How This Book Reached the "West"

Contents List:

Letter to The Earl of Derby
Letter from the Emperor of China to the Grand Lama of Tibet
Letter to the Earl of Derby (continued)

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Letter to The Earl of Derby

Around the middle of the eighteenth century, a group of English gentlemen headed by the Earl of Derby became interested in historical and geographical exploration. They commissioned one of their number to go to China in search of information not generally known in England at that time. This man, who must have been a fine scholar, linguist, and scientist, became accepted in high Chinese society, and he reported his findings weekly to his sponsors back home. He also addressed some additional personal letters to the Earl of Derby himself. One of these was dated "Peking, May 12, 1749". Part of it reads as follows:

"In the last letter which I had the honour of writing to your Lordship, dated December 23, 1748, I think I concluded all I had to say in regard to the topography and natural history of this great empire. I purposed in this, and some succeeding notes, to have set down such observations as I have been able to make on the laws, government, religion, and manners of the people. But a remarkable occurrence has happened lately which ingrosses the conversation of the literati here and may hereafter afford matter of speculation to the learned in Europe...

"Adjoining China on the West is the large country of Tibet, called by some Barantola. In a province of this country, named Lasa, resides the Grand Lama, or High Priest, who is reverenced, and even adored as a god, by most of the neighbouring nations. The high opinion which is entertained of this sacred character induces prodigious numbers of religious people to resort to Lasa, to pay their homage to him, and to give him presents, in order to receive his blessing. His residence is in a most magnificent pagod, or temple, built on top of the mountain Poutala. The foot of this mountain, and even the whole district of Lasa, is inhabited by an incredible number of Lamas, of different ranks and Orders; several of whom have very great pagods erected to their honour... The whole country, like Italy, abounds with priests; and they entirely subsist on the great number of rich presents which are sent them from the utmost extent of Tartary, from the empire of the Great Mogul, and from almost all parts of the Indies. When the Grand Lama receives the adoration of the people, he is raised on a magnificent altar, and sits cross-legged upon a splendid cushion. His worshippers prostrate themselves before him in the humblest and most abject manner; but he returns not the least sign of respect, nor ever speaks, even to the greatest princes. He only lays his hand upon their heads and they are fully persuaded that they receive from thence a full forgiveness of all their sins. They are likewise so extravagant as to believe that he knows all things, even the secrets of the heart; and his particular disciples being a select number of about two hundred of the most eminent Lamas, have the address to make the people believe he is immortal; and that whenever he appears to die, he only changes his abode and animates a new body.

"The learned in China have long been of opinion that, in the archives of this grand temple, some very ancient books have for many ages been concealed; and the present Emperor, who is very curious in searching after the writings of antiquity, became at length so fully convinced of the probability of this opinion, that he determined to try whether any discovery of this sort could be made. To this end, his first care was to find out a person eminently skillful in the ancient languages and characters. He at length pitched upon one of the Hanlins, or Doctors, of the first Order, whose name was Cao-Tsou, a man of about fifty years of age, of a grave and noble aspect, of great eloquence, and who, by an accidental friendship with a certain learned Lama, who had resided years at Peking, was become entirely master of the language which the Lamas of Tibet used among themselves.

"With these qualifications he set forward on his journey; and, to give his commission the greater weight, the Emperor honoured him with the title of Cosao, or Prime Minister. To which he added a most magnificent equipage and attendance, with presents for the Grand Lama, and the other principal Lamas, of an immense value; also a letter written with his own hand in the following terms:

Letter from the Emperor of China to the Grand Lama of Tibet

" 'To the Great Representative of God
'(The Grand Lama at Lasa.)

'Most High, Most Holy, and Worthy to be adored!

'We, the Emperor of China, Sovereign of all the Sovereigns of the earth, in the person of this our Most respected Prime Minister Cao-Tsou, with all reverence and humility, prostrate ourself beneath thy sacred feet, and implore for ourself, our friends, and our empire, thy most powerful and gracious benediction.

'Having a strong desire to search into the records of antiquity to learn and retrieve the wisdom of the ages that are past; and being well informed that, in the sacred repositories of thy most ancient and venerable hierarchy, there are some valuable books, which, from their great antiquity are become to the generality, even of the learned, almost wholly unintelligible; in order, as far as in us lies, to prevent their being totally lost, we have thought proper to authorise and employ our Most Learned and respected Minister Cao-Tsou in this our present embassy to thy Sublime Holiness. The business of which, is to desire, that he may be permitted to read and examine the said writings; we expecting from his great and uncommon skill in the ancient languages, that he will be able to interpret whatever may be found, though of the highest and most obscure antiquity. And we have commanded him to throw himself at thy feet, with such testimonials of our respect as we trust will procure him the admittance we desire.'

'(Signed by the Emperor of China.)

Letter to the Earl of Derby (continued)

"I will not detain your Lordship with any particulars of his journey, though he hath published a large account of it, abounding with many surprising relations. ... Let it suffice at present, that when he arrived in these sacred territories, the magnificence of his appearance, and the richness of his presents, failed not to gain him a ready admission. He had apartments appointed him in the sacred college, and was assisted in his enquiries by one of the most learned Lamas. He continued there near six months; during which he had the satisfaction of finding many valuable pieces of antiquity; from some of which he hath made very curious extracts...

"But the most ancient piece he hath discovered and which none of the Lamas for many ages had been able to interpret or understand, is a complete system of mystical instruction, written in the language and character of the ancient Gymnosophists or Bramins. This piece he wholly translated, though, as he himself confesses, with an utter incapacity of reaching, in the Chinese language, the strength and sublimity of the original. The judgments and opinions of the Bonzess, and the learned Doctors, are very much divided concerning it. Those who admire it the most highly, are very fond of attributing it to Confucius, their own great philosopher... Some will have it to be the institure of Lao-Kiun, of the sect Tao-ssee... There are others who from some particular marks and sentiments which they find in it, suppose it to be written by the Bramin, Dandamis, whose famous letter to Alexander the Great is recorded by the European writers. With these Cao-Tsou himself seems most inclined to agree; at least so far as to think, that it is really the work of some ancient Bramin; being fully persuaded from the spirit with which it is written, that it is no translation.

"But whoever was the writer of it, the great noise which it makes in this city and all over the empire, the eagerness with which it is read by all kinds of people, and the high encomiums which are given to it by some, at length determined me to attempt a translation of it into English; especially as I was persuaded it would be an agreeable present to your Lordship. One thing, however, may perhaps be necessary to apologize for, at least to give some account of; that is, the style and manner in which I have translated it. I can assure your Lordship that when I first sat down to the work, I had not the least intention of doing it this way; but the sublime manner of thinking which appeared in the introduction, the great energy of expression, and the shortness of the sentences, naturally led me to this kind of style.

"Such as it is, if it affords your Lordship any instruction, I shall think myself expremely happy; and in my next will resume my account of this people and their empire."

(Signed by an eminent English scholar.)


Since its first publication was authorised by the Earl of Derby, the English translation has passed through several editions, one of which is re-published here in the hope that it will reach some few who would not otherwise have the opportunity of gaining access to the wisdom it contains.