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The Thomas Wilson Haskins Digital Collection (1902-1908)

(The following is a post by Susan Meinheit, Tibetan and Mongolian Reference Specialist, Asian Division)

Portrait of Thomas Wilson Haskins, undated but probably about 1902. Tibetan Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

In 1908, a young American legation official in Beijing, Thomas Wilson Haskins, accompanied the U.S. Minister to China, William W. Rockhill, on a journey to the holy mountain Wutai Shan, in Shanxi province, China, to meet the 13th Dalai Lama. This would be the first meeting of a U.S. official with the Dalai Lama, and Haskins, assistant Chinese secretary, was selected to serve as Chinese interpreter. A collection of photographs, a diary, and other materials documenting this historic event have been digitized and are now freely accessible online.

Wu-tai shan, Shansi. General view of the Pai-t’a and the temple of the Grand Lama of Wu-tai.” Tibetan Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

Prior to his post in China, Haskins was one of two students studying Chinese at the University of California-Berkeley who had been recruited by the State Department in 1902 to continue language study and enter diplomatic service in China. This was the beginning of an exciting career, and Haskins was eager for the opportunity to travel and use his language skills. His fiancée, Elizabeth, was also excited for a new adventure and travelled to join him in China in 1904, carrying a wedding dress made for her in Paris.

During the meeting with the Dalai Lama, Haskins penciled notes into a small pocket-size leather notebook where he described details and observations as seen through the eyes of someone obviously delighted to be there.

Wu-tai shan, Shansi. Courtyard and exterior of temple, Lou-hou-sze.” Tibetan Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

Although Rockhill recorded the meeting in his diaries and letters to President Roosevelt, Haskin’s diary gives us a more casual, personal glimpse into the meeting and Rockhill’s interests. He records having interesting conversations with Rockhill about Tibetan, Buddhist, diplomatic and personal matters, and also comments that “Mr. Rockhill is a most pleasant [and] agreeable travelling companion” unlike some accounts of Rockhill’s reclusive nature. During the first of two meetings he relates that Rockhill, on being asked the purpose of his visit, stated that it was “his life-long desire to be received by His Holiness” and that now “he would return home full of gratitude for having been received.” Haskins, like Rockhill, was effusive in describing his impressions of the Dalai Lama:

dignity itself, but not a bit stiff or formal … the personification of dignity and divinity…. Man of course is but the symbol of eternity imprisoned in time and as a man the Talai Lama is merely such symbol. But in the eyes of his followers…he is eternity itself….

Tibetan brocade cover for the Wutai Shan diary. Tibetan Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

We learn of the gifts Rockhill presented to the Dalai Lama: a cloissoiné bowl in a brass dragon stand and two very large ostrich eggs in a case which seemed especially to interest the Dalai Lama. Haskins presented a clock in the form of an elephant, a pair of field glasses, and a magnifying glass. In between meetings, Haskins and Rockhill shopped for Tibetan items in the marketplace, and Haskins writes of buying some prayer beads and of “rapidly acquiring the habit of counting them a la lama.

Thomas Wilson Haskins’ diary of the meeting with the 13th Dalai Lama, Wutai Shan, 1908, page 31. Tibetan Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

Haskins briefly summarizes the content of the two audiences during which the Dalai Lama and Rockhill discussed such topics as a proposed trade treaty between British India and Tibet and a possible visit of the Panchen Lama (the second highest lama in Tibet) to Beijing. He goes on to note, though, that “a verbatim record of the conversation is impossible and impolite anyway.” He also records the somewhat amusing and unsuccessful efforts of a Chinese official to join the meetings. Rockhill assured the Dalai Lama that the trade arrangement was good as long as both kept their word: “When two countries touch as do India and Thibet there must be trade between them.” He notes that the Dalai Lama refused to be pressured about returning to Lhasa and would decide on the basis of what is best for his people. After the meetings, Rockhill asked for the Dalai Lama’s blessing and they agreed to meet and communicate in the future.

The story however, becomes more poignant when we learn that only a few weeks after this historic meeting, Haskins tragically died, while vacationing on the eve of his first promotion.

Elizabeth Haskins Walker kept the diary and photos in the family and her granddaughter donated the entire collection to the Library to be kept with the Rockhill collection. The recently digitized Haskins collection includes the handwritten diary, wrapped in a traditional Tibetan brocade book cloth.

It also includes Haskins’ photo albums telling the story of diplomatic life in Beijing in the early 1900s, with photos of such officials as Sir Robert Hart, William Conger, Willard Straight and Henry Fletcher; photos of Wutai Shan; letters; and newspaper clippings.

Diplomats seated in U.S. Consulate, Mukden, Manchuria. Haskins, second from left, Willard Straight, American Consul in Mukden, far left. Tibetan Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

The collection is enhanced by a transcript of a taped interview with Elizabeth, providing a moving account of life as a young diplomat’s wife in early 20th-century China, which began with such promise and ended in personal tragedy.

Diplomats and families at the home of Irish Customs Inspector, Sir Robert Hart (1835-1911), at “Sir R’s: 1904” . Photo by Sanshichiro Yamamoto. Tibetan Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

Her candid descriptions of their life include this unique impression of Rockhill himself:

….he was quite a star – he was a strange sort of man – he didn’t care for people, he liked things. And he used to walk around the compound with a string of Tibetan Rosery beads, just fingering them, you know.

The collection as a whole simultaneously captures both a personal and a historic story. A richly detailed catalog record guides readers to specific topics, people and images. “The Thomas Wilson Haskins Collection, 1902-1908” can be viewed here.

For inquires about the Library’s rich Tibetan collection please use the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian online form to contact the relevant reference staff.


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2 Comments

  1. Lentigogirl
    October 26, 2022 at 3:43 pm

    A former senior Foreign Service Officer recommended this fascinating article for more on Rockhill: https://americandiplomacy.web.unc.edu/2021/11/william-rockhill-the-man-who-shaped-china-policy-a-century-ago/

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