The Myth of China's Modernization of Tibet and the Tibetan Language, Part Two
By Jamyang Norbu
During the 20s and 30s, many other new products came to Tibet . The popular kye-par, or honorifically sung-par (gramophone, lit. voice-print) with its 78rpm bhentse (record, perhaps from the Chinese panzi for plate) made of poekar (shellac or plastic) enlivened Lhasa's evening parties. The early horn gramophone was called the kyepar dungchin-chen or kyepar dungchin-kha ; dungchin being the word for the giant monastic horn . Western style dancing became popular with the nobles and the well to do. Harrer claims that the foxtrot was introduced to Lhasa by Robert Ford, while Dr. Tsewang Pemba informs us that the “Palais Glide” and “Boomps-a-daisy” had their moments in the Holy City . All this partying necessitated the lighting of sashu (petromax pressure lanterns) in your living-room or garden when there was a power failure. This particular lamp also contributed a nice tongue-twister: “ simsha shasur sashu sarpa” (Shasur mansion's new lantern) to the stock of the city's simple parlour games. Kerosene ( sanum, lit “earth-oil”) for the lanterns were transported from India on the back of mules as were bags of Portland cement, bilasa , a compound word from the Urdu bilayati for foreign (especially European), and the Tibetan sa for earth.
The cement was used for laying the concrete piers of the first modern steel trestle bridge over the Trisam River in 1936, on the main trade route from Lhasa to India and Western Tibet . Though the steel girders and trestles were ordered from Burns & Co. in Calcutta , the actual construction work was undertaken by Tsarong Dasang Dadul. After the completion of the Trisam bridge, (which could take jeep traffic), Tsarong started planning a more ambitious structure across the Kyichu, and had received permission from the Tibetan government and quotations for the steel girders from Calcutta before the threat of Chinese invasion sidelined the project. Tsarong's proposed Kyichu bridge was to be located east of Lhasa , at Perong, close to the site where the Chinese occupation army later built its own much-publicized bridge.
Besides kerosene and cement, other no less useful foreign items flowed into Tibet: the cha-dam or tsa-dam (thermos flask), tsimbu-khorlo (sewing-machine, first imported in 1907), sanum thap (primus stove), tap-dri (pen knives), shergo (glass-panes), khaspor (perfume, from the Urdu khusbu ), sha-nyuk (lead pencils) kamnyuk (ball-point pens), nyugu or phonten (fountain-pens), pingkhap (safety-pin), tser (zipper), muksi or tsakta (safety-match), and inevitably, shik-ray (cigarettes), though for a considerable period there was a strict ban on public smoking. So seventy-five years before Mayor Bloomburg's New York City (and who knows when, if ever, with Beijing ) Lhasa was decidedly a politically correct place.
Other humble yet useful products imported to Tibet included the chue-zer (screws lit : twist-nail), chue-bur (threaded metal bolts) and gik (India rubber). The last term was later extended to gik-shok (polythene sheets, plastics bags), gik-dum (plastic bottles) and gig-den (foam mattress). Steel pipes and brass water-taps ( chu-kala) were imported in the early thirties by Kuchar Kunphela, the leading Tibetan official of that period, and clean water piped into the large kitchen at the side of the Jokhang Temple , to prepare tea for the many monks during the Monlam festival.
Of course, the import of such new products did not mean that Tibetans completely lacked household conveniences in their lives before. A wide variety of tools and household objects such as garment pressing irons, scissors, locks, needles, pots and pans, ceramic-ware, cutlery etc., were manufactured and used in Tibet before. Some traditional Tibetan products are surprisingly inventive, even when judged by modern standards, such as the spill-proof ink-pot, but perhaps such Tibetan innovations deserve more detailed examination in a separate work.
With all these new products flowing into Tibet, such commercial terms as “dozen” (Tib. darzen ), as well as the concept of commercial brand names, which Tibetans termed lemba from the English “number”, entered the popular vocabulary. So in cigarettes you had amo-lemba or Camel brand and cheaper Indian brands, tadri lemba , Battle Ax e brand, and sashu lemba, Lantern brand. Fabrics, sewing thread, soap etc., also came in a variety of brand names as Peacock Brand ( mapcha lemba ), Sheep brand ( lu lemba ), Scissor brand ( kenchi lemba, using the Nepalese word for scissors) and Chain brand ( chakta lemba ).
The term lemba was also used to designate certain famous ladies, especially amongst the Lhasa demimonde. Most well known, in this context, were three female vocalists of the nangma musical ensembles of Lhasa : shimi lemba (cat brand), porok lemba (crow brand) and naptu lemba (snot brand). Another lady of easy virtue who is said to have worn Western style shoes ( jurta, from the Hindi juta ) instead of the traditional Tibetan boot lham, was called jurta lemba. One lemba lady (who shall remain nameless) moved to Darjeeling in the forties and, as Miss Lily, is said to have contributed to the War effort by entertaining American GIs on leave in that hill resort.
Tibetans initially called the radio transmitter “ washangding ”, from the Chinese “ wuxiandian ”, since it was General Huang Mu-sung's condolence mission of 1934, which appears to have brought the first wireless transmitter to Tibet . When the General returned to China , he left the radio set in the charge of a certain Mr. Tsang. As the Tibetans had no other form of wireless transmission (and the Tibetan telegraph line did not extend to Chamdo), Tsang became a rather important figure. When the British mission under Basil Gould came in 1936 with more up-to-date radio equipment, Tsang was naturally upset as his monopoly had ended. He asked the Kashag to confiscate the British radio transmitter, but the Kashag replied that if they did that they would, in all fairness, have to take his set as well. According to Chapman, “The Chinaman burst into tears.”
It appears that since the Gould mission in 1936 there had been some considerations of setting up radio communications to enable the Tibetan government to establish speedy communication with outlying officials. Matters came to a head in 1942 when it was realized that Chinese troops from Sining had penetrated into Tibet almost as far as Nagchukha without Lhasa receiving any news of their movements. That same year when President Roosevelt's envoys Captain Illya Tolstoy and Brooke Dolan visited Lhasa , the Kashag discussed with them its desire to establish wireless communications throughout Tibet , starting with radio transmitters in Chamdo, Gartok, Nagchuka, Tsona and Rima. Subsequently the Tibetan government received three transmitters and five receivers as a gift from the American government. The British sold two training sets and battery chargers the same year to Tibet . Training of Tibetan operators was first undertaken in Lhasa . The program was later enlarged and improved after the employment of radio operator Reginald Fox and RAF radio instructor Robert Ford as full-fledged Tibetan government officials. They trained a number of young Tibetans and Bhutia (ethnic Tibetan) boys from Darjeeling , Kalimpong and Sikkim , to serve as radio operators in Lhasa , as well as with the Tibetan army in Kham.
In 1948, Radio Lhasa started the first of its daily broadcasts to the outside world. At five p.m., the station would go on air. The news was read in Tibetan, and then in English by Reginald Fox or by Kyibuk, one of the surviving Rugby students and an official at the Tibetan Foreign Bureau. Finally the news was read in Chinese by Phuntsok Tashi Takla, the Dalai Lama's brother-in-law. Official announcements were also read over the radio, as this one prepared by Aufschnaiter:
We have the honour to announce that Radio Lhasa will broadcast an announcement of the enthronement of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the ruler of Tibet, together with a proclamation of the Tibetan government to the Tibetan people and the world, on Friday 17 November 1950, at 5.45 p.m. Indian Standard Time.
Since the mid –thirties, it appears that a number of households in Lhasa, Shigatse and Gyangtse had short wave radio receivers, the uncluttered Tibetan atmosphere allowing for clear reception not only of Radio Lhasa but Peking, Delhi and elsewhere. Some individuals (George Tsarong, according to Ford) even built their own receivers. Somewhere along the way the now standard term for radio, lung-trin (air-communication) seems to have become generally accepted. There are claims and counterclaims among certain Tibetans as to the origins of the term, but nothing definite can be established. The term appears in the 1952 Textbook of Colloquial Tibetan by Roerich and Lhalungpa. From the mid fifties when the Tibetan resistance and the CIA began to drop parachute missions and teams into Tibet with radio equipment, the term lok-trin seems to have been used for radio transmission, with the term tar-trin also being used as practically all messages were coded and keyed. Later the Tibetans used high-speed burst transmissions, which were initially hand-keyed on magnetic tape.
The first public address system and loud-speaker ( gyang-drak ) was introduced to Tibet by the 1936 British mission, and appears to have been used largely for entertainment. At garden parties at the Dekyilinga, old Tsarong “cracked jokes” over the microphone, as his son George reports. With full Chinese control over the country after 1959, the PA system became a dismally ubiquitous part of Tibetan life, with loud-speakers on the street corner of nearly every city, town and village in Tibet . Tibetans were woken up every morning to the blaring of “The East is Red”, and for the rest of the day were subjected to interminable propaganda, much as the people of North Korea are now.
Of all the technological innovations of the West, photography seems to have come to Tibet the earliest and was tremendously popular from the start. Mrs. Rinchen Dolma (Mary) Taring tells us in her autobiography that her father, the minister Tsarong Wangchuk Gyalpo (who was murdered in 1911 and into whose family Dasang Dadul was later inducted), purchased some cameras, among other novelties, when he went to Calcutta in 1907. He was there to deliver the first instalment of the indemnity that Tibet had to pay after its defeat by the Younghusband expedition in 1904. A photograph, taken by him in 1910, of his wife and baby daughter is reproduced in the book.
There is the slight possibility that photography could have been introduced to Tibet earlier, perhaps even in the previous century. Prince Henri d'Orléans took many pictures of Tibetan nomads, Repa dancers, and Lhasa officials in 1890. It is just possible that an official might have been intrigued by this new invention and tried to acquire it for himself. Tibetans even then, and earlier, travelled to India for trade and pilgrimage.
By the nineteen-tens photography seems to have established itself in Tibetan life. We learn from the British consular officer, Eric Teichman, that a Tibetan officer he met at Tibetan military headquarters in Eastern Tibet in 1917-18 was a “Kodak enthusiast”. Teichman further informs us that he and his colleagues “… had to submit to being photographed in various groups. The pictures were developed the same evening and turned out very well. The fact of the matter is that these Tibetan officers from Lhasa and Shigatse, whom the Chinese profess to regard as savages, are nowadays more civilised and better acquainted with foreign things than their equals in rank among the Chinese military of Western Szechuan .” Teichman goes on to note that the “Tibetan dapons (generals or colonels; there were eight of them in Eastern Tibet) “have in most cases visited India, carry Kodaks and field-glasses, sleep on camp beds and often wear foreign clothes, whereas the Szechuanese leaders know nothing of the world beyond the confines of their own province.”
The American missionary Albert Shelton, who ministered to the Tibetan and Chinese wounded during the war in 1918, noted that two of the Tibetan generals recorded their victory on film. He also wrote “ Tibet is now an independent nation, and is developing with remarkable if not astonishing rapidity … the Tibetans want foreign goods and foreign civilization.”
My grandfather, Tethong Gyurmay Gyatso, was one of the Tibetan generals then serving in Eastern Tibet . My mother told me that as a girl he taught her how to make contact prints. A temporary darkroom would be rigged by draping the sides of the dining table with blankets. Within this enclosure she would get the chemicals and baths ready and then carefully place a negative and a sheet of printing paper between two plates of clear glass. She would then bring that out from under the table and, exposing it to daylight, count off the required number of seconds. She would then duck back under the table to develop, fix and wash the print.
Tibetan aristocrats as Tsarong Dasang Dadul and his son George were dedicated photographers and even maintained their own dark-rooms, with enlargers, as did Demo Rimpoche, a nephew of the 13 th Dalai lama. The historian, Tsering Shakya tells us that many of the old photographs by these people were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution and the old Demo Rimpoche paraded by Red Guards with a camera hung around his neck, presumably intended to humiliate him. The Reting regent was also reputed to be a keen photographer. The young oracle priest, Choje Kusho, of Dhungkar monastery in the Chumbi valley, was another amateur photographer. MacDonald mentions that he had a folding Kodak with which “he eventually became quite proficient.” It might be mentioned that this person was the primary medium of the now controversial oracular deity, Shugden. Another such clerical shutterbug was Phabonkha Chanzola (manager or steward of the Phabonkha lamasery) who, the late Trichang Rinpoche told me, even claimed to have taken photographs of the fighting in Lhasa in March 1959. Jigme Taring was a proficient photographer and cinematographer, and it is to him we owe much of the film coverage of the young 14 th Dalai Lama's religious examinations at the “Three Seats”, the three great monasteries around Lhasa , and the final public examination at the Jokhang Temple . By the forties, photography was no longer a novelty in Tibet and many aristocrats, merchants, lamas and other well-off families seemed to have owned a camera of some kind, though perhaps not everyone was as dedicated to this pursuit as the Tarings and Tsarongs.
In these days of auto-focus, auto-exposure and just point-and-shoot photography it should be noted that using a camera in the old days took some measure of expertise. You did have your Baby Brownies in the fifties, but most of the equipment used in Tibet appears to have been fairly sophisticated, and a degree of skill and (in the Tibetan situation) resourcefulness were often called for. Tibetans could use professional exposure meters, and even someone as young as the fourteen-year old Dalai Lama carried one with him, as Harrer mentions. Leicas seem to have been the preferred camera in the forties. Aufschnaiter tells us that the Dzasa Lama (the Tibetan government monk official) at Shigatse had “a Leica with an expensive lens”. The camera that Heinrich Harrer and his friend Wangdu-la clubbed together to buy was a Leica. Somehow, this particular camera ended up in Dharamshala, in the possession of the late Rikha Lobsang Tenzin.
The earliest professional photographer in Lhasa appears to have been a Ladakhi Muslim named Ishmael-la. He reportedly used one of those old wooden-body cameras where the photographer draped a black cloth over his head and the camera. We can accurately date one of his photographs of a baby boy to 1924. Ishmael -la appears to have made home visits, and it is not clear that he actually maintained a studio. He must have had a darkroom though to process his pictures. Later a Newari photographer, Bhalpo Nadi, opened a studio in central Lhasa , near the Kani Goshu (Kaling Kushu) stupa, where people could pose before a painted scenic background and have their picture taken. Other Newari photographers appear to have followed in Nadi's footstep for we are told by Charles Bell that “In November 1933 the Dalai Lama summoned one of the Nepalese photographers in Lhasa to take his photograph.” Another professional photographer of Lhasa life was Yaba Tsetan Dorjee of Sikkim who had a studio in Kalimpong and later in Gangtok. While on the subject of professional Tibetan photographers, the name of Tsongon Chunchuk Jinpa should receive special mention. Many of the photographs and film footages of the Dalai Lama's escape, which have appeared in countless books and documentary films, and early photographs of the Four Rivers Six Ranges resistance force in such books as Tibet in Turmoil by Khedroop Thondup, though never credited, were in fact the work of this first of Tibetan war photographers.
A small glossary of Tibetan terms has formed around photography, with par for photograph and its inevitable honorific, kupar. Then we have parchay (camera), pingshok (film or negative) kangsum (tripod), parpa (photographer) partru (develop), parlok , (print or reproduce), parshok (photographic paper), parmen (photographic chemicals), par tsonda (colour photograph) par karpo-nagpo (black & white photograph) tsadangtaya (thermometer), parkhang (studio), pardrom (photograph frame) partheb , photo-album, lokpar (x-ray photography).
There is another par word, parshu, which literally means to make a copy of a photograph, and is sometimes used these days in the sense of making a “photocopy”, but was used in old Tibet to mean an “exact” copy, or to describe something or someone as exactly alike. For example: this baby is a parshu of its father. That such a new term could be used in a comfortably idiomatic way, outside its technical sense, is perhaps indicative of the relative ease that Tibetans seem to have felt about the innovations coming into Tibet . Furthermore, we sometimes have old words, even personal names, being used to describe new and completely unrelated products or ideas. For instance a Tibetan schoolboy's letter to his parents makes reference to magic lantern shows in Lhasa (the magic lantern being an early kind of slide projector). The boy though spells it in Tibetan as majik labdron , this being the name of a popular female Tibetan saint of the eleventh century.
What might be noted is how the Tibetan word for photograph par (which literally means “print”, “reproduction” or “image”) is so surprisingly matter-of-fact. The word does not carry any sense of magic and mystery as might be expected from the language of a primitive people overawed at modern technology. Even the early Chinese term for photographic camera, shenjing literally means “magic mirror”. All the terms Tibetans coined for the new technological innovations of the West are straightforward borrowings as in mota, rili, taar or simple descriptions of the nature of a phenomenon as in lok (electricity) or functions of a machine as in khabhar and kyepar, for telephone and gramaphone. Singularly absent is the “awe of white man's magic by superstitious natives” kind of reaction, with which some foreign travellers to Tibet (even now) like to flavour their reminiscences. As much as modern technology might have intrigued or delighted Tibetans, their sense of wonder and mystery appears to have been largely confined (perhaps a little too exclusively) to their own belief system: oracles, gods, miracles and prophecies. One might also perhaps explain the unexpected functionality of Tibetan borrowings and translations of Western terms as a residual influence of the lotsawas , the early Tibetan Buddhist scholars who translated the vast corpus of Buddhist philosophical texts into Tibetan with admirable precision and intellectual acumen.
And then came the cinema, which Tibetans called beskop , from “bioscope” one of the early European terms for cinema and now apparently used only by South Africans, Nepalese and Tibetans. Incidentally, the initial Chinese term for movies was shenying “magic shadow”, or “ Shadow Magic ” as the Chinese director Ann Hu has titled her interesting feature film (of 2000) that depicts the introduction of the movies to China at the beginning of the 20 th Century. I am working on a separate essay on the history of cinema in Tibet , but it might be mentioned here that, like the rest of the world, Tibetans (or at least those with access to the cinema) were captivated by Charlie Chaplin. In much the way the French made him their own as “Charlot”, Tibetans hailed the little tramp as Charlie “Chumping”, or Charlie the Champion. The English word “champion”, with a slight change in the pronunciation but used in the correct sense, had been incorporated into popular Tibetan lexicon since the twenties and thirties.
Quite a few foreign words have been thus appropriated like kutumani for handshake, (from “good morning”), otomoto for automatic, mising for machine (although there is a perfectly good Tibetan word, trukhor ), and pagla for wild or incorrigible (from the Hindi pagal ). In exile we have been inflicted with hapta for week (from the Hindi hafta ) and the decidedly peculiar barabaji (twelve o'clock in Hindi) for lunch. All of these importations are decried by purists, and they do have a point, in some cases.
This new Tibetan vocabulary was not just confined to the conversations of the upper classes and inhabitants of Lhasa , but gradually entered into the speech of the common people as far distant as Ngari, Kham and Amdo. Trade and the movement of caravans were probably in large measure responsible for this and we find the same new words bijili, shikray, jurta, taar, lok, mota namdru, being used all along the trade route from Kalimpong through Phari and Lhasa to Dhartsedo.
One source for the import and diffusion of new terms and ideas were Tibetan (Kashmiri) Muslims settled in Lhasa , Gyangtse, Shigatse, and Tsethang. They were a successful mercantile community whose members travelled widely for business and the ocassional Haj pilgrimage. Some of them had their children educated in India , a few at the liberal Aligarh Muslim University . This community was, in a moderate way, a progressive influence in Tibet , and the first commercial photographic studio and cinema theatre in Lhasa were established by Muslim businessmen. Individual aristocrats and lamas used Muslim friends and business associates to monitor news from Indian radio broadcasts. Members of the community also subscribed to Urdu and other Indian language newspapers, and were a welcome source of outside information for Tibetans, especially on the Indian independence movement. Incidentally, it appears that Tibetan Muslims were staunch Congress, and not Muslim League, supporters.
The Mahatma, well known and respected throughout Tibet , was called Gandhi maharanza (Gandhi “maharaj”, as he was known in India before Tagore's “mahatma” or the plainer “bapu”). Simple Tibetans believed that the British tossed him, hog-tied, into a river, and when that failed to get rid of him, they tried to blow him apart from the mouth of a cannon (shades of the Mutiny). But Gandhi survived it all (like the child opera hero, Pema Woebar) and the British, completely frustrated, packed up and left India .
The Tibetan passion for pilgrimage could possibly have contributed to the spread of new terms. Gedun Chophel's popular guide to the holy places of India , introduced Tibetans to the intricacies of horse-carriage ( tonga ), motor-car, bus and railway travel. Gedun Chophel even provides the exact railway fare in Rupees to all major destinations, not forgetting to mention the differences in fares between the various classes. He furthermore provides a hand-drawn railway map of India with the place-names in Tibetan transliteration. Gedun Chophel even describes travel by ship from Calcutta to Burma and Singapore and then Sumatra (to visit Borobodur) and provides the exact fare of Rs.15, Rs.10 and Rs.40 respectively (probably for deck class). Gedun Chophel uses the standard Tibetan terms mota and rili, but refers to a bus as mota chempo (big automobile), station as tusing and a steam ship as jazi (from the Urdu jahaz, Arabic jahazi ). The latter term jazi was gradually replaced in popular usage by the term duzeng , zeng being a more classical term for large sea-going ships.
The wanderings of itinerant minstrels and performing troupes as the repas or gypsy dancers from Tsawarong in Eastern dancers might have contributed in a small way to the spread of the new language. For instance, the new word kutumani (handshake) which had been incorporated into a popular song in Lhasa appeared some years later in another song in Eastern Tibet . The Kyormulunga opera company, in its off-season, regularly travelled to India , specifically Sikkim and the Darjeeling hill areas, and on one occasion picked up some dances routines from Indian theatre, which they incorporated in a performance at the Norbulingka. After that, Lhasa folk began to refer to dance and theatrical performances of Indian origin as tedre (from theatre). The Chinese opera , which in the old days had been performed at the Manchu Amban's yamen, was called by Tibetans tangshi .
The 13 th Dalai Lama's modern army was at the forefront of Tibet's modernization, and its development and movement certainly contributed to the spread of new ideas and terms -- especially since the army was organized and trained along British lines and used (for sometime) the vocabulary of the British army for orders and instructions. The intrepid English traveller, General Pereira, who in 1923 walked from Lanchow to India , via Lhasa , was surprised to hear English words of command used by Tibetan troops in Eastern Tibet . I personally remember, in Dharamshala, an old sergeant of the Guards regiment ( kusung magar ), running through (in fairly discernable English) the drill for stripping and assembling a machine-gun. One word he used, ispiring for spring, is even now the standard colloquial term in Tibetan for that item. Another term used for spring is gyuma (lit. intestine), especially in the context of the main-spring of a watch or clock.
British drill commands and instructions were translated into Tibetan from English by the scholar Gedun Chophel, on the request of the Tibetan War Office ( magchi khang ). The new terms were subsequently used by the army. One biographer of Gedun Chophel, who was with him at the time, states that the War Office sent a “big book” to the scholar for translation, which could have been a British military training manual.
(Concluding three parts to follow in coming days)