20080226-13th dalai lama 77.jpg
Thirteenth Dalai Lama

Tibet’s strategic location incited competition between the Mongols, Manchus, Chinese, Russians, and British for influence or control. China's Qing empire (1644–1912), established when the Manchus conquered China exercised loose suzerainty over Tibet, while allowing it to be essentially self-governing. At the close of the 19th century, the Tibetan areas of Ladakh and Sikkim became part of British India, and in 1906 Britain recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. In 1912, the fall of the Qing dynasty prompted the Tibetans to reassert their independence although the Republic of China that succeeded the Qing continued to claim Tibet. In 1950, following the Communist victory in China, Tibet was occupied by the Chinese army and incorporated into the People's Republic of China. In 1959 it lost its vestigial autonomy. [Source: Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450, Thomson Gale, 2007]

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia:“During the 18th century British authorities in India attempted to establish relations with Lhasa, but the Gurkha invasion of 1788 and the subsequent Gurkha war (1792) with Tibet brought an abrupt end to the rapprochement. Jesuits and Capuchins had visited Tibet in the 17th and 18th century but throughout the 19th century Tibet maintained its traditional seclusion. Meanwhile, Ladakh, long part of Tibet, was lost to the rulers of Kashmir, and Sikkim was detached (1890) by Britain. In 1893, Britain succeeded in obtaining a trading post at Yadong, but continued Tibetan interference led to the military expedition (1904) of Sir Francis Younghusband to Lhasa, which enforced the granting of trade posts at Yadong, Gyangzê, and Gar. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Columbia University Press]

British incursion into Tibet from the south and Chinese incursions from the north in the twentieth century demonstrated that the Tibetans were not military strong enough to repel such advances. Robert A. F. Thurman wrote: The British Empire invaded Tibet and imposed a trade treaty on it, doing the same with China. However, none of these three empires made any attempt to homogenize China and Tibet into a single national entity, or to colonize Tibet with Mongolian, Manchu, British, or surrogate subject Chinese settlers. Except for a few border regions in the Far East, there was almost no Chinese population in high plateau Tibet until the People's Republic of China (PRC) invasion between 1949 and 1951. [Source: Robert A. F. Thurman, Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, Gale Group, Inc., 2005]

In 1951, Tibet was declared an autonomous region of China, nominally governed by the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government began a series of repressive measures, principally targeting the Buddhist monasteries. In March 1959, a full-scale revolt was suppressed by the Chinese Army. On December 25, 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to n India, and established a government-in-exile at Dharamsala. In 1965, China formally annexed Tibet as an autonomous region.

Tibet in the 17th and 18th Century

According to the Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism “By the mid-seventeenth century, the Dalai Lama, head of the reformed Geluk (Yellow Sect) branch of Tibetan Buddhism, exercised both temporal and spiritual authority over a theocratic Tibetan government. Each successive Dalai Lama, identified by oracles in infancy, was considered a living buddha, the incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. [Source: Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“In the meantime, the Manchus conquered China and established the Qing dynasty. In 1656 the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1682) visited Beijing and met the Qing emperor Shunzhi (r. 1644–1661). The priest-patron relationship between the two, between a religious teacher and a lay patron, did not imply Tibet's subordination to the Qing. Nevertheless, the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama ultimately led to conflict over control of Tibet between the Manchus and their rivals, the Jungar Mongols, who had established hegemony over Tibet. |~|

“In 1720 a Qing army, accompanied by a Manchu-sponsored reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, expelled the Jungars and occupied Tibet. The Manchus established a protectorate, leaving Tibet essentially autonomous under the Dalai Lama while controlling Tibet's relations with its neighbors. A Qing garrison was stationed in Lhasa, Tibet's capital. Two Qing imperial commissioners (ambans) were assigned to Lhasa to protect Qing interests and supervise the oracles identifying new incarnations of the Dalai Lama and other incarnated lamas. Parts of eastern Tibet were placed under direct Qing administration. Manchu hegemony over Tibet eventually weakened, however, as the Qing dynasty went into decline. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Tibet was, for practical purposes, independent. |~|

Independent Tibet

In 1912, 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, was unable to enforce its claim to Tibet as part of its territory and 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.

The fall of the Qing dynasty ended Tibet's subordination to China. The new Republic of China did continue to control ethnic Tibetan areas in Qinghai Province (Amdo) and Western Sichuan (Kham). According to the Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism In the decades that followed, Tibet isolated itself and did not seek international recognition or diplomatic representation until the 1940s. It also sometimes compromised its claims to independence in its dealings with the Nationalist government in China. The international community generally acquiesced in China's claims to Tibet. [Source: Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450, Thomson Gale, 2007]

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."

China and Tibet in the Early 20th Century

After the Republic of China was founded in 1911, the central government set up a special department to administer Mongolian and Tibetan affairs. In 1929, the Kuomintang government set up a commission for Mongolian and Tibetan affairs in Nanjing and established Qinghai Province. In 1934, the government of the Republic of China set up a resident agency to administer affairs in Tibet. In 1939, Xikang Province was set up in the majority of the Kham region of traditional Tibet. The Tibetan areas in northwest and southwest China, except Tibet, were placed under the administration of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, Xikang and Yunnan provinces respectively. [Source: China.org china.org |]

In 1906 and 1907, Britain recognized China's suzerainty over Tibet. At a conference (1913–14) of British, Tibetans, and Chinese at Shimla, India, Tibet was tentatively confirmed under Chinese suzerainty and divided into an inner Tibet, to be incorporated into China, and an outer autonomous Tibet. The Shimla agreement was, however, never ratified by the Chinese, who continued to claim all of Tibet as a "special territory." After the death (1933) of the 13th Dalai Lama, Tibet gradually drifted back into the Chinese orbit. The 14th Dalai Lama, who was born in China, was installed in 1939–40 and assumed full powers (1950) after a ten-year regency. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Columbia University Press]

According to the Beijing government: “After the Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921, its central committee clearly stated in its Agrarian Revolution Program that the feudal privileges of Tibetan princes and Lamas would be abolished. During its Long March northward to fight the Japanese invaders, the Chinese Worker and Peasant Red Army passed through Tibetan areas in Sichuan, Xikang, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai, where they mobilized the poor Tibetans to carry out land reform and establish democratic political power of the laboring people. Areas inhabited by Tibetans were liberated one after another after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Tibet proper was liberated peacefully in 1951. In 1959, Tibet Autonomous Region was officially established. |

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.”

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. 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.

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.”

“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.”

“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.

Last updated September 2022

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