Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama at Wutai Shan:
Exile and Diplomacy

JIATS, no. 6 (December 2011), THL #T5720, pp. 389-410.

© 2011 by Elliot Sperling, IATS, and THL

[page 389]

Abstract: The Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s flight from Lhasa in 1904, his sojourn in Mongolia and his reception at the Qing court in Beijing are fairly well known. Less well studied is his stay at Wutai Shan in 1908. But that episode in his wanderings is particularly interesting. In examining it we come across a number of accounts in Tibetan and other languages that refer to the Dalai Lama’s encounters with western diplomats and others at Wutai Shan. These accounts cast light on the Dalai Lama’s developing understanding of the larger world of international politics and of his place within that world. They also provide insight into the way Wutai Shan, a Buddhist pilgrimage site, provided the Dalai Lama with an optimal place from which to entertain such contacts in an environment in which he was a figure of authority.

Introduction

The 1908 sojourn of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama at Wutai Shan has been familiar to many students of Tibetan history, in large part as a result of William Woodville Rockhill’s early mention of it in the final paragraphs of his well-known article “The Dalai Lamas of Lhasa and Their Relations with the Manchu Emperors of China, 1644-1908.”1 Therein Rockhill mentioned his meetings at Wutai Shan with the Dalai Lama and described him as intelligent, broad-minded, quick-tempered and impulsive, imbued with the seriousness of purpose that his station demanded; but also cheerful, kindly and courteous.2 But when setting out his impressions in a more personal manner – to wit, in a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt – Rockhill was markedly more subjective and emotional, noting, with a palpable sense of rapture, what it was like to have the Dalai Lama “asking me to open a [page 390] conversation with him, to be his councillor and friend; it was all too extraordinary. I could not believe my eyes and ears.”3

Such a description provides us with a portrait of the infectious feelings of esoteric privilege that certainly attended upon his access to the hitherto unapproachable and inaccessible Tibetan “pontiff.” It also shows how Wutai Shan, a culturally transnational site imbued with sacral authority, functioned for the Dalai Lama in the twilight years of the Qing, specifically demonstrating that the Dalai Lama was able to establish his mobile court there and function as Tibet’s ruler vis-à-vis foreign diplomats (albeit a ruler exiled from his capital and constrained by crumbling relations with the Qing court). Still, Rockhill’s accounts of his meeting with the clearly charismatic Dalai Lama do not give us a complete sense of the mood of these meetings, that is, how they were perceived from the Tibetan side or, for that matter, by other Western visitors. We have at least two other accounts by Westerners who viewed the Dalai Lama in a much more unsentimental political light. Such differing views have their equivalents in the non-Tibetan world today, and indeed they have a pedigree going back before the Dalai Lama’s sojourn in Wutai Shan, when mystically-inclined groups had already begun to view Tibet as a particularly sacred realm while others viewed it through the prism of Great Game politics or through that of Christian missionary zeal: a wide swath that allowed for a range of outlooks.


[1] William Woodville Rockhill, “The Dalai Lamas of Lhasa and Their Relations with the Manchu Emperors of China, 1644-1908,” T’oung p’ao 11 (1910): 1-104.
[2] Rockhill, “Dalai Lamas of Lhasa,” 103-4.
[3] Kenneth Wimmel, William Woodville Rockhill, Scholar-Diplomat of the Tibetan Highlands (Bangkok: Orchid Press, 2003): 168. Rockhill’s two meetings with the Dalai Lama and his impressions of the hierarch are discussed in greater detail by Susan Meinheit of the Library of Congress in her article in this collection: Susan Meinheit, “Gifts at Wutai Shan: Rockhill and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011), http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5717.

Note Citation for Page

Elliot Sperling, “The Thirteenth Dalai Lama at Wutai Shan: Exile and Diplomacy,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5720 (accessed ).

Note Citation for Whole Article

Elliot Sperling, “The Thirteenth Dalai Lama at Wutai Shan: Exile and Diplomacy,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 389-410, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5720 (accessed ).

Bibliography Citation

Sperling, Elliot. “The Thirteenth Dalai Lama at Wutai Shan: Exile and Diplomacy.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 389-410. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5720 (accessed ).