Tibet and the Manchus from 1717 to 1750

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The relationship between Tibet and the Manchu (Quing) Dynasty from 1717 to 1750

The coup d’etat by the Dsungars in Lhasa to which the pro-Manchu regime of the Mongol Lha-bzang Khan fell victim, was the first time the strength of the C h’ing – Dge-lugs-pa (Gelugpa sect) partnership was put to the test. The Dsungars had already gained great power in Central Asia, and the addition of Tibet to their domain threatened to make them strong enough to found a new Mongol Empire which could challenge the Manchus and invade China. Consequently two successive punitive expeditions were despatched from China to restore order in Lhasa.

The first expedition (spring 1718 – autumn 1719), insufficiently equipped and largely without support from the hinterland, was trapped by the Dsungars in the Tibetan highlands near the town of Nag-chu-kha, and badly defeated. The second expedition (in 1720), consisting of two armies – one from Szu-ch’uan and the other from Ch’ing-hai – numbering some ten thousand men in all, was more successful. Lhasa was captured, the Dsungars driven out and order quickly restored. This was the first time in Tibetan history that an army from China had ever entered Lhasa. The presence of this army made it possible to introduce reforms favourable to the Manchus in the civil and military administration of Tibet.

First of all, a provisional military junta was established for the period 1720-1721, headed by the Commander-in-Chief of the second expeditionary force, the Manchu general Yenhsin. All instigators of the Dsungar invasion as well as all those who openly collaborated with the Dsungars during the period 1717-1720 were arrested and executed publicly. Furthermore, a new Dalai Lama was enthroned in the Potala palace: this was Skal-bzang-rgya-mtsho (1720-1757) who had been born in the Eastern Tibetan town of Li-thang in 1708, and had been recognized as the legitimate successor of the Sixth Dalai Lama (died in 1706) by refugees fleeing from Lha-bzang Khan’s regime in Lhasa in the same year. The puppet Dalai Lama Ye-ses-rgya-mtsho chosen by Lha-bzang Khan was later executed.

After these initial measures of stabilization, further administrative reforms were undertaken: the office of SDE-SRID (regent) was abolished and replaced by a four-man Ministerial Council (BKA’-GSAGS or “Kashag”) headed by the First Minister Bsod-nams-rgyal-po (or Sonam Gyamtso), called Khang-chen-nas or “Of Khang-chen” (in Further Tibet), who had held a somewhat similar post already under Lha-bzang Khan’s regime. This Ministerial Council functioned under the supreme supervision of the Manchu commandant of the imperial troops in Lhasa. At the same time, the higher posts in local administration were filled, for the most part by supporters of the former regime of Lha-bzang Khan and members of the anti-Dsungar faction. To secure the orderly functioning of the new authorities after the Manchu punitive armies returned to China, a strong garrison was left behind in Lhasa, consisting of about three thousand men – Manchu, Mongol and Chinese – and smaller units were also stationed along the Szu-ch’uan – Tibet road (from Ta-chien-lu , via ‘Ba’-thang and Chab-mdo to Lhasa).

The Tibetan policy of the next Manchu Emperor, Yung-cheng (1723-1735), though inconsistent, brought many important changes in Sino-Tibetan relations. The financial difficulty of maintaining numerous government troops in so remote an area as Tibet led the Emperor to order the withdrawal of the imperial troops from Tibet in the first year of his reign (in 1723). It also proved expensive and inefficient to attempt to control Eastern Tibet by maintaining Manchu-Chinese civil magistrates as had been done sporadically after 1720. For this reason in 1725 it was decided to replace the cumbersome and unwieldy direct control of the border zone by a sensible and flexible form of protectorate (see L. Petech, CHINA AND TIBET IN THE EARLY 18TH CENTURY, p. 90).

In this connection also a new boundary was drawn between Szu-ch’uan and Tibet (in 1727), formed by the Ning-ching-shan range dividing the waters of the Chin-sha River (the headwaters of the Yangtze) from those of the Lan-ts’ang River (Mekong). According to this settlement, the territory east of Ning-ching-shan was to be incorporated in China proper, but the administration was to be carried on by the local chieftains under the nominal supervision of the Szu-ch’uan provincial authorities, whereas all the territory westwards was to be administered by the Lhasa government.

Thus the territory of Tibet, handed down almost unaltered through the previous centuries, underwent for the first time a drastic reduction in area. If we add the territory of A-mdo (Ch’ing-hai), separated from Tibet in 1724, then the original size of Tibet as a politico-geographical unit has been reduced almost by half. From now on also Tibet began to be called in Chinese either Wei Tsang , (new Chinese transcription of the Tibetan geographical names Dbus and Gtsang or Ü-tsang) or Hsi-tsang (“Gtsang on the West”). It was now divided into the following parts: Mnga’-ris (A-li in Chinese) in the west; Gtsang (Hou Tsang or “Further Gtsang”, sometimes only Tsang with Gzis-ka-rtse or Shigatse as its centre) and Dbus or Ü (Ch’ien Tsang or “Nearer Gtsang”, sometimes only Wei ; with Lhasa as its centre) in the middle; and Khams (K’a-mu or K’ang in Chinese) in the east.

During the period of Yung-cheng’s policy of retrenchment in Tibet proper (1723-1727), the dissensions between the pro-Manchu members of the Ministerial Council (Khang-chen-nas and Bsod-nams-stobs-rgyas, calledPho-lha-nas or “Of Pho-lha” – near the town of Rgyal-rtse in Southern Tibet) and their nationalist adversaries (the father of the Seventh Dalai Lama and the remaining two ministers of the BKA ’- GSAGS) increased to such an extent that civil war broke out which cost the First Minister Khang-chen-nas his life in 1727. Before open hostilities developed, two imperial envoys, Seng-ke and Ma-la, were despatched to Lhasa to arbitrate between the two factions; however, all their efforts were in vain. The civil war in Tibet dragged on for two years (1727-1728) and brought victory to Pho-lha-nas who won both support of the majority of the Tibetan population and the trust of the Emperor who lent him military aid.

It was only after these events that the Manchu government came to realize how detrimental to their position in the west had been the previous withdrawal of their troops from Tibet. Consequently a new army – perhaps fifteen thousand men in all – was sent to Tibet under a Manchu general Ch’a-lang-a, and new reforms were put into practice affecting the whole country. The Dalai Lama, around whom the nationalist elements centred, was exiled to Eastern Tibet; temporal power in Lhasa was turned over to Po-lha-nas, a Manchu ally, who was promoted to the rank of BEISE (PEI-TZU in Chinese; the 4th class of the princes of the ruling house). Supreme control over the local administration was placed in the hands of General Ch’a-lang-a, commander of the expeditionary force, and after the latter’s departure (by the autumn of 1728) in those of envoy Seng-ke and his new assistant Mai-lu.

In the persons of Seng-ke and Mai-lu was established in 1728 (for the first time) the institution of Imperial Resident and Vice-Resident in Lhasa (called AMBAN in Manchu, and CHU TSANG PAN SHIH TA CH’EN and CHU TSANG PANG PAN TA CH’EN respectively in Chinese). They were supported by a garrison of two thousand men stationed permanently in the capital. The establishment of the Ambanate – a distinctive agency in Tibet of the Manchu central government – may not yet be identified with the introduction of Manchu-Chinese sovereignty over Tibet in any form. The powers of the Tibetan local administration remained, even after 1728, basically unaffected by these measures, though we have to admit that the presence in the seat of government of two Ambans (who were traditionally Manchus or Mongols, not Chinese), and especially of the strong garrison they commanded, must have had a certain influence on the final decisions of Tibetan authorities. But in general at this stage, the Ambans were, in fact, “little more than observers with the duty of reporting to Peking on events in Lhasa (see H.E. Richardson, TIBET AND ITS HISTORY, p.52).

Soon after these major changes were introduced, the country returned to its normal life. Pho-lha-nas thanks to his firm pro-Manchu attitude during the years of the Dsungar occupation of Tibet and especially during the civil war, enjoyed now the great confidence of the Ch’ing Emperor and his representatives in Lhasa. His political reliability combined with his undisputed diplomatic capabilities enabled him to become the DE FACTO ruler of the country, the position of the two Imperial Residents being gradually reduced to purely formal and mostly ceremonial functions. In 1733 he succeeded in getting three-fourths of the Chinese troops in Lhasa withdrawn, leaving a garrison of only about five hundred men. Pho-lha-nas’ able administration was duly appreciated even by the new Manchu Emperor, Ch’ien-lung (1736-1795), who promoted him in 1749, by an extraordinary decree, to the rank of the CHÜN-WANG or the prince of the 2nd class, a privilege hitherto reserved exclusively for members of the Manchu ruling family.

The history of Tibet remained comparatively uneventful until 1747, when Pho-lha-nas died. His son and successor as “king of Tibet” (MI-DBANG in Tibetan, TSANG-WANG in Chinese), ‘Gyur-med-rnam-rgyal (1747-1750), maintained ostensibly good relations with the Ambans, Fu-ch’ing and La-pu-tun; however, in fact he sought secretly an alliance with the Dsungars against the Manchus. In 1747 he gave such a striking account of the stability of his regime in Tibet that he managed to persuade the Manchu government to reduce the number of imperial troops in Lhasa from five hundred to one hundred. But no sooner had this been done than a new anti-Manchu uprising was provoked. During the troubles, ’Gyur-med-rnam-rgyal was decoyed into the Ambans’ Residence and murdered. His death, however, was soon revenged, and the dead king’s followers killed the Residents and slaughtered a half of their guards. As before, the Emperor sent a punitive expedition of eight hundred men from China to take charge of Lhasa; a new Amban was appointed and Tibet came once more under Chinese control.

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