Évariste Régis Huc (1813-1860) was a French Catholic of the Vincentian order. He was stationed in Macao in 1839, where he studied Chinese and prepared for missionary operations. He was eventually stationed in a northern province near the Mongolian border in an area that the missionaries called Vallée-des-Eaux-Noires (Valley of the Black Waters).
In 1844, Huc and a fellow missionary named Joseph Gabet, accompanied by a Tibetan lama who converted to Catholicism, set out on an expedition to study the Tartars, Mongols, Tibetans, and other tribes that were under his missions jurisdiction. It was essentially a fact finding mission to learn more about the populations that would eventually be converted. Their plan was to enter Lhasa, then continue to India. However, the Lhasa-India leg of their journey was prevented by Ki-Shan, who represented the Chinese authority in Lhasa. He was eventually forced to return to Canton.
Huc’s Travels in Tartary, Thibet and China was one of several books by Huc on the region, though due to its accessible and engaging style, Travels was by far the most popular. There is even an abridged version designed for school children, and a condensed translation by Percy Sinnett. In 1857, Huc cashed in the authority that Travels had afforded him on matters in Asia and wrote a letter to Napoleon III urging the emperor to establish a colonial foothold in the area. This eventually led to France’s enterprise in Vietnam. (Thompson 334)
Notes on Travels
Huc’s account is similar to others we have read in this course, though more narrative, and with fewer mundanities and technical details. It is worth noting that, though he does not entertain the notion that the Tibetan Buddhists were merely wayward or corrupted Christians, he is very interested in the similarities between the two religions. Even when he is not explicitly comparing the two religions, there theme persists. Take, for example, the story of the origin of the tradition of women covering their faces “with a sort of black, glutinous varnish.” (vol. II, p. 174) Though he admits that he cannot speak to the veracity of this custom’s origins, the notion that obscuring the beauty of women helped cure certain societal ills in Tibet clearly resonated with Huc’s catholic background.
The Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry (see sources below) on Huc suggests that the Church frowned upon his sympathy towards the Tibetans, though the text itself suggests a certain ambivalence, and in some cases, outright self-contradiction. For example, on page 105 (vol. II) he enumerates the various kinds of argols used for fuel, and the qualities of each. His account is, at worst, a list of useful information for other travelers, and at best, conveys a kind of admiration for all the clever uses for dung. On page 169, however, the argols he uses in Lhasa “diffuse considerably more smoke than heat.” In fact, this is a fair representation of the differences in his impressions of Kun-Bum and those of Lhasa.
Huc, Évariste Régis. Travels in Tartary, Thibet and China. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1928.