James Burke: An American Photojournalist in China

Yunfei Bai teaches translation and cross-cultural studies at Lingan University in Hong Kong. He is currently writing a book that uses previously unstudied primary sources in Tibetan, Chinese, French, and English to reconstruct a set of singular interfaith encounters between Chinese/Tibetan Buddhists and Westerners occurring in the first half of the twentieth century.

Yunfei Bai

James Cobb Burke (1915-1964) was a maverick American photojournalist. He was born to Methodist missionary parents in Shanghai, China, where he spent his early childhood before relocating to Macon, Georgia. Burke graduated from Emory University in 1937 with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature. Throughout the 1940s, he spent most of his time in China working as a Chinese-speaking correspondent for various North American magazines.

In June and July, 1945, Burke was dispatched twice by air to the Minya Konka (Chinese: 貢嘎山; Tibetan: Mi-nyag gangs-dkar) region in eastern Tibet/western Sichuan to cover the purchase of Tibetan horses for military uses in China proper. During his sojourn there, he ran into various members of the local Sino-Tibetan Buddhist community. These included the ninth Bo Gangkar Rinpoché (1893–1957) and his Chinese female disciple, Shen Shuwen 申書文 (1903–1997), who later became a key propagator of Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan, where she was revered as Gongga Laoren 貢嘎老人, or Elder Gongga.

Burke left a wealth of unpublished notes about his interfaith conversations with both Gangkar Rinpoché and Shen Shuwen in the form of travel diaries, draft stories, and captioned photographs, which are now housed at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University. In August, 2023, I received a fellowship to take a close look at these valuable primary materials. Among my findings are:

  • A half-typeset, half-handwritten draft story titled “Snow Mountain Jane: Resident Scholar of the Snow Mountain”
  • A typeset draft story titled “Tibetan,” which is stamped with a seal reading “Passed for Publication: U.S. Army Press Censor”
  • Two notebooks with handwritten meeting minutes and records of personal names in both Chinese and English
  • Captioned photographs of Gangkar Rinpoché and his retinue

I plan to draw on these previously untapped writings by Burke to show how tantric practices and Chinese followers of Tibetan lamas were perceived by a Western journalist in the 1940s, at a time when Chinese elites had started to embrace Tibetan Buddhism shortly before its popularity was cut short by the new Communist regime.