Dusty Dreams in the Desolate Wilderness

Chao  Erh-Feng
State Library of NSW, Australia
In 1909, Manchu General Chao Erh-Feng and his army swept through Tibet vowing not to leave a person or a dog alive. He came disturbingly close to reaching his goal. According to Wade Davis’ Into the Silence, Erh-Feng ravaged monasteries, devastated villages, looted cities and temples, burned sacred texts, raped women and children, and killed tens of thousands of Tibetans – including over a thousand monks. His occupation of Tibet was so brutal that he gained the nickname “Butcher Chao.”
Nearly one hundred years later, a staff member at Future Generations passed away before she could complete the translation of a journal kept by a captain in Butcher Chao’s army. “While an aggressive, get-ahead army captain, (the captain and author) was also sympathetic to the Tibetans, and while in Tibet married a Tibetan girl, so he puts a sympathetic human face to the Chinese invasion of Tibet,” according to Dan Jantzen, another former Future Generations staff member who is now working to complete the translation of the journal, titled Dusty Dreams in the Desolate Wilderness. Dusty Dreams was originally published in Chinese, for a Chinese audience familiar with background information and place names that most westerners are not. In addition to translating the work into English, Jantzen is working to compile detailed footnotes and a map in order to give context to the document.
Butcher Chao came to Tibet only after both the British and the Russians formally acknowledged Chinese sovereignty over the region in the early 1900s. Fortunately for the Tibetans, Manchu power was broken in 1911 when a revolution overthrew the Ch’ing Dynasty and established the government that became a forerunner to today’s People’s Republic of China. Tibetan monks led an uprising that resulted in the capture and execution of Butcher Chao. With Chao and the Ch’ing Dynasty gone, the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet and Britain once again considered Tibet a free and independent state.

“Davis takes a particularly negative view of Chao, and some commentators are a bit kinder to him, but he was pretty ruthless,” notes Jantzen. In another account, historian Alastair Lamb refers to Chao as “one of the last great soldier-bureaucrats of the Manchu era.”

Future Generations is proud to be part of this project to bring forth a new primary document about this controversial figure and an important period in Chinese/Tibetan history. In addition to Jantzen, a number of Future Generations faculty, staff, and alumni are working to complete the manuscript and get it published.

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