Sino-Tibetan Relations up to the 7th Century

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Tibet and China before the unified kingdom

Header photo: Danielinblue | Text: Prof. PhDr. Josef Kolmaš, DrSc.

The highlands of Tibet with their crude climate, barren land and scanty population remained almost entirely unknown to the Chinese until at least the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. Between these highlands and the settled regions of China such as the Wei valley and the Ch-eng-tu plain lay numerous lesser mountain ranges inhabited by pastoral tribes known by the Chinese under such titles as the Jungy, the Ch’iang and the Ti. These tribes, who pressed continually upon the Chinese settlements, prevented any contact between the Han Chinese and Tibet proper.

Yang Guang depicted as Emperor of Sui

Yang Guang depicted as Emperor of Sui

The names of both Ch’iang and Jung appear on the oracle bones of Shang times (18th – 12th Centuries B.C.); in 771 B.C. a group of Jung tribes sacked the Western Chou capital, and for several hundred years the state of Ch’in in the Wei valley had constantly to struggle against these “barbarians”.

During the time of the two Han dynasties (206 B.C. – 8 A.D. and 23 – 220 A.D.) Chinese power began to extend further and further westward. Contact was made with the city-states of the Tarim basin (Chang Ch’ien’s missions to Central Asia during the latter part of the second century B.C.) and in 4 A.D. the Chinese established a commandery – the so-called Hsi-hai chün – in the region of the present-day Ch’ing-hai lake (Koko-nor). This advance however proved to be premature, and Hsi-hai commandery disappeared in the disorders which followed on Wang Mang’s usurpation in China (9-22 A.D.).

Under the Later Han dynasty, the Ch’iang tribes, who may well have been of proto-Tibetan origin, frequently revolted against Chinese control and devastated great areas of Western China, particularly during the periods 106-118 and 140-144, and after the fall of the Han and division of China, northern nomads such as the Hsiung-nu and Hsien-pei moved into Kan-su and Shen-hsi and fought with Ch’iang, Ti and Chinese alike.

Sixteen States Period

Northern Wei Buddha Maitreya

Northern Wei Buddha Maitreya

During the confused epoch known as the Sixteen States Period (SHIH-LIU KUO, 304 – 439) there were in the Tibeto-Chinese marches in Kan-su and Shen-his kingdoms founded by leaders of the proto-Tibetan tribe of Ti – such as the Fu/P’u state of Former Ch’in (Ch’ien Ch’in, 351-394) and the state of Later Liang (Hou Liang , 386-403.); the Ch’iang state of Later Ch’in (Hou Ch’in, 384-417); Hsien-pei states – such as the Ch’i-fu state of Western Ch’in (Hsi Ch’in, 385-400, 409-431), the T’u-fa state of Southern Liang (Nan Liang, 397-414); and a Hsiung-nu state, Northern Liang (Pei Liang, 397-439). Round about the Ch’ing-hai lake there was the kingdom of the T’u-yü-hun, a Tibetanized branch of the Hsien-pei who had moved into that area at the end of the third century and established a state which lasted until the early seventh century. In contrast to the T’u-yü-hun kingdom, the dynasties set up by the Sixteen States were ephemeral and the product of disturbed conditions which effectively prevented Chinese influence from penetrating the Tibetan plateau.

Qinghai Lake

Qinghai Lake

By the middle of the fifth century the last of these states, viz. Northern Liang, had been absorbed by the Hsienpei T’o-pa state of Northern Wei (Pei Wei, 386-534) which now controlled the whole of North China. South China, after the fall of the Eastern Chin dynasty (Tung Chin, 317-419), remained under the sway of the four successive short-lived dynasties until 589 when all China was reunited again under the Sui dynasty (581/589-617).

The boundary between China proper and the unknown lands in the far southwest ran at this time as far as the Ta-tu River, or even perhaps as far as the Ya-lung River in the East-Tibetan highlands. The northern and north-eastern boundary of the Tibetan plateau with the adjacent parts of the Empire was formed by the Nan-shan range (present-day A-er-chin shan-mo, or Altyn-tagh) with its south-eastward continuation in the Ch’i-lien-shan.

Fa Hsien at the ruins of Ashoka palace

Fa Hsien at the ruins of Ashoka palace

The adoption of Buddhism, particularly patronized by some of the Sixteen States – such as Later Ch’in and Northern Liang – and from 451 also by the Northern Wei opened new horizons for the Chinese. From this time onwards Chinese Buddhist pilgrims such as Fa-hsien (travelled 399-413) crossed the Gobi to visit India, the homeland of the new faith. Yet in spite of a considerable increase in China’s knowledge of the world outside and more frequent contacts with foreign countries, Chinese penetration of the Tibetan plateau itself, even at this time, did not extend further than in previous periods. Chinese historical sources, indeed, usually so well-informed upon the countries surrounding China, are surprisingly silent about Tibet proper until T’ang times i.e. until the seventh century A.D.

Whereas among the Han population the process of formation of the Chinese nation had evolved successfully in these periods and by the sixth century had even to certain extent already been completed, the peoples inhabiting the territory of what is now Tibet proper lived at a stage of primitive clan organisation. Since they were widely scattered over a huge area over which communications were extremely difficult, the various tribes had hardly anything in common and their chieftains fought each other almost uninterruptedly. Only in the course of the sixth century did a Tibetan tribe whose seat was in the Yar-klungs valley (southeast of Lhasa) win hegemony over its weaker neighbours which it gradually enlarged.

Srong-btsan-sgam-po and his two wives

Tibetan king Srong-btsan-sgam-po and his two wives – princesses Wen Cheng and Bhrikuti Devi

By the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries, Gnam-ri-srong-btsan, the ablest amongst the chieftains of this clan, became the undisputed ruler over the majority of tribes in Central Tibet (the territory around Lhasa). Thus the corner-stone was laid for the future unification of the whole country, which was achieved by Gnam-ri-srong-btsan’s son and successor, the king Srong-btsan-sgam-po (605-650). With him the organisation of the Tibetan state in terms of a central government, a unified legal code, an army, official contacts with foreign countries, and a distinctive religion and culture for the first time appears upon the stage of history.

In the history of Sino-Tibetan relations all the period before the T’ang dynasty in China is really one of preliminary contacts, clashes only imperfectly recorded and cultural contacts which belong to the realm of hypothesis rather than to that of fact. One may perhaps conjecture that the existence at this time of a rather developed and highly organised Chinese state assisted indirectly in creating preconditions for the rise of a centralized Tibetan state in the seventh century.

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