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Hugh Richardson

Hugh Richardson

Recorded in St. Andrews, Scotland, 3rd of February 1999.
Hugh Edward Richardson, born in St. Andrews, Scotland 1905. Working for the Indian Civil Service. Stationed in Tibet between 1936 and 1950. He was partly responsible for GC's arrest. Author of several books on Tibet, among them A Cultural History of Tibet. Died in December 2000 in St. Andrews, aged 95. English, in the film.

Please describe your first meeting with GC?

Well, it was at a lunch party in the Horkhang's house [See interview: Horkhang Jampa Tendar]. There were a number of people sitting at low tables, two separate tables, and GC was on one and I was on another one. I went over to talk to him, I knew that he had a reputation as a great scholar, also he had helped giving me some information through my particular friend the Trijang Rinpoche, about where I should look for inscribed pillars and I talked to GC. But unfortunately he wasn't in a very good mental state, when I met him. It was well known that GC was heavily into opium and alcohol [the alcohol is confirmed by many, but not opium]. I'm afraid it has left a mark on his mental state, he was very slow to answer and it wasn't a very successful meeting. Rather disappointing... he was an important figure in the Tibetan scholarship.

Any rumors about GC at the time?

Oh yes... I knew that there were some stories from Kalimpong. He was working with Changlochen on some sort of curious propaganda activities it sounded... very scatterbrained to me... talking about Revolutionary Parties etc. They produced a little leaflet with a hammer and sickle on it [in fact it was a hammer, a sword and a loom]. It was sent up to me [from Kalimpong to Lhasa] and I showed it to the Lhasa Government, to the Kashag [the Cabinet], which seemed a little surprised about what was going on..., but GC got back to Lhasa all the same and as soon as he got back they put him into prison... [GC was observed for some time, before he was arrested] and kept him there for quite some times... they beat him, too... but he was allowed out and he later lived with the Horkhang's family. I really... I found that... more interesting than meeting him, was reading his book, The White Annals and also what he did with George Roerich, the Blue Annals [a Buddhist history], but GC's own history was a very interesting compilation, I didn't agree with it all, but it was a very important works. And I don't know, whether the Tibetans are aware of its existence, now?

Why was this book, the White Annals, so important?

Well, it was the writing of Tibetan history from a somehow Western point of view, not the kind of... not purely a religious history, not a namthar [biographical] history! And it hadn't been done before. But GC had worked with Roerich and realized the value of a continuous series of facts. And he did his best in the 'White Annals'. He must have seen the Chinese annals, probably the Tang annals, translated into English.

I think he spoke Chinese, didn't he, I can't remember... he could read the Tang Annals in translation about the early period of Tibetan history [7th to 9th century]... I haven't read his history for quite some time, I should have read it before you came...

Do you remember when you heard of GC for the first time?

I think I must have heard of GC first about his activities in Kalimpong. This must have been in 1950 or 1949 [actually it was in 1945/46]. It was to get intelligence reports from the [British-Indian] police in Kalimpong about his activities and those of Changlochen... one time the [British-] Indian government considered sending them all to China, deporting them. Because they were producing these curious broadsheets with hammer and sickle on them, those kind of things... childish really... I can't imagine why such an intelligent man [GC] got drawn into this kind of pointless propaganda... I don't remember, whether Heather Stoddard has described that period [in her book], have you read it? Yes. Does she talk about that? The most mischievous of them [the founders of the Tibet Improvement Party] was Rapga [Pangdatsang]... [Laughs] ... he went to China, didn't he? And Changlochen... I don't know what happened to him, he was another of those opium takers. He was of not much use... probably, intellectually...

Back to GC, as a British Official, did you look at him as a subversive?

Yes... well the stuff he was producing in Kalimpong was aimed against the Tibetan government, subversive not on the British government, but on the Tibetan government. GC was producing sort of ill digested republican material, and consequently, my duty is, representing the Indian government in Tibet, to tell them what was going on. We were a friendly government and these people [the party members] in India were taking inimical actions, therefore I informed the m [Tibetan government] about everything we knew about them...

Do you remember the reports you wrote to Lhasa?

No! I'm not even sure I did write reports to Lhasa; I think I made verbal statements to them, the Kashag and the Foreign Office. I was in Lhasa and therefore I wouldn't write reports to Lhasa...

Do you remember this note in your papers [meaning the secret British files], where you wrote: 'I know all about Choephel...'

Which paper? Do you mean 'Melong', the Tibet Mirror? [HR is referring to the first Tibetan newspaper that was printed in Kalimpong]... [HR is confused: I try to explain to him that with 'papers' I was actually referring to the 'secret political files' the British Indian police had on the activities of the members of the 'Tibet Improvement Party'. In these files, Richardson's name was frequently mentioned. He pretends not to understand what I mean] ...I reported... [Pause]... I can't remember that I wrote a detailed report about him... why do you think I said that?

In one of your reports you said that you knew all about Choephel. Can you tell me more about his activities if you remember?

I don't remember anything more about him, I'm afraid... I saw him in the flesh, he was not in a very good mental state, I thought... [Pause]

Can you describe him physically?

He was wearing... he had short hair and he was wearing an ordinary layman's dark maroon colored chuba [Tibetan dress], quite ordinary, well, a white shirt... I don't remember... his clothes didn't strike me as anything extra ordinary; they were just simple Tibetan layman's clothes...

…And his face?

[Pause] ...Difficult to describe anyone's face... it was ... I can't really give a description of his face... a kind of... [Pause] critical smile... rather, he was looking... but he wasn't really mentally alert, this was quite unfortunate... but he was a considerable intellect...

Do you think GC had an impact on Tibetan society?

Oh yes. He was talked about... the people [in Lhasa], I think, were surprised that he had come back from Kalimpong. Why? ... Well, he had been plotting against his government... been writing some subversive material, and he must have known that it [this material] was being passed on to the government [in fact it was Richardson himself, who passed this material to the Kashag. See interview: Tashi Tsering]... and they did beat him, when he came back, they arrested him, put him in prison and beat him, didn't they? I think people were surprised that he should come back... [Pause] I'm not sure, why he came back, I think, possibly, he thought that he was going to be sent to China, but I don't know, why he should have worried about that, he had friends in China... [Pause] ...anyhow, he wanted to come back to Lhasa and he did... as far as I can make out, he settled down quite easily after that... [Pause] When did he die? I know he didn't live long after the Dalai Lama arrived [in Lhasa, after his escape to the Indian border, when the Chinese army invaded Eastern-Tibet in 1950/51]. I don't remember, whether GC was there at the time, I suppose he was... he must have been in Lhasa, when the DL came back...

From today's perspective, did GC leave a trace in the Tibetan society?

...It probably died out by now, I don't think anybody would remember him, except some people like Rakra Rinpoche and... [Pause] very few people would remember him. He may have left a trace... you'd have to ask Narkyid, he could tell you much more, than I could... [Pause] I haven't been in Tibet since the 1950's, so why should I know? I never heard them mention him, nobody has asked me about him, no Tibetan in exile... [Pause] The only one, who would be interested, is Rakra Rinpoche, really ...the other one is Rakra's brother [Tomjor Tethong. See interview: Jamyang Norbu]. He [Tomjor] died, no he didn't, his mind... he may be dead by now, but his mind went... he was, I'm sad, I liked him very much... drugs and drinks I'm afraid...

Is GC important for a younger generation of Tibetans?

Interesting... interesting, I'm not sure important... I don't think important... I... [Laughs], Tsering Shakya, does he mention him [See interview: Tsering Shakya]? Well, I haven't read that he [TS] would find him interesting, I don't think Tsering Shakya would like to share his ideas, at least, not as they were expressed in Kalimpong... I hope not... [Laughs]. I'm sure he wouldn't. No, GC was an eccentric... and the fireworks went wrong...

What ideas did GC express in Kalimpong?

No, I don't know what else he was doing there. The only person who might have written something about him was Tharchin Babu [a Tibetan missionary and the editor of the 'Tibet Mirror']... did you know him? Oh yes! He played both sides, very carefully, well informed and very cautious. He wanted to keep in with everybody... [HR is referring to rumors that Tharchin was an informer of the British secret service. This would partly help to explain, why Tharchin could still print his newspaper during the War, when paper was heavily rationed]

When you were in Tibet, did you feel the struggle between tradition and modernity?

I was always conscious that there were Tibetan officials, nobles, who were interested in events outside Tibet... [Pause] And the main drag on any modernizing influence was of course the monasteries... [Pause] why? It was common knowledge that they didn't want Tibet to be involved with foreign powers. They wanted Tibet to be hermetically sealed, under their control or under their influence... they thought that the outside world was damaging to religion, the firmly believed that.

Did you have talks about that in the monasteries?

I certainly didn't criticize the monasteries in my conversations with Tibetans. This would have been a very foolish thing to do... I talked to them in general terms about international connections, that it would be a good thing to have some international connections... the Tibetans never really got down to that until the trade mission, headed by Tsepon Shakabpa, that was the first real excursion in the outside World after 1914... [Pause]... There were always some young nobles, who were a little restive about the power of the monasteries, they liked to have connections with the outside world, liked to know what was going on... The great interest of almost every Tibetan was, whether noble or farmer, trade and trade meant India, or China... the monasteries were also involved in trading ventures, by no means only devoted to meditation, they had political interests, political power...

Going back to GC, what were his talents?

Oh, he was an artist for one thing, and he was a writer, a historian, who had studied old documents, which other Tibetans had not... [Pause] he also had this political interest to ideas that other Tibetans didn't seem to have entertained... about changes, possible changes in the form of government... [Pause] you have read Heather Stoddard's book [Le mendiant de L'Amdo, 1985], well that explains quite a lot about his character, his abilities...

...But I'm interested in your view?

I didn't know him particularly well; I only met him in the party, when he wasn't at his best. However he did... he was helpful to my staff [HR himself did research into the old history of Tibet]. I asked GC some questions... my personal assistant went on my behalf... in many ways it was easier for him to talk to GC than me. I was never quite sure about his attitude towards the British after his experiences in Kalimpong...[GC was certainly aware of Richardson's involvement in his arrest]

The 'Tibet Improvement Party', do you remember the visions they had for Tibet?

I don't know, except it was to be a different one... to be more open to the outside world. I never saw detailed plans... if I did, I can't remember them, I don't think they are on record... they just wanted to change the old system...I don't think they were ever democratically inclined, they just wanted a different layer of influence in the government.... more intellectuals, I suppose... [See interviews: Tsering Shakya, Jamyang Norbu, and Tashi Tsering].

Were you afraid, when the Communist started their advances to Tibet?

Of course, concerned for the fate of Tibet, which was important to India, relations with India... but it was equally clear that the Indian government could do nothing physical or practical in the matter... and the diplomatic influence disappeared more or less with the arrival of the Communist government in China [after 1949]. We had some influence on Chiang Kai Shek, but no longer... Though it was clear what the Chinese were going to do, what they had said they were going to do... Mao Tse Tung more or less proclaimed the fact that he was going to take over Tibet...

Back to GC, what was his reputation?

In his personal life he was supposed to be rather a bit of a libertine, an individualist in every way, but he was, as I say, he was always regarded as a great intellectual, and I... [Pause] and the Tibetans always had a kind of respect of the intellectual eccentric... [HR is referring to the old Tibetan tradition of 'crazy saints']

Why this respect, is this a Tibetan tradition?

Well, Tibetans... why do the Tibetan respect the eccentric? It was part of their tradition, I suppose, you can say... Milarepa [probably the most famous of these 'crazy saints'], there are a whole lot of them... you read the Blue Annals and you will hear, large numbers of so called mad intellectuals, nyonpas... they were always greatly respected, there was this Lady, who was another of that sort of character... she was always very much respected... [Long pause]... you probably don't know the work of Coleridge, who describes in a poem the... [Long pause]

The man touched by the divine
Yes. Beware. Beware.
His flashing eyes, his floating hair
For he on honey-dew has fed
And drank the milk of paradise [HR is quoting from Coleridge's poem 'Kubla Khan'*].

Well that was the sort of idea the Tibetans would have of their eccentrics intellectuals...

* (...)
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.