Recently, I had an interview for a fellowship, which was to include discussions on topics of interest, ranging from politics, religion and fine arts to physics, environment and mathematics. I was all geared up for a heated debate on Hindutva or symmetry, but was mildly surprised and at peace with the discussion going towards yet another topic of interest: Tibet, on which a prose-piece has been on the shelves for ages!
I have had this debate with various people, especially with quite a few Chinese friends. And the usual response to the problem is that it had to be as it was. Tibet was supposedly always a part of China, and the PLA did a most logical thing in assimilating the state into China. So, why do I disagree with that?
For starters, the period of time in Tibet’s history that interests me the most is the age of the Tibetan Empire. Before I discuss that, I must mention a point that may emerge hereafter as well: that the beauty in history lies in how dynamics and demographics of lands change ever-so-drastically. And the reason I say so, in this context, is because the Tibet that we now refer to as a province of China was once the kingdom that comprised of a significant portion of present day China! Songtsän Gampo, the 33rd ruler of the Yarlung Dynasty, is often seen as the most potent and historically significant ruler of the Tibetan Empire. He unified parts of the Yarlung river valley and is said to have conquered Zhangzhung in western Tibet (the latter is not conclusively established though).
Yarlung Zangbo River Grand Canyon
Following this, he united with the country of Yangtong to defeat the kingdom of Tuyuhun in the Qilian Mountains and upper Yellow River valley. This was before he started threatening Songzhou (the Song prefecture) in the eastern Henan province, with an army of (as per the Chinese) more than 200,000 men (100,000 as per Tibetan sources; interestingly, the Tibetans seemingly downplayed their own might). Gampo sent an envoy with gifts of silk and gold to the Chinese emperor to ask for a Chinese princess in marriage. Upon being refused, he attacked Songzhou. The Tibetan army is said to have defeated the Chinese and that the Tang emperor delivered a bride under threat of force. Again, debatable though the might of Gampo’s army surely cannot be undermined.
Gampo next attacked and defeated the Western Xia people, the Bailang (who had been under the Chinese since 624 AD, effectively a decade or so), and other Qiang tribes.
More importantly, Gampo was a reformer of Tibetan society and culture. Gampo is said to have sent his minister to India to devise a script for the Tibetan language, which led to the creation of the first Tibetan literary works and translations, court records and a constitution. Traditional accounts say that, during the reign of Gampo, handicraft and astrological systems were imported from China and the Western Xia; dharma and the art of writing (as previously mentioned) came from India; material wealth and treasures came from the Nepalis and the lands of the Mongols, while model laws and administration were imported from the Uighurs to the North! Interestingly, it is traditionally considered that Gampo’s first wife was a princess of Nepal, who played a great role in establishment of Buddhism in Tibet.
After Gampo, subsequent kings not only established control over vast swathes of land in Central Asia but also made inroads into Chinese territory, bringing them into conflict with the famous Khaganates up north. Even Nanzhao, a kingdom located in modern-day Yunnan (China), was under the Tibetans till 794 AD. At its height in the 780’s to 790’s the Tibetan empire ruled and controlled lands stretching from modern day Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, China, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan at its peak!
Opera made its first appearance in China during the Yuan Dynasty Age
In 821/822 CE Tibet and China signed a peace treaty, thereby demarcating the boundaries between the kingdoms. Tibet continued to be a Central Asian empire until the mid-9th century, when a civil war over succession led to the collapse of imperial Tibet, and the rise of the ‘Era of Fragmentation’. Thereafter, with the advent of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, Tibet was ruled by the central administration. The Sakya lama retained a degree of autonomy, acting as the political authority of the region, while the dpon-chen held administrative and military power. Essentially, there existed what is known as a “diarchic structure” under the Yuan emperor, with power primarily in favor of the Mongols. The end of Mongol administration of Tibet came when the Yuan were overthrown by the Ming dynasty, and Tai Situ Changchub Gyaltsen revolted against the Mongols and the Sakya Lama and founded the Phagmodrupa dynasty.
Monks of the Yellow-Hat Gelug Sect
Interestingly, it was during this time that the founding of the Gelug school (the Yellow Hats) was carried out by the disciples of Je Tsongkhapa. For those who may not be aware, the Gelugpa sect is the sect to which the Dalai Lama is affiliated.
The next 200 years or so saw a flurry of dynasties and internal conflict, before Altan Khan of the Tümed Mongols (who are largely placed in the present-day districts of Hohhot and Baotou) gave Sonam Gyatso, a high lama of the Gelugpa school, the name Dalai Lama, in 1578, thereby essentially founding the institution of the Dalai.
Before moving forward, I would like to ask the reader to sit back and see whether you could find a semblance of prolonged Chinese rule, leaving aside the Yuan era?
Monks of the Red Hat sect
Moving on, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama is known for unifying the Tibetan heartland under the control of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, after defeating the rival Kagyu and Jonang sects (red-hat sects that were suppressed brutally; often with destruction of monasteries and other cultural elements) and the secular ruler, the Tsangpa prince, in a prolonged civil war. The Dalai’s efforts were said to be successful due to the aid from Güshi Khan, the Oirat leader of the Khoshut Khanate.
Hereafter, we again come to a period when Chinese control emerged in the form of military and administrative control.
The Qing dynasty placed Amdo under their control in 1724, and incorporated eastern Kham into neighbouring Chinese provinces in 1728. This was the period when the institution of the Amban, or resident commissioner, was founded, to be appointed for residence in Lhasa. In 1750 the Ambans and majority of the Han Chinese and Manchus living in Lhasa were killed in a riot, and Qing troops arrived quickly and suppressed the rebels the next year. The Qing commander made changes in the political structure and drew up a formal organization plan, wherein the Dalai Lama was restored as the ruler leading a government called the Kashag. However, the important clause in this regard was that the Amban was elevated to occupy a position that involved more direct involvement in Tibetan internal affairs. Interestingly, key posts in the administration were filled with clergymen to offset the influence of aristocrats in this era.
For several decades, peace reigned in Tibet, but in 1792 the Qing Emperor sent a Chinese army into Tibet to push the invading Nepalese out. This prompted yet another Qing reorganization of the Tibetan government, this time through a written plan called the “Twenty-Nine Regulations for Better Government in Tibet“. Qing military garrisons staffed with Qing troops were now also established near the Nepalese border. Tibet was dominated by the Manchus in various stages in the 18th century, and the years immediately following the passing of the regulations saw the peak of the Qing imperial commissioners’ authority; but there however was no attempt to make Tibet a Chinese province.
After a skirmish with the Sikh Empire in 1841-1842 in the Sino-Sikh War, the Qing hold on Tibet soon weakened. By the late 19th century, Qing authority over Tibet was largely symbolic.
And it was just around now that the problems started to emerge.
After the Xinhai Revolution that toppled the Qing dynasty, the new Republic of China apologized for the actions of the Qing and offered to restore the Dalai Lama’s title, who however refused such a title and declared himself to be the independent ruler of a theocratic Tibet. In 1913, Mongolia recognized this state as an independent nation. For the next 36 years, the 13th Dalai Lama and the regents who succeeded him governed Tibet. During the early years of the Dalai’s rule, the Tibetan government signed the Simla Accord with Britain (in 1914), ceding the South Tibet region (mostly the modern day Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh) to British India. Since the Chinese government today do not recognize the rule of the Dalai as legitimate, and thereby they argue that he no political power to sign such a treaty, and therefore, as Tibet is China’s, so is large swathes of Arunachal Pradesh. Again, a matter of retrospective re-alignment of political entities has led to not only a fierce debate but also a political deadlock and severe setbacks to the dialogue process between India and China.
And it was then, after having obtained control over mainland China from the Kuomintang Nationalists, the communist rulers of the People’s Republic of China incorporated China in 1950 and negotiated the Seventeen Point Agreement with the 14th Dalai Lama’s government, after a rather one-sided battle waged by the Tibetans against the invading People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Subsequently, on his journey into exile, the 14th Dalai Lama is said to have completely repudiated the agreement. The Dalai Lama government fled to Dharamsala, India, during the 1959 Tibetan Rebellion, and established a rival government-in-exile. Afterwards, the Central People’s Government in Beijing renounced the agreement too and began implementation of social and political reforms in one of the most gruesome chapters of World History. During the Great Leap Forward, between 200,000 and 1,000,000 Tibetans died, and approximately 6,000 monasteries were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966.
As it stands, Tibet is internationally recognized as a Chinese province-level entity. The central region of Tibet is an autonomous region within China called the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), which is governed by a People’s Government, led by a Chairman. In practice, however, the Chairman is subordinate to the branch secretary of the Communist Party of China. The region has seen a lot of development, and infrastructure projects in the region are on the rise. However, the demographic distortion and the suppression of various elements of the Tibetan society and culture over the years by the government is immensely saddening. Influx of Han Chinese has led to the loss of the Tibetan identity in terms of demographics in vast regions of TAR.
Recently, the Chinese government has announced that it has the final say in the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. For me, that is a form of disrespect of Tibetan culture and society, even after the present Dalai Lama said that he may not want to reincarnate at all. The government has previously selected the Panchen Lama for Tibet, replacing the one many believe was/is the true Panchen Lama. Interestingly, the governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region accused the Dalai of “profaning Tibetan Buddhism” by refusing to reincarnate! Sounds like some people are taking it on a rather light note, sadly! Self-immolation, protests, etc. are the most potent means of raising the Tibetan issue, even though most of these are swiftly suppressed in China. As I see it, and as shown by the walk down the lanes of history, the Tibetan cause is more about preserving the Tibetan identity than the Tibetan state (which is largely seen as having been assimilated into China by most international entities). The Dalai and his representatives, like Lodi Gyari Rinpoche, are positive about some significant breakthrough in the talks with the Chinese government.
Let’s look forward to a new chapter in the land of the ‘White Lotus’, the Dalai.