British Perceptions of Tibet in the late 19th to the early 20th century

For centuries Tibet has been a place of intrigue in Western minds. From as early as the time of Herodotus (484-425 BCE) the mythical perceptions of Tibet were already present in the West. In Herodotus’s third book of his work Histories apodeixis he describes fox-sized ants who would lived nearby tribes of people who lived north of the Indians. The fox-sized ants would dig up the sand to construct their underground homes while unearthing amounts of gold dust in the process. In the mornings gold-seekers would quickly come to gather up as much sand as possible before fleeing from the pursuing giant ants.1

As centuries passed the beliefs associated with Tibet in the West were no longer confined solely to these types of “mythical” and “mystical” beliefs, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the British perceptions of Tibet were now not only based from that of myth but also of historical images derived mainly from the academic research of British officials. The British perceptions of Tibet and Tibetans during this period were diverse, and in some cases conflicted by opposing perceptions, but they were largely rooted or influenced by British imperialist aims. To many British perceptions, Tibet was a mysterious and unexplored frontier that intrigued curiosities, imperialist desires, as well as fears; to others Tibet was the land of a people who were believed to be an immoral, dirty, ignorant and over-religious race of people; and to others Tibet was the land of a degenerative form of Buddhism that acted as a blinding influence on the Tibetan people with a despotic ruling class of Lamas who extorted the Tibetan people. However, although the British perceptions of Tibet in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were diverse, they were heavily influenced by the imperialist colonial desires of the British.

The Mysterious and Unexplored Tibet

Tibet and Lhasa in particular, during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries had been romanticized and portrayed by the West as being an unexplored land of mystery. During this period, L. Austine Waddell, a British explorer, was considered as one of the main authorities on Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. During the British 1903-04 invasion of Tibet, Waddell served as the cultural consultant in Colonel Sir Francis Edward Younghusband’s expeditionary force. After his participation in the expedition, Waddell published an account of Tibet and its people from his first-hand experiences. In his book he described Lhasa as:

Wreathed in the romance of centuries…the secret citadel of the “undying” Grand Lama, has stood shrouded in impenetrable mystery on the Roof-of-the-World, alluring yet defying our most adventurous travellers to enter her closed gates. With all the fascination of an unsolved enigma, this mysterious city has held the imagination captive, as one of the last secret places on earth, as the Mecca of East Asia, the sacerdotal city where the “Living Buddha” enthroned as god, reigns eternally over his empire of tonsured monks, weaving their ropes of sand like the schoolmen of old, or placidly twirling their prayer wheels, droning their mystic spells and exorcising devils in the interval so their dreamy meditations.2

With all of this fascination and mystery, Tibet had held the Western imaginations as one of the last unexplored and most secret places on earth. It was this conception of Tibet that appealed to both Viceroy of India Lord Curzon and Colonel Sir Francis Edward Younghusband, who were both instigators of the 1903-04 British invasion and explorers and imperialists who favoured an adventurist foreign policy. The intrigue of Tibet’s mystery that captured Curzon’s adventurist spirit is well recorded by Waddell who quotes Curzon as having described Tibet as “the one mystery which the nineteenth century has still left to the twentieth to explore.”3 Both Curzon and Younghusband were determined to explore Lhasa but had to find political ploys to justify their action.4 According to historian Julia Trott, the expedition had derived its historical and cultural importance from the policy of exclusion that had been imposed by Tibet’s suzerain China which resulted in the creation of romanticized perceptions of Tibet by foreigners who saw Lhasa as a object of intense curiosity and mystery.

By the late nineteenth century reaching Lhasa “first” had become an obsessive “race” among Europeans, much like the races to find the headwaters of the Nile or reach the North and South Poles. According to Swedish Explorer Sven Hedin, by the turn of the twentieth century European explorers “were drawn to Tibet in part by the urge to fill in the white space on the map where no humans but Tibetans had even been before.”5 Therefore, the British expedition into Tibet in 1903-04 had more than a military and diplomatic meaning, Curzon and Younghusband wanted the prestige of having Britain reach Lhasa first.6

The Great Game

The Great Game: A Glance at the Russian and British Indian Frontiers

The mysteriousness of Tibet also played into the British fears in the context of the “Great Game” against the expanding Russian Empire. In January 1801, Tsar Paul I, the son of Catherine the Great, an invasion force of 22,000 men across the mountains and deserts of Central Asia towards India.7 It was no secret to the British that the Russians even before Paul’s reign had coveted British India, but this was the first time Britain had seen threatening actions on the part of Russia towards her imperial holding in Asia. The Tsar’s invasion eventually ended in failure and was recalled a few months later, however many historians view this event as the impetus for what came to be known as “The Great Game” (a term coined by British intelligence officer, Arthur Conolly). “The Great Game” was a struggle between the British and Russian Empire over control of Central Asia. It was an “undeclared war fought out in the lonely passes and deserts of Central Asia between Britain and Russia, and for a brief period Germany.”8 Operatives would disguise themselves as horse-traders or even holy men, and young officers from both sides gathered political intelligence, explored and mapped secret passes, and sought the allegiance of powerful khans and tribal leaders. “Throughout the nineteenth century Russia’s Asiatic policy had been canny, successful and (within a framework of opportunism) consistent.”9 The Russian Empire conquered the crumbling Khanates of Khiva, Bokhara, Khokand, subdued the hill-tribes of the Caucasus and forced the kingdoms between the Black Sea and the Caspian to acknowledge Russian sovereignty. “In Genghis Khan’s time it had been Asia’s armies that were better armed, better trained, and better led than any they encountered on the periphery of Europe; now the boot was on the other foot.”10 By the nineteenth century this change of events for Russia was at its height and the stimulation of expansion previously under Peter the Great showed no sign of slowing down and had even carried the Russian Empire across the Pacific into Alaska. “What started as a quest for security, dictated by the need to drive back and contain the forces of Asiatic barbarism which had threatened Russia’s very existence for so long, had become a gigantic foray into empty or ill-defended lands.”11

Of all the European powers, Great Britain was most directly affected by this large over spill of Russian expansion. By the end of the nineteenth century Russia’s expansion into Central Asia allowed her to threaten Britain’s colonial holdings. Russia’s border expansion had spread until they had become adjacent with India’s, and this created a large amount of tension on British India while also giving Russia more influence in the West because of her holdings in the East. Mikhail Skobelev, a Russian general famous for his conquest of Central Asia, was famous for having stated at the time that, “the stronger Russia is in Central Asia, the weaker England is in India and the more conciliatory she will be in Europe.”12 Russia expansion was continuing and few Englishmen believed that her eastward progression could be halted by prudence, exhaustion or any other cause. Her position in Central Asia challenged British prestige and interests all over Asia, particularly India, where the British where the British were still in fear of more mutinies in India after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Near the eventual end of Victoria’s reign in 1901, a clash between both empires seemed highly inevitable.13

Viceroy Lord Curzon believed that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet had a secret understanding with the Tsar of Russia.14 He also believed that, behind the backs of the British, the Russians had worked out an understanding with Tibet’s political masters, the Manchu rulers of China and that the land of the Lama was now up for grabs. Lord Curzon had the impression that this was all part of Russia plans to dominate Asia. He wrote in 1901, ‘I assert with confidence-what I do not think any of [Russia’s] own statesmen would deny-that her ultimate ambition is the dominion of Asia;’ and he went on to argue that ‘if Russia is entitled to these ambitions, still more is Britain entitled, nay compelled, to defend that which she has won.’15

Therefore, the Viceroy Curzon had developed a mistrust of the Tibetans who he now began see as deceitful in their supposed dealings with the Russian enemy. The 1903-04 expedition into Tibet was thus a means of defending Britain’s colonial holdings on the Indian subcontinent and in Asia in general from the hostile Russians and the deceitful Tibetans who had been collaborating with them. Tibet was a vital geographic location, so near and capable of attacking India if it fell under Russian control. It had served as a natural barrier for the British against the great rival power of Russia and Viceroy Curzon dispatched the 1903 expedition with the intent of keeping it this way. In 1793 a Chinese army of over 70,000 men had crossed the Himalayas from Tibet into Nepal on the Indian side, via the Kirong Pass of about 16,000 feet, and had dealt a crushing defeat on the Gurkhas near their capital.16 With this understanding the British knew Tibet could be used as a penetrable frontier to attack India and so it could not allow Tibet to be acquired by any hostile power.

If Russia was allowed to establish herself in the rich valley of Lhasa or exert influence in the region, then it would have far-reaching political effects all along the British eastern frontier for over a thousand miles, in the north from Ladakh to Kashmir and in the south from Nepal to Assam. This could have also possibly led to a combination of Himalayan states siding with the Russians against British India, and also could prove militarily costly for Britain who would have to go to enormous lengths to ensure that the eastern frontier was fortified, and that the standing army of tens of thousands of men would have to be substantially increased.17

Curzon’s convictions about the Russian involvement in Tibet were not based on academic studies or substantial material evidence but rather they were based on his experience with witnessing Russian policy at work on her Asiatic frontiers from Persia to Peking. He was one of the first foreigners to travel along Russia’s new strategic railway from the Caspian to Samarkand in 1888 and noted that “the whole of Russian Central Asia was ‘one vast armed camp’ and that in the Russian newspapers photographs of this line were invariably captioned ‘On the Road to India.’”18

The reality of the Russian threat via Tibet’s deceit was realistically never certain by the British at the time, but Lord Curzon remained adamant in his judgement derived from his suspicions. Agvan Dorgief, a Buryat Mongol from Russia’s Trans-Baikal region, who became the Dalai Lama’s ‘roving ambassador’ to the court of Tsar Nicholas II (r.1894-1917), was believed by Lord Curzon to be a ‘sinister figure’, ‘an eminence noire’, “who had wormed his way into the Tsar’s confidence as well as the Dalai Lama’s.”19 Contrary to what Curzon believed, Agvan Dorgief was actually a man of great learning who had set his heart on teaching Buddhist values and had established a Buddhist temple at St. Petersburg. Dorjief also sought to persuade the Tibetan ruler and his people to inch closer together. “The compact he allegedly concluded on the Dalai Lama’s behalf and the arms and men the great white Tsar is said to have promised to fight Tibet’s battles against British aggrandizement, turned out to be no more than figments of a fevered imagination.”20 The absence of any Russian Cossacks fighting alongside the Tibetan irregulars during the British expedition’s confrontation with the Tibetan forces, along with the old weaponry being used by the Tibetans, was the clearest confirmation for the British that Lhasa had not received any secret foreign assistance. According to historian Parshotam Mehra, the Lhasa expedition was one the ‘most pointless’ of British India’s military adventures and was also ‘a classic example of perceptions and misperceptions’ to dictate intelligence assessment.21 Nonetheless Curzon’s beliefs of Tibet’s secret dealings with the Russian enemy acted as one of the main catalysts for the British expedition. As a result Tibet became associated with a negative image of being deceitful, untrustworthy, as was seen in Curzon’s writings about Tibet after the expedition. This sentiment was also perceived by many of the expeditions participants and in many other accounts of the expeditions, Tibetans were portrayed as the obstructionists, and the use of violence was deemed as validated.

As Dibyesh Anand explained in his book Exotica Tibet , this portrayal of Tibet as the last unexplored frontier served the imperialist representational practice of eroticizing Tibet. Tibet was described as being “untouched by white men,” a “virgin in the field of inquiry,” and after Britain had invaded Lhasa in 1903-04, Hedin described the expedition as “the rape of Lhasa,” and consequently wrote that he lost “the longing that had possessed [him] to penetrate the Holy City.”22 “The attitudes of European travelers to Tibet was “almost voyeuristic,” the most commonly expressed aim being to “get a peep’ at Tibet, or at Lhasa.”Once the British expedition had succeeded and Lhasa had been “penetrated” by the British, Tibet had lost her metaphorical “virginity” and her “virginal state” had been “defiled by foreign invasion”. Thus so declined her mysteriousness among the West.

The Tibetan People

In 1901 The Living Races of Mankind was published. The book was compiled from various “eminent” specialists, and it gave illustrated accounts of the “customs, habits, pursuits, feasts & ceremonies of the races of mankind throughout the world.”23 Within the book, the section dedicated to Tibet was written by A. H. Savage Landor, an Englishman who had traveled to Tibet in 1897. Landor describes the Tibetans as a deeply religious “race”, hostile towards strangers, very ignorant, immoral, and very dirty. He describes Tibet women as repulsive, unattractive, and having little to be admired. The only praise he has for them is that they are “vastly superiour in many ways to the Tibetan male, as she possesses a better heart, more courage, and a finer character.”24 This practice of classifying cultures or “races” was a very important tool for Western imperialism. By creating these classifications, imperialist could police discourse, assign positions, regulate groups, and enforce boundaries.25 It allowed the imperialist to classify the “Other” as barbarian or savage and validate its dehumanization of the “other” and justify the use of violence in order to impose European norms.26 The debasement of Tibetans by describing them as dirty, the Tibetan women as unattractive and repulsive, and the men as cowards, and immoral was therefore used to enforce colonial oppression and project a sense of inferiority on the Tibetan people.27 The describing of Tibetans as dirty and immoral was also part of the representational technique used to show the moral strength the British had over the Tibetans. This idea of Tibetans as lacking morals was a common idea among many British observers, like Younghusband and Curzon whose imperialist actions were subsequently seen as justified because of this perceived moral high ground

The Tibetan Tea Trade

Tibet also had an identity, among financially-minded British, as an ideal consumer market for British goods. On February 18th, 1888, an article was published in the Glasgow Herald titled “The Commercial Aspect of the Opening of Tibet.” In the article an unnamed “correspondent” explained that China had a monopoly over Tibet’s principle import of tea. To illustrate the magnitude of the China-Tibet tea trade, in 1866, it is estimated from Tachaw, in Szechuan, the centre of the brick-tea manufacture for Tibet, over six million pounds of tea were sent into Tibet by yak and mule transport across hundreds of miles of difficult and dangerous terrain.28 The correspondent argued that Tibet was a perfect market to sell British tea from Assam. In comparison to Tibet’s Chinese tea imports, British tea from Assam was of superior quality and had a much closer and accessible trade route to Lhasa than the difficult trade route from Szechuan or Yunnan, and therefore could easily out compete the Chinese tea. This was also explained in another Glasgow Herald article published on November 28th, 1883, titled “Trade Between India and Tibet.” In Lhasa, Chinese brick tea was sold from 24 to 28 shillings, in a packet of four bricks weighing 5lbs, and even higher in other regions further from the exporting city of “Ta-chien-lu”. In comparison, the British brick tea from Darjeeling and Cachar, in Assam, were of finer quality, and could be sold in Lhasa at the cheaper cost of 20 shillings per 5lbs. 29

Besides the economic and geographical incentives behind the advocacy for the trade of Assamese tea to Tibet, there was also a perception that the Tibetan people possessed characteristics which made them ideal trade partners. The correspondent in the Glasgow article of 1888 described the Tibetan people as “keen traders” and a people who demonstrated their great resolve in the manner in which they traded across “gigantic chains of mountains” through the “rigours of climate in the lofty altitudes,” and persevered in spite of the “expensive transit and bad roads.” The correspondent even explains how the routes the Tibetan traders traveled across were so difficult that in any other part of the world they would be seen as impossible for any trade. 30 In contrast to this positive representation of Tibetans as strong-willed perseverant traders, which was used support the advocacy for trade with Tibet, there was also negative representations of Tibetans which were used to also further this same cause.

Nine years prior to the Glasgow Herald article of 1888, a London newspaper, The Paul Mall Gazette published an article on December 26th, 1879, titled “The Chinese Tea Trade With Tibet.” This same article was also published on December 27th, 1879, in a Leeds newspaper, The Leeds Mercury. The articles contained an extract from a long report by Mr. Colbourne Baber, a British consul at “Chung King,” on the Chinese tea trade with Tibet. Baber argued the same argument reiterated by the unknown correspondent in the Glasgow Herald article of 1888, that geographically Assam was a more favorable location for the import of tea to Tibet since the trade route was more accessible than the Chinese trade routes, and that in terms of quality, the tea from Assam would make “better tea than the Tibetans had ever drunk”31. Baber also explained that the regions of Tibet that are most removed from the Chinese tea routes were also conveniently the regions closest to Assam, and therefore tea would easily sell in these regions. Interestingly, Baber described the Tibetan relationship with tea in the same manner one would describe a drug addict’s relationship with a drug. He wrote that, “deprived of the costly, but indispensable, astringent, he suffers from headache, grows nervous, restless, out of condition, and altogether unhappy.”32 Baber also further explained that, so addicted were the Tibetans to their tea, that even mothers kept the beverage away from their children out of fear that they might raise their child to grow up unable to live without it. By depicting Tibetans in this manner Baber furthered his advocacy for the trade of Assamese tea to Tibet by overplaying the Tibetan desire for the product of tea to the extent of depicting it as something comparable to a drug addict’s desire for his or her drug. This therefore helps Baber’s cause by creating the image that selling tea in Tibet would be an easy endeavour because of the consumers dependency on the product.

This depiction of Tibetans starkly contrasts and conflicts with the depiction presented in the Glasgow Herald article of 1888, that praised Tibetans as a very resolute and persevering people. In the Glasgow Herald’s 1888 depiction, the correspondent advocates for the trade of Assamese tea to Tibet but describes the relationship Tibetans had with as beneficial and ideal for the British, not because they were addicted to the product and would develop anxiety and illness if deprived of the product but because they were a strong-willed and great traders and therefore were a dependable and ideal consumer market because of these positive characteristics they possessed. The Tibetans were described as being able to traverse routes that would be deemed as impossible in any other part of the world, yet in the excerpt of Baber’s report, in The Paul Mall Gazette and The Leeds Mercury articles, Tibetans are depicted as the complete opposite, weak and subservient to their dependency on a product which was to Europeans not even tea but the “remotest imitation of tea.”33 Both portrayals shared the view of the Tibetans consumer market as an ideal due to the characteristics of the Tibetan people but their views on what these characteristics were conflicted on a belief of the Tibetan people as a strong-willed people versus a belief of the Tibetan people as a weak-willed people dependent on the supply of a product that the British could dominate.

The Portrayal of Tibet and Imperialist Strategy

According to Dibyesh Anand , the Western strategy of stereotyping a group or culture resulted from the simplifying of complex differences into a simple “card-board cut-out.” This practice led to preset images of the group or culture, a “one-sided description,” and created “more of a formula than a human being,” by reducing people to “a few, simple characteristics, which are then represented as fixed by nature.”34 We can see this practice of stereotyping in these aforementioned articles on the tea trade in Tibet. In the article with the excerpt of the report by the the British Consul Colbourne Baber, the stereotypes of Tibetans as weak-willed, dependent on tea helped support the imperialist ideas of “paternal domination and [would act] as a kind of perceptual blinder protecting the colonizers from the discomforting consciousness of…guilt.”35 Stereotypes were also associated with the portrayed oppressors of the Tibetan people. In the 1888 Glasgow Herald’s article, The Commercial Aspect of Opening Tibet, the correspondent explains how Captain Gill found that Tibetans in their dealings with the Chinese found themselves so cheated in their money dealings that they began to abandon making payments for their tea by weight and have adopted the rupee. The correspondent explains how the all throughout Tibet, the Tibetans eagerly accepted the rupee and how it was imported in the thousands. According to Baber, the Tibetans had even adopted their own perception of the Queen’s image on the rupee as being that of a Lama. 36

These sorts of portrayals of the Chinese strengthened British imperialist desires, in this particular case it is the British-Indian Rupee that the Tibetans turn to in order to protect themselves from the deceitfulness of the Chinese, and therefore allowed the British to portray themselves as defenders of the Tibetan people. This perception was visible in in 1903-04 British invasion of Tibet, the British had viewed themselves as the liberators of a people who were seeking deliverance from their Chinese and monastic overlords 37 In a 1905 military report, Captain Cecil Rawling of the British Expeditionary Force, wrote: “It seems to be the general wish of the inhabitants of that country (Tibet) that they should come under British administration”38

“Glad to Surrender: Tibetan Prisoners Being Brought Into the British Camp by Mounted Infantry”, in War 1904 Tibet Young Husband Expedition, Life Magazine, 1904

A 1904 Life magazine illustration of Tibetans Glad to Surrender, also shows this British self-portrayal as liberators (see right). The British depict a group of Tibetans who they caption as being glad to surrender to the British, the picture caption reads that, “Many of the prisoners are peasants who have been compelled to fight and who gladly surrender.”

Negative portrayals of the Tibetan people allowed the British observers of the massacre of Tibetans at Guru on March 13th 1904 during the British invasion to blame it on the “crass stupidity and childishness of the Tibetan general”39 Colonel Younghusband, one of the key instigators of the British invasion of Tibet, also represented Tibetans with negative stereotypes in his publication of his personal account of the British Expedition. In his account he criticizes the Tibetans for “being craft, immoral, over religious, dirty, and lazy, he talks about the role of the British in providing enlightened guidance to ordinary Tibetans.”40

There was a political value for the British to gain in dominating the tea trade imports of Tibet. The correspondent notes that British travellers who witnessed the extent of this tea trade industry believed that Britain could use this as a venue to open up trade relations with Tibet. The corespondent claims that the “Lamas of Tibet” and the Chinese derived political power from the monopoly they possessed over the supply, import, and retail, of a product that was, as is described in the article published in The Paul Mall Gazette on December 1879, more than a luxury; an absolute necessity.41 In Waddell’s account of Tibet he writes of this power the Lamas of Tibet had over the commercial trade of the country. He writes that the Lama rulers acted as priests, merchants of the country, and were “prompted by their own commercial and clerical self-interest, and their dread of losing their advantageous monopoly by the introduction of Europeans and their methods, have struggled and striven by every means in their power to preserve their isolation.”

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism has long been an object of Western fantasy, during the time of Kublai Khan, Venetian travelers and Catholic missionaries spoke of the Tibetan monks at the Mongol court and tales of their mountain homeland and the magic of their mysterious and exotic religion. However, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Tibetan Buddhism’s image was and society began to fluctuate and Tibetan Buddhism began to be sometimes “portrayed as the most corrupt deviation from Buddha’s true dharma.”42 Susie Carson Rijinhart, a Canadian medical missionary who travelled to Tibet from 1895 to 1899, wrote the account of her journey to Tibet in her book With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple, which was published in London in 1901. In her book she criticized the perception held by many “Occidentals” that the lamas of Tibet are “superiour being endowed with transcendent physical gifts.” She argues the opposite, claiming that they are “mere children in knowledge, swayed by the emotions that play on the very surface of being” and that, during her four year journey through Tibet, she met various Tibetans from different tribes and districts, yet they:

…did not meet a single lama who was conversant with even the simplest facts of nature…, for the great mass of them we found to be ignorant, superstitious, and intellectually atrophied like all other priesthoods that have never come into contact with the enlightening and uplifting of Christian education. They are living in the dark ages, and are themselves so blind that they are not aware of the darkness. Ten centuries of Buddhism have brought them to their present state of moral and mental stagnation, and it is difficult to believe that any force less than the Gospel of Christ can give them life and progress in the true sense.43

The British held negative views of Tibetans Buddhism and labeled it with the pejorative term of “Lamaism” which, Donald S. Lopez explains, implied that it was a degenerative form of Buddhism. In England during the end of the nineteenth century the anti-Catholic “No Popery” movement was also emerging with the Murphy riots of 1866 to 1871 and the popularity of works like “Richard Whately’s Essays on the Errors of Romanism (1856) and The Confessional Unmasked, distributed to each member of Parliament in 1865 by the Protestant Evangelical Mission and Electoral Union.”44 This reflected badly upon Tibetan Buddhism because the Protestants had been comparing “Lamaism” to Roman Catholicism as early as the mid-eighteenth century. When first compared, the intention of the Protestants was not to depreciate or criticize Tibetan Buddhism but it was to claim that the Roman Catholics were idolaters like the “Lamaists”. But now that the anti-Catholic “No Popery” movement had emerged, Tibetan Buddhism began to suffer from it’s comparison with Catholicism.

According to Landor portrayal of Tibetans in The Living Races of Mankind, the Lamas of Tibet were experts at exhorting the ignorant natives for whatever money the country had, they were also traders, and money lenders who lent at such high-interests that, in almost all cases, made the borrower penniless and in default of payment force them to become a slave of the monastery for life. Landor describes them characteristically as “generally very intelligent, but cruel, dishonorable, and depraved.”45 Landor’s portrayal of Tibetan Lama’s in his work strongly portrays them as manipulative, and deceitful of the ignorant Tibetan lay people who were easily influenced by their extortions

As was the case with the general Tibetan lay people, the British used the labelling of Tibetans as dirty to classify and debase in order to show that they were inferior and savages in comparison to the British and therefore used this to validate their use of violence to impose superior European norms. This same representational practice was also applied the Lamas of Tibet in British publications. In Younghusband’s account of the British Expedition of 1903-04, he describes the Lamas as, “coarse and besotted, some are bright and cordial, but hardly any look really intellectual or spiritual, and the general impression I took away was one of dirt degradation.”46 This imperialist practice of debasement was also the motive behind the Lamas of Tibet as practitioners of a extortion, a degenerative form of Buddhism. The Lamas of Tibet were also portrayed as stagnating influences, they were labelled as obstinate, stubborn, and illogical.47

“A Deputation to General McDonald in Tibet: Lama's Unwillingly Part With Their Grain”, in War 1904 Tibet Young Husband Expedition, Life Magazine, 1904

In 1904 Life Magazine illustration titled A Deputation to General McDonald in Tibet: Lama’s Unwillingly Part With Their Grain (see right) the caption explains how the monastery had stubbornly refused to bring in the demanded supplies to feed the British force, but after a show of British force the monk’s courage quickly “evaporated” and the supplies were ceded. The British represented the Lamas and “Lamaist” figures of Tibet as stubborn, obstinate, and illogical, in order to create an image of an infantilized governing body in Tibet, in order to thus give validation for their imperialist aims, as we see in 1903-04 when the British present themselves as the liberators of the Tibetan people from the “despotic” monastic officials of Tibet. “Infantilization justified guardianship, patronage by the adult, a more enlightened, rational west. [It was argued that] Tibetans would prosper “under British auspices and assistance. – such sentiments were rife during the time of the British invasion.”48


The British perceptions of Tibet in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were heavily influenced by British imperialist aspirations. Tibet’s portrayal as a mysterious unexplored land fueled British imperialist desires to to have Britain reach Lhasa first, it served the representational practice of exoticizing Tibet as a “virginal land,” and fueled the beliefs of Tibet’s secret dealings with Russia which fueled the portrayals of Tibet as untrustworthy, and deceitful and resulted in the British invasion of Tibet 1903-04. The Tibetan peoples’ portrayal by the British as dirty, immoral, cowardly, ignorant, overly religious, allowed the imperialist to classify the “Other” as barbarian or savage and validate its “dehumanization and was seen as justification for the use of violence to impose European norms.” The negative portrayal of Tibetan Buddhism as a corrupt deviation, its Lamas as unintelligent, extortionists, dirty, and a stagnating influence allowed the British to discredit the Tibetan monastic officials and allowed them to view themselves as the liberators of the oppressed Tibetan people.

1Rudolf Kaschewsky, “The Image of Tibet in the West Before the Nineteenth Century,” in Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections, & Fantasies, Ed. Thierry Dodin & Heinz Rather (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001) 3

2 L. Austine Waddell, Lhasa and its Mysteries: With A Record of the Expedition of 1903-1904 (New York: Freeport, 1906) p. 1

3Waddell p. 1

4 Julia Bronson Trott, “One Turn of Pitch & Toss”: Curzon, Younghusband, & The Gamble For Lhasa 1903 to 1904 (University of Hawaii, 2000) p. iii

5Orville Schell, Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La From the Himalayas to Hollywood. (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000) p. 8

6Trott, iv

7 Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game Revisited, Asian Affairs; Feb2002, Vol. 33 Issue 1, p58, 6p (Oxford University Press, 2002) p. 1

8 Hopkirk p. 1

9 Peter Fleming, Bayonets to Lhasa: The First Full Account of the British Invasion of Tibet in 1904 (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961) p. 19

10 Fleming, p. 20

11 Ibid p.20-21

12 Fleming p.22


14 L. Austine Waddell, Lhasa and its Mysteries: With A Record of the Expedition of 1903-1904 (New York: Freeport, 1906) p. 40

15 Fleming p. 22.

16 Waddell p. 42


18 Fleming p.45

19 Mehra p. 726

20 Ibid p. 727

21 Ibid

22Dibyesh Anand, Geopolitical Exotica:Tibet in Western Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) p. 28-29

23Harry Johnston, R. Lydekker, A. H. Keane, H.N. Hutchinson, A. H. Savage Landor, & R. W. Shufeldt. The Living Races of Mankind: A Popular Illustrated Account of the Customs, Habits, Pursuits, Feasts & Ceremonies of the Races of Mankind Throughout the World. (London: Hutchinson & CO, 1901)

24A.H. Savage Landor, “Tibet” in The Living Races of Mankind, (London: Hutchinson & CO, 1901) p. 214-216

25Anand, p. 24


27Ibid, p. 25-26

28“The Commercial Aspect of the Opening of Tibet,” Glasgow Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), Saturday, February 18th, 1888; Issue 42

29“Trade Between India and Tibet,” Glasgow Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), Wednesday, November 28th, 1883; Issue 285

30“The Commercial Aspect of the Opening of Tibet,” Glasgow Herald

31“The Chinese Tea Trade With Tibet.” The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England), Friday, December 26th, 1879; Issue 4631

“The Chinese Tea Trade With Tibet.” The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, England), Saturday, December 27th, 1879; Issue 13015.


33“The Chinese Tea Trade With Tibet.” The Pall Mall Gazette

34Anand p. 19-20


36“The Commercial Aspect of the Opening of Tibet,” Glasgow Herald

37Anand 19

38Anand 19.

39Parshotam Mehra, In The Eyes of The Beholder: The Younghusband Expedition (1903-1904) and Contemporary Media. (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2005) p. 223

40Anand 21

41“The Chinese Tea Trade With Tibet.” The Paul Mall Gazette

42 Donald S. Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1998) p.3

43Susan C. Rijnhart, With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple, (New Delhi: Nice Printing Press, 1999) p. 125

44Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West p.32

45Landor, 213

46Francis Younghusband, India and Tibet: A History of Relations Which Have Subsided Between the Two Countries From the Time of Warren Hastings to 1910; With Particular Account of the Mission to Lhasa of 1904. (London: John Murray, 1910) p. 310

47Landor p. 224

48Anand p. 33


3 thoughts on “British Perceptions of Tibet in the late 19th to the early 20th century

  1. Pingback: Netzwerkadministrator, Multimediaentwickler, IT-Securitykoordinator Toni Schlack stellt sich hier vor

  2. I was in the film Gyantse 1904 which was filmed at the actual sites. At the fort in Gyantse is the typical Chinese propaganda museum. There are clips of the film on youtube; I’m in the post of uploading my own copy which should be of better quality.

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