EARLY TIBETAN HISTORY
First palace yumbu yakhar
200BC according to legend Tibetans are considered a Central Asian ethnic group. They live primarily on the high Tibetan plateau, in the western Sichuan and Yunnan mountains of central and southern China, and areas throughout the Himalayas and around the Tibetan plateau. Tibet has traditionally been divided into three parts with the central part roughly coinciding with today’s Tibet Autonomous Region.
The word Tibet, which first appeared on maps of Arabic explorers, is believed to either be derived from the Tibetan term for “upper Tibet,” stod bod, or from the early Indian name for Tibet, bhot. The Chinese term for Tibetans is Bhotia. Tibetans refer themselves by the place-names of their geographical areas or tribal name such of the Golock people of Amdo or the Ladakis and Zanskaris from northern India.
Tsetang, Tibet’s third largest city, is the mythical birthplace of the Tibetan people. According to legend a monkey mediating in a cave was seduced by a female demon who had refused to wed another monster. She married the monkey and produced six children who grew up to form the six major tribes of Tibet. Another myth describes how the first Tibetan king descended to earth from heaven on a sky rope. These myth are believed to have their origin in the ancient Bon religion.
Throughout most of their history Tibetans have been left primarily to themselves. The rugged terrain that occupied and surrounded their homeland discouraged invaders.
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources: Tibetan History Timeline haiweitrails.com ; Friends of Tibet friends-of-tibet.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; History of Nations site historyofnations.net ; Chinese Government site on Tibetan History xinhuanet.com ; Book: Tibetan Civilization by Rolf Alfred Stein. Robert Thurman, a friend of the Dalai Lama and professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University, is regarded the preeminent scholar on Tibet in the United States. Links in this Website: TIBETAN HISTORY Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBET UNDER CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ;TIBETAN UPRISING IN 2008 Factsanddetails.com/China ; FALL OUT OF TIBETAN UPRISING IN 2008 Factsanddetails.com/China
Good Websites and Sources on Tibet: Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) www.tibet.com ; Chinese Government Tibet website eng.tibet.cn/ Wikipedia Wikipedia Tibetan Resources phayul.com ; Open Directory dmoz.org/Regional/Asia/China/Tibet/ ; Snow Lion Publications (books on Tibet) snowlionpub.com ; Photos Tibet Photo Gallery Tibet Gallery Terra Nomada Terra Nomada ; Tibetan Cultural Sites: Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture tibetanculture.org ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ;
Chinese Government Sources on Tibet: China Tibet Information Center en.tibet.cn ; White Paper on Tibetan Culture english.people.com.cn ; Tibet Activist Groups: Tibet Online tibet.org ; Students for a Free Tibet studentsforafreetibet.org ; Students for a Free Tibet UK /sftuk.org ; Friends of Tibet friendsoftibet.org ; Tibetan Review tibetan.review.to ; Campaign for Tibet (Save Tibet) savetibet.org ; Tibet Society tibetsociety.com ; Free Tibet freetibet.org ; Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy tchrd.org
Tibetan Studies and Tibet Research: Tibetan Resources on The Web (Columbia University C.V. Starr East Asian Library ) columbia.edu ; Tibetan and Himalayan Libray thlib.org Digital Himalaya ; digitalhimalaya.com ; Tibetan Studies Maps WWW Virtual Library ciolek.com/WWWVL-TibetanStudies ; Center for Research of Tibet case.edu ; Center for Advanced Tibetan Studies amnyemachen.org ; Tibetan Studies resources blog tibetan-studies-resources.blogspot.com ; News, Electronic Journals ciolek.com/WWWVLPages ; Websites on Ethnic Groups in China with a Tibet section (click Tibetans or the ethnic group you want) : Ethnic China (very good site with good academic articles) ethnic-china.com ; Cultural China (site with nice photos cultural-china.com ; China Travel chinatravel.com ; Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; Travel China Guide travelchinaguide.com ; China.org (government source) china.org.cn ; OMF international (a Christian group) omf.org ; People’s Daily (government source) peopledaily.com.cn ; Ethnic Publishing House (government source)e56.com.cn ; Paul Noll site` paulnoll.com ; China Highlights (on some groups) China Highlights
Archeological evidence indicates that people arrived on the Tibetan plateau from the northeast approximately 13,000 year ago. Over time they migrated throughout the region with large numbers settling along the Tsangpo River, which runs parallel to the Himalayas in southern Tibet.
Tibetans are believed to have evolved from the Qiang, one of the first ethnic groups to be referred to in Chinese historical records. They were mentioned in the 12th century B.C. by members of the Chinese Zhou dynasty, who originated from the western plains near the mountains in Gansu where the Qiang lived. The Zhou identified the Qiang as allies and the two groups were very similar and may have exchanged women.
In the 6th century B.C. as the Zhou and Chinese became increasingly involved in intensive agriculture the Qiang began migrating towards their present homeland in Sichuan. There were reports of Qiang states in the A.D. 4th and 5th centuries, around the time the first Tibetan kingdoms were reported.
Ancient Tibetans were a fierce, war-like, horse people with a reputation not unlike that of the Mongol Hordes of Genghis Khan. During the Ming dynasty Tibetans used to sell the Chinese around 30,000 horses a year.
Yarlung Valley Kings
Creation myths suggest that the Yarlung Valley, along the Tsangpo River near Tsetang, is the cradle of Tibetan civilization. Yarlung kings, probably just local chiefs, were glorified in Tibetan myths. The 28th king is said to have received the first Buddhist scriptures to reach Tibet at the fortress in Yumbulagang in the A.D. 5th century. According to legend the scriptures fell from the sky and landed on the roof of the fortress.
The first solid evidence of the Yarlung kingdom dates to the 6th century, when the Yarlung kings claimed much of southern and central Tibet. Under the 32nd Tibetan king, Nmari Songsten (570-619), the Tibetans defeated the Qiang tribes in present-day Sichuan.
Tibetan Empire Period (A.D. 632-842)
Songsten During the Tibetan Empire Period (A.D. 632-842), Tibetans dominated the Tibetan plateau, much of the Himalayas and parts of China and Central Asia. Tibetan armies occupied Nepal, received tributes from parts of the Yunnan province and invaded Western China, where they took control of the Silk Road trade routes.
Under the first great Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo (630-649) Tibet expanded into Nepal and China through threats of military action and marrying of Chinese and Nepali princesses; Jokhang and Ramoche temples were built; and a fortress was built on site that would later be occupied by Potala palace in Lhasa. In paintings Songtsen Gampo has a mustache and wears a white turban with a small Opagme (Amitabha) emerging from the top. He is often flanked by Princess Wencheng, his Chinese wife, and Princess Bhrikuto, his Nepali wife.
Written Tibetan was adapted from a northern Indian script in the A.D. 8th century. The oldest extant example of Tibetan writing has been dated to A.D. 767. Knowledge of astronomy, medicine and science came from China . Tibetan forts known as dzongs were built across the countryside.
Under King Trisong Detsen (755-97), Tibet conquered Gansu and Sichuan and extended its influence into present-day India, Pakistan and Central Asia. The Tibetans were at the peak of their power in 763 when they sacked the Tang capital of Chang'an after responding to a Chinese advance into western China. King Trisong Detsen founded the Samye Monastery and is regarded as a manifestation of teh Bodhisattva Jamelyang (Majushri). In paintings, he wears white turban and holds the sword of wisdom in right hand and scripture on a lotus in his left arm. He is often depicted in a triad of kings with Songtsen Gampo and King Ralpachen (A.D. 817-36).
Decline of the Tibetan Empire
Nepalese princess As Tibet's control on the Central Asian trade routes faltered, the power of the empire declined. King Tritusng Detsen Ralpchen was assassinated by his brother King Langdarma, who persecuted the Buddhists. In A.D. 842, Langdarma himself—the last Tibetan king of the Yarlung dynasty—was assassinated by a monk disguised as a religious dancer during a festival.
After 842, Tibetan aggression in the region stopped and the Tibetan kingdom dissolved, decentralization ensued, China won back much of its lost territory, many smaller states were created throughout the plateau and they fought among themselves. After that Tibet never again had ambitions of being a military power. When unpleasant chores had to be done the Tibetans relied on others, namely the Mongolians and Chinese.
One small kingdom, Guge, was founded in the A.D. 9th century after Langdarma’s assassination. It endured for seven centuries partly because the leaders that followed Langdrama enthusiastically embraced Buddhism. In the 17th century, Guge was abandoned. No one is sure why. Some blame Muslim invaders. Other say it was because of environmental reasons.
Buddhism Takes Hold in Tibet
7th century Buddha In the late 8th century, under King Trisong Detsen, Tibetan Buddhism developed in an area that extends from Xigaze to Zetang on the Yarlung Zangpo river. Monasteries, temples and chapels were built; scriptures were translated into Tibetan; Buddhism became the religion of the Tibetan court; and the religion spread along the Central Asian trade routes that Tibet controlled.
Tibetan Buddhism evolved through a continuous process of debate and interpretation over the meaning of Buddhism between factions and sects with different beliefs. At the same time traditional Tibetan customs, deities, incantations and ceremonial practices were absorbed. But the process was far from smooth, a number of competing sects were created and they vied for dominance and sometimes engaged in violent conflicts.
Buddhism in Tibet was dealt a severe blow when Tibet's control of the Central Asian trade routes faltered and the empire collapsed completely around A.D. 840. It experienced a revival in far western Tibet under the guidance of Ye-shes-'od, a regional ruler. In 985, Ye-shes-'od, renounced his throne and was ordained as a Buddhist monk and used his influence to spread the religion. During the 10th and 11th century many temples and monasteries were built. Western Tibet remained the center of Tibetan Buddhism for the next 500 years.
Tibet in the 10th century was in a state of anarchy. The Tibetan people were divided. Buddhism had been corrupted, ridden with misinterpretations and mixed with the shamanistic Bon religion. There were reports of "robber monks” who got drunk, engaged in sex and kidnaped and killed people and ate them.
The Sanskrit translator Rinchen Zangpo, and the legendary Indian master Atisha were also instrumental in reintroducing Buddhism to western Tibet. The 60-year-old Atisha was lured by small fortune in gold to trek to Guge in Tibet in 1042. He helped bring order to Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism by setting strict rules prohibiting sex, alcohol, travel and possessions. These rules set the tone for the anti-materialist aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. Atisha's campaign was supported by noble families, whose young men were recruited as lamas, teachers, administrators and teachers.
History of Buddhist Sects
The Nyingmapa Order traces it origins to Guru Rinpoche, an Indian sage who arrived in Tibet in the 8th or 9th century, and King Songtsen Gampo (630-649), who helped to establish Buddhism in Tibet. See Above
In the 11th century Tibetan Buddhism became stronger and more politicized. The power of the ruling monks increased and the religion splintered into several sects. This period was marked by fierce rivalry between sects: first between the Kagyupa order established by Milarepa (1040-1123) and the Sakyapa order which emerged in 1073 from the Sakya monastery, a monastery funded by the Kon family, and later between Yellow, Red and Black Hat sects.
In the 13th century, with the help of Mongolian supporters, the Sakyapa sect took control of much of Tibet. The Mongols under Genghis Khan had raided Tibet but converted to Tibetan Buddhism after a meeting between Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kokonor, and the head of the Sakya monastery. Sakyapa rule lasted for about 100 years. Three secular dynasties—the Phgmogru, the Ripung and the Tsangpa—followed between the years 1354 and 1642, when the Yellow Hat (Gelugpa) sect emerged as the dominant order.
First Dalai Lama There have been 14 Dalai Lamas. The first, a nephew of Tsongkhapa, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, was born in 1351 and was a shepherd. The title of Dalai was first bestowed on the 3rd Dalai Lama by a Mongol chief named Altan Khan when the Dalai Lama visited the court of the Mongol Khans in the 16th century. The 3rd Dalai Lama became the spiritual leader for Mongolia as he was in Tibet. He ordered that the image of Gonggor be worhsipped at home and issued laws forbidding the practice killing women, slaves and animals as sacrificial funeral offerings. The 5th Dalai Lama is credited with uniting the warlike medieval tribes of Tibet. In 1642, he became the political and spiritual leader of all Tibet.
As has been the case with kings and world leaders, there have been good Dalai Lamas and bad ones and ones whose lives have ended in tragedy. Many died young , including the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Dalai Lamas. Some were rumored to have been poisoned. Others were believed to have been murdered. Only half of the men who held the title have lived to see their thirties. At least four are believed to have been killed amid palace intrigue. In 1682, a government minister hid the death of the Dalai Lama for fifteen years, secretly ruling with the help of a look-alike.
One of the worst was the 6th Dalai Lama who was more interested in women and alcohol than he was in studying and leading. He used to sneak out of Potala in disguise to visit local brothels. A Jesuit monk who lived Lhasa as the time of his leadership wrote that “no good-looking person of either sex was safe from his unbridled licentiousness.” His ineptitude gave China an excuse to intercede in Tibetan affairs.
The 13th Dalai Lama barely escaped an assassination attempt allegedly orchestrated by his own regent. He recognized Tibet’s backwardness made it vulnerable to aggression by more advanced nations of the world. His plans to improve and reform the Tibetan bureaucracy and military were thwarted by the monastic elite.
Yellow Hat Sect and the Fifth Dalai Lama
Third Dalai Lama The Yellow Hats (Gelupa) emerged in the 15th century. They were given a big boost in the 16th century when the Mongols decided to support them. The sect became preeminent in the middle of the 17th century, through the efforts of Mongolian supporters and Tibetan supporters inspired by the charismatic 5th Dalai Lama. The Yellow Hats took control of the central plateau and maintained control until British and Chinese incursions into Tibet in 19th century.
The 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-82) is regarded as the greatest of the Dalai Lamas. Born in Chongye in the Yarlung Valley, he unified Tibet and set the precedent for future Dalai Lamas. He was the first Dalai Lama to exercise temporal power and ruled benevolently as both a spiritual and political leader and initiated construction of the Potala palace. In paintings he wears a yellow hat and holds a thunderbolt in his right hand and a bell in his left hand. He is sometimes shown holding a lotus flower, a Wheel of Law or another sacred object.
Feudalism in Tibet
Fifth Dalai Lama The kingdom of Tibet was closed to the outside world during most of its existence. Until the 20th century, it was essentially a theocratic state and feudal caste society ruled by a few rich aristocratic families, and lamas, many under umbrella of the Dalai Lama. The backbone of the system was the willingness of ordinary people to support monks, monasteries and the religious elite. Contributing sons to monasteries was seen as a way to earn religious merit.
Land was owned by the state, which was under the control of the Dalai Lama and other powerful lamas. Many peasant farmers were organized into estates under the control of monasteries, incarnate lamas and aristocratic forts. The large monasteries looked like fortresses and had their own armies of fighting monks. It was not uncommon for monasteries to battle one another over territorial claims and religious disputes.
Feudal Tibet was a land of shackled slaves, the thumbscrews and the scorpion pits that awaited serfs who defied their masters as much as it was one of Shangi-La beauty and Buddhist calm. Criminals had their hands and arms lopped off and were blinded as punishments. Some had their eyes gouged out while a bread-size stone was placed on their head. Others had yak knucklebones pressed on both temples until their eyeballs popped out. Such punishments were outlawed by the predecessor the current Dalai Lama in 1913.
The monastic elite lived off the labor and taxes of peasants. Aristocrats in silk robes, jewelry and brocade lived next to serfs in rags. The ruling class was not afraid to use violence to hold back reforms and maintain the status quo.
Court life in Potala Place was filled with intrigues and conspiracies that undermined the Dalai Lama’s and made Tibet vulnerable to the influence of outsiders, namely China.
Serfdom in Tibet
Peasants were required to pay taxes and were not allowed to move or get married without permission. Those that could afford it could hire people to fill their positions and then they could do what they wanted. Tibetan nomads owned their animals and paid taxes to the lamas and landlords—up to 75 percent of the wool raised. They were bound by hereditary claims to their land. They were not allowed to leave their area but they couldn't be evicted from it either.
Slavery and bonded labor existed in Tibet until the arrival of the Communists. Monks had the right to order peasants around. The lowest caste in Tibet was the Ragyaba--a group of outcasts in charge of getting rid of corpses--that still exist today. Lawlessness existed in the countryside. Brigands roamed around and attacked and robbed travelers and pilgrims. Lamas were sometimes horse thieves and outsiders were regarded with suspicion and hostility.
Melvyn Goldstein, a Tibetan expert at Ohio University wrote, “Tibet was characterized by a form of institutionalized inequality that can be called pervasive serfdom.” He told the Times of London, “The key characteristic of the system was that individuals did not have the right to opt out. They could not live as free peasants.”
Some argue the system was not as harsh as the Chinese have made it out to be. Robert Barnett, director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University told the Times of London, “The Chinese trick is to say the words ‘serf’ and ‘feudal’ and make us think brutal.”
China, Mongolia and Tibet
Sixth Dalai Lama The Chinese showed little interest in Tibet until the beginning in the Tang dynasty in 7th century. During the Tang dynasty Tibet and China fought for two centuries before establishing a treaty in 821 that established “a great era when the Tibetans shall be happy in Tibet and Chinese shall be happy in China.” Since then an "uneasy relationship" between Tibet and China has been marked by "marriages of convenience and Chinese invasions."
Many Chinese emperors were believers in Tibetan Buddhism. In the Yuan (1280-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties an intimate political-religious relationship was established between Tibet and the imperial Chinese court that helped Tibet Buddhism spread to Mongolia and the plains of China. In the imperial Chinese era, representatives of the Chinese Emperor traditionally kowtowed before the Dalai Lama as a sign of respect when the representatives came to Tibet.
The Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty had close ties with Tibet and were followers of Tibetan Buddhism. The Yongle emperor (1403-1424)--a Ming ruler--was a devout follower of Tibetan Buddhism. The Chinese government today uses ties between the Yuan Dynasty and the Tibetans as the basis for their its on Tibet but the relationship was established by the Mongols before they conquered China and ended when the Yuan dynasty was ousted.
In 1578, in the midst of a military campaign, Abtai Khan—the powerful Kalkha Mongol lord and unifer of Mongolia—became fascinated with Tibetan Buddhism and converted to the religion. He became a devout believer and bestowed the title of Dalai Lama for the first time on the spiritual leader of Tibet (the 3rd Dalai Lama) while the Dalai Lama visited the Khan's court in the 16th century. Dalai is the Mongolian word for “ocean.” More than a century before Kublai Khan himself had been seduced by a Tibetan Buddhist monk named Phagpa perhaps it is reasoned because off all the religions welcomed into the Mongol court, Tibetan Buddhism was most like like traditional Mongol shamanism.
Links between Mongolia and Tibet have remained strong. The 4th Dalai Lama was a Mongolian and many Jebtzun Damba (Mongolian rulers) were born in Tibet. Mongolians have traditionally provided the Dalai Lama with military support and gave him sanctuary in 1903 when Britain invaded Tibet. Even today many Mongolians aspire to make a pilgrimage to Lhasa as Muslims do to Mecca.
Qing Dynasty and Tibet
17th century treaty of capitualtion to China To strengthen the relations between China and Mongolia and Tibet, the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) established Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Beijing, Shenyang and Jehol and had Tibetan shrines built in the Forbidden City.
In 1705, the Mongols ousted the Dalai Lama. In 1720, the seventh Dalai Lama asked the Qing (Manchu) emperor help and the imperial Chinese army arrived in Lhasa and expelled the Mongols. In 1792, China helped the Tibetans repel an invasion from Nepal. In return for Chinese help, the Qing emperor demanded a say in selecting Tibet's two highest lamas: the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.
From the 18th century to the early 20th century, Tibet was a protectorate of China with Chinese regents in some cases having as much power ruling over Tibet as the Dalai Lamas. A new system was introduced in which the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama were selected by drawing lots from the Golden Urn in Lhasa. Many Tibetans supported the process because they saw it as a way to discourage the squabbling that often took place between rival factions.
For the Qing dynasty, Tibet was mainly useful as a buffer state. Qing imperial administrators were stationed in Lhasa, but overall China had very little control in Tibet and Tibetans maintained authority over their own affairs. Chinese armies were occasionally sent to Tibet but they were there to maintain peace not impose Chinese culture and political aims. When the Qing did take action in Tibet they tended to react too little, too late, allowing crises to develop and then used heavy handed methods to solve them.
China-Tibet Tea Horse Road
Tea carriers in 1908 For many centuries the Tea Horse Road was a thoroughfare of commerce, the main link between China and Tibet. But my search could be in vain. Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic, “The ancient passageway once stretched almost 1,400 miles across the chest of Cathay, from Yaan, in the tea-growing region of Sichuan Province, to Lhasa, the almost 12,000-foot-high capital of Tibet. One of the highest, harshest trails in Asia, it marched up out of China's verdant valleys, traversed the wind-stripped, snow-scoured Tibetan Plateau, forded the freezing Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween Rivers, sliced into the mysterious Nyainqentanglha Mountains, ascended four deadly 17,000-foot passes, and finally dropped into the holy Tibetan city.” [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, May 2010]
Today the trail lives on in the memories of men like Luo Yong Fu, a watery-eyed 92-year-old whom I met in the village of Changheba, a ten-day walk for a tea porter west of Yaan,” Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic. “When I first arrived in Sichuan, I was told no tea porters were still alive. But as I walked the last remnants of the Chamagudao, the Chinese name for the ancient trade route, I met not only Luo, but also five others, all eager to share their stories. Stooped but still surprisingly strong, Luo Yong Fu wore a black beret and a blue Mao jacket with a pipe in the pocket. He had worked on the Tea Horse Road as a porter, carrying tea to Tibet from 1935 to 1949. Luo's load of tea always weighed 135 pounds or more. At the time, he weighed less than 113 pounds.” [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, May 2010]
"Difficulties were so great and the hardship so enormous," Luo said. "It was a terrible job." Luo had crossed back and forth over Maan Shan, the point I had hoped to reach. In winter the snow was three feet deep and six-foot icicles hung from the rocks. He said the last time someone had crossed the pass was in 1966, so he doubted whether I would be able to do it.” [Ibid]
“But I did get a glimmer of what it must have been like to travel the road. In Xinkaitian, the first stop on the tea porters' 20-day trek from Yaan to Kangding, clean-shaven Gan Shao Yu, 87, and bristle-faced Li Wen Liang, 78, insisted on acting out their lives as porters. Backs bent beneath immense, imaginary loads of brick tea, veiny hands on T-shaped crutches, heads down and eyes on their splayed feet, the two old men showed me how they wobbled single file along a wet stretch of cobblestone. After seven steps Gan stopped and stamped his crutch three times, following tradition. Both men circled their crutches around to their backs to rest their wood-frame packs atop the crutch. Wiping sweat from their brows with phantom bamboo whisks, they croaked out the tea porter song: ‘Seven steps up, you have to rest. / Eight steps down, you have to rest./ Eleven steps flat, you have to rest. / You are stupid, if you don't rest.’” [Ibid]
“Tea porters, both men and women, regularly carried loads weighing 150 to 200 pounds; the strongest men could carry 300. The more you carried, the more you were paid: Every pound of tea was worth a pound of rice when you got back home. Wearing rags and straw sandals, porters used crude iron crampons for the snowy passes. Their only food was a satchel of corn bread and an occasional bowl of bean curd.” "Of course some of us died on the way," Gan said solemnly, his eyelids half shut. "If you got caught in a snowstorm, you died. If you fell off the trail, you died." [Ibid]
Tea portering ended soon after Mao took over the country in 1949 and a highway was built. Redistributing land from the wealthy to the poor, Mao released the tea porters from servitude. "It was the happiest day of my life," Luo said. After he received his parcel of land, he began to grow his own rice and "that sad period passed away." [Ibid]
History of the Tea and Horse Trade Between China and Tibet
Sail assisted wheelbarrows “Tea was first brought to Tibet, legend has it, when Tang dynasty Princess Wen Cheng married Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in A.D. 641,” Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic. “Tibetan royalty and nomads alike took to tea for good reasons. It was a hot beverage in a cold climate where the only other options were snowmelt, yak or goat milk, barley milk, or chang (barley beer). A cup of yak butter tea—with its distinctive salty, slightly oily, sharp taste—provided a mini-meal for herders warming themselves over yak dung fires in a windswept hinterland.” [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, May 2010]
“The tea that traveled to Tibet along the Tea Horse Road was the crudest form of the beverage. Tea is made from Camellia sinensis, a subtropical evergreen shrub. But while green tea is made from unoxidized buds and leaves, brick tea bound for Tibet, to this day, is made from the plant's large tough leaves, twigs, and stems. It is the most bitter and least smooth of all teas. After several cycles of steaming and drying, the tea is mixed with gluey rice water, pressed into molds, and dried. Bricks of black tea weigh from one to six pounds and are still sold throughout modern Tibet.” [Ibid]
By the 11th century, brick tea had become the coin of the realm. The Song dynasty used it to buy sturdy steeds from Tibet to take into battle against fierce nomadic tribes from the north, antecedents of Genghis Khan's hordes. It became the prime trading commodity between China and Tibet. For 130 pounds of brick tea, the Chinese would get a single horse. That was the rate set by the Sichuan Tea and Horse Agency, established in 1074. Porters carried tea from factories and plantations around Yaan up to Kangding, elevation 8,400 feet. There tea was sewn into waterproof yak-skin cases and loaded onto mule and yak trains for a three-month journey to Lhasa.” [Ibid]
“By the 13th century China was trading millions of pounds of tea for some 25,000 horses a year. But even all the king's horses couldn't save the Song dynasty, which fell to Genghis's grandson, Kublai Khan, in 1279. Nonetheless, bartering tea for horses continued through the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and into the middle of the Qing dynasty (1645-1912). When China's need for horses began to wane in the 18th century, tea was traded for other goods: hides from the high plains, wool, gold, and silver, and, most important, traditional Chinese medicinals that thrived only in Tibet. These are the commodities that the last of the tea porters, like Luo, Gan, and Li, carried back from Kangding after dropping off their loads of brick tea.” [Ibid]
“Just as China's imperial government used to regulate the tea trade in Sichuan, so monasteries influenced the trade in theocratic Tibet. The Tea Horse Road, known to Tibetans as the Gyalam, connected the important monasteries. Over the centuries, power struggles in Tibet and China changed the Gyalam's route. There were three main trunk lines: one from the south in Yunnan, home of Puer tea; one from the north; and one from the east cutting through the middle of Tibet. Because it was the shortest, this center route handled most of the tea.” [Ibid]
Early European Explorers of Tibet
Thirteenth Dalai Lama The first Europeans in Tibet were Jesuit and Capuchin fathers posted in Lhasa in the 17th and 18th century. They described Tibetans as "idol worshipers.” When they first heard about Tibet while they were in Goa they thought it might be the long-lost Christian kingdom of Prester John.
In 1624, Father Antonio del Andrade, a Portuguese Jesuit, made his way to the western Tibetan kingdom of Guge. He established a church and reportedly won so many Catholic converts that local Buddhists called in a force from Ladakh and drove the Christians out. The Ladahkis obliged by not only getting rid of the Christians but also conquering the Guge. In the 1710s, the Italian priest Ippolito Desideri became the first Westerner to lay eyes on Mt. Kailas. He remained in Lhasa for five years before he was ordered to leave. A Scotsman named George Bogle arrived with a expedition in Shigatse in 1774 and became so friendly with the Panchen Lama he married one of the lama’s sisters.
Alexander Csoma Koros explored Tibet in the a 19th-century. Regarded as the father of Tibetan studies in the West, he began his journey searching for his Hungarian roots. His original destination was Xinjiang but he got sidetracked and ending up spending a decade in western Tibetan lamaseries, where he wrote the first English-Tibetan dictionary and did a number of pioneering studies on Tibetan culture. Soon after he resumed his journey to Xinjiang he died of malaria.
On January 20, 1846, two French priests, Father Évarist Huc and Father Gabet arrived in Lhasa, Tibet after a two-year journey from China through Mongolia, and were immediately expelled. Huc wrote about the similarity of Lamanist and Catholic rites and other observations in his travelogue Recount of a Trip Through Tartary, Tibet and China.
Later European Explorers of Tibet
European missionaries generally had a rough go of it in Tibet. Monasteries were intolerant of outside religions; foreigners were attacked by brigands; priests were murdered; and missions were burned down.
Swedish explorer Sveb Ander Hedin spent more than 50 years (1885 to 1935) exploring and mapping the deserts of Central Asia, Tibet and western China. He traced the Silk Road and the source of several rivers.
Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969), a French woman fluent in Tibetan, was the first Western woman to set foot in Lhasa, in 1923, and was the first European to visit many remote parts of Tibet. Born into a middle class Parisian family, she arrived in India in 1911 and became the first European woman to interview the Dalai Lama, who was living in Darjeeling at the time. After traveling around Tibet she settled into a cave and lived their for two years.
After emerging from the cave in 1916 David-Neel disguised herself as a Tibetan peasant and became the first European woman to enter Lhasa, in 1923. She described her adventures in My Journey to Lhasa, a book she wrote after returning Europe. At her side during most of her travels was Yongden, a Tibetan she met at a monastery when he was 15. She died at the age 100.
Efforts by Europeans to Reach Tibet
In the 19th century Tibet was involved on the periphery of the Great Game politics of Central Asia, when Britain and Russia challenged one another for influence in the region.
At one point Tibetan leaders decided to close Tibet to foreigners. This isolation only seemed to spur foreigners on as explorers, spies, missionaries, colonial officers and Buddhist devotees began attempting to reach Lhasa. In his book Virtual Tibet Orville Schell wrote, “A large element of Tibet’s historical allure grew precisely out of is isolation, that it was untouched by the modern world and idd not welcome incursions.”
The history of Western attempts to reach Tibet in the 19th and 20th centuries are recounted in Trespassers on the Roof of the World. Many that made it into Tibet endured blizzards and bandits only to be stopped at the gates of Lhasa by armies of Tibetans led by high-ranking monks. Some were taken prisoner and tortured.
In 1879, Col. Nikolai Prejevalsky, a Russian official accompanied by an escort of armed Cossacks was forced to turn back 150 miles short of Lhasa by Tibetan officials. In 1899, British adventurers Henry Savage Landor was captured on his way to Lhasa. His torture session included 24-hours in a rack. After returning home he wrote a bestseller about his experiences.
Many of those who made into Lhasa did so in disguise: Indian spies hired by Britain posing as holy men, a Japanese Buddhist who posed as a Chinese doctor.
Britain Invades Tibet
British forces marched into Lhasa in 1904—during the Great Game period when Britain and Russia vied for control of Central Asia and Britain believed Russia had plans to take over India—to counteract fears of Russian expansion and forced the 13th Dalai Lama to open up to the outside world. Only months before a Russian advisor visited Lhasa.
The British forces entered Tibet through Sikkim and arrived in Lhasa only to find the Dalai Lama had fled to Mongolia. The British attacked a 12th century monastery. The British, armed with Maxim guns and Enfield rifles, shot their way into Lhasa in a brutal military invasion. Led by Sir Francis Younghisand, they killed hundreds maybe thousands of Tibetans during their march from India to Tibet.
The British entered Tibet with such brutality and force in part because they believed that the Russians already had toehold there. But they found no Russians there because the 13th Dalai Lama had been successful in keeping Tibet sealed. But it was this success and lack of information from inside Tibet that led to British ideas of Tsarist plots and schemes.
Britain in Tibet
Tibetans were forced to sign a treaty with the British, which allowed the posting of British trade agents within Tibet. The British did their best to keep other foreigners out. They urged the Tibetans not to trade with anyone without British their permission and urged Tibet to declare independence from China.
The British only stayed two months in Lhasa and made an agreement with the Dalai Lama’s representative. Britain was able to get control over much of the Himalayan region with the help of Nain Singh, a Bhutanese who often traveled in disguise and provided British mapmakers with important data.
The Qing leadership objected to the British-Tibetan accord on the basis it implied that Tibet was an independent state able to handle its own foreign relations. The British government signed a separate agreement in 1906 with the Qing dynasty, which recognized Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. The Chinese invaded Tibet in February, 1910 and the Dalai Lama fled to Darjeeling in British-controlled India.
In 1911, the Qing dynasty was toppled in China. Tibetans rose up against Chinese troops based in Lhasa. By the end 1912, the Chinese were mostly driven out. In January 1913, the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet. The new Chinese government, with a lot of other problems on its hand, tried to make peace with Tibet. It sent the Dalai Lama a telegram, expressing regret over previous incursions and formally announced that the Dalai Lama had been restored to his former Chinese-authorized status. The Dalai Lama, following the advice of the state oracle and the will of the Tibetan people, said he had no interest in such ranks and he was temporal and spiritual leader of Tibet.
From 1911 to 1950 Tibet was a de facto independent country and Tibetans were allowed to follow their customs and practice their religion without interference. By that time Tibetan feudalism was no longer as harsh as it once was. By the end of 19th century, slavery and bonded servitude had largely disappeared. In 1879, one Indian scholar wrote: "the rich may bestow their daughters on the poor; the daughter of the poor man may become the bride of the proudest noble in the country."
Even so nobles maintained control over a large segment of the population. There were some efforts to modernize. Some dams were built; mining surveys were done; a telegraph line was set up between Lhasa and Shigatse; the Dali Lama accepted arms from Britain; and some Tibetan kids were sent elite schools in England. Modernization was opposed by the ruling nobleman and lamas and largely didn’t amount to much.
For most Tibetans life simply went on has it had done before. Recalling the period, one nomad told National Geographic, "Our taxes were heavy in those days, but we never went hungry."
Tibet Before the Chinese Arrival in 1950
Independent Tibet was no Shangri-La. It very isolated and poor. Before the Chinese arrived, life expectancy was 36 years, the literacy rate was five percent and 95 percent of the population were hereditary serfs and slaves. Corruption and crime were endemic. Bandits roamed the countryside; lamas and noblemen enriched themselves on the backs of poor peasants. Potala palace was described as "a real robbery shop...an eggshell intact on the outside but rotten within."
There were no motored vehicles, no schools (although monasteries provided a form a schooling), no banks and no money in Tibet. Barley, salt, tea, furs, cloth and yak butter were used as a means of exchange. Up until the 1960s most Tibetans did not have matches, gunpowder or wheels (other than those used for praying). Fires were lit with a flint and tinder.
One old Tibetan man told the Times of London, “I remember my father and mother never had enough to eat; they never had enough warm clothes. By day they were humans, by night they were like dogs...no proper home, food of clothes.”
In the 1930s a feud broke out between the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. In 1933, the 13th Dalai Lama died and the country fell under the leadership of the regent of Reting. In 1947, an attempted coup, known as the Reting Conspiracy, shook Lhasa. In 1949, the Communists took over China. Many Chinese felt they had a moral obligation to liberate Tibetans from a bad system and help Tibet modernize.
Chinese Take on Tibetan History
Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “Both sides agreed that China's Mongol rulers had amassed great authority in Tibet by the thirteenth century. But Tibetans say the bond was based principally on a shared religion, and they argue that the Mongols did not represent the Chinese. Historians in China consider the Mongol era the beginning of seven hundred years of political sovereignty over Tibet.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]
Historically, Osnos wrote “the vast majority of Han are proud of their role in Tibet, which they see as a long, costly process of extending civilization to a backward region. The Han in the lowlands had little in common with the pastoral people in the mountains—no shared language or diet—and Chinese historians explained that a Tang-dynasty princess taught Tibetans about agriculture, silk, paper, modern medicine, and industry, and stopped them from painting their faces red.” [Ibid]
“In the twentieth century, when China secured Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang within its borders, the move was hailed by the Chinese people as the end of a century of foreign invasion and humiliation. The Dalai Lama, from that perspective, stood in the path of history, and when he went into exile Chinese newsreels recorded images of farmers denouncing their former landlords and destroying records of hereditary debts.” [Ibid]
“Anyone over fifty years old in China today has grown up with those scenes dramatized in influential films like “Serf,” a 1963 drama about a freed Tibetan servant and his grateful encounter with the People’s Liberation Army. Han Chinese who are only a generation or two removed from poverty are inclined to view China’s investment as a sacrifice.” A Chinese graduate student at Yale told the The New Yorker, “My father is an educated man. He has worked all over Tibet for years and, to this day, he can’t really respect Tibetans. He doesn’t see any intellectual output from them.”
Image Sources: Purdue University, University of Washington
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated January 2013