The High Road to China: George Bogle, the Panchen Lama, and the First British Expedition to Tibet

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9780810124950: The High Road to China: George Bogle, the Panchen Lama, and the First British Expedition to Tibet

Touching, humorous, and illuminating, this travelogue takes readers back in time to a remarkable, world-shaping moment. With rich language and the help of a remarkable journal, author Kate Teltscher traces two extraordinary journeys across some of the harshest and highest terrain in the world: the first British expedition to Tibet and the Panchen Lama’s state visit to mark the Emperor’s seventieth birthday.

In the late eighteenth century, with their empire expanding, the British sought a commercial opening to China. European traders were banned from China, but the cunning British East India Company saw a possible advocate in the Panchen Lama, the spiritual leader of the Buddhist people of Tibet. In the hopes of gaining access to Peking, they sent a young Scot named George Bogle as their envoy. Bogle was able to gain an audience with the Panchen Lama, and in him he found much more than a business partner; the Incarnate Lama was a friendly man who loved to discuss politics, science, art, and culture. Bogle gradually became less of a tourist and less of a colonist, growing comfortable and happy the longer he spent in Tibet even as his mission to open China failed. All the while, he kept a detailed journal—his prose by turn playful, self-deprecating, grandiose, and shrewd—and this revelatory document gives readers an exhilarating front seat to the beginnings of international relationships that exert their effects even now.

            Teltscher’s portrayal of Bogle’s unique diplomatic relationship with the holy man is an admission that history is made by people—and people have emotions, flaws, and feelings that enrich and affect history.

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About the Author:

Kate Teltscher is the author of India Inscribed: European and British Writing in India, 1600-1800 and a frequent contributor to The Times Literary Supplement. She teaches at Roehampton University in London.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue
 
In August 1780, at the imperial palace of Chengde, just north of the Great Wall of China, a meeting took place between two of the most exalted figures on earth. The Qianlong Emperor presided over the world’s largest, richest, most populous unified empire. The Third Panchen Lama was the spiritual head of the Tibetan Buddhist faith. To those who witnessed the encounter, they were more than human. Living enlightened beings, they touched the divine. All power—secular and sacred—was concentrated in the audience chamber where they sat enthroned, side by side on a golden dais, engaged in conversation.
 
The Panchen Lama had undertaken the year-long journey from central Tibet to attend the Qianlong Emperor’s seventieth-birthday celebrations. The festivities were to last some five weeks and spread throughout the palace complex and grounds. Also invited were scores of Mongol princes, there to witness the spectacle of imperial piety and munificence. For above all else, the Qing court knew how to put on a good show. The Panchen Lame officiated at the ceremony for the Long Life of the Emperor, dispensed multiple blessings and, in private, initiated the Qianlong Emperor into Tantric mysteries. During the visit, there were banquets in a great Mongolian tent erected in the Garden of Ten Thousand Trees. Seated at tables covered in yellow satin, the Emperor and Lama dined off plates of gold, the other guests off silver. The between-course entertainment consisted of magic shows, wrestling matches, acrobatics and operatic scenes staged by the court eunuchs. Three weeks into the festivities, there was a grand fireworks display. Pyrotechnic gardens bloomed, fiery dancers twirled and, in a final dazzle, the Chinese characters for ‘Place of All Happiness’ blazed through the darkness.
 
In quieter moments, there were opportunities for the Lama and Emperor to discuss affairs of state. On one occasion, when the dancing boys had been dismissed, the Lama begged leave to raise a matter with the Emperor. Following the dictates of friendship, he felt bound to mention the country of Hindostan (northern India), situated to the south of Tibet. The governor of Hindostan and he were friends, he said, and it was his wish that the Emperor too would enter into friendship with the governor. Such a small request, thee Emperor courteously replied, was easily granted. What was the Governor’s name? How large his country and how great his forces? To answer, the Lama summoned a humble member of his entourage, a Hindu trading monk called Purangir who knew the country well. Hindostan was far smaller than China, Purangir said, and its army numbered some three hundred thousand. The Governor was called Mr. Hastings. So it was, the story goes, that the name of the British Governor General, the head of the East India Company in India, reached the ears of the Manchu Emperor.
 
When I first read the account of this conversation, I was intrigued by the possibilities that it raised. In the late eighteenth century the British longed to open relations with the Emperor of China. But the imperial court was utterly inaccessible to European traders, who were confined to seasonal trading at the southern port of Canton. Some twenty years earlier, a British merchant who had attempted the journey to Peking to present a petition to the Emperor had been stopped a hundred miles short of the Forbidden City—and punished with three years’ imprisonment. China then, as now, appeared a most alluring market to Western companies. All the more so because European traders were banned from entry and commerce was subject to strict regulation. British merchants fantasised a about the day when China’s trading rules might be relaxed and a huge potential market and corresponding profits unleashed. The first step would be to open amicable relations with the imperial court. To the eighteenth-century British reader, the commendation of Mr. Hastings to the Emperor would have sounded like the answer to a merchant’s prayer.
 
But what possible reason could the Panchen Lama have for raising the subject of the East India Company with the Qianlong Emperor? In China foreigners were generally viewed with suspicion and traders, according to Confucian tradition, occupied a lowly social status. Could the Panchen Lama really be suggesting that the Qianlong Emperor should enter into friendly correspondence with a British commercial body? The Panchen Lama claimed to be motivated by considerations of friendship alone, but what kind of friendship could exist between a great incarnate Lama and a British trading company? And what, in the midst of this unlikely scenario, was the role of Purangir, the trading monk? Why should a Hindu be in the service of the Panchen Lama? It was from Purangir’s reports that the British learnt of the encounter at Chengde. He seemed to be in the pay of two powers: both serving the Panchen Lama and reporting back to the British. Perhaps he had fabricated the whole scene.
 
To answer these questions, I started to trace the connections built up over six years between three very different worlds: British-ruled Bengal, the Qing empire, and Tibet under the Panchen Lama. In the 1760s and early 1770s, Britain became for the first time a truly imperial power. The conclusion of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), the conflict that raged across the globe between Britain, Prussia and Hanover on one side, and France, Austria, Sweden, Saxony and Spain on the other, catapulted Britain to the possession of a vast overseas domain. By the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1763, Britain acquired great swathes of territory in Canada and the Floridas, and a host of West Indian islands. Two years later, the Mughal Emperor granted the East India Company the right to collect the revenues of Benghal, transforming the trading company into effective ruler of the richest province in India. This sudden access of power was at once intoxicating and troubling. Britain had conclusively thrashed its European rivals and gained an immense empire; but the nation had to pick up the bill for the military expenditure, and learn how to defend and administer its far-flung and diverse colonial possessions.
 
In India the problems of new power quickly became apparent. Less than a decade after the Company had become de facto ruler in Bengal, the providence was laid low by war, famine, excessive taxation and official corruption. Burdened by military and administrative expenses, the Company itself was barely solvent. With no product to sell to the Cinese, it poured the revenues from Bengal into the tea trade at Canton. There was an unquenchable demand in Britain for tea, and China was the only supplier. Tea was by far the most significant of the East India Company’s imports, and the annual purchase of tea at Canton was seen as a great drain on Company reserves of silver. By 1772 the most important commercial body in Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy. If the East India Company were to go under, the shock waves would threaten the whole British economy.
 
Qing imperial power, by contrast, was at its zenith. Under Qianlong, a series of ruthlessly successful military campaigns had doubled the extent of the empire, expanding thousands of miles westward. Much like the British in India, the Qing controlled their empire through a diverse group of subordinate local rulers. A policy of cultural incorporation allowed the Qing to integrate the many different conquered peoples into their empire. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Qing moved on Tibet. Abolishing the instituaiton of secular government, the Qing declared a Chinese protectorate over the country and vested full temporal authority in the Dalai Lama. In order to secure the loyalty of the Tibetan and Mongol peoples, Qianlong and his predecessors lavished patronage on Tibetan Buddhism, building temples, commissioning works of scholarship and honouring high incarnates.
 
The dynasty was far less accommodating to Europeans (other than the Jesuits, the dominant Catholic mission in China, who were values at court for their artistic and technological skills). Strictly segregated, banned from entering the interior and from learning Chinese, European traders were kept at a very safe distance from the Chinese population. From the Qing point of view, foreigners were potentially disruptive. Attracted by the superabundance of China, they came to purchase Chinese goods. But the purchase of tea at Canton was not particularly important in economic terms (the British share represented less than 15 per cent of the annual crop of tea). In any case, economic exchange did not feature high in the Qing concept of trading relations. According to the official view, it was a mark of imperial bounty that foreigners were granted the privilege of engaging in one-way trade.
 
How were the British to find a way through this impasse? No direct approach to the Qing court was possible, so the Company had to pursue a more circuitous route. In the Panchen Lama the British saw a possible advocate with Peking. This book tells the story of the attempt to reach the Qianlong Emperor’s ear. It is a narrative of ambition and intrigue that ranges from Scotland to Bengal, and from Tibet to China. The key players were men of wide vision, curiosity and daring: the Panchen Lama and his young Hindu envoy, Purangir; Warren Hastings and his young Glaswegian envoy, George Bogle.
 
In addition to crossing mountains, these travelers crossed cultures. Crucial to this process was Purangir, the trading monk: master negotiator, intermediary and cultural translator. Through his epic journeys, the rulers of Tibet, Bengal and China could gather information and correspond with each other. When viewed from the vantage point of Canton, the China of this period looks impenetrable and isolated, but, by adopting a Tibetan perspective, the last quarter of the eighteenth century appears a unique moment of cultural collaboration.
 
As eag...

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