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History of Tibet

The Tibetans are ethnically and linguistically related to the Han Chinese, and presumably the Tibetan Plateau was originally settled from China. But the extreme altitude and remoteness of Tibet, and the harshness of the climate, led to the country's isolation, and to the emergence of a separate Tibetan language and national identity, at a very early date. Little, however, is known of the history of Tibet before the 7th century AD, when Buddhism was introduced by missionaries from India, who also developed an alphabet for the Tibetan language.

Mao Zedong (centre) with the Dalai Lama (right), early 1950s

Ancient kingdom

A series of kings between the 8th and 10th centuries created a strong kingdom which promoted Buddhism and literacy, and waged succesful wars against both China to the north and the states of India to the south. At times Tibetan rule extended as far south as Bengal and as far north as Mongolia.

Lamaism, the system of rule by a caste of Buddhist monks known as lamas, began to develop when the Tibetan kingdom became weak and divided in the 10th century. Indian cultural and religious influence increased, particularly through the work of the Indian Buddhist missionary Atisha, the "precious lord." As the prestige of the kings declined, that of the lamas rose. In the 13th century Tibet was conquered by the Mongol leader Genghis Khan, who ruled Tibet through a local puppet government.

Rule of the lamas

The loss of Tibet's political sovereignty strengthened the lamas still more, and thereafter they became the real rulers of the country. In the 15th century arose the system of Grand Lamas succeeding each other by reincarnation: when one Lama died, a baby boy was declared to be his reincarnation, and was raised to be his successor. There were many of these lamas, but eventually the most important came to be the Dalai Lama Vajradhara, or "All-Embracing Lama, the Holder of the Thunderbolt."

The fifth Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso, known as the Great Fifth, restored Tibetan sovereignty, and in fact established his religious authority over Tibet's former rulers, the Mongols. He built the Potala Palace at Lhasa, which became the seat of the Lamaist system of both religious and temporal power (not that the Tibetans drew any such distinction). Lobsang Gyatso visited the Emperor of China at Beijing, where he was recognised as an independent sovereign.

During the rule of the Great Fifth, the first Europeans visited Tibet. Two Jesuit missionaries, Johannes Gruber and Albert D'Orville, reached Lhasa in 1661. They described the Dalai Lama as a "devilish God-the-father who puts to death such as refuse to adore him." They failed completely to win any Tibetan converts to Christianity. Other Christian missionaries spent time in Tibet, with equal lack of success, until all were expelled in 1745.

After the Great Fifth's death in 1680, the power of the Dalai Lamas declined and the rising power of the Chinese Empire was increasingly felt in Tibet. By the early 18th century the Chinese had established the right to have resident commissioners, known as Ambans, in Lhasa. When the Tibetans rebelled against Chinese domination in 1750, a Chinese army entered the country and restored Chinese authority. This was the effective end of Tibetan independence.

Chinese rule

In 1788 war broke out between the Tibetans and the Gurkha people of Nepal, who were encroaching on Tibetan lands. A Chinese-Tibetan army defeated the Gurkhas and invaded Nepal. This brought the unwelcome attention of the British, who regarded Nepal as being within their sphere of influence. The Chinese withdrew from Nepal, but they closed the Tibetan border and refused to allow any foreigners to enter the country. Tibet's reputation as "the hermit kingdom" dates from this time. During the whole of the 19th century no foreigner saw Lhasa, and a number were killed while making the attempt.

Meanwhile the people of Tibet lived under a feudal system run by the lamas. The great monasteries owned all the land, controlled all education and most economic activity. There was almost no trade between Tibet and the outside world, except a limited amount with China. The Dalai Lama was acknowledged as the most important of the lamas, but his power waxed and waned according to his personal abilities. The system of succession through reincarnation meant that there were long periods when the Dalai Lama was a child. During these periods the Panchen Lama was recognised as effective ruler, under overall Chinese sovereignty.

In the 19th century, as the power of China declined, the authorities in British India renewed their interest in Tibet, and a number of Indians (who could travel less conspicuously than Europeans) entered the country, first as explorers and then as traders. During the period of "the Great Game", the British feared that Tibet might come under the control of Russia, which was expanding its influence in Turkestan to the north and west of Tibet. Demands that the Chinese and Tibetan authorities agree to a treaty with Britain were rejected. In 1904 the British sent an Indian military force under Lt-Col Francis Younghusband, which after some fighting against the weakly armed Tibetan forces seized Lhasa.

British influence

The 13th Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia, so the British imposed a treaty on whatever Tibetan authority they could find in Lhasa. This required Tibet to open its border with British India, to allow British and Indian traders to travel freely, not to impose customs duties on trade with India, and not to enter into relations with any foreign power without British approval. A 1906 treaty with China repeated these conditions, making Tibet a de facto British protectorate, although there was no interference with Tibet's internal affairs.

In 1907 a treaty between Britain, China, and Russia recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, and in 1910 the Chinese sent a military expedition of their own to establish direct Chinese rule for the first time. The Dalai Lama once again fled, this time to India. But when revolution broke out in China in 1911, the Chinese troops withdrew, and the Dalai Lama was able to return to Lhasa and re-establish his power. In 1913, Tibet and Mongolia signed a treaty proclaiming their independence from China, and their mutual recognition. The subsequent outbreak of World War I caused the powers to lose interest in Tibet, and the 13th Dalai Lama ruled more or less undisturbed until his death in 1934.

During the 1920s and 1930s China was divided by civil war and then distracted by war against the invading Japanese, but never renounced its claim to sovereignty over Tibet, and made occasional attempts to assert it. The fact that the 14th Dalai Lama was a child made the assertion of Tibetan independence more difficult. In 1940 the Dalai Lama, then aged five, was formally enthroned at Lhasa under Chinese supervision. In 1947 a Tibetan delegation went to Nanjing to take part in drafting of a new Chinese constitution. Thus there is no doubt that at this time Chinese sovereignty over Tibet was recognised both internationally and by the Tibetan authorities.

Renewed Chinese rule

The Chinese Communist regime led by Mao Zedong which came to power in October 1949 lost little time in enforcing its claim to Tibet. In 1950 a Chinese army entered Tibet and the Tibetan army offered little resistance. In May 1951 a treaty signed by representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama provided for Chinese military occupation and rule by a joint Chinese-Tibetan authority. The Chinese at this time did not try to reform Tibet's social or religious system.

During the 1950s, however, Chinese rule grew more oppressive, at least to the lamas, who rightly saw that their social power must eventually be broken by continued Communist rule. What ordinary Tibetans thought is harder to know. They revered the Dalai Lama, but may well have welcomed social reforms. But in 1959 (at the time of the Great Leap Forward in China), the Chinese authorities overstepped the mark, treating the Dalai Lama, by now an adult, with open disrespect. In some parts of the country zealous Chinese Communists tried to establish rural communes, as was happening in China. These events triggered riots in Lhasa, and then a full-scale rebellion.

The rebellion in Lhasa was soon crushed, and the Dalai Lama fled to India, although resistance continued in other parts of the country for several years. The Panchen Lama was set up as a figurehead in Lhasa and China took direct control of the Tibetan government. In 1965 Tibet became an Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China. The monastic estates were broken up, the monasteries closed and secular education introduced. During the Cultural Revolution there was a campaign of organised vandalism against Tibet's Buddhist heritage, and tens of thousands of Tibetans escaped to India.

Since 1979 Chinese policy in Tibet has veered between moderation and repression. Most religious freedoms have been restored, provided the lamas do not challenge Chinese rule. Foreigners can visit most parts of the country and there is no obvious evidence of repressive foreign rule. As in the rest of China, there has been economic reform, but no political reform. The Chinese have systematically settled ethnic Han Chinese all over Tibet, making the restoration of Tibetan independence almost impossible.

In 1989 the Panchen Lama died, and the Chinese authorities supervised his "reincarnation." While the Dalai Lama named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama, the Communist authorities named another child, Gyancain Norbu. Gyancain Norbu is being raised in Beijing and has appeared occasionally on state media. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family have reportedly "gone missing." [1]

The Dalai Lama is now nearly 70, and when he dies a new child Dalai Lama will have to be found. In 1997, the 14th Dalai Lama indicated that his reincarnation "will definitely not come under Chinese control; it will be outside, in the free world." [1] Under the lamaist tradition, however, the Panchen Lama has the duty of verifying the Dalai Lama's reincarnation, so the choice of a new Dalai Lama will be open to government manipulation.

Foreign governments continue to make occasional protests about aspects of Chinese rule in Tibet. All governments, however, recognise Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, and none has recognised the Dalai Lama's government in exile in India. The Dalai Lama is widely respected as a religious leader, and is received by foreign governments as such, but few observers of Tibetan affairs believe that he will ever rule again in Lhasa.

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