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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.

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