Antique Graffiti

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One of the joys of working at an old and well-preserved university are the little traces of the past that sometimes manage to survive the fires, renovations, new paint schemes and other hazards of time. A few of the buildings at UVA are almost two hundred years old, and some of their previous occupants have left their mark. The above pencil inscription is one of those traces, recalling a moment, the Spanish-American War of 1898 to be precise, when Cuba was a friend to the United States, and Spain a hated enemy (my, how times change). While this little remnant doesn’t necessarily add anything to our understanding of that time, it does remind us that history was lived by real people, with real emotional investment in the events of their time. Someone (probably a white man, UVA was all-male and segregated at the time) was invested enough in this war to take the time and trouble to write this note, and a hundred and twelve years later I can still read it. That’s pretty cool.

I’ve been asked to keep the precise location of this particular graffito secret, but if you’re walking around UVA, or anywhere else for that matter, keep your eyes open, and see what you find.

Japanese Swords in Tibet

When I was in Kham three years ago, I saw a Japanese knife for sale in a store in Ganzi (tib: དཀར་མཛེས།; ch: 甘孜). It was a tanto, the knife-sized little brother of Japan’s famous katana, or samurai sword. This particular knife had a nice hamon, the pattern that emerges along the edge of a hand-made blade. When I expressed interest in it, the shop keeper happily removed the ray-skin handle to show me the maker’s signature on the hilt. While I don’t know much about these things, this was clearly a real, hand-made Japanese knife blade, not something mass-produced for the tourist trade. Such knives are not common. Which leads to the obvious question, what on earth was it doing in a little shop in remote eastern Tibet?

A few days ago, I may have found the answer. I was reading A Tibetan Revolutionary, by Melvyn Goldstein, Dawei Sherap and William Siebenschuh. This book presents the memories of the Tibetan Phüntso Wangye (Phünwang), a devout communist who dedicated his life to establishing effective communism in Tibet. It’s a good book, and offers some valuable insight into the strategies and internal debates surrounding the Chinese Communist Party’s involvement in Tibet in the 1950s.

One of the tasks Phünwang undertook for the CCP was to travel to Central Tibet with some People’s Liberation Army Generals in an attempt to convince the Tibetan aristocracy to accept Chinese rule without a fight. Part of this effort involved distributing bribes. As he describes it, “Since Deng Xiaoping had stressed the importance of building good relationships with the Tibetan upper classes, I brought gifts – Japanese swords, radios, brocade silk, and so on – to be distributed when appropriate.”[1]

While it seems unlikely that the particular tanto I saw in Ganzi was one of those brought to Tibet by Phünwang, the fact that such weapons could be effective presents for currying favor with the Tibetan elite does indicate that wealthy Tibetans knew about and valued Japanese swords. There must, therefore, have been some trade in these blades going on between China (where they had presumably been captured from Japanese soldiers during WWII) and Tibet. It seems reasonably likely that the knife I saw in Ganzi was part of this trade, and may have arrived in Kham during the period between the end of WWII and the upheavals of the 1950s. Or maybe not, but it’s a fun theory.


[1] Goldstein, Melvyn C., Dawei Sherap, and William R. Siebenschuh. A Tibetan Revolutionary: The Political Life and Times of Bapa Phüntso Wangye. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. p. 137.

Roosevelt & Muir

I heard a story recently that I thought was worth passing on. I have no idea if it is true, but I like it anyway.

John Muir

In 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt went on a train trip across the country, visiting notable scenic spots. In California, he visited Yosemite, where he met John Muir. Apparently they took a liking to each other. A dinner was planned in their honor at the Wawona lodge. Before the dinner, the two told Roosevelt’s staff that they were going for a walk in Mariposa grove. They didn’t tell the staff that they weren’t coming back that evening.

And so the founder of the conservation movement and the founder of the National Park system managed to give the secret service and everyone else the slip, and spend three days together in the woods. No tents or other gear, just conversation and the biggest trees on earth.

True or not, its a pretty good story.