TIBET IN THE 19TH AND EARLY 20TH CENTURY

EARLY EUROPEAN EXPLORERS OF TIBET

20080226-13th dalai lama 77.jpg
Thirteenth Dalai Lama

The first Europeans in Tibet were Jesuit and Capuchin fathers posted in Lhasa in the 17th and 18th century. They described Tibetans as "idol worshipers.” When they first heard about Tibet while they were in Goa they thought it might be the long-lost Christian kingdom of Prester John.

In 1624, Father Antonio del Andrade, a Portuguese Jesuit, made his way to the western Tibetan kingdom of Guge. He established a church and reportedly won so many Catholic converts that local Buddhists called in a force from Ladakh and drove the Christians out. The Ladahkis obliged by not only getting rid of the Christians but also conquering the Guge. In the 1710s, the Italian priest Ippolito Desideri became the first Westerner to lay eyes on Mt. Kailas. He remained in Lhasa for five years before he was ordered to leave. A Scotsman named George Bogle arrived with a expedition in Shigatse in 1774 and became so friendly with the Panchen Lama he married one of the lama’s sisters.

Alexander Csoma Koros explored Tibet in the a 19th-century. Regarded as the father of Tibetan studies in the West, he began his journey searching for his Hungarian roots. His original destination was Xinjiang but he got sidetracked and ending up spending a decade in western Tibetan lamaseries, where he wrote the first English-Tibetan dictionary and did a number of pioneering studies on Tibetan culture. Soon after he resumed his journey to Xinjiang he died of malaria.

On January 20, 1846, two French priests, Father Évarist Huc and Father Gabet arrived in Lhasa, Tibet after a two-year journey from China through Mongolia, and were immediately expelled. Huc wrote about the similarity of Lamanist and Catholic rites and other observations in his travelogue Recount of a Trip Through Tartary, Tibet and China.

Later European Explorers of Tibet

European missionaries generally had a rough go of it in Tibet. Monasteries were intolerant of outside religions; foreigners were attacked by brigands; priests were murdered; and missions were burned down.

Swedish explorer Sveb Ander Hedin spent more than 50 years (1885 to 1935) exploring and mapping the deserts of Central Asia, Tibet and western China. He traced the Silk Road and the source of several rivers.

Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969), a French woman fluent in Tibetan, was the first Western woman to set foot in Lhasa, in 1923, and was the first European to visit many remote parts of Tibet. Born into a middle class Parisian family, she arrived in India in 1911 and became the first European woman to interview the Dalai Lama, who was living in Darjeeling at the time. After traveling around Tibet she settled into a cave and lived their for two years.

After emerging from the cave in 1916 David-Neel disguised herself as a Tibetan peasant and became the first European woman to enter Lhasa, in 1923. She described her adventures in My Journey to Lhasa, a book she wrote after returning Europe. At her side during most of her travels was Yongden, a Tibetan she met at a monastery when he was 15. She died at the age 100.

Efforts by Europeans to Reach Tibet

In the 19th century Tibet was involved on the periphery of the Great Game politics of Central Asia, when Britain and Russia challenged one another for influence in the region.

At one point Tibetan leaders decided to close Tibet to foreigners. This isolation only seemed to spur foreigners on as explorers, spies, missionaries, colonial officers and Buddhist devotees began attempting to reach Lhasa. In his book Virtual Tibet Orville Schell wrote, “A large element of Tibet’s historical allure grew precisely out of is isolation, that it was untouched by the modern world and idd not welcome incursions.”

The history of Western attempts to reach Tibet in the 19th and 20th centuries are recounted in Trespassers on the Roof of the World. Many that made it into Tibet endured blizzards and bandits only to be stopped at the gates of Lhasa by armies of Tibetans led by high-ranking monks. Some were taken prisoner and tortured.

In 1879, Col. Nikolai Prejevalsky, a Russian official accompanied by an escort of armed Cossacks was forced to turn back 150 miles short of Lhasa by Tibetan officials. In 1899, British adventurers Henry Savage Landor was captured on his way to Lhasa. His torture session included 24-hours in a rack. After returning home he wrote a bestseller about his experiences.

Many of those who made into Lhasa did so in disguise: Indian spies hired by Britain posing as holy men, a Japanese Buddhist who posed as a Chinese doctor.

Britain Invades Tibet

British forces marched into Lhasa in 1904---during the Great Game period when Britain and Russia vied for control of Central Asia and Britain believed Russia had plans to take over India---to counteract fears of Russian expansion and forced the 13th Dalai Lama to open up to the outside world. Only months before a Russian advisor visited Lhasa.

The British forces entered Tibet through Sikkim and arrived in Lhasa only to find the Dalai Lama had fled to Mongolia. The British attacked a 12th century monastery. The British, armed with Maxim guns and Enfield rifles, shot their way into Lhasa in a brutal military invasion. Led by Sir Francis Younghisand, they killed hundreds maybe thousands of Tibetans during their march from India to Tibet.

The British entered Tibet with such brutality and force in part because they believed that the Russians already had toehold there. But they found no Russians there because the 13th Dalai Lama had been successful in keeping Tibet sealed. But it was this success and lack of information from inside Tibet that led to British ideas of Tsarist plots and schemes.

Britain in Tibet

Tibetans were forced to sign a treaty with the British, which allowed the posting of British trade agents within Tibet. The British did their best to keep other foreigners out. They urged the Tibetans not to trade with anyone without British their permission and urged Tibet to declare independence from China.

The British only stayed two months in Lhasa and made an agreement with the Dalai Lama’s representative. Britain was able to get control over much of the Himalayan region with the help of Nain Singh, a Bhutanese who often traveled in disguise and provided British mapmakers with important data.

The Qing leadership objected to the British-Tibetan accord on the basis it implied that Tibet was an independent state able to handle its own foreign relations. The British government signed a separate agreement in 1906 with the Qing dynasty, which recognized Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. The Chinese invaded Tibet in February, 1910 and the Dalai Lama fled to Darjeeling in British-controlled India.

Independent Tibet

In 1911, the Qing dynasty was toppled in China. Tibetans rose up against Chinese troops based in Lhasa. By the end 1912, the Chinese were mostly driven out. In January 1913, the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet. The new Chinese government, with a lot of other problems on its hand, tried to make peace with Tibet. It sent the Dalai Lama a telegram, expressing regret over previous incursions and formally announced that the Dalai Lama had been restored to his former Chinese-authorized status. The Dalai Lama, following the advice of the state oracle and the will of the Tibetan people, said he had no interest in such ranks and he was temporal and spiritual leader of Tibet.

From 1911 to 1950 Tibet was a de facto independent country and Tibetans were allowed to follow their customs and practice their religion without interference. By that time Tibetan feudalism was no longer as harsh as it once was. By the end of 19th century, slavery and bonded servitude had largely disappeared. In 1879, one Indian scholar wrote: "the rich may bestow their daughters on the poor; the daughter of the poor man may become the bride of the proudest noble in the country."

Even so nobles maintained control over a large segment of the population. There were some efforts to modernize. Some dams were built; mining surveys were done; a telegraph line was set up between Lhasa and Shigatse; the Dali Lama accepted arms from Britain; and some Tibetan kids were sent elite schools in England. Modernization was opposed by the ruling nobleman and lamas and largely didn’t amount to much.

For most Tibetans life simply went on has it had done before. Recalling the period, one nomad told National Geographic, "Our taxes were heavy in those days, but we never went hungry."

China and Tibet in the Early 20th Century

After the Republic of China was founded in 1911, the central government set up a special department to administer Mongolian and Tibetan affairs. In 1929, the Kuomintang government set up a commission for Mongolian and Tibetan affairs in Nanjing and established Qinghai Province. In 1934, the government of the Republic of China set up a resident agency to administer affairs in Tibet. In 1939, Xikang Province was set up in the majority of the Kham region of traditional Tibet. The Tibetan areas in northwest and southwest China, except Tibet, were placed under the administration of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, Xikang and Yunnan provinces respectively. [Source: China.org china.org |]

According to the Beijing government: “After the Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921, its central committee clearly stated in its Agrarian Revolution Program that the feudal privileges of Tibetan princes and Lamas would be abolished. During its Long March northward to fight the Japanese invaders, the Chinese Worker and Peasant Red Army passed through Tibetan areas in Sichuan, Xikang, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai, where they mobilized the poor Tibetans to carry out land reform and establish democratic political power of the laboring people. Areas inhabited by Tibetans were liberated one after another after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Tibet proper was liberated peacefully in 1951. In 1959, Tibet Autonomous Region was officially established. |

Tibet Before the Chinese Arrival in 1950

Independent Tibet was no Shangri-La. It very isolated and poor. Before the Chinese arrived, life expectancy was 36 years, the literacy rate was five percent and 95 percent of the population were hereditary serfs and slaves. Corruption and crime were endemic. Bandits roamed the countryside; lamas and noblemen enriched themselves on the backs of poor peasants. Potala palace was described as "a real robbery shop...an eggshell intact on the outside but rotten within."

There were no motored vehicles, no schools (although monasteries provided a form a schooling), no banks and no money in Tibet. Barley, salt, tea, furs, cloth and yak butter were used as a means of exchange. Up until the 1960s most Tibetans did not have matches, gunpowder or wheels (other than those used for praying). Fires were lit with a flint and tinder.

One old Tibetan man told the Times of London, “I remember my father and mother never had enough to eat; they never had enough warm clothes. By day they were humans, by night they were like dogs...no proper home, food of clothes.”

In the 1930s a feud broke out between the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. In 1933, the 13th Dalai Lama died and the country fell under the leadership of the regent of Reting. In 1947, an attempted coup, known as the Reting Conspiracy, shook Lhasa. In 1949, the Communists took over China. Many Chinese felt they had a moral obligation to liberate Tibetans from a bad system and help Tibet modernize.

Chinese Take on Tibetan History

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “Both sides agreed that China's Mongol rulers had amassed great authority in Tibet by the thirteenth century. But Tibetans say the bond was based principally on a shared religion, and they argue that the Mongols did not represent the Chinese. Historians in China consider the Mongol era the beginning of seven hundred years of political sovereignty over Tibet.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]

Historically, Osnos wrote “the vast majority of Han are proud of their role in Tibet, which they see as a long, costly process of extending civilization to a backward region. The Han in the lowlands had little in common with the pastoral people in the mountains---no shared language or diet---and Chinese historians explained that a Tang-dynasty princess taught Tibetans about agriculture, silk, paper, modern medicine, and industry, and stopped them from painting their faces red.”

“In the twentieth century, when China secured Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang within its borders, the move was hailed by the Chinese people as the end of a century of foreign invasion and humiliation. The Dalai Lama, from that perspective, stood in the path of history, and when he went into exile Chinese newsreels recorded images of farmers denouncing their former landlords and destroying records of hereditary debts.”

“Anyone over fifty years old in China today has grown up with those scenes dramatized in influential films like "Serf,” a 1963 drama about a freed Tibetan servant and his grateful encounter with the People’s Liberation Army. Han Chinese who are only a generation or two removed from poverty are inclined to view China’s investment as a sacrifice.” A Chinese graduate student at Yale told the The New Yorker, “My father is an educated man. He has worked all over Tibet for years and, to this day, he can’t really respect Tibetans. He doesn’t see any intellectual output from them.”

Image Sources: Purdue University, University of Washington

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2015


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