The 13th Dalai Lama, the Divine King, was a symbol of the highest authority of both the temporal and the religious powers in Tibet. For centuries, the people of this snow-clad land of Tibet had been prostrate at the feet of the Dalai Monks, the super rulers who were believed to control one's life, both the present one and the ones to come. The 13th Dalai Lama himself became a legendary figure. He was born in a chaotic period, and had to face many challenges. He went in exile twice, and his title was removed twice.
The first time he went into exile was in 1904, when the British invaders approached Lhasa, and he was forced to leave. He went to Mongolia first, hoping that he would be supported by Russia against Britain. But the Russians were busy fighting a losing war with the Japances. Then he had to turn to Beijing. Though the Qing Court confirmed his title, it did no more to help him. After more than four years in Mongolia, Qinghai, Mount Wutai and Beijing, he returned to Lhasa, humiliated and disappointed. To his dismay, he found that Tibet was tightly controlled by High Commissioner Lian Yu. With pain in his heart, he left Tibet again, this time for India, where he asked Britain for political asylum. But for fear of offending Russia and China and with wider ambitions than simply seizing Tibet, the British government replied expressly that it had no intention of interfering in China's internal affairs.
The fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 provided a good opportunity for the 13th Dalai Lama to return to Tibet. At the time when he regained his power over Tibet, China's hinterland was racked by warlord feuds, and a dozen provinces had declared their independence. The Dalai Lama, having experienced exile and bitter experiences, made up his mind to promote new policies.
But all his reform measures clashed with traditional concepts and the current administrative system. Within 10 years, his new policies had fizzled out due to internal opposition. For instance, he wanted to expand the Tibetan army, but there was no money for this purpose. In the meantime, sharp differences between the Dalai and Panchen Lamas led to the latter leaving Tibet for the hinterland of China in 1923. Meanwhile, Charong, the commander-in-chief of the Tibetan army and his subordinate officers defied the Dalai Lama's order abolishing torture and savage punishments by chopping off the arm of one soldier and the leg of another for minor offences, and then paraded the victims in Barkor Street. For this, the Dalai Lama dismissed Charong from his post of commander-in-chief and then stripped him of the position of Kalon.
In the meantime, the traditional trade between the Tibetan and Han peoples had come almost to a halt, and the economy and trade of Tibet were controlled entirely by British India. Shoddy commodities from India flooded the markets of Lhasa, and Britain and India enjoyed all the privileges brought about by unequal treaties. They then began to interfere in the politics of Tibet.
We have no idea what was on the mind of the Dalai Lama during this period. But in the early 1920s he told Zhu Xiu, a representative of the Central Government, that he would not have turned to Britain had it not been for the high-handed treatment he had received from the high commissioners. In 1930, he told Liu Manqing, a woman employee of the Office of Civil Affairs, sent by the Central Government: "What I expect most of China is real unity and peace．．．．The British, indeed, have a mind to draw me to their side. Nevertheless, I know the importance of guarding national sovereignty." Charles Bell, who had been a friend of the 13th Dalai Lama for years, wrote in his Biography of the 13th Dalai Lama: "By 1925, the Dalai Lama had become increasingly staunch in bypassing the British to contact the Chinese directly."
The 13th Dalai Lama was very popular with the Tibetan people. Old residents of Lhasa often retell stories about him handed down from their parents and grandparents. According to them, the 13th Dalai Lama was determined to carry out reform, and did a great deal for the betterment of Tibet. But his efforts were obstructed by the oppositions from the three major monasteries. When he was in power, they say, local government decrees were carried out, society was in good order, and officials dared not accept bribes, at least not publicly. However, corruption reappeared and grew rife when Tibet was ruled by a regent later. In order to supervise officials, secular and clerical, the 13th Dalai Lama organized a team of undercover agents to probe official wrongdoing. The residents of Lhasa all knew that the people selling parrots, sparrows or dogs on the Barkor were all the Dalai Lama's "informers." When the informers came to report to him, the Dalai Lama would see them alone on the lawn outside the northern entrance to the Norbu Lingka.
The 13th Dalai Lama was very fond of the gardens of the Norbu Lingka, where he resided during the summer. There, he planted trees and flowers, and raised pet animals. Once, after a ceremony for his return to the Potala palace on an autumn day, he went straight back to the Norbu Lingka quietly. People of Lhasa still remember that flowers such as black rose, silk rose and apple-fragrance rose presented to Central Government delegates by the 14th Dalai Lama were grown by his predecessor in the Norbu Lingka gardens.
The 13th Dalai Lama particularly liked horses and mules, and spent many hours with the ones he housed in two stables he had built in the Norbu Lingka. He even built a Horse-viewing Hall. At his orders, fine horses were selected from all over and sent to the Norbu Lingka. When a good steed arrived, he would go in person to have a look at it. He had all kinds of horses and mules, including renowned Xining horses, tall and robust horses from the West, short and clever Sichuan horses, and mules with fine-colored hide, strong physique and elegant gait. He would give each a name. At the time of his death, he had as many as 710 horses and mules. Apart from hay, more than 20,000 kilograms of beans were needed to feed them each month. The horse shoes they wore were all imported from India. Their saddle cushions were made of yellow woolen fabric. Every day, the 13th Dalai Lama would ride his favorite horse to his office from his residence. In the evening, he often took a walk leading a horse. After he passed away, the horses and mules were sold to merchants and nobles.
The tragedy of the life of the 13th Dalai Lama lay in the fact that the reforms which he knew Tibet so badly needed ran counter to the interests of the ruling class of monks and nobles. His efforts to bring Tibetan society into the 20th century, were largely neutralized by the conservative forces, to his dismay, and to the detriment of his bellowed land and of China as a whole.