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23 Jan 2024
updated 23 Jan 2024

L. Austine Waddell's Lhasa and its Mysteries: With an Account of the Expedition of 1903-04

A critique by Walter Corbiere

L. Austine Waddell describes Lhasa and Central Tibet as inaccessible and dangerous. In the account, Waddell exotizes the Tibetans, who were described as "dreamy hermit-people" (v.), built them up as barbarous, their predictions as prescient, their customs as ancient and highly unique. He discusses the bravery of the British troops and British Colonel Younghusband (1863-1942) in glowing terms. He discusses the British Regiment's peaceful intentions and describes the Tibetans as forcing them to fight in rhetoric remarkably reminiscent of the descriptions found in a recent Chinese propaganda tract by Wang Jiawei and Nyima Gyaincain, The Historical Status of China's Tibet (China Intercontinental Press, 1997).

The arrogance of Waddell's account astounds. It pervades nearly every statement and question. Descriptions of the battle exude contempt for the Tibetan soldiers and others:

"It was especially pathetic to see the wounded Tibetans expecting us to kill them outright, as they frankly said they would have done to us, kowtowing with out-thrust tongues, holding up their thumbs in mute appeal for mercy, and groveling in the dust to the humblest of our passing coolies" (160)

Waddell includes long appendices, and he ranges through as many subjects as he could find, applying an inquisitive energy and thirst for detail: politics, topography, geography, customs, dress, agriculture, mining possibilities, economic status of Tibet, Tibetan purchasing behavior (Tibetans only buy tea in bricks of dried tea leaves and twigs), religious practices (such as sky burial), as well as detailed itineraries of the trip and lists of its provisions, progress and elevations at different times are all included.

The language in Waddell's descriptions of Tibet gives a very different feel than do the terms currently in use to describe Tibet. The terms feel like approximations and produce very different perceptions. Modern terms seem in general to be much more Tibet-specific, where Waddell relates Tibetan ideas more directly to Western concepts, calling Lamas "Priest-kings" and the Dalai Lama the "Pope-King" or "Grand Lama." Many of the descriptions exoticize or aggrandize the subjects they discuss.

Waddell organizes his account thematically. The present summary intends to provide an overview of the account chapter by chapter.

Considering that Waddell also tried to enter the area of the "Lhasa Government" "in disguise" in 1892 and that the "attempt to reach the mystic citadel failed," (v) this similarity of language between Waddell's account and Burton's from 50 years earlier could have an intentional connection.

Waddell draws distinctions between the monks at Tashilhunpo monastery and the Central Tibetan government in Lhasa, relating that S. Chandra Das was aided in entering Lhasa by monks at Tashilhunpo monastery, and that a "good-hearted old monk" was beaten in the public market daily then eventually murdered for helping to get Chandra Das into Lhasa. The news of the monk's part in helping Chandra Das had reached Lhasa fully a year after it occurred.

Waddell focuses on reincarnation, and the ability of the "Grand Lama" to outlaw the offending monk's ability to "transmigrate" (reincarnate), although Waddell describes a child being born without a left knee-cap, implying that this child must be the reincarnation of the offending Lama, as evidenced by this "extraordinarily rare abnormality." Waddell seems to believe reincarnation, specifically this monk's line of reincarnation, while simultaneously not believing that the "Grand Monk" can actually control it. Perhaps Waddell's intent here is to tear down the power of the "Grand Lama" in an instance where it runs counter to British interests, while building up the reincarnation of a monk who helped further the British understanding and infiltration of Lhasa.

In general, Waddell speaks about Christians with the closest affinity. When he describes the Capuchin missions, he undercuts his own assertion that Lhasa was simply "forbidden" to foreigners when he describes the mission: "They [the Capuchin missionaries] were, in 1724, allowed to build a chapel in Lhasa, which the Grand Lama, who held many friendly arguments with these fathers, himself visited, and was deeply impressed by what he saw there."

Waddell does provide blunt analyses of the predicament of the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Dalai Lamas, after 1750 when the Chinese Ambans [The Manchu Qing's imperial envoys] "murdered" the Regent after he "displeased" them.

From this time onwards it is remarkable that the poor Dalai Lama was made to transmigrate [reincarnate] very rapidly. He always died young. He never succeeded in attaining his majority, but always remained a minor and died a minor. No sooner did the young Dalai reach the age of eighteen, the age of majority in the East, than he invariably died in a mysterious manner, thus necessitating the accession of a new-born infant, and so prolonging the term of office of the Regent. In this way there was always a Regent in charge of the government, and he worked in collusion with the Chinese Ambans. The limit of life of the last four Dalai Lamas has been eleven, eighteen, eighteen, and eighteen years respectively; these figures speak for themselves.

Waddell seems to have fudged his numbers here, but his logic is sound. The accepted numbers for the ages of the Dalai Lamas these days are closer to ten, twenty-one, eighteen, seventeen.

For, notwithstanding the magnificent defense which the Himalayas afford to India on the East, it is not the Himalayas but the vast and lofty plateau to the north of them and of Tibet, the great desert wall of the Kuen Lun [Kunlun] plateau (see map) which forms India's scientific frontier against the great rival power in the Central Asian lowlands, namely Russia. This vast and stupendously high plateau of Kuen Lun is indeed an effective barrier between the two great rival empires of mid-Asia.

This statement supports the statement in Wang and Nyima's The Historical Status of China's Tibet: "To subdue the Tibetan authorities and rule out the possibility of Russia having a finger in the pie, the British plotted the second armed invasion of Tibet." (85-6)

The rhetoric that Waddell uses in Chapter IV mirrors directly the rhetoric used by Wang and Nyima when they say they were "forced to fight [the] Qamdo [Chamdo] battle." The author describes the mission, bizarrely, as "peaceful" simply because the mission would not have fought if it had gotten what it wanted.

General MacDonald engages in a kind of pre-emptive disarmament. "As several of the Tibetans were seen fingering their loaded matchlocks menacingly General Macdonald deemed it necessary for the safety of the Mission to disarm them, and passed an order to that effect . . . " MacDonald felt this necessary even though, moments before, the "Depon rode out and said that his men had orders not to fire, and that the General and the Mission could come up to the walls."

Waddell, again, uses the word "Mission" to describe the British force even though he has just described a parley between Generals and demands from each. Also, Waddell's translation of the "Depon's" statement looks particularly dubious in one respect: The Depon might have said something more like, "my men have orders not to fire until you pass the walls" or "anywhere before the walls is all right to stop" but the Depon probably wasn't recommending putting two armed forces within punching distance of each other. General MacDonald had good incentive to misunderstand this statement (if it's accurately recounted) as an invitation to come up to the walls, to provoke a standoff.

Waddell goes on to explain that he was actually inspecting the Tibetans' tents when he heard the first sign of scuffle, and was on his way back to the British side when he heard the first shot. He describes the Sikhs as being tasked to take away the Tibetans' guns, resulting in the Tibetans resisting, throwing rocks and eventually the "Lhasa General" shooting a Sikh's jaw off with a revolver, signaling an "attack" against which the British forces "retaliated."

With pride and self-satisfaction, Waddell recounts the immediate groveling response of the Ambans and the Tibetan government once they hear about the outcome of the battle. "Neither the Ambans nor the Tibetans seemed to have realized that under the soft glove of the peaceful commercial Mission they would find the strong hand of Britain's might." In addition, both parties signed a treaty of peace, and agreed to release prisoners (419). After the signing of the treaty, Waddell seemed to feel ease and processed to relate his "rambles around Lhasa," which comprises most of Chapter XXII. He observed daily life in Lhasa, such as "Harvesters-Wildflowers-Villas" and "Plays-Dogs-Salutations" (421-2).

Waddell also relates former acts of British Imperial benevolence: "Most of the gardens grow excellent potatoes, which are probably the produce of those which Warren Hastings with benevolent foresight instructed the Bogle Mission of 1774 to plant at every camp they halted at." (422)

The author also describes sky burial with distaste and humor.

Near the foot of the hills might occasionally be seen the gruesome way in which the Tibetans dispose of their dead. A man carries the dead body doubled up in a sitting posture and tied in a piece of a tent or blanket, deposits it on the recognized place on a rock, and then he and the attendant Lama proceed to cut off the flesh in pieces, so that the vultures and ravens can devour it. As Manning quaintly puts it, when protesting against their close game laws: "They eat no birds, but, on the contrary, let the birds eat them."

This interaction gives several different insights into the culture clash occurring. Not only does the author describe the "gruesomeness," but also he makes no mention of the spiritual underpinnings of the process. He seems not to have made an inquiry into the religious significance, or chose not to share it. At the same time, referring to "close [strict] game laws," he doesn't mention possibilities of religious significance there either. Finally, much like the producers of early communist literature and cinema about Tibet since the 1950s, Waddell doesn't seem to have grasped the significance of the tongue exposure as a sign of respect. In total, despite his extensive travels around the outskirts of Tibet, Sikkim and Nepal in the 1890s and at least some grasp of Tibetan, he doesn't show a good grounding in the religious or folk practices that give rise to some Tibetan cultural behaviors. This seems intentional for this popularizing this work. His most famous work, Buddhism of Tibet or Lamaism, With Its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology and in Its Relation to Indian Buddhism (1895), focuses obviously on Buddhism.

Similarly, he labels wrathful Tibetan deities as "devils," either for the shock value, to bring the paradigm closer to something Westerners are familiar with, or because he has not learned these deities' nature and purpose to practicing Tibetan Buddhists. The author includes a picture of Palden Lhamo and describes her as "Lhamo, the She-Devil."

While "Fauna of Central and South-Western Tibet" occupies twelve pages in an Appendix, the Appendix for imports and exports runs only two and a half pages. He elaborates on the Tibetan Calendar, Drama, and reproducing the text of the "Deposition of the Dalai Lama by the Chinese."

He states that "large gold mines undoubtedly exist in Tibet, but their extent cannot be ascertained until that country is fully explored by Europeans." (474) This perception of the intrinsic superior analytical value of Europeans nicely counterbalances the much more recent assertions against the British by Wang and Nyima when they discuss this same 1903 Mission ("Invasion"): "The door to Tibet was finally jarred open for the British, which leads to the economic plunder that is their nature. (84-5 Historical Status of China's Tibet)

Waddell expresses self-importance in the preface about his work on the photography. "Among the wealth of photographs of this book, all taken by myself, with one or two exceptions, are some unique ones, direct from Nature, by the "colour-process," . . ." (vii) This tone strikes me as pretentious. It was unappreciative to mention the "few" exceptions without saying the names of the individuals who took them. Also, one unattributed photograph, "Tibetan Block-Wall at Guru, One Minute Before the Fight," could not have been taken by Waddell but is not attributed to anyone else. Waddell says he was on the Tibetan side looking around when he heard the scuffle, then hustled back to the British side just about the time that the first shot was fired. But this picture was supposedly taken one minute before the fight broke out. The camera they brought with them was not a Polaroid, and takes time to set up and break down, and the camera's position in this photo is more toward the British side than the Tibetan anyway, with no sign of a scuffle having begun. If Waddell took this photo himself, then he was not where he said he was in the account. The more likely answer is that one of his aides was behind the camera and has not been attributed.

Wang Jiawei and Nyima Gyaincain's The Historical Status of China's Tibet (China Intercontinental Press, 1997)