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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Newspeak & New Tibet: Part I

July 17, 2008

The Myth of China's Modernization of Tibet and the Tibetan Language
By Jamyang Norbu
June 17, 2005

"The Tibetan language ... has been taken by those foxes who called
themselves lions, and toyed with at will and for no reason. This
should definitely not have happened ... literate people are becoming
illiterate in the area of understanding the meaning of words."
The Panchen Lama in his "70,000 Character" Statement" of 1962 .


There has always been a sneaking admiration for China and Communist
ideology in a section of Tibetan exile society, especially within the
leadership. Even when condemning China 's destruction of monasteries
and temples, and the murder of over a million Tibetans, there has
always been a tendency to qualify such denunciations with the
admission that China did develop Tibet technologically and did
modernize the Tibetan language. This essay hopes to expose these two
enduring propaganda myths that have for long provided the Chinese
occupation of Tibet with a progressive if not a reformist aura.

Many of us in exile accepted these two big lies, in part, out of
ignorance, but also because it was the politically correct thing to
do at the time. The global intellectual climate of the late sixties,
seventies and early eighties was perversely favourable to Maoist
China, Most Western visitors to Dharamshala (including academics and
students of Buddhism) however much they sympathised with Tibet's
plight, could never quite bring themselves to give up their belief
that the Maoist revolution, whatever its shortcomings, had been a
force for good. His Holiness's pronouncements about Marxism and
Buddhism being inherently similar philosophies, and other such
statements, compounded the fallacy.

This somewhat overlong essay seeks to uncover the true beginnings of
the modernization of the Tibet and the Tibetan language: from the
early twentieth century with British diplomatic and military advances
into the country, Christian missionary activity, the import of
products of contemporary Western technology to Tibet, the impact of
trade, especially during World War II, and most significantly, the
Thirteenth Dalai Lama's modernization programme.

The latter half of the essay examines Communist China's language
"reforms" in Tibet, which were, to say the least, ill-conceived,
unnatural, arrogant and imposed. They were also seriously damaging,
not just to traditional writing and literature but the spoken
language as well. There was some concern in the early seventies that
the Tibetan language might eventually die out altogether and be
replaced by Chinese. This fear has of late been revived with the
success of China 's large-scale population transfer to Tibet . The
concluding part of the essay provides notable instances of the
peculiar genius of the Tibetan people when dealing with matters of
language, which throughout their history they have done with
remarkable skill, intellectual integrity and sophistication.

Much of the information in this piece has been acquired, over the
years, in conversations with my mother Lodey Lhawang, my uncles
Tethong Sonam Tomjor and Rakra Rimpoche, and my friends Tashi Tsering
la, Drakton Jampa Gyaltsen la, and others. I am indebted to Professor
Elliot Sperling, Pema Bhum la, Tsering Shakya la for advice and
information and also to Sonam Dhargay la, Tendar la and Dolkar la for
their contributions to my collection of interesting new Tibetan
words. I must also thank Lucas Myers and Nima Taylor for taking the
time to go through the piece and make corrections and suggestions.

For the convenience of the general readership I have done without
footnotes and citations, but have provided a list of bibliographical
references at the end of essay, for those who might want to check my
sources. The word "Newspeak" in the title of this essay comes from
George Orwell's, Nineteen Eighty Four, and is the dismal artificial
language of the totalitarian state in that novel.


"Recent political events in Tibet have triggered a veritable
revolution in the Tibetan language." This claim was made by Professor
Melvyn Goldstein in the introduction to his Modern Literary Tibetan ,
published in 1973. By "recent political events" Professor Goldstein
probably meant the Cultural Revolution — which started in 1966 and
officially ended in 1976 — and which apparently seems to have
impressed and excited him, as it did many other left leaning
academics in the West.

Goldstein's book, which demonstrates and promotes this
"revolutionary" new Tibetan language, is full of such sample
sentences and phrases as: "He participated diligently in the
revolution," "the people are resolutely opposing the reactionaries",
or "There are imperialists in America", "The workers resolutely (with
one voice) criticized the government," and the rather strange line
"Formerly there were Chinese in Tibet." Sample reading passages have
been taken from "The Proclamation of the Chinese People's Liberation
Army" and other official documents and publications. In a somewhat
nominal effort at academic balance Goldstein reproduces a few
sentences and passages from the exile newspaper, Tibetan Freedom and
the government of Sikkim newsletter Yargyal Ghongphel , but the
left-revolutionary stuff overwhelms.

The foreword to his Tibetan-English Dictionary of Modern Tibetan
(1975) largely replicates the introduction to his Modern Literary
Tibetan. There is in addition this enthusiastic statement that "The
entrance of Tibet into the world arena of politics, science and
technology has led to the creation of thousands upon thousands of new
lexical items in a relatively short period of time." In a later book
Essentials of Modern Literary Tibetan (1993) we are provided, for
supplementary reading, such edifying materials as "Resolution of the
Central Committee of the Communist Party of China concerning the
Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," and also "Concerning Liu
Shaoqi". The last is a disgusting piece of official vilification of
China's former head-of-state and Mao's heir designate. Liu, a sick
man was incarcerated for a number of years and finally, according to
Simon Leys, "left by his tormentors lying in his own excrement,
completely naked on the freezing concrete floor of his jail, till he died."

Goldstein could perhaps argue that he was providing such provocative
sample sentences and material merely for their educational value, but
I doubt that a "modern" German language book published in the USA in
the 30s and 40s would have included such sentences as "We fully
support the Fuhrer's racial policies" or "National Socialism has
successfully eliminated the Jewish Problem ( Judenfrage )," though
such expressions were probably common currency in Germany at the
time. It is also doubtful if anti-Semitic tracts from Der Sturmer or
the Volkischer Beobachter would be provided for supplementary
reading, that is, if the author of the language book were not a Nazi

Goldstein is joined in his admiration for Communist China's
"revolution" in modern Tibetan language by the mother of all Chinese
propagandists herself. Han Suyin has absolutely no doubts about the
shortcomings of the old Tibetan language, and is ecstatic about
China's modernization efforts. It should be pointed out in all
fairness that while Han Suyin is a notorious and thoroughly
discredited propagandist for Maoist China, Goldstein is a successful
and prolific American academic on Tibet who though expressing
wholehearted enthusiasm for Communist China's language "reforms" in
Tibet, is careful not to make outright denunciations of the old
Tibetan language.

Han Suyin has no such reservations. Her bogus erudition rings with
the authority of a papal encyclical. "Tibetan was profoundly and
solely a religious, liturgical, language. Until 1959 it did not have
worlds for atom, dynamo, aeroplane, lorry; and its considerable
religious vocabulary was also unknown to most of the Tibetans
themselves, since it was highly abstruse metaphysics … Standard
Tibetan is now being created, just as standard Chinese was created,
through the revolutionary process, based on the language of the
common people, so that writing and speaking now correspond to each other."

There is a widely held belief in Tibetan study circles, which quite a
few Tibetans also seem to accept, that whatever death, destruction
and suffering the Chinese might have caused in Tibet, they did the
Tibetan language a signal service by modernizing it, and creating a
new Tibetan vocabulary of political, technological and scientific
terms. There is a surface appearance of legitimacy to this claim. The
many attractive glossy publications: pamphlets, magazines,
newspapers, school textbooks and so on, that came out from Tibet and
China in the sixties, seventies and even eighties, contrasted very
favourably (at least physically) with the poor quality of the
publications of the government-in-exile. Yet, some of the gloss of
such Chinese propaganda material has come off in the last couple of
decades, thanks in part to the sobering revelations made by the late
Panchen Lama and certain Tibetan scholars and writers with first hand
experience of Chinese language "reforms" in Tibet.

But before undertaking a review of Chinese polices and practices in
this regard, which we will be doing in Part 4 of this essay, it might
perhaps be useful to understand how in the old days Tibetans went
about updating and modernizing their own language before Communist
Chinese cadres came along to do it for them.

What Goldstein and Han Suyin ignore is that the creation of a modern
Tibetan vocabulary was an evolutionary and an organic process, one
undertaken mostly by Tibetans themselves in a matter-of-fact,
non-academic and non-official way, beginning at least half a century
before China's occupation of Tibet. The first mention in print of a
modern technological term being coined in Tibetan dates to the 13th
Dalai Lama's exile to British India and his visit to Calcutta. Sir
Charles Bell, in Portrait of the Dalai Lama, writes, "I was in an
annex close to Hastings House, and a private telephone connected the
two buildings. The Precious Protector (the Dalai Lama) liked talking
on this. He enjoyed it so much that the conversation used to
terminate in a gurgle of laughter from his end. Here I first learned
the newly coined Tibetan word for telephone. It was ka-par, the
'between-mouths'." Perhaps Bell could have, more correctly,
transcribed it as kha-bhar , but transliterating Tibetan words in
English is a notoriously arbitrary exercise, especially among Tibet
experts. So I should point out that all the transliterations provided
in this essay are my own best approximations of Tibetan
pronunciation. Furthermore no attempt has been made to replicate
Tibetan spelling.

Other new words coined at the time in India could have been
chensi-khang for zoo or menagerie, for we know His Holiness visited
the Calcutta zoo at the time, also rili for train (from "rail"),
chaklam (literally "iron-way') for railway-tracks, mota for motor
car, as he and his entourage used these modes of transport in India,
and rili - tissing for railway station. As can be seen, some of these
words are taken directly from their English equivalents, though
others were derived from Hindustani. For instance Tibetans also call
the motorcar gari, from the Indian gaari, and the bicycle kang-gari (
kang-pa being foot in Tibetan).

But as charming as Bell's account may be it should be noted that the
Dalai Lama had earlier travelled to Peking (by special train) in 1908
and could certainly have used a telephone there. His Holiness even
planned a subsequent trip to Japan, which was cancelled because of
the death of the Manchu emperor. But a couple of years later His
Holiness managed to send a notable scholar, the geshe, Tsawa Tritul
and two other Tibetans to study in Japan. The dramatic modernization
of Japan of the Meiji period must definitely have made a strong
impression on these three Tibetans.

It is quite possible that these new terms were in use even earlier.
The historian Alex McKay writes " The Anglo-Tibetan encounter in the
1904-7 period had a significant and enduring effect on Tibet and its
neighbours. It brought the Tibetans into contact with new
technologies and ways of thinking". In fact the Panchen Lama was
invited to visit India in 1905 to meet the Prince and Princess of
Wales. The lama's entourage was tremendously impressed by the new
electric lights in Calcutta, and some members "spent considerable
time trying to blow them out." Calcutta, the second city of the
Empire, had had electric streetlights installed only a few years earlier.

In fact, Tibetan curiosity about British rule and innovations in
India dates back even further, and does not appear to be confined to
mere superstitious dread of the white foreigner, the -- philingwa "
or -- chilingwa -- as a threat to Buddhism, as has been generally
asserted in European writings on Tibet of the time. The Tibetan sage
Jigme Lingpa's " Discourses on India " written in 1789, not only
mention the various cities, regions, and kingdoms of the
subcontinent, but also provides fairly accurate descriptions of
Indian wildlife, geography and such wonders as the tidal bores of the
Hughli river and pearl fishing in Ceylon. Jigme Lingpa discusses the
British, the Ottoman and the Moghul empires, and specifically
describes England and its various manufactured exports as textiles,
porcelain, glassware, telescopes and modern weapons. He describes in
some detail contemporary novelties as a barrel-organ and a
zogroscope, which is somewhat inaccurately referred to as a peep-show
in the English translation of the book. Jigme Lingpa even includes a
section on English ship construction, and seems to have grasped that
such sailing ships could "tack" against the wind.

Before going any further, it might perhaps be noted that technology,
in the modern utilitarian sense, was not exactly an alien concept to
Tibetans. Tibet had certain definite technological achievements to
its credit, albeit in its imperial past. The Tang annals tell us of
Tibetan skill in metal-craft and metallurgy and the high quality of
Tibetan weapons and steel armour that fully covered not only the
imperial warriors but also their steeds. Even the Arabs, famed
throughout the known world for their Damascus steel, referred to
certain superior quality armour as "bucklers of Tibet". The 15 th
century sage, explorer, bridge-builder and physician Thangton Gyalpo,
even forged "stainless steel" for his bridges according to Wolf
Kahlen, a Berlin art-professor and consultant to the Royal Government
of Bhutan on art and architecture. Kahlen has dubbed Thangtong, the
Leonardo Da Vinci of Tibet, for his amazing artistic and
technological achievements.

Surprisingly enough, Tibetans even seem to have made some
contributions to the growth of Western technology. The late Lynn
White Jr., the pioneering American historian in the field of medieval
technology, has shown that both the hot-air turbine and the
ball-and-chain governor are technological innovations introduced to
late medieval Europe from Tibetan technology. It is a fascinating
fragment of history but we need not go into details here. We know
that these bits of technology in the form of the hot-air powered
prayer wheel and hand-held prayer wheels were introduced into Europe
through the medium of the Turco-Mongol slave population brought from
Central Asia, sold in Crimea, and transported to Italy where the use
of the hot-air turbine and the ball-and-chain governor is first noted
shortly after these slaves begin to arrive.

The terms for guns, menda , and by extension rifle, ringda, and
artillery, mekyok, might have been in use since the days of the
Mongol hegemony over Tibet, and certainly in use at the time of the
Dzungar invasion of Lhasa (1717), when firearms were used extensively
on both sides. The Tibetan word for clock or watch, chutsoe, is an
old one, and literally means, "water-measure." It is probably derived
from simple water clocks used in Tibet, or more sophisticated
clepsydras that Tibetan lamas and rulers might have received as
presents from imperial China. Mechanical clocks, which came to Tibet
at the end of the nineteenth century, were called chutso khorlo. The
term khorlo meaning machine or literally, wheel. The term gyangsher
or telescope is, surprisingly enough, an old one and features in the
opera Kiu Pema Woebar , which is based on the story of Padma
Sambhava's previous incarnation. We also have mik-shel, literally
eyeglass for spectacles, which were imported from old China, and
cheshel or meshel for magnifying lens.

One of the most fundamental terms in modern science, "atom" (Tib.
dhul, specifically dhul-ta rab cha-med, Skt. rajas, renu, parmanu ),
had been in use in Tibet probably since Buddhist texts were
translated from the 8 th century onwards. The most profoundly
scientific of all Buddhist philosophers, Arya Nagarjuna, debating the
proponents of various theories of matter, including atomists (of a
proto-Daltonian kind) conclusively reasoned (in the first century AD)
that the atom was not indivisible and could be "split" into
sub-atomic and sub sub-atomic particles.

The present-day Tibetan word for airplane, namdru (literally airship)
is an old one and there are references to flying machines in texts
related to the Kalachakra Tantra (translated into Tibetan in AD
1027). The word nam-thang (lit. "airfield") is also one of those
happy words that seem to have inserted itself quite naturally into
the vocabulary, and appears to have been used somewhat
matter-of-factly in 1935 when the kashag discussed a British request
for the construction of a landing-strip near Lhasa to fly out Mr.
Williamson, the mission head, who had been suddenly stricken ill. So
Han Suyin, who claims that Tibetans had no word for atom or airplane,
should chew on that for a while.

Even if the Dalai Lama's brief exile in British India was not the
inception, the period can perhaps be regarded as catalytic for the
coining of new Tibetan words. Time seemed to have hung heavy for the
Tibetan court in Darjeeling, if Charles' Bell's accounts are anything
to go by. The Dalai Lama looked forward to Bell's afternoon visits,
but other than that, Tibetan ministers and officials probably had
little to do in the first year of their exile. China's grip on Tibet
was unyielding and both Britain and Imperial Russia were unmoved by
Tibetan appeals for intervention, even mediation.

Darjeeling was not your roaring metropolis, but its situation as a
major British health sanatorium, and the summer capital of Bengal,
the most important province of India, meant that the city would have
the latest consumer products and technological amenities of that
period. These would no doubt have caught the interest of the Dalai
Lama and his officials, who probably discussed them and thought up
suitable Tibetan names for them. From most accounts it appears that
quite a few of these ministers and officials were eminently qualified
to do just that. Besides such obvious intellectuals as the geshe
Tsawa Tritul, the eccentric scion of the imperial Lhagyari family,
Gyarisay-nyon (the first Tibetan artist to paint in a "naturalistic"
manner) appeared to have been in Darjeeling at the time. Others in
the exile court were Tsarong Dasang Dadul (then Chensel Nangang) with
his open and enquiring mind, Lonchen Shatra, intelligent,
sophisticated, meticulous, ever the "trained diplomatist" (according
to Sir Henry MacMahon) and the poet and scholar Shelkar Lingpa,
senior secretary to his Holiness, author of the celebrated poem,
Songs in Remembrance of Lhasa ( Lhasa dran-lu ) which he wrote in
Darjeeling. This is a complete digression, but I must reproduce at
least one stanza of this remarkable poem for the reader's pleasure:

  Amidst the many shops and stalls in the busy market square
  The thousand delightful movements of soft supple bodies
  All gathered there, the beauties, none missing,
  Showing off their sweet smiling faces...
  ... I remember Lhasa.

The poem has forty-six stanzas each ending with the phrase "I
remember Lhasa" (Lhasa dran). Other stanzas describe the surrounding
landscape, institutions and religious life in Lhasa.

It was this Shelkar Lingpa, a Tibetan scholar, the late Tethong Sonam
Tomjor, once told me, who coined the term for the relatively new
metal, aluminium, which was only then becoming commercially
available. The Tibetan word hayang, a contraction of hachang yangbo
or extremely light (another possible alternative is halaypay yangpo,
or amazingly light) is such an easy and matter-of-fact term that many
Tibetans do not think of it as a new word coined in 1910 or 11, but
regard it as native, even generic. All cooking pots, aluminium or
otherwise, are often referred to as hayang.

After the return of the 13th Dalai Lama to a free Tibet, contacts
with British India expanded. With it came the impetus to create new
terms. In addition to exploring the development of a modern Tibetan
vocabulary, this discussion should perhaps extend to the actual
introduction of such technologies as electricity, telegraph and the
telephone to Tibet. After all, Goldstein and Han Suyin's contention
about the black hole in the Tibetan language would lead anyone to
conclude that Tibet before the Communist Chinese invasion was a
country completely bereft of any of the products of modern
technology; the assumption being that if Tibetans didn't have terms
for certain objects or ideas then they most probably hadn't come
across them yet.

The decision to electrify Lhasa seems to have been made in 1922, but
work on the project was very slow, owing primarily to lack of funds.
In 1927 a qualified Tibetan engineer, Ringang (a.k.a. Changoepa
Rinzin Dorjee), who graduated in electrical engineering from what is
now the Imperial College of the University of London, was assigned
the task. According to George Tsarong, Ringang "single-handedly took
on a plan to build a hydroelectric plant at Dode, three miles from
Lhasa behind Sera Monastery, where there was a small but forceful
mountain stream. Machinery was ordered from England. The main power
station at Dode was linked with a substation at Gyabumgang, provided
all of Lhasa City with electricity for the first time." A Tibetan
historian, the late K. Thondup, citing the letter of another Tibetan
Rugby student, mentions that initially only the Norbulingka was electrified.

It was an enormously difficult undertaking, made no less challenging
by the fact that the generator Ringang ordered from London was a
large one and transporting the pieces across the Himalayas proved a
near sisyphian task. David Macdonald, the British trade agent at
Gyangtse, thought the project too ambitious and that "the importation
of this plant was a mistake … some of the pieces were so heavy and
awkward that each took twenty men to carry it, their daily progress
being less than four miles." But Ringang persevered. He had to do all
the technical work himself, laying the power-lines across the city
and setting up transformers and accumulators. Peter Aufschnaiter, who
twenty years later examined the Dode plant, remarked that it was "… a
truly amazing achievement! This was especially so when we realized
that he (Ringang) frequently had to make do with local materials."
For instance Ringang used wood to make the flumes to direct the water
to the turbines. To add to our young engineer's problems his
superiors did not appreciate the labour and complexity of the task.
We are told by Spencer Chapman that "after several months' work the
Dalai became impatient and could not understand why there was still no light."

But then Chapman, who visited Tibet in 1936, goes on to tell us that
-- except for a few months in winter when the stream is frozen, it
(the power station) works perfectly. At the present time, therefore,
the Potala, the streets, and many of the private houses are lit by
electric light." The Jokhang had electric lights installed but a
small fire (caused by a short-circuit) put paid to that innovation.
The Tsarongs, the Tethongs and quite a few other aristocratic
families had electric lights installed in all the rooms of their
houses. Humbler homes might have a single light bulb in their main room.

Before leftist propagandists pounce on this bit of information to
demonstrate the inequity of old Tibetan society, even in the matter
of light bulbs, let me recount the experience of an American
historian on Tibet, Warren Smith, who travelled to Lhasa in the
1980s. According to Dr. Smith, most Tibetan households in the city
were lit by single (and dim) 25-watt bulbs. The residences of Chinese
officials, cadres, and important Tibetan collaborators as Ngabo and
Phakpala were certainly better provided for in the number and wattage
of light bulbs.

By the forties, power failures were a regular phenomenon, and it was
discovered that the equipment at the power station had worn out.
Isolated power outages might occur at the homes of aristocratic
families, especially if they were having a party and had failed to
provide an adequate pourboire (chang-rin or "beer price" in Tibetan)
to the staff of the electricity plant. ( I was told this in
Dharamshala by then TIPA director, the late Ngawang Dhakpa la of
Chitiling, Lhasa, when a suspiciously inconvenient power failure
occurred before a TIPA performance). The construction of the new
government mint at Drapchi in 1931, and the power that it drew from
the limited service, probably contributed to the unreliability of the
Lhasa electric service. A larger project was planned and fortunately
the services of Peter Aufschnaiter became available for the surveying
and civil engineering side of the new project. For a year
Aufschnaiter made daily measurements of the height and flow of the
Kyichu River. Aufschnaiter tells us that the project was headed by a
commission consisting of Tsarong, Thangme and Reginald Fox. Later the
White Russian Nedbailoff and Tsarong's son George became involved.
Robert Ford tells us that this team "already had plans for building
more hydroelectric stations." They also had plans for improving
Tibetan agriculture and setting up a network of radio stations all
over the country. This multi-national team of official Tibetan
government employees had, Ford points out, somewhat touchingly, "a
common loyalty to the Tibetan government and people. And we had the
proud spirit of pioneers."

The Tibetan government also appeared to have undertaken other public
works in the forties. Successfully completed were two ten kilometre
long irrigation canals, and a modern dam by the Norbulingka. The
Tibetan Agriculture Office (sonam laykhung ) requested and received
various seeds from the US Department of Agriculture to test new
strains of barley and other crops. A request was also made to the
Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, Surrey, for barley, wheat, rye and
other seeds. Negotiations were also underway to import agricultural
machinery. Aufschnaiter tells us that the government intended to
increase the city's clean water supply, and also create an extensive
sewage and drainage system for Lhasa. It was for this purpose, and
also for the planned distribution of the electric mains in the city
for the new hydroelectric project, that Aufschnaiter was commissioned
to make a detailed survey and map of Lhasa.

Tibetans called electricity "lok" from lightning, having arrived at
the connection between the two independently of Benjamin Franklin's
famous kite experiment. Other related words followed: lokhang
(generating plant), lok-ama (dynamo), lok-ku (electric wire),
lok-thag (electric cable) shertok, (light bulb), dongkhep
(lampshade), kamlok or lok-dze, (dry-cells or batteries), lok-chu
(sulphuric acid for accumulators), pholok (positive charge), molok
(negative charge), lok-khyue ("electric shock" or "electrical
conduction"), lok-shug (electric "strength", generally referring to
voltage) and the onomatopoeia thir for electric bell.

Flashlights were popular in Tibet, especially with travellers, who
often carried them in protective fabric or leather cases with
shoulder straps. People would sometimes compete to see who had the
most powerful beam, hence making the long six-cell Eveready
flashlight a highly desired object for its time. For a while, young
men in Lhasa made a nuisance of themselves shining flashlights in the
eyes of passers-by, especially women. Flashlights were called bijili
after the Indian word for electricity, for that was also what the
flashlight was called by the locals in Darjeeling. Reportedly, this
term is still used in Tibet. Later the term lok-shu (electric lamp)
began to replace it. Other such " lok " based words were gradually
coined, a few of them in exile: lok-thap (electric heater or stove )
lok-tru (dry-cleaning), drang-lok (air-conditioner) and tsa-lok
(electric heating or central heating). The electric fan was simply
called lung-khor (air-turn) and the refrigerator khya-gam (ice-box).

Tibetans called the telegraph tar from the Indian "taar" for wire.
The first telegraph line was set up from Sikkim to Gyangtse in 1904
during the Younghusband expedition. Tibetans requested that the line
be extended to Lhasa but the Great War put the project on hold, and
the line was only completed in 1923. According to David MacDonald,
"All material, including posts, had to be carried up from India, and
skilled workmen also had to be imported" and "… the Tibetan
government defrayed all expenses for construction." This no doubt
included the cost of the tar-ku (telegraph wire) and tar-chay
(telegraph sets or equipment) and also the salary of the English
engineer, W.H. King.

David McDonald also adds that "Telephones were installed in all the
important State offices in Lhasa, and these have proved
satisfactory." In fact McDonald goes on to tell us that when he
retired in 1924 as the British trade agent at Gyangtse, "The Dalai
Lama and Tsarong shap-pe talked to me by telephone from Lhasa, and
expressed their intention of moving the Government of India to retain
me at Gyangtse for a few more years."

It is therefore somewhat dismaying to come across this ill-informed
admission in a publication of the International Campaign for Tibet,
ICT, (a Tibetan government agency in the US) that "China's invasion
of Tibet did bring more modern technologies, such as the telephone to
Tibet." One must be grateful though, for small mercies. The ICT
booklet at least attempts to argue that "most of the technology
remains in the hands of the military, the government and Party." More
bluntly put, there was, under Chinese administration, effectively no
telephone service for the public in Tibet until the mid-1980s, when
the service was opened up partially to non-governmental personnel. It
is only with the introduction of cell phones in the late 90s, that
Tibetans in Tibet have finally had a modern telephone service that
could correctly be called public. All the same, phone-calls are
monitored, and recently text messages on cell-phones are filtered and checked.

A Telegraph (and Telephone) Office was established in Lhasa in the
late-20s, by the old Tengyeling monastery, and called the tarkhang,
with the official in charge called the tarkhang kungoe. Telegraph
operators were called tar-tangyen. The telegraph and telephone
service was of great use not just to the government but also to the
mercantile community, and to a lesser extent the common people. This
office later became the Post and Telegraph Office (dak-tar laykhung)
and was "run by an intelligent English-speaking monk who was trained
(in telegraphy) at Kalimpong." His name was Chonden la. According to
McDonald the first Postmaster General of Tibet was the Peshi Depon.
Considering the many problems the department faced (not least of them
being telegraph poles stolen for firewood) it is pleasant surprise to
learn (from Chapman) that "The postal and telegraph system is most efficient."

The Tibetan postal service is a whole other story and not within the
purview of this essay. It might however be noted that Tibetans
adopted the Indian word "dak" for post, and this term is still used
even in present-day Chinese occupied Tibet. So a post office is
dak-khang , postman dak-pa , postmark dak-dam, post-box dak-gam and
postage stamp tikkus (from the English "ticket"). The word tikkus is
also used in the correct context of a cinema ticket as in beskop
tikkus. A similar loan word is the Tibetan passi from the English
"pass" as in a permit. This loan word is still used in present-day
Tibet, in the context of the grain-permit, durig passi (liang piao in
Chinese), which, till just a few years ago, meant the difference
between life and death for every Tibetan and denizen of Communist
China. In exile a more Tibetan term lagkher has been coined and is
used quite extensively, but even the much-valued permits to the Dalai
Lama's teachings are just called songchoe-passi (sermon-permits).
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