Two Tibetologists

Thomas & Tucci

A few years ago I came across this photograph in the archives of the British Library. It is a portrait of two early European scholars of Tibet: F.W. Thomas and Giuseppe Tucci. It was taken in 1955 by Tucci’s photographer and partner Francesca Bonardi. Before I saw the photo I wasn’t aware that these two knew each other, or that Thomas had ever travelled to Italy. The meeting of these very different personalities is a rather intriguing event.

Guiseppe Tucci (1894-1984) was arguably the foremost non-Tibetan scholar of Tibetan history and culture (such types are still known by the ungainly neologism Tibetologist, which like the similarly ugly Buddhologist is a term likely to cause faint mirth in the uninitiated) in the first half of the twentieth century.

tucciTucci was a natural linguist, learning Hebrew and Latin in his childhood, before turning to Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese. Tucci was an explorer, making several expeditions to Western Tibet in the 30s, where he collected the materials (manuscripts, paintings and statues) for his scholarly work. And Tucci was a prolific writer. Among his many publications the Indo-Tibetica series and the two huge volumes of Tibetan Painted Scrolls are still essential reading.

In early life Tucci was a supporter of Mussolini and the philosophy of fascism, and in 1937 he was sent by the Italian Government to Japan, to strengthen cultural ties between Japan and Italy. Here he lectured and published extensively on Zen, spiritual liberation, and the art of war. After his return to Italy and the defeat of Mussolini, Tucci abandoned this vein of work, and his interest in fascist philosophy and Zen, returning to Tibetan studies.

In the mid 50s, when the photograph with Thomas was taken, Tucci had just made two expeditions to Nepal and was about to embark of on series of archaeological digs in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. He was also very active in public life, one of his achievements being the founding of the Istituto italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente (IsMEO) in Rome. Several brief biographies are available online (see the references below).

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The career of Frederick William Thomas (1867-1956) was, in contrast, conducted in the universities and libraries of England. He was a student of classics, and then a fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge at the end of the 19th century and a professor at Balliol College, Oxford in the 30s. These two Oxbridge stints bookended his job as librarian for the India Office Library, where he worked for thirty years. It was here, where he had the responsibility of sorting through the thousands of Tibetan manuscripts brought back from Central Asia by Aurel Stein, that Thomas found the raw materials for his most important scholarly work.

banburyThomas had little interest in the Buddhist materials from Dunhuang, and his work focused on early Tibetan history (letters, military communiqués and the like) and folklore. Most of this work was put together and published by Thomas after he retired to a cottage in Oxfordshire, where he worked in a damp and chilly study (at least he complained often in his letters that it was so). Here he put together his great 4-volume series of historical texts Tibetan Literary Texts and Documents from Chinese Turkestan, collected narrative texts in Ancient folk-literature from North-Eastern Tibet, and a study of the extinct Nam language (his equally pioneering work on the Zhangzhung language still remains unpublished).

The photo with Tucci was taken the year before Thomas’s death. According to the Dictionary of National Biography:

To his last years Thomas retained the lean and athletic figure of the strenuous sportsman. His manner was keen and affable, and he enjoyed speaking in learned company. He celebrated his retirement by undertaking a tour of India in 1938 which would have taxed the strength and energies of the most intrepid traveller. He retained the full scope of his great intellectual powers to the end, although deafness at the last diminished his social enjoyment.

*  *  *

Tucci is still, no doubt, the preëminent scholar of his time, but those of us interested in the early history and culture of Tibet still owe Thomas a great debt. It is a pity that his works are so difficult to find, apart from in the major libraries. As an attempt to make Thomas’s work more available, I’ve been trying to get his major unpublished and out-of-print catalogues up on the IDP website. You can see his work on the documents about Dunhuang from vol.II of Tibetan literary texts and documents here, and his unpublished card catalogue slips of the Tibetan manuscripts Aurel Stein found in the Tangut/Mongolian regions of Etsingol and Kharakhoto here.

I see these two figures in quite different settings: Tucci striding across the dry and desolately beautiful landscapes of Western Tibet, Thomas bent over his desk in damp, verdant Oxfordshire. Tucci, the scholar “in the field”, Thomas the “armchair scholar”. One thing they had in common was that they both published their major works before 1959, when when the Tibetan diaspora changed forever the relationship between Westerners and Tibetans, and the nature of scholarship on Tibet.

*  *  *

stamp(The stamp and postmark from the envelope containing the photograph, marked October 1956. On the back of the photo, Francesca Bonardi wrote: “Con tanti cari auguri dal Prof. Tucci e da.”)

*  *  *

Some online resources:

See also:
Gustavo Benavide. 1995. “Guiseppe Tucci, or Buddhology in the Age of Fascism” In Donald. S. Lopez (ed.), Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism Under Colonialism. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

12 thoughts on “Two Tibetologists

  1. Dear Early, Thanks for writing this. I didn’t know Thomas left an unpublished work about Zhang-zhung. Is it any good? Is it about the medical texts that he said were in Zhang-zhung language (although basing myself on Prof. Takeuchi’s research, that language, whatever it is, seems to have hardly any basic vocabulary in common with the language that is explicitly called Zhang-zhung in Tibetan Bön sources). And was there ever a language that knew itself as ‘Nam’ or did Thomas make up the name? Is there a real and distinct language behind it? I’m not clear on this, and so it’s difficult for me to judge his evident accomplishments in those areas. Yours, Dan

  2. Dear Andrew,

    I am not he. I am no specialist in linguistics. However I do intend to go back to Wikipedia and add some more of Thomas’s publications to his page soon (unless someone beats me to it).

    Dear Dan,

    I can’t evaluate Thomas’s Zhang-zhung work, but I can tell you that there has been a project underway to publish it, and Prof. Takeuchi was behind that project, so I assume he at least thinks it’s still worth publishing. Are you dubious whether this “Zhang-zhung” language is explicitly called that in the sources? As for the “Nam” language, I also don’t know whether the sources justify the name. I suspect that the don’t, entirely, but again, I’m no linguistics expert. Are you implying that it may not be a distinct language? If not, what could it be?

    best wishes all round,

  3. OK, sorry for asking. I’ve started writing some some biographies of Sinologists and Tangutologists on Wikipedia recently, and if you don’t beat me to it I’ll add some more details to the article on Thomas.

    I’ve never seen Thomas’ Nam language article, and cannot seem to find anything about “Nam” on the internet (of course it is a difficult term to search for). If it is not very long maybe you could make a scan of the article available on the internet (or privately to me and Dan).

  4. Dear S & Andrew, too,

    Neither the (purported) ZZ nor the (purported) Nam texts among the “Old Tibetan” manuscripts announce to us the language in which they are written. (I should announce that I’m writing in English!)

    I should have been paying better attention, but actually it was proclaimed in print long ago that Thomas left behind an unpublished work on ZZ. Look here (first page):

    So far the words with identified meaning in these “OT” docs are identified, so it often seems, on the basis of their similarity with Tibetan rather than their similarity with ZZ.

    Hence “go” in the documents is identified as having the meaning ‘head’ on the basis of Tibetan “mgo,” ‘head,’ although the regular ZZ word for ‘head’ is “dbu.”

    Lots of similar examples in Dr. Takeuchi’s (et al.) paper in “New Research on Zhangzhung and Related Himalayan Languages” (Osaka 2001), pp. 55-56.

    About the identification of that other “OT” manuscript as an example of Nam language, Robert Shafer expressed skepticism in his review in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, which is entertaining and recommended reading, really:

    Off to do some chores now. Cheers!


  5. Sorry, but there was a confusing mistake in my email. Where it said, ” although the regular ZZ word for ‘head’ is “dbu.”
    it ought to say: although the regular ZZ word for ‘head’ is “pu.”

  6. Dan, I share your skeptism with respect to the Zhangzhungness the Dunhuang “Zhang Zhung” texts. Although a medical text such as the Dunhuang ms and a religious text such as the mDzod-phug may have quite different vocabulary, there should be at least some common words, for example numerals, which would indicate that they are the same or closely related languages.

  7. I’ve just been browsing the manuscript of Thomas’s unfinished Zhang-zhung book, and it certainly is impressive, at least in ambition. The chapter titles of the typescript (provisional, I guess) are:

    I. Introductory and Geographical
    II. Historico-geographical
    III. Ethnographical
    IV. Linguistic
    V. The language of the medical mss.

    There is also a handwritten assessment of these materials by Hugh Richardson, marked for the attention of Professor Tucci. It runs to several pages, but the most apposite paragraph is this one:

    Although the material is, as stated, in an unsatisfactory condition from the aspect of publication, it contains such a mass of information,– geographical, historical and principally linguistic — analysed and presented with by so great a scholar that it must be of value and importance even if published in an incomplete state. But even to do that is a considerable task and seems to me to call for a scholar of linguistics who has at his disposal a first class library of Asian geography, literature and languages.

    Anyway, as I mentioned, the ‘considerable task’ is underway, so perhaps this manuscript will see the light of day, one day.

  8. I think it might be useful to dredge up half-century-old comments by David Snellgrove in his review of Giuseppe Tucci’s book, Preliminary Report on Two Scientific Expeditions in Nepal. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 22, nos. 1-3 (1959), pp. 377-378. It offers a brief discussion about F.W. Thomas’ so-called Zhang-zhung texts:

    “The land of Zhang-zhung, its location and alternative names are discussed; in this Professor Tucci resumes consideration of a problem, which he began long ago in Indo-Tibetica, II. I would only question whether written documents in the language of Zhang-zhung have in fact been found in Central Asia (p. 107). This was just an idea of F.W. Thomas, which to my knowledge has not yet been substantiated. He gave no valid reason for naming as Zhang-zhung the fragments of some early Tibetan dialect, which he edited in JRAS, 1933, 405-10. He has also named Zhang-zhung yet another MS (Stein MS fragment no. 43) of the India Office Library.”

    To my knowledge the ascription by Thomas of those texts to the/a/any Zhang-zhung language has still not yet been substantiated. But perhaps he will offer some good arguments in this unpublished book?

  9. In my brief look at the book I failed to find such arguments, but I will look again soon, and won’t fail to let you know if they are there.


  10. Hi Sam,

    no doubt you`ve seen it, but for the sake of completeness it is perhaps worth stating here that the aforementioned typescript of Thomas’ unpublished work on Zhang-zhung has now appeared in print:

    Thomas, Frederick William (2011). Research notes on the Zhangzhung language by Frederick W. Thomas at the British Library. Ed. by Tsuguhito Takeuchi, Burkhard Quessel, Yasuhiko Nagano. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology. (Kokuritsu Minzokugaku Hakubutsukan chōsa hōkoku = Senri Ethnological Reports ; 99) (Bon Studies ; 14)
    ISBN 978-4-901906-85-2



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