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Back to the future in Tibet

By Fraser Newham
23 August 2006 16:18
An account of an 18th-century British trade mission to Tibet offers interesting details on early Sino-Tibetan relations

Kate Teltscher doesn’t ask what 18th-century imperial envoy George Bogle might have thought of the newly opened Golmud-to-Lhasa railroad, a feat of Chinese engineering as impressive and controversial as the Three Gorges Dam. But the truth is he might just have approved; the 26-year-old Scotsman did, after all, enter Tibet on a trade mission, sent in 1774 by the British governor of Bengal to talk turkey with the Panchen Lama, open Tibet to British goods and, just maybe, forge a new route into the still-elusive Chinese market.

The High Road to China is Teltscher’s historical reconstruction of this effort, telling the story of two separate overland journeys. First we have Bogle’s passage through the plains and marshlands of viceregal Bengal, via the tensions of a Bhutan teetering on the brink of civil war, to the Himalayan plateaus of Tibet and the Panchen Lama’s monastic court; and then, five years later, the slow procession of the Panchen Lama to Qing Dynasty Beijing, to pay his respects at Emperor Qianlong’s birthday party where, aided by the presence of a British Indian agent, he was to bring Bogle’s request to the imperial ear.

A senior lecturer in English literature at London’s Roehampton University, Teltscher is an expert in early British attitudes toward India, and the Calcutta-based George Bogle is undoubtedly the star of her show. Her account of Bogle’s journey and time in Tibet relies heavily on the young man’s own expansive account, as he manages his bearers, decks himself out in Tartar furs, and flirts – and then some? – with a pair of tonsured Tibetan princesses.

For Bogle, the trip was the highlight of a spectacular but short-lived career, riding an imperial fast-track to influence and riches tailor-made for a young Briton with the right sort of zest for life. The son of a financially troubled family of Glasgow merchants, Bogle joined the East India Company as a clerk in 1770, aged 22. In Bengal he soon caught the eye of Warren Hastings, First Lord of Calcutta and the biggest imperial hitter in the East; by 1774 he was Hastings’ private secretary and, as star prot?g?, the man the governor chose to open diplomatic relations with Lobsang Palden Yeshe, fifth incarnation of the Panchen Lama and a living god.

Bogle’s story is aided by a strong supporting cast. The Panchen Lama – ambitious, shrewd and welcoming – affects the reader just as he did Bogle; the men become genuine friends. As British governor of Bengal, Hastings displays all the ruddy confidence that will lead to his attempted impeachment back in London 14 years later. And finally there is Emperor Qianlong – remote, deeply spiritual and, projecting magnificence by war and art from his Forbidden City in distant Beijing, the most powerful man in the world.

These days the West may have largely forgotten George Bogle. But for Tibetans and Han Chinese these two meetings that Teltscher re-creates have a very real political significance. Qianlong’s audiences with the Panchen Lama, first at the imperial resort town of Chengde and then in Beijing, have been regularly revisited; in particular, opposing sides have leaped on conflicting accounts of the protocol of the first meeting, each presented as evidence of the “true nature” of Beijing’s relationship with Tibet. Everyone agrees that Qianlong was devoted to Tibetan Buddhism; but did the Lama kowtow before him, as the Chinese historical record suggests – or, as the Tibetan record would have it, did Qianlong behave in the manner of a disciple welcoming his religious master? Certainly Teltscher is sensitive to the broader significance of the events she describes. She places Bogle’s trade venture in the wider context of late-18th-century British efforts to expand Chinese trade (at the time restricted to a toehold in Guangzhou) in the lead-up to Lord Macartney’s visit to Beijing in 1793, which was doomed to failure despite then being the most expensive British diplomatic mission of all time. In an epilogue she relates how Bogle’s own mission has now become a diplomatic football – in the first years of the 21st century, the Chinese Foreign Ministry even posted an account of Bogle’s undertaking on its website to demonstrate that, whatever the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair is saying, Britain had traditionally recognized Chinese sovereignty in Tibet.

At times, though, the author pulls her punches. Her final chapter details the Panchen Lama’s death by smallpox, four months after his arrival at court; with a succession crisis threatening to engulf the Tibetan world, as Teltscher recounts, Qianlong offered his Tibetan subjects the gift of a golden urn, intended to be the centerpiece of a ceremonial lottery then and in future times of crisis. Yet even though the urn provides this final chapter with its name, we hear nothing of the part this gift would play in Tibet’s turbulent final years of 20th century.

In 1995 the search for the 11th Panchen Lama culminated with Beijing and the Dalai Lama’s government in exile proclaiming rival child candidates, and Chinese officials seized on Qianlong’s urn as a symbol of legitimacy and sovereignty, physically placing it at the very heart of their stage-managed ceremony. Meanwhile, as the authorities wheeled out the antiques, the Dalai Lama’s candidate (who also lived in mainland China) was placed in detention, publicized at the time by pressure groups as the youngest political prisoner in the world. His whereabouts remain unclear today.

A more political approach might also have taken the opportunity to compare British imperial intentions with those of the Han Chinese settlers for whom Tibet has emerged as a land of opportunity, a place where salaries are three times those in the heaving cities of Sichuan, Anhui and beyond. Western commentators routinely bemoan the spread of characterless Chinese architecture in Tibetan cities – yet if Bogle had succeeded, Lhasa today might look more like an Indian hill-fort town than Lanzhou, perhaps complete with old statues of Queen Victoria in the spots where Chinese tourists now pose for holiday photos. A fair-minded, humane young man like Bogle might well have decried human-rights abuses and the economic disadvantages with which many Tibetans currently contend, but he might not have denied an honest trader the right to set up his shop.

For her part, Teltscher is more interested in telling a good story, and invoking time and place; and in Bogle she has certainly found a likable and interesting guide. In the Scotsman’s hands the monastery town of Tashilhunpo becomes a magical place among the clouds, as he idles for six months with the Panchen Lama and his circle while awaiting the melting of the snows. His letters home bring out both the intense spirituality of the Tibetan way of life, and also the hearty welcome he receives from his good-humored hosts. “When I look upon the time I have spent among the hills,” he writes, “it appears like a fairy dream.”

Only six years after his return, Bogle’s life would be cut short, in tragic farce – slipping as he left his rooftop bath at his Calcutta home. But he was the first to write in English of Tibet in such glowing terms; and ultimately his view stuck, contributing to contemporary ideas of Tibet as the Himalayan paradise. As a literature specialist, Teltscher is at her best showing how Bogle’s writing reflected the intellectual currents of his age – and how it influenced later generations, from the character of Rudyard Kipling’s Teshoo Lama to Lost Horizon, James Hilton’s best-selling novel of the 1930s in which Bogle’s view of Tibet resurfaces as the hidden kingdom of Shangri-la.

This might just be Bogle’s most enduring legacy – after all, the Tibetan cause retains a powerful sense of romance, and popular opinion in the West generally holds to the narrative of a paradise under threat, as witnessed once again in reporting of the completion of the Golmud-Lhasa railway last month. Teltscher may be most interested in her 18th-century protagonists and their own mental worlds, but she raises issues that powerfully inform our understanding of one of the prickly issues of our time.

The High Road to China: George Bogle, the Panchen Lama and the First British Expedition to Tibet

• By Kate Teltscher, Bloomsbury, London

• 316 pages

• 750 baht

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