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Time Travel in Canadian Women's History
A Canadian Medical Missionary in Tibet: 1895-1899
Dr. Susie Carson Rijnhart spent four years in Tibet, where she and her husband Petrus Rijnhart travelled in an effort to convert the Tibetans to Christianity. The couple ventured into the interior of the country along with their infant son Charlie, but only Dr. Rijnhart survived the incredible journey. Born in Chatham, Ontario in 1868, she had graduated from Woman's Medical College in Toronto.
An account of preparations to travel into the interior of Tibet
Source: Carson Rijnhart, Susie. With The Tibetans In Tent & Temple. London and Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1901.
Toward the Tibetan Capital
Lhasa, the Home of the Dalai Lama--Need of Pioneer Work in Inner Tibet--Our Preparations for the Journey.
During our residence of three years at Kumbum and Tankar, Lhasa had become a subject of almost daily conversation. The four kushok, and especially Shar-je-ja-ba had told us much about the city and its surroundings--its great temples, revered priests and the exalted Dalai Lama. Mina Fuyeh had spoken of the sacred college there, and of the many lamas who resort to it from all parts of Tibet to study the profound doctrine of Sakya Muni, and of the multitudes of pilgrims who feel themselves amply rewarded for months of perilous traveling by worshipping in the Dalai Lama's temple with its five golden cupolas, and receiving his blessing by touching his magic sceptor. City of mystery and wisdom, what wonder that every lama's supreme ambition is to go there to study or to worship? Many of those who are not able to go in state walk all the distance, often begging as they go, so that they will be no temptation to robbers. Mina Fuyeh often told us that it would cost him a fortune to go, for, being of such high rank himself, he would be expected to give very handsome offerings to the Dalai Lama and the temples in Lasa, otherwise he would not receive the consideration due him. The necessity of keeping up appearances--the demands that rank entails upon human beings, are the same everywhere, whether in the wilds of Tibet, or in the cultured cities of the west. Mina Fuyeh very conveniently excused himself from undertaking a journey to Lhasa, for he declared that, having paid homage to the potentate in his previous life-time, he did not intend to visit Lhasa again until his next life-time. Not long ago I received news that the former abbot had undertaken a journey to Pekin and Eastern Mongolia, a journey which will bring him a handsome income, as Tibetan lamas in those regions are greatly revered, receiving in exchange for their services the most munificent offerings. I have often thought he was more concerned in accumulating wealth for himself and increasing his own influence than in contributing to the exchequer of the Dalai Lama.
In common with all other missionaries and travelers interested in Tibet, we had thought, read, and dreamed much about Lhasa even before we reached the border, and indeed our hope and faith led us to look forward to the time when the gospel could be preached there, as well as in every nomadic encampment on the Tibetan plateau. We knew moreover that if ever the gospel were proclaimed in Lhasa, some one would have to be the first to undertake the journey, to meet the difficulties, to preach the first sermon and perhaps never return to tell the tale--who knew? Pioneer work in mission fields has from the days of the apostles down to the present entailed its martyrdoms as well as yielded its glorious results. If the opening of Africa meant the sacrifice of a Livingstone, of the Christianization of the South Sea Islands meant the cruel death of John Williams, if the triumphs of the Cross in Uganda were wrought over the body of the murdered Hannington, and if Burmah must be trod by the bleeding feet of Judson and his wife, before the great harvest of five hundred churches can be reaped, could it be possible that all Tibet should be Christianized, that witness of the Christ should be borne in the very stronghold of Buddhism without some suffering, some persecution, nay without tears and blood?
From a human standpoint there was absolutely nothing inviting in such an undertaking. On the frontier the minds of Chinese and Tibetans alike are filled with fear of the great difficulties of the journey to Lhasa, through robber districts, over very high mountain passes, and across large rivers, and to a certain extent we had share their apprehensions; but after the thrilling experiences of the Mohammedan rebellion, and after coming into such close contact with the people through our residence in the house of the abbot, and especially after our itinerating journeys among the nomads of the Kokonor, every vestige of fear was gradually removed. Frequent and intimate conversations with merchants, lamas and others, including many women, who had been backwards and forwards from Lhassa several times, took away the terror of passes, rivers, arid wastes, and death-dealing winds, of which we had heard so much, and Inner Tibet did not seem so far away, so impossible to reach, as we had at first been led to believe.
Shar-je-ja-ba and many others from the sacred city had told us that we might go as far into the country as we chose, even to within one day's journey of the capital, and stay as long as we wished, provided we did not try to go to their city of worship, as contact with Europeans would defile their high priest. Knowing that a passport fromthe Sining Amban or Tartar General would give us the good-will of the people beyond the districts where we oursleves were so well known, Mr. Rijnhart applied for one, though other travelers going in from China, scrupulously avoid allowing this official to know they are going into Tibet, as he would not permit them to proceed, did he know their intentions. However, our aid to the soldiers and other wounded during the rebellion, was so much appreciated, that we felt if any one could procure a passport from this man we were in a good position to do so. He was very friendly indeed, but said much as he would like to help us he had not the power to give us a passport, because our Chinese ones were only for the Sze Chuan and Kansu provinces, and advised us that the next passport we applied for at Shanghai or Pekin should be made out for Kansu and the Tsing-hai or Koko-nor, and upon it he could then give us one in Tibetan which would enable us to travel in safety. Mr. Rijnhart then asked him to give us a letter saying to those who read it that we were on a peaceful mission, and that the people had nothing to fear fromus; whereupon he replied that he would gladly do so, but that he could not affix his official seal, so we refused the letter, knowing that did we show to the Tibetans a letter purporting to be from the Amban, and they looked for his seal which was not there, they would think a lama had written it and at once conclude we were dishonest, so it would do more harm than good. However, he said that though he could not give us a passport or an escort, he had no power to prevent our going, and added that we might go where we chose, and stay as long as we wished.
Every year a large caravan of kopas, who have been trading on the border and at Pekin, leaves Tankar for home, and as the roads over the mountains are impassable in winter time, the beginning of the fourth moon is fixed as the date for starting. In the spring of 1898, this time fell about the middle of May, so all our plans were laid for leaving at the same time as this caravan, many of whom we knew very well. Tankar was a busy place indeed amid all the preparations for the departure of such an immense caravan, providing animals, food and other things requisite for a journey of nearly three months. Though the kopas come out of Tibet with yak, they usually sell these animals on the border and buy mules fro the return journey, the latter commanding a high price in the interior. Seeing that we expected to stay some time in the Ts'aidam we did not seem it wise to take mules, since they do not winter as well there as horses. Besides, we did not purpose to burden ourselves with grain to feed our animals, and with mules, grain is indispensable. Until we had bought the required number of horses, our courtyard presented oftentimes a peculair aspect, and it was laughable to see some of the animals brought to us for sale by those who thought foreigners did not know very much about ordinary everyday life and its requirements; there were horses large and small, fat and lean, diseased and lame, and some with beautiful saddles under which were deep sores. On the borders of Tibet all bargaining between two persons is done through a middleman, up whose sleeve the seller puts his hand, and by the way he graps the different fingers of the former's hand, makes known his price; whereupon the buyer is notified in the same silent and unseen manner. He then tells the middleman how much he is willing to give, and so backwards and forwards in the sleeves the price is arranged. As the business becomes brisk, however, the silence is broken, and often gives way to general confusion. There were pack saddles to be provided for our transport horses, and one must be careful not to be induced to buy yak saddles, instead of mule or horse saddles, for they are entirely unsuitable. Pack saddles are made of wood consisting of two horizontal pieces for sides, joined to each other over the back of the horse by two rounded pieces, one in front and one behind, padding, straps and ropes completing the outfit. Blacksmiths were busy making ironhobbles--chains with cuffs which are fastened on the forefeet of one or more horses and locked, the owner keeping the key. These are used to prevent the animals being stolen at night, and are a native invention, while others woven of wool and yak-hair are used to keep them from straying too far away when grazing, and to make the catching of them when wanted an easy matter. While horses, saddles, ropes, etc., were being got ready, we had tailors and women making for us all the Tibetan clothing we might need, and though Chinese tailors are nuisance enough when sewing for you, they bear no comparison to Mongolians and Tibetans. Never had we dreamed of the difficulties of getting garments made, so many different kinds of workmen were required; the one who cut could not sew and vice versa, so a lama made our good cloth gowns, a kopa made up the pulu, while a Mongol woman made the underjackets and collars, putting silk stitching on them.
Little Charlie was well supplied with clothing made in English style, having, besides a little fur ja-ja, or sleeveless jacket, a fur cape and shoes, and for ceremonial occasions, a Tibetan gown and sash. No one enjoyed the busy time as well as he, for he was carried around in Rahim's arms during shopping, bargaining, etc., raising his voice in approbation as the natives became excited over a transaction, and taking a general delight in the entire proceedings.
On April 5 we had an interesting visit from the Kor-luk pei-si, who is, the Mongols informed us, the biggest prince in the Wu Ts'aidam, his dominions lying four days north from Barong, the place through which caravans go to Lhasa. He was a tall, rather well built man with the true Mongolian type of face, well dressed, with a turban of raw dark-red silk wound in yards around his head. He had about fifty Mongols with him, including many women, among whom was the Achi of the prince, but whether she was his wife or not, we could not clearly find out. The women were tall, two or three of them young and very good looking, and all were dressed in new sheepskin with borders of red cloth around the bottom and up the side. The right arms hung free from the gowns, displaying underjackets of white, with green cloth trimming stitched in many-colored bright silk thread, while strings of beads from one earring to the other fell down to the bosom. A beaten silver wine bottle with screw top, and amulets hung in front of the gown. The hands were bedecked with rings set in coral and stones, the head was crowned with a small hat with white lamb on the brim, and a red tassel surmounting the peaked crown, giving a coquettish, graceful air to their persons. They all enjoyed their visit very much, the peals of laughter at Charlie, the sewing machine, and some little dolls, adding to the enjoyment of all. The chief was so anxious to have a pair of kutsi sewed on the machine that he sent a man to the street to to bring the cloth, but on his return no one could cut them out, so we gave him a pair of Mr. Rijnhart's in return for the cloth and he presented us with a piece of pulu (a piece is usually ten lengths from the finger tips of one outstretched arm to those of the other), and a lump of sugar from India by way of Lhasa. This chief hired for us two camels to carry loads as far as the Ts'aidam, to be left with the Dzassak of Barong, each one to carry 240 catties, the two to cost ten taels, worth at that time seven dollars. That night we worked until midnight, sewing bags for grain, and packing two boxes which contained, among other things, over four hundred Tibetan Gospels, and three hundred of Mrs. Grimke's text cards. In the morning early, the Mongols came for the loads. As usual, there was the regular grumbling at the weight, a pretence at giving back the money because the Mongols' scales were lighter than ours, before finally the camels were gently made to kneel, their burdens were tied on, and off went the first of our goods into the, for us, unknown.
As we appreciated the quiet that settled down upon our courtyard after the bustle of that departure was over, our hearts had a thankful yet strange feeling, as we spoke of the kindness the native chiefs had invariably shown us, and of the future with its new friends and surroundings; while Ani, good old soul, congratulated us on the great saving these camels would be to our horses as far as the Ts'aidam. Nothing was too much trouble for her to do in the way of helping us, and oftentimes tears would bedim her eyes as she looked at me and baby, who always laughed at her; perhaps thinking of her loneliness after we were gone, perhaps of the possibility of our not returning to Tankar, and even of the uncertainty of life in the far interior. My heart sometimes overflows as I think of the love and tenderness of these dark-faced women, and wish it were within my power to do more for them, to bring them out of the condition in which they live into the liberty which the gospel brings to woman wherever it is known. But we had to hurry with more preparations, and by May 20, we were ready to leave our home, where the greatest gladness had been ours, where our mail had come to us regularly, where bright, long-loved blossoms had added joy and sweetness to our labor of love among the people, andlaunch out into new places away from friends and associations, as well as the possibility of getting letters and papers from the homeland. We had deemed it wise to give up our house, over whose ownership there had been a lawsuit, the result of which made it unsafe for us to retain it during our absence; and we rented three rooms in another courtyard where we stored our sewing machine, some books, and other things we did not want to take with us, the landlord promising that we could have the whole house upon our return. This made it necessary for us to move the things to be left, at the same time that we were doing the packing of what we wanted to take, thereby increasing our work.
Our supply of food was mostly native and consisted of the following:
Besides these native supplies we had some stores intended mainly for Charlie, such as milk, sago, tapioca, cornstarch, arrowroot, oatmeal, etc., with some meat extract and soups. The grain, flour, and rice were put into bags made of white drilling, inside coarse native woolen sacks, just the size to constitute one half a load. The kua mien, stores and goods for bartering, were put into boxes, the latter consisting of buttons, needles, silk, silver and gold thread, cloth, khatas, otter fur and boots. Our drugs, clothing, bedding, instruments, books and sundries constituted the remainder of the loads, except the tents, of which we had two, one small, very warm white one, and one large dark blue one, with iron tent-pegs for each. Such was our equipment when the last bale was put up and we were on the eve of leaving the gates of Tankar.
More about Dr. Susie Carson Rijnhart:
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