Monday, November 23, 2009

The (Tibetan) Art of Official Correspondence

Latse Library on Perry Street is currently hosting an exhibition titled “Postmarked Lhasa: An Exhibit of Tibetan Stamps and Correspondence.” I went to the launch of this exhibition on the Saturday before last, on November 7. The program that day included two speakers Geoffrey Flack, who spoke on the postal history of Tibet, and Shewo Lobsang Dhargyel, who spoke on official correspondence, who were both simply excellent.

On Geoffrey Flack, a stamps dealer and Vice President of the Nepal and Tibet Philatelic Study Guide, and an expert on Tibetan stamps and postal history, and his important presentation, more another time.

Shewo Lobsang Dhargyel, whose lecture was entitled “The Art of Official Correspondence”, gave a rare example of a talk by a shungshab that started off on point, stayed on point and ended on point. He started off in the traditional manner, thanking his host and insisting that he wasn’t an expert and he didn’t really know much about official correspondence at all but since Pema Bhum asked him to come and speak, he has come. Normally when a speaker starts off this way, I itch with impatience but that day, perhaps because Lobsang Dhargyel was such an impressive speaker, I appreciated that this very customary opening is one way of respecting the audience. (Of course, another way of respecting the audience, and one seemingly unfamiliar to most Tibetan officials, is to begin on time and end on time and stay on topic.)

After that brief intro, Shewo Lobsang Dhargyel then launched into the body of his lecture and it was fascinating. He talked about the protocol and etiquette of official letter writing of the Tibetan government (specifically the Ganden Phodrang government which had ruled Tibet from the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama in the sixteenth century till 1959 when the invading Chinese dissolved it). The protocol governing letter writing is mind-boggling.  There were exacting standards dictating details from the kind of script to the color of ink to the type of paper used, to the given amount of header and footer space on each page, to the way the letter is folded and string is tied around it.

According to Lobsang Dhargyel la, Tibetan official correspondence was divided into two main categories which were further divided into four subgroups each. The two man categories were Edicts and Reports, i.e. correspondence that was sent by the Government and correspondence that was sent to the Government. Edicts can include orders and proclamations while Reports can include appeals and proposals made to the various elements of government.

The subdivision of Edicts looked like this: 1. Edicts from His Holiness 2. Edicts from the Regent 3. Edicts from the Prime Minister 4. Edicts from the Cabinet. Consequently, the subdivision of Reports follows the same categorization: Reports to His Holiness 2. Reports to the Regent 3. Reports to the Prime Minister 4. Reports to the Cabinet.

Basically everything that could be thought of was thought of and then standardized. And this standardization was extreme and precise, and of the sort that could only be carried out by a fully functioning government that reached into all sectors of literate society. Bear in mind that in sixteenth century England, spelling and punctuation were not yet standardized. So the Tibetan standardization of the form of official correspondence, built on the standardization of spelling, punctuation and syntax carried out in the 7th/8th century, was an admirable achievement.

The system of official correspondence is important as a piece of history and as corresponding detail supplementing other evidence of the existence of a fully functioning Tibetan government based in Lhasa distinct from the Chinese government in Peking. After all, detail honors reality by making reality more real.

In “How Fiction Works,” (a brilliant book of revelations) critic James Wood says, “…in life as in literature, we navigate via the stars of detail… We snag on it.” He explains this detail as detail “that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability”, and “centers our attention with its concretion”. The protocol and etiquette governing Tibetan government correspondence carries out that same task – it “centers our attention with its concretion” and convinces us of the integrity, and historicity, and existence, of such a government.