Review of Shelton, Albert L. Pioneering in Tibet: A Personal Record of Life and Experience in
Mission Fields. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1921.
Dr. Albert Shelton (1875-1922) was an American medical doctor and Christian missionary in Kham in the early twentieth century. In his autobiography, written while taking a yearlong furlough in the United States, Shelton recounts various details of his life among the Tibetans and Chinese of Kham. Shelton worked as a doctor and preacher in Tachienlu (Tibetan: dar rtse mdo) from 1903-1908 and in Batang (‘ba’ thang) from 1908-1922. The missionary became famous back home after he was kidnapped by bandits and held captive for 71 days in 1920. After his release, Shelton and his family returned to America for a year; during this time he wrote this narrative of his Tibetan adventures, which seems designed to inspire others to join him on the mission field.
As the title of Albert Shelton’s autobiography—Pioneering in Tibet: A Personal Record of Life and Experience in Mission Fields—suggests, the life that he recounts here filled with all of the action, adventure, and danger of life on the frontier. During the two decades that Shelton spent along the Tibetan borderlands, he was exposed to a good amount of perilous adventures worthy of an Indiana Jones-type action hero. And yet, for all the daring tales of survival—he and the other missionaries were faced with near-constant dangers brought on by the harsh Tibetan climate, the rugged terrain, diseases, warfare between the Chinese and the Tibetans, warfare between Tibetans and other Tibetans, attacks from bandits, and so on—the vast majority of his writing is an account of everyday occurrences in Kham. Although a biographer might easily be tempted to focus only on a few extraordinary experiences of this Tibetan “pioneer,” it is clear that Shelton saw every aspect of his life among the Tibetans—even the most mundane things—as part of his great adventure.
As a result, the doctor’s descriptions of Tibetan daily life are just as exciting as his accounts of the most remarkable events. Although he was ultimately relating the details of his own life story, Shelton’s work could easily be read as an ethnographic piece. Some of the most interesting passages of the book include his observations on the importance of the tea trade to the Tibetan economy, and the interactions between Chinese and Tibetans in the early twentieth century. Shelton describes Tibet as a “country,” which has Lhasa as its capital; he also clearly includes Kham as part of this Tibetan country, yet his references to various Tibetan “tribes” and rulers shows that he did not necessarily think of Tibet as a unified nation. Shelton’s writing makes it clear that there was a definite distinction between Tibetan and Chinese cultures even among the borderlands where he lived. Intermarriage between Chinese men and Tibetan women, according to this account, seems to be fairly common and accepted at this time. The doctor writes that he was even asked to officiate a Christian wedding for one of these couples, whose marriage was an arranged one. Shelton writes that neither the bride nor the groom could speak the other’s language, but had to rely on interpreters whenever they wanted to have any sort of conversation once they were married (63).
Elsewhere, he recounts staying the night at the house of another Chinese man and his Tibetan wife while he was passing through a remote area. According to Shelton, this couple could not understand one another either, yet they managed to live together quite happily (53). Despite the fact that there seemed to be a number of marriages between Chinese men and Tibetan women in Kham, Shelton does not mention a single instance of a Tibetan man marrying a Chinese woman.
Naturally, Shelton’s narrative includes numerous descriptions—some of them quite graphic—of surgeries and other medical treatments that he performed in the field. The Tibetans’ reactions to the foreign doctor were often quite humorous. Shelton recounts Tibetans’ inability to understand certain medical practices—a Tibetan friend who looked on in amazement as the doctor, using a local anesthetic, completely removed an infected fingernail from his own hand exclaimed, “I hope that the Tibetans will never have to fight foreigners, because they do not feel pain at all” (34). For a few months after his arrival, he writes, he was puzzled as to why Tibetan children would run in terror whenever he came near; he eventually learned that many Tibetans believed that his medicine was made from the eyes and livers of kidnapped children. Although Shelton makes it clear that he and the other missionaries were often made aware of their status as outsiders, he recounts such misunderstandings with a sense of humor that suggests that the missionaries and the natives were generally able to overcome—and possibly even be amused by—such misunderstandings. Shelton often attributes such misunderstandings to the Tibetans’ many “superstitions,” yet it appears that he and the other missionaries tried to always respect and take into consideration the beliefs of their neighbors; he makes it clear that they were often responsible for blunders and missteps in their interactions with the Tibetans as well. In one such example, the doctor recalls sharing his meal with a Tibetan who eagerly ate a few helpings of meat before realizing that he was eating marmot, which Shelton did not know was considered taboo for Tibetan Buddhists. After being scolded by another Tibetan, who then explained to Shelton that the marmot were generally believed to be incarnations of lamas, the first man “quickly recovered and said, ‘Well, it can’t be helped now, so I might as well go on with the rest of it’” (107). Although such “superstitious” beliefs were usually the underlying causes of misunderstandings, Shelton appears to generally respect the Tibetans’ beliefs. His interactions with religious Tibetans show that he sought to disprove the “superstitious” elements, such as the use of amulets or “charm boxes.” Yet, he never sought to belittle the Buddhist religion, but only to expose what he deemed to be the false elements within it. “A man’s religion, no matter what it is,” he told one Tibetan friend “is to him the most sacred thing in the world. But, you have some things in yours that are false, and you ought to get rid of them. These charm boxes are one of those false things” (118).
Considering that he was a Christian missionary writing for a (presumably) Christian audience, Shelton’s autobiography contains surprising few references to religion and spirituality. Shelton developed a friendship with one high religious figure, Ju Lama; yet the majority of his interactions with Tibetans were with lay people and military officials. He does mention that the Dalai Lama—described as the supreme leader of the country of Tibet—wrote him a letter inviting him to come to Lhasa and establish a hospital. Outside of written communication, however, he had no personal relationship with the Dalai Lama at this time. Unfortunately for the modern historian, he refers to most of the leaders that he did have relationships with in general terms such as the Governor of Lower Kham, the Tibetan Prince, and so forth, which makes it difficult to determine who exactly he is speaking of and what role these leaders played historically. What it does offer, however, is a look into the ways in which Shelton and other early twentieth century missionaries viewed Tibetan culture. It can also be seen as a useful account of the missionaries who were active in this area at this time and the ways in which they interacted. Although Shelton and his family were part of a small team of American missionaries, he also records that a French Catholic priest Paul Bailley was working alone in the area. Although the American missionary and the French priest could only communicate with each other in Chinese, Shelton credits the priest with coming to his aid while his kidnappers sought to negotiate a ransom and writes of a mutual respect between himself and the Frenchman.
The fact that this account is, for Shelton, a summary of present events, rather than a look back at historical ones His poses additional problems for the modern historian in that he rarely uses dates and does not necessarily include events chronologically. At the time of this writing, Shelton could not have foreseen that he would so quickly return to Tibet and almost immediately be killed. He wrote this autobiography, not as a memoir, but as a short account of his experiences in Tibet and an update on what was currently happening in the mission field there. The book ends with a call for young men to “help to make the last nation on earth a part of the Kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (214). This call is not reserved for the final sentence, however; the entire book could perhaps best be summed up as a rallying cry for Christian young men with a sense of adventure to join him on the Tibetan mission field.