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.

In the 6th century, the chief of the Yarlung tribe in the area became leader of the local tribal alliance and declared himself the "Zambo" ( or “Zanpu”, king). He established the Po Dynasty and was the grandfather of early 7th century, Songtsen Gampo (Zanpu’s grandson) Traditional Tibetan history described the exploits of a lengthy list of rulers. External corroboration is available from the 7th century in Chinese histories, which called the country Tubo. [Source: China.org china.org ]

The dates attributed to the first Tibetan king, Nyatri Tsenpo (Wylie: Gnya'-khri-btsan-po), vary. Some Tibetan texts give 126 BC, others 414 BC. 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. [Source: Wikipedia +]

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.[7] According to various accounts, king Drigum Tsenpo (Dri-gum-brtsan-po) either challenged his clan heads to a fight,[8] 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 Mai 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 was a manifestation of the bodhisattva Chenresig, or Avalokitesvara (Tib. Spyan-ras-gzigs) while the ogress in turn incarnated Chenresig's consort Dolma (Tib. 'Grol-ma).

Tubo Kingdom and the Yarlung Dynasty

From the A.D. 7th century, Chinese historians referred to Tibet as Tubo, though four 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.

At the beginning of the 7th century, King Songzan Gambo (Zanpu’s grandson) began to rule the whole of Tibet and made "Losha" (today's Lhasa) the capital. He designated official posts, defined military and administrative areas, created the Tibetan script, formulated laws and unified weights and measures, thus establishing the feudal kingdom known as "Bo," which was called "Tubo" (“Tupo) in Chinese historical documents. This is known in Chinese history as the Tupo kingdom. [Source: China.org china.org ]

According to the Chinese government: “After the Tubo regime was established, the Tibetans increased their political, economic and cultural exchanges with the Han and other ethnic groups in China. The Kingdom of Tibet began to have frequent contacts with the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and the Tibetan and Han peoples got on well with each other. In 641, King Songzan Gambo married Princess Wen Cheng of the Tang Dynasty. In 710, King Chide Zuzain married another Tang princess, Jin Cheng. The two princesses brought with them the culture and advanced production techniques of Central China to Tibet. From that time on, emissaries traveled frequently between the Tang Dynasty and Tibet. The Tibetans sent students to Changan, capital of the Tang Dynasty, and invited Tang scholars and craftsmen to Tibet. These exchanges helped promote relations between the Tibetans and other ethnic groups in China and stimulated social development in Tibet. The Tubo Kingdom began to decline in 842 and was finally replaced by the Guge Kingdom. [Source: China.org china.org |]

Tibetan Empire Period (A.D. 632-842)

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. 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.

The Yarlung Kingdom grew into the Tibetan Empire, which existed from the A.D. 7th to 9th centuries and ruled an area considerably larger than the Tibetan Plateau, stretching to parts of East Asia, Central Asia and South Asia, embracing parts of Yunnan, Gansu, Qinghai, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Kashmir. From the 7th to the 9th century a series of emperors ruled Tibet. From the time of the emperor Songtsän Gampo the power of the empire gradually increased over a diverse terrain. By the reign of the emperor Ralpacan, in the opening years of the 9th century, it controlled territories extending from the Tarim basin to the Himalayas and Bengal, and from the Pamirs to the Chinese provinces of Gansu and Yunnan. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The power that became the Tibetan state originated at the castle named Taktsé in the Chingba district of Chonggyä. There, According to the Old Tibetan Chronicle a group convinced Tagbu Nyazig to rebel against Gudri Zingpoje, who was in turn a vassal of the Zhangzhung empire under the Lig myi dynasty. The group prevailed against Zingpoje. At this point Namri Songtsen was the leader of a clan which one by one prevailed over all his neighboring clans. He gained control of all the area around what is now Lhasa, before his assassination around 618. This new-born regional state would later become known as the Tibetan Empire. The government of Namri Songtsen sent two embassies to the Chinese Sui Dynasty in 608 and 609, marking the appearance of Tibet on the international scene. +

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.

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).

The historic name for the Tibetan Empire is different from Tibet's present name. According to the historian Christopher Beckwith: "This first mention of the name Bod, the usual name for Tibet in the later Tibetan historical sources, is significant in that it is used to refer to a conquered region. In other words, the ancient name Bod originally referred only to a part of the Tibetan Plateau, a part which, together with Rtsa (Tsang), has come to be called Dbus-gtsa? (Central Tibet)." +

Battle of Talas

The Battle of Talas is one of history's most important battles. In 751, Chinese forces of the Tang dynasty attempting the extend Chinese control into Central Asia were annihilated by a Muslim army assisted by Tibetans in Talas (present-day Tara in Kazakhstan) not far from Samarkand. The defeat of the Chinese in 751 gave Muslims control of the Silk Road.

As China became strong during the Tang dynasty it began expanding westward, for the most part relying more on diplomatic skills than military might to achieve its goals. The strategy worked well until one Chinese viceroy went too far and ordered the murder of the khan of the Tashkent Turks.

In 751 an alliance of enraged Turks, opportunist Arabs and Tibetans maneuvered a Chinese force into the Talas Valley in present-day Kazakhstan and Kyrzgzstan. In the ensuing battle — the Battle of Talas — the Chinese were routed and forced back across the Tian Shan. Tibetans moving up from the south were driven out of the Tarim basin by Uighur Turks, allies of the Tang. The Uighars have been in the region ever since.

The Battle of Talas, ended Chinese ambitions in Central Asia. After the battle, the Turk, Arab and Tibetans splintered and instability was the rule in Central Asia until the 9th century when the Samanid dynasty rose up.

Songtsen Gampo

Songtsen Gampo was the 33rd Tibetan ruler of the Yarlung kings and is considered to be the real founder of the Tibetan Empire. Songtsan Gambo brought together more than 10 separate tribes to create the kernal of what is now Tibet and is traditionally credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet.

It is said that Songtsen Gampo was born at Gyama in 617, in Maldro (a region to the northeast of modern Lhasa), the son of the Yarlung king Namri Songtsen. The book “The Holder of the White Lotus” says that it is believed that he was an incarnation of the Buddhist Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, of whom the Dalai Lama is similarly believed to be a manifestation of. He is also said to have had webbed hands and feet, a deformed face and odd skin; the early Tibetans saw him as a god and enthroned him. His identification as a cakravartin or incarnation of Avalokites'vara began in earnest in the indigenous Buddhist literary histories of the 11th Century. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Greatly influenced by his father,Songtsen Gampo showed leadership skills and other talents at an early age. When he was thirteen, he acceded to the throne after his father was poisoned in 618 and Songtsen Gampo put down a rebellion. He moved the capital of Tibet to Luosuo (today's Lhasa) after he quelled the rebellions from all parts of the region. Because of his efforts, Tibet was finally unified. By making laws, regulations and tax systems, and by fostering the development of farming and stockbreeding, Tibet prospered.

At the time Songtsen Gampo took the throne, the Tibetan people did not have a writing system and kept records by tying knots. To address this, Songtsen Gampo sent sixteen nobles including minister Thonmi Sambhota to India to study Sanskrit and writing. They created a written language for Tibet, and translated the Buddhist doctrines into this new language. This contribution helped to preserve, transmit and develop the Tibetan culture.

Unfortunately, Songthen Gampo died of an illness in 650, at the age of thirty-four. He was succeeded by his infant grandson Trimang Lön (Khri-mang-slon). Real power was left in the hands of the minister Gar Songtsän. It is said that Songtsen Gampo was buried in Yumbu Lakhang in southeast Tibet.

Expansion of the Tibetan Kingdom Under Songtsen Gampo

Through warfare and Songthen Gampo expanded the Tibetan empire deep into Nepal and Tang Dynasty China, and it was during these battles that he gained an appreciation of the neighbouring cultures. He adopted Buddhism and encouraged his subjects to take p the faith. Under his rule, Buddhism began to replace the shamanistic practices of the Bon religion.

Songtsän Gampo was skilled in diplomacy as well as combat. His minister, Myang Mangpoje defeated the Sumpa people in 627. Six years later he was accused of treason and executed. He was succeeded by minister Gar Songtsän (Mgar-srong-rtsan). The Chinese records mention an envoy in 634. At that time Songtsen Gampo requested marriage to a Chinese princess but was refused. In 635-36, Songtsen Gampo attacked and defeated the Tuyuhun, who lived around Koko Nur, a lkae in present-day Qinghai Province, and took control of important trade routes into China. After a Tibetan campaign against China in 635-6, the Chinese emperor agreed—only because of the threat of force, according to Tibetan sources—to provide a Chinese princess to Songtsän Gampo. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Around 639, after Songtsän Gampo had a dispute with his younger brother Tsänsong, the younger brother was burnt to death by his own minister Khäsreg, presumably at the behest of Songtsen Gampo. Songtsän Gampo’s sister Sämakar (Sad-mar-kar) was sent to marry Lig-myi-rhya, the king of Zhangzhung in what is now Western Tibet. However, when the king refused to consummate the marriage, she then helped her brother to defeat Lig myi-rhya and incorporate Zhangzhung into the Tibetan Empire. In 645, Songtsän Gampo overran the kingdom of Zhangzhung.+

There is some confusion as to whether Central Tibet conquered Zhangzhung during the reign of Songtsän Gampo or in the reign of Trisong Detsän, (r. 755 until 797 or 804). The records of the Tang Annals do, however, seem to clearly place these events in the reign of Songtsän Gampo for they say that in 634, Zhangzhung and various Qiang tribes "altogether submitted to him." Following this, he united with the country of Zhangzhung to defeat the Tuyuhun, then conquered two more Qiang tribes before threatening the Chinese region of Songzhou with a very large army (according to Tibetan sources 100,000, according to the Chinese more than 200,000 men). He then sent an envoy with gifts of gold and silk to the Chinese emperor to ask for a Chinese princess in marriage and, when refused, attacked Songzhou. According to the Tang Annals, he finally retreated and apologised and later the emperor granted his request. It is recorded in the tradition of Tibet, that after Songtsen Gampo died in 650 A.D., the Chinese Tang dynasty attacked and took control of Lhasa, "but they could not sustain their presence there in the hostile environment, so they soon returned to China." +

Songtsen Gampo and Princess Wencheng

Songtsen Gampo married two princesses respectively from Nepal and Tang Dynasty China. In 639, after he married Princess Bhrikuti Devi of Nepal, he proposed a marriage to the Tang Dynasty leadership. In 641, the Chinese Emperor Tang Taizong sent Princess Wencheng to marry Songtsen Gampo (some sources say she was sent to his son). Both princesses are credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet. Princess Wencheng is regarded as the founder of Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet’s most important temple, and is credited with bringing Buddhism and Chinese culture to Tibet.

The Chinese Princess Wencheng departed China in 640 and arrived a year later in Lhasa, bringing a statue, the Jowo Shakyamuni, a life-size (1.5 meters tall) statue of the Buddha.. Some stories say she was 12 when she arrived; other say she eight. Her arrival is traditionally credited with being the first time that Buddhism came to Tibet, but it is very unlikely Buddhism extended beyond foreigners at the court. Statues of Princess Wencheng and Songtsan Gambo stand together at Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa.

Prince Wencheng was a daughter of a courtier: the niece or daughter, of the Tang Emperor Taizong. It is said that Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty needed to find a bride for King Songtsen Gampo and smart and pretty Wencheng seemed an ideal match, so she was conferred the title of princess and sent west.

Princess Wencheng Gongzhu was one of the five wives of Songtsen Gampo. She brought a dowry of precious Buddhist gifts to Lhasa, notably the Jowo Rinpoche statue. The story of Princess Wencheng’s marriage to Songtsen Gampo has been used as a basis for numerous songs, operas, films and paintings in China since 1950. According to Tibetologist Robert Barnett, “Hers is the main story used officially in modern China to describe the Sino-Tibetan relationship. Most if not all of this cultural production is state-sponsored.” [Sources: Save Tibet, (‘Lhasa: Streets with Memories’ by Robert Barnett, Columbia University Press, 2010).

Princess Wencheng and Jokhang Temple

Songtsan Gambo had the Ramoche Monastery built for the Buddha statues that Princess Wencheng brought with her. The princess herself had the Jokhang Temple built. In front of it she and Songtsan Gambo planted some willow trees now known as tangliu (the Tang willow). Today, the original statue of Sakyamuni believed to be brought by Princess Wencheng is still enshrined in the center of the main hall of the Jokhang Monastery. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

Prince Wencheng passed away in 680 thirty years after Songtsan Gambo. Reportedly a large, ceremonious funeral was held to honor her. Generations of poets have written verses to eulogize her and her story has been adapted to various theatrical forms. Two traditional observations have been devoted to her: the fifteenth day of the fourth month of each Tibetan year (the day when Princess Wencheng arrived in Tubo) and the fifteenth day of the tenth month of each Tibetan year (the birthday of Princess Wencheng). Her statue and that of Songtsan Gambo are worshiped in the Jokhang Monastery. The chamber where they spent their first married life is still kept intact in the Potala Palace.

Jokhang Temple was built on the former site of a lake. The site was selected, according to legend, when the cart in which Wendheng was bringing the statue of Sakyamuni sank into the mud by Wotang Lake. Divination identified this as the site of the Dragon Palace, the malign influence of which could only be counteracted by the building of a monastery. The foundation stone was laid in 647. [Source: UNESCO]

Actually two temples were built, Queen Bhrikuti (the Nepali princess) founded the monastery to house the statue, while Wencheng chose the location, purported to be the best location based on the traditions of geomancy and the site of a lake said to be a witch’s heart (by building the temple there would exorcise the evil she brought to the region). Another temple, the Ramoche Temple, was founded about the same time. The former was originally built to house the Sakyamuni brought by Princess Wencheng, but shortly thereafter was moved to the larger Jokhang Temple. [Sources: orientalarchitecture.com, travelchinaguide.com]

According to the legend, the lake site was chosen after many failed attempts to build a temple in the region. Prior to this, every time a monastery was built, it would collapse. Unable to get to the bottom of this problem, Bhrikuti turned to Wencheng for help. Being a learned and wise woman, Wencheng told the Nepali princess that the geography of Tibet was very much like a witch, with the lake at the heart. In order to build the monastery, Wencheng said the could defeat the witch by filling in the lake, which was done using 1,000 goats to carry soil from a mountain far away. When the construction work was done, it was called Ra-Sa-Vphrul-Snang ('ra' meaning goat and 'sa' meaning earth in Tibetan) to commemorate those goats. In the side halls flanking the Main Hall of Jokhang Temple are the statues of Songtsan Gambo and Princess Wencheng. Their faces have been heavily gilded by worshipers using gold paint and gold leaf. [Ibid]

Chinese Take on Early Tibetan History

Chinese call the kingdom established by Songthen Gampo the Tubo Kingdom or the Tubo Slavery Regime. The Chinese say he contributed to the unity of the Chinese nation and his influence in establishing lines of communication between Tibet and China was part of his great legacy. King Songtsan Gambo established good relations with the Tang court and benefitted from the importation of Tang technologies (advanced for the day), and was influenced by Tang culture and politics. He twice sent ministers to the Tang Dynasty court requesting a member of the imperial family be given him in marriage and in 641 he married Princess Wencheng, a member of Emperor Taizong's family. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 ]

During the Tubo Kingdom, the Chinese say, various Chinese technologies were introduced into Tibet, such as wine-making, grinding, and paper and ink making. Sons of the Tibetan aristocracy were sent to the Tang capital Chang'an (present-day Xi' an) to study. Literati from the Tang court went to the Tibetan capital to handle communications with the emperor. During the reign of Songtsan Gambo political, economic and cultural relations between Tang and Tubo were friendly. The Chinese say Songtsan Gambo studied Chinese and became skilled in the art of leadership.

Laudatory titles given King Songtsan Gambo by Tang Emperor Gaozong, the son of the Emperor Tang Taizong, include Commandant-escort, Commandery Prince of the Western Sea and Com panion Prince. After Songtsan Gampo died, Emperor Gaozong bestowed upon Songtsan Gambo honorary title of "The King of Xihai Jun". A stone statue of him was placed next to Zhao Ling, the Mausoleum of the Emperor Tang Taizong. This high honor commemorates the friendly relationship between the Tang and Tubo Empires. As a reminder of the great empire that Songtsen Gampo ruled, a large pillar still stands before the Potala palace in Lhasa, erected during his reign, on which is inscribed the agreement between the Tibetan and Chinese rulers to respect each other's borders.

This pattern of friendly relations established during the reign of Songtsan Gambo was carried on during the next two hundred years. In 710 the Tang Princess Jincheng was sent to Tibet to marry the Tubo King Tride Tsugtsen, accompanied by several tens of thousands of pieces of embroidered satin brocade, a variety of technical writings and various other useful items. Princess Jincheng later gave money to support Buddhist monks from Yutian (now in modern Xinjiang) and elsewhere on their trips to Tibet to build monasteries and translate sutras. She also requested that Chinese classical works such as The Book of Songs With Annotation by Mao Heng, The Book of Rites, Zuo Qiuming's Chronicles, and Xiao Tong's Literary Selections be sent to her from the Tang court.

In 821 King Chiri Pachen of Tibet sent envoys three times to Chang'an to discuss forming an alliance with the Tang Empire. Emperor Muzong ordered his prime minister to effect the alliance in a grand ceremony held in the western suburbs of the capital. The following year high-ranking representatives of the Tang court including Liu Yuanding were dispatched to Tibet to participate in a similar ceremony marking the alliance held in the eastern suburbs of Lhasa. Representatives of the Tibetan king included his chief ministers. This all occurred during the first and second years (822 and 823) of the Changqing reign of the Tang Dynasty, and accordingly has been called the "Changqing Alliance" by historians. The two parties agreed to "amity as though they were of one family" and to "treat their sacrificial alters as though they were one." An account of the alliance is recorded on three tablets, and the "Tang- Tubo Alliance Tablet", one of the three, still stands before the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.

Chinese Take on Songtsan Gambo and Princess Wencheng

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “To the consternation of many Tibetans, Princess Wencheng is frequently portrayed as having pacified Tibet and introduced from China advanced farming practices, weaving and even Buddhism and the Tibetan alphabet. Some historians question whether she even existed. The story of Princess Wencheng is a familiar one to Chinese youngsters, and her persona has come to dominate Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, in the form of an operatic extravaganza that, according to promotional materials, “celebrates the enduring friendship between the two peoples.”

Chloe Xin of Tibetravel.org wrote: “ The story of Tibet King Songtsan Gambo and Princess Wencheng of Tang Dynasty is well known by Tibetan people as well as Han people. The story happened about 1300 years ago when Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) left Chang'an (Xi'an) to marry Songtsan Gambo, king of the Tubo kingdom. Their marriage was aimed to maintain amicable relations between the Tang and the Tubo. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 ]

“The Tang was a powerful dynasty in Chinese history. It was the civilization center of East Asia. Neighboring nations and tribes fell under the influence of the Tang Dynasty, and earnestly sought ties with the dynasty. They either claimed allegiance to the Tang or paid tributes to the imperial court. This stimulated exchanges between the Han and other nationalities. The same period saw Songtsan Gambo gain control of the highland area in the west. After having annexed some tiny states, he founded the Tubo Kingdom and named Loso (Lhasa) the capital city. Beginning in 634, he twice dispatched Gar Tongtsan to Chang'an, where the Tubo minister informed the Tang of Songtsan Gambo's desire for a daughter of the Tang emperor. Tang Emperor Taizong agreed to let Wencheng marry the Tubo king. Accompanied by the Tubo minister, Princess Wencheng set out for the farway Tubo Kingdom. This segment of history was later turned into tales which remain an important part of Tibetan folklore.

“Princess Wencheng brought crop and vegetable seeds to Tibet, and joined her entourage in teaching the local people how to grow crops and vegetables, grind wheat flour and make wine. In addition, Princess Wencheng brought scriptures and statues of Buddha from out Buddhist pagodas in China. which she had brought into the Tubo area for construction of monasteries. Goats were mobilized to carry earth to fill in a pond for the construction of the Jokhang Temple.

“Princess Wencheng and her husband, Songtsan Gambo, planted a willow tree in front of the monastery, which later was dubbed the Tang Willow, as the Uncle-Nephew Alliance Tablet (erected in 823 to mark the alliance between the Tang and the Tubo) was placed next to the tree. The statue of Sakyamuni enshrined in the center of the Main Hall of the Jokhang Monastery was the one Princess Wencheng brought into Tubo. Princess Wencheng also had the Ramoche Monastery built. She named the eight surrouding mountains the Eight Treasures, a name which is still in use today. All these paved the way for the spread of Buddhism into Tubo Kingdom.”

Songtsan Gambo loved Princess Wencheng so much that he had a palace built for her where present day Potala Palace (started in 1645 under the 5th Dalai Lama) stands today. Frescos of the Potala Palace record historical events, including Tang Emperor Taizong asking Gar Tongtsan to perform five difficult tasks before acceding to the envoy's request for his master to marry a Tang princess, the hardships Princess Wencheng endured on way to the Tubo Kingdom, and how warmly she was greeted at Lhasa. The ruins of the Tubo period behind the Potala Palace includes a chamber for Songtsan Gambo to meditate and practice Buddhism. On the four walls of the chamber hang colored statues of Songtsan Gambo, Princess Wencheng and Gar Tongtsan. [Source: tibet.cn]

Princess Wencheng Mega-Drama

In August 2013, the Chinese government unveiled an expensive stage drama of on the Princess Wencheng Myth that the Chinese government financed itself. Save Tibet reported: A multi-million dollar drama about a Chinese princess is being staged in Lhasa in a bid by the authorities to increase high-end tourism and assert China’s propaganda message of its ownership of Tibet. The Princess Wencheng spectacle is being staged with a cast of nearly 600 on a stage nearly 100 metres long, in a fake Potala Palace that faces the real Potala. It is being performed at a time when Lhasa is under military lockdown with snipers visible on rooftops and its citizens subject to intense surveillance and ideological campaigns. [Source: Save Tibet ^]

CCTV reported: “A dazzling drama production. "Princess Wencheng" is an epic show based on the history of Princess Wencheng's marriage to the local ruler of Tibet. The show tells a tale old, with stunning costumes, elaborate sets and a captivating plot. A drama of epic proportions! The 2014 show has made improvements to the show. It includes more aspects of Tibetan culture and is 15 minutes shorter than the 2013 version, delivering a more compact experience. "We have included more dances, such as the Zhuo dance and the dance of blue masks. Tibetan lifestyles are also highlighted in the show. It's even more spectacular than last year," He Ping, member of production management, said. "I think this is a must see if you want to travel to Tibet. To see a show like this at such a high altitude is just spectacular," an audience member said. The production employs the latest technology to create mind blowing effects. The props are also massive in scale, and the show involves more than 70 cows and 30 horses, twice the amount of last year's edition. [Source: Stanley Lee, CCTV.com, April 25, 2014]

The drama, which is re-enacted 180 times annually according to the Chinese official media, is a state-scripted narrative in which the Chinese, embodied by Princess Wencheng of the 7th century, ‘civilise’ the Tibetans and bring harmony to Tibet. The controversial Princess Wencheng drama is opening amid a tourist boom in Tibet, with Lhasa the main focus. Chinese authorities are seeking to brand Tibet as an exotic, ‘Shangri La’ destination. ^

The Princess Wencheng drama is part of China’s ambitious plans to bring large numbers of Chinese and international tourists to state-owned scenic sites and cultural icons of Tibet to receive a story scripted and delivered by the state and its state trained guides. According to the Tibetan writer Woeser, Party cadres organized the first ‘Symposium on the Princess Wencheng’ in Lhasa, in which officials presented proposals for building Princess Wencheng themed gardens and plays. Academics, artists and journalists were invited to the symposium to discuss how to use the historical reference of Princess Wencheng’s story as a centre-piece for promoting ‘national unity between Han and Tibetans’.^

Gabriel Lafitte, an Australian scholar who has researched the dynamics behind the tourism boom in Tibet, said: “In order to stage this spectacle in Lhasa, a story cherished by Tibetans has been turned inside out. The disconnect between the message of China the benevolent civilizer and the daily experience of Tibetans in Lhasa, living under the gun, is dissonant. The staging of the mandatory harmony between Tibetans and Han is a major nation-building infrastructure investment, scripted entirely by central leaders in Beijing.” ^

Bhuchung Tsering, Interim President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “Irrespective of how tourists might view a mega-production of this scale, if the Princess Wencheng opera is used to appropriate and re-invent Tibetan history and heritage to meet the political needs of current Chinese rulers, there is no way the Tibetan people will approve of it. Tibetans are familiar with the story of “Gyasa Bhelsa,” the opera about the Chinese and Nepalese princesses depicting marital alliances between Tibet and her two neighboring kingdoms.”

Woeser on Princess Wencheng Drama

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times: “Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer who saw the show soon after it opened, said she was troubled by the overriding message that painted the Tibetan people as savages who needed civilizing. “We used to think the story of Princess Wencheng was cute, but she has become such an over-the-top work of propaganda that we can’t help but be offended,” Ms. Woeser said. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, August 18, 2014]

In her blog Woeser wrote: “Lhasa has become a big stage where grandiose projects that aim to change our history by imitating the past are being played out. A big stage where casually dressed plain-clothes police lurk on rooftops of the city’s monasteries and private residences, sometimes even pretending to play with Tibetan beads. But, even when the smallest whispers have been silenced, this big stage fails to hide the countless fears that exist in this city...At dawn, I take my DSLR camera and see through the lens a ”copycat” Potala Palace now seating across the Lhasa river. This building, labeled by the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and the city of Lhasa as their “Number One” project, is a theatre built round the clock to be the stage for the mega-production “Princess Wencheng”. [Source: woeser.middle-way =/=]

“Under the influence of political and economic agendas, the myth of Princess Wencheng is finally becoming a “brain washing” tool. The play will use the latest modern electronic technology to celebrate the revival of an old “splendor”. But, when we talk about celebrating a “splendor” are we celebrating the splendor of the Tang Dinasty, or rather China’s current big nationalistic splendor? Perhaps this is an attempt to use the Princess Wencheng’s myth to materialize the glorious “China Dream”, which in fact is nothing more than a “Sinicization Dream”. =/=

“Official media reports that a total of 750 million Yuan (equivalent to more than 120 million dollars) have been invested into this unprecedented project. This is clearly a top-project for the TAR’s and Lhasa’s government, it aims at using an art form such as a play to consolidate a historical narrative, which “legitimizes” China’s current ruling over Tibet. =/=

“According to official media, the play has hired 500 actors. According to their official microblog (Weibo) the average entrance fee will be 500 yuan (90 USD). Now, the Party is trying to create a new myth around the Princess Wencheng, attributing to her much more influence than she really had…. The points below illustrate some of the new “achievements” attributed to Princess Wencheng under the new narrative: 1) The Potala Palace was built in her honor by the Tibetan King Songtsan Gampo; 2) Princess Wencheng is regarded as one of the main founders of Tibetan Buddhism; 3) The sacred mountain Bhumpa in Tibet was named by Princess Wencheng; 4) Princess Wencheng invented Tankas; and 5) Princess Wencheng was responsible for transmitting the greeting “Tashi Delek”. =/=

“So, clearly we can see that in reality this is a project to re-write history, to “wipe out” the historical memory and culture of a people. In fact, this has been taking place for a long time, but nowadays this policy will flourish under a more consolidated power, and the support of a much more solid economy. We can predict that future tours that visit Tibet will have mandatory visits to this “copy-cat Potala Palace” and attendances to the big propagandistic commercial performances that will take place there. In fact this is a “win-win” project that can both make money and be a tool for “brainwashing” people with propaganda. =/=

“Regarding the marriage of the Princess Wencheng to Tibet during the Tang dynasty, Wang Lixiong has written about the “Princess Myth” in his book “Sky Burial” : “Many Chinese people see Sino-Tibetan relationship through the myth of the Princess Wencheng. As if marriages between Chinese and other cultures will mark sovereignty in favour of China. This is a ridiculous logic.” =/=

Decline of the Tibetan Empire

20080226-bhri Nepal princess purdue 666.jpg
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.

Image Sources: Purdue University, University of Washington

Text Sources: 1) "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2020

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