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Tibetan Mirror Revivified

May 13, 2009

Tibetan Logic Blog
May 11, 2009

"In the middle of the Tibetan quarter [of
Kalimpong] stands a corrugated-iron shed, from
which a steep flight of steps runs up to a small
stone building. The two buildings house the
editorial offices and press of the oddest
newspaper in the world.  This is the Mirror of
News from All Sides of the World, as its title
means literally, some hundred and fifty copies of
which appear monthly. Until the occupation of the
Land of Snow by Red Chinese troops, this was
Tibet's only newspaper. It was founded as long
ago as 1925. The editor is Kusho Tharchin, an
affable Tibetan who prefers European clothes and
has mastered English as thoroughly as the
tortuous formulas of honorific Tibetan. This
paper is an exception among Tibetan printed
works: it is not printed with wood blocks, but
with lead type from the fonts of the big Baptist Mission press at Calcutta."

So says the book by René von Nebesky-Wojkowitz
entitled Where the Gods are Mountains, published
by Weidenfeld & Nicolson of London in 1956 — an
English translation by Michael Bullock from the
original German, Wo Berge Götter sind (1955). By
the way, doesn't the German title mean "Where the Mountains are Gods"?

Unfortunately, while much less interesting travel
books from his time have been reprinted several
times, I haven't heard that this one has been,
not the English version.  N-W was a keen
observer.  'Keen' on account of his deep study of
Tibetan language and literature that allowed him
lucid insights into the things he saw. There were
so many eyewitnesses to Tibetan culture, but few
who could begin to overcome cultural biases and
approach the understanding that can only come
from sympathy in close communion with learning. His narrative continues:

"The Mirror of News from All Sides of the World
generally consists of only six or eight small
pages of print, but it offers a wealth of
absorbing news to him who can read it.  There are
columns headed 'News from Lhasa,' or 'Reports
from Bhutan.' Next to the latest rumors from the
caravan routes stands a report on the most recent
sitting of the Tibetan Council of Ministers,
followed by intelligence from the land of U-ru-su
(Russians) and the Sog-po (Mongolians), from
[r]Gya-nag (China), Ko-ri-ya (Korea) and Ri-pin
(Japan).  In between are to be found the 'Legend
of the essence of Good Sense contained in the
Wise Sayings of the Lama White Lotus,' and news
of the opening of a new 'skyway' — the Tibetan
term for an airline. Many of the headlines would
do credit to a sensation-mongering Western paper,
e.g. 'Thunder, Lightning and Hail over Lhasa,'
'Six Tibetan Robbers Commit a Double Murder in
Sikkim,' 'Serious Damage by Earthquakes in
Yunnan' or 'No World War to be Expected This
Year.' A column under the heading 'News from
India' contains the outline of a peace speech by
Pandit Nehru and in the section 'News from the
Western Continent' may be read a declaration by
President Ai-sing-hu-war on the Formosa
conflict.  The name of the island is spelt
Phormosa, for the Tibetan language possesses no 'f'...

"Most issues of the paper carry a few
photographs.  A picture of the young Dalai Lama
often graces the front page, but a photograph of
the Communist National Assembly at Lhasa is quite
likely to appear as well. A few pages farther on
a true marvel is shown: a new-laid egg, the
natural markings on whose shell form the party
symbol of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang. The back
page of the Mirror of News from All Sides of the
World also has interesting information to offer.
Under the heading 'Commercial News' it gives the
current prices of Tibetan wool, fox and
snow-leopard skins, black and white yak's tails,
hog's bristles, and musk. Next to this are
announcements by the Association of Tibetan
Merchants in Kalimpong and a few advertisements,
such as the statement that Ballisandas Shyamrata
pays the highest price for musk, or a price list
of the goods just arrived at Haji Musa Khan's shop on the Tenth Mile."

Finally, we get to the unbelievably good news.
Thanks to a tip from Jonathan Silk of Leiden I am
thrilled to be able to announce that a large
percentage of the issues of Tibetan Mirror have
now been placed on the internet for free viewing
by anyone in the world who is hooked into the
web. (That must mean you.) I understand that much
of the work of it was done by Paul Hackett,
although a number of other people have lent a
hand to help make it happen, in Columbia
University and other places in the world as well.

Tibetan Mirror was not the first Tibetan-language
newspaper.  But as often happens in Tibetan
studies we get into a political problem even
asking which one exactly came first. I'm of the
opinion that the first was the La-dwags Pho-nya
("Ladakhi Messenger"), published by August
Hermann Francke (1870-1930 CE), founded in 1904,
according to some. Issues seem to have appeared
between 1908 and 1914, and it was revived, it
appears, under the editorship of Walter Asboe at
the Mission Press in Leh between the years 1935
and 1947 (Asboe also published a monthly sheet
called Kye-lang Ag-bâr from 1927 to 1935). These
newspapers, published by Moravian missionaries,
didn't conceal their evangelical ambitions.

But there are also claims that the earliest
newspaper was published under Chinese government
sponsorship. Between 1913 and 1916 there was a
mimeographed newspaper called Bod-yig
Phal-skad-kyi Gsar-'gyur ("News in Colloquial
Tibetan"). Actually, it was a bilingual
Chinese-Tibetan semi-official gazette of the
Chinese government printed in Peking. Some have
said that its years of printing were 1908 through
1912, but if you will excuse my confusion I am
not sure of the truth of this. One issue of it
(here with the title visibly Bod-kyi Phal-skad
Gsar-gyur) has been reproduced in a lavishly
illustrated 5-volume set entitled Precious
Deposits (vol. 5, pp. 23-26). According to the
accompanying English text it was founded by the
Amban Lian Yu in the late Manchu Dynasty. It
claims this, the depicted issue, is the 21st,
published in the year 1910.  One source says its
first issue was in 1909.  Assuming in the absence
of any clear statement to that effect that it
came out each month, this date could be correct,
I suppose. I only tell what little I've been able
to find out, in hope of learning more.

In any case, Tharchin's Tibetan Mirror was the
only long-lived such newspaper of its times,
lasting as it did from October 1925 through the
1950's until around 1962 or '63. Tharchin,* a
Kinnauri by origin, was a Christian convert.
Still, unlike the earlier Ladakhi and Lahuli
newspapers, his never overtly pushed
Christianity. It reported the news from all over
the world in Tibetan language.  It had a degree
of independence that earlier newspapers lacked,
which could be one reason why it was trusted and
read in the Tibetan-reading world for so long.

* Tharchin's full Tibetan name was Dge-rgan
Rdo-rje-mthar-phyin, 1890-1976 CE. He usually
signed his name simply G. Tharchin, and he was
known to local people in Kalimpong as Tharchin Babu.

If you are one of the billions of unfortunate
people alive today that never got a chance to
study Tibetan, you might be thinking there is no
use looking at the following links. You might be
surprised. It's still worth having a look at the
drawings, photographs and advertisements, at the
evolving design of the newspaper over the
decades. In the '57 issues you can find
fascinating rude sketches of monasteries in
eastern Tibet, in Kham, getting bombed by planes
and invaded by armies with bodies lying all over
the place. You might notice an English
translation quickly penciled in here and there,
telling you how few monks remained when the
fighting was over. If you see an ad for red dye,
think about the continuing vitality of the
carpet-making industries in Tibetan communities across the Himalayas.

If you do read Tibetan, and if you are also
interested in the events of the first half of the
20th century, this is a resource that you will turn to again and again.

Go to the two different Columbia University
pages, here and here.  But before you do, a word
of thanks to the people known and unknown who
made it possible, along with a further word of
hope that persons and institutions that own
missing copies will help in every way they can to
make the online collection complete. Cooperation is key.

A quick Schmoogle reveals that even White Lama
picked up a few issues preserved for us still today in California.

And go here to Lobsang Wangyal's site (or this
"mirror" site) and read a nicely illustrated
story about Tharchin and his paper.

If you are a Tibeto-logical fanatic like myself,
you'll want to read the huge new book in two
volumes devoted to Tharchin's life.  Here is the
author with the title, although I haven't had an
opportunity to read the book yet, so I can't tell
you if its monumental size is matched by its quality.

Herbert Louis Fader, Called from Obscurity: The
Life and Times of a True Son of Tibet, God's
Humble Servant from Poo, Gergan Dorje Tharchin,
with Particular Attention Given to His Good
Friend and Illustrious Co-Laborer in the Gospel
Sadhu Sundar Singh of India, Tibetan Mirror Press (Kalimpong 2002?).

Other publications of interest:

John Bray, A.H. Francke's La Dvags Kyi Akhbar:
The First Tibetan Newspaper, The Tibet Journal,
vol. 13, no. 3 (Autumn 1988), pp. 58-63.

Dawa Norbu, Pioneer & Patriot: An Extract from an
Interview with Rev. G. Tharchin, Lungta, issue
no. 11 (Winter 1998), pp. 11-12.  This is a
special issue of Lungta devoted to "Christian Missionaries and Tibet."

Tashi Tsering Josayma, The Life of Reverend G.
Tharchin, Missionary and Pioneer, Lungta, issue
no. 11 (Winter 1998), pp. 9-10.  On p. 8 of the
same issue, you  may see a copy of La-dwags-kyi Ag-bar, dated July 1, 1907.

Thubten Samphel, Virtual Tibet: The Media.

Read also apast reference (WTN Editor), a well
done sketch of the history of Tibetan journalism
available at
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