T.H. Barrett

T.H. Barrett teaches in the Department of the Study of Religions at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He is the author of Taoism under the T’ang.

If you can’t keep a good man down, it’s no wonder if that genuine rarity, a very good man, sometimes seems to be incessantly on the up and up. The Dalai Lama has already achieved cinematic immortality in Seven Years in Tibet, even though obliged to survive association with a slightly dodgy Austrian (but so did the UN), and has further film apotheoses in prospect, threatening to turn even Gandhi into an also-ran. Meanwhile, he makes a cameo appearance in Michael Dobbs’s new Good-fellowe thriller, which revolves around the hunt for his next incarnation in London. The Chinese villains are as dastardly as one might wish from HarperCollins, as sinister as the Manchu embassy officials who in 1896 kidnapped the obscure Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen in London and made him world famous, yet ultimately human enough for their allied Anglo-Tibetan opponents to outwit them. Thomas Goodfellowe MP, fictional hero as battered old teddy bear, is due for another outing this autumn, says the blurb. By then, where will our real-life hero, the Dalai Lama, be?

Everything bar the Chopsticks

T.H. Barrett, 30 October 1997

In the middle of this century, a family tracing its descent from a friend of Marco Polo revealed in the journal Imago Mundi that it possessed ancient maps of Asia bearing annotation in Chinese which purported to derive from the great explorer himself. Unfortunately, that annotation, in a crabbed European imitation of a Chinese hand, includes a phrase corresponding exactly to our ‘terra incognita’, a label unknown to Chinese cartography. David Selbourne was probably unaware of these fakes when he embarked on his translation of the text he now entitles The City of Light, but it is worth pointing them out, just to make clear that the notion that Italian manuscripts concerning medieval Asian travel might be forged is not unthinkable. And there is no question that we shall have to class The City of Light as historical fiction, because it does not derive from a genuine source.‘

Wall? I saw no Wall

T.H. Barrett, 30 November 1995

If half a millennium of European expansion was inspired in no small part by a hoax, then surely we ought to know? But testing the veracity of Marco Polo today is not so easily done. The last British researcher into Marco Polo’s travels died in 1957, and the last historian of China who knew any Mongol left for America in the Eighties, at about the same time that the last British scholar who had learned Mongol as well as Chinese – the originally intended co-author of this book – decided that there were no career prospects for anyone with such skills and converted himself (very successfully) into a historian of Chinese art. That left two or three good historians who dealt with Marco Polo’s epoch in Asia, but largely from Middle Eastern sources, plus a handful of historians of China like myself who knew something of the issues, but generally avoided considering them unless compelled to do so. And with good reason: more than twenty-five years may have passed, but I distinctly remember how Frances Wood and I were warned that anyone contemplating working on the Mongol period in Chinese history would be issued with a bottle of aspirin, in view of the immense difficulties involved in studying an empire which employed in its administration not only classical Chinese (which we found hard enough) but also Mongol, Persian and Uighur Turkish.’

What the Japanese are saying

T.H. Barrett, 10 March 1994

Christchurch, New Zealand looks rather a long way away on most maps – somewhere in the bottom right-hand corner, usually – but one can tell, even from London, that the intellectual atmosphere at the University of Canterbury must be something very special, at least in historical studies. Somehow, whether because it perceives itself to be perched on the far edge of European expansion, or perhaps thanks to the comparative lack of distraction from archives in the immediate vicinity, its history department seems always to have encouraged a certain breadth of vision rare in other centres: one thinks, for example, of J.J. Saunders and his writings on the Mongol Empire and its place in world history. This intellectual legacy has been taken up with a vengeance by S.A.M. Adshead, by origin a historian of late imperial China, in recent works such as China in World History and Salt and Civilisation. His latest offering, on Central Asia, wastes no time on its opening page sorting out just what world history is for his purposes – namely, something which came into being circa 1200, the date of ‘what Joseph Fletcher (1934-84), the greatest modern Central Asianist, called the “interlocking of histories”’. This all looks very promising: Joseph Fletcher certainly was the greatest. But since early death robbed him of the chance of ever producing a book of his own, his ideas live on mainly as refracted through other people’s perceptions of what he had to say in his widely scattered writings. The next mention of Fletcher a few pages later suggests that all is not well with this particular attempt to build on the master’s legacy. Here, and throughout Adshead’s book, he is credited with the ‘theory of blood tanistry (from the Celtic word meaning “succession”)’, but what Fletcher wrote was ‘bloody tanistry’, to signify not simply consanguinity (already implied by the word ‘tanistry’) but also the succession of the fittest, which in the harsh conditions of the steppes, and even in some states with nomad origins like the early Ottoman Empire, meant specifically the succession of the most bloody, bold and resolute. This was usually achieved by the Central Asian tanist wiping out all his brothers, and possibly a few other male kinsmen as well, though occasionally a kind-hearted parent (such as Selim, father of Suleiman the Magnificent) would anticipate matters by murdering all his male offspring but one.’

More famous than Madonna

T.H. Barrett, 23 April 1992

What does it take to make a Medieval non-European of no particular personal charm as much a household name as Madonna? Could it be the teenage murder of a half-brother, the abandonment of his young wife to his enemies to save his skin, the execution of his closest friend, a blood-brother since childhood, by dismemberment, and (in all probability) the poisoning of his eldest son as well? This all sounds much more like Renaissance Italy than the everyday life of ordinary steppe-dwelling folk, whose humdrum existence has not generally been highly regarded by European civilisation. But is it enough to explain the success of Genghis Khan in founding the largest land-based empire in history?

From the Urals to the Himalayas

T.H. Barrett, 12 July 1990

One wonders what Lord Acton would have made of this slim, undersized volume claiming the name of Cambridge History. A part of the world that has given us Tamerlane, Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun can hardly be dismissed as unimportant, but it must be said that little of world-shaking significance has happened there lately, although there are signs that this may now be changing. The most famous Inner Asian of our own times was probably Irving Berlin, and he left at a very early age. Where the Golden Horde has yielded to Alexander’s Ragtime Band why bother about so long ago, so very far away? Of course, such complacency may be premature. The late 20th century turns out to be full of the most unlikely surprises: in his introductory discussion of the concept of Inner Asia Denis Sinor laments the total disappearance of the useful concept of Central Europe, but while his piece has been in the press up it has popped again.

Closed Windows

T.H. Barrett, 11 January 1990

At the dawn of our cultural traditions lie accounts of men alone among strangers who, by luck or guile, triumph even though uprooted from their own societies: men such as Joseph or Odysseus. The fascination of this theme seems as strong as ever, perhaps affecting our curiosity about Robert Maxwell, as well as our taste for the works of Thubron or Theroux. But today, when jumbo jets deposit increasing numbers of ordinary people in the middle of totally unfamiliar cultures which are now only a few flying hours away, it may be time to start reflecting on a very different type of tale. John Hu, the Hu in Jonathan Spence’s latest book, was a man without guile, and without luck. He travelled to France from Canton in 1722 as the employee of Jean-François Foucquet, a Jesuit missionary, but behaved in such a bizarre fashion that in 1723 he was committed to an asylum. In 1726 he was shipped back home alone; meanwhile Foucquet had distanced himself both from his Chinese assistant and from his own missionary colleagues, and had become a bishop in Rome.

The First Emperor

T.H. Barrett, 10 November 1988

Emperors of China are in the West much more like fairy-tale figures than denizens of anything recognisable as the real world. Even when we see the terracotta parade of a Chinese imperial army before our very eyes, how can we begin to fathom the absolute, autocratic will that brought such an array into being? No wonder mat Morris Rossabi, in the opening sentence of his biography of Khubilai Khan, hastens to assure us that this is a book about a real person. For up till now it is Khubilai’s function in the imaginative life of the West which has been his main claim to fame; and unless the motion picture industry succeeds in elevating the complete cipher Puyi to a lasting position of spurious importance in our perception of Chinese history, one supposes that for the English-speaking world Kubla and Xanadu will stand for ever as symbols of Oriental splendour. It may be that Khubilai and the last emperor are more accessible to us than most of their kind since both were themselves non-Chinese, and both formed friendships with Westerners, so that descriptions of their personalities through European eyes survive. But Marco Polo dominates European literature on Asia in a way Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston does not, and while the last emperor was a Manchu, scion of a dynasty which from the start was prepared to accommodate itself to Chinese civilisation, Khubilai was not merely emperor of China alone but also Great Khan of the Mongols.


11 September

4 October 2001

The first act of terrorism against the international community horrific enough to prompt a military alliance to strike against the state supporting the terrorists was arguably the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of missionaries, including their wives and children, and thousands of Chinese converts. The diplomatic community in Peking was besieged until a force composed...

Sino-Jewish Relations

30 October 1997

David Selbourne’s City of Light, which purports to publish a Jewish account of China in the 13th century and which my review last year (LRB, 30 October 1997) described as a forgery, has reappeared in paperback. It was strongly championed by Melanie Phillips in the Sunday Times of 18 October. In this piece Phillips takes issue with my review on grounds that I believe to be dubious, although she...

Willow-Pattern World

9 February 1995

Brian Rotman’s account of the transmission of the I Ching misses out some quite important information (LRB, 9 February). The problem lies in his repeated use of the word ‘translation’, a process which, according to him, was carried out many times during the history of the I Ching in China itself. In fact, the text of the I Ching has remained unaltered and in exactly the same language...

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