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American missionary 'conquers' eastern Tibet
Asia Times[Saturday, November 20, 2004 19:13]
Pioneer in Tibet by Douglas A Wissing

Reviewed by Julian Gearing

Mention the name Dr Albert Shelton and most Americans would be hard pressed to place him. Yet his name should rank alongside those of the world's great explorers and missionaries, such as Dr David Livingstone of Africa, who sought out the last frontiers when there was still virgin territory left for Westerners to conquer.

Shelton was an American medical missionary and adventurer whose exploits in eastern Tibet in the early 20th century captivated the American public. His lectures to packed halls in the United States and a 31-page illustrated article in National Geographic magazine helped a largely Christian audience gain a glimpse of what were termed the "heathen" Tibetans ripe for conversion to Christianity.

Author Douglas Wissing has done us a great service in tracking down the story of fellow Indiana native Shelton, whose medical mission helped many in eastern Tibet. Pioneer in Tibet: The Life and Perils of Dr Albert Shelton tells the largely forgotten story of the man, his successes, setbacks and fame, and his eventual failure to win over the Tibetan Buddhists to Christianity. His scorecard for conversion of Tibetans can be counted on the fingers of two hands.

A missionary for the Disciples of Christ, Shelton spent nearly 20 years on the fringes of eastern Tibet, or Kham as it is known, during which time he was occasionally the only effective doctor and surgeon in a region the size of California. His job was not made easy by the warfare, banditry and disease that plagued the region.

With his wife and two daughters in tow, Shelton strove to reach out to the people of the China-Tibet borderlands. Although it was probably one of the most difficult postings for a Western missionary in the world, Shelton appears to have been in his element, reportedly traveling 15,000 miles, most of it on his faithful steed, Abe. Over the years, his status grew to the point where he acted as an ambassador and negotiator between the Chinese and Tibetans who were regularly clashing in brutal battles.

This is as much a story about the American Western frontier spirit as it is about the frontier "badlands" of eastern Tibet. Going on a mission to the undeveloped world was often a family affair in those days. Shelton's wife Flora demonstrated her own dedication to the cause. Both their daughters were born and brought up in eastern Tibet and his wife became a noted translator in her own right.

At first the story appears long on Shelton's background in the Western frontier region of the US as the last groups of native Americans were slaughtered and beaten back during the latter part of the 19th century. Yet there is value in understanding this "pioneering spirit", the part it played in how Western missionaries viewed Asia, and the parallels then between the American white man's own attitude to native Americans and the Chinese view of Tibetans as "barbarians".

Reading the book today, as the US government clumsily attempts to assert itself through its badly mishandled "war on terror" and "nation-building" in Iraq, there is a resonance with the certainty expressed back in Shelton's time. Americans considered their vision for the peoples of the world as the right one - a Christian world view that looked down on those of other faiths and cultures. Not much has changed in a century, it seems.

Shelton brought an arrogance and certainty with him to China and Tibet, like many of the thousands of other Western missionaries. Yet Tibet changed Shelton, rather than Shelton changing Tibet. It was not just the harrowing 80-day kidnapping by Chinese bandits during which he nearly died that caused a rethink. Although the show he put on for audiences in the US and his own book Pioneering in Tibet: A Personal Record of Life and Experience in Mission Fields hung on the heroism and theme of good versus evil, author Wissing's delving reveals a missionary largely won over by the Tibetans, with his grand ambitions tempered by his growing understanding and appreciation of Tibetan Buddhist culture.

This was the era of the Great Game in Asia, with Britain, Russia, China and, to a lesser extent, the US jockeying for influence. Where the book is particularly useful for those interested in Tibetan affairs is the light it sheds on the complicated struggle over the borderlands of Tibet and China. A string of Chinese dynasties and governments have long claimed Tibet is Chinese territory. What Shelton's story shows us is that any Chinese grip on Tibetan territory was largely illusionary. Although there were times over the centuries when Chinese troops occupied Lhasa, for much of the last 1,000 years, the relationship between the Lhasa and Peking (Beijing) was largely one of priest-patron. From 1911 to 1950, Tibet was de facto independent.

Shelton was a minor player in this Great Game, a missionary with a personal goal of reaching Lhasa and setting up a medical mission there. In this he appeared to receive encouragement from the 13th Dalai Lama, who in a letter thanked him for his work. But a letter of thanks was not enough. Shelton pushed for official permission to approach Lhasa.

Shelton never did make it to Lhasa. Felled by what appears to have been a bandit's bullet on a high Tibetan mountain pass in 1922, the adventurous missionary died at age 46, a legend in the region.

Now finally there is a book that allows him rightly to take his place alongside other famous missionaries and adventurers. Maybe we should leave it to Shelton's Tibetan friends to offer a fitting tribute. As they simply put it: "A good man dies at the top of the pass with his boots on."

Pioneer in Tibet by Douglas A Wissing, published by Palgrave Macmillan/St Martin's Press 2004. ISBN 1-4039-6328-2. Price $29.95, 334 pages.

Julian Gearing has covered conflicts and religion in Asia for over two decades and specializes in Tibetan affairs.

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Tibet was never a part of China (cheeranjeev)
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