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Sixth Dalai Lama
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.

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.

Guge Kingdom

Enduring from the middle of the 10th century to the early 17th century, the Guge Kingdom governed western Tibet, spreading Buddhism and resisting outer attacks. The history of the Guge Kingdom can be dated back to the 9th century, when the powerful Tibetan Kingdom was in decline. The last Zamprogna Langdama (Tibet King) tried to eradicate Buddhism and conflicts between monk group and Tibetan rulers broke out. Langdama died in a war in 823. His sons and grandsons fought for the throne. One of these sons, Jide Nimagun, was defeated in a battle and escaped to the remote Nagri area. Later, he created the Guge Kingdom in the Nagri area. In order to avoid a divisive fight between his sons, he divided the Guge Kingdom into three parts and gave them respectively to his three sons. [Source: Tibetravel.org]

In the beginning, the Guge Kingdom ruled under Buddhist principles. The governors were all Buddhists. They built the Tuolin Monastery and translated Buddhit scriptures to spread Buddhism. However, in the late Guge Kingdom period, monk groups got stronger and stronger and the Guge rulers viewed them as a threat. The last king of Guge Kingdom adopted Catholicism and built some Catholic churches. Monks group staged an uprising and persuaded the enemies of Guge Kingdom—Ladakh—to attack Guge. As a result, the Guge kingdom was destroyed.

Buddhism Takes Hold in Tibet

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 as 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.

William of Rubruck on Tibetans

William of Rubruck (c. 1220 – c. 1293, or ca. 1210-ca. 1270) was a Flemish Franciscan missionary, monk and explorer. His account is one of the masterpieces of medieval geographical literature comparable to that of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta and is the most detailed and valuable of the early Western accounts of the Mongols. Born in Rubrouck, Flanders, he is known also as William of Rubruk, Willem van Ruysbroeck, Guillaume de Rubrouck or Willielmus de Rubruquis. He traveled to various places of the Mongol Empire in Asia before his return to Europe. [Source: Wikipedia]

William of Rubruck wrote: “Beyond these are the Tebet (Tibetans), a people in the habit of eating their dead parents, so that for piety's sake they should not give their parents any other sepulcher than their bowels. They have given this practice up, however, as they were held an abomination among all nations. They still, however, make handsome cups out of the heads of their parents, so that when drinking out of them they may have them in mind in the midst of their merry-making. This was told me by one who had seen it. These people have much gold in their country, so that when one lacks gold he digs till he finds it, and he only takes so much as he requires and puts the rest back in the ground; for if he put it in a treasury or a coffer, he believes that God would take away from him that which is in the ground. I saw many misshapen individuals of this people. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

Dalai Lamas and Gelupa

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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.

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.

The fifth Dalai Lama is credited with unifying central Tibet after a protracted era of civil wars. As an independent head of state, he established diplomatic relations with China and also met with early European explorers. He was the first Dalai Lama to become spiritual and political leader of Tibet and the greatest of all the Dalai Lamas.

Feudalism in Tibet

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.

Tibetan Feudal System in the Qing Dynasty

Third Dalai Lama
According to the Chinese government: Before Communist China took control of Tibet “the Tibetan areas were dominated by the serf system that integrated political and religious powers. The local government set up by the Qing Dynasty in Tibet, which was called Kasha, was run by four Kaloons (ministers), three laymen and one lama. The local government consisted of two offices. One was called Zikang (auditor's office), which was formed by four lay officials who administered all affairs about lay officials and audited local revenue, corvee and taxes. The other was called Yicang, a secretarial office formed by four lamas who administered all affairs about religious officials. The Tibetan local government accepted, in name, the leadership of the Dalai Lama or a regent. [Source: China.org china.org |]

“The Dalai Lama was served by several Kampos or lama officials who took care of the Dalai Lama's office and affairs of his residence — the Potala Palace. Owing to historical developments, there were some regional regimes beyond the control of the local government. In Outer Tibet, an internal affairs office called Nangmakang was formed by Bainqen's important Kampos, which was later called Bainqen Kampo Lija (changed into a committee after liberation). It accepted, in name, the leadership of Bainqen. Similarly, several other areas were governed by the local sect leaders or headmen. These were the legacies of the Tusi and Wanhu systems. |

“The basic administrative unit, equivalent to a county, was called Zong in Tibetan and the unit under it, equivalent to a district, was called Si, short for Sika or manor. Some large Sikas had the status of the Zong. Certain tribal organizations still existed on a few pastoral areas, which were subject to the leadership of the Tibet local government. In Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, some Tibetan areas came under the administration of the provincial governments in the Qing Dynasty. But most of the areas were still under the jurisdiction of Tusi officials and big monasteries. |

“The local regimes established on the basis of feudal serfdom that integrated political and religious powers were in the hands of feudal manorial lords, who were either lamas or laymen. They expanded the Tibetan army or formed local retainer forces to protect their reactionary rule. They formulated laws and regulations, set up prisons and used instruments of torture. Even the manors and monasteries had their own private prisons. They seized serfs' property by hook or by crook, punished them at will and executed serfs trying to run away or accused of violating the law. They used such shocking tortures as gouging out the eyes, cutting off the nose or hands, hamstringing or breaking the kneecap.” |

Nobles in Tibetan Feudal System

According to the Chinese government: “Tibetan society was rigidly stratified. The people were divided into three strata in nine grades, according to the size of the land they possessed. The social ladder extended from senior officials, hereditary aristocracy and higher lamas all the way down to herdsmen, serfs and craftsmen. But, generally speaking, these people fell into two major opposing classes — the serf owners and the serfs. [Source: China.org china.org |]

“The Tibet local government was legally the owner of all the land and pasture. It in turn parceled out the land to the aristocrats and monasteries as their manors. The officialdom, the nobility and the clergy thus became the three major categories of feudal lords. The manors held by the officialdom, called Zhungchi, were directly managed by the local government and contracted out to serfs for rent. Part of the rent was used as remuneration for senior officials and the rest portioned out to government offices as their operating expenses. |

“Noble titles in Tibet were hereditary or granted for meritorious services. Ranking was commensurate with the amount of property possessed. There were about 200 to 300 noble families in Tibet. About 20 of them owned scores of manors each. The manors of monasteries were bestowed by the local government or donated by the nobles. Some of them were the property of the monasteries and the rest belonged to higher lamas. A number of manors owned by monasteries were totally controlled by the top living Buddhas or lamas there. |

“The three major categories of feudal lords and their henchmen accounted for about five per cent of the Tibetan population. The nobles and the monasteries each owned about 30 per cent of the land in Tibet and the remaining 40 per cent belonged to the local government. The land and pasture in the Tibetan areas other than Tibet were controlled by headmen, local officials and other members of the ruling groups and monasteries.” |

Serfs and Slaves in the Tibetan Feudal System

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Fifth Dalai Lama

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.”

According to the Chinese government: “The serfs included Thralpas and Dudchhong, who accounted for over 90 per cent of the Tibetan population. With no land or personal freedom, they were chattels of their lords. Thralpas were persons doing unpaid labor. In Tibet, a thralpa tilled a small piece of land rented from the manorial lord, which was called thralkang land. To obtain such a piece of land, a thralpa had to perform all kinds of services for the local government and do unpaid labor on the manor. [Source: China.org china.org |]

“Dudchhong, meaning small household, is a lower rank among the serfs made up of bankrupt thralpas. Dudchhongs were not allowed to till thralkang land. Instead, they had to depend on manorial lords or richer thralpas, doing hard work for them while tilling a tiny piece of land to feed themselves. Five per cent of the Tibetans were house slaves, called Nangzan. With no means of production or personal freedom, they were the most heavily oppressed class in Tibet and had to do the hardest jobs all their lives. Besides, some remnants of clan society still lingered on in the nomadic tribes in remote areas. On the other hand, in villages close to the Han people's farming areas, a landlord economy had emerged. |

“Serfs in all Tibetan areas were overburdened with exorbitant rents in cash or in kind. More than 70 per cent of their annual proceeds were taken away by manorial lords, plunging them into dire poverty. Apart from paying exorbitant rents, serfs had to do all kinds of corvee labor, which was called Ulag. Taxes and levies in Tibetan areas were innumerable. Some levies had been temporary at first and were later made regular. In certain places, scores or even more than 100 different kinds of tax were recorded. |

“All the manorial lords, especially the monasteries, were usurers. They cruelly exploited the serfs by forcing them to accept loans at usurious rates of interest or exchange of unequal values. Usurious loans often ruined the serfs and their families or reduced them to beggary or slavery. The serfs and slaves, who accounted for over 95 per cent of the population, were bound for life to the land of the manorial lords, ordered about and enslaved from generation to generation. They were freely given away as gifts, donations or dowries, sold or exchanged for goods. Long shackled by feudal serfdom, the population of the Tibetan ethnic group showed little growth and production stagnated.” |

Mongols and Tibet

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 1206, Genghis Khan conquered parts of the Tibetan region, and it remained under nominal Mongol rule until 1720, when the Chinese Qing dynasty claimed sovereignty. Rebecca R. French wrote: One sect of Tibetan Buddhism (Saskyaspa), with the help of Mongol supporters, took control of much of central Tibet and established a theocracy that lasted for 100 years. Three secular dynasties followed between the years 1354 and 1642—the Phagmogru, the Rinpung, and the Tsangpa. In the middle of the seventeenth century the Gelugspa, or Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, with the help of Mongolian supporters of their charismatic leader, the Dalai Lama, took control of the central part of the plateau, which they held for 300 years. [Source: Rebecca R. French, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]

Buddhism was introduced from Tibet to Mongolia in the beginning of the 13th century, when the red hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism began to find its followers among the Mongolian rulers. The Mongol) Yuan Dynasty of China (1271–1368) had close ties with Tibet and were followers of Tibetan Buddhism. Kublai Khan (1215-1295) was 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. In 1270, Kublai Khan was converted to Buddhism by Phagpa, the abbot of Sakya monastery, who returned to Tibet to found the Sakya dynasty (1270–1340) and to become the first lama to rule Tibet. In the 16th century, many feudal lords as well as herdsmen shifted to the yellow hat sect of the Dalai Lama.

In 1578, in the midst of his military campaign in Tibet, the Mongol leader Abtai Khan (also known as Abtan Khan) 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 to the spiritual leader of Tibet (the 3rd Dalai Lama) when the Dalai Lama visited the Khan's court in the 16th century. Dalai is the Mongolian word for “ocean.” Dalai Lama means "Ocean of Wisdom".

Links between Mongolia and Tibet have remained strong. The 4th Dalai Lama was a Mongolian and many Jebtzun Damba, Living Buddhas of the Khalkh Mongols, were born in Tibet. Mongolians traditionally provided the Dalai Lama with military support. They 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.

China and Tibet

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 Yongle emperor (1403-1424) — a Ming ruler — was a devout follower of Tibetan Buddhism. Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: “Interestingly, the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) also treated Tibetan Buddhism as a religious authority, even though the Ming was an ethnic Chinese regime that consciously presented itself as breaking with the traditions of Central Asia’s nomadic peoples. Because Yongle was a usurper, he needed a way to legitimize his rule. He did so by emulating Kublai Khan, seeking, for example, initiation into the rites of Hevajra — another fiercely protective deity, deriving from the same sect as Kublai Khan’s preceptor. The Chinese emperor was thus consciously modeling himself on his Mongolian predecessor in order to declare his own sacral authority. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, July 13, 2019]

“The Ming never occupied Tibet, but they set up a series of temples along the border as a kind of soft power. These displayed opulent Buddhist icons amid grand, palace-like architectural settings, using sacred images to project temporal power in these contested regions by showing that they, too, worshipped the same deities.

In 1717, troops of the Mongolian Dzungar Khanate invaded Lhasa. They were expelled four years later by the Qing army.Jiao Yingqi wrote an account of what he witnessed as he traveled with the Qing army to Tibet and met with the Seventh Dalai Lama (1708-1757). An uneasy relationship between Tibet and China began in 1720, after the Manchus entered Tibet to help drive out Mongol invaders and used the situation to become overlords. Over the subsequent period, the acknowledgment of Chinese suzerainty was the price of Tibetan autonomy, but for practical purposes Tibet was an independent state.

Qing China and the Dzungars had clashed before. Galdan Boshugtu Khan (1644-1697), the fourth son of Dzungar leader Erdeni Batur. was recognized in childhood as the reincarnation of the Fourth Ensa Khutuktu and sent to Tibet to be educated under the Fifth Dalai Lama and the Fourth Panchen. In 1670 Galdan returned home to lead the Dzungar Khanate. He defeated the Khalkha in an expedition and also clashed with the Qing court. In response, the Kangxi emperor of China (r. 1661-1722) personally led troops to expel the Dzungars, and in 1697. The defeated Galdan committed suicide.

Qing Dynasty and Tibet

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17th century treaty of capitualtion to China

The Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) recognized Tibet's spiritual leaders, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. A local government was set up in Tibet, with its own minister from the emperor. This system continued under the Republic of China until 1949. To strengthen the relations between China and Mongolia and Tibet, the Qing dynasty 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.

The Manchus of the Qing Dynasty expanded Chinese control to it greatest extent in Central and Southeast Asia and also brought Tibet and Mongolia under Chinese control. In the late 17th and early 18th century, the Manchus fought repeatedly with the Turks and Mongols in what is now Central Asia, Mongolia and western China. After western Mongol leader Tsewang Rabdan, whom the Chinese had made khan of the Ölöt, rose against the Chinese and tried to extend his power as far as Tibet. The Manchus launched a campaign was into Tibet. Lhasa was occupied and that is when the Dalai Lama was installed as supreme ruler, and Tibet was made into a protectorate. Since then Tibet has remained to this day under some form of Chinese colonial rule.

From the 18th century to the early 20th century, Chinese regents in Tibet often had as much power ruling over Tibet as the Dalai Lamas. The system in which the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama were selected by drawing lots from the Golden Urn in Lhasa was introduced. 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.

In 1790-1791 the Chinese conquered Nepal, south of Tibet, because Nepalese had made two attacks on Tibet. English and Chinese political interests converged. At that time Tibet was viewed as necessary for the security of Turkestan and Mongolia and vast territories, were conquered which were of no economic value. The effort cost a great deal of money and brought nothing in. Territories were conquered simply for security and were difficult to maintain and supply with reinforcements. The Chinese may have also been hedging their bets as the European powers, especially Russia and England, were taking an interest in Asia and the Chinese wanted their share.

Qing Dynasty, Dalai Lama and the Golden Urn

The Geluk church, headed by the Dalai Lama, was the most powerful institution in the Qing Empire not under the control of the Qing court. It is still arguably the largest extra-bureaucratic nongovernmental organization in China. The Qing Empire’s Tibetan institutions and sources are the subject of an emerging body of research by Paul Nietupski, Peter Schweiger, Yudru Tsomu, and Max Oidtmann, with this book on how the Qing court asserted control over the process for recognizing the reincarnations of powerful lamas. The Geluk church is also known as the Gelupa, or Yellow Hat, school of Tibetan Buddhism.

According to the regulations stipulated by the Qing government (1644-1911), the final step of confirmation of the selection of the Dalai Lama is the "drawing of lots from a golden urn" ceremony. The Golden Urn was given as a present to Tibet in 1792 by the Chinese Emperor Qianlong, a pious Buddhist, as a way of selecting a Dalai Lama when there was a dispute involving several candidates. The Golden Urn is currently in the possession of Beijing and regarded as symbol of their authority over Tibet.

In the golden urn ceremony, the names of the soul boys that have made it this far are written on slips of paper and placed in silken purses, which are placed the special golden urn. Traditionally, the Resident Official of the Qing government in Tibet, in the presence of the representatives of Tibetan monks and laymen, drew one name. The soul boy whose name is drawn is then recommended to the Tibetan National Assembly, who vote on whether or not to approve the new Dalai Lama.

In a review of the book: “Forging the Golden Urn: The Qing Empire and the Politics of Reincarnation in Tibet” by Max Oidtmann, Joseph Lawson of Newcastle University wrote: Qing emperors were highly concerned about ensuring the right people were in post. The Geluk church did not escape their attention. In the late eighteenth century, the Qianlong emperor began to worry that the identification of the Geluk hierarchs, including the Dalai Lamas, had been subject to corruption. The emperor was vexed by the appearance of incarnates with far greater than expected frequency among the noble households of Tibet and Mongolia. To the latter, this was only natural. Good karma made rebirth in auspicious temporal and sacral circumstances more likely. To Qianlong it looked more like someone was fixing the process. As Oidtmann shows, it was not that the court was afraid that these families might challenge the imperial state; rather, in the emperor’s view, such corruption seemed to lead to incompetent and venal leadership that would sully the reputation of the Church, undermining one of the pillars of the imperial order in Inner Asia. The Geluk order was, after all, one of the key institutions that could generally “be counted on to support imperial initiatives”. [Source: Reviewed by Joseph Lawson, Newcastle University, MCLC Resource Center Publication, July, 2019]

“The solution to the problem was a ritual in which the final identification of reincarnated lamas would be determined by drawing lots from a golden urn. The ritual originated in Ming dynasty Board of Civil Appointments practice, but it was thoroughly localized once exported to Tibet. The use of the Golden Urn extended “imperial oversight over a category of local elites that had historically eluded the dynasty. In an important discovery in the Manchu archives, Oidtmann has found one case in which the amban and assistant amban (imperial residents) in Lhasa fixed the lottery to exclude a candidate whom the emperor considered unsuitable because the child was the son of a local headman in Qinghai. As Oidtmann clarifies in the conclusion, however, this case appears to have been exceptional. As part of the process of promoting the Golden Urn, the Qianlong emperor and his agents in Tibet also sought to suppress the oracles who played important roles in Tibetan society and the Geluk church, a process that Oidtmann labels “shamanic colonialism.” This suppression was unsuccessful, but efforts were not only limited to the oracles’ role in the selection of reincarnates. In one case, the Qing resident in Tibet had an oracle caned after finding him guilty in a property dispute. In the past two decades, historians of the Qing have often noted points on which their findings resonate with those of historians of European or other Eurasian empires, though they have tended to wear their reading of those literatures lightly. This also applies to Oidtmann’s work, in which references to Homi Bhabha are useful for a close analysis of Qing discourse on the oracles, but never threaten to distract from the Tibetan and Manchu source material.

Book: “Forging the Golden Urn: The Qing Empire and the Politics of Reincarnation in Tibet” by Max Oidtmann (Columbia University Press, 2018]

China-Tibet Tea Horse Road

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Tea carriers in 1908
For many centuries the Tea Horse Road was a thoroughfare of commerce, the main link between China and Tibet. 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]

“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.”

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.”

“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.”

Chinese Take on Tibetan History During the Imperial Chinese Era

Over the centuries the relationship between Tibet and China has been fluid and dynamic. At times they were bonded fairly close together; other times relations were strained. At times when Tibet was a powerful kingdom it fought wars with China over territory in present-day Yunnan, Sichuan and Qinghai Provinces. During the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) , the central Chinese government appointed a department specifically to manage affairs in Tibet. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) set up a quasi government in Tibet with some influence. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) established a ministry to deal with affairs in Tibet and Mongolia. The central government officially approved the title of Dalai Lama in 1653 and the title of Panchen Lama in 1713. Some Chinese emperors were deeply influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. In 1728, a resident minister in charge of Tibetan affairs was appointed, followed by the creation of the "Gexia," or Tibetan local government, in 1751. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

According to the Chinese government: “The Tibetans have very long history and flourishing culture. They have done great contribution to the construction and development of the border area of the motherland, and to the enrichment of Chinese national culture. [Source: China.org china.org |]

“From the 10th to 12th century, Tibet fell apart into several independent regimes and began to move towards serfdom. It was at this time that Buddhism was adapted to local circumstances by assimilating certain aspects of the indigenous religion, won increasing numbers of followers and gradually turned into Lamaism [Tibetan Buddhism]. Consisting of many different sects and spread across the land, Lamaism penetrated into all spheres of Tibetan life. The upper strata of the clergy often collaborated with the rich and powerful, giving rise to a feudal hierarchy combining religious and political power and controlled by the rising local forces. |

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Sail assisted wheelbarrows
“The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) founded by the Mongols in the 13th century brought the divided Tibet under the unified rule of the central government. It set up an institution called Xuanzhengyuan (or political council) and put it in charge of the nation's Buddhist affairs and Tibet's military, governmental and religious affairs. Phagsba, a Tibetan lama, was given the title of imperial tutor and appointed head of the council. The Yuan court also set up three government offices to govern the Tibetan areas in northwest and southwest China and Tibet itself. The central government set up 13 Wanhu offices (each governing 10,000 households) in Inner and Outer Tibet east of Ngari. It also sent officials to administer civil and military affairs, conduct census, set up courier stations and collect taxes and levies. Certificates for the ownership of manors were issued to the serf owners and documents given to local officials to define their authority. This marked the beginning of the central authorities' overall control of Tibet by appointing officials and instituting the administrative system there. |

“The ensuing Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) carried over the Tusi (headmen) system in the Tibetan areas in northwest and southwest China. In Tibet proper, three sect leaders and five secular princes were named. These measures ensured peace and stability in the Tibetan areas during the Yuan and Ming dynasties, and the feudal economy there developed and culture and art flourished. Tibet's contacts with other parts of the country became more frequent and extensive. |

“The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the last monarchy in China, set up a government department called Lifanyuan to administer affairs in Tibet and Mongolia. In Tibet, the Qing emperor conferred the titles of the "Dalai Lama" (1653) and "Bainqen Erdini" (1713) on two living Buddhas of the Gelugba sect of Lamaism. The Qing court began to appoint a high resident commissioner to help with local administration in 1728, and set up the Kasha as the local government in 1751. In 1793, the Qing army drove the Gurkhas invaders out of Tibet and formulated regulations concerning its administration. The regulations specified the civil and military official appointment systems and institutions governing justice, border defense, finance, census, corvee service and foreign affairs, establishing the high commissioners' terms of reference in supervising Tibetan affairs. In other areas inhabited by Tibetans in northwest and southwest China, the Qing court continued the Tusi (headmen) system established by the Yuan and Ming dynasties, and put them under the administration of the Xining Commissioner's office (established in 1725) and the Sichuan governor (later the Sichuan-Yunnan border affairs minister). |

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.

Last updated September 2022

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