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Rockhill Tibetan Collection of Rare Materials at the Library of Congress

A diplomat in China and the first American Tibetologist, William Woodville Rockhill, donated this set of Tibetan and Mongolian materials to the Library in 1901. This guide provides an inventory of the collection available in the Library’s Asian Division.


Rare Materials Notice: all of the materials covered in this guide are part of the Mongolian and Tibetan rare book collections and are only accessible in the Asian Reading Room by advance appointment. To schedule an appointment, please contact our reference staff via the Ask-a-Librarian service.
Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses. ‘Phags pa shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa brgyad stong pa. Rockhill Tibetan Collection #68. Library of Congress Asian Division.

The Library of Congress Tibetan collection owes its beginning to William Woodville Rockhill (1854–1914), American diplomat in China in the early 1900s and first American Tibetologist. Rockhill’s gift of 13 Tibetan books is recorded in the Report of the Librarian of Congress for Fiscal Year 1901: “The Tibetan books recently acquired — thirteen in number — are in form highly curious. They are long, narrow, and consist of loose leaves between boards, some of which are richly inlaid and are wrapped in silk or tied with ribbons.” The Library was quick to recognize that “the debt to Mr. Rockhill for the interest he has displayed, and the time, effort, and money which he has expended in securing to the Library a collection which is to bring oriental students to Washington cannot be lightly estimated."1

These volumes represent some of the earliest Tibetan books to arrive in the U.S. From the above account, we have continually attributed the beginning of the collection to 1901/02 (depending on either fiscal or calendar year). In preparing this handlist, however, I was surprised to discover LC acquisitions stamps for 1899 on at least four items, indicating that the first gifts probably came gradually over a period of several years. What we can say is that by 1902, Rockhill had donated “65 works or parts of works, of which 57 (in 4,835 folios) are printed from wooden blocks, and 8 (129 folios) are manuscript,” as well as two Mongolian manuscripts and one blockprint.2 Rockhill had acquired these texts during his residence in China, and travel in Tibet and Mongolia between 1884 and 1901.

Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer.William Woodville Rockhill, half-length portrait, standing, facing left. [between 1890 and 1910]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

On November 29, 1902, Rockhill presented the Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, with a small handwritten catalog listing 62 of these 65 Tibetan works. The inscription reads:

28th Nov.

My dear Putnam,
I enclose a catalogue of the tibetan works now in your library. I hope it is what you want and that it may be of use to some student some day

Sincerely yours,
W.W. Rockhill

This catalog includes titles in Tibetan and transliteration, number of folios, size, and various descriptive elements, as well as Rockhill’s translation of the title and sometimes the colophon or other further notes. Rockhill was a very thorough scholar, interested from an early age in Tibetan Buddhism, and initially inspired by the writings of Abbé Huc. He studied Tibetan in Paris at the Bibliotheque Nationale with various scholars, and had learned classical Tibetan, Sanskrit and Chinese before reaching China.3 He also published two translations from the Tibetan Bka’ ‘gyur in 1883–1884, the Udanavarga, and The Life of the Buddha and the Early History of His Order. When he was appointed Second Secretary to the American Legation in Peking in 1884, he began four years of further study of Tibetan and Chinese. In particular he befriended and studied under a lama, whom he identifies as “Bu Lama,” who had been born near Lhasa, and was resident in Peking. In The Land of the Lamas he describes Bu Lama (Tenzin Choepel) as learned and well respected, but not a monk, who had assumed the position of Abbot of his monastery (“Serkok gomba, North of Hsi-ning”) by his wealth and status. He also mentions studying for three years with a Lama who earned his living as a reader of the Kanjur.4  Already in touch with many leading Western scholars, he met Sarat Chandra Das in Peking in 1885. Rockhill’s several books and numerous scholarly articles provide a wealth of geographic, historical, and ethnographic detail on Tibet, and early translations of Buddhist literature.5

The above provides some insight into Rockhill’s understanding of the texts described in the catalog. The catalog entries are historically interesting for what they tell us about the state of Tibetan studies at the turn of the century. One can imagine Rockhill consulting with one of his tutors on the discovery of a particular text and in fact, Rockhill published translations of several of the texts, as noted in his catalog. However Rockhill’s handwriting is of the ornate style of the time, also reflected in his transcription of Tibetan, making it sometimes difficult to read. For example, gdod (the first, beginning) often appears as gdon (an evil spirit). Given this difficulty, and yet the historical value of seeing his originals, I thought it might be interesting to present them in a slightly edited and more searchable form. Many of the texts are by now very well known — for example, Ma ni bka’ ‘bum, Mi la ras pa rnam thar and mgur ‘bum, Lam rim chen po, Rgyud bzhi, Vaidurya sngon po’i. Others are individual copies of sadhanas and texts taken from the gsung ‘bums of famous lamas of the time such as the two Lcang skya’s and could be identified by consulting various title lists. Most were apparently commonly available in Peking at the time, although some were also printed in Lhasa, and only a complete examination of the colophons can reveal possible rarities. Many titles are now available in reprint editions in the PL-480. Several texts are still in excellent condition, such as the lovely edition of Lcang skya Rol pa’i rdo rje’s pantheon (published by Pander, Das Pantheon des Tschangtscha Hutuku,1890). Part I is therefore a simple revision of Rockhill’s original catalog. Titles and bibliographic descriptions have been corrected against the originals, followed by Rockhill’s title translation and notes [R:], either quoted or slightly edited, but usually retaining Rockhill’s spellings. Additional information based on my examination is preceded by an asterisk (*). The catalog lists only 62 of the original 65 texts, however, and it remains a mystery as to why, possibly the usual issue of items versus titles.

After the arrival of these first 65 works there were at least two subsequent acquisitions of Tibetan from Rockhill, one by purchase and one by gift. In 1908 Rockhill acquired the complete Derge Bka’ ‘gyur for the library, while he was American Minister at Peking.6

Sde-dge Bkaʼ-ʼgyur. Dege Xian: Sde-dge Par-khaṅ, [between 1728 and 1733]. Library of Congress Asian Division.
Thangka of Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang-grags-pa. [Tibet: producer not identified, not after 1900]. Library of Congress Asian Division.

And finally, in 19427, Rockhill’s widow gave the Library an additional 13 items which are described in the acknowledgment letter to Mrs. Rockhill from Acting Librarian of Congress Luther H. Evans as “13 Tibetan and Chinese manuscripts and books.” These additional volumes were never specifically identified as being from Rockhill and were randomly scattered with the unidentified volumes. My search in the Tibetan rare book cage has now identified the titles listed in Part II. Of special interest is a complete ten volume gsung ‘bum of Char har Dge bshes Blo bzang tshul khrims (1740–1810), an important Gelukpa lama from Inner Mongolia. These large volumes are wrapped with two volumes together (and therefore previously counted as five) in yellow silk, with blue lining, and tied between heavy lacquered boards. There are also two small sadanas of the 2nd Lcang skya, Ngag dbang blo bzang chos ldan (1642–1714) and a volume of the Vaidurya dkar po sent to Rockhill by the Maharaj of Sikkim in 1911. The 1942 gifts also included two special items given to Rockhill in 1908 by the 13th Dalai Lama when they met at Wu-tai-shan, an exceptionally fine thangka of Rje Tsong kha pa (now reproduced as the frontispiece in Wimmel’s biography), and a copy of the Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 verses, listed here as II, 68 [B]. I have tentatively numbered these items 63– 75, but it is possible there are others yet unidentified, and that the number thirteen refers to some different way of counting, i.e. volumes versus titles. The letters in parenthesis are those assigned by Walter Maurer in his handlist of 1962.8 Part III lists the three Mongolian texts given to the Library by Rockhill, which also have Tibetan title pages. It should be noted that many of the texts are bilingual, Tibetan and Mongolian, with Chinese numbering on folios, or at least have bilingual title pages, reflective of 18th- and 19th-century printing in Peking.

This handlist represents more fully the contribution of Rockhill to our knowledge of Tibetan literature in the early 20th century. At some point we hope to identify and scan those of special or representative value to make them available digitally. The collection was reviewed by Gene Smith in the early 1960's and many were selected for microfilming for University of Washington. These are numbers 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 21a, 21b, 21c, 22, 24, 25, 26, 37, 38, 41, 52, 57, and 62. Notes following these entries refer to Gene Smith’s bibliographic information as published in his 1969 University of Washington Tibetan Catalogue.


  1. Report of the Librarian of Congress for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1901. (1901). Washington: Government Printing Office, p. 15. Back to text
  2. Ibid., p. 19-21. Back to text
  3. Rockhill, W.W. (1890a). An American in Tibet: An Account of a Journey through an Unknown Land. The Century Magazine XLL(1), p. 4. Back to text
  4. Rockhill, W.W. (1891a). The Land of the Lamas: Notes of a Journey through China, Mongolia, and Tibet. London: Longmans, Green and Co., p. 97-104. Back to text
  5. For details of Rockhill’s life see Wimmel’s excellent biography, edited and introduced by Braham Norwick. For a bibliography of Rockhill’s works, and a short biography see T’oung Pao, March 1915, pp. 161–165 and May 1915, p. 289–291. Back to text
  6. Report of the Librarian of Congress for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1909. (1909). Washington: Government Printing Office, p. 21. Back to text
  7. Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1943. (1944). Washington: Government Printing Office, p. 166. Back to text
  8. Maurer handlist (1962?) omits the 65 Rockhill items included in the catalog. The titles have also been checked against those given in Buesher’s handlist (1990), which gives only the title from the title page. Back to text