First official contacts between Tibet and China

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Text: Prof. PhDr. Josef Kolmaš, DrSc.

The T’ang dynasty, 618-907

For re-united China, the T’ang era was one of unprecedented prosperity, both in the economic and the cultural sphere. Many foreigners, mainly from Central Asia, India, Korea and Japan, were visiting China, and the Chinese also frequently visited their neighbours. Under these circumstances there naturally came to be an increased interest in the countries bordering on China in the west, and the necessity to protect her open frontiers against devastating incursions from this direction led to the first regular contacts between T’ang China and the various peoples of the Tibetan highlands.

Tang Taizong

T’ai-tsung – The Emperor of the Tang Dynasty

From the word BOD which was used by the Tibetans to denote their mountainous country was perhaps also derived the original Chinese name of Tibet T’u-po. The seat of the Tibetan kings, Ra-sa (literally meaning “Goat’s place”; later on, along with the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet in the early seventh century, re-named Lha-sa or “God’s place”) was known in China as Lo-hsieh or Lo-so.

Thanks to the numerous historical sources related to this period, Sino-Tibetan relations during the T’ang dynasty are much better documented than is the case for either the period before T’ang or that between the T’ang and the Mongols.

By T’ang times Tibet had already reached the height of its national development. The Tibetan kings, whose ancestors traced their origin back to the remote past, had become strong and successful rulers over a vast territory stretching far and wide across the whole of the Tibetan high plateau.

The northern and eastern boundaries of the Tibetan state separated it from T’ang China, the boundary line on the north being formed, as previously, by the Nan-shan range, whereas in the east it ran roughly alongside the western limits of the Szu-ch’uan lowlands. In the west, the Tibetan kingdom included the eastern part of present-day, Kashmir (the so-called La-dwags area) and in the south it reached as far as the southern slopes of the Himalayas. At the time of its greatest expansion (during the reign of the king Khrisrong-lde-btsan, 755-797), the Tibetan state controlled almost the whole of Chinese Turkestan and present-day Kan-su.


Tibetan emperor Khrisrong-lde-btsan (or Trisong Detsän or Trisong Detsen), foto: imsbildarkiv

The first official contacts between China and Tibet of which historical records remain both in Chinese and Tibetan, were established during the reign of king Srong-btsan-sgam-po. The T’ang Emperor T’ai-tsung (627-649), wishing to prevent further Tibetan invasions of his territory, resolved to send the daughter of a member of the royal family, princess Wen-ch’eng , to marry the Tibetan king (in 641). A similar family connection between the two ruling houses in China and Tibet was formed later in 710, when the Emperor Chung-tsung (707-710) gave another Chinese princess, Chin-ch’eng, to the Tibetan king Khri-lde-gtsug-btsan called Mes-ag-tshoms (704-755).

The T’ang histories enumerate no less than one hundred official and semi-official missions that were exchanged between Lhasa and Ch’ang-an , the then capital of China. Tibet at that time was frequently visited by Chinese Buddhists, and Tibetan students in search of enlightenment from now on used to study not only in India but in China as well.

As far as can be gathered from existing historical sources, both sides concluded altogether at least eight important bilateral treaties, the first of which dates from the years 705/710 and the last from the years 821/822. The Sino-Tibetan treaty of 821/822 is especially significant. Its bilingual Chinese and Tibetan text, carved on a huge stone pillar, is still well preserved near the Jo-khang temple in Lhasa. On the boundary issue and the status of Tibet, the treaty ran as follows (quoted according to the latest translation of Mr. H.E. Richardson, TIBET AND ITS HISTORY, pp. 244-245):

“The Great King of Tibet (Ral-pa-can, 817-836 – jk) …. and the Great King of China (Mu-tsung , 821-824 – jk) … being in the relationship of nephew and uncle, have conferred together for the alliance of their kingdoms … Tibet and China shall abide by the frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the east is the country of Great China; and all to the west is, without question, the country of Great Tibet …”

“According to the old custom, horses shall be changed at the foot of the Chiang-chün pass, the frontier between Tibet and China. At the Sui-yung barrier the Chinese shall meet Tibetan envoys and provide them with all facilities from there onwards. At Ch’ing-shui the Tibetans shall meet Chinese envoys and provide all facilities. On both sides they shall be treated with customary honour and respect in conformity with the friendly relations between Nephew and Uncle…”

“This solemn agreement has established a great epoch when Tibetans shall be happy in the land of Tibet and Chinese in the land of China …”

Chinese Emperor T’ai-tsung receives Ludongzan, ambassador of Tibet, at his court

Chinese Emperor T’ai-tsung or Taizong receives Ludongzan, ambassador of Tibet, at his court

After the murder of king Glang-dar-ma (in 842), the unified Tibetan kingdom collapsed and out of its debris emerged a whole range of petty feudal principalities. Accompanying this process of disintegration was the increased religious activity of the Tibetans, numerous Lamaist sects being founded. During the period that followed, Tibet’s relations tended to develop not so much with China as with its southern neighbour, India, from whence came fresh and strong impulses to stimulate the spiritual life of the country. This state of political disunity and cultural isolation from China continued almost uninterruptedly for the whole of the following four hundred years, i.e. until 1245, when the Sa-skya-pa sect with its seat in Further Tibet, assisted by the Mongols, gained political power over the greater part of the country.

On the basis of what is available both in Chinese and Tibetan sources we may conclude that Tibet in the T’ang period was in every respect an independent state with a comparatively strong military potential and active diplomatic relations with the rest of the surrounding world (remarkably close at that time was, for example, the collaboration of the Tibetan kings with the Baghdad Khalifs). The power of the Tibetan rulers was subject to no restrictions of interference from the outside. Thanks to the two successful marriages of Chinese princesses to the Tibetan kings, and also to the beneficent operation of the higher Chinese civilisation amongst the rude Tibetan population, the former hostility between Chinese and Tibetans gradually disappeared and friendship replaced it. The political alliance between China and Tibet, in conformity with the spirit and customs of the time, took the form of an ’uncle and nephew’ or rather ’father-in-law and son-in-law’ relationship [the ’uncle’ or ’father-in-law’ (ZANG in Tibetan; CHIU in Chinese) being the T’ang Emperor, and the ’nephew’ or ’son-in-law’ (DBON in Tibetan; SHENG NAN in Chinese) the King of Tibet].

In the T’ang period there can however be as yet no talk about Tibet’s dependence, either direct or indirect, nominal or actual, upon China. On the contrary, there were many instances of Tibet inflicting heavy blows on China’s military power, and in one case (in 763) their army even managed to occupy Ch’ang-an, China’s capital, for fifteen days, seriously endangering the very existence of the T’ang dynasty. Relations between China and Tibet – in spite of their formal quasi-paternalistic designations – were yet in the full sense of the word, those between two sovereign states, though with a different level of state organisation and different standards of economic and cultural development.

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