Galun zhuan (Autobiography of Dokharwa Tsering Wanggyel (1697-1763))
Abstract: Dokharwa Tsering Wanggyel was a pivotal figure in the Lhasa political arena in the first half of the eighteenth century. He served several regimes during that tumultuous era and managed to stabilize his power. Aside from his official career, he was also a gifted scholar who wrote several outstanding literary works. In this paper, I will review the 1986 Chinese edition of his autobiography (1762).
A life of a political figure
Dokharwa Tsering Wanggyel (Mdo mkhar ba Tshe ring dbang rgyal, 1697-1763) was born into an aristocratic family. His lineage, Gazhi (Dga’ bzhi), was a branch of Dra (Dbra)–one of six important lineages in Tibetan history (2). The Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) stated that the Lang (Rlangs) family originated from a conch egg (3). Their prestigious heritage gave them access to the sources of political and religious power. His family wielded political power in Dokhar (in Tsang) and enjoyed tremendous influence over the monastic communities in the Jang Taklung region to the north. However, the prestige did not last long. Due to internal rivalry between family members, the Ganden government eliminated their power over Taklung monastery (established in 1180, Kagyüpa) in Lhundrüp (Tib. Lhun grub, Ch. Linzhou) county, northeast of Lhasa. When he was a teen, Dokharwa Tsering Wanggyel was considered for a post in Taklung monastery, but for various reasons was never appointed (4). Yet, he did receive both secular and religious training. His first teacher was his maternal uncle, a monk of Sera monastery who taught him to read when he was six or seven years old. His father later taught him reading and mathematics (rdel rtsis) when he was fifteen years old. His teachers included Trogyel Pelgön, who was a Latsipa (head accountant) of the government, and Tuden Gelong Losel of Mindroling (Smin grol gling) monastery, where he received monastic training. His teachers praised him and encouraged him to enter monastic life, but he declined.
Even though he expressed regret for not entering the monastic path, he made use of his wits in politics, which brought him and his family glory. As one of the first secular figures, or perhaps the only one before the 20th century, who wrote an autobiography, he was well remembered for both his political accomplishments and his unique position in Tibetan history. It is remarkable that his political career was spared the vicissitudes that his masters suffered.
Despite the fact that he never identified the bad officials to whom he alluded in his autobiography, he often talked about how others were corrupted or failed to fulfill their responsibilities. One can infer that corruption was prevalent. What’s more, Dokharwa Tsering Wanggyel attempted to promote harmony at various levels, both within the family and between different interest groups within Tibet. It must have been exhausting for Tibetans to live in this time of political upheaval.
Motives for his autobiography
Dokharwa Tsering Wanggyel’s father warned, in Lang poti Seru (Rlangs kyi po ti se ru, Genealogy of the Rlangs Family), “If people later born do not know their own birth-lineages, they are like the monkeys of the forest. Not knowing a person’s family lineage is like a fake dragon-turquoise. Not knowing one’s ancestors’ writings is like being a child from Mön (a district on the border between Tibet and Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal) who has lost his way? (2, Hartley, 9) Dokharwa Tsering Wanggyel adopted the tradition, common in Tibetan religious circles, of writing life stories. In order to set an example for generations to come, Dokharwa Tsering Wanggyel revealed in detail the events of his life, including a chronology, which is indispensable for understanding the often confusing events of Tibetan history. Dokharwa Tsering Wanggyel’s autobiography was completed in 1762, a year prior to his death. It provides us with a unique lens through which we can observe the political competition in the first half of the eighteenth century in Lhasa.
In addition to maintaining family tradition, he seems to have had two further motives for his autobiography. First, though it is hard to say whether he meant to present himself as a quasi-monastic figure, he quoted his father’s opinion as to the importance of writing for religious figures, “Living persons should leave a good reputation, ordained monks should achieve [enlightenment], and prominent figures should have noble marks.” (2) It would not be an exaggeration to say he identified himself as someone who had the intellectual qualities of a religious figure, for he had had intensive monastic training since an early age and was dedicated to intellectual development. In this regard, the importance of this autobiography to him and to later generations is no less than a namtar (rnam thar, religious biography) to prestigious lamas. As Hartley states, it was his place in eighteenth century Tibetan literary and political life that allowed him to write such an autobiographical account (Hartley, 10).
Secondly, another reason for taking up such an unusual project is suggested on the last page of his autobiography. The printer/inscriber stated: Dokharwa Tsering Wanggyel was an incomparable kalön (Ch. galun, minister) of the Ganden government, who possessed both religious and political intelligence. His son—Dondrup Dorjé (Don grub rdo rje)—was very proud of his ancestor’s achievement, yet, as an offspring, he could not compare himself with his father, even to the extent that he could not account for his origin… In hope of passing down the family’s achievements, he decided to carve it into a woodblock version. (66)
One intention left unmentioned in other secondary work concerning this autobiography is that Dokharwa Tsering Wanggyel said explicitly that he was in need of a genealogy and permanent certificates [of property, or civil service?] for his descendents (60), thus, he pleaded with the Dalai Lama to grant him certificates for all his property, taxes and exemptions. In other words, he intended to ensure his family’s safety and prosperity after his death, granted that life was uncertain and the politics of eighteenth century Lhasa was cruel.
Dokharwa Tsering Wanggyel ‘s life story affords us an insider’s view of politics from within an era when Tibet struggled to negotiate with external powers while suffering internal conflicts.
Duoka’er, Xiazhongcerenwangjie (Dokharwa Tsering Wanggyel). 1986. Galun Zhuan. Lasa: Xizang ren min chu ban she.
Hartley, Lauran. 2010. “Self as a Faithful Public Servant: The Autobiography of Dokharwa Tsering Wanggyel (1697-1783).” In The Rise of the Modern in Tibet. ed. Gray Tuttle. Beiträge zur Zentralasienforschung, International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies. Sankt Augustin: Wissenschaftverlag GmbH, (Forthcoming).