First Englishman in Lhasa

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 146-147:

Manning was the first Englishman ever to lay eyes on the city (and the last for the remainder of the nineteenth century). His only European predecessors were a pair of Catholic missionaries who had reached the city two hundred years earlier. From a distance, at least, it was the Shangri-La of fables. The grand Potala Palace where the Dalai Lama lived loomed high and white on a hill above the city, visible from miles off, more magnificent in appearance than he had even imagined it could be. But some of the magic was lost on approach. A ceremonial gate they passed through on the road to the city had gilt decorations that caught the sun from afar, but up close the ornaments seemed imbalanced and off-kilter to Manning, reminding him of “pastry work” or “gingerbread architecture.” The blindingly white palace itself was like a hive, swarming with monks in gorgeous robes of deep maroon, but the city below it was poor and rough. The houses were “begrimed with smut and dirt.” Wild dogs with mangy and ulcerated skin ran freely in the streets, growling and digging about for food. In spite of himself, Manning sensed a deep strangeness to the place, an unreality. “Even the mirth and laughter of the inhabitants I thought dreamy and ghostly,” he recalled. “The dreaminess no doubt was in my mind, but I never could get rid of the idea.”

On the advice of his munshi [secretary and translator], Manning pretended to be a Buddhist lama from India, one who happened to be versed in medicine. He hid the fact that he could speak or read Chinese, since it would make the presence of an interpreter suspicious. He also hid that he could speak English, so the two of them only communicated openly in Latin (in which both were fluent, it being the confluence of Manning’s Cambridge education and the munshi’s childhood training by a Roman Catholic missionary). This led to a long chain of interpretation when Manning spoke to Tibetans: someone would first have to translate from Tibetan into Chinese, then Manning’s munshi would translate the Chinese into Latin for him, and he would have to respond in Latin, back along the chain. To avoid standing out—and because he decided he liked it—he performed the kowtow before Chinese and Manchu officials whenever he was asked (a lesser version than that reserved for the emperor, touching the head to the ground three times rather than nine). In fact, he said, he found it so restful to kneel down to the ground after all the walking he had to do that he tried to kowtow as much as possible—including in front of high-ranking Tibetans (which offended his munshi, who said no Chinese would ever do that).

Manning was granted an audience with the Dalai Lama on December 17, 1811. To get to it, he had to climb up hundreds of steps carved into the side of the mountain on which the Potala Palace was built, steps that gave way in time to ladders on which he continued climbing up through the nine floors of the palace, its air rich with the smoke of incense and yak-butter lamps, to reach the high roof with its breathtaking view over the city and the broad, vast plain to the deep blue-white mountains in the distance. A monk escorted him into a smooth-floored reception hall built onto the roof, walls hung with tapestries and its ceiling held up by high, strong pillars. Sunshine streamed down through a skylight. In the middle of the hall, on a throne supported by carved lions, he found a young boy in maroon robes and a pointed saffron hood who appeared to be about seven years old (he had, in fact, just turned six). Manning knelt down before the Dalai Lama and performed the kowtow.

Manning still had his beard, but he had shaved the top of his head in preparation for the audience, so that the boy could lay hands on him. The normally impish Englishman was quieted in the lama’s presence. “His face was, I thought, poetically and effectingly beautiful,” wrote Manning. “He was of a gay and cheerful disposition; his beautiful mouth perpetually unbending into a graceful smile, which illuminated his whole countenance. Sometimes, particularly when he had looked at me, his smile almost approached to a gentle laugh.” They made polite small talk. The Dalai Lama asked about his journey. Manning asked for Tibetan Buddhist books, and asked if someone who spoke Chinese could teach him their contents, though he was gently rebuffed. It wasn’t the conversation that mattered, though, but simply the fact of being in the Dalai Lama’s presence. Unlike Macartney’s audience with Qianlong, there was no power relationship in play, no hidden challenge, no posturing. Just curiosity. And friendliness. All of Manning’s playful cynicism vanished. “I could have wept through strangeness of sensation,” he wrote afterward. “I was absorbed in reflections when I got home.”

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Filed under Britain, Buddhism, China, education, language, migration, Tibet

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