Almost immediately upon seizing power the Communist government expanded to its limits, swallowing up the surrounding countryside, including Tibet by 1951. The Communists were not expanding the political boundaries of the Chinese empire, as many mistakenly believe. They was merely assuming the same boundaries as the Ching dynasty of the Manchus, which had also included Tibet within their boundaries for over 200 years, longer than the United States has been around.
Let us explore Tibet’s recent history to understand its historical relation to China.
Remember that the Tangut tribes from Tibet had harassed China’s northwest border as recently as the twelfth century until the Genghis Khan’s Mongols destroyed their power. Kublai Khan converted to Tibetan Lamaism, probably for political reasons, and made Lamaism, based in Tibetan Buddhism, specifically the Sa-skya sect, the official religion of China. He also appointed the head of this sect to be the ruler of Tibet[i]. In this way the Mongols were able to exercise a loose control over Tibet. This cozy relation lasted throughout the Yuan dynasty. This set a precedent for the political control of Tibet through until modern times. Appoint a religious leader favorable to your politics and rule Tibet from afar.
When the Yuan dynasty fell, Tibet degenerated into anarchy with their local nobles fighting for control. In the late 1300’s a religious leader arose who founded the Yellow Hat sect, which had a stricter moral code than the previous sects of Tibetan Buddhism.[ii] When his successor died in 1474, he supposedly reincarnated into the body of a two year old, beginning the tradition of successive incarnations of the Tibetan religious leaders.
During most of the Ming dynasty the aristocratic families, each aligned with a different religious sect, sought to control Tibet. Many of these families aligned themselves with the Red Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. They were more rigid in terms of ritual, but without the strict moral code of the Yellow Hats. This period was dominated by incessant warfare, with no family able to consolidate their control of Tibet for long. The Buddhist monasteries gradually gained the upper hand. The struggles polarized between the Red and Yellow Hats sects of Tibetan Buddhism.
In 1566, the Ordos Mongols under the Altan Khan attacked Tibet, captured some lamas, and were converted to the Yellow Hat sect. The lama leader, who converted the Mongols, was given the title Vajradhara Dalai Lama, ‘holder of the thunderbolt’ ‘ocean lama’. While he was third in his line, he was the first to be called the dalai lama. The word ‘dalai’ is not Tibetan but Mongolian for ‘ocean’, indicating the deep connection between the Tibetans and Mongols.
This connection was further cemented when the leader of the Yellow Hat sect died in 1588 and supposedly incarnated into the Altan Khan’s grandson. While the incarnation seemed political, this Mongolian dalai lama became popular with both Tibetans and Mongols, traveling regularly through Tibet. This bound the Mongols to Tibet in a deep way. Until the Communist occupation many Mongols regularly made pilgrimages to the Tibetan monasteries.
The local Tibetan aristocracy on the side of the Red Hats staged an effective offensive in the early 1600’s. The fourth dalai lama, always of the Yellow Hat sect, went into temporary exile, enlisting the military power of the Mongols to halt the Red Hat aggression. The Red Hats took over the monasteries founded by the Yellow Hats. In 1621 the Mongols invaded Tibet. The military power of the Mongols merged with the Yellow Hats to give them complete political control of Tibet by 1641. To indicate the political interconnection between the Mongols and Tibet in 1705 the Mongolian ruler killed and replaced the sixth dalai lama, presumably because of his drinking and womanizing.
In alliance with the Ordos Mongols against the Western Mongols, the Chinese, through political intrigue, were able to install an anti-Mongol dalai lama as ruler of Tibet. This interference caused the Yellow Hats to seek assistance from the Junkars, the Western Mongols. In 1716 they defeated the Ordos Mongols, sacked the monasteries and established political control of Tibet.
This drew in the Manchus, as protectors of their replacement dalai lama. (A classical political strategy emulated by the United States in Vietnam in the 1960’s). In the 1650’s the 5th dalai lama had courted the Manchus, even before they assumed control of China, as allies in the political struggles that were setting up even then.
The 1st emperor of the Manchu Ching dynasty, K’ang-hsi (Sheng-tsu), sent Chinese troops into Tibet in 1720, driving the Junkars, i.e. Western Mongols, out of Tibet. He then put the 7th dalai lama onto the throne at Potala. In 1726 the Chinese began the policy of appointing ambans to administer the Tibetans. In 1750 the ambans murdered the regent to the dalai lama and the Tibetans revolted. In 1751 K’ang-hsi’s grandson, Kao-tsung, the third emperor of the Ching, sent the imperial army to restore order and increased the power of the ambans.
During this same period of Ching military growth, the Chinese/Manchu armies had attempted unsuccessfully to establish control of Burma and Vietnam, who, while subservient, had remained independent.
In 1774, the dalai lama rejected the British East India Company’s attempt to establish trading relations with Tibet. While still rejected by the dalai lama the British in 1783 were able to gain an audience with the panchen lama. The panchen lama, chosen by successive incarnations, as was the dalai lama, was second in power to the dalai lama. He controlled his own monastery whose hierarchy was similar to that of the dalai lama. The first panchen lama was a favorite teacher of the 5th dalai lama, who claimed that this teacher was a divine incarnation and gave him control of a monastery. In an attempt to increase his own power in Tibet the panchen lama granted India a trading concession in Tibet, while still excluding the British.
In 1788 the Gurkhas of Nepal, probably under British influence, captured some Tibetan territory. They continued to threaten the Tibetans militarily for the next few years. In 1792 Tibet had been so incorporated into the Chinese sphere that Chinese and Tibetan troops under the Manchus attacked and defeated the Gurkhas[iii], turning Nepal into a tributary state. Suspecting British influence, the Chinese limited all foreign contact with Tibet, except through the ambans.
Over a half-century later the Nepalese Gurkhas attacked Tibet again in 1855, this time successfully. In the midst of growing opium addiction, population problems and civil disturbance the Manchus were unable to defend Tibet from the attack. In the following peace settlement Tibet was made into a virtual dependency of Nepal. Further Nepal, Burma, Sikkim, and Bhutan, previously tributary states of China, were made into dependencies of Great Britain, indicating the extent of the British involvement in invasion of Tibet by the Gurkhas.
Unsuccessful in their attempt to gain trade concessions with Tibet, the British invaded in 1903, killing thousands of Tibetans. In the following peace treaty, the British were granted trading sites in multiple areas throughout Tibet. In 1906 and 1907 treaties were signed with the Russians and Chinese acknowledging the ‘special interests’ of Great Britain in Tibet. The Manchus, in one last burst of military strength reestablished control of Tibet in 1910, but were overthrown themselves in 1911, throwing Tibet into political limbo, once again.
With the British invasion of 1903, the dalai lama fled first to Mongolia and then to China to seek aid against the British. In the meantime the panchen lama, seeking to increase his own power, had attempted to negotiate a settlement with the British. Standing behind the dalai lama the Chinese returned to Tibet. However the dalai lama didn’t like the Chinese terms any better and was forced to flee again in 1909, this time to India. The panchen lama took advantage to ally himself with the Chinese who set him up in power in the dalai lama’s residence of Potala. With the Manchu collapse, the dalai lama returned, allied to the British, who restored him to power.
After the British-supported dalai lama was returned to power, he was given the revenue from the panchen lama’s monastery as retribution against the panchen lama for siding with the Chinese. In 1924 the panchen lama fled to China. Taking advantage of the death of the thirteenth dalai lama in 1933, the panchen lama with Nationalist Chinese troops behind him was about to enter Tibet in 1937 when he died unexpectedly. These circumstances illustrate the political nature of the two lamas. During the 20th century the Chinese have supported the panchen lama in his bid for power. In opposition the West has supported the dalai lama.
The fourteenth and present dalai lama was born in 1935 and discovered in 1939. The tenth panchen lama was discovered in 1940, but was not installed until 1949 – because the followers of the dalai lama discovered rival claimants in Llasa, the traditional capital of Tibet. Although the panchen lama was installed with the support of the Nationalist Chinese, he and his followers immediately pledged support to the Communist government after the Communist PLA defeated the Nationalist armies. These events show how closely linked the panchen lama is to the Chinese. It didn’t matter which Chinese government was in power, archrivals Nationalist or Communist, the panchen lama relied on their military force to keep or restore him and his retinue of followers to power.
During the Chinese Civil War, as Mao and Jiang were fighting for power after the end of World War II, Tibet declared her independence from China in the global spirit of self-determination. However when the Communists assumed control, their first task was to consolidate Chinese power. This meant reassuming control of all of the traditional Ching territory, which included culturally disparate areas from Manchuria to Central Asia to Tibet. This is not unusual as the Chinese have always included a wide range of cultures under her imperial umbrella. The Moslems of Central Asia are no closer in ideology to the Chinese than the Buddhists of Tibet. Hence it was no surprise when China reincorporated Tibet into the Chinese empire in 1949. It was similar to Russia reassuming territories lost to the Germans after WWII.
As the present dalai lama at the age of 16 was negotiating a peace treaty with the Red Chinese, their troops entered Tibet without resistance in 1951. The treaty allowed the Chinese to administer Tibet, while respecting Tibetan traditions, including the hierarchy of the dalai lama. Further the Chinese-sponsored panchen lama was to be restored to his seat of power. The dalai lama declared political amnesty for all, including the panchen lama, who reentered his monastery, which had been without a leader since 1924[iv]. And everyone lived happily ever after. Right.
Everything did proceed relatively smoothly for a few years. Both the panchen and dalai lama were included and worked together to represent the Tibetans in Chinese councils in the early 1950s, through to 1956, when circumstances changed abruptly.
As to be expected, theocratic Buddhist Tibet has had very few periods as a truly independent state. However from the fall of the Manchus in 1911, until the Communists began exerting an active influence in the mid 1950s, over 40 years, the Tibetans experienced an autonomy never achieved before and probably never to see again. The Chinese government was imploding. In the midst of fragmentation, they were unable to think beyond their immediate borders. The British were having massive colonial problems of its own, especially with India. The Western powers, overall, were recovering from World War I, in the midst of labor problems, followed by a world wide depression, and then finally preparing for a new World War. Hence the major powers of the world were too busy to be bothered about non-strategic, inaccessible Tibet. While China and the Western world were going through 40 years of convulsions, including 2 world wars and a depression, Tibet was in heaven. No major power was bothering her and generally speaking there were no internal military conflicts. She was allowed to mature in peace. How perfect. Even when the Chinese took over, there was no real alarm. They restored the panchen lama to his traditional seat of power, respected the dalai lama as the ruler of Tibet, and promised to respect her traditions, including her government in Llasa.
Let’s leave our story at its peak, in the midst of the Communist honeymoon. We don’t know what happens next. You’ll have to keep reading into the next section. But first a summary.
From this brief sketch it’s easy to see that from the 1200’s onward that a series of external powers have dominated Tibet – Mongolians (eastern, western, and central), the Manchu Chinese, the Nepalese, the British, and the Red Chinese. In the brief periods when there was no foreign influence, their aristocratic families, allied with different Buddhist sects, have waged civil war – Red Hats against Yellow Hats, panchen lama versus dalai lama. The relative power of the different religious sects seems to depend upon external sponsorship rather than internal power. The Red Hats call in the Mongols to assist them in their struggles with the Yellow Hats, who then call in the Chinese. To retain power the panchen lama aligns himself with the Chinese, while the dalai lama aligns himself with the West.
Further their external alliances didn’t seem to be motivated by anything but survival, cultural or personal. The dalai lama first allied himself with the Chinese against the Nepalese/ British alliance. But then when circumstances changed, he flip-flopped regularly, as did the panchen lama. Each allied themselves with whichever government would support their interests, whether for the good of the Tibetan people or to support their divine claims to power. The dalai lama allied himself first with the Chinese then with the opposing British power – all within the first decade of the 20th century[v]. Their main loyalty was not to their allies but to their Tibetan tradition, and their followers, which kept them in power, for good or ill.
Note that Tibet’s divine lamas are not just an individual, but also an organization. A retinue of teachers, advisors and servants surrounds each of their lamas. Both the dalai and panchen lama are discovered before they are five years of age. A regent is in charge until they come of age at about 16. As well as being in charge of the training and care of the infant lama, the retinue is also in charge of discovering a new incarnation once the old one dies. The political fortunes of each of the lamas and his retinue, i.e. their wealth and power, are directly linked. Without a divine incarnation they are nothing; and without a retinue to support his divine claim, these incarnated lamas are nothing. This links the spiritual lama tradition inextricably with global politics.
Having established the historical context of the relation between China and Tibet, let us return to the conclusion of China’s story.
[i]Cradles of Civilization: China, p.148, 1995
[ii]EB, Volume 22, Tibet, History, page 183
[iii]China to 1850
[iv]The parallels are amusing. The panchen lama was in exile from his monastery in Tibet for nearly 30 years. He felt endangered by the dalai lama’s power structure, as it was allied to the West. Finally Red China restored him to his rightful place as head of his traditional monastery. He enjoyed a triumphant welcome. His temple followers knew that without him that they were a second-class monastery rendering taxes to the dalai lama’s monastery. With him restored to power by the Chinese, suddenly they were a rich and powerful monastery again. It is no wonder that he was given a triumphant welcome.
[v]This reminds us of the Scottish aristocracy, who would regularly change alliances for self-preservation, first the French, then English, then one clan and then another, whichever would further one’s personal power and wealth, with no real loyalty. Unfortunately in each alliance compromises must be made.
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