Between Chinese Lama and Nationalist Official: The Life of Xing Suzhi in Tibet and China

Ling-Wei Kung


Xing Shuzhi 邢肅芝(1916-, aka. Master Bisong 碧松法師 or Lobsang Tsondru བློ་བཟང་བརྩོན་འགྲུས་) was the first Chinese receiving Geshe Lharampa, the highest Buddhist degree of the Gelug tradition in Tibet, after studying eight years in Drebung Monastery from 1937 to 1945. Before going to study in Central Tibet, he graduated from the Sino-Tibetan Research Academy of Buddhist Studies (漢藏教理院) and was well acquainted with prominent Chinese and Tibetan Buddhists, such as Masters Taixu, Fazun, and Gangkar Rinpoche. In addition to his religious activities, he also worked for China’s nationalist government and had wide contactwith political and religious leaders in Tibet. After visiting Chiang Kai-shek in Chongqing in 1945, he became a deputy of the Commission on Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs (蒙藏委員會) and served as the president of the National Lhasa University (國立拉薩小學) until 1949, when the Tibetan government expelled the Chinese officials and related people from Central Tibet. After that, he moved to Hongkong through India. In 1959, he was invited by Turrell V. Wylie to teach Tibetan Buddhism at University of Washington. Then he has lived in the U.S. for more than five decades and he is currently based in Los Angeles. His oral history entitled as Searching Dharma in the Snow Region: An Oral History of a Chinese Lama (雪域求法記:一個漢人喇嘛的口述史) was first published in 2002. This work provides us precious information to realize the Sino-Tibetan relationships in the early twentieth century from a special perspective.

Early Age

Xing Shuzhi was born and raised up in Jiangsu Province of eastern China in 1916. He was first sent to a Chinese Buddhist temple in Yangzhou and became a samanera (沙彌, a Buddhist acolyte) when he was nine years old. At first he learned basic rituals in the temple whereas studied Chinese in an old-style private school. He was raised up in the early republican period when some Buddhist leaders started to reform the traditional monastic system in China. Therefore, more and more monks went to new-established Buddhist colleges where they could systematically learn Buddhist theory instead of spending a large amount of time forbegging alms as they had used to do in traditional temples.

When he was twelve years old, Xing left Yangzhou and transferred to the Yushan Buddhist College (玉山佛學院) in Zhenjiang, which was established in 1925 and was one of the earliest new-style Buddhist colleges in modern China. In the meanwhile, he also frequently visited the Chinese Inner Studies Institute (支那內學院) in Nanjing found by Ouyang Jian (1871-1943) and Lü Cheng (1896-1989). His studies in modern Buddhist schools enlarged his understanding of Buddhism and cultivated his open-minded attitude toward different religious traditions.

In May of 1934, [1] the 9th Panchen Lama Thubten Chökyi Nyima (ཐུབ་བསྟན་ཆོས་ཀྱི་ཉི་མ་, 1883–1937) visited Hangzhou of Jiangsu and held the Kalacakra rituals. It is said that many Chinese officials and cultural celebrities, such as Dai Jitao (1891-1949), He Yingqin (1890-1987), and Jü Zheng (1876-1951), joined the religious ceremony. In order to acquire the blessing of the Panchen Lama, Xing Suzhi participated in the ceremony and started to be interested in Tibetan Buddhism. Then he decided to study the Tibetan language. In 1934, Xing departed for Chongqing, where he studied as a student in the Sino-Tibetan Research Academy of Buddhist Studies (漢藏教理院).

Studying Tibetan Buddhism in China

When Xing was eighteen years old, he left eastern China and went to study in the Sino-Tibetan Research Academy of Buddhist Studies in Chongqing, where he was well acquainted with many prominent Sino-Tibetan Buddhists, such as Master Taisu (1890-1941), Fazun (1902-1980), and Gangkar Rinpoche (1893-1957). The Sino-Tibetan Research Academy of Buddhist Studies established in 1930 is the first Buddhist institution teaching Tibetan Buddhism in China. When Xing went to study in the Sino-Tibetan Research Academy of Buddhist Studies, the president was Master Fazun, who was one of the earliest Chinese monks studying in Central Tibet and translated many Tibetan scriptures into Chinese. With the efforts of Master Fazun, the school invited and attracted many prominent teachers and students from China and Tibet. As a result, Xing Suzhi had chances to know other Chinese studying Tibetan Buddhism, such as Chen Jianmin (1906-1987) and Zhang Chengji (1920-1988). While he stayed in Chongqing, Xing studied with many Tibetan lamas, such as Norlha Hutuktu, Gangkar Rinpoche, and Künzang Rinpoche. He also received his Tibetan Dharma name “Lobsang Tsondru” in addition to his Chinese Dharma name “Bisong.”

Searching Dharma in Tibet

After graduating from the academy in 1936, Xing served as the secretary of Master Taixu. Later Xing decided to further study Buddhism in Tibet and finally won the scholarship from the GMS government through Taixu’s recommendation. In 1937, he traveled to Tibet through Kham with the financial support of the Guomingdang government. During his trip from Kham to Lhasa, Xing met many important figures on the road and made important records of local societies including customs, commodity prices, and traffic routes etc. For instance, when Dai Jitao led a delegation heading to Garze in order to hold a memorial ceremony of the late Panchen Lama, Xing fortunately got a chance to travel together with them and therefore recorded the information of the caravan led by Dai. Moreover, while he passed Garze, Xing also mentioned the situation of Dargye Monastery after the Kham revolt in 1932. From August of 1938 to June of 1939, Xing stayed in Derge and met many Tibetan Buddhist leaders. With the help of his former classmate Zhang Chengji, he visited the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (1924-1981, རང་འབྱུང་རིག་པའི་རྡོ་རྗེ་) and the 11th Taisitu Rinpoche Pema Wangchuk Gyalpo (1886–1952, པད་མ་དབང་མཆུག་རྒྱལ་པོ་). In addition, he had a great chance to study exoteric Buddhism and receive empowerment from Dzongsar Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö (1893– 1959, རྫོང་གསར་མཁྱེན་བརྩ་ཆོས་ཀྱི་བློ་གྲོས་), a major advocator of the Rimé movement (the nonsectarian movement) in Tibetan Buddhism.

While he traveling between Kham and Central Tibet, he started to build up personal relationships with several Tibetan politicians in Chamdo, such as Surkhang Wangchen Delek (1910-1977, ཟུར་ཁང་དབང་ཆེན་བདེ་ལེགས་) and Ngapo Ngawang Jigme (1910-2009, ང་ཕོད་ངག་དབང་འཇིགས་མེད་). Although it was very hard for Chinese to get permissions to enter Central Tibet through Chamdo, Xing’s status of “Chinese lama” (rgya bla ma)helped him successfully enter Lhasa with the assistance of the Tibetans and he even secretly covered two GMD spies pretending as his disciples. On his way from Chamdo to Lhasa, Xing also coincidentally met Liu Manqing (1906-1941), a famous Tibetan-speaking female Muslim who strongly promoted the ideas of Chinese nationalism in Tibet against the Japanese invasion.

After arriving Lhasa in September of 1939, Xing commenced looking for the possibilities to study in the Three Great Seats. Eventually, Xing met another Chinese lama named Ouyang Wuwei (1913-1991, aka. ཆོས་འཕེལ་འཇིགས་མེད་), who later taught Tibetan studies and frontier policy in National Central University in Nanjing and finally became the founder of Tibetology in Taiwan. With the recommendation of Ouyang Wuwei, Xing successfully entered Gomang Dratsang of Drepung Monastery. In his oral history, Xing describes the monastic institutions and the lives of monks in detail. His records and photos provide us substantial records to realize the operations of Drebung monastery in different level from “local sections”(mitshan) and “regional houses” (kham tshan) to “colleges” (grwa tshang) and “monastic governing council” (bla spyi). Furthermore, Xing extensively illustrates the political systems, the religious ceremonies, and the commercial activities in Lhasa. That is to say, Xing’s observations of Tibet were not confined to monasticism and religious elites. Instead, he also paid attention to merchants and ordinary people. In addition to Lhasa, Xing also broadly traveled in Lhoka, Zhigatse, and Sakya. Therefore, his understanding of Tibet is definitely not limited in Lhasa.

From a Chinese Lama to a GMD Official

After acquiring his degree of Geshe Lharampa in 1945, Xing returned to China along with a letter sent from Tibet’s regent Taktra Rinpoche Ngawang Sungrab Thutob (1874-1951, ངག་དབང་གསུང་རབ་མཐུ་སྟོབས) to Chiang Kai-shek, who was China’s leader at that time. He eventually met Chiang in Chongqing and was later commissioned to be the president of the National Lhasa Elementary School by the government due to his specialty of Tibetan cultures and Buddhism. Consequently, Xing returned to Tibet through India in 1946 and started his work in the Lhasa Elementary School. Xing mentions that the GMD government very cared about the elementary education in Lhasa and was eager to establish the school as a political model. Although Xing claims that his work in the Lhasa Elementary School had great contributions to the development of modern education in Tibet, he also admits that there were a few Chinese spies sent from the GMD government. He also mentions that the GMD government also had some informants in the Tibetan government. For instance, he accuses Heinrich Harrer (1912-2006) of being a double agent between China and Tibet.

However, Xing could not stay long in Tibet this time. While the Chinese Communists defeated the GMD army in China proper, the Tibetan government decided to expel all Chinese officials and related people in 1949. Although all Chinese officials had to leave Tibet, the Chinese lamas and merchants could choose to stay. According to Xing, there were still about 20 Chinese lamas studying in Drebung and Sera Monasteries at that time. Around 130 people were forced to leave Tibet immediately. In addition to Han-Chinese, some Tibetans from Kham working for the Chinese government were also expelled from Central Tibet. While about 20 people returned to Kham, 114 people retreated to India. Then Xing moved to Hongkong and teach Tibetan Buddhism there. In 1959, Xing was invited by Turrell Wylie to visit the University of Washington. Then he has lived in the U.S. for more than five decades and he is currently based in Los Angeles.


Xing Suzhi’s oral history is a very important source that can help its readers revisit Tibet and China in the early twentieth century from a perspective of a Chinese lama. As a Chinese monk who witnessed the reformation of the Buddhist education in China, he had chances to experience the interactions between Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism in the early twentieth century. Moreover, as a Chinese lama pursuing Dharma in Tibet, he was able to closely observe the situations of the government, the monasteries, and the local societies of Tibet. Additionally, his connections with the GMD government also provide us some clues about the activities of the Chinese nationalists in Tibet during the 1930s and the 1940s.

In addition to its special perspective that can help us reexamine modern Sino-Tibetan history, Xing’s oral history is very detail and precise. In addition to precise dates, this work also contains many photos and statistics based on Xing’s personal diary and travel notes.[2] However, this work also has its limits. First, Xing’s oral history mainly focuses on the first half of his life in China and Tibet and does not contain too many details about his activities in the U.S. Since he has lived in the U.S. more than five decades and once taught Tibetan Buddhism at the University of Washington, it will be valuable to tell the readers more about his life in the U.S. Moreover, the story told by Xing may be different from records shown by archival sources. For instance, although Xing thinks Hugh Richardson was the plotter of the expulsion of the Chinese in 1949, the British documents do not support his speculation.[3] Moreover, Xing claims that the regent Taktra Rinpoche asked him to bring a letter to Chiang Kai-shek and commissioned him to explain the situation of Tibet to Chiang. Xing also quotes Taktra’s letter in this work, “even though some Tibetan aristocrats were bribed by the British, the Tibetan people are close to the central government. Because the Chinese people are always the patrons of the Tibetans, we have continuously kept good relationships with each other. I especially commissioned Lobsang Tsondru Geshe to describe the recent situation of Tibet.” [4] Fortunately, I found the original Tibetan letter sent from Taktra to Chiang with its Chinese translation in Chiang’s archives preserved in Taiwan. Nevertheless, Taktra’s letter is very formulaic and its content is very different from Xing’s quote. First, Taktra did not say some Tibetan aristocrats were bribed by the Britsh. Moreover, Taktra’s letter did not mention he asked Lobsang Tsondru to narrate Tibet’s situation to Chiang.[5] In fact, Taktra’s letter was sent together with Xing Suzhi’s report. In Xing’s report, he emphasized that the British were occupying the borderlands between Tibet and India. Then he further asked Chiang Kai-shek to sponsor him 100,000 Indian rupee for his investigation of Ngari (mnga' ris) and Gartok (sgar thog).[6] Did Taktra really mention Britain’s ambition of controlling Tibetan aristocrats to Chiang Kai-shek? What kind of information of Tibet did Xing Suzhi provide to the GMD government? How did the Sino-Tibetan Buddhists connect Tibet and China in the 1940s? I will discuss these issues in detail in another article. (Final revisions on October 25, 2016)

Works Cited
  • Academia Historica. The Archives of Chiang Kai-shek.
  • Tuttle, Gray. Tibetan Buddhists in the Making of Modern China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
  • Van Schaik, Sam. “Red Herrings on a High Plateau.” Posted on May 31, 2011, (March 18, 2017).
  • Xing, Suzhi (aka. Luosang zhenzhu = Lobsang Tsondru). Xue yu qiu fa ji: Yi ge Han ren lama de kou shu shi (Searching Dharma in the Snow Region: An Oral History of a Chinese Lama). Taipei: Sanlian Shu dian, 2010.

The proof of Lobsang Tsondru (Xing Suzhi) as a real “Chinese lama” for passing through Chamdo. This proof was issued by Surkhang Wangchen Delek (aka. Wang Qirong in Chinese) in 1939. [7]
Lobsang Tsondru (the left in the second row), Surkhang Wangchen Delek (the middle in the first row), and Ngapo Ngawang Jigme (the left in the first row) in a party in 1939. [8]

[1]The oral history wrongly took the time as May of 1933. Xing Suzhi, Xue yu qiu fa ji: Yi ge Han ren lama de kou shu shi (Taipei: Sanlian Shu dian, 2010), pp. 43. About the Panchen Lama and the Kalacakra ceremony in 1934, see Gray Tuttle, Tibetan Buddhists in the Making of Modern China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp. 185-186.
[2]According to Xing, he once planned to publish his travel notes when he returned to Chongqing in 1945, but the publisher refused him because the Tibetan issues were too sensitive at that time. Xing Suzhi, Xue yu qiu fa ji: Yi ge Han ren lama de kou shu shi, pp. 422.
[3] Sam van Schaik, “Red Herrings on a High Plateau,” posted on May 31, 2011, (March 18, 2017).
[4]Xing Suzhi, Xue yu qiu fa ji: Yi ge Han ren lama de kou shu shi, pp. 364.
[5] Academia Historica, number: 001-059200-0003.
[6] Academia Historica, number: 001-059200-0003.
[7] Xing Suzhi, Xue yu qiu fa ji: Yi ge Han ren lama de kou shu shi, pp. 143.
[8] Xing Suzhi, Xue yu qiu fa ji: Yi ge Han ren lama de kou shu shi, pp. 150.