Tibet and the Manchu China from 1750 to 1793

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The relationship between Tibet and the Manchu (Quing) Dynasty from 1750 to 1793

Under the Ch’ien-lung Emperor the Ch’ing empire reached its greatest extent. To the dependencies acquired under his predecessors were further added Dsungaria (in 1757) and Kashgaria (in 1760), both in the westernmost part of Chinese Turkestan.

In Tibet the Ch’ien-lung era was marked by stricter measures of control which, in extent and efficiency, can only be compared to those taken two centuries later by the government of the Chinese People’s Republic (in 1951 and 1959). It was as a result of the Manchu government’s reforms in the Tibetan administration at this period that Tibet lost its virtually independent sovereignty, as exercised by the Dalai Lama and the “king” respectively, and became a dependency of Manchu China.

The main administrative changes following the events of 1750 can be summarized as follows:

  1. The institution of a hereditary “kingship” in Tibet, i.e. the office of the CHÜN-WANG (vulgo TSANG-WANG or “King of Tibet”) was abolished, and similarly titles such as KHAN, WANG, BEISE, etc. were no longer conferred on the high dignitaries of the country.
  2. The Dalai Lama was made nominal head, spiritual and temporal, of Tibet, and the Ministerial Council, the chief executive organ in the country, was subordinated to him.
  3. The former system of a four-member Ministerial Council which obtained during the period from 1721 to 1727 was restored. The BKA’- GSAGS (Kashag) had henceforward to consist of four ministers (BKA’-BLON), of whom three were secular and one a monk.
  4. The powers of the Ambans were enlarged. Apart from commanding the Chinese garrison of Lhasa (which was brought up to 1,500 troops) and being responsible for the mail service between Ch’eng-tu and Lhasa, they were given a “limited right to take part in the government of the country” (see W.W. Rockhill, op.cit., p.46) – mostly as advisors to the BKA’-GSAGS. This provided them with the opportunity to influence the day to day policy of the Tibetan government.

The above mentioned measures were later supplemented, after the death of the Seventh Dalai Lama (in 1757), by the creation of the office of Regent (RGYAL-TSHAB), now no longer a “king” but a Tibetan lama, who regularly carried out the Dalai Lama’s religious functions during the latter’s minority.

This reorganisation of Tibetan local administration remained basically unchanged until the Tibeto-Gurkha war in 1788-1792, which made the Manchu position in Tibet even stronger.

In 1788 the warlike Gurkhas south of the Himalayas invaded Tibet under the pretext that the Tibetans were conducting the export of goods from Tibet in a fraudulent manner, and levying taxes on Gurkha merchandise. The Tibetans were quickly defeated, and were forced to promise to pay the Gurkha government a huge sum of money annually. Provoked by the Tibetans’ failure to pay the promised amount, the Gurkhas attacked Tibet once more in 1791, sacking Bkra-sis-lhun-po (Tashilunpo) and occupying the whole of western Gtsang. The Chinese Emperor then sent a strong army of over ten thousand men, under General Fu K’ang-an, which defeated the Gurkhas and drove them to the very neighbourhood of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.

A thorough political reform in Tibet was decreed by the Emperor at the conclusion of the campaign (in 1792-1793). Their chief aim was to create in Tibet a situation which would preclude an occurrence of any unwanted change of internal conditions in the future, and at the same time protect the country against any foreign intervention. These goals could only be achieved by placing all responsibility for the military, political, economic and administrative control over Tibet upon the Chinese central government acting through the Ambans as its intermediaries.

The measures taken, on the recommendation of General Fu K’ang-an, were as follows:

  1. The Imperial Residents (Ambans) were empowered to take part in the administration of Tibet, conferring with the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama on all matters affecting Tibet, on a perfect footing of equality.
  2. All Tibetan lay and clerical officials were to submit all questions of importance to the Arubans’s decision, including high appointment, judicial, financial and other matters.
  3. The Ambans were made responsible for the frontier defences, the efficiency of the native levies, the administration of the finances, and took control of all foreign intercourse and trade.
  4. The Dalai’Lama and Panchen Lama were deprived of their right to memorialize the Throne (TSOU), and were authorised only to report [to the Ambans] and ask their orders (PIN-MING).

It may well appear to students of Sino-Tibetan relations that only since 1793 are we entitled to use moire or less freely the expression Chinese (or rather Manchu-Chinese) sovereignty over Tibet – on condition, however, that the phrase be understood rather in a broad sense, and above all in the context of the time and specific circumstances. Undoubtedly, the establishment of supreme Amban control over the local administration marked, in its practical consequences, the abolition of the last remnants of Tibetan autonomy, and was tantamount to the actual submission of the Tibetan local government in all vital spheres of its activity to the Chinese central government.

The general management of Tibetan affairs in Peking was entrusted to the LI-FAN-YÜAN or Ministry for Administering Dependencies. This office, which was principally concerned with the administration of Mongolia and Chinese Turkestan, was created in 1658 by reorganising a similar older institution called the MENG-KU YA-MEN or “The Mongol Office”. Among its duties with regard to Tibet were:

  1. to supervise the regular payment of tribute;
  2. to recommend the conferment of titles on local nobility, and to propose the amount of their income from the State treasury;
  3. to arrange audiences with the Throne for various Tibetan envoys, both secular and ecclesiastic;
  4. to take care of smooth trade relations of Tibet with other dependencies as well as with China proper.

Whereas the nomination of officers of the lower echelons in the Chinese administration in Dependencies rested with the LI-FAN-YÜAN, all major decisions both of military and administrative character (including appointments of Imperial Residents and Vice-Residents) were made by the CHÜN-CHI-CH’U or “The Supreme State Council” (established in 1729). Economically and from the point of view of transport and communications, the Ambans’ office in Lhasa was administered, and financially supported, by the provincial authorities in neighbouring Szu-ch’uan.

The central management of Tibetan affairs thus set up remained basically unchanged till the end of Manchu dynasty in 1912.

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