Tibet – a vassal of the Mongols

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Text: Prof. PhDr. Josef Kolmaš, DrSc.

Before discussing Tibet’s relations with the Mongol rulers of China it would seem desirable to glance briefly at its relationship with Old Mongolia in general.

According to the late Professor G.N. Roerich (“Mongolotibetskie otnošenija v XIII i XIV vv.”, p.334 et seq.), the history of Mongol-Tibetan relations can be traced back as far as the eighth century A.D., when the Tibetans held and administered large tracts of territory in Chinese Turkestan, thus becoming the immediate neighbours of various proto-Mongol tribes then leading a nomadic existence on the western and southern outskirts of the Gobi. When, at the beginning of the Sung period, a Tangut kingdom of His Hsia (called Mi-nag in Tibetan) was founded in the Mongol-Tibetan marches, the Tibetans maintained both economic and cultural contacts with the new state, and it was mostly through the Tanguts that they received information about the affairs of Mongolia proper. The unification of the Mongol tribes under Genghis Khan (1206-1227) brought the latter into collision with the Hsi Hsia state, and thus information about the new phenomenon of a unified Mongolia was passed on to Tibet.

The Mongol or Yüan Period, 1279-1367

The repeated attacks of Jenghiz Khan’s armies on the Tangut kingdom which started as early as 1205, evidently caused considerable unrest in Tibet, so much so that later Tibetan annalists (e.g. Sum-pa mkhan-po in the eighteenth century) even believed that in MR.STAG (fire-tiger) year, i.e. 1206, the Mongols occupied the whole of Central Tibet, although in fact Mongol armies had not penetrated nearly so far at that time. Nevertheless, the year 1206 can be considered as the time when the Tibetans had their first chance to realize the potential strength of the Mongol armies – even if only indirectly – and this stimulated certain of the contending sects in Tibet to attempt to establish relations with the newly emerging power in the north.

After the annihilation of the Hsi Hsia by the Mongols in 1227 their lands were incorporated into Mongol territory as far as the border of northern Tibet, and were administered by Jenghiz Khan’s grandson, prince Godan, who was the second son of the then ruling khagan Ogodai (1229-1241). Godan set up his headquarters in the vicinity of the present-day Lan-chou in Kan-su province. One of the duties of feudal princes such as Godan was to collect information about neighbouring and not yet conquered countries, sending it to the Mongol khagan in Karakorum. To attain this goal, Godan used special military intelligence units, penetrating sometimes quite deeply into the territory of his neighbours.

In one such expedition in 1239, a Mongol cavalry detachment commanded by one Dorda-darkhan, rode into Tibet, penetrating as far as Rwa-sgreng, about sixty miles north of Lhasa, and routing a Tibetan army. Of more significance than the victory itself was information which Dorda-darkhan brought back concerning the political, cultural and economic situation in Tibet. The Mongols thus learnt that Tibet had long ago ceased to be a unified country, that its lands had been for centuries divided, and that all political power, economic strength and cultural influence were centered around the numerous monasteries belonging to various Lamaist sects. The most powerful among them was the Sa-skya-pa sect (founded in 1073) headed at that time by the famous Kun-dga’-rgyal-mtshan, generally styled as Sa-skya pandita (1182-1251). Hearing this, Godan sent Sa-skya pandita an invitation to visit his court, which the latter accepted and in 1245 arrived in Mongolia together with his nephew and eventual successor, Blo-gros-rgyal-mtshan, called ‘Phags-pa or the Saint.

The motives which led Godan to invite the Pandita, and the latter to accept Godan’s invitation, though diametrically opposite in character in fact combined to produce the same result. It seems that the illiterate Mongol prince wished primarily to get a learned Tibetan lama for his court, who would invent a writing system for the Mongols and initiate them into the higher culture of the Tibetans. The Pandita in his turn saw in the invitation an excellent opportunity for strengthening his own position by winning Godan’s support, as well as securing the hegemony over the other sects for the Sa-skya-pa.

Thus between the feudal Mongol prince Godan and the Pandita, a superior of one of the many religious sects in Central Tibet, a special type of relationship was formed, defined in Tibetan as MCHOD (-gnas dang) YON (-bdag) or relationship between the “priest and the patron”. According to G.N. Roerich (OP. CIT., p.338), it was understood as: “to accept the head of a suzerain state as disciple and alms-giver of a theocratic ruler … to underline the supremacy of a chaplain over his patron”. However, since neither party entering into this relationship represented the supreme power in his country, the mchod-yon relationship between the Sa-skya pandita and prince Godan did not necessarily determine the character of Tibeto-Mongol relations. Moreover, the arrangement between Godan and Kun-dga’-rgyal-mtshan was a purely private one, predominantly cultural and religious in character, though it must be admitted that in the case of the Pandita it had some repercussions in the political sphere.

While Godan and the Sa-skya pandita cemented their new alliance, the Mongols continued their conquest of China. After overrunning the Tangut kingdom of Hsi Hsia, the Mongols liquidated, in 1234, the Chin Empire of the Jürjeds. Having thus cleared the way to the south, they started their conquest of Southern Sung in 1235. The campaigns against the Sung were long-drawn out and went on for several decades; not until 1279 did Jenghiz Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan (1260-1294) complete the annexation of South China.

With the reign of Kublai Khan Tibeto-Mongol relations entered a new phase. Already in 1253, when Kublai was still commanding Mongol troops in Ho-nan, he had sent an invitation to the celebrated lama ‘Phags-pa (1235-1280) who after the death of his uncle the Sa-skya pandita (in Mongolia in 1251) had continued to stay at Godan’s court. On his arrival in China, ‘Phags-pa was made Kublai’s “Spiritual Tutor” (BLA-MCHOD in Tibetan), and when Kublai was proclaimed khagan in the kurultai at Karakorum (in 1260), he nominated Phags-pa his “State Preceptor” (kuo-shih) and made Lamaism the official religion of the whole eastern part of the Mongol world empire.

After the transference, in 1263, of the imperial residence from Karakorum to Peking (called Khan-baliq in Mongolian and Ta-tu in Chinese), Phags-pa returned to Tibet for a while to take up his duties as a head of the Sa-skya-pa sect. However, in 1268 he received another invitation from Kublai Khan to come to his court to finish the work of creating a new, so-called “quadratic” Mongol script, based on the Tibetan alphabet.

This time ‘Phags-pa spent another eight years in China, where honours were lavished upon him and he was treated as the recognized head of the state religion – Lamaism. When he returned to Tibet, in 1276, he was given the title of “King of the Great and Precious Law” – TA PAO FA WANG – which was associated with the exercise of the highest spiritual power in the country.

This privilege remained thence-forward in the hands of the Sa-skya-pa priests for almost the whole period of Mongol rule. Thus the Sa-skya-pa sect was given priority over all other sects and its superiors automatically became the spiritual leaders of Tibet. Through them Tibet also came more and more under the direction of the Khan-baliq court. An officer called DPON-CHEN or “great minister”, nominated and regularly recalled by the Mongol central government, was entrusted with the administration of civil and military affairs in Tibet. The first DPON-CHEN appointed was Sakya-bzang-po (around 1276).

Thanks to these measures Tibet became a vassal of the Mongol Empire. In the Mongol strategy of world conquest a special place had been reserved for Tibet, not so much on account of its presumed military and economic importance, but rather because of the political and ideological role its religion could play. Kublai Khan adopted Lamaism and strongly supported it, since it provided an efficient ideological weapon to maintain and intensify his rule over China and other conquered nations.

Claims that Chinese sovereignty over Tibet dates from this period, or that Tibet became a part of China’s territory at this time, are clearly unfounded when viewed in the light of the historical facts as given above. The Mongols were conquering Tibet in the first place for themselves and certainly not for the future benefit of any Han-Chinese Empire! It should be also remembered that the Mongols had already effectively controlled Tibet through the Sa-skya-pa sect and their regularly appointed DPON-CHENS (at least from 1276, if not earlier), while South China was still under the rule of the Southern Sung dynasty, from the Chinese point of view the only legitimate power in the country (Sung emperors Tuan-tsung , 1276-1278, and Ti Ping , 1278-1279).

Kublai’s victory in 1279 marked the end of independent China. For the next eighty-nine years the power in that country passed to the Mongol Yüan dynasty and China became a part of Kublai’s Empire, which also comprised at one time or another Tibet and the whole of Mongolia, parts of Korea and Siberia (from the Amur estuary to the Irtych), and portions of Annam and Upper Burma.

Tibet, now called either T’u-fan or Hsi-fan, was during the period of the Mongol or Yüan dynasty ruled through the “Ministry for the Spread of Government” – HSÜAN-CHENG-YÜAN . This Ministry, which controlled both the Buddhist religion and Tibetan affairs, was created in 1288 by reorganising a similar older institution called TSUNG-CHIH-YÜAN (founded in 1264). At its head was the State Preceptor (KUO-SHIH) who as a rule was a high Lamaist dignitary, and one of its duties was to select and recommend officers suitable for the post of DPON-CHEN, i.e. to function as local administrators in Tibet for the Ministry. Directly responsible to the Ministry were also the four garrison-officers, all laymen, two of whom were stationed in Western Tibet and two in Central Tibet.

No major changes in the area under the political jurisdiction of Tibet or T’u-fan occurred during the Yuan period. As before, Tibet as a politico-geographical concept corresponded roughly with ethnic Tibet, i.e. that all territory southwest of the Yuan Empire inhabited by non-Han population continued to be designated as T’u-fan or Hsi-fan. In the east and southeast T’u-fan (Hsi-fan) bordered on the Yuan provinces of Kan-su, Shen-his (boundary not delimited), Szu-ch’uan and Yün-nan.

As far as Tibet’s internal affairs are concerned, the excessive favour which the Yuan emperors conferred upon the Sa-skya-pa sect soon proved disastrous. The great concentration of wealth and secular power in the hands of this privileged sect damaged considerably the morals and that good reputation of its members for which it had once been celebrated. In the mid-fourteenth century, as the supremacy of the Sa-skya monastery deteriorated, dissidents gathered around the ‘Bri-gung monastery (some sixty miles northeast of Lhasa) which was the centre of a sect bearing the same name (‘Bri-gung pa, the branch of an older sect Bka’-rgyud-pa (Kagyu-pa), founded in the mid-twelfth century). This sect was especially persecuted by Sa-skya-pa, and hence was the most antagonistic to Sa-skya-pa domination. In its opposition to the ruling sect it was soon joined by secular feudal lords, amongst whom was Byang-chub-rgyal-mtshan of the Phag-mo-gru family in south-eastern Tibet. ‘Bri-gung soon became a bastion of increasing agitation not only against Sa-skya-pa but also against Mongol rule.

With the decline of the Mongols in China, the power of their protégé in Tibet, the Sa-skya-pa sect, also came to an end, in 1359. By that time the Phag-mo-gru family had attained power in Central Tibet (1359?-1436) and the spiritual primacy was temporarily vested in the ‘Bri-gung-pa sect. Thus after several centuries of political disunity and almost one hundred years of Sa-skya-pa theocracy, at least the central part of the country was again united under the sway of secular rulers.

The Yuan period on the whole marked the first turning point in Tibet’s political status. This country, which up to the mid-thirteenth century was in all practical respects fully independent of its more powerful neighbours, came with the ascendency of the Mongol khans, later on Yuan emperors, more and more into the orbit of the Mongol government based on Peking. However, the administrative structure of Tibet’s vassalage to the Mongol rulers is not yet well enough known for definite conclusions to be reached about its character.

Tibetan dependence of a sort on the central government in Peking, seems, however, to be confirmed by the following circumstances: (a) the establishment of the HSÜAN-CHENG-YÜAN institution to govern the administration of Tibet; (b) the assignment of DPON-CHENS to Tibet by the Mongol government in Peking; (c) the close collaboration of the Mongol ruling house with the Sa-skya-pa hierachs; (d) the frequent and prolonged visits of Tibetan supreme Lamaist dignitaries in Peking; (e) the official favour and support of Lamaism as the state religion of Mongol Empire in China and the surrounding countries. If Tibet is today commonly considered as traditionally an administrative part of China, then this tradition certainly dates back to the Mongol period, and the Mongols are first (chronologically) to whom the credit for this should go. The following generations in China only continued the work they had begun, developing it with a lesser or greater degree of success.

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