Tibet Facts 12

Tibet and China: Historical Relations

Survey of historical relations between and China (7th-20th centuries)

The distortion of history for political ends is a feature common to almost all international disputes. This is especially true in the case of relations between China and Tibet. Modern Chinese historians have regularly tried to prove that Tibet has historically been a part of China. The following examination of a selection of historical periods and incidents is an attempt to explode some of the myths surrounding this issue.

Relations between the Tibetan Kings and the Chinese Tang Dynasty (7th-9th centuries)

The first recorded contacts between Tibetans and Chinese took place in the 7th century, following the unification of Tibet under King Songtsen Gampo and the establishment of the Chinese Tang Dynasty. Two incidents are regularly mentioned during discussion of this period: the marriage of a Chinese princess to Songtsen Gampo in 641, and a peace pledge signed between the two countries in 821.

The Chinese claim that through this marriage and a series of meetings and alliances, the Tibetans and Chinese "cemented political and kinship ties of unity and formed close economic and cultural relations, laying a solid foundation for the ultimate founding of a unified nation" Tibet: Its Ownership and Human Rights Situation, China White Paper, 1992; p.3).

In fact, these incidents show that at this time Tibet and China were independent states of equal strength. The marriage alliance of 641 was sought by the Chinese after Tibetan armies had captured towns in Sichuan province (Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa, Tibet: A Political History, 1967; p.26). The treaty of 821, despite its familial language (the so-called "uncle-nephew" relationship), actually defined relations between two "fully sovereign states" (Josef Kolmas, Tibet and lmperial China, 1967; p.11).

Tibet and China under the Mongols: The Yuan Dynasty (13th-14th centuries)

During the early-13th century, Genghis Khan united the nomadic tribes of north Asia into a powerful Mongol confederation, which soon grew into a continent-spanning empire. Both Tibet and China fell under the control of this empire: the Tibetans after peaceful submission in 1244-47, and the Chinese following the defeat of the Jin Dynasty in northern China (1234) and the subsequent Mongol conquest of the southern Song Dynasty (1235-79).

Chinese historians now claim that Tibet was thus "officially incorporated into the territory of China's Yuan Dynasty" (China White Paper; p. 3). They then go on to argue, somewhat inexplicably, that "this unification of the whole nation conformed to the advance of history and the desire of all nationalities" (Wang Furen & Suo Wenqing, Highlights of Tibetan History, 1984; p.57).

That Tibet and China both came under the political influence of the Mongols far from indicates unification of the two countries, though. Northern Burma, North Vietnam, Korea and large areas of Siberia were likewise all part of the vast Mongol Empire, yet none are claimed by Beijing today. Tibetan monks in fact enjoyed some dominance in religious. affairs, after "Lamaist" Buddhism was made the official religion of the Mongol Empire.

The Emergence of the Dalai Lamas and the Chinese Ming Dynasty (l 5th-1 7th centuries)

By the 15th century, political authority in Tibet had passed into the hands of contending religious hegemonies, which were eventually replaced by a system of rule under the Dalai Lamas. In China, the native Ming Dynasty overthrew the Mongols, and then concentrated much of its attention on economic expansion and maritime exploration.

One of the most incredible arguments from the Chinese side is that the Ming Dynasty somehow inherited a territorial claim to Tibet from the Mongols. But there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Tibet was subordinate to China at this stage. Communication did continue between the Ming emperors and Tibetan lames, but there is some contention about its level and significance. Again, during this period both Tibet and China existed as separate and fully sovereign states.

Tibet under the Influence of the Manchus: The Qing Dynasty (18th-19th centuries)

In 1644, Manchu armies captured Beijing and established the Qing Dynasty. During their expansion into southern China, local resistance was crushed with brutal violence. In Tibet, the 5th Dalai Lama therefore sought to establish peaceful relations with this emerging Manchu power, and was subsequently invited to Beijing in 1652.

Over the course of the next 50 years, the Manchus were able to exploit differences between rival groups within the Tibetan Government, and so established some degree of influence in Lhasa: Manchu officials, 'ambans' were stationed there from 1728 until the fall of the dynasty in 1911. There is, however, much disagreement over the actual extent of their power. Chinese claims that the ambans enjoyed "equal standing with the Dalai Lama and the Bainqen Erdeni [Panchen Lama]" (China White Paper; p.8) seem somewhat exaggerated, and even during a period of Manchu expansion under the Qianlong Emperor (1736-95), they were instructed "not to interfere in the internal policies of Tibet and to refrain from exploitation" (Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa; p.148).

Tibet did fall under some form of Manchu "protection" at this time - subordinate in name to a government in Beijing; and the region of Amdo was placed under direct military control after an anti-Manchu uprising in 1724. But this government and occupation, just like that of the Mongols, was not an ethnic Chinese one, and suggestions that Tibet became an integral part of a "Chinese" empire during this period are wholly indefensible.

Tibet Subject to 'Western Aggression': The Simla Convention (1914)

By the end of the 19th century Tibet had acquired massive strategic importance for Britain and Russia, as both were in the process of expanding their imperial "spheres of influence" in Central Asia. After a series of trade missions and then military expeditions (such as the Younghusband expedition of 1904, which exposed the weakness of the Manchu hold over Tibet), the British were able to gain an advantage, and so convened a tripartite conference to discuss Tibet's status at Simla in 1914.

The Tibetans arrived at the conference with written evidence proving the historical independence of Tibet. The Chinese delegation simply argued that Tibet's subjugation by the Mongols and the Manchus proved it had become an integral part of China, and should therefore now be ruled as part of the new Republic of China from Beijing.

Negotiations were difficult, and the solution eventually put forward recognised Chinese "suzerainty" over Tibet, but guaranteed the autonomy of western Tibet, and provided for complete Tibetan control over internal affairs. The Chinese representative at the conference initialled the agreement, but did not proceed to a full signature under pressure from Beijing. Britain and Tibet then declared that they would abide by the provisions of the agreement, while China would be unable to enjoy any of the privileges contained within.

The Chinese now claim that their failure to sign the agreement left it "null and void", and argue that "the Simla Conference has gone down in the annals as an ignominious deed by British imperialism" (Wang & Suo; p.153). The legal status of the Simla Convention is still open to debate, but its true significance lies in its recognition of Tibet as an independent nation with which binding agreements could be negotiated (eg: the Lhasa Treaty of 1904). Throughout the Nationalist (Guomindang) period, no Chinese government was able to exert any influence over Tibet.

Communist Invasion (1949-59)

The invasion of Tibet by troops from the People's Liberation Army in 1949-50 is described in official Chinese histories as a "peaceful liberation". A Seventeen-Point Agreement was signed between the Communist Government and Tibetan officials in May 1951, which apparently "enjoyed the . approval and support of the people from every ethnic group in Tibet" (China White Paper; p. 14).

In fact, discrimination and the suppression of traditional practices in eastern Tibet drove hundreds of Tibetans up into the mountains to conduct guerrilla warfare, while thousands more fled west to Lhasa to escape Chinese persecution. In March 1959, growing Tibetan resistance exploded in an uprising against the Chinese occupation. The 14th Dalai Lama fled into exile in northern India, and the subsequent Chinese crackdown in Tibet was brutal. Even the Chinese figures record 87,000 deaths in the National Uprising and its aftermath; Tibetan sources suggest as many as 430,000 were killed in the Uprising and subsequent years of guerrilla warfare.


Over the course of their historical relations, Tibet and China passed through periods of strength and dominance and times of weakness and division. Both were able to threaten or influence their neighbours on occasion. But East Asian perceptions of international relations were fluid enough that countries could be subordinate to a neighbour, even for considerable periods of time, without losing their sense of independence. This was especially true in cases where a nation was able to maintain a distinct identity.

Many modern Chinese historians have claimed that those countries which fell under the imperial influence of various Chinese dynasties somehow became integral parts of China. This is a misleading argument, based solely upon a doctrinaire misinterpretation of historical facts. Tibet has always maintained a distinct cultural, religious, linguistic and ethnic identity, and this is proof enough to support its claims to independence.

All attempts to discuss Tibet are bedevilled by the Chinese redefinition of the country's borders since 1949. Here the term Tibet is used to refer to the three original provinces of U'Tsang, Kham and Amdo (sometimes called Greater Tibet). When the Chinese refer to Tibet they invariably mean the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) which includes only one province, U'Tsang (the TAR Divas formally inaugurated in 1965). In /949 the other two provinces, Amdo and Kham, were renamed by the Chinese as parts of China proper and became the province of Qinghai and parts of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces.

This information was compiled by Tibet Support Group, UK 9 Islington Green London N1 2XH England.
Additional material was added by the Australia Tibet Council PO Box 1236 Potts Point NSW 2011 Australia.
For more information contact your local Tibet support group. (February 1996)

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