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The Imperial Era
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The Imperial Era

Political contact between Tibet and China began in the seventh century A.D. when Tibet became unified under the rule of King Songtsen Gampo. The dynasty he created lasted for two centuries and expanded Tibet's borders to include, in the north, much of today's Xinjiang province; in the west, parts of Ladakh/Kashmir; and in the east, Amdo and Kham—parts of today's Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. Because many of the eastern and northern territories that Tibet conquered were kingdoms subordinate to China's Tang dynasty (618–907), the Chinese were well aware of the emergence of this powerful kingdom. Songtsen Gampo received a Chinese princess as a bride, and at one point in the eighth century when the Chinese stopped paying tribute to Tibet, Tibetan forces captured Changan (Xi'an), the capital of the Tang dynasty.[1] By the early ninth century, Sino-Tibetan relations had been formalized through a number of treaties that fixed the border between the two kingdoms.[2] It is clear, therefore, that Tibet was in no way subordinate to China during the imperial era. Each was a distinct and independent political entity.

During the era of the kings, Tibet transformed into a more sophisticated civilization, creating a written language based on a north Indian script and introducing Buddhism from India. The first monastery was built not far from Lhasa at Samye in about 779 A.D. The importation of Buddhism, however, produced internal conflict as the adherents of the traditional shamanistic Bon religion strongly opposed its growth and development. Ultimately, this discord led to the disintegration of


the royal dynasty when the pro-Bon king was assassinated in the middle of the ninth century by a Buddhist monk angry over his persecution of Buddhism.

For the next two hundred years Tibet languished. The once great empire became a fragmented, disunified collection of autonomous local principalities. Buddhism also paid a heavy price as it was driven out of the central part of Tibet. Then, in the eleventh century, Indian Buddhist monk-teachers such as Atisha visited Tibet and sparked a vibrant revival of Buddhism. Tibetan lamas and their disciples constructed new monasteries, and these gradually developed into subsects of Tibetan Buddhism. With no centralized government, the most important of these sects, the Sakya, the Karma Kargyu, and the Drigung Kargyu, became involved in political affairs, supporting powerful lay chiefs and being supported by them in return.

In China, meanwhile, the powerful Tang dynasty collapsed in 905 A.D., and like Tibet, China experienced a period of disunity (known as the era of the Five Kingdoms, 907–960). During this period a series of buffer states occupied the frontier between China and Tibet. There is no evidence of political relations between Tibet and China. Similarly, during the three centuries of the Sung dynasty (960–1279), Tibetan-Chinese political relations were nonexistent. Chinese histories of the period barely mention Tibet.[3]

All of that changed in the thirteenth century, when a new power rose in the heart of inner Asia.

Tibet and the Mongols

The unification of the diverse Mongol tribes by Genghis Khan in the late twelfth century led to one of the greatest explosions of conquest the world has ever seen. Mongol armies swept out of the Mongolian plains and mountains and conquered immense spans of territory, including Tibet, which submitted bloodlessly to the Mongols in 1207. Tibet paid tribute to


Genghis Khan, and Mongol forces did not invade Tibet or interfere in the administration of its principalities.

The death of Genghis Khan in 1227 produced important changes. Tibetans ceased sending tribute to Mongolia and the new supreme khan, Ogedai, ordered a cavalry force under the command of his son Godan into Tibet. They advanced almost to Lhasa, looting several important monasteries and killing hundreds of monks. During this attack Godan's field commanders collected information on important religious and political leaders, and in 1244, based on their reports, Godan summoned a famous lama of the Sakya sect—Sakya Pandita—to his court in what is now Gansu. The Sakya lama arrived in 1247 and made a full submission of Tibet to the rule of the Mongols. He also gave religious instruction to Godan and his officials, and in turn was placed in charge of Tibet as viceregent. Sakya Pandita sent a long letter back to Tibet telling his countrymen that it was futile to resist the Mongols and instructing them to pay the required tribute. It also said, according to Tibetan sources:

The Prince has told me that if we Tibetans help the Mongols in matters of religion, they in turn will support us in temporal matters. In this way, we will be able to spread our religion far and wide. The Prince is just beginning to learn to understand our religion. If I stay longer, I am certain I can spread the faith of the Buddha beyond Tibet and, thus, help my country. The Prince has allowed me to preach my religion without fear and has offered me all that I need. He tells me that it is in his hands to do good for Tibet and that it is in mine to do good for him.[4]

Thus began the curious relationship Tibetans refer to as "priest-patron" (in Tibetan, mchod yon ). Tibet's lama provided religious instruction; performed rites, divination, and astrology; and offered the khan flattering religious titles like "protector of religion" or "religious king." The khan, in turn, protected and advanced the interests of the "priest" ("lama"). The lamas also made effective regents through whom the Mongols ruled Tibet.


Godan was succeeded by one of the greatest of the Mongol rulers, Kublai Khan. He became the supreme khan of all the Mongols in 1260 and went on to conquer China in 1279, founding the Yuan dynasty. Sakya Pandita, in the meantime, was succeeded by his nephew, Phagpa, who developed a privileged relationship with the extraordinarily powerful khan. Kublai became a great patron of Buddhism in general and of the Sakya sect in particular, making Phagpa his imperial tutor as well as the ruler of Tibet under his authority. The relationship between Kublai and Phagpa, however, was complex. In keeping with the "priest-patron" ideology, Phagpa was much more than a conquered subject put on the throne. An amazing disagreement between the two, documented in both Tibetan and Mongolian records, illustrates the great stature that Tibet's lamas held among the Mongols. When Kublai asked Phagpa to serve as his spiritual tutor, Phagpa agreed but insisted that Kublai show deference to his superior religious stature. Kublai initially refused, but eventually relented and agreed to sit on a throne lower than the lama when he was receiving private instruction, as long as the lama sat lower in all other settings.[5]

Contemporary Chinese scholars and officials consider this the period when Tibet first became part of China. Nationalistic Tibetans, by contrast, accept only that they, like China, were subjugated by the Mongols and incorporated into a Mongol empire centered in China.

The Sakya ruled in Tibet for roughly a century, until they were overthrown in 1358 by one of their governors. The Yuan dynasty was too weak to do anything but quietly accept this turn of events. In fact, just ten years later the Yuan dynasty itself was overthrown and replaced by an ethnically Chinese dynasty known as the Ming. Relations between Tibet and China continued during the Ming dynasty, but unlike their Yuan predecessors, the Ming emperors (1368–1644) exerted no administrative authority over the area. Many titles were given to leading Tibetans by the Ming emperors, but not to confer authority as


with the Mongols. By conferring titles on Tibetans already in power, the Ming emperors merely recognized political reality.[6]

Then, in the seventeenth century, political events in Tibet and China saw the rise of two new powers.

The Rise of the Geluk Sect in Tibet

When Tibet was subjugated by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, the Geluk, or Yellow Hat, sect of the Dalai Lama had not yet come into existence. Tibet was dominated by several "Red Hat" Buddhist sects such as the Sakya and Kargyu. The emergence of what was later to become Tibet's greatest sect occurred only in the late fourteenth century, when a brilliant Amdo monk named Tsongkapa came to central Tibet in 1372 to seek teachings from all the great lamas of the day. A charismatic figure, he found an appalling state of moral decline in central Tibet, particularly in regard to the vow of celibacy, and he began to preach a reformist doctrine that emphasized strict monastic vows of celibacy, and scholastic study as the path for enlightenment. This marked the beginning of the Geluk, which in Tibetan means, "the system of virtue."

In 1408 Tsongkapa began the custom of convening a month-long Great Prayer Festival in the heart of Lhasa, and in 1409 he founded his own monastery—Ganden—on a ridge about twenty-seven miles east of Lhasa. As he began to write and teach, he attracted a circle of devoted disciples who spread his ideas, creating a new and vibrant Buddhist sect. To differentiate themselves from the earlier sects, the followers of Tsongkapa took to wearing yellow instead of red hats and thus have come to be known as the Yellow Hat sect. Within a short time Tsongkapa's disciples built what were to become the Geluk sect's two largest monasteries—Drepung (in 1416) and Sera (in 1419). Located just outside of Lhasa, those two monasteries became small monk-towns, housing over fifteen thousand monks by 1950. Another of Tsongkapa's famous disciples,


Gendundrup, extended the influence of the Geluk sect into southwest Tibet (Tsang) when he built the famous Tashilhunpo monastery near the town of Shigatse in 1445.

As these followers of Tsongkapa gained support among the aristocracy and their sect grew in size and importance, they engendered the suspicion and hostility of the more powerful established sects like the Karma Kargyu who were closely allied with the rulers of political Tibet, the princes of Rimpung (and following them, the Tsangpa kings). The fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, in fact, were characterized by extensive civil and religious strife in Tibet, the Yellow Hat monks coming into recurring conflict with the Karma Kargyu and their political supporters. In 1498, for example, the Rimpung king actually forbade the Yellow Hat monks of Sera and Drepung from participating in the Great Prayer Festival begun by Tsongkapa, limiting the prayer festival to monks of the Kargyu and Sakya sects. By the early seventeenth century the sectarian conflict had worsened. In a dispute between the Geluks and the pro-Karma sect Tsangpa king, the king's troops in 1618 killed a large number of Geluk monks, occupied Sera and Drepung monasteries, and prohibited a search for the incarnation of the fourth Dalai Lama, who had recently died. The Geluk retaliated in 1633, attacking and defeating the Tsangpa king's troop garrisons around Lhasa with the help of several thousand Mongol followers. A peace agreement was negotiated, but Mongols were again playing a significant role in Tibetan internal affairs, this time as the military arm of the Dalai Lama, the main incarnate lama of the Geluk sect.

The idea of reincarnation as a method of religious succession was developed by the Karma Kargyu sect in 1193, hundreds of years before the Yellow Hat sect emerged on the scene. The idea derives from the Buddhist belief that all humans are trapped in an endless sequence of birth, death, and rebirth until they achieve nirvana (enlightenment). In the Mahayana


school of Buddhism (into which Tibetan Buddhism is subsumed), some enlightened beings (bodhisattvas ) defer their final release from the cycle of birth and rebirth—nirvana—and return to human form to help the remaining sentient beings progress toward enlightenment.

In the late twelfth century the great Karma lama Düsum Khyempa used this concept to prophesy his own rebirth; and soon after he died, his disciples discovered a child into whom they believed he had emanated. That child was considered to be Düsum Khyempa in a new body, so the charismatic authority and stature of the old master lama were now inherent in the child. In a world where religious sects constantly competed for lay patrons, the religious and political benefits of this form of rebirth were striking, and it quickly became a general part of the Tibetan religious landscape. Incarnate lamas developed lineages, which functioned like corporations in the sense that they came to own property and peasants and retain a legal identity across generations. New incarnations of the initial great lama formed an unbroken line of succession. As long as everyone accepted the validity of the discovery process, the powerful charisma of a holy lama could be routinized and the focus of devotion and support continued. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Yellow Hat sect also adopted this tradition when one of their most important religious leaders, Gendundrup (the founder of Tashilhunpo monastery) died in 1474. His disciples searched for and discovered his reincarnation in the body of Gendun Gyatso, a young boy who became the second in the new incarnation lineage. When Gendun Gyatso died in 1543, his consciousness emanated into the body of another boy, Sonam Gyatso, who became the third in that line of lamas.

Sonam Gyatso was an energetic proponent of the Yellow Hat sect's ideology with strong missionary tendencies. His fame reached the ears of a powerful Mongol ruler called Altyn


Khan who invited Sonam Gyatso to visit him. In 1578 they met in today's Qinghai province (Amdo). Sonam Gyatso impressed the khan with his spirituality and religious power, and they exchanged honorific titles in the manner of the time. The lama enhanced the stature of the khan in relation to other Mongol chiefs by giving him the title "king of religion, majestic purity," and the khan gave Sonam Gyatso the Mongolian title of dalai , "ocean" in Mongolian, the implication being that his knowledge or spirituality was as vast as the ocean. Thus was born the title Dalai Lama. Sonam Gyatso was the first to hold the title, but since he was the third incarnation in the Yellow Hat sect's incarnation line, he came to be known as the third Dalai Lama, with the titles of first and second Dalai Lama given posthumously to his two predecessors.

Sonam Gyatso solidified his relationship with the Mongols by spending the remaining ten years of his life in Mongolia and the nearby Kham and Amdo regions, giving teachings and making important inroads for the Yellow Hat sect. Much of this success was at the expense of the older Karma Kargyu and the pre-Buddhist Bon sects. When he died in 1588, the Geluk-Mongol tie was intensified as his reincarnation, the fourth Dalai Lama, was discovered in Mongolia in the body of the great-grandson of none other than Altyn Khan. The fourth Dalai Lama was taken to Lhasa in 1601 accompanied by an entourage of Yellow Hat lamas and nobles who had traveled to Mongolia for this purpose. They were escorted by a contingent of armed Mongol followers. The new Yellow Hat sect, therefore, came to be closely associated with the Mongols. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this close religious/political relationship became a critical component of Sino-Tibetan relations.

The Mongolian fourth Dalai Lama died in 1616 and was succeeded by the fifth Dalai Lama who was discovered in central Tibet, not far from Lhasa. Sectarian strife intensified in his youth, when an ally of the Tsangpa king started to persecute


Geluk monks and institutions in Kham and talked of moving into central Tibet to attack the Geluk sect's main centers. The Geluk feared this was the beginning of a concerted effort to wipe out their sect and turned for help to their Mongol adherents in the person of Gushri Khan.

Gushri Khan was the chief of the Qoshot tribe, a branch of the Western Mongols who were based in Dzungaria, in present-day northeast Xinjiang. As a follower of the Dalai Lama he answered his lama's call for help and between 1637 and 1640 defeated the anti-Geluk forces in Amdo and Kham, resettling his whole tribe in the process in Amdo. Then, at the request of Sonam Chöpel, the chief steward (administrator) of the fifth Dalai Lama, Gushri marched into Tibet where he attacked the Tsangpa king himself at his home base in Shigatse. The Geluk sect sent its own force of supporters and monks to assist him, and in 1642 they captured Shigatse. The king of Tibet (the Tsangpa king) was executed.

Gushri Khan gave supreme authority over all of Tibet to the fifth Dalai Lama, appointing the Dalai Lama's chief steward, Sonam Chöpel, as regent to carry out the day-to-day affairs of state. The main rival of the Yellow Hat sect, the Karma Kargyu, bore the brunt of the defeat and were actively persecuted by the Geluk government. Much of their wealth and property was confiscated and many of their monasteries were forcibly converted to the Geluk sect. The Yellow Hat sect therefore quickly eclipsed all the others in size, strength, and wealth.

Using foreign troops to seize power in one's country is dangerous; it is easier to persuade them to come than induce them to go. This is what happened in Tibet. Gushri Khan did not pick up his troops and return to Amdo after winning Tibet for his lama. Instead he took the title of king of Tibet for himself and his descendants and remained in Central Tibet, spending his summers in a pasture area north of Lhasa and his winters in Lhasa. The military power behind the new


Yellow Hat government remained in his hands. The Dalai Lama and a regent administered the country, but it appears clear that they had to defer to his views to some degree.

At the time the Geluk sect was unifying Tibet under its rule, another group with central Asian origins, the Manchu, were in the final stages of conquering China. In 1644 they established a new dynasty, the Qing, which lasted until 1911. The Geluk sect and the Manchu had only cursory contact before they both came to power, but afterward, the Qing emperor invited the fifth Dalai Lama to visit Beijing and he agreed, arriving there in 1656. The Qing emperor treated the Dalai Lama with great courtesy and respect. There was nothing in this meeting to indicate political subordination on the part of the Tibetan prelate. With his Qoshot Mongol army behind him and his broad following among other Mongol tribes, some of whom were a threat to the Qing themselves, the Dalai Lama was not someone to be trifled with.

Stability in Tibet continued until the fifth Dalai Lama died in 1682. Then the weakness of reincarnation succession started a process of decline. Since the deceased lama can emanate only into someone born after his death, there is inevitably a period of fifteen to twenty years when the new incarnation-ruler is a minor, and a period of potential instability as others try to rule in his name. Sangye Gyatso, Tibet's regent at the death of the fifth Dalai Lama, dealt with this "crisis" by hiding the death from the nation. Whether motivated by fear that his position was in jeopardy or that general disturbances might arise, he pretended that the Dalai Lama had withdrawn for extended meditation and could not be disturbed. He maintained this hoax for fourteen years, ruling in the fifth Dalai Lama's name until 1696 when the secret became public.

During this period, the regent also intrigued with the powerful Dzungar Mongols, whose chief, Ganden, had been a monk at the main Geluk monasteries in Lhasa. It appears that the Tibetan regent encouraged the Dzungars (in the Dalai Lama's name) to


unify all Mongols under their rule. When the Dzungars attacked the Eastern (Khalkha) Mongols and won a major victory in 1682, a new unified Mongolia seemed again possible.

One can only surmise that the regent wanted to use the might of the Dzungars to offset the military power of the Qoshot Mongols in Tibet, perhaps even to force them out of Tibet and back to Amdo. He may also have felt that the power and prestige of the Dalai Lamas would be greatly enhanced in a Mongolia united under the Dzungars, who looked to him as their main lama. But the regent was playing a high-risk game: the Dzungars were the last group strong enough to challenge the supremacy of the Qing dynasty, so siding with them meant opposing the interests of the Qing.

The Dzungar attempt to unify all Mongols, however, failed. The defeated Eastern Mongols sought the protection of the Qing emperor, who accepted their submission and, thinking that the Dzungar's spiritual leader, the fifth Dalai Lama, was still alive, asked that he use his religious authority to persuade the Dzungars to stop their invasion. Without informing the Qing emperor that the Dalai Lama was dead, the Tibetan regent sent a lama emissary to the Dzungars ostensibly to persuade them to desist in their invasion, but he appears to have conducted rites to ensure their victory. The Dzungars continued moving south toward Inner Mongolia. At this point the Qing emperor sent a large army against them and in 1696 won a major victory at the Kalulun River in Mongolia. Ganden committed suicide. The Dzungar's threat to the Qing dynasty was over, but a dangerous message had been sent to the Qing emperor regarding the importance of Tibet's lamas and the political untrustworthiness of the Tibetan regent.

Almost immediately, the Qing found an opportunity to meddle in Tibetan affairs. When Lhabsang Khan, Gushri Khan's grandson, assumed the title of king of Tibet in 1697, he set out to restore the political authority that his grandfather Gushri Khan had wielded. This placed him in direct conflict with the


Tibetan regent, who wanted no Mongol influence in his administration.

A bone of contention for Lhabsang Khan was the behavior of Tsayang Gyatso, the sixth Dalai Lama. This boy had been secretly identified as the new Dalai Lama soon after the death of the fifth Dalai Lama, but because the regent was keeping the fifth's death a secret, he announced only that this child was the incarnation of another lama. Thus, Tsayang Gyatso was not enthroned as the sixth Dalai Lama until 1697 when the news of the fifth's death became public.

The sixth Dalai Lama, however, turned out to be totally deviant in attitude and values, refusing to play the role of a celibate religious practitioner. He renounced his monastic vows and became a famous libertine, writing love poems and carousing with women at night in Lhasa. Lhabsang Khan was among those who believed that the regent was remiss in not insisting the Dalai Lama act like a true lama. Whether this demand was based on sincere conviction or simply a means to attack the regent is unclear. However, relations between the regent and Lhabsang Khan steadily worsened until 1705 when Lhabsang, supported by the Qing emperor and allied with a number of aristocratic Tibetan families, attacked the regent in Lhasa, defeating his forces. The regent was executed and Lhabsang Khan become the king of Tibet in fact as well as in title.

The emperor of China sent an envoy to Lhasa and recognized the khan as ruler of Tibet under his protection. The khan, in turn, agreed to make regular tribute payments to the Qing in return for their support. Thus Lhabsang Khan placed himself and the Tibet he now ruled in a subordinate relationship to the Qing dynasty. Lhabsang Khan also publicly announced that Tsayang Gyatso was not the true sixth Dalai Lama, and with the approval of the Qing emperor, sent him to exile in Beijing, foisting off another monk of the appropriate age as the person who should have been recognized years earlier as the real sixth Tibetan prelate. Lhabsang's military control of Tibet


enabled him to impose his will, but it angered the monks and populace, who continued to consider Tsayang Gyatso as the true sixth Dalai Lama. When Tsayang Gyatso died en route to Beijing, rumors quickly arose in Tibet that he had emanated into a new body in Litang (in Kham) in accordance with a hauntingly beautiful poem he had written before his death that said,

Lend me your wings, white crane;
I go no farther than Litang, and thence return again.[7]

As displeasure with the situation in Lhasa rose, the monks of the three great Geluk monasteries around Lhasa turned to the Geluk's Mongol followers, the Dzungars, for aid in overthrowing Lhabsang Khan and his false Dalai Lama and installing the boy from Litang as the seventh Dalai Lama.

In 1717 seven thousand Dzungar cavalrymen entered Tibet and, with the aid of a number of Tibetan monks and laymen, quickly defeated Lhabsang Khan, who was killed in the fighting. The Dzungars appointed a new Tibetan regent, deposed the "false" sixth Dalai Lama installed by Lhabsang, arrested and executed a number of aristocrats and lamas who had been close supporters of Lhabsang Khan, and became the new rulers of Tibet. However, the Mongols soon alienated Tibetans by engaging in looting and by executing some Red Hat lamas. And critically, they failed to bring the new seventh Dalai Lama from Amdo to Tibet, as they had promised. The Qing emperor and his allies, understanding the political importance of the Dalai Lama, beat the Dzungars to the punch and placed the Litang boy under their control. Opposition to the Dzungar presence grew quickly in Lhasa.

In the meantime, two important Tibetan aristocrats—Pholhanas and Khangchennas—began to organize forces in west and southwest Tibet to oppose the Dzungars, and the Qing emperor, Kangxi, sent an army into Tibet in response to a plea for help dispatched by Lhabsang Khan before his defeat.


When this Qing army was annihilated by the Dzungars, most court officials in Beijing were opposed to further military operations in Tibet, but the emperor saw Tibet as an important buffer for western China (Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan) and was unwilling to allow it to remain in the control of his enemy, the Dzungars.[8] Consequently, he ordered a second, larger army into Tibet, sending the young seventh Dalai Lama with them. As the Qing troops entered Tibet from Amdo and Kham, the Tibetan forces of Pholhanas and Khangchennas also moved on Lhasa from the southwest. This time the Dzungars were defeated, and in October 1720 the Qing army entered Lhasa with the new seventh Dalai Lama. Qing troops now controlled Lhasa and Tibet.

The Qing emperor was not interested in administratively absorbing Tibet into China. His goal was to control the actions of Tibet's fractious leaders, and particularly to prevent its lamas from using their religious sway over the Mongols to harm Qing interests. In the past the Qing had tried to win the friendship and allegiance of high Tibetan lamas like the Dalai Lama through titles and gifts, but that approach had proved insufficient. Now the Qing decided to create a kind of loose protectorate over Tibet to enforce its dynastic interests. The powerful Qing dynasty would protect Tibet from external and internal conflict, leaving Tibetan leaders it approved of to rule Tibet in a manner that was not inimical to Qing interests. The structuring of this passive hegemony took the Qing the rest of the eighteenth century and forced them to send armies into Tibet on three more occasions.

The Qing made a number of important changes in the administration of Tibet. They installed the fifteen-year-old Litang boy in the Potala Palace as the seventh Dalai Lama and arrested and executed the main pro-Dzungar officials, including the Tibetan regent the Dzungars had appointed. The Qing solidified their new dominance in Tibet by building a military garrison in Lhasa and staffing it with several thousand troops.


They also eliminated the office of regent (initiated by the Qoshot Mongols in 1642), replacing it in 1721 with collective rule by four ministers (kalön ), one of whom, Khangchennas, was appointed chairman. All four ministers were important lay Tibetan officials who had supported Lhabsang Khan and opposed the Dzungar's invasion.

Father I. Desideri, a Jesuit priest living in Lhasa at this time, prophetically wrote of this event: "After nigh twenty years of tumult and disaster this . . . Tibet . . . was thus subjugated by the emperor of China in October, 1720, and here his descendants will probably continue to reign for many centuries."[9] The religious conflict between the Geluk and Karma Kargyu sects had therefore brought Tibet under the control first of the Qoshot Mongols, then of the Dzungar Mongols, and finally of the Qing dynasty. The latter would remain the overlords of Tibet until they fell from power in China in 1911.

The 1720 Qing administrative reforms did not go well. The strategy of replacing a single all-powerful regent with a number of ministers created bitter dissension rather than a stable balance of power. In 1727 civil war erupted when three ministers assassinated the chief minister Khangchennas and tried to kill Pholhanas, a minister who supported him. Pholhanas, however, escaped the assassination plot and raised an army in southwest and west Tibet, his home area. He moved on Lhasa and defeated the other ministers, taking control of the city in July 1728.

No Qing troops were present to restore order in Lhasa because the emperor had withdrawn his garrison in 1722 after Tibet's ministers complained that it was difficult to feed several thousand troops from what was basically a feudal subsistence economy. Consequently, when he learned of the coup attempt in Tibet, the Qing emperor had to dispatch another imperial army to Lhasa (the third in a decade). This force arrived two months after Pholhanas had taken the city. With the situation calm and the ministers responsible for the coup under


Pholhanas's control, the Qing commander and Pholhanas jointly formed a judicial board that ordered the execution of the three ministers and their families as well as a number of other officials and lamas involved. New ministers were appointed, but Pholhanas, now clearly the dominant figure, was confirmed as the chief administrator of Tibet. The twenty-two-year-old seventh Dalai Lama, however, experienced a different fate. He was sent into exile in Kham, together with his father, who had apparently intrigued with the fallen ministers as well as with the Dzungars.

Administratively, the Qing imposed reforms they hoped would stabilize the situation in Tibet. To ensure law and order, the Qing military garrison was reestablished in Lhasa with two thousand troops. A supporting garrison of one thousand troops was set up in Chamdo, in eastern Tibet, to facilitate the deployment of reinforcements. Additionally, the emperor now decided to station two Manchu imperial residents (known as amban ) in Lhasa with orders to keep a close watch on the leaders of Tibet and oversee the garrison in Lhasa.[10] The practice of having Qing ambans in Lhasa continued until 1912.

The Qing also weakened Tibet by substantially reducing its territories in the border area between Tibet and China. In 1728 three large ethnic Tibetan areas in Kham were placed under the jurisdiction of Sichuan and three others under the jurisdiction of Yunnan province.[11] Amdo or Kokonor had already been placed under the jurisdiction of Xining in 1724 after a revolt by the Mongol khans ruling there. The emperor tried to further fragment Tibet in 1728 by offering the Yellow Hat sect's second greatest incarnation, the Panchen Lama, administrative control over all of southwest (Tsang) and western Tibet. The Panchen Lama refused this offer, but ultimately accepted control over three large districts in Tsang. The Lhasa government, therefore, now ruled a substantially scaled-down political entity.

The reforms of 1728 were effective, and for the next nineteen years Tibet was internally peaceful. Pholhanas was a strong


and capable administrator who was able to operate a well-run and stable government while skillfully gaining the confidence of the ambans and the Qing emperor. He quickly persuaded Beijing to reduce the garrison in Lhasa to five hundred troops, and in 1735 brought the seventh Dalai Lama back from exile, although excluding him from any involvement in the administration of Tibet. The Dalai Lama was now nothing more than a spiritual figurehead. In 1739 Pholhanas was given the title of prince by the Qing emperor, becoming, in essence, the king of Tibet. The two ambans remained in Lhasa but had little to do with everyday administration; Pholhanas determined the course of Tibetan events. As one Chinese historian notes, Pholhanas "made all the decisions in Tibet, the amban being consulted merely regarding their implementation."[12]

When Pholhanas died in 1747, his son Gyurme Namgye inherited his title of prince. One hundred years after unification under the fifth Dalai Lama, Tibet was now ruled not by Dalai Lamas but by a lay aristocratic family as a Qing dependency. Gyurme Namgye's attitude toward the Qing was very different from his father's. Pholhanas had skillfully managed Sino-Tibetan relations by carefully exuding an attitude of friendship and loyalty to the Qing, securing in return the freedom to rule Tibet in accordance with its native customs and values. His son, on the other hand, sought to rid Tibet of all vestiges of Qing overlordship. He complained to the emperor Qian Long that Qing troops need not be stationed in Tibet and that the emperor's imperial commissioners, the ambans , were interfering in his administration and exploiting the people. Since Tibet had been peaceful and unproblematic for the previous two and a half decades, the emperor agreed to reduce the Lhasa garrison to a token one hundred troops and instructed the ambans in Lhasa not to interfere in Tibet's administration. He also agreed to send additional funds to cover the expenses of the ambans and troops, thus reducing the need for corvees (that is, taxation in the form of forced labor) to obtain goods and


services. But Gyurme Namgye wanted all troops and ambans out of Tibet. He began to organize a secret Tibetan army of his own and, disastrously, began to intrigue with the habitual enemies of the Qing dynasty, the Dzungar Mongols.

When the ambans in Lhasa learned of these machinations, they invited him to their residence in Lhasa and murdered him. In response, Gyurme Namgye's followers attacked the ambans ' residence and killed them together with their troops. Another several hundred Chinese sought refuge in the Potala under the protection of the seventh Dalai Lama and were spared. The Qing emperor, Qian Long, ordered an army to march to Tibet.

Into this political void, the seventh Dalai Lama intervened. He stopped the rioting and killing of Chinese and Manchu, appointed a lay aristocrat to operate the government, and had the leaders of the riot captured. Consequently, by the time the Qing emperor's troops reached Lhasa order had been restored under the authority of the Dalai Lama. The Qing commander publicly executed a number of Gyurme Namgye's supporters, and, as in 1723 and 1728, made changes in the political structure, this time drawing up a formal reorganization plan to permanently stabilize Tibetan politics called the "Thirteen Article Ordinance for the More Efficient Governing of Tibet." Having tried to control Tibet through a lay aristocratic family, the Qing now restored the Dalai Lama as ruler but elevated the role of the amban to include more direct involvement in Tibetan internal affairs. At the same time the Qing took steps to counterbalance the power of the aristocracy by adding officials recruited from the clergy to key posts. For example, a monk minister was added to the new council of ministers, and from this time the abbots and the chief managers (chiso ) of the three great Geluk monasteries around Lhasa (Drepung, Sera, and Ganden) took part in discussions with the council ministers on important affairs.[13]

For several decades, peace reigned in Tibet, but the country was weak and disunited. When a dispute between Tibet


and Nepal precipitated a Nepalese invasion in 1788, the Tibetans could not defend their country. The Nepalese looted Tashilhunpo, the monastery of the Panchen Lama, and occupied a substantial portion of southwest Tibet. The Qing emperor sent a large Chinese army into Tibet that joined Tibetan forces in 1792 to push the Nepalese out and force them to sue for peace. It was the fifth army the Qing had sent to Tibet in the eighteenth century.

The inability of the Tibetans to expel the Nepalese forces without an army from China, coupled with charges of poor leadership and organization in the Tibetan government, prompted yet another Qing reorganization of the Tibetan government, this time through a written plan called the "Twenty-Nine Regulations for Better Government in Tibet." This reform package included the selection of top incarnations (hutuktus ) like the Dalai and Panchen Lamas through a lottery conducted in a golden urn, the aim being to prevent the selection of incarnations being manipulated to fall in politically powerful lay families.[14] It also elevated the ambans to equal political authority with the Dalai Lama for major administrative issues and appointments and mandated that nominations for top positions like council minister be submitted to the emperor for approval. The reforms also included regulations forbidding exploitation of peasants through the misuse of corvee labor, and prohibited the relatives of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas from holding public office during the lamas' lifetimes. Qing military garrisons staffed with Qing troops, moreover, were now established near the Nepalese border at Shigatse and Dingri.[15]

The Qing rationale for these changes was conveyed by Fu Kangan, the general in charge of the expeditionary force, in comments to the Dalai Lama at that time:

The administration of Tibetan local affairs has never had any system to go by. All the Dalai Lama does is silent meditation and is therefore not well-informed of events taking place outside. The kaloons [council ministers] cheat with wild abandon in


times of peace, and in times of war they are not able to do anything [in] defense. Extensive regulations are needed so that everyone knows what he is expected to do. In this regard His Majesty has instructed me in great detail what to do and has ordered me and the others to deliberate on his instructions to make sure that their execution will serve the interests of the Tibetans for a long time to come without creating any drawbacks. Since the Dalai Lama is grateful to His Majesty for what he has done for Tibet, he is expected to respect the changes to be made for better government in Tibet. If he persists in his old ways of doing things, His Majesty will call back the resident officials and evacuate the Tibetan garrison immediately after the withdrawal of the expeditionary army, and the Court will not come to the help of Tibet should any emergencies arise in the future. The Dalai Lama is asked to weigh the pros and cons and make up him [sic] mind.[16]

Fu Kangan's comments reveal Beijing's frustration with the leaders of its Tibet dependency. Beijing had sought a peaceful Tibet that caused it no problems, but had already found it necessary to send five armies there in less than seven decades. The Dalai Lama agreed to the regulations and gave assurances that his ministers would do so as well.

In the years immediately following the 1792 regulations, the ambans exercised their greatest authority, but they made no attempt to absorb Tibet into China as a province. Tibet maintained its own language, officials, and legal system, and paid no taxes or tribute to China. In fact, the 1792 reforms included the creation of Tibet's first standing army, the emperor's aim being to enable Tibet to defend itself and thus avoid having to send troops again. In modern times the popular name of this regiment was "Chinese trained" (or Gyajong ).

The actual role of the amban in Tibet is difficult to assess. Despite the rhetoric and rules the Qing prepared, their power appears to have varied considerably in accordance with many factors such as their personality and competence in relation to that of the leaders of Tibet, and the nature of the political situ-


ation in China and Tibet at any point in time. A comment by the Qing emperor to his amban in Lhasa in 1792 illustrates the gap between rules and reality since 1728:

Usually capable, competent officials are assigned to posts in the capital; those sent to Tibet have been mostly mediocrities who did practically nothing but wait for the expiration of their tenures of office so they could return to Beijing. Because of that the Dalai Lama and the kaloons [council ministers] were able to do whatever they wished in the administration of Tibetan affairs, ignoring the existence of these incompetent officials. That is how the Resident Official [amban ] has been reduced to nothing more than a figurehead. From now on the administration of Tibet should be effectively supervised by the Resident Official; . . . the Dalai Lama and the kaloons shall no longer be able to monopolize it.[17]

However, as the nineteenth century unfolded, the Qing dynasty experienced pressing threats to its position as a result of internal disturbances such as the Taiping Rebellion (1848–1865) and external incursions by Western countries such as the Opium War of 1839–1842. Not surprisingly, the power of the ambans in Tibet waned, as did the involvement of the Qing emperors. Consequently, Tibet was able to conduct a war with the Sikhs and Ladakh in 1841–1842 and another war with the Nepalese in 1855–1856 with no involvement from China, although in the latter conflict Tibet was forced to pay Nepal an annual tribute and accept a Nepalese resident in Lhasa and extraterritoriality for Nepalese traders. Similarly, the thirteenth Dalai Lama was chosen in 1877 without recourse to the "golden urn" lottery that the Qing emperor, Qian Long, had ordered in 1792. And in 1897, two years after the thirteenth Dalai assumed political control, he stopped consulting the amban in the selection of top officials (in accordance with the 1792 regulations) and began appointing them directly. As Phuntso Tashi, the fourteenth Dalai Lama's brother-in-law (and a former Tibetan government official) explains, "For over


100 years Tibet's holders of political power had not been able to do that. The Manchu government was displeased with this but . . . they were unable to do anything about it."[18] By the turn of the twentieth century, therefore, the Qing hegemony over Tibet was more symbolic than real, and the Tibet Question was, in a sense, latent —Tibet did not explicitly try to sever its ties to Beijing: it offered nominal respect to the emperor but did not defer to the emperor's amban in Lhasa.

That laissez-faire arrangement was permanently transformed when a third party entered the scene and set in motion a series of events that altered the status quo dramatically.

The British Enter the Picture

By the late nineteenth century British influence on the Indian subcontinent extended right to the border of Tibet as the string of Himalayan states and principalities fell under British influence. As early as 1861 the British colonial government in India approved an "exploratory" mission to Lhasa if permits could be obtained from China. There was considerable hope that a flourishing trade might develop between Tibet and India, with India siphoning up some of the substantial Sino-Tibetan trade in tea and manufactured goods and receiving wool, horns, skins, medicinal herbs, gold, musk, and so forth, from Tibet. At that time Tibet prohibited the importation of India tea. Britain secured China's approval for such a mission in the Chefu convention of 1876, which permitted India to send a "mission of exploration" from China to Tibet either by way of Sichuan or Gansu, or from India.[19]

In 1886 a British mission—the Macaulay mission—was assembled in Sikkim to enter Tibet. Tibetan opposition prevented its departure, but its presence prompted Tibet to send troops into a border section of Sikkim it claimed as its own territory. This led in turn to a British attack in 1888 that drove the Tibetans out of the area. As a result of the fighting, the Manchu


amban in Lhasa went to India for discussions with the British. These talks led to the treaty of 1890 in which Britain's protectorate over Sikkim was recognized by China, and the Sikkim-Tibet border was delineated. Three years later, in 1893, a British trade treaty with China obtained Chinese acceptance of a "trade mart" at Yadong on the Tibetan side of the Sikkim-Tibet border that would be open to all British subjects for commerce. The British government also secured the right to send officials to reside in Yadong (Tibet) to oversee British trade there.

Tibet, however, was not a party to these agreements and refused to cooperate in their implementation. A stalemate ensued. Such was the situation when Lord Curzon took office as the new viceroy of India in 1899. He realized that China had no practical control over events in Tibet, so he obtained permission from London to try to initiate direct communication and relations with Lhasa. The thirteenth Dalai Lama (who had assumed power in 1895) had no interest in relations with the British, so when Curzon sent him a series of letters, he returned them unopened with the reply that the Chinese would be displeased if the Dalai Lama were to correspond with the British.[20] Unable to initiate face-to-face talks with the Tibetan government, Curzon next convinced London in 1903 to permit an expedition to enter Tibet to force negotiations. The Tibetans refused to negotiate with this expedition, so its British officers and officials led their Indian troops deeper and deeper into Tibet, ostensibly to induce negotiations. The Tibetan military attempted to block their advance, and a series of battles ensued in which the Tibetans were easily defeated, suffering losses of over a thousand troops. In the battle of Guru alone, between six hundred and seven hundred Tibetan troops were killed in a matter of minutes. No match for the invaders, the British force entered Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, on August 3, 1904. They were the first Western troops ever to conquer Tibet.

Throughout this period the Chinese government (through its amban ) urged the thirteenth Dalai Lama to negotiate with


the British expeditionary force to prevent their further advance, and then when it was about to enter Lhasa, to meet with Younghusband, its leader. But China had no control over the Dalai Lama, who ignored these admonitions and fled to exile in Mongolia, fearing he would be compelled to sign an unfavorable agreement. From Mongolia, the Dalai Lama hoped to obtain the czar's support against Britain.

To secure the withdrawal of the British troops from Lhasa, the Tibetan officials left in charge by the Dalai Lama reluctantly agreed to British terms, which were codified in an agreement known as the Anglo-Tibet Convention of 1904. Signed by only Tibet and the British head of the expeditionary force—the Manchu amban refused to place his signature on it—this agreement accepted Britain's protectorate over Sikkim and gave India (Britain) the right to establish trade marts with British trade officials in three Tibetan towns (Gyantse, Gartok, and Yadong). In a clause that was vague enough to exclude China as well as more obvious countries such as Russia it also forbade any other foreign power to exercise political influence in Tibet. A large indemnity of £562,500 (7.5 million rupees) was levied and British troops were to occupy a part of Tibet contiguous with Sikkim (Yadong's Chumbi Valley) until this was paid. It was also agreed that the British trade agent could visit Lhasa to discuss issues deriving from the treaty.[21] By virtue of these terms, British India virtually converted Tibet into another of its "native-state" protectorates.

News of the fighting in Tibet and the seizure of Lhasa shocked many in London who had not authorized Curzon to conquer Tibet. Britain's interests transcended those of India, and considerations of Hong Kong and Russia quickly led the British foreign office to repudiate many of the political advantages secured via the Anglo-Tibetan Convention of 1904. The large indemnity was reduced by two thirds to £168,000, and British troops were prohibited from occupying the Tibetan Chumbi Valley for more than three years. Similarly, the right of


the trade agent to visit Lhasa (and influence affairs there) was also unilaterally rescinded.

Nevertheless, the final Anglo-Tibetan accord opened up Tibet to British interests. However, it also created a major diplomatic and legal problem regarding China. Because the amban had not signed the treaty (nor had the Chinese government approved it), unless London decided to forsake China's views and make Tibet its dependency or accept its status as an independent country, it had to secure Chinese consent to its gains. The contradiction inherent in Britain's Tibet strategy was that while Great Britain had to deal directly with the Tibetan government to achieve its ends, it had to deal with China to legitimize them.

For China, the whole affair was another humiliation suffered at the hands of the Western imperialists. From the Qing court's vantage, the Dalai Lama had blithely ignored China's orders to negotiate with the British, so the British now had troops and officials resident in Tibet. Moreover, the bilateral agreement Britain and Tibet had signed contained an ambiguous clause that barred foreign powers from political influence in Tibet. Given the way Western countries had treated China over the past half century, it was not difficult for Beijing to suspect that this was a British ploy to exclude them from Tibet.

Fortunately for China, however, London's China policy did not favor transforming Tibet into a British dependency, let alone accept it as an independent nation, and the British promptly assuaged China by entering into negotiations to obtain its acceptance of the convention Younghusband had signed with Tibet. The resultant 1906 Anglo-Chinese Convention modified the 1904 accord (without the involvement of Tibet's government), reaffirming China's legitimate authority over its dependency Tibet. The key articles in the convention said: "The Government of Great Britain engages not to annex Tibetan territory or to interfere in the administration of Tibet. The Government of China also undertakes not to permit any other foreign state to interfere with the territory or internal administration of Tibet."


And "The Concessions which are mentioned [in the 1904 convention] are denied to any state other than China."[22] Thus, at a time when China was unable to exercise real power in Tibet, Britain unilaterally reaffirmed Tibet's political subordination to China.

The next year an Anglo-Russian agreement further internationalized this situation, stating in article 2, "In conformity with the admitted principle of the suzerainty of China over Thibet, Great Britain and Russia engage not to enter into negotiations with Thibet except through the intermediary of the Chinese Government."[23]

The Chinese Reaction

The invasion of Tibet and the Lhasa Convention of 1904 dramatically altered Chinese policy toward Tibet. Until then, the Qing dynasty had shown no interest in directly administering or sinicizing Tibet. The British thrusts now suggested to Beijing that unless it took prompt action, its position as overlord in Tibet might be lost, and with Tibet under the British sphere of influence the English would be looking down from the Tibetan plateau on Sichuan, one of China's most important provinces. The Qing dynasty, although enfeebled and on the brink of collapse, responded with surprising vigor. Beijing got the British troops to leave Tibetan soil quickly by paying the indemnity to Britain itself and began to take a more active role in day-to-day Tibetan affairs. Britain's casual invasion of Tibet, therefore, stimulated China to protect its national interests by beginning a program of closer cultural, economic, and political integration of Tibet with the rest of China. At the same time, in the ethnographic Tibetan borderland, Zhao Erfeng initiated a major campaign that quickly converted most of the autonomous native Tibetan states into districts under Chinese magistrates. And, ominously, he launched an active attack on the position of the lamas and monasteries.


At this time the Dalai Lama was languishing in exile, spending time first in Outer Mongolia and then in the ethnic Tibetan areas of what is now Qinghai province. His overture to the Russian czar had proved futile and his position in exile was somewhat precarious since he had been "deposed" by the Chinese government in 1904 because of his flight. Although Tibetans never questioned his legitimacy as their ruler, the increased domination of affairs in Lhasa by the ambans after his departure made him reluctant to return to Lhasa without first achieving some accommodation with the Qing dynasty that would guarantee his control of Tibet. In 1908, therefore, he went to Beijing. Arguing that the amban did not faithfully transmit his views to Beijing, the Dalai Lama requested permission to petition the throne directly (i.e., to bypass the amban as was done before the 1792 reforms). Beijing, however, was in no mood to loosen its control over the unpredictable and independent-minded thirteenth Dalai Lama and rudely refused, although it agreed to his return to Tibet to rule. The Anglo-Chinese and Anglo-Russian conventions had reaffirmed that Tibet was a part of China, and the Qing court felt that it would be easier to control Tibet through the Dalai Lama than risk trying to replace him. But their view of his position can be seen from the humiliating new title they gave him: "loyal and submissive viceregent."[24]

Nevertheless, China did not trust the Dalai Lama to be either loyal or submissive, so unbeknownst to him took steps to ensure he followed Beijing's instructions. Zhao Erfeng, the successful special commissioner who had brutally pacified the Tibetan areas of Sichuan and Yunnan, now sent an army of several thousand troops from Sichuan province to ensure that the Dalai Lama remained compliant. As the thirteenth Dalai Lama arrived in Lhasa in late December 1909, five years after he had fled from the Younghusband expedition, he learned that this Chinese army was on its way. The Dalai Lama, in desperation, sent the following poignant appeal to Britain:


Though the Chinese and Tibetans are of one family, yet the Chinese officer Chao [Zhao] and the Amban Lien are plotting together against us, and have not sent true copies of our protests to the Chinese Emperor, but have altered them to suit their own evil purposes. They are sending troops into Tibet and wish to abolish our religion. Please telegraph to the Chinese Emperor and request him to stop the troops now on their way. We are very anxious and beg the Powers to intervene and cause the withdrawal of the Chinese troops.[25]

And to the Chinese he wrote:

We, the oppressed Tibetans, send you this message. Though in outward appearance all is well, yet within big worms are eating little worms. We have acted frankly, but yet they steal our hearts. Troops have been sent into Tibet, thus causing great alarm. We have already sent a messenger to Calcutta to telegraph everything in detail. Please recall the Chinese officer and troops who recently arrived in Kam. If you do not do so, there will be trouble.[26]

No one intervened, so as that army entered Lhasa in February 1910, the Dalai Lama again fled into exile, this time south to his former enemies in British India.

China again deposed the Dalai Lama and stepped up its efforts to expand its real control in Tibet, its officials assuming more direct command of administration. A Chinese postal service was established and Tibet's first stamps were produced (in Chinese and Tibetan script). Tibet seemed set on a trajectory that would have ended in Tibet's incorporation into China proper. This process, however, was abruptly halted when the Qing dynasty was overthrown in China in 1911.

To ethnic Chinese, the Qing emperors were foreigners who had destroyed China's greatness and relegated it to the pathetic status of "sick man of Asia." From the mid-nineteenth century, China had suffered one humiliation after another: its defeat in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894–1895, for example, ended in the loss of Taiwan and southern Manchuria (the


Liaoning Peninsula) to the Japanese together with the obligation to pay a huge indemnity. This was followed by the anti-Western, anti-Christian Boxer Uprising in 1900, which ended when a multinational Western army marched into Beijing and imposed further humiliating concessions and yet another huge indemnity.

Thus it was that the Chinese organized to overthrow the alien dynasty and restore China's greatness. The revolution began on October 10, 1911, in Wuchang, a town in western China, when soldiers killed their commander and took over the town. From there it spread quickly throughout the country, and four months later on February 12, 1912, the six-year-old Manchu emperor Puyi abdicated. Manchu rule in China was over.


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