Lineages of the Literary: Tibetan Buddhist Polymaths of Socialist China

Nicole Willockw

New York: Columbia University Press, 2021

336 pgs. $35.00 (paperback)

ISBN 9780231197076


Reviewed by Eveline Washul


As many readers are no doubt familiar, the role of Tibetan Buddhists in realms of state power is nothing new. In the 12thcentury, the Tangut rulers of the Xixia Dynasty began patronizing Kagyu clerics, some of whom assisted the Tanguts in repelling the initial attacks by the Mongols in the early 13th century. This model of patronage was adopted by the Mongols and later by the Manchu rulers of Qing China (Debreczeny; Dunnell; Sperling). With the demise of faith-based empires and the emergence of secular nation-states, the role of Tibetan Buddhists did not disappear but took different forms.

Nicole Willock’s first monograph, Lineages of the Literary: Tibetan Buddhist Polymaths of Socialist China, fills an important gap in our understanding of the role of Tibetan Buddhists in modern China in the second half of the 20thcentury. While we have several important histories of 20th century Tibet written in the last several decades, the vast majority of these focus on the political or social histories of Tibet vis-à-vis modern China.[1] The exception of course is Gray Tuttle’s seminal book, Tibetan Buddhists and the Making of Modern China, which focuses on the pivotal role of prominent Tibetan Buddhist masters in China’s transition from a dynastic empire to the modern nation-state in the late Qing to Republican periods.

Temporally, Willock’s work picks up where Tuttle’s leaves off—she examines the role of Tibetan Buddhists in the first half-century of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Thematically, Willock focuses her lens on the remaking of Tibetans themselves within 20th-century socialist China. Specifically, her work highlights the efforts of Tibetan Buddhists in forging innovative ways to transmit Tibetan language, epistemes, and religion intergenerationally through some of the most turbulent periods in Tibetan history.

The roles played by exceptional Tibetan Buddhist figures such as the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (b. 1935), and the 10th Panchen Lama, Chökyi Gyeltsen (1938-1989), are more widely known. Willock’s close study of Tseten Zhabdrung (1910-1985), Mugé Samten (1914-1993), and Dungkar Losang Trinlé (1927-1997) brings attention to a whole generation of lesser-known Tibetan Buddhist teachers who remained in the PRC, survived the devastations of the tumultuous Maoist decades, and led the revival of Tibetan Buddhism, language, and scholarship in reform-era China.

Lineages of the Literary is divided into an introduction and five chapters. The first chapter fleshes out the lives of Tseten Zhabdrung, Mugé Samten, and Dungkar Losang Trinlé according to their autobiographies, writings, biographies, and interviews with students and relatives. Willock discusses how the three figures are collectively known by Tibetans in the post-Mao era as the “Three Polymaths” (Tib. mkhas pa mi gsum). This title itself is borrowed from a common narrative about the darkest period in Tibetan history—the 9th-century collapse of the Tibetan Empire and the near-extinguishment of Buddhism. Fleeing the chaos in Central Tibet, the “Three Polymaths” of the 9th century—Mar Shakyamuni, Yo Gejung, and Tsang Rabsel—safeguard the monastic ordination lineage and transmit it to later generations, marking the period known in Tibetan historical time as the Later Diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet (Tib. bstan pa phyi dar) (3). The anointment of Tseten Zhabdrung, Mugé Samten, and Dungkar Losang Trinlé as the “Three Polymaths” of the “Era of Rediffusion” (Tib. yang dar) by Tibetan scholars in the post-Mao period signals the dire condition of Tibetan language, culture, and religion after the Maoist decades and the role of the Three Polymaths in its survivance (38, 67).

Chapter 2 provides an overview of traditional Tibetan life-writing genres and discusses the authorial choices made by Tseten Zhabdrung and Mugé Samten to frame their life stories as “telling what happened” (Tib. byung ba brjod pa).Willock develops a persuasive argument for calling “telling what happened” a life-writing “genre,” though I would note that such categorization may deserve further research. Willock argues that both authors base their narration on tradition but adapt their life-writing practices to political changes in ways that also reveal a kind of modernist reflexivity (75-76).

Chapter 3 analyzes the autobiographies of Tseten Zhabdrung and Mugé Samten for clues about the turbulent Maoist years. Willock sets their writings in the context of a larger body of literature concerning the trauma of the Mao years—from “scar literature” of Han Chinese authors to Tibetan testimonies written in Tibetan and English (117-121). She observes that instead of focusing on the violence of that period, Tseten Zhabdrung and Mugé Samten write about their experience of these traumatic events as sites for spiritual practice and explain horrific events in terms of karmic effects. In such a way, they recenter Buddhist subjectivities and decenter state power in their retellings (127).

Chapter 4 focuses on Dungkar Rinpoche and his groundbreaking but contested history, An Explanation of the Merging of Religious and Secular Rule in Tibet (Tib. Bod kyi chos srid zung ’brel lam lugs skor bshad pa). Originally commissioned by the United Front/CCP for an internal readership in 1977, it was written, incredibly, during the politically fraught period after the death of Mao and before the official launch of reforms (146). In this work, Dungkar Rinpoche pioneers a comprehensive, secular history of Tibet from nearly 2000 years prior to 1959, analyzed through a Marxist framework. Because of the book’s Marxist leanings, Dungkar Rinpoche was labelled a “collaborator” by some Tibetans in exile (153). However, Willock argues that Dungkar Rinpoche in fact succeeded in discursively “unifying” Tibet by writing about and legitimating a continuous Tibetan civilization and history within the parameters of CCP state discourse (151). In doing so, he presented Tibetan history to a new generation of Tibetan readers in a novel and politically safe way (154). Willock goes on to discuss how Dungkar Rinpoche borrowed and elevated a modern concept of “religion” in the Tibetan language (Tib. chos lugs) to legitimate Tibet’s religions in the eyes of the state (171).

In Chapter 5, Willock examines how the Three Polymaths moved between state-defined religious and secular spheres (185). She delves into Tseten Zhabdrung’s efforts, together with the 10th Panchen Lama, to advocate for the official reinstatement of the tulku, or reincarnation, institution after its lapse since 1959 (199). All Three Polymaths also played key roles in revitalizing Buddhist education, transmission lineages, and ritual practices in their home monasteries in the reform period (207). Significantly, all three played vital roles in establishing Tibetan language education at ethnic nationalities’ universities and laying the foundation for subfields in linguistics, literature, history, and Buddhist studies for later generations (217). Willock builds on the works of scholars such as Lauran Hartley and Lama Jabb to demonstrate how the Three Polymaths were not only the “monastic vanguard” who laid the groundwork for the next generation of writers and scholars but were themselves the very transmission lineages that ensured the endurance of Tibetan literary styles and epistemes in modern Tibetan literature and scholarship (223).

As Willock herself acknowledges, analyzing the entirety of the works of these three prolific scholars is a monumental, if impossible, task. But her work paves the way for future research directions. Her focus on the Three Polymaths, all Gelukpa masters, raises broader questions regarding the legacies of Gelukpa relations with the modern Chinese state as well as the role of non-Geluk Buddhists in modern China. Furthermore, Willock’s emphasis on Geluk Buddhist epistemes as sites of cultural resources and disciplines (19) would benefit from further inquiry as to what extent such epistemes are unique to the Geluk tradition. As Willock also notes, the role of Tibetan women in the revival of the Tibetan language and religion is largely excluded from the accounts of the Three Polymaths as well as the lineages of their disciples. The field would benefit from research filling this lacuna.

A key contribution of Willock’s book is her documentation of the continuities of Tibetan language and religion between the pre-and post-Maoist years in the writings and initiatives of the Three Polymaths. She does this through rich literary analyses of their writings as well as providing meticulously researched historical details that illuminate the intersections of historical, political, and cultural contexts that informed and constrained their actions.

Importantly, Willock breaks down common perceptions of Tibetan Buddhists in China as either complicit or resisting the socialist state. Instead, she complicates our understandings of them and shows how they were able to use their agency in sometimes surprising ways. Borrowing Saba Mahmood’s concept of “moral agency,” Willock demonstrates how the Three Polymaths’ capacity for action was bound by both the historical conditions of their times and disciplines of subject formation specific to Tibetan culture and Buddhism (19, 153). Thus, on the one hand, Tseten Zhabdrung, Mugé Samten, and Dungkar Losang Trinlé were Buddhist leaders, government officials, and scholars who participated in state projects of secularizing traditional forms of Tibetan knowledge for the goals of a multi-ethnic Chinese state. Yet they simultaneously used the spaces delineated by the state to advance their own goals of preserving and continuing Tibetan culture, leading to outcomes perhaps unanticipated and unintended by the state (143-144).

Written in an engaging style interwoven with ethnographic snippets, Lineages of the Literary will be of great value for introducing undergraduate and graduate students to the complex developments of Tibetan literature and culture in the second half of the 20th century as well as for specialized studies of modern Tibetan literature. Willock contributes a substantial study that will be of broader interest to students and scholars of modern Sino-Tibetan relations, the intersection of religion and secular modern states, and the history of modern Tibetan literature.


Works Cited

Debreczeny, Karl. “Faith and Empire: An Overview.” In Karl Debreczeny, ed. 2019. Faith and Empire: Art and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism. New York: Rubin Museum of Art, pp. 19-52.

Sperling, Elliot. Rtsa-mi lo-tsa-ba Sangs-rgyas Grags-pa and the Tangut background to early Mongol-Tibetan relations,” PIATS 6 Oslo, 801-824.

Dunnel, Ruth. The Hsia Origins of the Yüan Institution of Imperial Preceptor. Asia Major. Third Series, Vol. 5, part 1, 1992, pp. 85-111.



[1] For instance, Shakabpa’s A Political History of Tibet; Melvyn Goldstein’s A History of Modern Tibet, vols. 1-3 and The Snow Lion and the Dragon; Tsering Shakya’s Dragon in the Land of Snows; and Benno Weiner’s The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier, among others.



Eveline Washul is Assistant Professor of Tibetan Studies in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University. Prior to joining IU, she was the Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University. She received her Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology and Tibetan Studies from Indiana University. Her current book project combines ethnography with Tibetan historical sources from the 12th to 20th centuries to study the particularities of Tibetan relationships to places and how these shape the transition from rural to urban livelihoods in the late-socialist reform period in the People’s Republic of China.