Tibet: Panchen Lama book summary

April 27th, 2009 by Lara

Hello. I’m currently editing a scholarly book that will soon be published on the history of Tibet and China in the 1920s and 30s. I have lots to say about it from a translation point of view, since it was based on Chinese and Tibetan sources, written in French, translated into a Gallic English, and then passed on to me. But I think it might be handy if I just give you a summary of the action in the book. It’s written by F. Jagou, and will be published by Silkworm Press later this year as a project of the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient. Please read the book once it’s available; it’s great to actually have some facts to work with:

The Panchen and Dalai lamas have run Tibet for some centuries now. Both are members of the Tibetan aristocracy with well-defined rights to land, monasteries, and couvee labor from Tibetan peasants. The Dalai Lama has some general political dominance, but the Panchen Lama is supposed to be a great Buddhist scholar, at times the Dalai’s spiritual advisor/superior. This feudal system worked OK until the 19th century, when China, Britain and Russia all started making incursions into Tibetan territory, getting Tibetans to sign treaties sacrificing certain sovereign rights over trade and international alliances, and suddenly the Dalai Lama (#13, not the current one) realized it would be handy to have an army. How to fund it?

The Dalai Lama sent notes to the 9th Panchen Lama in 1923 or so, explaining that the PL owed taxes (measured in barley flour and hay, in some cases, but payable to Lhasa in silver specie and Nepalese currency) for the maintenance of one quarter of the new Tibetan army; in addition he was to pay back taxes for various wars and services dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. The PL tried to appeal this decision, since he’d never paid any taxes before and didn’t think he or his people could afford it. The DL remained adamant, and the PL fled to China, leaving a note explaining that he was trying to find the money from among the princes in of Outer Mongolia. While they were devout Buddhists, and supported him handsomely in return for Buddhist teachings, he couldn’t find enough $$, so went to China.

There he found receptive ears among the Republicans and warlords, and he wandered around giving teachings in return for more support/maintenance from government figures. He bought into Sun Yat-Sen’s ideas and promulgated them, and earned various titles and stipends from the Republican gov’t., but little or no power. He was probably under the impression that his status with the Chinese gov’t. was that of a spiritual superior giving teachings in return for material support; but the Chinese of course viewed his acceptance of their money (patronage?) as an expression of fealty; since they also thought that he was the ruler of Inner Tibet (and the DL the ruler of Outer Tibet), this explains why they consistently claim rights to Tibetan territory. Anyway, he was in the midst of negotiating his return to Tibet with both the Chinese and the DL when he died.

That was Panchen Lama #9, and I’m unclear about where #10 was; as you know, recently the Chinese claimed to have discovered #10’s reincarnation in their very own #11.

It’s a really interesting book, as it’s written based on sources no other westerner has seen; the author is a French scholar who knows Tibetan and Chinese, and did all kinds of interviews in China, India and Tibet with survivors of all this action, as well as reading whatever archives the various governments made available to her.

5 Responses to “Tibet: Panchen Lama book summary”

  1. Avatarxgz

    Here is the wiki entry for the 10th Panchen Lama
    Its description is consistent with what I know about him.

  2. AvatarMei

    I grew up knowing there was Panchen and there was Dalai, but many of my friends in the US never heard of Panchen. I think it is interesting that even without any apparent benefit to do so, the western media seems to really “brainwash” its audience in a very systematic way. You have to give it to Dalai for a successful media campaign over the years.

    Thanks for putting the information here! I hope the book comes out soon.

  3. AvatarLara
    Author Comment

    I heard of the Panchen Lama when #11 was nominated in 1995 – by the PRC. The Wiki article on #10 certainly makes sense in light of what I know of PL #9 from my editing. I had no idea that he married – probably not the most Buddhist/monastic of moves.

    One thing I picked up from the book was that the Chinese authorities have been influential in Tibet’s choice of lamas for some time; early on (I think in the mid 1850s) Chinese officials noticed that the “reincarnations” of previous lamas all tended to come from families tied suspiciously closely to the old lamas and power brokers. So after the various candidates (very small boys) underwent the various tests in Lhasa, the Chinese insisted that lots for the winner be drawn from a cauldron to try to even the odds – at least if you can trust a cauldron, which we all know after Harry Potter IV you can’t.

    On a more serious note, when you read the book you’ll find that Tibet’s army, what there was of it, was incredibly badly armed and ill-fed (once DL #13 died, his attempts at fielding a proper army mostly died with him). So although I know nothing whatever of China’s invasion of Tibet, any incursion of properly armed forces would either have met with total surrender or have resulted in a bloodbath; I guess the latter is what happened. The Panchen Lamas (9 & 10) seem to have agreed that Tibet drastically needed modernization; I guess future historians will let us know whether it had to happen at the price of so much gore. Might be that the lama system of governance was so broken down that there really was no alternative?

  4. AvatarLara
    Author Comment

    Oh, and Mei, I just (D’oh!) realized that of course American media were interested in brainwashing people in any way that could prejudice them against China. Remember the Cold War? This was part of it – anything that could make the PRC look bad was trumpeted from the rooftops.

    Even to the names of fruit, and I kid you not. The Kiwi fruit we all associate with New Zealand was, until the 1950s (supremacy of Mao & Communists) called a Chinese Gooseberry. The name was changed in the 50s so that NZ could still sell them here without raising suspicions of communist sympathies.

    American media were not controlled by government directly, but the drunken shameless Senator McCarthy made it very difficult for people in public life to express, not sympathy for communism, but even the tiniest glimmer of fair-mindedness. He used the House Un-American Activities Committee to hound them out of business and blackballed them in any way possible. Did incalculable harm to U.S. politics and public life (Ronald Reagan was elected partially on the strength of his having made anti-communist speeches for 25 years), and to any hopes of unbiased reporting from abroad.

  5. Avatarxgz

    Speaking of McCarthyism, the best example to Chinese would be Tsien Hsue-shen, a brilliant rocket scientist at Jet Propulsion Lab. He was accused of being a communist sympathizer and was wrongfully imprisoned for 5 years. He was finally exchanged for American prisoners of war in Korea in 1955. So the success of the Chinese rocket program had a lot to do with Senator McCarthy.

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