Denison Ross and the Tibetan monks in London

While in Shanghai, I also visited the Xujiahui branch of the Shanghai Library, where they have old western books and newspapers. This is the old Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei with an amazing architecture and equally impressive holdings of books. I spent some time reading through old newspapers and came across an amusing story in The Shanghai Times (2 March, 1925) about “Sir Dickinson Ross,” head of the London School of Oriental Languages. This was obviously a mistake for Sir Denison Ross who indeed was the first director of that school (known today as SOAS). Nevertheless, the story itself was quite interesting so I decided to include it here, as it is not readily accessible anymore.

Dalai Lama’s love poems shock Tibetan priests
Holy men make astonishing discovery during visit to London School of Oriental Languages, seeing book for first time.
London, Jan. 27.

Quite by accident, Sir Dickinson Ross, the learned head of the London School of Oriental Languages, to-day provided the holy people of Tibet with a first-class social and religious scandal.

At his invitation the party of Tibetan Lamas who came to England some seven weeks ago to take part in the filming of the “Epic of Everest” at the Scala Theatre visited the School of Oriental Languages.

Before showing them around the school library, the inspection of which was the main object of their visit, Sir Dickinson took the Tibetan priests into his study and showed them priceless books written in their own language, some of which were centuries old.

Coming as a surprise to them, the literary treat sent the Lamas into ecstasies of excitement (writes an “Evening Post” representative).

Each grabbing a book, they proceeded to chant the contents in droning voices, which soon made the room resemble an industrious beehive in summer.

Then came the climax of their treat. The youngest priest, a clever mischievous youngster, who has developed most of the traits, of a naughty schoolboy since his arrival in England, came across a book of poems — love poems of the most exotic description — written by their Dalai Lama, in other words their revered spiritual and temporal head; their Pope and King!

The young discoverer’s excitement broke all bounds and in a super-falsetto he began to chant the themes embodied in the poems: “The bullet has come to the ground, My hear has found its Sweetheart!”

And on he went until, piercing the droning of the other priests, his strident little voice reached the ears of the chief Lama, who, with a look, brought the youngster’s forbidden enjoyment to an abrupt end.

Tete-A-Tete Rebuke!
This particular young priest has proved very adaptable since his arrival.

He has picked up some English — and also ideas which his chief has had trouble in suppressing.

A few days ago, when the party were being taken through a big West End stores, this youngster actually had the precocity to make a bet with one of the other young priests.

Unfortunately for him his chief overheard the making of the wager. Noiselessly stepping up behind the two young men, he seized them by the ears, and cracked their heads together.

The report of the collision of heads rang through the building like falling bricks, and caused great excitement in the establishment.

After the Lamas had examined the books in Sir Dickinson’s room, they were conducted to the library. Once installed there, it was very difficult to remove them, so great was their interest in the books.

These Lamas, it must be remembered, derive practically all their amusement and learning from continuous reading of religious books.

Still chattering amongst themselves, out of the hearing of their chief, on the enthralling subject of the love poems of the Pope and King, the Lamas were asked to sign their names in the visitors’ book.

Little Brown Bag
On some document or other they were shown the signature of some Tibetan priest who had visited the college years ago. The chief Lama read the signature.

Its final syllables were: “Ha! Ha! Hee! Hee!

Here the humorous intent of the writer broke through the reserve and dignity of even the chief Lama, and, with the others, he burst into merry laughter.

Never since they came to London have these Lamas had such enjoyment as they had to-day perusing books which had never before come within their reach; reading of matters they had never before thought were in print, and seeing beyond doubt that their Pope was somewhat of a poet on the sly.

One of the most interesting discoveries was hand-written history of Tibet. Never before had these learned men known that such a thing as history existed.

When They’re Back Home
Sir Dickinson, who speaks their language fluently, had to describe history to them as “stories of day-to-day life backwards.” There is no word for history in their vocabulary.

Great things may happen in their monasteries 14,000 feet above the seal-level when they reach there in a short while. For they are leaving this country in a couple of weeks.

The Chief Lama predicts great difficulty in reducing his youthful followers to subjection and to the ordinary routine of life when they return.

Some of them may be given a few years’ solitary confinement — in which the younger ones may try to emulate the Pope and King as poets.

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2 Responses to Denison Ross and the Tibetan monks in London

  1. Sam says:

    Despite all the journalistic innacuracies, this really is a fascinating account. It must be one of the very earliest (if not the earliest) visits by monks from Tibet to the UK. Sure, a party of Tibetans had visited in 1913 — including four boys who were to be educated at Rugby School — but they were not monks. I didn’t find a reference to this visit in Melvyn Goldstein’s ‘History of Modern Tibet, 1913–1951’ but it is mentioned here and there — see this web page for instance:

    There would have been a political aspect to this — Tibet was then indenpendent and the 13th Dalai Lama was trying to assert the fact of this independence internationally; the presence of Tibetans at the British Empire Exhibition would surely have been part of that.

    As for the “scandal” — I don’t think it would have been that, for anyone involved. The love poems that the young monk read out are the famous poems of the 6th Dalai Lama, known to almost all Tibetans. The journalist has assumed that they were by the contemporary Dalai Lama, composed by him “on the sly” and therefore scandalous, which they aren’t.

    I’ll forgive the journalist that mistake, but I did get annoyed at this guy, who can’t even get Denison Ross’ name right, baldly stating that the Tibetans didn’t know “that such a thing as history existed.” Tibet has a long tradition of historical writing in a variety of genres, and there are various words for these historical genres. Perhaps Denison Ross’ vocabulary didn’t stretch quite that far!

    Anyway, great find. Thank for putting it up here!

  2. imre says:

    Thank you Sam for clarifying some of the background issues here.

    As to misspelling Denison Ross’ name, I think the clue to this is that this was written in the Shanghai Times. While I don’t think that the correspondent was Chinese, he could have easily been a White Russian émigré who found a job writing for a foreign paper in Shanghai. Around this time there were over 20,000 Russians in Shanghai and they represented the largest European community. Many of them were well educated and fluent in French, German and English. But linguistic proficiency was obviously not a guarantee that you would also be acquainted with the current state of affairs in Oriental studies.

    In any case, everything about this period is fascinating. Shanghai, Tibet, the lamas in London, Russian émigré journalists in China, etc.

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