Traditional Tibetan Folk Tales

Tibetan Folk Tales - A.L. Shelton
Tibetan Folk Tales - A.L. Shelton

Albert L. Shelton was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on June 9th 1875, his parents soon after moved to Kansas where Shelton grew up. Shelton spent more than twenty years in Kham as a medical missionary and was particularly well respected among the Tibetans there but on a high mountain pass in 1922 Shelton was shot, apparently by a bandit, and died at the age of 46.  In 1923, Shelton’s widowed wife Flora published a biography on the life of her late husband entitled Shelton of Tibet. Then in 1925 Flora also compiled and published a collection forty-nine tales that had been gathered by Shelton during his trips among Tibetans.

The little stories in this book are told as the people sit around their boiling tea made over a three stone camp-fire. They are handed down from father to son, from mother to daughter, and though often filled with their superstitious beliefs, through them all run a vein of humor and the teachings of a moral truth which is quite unexpected.

When I was younger the fables I read and were familiar with were mostly those of Aesop’s fables and other Western authors. But I remember my father did use to tell me some of his own tales he knew from his childhood. One of these tales he used to tell me was of a rabbit and a lion. Surprisingly I found this same tale in this collection by Shelton in chapter eighteen entitled How the Rabbit Killed the Lion. Of course some of the details are different but the overall story and moral teaching is the same as I remember.

Here is a site which contains the contents of the entire book: Tibetan Folk Tales

I’ve only read a few of the tales but I find it very interesting because I think that they give us some insight into the morals and psyche of the Tibetans during Shelton’s time. Certainly much of this has still carried on through to the present day through their passing from father to son, in my own case, and mother to daughter, as mentioned by Shelton himself in the book’s introduction. In any case, I’m sure this collection of tales can be used by Tibetan parents who want to tell their children some truly traditional Tibetan tales.

*Albert L. Shelton had also published his own account of his travels and work in Tibet in 1921 entitled Pioneering in Tibet.


9 thoughts on “Traditional Tibetan Folk Tales

  1. Dan

    Thanks for the bit on Shelton, one of the world’s few Hoosier Tibetanists (even if he was also a Christian missionary and a doctor). It ought to be known that very many of the magnificent Tibetan art works that may be seen in the Newark Museum in New Jersey were purchased from him. This was one of the ways he supported his missionary work. Most of the objects were obtained in the region around Batang, and some of them had belonged to monasteries destroyed in warfare. The first batch of 150 objects came to the museum in 1911, and the exhibit was considered a very big success. Still today they have one of the most wonderful collections of Tibetan paintings to be found outside Tibet.

    Funny, I was just looking at the photo of the Jö Lama, a good friend of the Shelton family, and his wife on p. 55 of the Newark Tibetan Collection catalog, vol. 1, with a label saying “note Italian cigar box”). Actually, although there is Italian on the cigar-box lid, “La perla del oriente,” which makes sense even to non-Italian speakers, the cigars were made in the Phillipines. Look here for proof:

    I doubt Shelton or his friend were smoking them. In those days people admired the fancy colorful boxes and used them for all kinds of things. I used to use one for a pencil box.

    Shelton was shot by bandits on his way to see the Dalai Lama. He wanted to get H.H.’s permission to build a hospital in Lhasa. His missionary post was taken over by Marion Duncan, who also, like Mrs. Shelton especially, had a very keen interest in Tibetan popular literature and folklore. I think his books, too, are very much worth reading for this reason.

  2. Thanks for the interesting info. I did know that Shelton obtained a huge collection from Tibet. It’d be nice to go to the Newark Museum sometime and check it out.

  3. The latest blog at N.N.’s Shadow Tibet also has some information on Shelton. He was in eastern Tibet in very difficult times,and what he says there about Chinese torture is part of the gruesome story.

    Unfortunately, the Newark doesn’t generally display all their tangkas all at once like they did when H.H. the Dalai Lama visited some years ago (guess I was lucky).

  4. Carol Thomas Martinez

    I am the great granddaughter of Dr. Albert Shelton. My grandma was Dorothy Shelton Thomas. I remember her telling me some of the Tibetian folk tales as a child. One was called The Handra (can’t remember the spelling.) Anyway-it’s so neat to see so many people are interested in my family’s history. Would love to keep in touch. I did get the chance to visit the Newark Museum in 1989, seeing the Shelton collection first-hand.

  5. Choni Gyalpo

    It is very interest to know that Mr. Shelton was in Tibetan Kham Batang area in 1922. I have read few stories about Christian missionaries in Tibet but I didn’t know about him.

    In my home town Choni. My father used to tell about missionaries came and helped so many poor Tibetans, gave them medicine, foods and even money and clothes sometime.

    Some of the missionary tried so hard to convert local poor people to Christian but Tibetans only loved their help but not religion.

    Today, in my hometown there are still old house and some properties still exist as used by Christain missionaries in 1920-1940.

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