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Pioneer in Tibet: The Life and Perils of Dr. Albert Shelton Hardcover – March 18, 2004
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The Amazon Book Review
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"A thrilling true adventure story of courage and mystery against the tumultuous backdrop of Tibetan history. One is fascinated and enriched by this beautifully written book that reveals much about the American hero and the mysteries of Tibet. This fascinating tale lingers long after the last chapter is concluded."-- Mabel Cabot, author of Vanished Kingdoms: A Woman Explorer in Tibet, China, and Mongolia 1921-1925
"Beautifully written, Pioneer in Tibet, is a compelling exploration of the gutsy rhythms, the pioneering spirit that is at once particularly American and universal in its ability to awaken the spirit, that longing for exploration and discovery."-- George Crane, author of Bones of the Master: A Journey to Secret Mongolia
"A remarkable story about a remarkable man. Not only did Albert Shelton bring medical care to a bandit-infested area of Tibet and introduce treasures form Tibetan life to Americans, but he also ranks high among that forgotten and misundertood breed of pioneering missionaries, erudite and open to the culture around them, who made inhospitable places home and gave their lives to the people they served." -- Barbara Crosette, author of So Close to Heaven:The Vanishing Buddhists Kingdoms of the Himalayas
"Pioneer in Tibet is not really about a man, but about a fascinating place and era: Kham at the turn of the 20th century. Doug Wissing has combed hundreds of rare sources to assemble this impressively detailed and stringently objective account. Compared to Wissing's book, I know of no Tibetan histories that bring to the reader so much fresh information. It is a must-read for historians, activists, and travelers who want to better understand this embattled and captivating part of the Tibetan plateau."-- Pamela Logan, author of Among Warriors: A Woman Martial Artist in Tibet and president of the Kham Aid Foundation
20"Dr. Albert Shelton was the twentieth-century's David Livingston. Douglas Wissing's portrayal of this Disciples of Christ missionary is no hagiography. Shelton is presented in his human complexity as a healer, diplomat, collector and dealer in Tibetan artifacts, interpreter of Tibetan culture to Americans, as well as a courageous servant of God. In Wissing's words, Shelton possessed an "adventurer heart and missionary soul" as his life's journey took him from the frontier border of Kansas to the frontier border of Tibet. Shelton's biographical portrait is well positioned in Wissing's detailed descriptions of the machinations of the China-Tibet conflicts of the early twentieth century." -- Peter M. Morgan President, Disciples of Christ Historical Society, Nashville, Tennessee
"...[Wissing's] insights on American missionary life and Shelton's daring make for a lively narrative."
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Wissing has written a fine biography of Albert Shelton, a frontiersman from Kansas and the founder of the first missionary station in Batang, Tibet in 1908. The borderlands between Tibet and China in those days were a battleground and Shelton entered into the fray as a missionary, hunter, collector and seller of Tibetan antiquities, interpreter, and advisor to Tibetan rebels. He became famous in America, especially after being held captive by Chinese bandits for more than a month.
The author covers the complex politics of both the Tibetan marches and the missionary establishment. Shelton is not altogether an admirable character; he seems more interested in constant exploration and collecting art treasures than he does in spreading the Gospel, and he obviously basks in his fame. His dream was to be the first Protestant missionary in Lhasa and he was on the road to achieving that when he met his dramatic end in 1922, an end that befitted the character of the man.
If you're interested in Tibet, missionaries, and China this is an excellent book to read. Shelton could be a prototype for a somewhat more pious version of Indiana Jones.
In response to the other reviewer's comments, this is a book about a man's life in a place and a time. It's not a book about the political climate of a land during a certain span of years (though I thought the author did include enough information to paint a sense of context). Take this excerpt for example:
"countless goods made their way via this route, but by far the most important was tea. Tea was China's most valuable export to the Tibetan, Turkic, and Mongolian peoples who formed an arc at the periphery of the Celestial Kingdom. The brick tea trade was integral to Chinese-Tibetan commerce, politics, military history, and social intercourse. The trade dated back to the late Tang Dynasty (618-907), when the first loads of tea..."
You make the call. I know a good amount about Tibet, it's height, and its history already. Like I said before, if you want to know more about Younghusband's violent push into Tibet's interior, well sorry, that's not the focus of this book--It's about Albert Shelton. But if you don't know anything about Tibet, maybe you'll feel as the other reviewer did--fair warning (though I do disagree with him). I myself would have liked to seen more detailed maps of the cities and routes that Shelton traveled along (though there are maps, they're just not thorough enough).
I thought that Wissing's account did a good job of displaying what a certain missionary's life was like in Tibet during the early 1900's. Far from painting the picture of an altruistic superchristian, at times Wissings account left me lamenting Albert's poor choices. In the beginning he seems to be an adventure hungry, inexperienced person. It take him and his family years to even like the Tibetan culture and not to look down ethnocentric noses at it. Thankfully it isn't as prevalent today in missionary circles, but back then people were often ignorant of other cultures and at times horribly nationalistic. It is really sad to hear accounts of those who never really got the Apostle Paul when he said "I become all things to all people, that I might win some to Christ". I personally found it intriguing to see this change in Shelton.
The book also has many interesting accounts of exchanges between Shelton and the Tibetans. The meeting of two cultures, and two faiths, had amazing results at times. With Tibet's relcutance to change in general, I wouldn't be surprised if these were things one could still experience if they went to the right places. There is also an interesting look through Albert's journal into a Christian man's dealing with imminent death and intense pain while he was being hauled around by bandits who kidnapped him. That is a personal account that you won't find the likes of most places and the worth of the book could be found alone in that.
I refuse to go into a detailed account of Shelton's general life because I believe the "book description" above does a well enough job, and you can read that.
Lastly, Wissing is a journalist. He writes well, and the book is pleasing to read (as far as biographies go--if you not a biography person, why are you even bothering?). Like any biography it has its share of facts and the recalling of accounts, but I think Wissing did a good job of balancing everything out in a way that rarely overwhelms the reader.