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Mannerheim's Central Asian Expedition of 1906-1908-(Alpo Ratia )

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By the turn of the nineteenth century the focus of international Orientalist interest had shifted from the Near East to Central Asia. Leading Orientalists ed expeditions in search of hidden treasure along the Silk Road in Chinese Turkestan. At the same major powers (Great Britain , Japan and Russia ) sought to enlarge their respective sphere of influence and sent agents there, sometimes in the guise of scientific explorers.

The Russian General Staff commissioned a Finn, Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim (1867-1951), a talented cavalry officer in imperial service, to undertake a military intelligence-gathering mission through China's northern provinces.

The aim was to map certain routes, verify the population census in these provinces, investigate the progress made in modernizing the military, administrative and educational systems, and also to ascertain the political aspirations and divisions among non-Chinese and Chinese: in short, to assess China's defence capacity and Russia's strategic options.

Keen also to promote science in the Grand Duchy of Finland, Mannerheim contacted Senator Otto Donner (1835-1909) and through his good offices negotiated with the Finno-Ugrian Society and with trustees of the Antell Fund.


Mannerheim was asked to copy inscriptions, purchase ancient manuscripts, archaeological and ethnographical artefacts, make anthropometric measurements, photograph racial types, and collect ethnographic and linguistic material about the little known peoples of North China.

The Society placed funds at Mannerheim's disposal, while the Antell trustees set funds aside for the State Historical Museum (later renamed the National Museum) to purchase antiquities and ethnographic items from Mannerheim. However, because Chinese culture was deemed to be well-known, 'Han'materials were excluded.

Mannerheim's Central Asian expedition lasted nearly two years (29 July 1906 to 20 July 1908). He set off from Andizhan in Russian Turkestan and, in stages, traversed China's Xinjiang, Gansu, Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces on his way to Kalgan near Beijing .

The journey, about 14,000 km, was made mainly on horseback and Mannerheim was accompanied by two Cossacks, a Chinese interpreter, a cook, and several caravan men.

Mannerheim's ancient manuscript and archaeological acquisitions, such as they are, came solely from Xinjiang. Antiquities purchased from local treasure hunters on the southern route in the Khotan area included 76 coins, a small number of text fragments in Sanskrit and Khotanese, engraved gems and terracotta artefacts.

At Kelpin, on the north-west edge of the Taklamakan, Mannerheim tried his hand at excavation, but without marked success. While passing through Torgut and Kirghiz areas he photographed numerous inscriptions and rock-drawings.

At Kuldja and on the Northern Silk Road at Karashahr he carried out minor excavations and recovered some potsherds.

Further east in the Turfan area he made excursions to the sites of Yarkhoto, Idiqut Shahri and Chiktym, but was so dismayed by the mutilations wrought by contemporary archaeologists that he refrained from all further excavation.

Nevertheless, he purchased artefacts and a sizeable number (1971) of text fragments in Chinese, as well as documents in Uighur and Middle Persian from locals.

These had presumably been found in ruins near Turfan.


The Mystery of a Missed Opportunity


Mannerheim's journey continued south-eastwards along the edge of the desert. In October 1907 his path crossed that of Aurel Stein's caravan at Hami [Mannerheim's letter from Lanzhou dated 17 February 1908 to Senator Donner quoted in Pirjo Varjola (ed.), C. G. Mannerheim in Central Asia, 1906-8, National Board of Antiquities, Helsinki, 1999, pp. 59-60.]

Having entered Gansu Province, Mannerheim's small caravan arrived in Dunhuang on November 14th and stayed there until the morning of the 18th. Mystery still surrounds this sojourn.

Why did Mannerheim not avail himself of the opportunity of procuring texts from the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas at Mogao?

Stein had left thousands behind and Pelliot only arrived in February 1908. Several explanations have been offered for Mannerheim's inaction at Dunhuang, but none are wholly convincing. Least satisfactory is the rationalization found in his Memoirs.

[C. G. E. Mannerheim, The Memoirs of Marshall Mannerheim, Cassel, London, 1953, p. 55.]

Mannerheim's travel diary, published in 1940, describes the garrison town of Dunhuang its layout and sights, administration, economy, population and myths.


There is a passing mention of the grottoes and a somewhat disjointed account of the unfavourable curcumstances enco untered. According to his diary entry for 20 November 1907, written in Anxi, the weather during his stay at Dunhuang was turning inclement, and shortly before leaving the town:

'I had intended to visit a miao (temple) called 'Chien fo-tung', lying in a gorge in the mountains to the S.... However, the pheasants and djeirans were too tempting. [C. G. E. Mannerheim, Resa genom Asien, 2 delen., Lindfors, Stockholm, 1940, p. 58. Ed. Note: Stein's field diary for October records his meeting Clementi in Oct. 19 in Hami (MSS. Stein 200, ff.49, Ruins of Desert Cathay, Vol. 2, p. 344. ) but no meeting with Mannerheim, although he reports meeting a traveller on Oct. 29 on the road from Hami who told him 'of the arrival of a Fa-nan, who must be Mannerheim'.

This suggests that Stein was cognizant of Mannerheim's proximity but did not meet him personally.


After losing much time in shooting we reached the mouth of the gorge, but the sun was already so low that we had no alternative than to drop all idea of the 'thousand gods'and try to find out way back to the sarai before nightfall.'[Ibid. p. 59]

The latest of a series of articles on Mannerheim's Asian expedition has focussed attention on the missed opportunity at Dunhuang. Accepting the above account at face value and citing earlier parallels from the diary, the author has drawn a tragicomic conclusion:

'if Mannerheim had had a more skilled cook, he probably would have gone to the Mogao grottoes instead of hunting for this 'welcome change'to his diet and perhaps been able to purchase something before the arrival of Pelliot.

This a great scientific treasure was exchanged for roast pheasant and gazelle.'[Harry Halen, 'Baron Mannerheim's Hunt for Central Asian Manuscripts'in P. Varjola op. cit. p. 51.]

Perhaps so, but it is equally plausible that Mannerheim needed some recreation and respite from his demanding mission.

Most likely deeper motives lay behind Mannerheim's inaction at Mogao.

it been his serious intent to procure texts, he could delayed his departure from Dunhuang and at least have made an earnest effort.

That he did not do so suggests that, in his estimation, the potential gains were outweighed by the potential risks (politico-military , financial etc.)

For the past fifteen months the gathering of military intelligence had been his primary obligation.

Two strategic questions which the Russian General Staff wanted him to investigate were the feasibility of the Hexi Corridor as a route for regular and irregular forces, and of Lanzhou as a base and further staging-area.


Mannerheim was still at the western end of this route mapping garrison towns, and the procurement of many ancient texts and especially their transport through China proper, might have resulted in disputes with officialdom, in negative publicity, and in loss of further co-operation at the highest levels.

Prudence with funds also probably played a role. Mannerheim had been in dire financial straits on arrival in Urumqi, where his travel coffer was at last replenished.

In a letter from Urumqi dated 4 August 1908 to Senator Donner, Mannerheim stated that he expected costs to be higher in China proper and that, if the Finno-Ugrian Society wished him to carry out further archaeological investigations, funds should be remitted to him at, for example, Xi'an in Shaanxi Province.

[Mannerheim's letter from Urumqi dated 4 August 1907 to Donner quoted in P. Varjola, op. cit. p. 58.]

No answer had been received to this while he was at Dunhuang.

Two things were certain: funds could not be expected from his Antell trustees; and, at worst, he might have to bear all the costs himself and be stuck with a heap of manuscripts which, as the Finnish saying goes, were 'Hebrew' to him.

That Mannerheim kept silent about his real motives for his inaction at Mogao is hardly surprising.

Both his travel diaries and Memoirs were edited with a Finnish and Western readership in mind, and, moreover, at critical times:

the Winter and Cold Wars respectively. In both cases it would have been highly inexpedient for the Commander-in-Chief or Marshal of Finland to justify that inaction by citing former obligations from the start of the century. National interests were now also at stake.

Nor would the citing of financial prudence bear weight with Orientalists of this later age.

Alpo Ratia is an independent scholar based in Turku, Finland. (alpo.ratia@suomi24.fi)


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