Little is known of the beginnings of the Tibetan people. They originated from the nomadic, warlike tribes known as the Qiang. Chinese records of these tribes date back as far as the 2nd century BC. However, the people of Tibet were not to emerge as a politically united force until the 7th century AD.
The Tibetans have many myths concerning the origin of the world and themselves. As the myths suggest, the Yarlung Valley was the cradle of the civilization. Credible historical records regarding the Yarlung Valley Dynasty date only from the time when the fledgling kingdom entered the international arena in the 6th century. By this time the Yarlung kings, through conquest and alliances, had unified much of central Tibet. Namri Songtsen (circa 570-619), the 32nd Tibetan king, extended Tibetan influence into inner Asia, defeating Qiang tribes on China's borders. But the true flowering of Tibet as an important regional power came about with Namri Songsten's son, Songtsen Gampo (circa 618-49).
Under Songtsen Gampo, Tibetan expansion continued unabated. Armies ranged as far afield as northern India and emerged as a threat to the Tang Dynasty in China. Both Nepal and China reacted to the Tibetan incursions by reluctantly agreeing to alliances through marriage. Thus, Buddhism first gained royal patronage and a foothold on the Tibetan plateau. The king even passed a law making it illegal not to be a Buddhist.
For two centuries after the reign of Songtsen Gampo, Tibet continued to grow in power and influence. During the reign of King Trisong Detsen (755-97), its influence extended across Turkestan, northern Pakistan, Nepal and India. In 783, Tibetan armies overran Chang'an (present day Xi'an), the Chinese capital, forcing the Chinese to conclude a treaty that recognized new borders incorporating most of the Tibetan conquests. Trisong Detsen was responsible for founding Samye Monastery, the first institution to carry out the systematic translation of Buddhist scriptures and the training of Tibetan monks.
Contention over the path that Buddhism was to take in Tibet culminated in the Great Debate of Samye, in which King Detsen is said to have adjudicated in favor of Indian teachers who advocated a gradual approach to enlightenment that was founded in scholastic study and moral precepts. There was, however, much opposition to this institutionalized, clerical Buddhism, largely from supporters of the Bön faith. The next Tibetan king, Tritsug Detsen Ralpachen, fell victim to this opposition and was assassinated by his brother, Langdharma, who launched an attack on Buddhism. In 842 Langdharma was assassinated during a festival -- by a Buddhist monk disguised as a Black Hat dancer -- and the Tibetan state quickly collapsed into a number of warring principalities. In the confusion that followed, support for Buddhism dwindled and clerical monastic Buddhism experienced a 150-year hiatus.
The collapse of the Tibetan state in 842 put a stop to Tibetan expansion in Asia. Overwhelmed initially by local power struggles, Buddhism gradually began to again exert its influence. As the tide of Buddhist faith receded in India, Nepal and China, Tibet slowly emerged as the most devoutly Buddhist nation in the world. The so-called Second Diffusion of the Dharma (sometimes translated as 'Law') in the late 10th century led to a resurgence of Buddhist influence in the 11th century. Many Tibetans traveled to India to study. The new ideas that they brought back had a revitalizing effect on Tibetan thought and produced new schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
By the time the Tang Dynasty reached the end of its days in 907, China had recovered almost all the territory it had lost to the Tibetans. Through the Song Dynasty (960-1276) the two nations had virtually no contact with each other, and Tibet's sole foreign contacts were with its southern Buddhist neighbors. This changed when Genghis Khan launched a series of conquests in 1206 that led to Mongol supremacy in the form of a vast empire that straddled Central Asia and China. The Mongols did not give Tibet serious attention until 1239, when they sent a number of raiding parties into the country. They almost reached Lhasa before turning back.
Tibetan accounts have it that returning Mongol troops related the spiritual eminence of Tibetan lamas to Godan Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, and in response Godan summoned Sakya Pandita, the head of Sakya Monastery, to his court. The outcome was the beginning of a priest-patron relationship between the deeply religious Tibetans and the militarily adventurous Mongols. Tibetan Buddhism became the state religion of the Mongol Empire in East Asia and the head Sakya Lama became its spiritual leader, a position that also entailed temporal authority over Tibet. The Sakyapa ascendancy lasted less than 100 years. By 1350 Changchub Gyaltsen -- a monk who had once trained in Sakya -- sought to defeat the Sakyapas. The Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China lost its grip on power 18 years later and the Chinese Ming Dynasty was established.
The Mongols began to take an interest in Tibet's new and increasingly powerful order by the time of the third reincarnated head of the Gelugpa, Sonam Gyatso (1543-88). In a move that mirrored the 13th-century Sakyapa entrance into the political arena, Sonam Gyatso accepted an invitation to meet with Altyn Khan in 1578. At the meeting, Sonam Gyatso received the title of 'Dalai', meaning 'Ocean,' and implying 'Ocean of Wisdom.' The title was retrospectively bestowed on his previous two reincarnations, and Sonam Gyatso became the third Dalai Lama.
The Gelugpa-Mongol relationship marked the Gelugpa's entry into turbulent waters of worldly affairs. Ties with the Mongols deepened when, at the third Dalai Lama's death in 1588, his next reincarnation was found in a great-grandson of the Mongolian Altyn Khan. It is no surprise that the Tsang kings and the Karmapa of Tsurphu Monastery saw this Gelugpa-Mongol alliance as a direct threat to their power. In 1611 the Tsang king attacked Drepung and Sera monasteries. The fourth Dalai Lama fled Tibet and died at the age of 25 (he was probably poisoned) in 1616.
A successor to the fourth Dalai Lama was soon discovered, and the boy was brought to Lhasa under Mongol escort. Proponents of Gelugpa domination had the upper hand, and in 1640 Mongol forces intervened on their behalf, defeating the Tsang forces. The Tsang king was taken captive and later executed, probably at the instigation of Tashilhunpo monks. The fifth Dalai Lama was able to carry out his rule from within Tibet. With Mongol backing, all of Tibet was pacified by 1656, and the Dalai Lama's control ranged from Kailash in the west to Kham in the east. The fifth Dalai Lama had become both the spiritual and temporal sovereign of a unified Tibet.
When he died in 1682, the Tibetan government was confronted with the prospect of finding his reincarnation and then waiting 18 years until the boy came of age. The Dalai Lama's regent shrouded the death in secrecy, announcing that the Dalai Lama had entered a long period of meditation (over 10 years!). In 1695 the secret leaked and the regent was forced to hastily enthrone the sixth Dalai Lama, a boy of his own choosing. The choice was an unfortunate one, and a resident Jesuit monk who met him noted that 'no good-looking person of either sex was safe from his unbridled licentiousness.'
In China the Ming Dynasty had fallen in 1644 and the Manchus from the north swiftly moved in to fill the power vacuum, establishing the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Tibet's dealings with the new Qing government went awry from the start. In 1705 Mongol forces descended on Lhasa, killed the Tibetan regent and captured the sixth Dalai Lama with the intention of delivering him to Emperor Kang Xi in Beijing. The sixth died en route at Litang (probably murdered) and Prince Lhabzang Khan installed a new Dalai Lama in Lhasa. His machinations aroused intense hostility in Tibet and created enemies among other Mongol tribes, who saw the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader.
Dzungar Mongols attacked Lhasa in 1717, killed Lhabzang Khan and deposed the new Dalai Lama. The seventh, chosen by the Tibetans themselves, was languishing in Kumbum Monastery under Chinese 'protection.' Emperor Kang Xi sent Chinese troops to Lhasa in 1720. They drove out the Dzungar Mongols and were received as liberators by the Tibetans, having brought the seventh Dalai Lama with them. Emperor Kang Xi declared Tibet a protectorate of China -- a historical precedent for the Communist takeover nearly 250 years later.
The Manchu overlordship appointed a king at one stage, but temporal rule reverted in 1750 to the seventh Dalai Lama, who ruled successfully until his death in 1757. The last Chinese military intervention took place in reaction to a Gurkha invasion from Nepal in 1788. From this time Manchu influence in Tibet receded. One significant outcome of that intervention was a ban on foreign contact, imposed because of fears of British collusion in the Gurkha invasion.
As Britain lost all official contact with Tibet, and Russia aroused fears by pushing the borders of its empire through Central Asia and into India, Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, decided to nip Russian designs in the bud. A 1903 expedition discovered that the Dalai Lama had fled to Mongolia with a Russian 'adviser,' Agvan Dorjieff. However, an Anglo-Tibetan convention was signed via negotiations with Tri Rinpoche, a lama whom the Dalai Lama had appointed as regent in his absence. The missing link in the Anglo-Tibetan accord was a Manchu signature. In effect the accord implied that Tibet was a sovereign power with the right to make treaties of its own. The Manchus objected and in 1906 the British signed a second accord that recognized China's suzerainty over Tibet.
In 1910, with the Manchu Qing Dynasty teetering on the verge of collapse, the Manchus made good on the accord and invaded Tibet, driving the Dalai Lama once again into flight -- this time into the arms of the British in India. It was during this period of flight that the Dalai Lama became friends with Sir Charles Bell, a Tibetan scholar and political officer. The relationship was to initiate a warming in Anglo-Tibetan affairs and to see the British playing an increasingly important role as mediators in problems between Tibet and China.
In 1911 a revolution finally toppled the decadent Qing Dynasty in China. The spirit of revolt spread to Tibet, where troops mutinied against their officers and fighting broke out between Tibetans and Manchu troops. By the end of 1912, the last of the occupying forces were escorted out of Tibet via India and sent back to China. In 1913 the 13th Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa. For the next 30 years, Tibet enjoyed freedom from interference from China. Sadly, it was a short-lived affair.
Sir Charles Bell was dispatched on a mission to Lhasa in 1920. It was then that the Dalai Lama agreed to accept a supply of modern arms and ammunition from the British for the purpose of self-defense. Lines of communication and a small hydroelectric station were set up, and British experts surveyed parts of Tibet for mining potential. The Tibetan social system, however, was the biggest obstacle on the path to modernization. For the monks, the principal focus of government was the maintenance of the religious state. Attempts to modernize were seen as inimical to this aim, and before too long they began to meet with intense opposition. The monks' worst fears proved to be well founded when the Dalai Lama brought the newly established army into action to quell a threatened uprising at Drepung Monastery. Before too long, a conservative backlash quashed all ongoing innovations. Tibet's brief period of independence was also troubled by conflict between the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama over the autonomy of Tashilhunpo Monastery and its estates.
The regent of Reting ran the country after the 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933. The present (14th) Dalai Lama was discovered at the village of Pari Takster near Xining in Amdo, and was installed as the Dalai Lama in 1940 at the age of 4½ years. In 1947 an attempted coup d'etat, know as the Reting Conspiracy, rocked Lhasa. And in 1949 the Chinese Nationalist government, against all odds, fell to Mao Zedong.
Unknown to the Tibetans, the Communist takeover of China was to open what is probably the saddest chapter in Tibetan history. The Chinese 'liberation' of Tibet was eventually to lead to 1.2 million Tibetan deaths, a full-on assault on the Tibetan traditional way of life, the flight of the Dalai Lama to India and the large-scale destruction of almost every historical structure on the plateau.
In 1950, a year after the Communist takeover of China, Chinese troops attacked central Tibet and crushed their poorly equipped army. In Lhasa, the Tibetan government reacted by enthroning the 15-year-old 14th Dalai Lama, an action that brought jubilation but did little to protect Tibet from advancing Chinese troops. An appeal to the United Nations was equally ineffective. To the shame of all involved, only El Salvador sponsored a motion to condemn the aggression. Britain and India, traditional friends of Tibet, actually managed to convince the UN not to debate the issue for fear of incurring Chinese disapproval.
The Chinese drafted an agreement and gave Tibet two choices: sign on the dotted line or face further aggression. The 17-point Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet promised a one-country, two-systems structure but provided little in the way of guarantees that such a promise would be honored. The Chinese prepared a forged Dalai Lama seal and ratified the agreement. Initially, the occupation was orderly. Over time, however, the large numbers of troops depleted food stores and gave rise to massive inflation. It seemed inevitable that Tibet would explode in revolt and equally inevitable that it would be ruthlessly suppressed by the Chinese.
For the Tibetan New Year celebrations of 1959, the Chinese organised a performance by a dance group at the Lhasa military base. The invitation extended to the Dalai Lama's came in the form of a thinly veiled command. Wishing to avoid offense, he accepted. As the day drew near, his security chief was surprised to hear that the Dalai Lama was expected to attend in secrecy, without his customary contingent of 25 bodyguards. Despite the Dalai Lama's agreement to these conditions, news of them soon leaked, and the Tibetans' simmering frustration came to a boil with the realisation that the Chinese were about to kidnap the Dalai Lama. Large crowds gathered around the Norbulingka (the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama) and citizens swore to protect him with their lives.
Left with no choice, the Dalai Lama cancelled his appointment at the military base. In the meantime the crowds on the streets were swollen by Tibetan soldiers, who changed out of their People's Liberation Army (PLA) uniforms and started to hand out weapons. A group of government ministers announced that the 17-point agreement was null and void, and that Tibet renounced the authority of China.
The Dalai Lama was powerless to intervene, managing only to pen some conciliatory letters to the Chinese as his people prepared for battle on the streets of Lhasa. In a last-ditch effort to prevent bloodshed, the Dalai Lama even offered himself to the Chinese. The reply came in the form of two mortar shells exploding in the gardens of the Norbulingka. The attack made it obvious that the only option remaining to the Dalai Lama was flight. On 17 March, he left the Norbulingka disguised as a soldier. Fourteen days later he was in India.
Fighting broke out on the morning of 20 March and hundreds were killed by Chinese troops. A search through corpses at the Norbulingka revealed that the Dalai Lama had escaped. It is estimated that after three days of violence, around 10,000 to 15,000 Tibetans lay dead in the streets of Lhasa. The Chinese quickly consolidated their quelling of the Lhasa uprising by seizing control of all the high passes between Tibet and India.
The Chinese abolished the Tibetan government and set about reordering Tibetan society in accordance with their Marxist principles. The educated and aristocratic were to put to work on menial jobs and subjected to struggle sessions, known as thamzing, which sometimes resulted in death. A ferment of class struggle was whipped up and former feudal exploiters - some of whom the poor of Tibet may have harbored genuine resentment for - were subjected to punishments of awful cruelty. Monks were expected to adopt a more secular lifestyle that included marriage. Notable in this litany of errors was the Chinese decision to alter Tibetan farming practices. Instead of barley, the Tibetan staple, Tibetan farmers were instructed to grow wheat and rice. They protested that these crops were unsuited to Tibet's high-altitude conditions. They were right, and mass starvation resulted. By late 1961, it is calculated that 70,000 Tibetans had died or were dying of starvation.
Even the Chinese-groomed Panchen Lama began to have a change of heart. He presented Mao Zedong with a report on the hardships his people were suffering and also requested, among other things, religious freedom and an end to the sacking of Tibetan monasteries. Four years later he disappeared into a high-security prison for 10 years. His removal was for the Chinese the last obstacle to be cleared away in the lead-up to the establishment of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).
The TAR was brought into being in 1965 with much fanfare and talk of happy Tibetans fighting back tears of gratitude at becoming one with the great Motherland. Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in China. What started as a power struggle between Mao and Liu Shaoqi in 1965 had become by August 1966 the Cultural Revolution, a movement that was to shake China to its core, trample all its traditions underfoot, cause countless deaths and give over running of the country to mobs of Red Guards. All of China suffered in Mao's bold experiment to create a new socialist paradise, but it was Tibet that suffered most dearly.
The first Red Guards arrived in Lhasa in July 1966, continuing the destruction of Tibetan cultural and religious monuments over the next three years. By late 1969 the PLA had the Red Guards under control. Tibet, however, continued to be the site of outbreaks of violence. Uprisings were brief and subdued brutally. In 1975 a group of foreign journalists sympathetic to the Chinese cause were invited to Tibet. The reports they filed gave a sad picture of a land whose people had been battered to their knees by Chinese-imposed policies and atrocities that amounted to nothing less than cultural genocide. Also that year the last CIA-funded Tibetan guerilla bases, in Mustang, northern Nepal, were closed down.
By the time of Mao's death in 1976, rebellion was ever in the wings, and maintaining order on the high plateau was a constant drain on Beijing's coffers. Mao's chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, decided to soften the government's line on Tibet and called for a revival of Tibetan customs. In mid-1977 it was announced that China would welcome the return of the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan refugees, and shortly after the Panchen Lama was released from over 10 years of imprisonment.
When the invitation to return was extended, the Dalai Lama suggested that he be allowed to send a fact-finding mission to Tibet first. Surprisingly, the Chinese agreed. Three missions came to the same despairing conclusions. They catalogued 1.2 million deaths, the destruction of 6254 monasteries and nunneries, the absorption of two-thirds of Tibet into China, 100,000 Tibetans in labor camps and extensive deforestation. In only 30 years, the Chinese had turned Tibet into a land of near unrecognizable desolation.
In China, Hua Guofeng's short-lived political ascendancy had been eclipsed by Deng Xiaoping's rise to power. In 1980, Deng sent Hu Yaobang on a Chinese fact-finding mission that coincided with the visits of those sent by the Tibetan Government in exile. While Hu's conclusions were not as damning as those of the Tibetans, they still painted a grim picture. A six-point plan to improve the living conditions and freedoms of the Tibetans was drawn up, taxes were dropped for two years and limited private enterprise was allowed. As was the case with the rest of China, the government embarked on a program of extended personal freedoms in concert with authoritarian one-party rule.
The early 1980s saw the return of limited religious freedoms. Monasteries that had not been reduced to piles of rubble began to reopen and some religious artefacts were returned to Tibet from China. There was also a relaxation of the Chinese proscription on pilgrimage. Pictures of the Dalai Lama began to reappear on the streets of Lhasa. Not that any of this pointed to a significant reversal in Chinese thinking on the question of religion. Those who exercised their religious freedoms did so at considerable risk.
Talks aimed at bringing the Dalai Lama back into the ambit of Chinese influence continued, but with little in the way of results. By 1983 talks had broken down and the Chinese decided that they did not want the Dalai Lama to return after all. Around this time a Chinese policy of Han immigration to the high plateau emerged. Tibet was targeted for mass immigration, and attractive salaries and interest-free loans were made available to Chinese willing to emigrate. In 1984 alone more than 100,000 Han Chinese took advantage of the incentives to 'modernize' Tibet.
In 1986 a new influx of foreigners arrived in Tibet. When the Chinese began to loosen their restrictions on tourism, the trickle of tour groups and individual travelers became a flood. For the first time since the takeover, visitors from the West could see first hand its results. The foreigners were a mixed blessing for China: They spent a great deal of much-needed money, but they also sympathized with the Tibetans.
When in September 1987 a group of 30 monks from Sera Monastery began marching around the Jokhang and crying out 'Independence for Tibet' and 'Long live his Holiness the Dalai Lama,' their ranks were swollen by bystanders and arrests followed. Four days later, another group of monks repeated their actions, this time brandishing Tibetan flags.
The monks were beaten and arrested. With Western tourists looking on, a crowd of some 2000 to 3000 angry Tibetans gathered. Police vehicles were overturned and Chinese police began firing on the crowd. China responded swiftly. Communications with the outside world were severed and foreigners were evicted from Lhasa. It was too late, however, to prevent eyewitness accounts from reaching newspapers around the world. A crackdown followed in Lhasa but it failed to prevent further protests in the following months.
By the mid-1970s, the Dalai Lama had become a prominent international figure, working tirelessly from his government in exile's base in Dharamsala, India, to make the world more aware of the plight of his people. His visits to the USA led to official condemnation of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. In 1987 he addressed the US Congress and outlined a five-point peace plan.
The plan called for Tibet to be established as a 'zone of peace'; for the policy of Han immigration to Tibet to be abandoned; for a return to basic human rights and democratic freedoms; for the protection of Tibet's natural heritage and an end to the dumping of nuclear waste on the high plateau; and for joint discussions between the Chinese and the Tibetans on the future of Tibet. The Chinese denounced the plan and gave the same response when, a year later, the Dalai Lama elaborated on the speech before the European Parliament at Strasbourg, conceding any demands for full independence and offering the Chinese the right to govern Tibet's foreign and military affairs.
Protests and crackdowns continued in Tibet through 1989, and despairing elements in the exiled Tibetan community began to talk of the need to take up arms. It was an option that the Dalai Lama had consistently opposed. If there was to be any improvement in the situation in Tibet, he reasoned, they could only be achieved through nonviolent means. His efforts to achieve peace and freedom for his people were rewarded in 1989 with the Nobel Peace Prize.
Tibetans have won back many religious freedoms, but at great expense. Monks and nuns, who are often the focus of Tibetan aspirations for independence, are regarded suspiciously by the authorities and are often subject to arrest and beatings. New rules make it impossible for nuns, once arrested, to return to their nunneries. Religious institutions have recently been the focus of re-education campaigns, and strict quotas have been imposed on the numbers of resident monks and nuns. Monks in Drepung were recently forced to sign a form denouncing the Dalai Lama on pain of imprisonment. The Chinese officially deny any policy of Han immigration to Tibet, but the issue poses the grave danger that Tibetans will become a minority in their own country.
Although great efforts have been made to curb the worst excesses of the Chinese administration, and a comparatively softened line on minorities has improved conditions for many Tibetans, basic problems remain. Protests and government crackdowns have continued into the new millennium. The Chinese government has in no way relented regarding Tibet as a province of China and is no closer to reaching an agreement of any kind with the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama continues to be vocal in the Tibetan struggle for independence in some form. He has abandoned any hope of nationhood, but continues to strive for a system of Tibetan cultural, religious and linguistic autonomy within the Chinese state. In Western political circles, covert sympathy rarely translates into active support, and foreign governments are careful not to receive the Dalai Lama in any way that recognizes his political status as the head of an exiled government. The Chinese government continues to protest regularly against the Dalai Lama's international activities. In February 2000, celebrations were held in Dharamsala for the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's enthronement.
Recently the Dalai Lama has admitted to a growing sense of failure in his dealing with the Chinese and there is a small but growing disquiet within Tibetan ranks as to the best way forward.
While Chinese authorities have trumpeted recent rapid advances in industrial and agricultural output, there is also evidence of a new approach to assimilating Tibet into the motherland. A combination of foreign investment, ongoing Han immigration and exclusive use of the (Mandarin) Chinese language in the higher levels of the education system ensure that only Sinicised Tibetans will be able to take part in China's economic progress.
On the positive side, the US government appointed a 'Special Coordinator for Tibet' in 1997, and in 1998, the UN human rights commissioner, Mary Robinson, visited Tibet. There is even hope of talks between the Dalai Lama and Chinese premier Jiang Zemin following a visit to Beijing in October 2000 of the Dalai Lama's brother, Gyalo Thondub.
However, as long as there are no further bloody crackdowns in Lhasa, foreign countries are likely to support the status quo to protect important trade relations with China. The 50th anniversary of the 'liberation' of Tibet in 2001 offered a sobering moment of reflection on half a century of tragedy and disintegration for the Tibetan people.