Tibet and China: History of a Complex Relationship

Is Tibet Part of China?

Ganden Monastery. Diego Giannoni / Moment

For at least 1500 years, the nation of Tibet has had a complex relationship with its large and powerful neighbor to the east, China. The political history of Tibet and China reveals that the relationship has not always been as one-sided as it now appears.

Indeed, as with China’s relations with the Mongols and the Japanese, the balance of power between China and Tibet has shifted back and forth over the centuries.

Early Interactions

The first known interaction between the two states came in 640 A.D., when the Tibetan King Songtsan Gampo married the Princess Wencheng, a niece of the Tang Emperor Taizong. He also married a Nepalese princess.

Both wives were Buddhists, and this may have been the origin of Tibetan Buddhism. The faith grew when an influx of Central Asian Buddhists flooded Tibet early in the eighth century, fleeing from advancing armies of Arab and Kazakh Muslims.

During his reign, Songtsan Gampo added parts of the Yarlung River Valley to the Kingdom of Tibet; his descendants would also conquer the vast region that is now the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, and Xinjiang between 663 and 692. Control of these border regions would change hands back and forth for centuries to come.

In 692, the Chinese retook their western lands from the Tibetans after defeating them at Kashgar. The Tibetan king then allied himself with the enemies of China, the Arabs and eastern Turks.

Chinese power waxed strong in the early decades of the eighth century. Imperial forces under General Gao Xianzhi conquered much of Central Asia, until their defeat by the Arabs and Karluks at the Battle of Talas River in 751. China's power quickly waned, and Tibet resumed control of much of Central Asia.

The ascendant Tibetans pressed their advantage, conquering much of northern India and even seizing the Tang Chinese capital city of Chang'an (now Xian) in 763.

Tibet and China signed a peace treaty in 821 or 822, which delineated the border between the two empires. The Tibetan Empire would concentrate on its Central Asian holdings for the next several decades, before splitting into several small, fractious kingdoms.

Tibet and the Mongols

Canny politicians, the Tibetans befriended Genghis Khan just as the Mongol leader was conquering the known world in the early 13th century. As a result, though the Tibetans paid tribute to the Mongols after the Hordes had conquered China, they were allowed much greater autonomy than the other Mongol-conquered lands.

Over time, Tibet came to be considered one of the thirteen provinces of the Mongolian-ruled nation of Yuan China.

During this period, the Tibetans gained a high degree of influence over the Mongols at court.

The great Tibetan spiritual leader, Sakya Pandita, became the Mongol's representative to Tibet. Sakya's nephew, Chana Dorje, married one of the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan's daughters.

The Tibetans transmitted their Buddhist faith to the eastern Mongols; Kublai Khan himself studied Tibetan beliefs with the great teacher Drogon Chogyal Phagpa.

Independent Tibet

When the Mongols' Yuan Empire fell in 1368 to the ethnic-Han Chinese Ming, Tibet reasserted its independence and refused to pay tribute to the new Emperor.

In 1474, the abbot of an important Tibetan Buddhist monastery, Gendun Drup, passed away. A child who born two years later was found to be a reincarnation of the abbot, and was raised to be the next leader of that sect, Gendun Gyatso.

After their lifetimes, the two men were called the First and Second Dalai Lamas. Their sect, the Gelug or "Yellow Hats," became the dominant form of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588), was the first to be so named during his life. He was responsible for converting the Mongols to Gelug Tibetan Buddhism, and it was the Mongol ruler Altan Khan who probably gave the title “Dalai Lama” to Sonam Gyatso.

While the newly-named Dalai Lama consolidated the power of his spiritual position, though, the Gtsang-pa Dynasty assumed the royal throne of Tibet in 1562. The Kings would rule the secular side of Tibetan life for the next 80 years.

The Fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso (1589-1616), was a Mongolian prince and the grandson of Altan Khan.

During the 1630s, China was embroiled in power struggles between the Mongols, Han Chinese of the fading Ming Dynasty, and the Manchu people of north-eastern China (Manchuria). The Manchus would eventually defeat the Han in 1644, and establish China's final imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1912).

Tibet got drawn into this turmoil when the Mongol warlord Ligdan Khan, a Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist, decided to invade Tibet and destroy the Yellow Hats in 1634. Ligdan Khan died on the way, but his follower Tsogt Taij took up the cause.

The great general Gushi Khan, of the Oirad Mongols, fought against Tsogt Taij and defeated him in 1637. The Khan killed the Gtsang-pa Prince of Tsang, as well. With support from Gushi Khan, the Fifth Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso, was able to seize both spiritual and temporal power over all of Tibet in 1642.

The Dalai Lama Rises to Power

The Potala Palace in Lhasa was constructed as a symbol of this new synthesis of power.

The Dalai Lama made a state visit to the Qing Dynasty's second Emperor, Shunzhi, in 1653. The two leaders greeted one another as equals; the Dalai Lama did not kowtow. Each man bestowed honors and titles upon the other, and the Dalai Lama was recognized as the spiritual authority of the Qing Empire.

According to Tibet, the "priest/patron" relationship established at this time between the Dalai Lama and Qing China continued throughout the Qing Era, but it had no bearing on Tibet's status as an independent nation. China, naturally, disagrees.

Lobsang Gyatso died in 1682, but his Prime Minister concealed the Dalai Lama's passing until 1696 so that the Potala Palace could be finished and the power of the Dalai Lama's office consolidated.

The Maverick Dalai Lama

In 1697, fifteen years after the death of Lobsang Gyatso, the Sixth Dalai Lama was finally enthroned.

Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706) was a maverick who rejected the monastic life, growing his hair long, drinking wine, and enjoying female company. He also wrote great poetry, some of which is still recited today in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama’s unconventional lifestyle prompted Lobsang Khan of the Khoshud Mongols to depose him in 1705.

Lobsang Khan seized control of Tibet, named himself King, sent Tsangyang Gyatso to Beijing (he “mysteriously” died on the way), and installed a pretender Dalai Lama.

The Dzungar Mongol Invasion

King Lobsang would rule for 12 years, until the Dzungar Mongols invaded and took power. They killed the pretender to the Dalai Lama’s throne, to the joy of the Tibetan people, but then began to loot monasteries around Lhasa.

This vandalism brought a quick response from the Qing Emperor Kangxi, who sent troops to Tibet. The Dzungars destroyed the Imperial Chinese battalion near Lhasa in 1718.

In 1720, the angry Kangxi sent another, larger force to Tibet, which crushed the Dzungars. The Qing army also brought the proper Seventh Dalai Lama, Kelzang Gyatso (1708-1757) to Lhasa.

The Border Between China and Tibet

China took advantage of this period of instability in Tibet to seize the regions of Amdo and Kham, making them into the Chinese province of Qinghai in 1724.

Three years later, the Chinese and Tibetans signed a treaty that laid out the boundary line between the two nations. It would remain in force until 1910.

Qing China had its hands full trying to control Tibet. The Emperor sent a commissioner to Lhasa, but he was killed in 1750.

The Imperial Army then defeated the rebels, but the Emperor recognized that he would have to rule through the Dalai Lama rather than directly. Day-to-day decisions would be made on the local level.

Era of Turmoil Begins

In 1788, the Regent of Nepal sent Gurkha forces to invade Tibet.

The Qing Emperor responded in strength, and the Nepalese retreated.

The Gurkhas returned three years later, plundering and destroying some famous Tibetan monasteries. The Chinese sent a force of 17,000 which, along with Tibetan troops, drove the Gurkhas out of Tibet and south to within 20 miles of Kathmandu.

Despite this sort of assistance from the Chinese Empire, the people of Tibet chafed under increasingly meddlesome Qing rule.

Between 1804, when the Eighth Dalai Lama died, and 1895, when the Thirteenth Dalai Lama assumed the throne, none of the incumbent incarnations of the Dalai Lama lived to see their nineteenth birthdays.

If the Chinese found a certain incarnation too hard to control, they would poison him. If the Tibetans thought an incarnation was controlled by the Chinese, then they would poison him themselves.

Tibet and the Great Game

Throughout this period, Russia and Britain were engaged in the "Great Game," a struggle for influence and control in Central Asia.

Russia pushed south of its borders, seeking access to warm-water sea ports and a buffer zone between Russia proper and the advancing British. The British pushed northward from India, trying to expand their empire and protect the Raj, the "Crown Jewel of the British Empire," from the expansionist Russians.

Tibet was an important playing piece in this game.

Qing Chinese power waned throughout the eighteenth century, as evidenced by its defeat in the Opium Wars with Britain (1839-1842 and 1856-1860), as well as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) and the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901).

The actual relationship between China and Tibet had been unclear since the early days of the Qing Dynasty, and China's losses at home made the status of Tibet even more uncertain.

The ambiguity of control over Tibet lead to problems. In 1893, the British in India concluded a trade and border treaty with Beijing concerning the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet.

However, the Tibetans flatly rejected the treaty terms.

The British invaded Tibet in 1903 with 10,000 men, and took Lhasa the following year. Thereupon, they concluded another treaty with the Tibetans, as well as Chinese, Nepalese and Bhutanese representatives, which gave the British themselves some control over Tibet’s affairs.

Thubten Gyatso's Balancing Act

The 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, fled the country in 1904 at the urging of his Russian disciple, Agvan Dorzhiev. He went first to Mongolia, then made his way to Beijing.

The Chinese declared that the Dalai Lama had been deposed as soon as he left Tibet, and claimed full sovereignty over not only Tibet but also Nepal and Bhutan. The Dalai Lama went to Beijing to discuss the situation with the Emperor Guangxu, but he flatly refused to kowtow to the Emperor.

Thubten Gyatso stayed in the Chinese capital from 1906 to 1908.

He returned to Lhasa in 1909, disappointed by Chinese policies towards Tibet. China sent a force of 6,000 troops into Tibet, and the Dalai Lama fled to Darjeeling, India later that same year.

The Chinese Revolution swept away the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and the Tibetans promptly expelled all Chinese troops from Lhasa. The Dalai Lama returned home to Tibet in 1912.

Tibetan Independence

China's new revolutionary government issued a formal apology to the Dalai Lama for the Qing Dynasty's insults, and offered to reinstate him. Thubten Gyatso refused, stating that he had no interest in the Chinese offer.

He then issued a proclamation that was distributed across Tibet, rejecting Chinese control and stating that "We are a small, religious, and independent nation."

The Dalai Lama took control of Tibet's internal and external governance in 1913, negotiating directly with foreign powers, and reforming Tibet's judicial, penal, and educational systems.

The Simla Convention (1914)

Representatives of Great Britain, China, and Tibet met in 1914 to negotiate a treaty marking out the boundary lines between India and its northern neighbors.

The Simla Convention granted China secular control over "Inner Tibet," (also known as Qinghai Province) while recognizing the autonomy of "Outer Tibet" under the Dalai Lama's rule. Both China and Britain promised to "respect the territorial integrity of [Tibet], and abstain from interference in the administration of Outer Tibet."

China walked out of the conference without signing the treaty after Britain laid claim to the Tawang area of southern Tibet, which is now part of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Tibet and Britain both signed the treaty.

As a result, China has never agreed to India's rights in northern Arunachal Pradesh (Tawang), and the two nations went to war over the area in 1962. The boundary dispute still has not been resolved.

China also claims sovereignty over all of Tibet, while the Tibetan government-in-exile points to the Chinese failure to sign the Simla Convention as proof that both Inner and Outer Tibet legally remain under the Dalai Lama's jurisdiction.

The Issue Rests

Soon, China would be too distracted to concern itself with the issue of Tibet.

Japan had invaded Manchuria in 1910, and would advance south and east across large swaths of Chinese territory through 1945.

The new government of the Republic of China would hold nominal power over the majority of Chinese territory for only four years before war broke out between numerous armed factions.

Indeed, the span of Chinese history from 1916 to 1938 came to be called the "Warlord Era," as the different military factions sought to fill the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Qing Dynasty.

China would see near-continuous civil war up to the Communist victory in 1949, and this era of conflict was exacerbated by the Japanese Occupation and World War II. Under such circumstances, the Chinese showed little interest in Tibet.

The 13th Dalai Lama ruled independent Tibet in peace until his death in 1933.

The 14th Dalai Lama

Following Thubten Gyatso's death, the new reincarnation of the Dalai Lama was born in Amdo in 1935.

Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, was taken to Lhasa in 1937 to begin training for his duties as the leader of Tibet. He would remain there until 1959, when the Chinese forced him into exile in India.

People's Republic of China Invades Tibet

In 1950, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) of the newly-formed People's Republic of China invaded Tibet. With stability reestablished in Beijing for the first time in decades, Mao Zedong sought to assert China's right to rule over Tibet as well.

The PLA inflicted a swift and total defeat on Tibet's small army, and China drafted the "Seventeen Point Agreement" incorporating Tibet as an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China.

Representatives of the Dalai Lama's government signed the agreement under protest, and the Tibetans repudiated the agreement nine years later.

Collectivization and Revolt

The Mao government of the PRC immediately initiated land redistribution in Tibet.

Landholdings of the monasteries and nobility were seized for redistribution to the peasants. The communist forces hoped to destroy the power base of the wealthy and of Buddhism within Tibetan society.

In reaction, a uprising led by the monks broke out in June of 1956, and continued through 1959. The poorly-armed Tibetans used guerrilla war tactics in an attempt to drive out the Chinese.

The PLA responded by razing entire villages and monasteries to the ground. The Chinese even threatened to blow up the Potala Palace and kill the Dalai Lama, but this threat was not carried out.

Three years of bitter fighting left 86,000 Tibetans dead, according to the Dalai Lama's government in exile.

Flight of the Dalai Lama

On March 1, 1959, the Dalai Lama received an odd invitation to attend a theater performance at PLA headquarters near Lhasa.

The Dalai Lama demurred, and the performance date was postponed until March 10. On March 9, PLA officers notified the Dalai Lama's bodyguards that they would not accompany the Tibetan leader to the performance, nor were they to notify the Tibetan people that he was leaving the palace. (Ordinarily, the people of Lhasa would line the streets to greet the Dalai Lama each time he ventured out.)

The guards immediately publicized this rather ham-handed attempted abduction, and the following day an estimated crowd of 300,000 Tibetans surrounded Potala Palace to protect their leader.

The PLA moved artillery into range of major monasteries and the Dalai Lama's summer palace, Norbulingka.

Both sides began to dig in, although the Tibetan army was much smaller than its adversary, and poorly armed.

Tibetan troops were able to secure a route for the Dalai Lama to escape into India on March 17. Actual fighting began on March 19, and lasted only two days before the Tibetan troops were defeated.

Aftermath of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising

Much of Lhasa lay in ruins on March 20, 1959.

An estimated 800 artillery shells had pummeled Norbulingka, and Lhasa's three largest monasteries were essentially leveled. The Chinese rounded up thousands of monks, executing many of them. Monasteries and temples all over Lhasa were ransacked.

The remaining members of the Dalai Lama's bodyguard were publicly executed by firing squad.

By the time of the 1964 census, 300,000 Tibetans had gone "missing" in the previous five years, either secretly imprisoned, killed, or in exile.

In the days after the 1959 Uprising, the Chinese government revoked most aspects of Tibet's autonomy, and initiated resettlement and land distribution across the country. The Dalai Lama has remained in exile ever since.

China's central government, in a bid to dilute the Tibetan population and provide jobs for Han Chinese, initiated a "Western China Development Program" in 1978.

As many as 300,000 Han now live in Tibet, 2/3 of them in the capital city. The Tibetan population of Lhasa, in contrast, is only 100,000.

Ethnic Chinese hold the vast majority of government posts.

Return of the Panchen Lama

Beijing allowed the Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's second-in-command, to return to Tibet in 1989.

He immediately gave a speech before a crowd of 30,000 of the faithful, decrying the harm being done to Tibet under the PRC. He died five days later at the age of 50, allegedly of a massive heart attack.

Deaths at Drapchi Prison, 1998

On May 1, 1998, the Chinese officials at Drapchi Prison in Tibet ordered hundreds of prisoners, both criminals and political detainees, to participate in a Chinese flag-raising ceremony.

Some of the prisoners began to shout anti-Chinese and pro-Dalai Lama slogans, and prison guards fired shots into the air before returning all the prisoners to their cells.

The prisoners were then severely beaten with belt buckles, rifle butts, and plastic batons, and some were put into solitary confinement for months at a time, according to one young nun who was released from the prison a year later.

Three days later, the prison administration decided to hold the flag-raising ceremony again.

Once more, some of the prisoners began to shout slogans.

Prison official reacted with even more brutality, and five nuns, three monks, and one male criminal were killed by the guards. One man was shot; the rest were beaten to death.

2008 Uprising

On March 10, 2008, Tibetans marked the 49th anniversary of the 1959 uprising by peacefully protesting for the release of imprisoned monks and nuns. Chinese police then broke up the protest with tear gas and gunfire.

The protest resumed for several more days, finally turning into a riot. Tibetan anger was fueled by reports that imprisoned monks and nuns were being mistreated or killed in prison as a reaction to the street demonstrations.

Furious Tibetans ransacked and burned the shops of ethnic Chinese immigrants in Lhasa and other cities. The official Chinese media states that 18 people were killed by the rioters.

China immediately cut off access to Tibet for foreign media and tourists.

The unrest spread to neighboring Qinghai (Inner Tibet), Gansu, and Sichuan Provinces. The Chinese government cracked down hard, mobilizing as many as 5,000 troops. Reports indicate that the military killed between 80 and 140 people, and arrested more than 2,300 Tibetans.

The unrest came at a sensitive time for China, which was gearing up for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

The situation in Tibet caused increased international scrutiny of Beijing's entire human rights record, leading some foreign leaders to boycott the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. Olympic torch-bearers around the world were met by thousands of human rights protestors.

The Future

Tibet and China have had a long relationship, fraught with difficulty and change.

At times, the two nations have worked closely together. At other times, they have been at war.

Today, the nation of Tibet does not exist; not one foreign government officially recognizes the Tibetan government-in-exile.

The past teaches us, however, that the geopolitical situation is nothing if not fluid. It is impossible to predict where Tibet and China will stand, relative to one another, one hundred years from now.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Tibet and China: History of a Complex Relationship." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/tibet-and-china-history-195217. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, July 29). Tibet and China: History of a Complex Relationship. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/tibet-and-china-history-195217 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Tibet and China: History of a Complex Relationship." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/tibet-and-china-history-195217 (accessed March 23, 2023).