The monastery in 1949
Lithang Monastery was preparing to enter the second half of the 20th century with its finances in good order, probably thanks to effective management of assets such as herds, a prosperous local community, and alliances with other Gelug monasteries that facilitated trade. As missionary doctor George Patterson rode into the outskirts of the settlement in 1949, he saw monastic wealth on display, for before him was a scene of abundance: “Nomads, stripped to the waist, were covered in blood, steaming in the cool of the afternoon, and crowds of porters, men and women, were lined up with baskets to carry the meat away into the monastery.” The gonpa had ordered the slaughter of three thousand yaks to feed its monks and augment its store of trade goods.
Although more than a thousand people had reportedly died in the 1948 earthquake, the monastery and town were thriving. A wide street ran north-south through the middle of the town, lined with shops where a variety of goods such as silks, carpets, silver goods, religious items, and foodstuffs were sold. The northern end of the street terminated at the residence and offices of the Chinese magistrate. (Marion Duncan placed it at the southern end. Perhaps it moved).
The entire combined community totaled about five thousand people: over three thousand monks in the monastery and two thousand lay people in the town. In addition, Lithang Monastery’s roster listed another thousand monks who were away on pilgrimage or other business at that time.
Patterson toured the monastery complex. At the rear and highest part of the monastery, the buildings were newer, and more were under construction to replace those lost in the earthquake. The monastery buildings, which were larger and in better condition than any of the houses in the town, were clustered in irregular groups separated by winding footpaths.
The Scot noted that the main assembly hall was about sixty feet from floor to roof, and spotlessly clean. The floor was made of smooth planks, not yet polished. Pillars were painted in red, carved, and inlaid in a variety of colors overlaid with gold leaf. Commanding the space were two large wrought-iron gates in the back of the room, about twenty feet square. Beyond was a shadowy enclosure lit only by a few butter lamps. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he made out the outlines of an immense gilt face about forty feet from the ground – a serene, enigmatic mien gazing into the darkness — probably a supersized statue of Maitreya (Buddha of the Future), although Patterson does not identify the deity represented.
The temple’s inner shrine was the dwelling place of the monastery’s guardian deity. It was not open to the public, but after remaining in Lithang a few days, Patterson was taken to see it. His hosts escorted him through a room housing a stupa in which relics or remains of the abbot’s previous incarnation were kept within a reliquary stupa. Patterson was told that 113 ounces of gold had gone into gilding of the stupa. The room also had alcoves housing golden offering bowls and jewel-encrusted objects.
The Scot had come to Lithang in a caravan led by two men of the powerful Pangdatsang family of Khampa merchants: Topgyay and Rapga. As their honored guest, he lodged with them in a richly-appointed house that turned out to be the home where the 7th Dalai Lama had been born. The home was being maintained as a shrine, but it was also used to host guests.
One of Lithang Monastery’s more unusual residents at this time was a Chinese man surnamed Liu who had been a major-general in Chiang Kai-Shek’s army but had resigned his position to become a lama. Thanks, probably, to his army connections, the Chinese warlord Liu Wenhui had appointed him as head of all of the monasteries in Xikang Province, including Lithang Monastery. According to Patterson, the monks didn’t trust him and thought he was a Chinese spy.
According to interviews performed by Melvyn Goldstein, the monastery consisted of one tratsang (college) under which were eleven khamtsen (monk residential dormitories) and, within these, sixteen mitsen (residental subunits of khamtsen). Each of these managed its own inventory of wealth and possessions. The chief tulku (incarnate lama) was Lithang Gyamgön Rinpoche.
1950-80: Confrontation, violence, turmoil
At this time, the People’s Liberation Army was consolidating their military gains throughout western China. Guomindang army units and regional warlords had to surrender to the PLA or be wiped out. During Patterson’s stay in Lithang, news arrived that Jyekundo (Yushu) had fallen to the Communists, cutting off the people of Kham from their Amdowa neighbors.
The warlord Liu Wenhui surrendered to the PLA and handed over Xikang Province, which encompassed modern-day Lithang County and the rest of Ganzi Prefecture, to China’s new Communist government. When the PLA reached Dartsendo, it was obvious that they would continue to Lithang and other Khampa chiefdoms, driving out what remained of Guomindang garrisons. Lithang Gonpa had been allowing Guomindang troops to store their arms and ammunition on the monastery grounds. Now, the decision facing Lithang and other regional chieftains was whether to surrender to the Communists or take up common cause with the Tibetan government and fight.
Melvyn Goldstein interviewed many witnesses to events in Lithang, and, in the third volume of his history series, wrote an account of the Lithang uprising as a case study of revolts that occurred throughout the region in the Khampa Rebellion. Another scholar, Carole McGranahan, also documented these events based on interviews with Lithangpa living in exile. The following account is taken from both.
Khampa leaders met in Lithang to discuss the best course of action. In accordance with instructions received from Lhasa in 1945, they decided they would seek direction from the gods. They made two dough balls, each with a piece of paper inserted; on one paper, the words were written “Fight the Communists,” and on the other: “Stay peacefully.” The two balls of dough were put into a cup. The monks prayed, and one ball fell out. It said: “Stay peacefully.”
A decision to surrender was not inconvenient given that many chiefdoms in Kham had learned to live with Chinese rulers, and they had no great love of the Tibetan government. Perhaps, too, they were soothed by CCP promises that the new government would respect local customs and traditions. Also, many relished the profits that would come from providing pack animals to the Chinese army. In any event, Lithang and other chiefdoms east of the Dri Chu River offered no resistance to the PLA troops who marched into their territory and did not oppose them even when it became clear that the PLA intended to cross the Dri Chu and launch an invasion of Tibet.
And so it was that the Chinese Communists arrived in Lithang and established an office there. Nevertheless, in the early years of the 1950s, Lithang Monastery continued to exercise its traditional prerogatives with little interference. Communist Party cadres immediately realized the influence of Lithang Monastery and knew it would be of vital importance to their plan for economic and social reforms. Yet the cadres knew that they could not use military means or launch violent class struggle to overthrow monks and other wealthy elites in the town, because that would alienate the local population. Instead, they began a campaign of gentle persuasion, assuring the monks that they would retain their status and a comfortable standard of living in the new social order. They even appointed the ex-abbot of Lithang Monastery to the position of deputy secretary of the Ganzi People’s Government.
Meanwhile, in Lithang as elsewhere, the Chinese held meetings to raise “class consciousness” among the poor to make them resent the monastery’s wealth. In this way, it was thought that poor Tibetans could be mobilized against the monastery when the time was right.
For several years, the monks remained impervious to Chinese efforts. Then in February 1956, a work team arrived from Dartsendo intent on at last bringing Lithang Monastery around to the cause of “peaceful democratic reforms.” The process would entail confiscating monastic property and distributing it among the poor, part of the Communists’ grand scheme to build a new social order that would replace the feudal system that had prevailed in both Tibet and China until that time.
As a first step, the Chinese work team wanted to inventory the monastery’s assets and examine its business records; however, the monastery refused to cooperate. Matters were exacerbated when the Chinese also demanded that Tibetans throughout Kham should surrender their firearms. For the gun-loving Khampas, this was utterly out of the question.
A week-long standoff ensured, at which point the Chinese side convened a meeting in an attempt to break the deadlock. It would be held at the government’s headquarters in Chagodrang, a place within Lithang town. The monastery sent its top five managerial officials along with representatives of the eleven khamtsen and several other important monastic officials; several leading lay chiefs also joined. The Chinese sent their own high officials including the deputy party secretary of Ganzi Prefecture and the regional PLA commander.
During the meeting, the Chinese told the Tibetan delegation of about twenty-five people why reforms were necessary. They said that the rest of China had already been reformed, so Lithang needed to get with the program. They explained that Lithang Monastery would continue to operate, but under a different model of funding. The monastery would have to give all its assets to the state, which would then pay salaries to the monks. Banditry would not be permitted in the new society, so there was no need for people to have guns.
The Chinese tried to assure the Tibetans that no “struggle sessions” – rituals of public humiliation and torture that had been used across China to depose the former elite – would occur in Lithang. Li Chunfang, leader of the Chinese delegation, gave an ominous warning: “Our Communist Party has only two roads to show you. The white road is the road to peaceful liberation. If you do not travel on this path, then there is the black road, which is the road to forced liberation…So you must decide which road you want to travel.”
The Tibetans who attended this meeting refused to agree with Chinese demands. They came away more convinced than ever that they must resist. Lithang’s monks returned to their monastery and began to prepare for war. They took off their robes and donned lay clothing. They built stone bunkers within the monastery, and they sent word that monks who were away on business should return. They also sent word to headmen in the region asking them to position men near the monastery who could be called upon when the fighting started. Excepting monks who were very young, very old, or pursuing advanced studies, the total number of armed, combat-ready men on the Lithang side came to four or five thousand.
In a last-ditch effort, Lithang Monastery’s leaders sent four representatives to Dartsendo to try to persuade the prefecture leaders to call off the military. However, the situation in Lithang was becoming very tense. Tibetan fighters in Lithang far outnumbered PLA soldiers, but if Chinese reinforcements arrived, the Tibetans would lose their numerical advantage. Encouraged by a divination showing a favorable outcome, they decided on a quick strike to take control of the town and persuade the Chinese to abandon their reform plans indefinitely.
On March 9, 1956, Tibetans ambushed Chinese workers who were repairing a water source, killing several, and the next day they attacked a Chinese office in the town. As word of these successful actions spread, hundreds of people arrived from the surrounding countryside to join in the rebellion. However, Chinese reinforcements soon reached Lithang; eventually they forced the rebels to leave the town and take shelter within the walls of Lithang Monastery. Women and children also took shelter there.
On March 22, the Chinese launched a counterattack on the monastery, the beginning of a long siege. For the Tibetans inside, it was a do-or-die effort to protect their religion and their way of life, and they fought back with a fury. PLA soldiers were, however, better equipped. They placed explosives underneath the outer walls and succeeded in destroying a section. They fired cannons and Bren (machine) guns at the monastery, damaging the walls and buildings inside. They dug a tunnel beneath the wall for a stealth attack, but the Tibetans discovered it and thwarted them.
Losses were mounting rapidly on both sides. The Chinese sent a message offering to send mediators into the monastery to negotiate an end to hostilities. To strengthen their hand for negotiation, on March 29, Chinese Military Headquarters sent Tu-4 bombers to bomb and strafe some areas outside the monastery. In mid-afternoon, they dropped eight or nine bombs outside the walls and warned that six more aircraft would come back the next day to completely destroy the monastery and everyone inside.
Negotiations went ahead but failed to resolve the conflict. That evening, the Tibetan fighters inside Lithang Monastery made the decision to flee. During the night, many found their way outside, with some successfully escaping and others getting shot by Chinese troops that surrounded the monastery. On the morning of March 30, the Chinese launched a full-scale attack against those remaining inside. It was probably during this attack that the worst damage to the buildings occurred, the fourth time by my count that Lithang Monastery met with destruction.
Many of the fighters who managed to escape from Lithang went on to join the rebel army known as Chushigandrug (Four Rivers, Six Ranges). Some received training and support from the United States and Taiwan, a topic that Goldstein covers in Volume 4 of his series.
During the years following the battle at Lithang Monastery, the region was subsumed by the turmoil of the Khampa Rebellion and China’s armed response. In 1957, the Tibet Mirror reported that only ten monks remained in what was left of Lithang Monastery. Soon after, Mao’s political movements swept the nation, and all forms of religious worship were banned. Under these circumstances, rebuilding was impossible. For the next quarter century, as China passed through successive waves of violent turmoil, it seems unlikely that much religious practice could have taken place.
1980 to present: reconstruction and renewal
After the death of Mao and the ascent of Deng Xiaoping to the position of China’s supreme leader, conditions on the Tibetan plateau began to change. The Sichuan provincial government named Lithang Monastery as a “key open monastery.” The provincial and prefectural governments allocated funds for its repair; but if Lithang is consistent with other monasteries in the region, the amounts provided were far too small to restore the ruined temples to their former glory. The colossal size of the task surely required massive support from private donors, especially local Lithangpa who were the most important stakeholders.
Lithang Monastery, 1991-2004. Drawings are from Gyurme Dorje and are used with permission (see Sources).
When I visited Lithang in 1991, construction of two large temples was under way, including Jangchub Chokhorling, the main assembly hall. It was of classic design, with a colonnade in front, outer walls of mortared stone, and the interior dominated by a large, high-ceilinged room ringed by wall paintings. My photos show many large timbers going into its construction, some of them elaborately carved.
People told me that the Tse Phodrang was the monastery’s oldest temple, which suggests that it was the only temple to survive the siege.
The site was reconsecrated in 1996. The monastery’s layout during the late 1990s was documented in detail by Gyurme Dorje, a Scottish Tibetologist. His book Tibet Handbook with Bhutan includes diagrams showing the arrangement of the monastery’s most significant temples. He identifies four large temples: Jangchub Chokhorling (main assembly hall), the largest structure on the site; adjacent and to the east of it, Shakya Tubpa Podrang; to the northwest, the gold-colored Serkhang Nyingba; and directly uphill (north) of it, Lhakhang Karpo (white temples). Gyurme Dorje’s book describes these temples in great detail, identifying the many reliquaries, statues, and deities depicted in wall paintings. Oddly, he does not mention the Tse Phodrang.
After Gyurme Dorje’s visit, more construction occurred. I visited and photographed the site in 1999 and 2004, but even with those photos in hand, it’s difficult to track the changes as buildings were razed, slopes were bulldozed flat, and new gold-roofed temples were erected. When I came again in the summer of 2013, I found a large, paved plaza suitable for gatherings of a thousand or more people. To the left of the main assembly hall and Serkhang Nyingba was a large new red temple whose name I did not record at the time. The interior of this new temple and of the Serkhang Nyingba were decorated with a lavishness I have seldom seen in Tibet. I saw perhaps a thousand gilded bronze statues of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug order, in rows on shelves that stretched to the high ceiling. Walls were covered with painted images of scores of Tibetan luminaries with such lifelike faces that they appeared to have been copied from photographs. Several three-dimensional mandalas were displayed in an upstairs gallery. The monastery also had a spanking new ceramic-tiled kitchen, clean and brightly lit. I was told that Chinese donors had paid for the bling. I took many photos and also some video.
Lithang Monastery, 2013
A few months later, I was shocked to learn that on November 16, Jangchub Chokhorling, the main assembly hall, had been destroyed in a massive fire. Xinhua reported that the cause was an electrical short circuit. Two monks were reportedly injured. Although some artifacts were rescued, the building was a total loss. The fire did not spread to other buildings; nevertheless, the main assembly hall was the heart and soul of the monastery, and so I count this as the fifth time that Lithang Monastery was destroyed.
Within days of the fire, donors stepped forward to pledge contributions for reconstruction of the lost temples. It was reported that three “monks” (probably tulkus or other advanced teachers) each promised amounts ranging from 500,000 yuan to 10 million yuan, (US$1.64 million), and the funds were received by the monastery just three days after the fire. The new main assembly hall was completed in December 2018, except for the three Buddha statues, which were expected to be complete in 2019.
I do not know whether the practice of Buddhism at Lithang Monastery is everything that believers might want. No doubt, Lithangpa yearn for the Dalai Lama to return to his old home. Yet at least by its outward appearances, the monastery is an enduring symbol of resilience on the Tibetan plateau.
Melvyn C Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, Volume 3: The Storm Clouds Descend, 1955-1957, University of California Press, 2014. pp. 116, 124, 126, 130-138, 228, 230, 281 n. 41, n. 26.
Michael Harris Goodman, The Last Dalai Lama: A Biography, Shambhala, 1987, p 254
Gyurme Dorje, Tibet Handbook with Bhutan (2nd ed), Footprint Handbooks, 1999, pp.432-434
John Kenneth Knaus, Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival, Public Affairs, 1999, p 129
Carole McGranahan, Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War. Duke University Press, 2010. p. 73-74
George N Patterson, God’s Fool, Doubleday & Co., 1956, pp. 210-213