Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Évariste Régis Huc

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From volume XII of the work.
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HUC, Évariste Régis (18131860), a celebrated French missionary-traveller, was born at Toulouse, 1st August 1813. In his twenty-fourth year he entered the congregation of the Lazarists at Paris, and shortly after receiving holy orders in 1839 set forth fired by missionary zeal for China. At Macao he spent some eighteen months in the Lazarist seminary preparing himself under the instruction of Perboyre for the regular work of a missionary in the interior. Having at last acquired a sufficient command of the Chinese tongue, and modified his personal appearance in accordance with Chinese taste, he started from Canton clad in the flowing costume of the natives, with his skin dyed yellow, and wearing the inevitable queue. He at first superintended a Christian mission in the southern provinces, and then passing to Peking, where he perfected his knowledge of the language, eventually settled in the Valley of Black Waters or He Shuy, a little to the north of the capital, and just within the borders of Mongolia. There, beyond the Great Wall, a large but scattered population of native Christians had found a refuge from the persecutions of Kia-King, to be united half a century later in a vast but vague apostolic vicariate. The assiduity with which Huc devoted himself to the study of the dialects and customs of the Tartars, for whom at the cost of much labour he translated various religious works, was an admirable preparation for undertaking in 1844, at the instigation of the vicar apostolic of Mongolia, an expedition whose object was to dissipate the obscurity which hung over the country and habits of the Tibetans. September of that year found the missionary at Tolon Noor occupied with the final arrangements for his journey, and shortly afterwards, accompanied by his fellow-Lazarist, Joseph Gabet, and a young Tibetan priest who had embraced Christianity, he set out. To escape attention the little party assumed the dress of lamas or priests. Crossing the Hoang-ho at Shagan-Kooren, they advanced into the terrible sandy tract known as the steppes of the Ortoos. After suffering dreadfully from want of water and fuel they entered Kansu, having recrossed the flooded Hoang-ho, but it was not till January 1845 that they reached Tang-Kiuul on the boundary. Rather than encounter alone the horrors of a four months’ journey to Lhassa they resolved to wait for eight months till the arrival of a Tibetan embassy on its return from Peking. Under an intelligent teacher they meanwhile studied the Tibetan language and Buddhist literature, and during three months of their stay they resided in the famous Kounboum Lamasery, which was reported to accommodate 4000 persons. Towards the end of September they joined the returning embassy, which comprised 2000 men and 3700 animals. Crossing the deserts of Koko-nur, they passed the great lake of that name, with its island of contemplative lamas, and, ascending with difficulty and hardship the tortuous snow-covered mountains of Chuga and Baylen-Bharat, they at last entered Lhassa on the 29th January 1846. Favourably received by the regent, they opened a little chapel, and were in a fair way to establish an important mission, when the Chinese ambassador interfered and had the two missionaries conveyed back to Canton, where they arrived in October of the same year. For nearly three years Huc remained at Canton, but M. Gabet, returning to Europe, proceeded thence, to Rio de Janeiro, and died there shortly afterwards. Huc returned to Europe in shattered health in 1852, visiting India, Egypt, and Palestine on his way, and, after a prolonged residence in Paris, died 31st March 1860. His writings comprise, besides numerous letters and memoirs in the Annales de la Propagation de la foi, the famous Souvenirs d’un Voyage dans la Tartarie, le Thibet, et la Chine pendant les années 1844–46 (2 vols., Par., 1850; Eng. transl. by W. Hazlitt, 1851, abbreviated by M. Jones, Lond., 1867); its supplement, crowned by the Academy, entitled L’Empire Chinois (2 vols., Par., 1854; Eng. transl., Lond., 1859); and an elaborate historical work, Le Christianisme en Chine, &c. (4 vols., Par., 185758; Eng. transl., Lond., 185758). These works are written in a lucid, racy, picturesque style, which has secured for them an unusual degree of popularity. The narrative of one of the most remarkable feats of modern travel, the Souvenirs contain passages of so singular a character as in the absence of corroborative testimony to stir up a feeling of incredulity. That Huc was suspected unjustly has been amply proved by the later research of Bushnell, David, Prejevalski, Richthofen, and Colonel Montgomerie’s “Pundits.” But although his credibility has been firmly established, and although in his heroic enterprise he gathered a vast amount of novel and curious information, the fact remains that Huc was by no means a practical geographer, and that the record of his travels loses greatly in value from the want of precise scientific data.

See, for information specially relating to the whole subject, the Abbé Desgodin’s Mission du Thibet de 1855 à 1870, Verdun, 1872; and “Account of the Pundit’s Journey in Great Tibet,” in the Royal Geographical Society’s Journal for 1877.