How Tibet Emerged Within the Wider Chinese Power-Political Zone

The Complex Creation of Tibet

By Gwydion M. Williams

What Was Tibet?

The Lhasa Valley

The Slow Arrival of Buddhism

Tibet Vanishes From World History

The Holy Mongol Empire

Tibet and Kublai Khan

The First Ruling Lamas

Ming Without Walls

Manchus: the Last Ruling Fringelanders

The British Raj and the Third Panchen Lama

Younghusband: the British Raj Tries It Again

After Younghusband



What Was Tibet?

The Tibet-Qinghai Plateau is the most visible result of a vast ancient collision within the Earth’s crust. A collision that began long before anything human walked upon Earth’s surface, and which is still going on. Far below the Earth’s surface, a tectonic plate carry most of what’s now the Indian subcontinent bumped into the much more massive tectonic plates carrying the rest of Asia. The major processes occurred deep down, but surface effects included the swallowing-up of most of the former Tethys Ocean. What had once been oceans and lowlands were raised up as a gigantic plateau, the biggest on Earth in the present geological era. The Himalayas are just the leading edge; a vast mass of the Earth’s surface has been raised up and crinkled into many huge mountain ranges.

“The Indo-Australian plate is still moving at 67 mm per year, and over the next 10 million years it will travel about 1,500 km into Asia. About 20 mm per year of the India-Asia convergence is absorbed by thrusting along the Himalaya southern front. This leads to the Himalayas rising by about 5 mm per year, making them geologically active.” [H]

Mountains are crumpled landscape, a huge swathe of the Earth compressed, folded and often stood on edge. The soil is mostly poor, but there is generally mineral wealth. Mountains also have high rainfall and are the source of rivers, something that is only now becoming a political issue. Up until the 19th century, most mountainous regions were so poor and marginal that the various states separated by them seldom bother to say clearly which outside power had sovereign authority.

The exact era when humans started living on the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau is anyone’s guess. Populations living around the huge upland region must have accumulated genes that made them better fitted for high altitude. Scientists studying such peoples in different high-altitude regions find that each population has its own distinctive sets of adaptations to the same problem of thin air. Human populations as they spread across the globe must always have included a few who found a safe but poor living in the high places.

A common feature of uplands and mountains is the survival of older beliefs and peoples. There is also often a strong military or mercenary tradition – Swiss and Ghurkhas were mercenaries in historic times, the Gurkha role is only now ending. The Persians were originally a mountain population. Tibetans at one time were formidable warriors.

On the basis of appearance and language, it is reasonable to believe that Tibetans developed from an ancient lowland population that also gave rise to the Han Chinese. They are part of the same Sino-Tibetan language family – though so are many other peoples, including the Burmese.


The Lhasa Valley

Most of the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau is poor dry land. It suffers from the same drying-out that has hit the whole of Central Asia over the last few centuries. But the Lhasa Valley is much more fertile, because of a large river that Tibetans call the Yarlung Zangbo. This flows across southern Tibet and breaks through the Himalayas in great gorges: flowing into the Indian Subcontinent. It becomes a great river that is best known as the Brahmaputra.

The high peaks of the Himalayas were enough of a barrier to keep the Lhasa Valley separate from the politics and religion of the Indian subcontinent. Most of the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau kept its native ‘Bon’ beliefs while Buddhism spread through the Indian subcontinent and then to China along the Silk Road. To the Chinese, Buddhism would not have seemed very different from the native creed of Daoism (Taoism. Buddhism won converts and was supported by most of the Tang rulers. Not all, as I’ll detail later. But Tang China was an important Buddhist centre for most of its neighbours. It was in Tang times that Japan imported many Chinese ideas, including the ‘Chan’ school of Buddhism, better known as Zen.

Japan imported only such ideas as suited Japan. Long after the assimilation of Buddhism and Chinese script, they were invaded twice by Kublai Khan and then tried their own invasion of Korea in the days of the Ming dynasty. But mostly Japan lived its own life, until the West in the shape of the USA’s Commodore Perry made it clear that this would not be allowed.

Western Tibet had also lived its own life. It must always have been known to its neighbours as a strange high impoverished land. But it first attracted wider attention after a ruler called Songtsan Gampo moved his capital to Lhasa and created a huge Tibetan empire.[A] By tradition he was the thirty third king of his dynasty, but these are thought to have been local rulers. Songtsan Gampo’s rule was something new and he came into collision with the newly founded Tang dynasty. The Tang were in some ways China’s high point, and their dominion lasted from the 7th to 10th centuries of the Christian era. They had replaced the short-lived Sui dynasty that re-unified the core of China after a long period of division when the Han Dynasty fell. Fringe areas they lost or gained intermittently throughout their rule.

A clash occurred in the reign of Emperor Taizong, second emperor in the Tang Dynasty. It occurred in what is currently the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, though Tibetans would view it as part of Amdo. After some ding-dong battles it was settled in fairly standard manner, by a treaty and a marriage. This is something you find all times and places when there are armies and powerful aristocratic families. The specific form was a marriage by the Tibetan king to a Chinese princess:

“Princess Wencheng (Tibetan: Mung-chang Kungco… (d. 680), was a niece of the powerful Emperor Taizong of Tang of Tang China, who left China in 640, according to records, arriving the next year in Tibet to marry the thirty-seven year old Songtsan Gampo (605?–650 CE) the thirty-third king of the Yarlung Dynasty of Tibet, in a marriage of state as part of a peace treaty along with large quantities of gold. She is popularly known in Tibet as Gyasa. The princess was a Buddhist and, along with Songtsan Gampo’s Nepalese wife, Bhrikuti Devi, is said to have introduced Buddhism to Tibet.

“The Chinese records mention receiving an envoy in 634 from Songtsan Gampo wherein the king requested (Tibetan sources say demanded) to marry a Chinese princess and was refused. In 635/636 the Tibetan king’s forces attacked and defeated the ‘A-zha people… along an important trade route into China. After a campaign against China in 635–6… the Chinese emperor agreed (under threat of force, according to Tibetan histories) to marry a Chinese princess to king Songtsan Gampo as part of the diplomatic settlement. As a marriage of state, the union must be considered a success as peace between China and Tibet prevailed for the remainder of Songtsen Gampo’s reign.

“Myths about Songtsan Gampo and his Chinese bride Wencheng that appeared around them during the Middle Ages transformed Songtsan Gampo into a cultural hero for Tibetans, based on his marriages. It is widely believed that his state marriages to Nepalese princess Bhrikuti and Chinese princess Wencheng brought Buddhism to Tibet, and further, that their complicated relationship as co-wives led to the construction of the Jokang Temple, whereupon the city of Lhasa.” [C]

Similar things happened in Europe, with pagan kingdoms being won over by foreign princesses and queens who brought their own religion with them. The Chinese princess was traditionally credited with having done this for Tibet and has a shrine in Lhasa, proof of the very ancient links.

It has also been suggested that the Nepali ‘wife’ was actually a goddess given a different role when Tibetan Buddhism later imported ideas from the Indian subcontinent. Legends do grow in telling and acquire new characters. In English traditions, Maid Marian is not present in the oldest surviving tales of Robin Hood. She may have been an independent character who was associated with Robin Hood because it added an interesting new dimension to what was otherwise a purely male adventure.

It is surprising that Nepal hadn’t had a significant influence earlier, being right next to Tibet and being another mountain kingdom. Lord Buddha stopped at the Himalayan watershed, as far as anyone can tell. Maybe Tibet’s rulers changed their minds when they found that everyone around them was Buddhist, apart from an expanding Islamic empire whose values they would have found very alien.

Trade must have been a factor. Tibet itself was not on any trade-route, it had trade in and out but the mountain barriers meant it had no transit trade, despite being the shortest route ‘as the crow flies’ between Eastern China and both Persia and North India. The ancient Silk Road ran north the Tibetan Plateau, which meant that a powerful Tibetan ruler was well placed either to protect it or to disrupt it. Though the total wealth and power of the Tang Empire was vastly greater, there were many other demands on that power. The Tibetan King controlled a vast thinly-populated territory and it must have been easier to work with him than against him. He became a nominal subordinate, ‘nephew’ with the Emperor as ‘uncle’, but only for as long as it suited him.

After the Total Warfare of the 20th century, it is easy to forget that most warfare for most of history has been limited and regulated, a quest for gold and glory. Sometimes annihilation is the aim, but not often. Pre-industrial wars are best thought of as Violent Direct Action, aimed at settling a particular point that’s in dispute. Often it was a private war with no intention of replacing or overthrowing the authority you are challenging. That was the relationship between the Tibetan Kings and the Tang Dynasty, small wars for limited aims.

The realm that we call China calls itself Chung Kuo, Zhongguo in the modern Pinyin system of Mandarin romanization. It often translated as Middle Kingdom, but ‘Central Realm’ might give a better sense of the term. The original meaning may have been the core of the Warring States that succeeded the Zhou Dynasty. This core was forcibly unified with the cruder and stronger periphery by the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, 2200 years ago. Not that he was ‘First Emperor’ in the sense of being wholly new: he was updating an Imperial ideal that was already very old, going back to the maybe-legendary Xia dynasty and the historic Shang and Zhou dynasties across at least fourteen centuries. The emperors of the later Han dynasty could present themselves as successors of this older tradition, even if in practice they accepted Qin innovations.

It is in the nature of a centre to have peripheries, which become larger as the centre itself expands. The Chinese Empire watched its peripheries, expanded into them when possible, which happened mostly in the west and especially the south. In the north there were dangerous nomads who could not be absorbed and could not be safely ignored. The mighty Han Dynasty drove out one group who are thought to have later turned up on the borders of the Roman Empire as the Huns. But the Han Dynasty in time fell to nomadic pressure and internal revolt, with the realm divided first into the ‘Three Kingdoms’ and then into smaller fragments. Not unlike the fate of the Roman Empire, but Chinese civilisation was more resilient and had nothing resembling the troublesome split of authority between Emperor and Pope that plagued Western Europe. The Chinese Empire was re-created by the Sui and Tang dynasties. The Tang in turn fell, with Tibetans among the raiders on the peripheries of the Empire. For its last thousand year, the Chinese Empire was mostly dominated by the peoples of its peripheries. Only under the Ming Dynasty did the centre entirely rule both itself and most of its peripheries.

Whoever ruled, Tibetans and related peoples were a part of it. Though not all Tibetans: the Tibetans of West Tibet, at least, had had little connection with the Chinese Empire before 1200 years ago – the era of Charlemagne and his immediate ancestors. As I mentioned earlier, it was Tibetans that made the connection, with a Lhasa-based Kingdom of Tibet intermittently attacking the Tang Empire while also accepting the formal status of a subordinate kingdom. Western Tibet for the past twelve hundred years has been peripheral to the Chinese Empire, but it was never separate. Never really sought separation until the British in India gave its rulers the idea. Chinese Emperors often chose to rule via local religious leaders, but if indirect rule negates sovereignty, then the Chinese Emperor didn’t really rule China either. The normal Chinese system was that the central government machine stopped at the level of the ‘County’ (Xian), with an appointed magistrate expected to work with powerful local families. In terms of wealth and population, Tibet was not much bigger than a Chinese county and much less populous than China’s various provinces.


The Slow Arrival of Buddhism

The role of religion in Tibet’s history is major, but it is also unclear. Those who wrote the histories were monks who had every reason to exaggerate the role of their own creed. It is definite that Buddhism, which began in North India around 500 years before Christ, took about a thousand years to become a significant influence in Tibet. The exact dates of Buddhism’s origins are uncertain: there was none of the Greek notion of exact history which must have influenced early Christianity. Siddhartha Gautama is said to have been born in what is now Nepal, but ‘achieved enlightenment’ at Bodh Gaya, which is now the Indian state of Bihar. His teachings spread throughout India and beyond, but made little impact on the Tibetan Plateau until it had spread all the way round East Asia.

I’ve always viewed Buddhism as a well-balanced creed, much better adjusted than Christianity or Islam. It is positive also in lacking the inherited inequalities of Hinduism. It’s a pity it never had a substantial presence in the West – but also possible that it was the imbalance and irrationality of mainstream Christianity that allowed a new pattern of thinking to emerge in the West. I’ll talk more about that later on. For now, my view is that Buddhism is less irrational than Christianity, but still with much superstition and absurdity. I’d also see the Tibetan sort as a decayed version with inflated claims to secret knowledge.

Buddhism in Tibet got its start when a Tibetan king decided to associate his realm with the Chinese Empire. To be exact, this was a king based in the Lhasa Valley, but whose power stretched much further. The oddity of Tibet is that huge barren lands are clustered around a fertile valley:

“The Tibet of popular imagination is that deep and fertile valley-trench that lies in a curve immediately behind the sweep of the Himalayas. Here, thickly crowded, is the life of the country, here are the famous Abbeys, and here the Supreme Holiness of Lhasa… The eastern fringe of that vast high tableland, however, is very much more vague.” [AX]

The Lhasa Valley as such was too remote from the core of Chinese power to be of much interest. But when it became part of a wider realm intruding on the Tang Emperor, that changed the name of the game. And Buddhism was a factor in the power-game: both the Tang Dynasty and the Tibetan Kingdom had a complex relationship with the spread of Buddhism. Different Chinese rulers supported, resented or ignored the creed, which had arrived in China via the Silk Road from Central Asia in the centuries before Islam, when Central Asia was a Buddhist stronghold. It existed and was officially accepted under the later emperors of the Han Dynasty. It seems to have flourished in the disorder after the fall of the Han Empire. One emperor of a minor dynasty, the Northern Zhou Dynasty, attacked both Buddhists and Taoists in 574 and again in 577, with little impact. The creed went on growing and was taken up by the Sui Dynasty when it re-unified China:

“Buddhism was popular during the Six Dynasties period that preceded the Sui dynasty, spreading from India through Kushan Afghanistan into China during the Late Han period. Buddhism gained prominence during the period, when central political control was limited. Buddhism created a unifying cultural force that uplifted the people out of war and into the Sui Dynasty. In many ways, Buddhism was responsible for the rebirth of culture in China under the Sui Dynasty.

“The Emperor Wen and his empress had converted to Buddhism to legitimate imperial authority over China and the conquest of Chen. Wendi presented himself as a Cakravartin king, a Buddhist monarch that would use military force to defend the Buddhist faith, much like the notion of Jihad in Islam. In the year 601 AD, Emperor Wen had relics of the Buddha distributed to temples throughout China, with edicts that expressed his goals, ‘all the people within the four seas may, without exception, develop enlightenment and together cultivate fortunate karma, bringing it to pass that present existences will lead to happy future lives, that the sustained creation of good causation will carry us one and all up to wondrous enlightenment’. Ultimately, this act was an imitation of the ancient Mauryan Emperor Ashoka of India.” [D]

The Tang Dynasty took over the Sui framework and most of its Emperors favoured Buddhism, though without rejecting other creeds. (I’ll mention the exceptions later on.) It briefly tried to be a defender of Buddhism against the spread of Islam:

“Throughout the first few decades of the eighth century, the small kingdoms of the Pamirs and beyond had looked to the Chinese to protect them. As the Moslems… crossed the steppe and pushed toward the Pamirs, princes from cities like Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, and Balkh pledged their loyalty to the Chinese emperor and begged for assistance… forces were sent to the aid of small countries on the main Buddhist pilgrim routes, which were being cut by rebel bands from the Tibetan Plateau…

“Allied with the Arabs were the Tibetans (the name itself was given them by the Arabs), who were ever more determined to burst out of the confines of their arid plateau wasteland and break Chinese power in Central Asia. These were joined by some of the Western Turks… In the summer of 751, the two sides met on the banks of the Talas River in northern Turkestan. There, in one of the most devastating defeats it had ever suffered, the Chinese army was broken… As the Tibetans moved across the Tarim… they brought with them their own Lamaist version of Buddhism, which now became widespread in Central Asia… The pilgrim routes to India were cut; trade… was much diminished in these unsettled times… In the same year as the Talas debacle, a Chinese army in the north was routed by a people known as the Khitan. Foreshadowing things to come, this was a tribe of Mongols, some of the earliest to push out of the north and bedevil the Chinese.” [AW]

That was the position when the Tang Emperor accepted the Tibetan King as a powerful neighbour who needed to be bribed with gifts, including a Chinese princess. I suspect also that Buddhism in the form it arrived from China was supportive of the idea of a powerful monarch, while the native Bon creed was much more anarchic. It may be significant that that the fragmented lordships of Kham in Eastern Tibet were also the main areas where the creed of Bon survived, albeit in a form influenced by mainstream Tibetan Buddhism.

But the influence was two-way. People living in Lhasa traded with people south of the Himalayan watershed, and must have known that an older and perhaps more authentic version of Buddhism could be found there. King Trisong Detsen, who ruled Tibet from 755 until 797 or 804 CE, established what became the standard Tibetan form of Buddhism, with many elements from India and also a great deal of the older Bon tradition.

Motives may have been political, since the Tibetan kings were often at war with the Chinese Emperor, while still being nominal vassals. The Kingdom of Tibet chose to define itself as part of ‘Zhongguo’, the wider Chinese political system that included territories where the Chinese central government had no real power. They even captured the Tang dynasty capital in 763, a move which has sometimes been interprereted as an attempt to hijack the entire Empire, much as the Liao and Jin managed for North China and the Manchus managed for both north and south. In the event the Tang recovered and the Tibetan Kingdom remained a rather disobedient subordinate.

There was also a continuous fight with the expanding forces of Islam. It was Muslims who seem to have first used the term ‘Tibet’ – the Tibetan’s own name is Bod:

“The English word Tibet, like the word for Tibet in most European languages, is derived from the Arabic word Tubbat. This word is derived via Persian from the Turkic word Tobad (plural of Toban), meaning ‘the heights’…

“The PRC’s Chinese name for Tibet, (Xizang), is a phonetic transliteration derived from the region called Tsang… The Chinese name originated during the Qing Dynasty of China, ca. 1700. It can be broken down into ‘xi’ (literally ‘west’), and ‘zàng’ (from Ü-Tsang, but also literally ‘Buddhist scripture,’ or ‘storage’ or possibly ‘treasure’.” [J]

Within Tibet, there was a continuing conflict between Tibetan Buddhism and Bon. Trisong Detsen’s grandson Ralpacan was the third of the three ‘Dharma Kings’ in Tibetan tradition. This same tradition says that after a successful reign he was murdered in 838 by pro-Bon ministers who replaced him with his brother Langdarma or Glang Darma. By this account, Langdarma persecuted Buddhists, and was eventually murdered in 841 by a Buddhist hermit. He was the last Tibetan King.[E]

Meantime the Tang Dynasty in its final days was briefly hostile to Buddhism. It’s a common feature of a state under pressure to have a sudden burst of religious extremism. Late Pagan Rome had just that, but failed to crush Christianity and chose instead to incorporate it. The newly Christianised Empire carried through what Late Paganism could not manage, rooting out all versions of Christianity that did not match the new Nicene Creed and did not fit the new Imperial structure. There were then further splits, officially over obscure points of theology but probably based on networks of loyalty and rivalry for control of the huge power and wealth of the official Christian Church. The biggest of these was Iconoclasm, a determination to purify Christianity of the use of images and in particular to ban icons, religious pictures that had come to be viewed in a very superstitious way. Byzantine Emperors who’d lost huge territories to early Islam decided that God must be angry with the near-worship of these images, a sharp contrast to the complete rejection of imagery by Islam. Iconoclasm began in 730 and ran till 787, and then a second bout from 814 to 842, caused by more military failures:

“Emperor Leo V the Armenian instituted a second period of Iconoclasm in 815, again possibly motivated by military failures seen as indicators of divine displeasure. The Byzantines had suffered a series of humiliating ..

“Soon after his accession, Leo V began to discuss the possibility of reviving iconoclasm with a variety of people, including priests, monks, and members of the senate. He is reported to have remarked to a group of advisors that ‘All the emperors, who took up images and venerated them, met their death either in revolt or in war; but those who did not venerate images all died a natural death, remained in power until they died, and were then laid to rest with all honors in the imperial mausoleum in the Church of the Holy Apostles’.” [G]

But the tide turned again. Orthodox Christianity triumphed in something like the form that now exists, with a vast mass of imagery. The Empire lasted several more centuries in this form.

In Tang China, religious disputes also occurred, though they were nothing like as severe. A movement for purification of faith turned into a general attack on Buddhism by an Emperor who favoured Taoism. He banned Buddhism in 845-6, trying to uproot the creed. His successor reversed this, but the damage to other creeds may have been decisive:

“In addition to Buddhism, Wuzong persecuted other foreign religions as well. He all but destroyed Zoroastrianism and Manichaeanism in China, and his persecution of the growing Nestorian Christian churches sent Chinese Christianity into a decline from which it never recovered.

“Chinese records state Zoroastrianism and Christianity were regarded as heretical forms of Buddhism, and were included within the scope of the edicts.

“According to the report prepared by the Board of Worship, there were 4,600 monasteries, 40,000 hermitages (places of retreat), 260,500 monks and nuns. By the edict of AD 845 all these monasteries were abolished with very few exceptions. When the monasteries were broken up the images of bronze, silver or gold were to be handed over to the government. [F]

Henry 8th of England was only one of many rulers who saw the merits of plundering rich religious institutions that in many cases were also corrupt. Of course they could also be regenerated in a purified form and this happened in China after Emperor Wuzong died in 846. The Wikipedia entry includes a suggestion that he was killed off by Taoist elixirs of life he was consuming. Conventional poisoning also strikes me as another possibility. Still, elixirs including dangerous stimulants are a continuous medical peril. The superstitious belief that liquid mercury with its quasi-living appearance was an aid to longer life may have done great damage over the centuries. Mercury is in fact a mild poison, much more severe if heated and vaporised, but likely to produce dementia and death if used as an elixir over a long period. It may also have killed the First Qin Emperor, the fellow responsible for the famous Terracotta Army and whose not-so-far-opened tomb was said to have the seas represented with lakes of mercury.

However it happened, Buddhism survived and flourished in China, but in partnership with Taoism and Confucianism among the Han majority. Confucianism was the main creed of the government officials, and Confucianism had control of the most respected forms of education. That’s a significant difference from much of Asia and also Europe before modern times, places where education was mainly or wholly controlled by the major religion.

It was also common for religious institutions to become wealthy enough and powerful enough to be of interest to those who felt nothing for the creed as such. That was true in mediaeval Europe and most of mediaeval Asia: I think it was much less true in the Han heartlands of China.

Meantime Tibet was once again without a central government, and was going off in a different direction.


Tibet Vanishes From World History

Pre-industrial states were generally small unstable entities that lived by drawing wealth from trade or agriculture. The Tibetan plateau was enough of a barrier to ensure that international trade flowed round it. Tibetan goods flowed into the international trade in luxuries and they bought some goods from outside, especially tea from Sichuan. But none of this was important enough to interest any outside powers If Tibet was fragmented and concerned only with its own affairs, the rulers of China would have seen no reason to concern themselves with more than nominal overlordship.

The fall of the Tang Dynasty was followed by a re-growth of several states within its former territory. The Sung Dynasty – also known as Song Dynasty – held the core territories, but never managed to get control of the peripheries. The Red River Valley, an outlying Chinese province under the Han and Tang, set itself up as an independent state – the roots of what later became Vietnam. To the north-west of the Sung there was a state commonly known as Western Xia, though it called itself ‘The Great State of the White and the Lofty’. This is sometimes identified as a hybrid of Tibetans and other peoples, but other sources say that it was Tangut, a people related to the Tibetans but distinct from them.

Much more significant for world history were the nomads to the north of China’s Han core. The Han and Tang had mostly overawed them and kept them under control. The Sung fought many border wars, and developed gunpowder weapons in the course of these wars. The advantage was short-lived: the nomads soon learned how to make gunpowder as well.

The upshot two waves of nomads who swept over North China and became rulers. First the Liao, founded by the Khitan people from what later became Mongolia, though the Mongols then were just a small tribe. Then the Kin from what later became Manchuria: the Jurchen tribes who centuries later created the Manchu tribal alliance counted the Kin as ancestors. The Sung Dynasty lost some of its northern territories to the Liao, then lost a great deal more when they tried to use the Kin as allies against the Liao. The Sung were pushed back south towards the Yangtze, which was a formidable military barrier. The river kept them safe in a reduced South Sung realm that was still one of the richest and most populous states in the world.

No one has any clear idea of what was happening in Western Tibet during all this time. This is not so unusual: we also have little idea what happened in Britain between Late Roman era and the unification of what became England by the Kingdom of Wessex. Most of what we think we know comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a document which happened to survive and be copied because the English monarchy found it interesting.

As far as anyone can tell, Tibet was a set of local lordships, often dominated by its monasteries. Anything that’s not written down is likely to be forgotten in a century or two. What was written reflects those who can hire scholars and copy their works. All of it is biased: the problem for historians is to figure out how biased. And many events don’t get recorded, or not in manuscripts that survive. Silence is a common fate and applied to Western Tibet in this period.


The Holy Mongol Empire

Islam, Europe’s Crusades, the Mongol Empire, the Taipings in 19th century China and the Saudi dynasty in 20th century Arabia are all examples of a mixed religious-military movement. So too was the Puritan side in the British Wars of the 17th century. (It was much more than an English Civil War, with the Scottish Presbyterians playing a crucial role and control of mostly-Catholic Ireland a vital issue.) The Mongols did not found their own religion or sect, but religion was there in the beginning:

“He [Genghis Khan] seems unlike all earlier nomad warlords. Chinghis genuinely believed he had a mission to conquer the world. Conquest, not booty or settlement, was his aim and what he conquered he often set about organizing in a systematic way. This led to a structure which deserves the name ’empire’ more than do most of the nomadic polities. He was superstitious, tolerant of religions other than his own paganism, and, said a Persian historian, ,used to hold in esteem beloved and respected sages and hermits of every tribe, considering this a procedure to please God’. Indeed, he seems to have held that he was himself the recipient of a divine mission.” [K]

People think of the Mongol Empire as the personal work of Genghis Khan, but I doubt it. There’s lots of evidence that he was just a gifted leader who emerged from a much wider social movement. He was never entirely dominant, he lost many battles during his rise to power and tended to recover by superior political skills. Before than, when he was a minor chieftain, his wife was kidnapped and had a son of uncertain parentage, whom Genghis never the less accepted as one of his four main heirs. Probably his power was always dependent on a wider circle of supporters. Even the succession was not smooth: he nominated his third son Ogedei but there had to be a grand gathering and an election before Ogedei actually became Khan. Later successions were much messier, basically ending with Khubilai Khan, whose had to fight a civil war with his Mongolia-based younger brother and who was never accepted as legitimate by many of the Mongol princes.

Nor was Genghis’s rise an isolated event. Other nomadic leaders were emerging at the time, and it may be largely chance that he won out and pitched the united force of nomads against the wider world. Religion played a role, though it was a crude superstitious creed that we call Shamanism. Genghis had been aided by one family of shamans, but this led onto a head-on confrontation to settle where the real power lay:

“During these years many of the Mongols fell under the influence of Teb Tenggeri, the shaman, Munglik’s youngest son. The people were richer now, and had more leisure time to think of spirits and such things, instead of placating them as far as custom demands and then forgetting them, as wiser men do. Teb Tenggeri was famous for his supernatural powers. He was believed to ride a horse into the skies to talk with spirits…

“The seven sons of the thoughtful Father Munglik, the seven young princes of the Qongqotadai, lacked their father’s wisdom. They were restless and ambitious. One day, having had some argument with Kasar [Genghis’s younger brother], they surrounded him and not only treated him with disrespect, but handled him roughly.

“Kasar, astonished and aggrieved, went to complain to Temujin [Genghis, Temujin being his original name], expecting to be granted permission to take his revenge on the Qongqotadai; but Temujin had grown suspicious of his powerful brother, and heard him without sympathy. Kasar went away to sulk in his own tent.

“Temujin himself stood in awe of Teb Tenggeri. Having fulfilled so many earthly ambitions, he was greatly concerned at this time, and during his later years, with the meaning of life, and the relations between men and the higher powers of Heaven.” [K]

Teb Tenggeri managed for a time to turn the Khan against this brother, though their mother managed to moderate the quarrel. But there was a further quarrel with Otchigin, another of Temujin’s younger brothers:

“The influence of Teb Tenggeri the shaman continued to grow. He held assemblies, at which he worshiped the spirits and was visited by them. Great crowds of people attended these, and many from the Khan’s auruq began to slip off to them. Some of Otchigin’s men went without leave; he went his messenger Sokhor to call them back. Teb Tenggeri had Sokhor beaten, tied his saddle on his back, and sent him home on foot.

“Prince Otchigin went himself to call his people back. The Qongqotadai threatened him with physical violence unless he knelt to apologise to them.

“Otchigin went the next morning early to Temujin, while he was still in bed. He knelt and told the Khan how he had been treated.

“Berta [Genghis’s wife] sat up in bed, covering her breasts with the blanket. ‘The Qongqotadai grow too great’ she said. ‘Lately they fell on Kasar and beat him; now they make Otchigin kneel before them. How will this end? Will you let your brothers be destroyed? They stand about you like trees in a forest. If they fall, how will your own body, the tallest tree of all, be saved from falling also?’…

“The Khan said to Otchigin: ‘When Teb Tenggeri comes, you may treat him as you choose.’

“On the next visit of Teb Tenggeri and the Qongqotadai to the auruq, Otchigin waited until the shaman, his brothers and their father Munglik were all in the palace yurt [tent] of the Khan, then went up to him.

“‘Lately you forced me to apologise to you’ he said. ‘Now we will measure ourselves against each other.’

“He pulled Teb Tenggeri by his coat collar towards the door. The shaman clutched at Otchigin, grasping his collar; they struggled with each other…

“The Khan was alarmed for his own safety. It was clear that a general brawl was about to break out.

“‘Go outside, and measure your strength there,’ he commanded.

“Otchigin had stationed three strong men of his bodyguard outside the tent. The moment Otchigin and Teb Tenggeri, obeying the Khan’s command, came out, they seized Teb Tenggeri, broke his back and flung his body into a corner…

“The roof-opening of the tent in which Teb Tenggeri’s body lay had been fastened, and the door securely tied; but on the third day, so it is said, the roof-hole opened of itself, and the body disappeared though it, up to Heaven. It is certain that it vanished without trace, and was never found.

“Genghis Khan had his judgement on this matter proclaimed to the people.

“‘Because Teb Tenggeri treated my brothers with disrespect, and incited bad feeling against them, Heaven looked on him with disfavour. It has taken away his body as well as his life’…

“From this time on, the influence of the Qongqotadai waned. The priests of the different persuasions, shamans, Buddhists, Christians and Moslems were given equal freedom to work among the Khan’s people, and make their versions of the truth known; but none of them was allowed to jeopardise the position of the Khan’s family, or the security of his power. [L]

All of this happened before the Mongols conquered the Jin Empire in North China, their first major advance. The account I’ve quoted is a retelling by R. P. Lister of the Mongol chronicle, The Secret History of the Mongols. As Lister says in his introduction, the original in English translation is virtually unreadable. It was no public history, but seems to have been a private account intended just for the Mongol princes. Teb Tenggeri vanishing on the third day could be a garbled Christian influence, it’s hard to be sure. We hear the story from historians employed by the winning side, most of the time. There’s an outside chance that the religious movement among Mongols was a potential new world religion that was hijacked by its followers among the traditional aristocracy. What’s more likely is that a faction of shamans was in alliance with warrior-aristocrats, seeking to work with them rather than replace them. What’s definite is that they got pushed to one side.

Even though many observers saw something religious about the Mongol expansion, it could not be said to be an actual religious empire. Genghis and his heirs sought out religious figures from various traditions who could validate their rule. Tibet with its well-established Buddhist power was one element and one they got control of. But this seems to have happened via their conquest and control of North China, where they got drawn into religious disputes:

“Power, not ideology, motivated the struggle between the Buddhists and the Taoists in the 1250s. A variety of different Taoist sects, as many as eighty-one by one account, had proliferated, stretching all the way from the ascetic Ch’uan-chen order to the more worldly Cheng-i sect, which emphasised fortune telling, astrology and magic. Some of them clearly lusted after worldly gains and access to political power, desires that placed them on a direct collision course with the Buddhist sects.” [N]

Most Westerners know Daoism (Taoism) as a very unworldly creed, linked with mystical fortune-telling and the ‘Book of Changes’. This version is actually just one small part of an ancient and complex creed, one which never had a single central authority. A lot of Taoist sects were worldly enough to get into a squabble with Buddhists, who themselves were very diverse and sometimes corrupt. It was in this context that Tibet became significant to the Mongols:

“A new element, the Tibetan Buddhists, contributed to the developing controversy and hostility. During Mongke’s reign [Monge or Monke, grandson of Genghis and elder brother of Kublai Khan], a growing number of Tibetan Buddhists started to appear in North China. In 1252, Mongol troops, under orders from the Great Khan, had invaded Tibet and had finally pacified that land. In Tibet, lamas had been politically involved, often seeking and securing assistance form the political authorities in disputed with the native Bon shamanists. Once they had overcome the shamanists, the lamas themselves frequently acted as secular governors within their jurisdiction. To rule effectively over their people, they had incorporated some Bon beliefs into their version of Buddhism, introducing a strong element of magic. Though the ideology of their Tantaric form of Buddhism was difficult to explain, its mysticism, magic, and astrology were appealing to ordinary people. The lama’s claims of magical abilities in particular attracted the Mongols, who favoured religions with tangible benefits or noticeable, awesome powers. The lamas’ experience in Tibet, which had instilled in them an appreciation of the role of politics in religious disputes, made them valuable allies for the Chinese Buddhists.

“Thus the stage was set for the Buddhist-Taoist struggle under the Mongols. Both groups sought supremacy and both were willing to appeal to the secular authorities for assistance…

“The Taoists had taken the offensive by affirming… [that] the Taoist sage Lao Tzu had died not in China but in the Western Regions, which in this case refers to India…. he became known as the Buddha and started to propagate the teaching of Buddhism… In effect, the Buddhist sutras derived from Taoist writings… Buddhism was a simple and corrupted form of Taoism, developed by Lao Tzu to appeal to the less sophisticated foreigners in the West, and that Taoism was superior to and more significant than Buddhism. Naturally the Buddhists found it most offensive.” [N]

Most faiths like to see the broad spectrum of alternative creeds as an imperfect version of their own beliefs. Mainstream Christianity stands almost alone in having insisted for most of its history that all rival religions are evil and deserve to be stamped out. But even a struggle for superiority can get vicious. Buddhist accounts claimed there had been seizures and destructions of Buddhist holy places by Taoists. There were also fierce debates, in which Kublai the future Khan took part as regional ruler. He seems to have been convinced of Buddhist claims by the discovery that the two documents that Taoists claimed as proof that Lao Tzu was Buddha had not been mentioned in a first-century Chinese history and were probably forgeries.[P]

Mongol control of Tibet had developed gradually. On the map it might seem a route to India, but in practice it never has been, though many invaders of India have come via what is now Afghanistan. India was never a Mongol target, though the later Mughul Dynasty conquered it. The Mongols under Genghis had conquered North China, ruled by the Jin Dynasty and by the Sung Dynasty before them. The Sung Dynasty held out in South China, and another reason for the Mongol interest in Tibet was as a possible back-door, perhaps via Yunnan. The Mongols meantime destroyed the Tangut Empire or Western Xia, which controlled important trade routes. They were reuniting territories that the Tang Dynasty had ruled, and the Han Dynasty centuries before that. But they also ruled huge territories far to the west, and did not make any claims to be a new Chinese dynasty until part-way through the reign of Kublai Khan.


Tibet and Kublai Khan

Thanks to Marco Polo, Kublai is almost as famous as his grandfather Genghis. He wasn’t originally the heir, just the regional ruler of conquered North China and it surrounding territories. His later claim to be Great Khan was irregular: he and his younger brother had both been set up as Great Khan after the death of their elder brother Monge. Kublai won, but a lot of the Mongols princes did not see him as legitimate. His power-base was North China and he found it convenient to adapt. He later managed to conquer South China and extinguish the Sung Dynasty. In theory he was Universal Ruler; in reality the Mongol Empire had fragmented and Kublai’s fragment was Zhongguo, the Han core and its various fringe territories, including Tibet. Tibet had already been pulled somewhat into the Mongol orbit:

“Tibetans learned in 1207 that Genghis Khan was conquering the Tangut empire [Western Xia]. The first documented contact between the Tibetans and the Mongols occurred when Genghis Khan met Tsangpa Dunkhurwa… and six of his disciples, probably in the Tangut empire, in 1215.

“After the death of Genghis Khan in 1227, his extensive empire was divided between several brothers and the Tibetans stopped sending tribute to the Mongol Empire. At the end of the 1230s, the Mongols turned their attention to Tibet. At that time, Mongol armies had already conquered Northern China, much of Central Asia, and were operating in Russia and what is now Ukraine. The Tibetan nobility, however, was fragmented and mainly occupied with internal strife. It was essentially a feudal society composed of numerous principalities constantly at war with one another.

“As a result, in 1240, the grandson of Genghis Khan and second son of Ogedei Khan, Prince Godan… invaded Tibet. It is also said that after the Mongol Godan took control of the Kokonor region in 1239, he sent his general, Doorda Darqan, on a reconnaissance mission into Tibet in 1240 to investigate the possibility of attacking Song China from the west. During this expedition the Kadampa monasteries of Rwa-sgreng and Rgyal-lha-khang were burned and 500 people were killed. However, the death of Ogedei the Mongol Qaghan in 1241 brought Mongol military activity around the world temporarily to a halt.

“Prince Godan asked his commanders to search for an outstanding Buddhist lama and, as Sakya Pandita was considered the most religious, Godan sent a letter of ‘invitation’ and presents to him.

“Mongol interest in Tibet resumed in 1244 when Godan sent an invitation to Bengali scholar Sakya Pandita, the leader of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, to come to his capital and formally surrender Tibet to the Mongols. Sakya Pandi’ta arrived in Kokonor with his two nephews … in 1246. Prince Godan received various initiation rites and the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism became the religion of the ruling line of Mongol khans. In return, after a second Mongol invasion in 1247 led to the submission of almost all Tibetan states, Sakya Pandita was appointed Viceroy of Tibet by the Mongol court in 1249, marking one of the occasions on which the Chinese base their claim to the rule of Tibet.

“On the other hand, because the Song Dynasty of China in South China had not yet been conquered by the Mongols, Tibetan historians argue that China and Tibet remained two separate units within the Mongol Empire. It may therefore be more accurate to describe this process as first North China, and then Tibet being incorporated into the Mongol Empire, which later inherited by the Yuan Dynasty founded by Kublai Khan in 1271, one of its four descendant empires, which then conquered South China by annihilating the Southern Song Dynasty in 1279.

“As efforts to rule both territories while preserving Mongol identity, Kublai Khan prohibited Mongols from marrying Chinese, but left both the Chinese and Tibetan legal and administrative systems intact. Though most government institutions established by Kublai Khan in his court were either same or resemble the ones in earlier Chinese dynasties, Tibet never adopted the imperial examinations or Neo-Confucian policies.

“When Mongke became Qaghan in 1251, he assigned the various districts of Tibet as appanages to his relatives. Kublai Khan was appointed by Mongke Khan to take charge over the Chinese campaigns in 1253. Since Sakya Pandit’ta had already died by this time, Kublai took … Phagpa into his camp as a symbol of Tibet’s subjugation. After the death of Sakya Pandita, Phagpa remained at the camp of Prince Godan and learned Mongolian language.

“In 1253, Phagpa (1235-1280) succeeded Sakya Pandita at the Mongol court. Phagpa became a religious teacher to Goden Khan’s famous successor, Kublai Khan. Kublai Khan named Phagpa the Imperial Preceptor of Tibet, offering him the rule of all Tibet…

“Through their influence with the Mongol rulers, Tibetan lamas gained considerable influence in various Mongol clans, not only with Kublai, but, for example, also with the Il-Khanids. Kublai’s success in succeeding Mongke as Great Khan meant that after 1260, Phagpa and the House of Sakya would only wield greater influence. Phagpa became head of all Buddhist monks in the Yuan empire, and Sakya would become the administrative center of Tibet. Tibet would also enjoy a rather high degree of autonomy compared to other parts of the Yuan empire, though further expeditions took place in 1267, 1277, 1281 and 1290/91. Kublai Khan commissioned … Phagpa to design a new writing system to unify the writing of the multilingual Mongolian Empire. … Phagpa in turn modified the traditional Tibetan script and gave birth to a new set of characters called Phagspa script which was completed in 1268. Kublai Khan decided to use the Phagspa script as the official writing system of the empire, including when he became Emperor of China in 1271, instead of the Chinese ideograms and the Uyghur script. However, he encountered major resistances and difficulties when trying to promote this script and never achieved his original goal… The script fell into disuse after the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368. The script was, though never widely, used for about a century and is thought to have influenced the development of modern Korean script.” [M]

Secular rulers usually see religion as both useful and dangerous. It can make their subjects more obedient, but it can also be a reason for rebellion. It was perhaps convenient for Kublai and his heirs to give the highest official honours to lamas in distant Tibet, rulers who were mostly interested in dominating their immediate neighbours. I’m not saying it was a fraud, there was a lot of genuine religious feeling and religious tradition. But it was useful to choose the most distant power when choosing between rival religious authorities. Tibetans were not the military power that they had been 500 years ago. Religion had tamed the society, and life there may also have been much poorer and more marginal than it had been, thanks to the drying-up of Central Asia as a whole.

But as I said earlier, Mongol interest in Tibet arose from their conquest of China’s Han core. They formed part of a single subunit while the entire Empire was united. That different rules were used to administer it is hardly odd: that remained the case whenever Western Tibet had a single ruler answerable to the Chinese central government. The system even continued under Mao till 1959, when the Lhasa government ran away to India after a failed revolt. While the rest of China got a racial land reform, Western Tibet had continued with little change until the 1959 revolt.

Back in the 13th century, Kublai failed to become a real Great Khan; the distant Il-Khans recognised him as a nominal overlord, but his relatives in Central Asia and in the Golden Horde acted as independent rulers and he could not defeat them. Since Han China was in practice his power-base, he decided to make himself its official rulers by Han custom. Chinese political theory allowed anyone to become lawful ruler of Zhongguo, the Central Realm. If they triumphed they were assumed to possess the ‘Mandate of Heaven’, whatever their origin. Kublai Khan chose to set himself up as Emperor of China, rather than a Mongol conqueror. He chose as his capital a place he called Daidu, but which is now Beijing. It had been one of the capitals of the overthrown Jin Dynasty and remained the capital for most of the rest of Chinese history. Later attempts to move the capital south to Nanjing on the Yangtze proved short-lived.

Some Chinese historians, then and now, chose to treat Kublai’s Yuan Dynasty as beginning with his grandfather Genghis. My own view is that this makes no more sense that counting Hitler as having been President of Poland. The early Mongols saw North China a conquered territory. The story that they planned to kill all the inhabitants and turn the land back to pastoralism seems to be an historic myth, but they didn’t at first care much for the culture. Kublai did, and also saw the usefulness of being seen to have the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ by Chinese officials. He had become Mongol Khan in 1260, but was in practice ruler just of the eastern part of it. He made himself Emperor in 1271, while conquering South China, the realm of the exiled Sung Dynasty. The Sung are viewed as having been extinguished in 1279.

It could have been different. Between 1260 and 1264, Kublai fought and won a civil was with his younger brother Arigh Bukha, who had been elected Great Khan by a rival assembly when their elder brother Monke died. Arigh Bukha was viewed as an upholder of tradition and would probably not have revived the Chinese Empire. Tibet, North China and South China might have gone their separate ways and perhaps never have had a single ruler again. Or had Monke lived longer, he might have kept the Mongol Empire together and Chinese imperial traditions would have been interrupted, perhaps never starting again. History is full of might-have-beens.

What South China might have become if it had held out remains unknown: it seems an historic accident that the Mongols conquered all China while only conquering the mostly-Russian east of Europe. Middle-Europe – Europe between Austria and the eastern flanks of the Carpathians – was raided and damaged but not permanently occupied. Western Europe was the only major civilised area in those centuries that avoided being overrun by the nomadic horsemen who were the world’s most efficient warriors in the pre-industrial world. These super-vandals at various times raided and conquered every other centre of Old World civilisation in the last thousand years. South China they overran twice, Mongol and Manchu. North China they overran four times, Mongol and Manchu plus the Liao and Jin.

The net result of the various accidents of Mongol battles, deaths and successions was to leave Western Europe unharmed, to damage Middle Europe, to subject Russia to the ‘Tartar Yolk’ and to end the interesting independent development of South China. And it also made Tibet much more definitely a part of Zhongguo, the Chinese Realm. The link was helped by a unique political arrangement that Kublai Khan invented and which was the model for the later rule of the Dalai Lamas.


The First Ruling Lamas

Kublai Khan had grand ambitions, probably too many for a monarch whose resources were vast but not unlimited. His greatest need was to crush the Mongols of Central Asia and make them accept him as Great Khan. Instead he wasted resources in attempts to conquer Japan, which was doing him no harm and could have been left alone. Likewise he struck at Burma and Annam, and even as far south as Java. He was trying to conquer everything in sight and did not build a solid base of power: his dynasty outlasted him by less than a century. Still, he did leave a grand name behind him, and for some rulers that matters more.

One of his non-military projects was a universal writing system that was intended to unify his various subjects, the system devised by the Tibetan sage that I mentioned earlier. This was preferred to an existing system in the Chinese ideograms, which are based on meaning rather than sound, and are hard to learn. There was also an alphabetic Uighur script that had been imperfectly adapted to Mongolian, but this had its limits:

“The Uighur script did not transcribe the sounds of the Mongolian language with great precision, blurring distinctions between sounds and sometimes representing dissimilar sounds with the same symbol… The Uighur script was simply unsuitable for the accurate transcription of Chinese, it lacked some of the sounds of Chinese…

“Within a few years after granting the ‘Phago-pa lama a state title and a position, Kublai assigned the Tibetan lama the task of creating a new script. Working with other monks and scholars, the ‘Phago-pa lama devised an alphabet that he presented to the Great Khan in 1269… based upon Tibetan, consisted of forty-one letters, many of which were square in shape… It has been described as ‘a Tibetan alphabet adapted to the requirements of Mongol phonetics… It could more accurately reflect the sounds of other languages, including Chinese, in Khubilai’s realm.” [Q]

Tibet’s alphabet had been adapted from North India alphabets centuries before, and remains in use. (Those North India alphabets were themselves descendants of the Canaanite alphabet that also gave rise to the Greek alphabet and Latin alphabet.) The new ‘universal’ script was never popular and mostly died out after the Yuan Dynasty fell. There is a disputed claim it influenced the later Korean ‘Hangul’ alphabet, the official script of both North Korea and South Korea, but otherwise it vanished without trace.[BD] It was maybe lucky for China that it stuck to ideograms, since many modern Han Chinese speak ‘dialects’ that are effectively separate languages. They cannot understand each other’s speech, but all of them use the same ideographic script and can read each other’s writings. The ‘universal script’ would have ruined that, but it probably mattered more that the ideograms were ancient and respected, very hard to displace.

Of more lasting significance was Kublai’s decision to set up the ‘Phago-pa lama as his major representative in Western Tibet. The man was also given the title ‘Imperial Preceptor’, but that didn’t make him or his successors anything more than superior servants dependant on the good-will of the Khan / Emperor:

“In 1280, the ‘Phago-pa lama died at the relatively young age of forty-five, from no discernable cause. The leaders of the Sa-skya accused the dpon-chen [civilian administrator] of poisoning the lama, first imprisoning him, and then had him executed. Khubilai provided the expenses for the burial of this loyal lama, and built a stupa in his honour. In 1281, he appointed the ‘Phago-pa lama’s thirteen-year-old nephew Dharmapalaraksita as Imperial Preceptor, and peace temporarily reigned over the land.

“Yet the animosity towards he Mongols would resurface. Some of the Buddhist sects had been highly critical of the ‘Phago-pa lama’s close relationship with the Mongols. Dharmapalaraksita, who, since infancy had resided at the Mongol court, was even more offensive to them because of his intimate involvement with Khubilai and his people. Khubilai’s choice of a boy who had been brought up at the Mongol court as ruler of Tibet showed poor political judgement. Dharmapalaraksita would be a visible and intrusive presence in a land that he hardly knew… ‘Bri-gung, one of these hostile sects, capitalized on the animosity towards the new ‘alien’ Imperial Preceptor to rebel. In 1285, troops from ‘Bri-gung started to lay siege to the monasteries of other sects… Khubilai recognises that he needed to act decisively to crush the rebellion before it seriously challenged his authority in Tibet. A punitive force… by 1290 had destroyed the ‘Bri-gung monastery, killing 10,000 men in the process.” [R]

So much for the notion that the official position of ‘Imperial Preceptor’ was on a level with the Emperor. It was nothing like the European relationship between Pope and Holy Roman Emperor, chosen separately by different electors and often at odds with each other. More like the relationship between the monarchs of England and the Archbishops of Canterbury, senior religious figures but still subjects of the ruler, or occasionally rebels against him or contributors to a civil war.

In mediaeval Tibet, the Sakya or Sa-skya lamas ruled for another 75 years, being overthrown by Tibetan rebels ten years before the Yuan dynasty itself fell. They continued as lamas, and indeed the line is still around today, though currently in exile. Unlike the line of the Dalai Lamas, they make no claim to be the same person re-incarnated. Instead the honour is confined to male members of a particular family, meaning that all other lineages had an interest in ganging up on them when they tried to be rulers of Western Tibet.


Ming Without Walls

The Ming Dynasty was founded by a Han Chinese and former Buddhist monk after the overthrow of the Yuan dynasty. It came into existence in tough times – the famous conqueror Timur (‘Tamurlane’) was their neighbour in the west, controlling the Central Asian end of the Silk Road. But the Ming had the enormous power of Chinese civilisation behind them, and actually imposed a kind of vassalage on Timur, even while he raided and ruined his mostly-Muslim neighbours. Timur took a very modest attitude to Ming China until almost the end of his life, when he set out to conquer China, but died before he had got very far. Timur may have sensed weakness when there was a Ming civil war after the death of their first Emperor. But by the time Timur set off with the intention of conquering China, the war was ended and the formidable Yongle Emperor was on the throne.

Timur’s death is generally viewed as natural, the result of stress for a elderly man. I myself can’t help wondering if some previously-loyal followers decided the enterprise was doomed and should be stopped before too much of the realm’s strength was lost.   That’s speculation: what’s definite is that when Timur died the expedition was abandoned and his heirs had their own civil war. They didn’t challenge Ming China again and seem to have been vassals of a sort.

A recent BBC program about the Forbidden City in Beijing dealt with the life of this Yongle Emperor, but never mentioned that he had Timur for a neighbour. In assessing his role in history, it’s surely relevant to note that the Yongle Emperor kept at bay the man who humiliated the Ottoman Sultan and the Sultan’s Serbian wife, the man who fatally damaged the Golden Hoard in what became Russia and who greatly weakened the Muslim rulers of North India by his sack of Delhi. It was this same Yongle Emperor who also organised the famous expeditions into the Indian Ocean and as far as East Africa, using ships better than those of the later European explorers. (I am aware of the additional claims made in a book called 1421, but I do not believe them. [T])

The Ming policy towards Tibet was rather vague, perhaps because Tibet was fragmented at the time. A lot of important Tibetans were happy to acknowledge the Ming Emperor as their superior and to receive charters of office from him. There was not however any officially recognised ruler of Tibet. Perhaps it suited the Ming to settle for nominal obedience from a gaggle of small rulers. They had many other concerns, including a war in Vietnam which they eventually lost. Their defeat in Vietnam contributed to the closing-down of their overseas voyages, their attempt to control the South Seas and the Indian Ocean beyond that.

The Mongols remained the big danger. The first and second Ming Emperors were based in Nanjing on the Yangtze in the middle of China. The Yongle Emperor moved the capital back to Beijing, in part because the north had been his original power-base. But it was also invaders from the north who were the only power likely to conquer China after the threat from Timur ended. Vietnam was content to live its own life and direct its aggression towards its own southern neighbours – what’s now Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City was originally part of the Cambodian Empire. Vietnam became a nominal vassal of Ming China on the understanding that there would be no actual control, a relationship that continued under the Manchu dynasty and lasted till the 19th century, when the invading French forced the Vietnamese Emperor to officially cut ties. Something similar may have existed with Korea, though in this case the aggressor was Japan. 17th century Japan tried to conquer Korea and the Ming Chinese sent armies to fight off a venture that planned to conquering China too in the longer term. Japan then retreated into isolation, was forced out again and in the 19th century renewed the strategy, winning a complex three-way struggle between Koreans who looked to China, to Japan or to independence.

Tibet seems to have been pretty much ignored by the Ming, so long as at least some of its various rival rulers offered a nominal submission. It has been claimed that the Yongle Emperor wanted a system like the one Kublai established:

“Yongle invited Deshin Shekpa, the fifth Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, to visit China – apparently after having a vision of Avalokitesvara. After a journey of over two years, Deshin Shekpa arrived in Nanjing on 17th May, 1408 riding on an elephant, at the imperial palace, where tens of thousands of monks greeted him.

“He convinced the emperor that there are different religions for different people and that does not mean that one is better than the other. The Karmapa was very well received in China and a number of miraculous occurrences are reported he also performed ceremonies for the emperor’s family. The emperor presented him with 700 measures of silver objects and bestowed the title of ‘Precious Religious King, Great Loving One of the West, Mighty Buddha of Peace’.

“Aside from the religious matters, the Emperor wished to establish an alliance with the Karmapa similar to the one the Yuan (1277-1367) rulers had established with the Sakyapa. He apparently offered to send armies to unify Tibet under the Karmapa but Deshin Shekpa refused this rather un-Buddhist offer.” [S]

Later Ming emperors had smaller ambitions. They suffered a disastrous defeat in what was meant to be a punitive expedition into Mongolia. The Zhengtong Emperor – great-grandson of Yongle – was captured by the Mongols in 1446, then later released and managed to become Emperor again. This was the context in which the Ming rebuilt the Great Wall, or rather built their own Great Wall that was well to the south of the Qin Dynasty wall. No two dynasties chose the same lines for the wall and it was at all times a flexible defence.

The Ming Dynasty lasted 276 years, but increasingly lost control of the fringes of Zhongguo. The Great Wall was not such a bad an idea, given the loss of control and the inability to mount ‘punitive expeditions’ without disaster. It’s not usually mentioned that no foreign foe ever broke through the Ming Great Wall. The Manchu or Quin Dynasty were let through a major pass in the wall, at a time when loyalties were uncertain after Han rebels captured Beijing and drove the last Ming Emperor to suicide.


Manchus: the Last Ruling Fringelanders

Manchus were a people defined by a state. A state that blended Mongol, Han and Jurchen peoples in the area later known as Manchuria. A warlike state whose rulers had always planned to become the next Emperors of China, given the visible decline of the once-mighty Ming. They were let through the Great Wall on the pretext of punishing the rebels who had captured Beijing and destroyed the Ming ruling line. But there were enough distant relatives for a Southern Ming to be set up. The Manchus found it expedient to create the ‘Three Feudatories’, three generals set up as autonomous rulers in South China, including the man who had opened the Great Wall to them. They entered North China in 1644, but it was only with the capture of Taiwan in 1683 that they snuffed out the last major opposition. The story of how pro-Ming warriors threw the Dutch off Taiwan and settled it with Han is an epic in itself, but peripheral to Tibet. But it was the context in which the Manchu Dynasty did their deal with the Fifth Dalai Lama, accepting him as ruler of Western Tibet in return for him accepting the Manchu Emperor as overlord of Western Tibet.

The Manchus learned the lesson of their Jurchen ancestors, you need to control the ‘Fringelanders’ to hold the Chinese core. It was too risky to leave other nomads unconquered: the Jurchen had conquered North China from the Khitans and been conquered in turn by the Mongols. Tibet and Mongolia were entangled thanks to the Lamistic version of Buddhism. It was necessary to control both, though there was no great need to rule them closely. In any case Western Tibet was dominated by the Lhasa Valley, a fertile strip on a thinly populated plateau and a long way from the Han core. A subordinate ruler based in Lhasa was the natural answer.

Unlike the Mongols, the Manchu saw themselves as future Emperors of China even when they were a small state north of the Great Wall. They were also successful conquerors of other Fringelanders, first defeating those Mongols who were not part of their realm, and then establishing secure rule over what became Xinjiang. Western Tibet they were content for the time to rule indirectly, but no one in the 17th or 18th century could be sure how long this would last. The concealment of the death of the 5th Dalai Lama is normally explained by a desire to finish the Potala Palace. But it occurs to me that the ruling circle might also have wanted to pretend that they still had a shrewd and respected leader. The Manchu Dynasty had been expanding their power, had crushed the power of the ‘Three Feudatories’ and was about to take Taiwan. Direct rule over Western Tibet could have followed, especially if a powerless child was the nominal ruler.

Note also that Tibetan politicians were generally willing to play games with the status and authority of their God-King. Just as most mediaeval Italian rulers had little respect for any Pope, those who saw the ‘god-king’ close up may have realised it was nonsense to suppose that this was a single person incarnated in the successive bodies of the Dalai Lama. They may have been participants in frauds that established other lesser ‘re-incarnated’ lamas. They certainly acted as if they knew it to be nonsense, playing power-games without worrying about possible supernatural consequences.

Tibet became part of the new extended Chinese Empire under the Manchus – a state that was very powerful at its height, but also resistant to the need to change when they faced a challenge from the West. Things might have been different had the Ming been succeeded by another native dynasty, formed by the successful uprising of ethnic-Han rebels:

“On his capture of Peking in 1644 Li Tzu-ch’eng seemed about to found a lasting dynasty, the Shun… People recalled how the founder of the Ming had been of humble origins.. the vigorous action of the early Ming emperors against nomadic tribes had contained the problem of encroachment from the steppe. Under a vigorous dynasty the Empire would be able to cope with the rising power of the Manchus, now dominant beyond the Great Wall…

“A factor not taken into full account… was the susceptibilities of the general responsible for defending the line of the Great Wall immediately north of the capital. This man, Wu San-kuei, who was neither a fanatical adherent of the Ming nor a contender for the dragon throne, found himself drawn into a personal quarrel with the Shun pretender… Wu San-kuei turned to the Manchus for support, opening the gates in the Great Wall… Once they were embroiled in civil strife they proved impossible to expel or control.” [BA]

The Manchus never broke the Great Wall, and a wiser leader would not have given a key commander reason to throw open the gates (always assuming the standard story is correct). Even then, it remained uncertain for a generation or so if the Manchus would take all China, or be thrown out again, or be confined to North China as their Jin/Liao ancestors had been.

“For thirty years the authority of the Ch’ing [Quin] dynasty, as the Manchus styled their house, was restricted to the North. Wu San-kuei was left to deal with the remaining pretenders in the South, which was then divided between himself and two lesser generals. Emperor Ch’ing Shun-chih proved a feeble ruler… and the future of his [Manchu] house was by no means certain in 1661 when the young K’ang-hsi succeeded. Had Wu San-kuei chosen this moment to revolt it is quite possible that the Ch’ing dynasty would have been toppled…

“The last centre of rebellion to be subdued was Taiwan, the base of… Koxinga as he was known to Westerners… the staunchest supporter of the deposed Ming dynasty… the Manchus, aided by strife among the grandsons of Cheng, invaded and annexed the island with the assistance of Dutch vessels. The foundation of the Ch’ing dynasty was secured.” [BB]

It helped that the Manchus as Emperors of the Central Empire restored the Mongol Yuan-dynasty pattern of control of Tibet. The Mongols’ Sa-skya lama system no longer counted, but something similar had developed around the newly created line of the Dalai Lamas, which the Manchus then made into subordinate rulers:

“[Manchu] armies were drawn westwards again in 1715 by new disturbances. The campaigning extended over great distances as the mobile forces of various Mongol princes, who aspired to rule Central Asia, switched from one stronghold to another. As Tibet was drawn into the conflict, Lhasa was occupied and a puppet Dalai Lama installed there. Ever since the rebellion of Wu Sangui, Kangxi had harboured suspicions over the attitude of the Tibetans, for while the old Dalai Lama had protested his innocence of any support for the rebellious general, he did his country no favour in Manchu eyes by suggesting around 1675 a peace based on the division of China.” [BC]

The Quin Emperors of China were content with the status quo. Eastern Tibet (Amdo and Kham) was split between various Chinese provinces. In Western Tibet, no Dalai Lama exercised significant power for very long between the 5th and the 13th, but the superstitious Fringelanders in Tibet, Mongolia and Manchuria viewed them as holy. Power in Western Tibet was split between the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama and a Regent when the Dalai Lama was to young to rule, as most of them were for most of that era. From 1727 the Emperors of China also appointed officials called Ambans who lived in Lhasa and had a couple of thousand troops, enough to be formidable in a thinly populated land. Despite its vast size on a map, Western Tibet was much poorer and had a smaller population than any Chinese province. If it was causing no trouble it could be left alone. This applied even though the Dalai Lama or his Regent didn’t necessarily control all of what was officially the Dalai Lama’s realm. As one 19th-century European observer put it:

“Where the sway of China fails, it is useless to look to the authority of the Dalai Lama up among the eastern ranges of Tibet. The Supreme Pontiff’s effective authority lies, if anywhere, only in the valley-trench of Lhasa itself; though acknowledged as spiritual overlord throughout the domains of Tibetan Lamaism, his practical hold over the Abbeys of North and East Tibet is of the most shadowy, and the warmest personal recommendation from His Holiness would be of as little value to the traveller as would a letter from Dr. Clifford or the Bishop of Zanzibar. In point of fact, all up the Tibetan Marches, Princes and Abbots join forces in complete independence, snapping their fingers as complacently at Lhasa on the one hand as at Peking on the other… The Chinese, indeed, already have nearly all they want for themselves. They possess a nominal suzerainty over Lhasa and the Tibetan Marches; the two big roads are kept open to Lhasa, and the Chinese are able, gradually and with their usual slow and patient pervasiveness, to infiltrate themselves, their families and farms, into any fertile oasis or promising nook for cultivation up among the fastnesses of the ranges.” [AY]

Things were probably not much different in the 18th century, except that there was already a problem to the south. Apart from Nepal, rulers of North India had shown little interest in Tibet. Warlike neighbours in the Indian lowlands were enough to be busy with. But now a new power was rising, a global power that was also intruding on China’s eastern sea-coasts.


The British Raj and the Third Panchen Lama

The British in India originally had a rather hazy notion of what lay north of the Himalayas. But as they consolidated their empire, they took an interest in the small mountain kingdoms on the Indian side of the high mountains. Places that had largely been ignored before, but the British Raj were vastly more powerful than the unstable pre-industrial kingdoms and empires that it had replaced. At the end of the 18th century, when Warren Hastings was governor of British India, they decided to push further and see what actually existed in the land of mystery beyond the Himalayas:

“Over the previous century and a half, a handful to Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries had undergone the rigours of the journey from India and China into Tibet… Of the various attempts to establish missions in Tibet, none had really prospered…

“From the few accounts published, the Governor learned a confused history of Tartar and Chinese invasions, but remained unclear whether China still possesses power in the region… What, Hastings wanted to know, was the precise nature of the relationship between China and Tibet? The details available on the Dalai Lama were equally sketchy: identified when young by various signs, he was believed to be an incarnation of the Buddha, and so greatly revered that ‘his excrements’ were ‘sold as charms at a great price among the Tartar tribes of this religion’.” [V]

Warren Hastings sent a man called George Bogle to investigate. As he was moving north, he got a letter from the Panchen Lama:

“Tibet, the Lama wrote, was subject to the Emperor of China who ruled that no Mughal, Hindustani, Afghan or European should enter the country… If the Emperor had been easily accessible, the Lama would have represented Bogle’s case to him, but his residence was extremely remote, at a distance of a year’s journey. It was with regret, then, that the Lama requested that Bogle should return to Calcutta without dispute.” [W]

Bogle was based in what we now call Bhutan – the European use of the name seems to have originated with Bogle. It was linked to Tibet but distinct from it:

“Bhutan regarded its large, domineering neighbour with at best ambivalence, at worst open hostility. For the Bhutanese, Tibet was both the source of Buddhist teaching and a serial invader. The ruling families of Bhutan all traced their pedigrees back to Tibetan nobility, but their ancestors had fled Tibet as political refugees. Although both countries shared a similar system of government, different Tibetan Buddhist orders held power in each state. The Gelugpa order, presided over by the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, ruled in Tibet, while in Bhutan the Drukpa school predominated.” [X]

And behind Tibet stood Manchu China, enough of a power for a connection to be useful to local rulers. Bhutan had a system of reincarnated rulers, but the current one was only seven and not in control. There was an official Regent, but real power lay with an official called the Desi.

“Kunga Rinchen had occupied the office of Desi for only a year… a suitable replacement for the deposed ruler, the deeply unpopular Zhidar. Over his five-year reign, Zhidar had managed to antagonise most of the monastic establishment… In an attempt to gain favour with Peking, Zhidar had circulated an imperial seal of office throughout the country – a political gesture which implied a degree of subservience to Manchu authority that offended most of his subjects.” [Y]

The Manchu rulers may have had little interest in Bhutan, a small kingdom on the other side of the Himalayas. They were much more definite about keeping control of Western Tibet. Officials called ambans were the normal means, in Western Tibet, Mongolia and Xinjiang (East Turkistan). The actuality could be more complex:

“Although the Regent was nominally in charge of the government until the Eighth Dalai Lama came of age, the standing of the Panchen Lama was far greater, extending throughout Tibet and the surrounding regions. The Regent had to answer to two Manchu ambans stationed at Lhasa, but the Panchen Lama was respected by the Qianlong Emperor himself.” [Z]

This particular Panchen Lama counted as either the Third or Sixth in the line, depending on whether earlier incarnations are accepted – whether a man who lived from 1570 to 1662 was First or Fourth. This Third / Sixth Panchen Lama was anyway interested in contact with British India. And he was powerful, part of a thriving family of Holy Persons:

“The Panchen Lama’s mother bore three sons to different husbands and all the sons were recognised as incarnate lamas… one of the Panchen Lama’s nieces was the incarnation of Dorje Phagmo, the ‘Thunderbolt Sow’, one of the few female incarnate lamas in Tibet. This extraordinary cluster of incarnations suggests the concentration of religious authority within particular sections of the Tibetan nobility….

“Successive Qing [Manchu] emperors had found it expedient to act as patrons of Tibetan Buddhism to reconcile the Tibetans and Mongols to their rule…

“While they honoured the high lamas of Tibetan Buddhism, the Manchu emperors regarded them as political subordinates. The Tibetans, however, considered such patronage to be an acknowledgement of the exalted status of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. From the Tibetan point of view, the Lama was the spiritual teacher of the patron and the patron was obliged to offer protection and material support to the Lama…

“Qing involvement in Tibetan Buddhism may have been motivated by political expediency, but the Qianlong Emperor’s interest seems to have gone further, nourished by his friendship with Chankya Rolpae Dorje, the chief Lama in Peking….

“In 1750, following an uprising against the Chinese in Lhasa, Chankya had dissuaded the Emperor from imposing direct rule on Tibet and advocated the appointment of the Seventh Dalai Lama as civil and religious leader… Chankya transmitted imperial edicts, reported back on the situation and met all the prominent figures in Tibet, including the Panchen Lama.

“The same year that the Regent was appointed, the nineteen-year-old Panchen Lama took his final monastic vows. It fell to him to supervise the selection and education of the Eighth Dalai Lama. Now that he was fully ordained, the Panchen Lama enjoyed far greater prestige than the Regent.” [AA]

But things went wrong for the Panchen Lama. The Eighth Dalai Lama decided not to get involved in politics, which probably saved him from the early death that most of the succeeding Dalai Lamas suffered. The Panchen Lama died of smallpox while visiting the Chinese Emperor: at least it was officially smallpox. His contacts with British India might have seen as treasonable by the Chinese Emperor. Poison reported as smallpox would have avoided the need to publicly repudiate a man whom the Emperor had honoured.

That happened in 1780. In 1785 Warren Hastings returned home from India and was harassed in the British Parliament for things he had done in building up British rule, with Edmund Burke one of the harassers. Back in Tibet, following some complex politics and an invasion of Nepal, the Qianlong Emperor beefed up his control in 1792. There was a suspicion that Nepal had been acting as an agent for British India. But then as later, trade with the Han core of Zhongguo was more important to Britain than any aspiration to take over an impoverished mountain territory. The Emperor was able to make it clear he was in charge:

“Following the campaign on 1792, the political landscape of the region was changed irrevocably. After such a resounding demonstration of Manchu military might, the Qianlong Emperor tightened his grip on Tibet and the Gelugpa order Any ambiguity over the status of the country was at an end; Tibet was to be fully integrated into the empire. Indeed the events of 1792 were often used to justify later Chinese claims of sovereignty over Tibet. The imperial ambans stationed in Lhasa were endowed with enhanced powers… In future, the Qianlong Emperor pronounced, the amban would supervise the selection of the great incarnates … the names of all the candidates would be placed inside a golden urn, and the amban would draw one out (although, in practice, this method was rarely used). Qianlong now justified his support of the Gelugpas solely in terms of political expediency: his patronage of the order was necessary to maintain peace among the Mongols. In an apparent disavowal of the honours bestowed on the Third Panchen Lama, Qianlong stated that the Qing dynasty had never revered lamas as spiritual teachers. The Emperor was to be the source of all power, both religious and secular.

“Never again would it be possible for a high lama to conduct his own foreign relations as the Third Panchen Lama had done. Following the defeat of Nepal, there was deep distrust of Britain in the region.” [AB]

In my view, Tibet had been part of ‘China’ in the broad sense of Zhongguo, ever since it passed under the control of Kublai Khan after the Mongol Empire fragmented. It had lacked a central government under the Ming, part of their general failure to get full control of the fringes of their Empire. But Tibet showed no interest in either separation or unification: its various rulers were happy to accept the Ming Emperor as a distant overlord. The later power-politics of the early Dalai Lamas made them significant enough for the Manchu Emperors to do a deal, accept and support them as rulers of Tibet if they also accepted that they were part of Zhongguo and subjects of the Emperor. When later Dalai Lamas proved weak, central control was increased.

The system of the ‘golden urn’ may not have been used very often, but it was there as a means of control. The amban could presumably fiddle the selection if necessary, which meant that it was pointless for any family mistrusted by them to seek to place one of its own among the ‘great incarnates’. What mostly happened was that a relatively minor family would have the honour of having the Dalai or Panchen ‘found’ among its children. This was exactly the position when the current Dalai Lama was chosen, as I have detailed elsewhere.


Younghusband: the British Raj Tries It Again

Britain became more than an ordinary European power in the Georgian era, the unromantic but efficient government that existed under the first four kings of the Hanoverian dynasty. This was the time of the Industrial Revolution, normally dated from 1760 to 1830, though some historians consider that it started earlier. This was the era in which Britain won control of the Indian Subcontinent, won control of the bulk of North America and then lost it to its own rebellious colonials. This was also the era when Britain occupied Australia, got a foothold in New Zealand and took Southern Africa from the Dutch.

The Victorian Era is commonly seen as Britain’s high point. The Empire had the most visible power in those days, but I’d see it as a bloated realm that had no coherent plan for the future. No idea what to do with its grand Georgian inheritance. Almost everything the Victorians acquired has ended up badly governed. Only the Georgian legacy has been substantial and has ensured that English is the language of global business and commerce.

At the dawn of the 20th century, some shrewd observers noticed that the Victorian ruling class’s distaste for science and industry had allowed British manufacturing to be overtaken by the USA and by newly unified Germany. But most of the ruling class carried on as before, still trying to expand the Empire – which actually reached its greatest extent after World War One. British Imperialism’s last fling included the lumping-together of three Ottoman Empire provinces as Iraq, intended to be a British protectorate and give cheap access to the newly discovered oil.

Tibet was a side-issue, but part of a general pattern of expanding for the sake of expansion:

“What began as the Tibet Frontier Commission and grew into the Younghusband Mission was imperial Britain’s last throw of the dice, a hangover from the 1890s when vast swaths of Africa and other tropical regions were brought under the protection of the Crown by empire-builders such as Cecil Rhodes.” [AE]

A complication in Tibet was the lack of a coherent government:

“Over recent decades a succession of juvenile Dalai Lamas has died in mysterious circumstances without reaching maturity… Real power resides with the Kashag, a four-man cabinet of ministers… Then there was the amban, who represented China in much the same way as British Residents the British Government in India’s Princely and native States, but whose degree of influence over Tibetan affairs depended very much on the strength of the grip of the Manchu government of China.” [AF]

Tibet was a land of mystery, a place where mysterious secrets might be lurking. But people who took a close look were often unimpressed. Religion mostly becomes sleazy if religious office becomes attached to great wealth and power. This happened with the mediaeval Papacy, where many Popes were sceptics who milked the faith for whatever material benefits they could get. And many Western visitors decided that Tibet was just as bad. Dr Waddle, the Principle Medical Officer of the Mission, was also British India’s leading Tibetologist. His book The Buddhism of Tibet or Lamaism was:

“A ground-breaking study, but one that put forward an image of Tibetan Buddhism as a perversion of the original teaching of Gautama Buddha, and of the priest-monks of Tibet as a debased body of devil-worshipers exercising a malign influence over the country.” [AG]

A religion that gets caught up in worldly wealth and power became a resource that will be targeted by people with little interest in religion as such, and also few principles. They might have been willing to do a deal with the British, as many rulers in the Indian subcontinent had done. But Tibet was under the overall the Chinese Emperor:

“For generations, the Manchus [Qing Dynasty] had exercised indirect control over Tibet through the person of a Resident in Lhasa, known as the Amban. Ever since the Emperor Chien Lung had sent an army to Tibet’s aid in 1792 to drive out an invading Nepali army, China had refused to countenance any foreign influence other than her own. [AH]

“By the start of the nineteenth century Tibet was trapped in a cycle of social and economic stagnation from which there seemed no escape. Nearly every acre of cultivable land, pasture land and forest, as well as most of the livestock, was in the hands of Tibet’s thirty or so aristocratic families and the monastic orders. Each noble family had allied itself to one or more of the larger monasteries, and both parties became ever more interlocked, powerful and wealth….

“At the time of the Younghusband Mission, Drepung Gompa was the mightiest of Tibet’s two and a half thousand monasteries, and, with a population of monks rumoured to approach ten thousand, probably the largest monastery in the world… it owned one hundred and eighty-five manors and three hundred pasture-lands, together with a workforce of more than twenty thousand peasants and sixteen thousand herdsmen. These were all serfs, who made up the bulk of Tibet’s population, at that time amounting to anywhere between one and two million souls. The serf possessed little or no land or livestock of their own, provided unpaid corvee labour to the landowners, and were taxed on whatever they managed to produce for themselves. An unknown but significant number of the peasantry were bonded slaves and, according to the harsh legal codes of the time, their lives were valued at the price of a straw rope; they could be sold or punished at will by their owners, and they had to pay hefty redemption fees if they wished to marry or secure their freedom…

“For the peasantry quite as much as for the clergy, the Buddhist faith, coupled with an unshakable belief in the power of the spirit-forces of nature, was their great consolation. Their devotion to Chos [Buddhist Dharma or Law] was absolute, it gave them hope, brought meaning to their lives, even helped to shape the national character of a people who were in general cheerful, good-humoured, patient, tolerant and fatalistic, with no desire to change or improve their lot. Whatever their present situation, it was of their own making, for every being on Earth was trapped by its particular weaknesses and delusions into an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

“A point of no return was reached probably at the start of the nineteenth century, just as the climate of the Tibetan plateau entered something approaching a minor ice age. The country’s agricultural and dairy yields fell, its population went into decline, and year by year less revenue was available for Tibet’s administrators to spend maintaining the state. Half-hearted attempts to impose taxes on the nobility and monastic orders failed, as did more serious attempts to place heavier tax burdens on the peasantry. Forts, bridges and roads fell into disrepair, internal and external communication began to break down, and outside of Lhasa and Shigatse the provinces became increasingly isolated. Tibet slipped into a state of semi-paralysis, having entered that fatal state of non-viability that brought about the downfall of every great Buddhist theocracy in the past, from Ashoka’s Mauryan empire in India to Angkor Wat in Cambodia – a condition that only outside intervention could change.” [AJ]

I can’t see that it’s fair to single out Buddhism, which has been a suitable religion for flourishing cultures in places like Japan and in the core of China. Ashoka’s empire was one of the bigger and better efforts in a subcontinent that has always been difficult to unify. Yet it does seem that a physical decline and an intensification of religion can feed off of each other and make things worse. Spain got more intensely religious as its 16th century grandeur faded away. The exact beliefs of the creators of Easter Island’s famous statues are unknown, but they may have been seeking extra ‘Divine Favour’ as life got harder thanks to their own destruction of the island’s trees – it had once been forested and the trees helped preserve the soil. [AK] The logic behind Stonehenge is utterly unknown, but it and other neolithic monuments are located in areas where a prosperous agriculture existed for some centuries, but then exhausted the soil. The USA’s current growth in anti-tax populism and Christian “Fundamentalism” may well be another example of devout people finding exactly the wrong answer to material decline, but keeping themselves cheerful in the face of a worsening world.

To the British in India, a place like Tibet was crying out for them to take it over. The Chinese Empire itself was in decline. At the time, it would have seemed destined to be split between Europe’s rival world-empires. Tibet’s own army was not taken seriously and indeed performed rather badly. Younghusband sent a message to his wife in Darjeeling:

“‘Tibetans bolting like rabbits’… ‘We hear today that when the Tibetans generals were advised by the Chinese not to fight the tears streamed down their faces as they said they had to fight for if they did not their families wd be seized. So they pretended to fight and about a hundred were killed….

“The prisoners… said that they were only peasantry who had been forced by the Lamas to fight under threat of having their homes burned down and their families taken from them.” [AL]

The artwork of the Lamas also surprised the British:

“‘You will first enter the shrine of a perfect Buddha, for whom you will feel at least some reverence. The next shrine will contain an idol that impresses you less, and has about it some taint of the world. The next is a thoroughly worldly idol, the next is ugly, the next is obviously wicked, and the next a demon. The demons grow in demonical qualities till suddenly you arrive again at the Buddha from whom you started…’

“The portrayals in paintings and sculptures not just of demons but of all sorts of ugly beasts engaging in the most frightful activities, such as dancing or feeding on bloody corpses and, worst of all, in cross-legged sexual embrace with attractive female deities.” [AM]

To a modern viewpoint it is hard to see why pleasant sexual enjoyment should be seen as ‘worst of all’ amidst such a catalogue of ugliness. But such a view was not unusual among Britons of that era, before the massive 20th-century collapse of Puritanism in England and Wales. If explicit sex is rated as worse than bloody corpses, this is exactly in line with the current standards of British film censorship, which permits all sorts of violence and horrors but not explicit sex.

Even a modern viewpoint would have been surprised to find such things in a religious centre. But there’s lots of evidence of a calm acceptance in Lamistic Buddhism of elements that would be seen as clear evils in other religions, and maybe also in other Buddhist traditions. I suppose that if the religion has become mostly a means of social control, all sorts of images could be mixed up just so long as they produced a suitable atmosphere of awe and respect from the laity. Western Christianity did much the same, with astonishingly graphic images of devils and the torments of hell. Of course these were clearly separated as the work of spirits hostile to God, though not ultimately independent of God’s power. In Lamaism, it seems much less clear:

“As the fort was being searched a number of curious discoveries were made. One was a chamber ‘full of decapitated heads of men, women and children’. Austine Waddell examined them, and gave his opinion as a medical man that their ‘gory necks’ showed they had been executed – ‘which disposes of the idea that the Buddhism of the lamas stops short of the atrocious crime of murder’. [AN]

“Some sixteen objects are described as having come from Gyantse. They include an apron made from human bones, marked ‘looted from the capture of Gyantse Jong.” [AQ]

These grusome objects were probably associated with magic, a magic which had failed against the British. But not all Tibetans fought badly. Closer to Lhasa the British ran into some Khampas, a people always ready for a fight:

“The Tibetans manning the defences of the two central buildings at Palla were Khampa warriors who fought, according to Newman, with ‘extraordinary fury… were able to bring down concentrated fire on Sheppard’s sappers, so that their progress from one block to the next became slower and slower…

“The fire brought down by this heavy weaponry galvanised the Tibetan commander in the Jong into action, and a dozen riders on black mules and about forty infantry suddenly emerged … and charged across the open ground towards Palla. ‘No finer feat of personal bravery could be conceived’, thought Dr Waddell, for it was instantly apparent to all who watched that the men were doomed, They were directly below Hadow’s two Maxims, which were now firing perfectly. ‘In three minutes’ wrote Newman, ‘every single man and mule was down, except one animal with a broken leg, gazing disconsolately at its master’. [AO]

“Our way was strewn with corpses. The warriors from the Kham country, who formed a large part of the Tibetan army, were glorious in death, long-haired giants, lying as they fell with their crude weapons lying beside them, and usually with a peaceful, patient look on their faces.” [AR]

Courage is admirable, but does not succeed against a well-armed military machine of the sort that the British Empire could send forth. A few years later, World War One was to reveal the appalling results of two such machines clashing with the power of a modern industrial society behind each. In Tibet, it was an easy victory on the road to Lhasa and the British sought to impose terms:

“Delivering to the Tibetans an ‘ultimatum’ in the form of two letters, one addressed to the Dalai Lama and one to the Chinese Amban, demanding that the Tibetans negotiate or face the consequences.” [AP]

Meantime they fed on looted grain that had been stored in the monasteries. Some British accounts see the storage as wasteful, but on this point I suspect that the monasteries were doing the right thing, keeping reserves in case of a bad season in a land where transport would be difficult even if your neighbours had food to spare. That was not how many in the British Army chose to see it:

“Whatever the official line, some supply officers refused on principle to pay the monks… regarded the monks as ‘self-indulgent parasites’ living off the sweat and toil of the peasantry, and who shared the general misconception that their huge stocks of grain were exclusively for the monks’ own consumption.” [AS]

Most of the land was poor, but the Lhasa Valley itself was fertile, watered by the great river that flowed through it, the river that was the main source of the Brahmaputra.

“We looked down on the great river that has been guarded from European eyes for nearly a century. In the heart of Tibet we had found Arcadia – not a detached oasis, but a continuous strip of verdure, where the Tsangpo cleaves the bleak hills and desert tablelands from west to east. All the valley was covered with green and yellow cornfields, with scattered homesteads surrounded by clusters of trees, not dwarfish or stunted… but stately and spreading – trees that would grace the valley of the Thames or Severn.” [AT]

The richness of the isolated Lhasa Valley probably explains why Western Tibet was governed as a unit when it was governed at all. It was the natural focus of the Tibetan Plateau. Before the Chinese Communists built roads, an airport and finally a rail link, it might take as much as a year to get a message from Lhasa to China’s densely populated Central Plains. Autonomy was a logical consequence of geography – and also a logic to the fragments of Eastern Tibet being incorporated into Chinese provinces that were the western portion of that Central Plain.

During the British invasion, the Amban was responsible for getting the best deal he could for Western Tibet. China’s main armies were far away and had anyway lost repeatedly to foreign forces. The normal response of the decaying Empire was to try fighting but give the foreigners most of what they wanted if the fight was lost – and it always was lost under the Late Empire and the western-style Republic. But the Dalai Lama was less cooperative:

“The Amban had advised the Chinese Emperor to depose the Dalai Lama, and both … the Council of Ministers and the General Assembly [of Western Tibet] were beginning to give way on the terms of his proposed Convention – on all terms, that is, save for the matter of the indemnity, which they declared to be impossibly high… As for the Dalai Lama, it was now confirmed that he had fled north. Unknown even to the members of his Council, he had slipped out of the Potala under cover of darkness… and was said to be heading for Mongolia. But he had sent a message… informing the assembly that he had gone away to protect the Buddhist religion, and warned them to beware of the English, who were ‘very crafty people; intent on binding them tight’. The deposition of the Dalai Lama as proposed by the Amban would resolve the need to have him present to sign the Convention.” [AU]

I find this a bit suspicious – did the Amban and Dalai Lama actually cook up a scheme whereby the Amban and various Tibetans would sign an agreement that could be repudiated when convenient, because the Dalai Lama had had no part in it? Unlike his predecessors, this 13th Dalai Lama had lasted long enough to become the official and functional God-King. He was not deposed at that time and did in fact resume his rule, only to quarrel with a later Amban and be forced into exile again.

The British Raj had very little interest in disturbing the Buddhist religion: a lot of the soldiers and officials regarded Christian missionaries as a damn nuisance, though the electorate back home were still mostly serious about their Christianity and insisted they be given a chance. The Raj’s aim was wealth and power, which in Tibet was under control of the intertwined class of aristocrats and senior monks. These had to be persuaded to obey, and also the official endorsement of the distant Chinese Emperor was felt necessary, via the Amban he had appointed.

Things had anyway changed in the wider world. Rumours of Tsarist Russian influence in Western Tibet turned out to be as phoney as ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq, a comparison that Duel in the Snows freely makes. There was nothing beyond casual trade or local manufacture:

“Lhasa’s ‘rifle factory; turned out to be little more than a cottage workshop run by two Indian Muslim renegades… ‘we did not come across more than thirty Russian Government rifles, and these must have drifted into Tibet from Mongolia… The whole business of Russian influence and the Czar’s ambitions was quietly dropped. The series of devastating defeats inflicted on the Russians by land and sea in the Russo-Japanese war begun in February of that year had in any case dramatically altered the balance of power in Asia, so reducing the Russian threat.” [AU]

Russia’s defeat by Japan, at that time Britain’s only close ally apart from Portugal, was actually the start of a series of fateful events that damaged the whole world and probably doomed the British Empire. The strange alliance of Republican France and Tsarist Russia posed a threat to Germany and its ally Austria, but became a much worse threat if Britain were part of it. In 1904-5, Russia was the prime enemy. But when Russia dropped its idea of expanding in Asia, an alliance became possible. The long-term effect of Japan’s success on the credibility of European dominance in Asia was overlooked at the time.

Had Britain stayed out of a war between the two big European alliances, it would probably have ended early in 1915, even if it had begun in 1914. Millions of lives would have been spared and Middle-Europe might have continued to evolve towards Constitutional Monarchy with a large element of socialism. You’d have had the continuance of a social order that was mildly discriminatory towards Jews but which protected their lives and property. Tsarist Russia might have fallen after an unsuccessful 1914-15 war and perhaps have evolved in a liberal direction, though Russian liberalism has always been weak.

In history as it actually happened, the Japanese defeat of Russia led to Russia giving up any plans it may have had for an eastern expansion. ‘Jingoism’ had first been defined in expectation of a war against Russia, but in 1914 the British public swallowed the line that their traditional enemies France and Russia must be protected and that their sometimes ally Germany was a threat to civilisation. That was one issue: the other was the Serbian claim to Bosnia which had led to the assassination of the Archduke. The Great War left the British Empire too shaken to think of annexing Western Tibet, which had seemed likely up until then.

It was also bizarre for Britain to help a non-white power against a white one, while at the same time denying self-rule to its own non-white subjects. There was little sense or logic to the British Empire in its final decades: it helped raise up Imperial Japan and then had to repudiate this alliance to please the USA, which was unavoidable because the USA’s aid had been needed to break Germany. But there had been no real need to break Germany: co-existence would have been wiser.

As part of this late-Imperial incoherence, mysterious Tibet had been visited, and amazingly secrets were hoped for. But nothing of great interest had been found:

“Austine Waddell’s Lhasa and it Mysteries was far and away the most authoritative of the many books written about the Younghusband mission and the civilisation it broke upon. It led to Dr Waddell’s appointment as Professor of Tibetan at London University in 1906… Waddell had been greatly disappointed to learn that there was no teaching of ancient wisdom preserved there by the ‘Mahatmas’ after the sinking of Atlantis. The Theosophical bent remained with him throughout his life and reappeared after the Great War (in which he lost his only son) in the form of a quest for evidence of an Aryan master race.” [AV]

Waddell became marginal, but the idea of attaching Western Tibet to British India remained attractive to Britons. The big problem, from a British point of view, was the rise of a Chinese nationalism that had no doubt that all of Tibet was part of Zhongguo.


After Younghusband

In the early 20th century, the rulers of Tibet were keen to identify themselves as an outlying part of the Chinese Empire, not an independent state. Britain was against breaking up China and splitting it between the various European powers. Even after they showed its weakness in the First Opium War, the aim was to dominate the state rather than take it over or hack chunks off of it. The Younghusband Expedition showed that Lhasa could be occupied, but to annex a huge chunk of the Chinese Empire was another matter and the British Empire was not ready for it.

British visitors may well have heard the Tibetan theory that they were not actually Chinese subjects, that there was just a relationship between the Chinese Emperor and their high lamas. If they knew of it, then they must have ignored it as obvious rubbish. Still less would they say it was an independent state: they had long ago discovered that the Chinese-appointed and non-Tibetan Amban was a major power in the land.

A more productive line was to say that the central Chinese government did not have full control, had ‘ suzerainty’ rather than proper sovereignty. This was the view that British experts seem to have transmitted to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which summarised it thus:

“Though the whole of Tibet is under the suzerainty of China, the government of the country is divided into two distinct administrations, the one under the rule of the Dalai lama of Lhasa, the other under local kings or chiefs, and comprising a number of ecclesiastical fiefs. Both are directed and controlled by the high Chinese officials residing at Lhasa, Sining Fu; and the capital of the Chinese province of Szechuen [Sichuan]. Northeastern Tibet or Amdo, and also a portion of Khamdo, are under the supervision of a high official (Manchu) residing at Sining Fu in Kansuh, whose title is Imperial Controller-General of Koko Nor. The native chiefs of the Panaka and other Tibetan tribes of this region are styled pdmbo (‘official’ or ‘headma ‘) by both the natives and the Chinese. The region under the supervision of the imperial controller includes all the countries north of the upper course of the Dre chu (Yangtsze-kiang). The people pay a small poll-tax to China, and are exempted from any other impost; they also pay a small tax in kind, sheep, butter, &c., to their chiefs. The province of Khamdo, including all eastern Tibet, is governed by local chiefs, styled gyalpo, ‘king,’ and deba, ‘chief,’ succession to the chieftainship being usually assured to the eldest son not a lama. Each chief appoints a certain number of civil and military officers to assist in the government of the country, and each village has its headman or bese, also an hereditary office. None of these officials receive salaries; they are only exempt from taxation, and some have grants of land made to them. The only tax paid to China is a so-called ‘ horse-tax ‘ of about 5d. for each family. Once in every five years the chiefs send a tribute mission to the capital of Szechuen, and once every ten years to Peking, but the tribute sent is purely nominal. The Chinese maintain a few small military posts with from six or eight to twenty men stationed in them; they are under the orders of a colonel residing at Tachienlu. There are also a few lama chiefs.

“The part of Tibet under the rule of Lhasa, by far the largest and wealthiest, includes the central province of U, Tsang, Nari and a number of large outlying districts in southern and even in eastern Tibet. The central government of this part of the country is at Lhasa; the nominal head is the Dalai lama or grand lama. The Tashi lama [Panchen Lama] or head of the monastery of Tashilhunpo near Shigatse is inferior to the Dalai lama in secular authority, of which, indeed, he has little – much less than formerly – but he is considered by some of his worshippers actually superior to him in religious rank…

“The British armed mission of 1904 performed a brilliant feat of marching and reached Lhasa, whose mysteries were thus unveiled…

“Previous to the 7th century A.D. there was no indigenous recorded history of the country, the people being steeped in barbarism and devoid of any written language. The little that is known of this prehistoric period is gathered from the legends and the more trustworthy sidelights of contemporary Chinese records.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911 edition, [B])

This is probably unfair to Tibet, which had a rich local culture, though no known writing or non-legendary history before it became involved with the Chinese Empire.

“Five years afterwards Kublai Khan conquered all the east of Tibet; and, after he had ascended the throne of China, the Mongol emperor invited to his court Phagspa Lodoi Gyaltshan, the nephew of the same Pandita. He remained twelve years with the emperor, and at his request framed for the Mongol language an alphabet imitated from the Tibetan, which, however, did not prove satisfactory, and disappeared after eighty-five years without having been very largely used. In return for his services, Kublai invested Phagspa with sovereign power over (1) Tibet proper, comprising the thirteen districts of U and Tsang, (2) Khalil and (3) Amdo. From this time the Sakya-pa lamas became the universal rulers of Tibet, and remained so, at least nominally, under twenty-one successive lamas during seventy years (1270-1340). Their name was derived from the Sakya monastery, which was their cradle and abode, and their authority for temporal matters was exercised by specially appointed regents.

“When the power of the Sakya began to wane, that of the rival monasteries of Digung, Phagdub and Tshal increased largely, and their respective influence and authority overbalanced that of the successors of Phagspa. It was at this troubled epoch that Chyang Chub Gyaltshan, better known as Phagmodu from the name of his native town, appeared on the scene. He subdued Tibet proper and Kham, for the continued possession of which he was, however, compelled to fight for several years; but he succeeded in the long run, and with the approval of the court of Peking established a dynasty which furnished twelve rulers in succession.

“When the Mongol dynasty of China passed away, the Mings confirmed and enlarged the dominion of the Tibetan rulers, recognizing at the same time the chief lamas of the eight principal monasteries of the country. Peace and prosperity gradually weakened the benign rule of the kings of this dynasty, and during the reign of the last but one internecine war was rife between the chiefs and nobles of U and Tsang. This state of things, occurring just as the last rulers of the Ming dynasty of China were struggling against the encroachments of the Manchus, their future successors, favoured the interference of a Khoshot Mongol prince, Tengir To, called in the Tibetan sources king of Koko Nor. The Mongols were interested in the religion of the lamas, especially since 1576, when Altan, khakan of the Tumeds, and his cousin summoned the chief lama of the most important monastery to visit him. This lama was Sodnam rGyamtso, the third successor of Gedundub, the founder of the Tashilhunpo monastery in 1447, who had been elected to the more important abbotship of Galdan near Lhasa, and was thus the first of the great, afterwards Dalai, lamas. The immediate successor of Gedundub, who ruled from 1475 to 1541, had appointed a special officer styled depa to control the civil administration of the country. To Sodnam rGyamtso the Mongol khans gave the title of Vajra Dalai Lama in 1576, and this is the first use of the widely known title of Dalai Lama. During the minority of the fifth (really the third) Dalai Lama, when the Mongol king Tengir To, under the pretext of supporting the religion, intervened in the affairs of the country, the Pan-ch’en Lo-sang Ch’o-kyi Gyal-ts’ang lama obtained the withdrawal of the invaders by the payment of a heavy war indemnity, and then applied for help to the first Manchu emperor of China, who had just ascended the throne. This step enraged the Mongols, and caused the advance of Gushri Khan, son and successor of Tengir To, who invaded Tibet, dethroned all the petty princes, including the king of Tsang, and, after having subjugated the whole of the country, made the fifth Dalai lama supreme monarch of all Tibet, in 1645. The Chinese government in 1653 confirmed the Dalai Lama in his authority, and he paid a visit to the emperor at Peking. The Mongol Khoshotes in 1706 and the Sungars in 1717 interfered again in the succession of the Dalai lama, but the Chinese army finally conquered the country in 1720, and the present system of government was established. It is probable that the isolation of Tibet was inspired originally by the Chinese, with the idea of creating a buffer state against European aggression from this direction…

“A lama, a Mongolian Buriat by birth and a Russian subject, whose Russianized name was Dorjiev, had come to Lhasa about 1880. When subsequently visiting Russia, he appears to have drawn the attention of the authorities towards Tibet as a field for their statecraft, and he established himself as the unofficial representative of Russia in Lhasa. He obtained a commanding influence over the Dalai Lama, impressed upon him the dangers which threatened Tibet from England, and suggested the desirability of securing Russian protection and even the possibility of converting the tsar and his empire to Buddhism. The Dalai Lama assented, and was even prepared to visit St Petersburg, but was checked by the Tsong-du (assembly). He therefore sent a representative of high rank, who had audience of the tsar, and returned with proposals for a treaty and for the residence of a Russian royal prince in Lhasa in order to promote friendly relations. But both the Chinese authorities in Lhasa and the Tsong-du were averse from any such proceedings. The Dalai Lama, inspired by Dorjiev, now took steps to bring on a crisis by provoking England. He felt sure of Russian support. Russian arms had been imported into Lhasa. It was suspected, although denied, that a treaty was in draft under which Russia should assume the suzerainty of Tibet. A further encroachment on British territory in Sikkim was made by Tibetans, and various other slights were offered.” (Ibid.)

Most of this is British Imperial propaganda, excusing an invasion that was as phoney as the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that were used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Note also that the Britannica is quite happy to speak of the British state as ‘England’.

“The viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, now decided that strong action was necessary; but the home government at first assented only to the despatch of Colonel (afterwards Sir) F. E. Younghusband with a small escort to negotiate at Khambajong, to the north of the Sikkim frontier. The mission arrived at this point on the 7th of July 1903, and here it remained till the filth of December. No responsible Tibetan representatives appeared, and such negotiations as were carried on were abortive. On the 3rd of October, therefore, the British government authorized the occupation of the Chumbi valley, and an advance to Gyantse in Tibet and military preparations, with the difficult attendant problem of transport, were undertaken. Colonel Younghusband again accompanied the mission, and the troops were commanded by General Ronald Macdonald. The Jelep pass was crossed and the entry into Tibet effected on the 12th of December. British An advance was made to Tuna, where part of the Armed 1904. expedition wintered. A further advance being made sion, 1904. P g on the 31st of March 1904, the first hostile encounter took place at Guru, when the Tibetans (the aggressors) were defeated. With some further fighting en route the expedition reached and occupied Gyantse on the 12th of April; here some of the British forces were subsequently beleaguered, and the most serious fighting took place. In fact the advance to Lhasa, resumed after the storming of the Gyantse Jong (fort) on the’ 6th of July, met with comparatively little opposition, and the capital was reached on the 3rd of August. The Dalai Lama had fled with Dorjiev. Partly on this account, and in spite of the attempts of the Chinese authorities to bring about a settlement, there was some delay owing to the attitude of the lamas, but finally a treaty of peace was concluded on the 7th of September. The principal provisions were – the Sikkim frontier violated by the Tibetans was to be respected; marts were to be established for British trade at Gyantse, Gartok and Yatung; Tibet was to pay an indemnity of L. 100,000 (subsequently reduced to one-third of this sum); and no foreign power was to receive any concession in Tibet, territorial or mercantile, or to concern itself with the government of the country. The expedition left Lhasa on the 23rd of September and reached India again at the close of the following month. The treaty was slightly modified later in matters of detail, while the adhesion of China to the treaty was secured by an agreement of the 27th of April 1906.

“The Anglo-Russian convention of 1907 determined the following conditions with respect to Tibet – the recognition of the suzerain rights of China and the territorial and administrative integrity of the country; that no official representative at Lhasa should be appointed either by England or by Russia, and that no concessions for railways, mines, &c., should be sought by either power. An annex to the convention provided that, except by arrangement between England and Russia, no scientific expedition should be allowed to enter the country for three years.

“In January 1908 the final instalment of the Tibetan indemnity was paid to Great Britain, and the Chumbi valley was evacuated. The Dalai Lama was now summoned to Peking, where he obtained the imperial authority to resume his administration in place of the provisional governors appointed as a result of the British mission. He retained in office the high officials then appointed, and pardoned all Tibetans who had assisted the mission. But in 1909 Chinese troops were sent to operate on the Szechuen [Sichuan] frontier against certain insurgent lamas, whom they handled severely. When the Dalai Lama attempted to give orders that they should cease, the Chinese amban in Lhasa disputed his authority, and summoned the Chinese troops to enter the city. They did so, and the Dalai Lama fled to India in February 1910, staying at Darjeeling. Chinese troops followed him to the frontier, and he was deposed by imperial decree. The British government, in view of the apparent intention of China to establish effective suzerainty in Tibet, drew the attention of the government at Peking to the necessity of strictly observing its treaty obligations, and especially pointing out that the integrity of the frontier states of Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim must be respected. To the Dalai Lama, who had attempted to obtain British intervention at Peking, it was made clear that he personally had no claim to this, as the British government could only recognize the de facto government in Tibet.” (Ibid.)

The actual value of the Tibetan Plateau to Britain was doubtful. A more reasonable target for the British Raj was to secure a relatively small but much more densely populated territory that was on the Hindu side of the high mountains, yet ethnically and traditionally linked to Tibet. Variously known as ‘South Tibet’ or the ‘North-East Frontier Agency’, the British Raj tried to obtain title to it by the Simla Convention of 1914. The Dalai Lama agreed, but the government of the weak Chinese Republic rejected the whole Simla Convention. The British Raj left this territory alone at the time, and it was not marked as part of British India. But newly independent India took it over, and it has ended up as the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, yet still claimed by China, as I will detail later.

The Simla Convention would have separated Western Tibet from the rest of China. Britain defined it as Outer Tibet, with Eastern Tibet viewed as Inner Tibet. This concept was copied from a treaty that Tsarist Russia had imposed and which split off Outer Mongolia, later the Mongolian Republic and a sovereign state, whereas Inner Mongolia remained a region of China. Had Britain been able to impose this, history in Tibet might have gone differently. But as I mentioned earlier, it was never accepted by the Chinese central government and thus had no legal validity.

The British distinction between sovereignty and suzerainty lasted a surprisingly long time:

“In 2000 the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued a report on human rights that stated that the UK did not recognise Chinese sovereignty over Tibet (although – in a classical diplomatic fudge – neither did it recognise Tibet’s independence.” [AC].

In November 2008 – at a time when China’s goodwill was very much needed in the face of a banking crisis and slump in the West – the anomaly was finally cleared. As The Economist reported it:

“It was an early-21st-century solution to an early-20th-century problem. On October 29th, at the end of a short statement published on his ministry’s website, Britain’s foreign secretary, David Miliband, quietly junked his country’s long-standing position on Tibet. Uniquely among the world’s countries, Britain had not explicitly recognised Chinese sovereignty over the region. Rather it acknowledged its ‘suzerainty’.

“Quite what the term means has been obscure even to British diplomats. But what it does not mean—that China enjoys full sovereignty over China and has done so for centuries—has been enough to irk Chinese officials. It bolstered claims that Tibet was not part of China until its troops occupied it in 1951.

“Mr Miliband describes Britain’s old position as ‘based on the geopolitics of the time’—ie, the early 1900s, when British adventurers were entering Tibet from India and the Qing empire was disintegrating in China. He says this ‘anachronism’ has ‘clouded’ Britain’s ability to get its points across on Tibet: on the importance of respect for human rights and of greater Tibetan autonomy.

“His officials say he has merely aligned Britain’s stance with that of its European Union partners and of America. They point out that even the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, argues not for Tibetan independence, but for a ‘middle way’ of greater autonomy within China. But that, in fact, is rather reminiscent of some definitions of ‘suzerainty’. And the Dalai Lama has never admitted, as China would like, that Tibet has always been ‘an inalienable part of China’. Arguing about its past status, he has insisted, is beside the point.” [AD]

Of course it’s not beside the point at all. Beijing can’t be satisfied with the Dalai Lama saying he is not seeking independence: he has to admit that Tibet never possessed actual independence as defined by International Law. Anything else gets mixed up with the British Raj’s old scheme for tearing away at least Western Tibet. I’ll explain later why I believe the USA had something similar in mind in the early 1990s, a scheme that might have become serious had they not messed up in Iraq and Afghanistan. A scheme that would still not be out of the question if the West neutralised Iraq under Shia leadership and then got control of Afghanistan, which may be the current aim.

The question of Tibetan separation is never separate from the outside world’s hopes or fears of China. The USA turned over Manchuria and Taiwan to China’s Kuomintang Republic without bothering to check what the local inhabitants thought, and there were protests. Had China remained subordinate to Western interests, Tibetan claims to separation would have remained as marginal as similar claims all round the world.


[A] The man’s name would be better written as Songtsän Gampo – but modern computers and software are dominated by Anglo cultural values and frequently make a mess of accents.

[B] []

[C] Wikipedia, article on Princess Wencheng, as at 4th November 2008

[D] Wikipedia, article on the Sui Dynasty, as at 5th November

[E]. Wikipedia, articles on Ralpacan and Langdarma. Some historians think that the traditional account exaggerates the religious differences

[F] Wikipedia, articles on the Four Buddhist Persecutions in China and the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution [in China].

[G] Wikipedia, article on Byzantine Iconoclasm

[H] Wikipedia, article on the Himalayas

[J] Wikipedia, article on Tibet. Accented characters have been replaced, because they often fail to get interpreted by printing software.

[K] Lister, R. P. Genghis Khan. Cooper Square Press 2000, page 191.

[L] Ibid, pages 193-195.

[M] Wikipedia, article on ‘History of Tibet’

[N] Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times. University of California Press 1988, pages 37-38

[P] Ibid., page 42

[Q] Ibid, page 155-157

[R] Ibid, page 221-222

[S] []

[T] Why don’t I believe the Chinese could have met the civilisations of the New World? Because 15th century Chinese would have had exactly the same sort of military superiority that the Spaniards later enjoyed. Because they could also have peacefully traded silks etc. for the vast amounts of gold the New World possessed. If such contact had ever been made, it would have had huge and immediate consequences.

[V] Teltscher, Kate. The High Road to China. Bloomsbury 2007, pages 23-24

[W] Ibid., page 61.

[X] Ibid., page 69.

[Y] Ibid., page 64-5.

[Z] Ibid., page 86.

[AA] Ibid., page 115 & 117-118

[AB] Ibid., page 251

[AC] Ibid., page 265

[AD] []

[AE] Allen, Charles. Duel in the Snows: The True Story of the Younghusband Mission to Lhasa. John Murray 2004. Page 1.

[AF] Ibid., page 24

[AG] Ibid., page 40

[AH] Ibid., page 51

[AJ] Ibid., pages 58-60.

[AK] The film Rapa Nui mixes elements from several different eras of Easter Island history, but perhaps gives a fair impression of the overall tragedy of that isolated community.

[AL] Duel in the Snows, page 136

[AM] Ibid., page 142

[AN] Ibid., page 145

[AO] Ibid., pages 190-191

[AP] Ibid., page 194

[AQ] Ibid., page 225

[AR] Ibid., page 228

[AS] Ibid., page 234

[AT] Ibid., page 247

[AU] Ibid., pages 272 – 273

[AV] Ibid., page 306

[AW] Franck, Irene M & Brownstone, David M. The Silk Road: A History, Pages 203-205

[AX] Lattimore, Owen and Eleanor. Silks, Spices and Empire: Asia seen through the eyes of its discoverers. page 318

[AY] Silks, Spices and Empire, page 319.

[AZ] Roberts, J. M;   The Penguin History Of The World; Penguin Books, page 365.

[BA] Yap, Yong and Cotterell, Arthur. Chinese Civilisation: From the Ming Revival to Chairman Mao, page 72.

[BB] Ibid, page 74-75

[BC] Cotterell, Arthur. East Asia: From Chinese Predominance To The Rise Of The Pacific Rim, page 108

[BD] [] and [] shows some examples of this script.

[BE] Roberts, J. M. The Penguin History Of The World, Penguin Books 1995, page 365.

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