia Britannica Book of the Year 1940, entry for Tibet, page 664-5

[C] The Billings Gazette, February 18th 1940, found in an on-line newspaper archive.

[D] Seven Years In Tibet. – CHECK, what does he say about the area?

[E] []

[F] []

[G] [], []

[H] Seven Years In Tibet, chapter 15.

[J] Seven Years In Tibet, chapter 16. He also refers to the warlord Ma Bufang as ‘Ma Pufang’, but it seems both forms were used to render the man’s name into English letters.

[K] Freedom in Exile: the autobiography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet. Hodder & Stoughton 1990

[M] Conboy & Morrison, The CIA‘s Secret War in Tibet, University Press of Kansas 2002, pages 14-15.

[N] Ibid, page 12.

[P] Ibid, pages 13-14

[Q] []

[R] []

[S] [], []

[T] []

[V] Forgive Pinochet, says Dalai Lama. []

[W] []

[Y] []

[Z] Based on the list given at []. I have subtracted year born from year died to get the lifespan: you can see the pattern without it needing to be exact. Note that Tibetans calculate ages from the supposed month of gestation – I think Tibetans reckon this as 10 months before birth.

[AA] []

[AB] []

[AC] Hilton, James. Lost Horizon, chapter 8.

[AD] []

[AE] From The Fort Wayne Evening Sentinel, November 26th 1904, from a newspaper archive.

[AF] From The Ogden Standard, November 12th 1904, from a newspaper archive. Most of it is take from the London Daily Mail.

[AG] From The Galveston Daily News, February 7th 1910, from a newspaper archive.

[AH] []

[AJ] []

[AL] []

[AL] From The Ogden Standard Examiner, April 14th 1935.

[AM] The Crippled Tree, by Han Suyin. She used the old-style version of Zhao’s name, Chao Erfeng

[AN] []

[AO] []

[AP] Fenby, Jonathan. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and the China he lost. Page 34 of the paperback edition of 2003, The Free Press,

[AQ] The Dalai Lama: A God-King Defies Mao, by William O. Douglas. From The Stars and Stripes, April 16th 1959

[AR] []

[AS] Lattimore, Owen and Eleanor. Silks, Spices and Empire: Asia seen through the eyes of its discoverers. page 142

[AT] []

[AU] []

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