The Dalai Lama and the Emperor of China: A Political History of the Tibetan Institution of Reincarnation
By Peter Schwieger
Columbia University Press, 2015
352 pp.; $50.00 (Cloth)

A Historical Atlas of Tibet
By Karl E. Ryavec
The University of Chicago Press, 2015
216 pp.; $45.00 (Cloth)

Consider the following scene:

Kyiatsang Trulku . . . took them to the house, with various possessions of the late Dalai Lama and exact copies. Out of four necklaces the child took the two which belonged to the late Dalai Lama and placed them around his own neck, and similarly out of two small drums he chose the right one, which he began to play. There remained the choice between two walking sticks. The child first took the wrong one, and shook his head, and dropped it. He then took the right one and would not let it go. It was also found that the child, in common with his predecessor, possessed three of the physical signs which distinguish the incarnations of Chenrezi [Avalokitesvara]. When Kyiatsang Trulku prepared to leave, the child took him by the hand and wanted to go with him, and wept at being left behind. It was related also that at the time of the birth of the child there had been a rainbow over the house.

Such is the account of the discovery and recognition of the 14th and current Dalai Lama, written by Sir Basil E. Gould, the British Empire’s Political Officer in Sikkim at the time. While such stories may have become more commonplace now that His Holiness is a bona fide celebrity, it is worth pausing to note that it is a very unusual way to choose a world leader.

Two new books reflect on the culture, history, and politics behind such mysterious rituals, in two fundamentally different but equally fascinating ways. Peter Schwieger’s The Dalai Lama and the Emperor of China tackles head-on Tibet’s unique institution of reincarnation and the ways in which it “created and justified distinct patterns of social and political interaction, not only within Tibet itself but also in relation to its mighty neighbors.” Karl Ryavec’s A Historical Atlas of Tibet, on the other hand, maps “the historical growth and spread of Tibetan civilization across the Tibetan Plateau and bordering hill regions, from prehistoric times to the annexation of the last Tibetan state by China in the 1950s.” Each is a monumental work of scholarship in its own right, and taken together they paint an intricate portrait of this unique and sadly troubled land. 

Both books start with a similar premise: that the history of a nation can be uncovered in part through the mundane artifacts it leaves behind. In the case of The Dalai Lama and the Emperor of China, these are the diplomatic correspondence and other official documents housed in various religious and governmental archives. This may seem an unpromising approach in the case of Tibet. As Schwieger notes, among “the most striking features of all Tibetan societies right up to the present day is the social position of enlightened persons, regarded as emanations of transcendent divinities.” How can this historical equivalent of Wikileaks help us understand the activities of these reincarnated beings?

And yet it turns out even the miraculous men and women Tibetans call tulkus leave a paper trail. To analyze the historical relationship between various Chinese emperors and senior Tibetan lamas, Schwieger looks at how they actually addressed each other in official written correspondence at the time. To discover who held real political power, Schwieger asks who signed the international treaties—and who issued the tax receipts.

Schwieger traces the Dalai Lama’s origins back to 1578, when the title was first bestowed on the precocious abbot of Drepung monastery, Sonam Gyatso, by the powerful Mongolian ruler Altan Qan, in what Schwieger terms a reciprocal “exchange of titles and seals.” (The Mongolian received the new appellation “All-Brahma, Great, Powerful, Cakravatin King of the Dharma” in return.) The name was applied retroactively to the abbot’s two previous incarnations, making him the 3rd Dalai Lama in the traditional counting. Now backed by the Qan’s considerable military might, the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa sect spread quickly throughout the region. As later incarnations amassed increasing secular authority, the office became what Schwieger terms a “sacred kingship” over Tibet, and one that lasted from the 17th century until the Chinese occupation five decades ago.Many of the archival documents quoted here have not previously found their way into Western scholarship, and the subtle shifts in language we see can be most illuminating. Schwieger, chair of the Department of Mongolian and Tibetan Studies at the University of Bonn, translates most of these himself. He shows us, for example, that in a public ordinance issued on January 20, 1899, the 13th Dalai Lama described himself as:

Many of the archival documents quoted here have not previously found their way into Western scholarship, and the subtle shifts in language we see can be most illuminating. Schwieger, chair of the Department of Mongolian and Tibetan Studies at the University of Bonn, translates most of these himself. He shows us, for example, that in a public ordinance issued on January 20, 1899, the 13th Dalai Lama described himself as:

The one who at the behest of the emperor is called the most powerful lord of the supremely virtuous western sphere, owner of the entire doctrine of the Buddha on earth, all-knowing vajradhara Dalai Lama.

By the end of the Qing dynasty, however, this apparent fealty had been dropped from his proclamations, and His Holiness was no longer suggesting he owed his authority to the emperor.

But there are limits to Schwieger’s archival method, and the evidence he offers is at times contradictory. “There is no doubt that Tibet was sometimes more and sometimes less willing to cooperate with imperial authority,” he concedes, “and that its willingness to cooperate was at times nothing more than a pretense.” The situation is further complicated by the fact that “Tibetan authorities always adhered to the formalities of the hierarchical relations” with the emperor of China, “which demanded a specific, submissive style” in official correspondence that may not have been genuine. Yet if the written material can’t be taken at face value, then what exactly does it tell us? As Schwieger admits, the “Dalai Lama’s acknowledgement of the emperor as a source of authority” in formal documents such as the one quoted above “never implied a concession of a right of the emperor to interfere in Tibetan affairs.” Rather, the Tibetans’ “goal of the ‘union of religion and politics’ was the total subordination of the secular sphere to the religious one,” even when their written communication seemed to imply the opposite.

Ryavec’s A Historical Atlas of Tibet relies not on letters and laws for its raw material but on maps, surveys, and gazetteers. He brings to life another unique feature of Tibet: its famously rugged and mountainous terrain. He argues persuasively that Tibet’s history has been shaped not only by its rulers and alliances but also by the land itself. Indeed, Tibetans traditionally showed little regard for political boundaries when describing their own country. Rather, Tibet was seen by the Tibetans as an “entire plateau-wide ‘Snowland’ . . . with its own distinctive places and way of life.” Ryavec, an American academic and trained geographer, spent over a decade on this ambitious project, laboring to capture Tibet’s full majesty in cartographic form. Through his 49 gorgeous maps, plus many vivid photographs and illustrations, Ryavec presents us Tibet from the prehistoric to the imperial to the modern eras, delving into the languages, natural resources, administration, and religion of the entire region.

Tibet’s daunting landscape had political implications, and meant that the country could depend primarily on its inhospitable geography for much of its defense. Outlying districts were instructed simply “not to provide provisions to foreigners nor allow them to pass without a valid passport, and for the most part this system prevented outsiders from getting far across the high plateau beyond Tibet’s frontiers.” Such reliance on extreme inconvenience served Tibet well for centuries, when travel was limited to caravans of horses, mules, yaks, or camels. But it may well have hampered Tibet’s later military development, with disastrous consequences in the 20th century, when Tibet’s inherent geological barricades could be more easily overcome by modern armies.

While A Historical Atlas of Tibet will enchant and inform any lover of maps, The Dalai Lama and the Emperor of China is a more densely reported academic work. With over 50 pages of footnotes (including a single chapter with 180 of its own), this formidable book does not make for light reading. Those with only a casual interest in Tibetan history may be better served by popular accounts like Sam van Schaik’s comprehensive Tibet: A History (Yale University Press, 2013) or Alexander Norman’s quirky and entertaining Secret Lives of the Dalai Lama (Harmony, 2010), both written with lay readers in mind. But Schwieger’s imposing text will reward intrepid students, providing a deep and thorough examination of the Dalai Lama’s lineage and nearly a thousand years of documented Tibetan history.

Schwieger acknowledges that any study of Tibet’s historical relationship with China has political implications, but nevertheless has tried to avoid “the politics of history.” Ryavec, on the other hand, is more forthcoming about his own position on the “Tibet Question,” stating, for example, as fact and without further commentary that “China annexed the country and dissolved the government” in the 1950s. In a striking map examining Tibet’s recent demographics, Ryavec shows that ethnic Tibetans are likely now a minority in their own land. Perhaps the most depressing page in either book is a simple chart in Ryavec’s atlas chronicling monastery construction in Tibet over the last 1,400 years, showing a peak of over 100 built annually in the traditional region of Amdo alone throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, falling to roughly zero after 1950.

Schwieger describes the efforts of the modern Chinese state to regulate “precisely whether and when a search for a new reincarnation is allowed” as well as “the way the reincarnation has to be identified and acknowledged.” This year, China’s involvement in the Tibetantulku tradition has taken an almost comical turn. His Holiness has suggested publicly that he may choose to avoid further conflict by declining to be reincarnated again, or may leave that decision to the Tibetan people. Yet the Chinese government now claims authority not only to choose the Dalai Lama’s successor but also to decide if one exists at all. As reported by Reuters, Padma Choling, the chairman of the Standing Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Regional People’s Congress, has claimed that “it’s not up to the Dalai Lama” whether he will be reincarnated and accused him of “profaning religion and Tibetan Buddhism” for suggesting otherwise. It is never explained by what metaphysical mechanism an avowedly atheistic political party could determine whether a bodhisattva returns for another lifetime on earth.

These contemporary efforts to usurp entirely Tibet’s unique tulku system are probably doomed. The mystical process Sir Basil described half a century ago seems well beyond the reach of even the most powerful secular institutions. In fact, China’s longstanding attempts to coopt the system may even have had the opposite effect. As Schwieger writes in a rare moment of political reflection, the past imperial leaders of China “inadvertently helped promote the image of Tibet as a country guided by the incarnations of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.” He concludes:

When after more than two centuries the institution of the Dalai Lama was occupied once again by charismatic personalities, this image had become such a strong force in Tibetan politics that it could no longer be controlled by the new Chinese governments.

Let us hope he is right. For now, these two thought-provoking new books both serve to remind us of the precious people, culture, land, and history the world stands to lose.



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