Some Western Accounts of Encounters with the Dalai Lama at Wutai Shan
The Dalai Lama’s instigation of these meetings is obvious from a dispatch sent to the British Foreign Office by the Ambassador to China, Sir John Jordan. The dispatch is dated February 4, 1908 (but marked as received in London on March 21). In the dispatch Jordan describes a visit he had from a monk from Drepung’Bras spungs named Lozang TendzinBlo bzang bstan ’dzin, who was acting in the capacity of an envoy of the Tibetan leader and carrying a message for the ambassador.16 The emissary said [page 395] that he would soon be setting out from Beijing for Wutai Shan, where the Dalai Lama was expected in a matter of days. The dispatch further explained:
[The Dalai Lama] only went to Wu Tai Shan because it was a holy place, but he had instructed his messenger, the speaker, to present letters to various foreign Representatives as an expression of good-will. The letter addressed to me was then opened and read. Its purport was merely complimentary. It was sealed by the Dalai Lama… My visitor explained that [the rupture in relations with Britain] had been due to the fact that the Dalai Lama’s subordinates had kept him in the dark as to the true circumstances of State affairs; but the Dalai Lama now knew the facts, and was sincerely desirous on his return to maintain friendship with the Government of India, whose frontiers were those of Tibet. In further conversation I learnt that visits had been paid on the German, French, and Japanese Ministers. Letters similar to the one addressed to me were also presented to the other foreign Representatives.17
We must assume too that these other letters were accompanied by oral messages, much as was the case here. It is therefore not unexpected that the Dalai Lama’s biography (as alluded to above) briefly mentions the visit of a Japanese monk during the fourth month of the Tibetan Year (May 31-June 28, 1908). However, the biography provides no information other than noting the visitor’s presentation of gifts.18 This particular visitor may have been Otani Sonyu, a monk associated with Ekai Kawaguchi, the Japanese who had spent several years in Tibet incognito.19 Clearly, the Dalai Lama was seeking to open up lines of communications with the outside world from Wutai Shan in pursuit of what he saw as Tibet’s political interests, and to that end had sent an envoy to Beijing to meet with foreign representatives. Another dispatch from the British Ambassador, dated July 21, 1908, alludes to the Dalai Lama’s solicitude with regard to such matters, as well as to the degree of independence he had vis-à-vis Chinese desires to keep him in check at Wutai Shan. This dispatch recounts an unofficial meeting that Reginald Johnston, a Colonial Service officer (later to become known for his memoir of China, Twilight in the Forbidden City) who was at the time away from his post traveling, had recently had with the Dalai Lama:
After the usual Tibetan ceremony of presenting a scarf, the Dalai Lama asked if Mr. Johnston had brought any message from the British Minister. Mr. Johnston replied in the negative, explaining that he was merely traveling for pleasure, but he felt sure that the Minister was desirous that relations with Tibet should always remain friendly. This reply appeared to gratify the Dalai Lama, who said that he entertained a similar hope… The Dalai Lama is engaged in learning Chinese, with the assistance of a teacher he has procured from Peking. He has his own Tibetan bodyguard, who have sole control of the gates of the lamasery in which he resides. [page 396] There is also a guard of Chinese, whom the Dalai Lama appears to regard with contempt. As might be expected, there is bad feeling between the Tibetan and Chinese soldiers, and the Chinese officials complain that they are ignored by the lama.20
The reported tension between the Tibetan troops accompanying the Dalai Lama and the Chinese soldiers around them mentioned here is also implied in a dispatch from China printed in the New York Times which described his entourage as “a wild, disorderly, unkempt-looking crew, giving no impression of their religious affiliations.”21 Another Times story stated that “his retinue consists of priests, personal servitors, high officials of the church and a motley crowd of doubtful-looking soldiers armed with rifles… The officials of the large cities which the Lama has visited say it takes about $5,000 to entertain him and his retinue for a single day.”22 As for the Chinese soldiers with whom the entourage was said to be having troubled relations, they were numerous and had attached themselves to the Dalai Lama and his party before they reached Wutai Shan. In spite of this, the Dalai Lama seems to have secured his quarters and what transpired therein from Qing surveillance. A third dispatch in the Times noted that “The Dalai Lama has been holding a religious court for the past three months at Wutai Shan, and he has made himself a great nuisance to the local authorities.”23
In this regard we may return for a moment to Reginald Johnston, who described his visit with the Dalai Lama in greater detail in an article written in 1919 and published under the pseudonym “Christopher Irving.”24 Therein he describes the situation in which the Chinese troops assigned to the Dalai Lama were placed. Johnston reached Wutai Shan on July 4 and, as he writes:
A few hours after my arrival I received an official call from a Chinese captain named Wang Fang-lin, who had been appointed to the command of His Holiness’s Chinese body-guard… Wang (assisted in this respect by two civil officials) was also expected to keep an eye on the political side of affairs and to report to his superiors any dealings which the Dalai might have with the outside world. What made Wang’s position peculiarly difficult was that he and his troop of soldiers were regarded by the Dalai and his suite with a dislike and a suspicion which they made no attempt to conceal, Wang himself was not admitted to the great man’s presence, and indeed neither he nor the so-called Chinese body-guard were allowed within the precincts of the great lamasery. On the occasions when the Dalai Lama issued back and forth on horseback for the purpose of visiting the shrines of Wu-t’ai-shan, he was followed and preceded by a cavalcade of his own Tibetans, [page 397] and the Chinese guard with Wang at its head was obliged to take up a modest position at the rear of a procession of which it formed no recognized part… [I]t is also probable that they regarded Wang as a spy…25
Writing about his own audience with the Dalai Lama, which took place on July 5, the day after he arrived, Johnston particularly noted that “The privilege of entering the sacred precincts of the Dalai Lama’s abode was denied to a Chinese official but it was readily accorded to a member of the race whose martial activity had obliged the incarnate Avalokitésvara [sic] to flee from his capital and country.”26 Otherwise, much of his account of the actual audience is given over to the preliminaries, particularly the conundrum of having to arrange for gifts for the Dalai Lama unexpectedly and at short notice. The audience itself lasted a mere fifteen minutes and, as Johnston described it, was largely devoted to formalities, with the Dalai Lama expressing his hope of meeting the British Ambassador in Beijing and of being able to communicate directly to him his desire for harmony between Tibet and British India: “That this harmony had been interrupted in recent years was, [the Dalai Lama] observed, entirely the result of regrettable misunderstandings.”27 Johnston was not overly impressed by the Dalai Lama: he recounts a trick which the latter played on Captain Wang which, he asserted, “if it might have been excused in a mere man, was hardly becoming in an incarnate divinity.”28 The ruse in question was one in which the Dalai Lama slipped out of his residence one morning, undetected by Wang. While he had not gone far from Pusa Ding, he led Wang to believe that he had gone miles away to the most distant of the site’s peaks and caused him to waste hours trying to catch up. The trick gave the Tibetan leader a respite from Wang’s attempts to observe him,29 but Johnston saw it as an act of sheer maliciousness. It’s worth remembering that in the wake of the British Younghusband expedition – the military campaign that had put a British invasion force in LhasaLha sa and caused the Dalai Lama to flee into exile – there was no dearth of English writing on Tibet that portrayed the institution of the Dalai Lama in a less than flattering light; Johnston’s attitude was very much in harmony with this body of writing.30
The Dalai Lama’s biography indicates that he met with American, French, German, and Japanese representatives. Johnston notes only two other foreign [page 398] visitors besides himself who called on him: the French explorer Henri d’Ollone and Rockhill. D’Ollone, like Johnston and Rockhill, has also left a very brief record of his audience with the Dalai Lama. Moreover, he provided an original illustration of it (reproduced below) as well.31 His audience took place just before the hierarch left Wutai Shan for Beijing; indeed, d’Ollone felt at first that it was unlikely there would be an audience at all. However, taking advantage of the circumstances, d’Ollone tried a bit of manipulation. He states that he informed the Dalai Lama’s “chanceller” that the Tibetan leader would certainly need to deal with complaints about Tibetan attacks on French missionaries when he reached the Qing capital; and even though he, d’Ollone, might not be able to meet personally with him, he had no doubts that such deeds were regretted by the Tibetan leader. D’Ollone stresses that the Dalai Lama could not likely refuse to meet him after this. But while he makes a point of his own cleverness in procuring an audience, the fact is the Dalai Lama was already concerned about establishing contact with a wide range of foreign representatives, as evidenced by the dispatch of an envoy to Beijing for that very purpose. In any event, that same evening d’Ollone was told that he would be received by the Dalai Lama. Thus, the very next day – the day before the Dalai Lama’s departure from Wutai Shan – he was taken to the Dalai Lama’s residence compound by the commander of the Chinese guards (most likely the aforementioned Wang Fanglin). There he found the Tibetan guards armed with Russian rifles and wearing uniforms that seemed to him like archaic European ones.32
The audience itself is mentioned briefly and it was no doubt short, given the pressing business of moving on to Beijing. D’Ollone describes the Dalai Lama’s clothes and appearance, as well as the exchange of khatakkha btags and gifts, and his short exchange with the Tibetan leader:
The Dalai-Lama is supposed to know all languages without having learned them; however, as my interpreter ironically remarked, it apparently pleases him to conceal the knowledge, which does not make intercourse easy. I spoke in French; my interpreter translated my words into Chinese; a lama repeated them in Mongolian; and another, bowing before the man-god, transmitted my words to him. He replied in a low voice; then the same series of translations brought me his august reply. It was a truly miraculous thing, but the replies very nearly corresponded to the questions, and it was not absolutely certain that we did not understand one another.
He questioned me as to my travels in Tibet, and expressed his regrets at the barbarity of the nomads, who refused to obey him, and also his sorrow at learning of the murder of the missionaries. He reminded me that he had formerly sent rich presents to the son of the king of the French – Prince Henri d’Orléans. When I [page 399] rose to take my leave he offered me another scarf; then, at a sign from him, a lama brought him yet another, even larger and finer than the first, and the god-man, presenting it, begged me to bear it, as a sign of his friendship, to our emperor!
The interest of such a visit, as may be imagined, does not lie in the remarks exchanged, which are necessarily insignificant. What was of interest was the aspect of this divine incarnation before whom a notable fraction of the human race bows down. Was he a monk, pickled in sanctity? or a mere puppet, intentionally besotted since infancy by those who surrounded him? or a strong and remarkable personality?
The two first hypotheses must emphatically be rejected. Not only does the Dalai-Lama speak and act as a man habituated to command, but there is nothing of the monk in his manner, nor even in his clothing.33
The lack of awe at the Dalai Lama’s spiritual position which we find in the accounts of Johnston and d’Ollone are at odds with Rockhill’s description of the Dalai Lama and of his own audience. They are also obviously at odds with the Tibetan descriptions of the Dalai Lama’s encounters with foreigners. Much as we might want to see greater harmony between these accounts, there were, then as now, divergent attitudes towards the Dalai Lama and his country. Alongside the sense of mystic awe surrounding Tibet that manifested itself in the views of people [page 400] and groups such as the Theosophists34 there were also the no-nonsense views – bluntly political and by turns disdainful and cynical – reflected in the writings of people such as L. Austine Waddell. The attitudes evinced by Rockhill, Johnston, and d’Ollone simply fall within this spectrum. Greater significance lies in the very fact of the Dalai Lama being able to interact with foreign representatives at Wutai Shan with no Qing intermediary present. The short accounts by Johnston and d’Ollone clearly indicate the Dalai Lama was well aware that his situation and the situation of Tibet demanded that he take steps to repair relations with Britain and France over outstanding issues: with the former, the lack of communication, distrust and suspicion that led to the British invasion; with the latter, the deaths of French missionaries in eastern Tibet.
One other account of the Dalai Lama at Wutai Shan adds to what we’ve already observed. This is the account of Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, the future statesman and President of Finland, but at the time a decorated Russian Army officer on a two-year mission (1906-1908) of exploration through Central Asia and Northern China. On June 26, 1908, in the final stages of that mission he was accorded an audience with the Dalai Lama.35 The meeting is noted only cursorily in the Dalai Lama’s biography: “A Russian military officer [makpöndmag dpon] who was traveling had an audience [with the Dalai Lama] and they talked respectfully and solicitously.”36 What Mannerheim has written largely accords with some of what we’ve already noted concerning the Tibetan leader’s stay. Thus, with regard to the Dalai Lama actively initiating such meetings, Mannerheim states that in coming to Wutai Shan (in his account “Yutai Shan”) he himself had not intended to seek an audience and his narrative leaves the clear impression that the audience was instigated by the Dalai Lama, who had noticed Mannerheim in a crowd on the very day he had reached Wutai Shan. As for the effectiveness of the Chinese troops guarding the Dalai Lama, Mannerheim was told by an official named Weng that the Chinese soldiers at Wutai Shan keep watch to prevent the Dalai Lama from leaving without authority. However, Mannerheim observed few soldiers and concluded that their utility and efficacy were practically nil. This same official, whom Mannerheim encountered as he reached Wutai Shan, tried unsuccessfully [page 401] to cajole Mannerheim into including him in his small group should he chance to have an audience with the Dalai Lama.37
The very next day after his arrival Mannerheim was indeed called for an audience and found a visibly angry Weng outside the Dalai Lama’s residence in full uniform, along with a platoon of Chinese soldiers and their commander (no doubt Wang Fanglin). Weng tried to force his way in for Mannerheim’s audience but he was blocked by the Dalai Lama’s own guards.38
Mannerheim’s meeting with the Dalai Lama involved only two interpreters: his own, and a lama who interpreted from Chinese to Tibetan. As Mannerheim recounts:
[The Dalai Lama] replied to my profound bow by nodding slightly… [H]e started our conversation by asking, what country I came from, how old I was and by what route I had traveled. There was a short pause, after which he asked, with one or two nervous jerks of his body, whether His Majesty had not instructed me to communicate something to him. He awaited the translation of my reply with obvious interest. I was able to say, however, that I had not had an opportunity of waiting upon His Majesty before I left. After a few commonplace questions he brought the talk back again to Russia and asked, if I knew the man who had brought him gifts from His Majesty the Emperor to Takulan. He said that he knew and appreciated the Russian Ambassador «Pu» in Peiping. I informed him that Pu was dead.39 He said he knew this and that Mr. Korostovets had been appointed as his successor. He was evidently anxious to know when the latter could be expected to reach Peiping. He begged me to convey his greetings to him and to mention that I had been received at Yutai Shan. At a sign from him a beautiful piece of white silk with Tibetan letters woven into it was brought in and he gave it me [sic] with the request that I should present it to His Majesty on his behalf, when I returned. When I asked if I might also convey a message by word of mouth, he replied by enquiring about my rank. When the interpreter conveyed to him that I was a baron and he was told that I intended to leave on the following day, he asked me to stay for another day. On the morrow he might, perhaps, be able to ask me for somethings (as it was translated)… I told him that the sympathies of the Russian people were on his side, when he felt obliged to leave his own country… Russians, both high and low, watched his footsteps with satisfaction. Then I had to explain the working of a Browning revolver that I had brought as a present. He laughed, showing all his teeth, when I showed him, how quickly it could be reloaded by putting in 7 fresh cartridges. I apologized for not having a better gift, but after two years’ travel it was difficult to have any other objects of value than weapons. The times were such that a revolver might at times be of [page 402] greater use, even to a holy man like himself, than a praying mill. He appeared to relish all this…
At the exit I was pounced upon immediately by Weng, who tried to pump me as to what we had talked about during such a long audience…
The Dalai Lama impressed me as a lively man in full possession of his mental and physical faculties. The setting of our talk and the difficulty of carrying on a conversation through the medium of two uneducated interpreters, gave me no opportunity of a more interesting exchange of views. From the whole staging of my reception it was sufficiently evident that his love of China and her suzerainty was only moderate. Twice during our conversation he gave orders to see if anyone was eavesdropping behind the curtain over the door. It looked as though a good deal was left unsaid in his remarks. At all events he does not look like a man resigned to play the part the Chinese Government wishes him to, but rather like one who is only waiting for an opportunity of confusing his adversary.40
Of equal interest is the fact that references in the Dalai Lama’s biography to Russian contact with him at Wutai Shan are limited to two meetings, one of which we have just examined. While this dearth might seem striking, given that the train of events that brought the Dalai Lama to Wutai Shan can be said to have been set in motion by Russian interest in Tibet, it is understandable, since the Dalai Lama spent the time between late 1904 and late 1906 in Mongolia prior to coming to Wutai Shan and had already had considerable contact there with Russian officials, among them the Russian Ambassador to Beijing, Dmitri Pokotilov. The meetings and discussions that took place in Mongolia yielded very little in terms of substantive Russian support for the Dalai Lama and he inevitably moved on to China.41
…[It] was drawn from a sketch made by me the moment I left the temple, with the help of photographs taken the following day as the long procession set forth… [T]he costumes of the lamas are those which they wore on the following day. During my reception all were wearing capes of cloth of gold, and were bareheaded, as was the Dalai-Lama.
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 ).
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 ).
- Incidents Relating to the Dalai Lama’s Stay at Wutai Shan: As Recounted in his Tibetan Biography
- Some Western Accounts of Encounters with the Dalai Lama at Wutai Shan
- A Curious Story about the Tsarevich
- Specify View:
- Specify Format:
- Cite This Article
- Citation Help
- Back to Issue 6
- Back to JIATS