Kunming, Lhasa, Chengdu, Berlin: Sources on Tibetan 20th Century History

Now that the minzu (ethnicity) question is so centrally on the table in China, it is a good time to be looking to the past, for roots of current disputes and opportunities to overcome that multifarious and often very wounded past. Just as the events in Kunming need to be embedded into their regional context, we also need to look to history.

By the Power of Goldstein | In preparing lectures for a Mao and Modern China course I am presently teaching at Leeds University, I was reviewing my notes about modern Tibet, specifically the entrance of the People’s Liberation Army into Lhasa and the period of accommodation prior to 1959.

Above all, I because very excited when I found out that Melvyn Goldstein’s Volume 3 of his monumental History of Modern Tibet was published in California this past November, 2013. It covers the years 1955-1957; an excerpt from the text can be found on the publisher’s website (via the link in this paragraph). To my knowledge, the book has not yet been reviewed in the standard journals, and there has been very little buzz about it, but it is surely deserving of any and all attention.

My previous posts on this website about Goldstein’s Volume 2 can be accessed here and here, inspired by scholars like Greg Youtz, a professor at Pacific Lutheran University who is an annual traveler to Tibet.

German Sources on pre-1951 Tibet | According to my Chengdu notes, in 1938-39, there were two SS expeditions into Tibet which included Ernst Schaefer; his colleague Bruno Berger was interested in head measurements. A film entitled Geheimnis Tibet based upon Schaefer’s footage was released in 1942.

In his chapter entitled “Tibetan Horizon: Tibet and the Cinema in the Early Twentieth Century,” (Imagining Tibet, pp. 91-110), scholar Peter H. Hansen describes some German cinematic fascination with Tibet in the 1930s.  A film entitled Möche Tänzer und Soldaten im Reich des Buddhas (1937; its title is rendered a bit strangely by Hansen), is available in Filchner Haus in Göttingen. Other German films on Tibet 1929 to 1935 are at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Hansen also located various German films on Tibet from all periods are at the Kunst und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal German Republic).

A couple of other potentially fascinating articles briefly cited by Hansen include:

Reinhard Greve, « Das Tibet-Bild der Nationalsozialiste » in Thierry Dodin and Heinz Raaether, eds., Mythos Tibet: Wahrnemungen, Projektionen, Phantasien (Cologne: Du Mont, 1997), pp. 104-113.

Reinhard Greve, „Tibetforschung im SS-Ahnenerbei,“ in Thomas Hauscheld, ed., Lebenslust und Fremdenfurcht. Ethnologie im Dritten Reich. (Frankfurt am Main: a.M. Shurkamp, 1995), pp. 168-189.

Hansen (p. 93) describes how Tibetan government officials were a bit horrified at a foreign film made in 1924 of “dancing lamas,” and were self-conscious of such portrayals of Tibetan exoticism to the outside world.  On the flip side, Hansen describes how the Austrian journeyman Heinrich Harrer showed a film in the Norbulinka to the Dalai Lama in 1950 about the Japanese surrender (p. 103), an encounter which binds together multiple narratives into a single dense event pregnant with symbolism.

Imagining Tibet | Among the films about Tibetan history in the 20th century, two should be mentioned: Annaud’s 7 Years in Tibet (1997) and Scorcese’s Kundun (also 1997)

One wonders how the directors would respond to the more factual arguments put forth by John Powers in  Imagining Tibet (p. 141?):

In 1990, Tibetans were 9th of the 56 Nationalities [in terms of population, totaling] 4.6 million. [This equals] .4% of total PRC population, and 5% of all ethnic minorities (Zhuang were #1 with 15.5 million)…In 2000, there were a total of 106.4 million minorities, making them 8.4% of the population, up slightly percentage wise from 8% in 1990.

The focus of Powers’ essay is on sexy, exoticized minorities. But if they are idolized, then we might ask, as Alfred Gell does, “What do idols see, when they look?” (Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998], p. 118).

Gould and the British Expertise | Sir Basil Gould was not just an important British diplomat active in and around Tibet, but also a linguist. He co-authored a book with Hugh Richardson, entitled Tibetan Word Book; Tibetan Sentances; Tibetan Syllables; Tibetan Verb Roots (Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1943). This is precious expertise. Gould plays an important if small role in another project I’m presently working on with respect to a young Chinese Tibetologist and translator and his view of Lhasa in the quiet but critical years of 1945-1949.

Miscellaneous Sources | James Cooper, “Western and Japanese Visitors to Lhasa: 1900-1950,” The Tibet Journal Vol. 28, No. 4, pp. 91-94.

Isrun Engelhardt, ed. Tibet in 1938-39

_______________. “Tibetan Triangle” Asiatische Studien (2004).

________________. „Mishandled Mail: the Strange Case of the Reting Regent’s Letters to Hitler,“ Zentralasiatische Studien Vol. 37 (2008): 77-106.

Bruno Berger, Mit der deutschen Tibetexpedition Ernst Schaefer 1938/39 nach Lhasa (Wiesbaden, 1998).

Martin Braven, ed. Peter Aufshaiter’s Eight Years in Tibet. Bankok: 2002.

Gruenfelder, Alice. An den Lederriemen geknotete Seele. Erzaehler aus Tibet: Tashi Dawa, Alai, Sebo. Zurich: Unionsverlag, 1997.

Finally, the controversial Reting Rinpoche supposedly wrote two letters to Hitler which are in the Bundesarchiv — though these sources are not discussed in Goldstein’s Volume 1. According to Peter Hansen, Reting (who was instrumental in finding the 14th Dalai Lama in the mid-1930s) also is said to have taken photos with Schaefer. Given the fixation that some Chinese scholars and enthusiasts seem to possess for linking the current Dalai Lama with anything evil, but particularly the Nazis, perhaps this is something to keep an eye open for in the Chinese journal literature on Tibetan history.

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