29 March 2014

'Person & Place' - The Essence of Good Travel Writing

http://www.dauntbooks.co.uk/files/13_sense_of_place.pdfYesterday I went to a wonderful event at the equally wonderful Daunt Books on London's Marylebone High Street. The event – titled ‘Capturing a Sense of Place’ – was the last of Daunt Books’ first two day ‘spring books festival,’ and the lovely old bookshop was crammed to the rafters with people who had come to hear a conversation between four very interesting writers. Mahesh Rao, a debut novelist who has written about the city of Mysore in India, where he currently lives; distinguished travel writer, Colin Thubron; celebrated historical novelist, Tracy Chevalier – author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was first launched at Daunt Books, were all in conversation with travel writer and historian, Barnaby Rogerson, who also runs the well known Eland imprint, which specialises in keeping great travel classics in print.

The conversation was a fascinating and insightful exchange in which all four writers spoke of their own notions of place and what makes for good descriptive writing in both fiction and non-fiction. Each seemed to agree that whilst fiction allows a greater freedom one’s descriptions of place need to be based in reality in order to be believable, and similarly in non-fiction too – particularly in travel writing – the ring of authenticity does more than make a descriptive passage simply credible, it need not be embellished or dramatised in order to make it evocative or informative. Indeed, as Colin Thubron noted not all aspects of travelling are necessarily that interesting – most journeys are characterised by long periods of tedium and boredom. Mahesh Rao commented that he thought this made the prospect of writing non-fiction, such as travel books, prohibitively daunting: “What if you go on a journey and nothing interesting happens to you?!” – That, Colin Thubron said, was the travel writer’s greatest fear: “Most people think a travel writer’s fears will be about the possible dangers of travel, but actually the greatest fear is that nothing dangerous will happen – at least if everything goes drastically wrong you’ll have lots to write about!” However, even the tedium and the boredom have their place too. Thubron cited how a stagnant and unproductive month in China was condensed in one of his books into a couple of paragraphs, the trick is knowing how to balance this properly within the narrative – you don’t want to bore the reader, but you still need to give them a sense of that reality which makes for genuine authenticity.

Tracy Chevalier made several interesting points. Firstly, how she thought we all have a tendency to “anecdotalise” our lives – essentially we all tell stories based on our experiences. She gave the example of how we tell stories about things which happened to us whilst we were on holiday and how in subsequent retellings we will instinctively trim the edges and tidy the parts which didn’t work or lessened the impact, and in that sense we begin to shape our own stories – good writing is much the same, it’s a process of honing a story or a telling of something personal into its most affective essentials. For her – she said – she thought good travel writing was all about finding the right mix of “person and place.” The other writers on the panel all agreed. A good travel writer needs to convey something of themselves, their personalities, and their responses to the places in which they find themselves and which they are describing in their prose. Colin Thubron gave the example of how when he began writing “as a younger and perhaps less confident man” he chose to write about small places essentially because he felt he needed to know all about them first and these were easier to research and read up on – yet later, when he ventured to take on bigger themes and bigger places, such as the Soviet Union and China, he realised that not knowing all about them could be part of that process of writing – it became more about journeys of discovery and feeling, rather than simply factual journeys of straight reportage – essentially a mix of the two tends to work best.

Each writer read an extract of their own work and an extract of a work which had resonated with or inspired them in some way. It was interesting to hear their choices and the conversation naturally progressed on to the idea of how travel writing has grown and evolved over time, how so many writers and publishers have long been announcing the demise of the genre, and yet its resilience seems to constantly keep it bouncing back. The panel were asked to speculate about the future of travel writing. The idea that travel writing was becoming less vital now that we can all travel, or, if not, we could all certainly access far away places on-line – ‘googling’ up images and footage of what these places look like rather than seeking out descriptions in travel books. Tracy Chevalier said she was concerned that the speculative demise of good travel writing would leave writers of the future without access to what we make of travel now, worrying (rather dismissively, I thought) that – “now that we can all write about our travels so instantly on-line” – such future writers would only have “personal blogs and Tripadvisor” to rely upon, and that largely there was “no good writing of that sort to be found on-line.” This was the only point of the conversation that I would take issue with – not simply because I write a blog about my own travels, naturally! – but because I think it is manifestly untrue. There is plenty of good writing being posted on-line both by established or emerging writers and ‘amateurs.’ And as a historian I’d say that such blogs and Tripadvisor, should they remain accessible, will become as useful as future source materials as the newspapers and popular press journals of the past are to us now. Future writers and historians will no doubt have the critical facility to sift and differentiate what’s valuable from what is less useful. Colin Thubron stated that he thought the greatest strength of the travel writing genre was its great adaptability, and that essentially it all came back to Tracy Chevalier’s point that good travel writing was all about finding that balance of “person and journey” – this was ultimately what shone through in the end, it’s what we all relate to in good travel writing, and therefore what makes it endure.

It was an excellent, thoughtful, and thought provoking conversation which made for a very enjoyable evening (accompanied by a very enjoyable glass of wine too!) – an excellent end to what looked like a great list of events. Hopefully it will be but the first of many such spring festivals at Daunt Books.


22 March 2014

Reflections on Travel & Research

Part X

“I would like to try to deal with some of the more intimate and personal aspects of travel. They may be trivial or absurd, but one must remember that in a few years, most of our existing methods of transport, together with the physical and mental emotions that accompany them, will be profoundly changed. The time is near when men will receive their normal impressions of a new country suddenly and in plan, not slowly and in perspective; when the most extreme distances will be brought within the compass of one week’s – one hundred and sixty-eight hours’ – travel; when the word ‘inaccessible’ as applied to any given spot on the surface of the globe will cease to have any meaning.”

These words were spoken a little over a hundred years ago by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) in an address to the Royal Geographical Society in London. The exact date was the evening of February 17th 1914.[1] When reading travel accounts from this era I’m often struck by how remarkably forward looking they are; something which is notably in contrast to similar travel accounts published in our own time, which often strike me as being rather more nostalgic. Perhaps it was a characteristic of the age of Western imperialism? Notions of modernity infusing a sense of purpose and a sense of faith in human progress. Boundaries were busily being pushed back. Frontiers were falling. The project of globalisation was proceeding apace. And now, in our own era, when that project has perhaps faltered or reached some sort of equilibrium, faced with newly dawning uncertainties, what else can we do but look back? [2]

Commenting on Kipling’s talk that evening, Lord Bryce (1838-1922) – who was asked by Lord Curzon (1859-1929), the President of the RGS, to express the meeting’s thanks to Kipling – he continued the observation quoted above with which Kipling opened his talk: “If any of you are inclined to envy the men and women of the future who will be able, in the course of an afternoon to reach the United States, and South Africa to-morrow morning, and to wish that you had been born in those days, let us comfort ourselves with the thoughts that at those heights which the airships will traverse, there will be no colours of landscape to enjoy, for colour fades out of things when you pass over them at a height of 5000 or 6000 feet. Neither will any scents reach the future high-level travellers. So let us come back to the old conclusion that we may be well content with the world in which we live, even if it be not the best of all possible worlds.”

One can’t help wondering what Lord Bryce would have made of the realities of travelling long-haul economy class at 35,000 or 36,000 feet (!) today – with the blinds all pulled firmly down in accordance with the cabin staffs’ instructions, and everyone with headphones on, plugged into their TV sets and tucking into their in-flight meals, whilst assailed by the stifling dryness and the occasional odd aromas circulating in the recycled air of the closed cabin (Kipling’s talk had made a point of emphasising the evocative nature of smell as a distinctly remembered characteristic of travel). Perhaps this shows that some people a hundred years ago had a clearer vision of ‘human progress’ than others! I don’t suppose Lord Bryce would have been a fan of modern air travel – for all its gruelling convenience, how many of us in our hectic and evermore time-pressed lives can conceive of the same journey taken by steamer over weeks through both choppy seas and fine weather? How does our experiences of turbulence compare to a howling gale on the water? Or the spun body-clock of jetlag to the forced idleness of days spent in a cabin or strolling the promenade deck with nothing but a desolate expanse of water to meditate upon?

Travel is always an experience. Often travel is defined by its modes of transport as much as its duration, and by our company too – all these elements essentially combine. In the early 1990s I went on two separate student exchange trips to the newly re-unified Germany. For the first of these we travelled out from the UK overland by bus, for the second we flew. On the first we had a two day trip before we reached our destination in which to get to know one another better than we previously had in the normal day-to-day routines of our school life, and consequently it induced a tight knit camaraderie which transformed our subsequent stay in Germany. On the second exchange trip a few years later, which was made with a different group of students at a different school, we were very much flung instantly into our new situation overseas in a much more immediate and isolated sense as the flight lasted less than two hours. An hour in the departure hall wasn’t enough time to make us feel like the solid intrepid band which had been forged and united by the previous bus and ferry ride across the Channel and the autobahn to Germany. In a similar way my trip to 康定 Kangding (དར་རྩེ་མདོ། Dartsendo) was defined by the effort required to reach the town.

It took only a few hours to fly from Shanghai to Chengdu, but (on average) an eight hour bus ride out to Kangding and the same back again – a journey which a hundred years ago would have been made over a number of days and mostly on foot. Reaching Kangding really felt like reaching somewhere partly because of the effort required and partly because it is still quite an ‘out of the way’ sort of place, not quite altogether off the beaten track but still comparatively speaking fairly remote.

Here though, I was travelling alone. There were only a handful of other Westerners staying or living in Kangding. Most of the travellers (as we were all independent travellers rather than package tourists) were holed up at one of either two hostels, and a lot of these seemed to be just passing through or taking a couple of days’ break to catch up with laundry and internet. I spent a lot of time wandering around the town, with a sheaf of old photos printed out from my computer, trying to match old views to the present, seeking to orientate myself and get my bearings, piecing together an old version of Kangding which had long since been transformed, buried, or disappeared. Every now and then I’d find a former trace of that past place, and as such a little more of the history which I’d either heard or read about from family, or books or archives would fall into place. But reflecting on this now, it wasn’t so much the cliché of bringing history to life – it was more like a process of conjectural surveying and factual mapping. In my mind I was constantly pegging reference points and trying as best as I could to connect them together to form a clearer understanding. Continually stopping to remind myself that it was easy to make assumptions and that one should always qualify oneself with the thought that an idea or link could later prove incorrect or wrong. 

Trying to place the old French Catholic Church was a case in point. Having climbed a flank of one of the hillsides overlooking the town to a precarious vantage point I managed to convince myself that the location of the old church might well have been on the site of the present one (which on the face of things seemed logical enough) – yet later on it became apparent from carefully scrutinising another photographic source that the geography of that particular theory was probably all wrong; as such, seen from a different angle, the old church was more likely to have been situated on the other side of the river and further downstream (perhaps near where the modern town square or piazza is presently located?). As with a lot of these types of thing, it’s probably hard to ever be certain. 

Something I’ve yet to come across is any old, officially printed or even roughly sketched maps of the town’s former layout. But that’s the point of research, you never really give up – you keep looking, and you keep your mind open to revising your findings in the light of new discoveries. As with my last stroll along the Lu Ho Valley, there’s always the lure of that next bend in the road or rise on the horizon, tempting you ever forward, wondering what you might find just around the corner. The difficulty and perhaps the greatest sadness is deciding when to stop and draw a line. Maybe you’ll decide to keep travelling forever, or maybe others travelling with you or after you will take your journey further – but in the end, that is something which only time will tell.

Such journeys aren’t all about the past though. Our notions of history say as much about the present as they do about the reality of the past. It’s a fascinating angle to explore the here and now as much as it is to seek out the past. Chatting to Mr and Mrs Lao in their front room; or being welcomed in by Tibetan monks eager to practice their English with an interloping foreigner; or being hijacked and lead on a happy, whirlwind tour of a lamasery by some local children – for whom the lack of a shared language didn’t seem to be any sort of a barrier; or, similarly, being invited to take shelter from the mountain rain in a farmer’s house and managing to use my battered old Japanese/Chinese/English vocab’ book to communicate with him and his family over copious cups of hot tea and warm natured smiles. All of these experiences combined to make my own trip to Kangding a memorable and personally rewarding one. I found much more than I’d dared to expect travelling to Kangding, and, as such, I hope it will in time prove to be but the first of several – perhaps longer – trips yet to the town and the regions beyond.

This is the last in my series of posts on my 2010 research trip to Kangding (Dartsendo). I will occasionally write other posts related to my research, upon the lives of Rinchen Lhamo and Louis Magrath King, as well as the broader topic of my PhD which will be focussing on Western travellers in East Tibet in the early 20th century and the theme of ‘science and imperialism.’ These will all be listed and linked under the ‘research’ tab at the top of this blog. If anyone would like to post comments on the blog or contact me directly to discuss these topics or my research I’d be most grateful to hear from you.


[1] See: The Geographical Journal, Vol. XLIII, No. 4 (April, 1914), pp. 365-378
[2] I think there’s the germ of an idea for a paper waiting to be written here!

8 March 2014

In Search of "Ci Ma Tang" (次馬堂)

Part IX

I began this series of posts on my research trip to Kangding (康定) in Shanghai, but the trip actually began with a visit to a quiet corner of a leafy churchyard in Kent. A week or two before setting out for China I took a train from London Bridge to Hildenborough, not far from Tonbridge. The village of Hildenborough is a short walk from its railway station, and Saint John's Church is one of the first buildings you come across on the main road through the village. Passing through an ornate lych gate, the roof beams of which were decorated with garlands of local, dried hops, I looked up at what is a solid and imposing building with flint walls, tall windows, and a tower topped by an impressively tall spire. The two heavy wooden doors to the church stood open and I could hear music gently wafting out from the organ being played inside – it was evident from the various people arriving and already bustling about that preparations were underway for a wedding.

I wasn’t here to attend a wedding though, I was here because some 80 years before my visit a much less happy ceremony had been held at this very church. Dated November 22nd 1929 the Tonbridge Free Press carried the following notice of Rinchen Lhamo’s funeral: “Ex-Consul Bereaved – Buried in a Christian grave, the first Tibetan woman ever to live in England was laid to her last rest on Saturday. She was Rin-chen Lha-mo, which translated means Jewel of Great Goodness, and she was the wife of Mr Louis Magrath King, late of H.M. Consular Service in China. She died on Wednesday of last week, as previously reported in this paper, at the early age of 28.[1] She was the daughter of a chieftain and Mr King, who has been out in the East for 20 years, met her while acting as H.M. Consul on the Chinese frontier of Tibet. They were married over ten years ago and first came to England in 1925, when her arrival caused much interest. Shortly afterwards they settled down in Hildenborough, where they lived the greater part of the time when not in London. In 1926 a book was published by Mrs King entitled “We Tibetans”, which commanded a large sale. […] The funeral, which took place on Saturday, was conducted by the Rev. L.G. Chamberlen.”

A few months later, on January 10th 1930, the Peking & Tientsin Times carried a lengthy obituary which described Rinchen as: “a woman with great charm and of arresting personality. Like most great personalities she was somewhat shy and retiring, but to those who were fortunate enough to be included in her circle of friends she was a revelation. A devout Buddhist, her outlook on life in its totality was characterised by a quiet conviction that induced reality in both worlds. In manner she was charming and could never be surprised by any situation. Her brilliancy and quiet powers of repartee and her insight into human nature made her an exceedingly bright and imposing personality. She lifted the curtain on a whole world of veiled experience, and if she was typical of her own people there must be a wealth of essentially fine traits of character waiting exposure.”

The fact that Rinchen remained a devout Buddhist perhaps explains the situation of her grave, which is tucked away at the far end of the churchyard. For a long time her gravestone must have stood alone in that shaded corner. The closest graves nearest in date are generally some fifteen years later, and it wasn’t until twenty years after her passing that Louis was finally laid to rest with her.[2] There’s nothing at all remarkable about their grave now, and, unless you went looking for it as I did that bright summer’s day, there’s nothing which would mark it out as in any way different from those around it.

When they arrived in Britain on August 11th 1925 at London’s Victoria Docks having sailed from Yokohama (or perhaps joining the ship at Kobe[3]) on the Japanese steamer, Kitano Maru[4], sailing via Shanghai, Singapore, Suez, Marseilles, Gibraltar, Moji and Port Said, they lived first in Kensington before moving to the countryside at Hildenborough. The house in which Louis and Rinchen made their home, called ‘The Yews’, still stands at the edge of the village at the end of a quiet lane lined with tall, old oak trees.

Rinchen’s brother, Namka Dendru (Namkha Tendruk) accompanied them, intending to study engineering. He returned to Kham in 1932-3, where contemporary newspapers indicate he was quite a prominent citizen, at different times acting as a guide and interpreter to a team of Chinese scientists (geologists, biologists, and sociologists); a Swedish botanist; and, a German Consul – all of whom made various research trips at different times in the borderland regions. One of Namka’s claims to local fame which made it into the papers was that he shot “a magnificent black bear quite near the road outside Jedo” (it was thought that this bear may well have returned with the Swedish botanist to Upsala in Sweden, and one can’t help wondering, if it was stuffed, whether it still stands in some museum display case there!). Interestingly, another newspaper report states that, unlike Rinchen, Namka converted to Christianity whilst he was living in Britain. As yet, I’ve not managed to find any information as to how long Namka lived or when he died – but his life certainly seems no less interesting or eventful than that of his sister.

Records of births and deaths are often key sources for genealogists and historians tracing personal histories. Curiously enough it was just such a document which in-part spurred my initial researches into the lives of Louis and Rinchen; and it was also this same document which lead me to staying an extra day than I’d originally planned in Kangding (དར་རྩེ་མདོ།  Dartsendo). Around ten years ago I was asked to see if I could assist in getting a very fragile Chinese document translated. There was a vague idea amongst the family that this document might be “the deeds to a monastery or a mountain.” This idea was not too far from the truth, as it turned out that the document was in fact a ‘deed of purchase’ to a plot of land ‘5 zhang and 1 chi in circumference’ (approximately 60  English feet) on the ‘shaded’ (廕庇) side of a mountain at a place named ‘Ci Ma Tang’ (次馬堂). The piece of land which belonged to a Mr Bao Guangming was sold for ‘10 large foreign-style dollars’ (i.e. – imported Mexican silver dollars) to ‘Lang-Ka-Deng-Zhu’ – the Chinese phonetic rendering of Namka Dendru – to own in perpetuity and enclose with boundary walls as a burial plot for his parents.[5] The only other name recognisable on the deed is that of a Mr He Jianbin, presumably a witness. The deed is dated: ‘Republic, 9th Year, Lunar Calendar, 10th Month, Beginning of 10th Day’ [1920]. The deed also has a handwritten text in Tibetan as well as a number of Tibetan and Chinese seals, including that of Kangding County (康定縣印).

I happened to mention ‘Ci Ma Tang’ to Kris Rubesh (owner of the Zhilam Hostel in Kangding) on my last morning whilst I was having breakfast (after which I was planning to head down to the bus station to take a bus back to Chengdu). Kris suggested we go and ask his neighbour, Mr Lao, if he knew or had ever heard of ‘Ci Ma Tang’. Two minutes later we were outside talking to Mr Lao, his wife, and a number of other older Chinese folk – all of a sudden they seemed to light up and there was plenty of pointing and animated discussion. I could hear them all shouting the name ‘Ci Ma Tang’ over one another. After what seemed like a bit of confusion they all finally came to agree that ‘Ci Ma Tang’ wasn’t too far away. Apparently it was somewhere near the hot springs at Erdaoqiao (二道温泉) in a nearby valley. Their best advice was that I should go there and “ask someone really old” exactly where ‘Ci Ma Tang’ was! … This was interesting though – as, whilst I understand the name might not necessarily infer a direct meaning, it does appear to suggest some kind of stopping place or building associated with horses – which chimed with me in that I’d read mention of horse racing in connection to religious festivities which used to be held at Tachienlu (Dartsendo); similarly Kris said that horses were used today for taking tourists up and down the mountains in summer and that these horses were put out to pasture near Erdaoqiao in the winter.

So, surprised at this last minute revelation, I returned indoors to my breakfast and was asked: “what are you going to do?” … There was room for me to stay another night and that decided it – no bus station or bus for me that day! Instead I headed out on foot along the ‘Lu Ho’ valley – in Louis’s time this was one of the principal routes towards Dawu (Taofu), Drango, Driwo, Kantze, Rongbatsa, Derge, and ultimately Chamdo. Sir Eric Teichman begins his book Travels of a Consular Officer in Eastern Tibet (Cambridge University Press, 1922) with a description of his journey along this very route. It took Teichman and his party 3 days to walk this valley to the pass at ‘Zhara La (Haitzu Shan)’, Mount Zhara Lhatse. I spent the best part of a day walking as far as I could. Erdaoqiao is reached fairly quickly but passing over the bridge there I didn’t find anyone, let alone anyone really old, to ask about Ci Ma Tang; but it was enough to walk along this valley, to look at the steep hillsides, and know that I was close to it. Even today, just as Teichman says: “There is some beautiful scenery in this valley, which consists of forest, cultivated fields, and park-like grass-lands. Numerous farms and hamlets and good camping grounds are passed, and one can make the stages as long or as short as one pleases.”  

The hillsides were all quite densely forested, one of which – not far out from Kangding – bore a huge fresh scar of a landslide which had exposed an enormous expanse of clean, fresh slate rock which was extremely iridescent and was quite blinding at times when it caught the sunlight. A few of the hillsides were dotted with strings of prayer flags. I wondered if some of these might be associated with the small burial plots which I’d been told dotted many of the hillsides around, I’d seen some of these at closer hand on the slopes above Kangding. Maybe one of these still marked Rinchen and Namka’s parents’ final resting place, or perhaps all trace of their grave had long since been swallowed up by the trees?

I decided to press on as far as I could to see what there was to see along this old route to Tibet, and apart from the neatly metalled road the further I went the more it seemed like little had really changed since Teichman and King and their contemporaries used to travel this way. There were still plenty of stone walled farm houses and little hamlets. As I walked almost every passing vehicle stopped to offer me a lift and then seemed to marvel at the mad Englishman indicating that he was happy to walk! … Everyone I met along that road seemed cheerful and friendly, and the few words of Chinese which I’d become accustomed to using in answer to the same friendly enquiries, describing myself and where I was from (“Yīngguó” 英国), seemed to satisfy their curiosity. In one hamlet I was greeted with by a small crowd of giggling children all saying “Hallo”, and grinning from ear to ear when I said “Hallo” back; and then, further on, passing through another hamlet, a smiling group of weather beaten women with traditional Khampa hairstyles returning from their fields stopped and asked me where I was from. 

Each rise in the road seemed to entice my feet ever onwards, proving that old allure of wanting to know what might lie just beyond the horizon. Having timed myself out in order to calculate when was best to turn back (factoring in the negative value of my aching feet) I constantly found myself allowing “just one” more bend or rise in the road – just one more, just one more, and then another ... Eventually I reached a very weather-worn white monument and decided that this was a good marker point at which to stop and reluctantly turn back. Hoping that some day I might get the chance to return here and continue on to what I’ve heard is a very beautiful lake at the far end of the valley, and maybe then even further beyond – to Derge and Chamdo. I would very much like to go back at some point and try to re-trace some of Louis’s journeys.

When I got back to Kangding I crossed the river and climbed up the hillside to see a small monument (similar to a ལབ་རྩེ། labtse[6]) set in a low walled enclosure which was festooned with prayer flags that were fluttering in the constant breeze. On my way back down I was hailed by a smiling old Khampa woman. Seizing the chance, I tried to ask her about ‘Ci Ma Tang’ – there then followed a strange kind of mime show between the two of us in which, talking in Tibetan, she did her best to dissuade me from climbing the mountain whilst miming with her fingers someone climbing up and then falling down, pointing up at the mountainside (even though I was already safely back down on the flat ground!) all because a foreigner had fallen off the top only a few days before. I nodded as I knew this already because the young lad in question was staying at the same hostel as me, where he was now resting up, nursing a broken ankle. I took out my pictures of Louis and Rinchen, and, showing them to her, I tried to see if she’d heard of Louis or Rinchen, or ‘Ci Ma Tang’? My small stock of Chinese phrases all failed me here, and, to be honest, I got the feeling she probably didn’t speak much Chinese anyway. After looking at the pictures for a while she handed them back, looked at me, and shrugged sadly – and then, to my complete surprise, she said “sorry” in English! … We smiled, I said “Thuk-je-che” (ཐུགས་རྗེ་ཆེ།) “thank you” in Tibetan, and we waved goodbye as we parted.

I had no idea what I might find when I first set out for Kangding. I’d certainly not expected to find ‘Ci Ma Tang’, and so I was amazed that I’d got this close to almost finding it, and at the very last moment of my trip too. My journey though had begun at a grave on one side of the world and ended with another on the other side. And so, when I returned to Britain, I took the train once again, on another sunny summer’s day. Walking back down the leafy Kentish lanes to the little churchyard in Hildenborough, where I placed two small mementos of my trip by the headstone in the corner. A small shard of iridescent slate from Paoma Shan (Dentok Ri) and a fragment of roof tile from old Tachienlu (打箭爐). Connecting two places and two points in time together once again.

[1] Rinchen Lhamo was born on August 18th 1901 at Rayaka in Kham (which I think might be present day Xinduqiao, 新都). She suffered tuberculosis and died on November 13th 1929.
[2] Louis Magrath King was born on December 16th 1886 at Kiukiang (九江 Jiujiang) and died on his 63rd birthday, December 16th 1949. A year or two after Rinchen Lhamo passed away Louis remarried. A photograph of his second wife can be seen here.
[3] The list of Incoming Passengers compiled by the Board of Trade for the ‘SS Kitano Maru (Nippon Yusen Kaisha Line)’ does not detail whether the family boarded at Yokohama or Kobe, but a Japanese stamp in their passport is that of Hyogo Prefecture.
[4] Three years before, on October 8th 1922 Albert Einstein and his wife, Elsa, sailed to Japan from Marseilles on board the Kitano Maru. Photographs of Einstein posing on deck with a life ring bearing the ship’s name can be seen in: Josef Eisinger, Einstein on the Road, (Prometheus Books, 2011). Built in 1909, the Kitano Maru was twice mentioned in The Times newspaper, first on December 6th 1915 when it ran aground at North Shingles, near Margate, and was assisted off by two tugs; and then again on August 14th 1928 when it collided with another liner (the Otranto) in the North Sea, an accident in which a Japanese seaman from the Kitano Maru was injured and later died at Hull Infirmary (another report seems to indicate that two seamen died). The ship was repaired in dry dock at Hull. The Kitano Maru was eventually lost whilst working as a transport/cargo ship off Luzon in the Philippines (at Mabilao, Lingayen Gulf, 16º 10’N, 120º 24’E), sunk by a Japanese sea mine on March 27th 1942.
[5] Rinchen and Namka’s father was named Pade Jangtso.
[6] A ‘labtse’ (lab rtse) cairn, is more correctly a heap of stones with flagstaffs and prayer flags, often set up to protect travellers. A discussion on how this particular monument on Gouda Shan might be termed can be read here. See also, An Abandoned Mountain Deity by Limusishiden, in Asian Highlands Perspectives, 35 (2014), pp. 159-193

Special thanks to Kate Down who translated Namka’s ‘Deed of Purchase’, and to Robert Bickers, who helped me trace some of the Chinese newspaper reports regarding Namka Dendru. Thanks also to Andrew Quintman, Michael Sheehy, and Sam van Schaik.

1 March 2014

Rinchen Lhamo - A Woman of Kham


So far I’ve not yet written much about Rinchen Lhamo. Partly because I think she is perhaps better known today than her husband, and partly because her husband’s story is perhaps more easily traceable. At some point though I would like to publish something about her as she is a truly remarkable woman. For the time being though I shall write a little more here (and in my next post) on what I know of her life and what I have discovered about her so far.

Rinchen Lhamo (‘Precious Goddess’) is best remembered as the author of We Tibetans (Seeley Service, 1926). The book begins with a memorable opening line: “I am a woman of Kham, the eastern and most populous part of Tibet. My husband is an Englishman who was formerly British Consul on the Chinese frontier of Tibet.” Her book is remarkable because it is one of earliest accounts of Tibetan life and culture written in English by a Tibetan. It is certainly one of the fullest accounts too. In its pages she discusses a wide range of topics relating to all areas of contemporary Tibetan life in the early 20th century, from the Tibetan landscape, farming, food, architecture, costume, women, religion, and family life, to examples of traditional Tibetan games and folktales. She even ventures to make comparisons between what she has seen and experienced of life in Tibet and life in the West. Hers is a distinctly astute eye.

In the book’s Preface Rinchen states why she has chosen to write her book on Tibet:

“It has long been [my husband’s] custom to translate to me what is said about Tibet in your books and newspapers. And so I have learnt how you regard our country and people. Some of your writers have written of us with knowledge and sympathy. They have known us and liked us. But they are just a few. The others seem to have said just what they liked or what they thought would attract notice. Some of the statements made about us display great ignorance, and others malice. Some are wrong but harmless; others made me laugh at the absurdity of them; still others made me angry. Why should people write falsehoods about us, why should they write at all of things they do not know? And I would urge my husband to write to the papers and contradict this statement about us and that.
            But he said it would be of no use. Many books would have to be written by many kinds of people before my country was justly appreciated abroad. But that would come in time, the sooner if the Tibetans would write about themselves as the Chinese and the Japanese have long done. Why should not I myself write a book?”

As good historians we are taught to evaluate our sources clearly and keep an open mind, yet sadly some commentators have judged Rinchen’s book on that very question she posed herself in her opening Preface, attributing the greater portion of the book’s contents as well as its composition to her husband’s hand[1] - yet why should she not necessarily have written the book? She clearly states the manner in which the work was composed:

“He [Rinchen’s husband, Louis Magrath King] would do all the work. I should just say what I wanted to say, and he would write it down and arrange it. […] So we set to work. That was about a year ago, and this book is the result. It has not been as easy as it sounds. There was, for instance, the language difficulty. I know very little English, and my husband still less Tibetan. We usually talk to each other in Chinese, in which language we are both fluent. And that was the medium through which this book passed.”

I realise, with my collateral family connection to Louis and Rinchen, I could well be accused of bias in this regard also – but, having read We Tibetans as well as Louis’s factual and fictional works several times over already, I would say that a distinction of authorial voice is clear. Certainly echoes of Louis can be heard in the pages of We Tibetans sometimes beyond a simple turn of phrase – but why shouldn’t that hint that he and his wife were of one mind on certain matters? Likewise, if one really reads Rinchen’s words closely and compares them to those of her husband’s published works a clear difference in tone and thought can be heard and seen. And certainly, anyone who has read Louis’s fiction may well agree that if Rinchen’s voice were entirely his creation it would have been an unparalleled feat of characterisation on his part!

Personally, I think that there is little doubt that Rinchen’s is the real and genuine voice behind her book; its thoughts, views, ideas, and reflections are undoubtedly hers. To write her off as completely incapable of creating such a work wholly overlooks the unique fact of her own individuality – she was clearly a resourceful woman of singular character; she left her homeland to accompany her foreign husband into a life entirely removed from much of what she would have taken for granted growing up in Kham. Why should she not wish to write a book about what she knew of such a singular and remarkable life?

And, needless to say, such a singularity was not lost on her contemporaries either. As I have written before, both she and Louis were feted by the English Press on their arrival in England in 1925.[2] Numerous newspapers carried her photograph (with her wearing both Tibetan and Western dress) and interviews with her. And much to the couple’s annoyance, although she was descended from Tibetan nobility, she was often promoted to the ranks of royalty and dubbed a ‘Princess’ to furnish a good story! 

Lungshar, Gongkar, Ringang, Möndro and Kyibu II at Buckingham Palace where they met King George V - June 1913

Rinchen was not the first Tibetan to travel to Britain though. Perhaps most notably she was preceded in 1913 (the same year as Louis first went to 打箭炉 Tachienlu / དར་རྩེ་མདོ། Dartsendo) by four young Tibetan boys who travelled to England to be educated at Rugby School; and, oddly enough there’s a further but completely separate connection here – this time between my immediate side of the family and Tibet, in that a close family friend is the daughter of a British doctor who was stationed at Sikkim (and recalls living there as a child) when Sir Basil Gould (1883-1956) was the British Poltical Officer there in the 1930s-1940s. Sir Basil was the British official charged with accompanying the four Tibetan boys to England in 1913.


Sir Basil Gould, photographed in 1938.

In 1940 Gould was one of two British officials who attended and filmed[3] the installation of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama:

Yet Rinchen was almost certainly the first Tibetan to marry an English national and quite probably the first Tibetan to make England her permanent home. Such cross-cultural relationships, particularly at this time, are fascinating. I’d very much like to know more about how they first came to meet, but here I fear there might yet remain a great and unbridgeable of lacuna in my researches. So far the few facts I have been able to find point to the likelihood that Louis and Rinchen originally met during his second term on the Sino-Tibetan frontier when he returned from the First World War and soon after he set off on his second extended tour of the region – however, another source would seem to hint that they may have met much earlier than this (although I’m not entirely sure how reliable this particular source might be for a number of reasons which I won’t go into here until I have more information in this regard). And other sources seem to indicate that she accompanied him on his travels through eastern Tibet.

It seems likely that such a cross-cultural partnership wasn’t altogether as unusual as we might be given to suspect, what is unusual is the fact that they married and that Louis still sought to pursue his career even though he must have anticipated that the social mores of the time would be set against such a situation. Sadly, it seems Louis has left little record of his first marriage. His one foray into fiction, based on his time in East Tibet, certainly plays up the romance of his adventures negotiating with bandits and renegade soldiers as well as his embroilments in military battles and skirmishes, yet very proudly he leaves out the one aspect of his time on the frontier that remains perhaps the most intriguing. Indeed, the book jacket blurb for The Warden of the Marches (Houghton Mifflin, 1938) rather baldly states that the novel: “is unusual not only for its brilliant writing and authentic background but for the fact that every character is a man and there is no love interest to impede the swift march of the narrative.”  

Would that this were not so! – But, for whatever reason Louis left this part of his and Rinchen’s story untold, hopefully my on-going researches might eventually bring to light more of what must have been a very special marriage between two truly remarkable individuals who managed to bridge two very different worlds into one, for all too short a time. Rinchen was just 28 years old when she succumbed to tuberculosis and was finally laid to rest in an English churchyard.

To be continued … Part IX

[1] For example, see P.D. Coates, The China Consuls (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 417-423
[2] Tim Chamberlain, Edge of Empires (The British Museum Magazine, Number 66, Spring/Summer 2010), pp. 50-52
[3] For more information on Sir Basil Gould and Frederick Spencer Chapman's footage of Tibet and the installation of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, see: Clare Harris & Tsering Shakya, Seeing Lhasa (Chicago: Serindia Publications, 2003)