By ISABEL HILTON
I never met the tenth Panchen Lama, who died at his monastery in Tibet in 1989, but I was introduced to his family in Beijing in the mid-nineties, and recently I went to Washington to see his daughter, Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo, a twenty-year-old political-science student at American University who likes to be called Renji. She met me at Dulles airport, slightly flustered, thinking that she was going to be late. She had attended a conference on Tibetan medicine that morning, she explained, and had had to go home to change her clothes. Renji, whose mother is Chinese, uses the title “princess.” It’s on her calling card. The Chinese government-bizarrely for a country that still thinks of itself as Communist-not only permits the royal honorific but endorses it. Renji’s role carries certain obligations, among them the self-imposed discipline of wearing Tibetan national dress on formal occasions. She had spent the morning in a traditional chuba, the long robe worn by both men and women in Tibet. Now she was wearing a white knitted top over a black shirt and black trousers.
We walked out to Renji’s car, a metallic-beige Mercedes. A fluffy holder on the dashboard contained one of her two mobile phones. There was a blowup toy on the back seat-a replica of a Japanese cartoon bear-and a heart-shaped cushion. Two squishy zip-up cases shaped like hamburgers concealed her CD collection. A photograph of her father dangled from the rear-view mirror, a small version of a formal picture that is given out to pilgrims and other believers. It shows him in a yellow chuba, serious, already fat-although not as fat as he became later-his gaze remote. On the reverse side was an image of the Buddha that reminded me of photographs I had seen of the gilded and embalmed body of Renji’s father, which is interred in a mausoleum in Tibet. The pictures were encased in plastic and hung alongside a dharma wheel attached to a tasselled gold cord. As Renji drove, she often touched the pictures or smoothed out the cord in a quick, reflexive gesture.
Renji’s father was the tenth incarnation in a line of lamas who became powerful in Tibet in the seventeenth century, when the Gelugpa school of Buddhism was established as the country’s ruling sect. The Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama are twin pillars of the Gelugpa hierarchy. The Dalai Lama rules as a king, but the Panchen Lama, who has no formal political role, has, for some believers, greater spiritual authority. They are both bodhisattvas-highly evolved beings who have chosen to return to the mortal world to help others find enlightenment. The Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion. The Panchen Lama is a reincarnation of the Buddha of Boundless Light. They are spiritual brothers.
Renji has never lived in Tibet, but in 1990, a year after her father died, her mother took her to the old Tibetan province of Kham, which has been largely absorbed by the Chinese province of Sichuan. Hundreds of people set up tents by the roadside, waiting for a glimpse of her as she passed. “They told me that there were people lining the road for fifty miles,” Renji said, in fluent, American-accented English. “Thousands and thousands of people, all wanting to touch me. I was little, only seven years old. I just thought, Oh shoot, it means I can’t go to sleep in the car.”
There is, religiously speaking, no reason that Renji should attract devotion. Her father’s position as an incarnation of the Buddha is not hereditary. Nevertheless, large numbers of Tibetans treat her as an object of reverence in her own right. “As long as I can remember, people have been interested in me,” she said. “People love me and want to be with me because of my father. I have to tell them that I am not a religious leader and that I never will be.”
When Renji was seventeen, she went back to central Tibet-which was designated an autonomous region of China in 1965-for the first time since the death of her father. “I wanted to pay my respects to him just before I became an adult,” she said. “It’s a serious moment.” She spent three days in Shigatse-Tibet’s second-largest city and the site of the Tashilhunpo monastery, the traditional seat of the panchen lamas-and two days in Lhasa, the capital. Again, huge numbers of people turned out to see her. Renji showed me photographs of long lines of people waiting, carrying khatags, the white scarves that Tibetans use on formal occasions. “I would get totally dehydrated,” she said. “I tried to say something to each one. They had waited for hours, just to greet me, and some of them went back and joined the line again.
“It’s tiring,” Renji went on. “After a few days, my arms hurt because of putting the khatags around people’s necks. People seem to think that I am like some kind of Buddha statue. They run into me all the time with their heads. They take my hand and they put it on their heads for a blessing. I tell them I am not a religious teacher, but they want it anyway. I can’t complain, because it makes them so happy to see me and to touch me. The only thing that I ask my bodyguards to stop is when they lift up my skirt.”
“Lift up your skirt?” I asked.
We were having dinner in a seafood restaurant in Washington that Renji had picked from a list she had printed out from the Internet. It was a Friday night and the restaurant was full of diners.
“Why do they lift up your skirt?”
“Because they want to get to my legs,” she replied.
Devotees wish to touch the feet of an important figure and will lift up a robe to do it. “They do it to men, but at least men wear trousers,” Renji explained. “I wasn’t wearing trousers.”
Renji’s father was born in 1938 in a Tibetan community in the province of Amdo, most of which has now been incorporated into the northwestern Chinese province of Qinghai. He was then Gonpo Tseten, the son of the headman of the modest village of Wendu. In 1941, representatives of the court of the ninth Panchen Lama, who had died in exile in China after a dispute with the thirteenth Dalai Lama, came through Wendu searching for the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation. The search was rather fraught, since the entourage in exile was still at odds with the Dalai Lama’s government, which considered it too pro-Chinese. The Dalai Lama’s court in Lhasa and the monks at the Panchen Lama’s monastery in Shigatse had their own list of boys who might be the new Panchen Lama. Neither side was willing to give way. For three hundred years, the dalai lamas had played a central role in recognizing and accepting the panchen lamas’ reincarnations. Likewise, the panchen lamas were crucial to the critical task of identifying the reincarnations of deceased dalai lamas. (When the thirteenth Dalai Lama died, in 1933, the ninth Panchen Lama gave three names to the Tibetan monks searching for his reincarnation and told them where the child who was later recognized as the fourteenth-the current-Dalai Lama would be found.)
Gonpo Tseten’s birth had not been thought particularly remarkable, although later there were claims that it had been accompanied by miraculous signs, and he was not, initially, a favored candidate. But three boys who were considered more likely to be the reincarnation died in alarmingly quick succession, and on June 3, 1949, the Kuomintang government, in one of its last acts, officially declared Gonpo Tseten the tenth Panchen Lama. He was by then eleven years old. A few months later, the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan, and Gonpo Tseten’s entourage declined to go along. Instead, a member of the new Panchen Lama’s court sent a telegram to the victorious Mao Zedong in the boy’s name, congratulating him on the founding of the People’s Republic of China and confirming that the Panchen Lama would give his unqualified support to the Chinese cause in Tibet. In 1951, shortly after the Chinese invaded Tibet, a list of seventeen demands was presented to a delegation in Beijing that represented the Dalai Lama’s government. At the top of the list was the Dalai Lama’s recognition of Gonpo Tseten as the tenth Panchen Lama. After a hasty divination, the demands were agreed to, and the tenth Panchen Lama arrived in Tibet with a contingent of Chinese troops.
Renji’s father settled into the Tashilhunpo monastery in 1952, when he was fourteen. It was the beginning of a terrible time for Tibet. Although Mao had promised that central Tibet would be exempt from the socialist “reforms” planned for the Chinese, in eastern Tibet-the provinces of Kham and Amdo-the Chinese Communist Party set about destroying traditional society. Monasteries were disbanded, monks and nuns were forced to live a secular life, and religious treasures were stolen. Then Mao’s Great Leap Forward brought starvation, rebellion, mass imprisonment, and the virtual destruction of the Buddhist church, especially in the Panchen Lama’s home province of Qinghai. The Panchen Lama’s entourage had been pro-Chinese in the beginning, but how much the Panchen Lama himself supported the Party remains a matter of dispute. It is clear that the Chinese Communists thought he had the makings of an ideal puppet.
After 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled the country, the Panchen Lama was the most senior religious figure left in Tibet, and, as he began to understand the effects of Chinese rule, he moved inexorably toward a devastating confrontation with the leaders he had once admired. In the spring of 1962, he formally submitted a long report that detailed the consequences of Chinese policies for the people in his home province. The Panchen Lama thought that he had made a reasoned contribution to the Party’s rule, but Mao Zedong saw him as one of a growing multitude of “reactionary”enemies. That fall, the Panchen Lama was ordered to make a self-criticism. Educated as he was in logic and in the importance of truth, he struggled to identify errors in his conduct. He fell back on his spiritual training-the use of dreams and divination-but nothing he tried, or the public humiliations that he was subjected to, led him to the kind of confession that was demanded.
The Panchen Lama’s disgrace deepened. In December, 1964, he was brought to Beijing, where, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, he was twice dragged out for vilification at a mass rally. By 1968, he had disappeared into solitary confinement. For years he was thought to be dead. When the Panchen Lama was released, on October 10, 1977, Mao, his old tormentor, was dead and Deng Xiaoping had begun the slow process of reversing the damage done in Mao’s last years. But the Tibet the Panchen Lama had known was gone. Only a few of the great monasteries were still standing, and they were all but empty of monks. His enemies in Lhasa who had profited from collaboration in the Cultural Revolution resisted his return. Wherever fate took him after his long imprisonment, it would not be Tibet. His old life over, he decided to build a new one, and he did what no Panchen Lama had ever done. He married.
I had heard several versions of the story of how Renji’s parents met, and Renji told me hers. Her maternal great-grandfather, she said, had been a general in the Kuomintang army who had successfully switched allegiance and stayed on after the civil war to serve the Communists. He had met the Panchen Lama when they were both members of an official delegation, and the Panchen Lama had confessed to him that he was thinking of marrying. He asked Renji’s great-grandfather to arrange a suitable introduction.
Li Jie, Renji’s mother, was preparing for her first year of study at an army medical school. “My mother was very popular,” Renji said. “Very pretty. She was the best student in her class. Great-Grandfather asked her if she could help find somebody for my father.”
Li Jie said that she would have to meet him first, and a rendezvous was fixed at a popular park in Beijing. Li Jie, who was nineteen at the time, took her sister along as a chaperone.
“I think my father just assumed that mother was the girl that great-grandfather had found for him,” Renji said. “Father was still very poor. He had no money, his head was shaved, he had no political rights. He told her that he had nothing, but he was very honest and touching. They spent the day together.”
Li Jie’s family was opposed to the match, Renji said. Marrying a recently released-and not yet fully rehabilitated-political prisoner, and a Tibetan to boot, was not a promising move. Besides, Li Jie had a medical career ahead of her. Li Jie’s grandfather refused to speak to her until the wedding day.
“No one in the family supported her except my aunt-the one who had accompanied her on that first meeting-and my great-grandmother, who believed in Buddhism and knew my father was a Living Buddha,” Renji said.
If there was trouble in Li Jie’s family, there was bitter disapproval on the other side, too. With the monasteries destroyed, many monks had married-either willingly or unwillingly-but it was still no small matter for a figure as eminent as the Panchen Lama to break his monk’s vows, especially to marry a Chinese woman from an army family. The Panchen Lama’s mother was never fully reconciled to the match.
The wedding took place in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 28, 1979. It was attended by, among other senior figures, the widow of the late premier of China, Zhou Enlai, who had known and protected the Panchen Lama during the worst times. After the wedding, the couple lived in a house on Dong Zhongbu Street in central Beijing. The Panchen Lama was slowly rehabilitated-the process was completed only in 1988-and, as one of several vice-chairmen of the National People’s Congress and the most important Tibetan in the People’s Republic, he became a figure of some political importance. In June, 1983, Renji was born. Renji showed me photographs of her family. There was one taken the day after her birth. Her mother is sitting in bed, holding her, her father bending over them both and smiling into the camera.
The Panchen Lama wielded influence through the National People’s Congress, and he was allowed to visit Tibet. He set up several businesses to repair and support the Tashilhunpo monastery and to try to boost Tibet’s development. He established a training school for reincarnate lamas who had missed out on a religious education, and he recovered the mortal remains of his predecessors, which had been scattered when their tombs were smashed by mobs, and set about building a mausoleum for them. Some of the monastery’s former wealth was restored.
As Deng Xiaoping steered China through the reforms of the nineteen-eighties, the family joined the privileged inner circles in Beijing. They were assigned a house in the Western Hills, an area of wooded parkland west of the city, where Renji spent her early years, surrounded by devoted Tibetan servants-there were forty in all-and playing with a small zoo of deer and horses, cats and dogs. There were seaside holidays on the well-guarded beaches of Beidaihe, the resort that is occupied every August by senior Party officials. There were toys and pretty dresses, birthday parties and picnics. Back in town, the Panchen Lama began to build a grand, Tibetan-style house on the edge of the Forbidden City. There were trips, too. In 1986, the family went to Qinghai Province, Renji’s father’s birthplace, and she had her first experience of being at the center of a crowd.
Religious life gradually revived in Tibet, but in the second half of the eighties there were renewed clashes with the authorities. In 1987, in a speech to the U.S. Congress, the Dalai Lama proposed a peace plan for his country, and this triggered a series of demonstrations in Lhasa. Monks who came into the streets to call for independence were brutally suppressed. The Panchen Lama condemned the protests, using the official designation “disorder.” Although he never supported independence, he worked behind the scenes for the release of the monks who had been arrested, and he was a trenchant critic of government policies. On January 23, 1989, while on a visit to Tibet to dedicate the new mausoleum of his predecessors, he told a group of religious and political leaders that the dogmatism that had destroyed Tibet’s monasteries and temples thirty years earlier was still threatening the country. There had been development in Tibet under Chinese rule, he said, but the cost had outweighed the benefits. Five days later, he collapsed and died in his palace near the Tashilhunpo monastery. The official cause of death was a heart attack, but rumors soon spread that he had been poisoned.
“I was in kindergarten,” Renji recalled. “Mother picked me up and we went straight to the airport and flew to Lhasa. We took a helicopter to Shigatse. I didn’t really understand what was going on. Mama went in to see my father first, and later they took me in, although our servant got into a fight with a policeman about this. My father was covered with a yellow-and-white sheet. He didn’t reply to me when I talked to him, which was when I figured out that he had passed away.”
Li Jie and Renji went back to Beijing, and riots soon broke out in Lhasa. Martial law was declared-the first time such a step had been taken since the establishment of the People’s Republic, in 1949. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands were arrested.
The status of the Panchen Lama’s widow and child at this point was ambiguous. For many Tibetans, and especially for the leaders of the Tashilhunpo monastery, they were an anomaly. Li Jie had taken a Tibetan name and dressed in Tibetan clothes. She had learned the language and become a Buddhist. She ate Tibetan food and drank butter tea. She had tried hard to live up to a role that had no precedent in history, but widows simply did not figure in the arrangements of a religious order in which celibacy was a founding rule. Traditionally, a deceased lama’s property is kept in trust for his next incarnation. Li Jie, in spite of her Buddhist faith, had a more secular view of her rights. She was determined to insist on a proper provision for herself and her child from the considerable wealth that her husband had enjoyed at the end of his life.
The dispute over the Panchen Lama’s property dragged on for years. The Chinese government wanted Li Jie and Renji to move out of the Beijing palace and, at one acrimonious stage of discussions, the power supply to the house was cut off. “Lots of things were messed up,” Renji said. “People were coming and going. There were endless meetings. Mama would ask the servants to take me out. She was very protective.” Finally, a settlement was reached that left Li Jie comfortably off. The family’s former home was rebuilt at government expense, and Li Jie gave up the palace.
The search for the eleventh Panchen Lama became a bitter contest over who had the right to recognize him: the exiled Dalai Lama, whose claim to the role was evident, or the Communist government, which sought to demonstrate the legitimacy of its rule in Tibet by claiming that the critical roles of the Dalai and the panchen lamas-whom they referred to as “local leaders”-had always been filled by candidates approved by the emperor of China. Renji’s father had been dead for only two days when the Xinhua news agency in Beijing published an article to this effect. Both sides knew that the search for the eleventh Panchen Lama could serve as the dress rehearsal for an even more important event-the search for the fifteenth Dalai Lama. The Chinese needed to establish a precedent for that process. And they needed a Panchen Lama who could be trusted to approve the right candidate when the time came.
On May 14, 1995, the Dalai Lama announced that in a remote district of central Tibet a boy had been found who he was satisfied was the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. A few days later, there were rumors in Lhasa that the boy and his family had been taken into custody by Chinese security forces and had disappeared. The abbot of Tashilhunpo was jailed for secretly collaborating with the Dalai Lama, and the monastery was occupied until all resistance was broken. On November 29th, a ceremony was held in Lhasa, attended by government officials, at which another boy, whose parents were both reported to be members of the Communist Party, was declared to be the real reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama issued a statement describing the Chinese action as “unfortunate.” The “Chinese Panchen Lama” was installed in a heavily guarded villa on the outskirts of Beijing. The Dalai Lama’s selection has not been seen since.
The following year, Renji’s mother decided to send her abroad, “to learn English and meet more people,” as Renji explained it. “I had never left home before. When I said goodbye, I didn’t know when I would see my mother again.” In those days, travelling abroad was an uncertain business for a Chinese citizen. Years might pass before the two were reunited. Li Jie sent her daughter to stay with an aunt who was living in New York and working in the travel business, but the aunt was struggling to support herself, and when Li Jie managed to visit, a few months later, she decided to move Renji to California. She put out feelers, looking for people who might help.
Southwestern Academy, the school that Renji attended for most of her years in the United States, lies just off the main road in San Marino, perhaps a twenty-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles. It has a pleasant eight-acre campus, which is home to some hundred and seventy students, half of whom are American and half from overseas, and most of whom would not prosper in a more competitive environment. The majority of the students I met there were Chinese, and Mandarin was more in evidence among them than English.
Southwestern’s headmaster, Kenneth Veronda, recalled that some members of a local Buddhist community had approached him about Renji in January, 1997. They asked him to interview a young girl who they said was very important to them. Later, a delegation of a dozen people, some of them prominent Tibetans in exile, came to discuss her. Renji, he was told, had changed schools several times. If she came to Southwestern, she must have anything she wanted. Veronda told me he replied that she would be treated like any other pupil at the school.
Renji was not, Veronda said, a studious child, a judgment echoed by a number of her teachers. She loved shopping and pop music, was known as a sharp dresser with a conspicuous taste for Prada, and was close to a boy from Beijing whom the school eventually expelled for smoking. She herself never posed a discipline problem,Veronda said. There were no piercings or tattoos, though she did go startlingly blond for a while, and one of her former teachers said that she went through a worrying phase of attachment to motorcycles. This passed, but Renji does, she confessed to me, love cars. “My father loved cars,” she said. “I think I get it from him.”
Many of Renji’s fellow-students and friends were the sons and daughters of China’s newly rich nomenklatura-officials who, by virtue of their position, have made vast fortunes in the past two decades of rapid economic growth in China. “Renji and her friends used to tease me about my clothes,” one of her former teachers told me. “They would talk about what shoes I should wear, and she suggested Gucci, because it was the cheapest, at around three hundred dollars. I said I couldn’t afford that. When I told her I paid fifty dollars for my shoes, she was really shocked.” The teacher said that students once had a serious discussion about the relative merits of flying first-class or using your own jet. When another teacher proposed the essay topic “What would I do with a million dollars?” the exercise fell flat, because the students unanimously agreed that a million dollars didn’t go very far these days. “It was way out of my league,” he said. “One of the girls had an eighteenth-birthday party at the Argyll on Sunset Boulevard, with ‘NSync singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ “After Renji graduated, she invited the teacher to go out for an evening with her friends. “They were incredibly nice to me,” he recalled. “We went to a club where she seemed to know the doorman well.” The bill came to several hundred dollars per person. The other guests paid without demur, and Renji tactfully covered the teacher’s share.
But if the other students could give themselves over to the sybaritic pleasures of spending their parents’ money far from home, Renji, the Tibetan princess, was too important a figure, at least symbolically, to be left entirely to her own devices. Too many people took an interest in her future. For the representatives of the Tibetan government in exile, she is a potential bridge between them and the Chinese. For the Chinese, who keep a close watch on her through their embassy in Washington, she is someone with a high street value in Tibet, a value that could be politically helpful, but explosive if mishandled. And for Westerners who sympathize with the Tibetan cause Renji is a trophy to be guarded, precious both for her ancestry and for her potential as a figure who will play an as yet undefined role in Tibetan politics.
Most weekends during her time at Southwestern, a stretch limo would arrive at the campus to take Renji to the home of the action-movie star Steven Seagal. I had met Seagal by chance some years before in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile. As I waited in an anteroom, the Dalai Lama’s secretary, Tenzin Geyche, appeared in the doorway, dwarfed by an enormous man who was clad from head to toe in green silk. His hair was tied in a ponytail and he seemed to be in a mild dream state. “Do you know Steven Seagal?” Tenzin Geyche asked. We shook hands. Seagal smiled benignly, as though from a great distance.
The Tibetan community in Dharamsala is accustomed to exotic visitors. One more Hollywood star made little impression, despite the rumor that his limousine had proved too big for the hillside community’s vertiginous narrow roads. Some days later, I read an interview with Seagal in an Indian newspaper. Asked about his Buddhist beliefs, he replied that there was only one God. Shortly after that, Seagal was recognized as the reincarnation of a lama by a Tibetan guru of the Nyingmapa school. For a while, the Internet hummed with outraged comments from distressed Buddhists and supporters of Tibet. As a choice for Renji’s protector in the United States, he was, to say the least, controversial.
One evening, Renji and I drove to Seagal’s house in the hills above Los Angeles. We pulled off the road into a driveway and stopped by a metal gate. “It’s Renji,” Renji said into the intercom, and the gate swung open. We drove along an uneven track and pulled up behind a low house.
Seagal was sitting on a long couch in a cluttered living room, fielding telephone calls. A huge oil painting hung on the wall behind him. It depicted a Tibetan guru, surrounded by monks. Young aides came and went, announcing new calls. Behind another couch, a large collection of guitars were piled up at crazy angles. Two German shepherds came over and inspected me closely.
Seagal looked up and asked if I knew a journalist who, I later discovered, had written a series of articles about what he suggested were Seagal’s connections with Mafia figures. “I have had no good experiences with journalists,” Seagal said. “But I hear that you understand that Himalayan politics are”-he paused, searching for the right word-“deep.” He gave me a significant look.
I asked Seagal how he had come to have charge of the Panchen Lama’s daughter.
“Well, because of Tibetan politics,” he replied. “When Renji was eight or nine, we got word that she wasn’t safe. The Tibetan government in exile has its own spies. So she had to get out. It wasn’t going to be a kidnapping but an amiable trade-off. Her mother was to remain in China, and she would get out without it seeming absolute. When she was ten or eleven, we got word that this was going to happen. I spoke with my friends there, and they said I was one of the few people who could protect and take care of her . . . be her father figure, her guardian. Try to guide her so that she kept her heritage in the dharma.”
He broke off to take a call.
Seagal’s account differs from that of other insiders, and, indeed, from that of Renji. She was not in danger in Beijing, and her leaving seems to have been straightforward. Seagal did, however, send his plane to collect her when she moved from New York to Los Angeles. “This is my home here,” she said to me. “He was always there for me. My mother and Steven Seagal are the most important people in my life.”
Seagal finished his call. He said that he was closely watched when he went to China. He said that he had been studying Buddhism and martial arts since he was a child, and that in Japan, where he lived for a while, he had often been told that he was a reincarnate lama. The Dalai Lama’s entourage had changed, he said. Relations seemed to have cooled since I had seen him in Dharamsala.
“The danger for Renji now is getting in with the wrong people,” Seagal said. “She has a pure heart. I just tell her, I’m always there for her. Any wisdom I have is at her disposal.
“You’re born naked, you die naked,” he added. “In between, you should find a spiritual guide. Certain things, you have to do on your own.”
I said good night, and we left. “You see what a nice man he is?” Renji said, anxiously.
In Renji’s last year at Southwestern, her mother decided to come to California and supervise her daughter’s studies to insure that she did well on her S.A.T.s. The two of them moved to an apartment near the school. “It was very tough for my mother, because she couldn’t speak English,” Renji said. “She cooked, but the kind of cooking she does uses lots of heat and she kept setting off the smoke alarms. It was the first time that I had lived with my mother, just the two of us.”
As a high-school student, Renji had hung out, partied, shopped, learned to surf. Back home in Beijing, she is a noted tennis player, but she is also being groomed for public life. Her vacations from school are crammed with meetings. “I have to get three days’ notice so I can go shopping with my friends,” she said. “I meet all kinds of people-sometimes officials or businesspeople-and I have to read their portfolios so I know what to talk to them about. Sometimes I have to attend two dinners in a day.
“When I get back to the U.S. after a trip home,” she said, “I feel really lonely and lost for a week. I’m on my own. No staff. I have to do my own grocery shopping. And I wake up and think, what am I going to do today?”
In 2002, her mother decided that Renji should make an official visit to Tibet alone. “Actually, I wanted to go to Egypt, but my mother insisted I had to go to Tibet,” Renji said. It was the first formal trip that she had undertaken without her mother’s supervision, and she was received by high-level officials in Lhasa. The plan was for her to spend several weeks in Shigatse, receiving instruction in religious studies and the Tibetan language from teachers at Tashilhunpo. (Renji speaks Tibetan but does not read it well.) She settled in with her entourage in a hotel in Shigatse, and a schedule was drawn up. She was to pay her respects to her father’s body at seven-thirty each morning, then spend the day studying with her teacher in a room on the second floor of the stupa where her father is interred. But within a day of her arrival crowds began to gather at the monastery.
“They stood outside, wherever I was, waiting for me,” she said. “At the beginning, it was a little chaotic. They wanted to offer khatags and touch me. After two days, the police figured out what to do. They lined them all up and every hour I would come out and go down the line. I would go back and study, and then, at the end of the hour, down the line again.” The people brought Renji petitions and letters of encouragement. They gave her money, which she returned. They told her how much they missed her father and urged her to visit more often. Some would try to speak to her but were overcome by emotion and simply wept.
The crowds grew bigger each day. Renji’s quiet visit was turning into a major public event. The local authorities began to worry about things getting out of control.
Then the “Chinese Panchen Lama” arrived in Tibet. He was approaching his twelfth birthday, and a special visit to Tashilhunpo had been arranged. The boy now lives in Beijing, in the palace that Renji’s father built, under the supervision of his religious tutor. His visits to Tibet have been rare and heavily policed. This time, he arrived when Tibetans, who have shown little sign of spontaneous affection for him, were flocking to see Renji.
“My plan was to stay in Shigatse, to be close to my father,” Renji said. But she was asked to travel to Lhasa, three hundred miles away, where a meeting between her and the boy had been set up. “They made me leave Shigatse,” she said. “They said there was too much distraction. I was very unhappy about it, and I felt sorry for the people. Whole villages were coming from far away, and I know that there were people who were still en route. But they made me leave the next day.”
The meeting in Lhasa was very short, Renji said. “There were twenty or thirty people, all officials, his people. I walked in, said hello, how are you. We exchanged khatags.” She did not, however, prostrate herself before him, though everybody knew that a photograph of the tenth Panchen Lama’s daughter prostrating to the Chinese Panchen would be an important affirmation of the government’s position on the reincarnation.
I asked Renji how she had avoided prostrating.
It was not an issue, she said. “My father had given me special permission-just to me-not to prostrate to him. If he is my father’s reincarnation, I don’t have to prostrate to him.”
I asked if she had felt anything toward the boy. She shrugged. “I was curious,” she acknowledged. “But I didn’t really feel anything. We didn’t really have a chance to talk.” And the other candidate-the Dalai Lama’s missing boy?
“I have never met him,” she said. “So I don’t know.”
Renji was bored in Washington. Because of visa complications brought on by tightened security regulations, she had been delayed in getting to school and hadn’t been able to register for fall classes. So one weekend we drove to New York with a friend of hers. She pointed out a cafe in SoHo where she had spent a lot of time. “When I first came to Washington,” she explained, “I was so lonely and depressed that I used to come up to New York and I would sit in that cafe and watch people go by. I was full of rage. But it’s O.K. now.” We went to a Prada store, and I watched her inspecting racks of clothes with the expertise of a seasoned shopper. I wondered, not for the first time, what it must be like to be both an icon for the Tibetan faithful and a well-heeled, fashion-conscious young woman at home in L.A. and London.
One of Renji’s teachers at Southwestern had told me that Renji had seemed intellectually detached for much of her school career. “She didn’t seem to feel empowered,” he said, “about her life, about anything.” He thought it was hard for her to study because her destiny was out of her hands. After her visit to Tibet, when she was seventeen, that changed.
Renji has a standard answer when she’s asked about her future. She wants to help the people of Tibet, she says. When she is pressed, her plan sharpens. She wants to be a member of the National People’s Congress, as her father was. “It’s power,” she says. “You need to have power to do things.”
Gaining power will involve negotiating several competing interests, although her singular inheritance is strongly in her favor. “The Chinese have a problem,” the Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya says. “They have recognized their Panchen Lama and they can’t allow Renji to undermine him. On the other hand, her mother has accurately identified a leadership vacuum. The Dalai Lama is outside Tibet, and there is nobody like the old Panchen Lama in the country. There is an opportunity here, and perhaps Renji has it in her to grasp it.”
The power that Renji already has is a startling demonstration of the flexibility of a society that many outsiders see as bound by tradition. In that tradition, authority is vested in celibate religious leaders and institutions rather than in family dynasties. Robert Barnett, a lecturer in modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University, remarked to me that Renji’s popularity and the influence it gives her has defied all expectations. “She has emerged as a political phenomenon by word of mouth. This has no historical precedent, and I think it shows that Tibetans are capable of creative political solutions to entrenched conflict. They instinctively recognize this as a way of creating a middle ground.”
I once asked Renji if she had ever been tempted to choose an ordinary life-a job, marriage, children.
“I can’t,” she said. “Well, I could, but I can’t. It’s my duty. It’s who I am.”
After a pause, she suddenly said, “Who should I marry? Should it be a Chinese? A Tibetan? An American? What would be best?”
“What does your mother say?” I asked her.
“She still thinks I’m a kid,” she replied