Tibetan self-rule during the Ming Dynasty

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An interlude of Tibetan self-rule

The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644

As the Yuan dynasty declined in China, nationalist risings on the part of the Chinese people aimed at throwing off Mongolian rule became increasingly frequent and widespread, culminating in 1368, when Chu Yüan-chang a former Buddhist novice, drove out the Mongols and founded his own dynasty, the Ming. The Mongols were expelled from the whole country, and the Chinese Empire restored, roughly with the boundaries it possessed in Northern Sung times. The control over Tibet also passed nominally from the Mongol Yuan emperors to the Chinese Ming emperors, and the old practice of inviting leading Tibetan lamas to the Imperial court to renew their appointments and confer on them new titles, was preserved.

Tibet by this time was no longer called T’u-fan or Hsi-fan, but Wu-szu Tsang and this change of name alone tells us that Chinese knowledge of Tibet had become more detailed. According to traditional Tibetan geographical works, Tibet was divided into five parts:

  • Mnga’-ris in the remotest west
  • A-mdo in the northeast (present Ch’ing-hai)
  • Khams in the east
  • Dbus (with Lhasa as its centre) and Gtsang (with Gzis-ka-rtse as its centre) in the middle.

From the last two names, the Ming designation of Tibet was derived, viz. Wu-szu Tsang or “Dbus and Gtsang”, i.e. taking a part to stand for the whole.

The new rulers of China maintained substantially the same policy with regard to Tibet as their Mongol predecessors, although in general Tibet aroused less interest in the Chinese court during the Ming than it had done during the previous dynasty. The office for Tibetan affairs in the capital discontinued its activities and the DPON-CHENS ceased to be nominated.

On the other hand, however, the Ming appreciated the importance of official support for the religious sects in Tibet, a policy which had proved so successful from the time that it had been first adopted by the Mongols. Under the Ming emperors it was Karma-pa sect (founded in the twelfth century, with its seat at Mtshur-phug monastery west of Lhasa) which was singled out for special imperial favour and support. However, while the Karma-pa monks were by far the most frequent visitors to the Ming court, monks from the other sects were also invited to come on tribute embassies. These constant comings and goings were so frequent and involved so many people that they sometimes caused considerable embarrassment to local administrations.

In 1569 an imperial decree had to be issued to reduce the tribute missions to every three years, to limit the numbers of their retinue, and to specify the routes to be followed. Thus, the Ming emperors, who were busy with grandiose architectural projects, largely unsuccessful attempts at the overseas expansion and the first contacts with European Christianity and trade, practiced rather a laissez-faire policy in regard to Tibet, which was after all remote and inaccessible as far as they were concerned. On the contrary, it was the Tibetans themselves who, through their various sects bringing tribute, vied in getting temporal power and wealth through imperial patronage.

In keeping with its attitude of benign unconcern, the Ming court allowed events in Tibet itself to pursue their own course. The Phag-mo-gru family, since the fall of the Mongol administration the undisputed rulers of Central Tibet, declined towards the middle of the fifteenth century owing to internal dissension, and were replaced by the Rin-spungs family (1436-1565) based in Gtsang, who were supported by the spiritual authorities of the Karma-pa sect. The Rin-spungs family in turn was overthrown in 1565 by its own minister, who became the ancestor of the so-called Gtsang-pa kings (1565-1642) who also patronized the Karma-pa. However, the actual power of these “royal” families mostly did not pass beyond the boundaries of Central (Dbus) and eventually Further Tibet (Gtsang). According to H.E. Richardson (TIBET AND ITS HISTORY, p. 38), the Ming dynasty exercised neither authority nor influence over these rulers, whence the author concludes that there are no grounds for claiming that Tibet was in any real sense tributary to China during the Ming period.

The struggle among the various Lamaist sects, artificially stirred up by the Mongols preference of one sect to another, went on with an undiminished vigour. Against this background of profound moral decay and religious intolerance, much resembling Europe at the same period, emerged the celebrated monk Btsong-kha-pa or Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) with his reform of Tibetan monasticism. The new sect he formed, the Dge-lugs-pa or Gelug-pa (sometimes called the Yellow Church because its members wore yellow hats to distinguish them from the older sects which wore red), stressed strict discipline, pure and undefiled conduct and profound philosophical education. The Dge-lugspa was destined to assume in the following centuries the position of dominance once held by the Sa-skya-pa sect, both in the religious and the political sphere. After Btsong-khapa’s death, the sect was controlled by two supreme spiritual authorities, viz. the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama (although both these titles, as well as the definition of their spiritual and secular powers, are of later date). This system of dual spiritual authority in the sect survived with only minor modifications until modern times.

In the early period of its existence (from the beginning of the fifteenth century to the middle of the seventeenth century) the Dhe-lugs-pa sect led a precarious existence, being dwarfed in numerical strength and political influence by the firmly entrenched red-cap sects. Its influence was limited almost exclusively to the religious sphere, and that mostly in Dbus. Though the Yung-lo Emperor of Ming (1403-1424) took an interest in the new sect and in the person of its founder, inviting him twice to Peking (in 1408 and 1413), the sect never won the Imperial court’s full favour and support.

It was thanks to the patronage of various Mongol rulers that the sect owed its political rise. In the circumstances, when both Chinese emperors and Tibetan kings were lukewarm in their attitude to the Dge-lugs-pa (the Phag-mo-gru family, comparatively friendly to the sect, was then, in decay, and the Gtsang-pa kings patronized the Karma-pa), Bsod-nams-rgya-mtsho (1543-1588), Btsong-kha-pa’s fourth successor as one of the heads of the Yellow Church, entered into friendly collaboration with the Ordos Mongols whose khan Altan (1543-1583) had sent to ’Bras-spungs monastery (or Drepung), the seat of the first Dalai Lamas, to invite him to visit the Ordos. On his arrival in 1578, Bsod-nams-rgya-mtsho converted the Mongol chieftain to the Dge-lugs-pa sect and in return Altan Khan awarded him the title of “Dalai Lama Vajradhara” (vajradhara is a Sanskrit word, meaning the Holder of the Thunder-Bolt; DALAI in Mongolian means ’ocean’ and lama is Tibetan for ’priest’). This was the first time that an incarnation of this series came to bear the name of Dalai Lama and this title was granted posthumously to his two predecessors, so he is officially recognized as the ’Third Dalai Lama’. Thus in new circumstances and in a new form the former Tibetan-Mongol alliance, spiritual and secular, which had existed in the middle of the thirteenth century, was renewed. Relations between the ’Bras-spungs (Drepung) monastery and the house of Altan Khan grew even more intimate when the Fourth Dalai Lama, Yon-tan-rgya-mtsho (1589-1616), was born in the Altan family.

However, in spite of all prestige the Dge-lugs-pa won from the patronage of Altan Khan and his successors, its supreme lamas did not yet become the sovereigns of Tibet, ruling from Lhasa. This happened only with the ascension of the Fifth Dalai Lama Ngag-dbang-blo-bzang-rgya-mtsho (1617-1682), called popularly the ’Great Fifth’ (LNGA-PA CHEN-PO) by the Tibetans. He asked in 1642 the aid of Gusri Khan (1636?-1656), the ruler of the Qosot Mongols in A-mdo, to defeat the Gtsang-pa kings, and break the power of the Karma-pa sect. Following a successful coup d’etat in 1642, the Fifth Dalai Lama became an unchallenged head, both spiritual and secular, in Dbus and Gtsang, the spiritual power being shared with him only by the Panchen Lama (abbreviation of PANDITA CHEN-PO or ‘Great Scholar’), controlling over Further Tibet from his monastery Bkra-sis-lhun-po (Tashi-lunpo) near Gzis-ka-rtse (Shigatse).

For the services he had rendered, the hereditary title of ‘King of Tibet’ was conferred upon Gusri Khan’s posterity and a part of Qosot army was stationed permanently in the vicinity of the Gnam-mtsho (Tengri-nor) lake north of Lhasa. The Ming emperors, whose days by that time in China were already numbered, viewed with apparent unconcern these developments in Tibet.

On the whole we may say that the Ming emperors have never exercised any direct political control over Tibet and were content to maintain the traditional ‘tribute’ relations, almost entirely of a religious character. If that position which the central government enjoyed in Tibet under the Yuan dynasty had been achieved by Chinese rather than Mongols, it would be then appropriate to designate the Ming policy towards Tibet as a conscious retreat from gained positions. For the Mongols, carefully watching every new development in the territory of their former vassal, the lack of concern shown by the Ming court towards Tibet was a signal to suggest that it might be possible for them to fill once more the political vacuum in that country.

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