“The Ninth Panchen Lama (1883-1937): A Life at the Crossroads of Sino-Tibetan Relations” review

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The Ninth Panchen Lama (1883-1937): A Life at the Crossroads of Sino-Tibetan Relations
By Fabienne Jagou
Translated by Rebecca Bisset-Buechel

$45.00 paperback (9786162150166)
402 pp., 9 illus., 2 maps, 6 x 9 in.
October 2011 / hardcover not available

This biography of the Ninth Panchen Lama, the second highest spiritual authority in Tibetan Buddhism, offers new insights into the tumultuous history of the relations between China and Tibet at the start of the twentieth century. It demonstrates how the Panchen Lama’s flight from his monastery on the night of December 22, 1923, remains an essential characterizing event of Tibet’s modern history, setting the stage for Chinese Republican, and later Communist, control over the selection of his successors, with repercussions even today for Sino-Tibetan relations.

This is the first publication in collaboration betweem Silkworm Books and École Française d’Extrême-Orient to translate French publications for an English-language readership.

Fabienne Jagou teaches Sino-Tibetan history at the University of Savoie, Chambery, France.

The Sumeru Review

This is a very important book, and I have been eagerly awaiting its English publication for several years. When the English edition was published in Thailand by Silkworm last year, production was delayed for many months due to the extensive flooding. Now the book is finally available in North America through the University of Washington Press.

While many people have heard of the 1995 kidnapping of the 11th Panchen Lama (never to be heard from again) by China’s Communist Party government and their promotion of their own candidate, and certainly the cause of Tibetan freedom is known globally, little is known of the roots of the problem. Jagou’s masterful book elucidates those roots.

When the 9th Panchen Lama was growing up in Tibet at the end of the 19th century, much of Asia was in turmoil. Monarchies were toppling and people were struggling to find a new way to govern themselves as sovereign nation-states. The 13th Dalai Lama, as much as anyone, was trying to come to terms with these new realities as he balanced his spiritual responsibilities with his need to create a new Tibet strong enough to withstand the predatory activities of the British, Chinese and Russian super-powers. Also in the mix were long-standing disputes with Nepal and separatist factions in Kham and Amdo. When His Holiness tried to create a strong standing army to meet these challenges in the 1920s, and to reform the country’s administration and tax systems to support it, he created the conditions for what became an insurmountable dispute between the government in Lhasa and the government in Shigatse, home of Tashilhunpo Monastery and the Panchen Lama. It was the inability of the parties to resolve the issue of this new and heavy tax burden which precipitated the departure of the Panchen Lama.

In the more than 10 years that the Panchen Lama subsequently travelled in China and Mongolia, he also worked tirelessly to embrace a new vision for his country. This quest led him, in the political realm, to Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People and the Union of the Five Nationalities. Unfortunately for him and Tibet, as Jagou meticulously documents, the Chinese Republican government under Chiang Kai-shek and the British government through its various emissaries and trade agents repeatedly made vague promises which never panned out, lent half-hearted support, or outright lied, as they tried to manipulate the Panchen Lama and his entourage for their own ends. When added to the Panchen Lama’s own indecisive personality, the resulting imbroglio dragged out for years, even after his death when his body was to be returned to Tashilhunpo.

I have read many books about the history of the Panchen Lama lineage, including first-hand accounts by British agents of the period and histories published in China. None of them has come close to the level of detail, historical impartiality or scope of this book. It is absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the complex precedents underlying the current tragedy of Tibet. Jagou has been relentless in pursuing every possible source to back up her text. The translation is excellent (if a bit dry) and the appendices are insightful.

My criticisms of the book are minor in comparison to my appreciation for Ms Jagou’s contribution, but worth noting.

As with many books and magazine articles dealing with the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, this one focuses on politics at the expense of focusing on the nature of their spiritual activities. Very little is said about the Panchen Lama’s religious efforts in China and Mongolia (beyond mentioning that he gave a number of Kalachakra initiations). Those narratives do little to illuminate the inner life of the book’s protagonist and, indeed, reveal the author’s lack of expertise in this area.

My second criticism is that Jagou presents Chiang Kai-shek’s Republican government as the Panchen Lama’s main dance partner during his time outside Tibet. Various warlords are mentioned, rather as bit players with cameos, and the Communist Party is mentioned barely at all. She presents a portrait of China as beset by difficulties (notably the Japanese invasion), but still basically a unified country. I happened to be reading a biography of Madame Chiang Kai-shek (The Last Empress, by Hannah Paluka) at the same time as reading Jagou’s book about the 9th Panchen Lama, and Paluka’s equally well-researched overview of mid-20th century Chinese politics is anything but unified. Since from that latter perspective Chiang Kai-shek ruled in name only during many of the periods described in their books, I would have liked to see Jagou explain more clearly the role of the warlords, such as Ma Bufang, the Muslim warlord who was tightly involved with both the 9th and 10th Panchen Lamas, and the Mongolian princes of various banners who assisted the Panchen Lama during his time in Mongolia.

My last criticism is that the Communist Chinese response to the Panchen Lama during the Republican Period is never mentioned at all in the book. Granted they existed as a shadow government at the time, but they were strong in many areas in the North of China. They must have engaged with the Panchen Lama in some fashion, however clandestine the back-channels through which they did it or however conflictual their designs. That lacuna in Jagou’s book is offset by the value of what she has presented, since many of the “precedents” cited by the Communist Chinese government to justify their control of Tibet were in fact instituted by the Republican government who preceded them.

So, in short – this is a tremendously informative book and a valuable contribution to reasoned debate about the future of Tibet.


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