Book Reviews

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William Woodville Rockhill

Scholar-Diplomat of The Tibetan Highlands

Kenneth Wimmel

Edited with an introduction by
Braham Norwick

2003. 254 pp., 1 colour plate, 10 sepia historic photographs, 4 maps. 24.5 x 17.5 cm., hardbound.

ISBN-10: 974-524-022-2 $28.95
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-022-3

Book review by R. F. Rosner

(The Royal Society for Asian Affairs, July 2004)

The William Woodville Rockhill (1854-1914). American diplomat, explorer and scholar of Tibet, lived an extraordinary life, parts of which could have been written by Hente, Haggard or Owen Wister. Taken to France at the age of 13 by his widowed mother, Rockhill received an entirely French education. In his teens Rockhill had read the account of Abbe Hue’s 1844/46 visit to Lhasa. The impression this work had on Rockhill became manifest when, while a student at St Cyr, the French equivalent of Sandhurst or West Point, he began to study Tibetan. Following graduation from St Cyr he served in North Africa as an officer in the Foreign Legion.
   Returning to America in 1875 Rockville married and became a cattle rancher in New Mexico. Even while engaged in the physically demanding life of a rancher, Rockhill continued with his studies of the Tibetan language and culture. In a remarkable feat of autodidactism, Rockville, while still a rancher in New Mexico, was able in 1880 to publish a translation of Tibetan Sutras.
   Leaving ranching in 1881, Rockhill spent the next three years in Europe devoted to the study of Tibetan, Sanskrit and Chinese. Through his publications during this time, he gained an ever-growing reputation among the relatively small band of ‘Orientalists’ in Europe and America. What was missing was first-hand knowledge of Asia.
   In 1883, Rockville obtained appointment to an unpaid post at the American Legation in Peking, as Beijing was then called. His intention was to perfect his spoken Tibetan and Chinese and to travel to Lhasa. He reached his linguistic goals with remarkable success becoming, in the process, a regular, paid member of the Diplomatic Service. While Lhasa eluded him, he made two extended expeditions into western China, Mongolia and Tibet, accompanied on the first by a servant who boasted of how much he had stolen when previously in Francis Younghusband’s employ. Rockhill’s account of his travels: The Land of the Lamas was a success and resulted in the award in 1893 of the Gold Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.
   While happiest when engaged in oriental studies, Rockhill was forced by the exigencies of the Diplomatic Service to spend significant parts of his professional life in capitals far removed from his beloved China and Tibet. Nevertheless, he was able, especially through his direct participation in the Boxer reparations negotiations and his friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt and John Hay, the Secretary of State, to be of signal service to both the USA and China. From a purely British perspective, perhaps his most significant service was his remarkable trip in 1908 to meet with the Dalai Lama, who was slowly considering a return to Lhasa, having fled in 1904 before the occupation of his capital by the Younghusband expedition. The Dalai Lama had heard of the Tibetan-speaking American Minister and requested a meeting. After an arduous five-day trek on foot Rockville had several face-to-face meetings with the Tibetan spiritual leader. This was something no other Western diplomat, let alone an American, had been able to accomplish before. During their conversations, the Dalai Lama asked Rockhill if it was safe for him to return to Lhasa. Rockhill assured him thai Great Britain had no territorial ambitions in Tibet and that the Tibetans should seek friendly relations with the British.
   The late Kenneth Wimmel, himself a former Foreign Service officer, has written a highly readable chronological account of Rockhill’s life, with the emphasis on Rockhill’s official duties. In doing so the author has provided a window on a, heretofore, generally neglected area of American diplomatic history. Unfortunately, readers seeking an in-depth account of Rockhill’s explorations and scholarly involvement with Tibet are likely to be somewhat disappointed. The author slates that Rockhill’s books on Tibet are lacking in what is now called ‘colour’ and are too dry and scholarly for the average reader. However, buyers and readers of William Woodville Rockhill: Scholar-diplomat of the Tibetan Highlands are unlikely to be average readers. Another serious shortcoming is the absence of accurate maps of Rockhill’s travels in Tibet—those in the book are Tibetan maps taken from Rockhill’s publications. Nevertheless, because Rockhill’s life was in itself so interesting, the book is still recommended along with the hope that it will widen interest in Rockhill’s own works, most of which remain in print in facsimile editions.

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