Discovering the Heart of Tibetan Civilization: M.A. Aldrich on the Iconic Palaces, Temples, and Monasteries of Lhasa
In the book “Old Lhasa: A Biography,” M.A. Aldrich offers a captivating narrative that delves into the history, religion, and culture of the legendary city. As a retired lawyer who lived in East and Central Asia for over three decades, Aldrich is an expert in Asian culture and history, and his latest book is the final installment in a trilogy of works on the region’s cultural capitals. In this interview, we explore Aldrich’s journey writing about Lhasa and learn more about his experiences and insights into the city’s rich heritage. For those interested in learning about the rich history, culture, and religion of Lhasa, “Old Lhasa: A Biography”, published by Camphor Press, is a must-read. M.A. Aldrich’s accessible and captivating narrative, combined with his deep knowledge of the region, brings the city’s enduring spirit to life. Whether you’re planning a trip to Lhasa or simply curious about this iconic destination, this book offers a fascinating glimpse into one of the world’s most culturally significant cities.
What inspired you to write Old Lhasa: A Biography?
The inspiration came about because of my longstanding interest in pre-Westernized Asia and its fate in the modern age. As readers of China Underground will appreciate, many Asian cultural capitals came out of the twentieth century in a far worse condition than when they went into it because of geopolitical conflicts and ideological disputes. As a long-term resident in East and Central Asia, I have sought to record my impressions of those vanishing cultures before they pass into the ether.
Old Lhasa started off as a continuation of my previous work. I had written a book about Beijing and then one on Ulaanbaatar, both of which were about cities where I had lived for a considerable period of time. I was drawn next to writing about Lhasa because of the extensive cultural ties between Mongolia and Tibet..
So my initial inspiration was a little cerebral, and I had to face a considerable challenge at the outset. Compared to other cultural capitals, Lhasa poses a unique obstacle because foreigners are not permitted to reside there (barring limited circumstances). So I had to prepare myself thoroughly beforehand since I would not have the opportunity to learn about Lhasa’s history in the course of an extended residence.
I launched myself into a campaign of researching about all aspects of Lhasa. This ranged from its urban design, to religious festivals, to food and beverages, to ghosts and goblins, to political disputes, to traditional architecture, to legends and myths.
Next I booked tours through an authorized Chinese travel agent and obtained official approval for my itinerary. This is a mandatory step since foreign independent travel is prohibited. My itineraries served as a “road map” to historic and cultural sites in and around Lhasa.
Surprisingly, I was able to wander around Lhasa on my own during my tour’s off hours and explore the Tibetan Quarter, which is geographically and symbolically the heart of Old Lhasa. (New Lhasa is the modern monstrosity that has been expansively built up around the old city in the past seventy years.)
To my delight, I discovered Lhasans to be a cheeky, endearing, joyous, and resilient people with a deep love of laughter and irony. Most of all, they warmly welcome outsiders who come as respectful visitors seeking an understanding and appreciation of Tibetan civilization.
So my exposure to everyday Lhasans was the source of inspiration to complete the project by compiling a historically based narrative that paints a multi-faceted portrait of their city.
What kind of research did you conduct to gather information about Lhasa’s history, religion, and culture?
I pushed my credit card to its limits. I bought my own Tibetan library of all sorts of resources, such as scholarly histories, translations of Tibetan literature, the accounts of twentieth century Tibetan and foreign authors, and pictorial books on Tibetan architecture (to name only a few). The bibliography of Old Lhasa gives you an idea of the range of diverse materials that I consulted. Simply put, I sought out everything and anything that could reveal the flavor of life in that city and then went out in search for that during my stay..
How did you approach writing the book to make it accessible and captivating for readers?
I aimed to weave a narrative that blended legend and history, the magical and the factual, and the everyday and the immutable. I selected episodes from Lhasa’s history and culture that convey a Tibetan understanding of the past in addition to memoirs written by outsiders who managed to visit Lhasa in past centuries. I then added my subjective impressions from my explorations of Lhasa. I sought to touch on a wide array of topics ranging from the minute to the monumental so that Old Lhasa comes alive to the outsider.
I should mention that I deliberately did not dwell on the many incidents of idiotic brutality that have been meted out by the Chinese authorities in Tibet. This tragic story has been expertly addressed by other authors. For this project I wanted to focus on elements of Tibetan civilization that still can be seen and savored on the streets of Lhasa as a way to celebrate the indefatigable spirit of the Tibetan people.
Can you tell us about any interesting legends or anecdotes that you came across while writing the book?
Lhasans are quick to recognize if a visitor has a deep and sincere interest in their city and customs. Once they detect sincerity of intent, the warmth of the response is rewarding beyond words. I have just too many anecdotes to relate to you in this interview but here are a few.
During the annual Shoton festival at Norbulingka (the summer residence of the Dalai Lamas) I met a lama and the two of us hit it off right away. He was convinced that we were the best of friends in our former lives and regretted that it took so long for us to meet up again. As frowning PLA soldiers marched by, he was cheerfully animated in welcoming my return to “our” hometown.
At a cave temple in Yerpa Valley, one of the ranking monks, informally dressed in a pull-over striped football shirt, remembered me from a previous trip. He welcomed me back as an old ally and then, with a bounty of enthusiasm and good will, he swooped up cameras and “go-pros” from my friends in our group and became our artistic director, helping everyone to photograph and record the more obscure altars and artwork from the best possible vantage point. He urged us all to come back again soon and blessed us as we started our climb back down to the valley. I can still see him waving at us as we descended stage by stage.
Tibetan lay pilgrims also warm up quickly when they meet sympathetic foreigners. When I was circumambulating the mountain kora at Ganden Monastery, I came across a family on a pilgrimage. They were as merry as larks at the prospect of visiting sacred sites with so obviously an incongruous looking pilgrim. In another instance, I visited the Nechung Temple (the temple for the Dalai Lama’s state oracle) on a day favored by Lhasans for religious devotions. Lhasans who were lined to enter the temple warmly burst into smiles and spoke warm words of welcome seeing me as an outsider who had just shown respect for an important deity on a significant day.
How has the modern age affected traditional societies in Asian cities?
Traditional cultures and their values can scarcely compete with the materialist tokens of Western modernity (and power). For instance, Western entertainment has mostly trounced older forms of visual and performing arts. The symbols of material success ape Western modes of snobbery and conspicuous consumption. This has come about mostly unconsciously and without design because the foci of global power shifted to the West long ago.
What makes the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, and Ganden Monastery central to Tibetan civilization?
Each of these sites relates to a key point in the evolution of Tibetan history.
Let’s take the Jokhang Temple first. The Jokhang is the most sacred temple for every lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Built in circa 640 by the first great Buddhist king Songsten Gampo, it has been a place of veneration by nearly every religious and secular person in the annals of Tibetan history. The temple is the essential reason why Lhasa grew to become the central city for all Tibetans.
Ganden Monastery was founded by the great philosopher-monk Tsongkhapa, whose teachings became the basis of the Gelukpa branch of Tibetan Buddhism, the dominant lineage in Tibet. It was the center of the highest scholastic standards and so significantly shaped the evolution of Tibetan religious culture..
The Potala Palace was the main palace for the Ganden Potrang, which was the central Tibetan government, from the 1650s to the Tibetan uprising in 1959. This magnificent fortress-palace is the epitome of Tibetan architecture and a symbol of longing felt by Tibetans for the return of the Dalai Lama.
Of course, Lhasa hosts many more sites that have been central to the rise of Tibetan civilization. These three touch on milestone events but in the Tibetan Quarter, you will find other, equally fascinating temples, shrines, and buildings that were part of the historical mosaic of this great cultural capital.
What advice would you give to travelers visiting Lhasa?
Travelers will need to book their itinerary, transportation and lodgings through a Chinese travel agency authorized for Tibet travel. You will need to have a guide; you should insist upon having a Tibetan guide.
I also suggest you should arrange your trip so that you visit sites connected with Tibetan religion and history and forego suggestions to stay at luxury resorts. If your itinerary matches that of a pilgrim,, this will be a source of deep satisfaction for your guide and driver.
A trip to Lhasa invariably entails a cognitive overload because of the overwhelming assortment of sights, artworks, and customs. Do your research before you go so that you do more than just see the sights; you will comprehend them. This will be invaluable as validation of the majesty of Tibetan civilization for your guide and the other people you meet.
What kind of impact did your experiences living in East and Central Asia have on your writing style?
For more than three decades, I have happily lived and thrived in a deracinated gray zone amidst mainstream cultures. This has given me an inclination to look at the same topic through a variety of viewpoints in order to attempt the task of communicating between worlds.
What do you believe is the most important aspect of Old Lhasa for visitors to understand and appreciate?
A trip to Lhasa gives a visitor a unique opportunity to give reaffirmation of, and respect to, Tibetan civilization, something that will be deeply appreciated by all Tibetans whom you will encounter. So a visit to Lhasa affords the traveler an opportunity to demonstrate subtle solidarity with the people
I strongly suggest visitors to log in the time before their trip to learn as much as possible about Tibetan history so that you appreciate the sights that you visit and thereby give meaningful support to Tibetans. If you are forearmed with knowledge about Tibet, it will be an extraordinarily meaningful trip.
What is your next project?
I plan to write a historical travelogue on sites associated with the Manchus, starting with their foundation legends at Changbai Mountain and continuing on to the faint echoes of Manchu life in the Northeast, Peking, Xinjiang, and elsewhere in China proper. The Manchus are an enigma since they have supposedly disappeared but the traces of their legacy can be found throughout the country. I hope to expand on the views expressed by the New Qing Studies scholars but in a way that will be accessible to the non-specialist.