Message from Shangri-La

On October 6, 1939, on the outskirts of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, Hugh Richardson, who is now ninety-three and the West’s foremost living Tibetanist, saw the arrival in the city of the five-year-old boy who in early 1940 would be installed as the fourteenth Dalai Lama. It was the end of a three-month journey by palanquin from the boy’s village in eastern Tibet, where he had been identified as the incarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, who had died on December 17, 1933.

A member of the elite Indian Civil Service, in 1939 Richardson was representing Britain in Tibet, where the British were competing with China for influence. He was determined to see for himself what the newest Dalai Lama was like; although the previous Dalai Lama had lived long, many of the earlier incarnations had died suddenly and young; the ensuing periods of uncertainty often presented an opportunity for China to exert influence over Tibetan affairs. British India saw this as a threat to its borders. After the almost six-year interregnum following the death of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, it was important to the British that Tibet be stable enough to remain independent. Although only five, the fourteenth Dalai Lama seemed to Richardson to be a potentially useful force against Chinese ambitions.

In 1991, Richardson described to me his first impression of the Dalai Lama during a long conversation which I recorded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the house of Emily and Roderick MacFarquhar. Michael Aris, Britain’s leading academic Tibetanist, who is at Oxford, was also present. (That morning he had heard that his wife, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest in Rangoon, had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.)

“He came down in a very small party,” Richardson recalled. “There were a few dusty Chinese foot soldiers. Then he was taken up into the monastery, given a bath and new clothes, and came back down in a golden palanquin. It was obvious he was accepted with great reverence. He was the real thing. He behaved so beautifully. Wonderful. When I clapped eyes on him I went up to his throne and got his blessing. A child of four-and-a-half with gorgeous officials and tents and everyone prostrating themselves. He sat up on his throne for three-and-a-half hours, absolutely self-possessed, without turning a hair.”

* * *

It seems astonishing that Richardson, one of the scholarly and adventurous young men sent out to rule India, is still thinking and writing on every aspect of Tibet, from its difficult classical language to the Chinese occupation. High Peaks, Pure Earth is a collection of sixty-five of his papers, the first one written in 1945 and the final ones in the early 1990s, and as Michael Aris, who has edited this volume, says in his introduction, “He continues to devote energy to yet further plans for publication.”

Born in 1905 in Scotland into a family with enough Indian connections that “India was always in the conversation,” Hugh Richardson entered the Indian Civil Service after Oxford. He was, he says, “monarch of all I surveyed in a district of over a million people,” until he was asked by a senior official, Sir Basil Gould, to accompany him to Lhasa in 1936. This was a move in the constant game between Britain and India on one hand and China on the other to retain political influence in Tibet. “We had to counter the Chinese,” Richardson told me. “We had a thousand miles of Indian-Tibetan frontier to look after and the Chinese had no right to be there; one had to have friends on that border. The Chinese had made certain claims to peoples south of it and we certainly didn’t want them there.”

Before the journey from India up to Lhasa by horse, Gould had instructed Richardson to travel to London to buy presents for the Tibetans. “I got them silver, watches, trays,” he recalled. “And he told me that when I returned to India I should get an elephant. I couldn’t.” Even without the elephant Gould “travelled in great style: huge tents—we called them Swiss cottages—an enormous caravan, bullock carts and huge staff, arms chairs, ponies, a spaniel.”

After a few months in Lhasa, Gould became ill and returned to India. “I stayed,” Richardson said. “We told the Tibetans that if the Chinese went, we’d go too. We were bargaining and the Tibetans balanced us against each other. We regarded the Chinese as having wormed their way in. They were represented by a rather sour chap. So stay I did, and there I remained, until the Dalai Lama was enthroned in 1940, when Basil Gould came up and I left.”

In 1939, when Richardson witnessed the child Dalai Lama’s arrival at a monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, he was told that the boy had been identified months earlier. The traditional story, given in the Dalai Lama’s two autobiographies and elaborated in the film Kundun, is that following the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s death in 1933 senior monks from Lhasa followed a trail of divinely inspired signs to a village in eastern Tibet where a two-year-old boy revealed himself to be the fourteenth Dalai Lama. He was said to have certain physical characteristics common to Dalai Lamas, and he singled out, with no mistakes, from a jumble of objects those, including spectacles and a mechanical pencil, which had belonged to his predecessor. Another, more secular, version of the story, based on the account of a surviving member of the search party, has it that his name had been put on a short list of candidates drawn up by the Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second-most-important spiritual figure.1

In any event, no one questioned the composure and presence of the child. Richardson was impressed. High Peaks, Pure Earth includes his on-the-spot dispatch for The Times of London: “The dignity and the self-possession of the child impressed everyone. He looked about calmly, seeming unmoved by the magnificence and as if he were in familiar surroundings…. Much of his attention was directed to a calm inspection of members of the British Mission as though he were trying to recall where he had seen such people before.” In another account, Richardson remembered, “…As I bent down for his blessing he took a pull at my hair. But a greater centre of amusement and interest were the rosy face and fair hair of Reginald Fox, the mission radio officer: the Dalai Lama felt his hair for quite a long time.”

* * *

After five years’ further service for the Indian government, in China and India, Richardson returned to Lhasa in 1946. There he had little contact with the Dalai Lama—“he was a minor,” he explained to me—but the Austrian Heinrich Harrer, the future author of Seven Years in Tibet and a favorite of the youthful Dalai Lama, “kept me fully informed. He could get on with anyone.” Richardson sent the Dalai Lama sweet peas and British films. “The other Tibetans loved comics, but the Dalai Lama said to send him anything about factories and no more comics. I sent him Olivier’s Henry the Fifth. I’d cut out the soliloquies, just keeping the action. He loved it and asked if he could have the book. I gave him a lovely india-paper edition.”

Some accounts of the Chinese invasion in 1950 criticize the tiny and ill-equipped Tibetan army for not resisting more sturdily. Others claim that Tibet had made a mistake in not modernizing its army with British advice. (In fact this had been attempted briefly in the Twenties, but conservative monks ended the experiment.) Richardson told me, “I think the Chinese would have broken through eventually, but they would have had a bloody nose if the Tibetans had had a proper army. No one likes to have a bloody nose. The Chinese might have treated the Tibetans slightly differently during the negotiations.”

Near the end of our conversation Richardson objected to Chinese accounts suggesting that in 1950 he had fled the invading army or even been thrown out by the Tibetans. “Not at all. I was serving Nehru. The Indians had kindly asked me to stay on after 1947. I was in Lhasa to keep the seat warm for the Indian government until they sent another official. I told the Indians it would not be a good thing for the Chinese to arrive in Lhasa and find India represented by me. So I was transferred, just before the Chinese came in.” (He added, “I took the opportunity when I left Lhasa to visit some good old monasteries and look at inscriptions.”)

Like other British bachelor officials in India (he married after his retirement to Scotland) during the Edwardian period, Richardson immersed himself in Tibetan life while scrupulously following the etiquette of Western and Tibetan diplomacy. “…A party at Lhasa,” he writes in High Peaks, Pure Earth,

could last from ten in the morning to ten at night and could go on for two days. We at the British Mission were allowed to join and leave at some suitable moment but we spent many hours enjoying delicious meals, leisurely games, mahjong and so on or walking in a garden park with a friend. It was all very easy and informal and made more enjoyable by the presence of our hostesses.

When he dealt with the Tibetan Foreign Office, he would go for “a ride of about half an hour with a suitably impressive retinue,” chatting with two ministers, one a monk and one a lay minister.

Time was unimportant and what might have been done elsewhere in half an hour would be a morning’s work…. They were also masters of procrastination and evasion and might assume the cloak of simple people with no experience of the ways of the outside world.

Most significant for Richardson, and this conviction reappears often in his writings, “…There could be no doubt that I was dealing with ministers of a government that was completely independent in both its internal and external affairs.” As he observed to me, “I always reminded the Chinese that Tibet had enjoyed de facto independence from 1911. That’s what I saw in my dealing with them.”

* * *

There are rare elegiac passages in High Peaks, Pure Earth in which Richardson emerges from behind his reserve. In these we see and feel a Tibet which is not the Shangri-La that has attracted Hollywood stars and other Westerners seeking transfiguration but a once-remote place inhabited by hospitable rural folk rather than monk-sages. Chaucer’s pilgrims would have found themselves at home in Tibet before the Chinese occupation, Richardson wrote in 1952. “On the roads of Tibet you may meet Chaucer’s knight in some country Tibetan nobleman, his sporting monk in a gay horse-loving lama, the prioress in an elegant nun of good family, and the wife of Bath may be seen in the merry wife of some well-to-do Tibetan trader. And in talking to these travellers you will find treated as commonplaces certain matters on which our scholars of medieval life make learned commentaries….”

In 1983, in another such reminiscence, Richardson wrote, “I don’t suppose that the bliss of travel in pre-Communist Tibet can be recaptured anywhere in the world.” In 1948 he was provided with an official entourage of four, including a groom “in a cloak trimmed with leopard fur.” Fifty miles by horse from Lhasa,

the atmosphere had changed. The gaiety and politeness were still here but the more tedious refinements of punctilio were replaced by a smiling simplicity…. Instead of the assertive young monks in Lhasa, swaggering in the consciousness of their authority, there were country boys turned monk…. Later in the evening they became farm boys again and went laughing to drive the cattle home to the monastery byre just below my window.

On that journey, pursuing his interest in ancient Tibet and its inscriptions, Richardson stayed in a monastery never before visited by a foreigner. He slept in a tiny room “crowded with my alien paraphernalia,” including “the welcoming sight of a bottle of whisky and a box of cigars.” After glancing at newspapers many days old, he turned to notes he made that afternoon of a ninth-century inscription in one of the world’s most obscure languages. In order to grasp the force of the next passage we must recall that Richardson is usually a man of great reserve:

A presence seemed to pervade the little room and to be gently but insistently demanding attention. …I seemed to be reading this with someone who was determined that I should understand and that I was discovering something it gave him pleasure to reveal. I was full of exaltation and sympathy; and after I had read all I could, I sat back, with a feeling of deep happiness.

Richardson learned the next day that a great ninth-century monk, Excellent Meditation, had founded the monastery. A monk told Richardson, “He laid his hand on this chapel.” “It seems,” Richardson mused, “that the spirit of holy men can pervade places they loved and sometimes reach through to touch others. Once in my life I think that happened to me.”

* * *

There is little of this evocation of the spiritual in the scholarly essays on inscriptions and other aspects of Tibetology that make up a large part of High Peaks, Pure Earth. Some pages are filled entirely with Tibetan transliterated into its Romanized equivalent, which probably only a handful of scholars can read. But even here the layman can find delightful insights. One of these is in a wonderful little essay, “Hunting Accidents in Early Tibet,” first published in 1990 (when Richardson was eighty-five) and based on manuscripts describing yak hunts in the late seventh century which contain words “unfamiliar in modern Tibetan.” In the hunts, mounted courtiers, men and women, surrounded and fired arrows at “a wild yak, immensely strong and protected by thick shaggy hair…. A wounded and infuriated yak could bring down a rider.” Yaks were also supposed, in non-Buddhist belief, to conduct the dead to the next world. One of the manuscripts stipulates the penalties imposed on those who caused death or injury to another person on the hunting field, where anyone in the circle surrounding a yak was likely to be struck by an arrow. These punishments, Richardson points out, illuminate the social hierarchies of the day. The highest officials were immune from the death penalty unless they declined to own up to having shot an arrow which killed someone. Others who wounded a great noble could be executed. There were also penalties for those who did not pull a hunter from under a wounded yak, and rewards for those who did. Some disgraced hunters were forced to wear “the coward’s fox-tassel,” and could be put to death. Cowardice, Richardson observes, was regarded as worse than killing someone with an arrow, thus reflecting “the stern standard of honour in a warlike society.”

One of the main attractions of Richardson’s book is the 130-odd-page Tibetan Precis, his official account of British-Tibetan relations beginning in the eighteenth century and continuing until 1944. This document, marked “Secret,” gives a concise history of Tibet. Only three original copies are known to exist, and High Peaks reproduces Richardson’s own. It outlines, from a British standpoint, the long competition with China for influence over Tibet, and discloses the occasional concealment from the Tibetans of British intentions, as well as Richardson’s brief but barbed criticisms of British failings. He notes for instance that between 1904 and 1910 “the Tibetans were abandoned to Chinese aggression,” and that “we were prepared to accept for the Tibetans without consulting them more than they themselves would have admitted.” Later he observes, “The relation which we have professed to recognise between China and Tibet is not recognised by either of these countries.”

This is an apt description of Britain’s policy today, which recognizes China’s “suzerainty” over Tibet but does not define it, while also describing Tibet as autonomous. And yet Richardson states—this is 1945, four years before the Communist victory in China and five before the Chinese invasion of Tibet—”We recognise and foster unostentatiously Tibet’s de facto independence by dealing directly with the Tibetan Government.” Richardson also emphasizes

China’s aim is to establish control over Tibet…. The method is largely to present Chinese hopes as accomplished facts, and to keep on assuring the Tibetans that they are members of the Chinese state. Other more practical activities are the education of border Tibetans and their employment as Chinese officials…. [They] claim a control over events in Tibet which is quite at variance with the truth.

The Chinese were slowly winning this propaganda war, Richardson wrote in 1944, and even their “tendentious” maps showing Tibet as a part of China were reproduced in the “map painted on the wall of the Council Chamber of His Excellency the Viceroy [of India].” This remains true of most British and other maps of Tibet and China.

* * *

What is absent from Richardson’s fifty years of writing about Tibet, including the sixty-five papers in this volume, is any sense of the misrepresentation, myth, and idealization which surrounds much if not most writing on the subject.2 Indeed, while respectful of Tibetan religion and devoting much of his life to documents infused with religious themes, Richardson wanted to demarcate “the frontiers of truth and falsity” in the chronicles of Tibet’s years of expansion in the seventh to the ninth centuries. This was the period when its armies and officials dominated parts of Western China and Tibetan cavalry briefly occupied the capital of the Tang, China’s greatest dynasty. He was attempting, as Michael Aris says in his introduction, to evaluate “the heavy piety and historical fantasy of the later chronicles.” Moreover, Aris writes, Richardson’s years of scrutinizing “the fluid orthography of early Tibetan scribbled in a great variety of hands on mutilated scraps of paper or incized on stone weathered and damaged by the passage of centuries have yielded supreme rewards to all who work in this field.”

Richardson, the Indian civil servant, carried out British policies that viewed Tibet as a buffer between China and India. But he anticipated the future. In 1951, a year after he left Lhasa for good, Richardson wrote that the Chinese, who had invaded Tibet the previous year, could occupy only a few “strategic centres,” and that in the rest of the vast Tibetan region they would meet opposition and resistance. Furthermore, and this is equally true today, he observed that “the Chinese must know they are unlikely to get hold of the Dalai Lama without a peaceful settlement.” He understood, as the Dalai Lama himself maintains, that “the present feudal system” would have to change, and that, if the Chinese had not invaded, this might have happened under “a strong and tactful ruler,” who would break the stranglehold of the monasteries “on the executive and…free a large number of men for work and for breeding.” But Buddhism, he insisted, must “remain as the master idea to unite the Tibetans as a distinct people.”3

In 1992 Richardson wrote that he hoped “the contagion” of freedom and democracy would spread from the new post-Soviet Muslim republics of Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, and Tajikstan and “spark off the end of Communist imperialism and Marxist dictatorship. May it come soon.” But I see little sign of freedom and democracy in those republics which are just as likely to inspire in China’s Muslim Xinjiang more of the violence which already sporadically breaks out there, and could lead to nothing helpful to Tibet. In any case, as Richardson told me flatly, and accurately, “The Chinese don’t want to give away their dominion over Tibet. They were knocked about by foreigners for a long time and now they want to recover their imperial prestige.”

It nearly surpasses belief that Hugh Richardson, who first entered Tibet by horse in 1936, continues to carry out research and to publish today. When High Peaks, Pure Earth was published a few months ago, the Tibetans at its publication party sang and danced in Richardson’s honor and hung about his shoulders a long white silk scarf, their traditional gesture of respect. Frail but alert, he accepted it with a slight smile and then sat silently and somewhat removed, one of the last remaining links to the Tibet that once was.

  1. Melvyn Goldstein gives an account of the Panchen Lama's role in his comprehensive A History of Modern Tibet (University of California Press, 1990). See my review in The New York Review, December 20, 1990.
  2. Two excellent works pursue and analyze this idealization: Peter Bishop, The Myth of Shangri-La: Tibet, Travel Writing and the Western Creation of Sacred Landscape (University of California Press, 1989), and Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (University of Chicago Press, 1998).
  3. This centrality of Buddhism is the theme of Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet, edited by Melvyn C. Goldstein and Matthew T. Kapstein (University of California Press, 1998). In his introduction, Goldstein states, "Tibetans were the only minority with an advanced civilization whom the emperors of China actually sought to learn from…. Religious sophistication and greatness, therefore, were at the heart of Tibetans' religious identity and self-image." He quotes from a letter sent in 1946 by the Tibetan government to President Chiang Kai-shek: "…There is only one nation which is dedicated to the well-being of humanity in the world and that is the religious land of Tibet which cherishes a joint spiritual and temporal system."