Monday, December 17, 2012

Kate Teltscher's "The High Road to China": Book Review

In 1780, the Panchen Lama asked the Qianlong Emperor of China to enter into friendship with the Governor of Hindostan (northern India), George Hastings. As he was also the head of the East India Company, which had been opposed by the same Chinese power in their attempts to trade more than tea with the profits the Company amassed after taking control of the Bengal markets, this appeal by the lama to the Emperor appeared bold or odd. Stymied by the imperial ruling, the Company had appealed to the lama and a diplomatic detour into the realm another way. Hastings and the Company reasoned that Tibet might afford a byway into China.

George Bogle's report on his 1774-5 expedition to the lama that sparked the amity between Tibet and Britain inspired Teltscher to assemble her retelling of this story, and how it prepared the way for the Lama's 1779-80 foray into the heart of the Chinese empire. (As the latest Dalai Lama was not an adult yet, the Panchen Lama reigned.) Bogle, a young Scotsman, had been chosen by Hastings as possessing the patience and acumen needed to cross Bhutan and win over a Tibet cautious about any alliance with the Company or the Crown, as the British peered north over Asian barriers. Out of cleverly chosen samples, the trade mission lobbied to sway the lama. "How else to seduce a nation than with a tempting display of luxury goods, scientific instruments and mechanical toys?" (21) 

The ensuing 2006 account efficiently summarizes and cites Bogle's correspondence, and archives from the British Library and Indian government. It moves through the material carefully, and draws upon primary sources often (although to my frustration, one I wanted to track down is listed as an unpublished paper.) A London-based academic, Teltscher admirably avoids cant or jargon, although I wish she had given in certain endnotes precise references from the Enlightenment thinkers she nods to. As she had been intrigued by her main source, her quotes allow us to see him evolve on his great journey, the first Briton and the first European in decades to enter much of this remote and mysterious region. Getting acclimated to Tibet, Bogle wrote Hastings: "I assumed the Dress of the Country, endeavoured to imitate their Manners, to acquire a little of the Language, drank a deluge of Tea with Salt and Butter, eat Beetle [betel-nut] in Bootan took Snuff and smoked Tobacco in Thibet, & would never allow myself to be out of Honour." (qtd. 110) He adjusts happily to wearing Siberian furs and playing chess with Tartar pilgrims, settling in nicely.

The last third of the book, after Bogle ends his visit to the Panchen Lama, relates a lot of Company bickering and diplomatic negotiations over the Lama's eventual plan to lobby for Chinese-Company trade routes that could revive exchange that did not depend on tea, or entrance via Canton. He also wanted to reconnect Tibet with the cradle of Buddhism, India, where since 1192 it had been eliminated by the invading Moghuls. Bogle, by 1779, was invited back to see the Lama in Tibet. 

This coincided with the Lama's plan to visit the Chinese emperor for his seventieth birthday at the imperial palace, the Xanadu-like Chengde, just north of the Great Wall. The monarch had built there between 1767 and 1771 a version (a third the size, a false facade) of the Dalai Lama's residence. The emperor regarded the Lama's visit as a sign of fealty; the Lama interpreted the Chinese monarch as a patron, backing the mission of his spiritual superior--a cognitive mismatch with long-term impact.

A year away, the Tibetan procession eastward took time. Smallpox loomed, Mongolia stretched, and the Qing dynasty lavished funds and presents on the retinue as it advanced. The Chinese were bent on making the Panchen Lama's approach a sign of submission to the grandeur of the Qing hegemony. Even the initial gesture at their meeting, an attempted kneeling in the Tibetan version, a prostration in the Manchu, demonstrates the symbolic meaning underlying the power of the two leaders, a bow of respect for one, a kowtow for the other. 

For the Lama, a model monastery had been erected. A few months later, the entourage together entered Peking. The go-between long employed by the Company, Purangir, reported that the Lama and emperor had discussed Hastings and the possibility of trade, but the Lama suddenly sickened and soon died from the dreaded smallpox. 

Bogle, who had been waiting for his passport, had to return to Calcutta amidst "office politics." He sent back to Britain a mixed-race daughter to be schooled. His career was rising when he too died suddenly, drowning of a hemorrhage at thirty-four. 

Hastings selected Samuel Turner for the next mission through Bhutan to Tibet, where he met the infant Panchen Lama, the Fourth incarnation. Turner grabbed the chance to remind the toddler of his predecessor's friendship with Hastings! But, relations deteriorated as Nepal sought expansion. The new Governor General, Lord Cornwallis, did not want to get involved, but the Qing army rushed into Tibet to subdue the Gurkhas; the Company stayed clear of the conflict.

Meanwhile, the British with a warship arrived at Canton's harbor, determined to impress the Qing. This 1793 display failed. But the British spread a rumor that the late Lama had been poisoned by a perfidious ruler who hated the British and those who tried to advance the interests of the Company.

The Qing cracked down on Tibet, justifying their suppression as a mistrust of British skulduggery. The Manchu cut the line between Bengal and Tibet, blocking trade at the Bhutanese frontier. Purangir died defending the Panchen Lama's monastery against robbers.

Bogle's three "natural-born" children were baptized, and two survived. These girls were raised in Scotland. For the next eighty years, their father's journal and papers were unedited, while his memory faded. 

Teltscher revives his friendship with the Lama, and she traces in her epilogue the Indian and British echoes of his journal's "valedictory image of Tibet" after it was published in 1876. One who read it was Sarat Chandra Das, the model for Rudyard Kipling's "Kim," (see my June 2012 review) where the "Teshoo Lama" also repeated from Bogle's own rendering. Teltscher senses that the relationship of the orphaned Irish boy Kim and the Lama may find its evolution from the Bogle-Panchen Lama's bond. She also finds in the bloody, bold Francis Younghusband incursion commanding 1903 Sikh forces into Tibet a fantasy that the leader imagined, the first (in his erring knowledge) to enter the realm since Bogle on "an official Mission." His team justified their invasion with Bogle's journal.

So does China today, as Teltscher cites a 2000 statement quoting the Panchen Lama's submission when Bogle had tried without Peking's permission to trade with Tibet. The book ends by restoring these key players to their place in history, while acknowledging that this moment passed and will never return with such enthusiasm and hopes as when the emperor, Lama, and Scotsman intersected. (Amazon US 11-21-12)

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