Josef Kolmaš (1933-2021)

Josef Kolmaš, who was one amongst the rather small group of founders of modern Tibetan Studies, passed away on February 9th, 2021, at the age of 87 years. He is known by the international academic public for the work he published in English, which focuses on historiographical topics and China-Tibet relations. But this is only a part of his legacy. Among the Czech public he is better known as a prolific translator of numerous books concerning Tibet, China and India from various languages: Tibetan, Chinese, Latin, Russian, English and German.

I remember Josef Kolmaš as a very supportive mentor. Meticulous and strict, but also a kind man endowed with a very distinctive sense of humour. The circumstances of his life were indeed fascinating, and rich in unusual paradoxes.

Josef Kolmaš with his teacher Narkyid Ngawang Thondup and Hugh E. Richardson at the first IATS seminar in Oxford, 1979 (source: Kolmaš, Josef, Tibet: dějiny a duchovní kultura. Praha: Argo, 2004).

He was born in south Moravia (the southeastern part of the Czech Republic), which is known as an island of Catholic faith in the sea of otherwise lukewarm religious sentiments of Czech society. Born in Těmice as the eldest of five children in the family of a bricklayer in 1933, he enrolled at the Jesuit church gymnasium (secondary school) in Velehrad just at the end of the Second World War in 1945. Following the communist coup d’état in 1948 the persecution of the church and its institutions was in the air.

The communist regime targeted the Velehrad church gymnasium and seminary in the spring of 1950 as part of the so-called Action K.  Seventeen-year-old Kolmaš was interned with other students of the gymnasium and novices of the seminary in Bohosudov, North Bohemia, for almost six months.

‘Teachers and the young novices were taken away. Teachers were imprisoned, but the Communist Party and the government did not know how to deal with the novices. Eventually, the novices were kept interned until September,’ he recalled as he recounted his time in the so-called ‘centralised monastery,’ which was effectively a camp guarded by the communist police. Every day he had to line up in the yard as a prisoner, and to listen to the propaganda reading of the political commissioner. He and others were forced to liquidate the local library by throwing volumes out of the windows. The communist regime did not allow anyone to visit him, and he was allowed to go outside only accompanied by guards. He was not even allowed to inform his parents that he was alive until three months later.

Later, he was forced to work on the construction of the Klíčava dam near Kladno, where he levelled the slopes and built roads around the reservoir. ‘They brought some female members of the Communist Youth union who were eager to socialise and dance with us. They were apparently attempting to re-educate us,’ he recollected in the interview for the Memory of Nations project. He eventually ended up in the abolished Franciscan monastery in Hájek near Prague, and only then was he released.

He then continued his studies at the gymnasium in Kyjov. His teacher Ladislav Dlouhy supported his interest in Oriental languages. He showed Kolmaš New Orient (Nový Orient), a journal in which a manual of Chinese was being published in instalments. 

Josef Kolmaš with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, 1978 (photo: Doboom Tulku, source: Kolmaš, Josef, Tibet: dějiny a duchovní kultura. Praha: Argo, 2004).

Following his graduation in 1952 he was accepted for studies of Czech and Russian languages at the University of Olomouc. In the environment of the planned economy of the communist regime a formal authorisation was required for studies. The number of the students in each subject at the universities was planned and strictly prescribed. The authorisations were then distributed to the classes of graduates from the secondary schools. The gymnasium of Kyjov received just two authorisations for the graduates, one of them for the study of Czech and Russian languages at the University of Olomouc. 

But Josef Kolmaš was determined to study the Chinese language, which at that time was taught only at Charles University, in Prague. Following his graduation, he decided to visit the Minister of Education in person and to persuade him to provide him with official permission. The minister of Education at that time was Eduard Štoll, a representative of the Stalinist wing of the Communist Party. Amazingly, the minister agreed to meet the young graduate. During their discussion he phoned Jaroslav Průšek, an influential Czech sinologist and lecturer in Chinese at the University. And following Kolmaš’s visit to Průšek, his way to the study of Chinese was opened.    

Kolmaš studied Chinese in the years 1952-1957. There were ten students of Chinese in the class, which was quite a large number at that time. Since 1949 the People’s Republic of China had been a partner of the communist regime. Josef Kolmaš recollected the words of the minister of information Václav Kopecký after his visit of China at that time: ‘Thanks to the victory of communism in China the Earth’s axis has tilted in the direction of progress.’ Kolmaš was taught Tibetan as a second language by Pavel Poucha, a specialist in Mongolian Studies and the Tocharian language. What the study of Tibetan was like at that time was described to me some years ago by Kolmaš: “Poucha taught me the Tibetan letters and explained the way they work during the first class. For the next class he brought a Tibetan translation of the New Testament. He gave it to me saying: ‘You have the Czech version of it, so you can make the effort yourself!’”

Josef Kolmaš with the Dalai Lama and Czech indologist Dušan Zbavitel. Prague, 1990 (photo: J. Ptáček, source: Tändzin Gjamccho, Svoboda v Exilu: autobiografie 14. Dalajlamy. Praha: Práh, 1992).

Following his graduation, Kolmaš was offered a postgraduate stipend at the Central Institute for Nationalities in Beijing in 1957. He spent two years there between 1957 and 1959. His stay there proved to be crucial for his future research within the field of Tibetan Studies. He was the first foreign student to study there. At the same time, this was also Kolmaš’s first trip abroad. It was the time of the Great Leap Forward campaign (1958–1960) and also the start of the Great Chinese Famine (1958–1962) that left a toll of 35–45 million deaths. Kolmaš recollected some scenes that illustrated the situation in China at that time. He remembered the head of the Institute catching flies and collecting them in a small paper bag in the toilet as part of the Four Pests Campaign aimed at eliminating rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows. Kolmaš also recollected his enormous shame when the head of the Institute asked him for a piece of sugar for his children, who had never seen it. Kolmaš was given provisions at the Soviet Embassy, which significantly alleviated the concerns of his daily life in Beijing.

He spent some time with another foreign Tibetologist at the Central Institute for Nationalities: Yuri Parfionovich (1921–1990), who was a member of the Moscow Oriental Institute of the Academy of Sciences. Parfionovich had fought as a soldier in the Red Army before his studies, had taken part in the Soviet-Finnish War, and was a member of an espionage group. As a soldier he had participated in the capture of Berlin, and had celebrated the end of the Second World War in Prague. Kolmaš remembered him as a good companion who was nevertheless a heavy drinker. He was haunted by nightmares from his soldier’s past, especially the moments when he was forced to shoot his own close friends dead.              

Kolmaš always remembered his own teachers in Beijing with a feeling of gratitude. One of them was Narkyid Ngawang Thondup (1931­–2017). Kolmaš recollected that he had no information about him after leaving Beijing. But later in 1969, during an audience with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, in India, he mentioned his name in the conversation. The Dalai Lama gestured to his secretary and after a while Narkyid Ngawang Thondup appeared in front of a greatly surprised – and moved – Kolmaš.

But his principal teacher of Tibetan was the Chinese scholar Yu Daoquan (1901-1999), who also had studied in Paris from 1934 and had taught at SOAS, in London, from 1938. He is known as a founding figure of Tibetan Studies in China and the compiler of the Chinese-Tibetan Dictionary of Colloquial Lhasa Tibetan (Bod rgya shan sbyar gyi lha sa’i kha skad tshig mdzod, 1983). Kolmaš frequently spoke about his unselfishness and recalled him as a ‘real bodhisattva.’ Yu Daoquan had good contacts with Tibetans in Derge. Thanks to this connection Kolmaš has been able to order a full Derge print of the Kanjur to be sent to the Prague Oriental Institute. Also, Kolmaš’s later works on Derge Prints and the Genealogy of the Kings of Derge were made possible through his teacher Yu Daoquan.

During his studies in Beijing, Kolmaš also made a hand-written copy of the 14th century Tibetan chronicle The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies (Rgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long). Translating it into Czech and publishing it under the title Zrcadlo králů (Mirror of Kings) much later in 1998 was the fulfilment of one of the dreams he had conceived during his studies in Beijing.

Josef Kolmaš at his home in 2014 (photo: Andrea Jelínková, source: Memory of Nations).

A few years ago I met with András Róna-Tas, the Hungarian linguist and the first president of IATS, in Szeged. He recollected that in those days he had been working on the Monguor language. Knowing that Kolmaš was in Beijing at the Central Institute for Nationalities, he kept writing letters addressed to Kolmaš, asking him to transcribe the real pronunciation of various Monguor words. He had never had a chance to listen to the Monguor language he was researching at that time, and it was only through Kolmaš that he could learn the actual pronunciation of it. 

While staying in Beijing, Josef Kolmaš conceived a plan to visit Derge. He was able to set off there only in 1959. On arriving in Lanzhou he could see streams of railway trucks with tanks and cannons heading for Tibet. The uprising in Lhasa has started following the escape of the Dalai Lama to India. While in Lanzhou, he received an urgent telegram ordering him to return to Beijing immediately.

After his return from Beijing in 1959 he worked at the Oriental Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. It was a period of hard work transforming the initial inputs from his stay in China into the results that would be recognized within the international community of Tibetologists. The regime in Czechoslovakia relaxed in the 1960s, and he was able to work as a visiting lecturer at the Australian National University in Canberra in 1966. Following the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the political situation was again the determining factor in academic research. Despite that and the fact that during that period of time, until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, he was obliged to translate political documents from Chinese, he also managed to continue his academic work. In 1969 and 1978 he visited India, where he worked with Lokesh Chandra. In 1979, in Oxford, he was among the founding members of the International Association for Tibetan Studies.  

Following the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the Oriental Institute underwent changes. He served as a director between the years 1994­–2002, and retired in 2003.

He was married to Marie, with whom they had a son, Vladimír, and a daughter, Ivana. Sadly, in 2006 his wife Marie passed away, and he himself spent the last five years of his life in a nursing home following a serious illness.

In his English-language works he took advantage of his knowledge of both Tibetan and Chinese. His most valuable publications include works on China-Tibet relations. These include Tibet and Imperial China (Canberra 1967), The Ambans and Assistant Ambans of TibetA Chronological Study (Prague 1994), Four Letters of Po Chü-i to the Tibetan Authorities (808-810 A. D.) (ArOr 34, 1966), and Ch’ing shih kao on Modern History of Tibet (1903-1912) (ArOr 32, 1964). These contained new information and pioneered the use of Chinese sources for Tibetan historiography. Another focus of his research was Derge and the printing house there. Among the publications dedicated to this topic are A Genealogy of the Kings of Derge (Prague 1968), the Prague Collection of Tibetan Prints from Derge I-II (Wiesbaden – Prague, 1971), and The Iconography of the Derge Kanjur and Tanjur (New Delhi 1978).

The numerous books he translated into Czech from various languages are not known to the international public. Among others, he translated the well-known story of Nangsa Öbum (Nang sa ’od ’bum gyi rnam thar) from Tibetan, the Mirror of the Genealogy of Kings (Rgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long, mentioned above) and Songs of Milarepa (Mi la ras pa’i mgur ’bum). From Chinese he translated the travelogues of the Chinese monks Xuanzang and Faxian, describing their journey to India; his translations from Latin include letters written from China by 18th-century Czech missionary Karel Slavíček, while from Russian he translated the travelogue to Lhasa by Gombojab Tsybikov. Through such translations of essential texts, he is well-known to the Czech public interested in Asia.

There used to be a saying ascribed to St. Benedict on the door of Kolmaš’s office: Serva ordinem et ordo servabit te, ‘Preserve order and order will preserve you.’ His personal passage through the turbulent times of history, and the legacy of his work, are a reflection of the seriousness with which he applied this advice in his personal life.   


Daniel Berounský

Prague, 25 February 2021