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?

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