A Review of Tibetan Lives: Three Himalayan Autobiographies
In Tibetan Lives, Peter Richardus offers us edited versions of three life stories of Phuntshogs Lungrtogs, sKarma Sumdhon Paul, and Ts’an-chin Chen (two monks and a clerk) whose original composition was a direct product of a colonial knowledge-gathering practice current in India in the 1920s: collecting native life stories, or, in this case, getting the natives to record their own. While stationed in Calcutta as the General Secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the Dutch Orientalist Johan van Manen (1877-1943) requested three of his literate native employees to record their autobiographies in Tibetan language, and then to render these into English. All three texts candidly express views on matters played out against a background consisting of the Anglo-Indian and Sino-Tibetan cultures together with their socio-political characteristics. The three remarkable accounts of the lives of Phuntshogs Lungrtogs, sKarma Sumdhon Paul, and Ts’an-chin Chen break away from a stereotypical idealized view of a Tibetan society. Filled with ethnographical, sociological, historical and religious data, the autobiographies of these three individuals offer a unique insight into the world of the Tibetan intermediary class.
In the early years of the twentieth century, control over Tibet was contested by three major empires: China, Russia and Britain. The imperial powers and those who came in their wake – missionaries, scholars, traders and soldiers – employed local staff to assist in their dealings with Tibetans, and these employees were in the vanguard of Tibet’s encounter with the outside world. Yet they have been largely forgotten by history and most of the knowledge and understandings they gained have been lost.
The task of recording the fascinating lives of the three individuals, who served on the periphery of the imperial system, was undertaken by a Dutchman and a scholar of Oriental Studies, Johan van Manen. Van Manen spent most of the period from 1916 to 1918 in the District of rDorjegling. While residing in rDorjegling, Van Manen came into contact with two mentors in his study of the Tibetan language: Phuntshogs Lungrtogs, a monk schooled in Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and sKarma Sumdhon Paul, trained in western culture. During daily classes, the latter served van Manen as a translator, the former as a copyist of religious and historical texts. Both Phuntshogs Lungrtogs and sKarma Sumdhon Paul were later joined by Ts’an-chin Chen, a clerk of a Sino-Tibetan background.
The autobiographies that make up Peter Richardus’s Tibetan Lives: Three Himalayan Autobiographies were actually written at Van Manen’s request and inspired by his opinion that “unique information could be acquired through such life stories.” (Introduction) Crowded with ethnographical, sociological, historical and religious data, the autobiographies of these three individuals offer a unique insight into the world of the intermediary class. In addition to being interesting and entertaining, they are an important contribution to our understanding of the history of Tibet and its opening up to cultures beyond its own.
The three autobiographies can be divided into three major themes: religion and associated with it ceremonies and attempts of conversion; cultural interactions; and politics (including praise for the British system of rule and an almost complete contempt for the Tibetan law). Phuntshogs Lungrtogs, sKarma Sumdhon Paul and Ts’an-chin Chen traveled widely, crossed cultures, and thus have left their unorthodox insights into various societies they came in contact with, including their own.
The theme of religion is in the background of each and every autobiography. Phuntshogs Lungrtogs, while at lHasa, attends numerous Buddhist festivities and provides the reader with detailed descriptions of them. Phuntshogs Lungrtogs is proud of his religion and believes it to be the right choice, even though the temptations of conversion are ever-present. The monk describes his experience concerning conversion to Christianity by stating that when he agreed to be baptized, he agreed “with [his] mouth, knowing it was not possible for [him] to give up Buddhism.” (27) Similarly, sKarma Sumdhon Paul in his autobiography notes his encounter with a Hindu who tells him that if he does not wish to suffer the sorrows and damnations of hell during his next life, sKarma Sumdhon Paul should give up evil works and thoughts in his life in order to “reach a glorious celestial world in [his] next life.”(85) SKarma Sumdhon Paul replies that he is from rDorjegling and that his family is Buddhist, demonstrating the pride associated with his birthplace and the religion associated with it.
Yet, at the same time, while defending the purity of the true Buddhist religion, all three autobiographies criticize the hypocrisy of the Buddhist monks. Phuntshogs Lung-rtogs, for example, describes monks who “visit taverns to smoke, play card-games and enjoy the company of women,”(20) in addition to playing mischievous pranks. Phuntshogs Lungrtogs also criticizes the fact that most Buddhist monks lack any formal education and training, stating that: “Most of them were not acquainted with the facts of Buddhism, others could not read or write. Some monks taught others without knowing much themselves. They were like donkeys clad in tiger skin…”(44) Such sharp comments only reinforce the idea that the cosmopolitanism and insightfulness of the two monks springing from close contacts with the British and other nations, made them sensitive to the evils and shortcomings of their own Tibetan society as much as other non-European cultures they came in contact with.
The theme of cultural interaction is also very strongly present in the three autobiographies. Phuntshogs Lungrtogs holds his Dutch Sahib, Mr. van Manen in a very high esteem. The monk describes numerous voyages he accompanies van Manen on, including Calcutta and Madras. Phuntshogs Lungrtogs describes his Sahib as a “true Buddhist from Europe.” (47) Furthermore, he compares his Sahib favorably to ignorant Tibetans who believe that selling religious texts to an Englishman is a sin, considering the “religion of Europe an evil one.”(44) Interestingly, the clerk Ts’anchin Chen, hears the same remark when contemplating teaching Tibetan language to an older Christian missionary – reinforcing the idea of unjustified prejudice and ignorance on the side of the monks who had no interactions with the Europeans. Contrary to those close-minded, ignorant monks, to Phuntshogs Lungrtogs, van Manen offers a different quality of scholarship. Phuntshogs Lungrtogs goes as far as to express a hope that “everybody will study the Tibetan language and culture with the same perseverance as [his] Sahib does.”(45)
SKarma Sumdhon Paul’s cultural interactions include his fascinating pilgrimage with the Panchen bLama as the interpreter for the British government. As such he visits Rawalpindi, Agra, Delhi, Benares and Bodh Gaya. SKar-ma Sum-dhon Paul describes some customs of the Tibetans, Chinese, and Nepalese living in and around rGyalrtse. An extraordinary custom that SKarma Sumdhon Paul notices in the provinces of dBus and gTsang is that of four brothers marrying the same bride. Interestingly, it is that very same custom in Tibet that puzzles Ts’an-chin Chen when he comes in contact with it. SKar-ma Sum-dhon Paul’s experiences serve as the best examples of the cultural influences. In the district of rDo-rje-gling Paul becomes a teacher for the missionary Middle English School of Ghoom, instructing foreign Christians in the Tibetan language. It is at that point that Paul decides unequivocally to convert to Christianity in 1913. Such examples of cultural exchanges and interactions serve well to explain why these three individuals thought so highly of the British and the British-run India.
This brings the reader to the next ubiquitous theme of the book: politics. All three autobiographies speak very highly of the Europeans and the European system of law and education. Phun-tshogs Lung-rtogs states that he does not “think badly of the English – their government improves roads, builds water-works and market-places…”(42) Similarly, when it comes to British rule in India, Phun-tshogs Lung-rtogs states that “British rule in India is, I think, not bad because the laws are good.”(46) Whereas Europe and British run India are praised for the strict code of laws concerning the justice system, health, and education, the three individuals view Tibetan laws, healthcare and education as ineffective and obsolete. Phun-tshogs Lung-rtogs states that he hopes the Tibetan government will soon build hospitals and dispensaries in his homeland. SKar-ma Sum-dhon Paul on the other hand, attacks the lack of a formal educational system in Tibet and laments over the fact that the Tibetan parents feel no desire to educate their children, which he portrays as “a disgrace when compared with other countries.”(92) The clerk’s, Ts’an-chin Chen’s life, perhaps more than the lives of the two monks, was influenced by his profession and the political situation in Central Tibet, rather than his interactions with the Europeans, although he too has words of praise to say about the Christian missionaries who taught him English.
In summary, all three texts candidly express views on matters played out against a background consisting of the Anglo-Indian and Sino-Tibetan cultures together with their socio-political characteristics. The three remarkable accounts of the lives of Phun-tshogs Lung-rtogs, sKar-ma Sum-dhon Paul, and Ts’an-chin Chen break away from a stereotypical idealized view of a Tibetan society. Filled with ethnographical, sociological, historical and religious data, the autobiographies of these three individuals offer a unique insight into the world of the Tibetan intermediary class.