Tibet, Tibetan Bod, in full Tibet Autonomous Region, Chinese (Pinyin) Xizang Zizhiqu or (Wade-Giles romanization) Hsi-tsang Tzu-chih-ch’ü, historic region and autonomous region of China that is often called “the roof of the world.” It occupies a vast area of plateaus and mountains in Central Asia, including Mount Everest (Qomolangma [or Zhumulangma] Feng; Tibetan: Chomolungma). It is bordered by the Chinese provinces of Qinghai to the northeast, Sichuan to the east, and Yunnan to the southeast; by Myanmar(Burma), India, Bhutan, and Nepal to the south; by the disputed Kashmir region to the west; and by the Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang to the northwest. Lhasa is the capital city. The name Tibet is derived from the Mongolian Thubet, the Chinese Tufan, the Tai Thibet, and the Arabic Tubbat.
Before the 1950s Tibet was largely isolated from the rest of the world. It constituted a unique cultural and religious community, marked by the Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhism. Little effort was made to facilitate communication with outsiders, and economic development was minimal.
Tibet’s incorporation into the People’s Republic of China began in 1950 and has remained a highly charged and controversial issue, both within Tibet and worldwide. Many Tibetans (especially those outside China) consider China’s action to be an invasion of a sovereign country, and the continued Chinese presence in Tibet is deemed an occupation by a foreign power. The Chinese, on the other hand, believe that Tibet has been a rightful part of China for centuries and that they liberated Tibet from a repressive regime in which much of the population lived in serfdom. There is truth in both assertions, although public opinion outside China (especially in the West) has tended to take the side of Tibet as an independent (or at least highly autonomous) entity. There is no question, though, that the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual and temporal leader, has become one of the world’s most recognizable and highly regarded individuals. Area 471,700 square miles (1,221,600 square km). Pop. (2010 prelim.) 3,002,166.
Tibet is on a high plateau—the Plateau of Tibet—surrounded by enormous mountain masses. The relatively level northern part of the plateau is called the Qiangtang; it extends more than 800 miles (1,300 km) from west to east at an average elevation of 16,500 feet (5,000 metres) above sea level. The Qiangtang is dotted with brackish lakes, the largest being Lakes Siling (Seling) and Nam (Namu). There are, however, no river systems there. In the east the Qiangtang begins to descend in elevation. The mountain ranges in southeastern Tibet cut across the land from north to south, creating meridional barriers to travel and communication. In central and western Tibet the ranges run from northwest to southeast, with deep or shallow valleys forming innumerable furrows.
The Qiangtang is bordered on the north by the Kunlun Mountains, with the highest peak, Mount Muztag (Muztagh; on the Tibet-Xinjiang border), reaching 25,338 feet (7,723 metres). The western and southern border of the Plateau of Tibet is formed by the great mass of the Himalayas; the highest peak is Mount Everest, which rises to 29,035 feet (8,850 metres; on the Tibet-Nepal border. North of Lake Mapam (conventional: Manasarowar) and stretching eastward is the Kailas (Gangdisi) Range, with clusters of peaks, several exceeding 20,000 feet (6,100 metres). This range is separated from the Himalayas by the upper course of the Brahmaputra River (in Tibet called the Yarlung Zangbo or the Tsangpo), which flows across southern Tibet and cuts south through the mountains to India and Bangladesh.
The population of the region is almost entirely Tibetan, with Han (Chinese), Hui (Chinese Muslims), Monba, Lhoba, and other minority nationalities. Thus, the majority of the people of Tibet have the same ethnic origin, have traditionally practiced the same religion, and speak the same language.
The Tibetan and Burmese languages are related, although they are mutually unintelligible in their modern forms. Spoken Tibetan has developed a pattern of regional dialects and subdialects, which can be mutually understood. The dialect of Lhasa is used as a lingua franca. There are two social levels of speech zhe-sa (honorific) and phal-skad (ordinary); their use depends upon the relative social status of the speaker and the listener. The use of Chinese has become more common in the region since the 1960s.
Tibetan is written in a script derived from that of Indian Gupta about 600 ce. It has a syllabary of 30 consonants and five vowels; six additional symbols are used in writing Sanskrit words. The script itself has four variations bu-can (primarily for Buddhist textbooks), dbu-med and ’Khyug-yig (for general use), and ’bru-tsha (for decorative writing).
Bon is considered to be the first known religion in Tibet, although there is some argument as to the time of its establishment. It is a form of shamanism, encompassing a belief in gods, demons, and ancestral spirits who are responsive to priests, or shamans. With the rise of Buddhism, Bon adopted certain Buddhist rituals and concepts, and the Buddhists also adopted certain features of Bon, so that the two religions came to have many points of resemblance.
Although Chinese Buddhism was introduced in ancient times, the mainstream of Buddhist teachings came to Tibet from India. The first Buddhist scripture may have arrived in the 3rd century ce, but active promulgation did not begin until the 8th century. In later centuries numerous Buddhist sects were formed, including the Dge-lugs-pa, which emphasizes monastic discipline; also known as the Yellow Hat sect, in the 17th century it gained political supremacy that lasted until 1959.
The overwhelming majority of Tibetans traditionally have been Buddhists. Before the 1950s, prayer flags flew from every home and adorned the mountain slopes. Monasteries were established throughout the country, and the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, was the supreme political head of the nation. A minority, however, were adherents of Islam, Hinduism, Bon, or Christianity. The Dalai Lama went into exile in 1959 after the outbreak in Tibet of an armed rebellion against Chinese authorities that was suppressed by the Chinese army. Since then the Chinese at times have attempted to eliminate the influence of religion in Tibetan life.
Prior to 1951, Tibet had a theocratic government of which the Dalai Lama was the supreme religious and temporal head. After that the newly installed Chinese administrators relied on military control and a gradual establishment of civilian regional autonomy. Tibet was formally designated a zizhiqu (autonomous region) in 1965, as part of the separation of religion and civil administration. It is now divided into the dijishi (prefecture-level municipality) of Lhasa, directly under the jurisdiction of the regional government, and six diqu (prefectures), which are subdivided into shixiaqu (districts), xian (counties), and xianjishi (county-level municipalities).
The army consists of regular Chinese troops under a Chinese military commander, who is stationed at Lhasa. There are military cantonments in major towns along the borders with India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Local people have also been recruited into some militia regiments.
Ruins in eastern Tibet near Qamdo indicate that humans inhabited the region some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. According to Tibetan legend, the Tibetan people originated from the union of a monkey and a female demon. The Chinese Tang dynasty annals (10th century ce) place the Tibetans’ origin among the nomadic pastoral Qiang tribes recorded about 200 bce as inhabiting the great steppe northwest of China. That region, where diverse ethnic elements met and mingled for centuries, may be accepted as the original homeland of the present-day Tibetans, but until at least the 7th centuryce they continued to mix, by conquest or alliance, with other peoples. From that heritage two groups in particular stand out: those who predominate in the cultivated valleys and may have derived from the Huang He (Yellow River) basin and be akin to the early Chinese and Burmese; and those, found mainly among the nomads of the north and in the noble families of Lhasa, who seem to have affinities with the Turkic peoples and whose early wandering grounds were farther to the north. In addition, there are Dardic and Indian influences in the west, and along the eastern Himalayan border there are connections with a complex of tribal peoples known to the Tibetans as Mon.
From the 7th to the 9th century the Tibetan kingdom was a significant power in Central Asia. When that kingdom disintegrated, Tibetans figured there from the 10th to the 13th century only casually as traders and raiders. The patronage of Tibetan Buddhism by the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty of China made it a potential spiritual focus for the disunited tribes of Mongolia. This religious significance became of practical importance only in the 18th century when the Oirat, who professed Tibetan Buddhism, threatened the authority of the Qing dynasty throughout Mongolia. In the 19th century Tibet was a buffer between Russian imperial expansion and India’s frontier defense policy.
Early history to the 9th century
Credible history begins late in the 6th century, when three discontented vassals of one of the princes among whom Tibet was then divided conspired to support the neighbouring lord of Yarlung, whose title was Spu-rgyal btsan-po. Btsan-po (“mighty”) became the designation of all kings of Tibet (rgyal means “king”; and spu, the meaning of which is uncertain, may refer to a sacral quality of the princes of Yar-lung as divine manifestations). Their new master, Gnam-ri srong-brtsan (c. 570–c. 619 ce), was transformed from a princeling in a small valley into the ruler of a vigorously expanding military empire.
Gnam-ri srong-brtsan imposed his authority over several Qiang tribes on the Chinese border and became known to the Sui dynasty (581–618) as the commander of 100,000 warriors. But it was his son, Srong-brtsan-sgam-po (c. 617–650), who brought Tibet forcibly to the notice of the Taizong emperor (reigned 626–649), of the Tang dynasty. To pacify him, Taizong granted him a princess as his bride. Srong-brtsan-sgam-po is famed as the first chos-rgyal (“religious king”) and for his all-important influence on Tibetan culture, the introduction of writing for which he borrowed a script from India, enabling the texts of the new religion to be translated. He extended his empire over Nepal, western Tibet, the Tuyuhun, and other tribes on China’s border; and he invaded north India.
In 670, 20 years after Srong-brtsan-sgam-po’s death, peace with China was broken and for two centuries Tibetan armies in Qinghai and Xinjiang kept the frontier in a state of war. In alliance with the western Turks, the Tibetans challenged Chinese control of the trade routes through Central Asia.
The reign of Khri-srong-lde-brtsan (755–797) marked the peak of Tibetan military success, including the exaction of tribute from China and the brief capture of its capital, Chang’an, in 763. But it was as the second religious king and champion of Buddhism that Khri-srong-lde-brtsan was immortalized by posterity. He initially had prohibited Buddhism, but that restriction was lifted in 761. In 763, when he was 21, he invited Buddhist teachers from India and China to Tibet, and about 779 he established the great temple of Bsam-yas, where Tibetans were trained as monks.
Buddhism foreshadowed the end of “Spu-rgyal’s Tibet.” The kings did not fully appreciate that its spiritual authority endangered their own supernatural prestige or that its philosophy was irreconcilable with belief in personal survival. They patronized Buddhist foundations but retained their claims as divine manifestations.
Disunity, 9th to 14th century
In the 9th century, Buddhist tradition records a contested succession, but there are many inconsistencies; contemporary Chinese histories indicate that Tibetan unity and strength were destroyed by rivalry between generals commanding the frontier armies. Early in the 9th century a scion of the old royal family migrated to western Tibet and founded successor kingdoms there, and by 889 Tibet was a mere congeries of separate lordships. In 843, during that period, Glandar-ma (reigned 841–846) ordered the suppression of Buddhism, and Tibet’s Buddhist traditions were disrupted for more than a century.
Tibetan generals and chieftains on the eastern border established themselves in separate territories. The acknowledged successors of the religious kings prospered in their migration to the west and maintained contact with Indian Buddhist universities through Tibetan scholars, notably the famous translator Rin-chen bzang-po (died 1055). In central Tibet, Buddhism suffered an eclipse. A missionary journey by the renowned Indian pandit Atisha in 1042 rekindled the faith through central Tibet, and from then onward Buddhism increasingly spread its influence over every aspect of Tibetan life.
Inspired by Atisha and by other pandits whom they visited in India, Tibetan religious men formed small communities and expounded different aspects of doctrine. Atisha’s own teaching became the basis of the austere Bka’-gdams-pa sect. The Tibetan scholar Dkon-mchog rgyal-po established the monastery of Sa-skya (1073), and a series of lamas (Tibetan priests) founded several monasteries of what is generally called the Bka’-brgyud-pa sect.
Hermits such as Mi-la ras-pa (1040–1123) shunned material things; but the systematized sects became prosperous through the support of local lords, often kinsmen of the founding lama, and, except for the Bka’-gdams-pa, each developed its own system of keeping the hierarchical succession within a noble family. In some sects the principle of succession through reincarnation was evolved. Although lamas of different schools studied amicably together, their supporters inevitably indulged in worldly competition. This tendency was intensified by the intervention of a new Asian power, the Mongols.
Although it has been widely stated that the Tibetans submitted about 1207 to Chinggis (Genghis) Khan to avert an invasion, evidence indicates that the first military contact with the Mongols came in 1240, when they marched on central Tibet and attacked the monastery of Ra-sgreng and others. In 1247, Köden, younger brother of the khan Güyük, symbolically invested the Sa-skya lama with temporal authority over Tibet. Later Kublai Khan appointed the lama ’Phags-pa as his “imperial preceptor” (dishi), and the politico-religious relationship between Tibet and the Mongol empire is stated as a personal bond between the emperor as patron and the lama as priest (yon-mchod).
A series of Sa-skya lamas, living at the Mongol court, thus became viceroys of Tibet on behalf of the Mongol emperors. The Mongols prescribed a reorganization of the many small estates into 13myriarchies (administrative districts each comprising, theoretically, 10,000 families). The ideal was a single authority, but other monasteries, especially ’Bri-gung and Phag-mo-gru of the Bka’-brgyud-pa sect, whose supporters controlled several myriarchies, actively contested Sa-skya’s supremacy.
The collapse of the Yuan dynasty in 1368 also brought down Sa-skya after 80 years of power. Consequently, when the native Chinese Ming dynasty (1368–1644) evicted the Mongols, Tibet regained its independence; for more than 100 years the Phag-mo-gru-pa line governed in its own right.
A proliferation of scholars, preachers, mystics, hermits, and eccentrics, as well as monastic administrators and warriors, accompanied the subsequent revival of Buddhism. Literary activity was intense. Sanskrit works were translated with the help of visiting Indian pandits; the earliest codifiers, classifiers, biographers, and historians appeared. In an outburst of monastic building, the characteristic Tibetan style acquired greater extent, mass, and dignity. Chinese workmen were imported for decorative work. Temple walls were covered with fine frescoes; huge carved and painted wooden pillars were hung with silk and with painted banners (tankas). Chapels abounded in images of gold, gilded copper, or painted and gilded clay; some were decorated with stucco scenes in high relief; in others the remains of deceased lamas were enshrined in silver or gilded stupas. Under Nepalese influence, images were cast and ritual vessels and musical instruments made in a style blending exuberant power and sophisticated craftsmanship; wood-carvers produced beautiful shrines and book covers, and from India came palm-leaf books, ancient images, and bell-metal stupas of all sizes.
Tibet, 14th to 19th century
The Dge-Lugs-Pa (Yellow Hat Sect)
For 70 peaceful years Byang-chub rgyal-mtshan (died 1364) and his two successors ruled a domain wider than that of the Sa-skya-pa. Thereafter, although the Phag-mo-gru Gong-ma (as the ruler was called) remained nominally supreme, violent dissension erupted again. In 1435 the lay princes of Rin-spungs, ministers of Gong-ma and patrons of the increasingly influential Karma-pa sect, rebelled and by 1481 had seized control of the Phag-mo-gru court.
Already a new political factor had appeared in the Dge-lugs-pa sect. Its founder was a saintly scholar, Blo-bzang grags-pa (died 1419), known as Tsong-kha-pa for his supposed birthplace of Tsong-kha in eastern A-mdo. After studying with leading teachers of the day, he formulated his own doctrine, emphasizing the moral and philosophical ideas of Atisha rather than the magic and mysticism of Sa-skya—though he did not discard the latter entirely. In 1409 he founded his own monastery at Dga’-ldan, devoted to the restoration of strict monastic discipline. Tsong-kha-pa’s disciplinary reform appealed to people weary of rivalry and strife between wealthy monasteries. Tsong-kha-pa probably did not imagine that his disciples would form a new sect and join in that rivalry, but, after his death, devoted and ambitious followers built around his teaching and prestige what became the Dge-lugs-pa, or Yellow Hat sect, which was gradually drawn into the political arena.
In 1578 the Dge-lugs-pa took a step destined to bring foreign interference once more into Tibetan affairs. The third Dge-lugs-pa hierarch, Bsod-nams-rgya-mtsho, was invited to visit the powerfulTümed Mongol leader Altan Khan, with whom he revived the patron-priest relationship that had existed between Kublai Khan and ’Phags-pa. From this time dates the title of Dalai (“Oceanwide”) Lama, conferred by Altan and applied retrospectively to the two previous hierarchs. The holder is regarded as the embodiment of a spiritual emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Tibetan: Spyan-ras-gzigs; Chinese: Guanyin)—and hence of the mythic monkey demon and progenitor of the Tibetans. The succession is maintained by the discovery of a child, born soon after the death of a Dalai Lama, into whom the spirit of the deceased is believed to have entered. Until 1642 the Dalai Lamas were principal abbots of the Dge-lugs-pa, and in that year they acquired temporal and spiritual rule of Tibet. With Altan’s help virtually all the Mongols became Dge-lugs-pa adherents, and on Bsod-nams-rgya-mtsho’s death they acquired a proprietary interest in the order and some claims on Tibet itself when the fourth Dalai Lama was conveniently discovered in the Tümed royal family.
To support their protégé, the Mongols sent armed bands into Tibet. Their opponents were the Red Hat Lama, head of a Karma-pa subsect, and his patron the Gtsang king. That phase of rivalry ended inconclusively with the early death of the fourth Dalai Lama and the decline of Tümed Mongol authority in Mongolia. The next came when Güüshi Khan, leader of the Khoshut tribe, which had displaced the Tümed, appeared as champion of the Dge-lugs-pa. In 1640 he invaded Tibet, defeating the Gtsang king and his Karma-pa supporters.
The Unification of Tibet
In 1642 with exemplary devotion, Güüshi enthroned the Dalai Lama as ruler of Tibet, appointing Bsod-nams chos-’phel as minister for administrative affairs and himself taking the title of king and the role of military protector. These three forceful personalities methodically and efficiently consolidated the religious and temporal authority of the Dge-lugs-pa, establishing a unique joint control over the region by both Mongols and Tibetans. Lhasa, long the spiritual heart of Tibet, now became the political capital as well. Dge-lugs-pa supremacy was imposed on all other orders, with special severity toward the Karma-pa. A reorganized district administration reduced the power of the lay nobility.
The grandeur and prestige of the regime were enhanced by reviving ceremonies attributed to the religious kings, by enlarging the nearby monasteries of ’Bras-spungs, Sera, and Dga’-Idan, and by building the superb Potala Palace, completed by another great figure, Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho, who in 1679 succeeded as minister regent just before the death of his patron the fifth Dalai Lama. By then a soundly based and unified government had been established over a wider extent than any for eight centuries.
The installations of the fifth Dalai Lama (the “Great Fifth”) at Lhasa (1642) and the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty in China (1644) were almost synchronous. In 1652 the fifth Dalai Lama went to Beijing to meet with the Qing emperor Shunzhi. Prior to the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet the following year, the Shunzhi emperor conferred upon him a golden album and a golden seal and formally proclaimed him the Dalai Lama (which, to the Qing, was an honorific title). In addition, a Qing envoy accompanied the Dalai Lama back to Tibet and conferred Qing legitimacy to the Güüshi Khan on behalf of the emperor. Good relations with Tibet were important to the Manchu because of the Dalai Lama’s prestige among the Mongols, from whom a new threat was taking shape in the ambitions of the powerful Oirat of western Mongolia. The Dalai Lama also expected more support from the Qing government to confirm his political power over Tibet, as Mongolian control there gradually weakened.
Elsewhere, Lhasa’s expanding authority with both Mongolian and Tibetan martial forces brought disagreements with Bhutan, which held its own against Tibetan incursions in 1646 and 1657, and with Ladakh, where a campaign ended in 1684 in Tibetan withdrawal to an accepted frontier when the Ladakhĭ king appealed for help to the Muslim governor of Kashmir.
Tibet under Manchu Overlordship
The Dalai Lama’s death in 1682 and the discovery of his five-year-old reincarnation in 1688 were concealed by Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho, who was intent on continuing the administration without disturbance. He informed the Manchu only in 1694 or 1696 (sources disagree). The Kangxi emperor (reigned 1661–1722) was incensed at the deception. In 1703 he discovered an ally in Tibet and an antagonist to Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho when Lha-bzang Khan, fourth successor of Güüshi, sought to assert rights as king that had atrophied under his immediate predecessors. The behaviour of the sixth Dalai Lama, Tshangs-dbyangs-rgya-mtsho, who preferred poetry and libertine amusements to religion, gave Lha-bzang his opportunity. In 1705, with the emperor’s approval, he attacked and killed Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho and deposed Tshangs-dbyangs-rgya-mtsho as a spurious reincarnation. The Tibetans angrily rejected him and soon recognized in eastern Tibet the infant reincarnation of the dead Tshangs-dbyangs-rgya-mtsho.
In 1717 the Oirat, nominally Dge-lugs-pa supporters, took advantage of Tibetan discontent to intervene in a sudden raid, defeating and killing Lha-bzang. Fear of hostile Mongol domination of Tibet compelled the emperor to send troops against the Oirat. After an initial reverse, his armies drove them out in 1720 and were welcomed at Lhasa as deliverers, all the more because they brought with them the new Dalai Lama, Bskal-bzang-rgya-mtsho. For the next 200 years there was no fighting between Tibetans and Chinese. However, after evicting the Oirat, the emperor decided to safeguard Manchu interests by appointing representatives—generally known as ambans—at Lhasa, with a small garrison in support. The Tibetans, interpreting this as another patron-priest relationship, accepted the situation, which generally left them to manage their own affairs. It was only in recurring crises that Manchu participation became, briefly, energetic. Imperial troops quelled a civil war in Tibet in 1728, restored order after the political leader was assassinated in 1750, and drove out the Gurkhas, who had invaded from Nepal in 1792. As Manchu energy declined, the Tibetans became increasingly independent, though still recognizing the formal suzerainty of the emperor, behind which it sometimes suited them to shelter. At no time did the ambans have administrative power, and after 1792, when Tibet was involved in wars with Ladakh (1842) and Nepal (1858), the Manchu were unable to help or protect them.
Administration and Culture under the Manchu
No Dalai Lama until the 13th approached the personal authority of the Great Fifth. The seventh incarnation was overshadowed by Pho-lha, a lay nobleman appointed ruler by the Manchu. The eighth was diffident and retiring. But after the Pho-lha family’s regime, Dge-lugs-pa clerics resumed power and held onto it through a series of monk regents for about 145 years.
Chinese contacts affected Tibetan culture less than might be expected. They helped shape the administrative machinery, army, and mail service, which were based on existing institutions and run by Tibetans. Chinese customs influenced dress, food, and manners; china and chopsticks were widely used by the upper classes. The arts of painting, wood carving, and casting figures continued on traditional lines, with much technical skill but few signs of innovation. An important effect of Manchu supremacy was the exclusion of foreigners after 1792. That ended the hopes of Christian missionaries and the diplomatic visits from British India, which had been started in 1774. Tibet was now closed, and mutual ignorance enshrouded future exchanges with its British neighbours in India.
Tibet since 1900
In the mid-19th century the Tibetans repeatedly rebuffed overtures from the British, who saw Tibet at first as a trade route to China and later as countenancing Russian advances that might endanger India. Eventually, in 1903, after failure to get China to control its unruly vassal, a political mission was dispatched from India to secure understandings on frontier and trade relations. Tibetan resistance was overcome by force, the Dalai Lama fled to China, and the rough wooing ended in a treaty at Lhasa in 1904 between Britain and Tibet without Chinese adherence. In 1906, however, the Chinese achieved a treaty with Britain, without Tibetan participation, that recognized their suzerainty over Tibet. That success emboldened the Chinese to seek direct control of Tibet by using force against the Tibetans for the first time in 10 centuries. In 1910 the Dalai Lama again was forced to flee, this time to India.
That dying burst by the Qing dynasty converted Tibetan indifference into enmity, and, after the start of the Chinese Revolution of 1911–12, the Tibetans rose up against and expelled the Chinese; the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet in mid-1912. Tibet subsequently functioned as a de facto independent government until 1951 and defended its frontier against China in occasional fighting as late as 1931. Of note was the Shimla Conference (1913–14), in which Tibet and Great Britain, with Chinese participation, negotiated the status of Tibet and of the Tibet-India frontier (the McMahon Line). However, China refused to ratify the conference’s agreement (including the demarcated border), nor would it recognize Tibet as an independent entity.
In 1949, after the communist takeover in China, the Chinese heralded the “liberation” of Tibet, and in October 1950 Chinese troops entered and took control of eastern Tibet, overwhelming the poorly equipped Tibetan troops. An appeal by the 14th Dalai Lama to the United Nations was denied, and support from India and Britain was not forthcoming. A Tibetan delegation summoned to Beijing in 1951 had to sign a treaty dictated by Chinese authorities. It professed to guarantee Tibetan autonomy and religion but also allowed the establishment at Lhasa of Chinese civil and military headquarters.
Smoldering resentment at the strain on the country’s resources from the influx of Chinese soldiers and civilians was inflamed in 1956 by reports of fighting and oppression in districts east of the upper Yangtze River, outside the administration of Lhasa but bound to it by ethnicity, language, and religion. Refugees from the fighting in the east carried guerrilla warfare against the Chinese into central Tibet, creating tensions that exploded in a popular rising at Lhasa in March 1959. The Dalai Lama, most of his ministers, and many followers escaped across the Himalayas, and the rising was suppressed.
The events of 1959 intensified China’s disagreements with India, which had given asylum to the Dalai Lama. In 1962 Chinese forces proved the efficiency of the new communications they had established in Tibet by invading northeastern Assam, although they soon withdrew.
In 1966 and 1967 the Chinese position in Tibet was shaken by the excesses of the early Cultural Revolution (1966–76), as the upheavals it unleashed reached Lhasa. Military control was restored by 1969, and in 1971 a new local government committee was announced. Between 1963 and 1971 no foreign visitor was allowed to enter Tibet. Repression in Tibet generally abated in the late 1970s with the end of the Cultural Revolution. However, repressive measures resumed periodically during times of civil disturbance, as when riots broke out in Tibet in the late 1980s or after protests erupted in 2008 before the Beijing Summer Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, China invested heavily in the economic development of Tibet, notably in its mineral and power-generating resources. Considerable effort also was directed at improving Tibet’s transportation infrastructure—for example, through highway and railroad construction. Tourism generally has been encouraged. In addition, both China and the Dalai Lama have made diplomatic overtures toward the other side, though the two camps remained far apart. For his part, the Dalai Lama since the 1980s has stated his desire for what he described as “autonomy” for Tibet and regions adjacent to Tibet. Chinese authorities have viewed such calls for autonomy as a continuation of the exiled Tibetan community’s desire for Tibet’s independence from China. During that time the Dalai Lama—winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize for Peace—became a renowned figure throughout the world.
Dalai Lama, head of the dominant Dge-lugs-pa (Yellow Hat) order of Tibetan Buddhists and, until 1959, both spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet.
The first of the line was Dge-’dun-grub-pa (1391–1475), founder and abbot of Tashilhunpo monastery (central Tibet). In accordance with the belief in reincarnate lamas, which began to develop in the 14th century, his successors were conceived as his rebirths and came to be regarded as physical manifestations of the compassionate bodhisattva (“buddha-to-be”), Avalokiteshvara.
The second head of the Dge-lugs-pa order, Dge-’dun-rgya-mtsho (1475–1542), became the head abbot of the ’Bras-spungs (Drepung) monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, which thenceforward was the principal seat of the Dalai Lama. His successor, Bsod-nams-rgya-mtsho (1543–88), while on a visit to the Mongol chief Altan Khan, received from that ruler the honorific title ta-le (Anglicized as “dalai”), the Mongolian equivalent of the Tibetan rgya-mtsho, meaning “ocean” and presumably suggesting breadth and depth of wisdom. The title was subsequently applied posthumously to the abbot’s two predecessors. The Tibetans themselves call the Dalai Lama Rgyal-ba Rin-po-che (“Precious Conqueror”).
The fourth Dalai Lama, Yon-tan-rgya-mtsho (1589–1617), was a great-grandson of Altan Khan and the only non-Tibetan Dalai Lama.
The next Dalai Lama, Ngag-dbang-rgya-mtsho (1617–82), is commonly called the Great Fifth. He established, with the military assistance of the Khoshut Mongols, the supremacy of the Dge-lugs-pa sect over rival orders for the temporal rule of Tibet. During his reign the majestic winter palace of the Dalai Lamas, the Potala, was built in Lhasa.
The sixth Dalai Lama, Tshangs-dbyangs-rgya-mtsho (1683–1706), was a libertine and a writer of romantic verse, not entirely suited for a seat of such authority. He was deposed by the Mongols and died while being taken to China under military escort.
The seventh Dalai Lama, Bskal-bzang-rgya-mtsho (1708–57), experienced civil war and the establishment of Chinese Manchu suzerainty over Tibet; the eighth, ’Jam-dpal-rgya-mtsho (1758–1804), saw his country invaded by Gurkha troops from Nepal but defeated them with the aid of Chinese forces. The next four Dalai Lamas all died young, and the country was ruled by regents. They were Lung-rtogs-rgya-mtsho (1806–15), Tshul-khrims-rgya-mtsho (1816–37), Mkhas-grub-rgya-mtsho (1838–56), and ’Phrin-las-rgya-mtsho (1856–75).
The 13th Dalai Lama, Thub-bstan-rgya-mtsho (1875–1933), ruled with great personal authority. The successful revolt within China against its ruling Manchu dynasty in 1912 gave the Tibetans the opportunity to dispel the disunited Chinese troops, and the Dalai Lama reigned as head of a sovereign state.
The 14th Dalai Lama, Bstan-’dzin-rgya-mtsho (Tenzin Gyatso), was born Lhamo Thondup in 1935 in what is currently Tsinghai province, China, of Tibetan parentage. He was recognized as the incarnation of the 13thDalai Lama in 1937, enthroned in 1940, and vested with full powers as head of state in 1950. He fled to exile in India in 1959, the year of the unsuccessful revolt by Tibetans against communist Chinese forces that had occupied the country since 1950. The Dalai Lama set up a government-in-exile in Dharmsala, India, in the Himalayan Mountains. In 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of his nonviolent campaign to end Chinese domination of Tibet. In the first decade of the 21st century, the Dalai Lama suggested that his successor could be appointed by him rather than selected as his reincarnation; this idea was rejected by the Chinese government, which declared that the tradition of appointing a new Dalai Lama had to be upheld. In 2011 he stepped down as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile. He has written a number of books on Tibetan Buddhism and an autobiography.
The list of Dalai Lamas
|1Dalai Lamas 9–12 all died young, and the country was ruled by regencies.
2Reigned as head of a sovereign state from 1912.
3Ruled from exile in Dharmsala, India, from 1960.
Timelines of Tibet Unrest
The escalation of tensions in ethnically Tibetan regions of China is the latest in a series that have resulted in deaths, frayed ties between the United States and China, and greater pressure from Beijing against the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet for India in 1959 after a failed uprising.
March 2008 – Hundreds of Tibetan monks gather in Lhasa in protests to mark the 49th anniversary of a Tibetan uprising against Beijing rule. Protesters sought the release of fellow Drepung monks, who apparently were detained, as they tried to celebrate the awarding of the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama months earlier, according to foreign Tibetan rights groups. As the week wore on, protests and violence escalated. Rights groups said more than 140 people died, while Chinese authorities put the figure at 22 dead.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao blamed supporters of the Dalai Lama for the violence in Tibet and said Chinese forces exercised restraint in confronting unrest there.
April 2008 – The global Olympic torch rally for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics begins but becomes a flashpoint for protests one month after the unrest in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Thousands protested on the streets of San Francisco, and the unruly scene of the London leg of the torch run was labeled “a public relations nightmare” by the Times. “We express our strong condemnation to the deliberate disruption of the Olympic torch relay by Tibetan separatist forces regardless of the Olympic spirit and the law of Britain and France,” a China spokeswoman said at the time. Meanwhile in Tibet, 30 people were convicted of arson, robbery and attacking government offices related to the March violence and receive prison sentences ranging from three years to life.
November 2008 – China sentences 55 people for involvement in anti-China protests, out of the 1,300 originally detained, according to state media, although the charges and sentences they received weren’t revealed.
December 2008 — Chinese authorities arrest 59 people in Tibet accused of spreading rumors and inciting sentiment against the state and public safety, state-run media reported.
January 2009 – Lawmakers in Tibet approve March 28 as a holiday to mark the date that China says about one million people were freed in 1959 from serfdom in the Himalayan region, state-run media reported. The legislation was aimed at “reminding all the Chinese people, including Tibetans, of the landmark democratic reform initiated 50 years ago,” a parliament spokesperson said.
March 2009 – Near the one-year anniversary of the riots and 50th anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising, a monk carrying a Tibetan national flag and shouting slogans set himself on fire in Sichuan Province and then was shot at by police, a human rights group reported. Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, reported a local official as saying that the man had been taken to a local hospital immediately after police extinguished the flames. Foreign tourists are banned from visiting Tibet during the month.
February 2010 – China summons U.S. ambassador to express its “strong dissatisfaction of a meeting between the Dalai Lama and U.S. President Barack Obama.
March 2010 – Beijing appoints the 11th Panchen Lama — handpicked by the Chinese government as the second highest Tibetan spiritual figure — to the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference. Beijing’s critics, however, say that the inclusion of the Panchen Lama at the annual meeting is part of a stepped up effort to undermine the popularity of Tibet’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama.
October 2010 –Tibetan students take to the streets in protest, claiming their culture is being wiped out, as China overhauls school curriculum and limits the use of the Tibetan language in schools. “The protest resulted from a new education policy which reduces Tibetan language teachings,” a government official told CNN at the time. The government said 800 students protested, while the activist group Free Tibet said 4,000 to 6,000 students protested.
March 2011 – The Dalai Lama, at a speech marking the 52nd anniversary of the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule which caused him to flee into India, announces he will retire political responsibilities as head of Tibet’s government-in-exile but will remain its spiritual head. Lobsang Sangay is elected by Tibetan exiles to take over day-to-day political responsibilities.
On March 16, a monk named Phuntsog set himself on fire to protest the third anniversary of the 2008 protests, according to Free Tibet.
August 2011 – A 29-year-old monk, Tsewang Norbu, sets himself ablaze after chanting slogans, according to Free Tibet. The self immolations continue, and by October a nun — the first woman — is reported to have killed herself, the ninth Tibetan to commit self- immolation in protest.
January 2012 – Three more monks set themselves ablaze in protest, bringing the number who have self-immolated in protest to 16 since March 2011, Free Tibet claims. Twelve are thought to have died from their injuries.
Thousands of Chinese security forces have flooded into an ethnically Tibetan area of southwestern China following large protests in the wake of the self-immolations.
Dream Dare Win