A practical, though lethal, gift for the Dalai Lama

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thupten Gyatso,

Gustaf Mannerheim met the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thupten Gyatso, at the holy mountain of Wutai Shan in 1908.


Excerpt from Chapter 17 of The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds published in the Ottawa Citizen.

“The Chinese authorities seem to guard the Dalai Lama closely,” Baron Gustaf Mannerheim wrote in his diary in July 1908. The Russian colonel, who was on a secret intelligence-gathering mission in China, had just arrived at Wutai Shan, the most sacred of four Buddhist mountains in China. One of its mountaintop temples was, he wrote, “the present abode, not to say prison, of the Buddhists’ pope, the Dalai Lama.”

A Chinese army captain named Wang told Mannerheim that “a cordon of soldiers” guarded the approaches to Wutai Shan in northeast Shanxi province. In the event of an attempt to escape, Wang explained, the Dalai Lama “would be stopped, by armed force if necessary.” But in his wanderings around Wutai Shan, Mannerheim saw no such cordon. “I could not help noticing, however, that [Wang] watched my movements with the greatest interest.”

Pusading Temple was the "prison" of the Dalai Lama in 1908.

Wang urged Mannerheim to take him as his interpreter during his audience with the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. But a Tibetan prince had already secretly informed Mannerheim that Wang was not welcome. The Tibetans despised Wang, whom they considered a spy, and prohibited him and his troops from the inner precincts of the temple.

Wutai Shan was more podium than prison for the Dalai Lama. Upon arriving here in the spring of 1908, His Holiness sent messages to the Peking Legations inviting envoys to visit. William Woodville Rockhill, the American ambassador to China, was the first. He pulled on his walking boots and set out for Wutai Shan on foot, a five-day trek from Peking. Rockhill was a scholar and diplomat who had explored Inner Asia in the 1890s and spoke Tibetan. He had left Wutai Shan only a day before Mannerheim’s arrival.

“The Talé Lama seems to me a man of undoubted intelligence, open-minded… a very agreeable, kindly, thoughtful host, and a personage of great dignity,” Rockhill reported back to President Theodore Roosevelt. The Dalai Lama told Rockhill about his struggles against the Chinese and how his country’s remoteness meant Tibet had “no friends abroad.” Rockhill assured His Holiness that he was mistaken: Tibet had many foreign well-wishers who hoped to see Tibetans “prosper and happy.” Later, during the Dalai Lama’s visit to Peking, Rockhill became a confidant to the Tibetan leader, quietly pushing a rapprochement with the Chinese.

In the summer of 1908, the Dalai Lama received a parade of envoys: a German doctor from the Peking Legation; an English explorer named Christopher Irving; R.F. Johnson, a British diplomat from the Colonial Service; and Henri D’Ollone, a French army major and viscount. The Dalai Lama hoped to patch up his relations with Britain after its invasion of Lhasa in 1904 and bolster his international standing. These first audiences with the mysterious Buddhist pontiff were much anticipated.

On his second day in Wutai Shan, a messenger ran into Mannerheim’s room in the Tayuan Temple and gestured that the Dalai Lama was ready to receive him. Mannerheim duly prepared himself. While he was shaving and changing his clothes, another frantic messenger arrived to express the Dalai Lama’s impatience. “I was just as impatient,” he wrote, “but could not possibly dress any faster.” A few minutes later, an anxious Tibetan prince appeared to ask what Mannerheim meant by keeping His Holiness waiting. At a swift pace, the Baron and prince climbed the steep staircase to Pusading Temple.

Staircase to the Pusading Temple in Wutai Shan

Staircase to the Pusading Temple in Wutai Shan

Wang, in full dress uniform, was waiting at the top with a Chinese honour guard. The Chinese had reason to worry about Mannerheim’s visit. Chinese authorities had just arrested two Russian military officers who were inciting the Mongols to break from China and become a Russian protectorate. During his stay in Urga (now Ulan Baatar), the Dalai Lama sent messages to the Tsar through various envoys. His Holiness told one Russian military intelligence officer that both Tibet and Mongolia should “irrevocably secede from China to form an independent allied state, accomplishing this operation with Russia’s patronage and support, avoiding bloodshed.” If Russia wouldn’t help, the Dalai Lama insisted, he would even ask Britain—his former foe—for help. After his visit with the Dalai Lama, Mannerheim, in fact, trekked to Inner Mongolia to gauge the rebellious mood of the Mongols.

Wang could barely hide his wrath when Mannerheim told him that he could not attend his audience with the Tibetan pontiff. The Chinese captain argued with two of the Dalai Lama’s assistants. As the Baron slipped into a small reception hall, he caught sight of Wang “making vain efforts to force his way in behind me.”

The Dalai Lama sat on a gilded armchair placed on a dais along the back wall of the small room. Two old Tibetans, unarmed, with beards and hair speckled with grey stood behind him. The Dalai Lama was frocked in “imperial yellow with light-blue linings” and a “traditional red toga.” The thirty-three-year-old pontiff had a dark brown face, shaved head, moustache and a tuft of hair under his lower lip. His eyes were large and his teeth gleamed. Mannerheim noticed “slight hollows in the skin of his face, which are supposed to be pockmarks.” He appeared a bit nervous, “which he seems anxious to hide.” Otherwise, Mannerheim thought he was “a lively man in full possession of his mental and physical faculties.”

Mannerheim made a “profound bow,” which the Dalai Lama acknowledged with a slight nod. They exchanged silk scarves. His Holiness began with small talk, asking Mannerheim about his nationality, age and journey. The Dalai Lama then paused and, twitching nervously, asked if the Tsar had sent a secret message for him. “He awaited the translation of my reply with obvious interest,” wrote Mannerheim, who informed him that he hadn’t the opportunity to personally speak with Tsar Nicholas II before his departure. The Dalai Lama then gestured, and a beautiful piece of white silk with Tibetan letters was brought out. It was a gift that Mannerheim was to deliver personally to Nicholas II.

The Dalai Lama told Mannerheim he had been enjoying his journeys in Mongolia and China, but “his heart was in Tibet.” Many Tibetans were urging him to return. His officials claimed up to twenty thousand pilgrims visited the Dalai Lama each month, but Mannerheim thought it was “an undoubted exaggeration.” The Tibetan pontiff was in the midst of a showdown with Empress Dowager Cixi, who wanted him to come to Peking to perform the kowtow. The Dalai Lama, Mannerheim wrote, “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.” The wily Tibetan pontiff had postponed his journey so many times that a joke was circulating in Peking referring to him as the “Delay Lama.”

Mannerheim spoke encouragingly about Russia’s sympathies for Tibet’s struggles against the Chinese. Russia’s troubles were over, the Baron assured him, and “the Russian Army was stronger than ever.” Now, all Russians watched His Holiness’s footsteps with great interest, he added. The Dalai Lama, Mannerheim recalled, “listened to my polite speeches with unconcealed satisfaction.”

Twice the Dalai Lama ordered his bodyguards to check if Wang was eavesdropping on their conversation. It was a dangerous time for the Dalai Lama, who knew his life may be in danger if he returned to Lhasa. The Chinese were tightening their grip on Tibet. Lamas were being assassinated, monasteries plundered and Tibetans evicted from their nomadic pastures. Peking needed the Dalai Lama to be a compliant vassal who could calm his restless followers and ease Tibet’s incorporation into the Chinese Empire.

But the Dalai Lama proved defiant. He visited Peking that September and immediately fell out with the Imperial Court, which issued a decree demoting him to “a loyal and submissive Vicegerent bound by the laws of the sovereign state.” A prominent Imperial censor also openly denounced him as “a proud and ignorant man.” Rumours spread in Tibet that he had been assassinated. Outraged at various reforms, lamas threatened a “holy war” against the Chinese. By the end of 1908, a rebellion broke out, leading to the defeat of Chinese troops. The Dalai Lama eventually returned to Lhasa in 1909 and sent telegrams to Britain and all European countries attacking Peking’s claim over Tibet.

In February 1910, Chinese troops invaded Lhasa. The Dalai Lama fled to India. An Imperial decree denounced His Holiness as “an ungrateful, irreligious obstreperous profligate who is tyrannical and so unacceptable to the Tibetans, and accordingly an unsuitable leader of Lamas.” After the fall of the Qing Dynasty, His Holiness returned to Tibet in 1913, declaring the country independent. He died in 1933, leaving a prophetic last testament for the next Dalai Lama:

We must guard ourselves against the barbaric red communists… the worst of the worst. It will not be long before we find the red onslaught at our own front door… and when it happens we must be ready to defend ourselves. Otherwise our spiritual and cultural traditions will be completely eradicated… and the days and nights will pass slowly and with great suffering and terror.

Recognizing the clear and present danger, Mannerheim offered the Dalai Lama an unusual, though practical, gift: a Browning revolver. The Baron apologized that he didn’t have a better offering, but explained that after two years’ journey he had no other items of value. The Dalai Lama laughed, “showing all his teeth,” as Mannerheim showed His Holiness how to quickly reload seven cartridges into the revolver. The Dalai Lama relished the demonstration. “The times were such,” Mannerheim wrote, “that a revolver might at times be of greater use, even to a holy man like himself, than a praying mill.”


From The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds: A Tale of Espionage, the Silk Road and the Rise of Modern China by Eric Enno Tamm. Copyright © 2010 by Eric Enno Tamm. Published by arrangement with Douglas & McIntyre.