The Myth of China's Modernization of Tibet and the Tibetan Language
By Jamyang Norbu
"The Tibetan language ... has been taken by those foxes who called themselves lions, and toyed with at will and for no reason. This should definitely not have happened ... literate people are becoming illiterate in the area of understanding the meaning of words."
The Panchen Lama in his “70,000 Character” Statement” of 1962 .
There has always been a sneaking admiration for China and Communist ideology in a section of Tibetan exile society, especially within the leadership. Even when condemning China 's destruction of monasteries and temples, and the murder of over a million Tibetans, there has always been a tendency to qualify such denunciations with the admission that China did develop Tibet technologically and did modernize the Tibetan language. This essay hopes to expose these two enduring propaganda myths that have for long provided the Chinese occupation of Tibet with a progressive if not a reformist aura.
Many of us in exile accepted these two big lies, in part, out of ignorance, but also because it was the politically correct thing to do at the time. The global intellectual climate of the late sixties, seventies and early eighties was perversely favourable to Maoist China, Most Western visitors to Dharamshala (including academics and students of Buddhism) however much they sympathised with Tibet's plight, could never quite bring themselves to give up their belief that the Maoist revolution, whatever its shortcomings, had been a force for good. His Holiness's pronouncements about Marxism and Buddhism being inherently similar philosophies, and other such statements, compounded the fallacy.
This somewhat overlong essay seeks to uncover the true beginnings of the modernization of the Tibet and the Tibetan language: from the early twentieth century with British diplomatic and military advances into the country, Christian missionary activity, the import of products of contemporary Western technology to Tibet, the impact of trade, especially during World War II, and most significantly, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama's modernization programme.
The latter half of the essay examines Communist China's language “reforms” in Tibet , which were, to say the least, ill-conceived, unnatural, arrogant and imposed. They were also seriously damaging, not just to traditional writing and literature but the spoken language as well. There was some concern in the early seventies that the Tibetan language might eventually die out altogether and be replaced by Chinese. This fear has of late been revived with the success of China 's large-scale population transfer to Tibet . The concluding part of the essay provides notable instances of the peculiar genius of the Tibetan people when dealing with matters of language, which throughout their history they have done with remarkable skill, intellectual integrity and sophistication.
Much of the information in this piece has been acquired, over the years, in conversations with my mother Lodey Lhawang, my uncles Tethong Sonam Tomjor and Rakra Rimpoche, and my friends Tashi Tsering la, Drakton Jampa Gyaltsen la, and others. I am indebted to Professor Elliot Sperling, Pema Bhum la, Tsering Shakya la for advice and information and also to Sonam Dhargay la, Tendar la and Dolkar la for their contributions to my collection of interesting new Tibetan words. I must also thank Lucas Myers and Nima Taylor for taking the time to go through the piece and make corrections and suggestions.
For the convenience of the general readership I have done without footnotes and citations, but have provided a list of bibliographical references at the end of essay, for those who might want to check my sources. The word “Newspeak” in the title of this essay comes from George Orwell's, Nineteen Eighty Four, and is the dismal artificial language of the totalitarian state in that novel.
“Recent political events in Tibet have triggered a veritable revolution in the Tibetan language.” This claim was made by Professor Melvyn Goldstein in the introduction to his Modern Literary Tibetan , published in 1973. By “recent political events” Professor Goldstein probably meant the Cultural Revolution — which started in 1966 and officially ended in 1976 — and which apparently seems to have impressed and excited him, as it did many other left leaning academics in the West.
Goldstein's book, which demonstrates and promotes this “revolutionary” new Tibetan language, is full of such sample sentences and phrases as: “He participated diligently in the revolution”, “the people are resolutely opposing the reactionaries”, or “There are imperialists in America”, “The workers resolutely (with one voice) criticized the government,” and the rather strange line “Formerly there were Chinese in Tibet.” Sample reading passages have been taken from “The Proclamation of the Chinese People's Liberation Army” and other official documents and publications. In a somewhat nominal effort at academic balance Goldstein reproduces a few sentences and passages from the exile newspaper, Tibetan Freedom and the government of Sikkim newsletter Yargyal Ghongphel , but the left-revolutionary stuff overwhelms.
The foreword to his Tibetan-English Dictionary of Modern Tibetan (1975) largely replicates the introduction to his Modern Literary Tibetan. There is in addition this enthusiastic statement that “The entrance of Tibet into the world arena of politics, science and technology has led to the creation of thousands upon thousands of new lexical items in a relatively short period of time.” In a later book Essentials of Modern Literary Tibetan (1993) we are provided, for supplementary reading, such edifying materials as “Resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”, and also “Concerning Liu Shaoqi”. The last is a disgusting piece of official vilification of China's former head-of-state and Mao's heir designate. Liu, a sick man was incarcerated for a number of years and finally, according to Simon Leys, “left by his tormentors lying in his own excrement, completely naked on the freezing concrete floor of his jail, till he died.”
Goldstein could perhaps argue that he was providing such provocative sample sentences and material merely for their educational value, but I doubt that a “modern” German language book published in the USA in the 30s and 40s would have included such sentences as “We fully support the Fuhrer's racial policies” or “National Socialism has successfully eliminated the Jewish Problem ( Judenfrage ),” though such expressions were probably common currency in Germany at the time. It is also doubtful if anti-Semitic tracts from Der Sturmer or the Volkischer Beobachter would be provided for supplementary reading, that is, if the author of the language book were not a Nazi sympathizer.
Goldstein is joined in his admiration for Communist China's “revolution” in modern Tibetan language by the mother of all Chinese propagandists herself. Han Suyin has absolutely no doubts about the shortcomings of the old Tibetan language, and is ecstatic about China's modernization efforts. It should be pointed out in all fairness that while Han Suyin is a notorious and thoroughly discredited propagandist for Maoist China, Goldstein is a successful and prolific American academic on Tibet who though expressing wholehearted enthusiasm for Communist China's language “reforms” in Tibet, is careful not to make outright denunciations of the old Tibetan language.
Han Suyin has no such reservations. Her bogus erudition rings with the authority of a papal encyclical. “Tibetan was profoundly and solely a religious, liturgical, language. Until 1959 it did not have worlds for atom, dynamo, aeroplane, lorry; and its considerable religious vocabulary was also unknown to most of the Tibetans themselves, since it was highly abstruse metaphysics … Standard Tibetan is now being created, just as standard Chinese was created, through the revolutionary process, based on the language of the common people, so that writing and speaking now correspond to each other.”
There is a widely held belief in Tibetan study circles, which quite a few Tibetans also seem to accept, that whatever death, destruction and suffering the Chinese might have caused in Tibet, they did the Tibetan language a signal service by modernizing it, and creating a new Tibetan vocabulary of political, technological and scientific terms. There is a surface appearance of legitimacy to this claim. The many attractive glossy publications: pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, school textbooks and so on, that came out from Tibet and China in the sixties, seventies and even eighties, contrasted very favourably (at least physically) with the poor quality of the publications of the government-in-exile. Yet, some of the gloss of such Chinese propaganda material has come off in the last couple of decades, thanks in part to the sobering revelations made by the late Panchen Lama and certain Tibetan scholars and writers with first hand experience of Chinese language “reforms” in Tibet.
But before undertaking a review of Chinese polices and practices in this regard, which we will be doing in Part 4 of this essay, it might perhaps be useful to understand how in the old days Tibetans went about updating and modernizing their own language before Communist Chinese cadres came along to do it for them.
What Goldstein and Han Suyin ignore is that the creation of a modern Tibetan vocabulary was an evolutionary and an organic process, one undertaken mostly by Tibetans themselves in a matter-of-fact, non-academic and non-official way, beginning at least half a century before China's occupation of Tibet. The first mention in print of a modern technological term being coined in Tibetan dates to the 13 th Dalai Lama's exile to British India and his visit to Calcutta. Sir Charles Bell, in Portrait of the Dalai Lama , writes, “I was in an annex close to Hastings House, and a private telephone connected the two buildings. The Precious Protector (the Dalai Lama) liked talking on this. He enjoyed it so much that the conversation used to terminate in a gurgle of laughter from his end. Here I first learned the newly coined Tibetan word for telephone. It was ka-par , the ‘between-mouths'.” Perhaps Bell could have, more correctly, transcribed it as kha-bhar , but transliterating Tibetan words in English is a notoriously arbitrary exercise, especially among Tibet experts. So I should point out that all the transliterations provided in this essay are my own best approximations of Tibetan pronunciation. Furthermore no attempt has been made to replicate Tibetan spelling.
Other new words coined at the time in India could have been chensi-khang for zoo or menagerie, for we know His Holiness visited the Calcutta zoo at the time, also rili for train (from “rail”), chaklam (literally “iron-way”) for railway-tracks, mota for motor car, as he and his entourage used these modes of transport in India, and rili - tissing for railway station. As can be seen, some of these words are taken directly from their English equivalents, though others were derived from Hindustani. For instance Tibetans also call the motorcar gari, from the Indian gaari , and the bicycle kang-gari ( kang-pa being foot in Tibetan).
But as charming as Bell's account may be it should be noted that the Dalai Lama had earlier travelled to Peking (by special train) in 1908 and could certainly have used a telephone there. His Holiness even planned a subsequent trip to Japan, which was cancelled because of the death of the Manchu emperor. But a couple of years later His Holiness managed to send a notable scholar, the geshe , Tsawa Tritul and two other Tibetans to study in Japan. The dramatic modernization of Japan of the Meiji period must definitely have made a strong impression on these three Tibetans.
It is quite possible that these new terms were in use even earlier. The historian Alex McKay writes “ The Anglo-Tibetan encounter in the 1904-7 period had a significant and enduring effect on Tibet and its neighbours. It brought the Tibetans into contact with new technologies and ways of thinking”. In fact the Panchen Lama was invited to visit India in 1905 to meet the Prince and Princess of Wales. The lama's entourage was tremendously impressed by the new electric lights in Calcutta, and some members “spent considerable time trying to blow them out.” Calcutta, the second city of the Empire, had had electric streetlights installed only a few years earlier.
In fact, Tibetan curiosity about British rule and innovations in India dates back even further, and does not appear to be confined to mere superstitious dread of the white foreigner, the “ philingwa ” or “ chilingwa ” as a threat to Buddhism, as has been generally asserted in European writings on Tibet of the time. The Tibetan sage Jigme Lingpa's “ Discourses on India ” written in 1789, not only mention the various cities, regions, and kingdoms of the subcontinent, but also provides fairly accurate descriptions of Indian wildlife, geography and such wonders as the tidal bores of the Hughli river and pearl fishing in Ceylon. Jigme Lingpa discusses the British, the Ottoman and the Moghul empires, and specifically describes England and its various manufactured exports as textiles, porcelain, glassware, telescopes and modern weapons. He describes in some detail contemporary novelties as a barrel-organ and a zogroscope, which is somewhat inaccurately referred to as a peep-show in the English translation of the book. Jigme Lingpa even includes a section on English ship construction, and seems to have grasped that such sailing ships could “tack” against the wind.
Before going any further, it might perhaps be noted that technology, in the modern utilitarian sense, was not exactly an alien concept to Tibetans. Tibet had certain definite technological achievements to its credit, albeit in its imperial past. The Tang annals tell us of Tibetan skill in metal-craft and metallurgy and the high quality of Tibetan weapons and steel armour that fully covered not only the imperial warriors but also their steeds. Even the Arabs, famed throughout the known world for their Damascus steel, referred to certain superior quality armour as “bucklers of Tibet”. The 15 th century sage, explorer, bridge-builder and physician Thangton Gyalpo, even forged “stainless steel” for his bridges according to Wolf Kahlen, a Berlin art-professor and consultant to the Royal Government of Bhutan on art and architecture. Kahlen has dubbed Thangtong, the Leonardo Da Vinci of Tibet, for his amazing artistic and technological achievements.
Surprisingly enough, Tibetans even seem to have made some contributions to the growth of Western technology. The late Lynn White Jr., the pioneering American historian in the field of medieval technology, has shown that both the hot-air turbine and the ball-and-chain governor are technological innovations introduced to late medieval Europe from Tibetan technology. It is a fascinating fragment of history but we need not go into details here. We know that these bits of technology in the form of the hot-air powered prayer wheel and hand-held prayer wheels were introduced into Europe through the medium of the Turco-Mongol slave population brought from Central Asia, sold in Crimea, and transported to Italy where the use of the hot-air turbine and the ball-and-chain governor is first noted shortly after these slaves begin to arrive.
The terms for guns, menda , and by extension rifle, ringda , and artillery , mekyok , might have been in use since the days of the Mongol hegemony over Tibet, and certainly in use at the time of the Dzungar invasion of Lhasa (1717), when firearms were used extensively on both sides. The Tibetan word for clock or watch, chutsoe, is an old one, and literally means, “water-measure”. It is probably derived from simple water clocks used in Tibet, or more sophisticated clepsydras that Tibetan lamas and rulers might have received as presents from imperial China. Mechanical clocks, which came to Tibet at the end of the nineteenth century, were called chutso khorlo. The term khorlo meaning machine or literally, wheel. The term gyangsher or telescope is, surprisingly enough, an old one and features in the opera Kiu Pema Woebar , which is based on the story of Padma Sambhava's previous incarnation. We also have mik-shel , literally eyeglass for spectacles, which were imported from old China, and cheshel or meshel for magnifying lens.
One of the most fundamental terms in modern science, “atom” (Tib. dhul, specifically dhul-ta rab cha-med, Skt. rajas, renu, parmanu ), had been in use in Tibet probably since Buddhist texts were translated from the 8 th century onwards. The most profoundly scientific of all Buddhist philosophers, Arya Nagarjuna, debating the proponents of various theories of matter, including atomists (of a proto-Daltonian kind) conclusively reasoned (in the first century AD) that the atom was not indivisible and could be “split” into sub-atomic and sub sub-atomic particles.
The present-day Tibetan word for airplane, namdru (literally airship) is an old one and there are references to flying machines in texts related to the Kalachakra Tantra (translated into Tibetan in AD 1027). The word nam-thang (lit. “airfield”) is also one of those happy words that seem to have inserted itself quite naturally into the vocabulary, and appears to have been used somewhat matter-of-factly in 1935 when the kashag discussed a British request for the construction of a landing-strip near Lhasa to fly out Mr. Williamson, the mission head, who had been suddenly stricken ill. So Han Suyin, who claims that Tibetans had no word for atom or airplane, should chew on that for a while.
Even if the Dalai Lama's brief exile in British India was not the inception, the period can perhaps be regarded as catalytic for the coining of new Tibetan words. Time seemed to have hung heavy for the Tibetan court in Darjeeling, if Charles' Bell's accounts are anything to go by. The Dalai Lama looked forward to Bell's afternoon visits, but other than that, Tibetan ministers and officials probably had little to do in the first year of their exile. China's grip on Tibet was unyielding and both Britain and Imperial Russia were unmoved by Tibetan appeals for intervention, even mediation.
Darjeeling was not your roaring metropolis, but its situation as a major British health sanatorium, and the summer capital of Bengal, the most important province of India, meant that the city would have the latest consumer products and technological amenities of that period. These would no doubt have caught the interest of the Dalai Lama and his officials, who probably discussed them and thought up suitable Tibetan names for them. From most accounts it appears that quite a few of these ministers and officials were eminently qualified to do just that. Besides such obvious intellectuals as the geshe Tsawa Tritul, the eccentric scion of the imperial Lhagyari family, Gyarisay-nyon (the first Tibetan artist to paint in a “naturalistic” manner) appeared to have been in Darjeeling at the time. Others in the exile court were Tsarong Dasang Dadul (then Chensel Nangang) with his open and enquiring mind, Lonchen Shatra, intelligent, sophisticated, meticulous, ever the “trained diplomatist” (according to Sir Henry MacMahon) and the poet and scholar Shelkar Lingpa, senior secretary to his Holiness, author of the celebrated poem, Songs in Remembrance of Lhasa ( Lhasa dran-lu ) which he wrote in Darjeeling. This is a complete digression, but I must reproduce at least one stanza of this remarkable poem for the reader's pleasure:
Amidst the many shops and stalls in the busy market square
The thousand delightful movements of soft supple bodies
All gathered there, the beauties, none missing,
Showing off their sweet smiling faces…
… I remember Lhasa.
The poem has forty-six stanzas each ending with the phrase “I remember Lhasa” ( Lhasa dran ”). Other stanzas describe the surrounding landscape, institutions and religious life in Lhasa.
It was this Shelkar Lingpa, a Tibetan scholar, the late Tethong Sonam Tomjor, once told me, who coined the term for the relatively new metal, aluminium, which was only then becoming commercially available. The Tibetan word hayang , a contraction of hachang yangbo or extremely light (another possible alternative is halaypay yangpo, or amazingly light) is such an easy and matter-of-fact term that many Tibetans do not think of it as a new word coined in 1910 or 11, but regard it as native, even generic. All cooking pots, aluminium or otherwise, are often referred to as hayang .
After the return of the 13 th Dalai Lama to a free Tibet, contacts with British India expanded. With it came the impetus to create new terms. In addition to exploring the development of a modern Tibetan vocabulary, this discussion should perhaps extend to the actual introduction of such technologies as electricity, telegraph and the telephone to Tibet. After all, Goldstein and Han Suyin's contention about the black hole in the Tibetan language would lead anyone to conclude that Tibet before the Communist Chinese invasion was a country completely bereft of any of the products of modern technology; the assumption being that if Tibetans didn't have terms for certain objects or ideas then they most probably hadn't come across them yet.
The decision to electrify Lhasa seems to have been made in 1922, but work on the project was very slow, owing primarily to lack of funds. In 1927 a qualified Tibetan engineer, Ringang (a.k.a. Changoepa Rinzin Dorjee), who graduated in electrical engineering from what is now the Imperial College of the University of London, was assigned the task. According to George Tsarong, Ringang “single-handedly took on a plan to build a hydroelectric plant at Dode, three miles from Lhasa behind Sera Monastery, where there was a small but forceful mountain stream. Machinery was ordered from England. The main power station at Dode was linked with a substation at Gyabumgang, provided all of Lhasa City with electricity for the first time.” A Tibetan historian, the late K. Thondup, citing the letter of another Tibetan Rugby student, mentions that initially only the Norbulingka was electrified.
It was an enormously difficult undertaking, made no less challenging by the fact that the generator Ringang ordered from London was a large one and transporting the pieces across the Himalayas proved a near sisyphian task. David Macdonald, the British trade agent at Gyangtse, thought the project too ambitious and that “the importation of this plant was a mistake … some of the pieces were so heavy and awkward that each took twenty men to carry it, their daily progress being less than four miles.” But Ringang persevered. He had to do all the technical work himself, laying the power-lines across the city and setting up transformers and accumulators. Peter Aufschnaiter, who twenty years later examined the Dode plant, remarked that it was “… a truly amazing achievement! This was especially so when we realized that he (Ringang) frequently had to make do with local materials.” For instance Ringang used wood to make the flumes to direct the water to the turbines. To add to our young engineer's problems his superiors did not appreciate the labour and complexity of the task. We are told by Spencer Chapman that “after several months' work the Dalai became impatient and could not understand why there was still no light.”
But then Chapman, who visited Tibet in 1936, goes on to tell us that “… except for a few months in winter when the stream is frozen, it (the power station) works perfectly. At the present time, therefore, the Potala, the streets, and many of the private houses are lit by electric light.” The Jokhang had electric lights installed but a small fire (caused by a short-circuit) put paid to that innovation. The Tsarongs, the Tethongs and quite a few other aristocratic families had electric lights installed in all the rooms of their houses. Humbler homes might have a single light bulb in their main room.
Before leftist propagandists pounce on this bit of information to demonstrate the inequity of old Tibetan society, even in the matter of light bulbs, let me recount the experience of an American historian on Tibet, Warren Smith, who travelled to Lhasa in the 1980s. According to Dr. Smith, most Tibetan households in the city were lit by single (and dim) 25-watt bulbs. The residences of Chinese officials, cadres, and important Tibetan collaborators as Ngabo and Phakpala were certainly better provided for in the number and wattage of light bulbs.
By the forties, power failures were a regular phenomenon, and it was discovered that the equipment at the power station had worn out. Isolated power outages might occur at the homes of aristocratic families, especially if they were having a party and had failed to provide an adequate pourboire ( chang-rin or “beer price” in Tibetan) to the staff of the electricity plant . ( I was told this in Dharamshala by then TIPA director, the late Ngawang Dhakpa la of Chitiling, Lhasa, when a suspiciously inconvenient power failure occured before a TIPA performance). The construction of the new government mint at Drapchi in 1931, and the power that it drew from the limited service, probably contributed to the unreliability of the Lhasa electric service. A larger project was planned and fortunately the services of Peter Aufschnaiter became available for the surveying and civil engineering side of the new project. For a year Aufschnaiter made daily measurements of the height and flow of the Kyichu River. Aufschnaiter tells us that the project was headed by a commission consisting of Tsarong, Thangme and Reginald Fox. Later the White Russian Nedbailoff and Tsarong's son George became involved. Robert Ford tells us that this team “already had plans for building more hydroelectric stations.” They also had plans for improving Tibetan agriculture and setting up a network of radio stations all over the country. This multi-national team of official Tibetan government employees had, Ford points out, somewhat touchingly, “a common loyalty to the Tibetan government and people. And we had the proud spirit of pioneers.”
The Tibetan government also appeared to have undertaken other public works in the forties. Successfully completed were two ten kilometre long irrigation canals, and a modern dam by the Norbulingka. The Tibetan Agriculture Office ( sonam laykhung ) requested and received various seeds from the US Department of Agriculture to test new strains of barley and other crops. A request was also made to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, Surrey, for barley, wheat, rye and other seeds. Negotiations were also underway to import agricultural machinery. Aufschnaiter tells us that the government intended to increase the city's clean water supply, and also create an extensive sewage and drainage system for Lhasa. It was for this purpose, and also for the planned distribution of the electric mains in the city for the new hydroelectric project, that Aufschnaiter was commissioned to make a detailed survey and map of Lhasa.
Tibetans called electricity “ lok” from lightning, having arrived at the connection between the two independently of Benjamin Franklin's famous kite experiment. Other related words followed: lokhang (generating plant), lok-ama (dynamo), lok-ku (electric wire), lok-thag (electric cable) shertok , (light bulb), dongkhep (lampshade), kamlok or lok-dze , (dry-cells or batteries), lok-chu (sulphuric acid for accumulators), pholok (positive charge), molok (negative charge), lok-khyue (“electric shock” or “electrical conduction”), lok-shug (electric “strength”, generally referring to voltage) and the onomatopoeia thir for electric bell.
Flashlights were popular in Tibet, especially with travellers, who often carried them in protective fabric or leather cases with shoulder straps. People would sometimes compete to see who had the most powerful beam, hence making the long six-cell Eveready flashlight a highly desired object for its time. For a while, young men in Lhasa made a nuisance of themselves shining flashlights in the eyes of passers-by, especially women. Flashlights were called bijili after the Indian word for electricity, for that was also what the flashlight was called by the locals in Darjeeling. Reportedly, this term is still used in Tibet. Later the term lok-shu (electric lamp) began to replace it. Other such “ lok ” based words were gradually coined, a few of them in exile: lok-thap (electric heater or stove ) lok-tru (dry-cleaning), drang-lok (air-conditioner) and tsa-lok (electric heating or central heating). The electric fan was simply called lung–khor (air-turn) and the refrigerator khya-gam (ice-box).
Tibetans called the telegraph tar from the Indian “ taar ” for wire. The first telegraph line was set up from Sikkim to Gyangtse in 1904 during the Younghusband expedition. Tibetans requested that the line be extended to Lhasa but the Great War put the project on hold, and the line was only completed in 1923. According to David MacDonald, “All material, including posts, had to be carried up from India, and skilled workmen also had to be imported” and “… the Tibetan government defrayed all expenses for construction.” This no doubt included the cost of the tar-ku (telegraph wire) and tar-chay (telegraph sets or equipment) and also the salary of the English engineer, W.H. King.
David McDonald also adds that “Telephones were installed in all the important State offices in Lhasa, and these have proved satisfactory.” In fact McDonald goes on to tell us that when he retired in 1924 as the British trade agent at Gyangtse, “The Dalai Lama and Tsarong shap-pe talked to me by telephone from Lhasa, and expressed their intention of moving the Government of India to retain me at Gyangtse for a few more years.”
It is therefore somewhat dismaying to come across this ill-informed admission in a publication of the International Campaign for Tibet, ICT, (a Tibetan government agency in the US) that “China's invasion of Tibet did bring more modern technologies, such as the telephone to Tibet.” One must be grateful though, for small mercies. The ICT booklet at least attempts to argue that “most of the technology remains in the hands of the military, the government and Party.” More bluntly put, there was, under Chinese administration, effectively no telephone service for the public in Tibet until the mid-1980s, when the service was opened up partially to non-governmental personnel. It is only with the introduction of cell phones in the late 90s, that Tibetans in Tibet have finally had a modern telephone service that could correctly be called public. All the same, phone-calls are monitored, and recently text messages on cell-phones are filtered and checked.
A Telegraph (and Telephone) Office was established in Lhasa in the late-20s, by the old Tengyeling monastery, and called the tarkhang , with the official in charge called the tarkhang kungoe . Telegraph operators were called tar-tangyen. The telegraph and telephone service was of great use not just to the government but also to the mercantile community, and to a lesser extent the common people. This office later became the Post and Telegraph Office ( dak-tar laykhung) and was “run by an intelligent English-speaking monk who was trained (in telegraphy) at Kalimpong”. His name was Chonden la. According to McDonald the first Postmaster General of Tibet was the Peshi Depon. Considering the many problems the department faced (not least of them being telegraph poles stolen for firewood) it is pleasant surprise to learn (from Chapman) that “The postal and telegraph system is most efficient”.
The Tibetan postal service is a whole other story and not within the purview of this essay. It might however be noted that Tibetans adopted the Indian word “ dak ” for post, and this term is still used even in present-day Chinese occupied Tibet. So a post office is dak-khang , postman dak-pa , postmark dak-dam, post-box dak-gam and postage stamp tikkus (from the English “ticket”). The word tikkus is also used in the correct context of a cinema ticket as in beskop tikkus. A similar loan word is the Tibetan passi from the English “pass” as in a permit. This loan word is still used in present-day Tibet, in the context of the grain-permit, durig passi ( liang piao in Chinese), which, till just a few years ago, meant the difference between life and death for every Tibetan and denizen of Communist China. In exile a more Tibetan term lagkher has been coined and is used quite extensively, but even the much-valued permits to the Dalai Lama's teachings are just called songchoe-passi (sermon-permits).
(Later parts of this essay to be subsequently posted over the coming days and weeks)