Back to a pile of pre-war cards I got earlier this year. This time a Liebig set from 1935 which depicts Lhasa and describes Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. The main reason I was interested in this was because it was issued right in the middle of Tibet’s life as a defacto independent state.
I’ve only been aware of Tibet in its post-annexation and government in exile period and while I suspected the cards would have the usual issues that Western depictions of non-Western cultures have during this time period I also thought it would be fascinating to both see and read about Tibet while it was independent.
The first card depicts the Dalia Lama as the Buddha reincarnated. I’m going to be mostly summarizing/translating the backs* but the last line of text on this one describes the image as the Dalia Lama on his throne surrounded by “bizarre” decor. It’s worth noting that the picture is clearly the 13th Dalai Lama who died just prior to these cards being released. The 14th/current Dalai Lama had not been born yet and wouldn’t take he throne until 1940.
*In French since this is a release from Belgium. One more for my list!
As for the rest of the text, it introduces Lhasa as both political and spiritual capital of Tibet where the Dalai Lama lives. While the card compares the Dalai Lama to the Pope, it makes an important distinction where, because Lamaism believes in reincarnation, the Dalai Lama is really an incarnation of the Buddha and as such is a living god. When the current Dalai Lama dies a newborn child is determined to be the next incarnation and after identified through various signs and trials the child is educated as the next Dalai Lama.
While the cards don’t mention the death of the Dalai Lama I can’t help but wonder if they were released in part because of that event.
The second card depicts Lhasa, the “Inspired Mountain,” and in particular the Potala Palace. According to the card, Lhasa means both “divine land” and was also “defended city” due to Europeans being prohibited until the beginning of the 1900s. A the time of printing it was home to 30,000 people who lived 3.7km (~2.25 miles) high in the Himalayas on a plain surrounded by mountains. The temples, palaces, terraces, etc. are where the Dalai Lama lives as both the religious leader and the head of state—though he delegates secular affairs to ministers.
The third card depicts ritual dancing a the “Yokhang” (Jokhang) temple and uses that structure to do a quick history of Buddhism coming to Tibet. After being founded in India by “Çakya Mouni” (Shakyamuni) in 5BC, Buddhism entered Tibet 1200 years later in the 7th century AD thanks to Tibetan king “Srong-tsan-gampo” (Songtsen Gampo). Gampo who built the Jokhang temple in 652 which, despite its small size is the most-important spiritual center of Lamaism to which people from all over make pilgrimages, many of which include he dancing depicted on the card front.
It’s very clear looking around the web that Jokhang looks nothing like this anymore and has been built up into a much larger and more ornate complex. It also seems that even at the time of printing Jokhang looked nothing like this so now I’m kind of wondering what building is atually depicted.
The fourth card card shows a procession of pilgrims in front of the Ganden monastery which the monk Tsongkhapa founded. This is an oportunity to write about Tsongkhapa and how in the 14th century he unified rival sects and returned the religion to one of simplicity and sincerity.
When Buddhism entered Tibet it was in decline in India (and was virtually extinct when these cards were released but it’s increased since then). The card compares Tsongkhapa to Luther (though Tsongkhapa clearly didn’t get excommunicated) as a way of explaining his importance.
While the Dalai Lama is the incarnation of the Buddha, the Panchen Lama is the incarnation of Tsongkhapa. The Panchen Lama lives at “Tanchi Lumpo” (Tashi Lhunpo) and is as important as the Dalai Lama in religious matters. He leads the search for the new Dalai Lama when the Dalai Lama dies just as the Dalai Lama is in charge of the search for the child who will become the next Panchen Lama.
That the card devotes so much to the Panchen Lama and searching for the next Dalia Lama is one reason why I suspect these cards were in part prompted by the death of the 13th Dalai Lama. Reading it now I can’t help but realize how damaging the abduction of the 11th Panchen Lama is to the future of the religion (even while admitting that the idea of choosing a child and raising him as the next incarnation of a god is not the kind of thing hat would really fly in today’s world).
The fifth card is what I was worried about when I got the set. The first four cards are mostly educational. Number five however has opinions and comes out swinging in its first sentence where it declares that the current form of Lamaism is a half religious, half political corrupted form of Buddhism.
It continues by referring to Lamaism as an outdated religion where individual inner faith has been replaced by routine and formalism. As examples of this it uses prayer flags and prayer wheels and portrays them as superstitions where the flapping of the flag or spinning of the wheel is essentially used as a mechanical substitution for actual human prayer. This is quite different than my understanding of prayer flags as being a more generic blessing of a space—in particular a landscape—and prayer wheels as a way of focusing your thoughts on a repeating mantra.
In a really weird transition, after describing Lamaisn as an outdated religion consumed by formal rites the card proceeds to describe the Lamas as wearing Catholic-like robes and conducting rites like high mass with bells and incense that appear Catholic as well.
With how the previous the card suggests that Luther is a peer of the Pope, maybe the copy was just being written by someone who was extremely critical of the Catholic church (especially in these pre-Vatican II years) and could only make those points by indirectly making another religion also seem weird and outdated.
The sixth and last card is not much better though. It sats out innocuosly enough by talking about how Tibet is the highest country in the world and by being located between India, Mongolia, and China it’s basically dependent on China. Tibet’s 3 million inhabitants are “Mongolian” and the card depicts multiple classes with “picturesque” costumes and “bizarre” headdresses.
The card continues with lots of descriptions about local customs, almost all of which are presented as, at best, weird, and at worse, deviant.
Greeting each other by sticking out their tongues and scratching behind the ear? Weird (also, after googling around, accurate and a way of demonstrating that you’re not an incarnation of Langdarma and his supposedly black tongue).
Cutting up corpses and feeding them to pigs? Definitely presented as deviant. And no it’s not. I recognized it as being similar to sky burial and probably sharing the same motivation of both returning the nutrients of the deceased to the land and destroying the old body so the spirit can be reincarnated in a new one.
And the list goes on. Bandits apologizing to their victims when attacking. Houses covered in sheep/ox horns. Ritual cups made of skulls. A preference for old rancid butter which is also used to make sculptures for the Tibetan New Years celebration.
I don’t expect anything better for this time. Things can be massively informative while also being incredibly othering and judgmental. Not quite as racist as I feared but the last two cards were not great.
Still. Liebig prints a good product with wonderfully vibrant chromolithography in multiple ink colors and fantastic stipple patterns. The backs are getting a bit boring compared to the older cards but it’s nice to see that even in the 1930s Liebig hadn’t converted to offset lithography.