Tibet and China during Five Dynasties Period

Text: Prof. PhDr. Josef Kolmaš, DrSc.

By 907, when the last T’ang Emperor was deposed, China also had ceased to be a unified empire. Ten states founded by various warlords maintained themselves in Szu-ch’uan and South China, while in the Yellow River valley five short-lived dynasties held power successively: the dynasties of Later Liang (Hou Liang, 907-923), Later T’ang (Hou T’ang , 923-936), Later Chin (Hou Chin , 936-947), Later Han (Hou Han, 947-950), and Later Chou (Hou Chou , 951-960), which were all exposed to the constant threat of attack from their northern neighbours, the Kitans.

The Later Liang (yellow) and contemporary kingdoms
The Later Liang (yellow) and contemporary kingdoms, author: Ian Kiu

The Kitans were a tribe of a Tunguzic extraction, who organized a state called Liao (916-1124) north of the Great Wall. It was partly a result of a constant preoccupation with this northern danger that none of the five dynasties were able to win recognition of their authority in China south of the Yangtze.

Under these circumstances, the regions lying west of China’s dismantled empire, remained comparatively aloof from the central government’s main interest, and were by and large left to pursue their own way without Chinese interference. This is reflected in the much smaller space allotted to Tibet in the Chinese Dynastic histories of the Wu-tai or Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. For instance, the T’U-FAN CHUAN or Section on Tibet, which in both T’ang histories consists of two large CHÜAN, in the CHIU WU-TAI-SHIH or Old History of the Five Dynasties has diminished to a section of less than one thousand Chinese characters.

The frontier of Tibet or T’u-fan (a name carried over from the previous epoch) now ran only for a comparatively short distance along the territory administered by the Five dynasties; Tibet’s main Chinese neighbours at this period were the two states of Former Shu (Ch’ien Shu, 907-925) and Later Shu (Hou Shu, 934-965) with their capital at Ch’eng-tu-fu. The westernmost frontier of these two states (virtually a continuation of the same state) reached approximately to the Ta-tu River in Eastern Tibet.

Tibet, and in particular Central Tibet, i.e. the area centred on Lhasa, was itself passing through a confused period when both political and cultural life regressed considerably. The decay of the unified state which had begun with Glang-dar-ma’s murder in 842, continued and became more marked.

The descendants of Glang-dar-ma’s stepson, Yum-brtan, assumed power in Central and Eastern Tibet, but their political influence, handed down from generation to generation, gradually disintegrated till it disappeared entirely. In various Tibetan historical works concerned with this period only long genealogical lists were preserved, giving nothing but the names for each individual generation, and indicating the further and further splitting of the family estates.

Only in Western Tibet was there comparative stability during this period, and there a remarkable upsurge of cultural activity took place, i.e. in the Mnga’-ris district and on the territory of La-dwags or Ladakh. Here the descendants of Glang-dar-ma‘s legitimate son, ‘Od-srung, founded a prosperous dynasty whose members were all devout Buddhists. Historical sources all speak of the great enthusiasm of these West-Tibetan kings for cultural contacts with India. Apart from religious impulses, the Tibetans received from the Indians at this time their system of weights and measures, the sixty year calendrical cycle, etc.

China’s lack of interest in Tibet in this period is easy to understand. A disunited Tibet bordering on a dismembered China constituted no military threat to the latter, while China at the same time, facing the menace from her northern neighbours, the Kitans, was obliged to lay aside any idea of exploiting a country so remote and economically so poor as Tibet.

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