Tibet and China during Sung Dynasty

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Text: Prof. PhDr. Josef Kolmaš, DrSc.

Much of what has been said about the Sino-Tibetan relations in the Wu-tai (Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms) period also applies to the Sung period. The main attention of Sung China was directed not to the west as was the case with the T’ang China, for instance – but predominantly to the north, whence a foreign enemy for three successive centuries was almost uninterruptedly pressing on her territory. The northern threat hung like a sword of Damocles over Sung China influencing to a great extent both her domestic and foreign policy.

Map of Sung Dynasty

Map of China during the Sung Dynasty (source: wikipedia)

Although Chao K ’uang-yin who founded the Sung dynasty reunified the greater part of China during his reign (960-975) – the last of the rival states, Northern Han (Pei Han) surrendering in 979 – yet the Kitan state of Liao continued to threaten Sung territory in the north, while an independent regime was established in Kan-su and the north-west by a Tangut leader, who founded the so-called Western Hsia (Hsi Hsia) dynasty (1032-1227). At this period in the west, the boundary of Sung China with T’ufan continued to run along the four western LU or provinces, Ch’in-feng , Li-chou, Ch’eng-tu-fu, and Tzu-chou).

Emperor Taizu of Sung

Emperor Taizu of Sung

The first changes in this arrangement occurred when the Jürjeds, another Tunguzic tribe inhabiting the basin of Sunghua or Sungari River, began to attack the Kitans, whose kingdom they finally overran in 1124. The remaining leaders of the Liao state fled west to Chinese Turkestan and Central Asia, founding there a new kingdom called Hsi Liao or Western Liao (also known as Kara-Kitan; 1124-1211), whose territory boarded upon the largely uninhabited northern outskirts of the Tibetan plateau.

The Jürjeds also invaded China proper and occupied the north, forcing the Chinese court to move to Lin-an, south of Yangtze River, where the Sung dynasty continued ruling under the name of Nan or Southern Sung (1127-1279). Northern China as far as the Huai River was now occupied by the Jürjed kingdom of Chin (1115-1234), whereas the mid-northwest (south of Gobi) continued to be in the possession of the Tangut state of Hsi Hsia.

Tibetan lamas

Tibetan lamas, source: bundesarchiv

Thus Tibet, which in the T’ang period had been in contact in the north and east almost exclusively with the Chinese Empire, now bordered in northwest and north upon the Kara-Kitan kingdom (Western Liao), in the north and northeast upon the Tangut Hsi Hsia and in east upon the Jürjed state of Chin. Only in the south and southeast did Tibet’s border run along the political frontier of the Chinese Sung dynasty.

The process of disintegration within Tibet proper continued during the Sung period. Moreover, almost all public life in that country became absorbed in endless religious contentions which resulted in the foundation of numerous Lamaist sects. To a great extent, however, this growth of sectarianism in Tibet developed from the rapid decline of Buddhism in India, which brought about a break in the hitherto regular contacts between Tibetan Lamas and their Indian gurus.

Between the eleventh and twelfth centuries four main Lamaist sects of the so-called post-reformation period were created – Bka’-gdams-pa (Kadam), Zi-byed-pa, Sa-skya-pa (Sakya) and Bka’-rgyud-pa (Kagyu), with numerous sub-sects. Individual monasteries, enriched by influential patrons, soon became centres of all cultural, economic and political life in their respective districts.

Thus the political vacuum created as a result of the fall of the former unified kingdom of Tibet (in the first half of the ninth century), was gradually filled by the Lamaist church which more than ever before pushed itself into the forefront of political life in the country. However, for any sect to gain hegemony over its rivals, the help of a strong secular power, either domestic or foreign, was needed. This condition did not materialize until the Mongol period.

In Sung times most of the Lamaist sects in Tibet were simply IN STATU NASCENDI and their mutual disagreements did not yet pass beyond the framework of their dogmas and liturgy – and to solve such problems, it was not yet necessary to call on the intervention of a secular authority.

The Sung Emperors, in general, being busy with their northern neighbours, maintained a laissez-faire policy towards Tibet, and Sino-Tibetan contacts during both the Wu-tai and the Sung periods – judging from the paucity of preserved documents – gradually sank to little more than they had been during the period before the seventh century.

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