History of Tibet

Tibetian warrior in chainmail enforced by mirror plate

Tibetan history, as it has been recorded, is particularly focused on the history of Buddhism in Tibet. This is partly due to the pivotal role this religion has played in the development of Tibetan, Mongol, and Manchu cultures, and partly because almost all native historians of the country were Buddhist monks.


Tibet was situated between the ancient civilizations of China and India, separated from the former by the extensive mountain ranges to the east of the Tibetan Plateau and from the latter by the towering Himalayas. Tibet is nicknamed "the roof of the world" or "the land of snows".

The Tibetan language and its dialects are classified as members of the Tibeto-Burman language family.


Humans inhabited the Tibetan Plateau at least twenty one thousand years ago. This population was largely replaced around 3,000 BP by Neolithic immigrants from northern China. However there is a "partial genetic continuity between the Paleolithic inhabitants and the contemporary Tibetan populations". Some archaeological data suggests humans may have passed through Tibet at the time India was first inhabited, half a million years ago.

The earliest Tibetan historical texts identify the Zhang Zhung culture as a people who migrated from the Amdo region into what is now the region of Guge in western Tibet. Zhang Zhung is considered to be the original home of the Bön religion. By the 1st century BCE, a neighboring kingdom arose in the Yarlung valley, and the Yarlung king, Drigum Tsenpo, attempted to remove the influence of the Zhang Zhung by expelling the Zhang's Bön priests from Yarlung. He was assassinated and Zhang Zhung continued its dominance of the region until it was annexed by Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century.

Archaeological record

Megalithic monuments dot the Tibetan Plateau and may have been used in ancestor worship. It is unknown whether these monuments were built by ancient Tibetans. Prehistoric Iron Age hill forts and burial complexes have recently been found on the Tibetan plateau but the remote high altitude location makes archaeological research difficult.

Mythological origins

The dates attributed to the first Tibetan king, Nyatri Tsenpo (Wylie: Gnya'-khri-btsan-po), vary. Some Tibetan texts give 126 BCE, others 414 BCE. Nyatri Tsenpo is said to have descended from a one-footed creature called the Theurang, having webbed fingers and a tongue so large it could cover his face. Due to his terrifying appearance he was feared in his native Puwo and exiled by the Bön to Tibet. There he was greeted as a fearsome being, and he became king.

The Tibetan kings were said to remain connected to the heavens via a dmu cord (dmu thag) so that rather than dying, they ascended directly to heaven, when their sons achieved their majority. According to various accounts, king Drigum Tsenpo (Dri-gum-brtsan-po) either challenged his clan heads to a fight, or provoked his groom Longam (Lo-ngam) into a duel. During the fight the king's dmu cord was cut, and he was killed. Thereafter Drigum Tsenpo and subsequent kings left corpses and the Bön conducted funerary rites.

In a later myth, first attested in the Maṇi bka' 'bum, the Tibetan people are the progeny of the union of the monkey Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa and rock ogress Ma Drag Sinmo. But the monkey is in fact a manifestation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Tib. Spyan-ras-gzigs) and the ogress in fact the goddess Tara (Tib. 'Grol-ma).

Early history

For other uses of Tufan, see Tufan (disambiguation).

Tibet first enters history in the Geography of Ptolemy under the name βαται, a Greek transcription of the indigenous name Bod. From the 7th century CE Chinese historians referred to Tibet with a phonetic transcription Tǔfān (吐蕃), though 4 distinct characters were used. The first externally confirmed contact with the Tibetan kingdom in recorded Tibetan history occurred when King Namri Löntsän (Gnam-ri-slon-rtsan) sent an ambassador to China in the early 7th century.

Tibetan Empire

The Tibetan Empire at its greatest extent, c. 800.

The power that became the Tibetan state originated when a group convinced Stag-bu snya-gzigs [Tagbu Nyazig] to rebel against Dgu-gri Zing-po-rje [Gudri Zingpoje], who was in turn a vassal of the Zhang-zhung empire under the Lig myi dynasty. The group prevailed against Zing-po-rje. At this point Namri Songtsen (Namri Löntsän) was the leader of a clan which prevailed over all his neighboring clans, one by one, and he gained control of all the area around what is now Lhasa by 630, when he was assassinated. This new-born regional state would later become known as the Tibetan Empire. The government of Namri Songtsen sent two embassies to China in 608 and 609, marking the appearance of Tibet on the international scene.

Traditional Tibetan history preserves a lengthy list of rulers, whose exploits become subject to external verification in the Chinese histories by the 7th century. From the 7th to the 11th century a series of emperors ruled Tibet - see List of emperors of Tibet. Throughout the centuries from the time of the emperor Songtsän Gampo the power of the empire gradually increased over a diverse terrain so that by the reign of the emperor Ralpacan, in the opening years of the 9th century, its influence extended as far south as Bengal and as far north as Mongolia.

The varied terrain of the empire and the difficulty of transportation, coupled with the new ideas that came into the empire as a result of its expansion, helped to create stresses and power blocs that were often in competition with the ruler at the center of the empire. Thus, for example, adherents of the Bön religion and the supporters of the ancient noble families gradually came to find themselves in competition with the recently-introduced Buddhism.

Tibet divided (842-1247)

Upon the death of Langdarma, the last emperor of a unified Tibetan empire, there was a controversy over whether he would be succeeded by his alleged heir Yumtän (Wylie: Yum brtan), or by another son (or nephew) Ösung (Wylie: 'Od-srung) (either 843-905 or 847-885). A civil war ensued, which effectively ended centralized Tibetan administration until the Sa-skya period. Ösung's allies managed to keep control of Lhasa, and Yumtän was forced to go to Yalung, where he established a separate line of kings. In 910 the tombs of the emperors were defiled.

The son of Ösung was Pälkhortsän (Wylie: Dpal 'khor brtsan) (either 893-923 or 865-895). The latter apparently maintained control over much of central Tibet for a time, and sired two sons, Trashi Tsentsän (Wylie: Bkra shis brtsen brtsan) and Thrikhyiding (Wylie: Khri khyi lding), also called Kyide Nyigön [Wylie: Skyid lde nyi ma mgon] in some sources. Thrikhyiding emigrated to the western Tibetan region of upper Ngari (Wylie: Stod Mnga ris) and married a woman of high central Tibetan nobility, with whom he founded a local dynasty.

After the breakup of the Tibetan empire in 842, Nyima-Gon, a representative of the ancient Tibetan royal house, founded the first Ladakh dynasty. Nyima-Gon's kingdom had its centre well to the east of present-day Ladakh. Kyide Nyigön's eldest son became ruler of the Mar-yul (Ladakh) region, and his two younger sons ruled western Tibet, founding the Kingdom of Guge and Pu-hrang. At a later period the king of Guge's eldest son, Kor-re, also called Jangchub Yeshe Ö (Byang Chub Ye shes' Od), became a Buddhist monk. He sent young scholars to Kashmir for training and was responsible for inviting Atiśa to Tibet in 1040, thus ushering in the Chidar (Phyi dar) phase of Buddhism in Tibet. The younger son, Srong-nge, administered day to day governmental affairs; it was his sons who carried on the royal line.

Central rule was largely nonexistent over the Tibetan region from 842 to 1247, yet Buddhism had survived surreptitiously in the region of Kham. During the reign of Langdarma three monks had escaped from the troubled region of Lhasa to the region of Mt. Dantig in Amdo. Their disciple Muzu Saelbar (Mu-zu gSal-'bar), later known as the scholar Gongpa Rabsal (Dgongs-pa rab-gsal) (832-915), was responsible for the renewal of Buddhism in northeastern Tibet, and is counted as the progenitor of the Nyingma (Rnying ma pa) school of Tibetan Buddhism. Meanwhile, according to tradition, one of Ösung's descendants, who had an estate near Samye, sent ten young men to be trained by Gongpa Rabsal. Among the ten was Lume Sherab Tshulthrim (Klu-mes Shes-rab Tshul-khrims) (950-1015). Once trained, these young men were ordained to go back into the central Tibetan regions of U and Tsang. The young scholars were able to link up with Atiśa shortly after 1042 and advance the spread and organization of Buddhism in Lho-kha. In that region, the faith eventually coalesced again, with the foundation of the Sakya Monastery in 1073. Over the next two centuries, the Sakya monastery grew to a position of prominence in Tibetan life and culture. The Tsurphu Monastery, home of the Karmapa school of Buddhism, was founded in 1155.

Mongol invasion and Yuan administrative rule (1236-1354)

The first documented contact between the Tibetans and the Mongols occurred when Genghis Khan met Tsangpa Dunkhurwa (Gtsang pa Dung khur ba) and six of his disciples, probably in the Tangut empire, in 1215.

After the death of Genghis Khan in 1227, the Tibetans stopped sending tribute to the Mongol Empire. As a result, in 1240, the grandson of Genghis Khan and second son of Ögedei Khan, Prince Godan (or Köden), invaded Tibet. Prince Godan asked his commanders to search for an outstanding Buddhist lama and, as Sakya Pandita, the leader of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, was considered the most religious, Godan sent him gifts and a letter of "invitation" to come to his capital and formally surrender Tibet to the Mongols. Sakya Pandita arrived in Kokonor 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 third 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 was later inherited by the Yuan Dynasty founded by Kublai Khan in 1271. Kublai Khan left both the Chinese and Tibetan legal and administrative systems intact. Though most government institutions established by Kublai Khan in his court resembled the ones in earlier Chinese dynasties, Tibet never adopted the imperial examinations or Neo-Confucian policies.

In 1253, Drogön Chögyal Phagpa (1235–1280) succeeded Sakya Pandita at the Mongol court. Phagpa became a religious teacher to Kublai Khan. Kublai Khan appointed Chögyal Phagpa as his Imperial Preceptor in 1260, the year when he became emperor of Mongolia. Phagpa developed the priest-patron concept that characterized Tibeto-Mongolian relations from that point forward. With the support of Kublai Khan, Phagpa established himself and his sect as the preeminent political power in 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.

In 1265 Chögyal Phagpa returned to Tibet and for the first time made an attempt to impose Sakya hegemony with the appointment of Shakya Bzang-po (a long time servant and ally of the Sakyas) as the Dpon-chen ('great administrator') over Tibet in 1267. A census was conducted in 1268 and Tibet was divided into thirteen myriarchies.

The Sakya hegemony over Tibet continued into the middle of the 14th century, although it was challenged by a revolt of the Drikung Kagyu sect with the assistance of Duwa Khan of the Chagatai Khanate in 1285. The revolt was suppressed in 1290 when the Sakyas and eastern Mongols burned Drikung Monastery and killed 10,000 people.

Between 1346 and 1354, towards the end of the Yuan dynasty, the House of Pagmodru would topple the Sakya. Tibet would be ruled by a succession of Sakya lamas until 1358, when central Tibet came under control of the Kagyu sect. "By the 1370s the lines between the schools of Buddhism were clear."

The following 80 years or so were a period of relative stability. They also saw the birth of the Gelugpa school (also known as Yellow Hats) by the disciples of Tsongkhapa Lobsang Dragpa, and the founding of the Ganden, Drepung, and Sera monasteries near Lhasa. After the 1430s, the country entered another period of internal power struggles.

Rise of the Phagmodru (1354-1434)

Further information: Tibet during the Ming Dynasty
Further information: Phagmodrupa dynasty

The Phagmodru (Phag mo gru) myriarchy centered at Neudong (Sne'u gdong) was granted as an appanage to Hülegü in 1251. The area had already been associated with the Lang (Rlang) family, and with the waning of Ilkhanate influence it was ruled by this family, within the Mongol-Sakya framework headed by the Mongol appointed Pönchen (Dpon chen) at Sakya. The areas under Lang administration were continually encroached upon during the late thirteenth and early 14th centuries. Jangchub Gyaltsän (Byang chub rgyal mtshan, 1302–1364) saw these encroachments as illegal and sought the restoration of Phagmodru lands after his appointment as the Myriarch in 1322. After prolonged legal struggles, the struggle became violent when Phagmodru was attacked by its neighbours in 1346. Jangchub Gyaltsän was arrested and released in 1347. When he later refused to appear for trial, his domains were attacked by the Pönchen in 1348. Janchung Gyaltsän was able to defend Phagmodru, and continued to have military successes, until by 1351 he was the strongest political figure in the country. Military hostilities ended in 1354 with Jangchub Gyaltsän as the unquestioned victor. He continued to rule central Tibet until his death in 1364, although he left all Mongol institutions in place as hollow formalities. Power remained in the hands of the Phagmodru family until 1434. Tibet would be independent from the mid 14th century on, for nearly 400 years.

Beginnings of the Dalai Lama lineage

Altan Khan, the king of the Tümed Mongols, first invited Sonam Gyatso, the head of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism (and to be known later as the third Dalai Lama), to Mongolia in 1569. He invited him to Mongolia again in 1578, and this time he accepted the invitation. They met at the site of Altan Khan's new capital, Koko Khotan (Hohhot), and the Dalai Lama gave teachings to a huge crowd there.

Sonam Gyatso publicly announced that he was a reincarnation of the Tibetan Sakya monk Drogön Chögyal Phagpa (1235–1280) who converted Kublai Khan, while Altan Khan was a reincarnation of Kublai Khan (1215–1294), the famous ruler of the Mongols and Emperor of China, and that they had come together again to cooperate in propagating the Buddhist religion. While this did not immediately lead to a massive conversion of Mongols to Buddhism (this would only happen in the 1630s), it did lead to the widespread use of Buddhist ideology for the legitimation of power among the Mongol nobility. Last but not least, the Yonten Gyatso, the fourth Dalai Lama,was a grandson of Altan Khan.

Rise of the Gelugpa schools

Yonten Gyatso (1589–1616), the fourth Dalai Lama and a non-Tibetan, was the grandson of Altan Khan. He died in 1617 in his mid-twenties. Some people say he was poisoned but there is no real evidence one way or the other.

Lobsang Gyatso (Wylie transliteration: Blo-bzang Rgya-mtsho), the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, (1617–1682) was the first Dalai Lama to wield effective political power over central Tibet.

The fifth Dalai Lama is known for unifying the Tibetan heartland under the control of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, after defeating the rival Kagyu and Jonang sects and the secular ruler, the Tsangpa prince, in a prolonged civil war. His efforts were successful in part because of aid from Gushi Khan, a powerful Oirat military leader. The Jonang monasteries were either closed or forcibly converted, and that school remained in hiding until the latter part of the 20th century. With the Gushi Khan as a largely uninvolved overlord, the 5th Dalai Lama and his intimates established a civil administration which is referred to by historians as the Lhasa state. The core leadership of this government was also referred to as the Ganden Podrang by metonymy from the name of the Dalai Lama's residence at Drepung, much as the president of the United States and his closest advisors can be referred to as "the White House".

In 1652 the fifth Dalai Lama visited the Manchu emperor, Shunzhi. He was not required to kowtow like other visitors, but still had to kneel before the Emperor; and he received a seal.

The fifth Dalai lama initiated the construction of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, and moved the centre of government there from Drepung.

The Potala Palace in Lhasa

The death of the fifth Dalai Lama in 1680 was kept hidden for fifteen years by his assistant, confidant, Desi Sangay Gyatso (De-srid Sangs-rgyas Rgya-'mtsho). The Dalai Lamas remained Tibet's titular heads of state until 1959.

During the rule of the Great Fifth, two Jesuit missionaries, the German Johannes Gruber and Belgian Albert Dorville, stayed in Lhasa for two months, October and November, 1661 on their way from Peking to Portuguese Goa, in India. They described the Dalai Lama as a "powerful and compassionate leader" and "a devilish God-the-father who puts to death such as refuse to adore him." Another Jesuit, Ippolito Desideri, stayed five years in Lhasa (1716–1721) and was the first missionary to master the language. He even produced a few Christian books in Tibetan. Capuchin fathers took over the mission until all missionaries were expelled in 1745.

In the late 17th century, Tibet entered into a dispute with Bhutan, which was supported by Ladakh. This resulted in an invasion of Ladakh by Tibet. Kashmir helped to restore Ladakhi rule, on the condition that a mosque be built in Leh and that the Ladakhi king convert to Islam. The Treaty of Temisgam in 1684 settled the dispute between Tibet and Ladakh, but its independence was severely restricted.

Khoshut, Zunghar Khanate, and Manchu

Güshi Khan of the Khoshut in 1641 overthrew the prince of Tsang and made the Fifth Dalai Lama the highest spiritual and political authority in Tibet. The time of the Fifth Dalai Lama was also a period of rich cultural development.

The 5th Dalai Lama conducted foreign policy independently of the Qing, on the basis of his spiritual authority amongst the Mongolians. He acted as a mediator between Mongol tribes, and between the Mongols and the Qing Emperor Kangxi. The Dalai Lama would assign territories to Mongol tribes, and these decisions were routinely confirmed by Kangxi. In 1674, Kangxi asked the Dalai Lama to send Mongolian troops to help suppress a rebellion in Yunnan. The Dalai Lama agreed to do so, but also advised Kangxi to resolve the conflict in Yunnan by allotting fiefs instead of military action. This was apparently a turning point for Kangxi, who began to take action to deal with the Mongols directly, rather than through the Dalai Lama.

The 5th Dalai Lama died in 1682. His regent, Desi Sangye Gyatso, concealed the death and continued to act in his name. In 1688, Galdan Boshugtu Khan of the Khoshut defeated the Khalkha Mongols and went on to battle Qing forces. This contributed to the loss of Tibet's role as mediator between the Mongols and Kangxi. Several Khalkha tribes formally submitted directly to Kangxi. Galdan retreated to Dzungaria. When Sangye Gyatso complained to Kangxi that he could not control the Mongols of Kokonor in 1693, Kangxi annexed Kokonor, giving it the name it bears today, Qinghai. He also annexed Tachienlu in eastern Kham at this time. When Kangxi finally destroyed Galdan in 1696, a Qing ruse involving the name of the Dalai Lama was involved; Galdan blamed the Dalai Lama (still not aware of his death fourteen years earlier) for his ruin.

About this time, some Dzungars informed Kangxi that the 5th Dalai Lama had long since died. He sent envoys to Lhasa to inquire. This prompted Sangye Gyatso to make Tsangyang Gyatso, the 6th Dalai Lama, public. He was enthroned in 1697. Tsangyang Gyatso enjoyed a lifestyle that included drinking, the company of women, and writing love songs. In 1702, he refused to take the vows of a Buddhist monk. The regent, under pressure from Kangxi and Lhazang Khan of the Khoshut, resigned in 1703. In 1705, Lhazang Khan used the sixth Dalai Lama's escapades as excuse to take control of Lhasa. The regent Sanggye Gyatso, who had allied himself with the Zunghar Khanate, was murdered, and the Dalai Lama was sent to Beijing. He died on the way, near Kokonor, ostensibly from illness but leaving lingering suspicions of foul play. Lhazang Khan appointed a new Dalai Lama who, however, was not accepted by the Gelugpa school. Kelzang Gyatso was discovered near Kokonor and became a rival candidate. Three Gelug abbots of the Lhasa area appealed to the Zunghar Khanate, which invaded Tibet in 1717, deposed Lhazang Khan's pretender to the position of Dalai Lama, and killed Lhazang Khan and his entire family. The Zunghars proceeded to loot, rape and kill throughout Lhasa and its environs. They also viciously destroyed a small force which the Qing Emperor Kangxi had sent to clear traditional trade routes.

In response, an expedition sent by Kangxi, together with Tibetan forces under Polhanas (also spelled Polhaney) of Tsang and Kanchenas (also spelled Gangchenney), the governor of Western Tibet, expelled the Zunghars from Tibet in 1720. They brought Kelzang Gyatso with them from Kumbum to Lhasa and he was installed as the seventh Dalai Lama. A Chinese protectorate over Tibet (described by Stein as "sufficiently mild and flexible to be accepted by the Tibetan government") was established at this time, with a garrison at Lhasa, and Kham was annexed to Sichuan. In 1721, the Qing established a government in Lhasa consisting of a council (the Kashag) of three Tibetan ministers, headed by Kanchenas. A Khalkha prince was made amban, or official representative in Tibet of the Qing. Another Khalkha directed the military. The Dalai Lama's role at this time was purely symbolic, but still highly influential because of the Mongols' religious beliefs.

The Qing came as patrons of the Khoshut, liberators of Tibet from the Zunghar, and suppoters of Kelzang Gyatso, but when they replaced the Khoshut as rulers of Kokonor and Tibet, they earned the resentment of the Khoshut and also the Tibetans of Kokonor. Lobsang Danjin, a grandson of Gushi Khan, led a rebellion in 1723. 200,000 Tibetans and Mongols attacked Xining. Central Tibet did not support the rebellion. In fact, Polhanas blocked the rebels' retreat from Qing retaliation. The rebellion was brutally suppressed.

Kangxi was succeeded by the Yongzheng Emperor in 1722. In 1725, amidst a series of Qing transitions reducing Qing forces in Tibet and consolidating control of Amdo and Kham, Kanchenas received the title of Prime Minister. Yongzheng ordered the conversion of all Nyingma to Gelug. This persecution created a rift between Polhanas, who had been a Nyingma monk, and Kanchenas. Both of these officials, who represented Qing interests, were opposed by the Lhasa nobility, who had been allied with the Zunghars and were anti-Qing. They killed Kanchenas and took control of Lhasa in 1727, and Polhanas fled to his native Ngari. Polhanas gathered an army and retook Lhasa in July 1728 against opposition from the Lhasa nobility and their allies. Qing troops arrived in Lhasa in September, and punished the anti-Qing faction by executing entire families, including women and children. The Dalai Lama was sent to Litang Monastery in Kham. The Panchen Lama was brought to Lhasa and was given temporal authority over Tsang and Ngari, creating a territorial division between the two high lamas that was to be a long lasting feature of Chinese policy toward Tibet. Two ambans were established in Lhasa, with increased numbers of Qing troops. Over the 1730s, Qing troops were again reduced, and Polhanas gained more power and authority. The Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa in 1735, temporal power remained with Polhanas. The Qing found Polhanas to be a loyal agent and an effective ruler over a stable Tibet, so he remained dominant until his death in 1747.

The Qing had made the region of Amdo and Kham into the province of Qinghai in 1724, and incorporated eastern Kham into neighbouring Chinese provinces in 1728. The Qing government sent a resident commissioner (amban) to Lhasa. A stone monument regarding the boundary between Tibet and China, agreed upon by Lhasa and Beijing in 1726, was placed atop a mountain near Bathang, and survived at least into the 19th century. This boundary, which was used until 1910, ran between the headwaters of the Mekong and Yangtse rivers. Territory east of the boundary was governed by Tibetan chiefs who were answerable to China.

Polhanas' son Gyurmey Namgyal took over upon his father's death in 1747. The ambans became convinced that he was going to lead a rebellion, so they killed him. A mob quickly formed and avenged his death by killing the ambans. The Dalai Lama stepped in and restored order in Lhasa. Qianlong (Yongzheng's successor) sent a force of 800, which executed Gyurmey Namgyal's family and seven members of the group that killed the ambans. The emperor re-organized the Tibetan government again, nominally restoring temporal power to the Dalai Lama, but in fact consolidating power in the hands of the (new) ambans. The number of soldiers in Tibet was kept at about 2,000. The defensive duties were partly helped out by a local force which was reorganized by the resident commissioner, and the Tibetan government continued to manage day-to-day affairs as before. Qianlong reorganized the Kashag to have four Kalöns in it.[52] He also drew on Buddhism to bolster support among the Tibetans. Six thangkas remain portraying the emperor as Manjuśrī and Tibetan records of the time refer to him by that name.

The 7th Dalai Lama died in 1757, and the 8th, Jamphel Gyatso, was born the following year, and was identified and brought to Lhasa in 1762.

In 1779, the Panchen Lama went to Beijing; a Chinese account reports that he kowtowed to the emperor - a sign that the priest-patron relationship in this case was purely political. The Panchen Lama died in Beijing in 1780, and the next year, the 8th Dalai Lama assumed political power in Tibet. Problematic relations with Nepal led to Gurkha invasions of Tibet, sent by Bahadur Shah, the Regent of Nepal, in 1788 and again in 1791, seizing Shigatse and destroying the great Tashilhunpo Monastery. Nepal conceded defeat and returned all the treasure they had plundered.

A Qing army , most of whose soldiers (10,000 of 13,000) were Tibetan, repelled the second invasion and pursued the Gurkhas to the Kathmandu Valley. The Qianlong emperor was disappointed with the results of his 1751 decree and the performance of the ambans. "Tibetan local affairs were left to the willful actions of the Dalai Lama and the shapes [Kashag members]," he said. "The Commissioners were not only unable to take charge, they were also kept uninformed. This reduced the post of the Residential Commissioner in Tibet to name only." He increased the powers of the ambans after the Gurkha invasions. The Golden Urn system was announced.

Tibet was clearly subordinate to the Qing during the period of the 6th and 7th Dalai lamas. But between this time and the beginning of the 19th century, Qing authority over Tibet weakened to the point of being minuscule, or merely symbolic. Chinese historians argue that the ambans' presence was an expression of Chinese sovereignty, while those favouring Tibetan independence claims tend to equate the ambans with ambassadors. The relationship between Tibet and (Qing) China was that of patron and priest and was not based on the subordination of one to the other, according to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. (The thirteenth Dalai Lama was deposed in 1904, reinstated in 1908 and deposed again in 1910 by the Qing Dynasty government, but these pronouncements were not taken seriously in Lhasa.)

18th and 19th centuries

The Golden Urn

The 1791 Nepalese invasion and the following defeat by the Qing increased the latter's control over Tibet. From that moment, all important matters were to be submitted to the ambans.

In 1792, the emperor issued a 29-point decree which appeared to tighten Qing control over Tibet. It strengthened the powers of the ambans. The ambans were elevated above the Kashag and the Dalai Lama in responsibility for Tibetan political affairs. The Dalai and Panchen Lamas were no longer allowed to petition the Chinese Emperor directly but could only do so through the ambans. The ambans took control of Tibetan frontier defense and foreign affairs. Tibetan authorities' foreign correspondence, even with the Mongols of Kokonor (present-day Qinghai), had to be approved by the ambans. The ambans were put in command of the Qing garrison and the Tibetan army (whose strength was set at 3000 men). Trade was also restricted and travel could be undertaken only with documents issued by the ambans. The ambans were to review all judicial decisions. The Tibetan currency, which had been the source of trouble with Nepal, was also taken under Beijing's supervision. However, according to Warren Smith, these directives were either never fully implemented, or quickly discarded, as the Qing were more interested in a symbolic gesture of authority than actual sovereignty; the relationship between Qing and Tibet remained one of two states. The Cambridge History of China states that Tibet and Xinjiang were territories of the Qing dynasty in 1760.

It also outlined a new method to select both the Dalai and Panchen Lama by means of a lottery administered by the ambans in Lhasa. In this lottery the names of the competing candidates were written on folded slips of paper which were placed in a golden urn. The emperor wanted to play this part in choosing reincarnations because the Gelugpa School of the Dalai Lamas was the official religion of his court. There is general agreement that the ninth and thirteenth Dalai Lamas (and the fourteenth, but after the fall of the Qing Dynasty) were not chosen by the golden urn method but rather selected by the appropriate Tibetan officials using the previous incarnation's entourage, or labrang, with the selection being approved after the fact by the emperor. In such cases the emperor would also issue an order waiving the use of the urn. The tenth Dalai Lama was actually selected by traditional Tibetan methods, but in response to the amban's insistence, the regent publicly announced that the urn had been used. The eleventh was selected by the golden urn method. The twelfth Dalai Lama was selected by the Tibetan method but was confirmed by means of the lottery.

Nepal was a tributary state to China from 1788 to 1908. In a treaty signed in 1856, Tibet and Nepal agreed to "regard the Chinese Emperor as heretofore with respect." Michael van Walt van Praag, legal advisor to the 14th Dalai Lama, claims that 1856 treaty provided for a Nepalese mission, namely Vakil, in Lhasa which later allowed Nepal to claim a diplomatic relationship with Tibet in its application for United Nations membership in 1949. However, the status of Nepalese mission as diplomatic is disputed and the Nepalese Vakils stayed in Tibet until the 1960s when Tibet had been part of PRC for a decade.

European influences in Tibet

António de Andrade
The first Europeans to arrive in Tibet were Portuguese missionaries who first arrived in 1624 led by António de Andrade. They were welcomed by the Tibetans who allowed them to build a church. The 18th century brought more Jesuits and Capuchins from Europe. They gradually met opposition from Tibetan lamas who finally expelled them from Tibet in 1745.

However, at the time not all Europeans were banned from the country — in 1774 a Scottish nobleman, George Bogle, came to Shigatse to investigate trade for the British East India Company, introducing the first potatoes into Tibet.

By the early 19th century the situation of foreigners in Tibet grew more precarious. The British Empire was encroaching from northern India into the Himalayas and Afghanistan and the Russian Empire of the tsars was expanding south into Central Asia. Each power became suspicious of intent in Tibet. In 1840, Sándor Kőrösi Csoma arrived in Tibet, hoping that he would be able to trace the origin of the Magyar ethnic group. By the 1850s Tibet had banned all foreigners from Tibet and shut its borders to all outsiders.

In 1865 Great Britain began secretly mapping Tibet. Trained Indian surveyor-spies disguised as pilgrims or traders counted their strides on their travels across Tibet and took readings at night. Nain Singh, the most famous, measured the longitude, latitude and altitude of Lhasa and traced the Yarlung Tsangpo River.

British invasions of Tibet (1904-1911)

Sándor Kőrösi Csoma

The authorities in British India renewed their interest in Tibet in the late 19th century, and a number of Indians entered the country, first as explorers and then as traders. Treaties regarding Tibet were concluded between Britain and China in 1886, 1890, and 1893, but the Tibetan government refused to recognize their legitimacy and continued to bar British envoys from its territory. During "The Great Game", a period of rivalry between Russia and Britain, the British desired a representative in Lhasa to monitor and offset Russian influence.

At the beginning of the 20th century the British and Russian Empires were competing for supremacy in Central Asia. To forestall the Russians, in 1904, a British expedition led by Colonel Francis Younghusband was sent to Lhasa to force a trading agreement and to prevent Tibetans from establishing a relationship with the Russians. In response, the Chinese foreign ministry asserted that China was sovereign over Tibet, the first clear statement of such a claim.

A treaty was imposed which required Tibet to open its border with British India, to allow British and Indian traders to travel freely, not to impose customs duties on trade with India, a demand from the British that Lhasa had to pay 2.5 million rupees as indemnity and not to enter into relations with any foreign power without British approval.

The Anglo-Tibetan treaty was followed by a Sino-British treaty in 1906 by which 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." Moreover, Beijing agreed to pay London 2.5 million rupees which Lhasa was forced to agree upon in the Anglo-Tibetan treaty of 1904. In 1907, Britain and Russia agreed that in "conformity with the admitted principle of the suzerainty of China over Thibet" both nations "engage not to enter into negotiations with Tibet except through the intermediary of the Chinese Government."

Qing control reasserted

The Qing put Amdo under their rule in 1724, and incorporated eastern Kham into neighbouring Chinese provinces in 1728. The Qing government ruled these areas indirectly through the Tibetan noblemen.

Tibetans claimed that Tibetan control of the Batang region of Kham in eastern Tibet appears to have continued uncontested from the time of an agreement made in 1726 until soon after the British invasion, which alarmed the Qing rulers in China. They sent an imperial official to the region to begin reasserting Qing control, but the locals revolted and killed him.

The Qing government in Beijing then appointed Zhao Erfeng, the Governor of Xining, "Army Commander of Tibet" to reintegrate Tibet into China. He was sent in 1905 (though other sources say this occurred in 1908) on a punitive expedition. His troops destroyed a number of monasteries in Kham and Amdo, and a process of sinification of the region was begun.

The Dalai Lama's title's was restored in November 1908. He was about to return to Lhasa from Amdo in the summer of 1909 when the Chinese decided to send military forces to Lhasa to control him. The Dalai Lama once again fled, this time to India, and was once again deposed by the Chinese. The situation was soon to change, however, as, after the fall of the Qing dynasty in October 1911, Zhao's soldiers mutinied and beheaded him.

In 1909 the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin returned from a three-year long expedition to Tibet, having mapped and described a large part of inner Tibet. During his travels, he visited the 9th Panchen Lama. For some of the time, Hedin had to camouflage himself as a Tibetan shepherd (because he was European). In an interview following a meeting with the Russian czar he described the situation as follows:

"Currently, Tibet is in the cramp-like hands of China´s government. The Chinese realize that if they leave Tibet for the Europeans, it will end its isolation in the East. That is why the Chinese prevent those who wish to enter Tibet. The Dalai Lama is currently also in the hands of the Chinese Government"..."Mongols are fanatics. They adore the Dalai Lama and obey him blindly. If he tomorrow orders them go to war against the Chinese, if he urges them to a bloody revolution, they will all like one man follow him as their ruler. China's government, which fears the Mongols, hooks on to the Dalai Lama."..."There is calm in Tibet. No ferment of any kind is perceptible" (translated from Swedish).

1912-1951: de facto independence

The Dalai Lama returned to Tibet from India in July 1912 (after the fall of the Qing dynasty), and expelled the amban and all Chinese troops. In 1913, the Dalai Lama issued a proclamation that stated that the relationship between the Chinese emperor and Tibet "had been that of patron and priest and had not been based on the subordination of one to the other." "We are a small, religious, and independent nation," the proclamation continued.[ For the next thirty-six years, Tibet enjoyed de facto independence while China endured its Warlord era, civil war, and World War II. Some Chinese sources argue that Tibet was still part of China throughout this period. Tibet continued in 1913-1949 to have very limited contacts with the rest of the world and Lhasa was for foreigners the prohibited city. Very few governments did anything resembling a normal diplomatic recognition of Tibet. The Chinese governments continued, from time to time, to assert their right to suzerainty in Tibet. In 1932, the National Revolutionary Army, composed of Muslim and Han soldiers, led by Ma Bufang and Liu Wenhui defeated the Tibetan army in the Sino-Tibetan War when the 13th Dalai Lama tried to seize territory in Qinghai and Xikang. It was also reported that the central government of China encouraged the attack, hoping to solve the "Tibet situation", because the Japanese had just seized Manchuria. They warned the Tibetans not to dare cross the Jinsha river again. A truce was signed, ending the fighting. The Dalai Lama had cabled the British in India for help when his armies were defeated, and started demoting his Generals who had surrendered

Rule of the Chinese Communist government

The Chinese government claims for this time period are a matter of some controversy. For instance they claim to have "liberated the Tibetan serfs" but many Tibetans were nomads or owned their own land rent free, and for those who were under obligations, there is controversy about whether their status is similar to the European serf and how onerous the obligations were.

Also the system based on recognition of "reincarnated Lamas" meant that any children from any family might become recognised as the religious and political leaders of the next generation. This unusual system of government has no analogy in the European system. There are other differences as well. See Examples of Fuedal Systems - Tibet.

Also starvation was common in China at the time, but was not common in Tibet. There are widely varying accounts of the effect of the takeover on welfare of Tibetans. See Serfdom in Tibet Controversy - Slavery, and Tibetan welfare after the Chinese takeover

Tibetologist Robert Barnett writes: "From a human rights point of view, the question of whether Tibet was feudal in the past is irrelevant. A more immediate question is why the PRC does not allow open discussion of whether Tibet was feudal or oppressive. Writers and researchers in Tibet face serious repercussions if they do not concur with official positions on issues such as social conditions in Tibet prior to its "liberation," and in such a restrictive climate, the regime's claims on this issue have little credibility." For details of this controversy, see Competing versions of Tibetan History

In 1949, seeing that the Communists were gaining control of China, the Kashag expelled all Chinese connected with the Chinese government, over the protests of both the Kuomingtang and the Communists. The Chinese Communist government led by Mao Zedong which came to power in October lost little time in asserting a new Chinese presence in Tibet. In October 1950, the People's Liberation Army entered the Tibetan area of Chamdo, defeating sporadic resistance from the Tibetan army. In 1951, Tibetan representatives participated in negotiations in Beijing with the Chinese government. This resulted in a Seventeen Point Agreement which formalised China's sovereignty over Tibet.

From the beginning, it was obvious that incorporating Tibet into Communist China would bring two opposite social systems face-to-face. In Tibet, however, the Chinese Communists opted not to place social reform as an immediate priority. To the contrary, from 1951 to 1959, traditional Tibetan society with its lords and manorial estates continued to function unchanged. Despite the presence of twenty thousand PLA troops in Central Tibet, the Dalai Lama's government was permitted to maintain important symbols from its de facto independence period.

The Chinese quickly abolished slavery and serfdom in their traditional forms. They also claim to have reduced taxes, unemployment, and beggary, and to have started work projects. They established secular schools, thereby breaking the educational monopoly of the monasteries, and they constructed running water and electrical systems in Lhasa.

The Tibetan region of Eastern Kham, previously Xikang province, was incorporated in the province of Sichuan. Western Kham was put under the Chamdo Military Committee. In these areas, land reform was implemented. This involved communist agitators designating "landlords" — sometimes arbitrarily chosen — for public humiliation in thamzing (Wylie: ‘thab-‘dzing; Lhasa dialect IPA: [[tʰʌ́msiŋ]]) or "Struggle Sessions," torture, maiming, and even death.

By 1956 there was unrest in eastern Kham and Amdo, where land reform had been implemented in full. These rebellions eventually spread into western Kham and Ü-Tsang.

In 1956-57, armed Tibetan bands ambushed convoys of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army. The uprising received extensive assistance from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), including military training, support camps in Nepal, and numerous airlifts.