Review of Xue yu qiu fa ji by Xing Suzhi.
Abstract: Xue yu qiu fa ji (Seeking the Dharma in the Snow Land) is an autobiography based on the oral history of Xing Suzhi, whose Tibetan name is Blo bzang brtson ‘grus. The book, only published in Chinese, mainly records Xing’s journey to and experience in Tibet from the 1930s to 1949. Xing was a Han Chinese born in Nanjing in 1916. In the early years, Xing began to study Mahayana Buddhism at local temples. After attending a Buddhist ceremony performed by the ninth Panchen Lama in 1933, Xing became interested in Tibetan Buddhism and decided to travel to Tibet to seek the true Dharma. In the end, Xing overcame tremendous difficulties and obtained a Geshe degree, as the first Han Chinese who received the highest academic achievement in Gelug lineage. The autobiography is important not only because Xing’s life embodies the interactions and connections between China and Tibet during the Republican period, but also because his personal observations and vivid accounts enrich the narrative of Tibetan history.
Xue yu qiu fa ji records Xing Suzhi’s life and his journey to seek the Dharma in Tibet. The direct translation of the title is “Seeking the Dharma in the Snow Land”. The title implies that Xing compared himself with Xuanzang, a great Buddhist monk in the Tang Dynasty who traveled to India and brought Buddhist scriptures back to China. In fact, Xing played an important role in connecting China and Tibet, and his experience reflected the increasing interactions between the two regions in the early twentieth century. Therefore, following the main threads of the autobiography, Xing’s life can be summarized into four aspects: his decision to go to Tibet, his tough journey crossing from Kham to Lhasa, his learning experience in a Tibetan monastery, and his interactions with Tibetan people.
In 1916, Xing was born into a middle-class family in Nanjing. Due to his poor health, Xing’s parents sent him to a local temple when he was eight. They hoped that the monastic life would strengthen Xing’s weak body. In his childhood, Xing resided in different temples near Nanjing, where he studied Chinese and Mahayana Buddhism. When he was twelve, Xing went to a modern Buddhist institute in Zhejiang and received a rigorous education for four years, which laid a solid foundation for him to study Tibetan Buddhism later. The first pivotal moment was in May 1933 when Xing attended a Buddhist ceremony performed by the ninth Panchen Lama, Choekyi Nyima, in Hangzhou. The ceremony was in response to a flood, and the Panchen Lama was invited by political and social elites such as Du Yuesheng, Mei Lanfang, and Dai Jitao to mourn the dead. Xing luckily was appointed as one of the secretaries helping to organize the event. After listening to the Panchen’s preaching, Xing was deeply attracted to esoteric Buddhism and made up his mind to seek the true Dharma in Tibet. It is interesting that Xing’s decision was directly influenced by the visit of the Panchen Lama. It shows that Han Chinese elites welcomed and embraced Tibetan masters like the Panchen Lama during the Republican period, which indicated the increasing popularity of Tibetan Buddhism in the coastal area of China. The spread of Tibetan Buddhism created an impact on Han Chinese students and attracted them to go to Tibet. This also reflects how Buddhism is an intermediary connection between China and Tibet.
Since Xing had not learned Tibetan, he first went to Chongqing in 1934 and studied at the Han-Tibetan Academy of Buddhist Studies, where he spent three years learning the Tibetan language and some basic scriptures of Tibetan Buddhism. In 1937, after three years of preparation, Xing started his journey to Lhasa. During the Republican period, there were three routes for entering Tibet. The northern route started from Qinghai Province, the western route passed through Kham, and the southern route traveled through India to Lhasa. Initially, Xing picked the southern route because it was relatively more secure and more convenient. However, the British government was reluctant to issue a visa for Xing to cross India. because Britain was afraid of the expansion of Chinese influence in Tibet. Therefore, Xing decided to travel from Kham to Lhasa. This incident reveals how the geographical barrier hindered normal exchanges between China and Tibet. Ironically, British India, not China, controlled the more convenient access to Tibet. Since the late nineteenth century, Britain exerted its influence on Tibet through India for its economic interests, which undermined Tibet’s relationship with China. This also explains why the Communist government in the early 1950s urgently built roads connecting inland China with Tibet.
Traveling from Kham to Lhasa, Xing had to overcome geographical barriers. The most difficult experience was climbing over countless snowy mountains. The extreme weather and the complex terrain situated Xing in a dangerous circumstance, and meanwhile, local bandits might also rob him at any time. As Xing described, one mountain “is dangerous and long, winding for thirty li, with dense fog and gloomy climate, and the snow in the mountain does not melt all year round. Walking in the mountains, people are easily dizzy, and animals easily die. It means that the miasma is very heavy. One cannot speak loudly, and if the sound is slightly louder, it will immediately attract an avalanche” (133). Fortunately, Xing overcame all the difficulties and arrived in Lhasa safely.
Then, Xing Suzhi entered the Drepung Monastery and began his monastic life. Interestingly, personal wealth played an important role in Xing’s experience of learning Tibetan Buddhism. On the one hand, Tibetan monasteries did not provide economic assistance for students, and students must look for their own funding for sustaining their lives in monasteries. Xing’s funding was from the Nationalist government, for which he applied to be a student of Tibetan studies. He also received aid from his old friends and other Buddhist devotees living in China. On the other hand, personal offerings to a monastery were also important because they could raise one’s social status and accelerate the period of his study in the monastery. For instance, when he first joined the Drepung Monastery, Xing made a public offering within the monastery and spent about a thousand taels of Tibetan silver coins so that he could be exempted from doing the mandatory labor required for new students (150). Besides, Xing indicated that in order to take the final examination for becoming a Geshe, making an offering to the monastery to which one belonged was necessary. Otherwise, regardless of his knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, Xing would not be able to take the test. Xing’s account shows how economic activities were embedded within Tibetan Buddhism.
Moreover, Xing recorded his religious experience when he made a pilgrimage to the sacred Mountain Tsari. Tibetans believe that the mountain possessed the spirit of Padmasambhāva, a great master of Tibetan Buddhism. Nevertheless, the mountain was regarded as a dangerous realm with a terrible climate, mysterious terrain, and hostile indigenous people. Xing and his friends went to the mountain and lost their way in the deep forest. Losing all hope, they could only pray to Padmasambhāva for help. A miracle happened! As Xing recalled, “we kept chanting mantras all day and night. On the morning of the third day, the miracle appeared, the dense fog in the forest gradually dispersed, and a red light shot from the top of the mountain… leading us to the water source” (251). With the help of Padmasambhāva, Xing finally was able to walk out from the wilderness around the Mountain Tsari. This story reflects a popular representation of Tibet among Han Chinese, which often emphasized religious mysticism and magical powers in relation to Tibetan Buddhism.
Finally, Xing notes his observations about the relationship between China and Tibet. Han merchants exemplified the economic exchange between the two regions. Tibetans liked silks, teas, and porcelain brought by Han merchants, and meanwhile, these merchants transported Tibetan wools and meats to sell in inland China. As Xing points out, the economic exchange benefited both Han Chinese and Tibetans. From a cultural perspective, based on his interactions with Tibetan aristocrats, Xing suggests that Chinese culture had spread and was appreciated in Tibet. As he describes, Tibetan aristocracies “listen to music or play mahjong to kill time. Some nobles like to listen to records, and they have collected records of various Chinese popular songs, such as songs of Wang Renmei and Zhou Xuan. Some also enjoy listening to Peking Opera and could even sing” (209). This reflects the influence of Chinese culture besides Buddhism which helped to connect China and Tibet during the Republican period. Furthermore, Xing himself participated in promoting Sino-Tibetan relations. In 1946, after his graduation from the Drepung Monastery, Xing accepted an appointment from the Nationalist government and opened a public school in Lhasa. He was the headmaster of the school. The school provided a modern education for students from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. In the first year, the school opened and held 13 classes with 187 students enrolled. The school was well-known even in Nepal and India, and Xing was once invited to share his experience in Nepal. Xing stayed in Lhasa and continued to promote education until the Kashag government closed down the school and expelled Han Chinese from Tibet in the summer of 1949.
Overall, Xue yu qiu fa ji is a fascinating autobiography of Xing Suzhi. As a Han Chinese traveling to Tibet and learning Tibetan Buddhism, Xing’s life represents the dynamic interactions and connections between China and Tibet during the Republican period. Meanwhile, Xing’s detailed accounts from a personal perspective on Tibetan history, religion, culture, and society enrich the grand narrative of Tibetan history.