Thinking outside the Urn: China and the reincarnation of Mongolia’s highest lama

The Chinese government’s prerogative to manage the rebirths of incarnate lamas is being tested in Mongolia. One of the highest lineages covered by the Qing’s ‘Golden Urn’ system at the basis of PRC reincarnation law is passing to its next holder, with the Dalai Lama’s involvement. Despite clear signs that China cares, no public position has emerged so far. To determine what China’s approach to the reincarnation issue might be, we have to go through some Mongolian history and a bit of leaf-reading. The very relevance of state management of rebirths to China’s foreign relations indicates to what extent Qing imperial thought permeates PRC policy. Reincarnation diplomacy is real and has an impact on Chinese policies towards its closest neighbours.

On the last day of his ninth visit to Mongolia last November, the Dalai Lama announced that the tenth reincarnation of the Jebtsundamba རྗེ་བཙུན་དམ་པ་ Khutugtu, the highest Mongolian lama, had been found as a Mongolian boy. However, this boy would not be publicly enthroned because of his young age.China certainly objected to the Mongolia visit, and responded to it with sanctions. As I have discussed in a recent piece, China only showed a will to normalise relations after the Mongolian government produced a ‘non-apology’ that regretted the “misunderstanding” and stated an assumption that the Dalai Lama would not visit again under during the current parliament. Although China’s protests didn’t mention the reincarnation issue, China’s interest in it is revealed by its mention in the various Chinese and Mongolian versions of the Mongolian position. To quote from the most explicit ones: the public announcement of the new Jebtsundamba (and, in one version, his education) will be the responsibility of Mongolian monks, without “outside participation.” The implication being that, as the process is a strictly religious matter, it falls beyond the government’s purview. So far, that seems consistent with the plans of Mongolian clergy, who said in January the tenth reincarnation would be enthroned by Mongolian lamas, and that the process had not started yet.

The rebirth lottery

Before the current controversies over the tenth, previous Jebtsundamba reincarnations played a role in Mongolian, Tibetan and Chinese politics: the ninth, the eighth, the second, the first and indeed the zeroth.

The first Jebtsundamba was the polymath Zanabazar (from Sanskrit Jñānavajra, in Tibetan ཡེ་ཤེས་རྡོ་རྗེ, both meaning ‘wisdom diamond-thunderbolt’; 1635-1723), the second son of the Tüsheet ᠲᠦᠰᠢᠶᠡᠲᠦ Khan Gombodorj, who ruled over one of the Mongol polities of the time. As a child, he was recognised as the reincarnation of Tāranātha, a great exponent of the Jonang school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Jonang’s association with political opponents of the Gelug school, which was then consolidating its secular power over Tibet, led the fifth Dalai Lama, head of the Gelug, to suppress it. The Jonang school only survived in Amdo (today’s Qinghai province), while Jonang monasteries in Central Tibet, including Tāranātha’s main seat, were forcibly converted to the Gelug. Although all Jebtsundambas, from the first on, had Gelug tutors and were recognised by successive Dalai Lamas, there has been some scholarly controversy0 over whether Zanabazar’s recognition as Tāranātha reincarnation was originally a Jonang challenge to the Gelug or, as the earliest available Tibetan documentary evidence would appear to suggest, a Gelug manoeuvre to claim Tāranātha’s legacy. Regardless of its significance in Tibetan factional politics, the recognition of Gombodorj’s son as a major incarnate lama helped buttress the Tüsheet Khans’ claim to primacy among the Khalkha (eastern) Mongols, matching the status of the other centres of Mongol power: the Dzungars in the west and the southern Mongols, already allied to the Manchus’ emerging Qing dynasty. Zanabazar’s later role the Khalkhas’ submission to Kangxi, key to the Qing’s eventual defeat of the Dzungars and conquest of much of Central Asia, made Mongolian nationalist historiography blame him for the subsequent centuries of Chinese rule. Chinese scholars praise him, for much the same reasons.

After an anti-Qing rebellion among the Khalkhas in which the second Jebtsundamba had an ambiguous role (his brother was executed for cooperating with its leader), emperor Qianlong ordered subsequent reincarnations to be born in Tibet, in what would later become part of the Golden Urn (金瓶) selection system, a Qing-managed ‘reincarnation lottery’ that gave imperial authorities control over the highest religious figures in Tibet and Mongolia. Qing-approved high lamas, who would recognise the emperor as a Buddhist ruler (cakravartin, ‘turner of the wheel’), rather than locally-born leaders who could help catalyse challenges to imperial power, were key to Beijing’s Central Asian policy.

For the next five reincarnations, the Urn lottery worked as expected, providing empire-friendly, purely religious figures who spent their short lives (only one lived into his thirties) as Tibetan-born foreigners in Mongolia.

Then the Empire lost at its own rigged raffle. Although also from Tibet, the Eighth Jebtsundamba adapted well to life among the Khalkha. He learnt the language, and his popularity and political savvy made him the centre of Outer Mongolian politics, culminating in his proclamation as theocratic ruler of independent Mongolia when the Qing fell in 1911. By the time he died in 1924, the Communists were in power, and decreed the end of the lineage. According to the historian J.Boldbaatar Ж.Болдбаатар, Mongolian lamas defied the prohibition and tried to install a Mongolian boy named Tüdeviin Luvsandorj Түдэвийн Лувсандорж as ninth reincarnation. These attempts failed to get Tibetan approval and were thwarted by the Mongolian government, fearful of the emergence of another popular figure with aspirations to theocratic rule. In what could well be the first Communist attempt to legislate reincarnations, the 1926 Party Congress asserted in a resolution that the Jebtsundamba wouldn’t be reborn again in Tibet or Mongolia after the eighth incarnation, since he was due to become general Hanuman1 in the mythical realm of Shambhala. The government later launched a brutal suppression of Buddhism that precluded any further efforts to revive the lineage (remarkably, the Mongolian boy that had been selected to continue it managed to survive the crackdown and lived as a layman until 1948).

Meanwhile in Tibet, a boy born in 1933 was secretly identified as the 9th Jebtsundamba reincarnation. He left Tibet in 1959 and lived, mostly in poverty, in Nepal and India, until being announced as 9th Jebtsundamba by the Dalai Lama after the end of Communism in Mongolia in the early 1990s. He first visited Mongolia in 1999, creating a good deal of controversy, and had to wait until 2010 to be allowed in again and made a Mongolian citizen. He died in Ulaanbaatar in 2012. The Mongolian public would likely only accept the next reincarnation to be born in Mongolia, and indeed that’s where the Dalai Lama says he told the old 9th Jebtsundamba to go in his next life. That’s why there was expectation that the reincarnation would be announced during last November’s visit.

Remarkably, Qianlong’s Urn lottery is still running. The continuity of Qing-inherited control over reincarnations is central to the justification of the PRC’s prerogative to appoint the most senior Tibetan Buddhist clergy. Current PRC reincarnation law explicitly refers to the Golden Urn system, as did its ROC precedent in 1936. Incarnate lamas continue to play a key role in Tibetan society, and government control over this hierarchy is meant to help legitimise Beijing’s right to rule Tibetan Buddhists, precisely as devised by 18th-century emperors. The Urn system, embedded in Chinese law, sits at the top of this structure. The current Dalai Lama’s assertions that it will be up to him to decide where to reincarnate next, if at all, were strongly attacked by Chinese officials, indeed on grounds of historical continuity centred on the Urn system. The PRC has used it exactly once, selecting its 11th Panchen Lama in 1995 after detaining the candidate approved by the Dalai Lama. Given how invested PRC discourse is in the legitimacy of the Urn system, an outside-the-Urn Jebtsundamba can be perceived as a challenge to imperial continuity, and a ‘rehearsal’ of a more serious one, the Dalai Lama’s own succession outside China.

What does China think?

Despite the challenge to PRC religious policy implied by an outside-the-Urn reincarnation, China hasn’t published any statements on the 10th Jebtsundamba, and the only public evidence of its concerns is its reflection in the Mongolian response.

To try and guess what Chinese officials think about the Jebtsundamba reincarnation, we can look for views on the previous lineage holder, recognised without Chinese consent. A 2009 article by Selengge ᠰᠡᠯᠡᠩᠭᠡ 斯林格, head2 of the Russia and Mongolia Research Institute at the Inner Mongolia Academy of Social Sciences, is sceptical about his legitimacy. The paper examines the “complex and sensitive problem” of the 9th Jebtsundamba reincarnation, highlighting the involvement of pro-Japanese Mongolians (Demchugdongrub Дэмчигдонров (De Wang 德王) and Li Shouxin 李守信) in his recognition process, and the role of the “Dalai clique” (达赖集团, Party-speak for the Dharamsala-based Tibetan government in exile) in his 1999 Mongolia trip. Selengge’s views, coming from a senior researcher who has been involved in exchanges with Russia and Mongolia, are significant, and consistent with the idea that Chinese authorities consider the Jebtsundamba lineage to have finished with the 8th reincarnation.

Another data point for assessing the official Chinese attitude towards the 9th Jebtsundamba is provided by the little-known fact that the PRC actually allowed him to lecture and perform rituals at his ancestral monastery, the Püntsokling ཕུན་ཚོགས་གླིང་ 彭措林 in Lhatse, Tibet, both before and after his enthronement by the Dalai Lama. The Püntsokling is strongly associated with Tāranātha, who greatly expanded it into the main monastery of Central Tibet and seat of the Jonang order, as part of whose suppression it was made a Gelug monastery under the Fifth Dalai Lama. As tenth reincarnation of Tāranātha, the ninth Jebtsundamba inherited this connection to the Püntsokling. He lived in or near the monastery, without revealing his status as Tāranātha reincarnation, until 1959, first as a simple monk and then as a layman, after he abandoned his vows and married his first wife. His first visit to Tibet after ‘liberation’ came in 19843, when he worked with the local government to rebuild the Püntsokling, by then converted into a granary. His status as Jebtsundamba reincarnation was still only known to a few, and is unlikely to have been revealed during his months-long stay in Tibet. The local authorities‘ willingness to work with him to restore the monastery can’t be read as any sort of recognition. Quite the contrary: despite his key role in reestablishing the Püntsokling, I’ve seen no mention of the ninth Jebtsundamba in Chinese materials on the monastery, suggesting his presence there has become a ‘delicate’ issue.

More remarkable is the ninth Jebtsundamba’s last visit to Tibet. He had now been publicly established as such by the Dalai Lama, and the climate in China had turned more adverse towards exchanges with the exile Tibetan community. This last visit has been described by Fabian Sanders based on conversations with the ninth Jebtsundamba. The following account is based on his 2001 article, to my knowledge the only published account of the final visit, and a personal communication. One of the main goals of the visit was to establish contacts with representatives of the Jonang school, which, as mentioned above, had been suppressed after Tāranātha but still survived in Amdo (Qinghai). The Jebtsundamba wasn’t allowed to travel to Qinghai, but he did go to Lhasa and from there to the Püntsokling, where he performed rituals and helped acquire statues for the monastery. He left Tibet when rumours began to circulate about “investigations” against him initiated by the Chinese authorities.

The final visit illustrates the ambiguities in Chinese attitudes towards the ninth Jebtsundamba: although he was allowed to perform rituals in an open capacity as Tāranātha reincarnation at Tāranātha’s own monastery, which could be read as a degree of tolerance, if not recognition, of his status, the fact that the visit was cut short, and information about it apparently expunged from accounts of the Püntsokling’s recent history show that the PRC authorities have been uncomfortable with the ninth reincarnation for decades. These contradictions are now transmitted to the the tenth reincarnation, whose legitimacy depends on that of his predecessor. If the ninth reincarnation was unacceptable to China, so should be the tenth; but if the ninth could officiate on PRC soil as embodiment of the zeroth, the Urn system’s monopoly has been undermined.

A more explicit discussion of the Jebtsundamba issue, complete with policy recommendations, appeared in a 2011 article published by the China Energy Fund Committee (中华能源基金会, CEFC), a think tank whose initialism mirrors that of the company that established it, CEFC (华信). Andrew Chubb and John Garnaut have written about CEFC (company and think thank) and its links to the PLA and specifically military intelligence. The article, in all likelihood signed with a pseudonym4, calls the restoration of the Jebtsundamba lineage in Mongolia “a great victory and a breakthrough for the Dalai clique” that can sow discord in Tibetan Buddhism by challenging the reincarnation system “unified” by Qianlong’s Golden Urn procedure. “The Indian government and the CIA” were involved. The Chinese government should foster religious exchanges with Russia and Mongolia, dispatching “virtuous and respected high monks” and using “social and economic methods” to compete with the Dalai clique. Using the example of the Gang gyan Development Company (བོད་གངས་རྒྱན་དར་སྤེལ་ཀུང་སི་ 西藏刚坚发展总公司), associated to the Tashi Lhunpo monastery and established by the 10th Panchen Lama in 1987, the article proposes China should “use the form of a company” to sell religious artifacts, drawing on “China’s advantageous position in trade with Russia and Mongolia” to “monopolise” the “religious market.” Finally, China should take the lead to coordinate the establishment of a “unified system for the search, recognition and final announcement” of incarnate lamas in the three countries, in order to restrict Dharamsala’s influence. Though unofficial, such advice is consistent with China’s current approach to Mongolian Buddhism, that involves cultivating ties to Dalai-unfriendly Mongolian monasteries and seemingly exploiting, as elsewhere, the Dorje Shugden controversy.

After such efforts didn’t prevent the Dalai Lama’s participation in, at least, the announcement of the new reincarnation, they might now be focused on trying to isolate him from Dharamsala, especially during his training years. Mongolia’s response to Chinese protests does suggest China privately requested that no exile Tibetan lamas anoint or tutor the future Jebtsundamba. Precedent for ‘tolerated’ reincarnations, although none as senior as the Jebtsundamba, exists. Indeed, China didn’t object to, for example, the Dalai Lama’s 2004 recognition of the Jalkhanz རྒྱལ་ཁང་རྩེ Khutugtu, the latest representative of what is likely the oldest lineage of Khalkha Mongolian incarnate lamas. As Johan Elverskog, known for his work on the Mongols and the Qing, puts it, the PRC “recognise they don’t need to control all the reincarnations, especially those outside the 1949 borders, and don’t care about Nyingma or Sakya incarnations – or [Treasure Revealer (གཏེར་སྟོན་)] Steven Seagal.”

At any rate, a Mongolian, but China-friendly, Jebtsundamba without Dharamsala ties is probably the most ambitious goal China can attain: trying to enforce the Golden Urn procedure would amount to imposing, or vetting, a religious leader on Mongolia, and the backlash could seriously hurt Chinese interests there. A subtler, longer-term approach, such as that which appears to be underway, can find allies within Mongolia’s political and religious establishment, and still succeed at a degree of extraterritorial enforcement of the PRC’s Qing-inherited religious policies. Such a senior outside-the-Urn reincarnation might be hard to accept for the would-be cakravartins at the Relevant Departments, but it seems they’ll have to live with it.

Thanks to Agata Bareja-Starzyńska, Robert Barnett, Andrew Chubb, Johan Elverskog, Victor Mair, Fabian Sanders and others I prefer not to name for comments and invaluable help in gathering information for this piece.


0The son of the Tüsheet Khan was ordained as a small child. He was recognised as incarnate lama by the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, who bestowed initiations on him while he studied in Tibet since 1650. That much seems uncontroversial. The issue is whether he was first educated in Mongolia by Jonangpas, or was a Gelugpa all along, and who and when first recognised him as the reincarnation of Tāranātha.

Tibetan and Mongolian sources on Zanabazar, beginning with the earliest extant biography, completed in 1702, with Zanabazar still alive, by his disciple the Khalkha Zaya Paṇḍita Lozang Trinle བློ་བཟང་འཕྲིན་ལས་, are connected to the Gelug school. Any early Jonang influence on Zanabazar could have been ‘harmonised’ away from these Gelug accounts. Junko Miyawaki 宮脇淳子 has called narratives of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas’ recognition of Zanabazar as reincarnation of a major figure of the rival Jonang sect “ahistorical”. She notes that, while a 19th-century Mongolian biography (reproduced and translated by Bawden) says that he received the title Jebtsundamba during his stay in Tibet, thus in or after 1650, the Qing veritable records (Qing shilu 清实录) record the “Jebtsundamba Khutugtu under the Tüsheet Khan” (土谢图汗下泽卜尊丹巴胡土克图), along with other Khalkha lamas, offered tribute in 1648, showing the title was already in use before its recognition by the Dalai Lama. Qing historical sources thus contradict a later Mongolian text, but are still consistent with the Khalkha Zaya Paṇḍita’s biography (reproduced and translated by Bareja-Starzyńska), where the boy is enthroned at age five by a Gelug incarnate lama, the Wensa Tulku དབེན་ས་སྤྲུལ་ཀུ་, a fact then “reported to the Victorious Father and Son” (i.e. the Dalai Lama and either his regent or the Panchen Lama), who “identified [Zanabazar] as the reincarnation of the Jebtsundamba” (རྒྱལ་བ་ཡབ་སྲས་ཀྱི་སྐུ་གཞོགས་སུ་ཞུས་པར་རྗེ་བཙུན་དམ་པའི་སྤྲུལ་སྐུར་ངོས་འཛིན་གནང་།; this and the next translation based on Bareja-Starzyńska’s). Although this still doesn’t disambiguate who this ‘Jebtsundamba’ was found to have reincarnated in Zanabazar, the Zaya Paṇḍita’s biography does say that later, in or after 1651, the Panchen Lama “confirmed that he was a reincarnation of the Lord Tāranātha” (པན་ཆེན་ཐམས་ཅད་མཁྱེན་པས་རྗེ་ཏཱ་ར་ནཱ་ཐའི་སྐུ་སྐྱེ་ཡིན་གསུང་). However, that still doesn’t settle the question of whether Gelugpa lamas had already identified Zanabazar as Tāranātha reincarnation before his 1650 trip to Tibet.

The name the fifth Dalai Lama uses to refer to Zanabazar in his autobiography would seem to provide key evidence. While Miyawaki interprets the name, Jamyang Chöje འཇམ་དབྱངས་ཆོས་རྗེ་, as the boddhisattva Mañjuśrī, other scholars, including Agata Bareja-Starzyńska in a 2010 article, have argued that it refers to the founder of Drepung monastery. That would be consistent with later lists of pre-Tāranātha existences, one of which claims to have been composed by Zanabazar himself. These lists usually contain another fourteen existences before Tāranātha, with Jamyang Chöje (a historical figure) as the eleventh.

1The Party Congress resolution is given in English translation by Bawden, who quotes the Shambhala general’s name as “Hanamand”. The idea that the Jebtsundamba will eventually be reborn as this figure is a Mongolian tradition and surely wasn’t made up by the Communists, but that Shambhala battle it alludes to was scheduled for centuries later.

This general fights under the 25th king of Shambhala, Raudracakrin, in the Kālacakra-tantra. The relevant line (third pāda of v. 162 in Banerjee’s edition) reads

अश्वत्थामं महाचन्द्रतनयहनूमांस्तीक्ष्णशस्त्रैर्हनिष्यत्

aśvatthāmaṃ mahācandratanayahanūmāṃstīkṣṇaśastrairhaniṣyat

Hanūmān, son of Mahācandra, will strike Aśvatthāma with sharp weapons. (Tr. Newman, my emphasis.)

I find the long ū in the name striking. A short u, as in the deity of the Hindu epics, would indeed scan better (the sragdharā metre requires a short syllable). The annotated Tibetan translation by Butön བུ་སྟོན་(as quoted by Orofino) has a short vowel (ha nu manthas, which is consistent with the name for the Hanuman of the epics in other Tibetan texts).

2He was vice-director when the article was published.

3The 1984 visit to the Püntsokling is discussed by Sanders and in Selenge’s article, whose source for that information is an article by Udo Barkmann. Unfortunately, Selenge only cites Barkmann’s article by a Chinese translation of the title without mentioning when or where it was published and I haven’t been able to identify the original paper.

4The CEFC attracted a good deal of attention in 2011 through a rather bellicose opinion piece (English version) published in the Global Times and signed by Long Tao 龙韬, which Chubb and Garnaut found to be a pseudonym used by Dai Xu 戴旭, an Air Force senior colonel (大校).The pseudonym (’the dragon’s strategy’), as has been noted, alludes to the Liu tao 六韬 or Six strategies, a classic military treatise. The article about the Jebtsundamba is signed by Na Lan or (more likely) Nalan 纳兰, likely also a pseudonym that could refer to the Manchu Nara clan in general or to its most famous representative, the early Qing poet Nalan Xingde 纳兰性德.

Shenghe’s Greenland U+REE investment gets FIRB approval

Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board has approved Shenghe 盛和 Resources’ purchase of one eighth of GME, the ASX-listed owner of the license for the Kvanefjeld uranium-rare earth project in Greenland. Other approvals should be coming these days, as everyone concerned in Australia and China should be happy with the deal.

Meanwhile in Greenland, things aren’t looking so simple. As explained in my previous post, Greenland is ruled at the moment by a Große Koalition of parties that agree on everything, except uranium mining. GME should be applying for a production permit before the end of the year, and that application could be handled by Múte Bourup Egede, a new minister who has already said he’s ‘against’ uranium mining, in so many words. Conflict within the ruling coalition is already showing. On the one hand, Jens-Erik Kirkegaard (long-time readers will remember his ’13 Jiangxi Copper visit) from majority partner Siumut thinks that GME have earned themselves a right (retskrav) to get their permit as long as they comply with environmental and other regulations, and the new anti-uranium minister “can’t just take a political decision.” On the other hand, Sara Olsvig, chair of coalition partner IA (long-time readers will remember her Tibet visit and meeting with the Tibetan gov’t in exile), says GME’s application could be rejected not only on environmental, but on “political” grounds (Weekendavisen via Sermitsiaq). Egede, the new minister, who’s from Olsvig’s party, has said he’ll decide based on the application’s merits as well as ‘listen to the people.’

Kalendis Octobribus: Tibetan magic water

At Tibeto-Logic, Dan Yerushalmi (aka Dan Martin) recalls being laughed at outside Drepung Monastery for drinking Xizang shenshui 西藏神水 mineral water. The bottle translates its brand as ‘Tibet Magic Water’ in English, but the hilarity ostensibly came from the Tibetan: བོད་ཀྱི་ལྷ་ཆུ་མཆོད་རྟེན་ཉི་མ། bod kyi lha chu mchod rten nyi ma. Dan relapsed into “the kind of a cowed smile you smile when you have no real clue what the laughter is all about”.

The first half of the Tibetan name means the same as the Chinese brand, ‘Tibetan divine water’. The second half, as Dan realised decades later, refers to Chorten Nyima, a holy site in Gampa Town (གམ་པ་གྲོང་རྡལ། gam pa grong rdal, 岗巴镇), Gampa County (གམ་པ་རྫོང། gam pa rdzong, 岗巴县), Shigatse Prefecture, whose water can wash away the worst sins, down to and including incest. That’s the water Dan was drinking, which presumably explains the hilarity.

Dan’s post provides extensive sources on the source’s sin-erasing properties, as well as pictures. Go read it.

I was curious to see what Chinese media sources might have to say about the issue. A number of reports (usually in the puff-piece genre) do talk about the brand.

This one on (中国西藏网) has pictures of the water at the source and of the bottling facilities. This 2008 article in the Tibet Daily (西藏日报) has pictures of employees packing bottles. Based on how the articles describe the Chorten Nyima site, I’m not sure those laughs were warranted. They would make sense if a water from the site, or named after it, was something for the tourists, who would be unaware they’re drinking water people have bathed in. (Believers in homeopathy could argue you’d become incestuous from drinking it.) But according to the articles, the Chorten Nyima area includes water in several forms. There’s a river, a water source, a grotto and three lakes (called the Gold, Jade and Bronze Lakes). Some pilgrims will bathe in the river, but it would seem most popular to collect water from it, given that it has the ability to cure “424 contagious and 360 chronic and acute diseases”. Looking at the pictures, the water seems to flow from a number of places near the river, meaning that the water people collect has not been in contact with other people. A large source (where the river water comes from?), reportedly quite impressive, is located at a rather inaccessible point some 7 metres above the river itself. A temple (picture here) is located in the area, apparently near the river, and a rather inaccessible grotto near has the ability to ‘measure’ people’s sins: below a certain level of guilt, one is able to climb out of it; grave sinners who enter it can never leave it. (The temple is also described in sources quoted in Dan’s post, and the description is consistent with the Chinese articles, that also talk of three stupas.) The articles aren’t terribly clear about this, but the three lakes seem to be farther up the mountain (400 m higher, according to a third source) and might be (part of) what all that water comes from. The lakes are also attributed magical properties, suggesting they might also be reached by pilgrims, but it’s unclear if anyone bathes in them. So it’s perfectly possible that the water bottled for sale is reasonably disjoint from any water people have bathed in.

[We know more about the location now. See the update at the end of this post.]

The source is reported to have been created by Buddhist master Padmasambhava (པདྨ་འབྱུང་གནས། padma ‘byung gnas 莲花生) as he was leaving Tibet. Padmasambhava spent some time in a grotto in the Gamba area, and imparted tantric teachings to a local nomad couple. As he was leaving, he hit some rocks with his cane, and water with miraculous properties started flowing from there.

The articles say that drinking Chorten Nyima water is a Tibetan custom. Of course they would still say that if the whole thing was concocted for the tourists, but judging from what I’ve seen the market for Chorten Nyima bottled water was limited to Tibet for much of its history (which of course doesn’t exclude the possibility of a primarily Han customer base).

The company behind the bottled water brand was established in 1993 by the Gampa Town government. Private capital apparently joined the business only in the early aughts, in the form of a joint venture between the Gampa gov’t-owned company and a local company, apparently Tibetan-owned, called Yamei 亚美 (which I assume is for Tibetan ཡ་མེད། ya med ‘matchless’). Yamei’s other products include(d) Tibetan arts and crafts (which is consistent with the Han-targeted business hypothesis). A bigger bottling plant was established in 2007 in Mönde Village (སྨོན་སྡེ་གྲོང་ཚོ། smon sde grong tsho, 门德村), still within Gampa Town. The time for that expansion makes sense if we think that the railway reached Lhasa around that time, but a breakthrough in terms of market reach at the national scale apparently failed to materialise. (Other brands, especially 5100, had it easier in terms of both capital and logistics; Gampa is still far away, and the railway only reached Shigatse in ’14.) A Shanghai company called Xirun (上海希润实业有限公司; might be connected to this company) invested later on. A deal with an American company whose English name I haven’t been able to identify (something like ‘Hoff’? 赫夫 Hèfū) to sell their water in the US is said to have existed in ’07. (That might (or might not) be related to the mysterious 中美 ‘Sino-American’ prefix in one of the labels in Dan’s post. I haven’t seen any other indication that the company bottling or selling the water is a Sino-American JV, or any evidence the ‘Magic Water’ is sold in the States.)

Other than ‘Magic Water’, this corporate entity also markets another brand, namely Xigezi 喜格孜. My understanding is that 喜格孜 Xǐgézī is just an alternative Chinese form of Shigatse, closer in pronunciation to the Tibetan གཞིས་ཀ་རྩེ། gzhis ka rtse that the traditional/official name 日喀则 Rìkāzé (for example, Shigatse Pedestrian Street in Shigatse is called 喜格孜步行街 Xǐgézī bùxíngjiē in Chinese (Ch., Tib. sign)), so the brand’s English name, if it has one, is just ‘Shigatse’. To the best of my knowledge, Shigatse water isn’t claimed to have any magical properties and might therefore be cheaper.

Even under the hypothesis that the primary target of the Magic Water is the non-Tibetan public, I don’t think the above is consistent with the idea that drinking water from the Chorten Nyima source is laughable in itself. Perhaps it was for the specific people Dan met in Lhasa, or perhaps there was something else they found funny.

This has gone well beyond the accepted scope of this blog. It’s a Kalendae octobres (国庆节) thing. To establish some thematic link with my usual topics, I’ll mention that the reasons why China (proper) is such a good market for Tibetan water are just as relevant to the Arctic, and indeed I have written about Iceland Spring, a product of a peculiar Sino-Icelandic entrepreneur, and with an auspicious pH of 8.88.

[Update: I’ve finally been able to find the precise location of the temple: 28°03’27.8″N 88°14’39.9″E. The temple is indeed located near a river, not a lake. The lakes are a further 6 km south (and possibly 300+ m up). Here‘s a Google Maps view, showing the temple and the lakes. That appears to contradict the account by Peter of Greece and Denmark quoted on Dan’s post, that talks of a temple on a lake; the temple was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and rebuilt in the ’80s, so a relocation away from the lake(s) after Peter’s visit isn’t impossible; but based on pictures of the lakes I think it’s unlikely they were much closer to them. As for the lakes, there are more than three in the area, and I haven’t been able to determine which specific ones are traditionally associated with the temple and the Padmasambhava story. Averaging the online accounts of a few Chinese visitors, I would say the two similarly shaped ones located directly south from the temple are the holiest ones. This travelogue by Qiuqiu 球球, published on Zbcool by user Kel has been the most useful in identifying the site’s location. Qiuqiu provides a detailed itinerary, multiple pictures and (crucially) maps. This one shows the temple and lakes. Most of the lake names are given as Tibetan names transcribed into Chinese, some of which are at variance with those used in Tibetan government sources (e.g. 莫古龙措 vs 莫姑隆错). I haven’t tried to figure out the original Tibetan names (it might just be easier to find a map in Tibetan). For the two lakes most relevant to this post, Qiuqiu gives Chinese names, 东圣湖 and 西圣湖, respectively the Eastern and Western Holy Lake. More pictures and other details can be found here and here and here (notice in particular this picture of the temple).]

Huang Nubo: I’m getting published by Gallimard

NRK‘s recent interview with poet-tycoon Huang Nubo soon drifted, fittingly, into the realm of poetry. He is, after all, “first of all a poet” who became a businessman just “to survive”. (Before becoming a businessman, he survived as an editor for an Association of Mayors – at the time when he published his first poetry collection – and, before that, as an official at the Propaganda Department.)

“Do you know the French publishing house Gallimard?” he asked his interviewer. “They are one of the top publishers in the world. In the last hundred years, they have never published poetry by Asian poets [this is almost true], but this year they are going to publish a poetry collection by me.”

In other, possibly unrelated news, André Velter, since 1999 the director of Gallimard’s poetry series, was with Huang earlier this month in the latest edition of a Chinese-French poetry festival, organised among others by Huang’s company Zhongkun 中坤 in Beijing. It’s quite a coincidence for Huang to announce that his poetry will appear in a collection directed by Velter, just after he’s praised the Norwegian government for refraining from meeting the Dalai Lama. Had the Norwegians ignored China’s warnings and met the guy, he had implied, his investment plans in the country might not be able to proceed. Velter, a poet, and his partner Marie-José Lamothe, a photographer and tibetologist, have often written about Tibetan issues, and he hasn’t been particularly enthusiastic about Chinese rule in the region, which he describes as “a brutal occupation“.

That Huang is a poet is mentioned pretty much everywhere he’s talked about, but this blog actually quotes his poetry from time to time.