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Tibet and China: History of a Complex Relationship

Is Tibet Part of China?



Ganden Monastery

Diego Giannoni / Moment

Monk in Tibet

Universal Images Group

For at least 1500 years, the nation of Tibet has had a complex relationship with its large and powerful neighbor to the east, China. The political history of Tibet and China reveals that the relationship has not always been as one-sided as it now appears.

Indeed, as with China’s relations with the Mongols and the Japanese, the balance of power between China and Tibet has shifted back and forth over the centuries.


Early Interactions

The first known interaction between the two states came in 640 A.D., when the Tibetan King Songtsan Gampo married the Princess Wencheng, a niece of the Tang Emperor Taizong. He also married a Nepalese princess.

Both wives were Buddhists, and this may have been the origin of Tibetan Buddhism. The faith grew when an influx of Central Asian Buddhists flooded Tibet early in the eighth century, fleeing from advancing armies of Arab and Kazakh Muslims.

During his reign, Songtsan Gampo added parts of the Yarlung River Valley to the Kingdom of Tibet; his descendants would also conquer the vast region that is now the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, and Xinjiang between 663 and 692. Control of these border regions would change hands back and forth for centuries to come.

In 692, the Chinese retook their western lands from the Tibetans after defeating them at Kashgar. The Tibetan king then allied himself with the enemies of China, the Arabs and eastern Turks.

Chinese power waxed strong in the early decades of the eighth century. Imperial forces under General Gao Xianzhi conquered much of Central Asia, until their defeat by the Arabs and Karluks at the Battle of Talas River in 751. China's power quickly waned, and Tibet resumed control of much of Central Asia.

The ascendant Tibetans pressed their advantage, conquering much of northern India and even seizing the Tang Chinese capital city of Chang'an (now Xian) in 763.

Tibet and China signed a peace treaty in 821 or 822, which delineated the border between the two empires. The Tibetan Empire would concentrate on its Central Asian holdings for the next several decades, before splitting into several small, fractious kingdoms.


Tibet and the Mongols

Canny politicians, the Tibetans befriended Genghis Khan just as the Mongol leader was conquering the known world in the early 13th century. As a result, though the Tibetans paid tribute to the Mongols after the Hordes had conquered China, they were allowed much greater autonomy than the other Mongol-conquered lands.

Over time, Tibet came to be considered one of the thirteen provinces of the Mongolian-ruled nation of Yuan China.

During this period, the Tibetans gained a high degree of influence over the Mongols at court.

The great Tibetan spiritual leader, Sakya Pandita, became the Mongol's representative to Tibet. Sakya's nephew, Chana Dorje, married one of the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan's daughters.

The Tibetans transmitted their Buddhist faith to the eastern Mongols; Kublai Khan himself studied Tibetan beliefs with the great teacher Drogon Chogyal Phagpa.


Independent Tibet

When the Mongols' Yuan Empire fell in 1368 to the ethnic-Han Chinese Ming, Tibet reasserted its independence and refused to pay tribute to the new Emperor.

In 1474, the abbot of an important Tibetan Buddhist monastery, Gendun Drup, passed away. A child who born two years later was found to be a reincarnation of the abbot, and was raised to be the next leader of that sect, Gendun Gyatso.

After their lifetimes, the two men were called the First and Second Dalai Lamas. Their sect, the Gelug or "Yellow Hats," became the dominant form of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588), was the first to be so named during his life. He was responsible for converting the Mongols to Gelug Tibetan Buddhism, and it was the Mongol ruler Altan Khan who probably gave the title “Dalai Lama” to Sonam Gyatso.

While the newly-named Dalai Lama consolidated the power of his spiritual position, though, the Gtsang-pa Dynasty assumed the royal throne of Tibet in 1562. The Kings would rule the secular side of Tibetan life for the next 80 years.

The Fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso (1589-1616), was a Mongolian prince and the grandson of Altan Khan.

During the 1630s, China was embroiled in power struggles between the Mongols, Han Chinese of the fading Ming Dynasty, and the Manchu people of north-eastern China (Manchuria). The Manchus would eventually defeat the Han in 1644, and establish China's final imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1912).

Tibet got drawn into this turmoil when the Mongol warlord Ligdan Khan, a Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist, decided to invade Tibet and destroy the Yellow Hats in 1634. Ligdan Khan died on the way, but his follower Tsogt Taij took up the cause.

The great general Gushi Khan, of the Oirad Mongols, fought against Tsogt Taij and defeated him in 1637. The Khan killed the Gtsang-pa Prince of Tsang, as well. With support from Gushi Khan, the Fifth Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso, was able to seize both spiritual and temporal power over all of Tibet in 1642.


The Dalai Lama Rises to Power

The Potala Palace in Lhasa was constructed as a symbol of this new synthesis of power.

The Dalai Lama made a state visit to the Qing Dynasty's second Emperor, Shunzhi, in 1653. The two leaders greeted one another as equals; the Dalai Lama did not kowtow. Each man bestowed honors and titles upon the other, and the Dalai Lama was recognized as the spiritual authority of the Qing Empire.

According to Tibet, the "priest/patron" relationship established at this time between the Dalai Lama and Qing China continued throughout the Qing Era, but it had no bearing on Tibet's status as an independent nation. China, naturally, disagrees.

Lobsang Gyatso died in 1682, but his Prime Minister concealed the Dalai Lama's passing until 1696 so that the Potala Palace could be finished and the power of the Dalai Lama's office consolidated.

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