From National Geographic Magazine

Back to China and Tibet


 Robert Hart's Tibet Letters


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These excerpts were taken from the October 1912, National Geographic Magazine

pages 959 to 994.

The Most Extraordinary City In The World

Notes on Lhasa--The Mecca of the Buddhist Faith

By Shaoching H. Chuan, M.D.

Medical Officer of the Chinese Mission to Tibet

During the last century some ten foreign travelers have entered Tibet either as scientific explorers or as political representatives.... Few ever succeeded in seeing the interior of the sacred city, Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. ...


When I visited Lhasa, with the Chinese Mission to Tibet, in 1906-1907, I enjoyed several advantages.  In the first place, having a Chinese official position, I did not awaken any suspicion in the minds of the natives. Furthermore, I was equipped with all modern facilities for taking records and photographs, and was given the privilege of visiting places hitherto and since denied to all foreigners. My comparatively longer sojourn in Lhasa also gave me ample opportunity for obtaining information and pictures that are rare and unique. ... (page 959)


The Palace of Dalai Lama indeed bears out the statement that at Lhasa are to be found some of the noblest specimens of architecture in central Asia.


Noble and beautiful as the exterior of the palace is, the interior is quite the opposite. Like most Lama temples, the interior of the palace is dark and filthy. The rooms occupied by Dalai are the only clean  portion of this much-revered religious edifice. ... (page 965)


The great Cho-kang was built by the Chinese princess Wen-ch'eng, of the Tang dynasty(618-906 AD), who was married to the Tibetan King Strong-tzan.  It was she who first introduced into Tibet Chinese etiquette and manners and Hindoo literature, and taught the natives weaving and agriculture. Tibetans respected and loved her so devotedly that they had her canonized after her death. Her image was erected in this temple in memory of her great kindness and wonderful achievements. ...


Numerous rats of monstrous size are seen running through the halls or peeping from behind the images. Superstition leads the people to worship them as divine.


Various kinds of ancient arms are also found in the temple. The most interesting of all are two bronze drums of the Han dynasty and one big cannon of the T'ang dynasty, with five characters cast on it. These characters mean literally "Majesty of the Imperial Power extinguished the rebellion."... (page 966)


On the outside are many tablets erected for the purpose of commemorating the military achievements of the Chinese generals who subdued the Tibetans. Among them two tablets are of great historical significance to the Chinese. The one on the right was erected in memory of the alliance between the second emperor of the T'ang dynasty and his nephew, the son of Princess Wen-cheng. The other one, in front, relates the history of founding hospitals and efforts made to stamp out an epidemic of smallpox which had been harassing the whole country. ... (page 967)


In front of Dupon is the Great Oracle of State (see page 960), where inspired Lamas give answers to inquiries made by those who are eager to know their fortunes or outcome of various affairs. It has even greater influence and authority than the oracle at Delphi, since here questions are asked and answers given in regard to governmental policy as well as private matters. ... (page 973)


The power and influence of these three great monasteries can hardly be overestimated. With a total number of 15,000 Lamas, they are strong enough to control almost anything. The leading Lamas are often found engaging in politics or meddling in governmental affairs. Sometimes they become so strong that even the Dalai Lama and the Ambans seem to be unable to control them. ...


Keeping the common people, or laymen, in ignorance is another means of maintaining the power of the Lamas. Nearly all of the laymen are illiterate. Lamas are the only people who are taught to read and write. That ignorance breeds superstition is a well-known axiom. Tibetans at the present day, owing to their ignorance, are fast cob-webbed by numberless superstitions which have been accumulated for centuries.  There is scarcely a single action or object that they do  not believe to be controlled either by gods or by evil spirits.




Tibet is governed by the Dalai Lama as politico-religious head and two "Ambans" as the political dictators. The Ambans are appointed by the  Chinese Emperor every four years. All government affairs have to undergo examinations by the two Ambans, and all governmental policy must be sanctioned by them before it can be put into operation. Literally, the Dalai Lama is under the authority of the two Ambans. ... (page 979)


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