Tibet and the Manchu China from 1793 to 1890

The relationship between Tibet and the Manchu (Quing) Dynasty from 1793 to 1890

In China the eighteenth century was one of successful expansion under the Emperors K ’ang-hsi, Yung-cheng and Ch’ien-lung; it was followed by the “black” nineteenth century when China experienced both internal unrest and many humiliating defeats at the hands of Western nations. The corrupt and tottering Manchu regime lay prostrate before the onslaughts of imperialist expansion.

In contradistinction to the stormy events of the nineteenth century in China proper, and along the Chinese coast, the political development in Tibet was comparatively quiet and orderly. Evidently, the reforms of the Ch’ien-lung Emperor in 1792-93 had stabilized the political situation in Tibet so firmly that no disturbances in China proper could affect it. The supreme control over Tibetan local administration remained entirely in the hands of the Imperial Residents who from now on were changed at regular three-year intervals. The Chinese garrison in Lhasa continued to number 1,500 men much better trained and equipped than any Tibetan local militia. At the same time contacts with the neighbouring Szu-ch’uan province, the military and financial pivot of the Manchu power in Tibet, became fairly regular.

The only major incident in Sino-Tibetan relations during this period occurred in connection with the Ňa-rong (Chan-tui in Chinese; present-day Hsin-lung) question. As already seen, from the time of the Emperor Yung-cheng, Eastern Tibet or Khams was divided into two parts separated by the Ning-ching-shan range. The western part was placed under the jurisdiction of the Lhasa government and the Chinese Amban, whereas the eastern part, smaller in extent but more densely populated, became in 1727 a portion of the Szu-ch’uan province and was consequently also administered from Ch’eng-tu. Ňa-rong with a predominantly Tibetan population, being situated on the Ya-lung River near Ta-chien-lu (present-day K’ang-ting) formed a Tibetan enclave within the Chinese administered territory.

In 1860 a quarrel broke out between the Na-rong Tibetans and their neighbours, and communications between Szu-ch’uan and Tibet were temporarily cut off. China, being at that time preoccupied with her domestic problems (the T’ai-p’ing uprising and foreign intervention) was unable to settle this dispute. Eventually in 1863 the Lhasa government intervened, and Tibetan troops occupied Ňa-rong which henceforth was placed under the regular administration of Lhasa. This new state of affairs, which soon afterwards became a source of constant friction between the local Chinese and Tibetans, continued until 1911 when the Ňa-rong territory was re-annexed by the Chinese to Szu-ch’uan.

However, much more important for the further development of Sino-Tibetan relations and the history of Tibet itself than this and other similar incidents, was the appearance of Great Britain, which in the name of’ securing trade and defence of her Indian empire tried for the first time in Tibetan history to make a thrust into China’s southwest through Tibet.

Following the first official and semi-official missions to Tibet of her subjects, G. Bogle (1774), S. Turner (1783), T. Manning (1811) and T. Moorcroft (1826-1838), Britain launched more systematic efforts to penetrate into the “forbidden” and “mysterious” land to the north of the Himalayas. First she had taken La-dwags (Ladak) from Tibet (1846), then followed the annexation of Southern Sikkim (1850) and Bhutan (1865), both countries traditionally in the Tibetan sphere of influence. By the final article of the Ch’e-fu Convention with China (1876), Britain had obtained the right to send a mission of exploration to Tibet by way of Peking through Kan-su and Koko-nor, or by way of Szu-ch’uan. Though this plan for various reasons was never realized, the Ch’e-fu Convention remains the first treaty concluded between China and a foreign power in which a mention was made of Tibet.

The Convention between Great Britain and China “relative to Burmah and Thibet”, signed on 24th July 1886, was – as far as Tibet is concerned – mainly designed to promote and develop trade between India and Tibet.
The dispute over Sikkim (1888-1890) transferred Anglo-Tibetan relations for the first time to the field of an armed clash. As a result, Tibet lost its position in Sikkim, its traditional dependency, the Tibetans being driven out of the country and China being made to sign a treaty at Calcutta on 17th March 1890 which fixed the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet (article I) and recognized Britain’s protectorate over Sikkim (article II).

The year 1890 brings to a close a long period in the history of Tibet. From this time on the economic, political and military isolation of the country from the outside world, created as a result of Ch’ien-lung’s measures in 1792-93 and to some extent also by Tibet’s geographical environment, was finally broken down and the “hermit kingdom” was gradually dragged into the arena of international politics. This was inevitable in the epoch of the new territorial and economic division of the world, and the further investment of European capital in Asia. Tibet owing to its paramount strategic position on the dividing lines between three rival powers – China, British India and Tsarist Russia – could not long stay aloof, safe and secure.

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