Let's Get our History Straight...


an investigation into how we know what we know;

of distinguishing truth & fact

from deep seated beliefs and reflexive opinion.

"Just the facts, mam. Just the facts."




“[S]uffice it to say that the historical relationship between China and Tibet are analogous to two overlapping circles. Much of the debate has been concerned with the definition or denial of this overlap. This traditional relationship between Tibet and China was set within the political culture of the Sino-Tibetan world, where the meaning of the relationship was well understood by the participants.”

The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A HISTORY OF MODERN TIBET SINCE 1947, by Tsering Shakya (1999)

Three Major Eras

I. Pre-600s - 900 A.D. (Tibetan Kingdom)

II. 905-1911 A.D. (Off and On Contact)

III. 1911-the Present (13th Dalai Lama to Mao to Now)

I. Pre-600s to 900 A.D.

Pre-600s: Tibet is a collection of self-ruling territorial principalities without a centralized government. The common spiritual practice is Bon - a mystical, animist (shamanistic) religion.

Early 600s: Tibet starts to become a nation, initially based in Lhasa

and the Yarlung Valley, or Central Tibet. A strong, military King, Songtsen Gampo, starts expanding the Tibetan nation into other parts of the Tibetan Plateau, especially into Western Tibet.

634- 640: Tibet’s military might is so strong that it demands & receives regular payments of tribute from China’s Tang Dynasty. When the Tang Emperor Taizong stops payment, Songtsen Gampo amasses an army of 100,000 on China’s border and defeats allied  Chinese armies. Tribute payments resume + a one-time administration fee for "collection".

Agreeing to another demand,Tang Emperor Taizong grants Songtsen Gampo’s a royal Han bride, Princess Wencheng.

641: Princess Wencheng arrives in Lhasa for her wedding. She brings many books of Buddhist scripture and a sacred gift, a statue of Sakyamuni Buddha named Jowo Rinpoche. This is generally thought to be the beginning of the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet. The sacred statue, Jowo Rinpoche, remains one of Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest relics, and is housed today inside the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa.  The Jokhang Temple is Tibetan Buddhism's most sacred temple, akin in stature to Mecca and Median for Islam.

700s: Characterized by back-and-forth military campaigns between Tibetan and Chinese troops in clashes for control over trade and territory. Their battles range from Kashgar in Xinjiang Province to Kashmir in Northern India.

763: Tibetan troops reach, capture, and hold the Tang capitol of Chang’an for 15 days.

775-9: King Trisong Detsen builds the 3-story Samye monastery to invigorate the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet. The first floor is Chinese motif, the second floor of Tibetan motif, and the third floor is of Indian motif, signifying the two Buddhist nations with greatest influcence upon Tibet at the time.  King Trisong decided to strategically convert Tibet from Bon spiritual traditions into Buddhism as Tibet as the major trading nations surrounding Tibet are Buddhist.  Buddhism was a kind of "modernization" of that era and would open the door for Tibet to become a greater regional power.

800s: After Buddhism began its ascendancy as the dominant religion in Tibet (in part, by integrating many of the indigenous Bon beliefs and mystical practices), Indian Buddhism becomes the primary source for Buddhist teachings in Tibet.  

Chinese Buddhist teachers continue to missionize, but overall, Indian Buddhist teachers are the predominant transmission source for Tibetan Buddhism.

With a decision to look towards India over China, Sanskrit becomes the basis for the written Tibetan script. For centuries, the indigenous Tibetan tongue thrived as an oral language only.

842: Following the assassination of King Land Dharma, the Gampo Dynasty collapses. Tibet as a unified nation fragments into a series of autonomous local regions and towns.

II. 905-1911 A.D.

905-960: The Tang Dynasty collapses in 905. There is little if any evidence of political relations between Tibetans and Han China during this time, the era of  China's Five Kingdoms.

960-1279: The Sung Dynasty - little if any evidence of political relationships between Tibetans and the Sung Court.

1207-1227: Tibet pays tribute to the Mongol conqueror, Genghis Khan, until his death.

1247: Genghis Khan’s successor, Ogedai, sends his son Godan to Tibet. Godan reinstates the tributary system and imposes direct administrative authority over Tibet.

- According to the People’s Republic of China view, the Mongol Empire became the Yuan Dynasty of China, and in this way, Tibet became part of the Chinese Empire. When the Ming Dynasty replaced the Yuan Dynasty, China simply continued its unbroken authority over Tibet.

- According to the Free Tibet view, Tibet was a separate conquerored nation of the Mongol Empire. China, too, was just another conquered nation under the Mongol Empire. Thus during the Yuan Dynasty, Tibet could not be considered a part of China, but part of the Mongol Empire. When the Mongol empire broke up, Tibet became free of the Mongol Empire and regained its independent nation status, just as China became free of the Mongol Empire and regained its independenct nation status.

1368-1644: Ming Dynasty: China’s political authority over Tibet was

laissez-faire at best and characterized by conferment of titles. Yet, there is an extraordinary level of commercial, religious, and cultural exchange between Tibet and China.

Tibet pays tribute to the Ming and in return, the Ming Court awards funds to support various monasteries in Tibet whose Lamas make the journey to the Ming Court. Many other Lamas are invited and given funds to open Tibetan Buddhist temples in China. While at the Ming Court, these high Lamas typically gave dharma talks to the royalty and high government officials.

1642:The "Great Fifth" Dalai Lama assumes secular political power over Tibet through the military intervention of his Mongol patron, a brutal warrior-leader of the Qoshot Mongols, Gushri Khan.  His troops slaughters the Dalai Lama's main rival, the then dominant Karma Kagyu denomination. The Karma Kargyu school, or the Black Hats, was headed up by the Sharmar Lama, who presided from a vast, carefully laid-out, tent city renown as the Encampment.  The Encampment, the religous center or mobile "Vatican City"of the Karma Kagyu, nomadically took up and set down stakes throughout Tibet.  Gushri Khan totally destroys the Encampment for all time and then proceeds to raze all Karma Kargyu monasteries.  It is after this carnage that the Gelupta, the Yellow Hats, and the newest of the major Tibetan Buddhist denominations, became the dominant Tibetan Buddhist denomination and remains so up to the present time.

Gushri Khan then embarked on killing the Lamas of the the Nyingma, or the Red Hats, who opposedhim.  The Nyingma were  historically, the first Tibetan Buddhist denomnation. However, in recognition of the Nyingma's role in transmitting Buddhism, the Great Fifth Delai Lama stops this military campaign and instead incorporates the Nyingma and their monasteries into the Gelupta.  The Great Fifth Delai Lama also forcibly shuts down and incorporates the monasteries of two smaller denominations, the Jonang and the Sakya, into the Gelupta.

After consolidation of both religious and political authority, the Gelputa start construction of the defensible fortress-style Potala Palace on the Marpori, or Red Hill. as the main headquarters for their denomination.  The choice of Red HIll was to prevent another  denomination from as easily defeating the Gelupta  as they had so readily overwhelmed the Karma Kagyu and the Nyingma. Red Hill had been the site of the ancient fortress and palace of the great Tibetan King, Songtsen Gampo.

1720-1911: The Qing Dynasty administers Tibet through officials called ambans - the equivalent of governors - appointed from Beijing. From time to time, Tibetan authorities call upon the Qing Emperor to send in troops to repel Nepalese Gurkha and other invaders. At times, the Qing stations thousands of troops in Lhasa and other Tibetan cities. Garrison strength increases and lessens with the level of invasion threat.

At the height of Qing Dynasty authority over Tibet, the ambans selects successor high Lamas of major Tibetan monasteries. Several names on slips of paper proposed by monastic leaders and aristocrats would be  placed in a Golden Urn - a lottery system - to identify the reincarnation of the deceased high Lama.  The ambans selects one of the slips and thus officially reognizes the reincarnation to the recently deceased Lama. Under this authority, the Qing selected Tibet’s highest Lamas, including the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, and the Karma-pa Lama. In this way, the Qing ended the debilitating political jockeying by aristocrats and monasteries over succession and power. . Under the pre-Qing system, the "recognized reincarnation" was contested and often even died under mysterious circumstances, reopening the contentious reincarnation search.  Under the lottery system, the Qing recognized the inherent political nature of reincarnations during this time, and stablized Tibetan society as well as consolidated Qing political authority over Tibet.

As the Qing Dynasty declines in the 1800s, in part due to Western incursions, so too Qing authority over Tibet slowly wanes. But due to fears of British intervention in Tibet, the Qing Dynasty takes action to re-integrate Tibet back into the nation state of China. For example, one step was to extend China’s postal system into Tibet and then printing the first Tibetan stamp in Tibetan and Chinese script. Another step was to pay the indemnity demanded by an official Britisher adventurer, Francis Edward Younghusband, who machine-gunned his way into Lhasa through India to establish a back-door trade route into China.

1903-1904: From his outpost in Darjeeling, India, British Army Officer, Major Francis Edward Younghusband, invades Tibet form India through Central Tibet into Lhasa.

The 13th Dalai Lama flees Lhasa in advance of Younghusband’s expeditionary force. But Younghusband forces the Dalai Lama’s regent to sign a treaty: the Anglo-Tibetan Convention. The Treaty gives the British favorable diplomatic powers, trade routes & markets, a resident representative, and a stiff indemnity for the trouble of coming all this way.

The treaty acknowledges a Chinese “suzerainty” over Tibet, but deliberately falls short of characterizing Tibet as an independent nation. China later pays the indemnity after negotiating it down, but also as an act to reaffirm it’s sovereignty - and authroity - over the Tibetan Plateau.

Note: In 2009, Britain formally invalidated this treaty, as an remnant of the Age of Imperialism.

1905-6: Under directives of the 13th Dalai Lama, Gelug "Yellow Hat" monasteries attacke and murder a number of French Catholic missionaries in-and-around Batang, a Tibetan area in Yunnan Province and in other areas. Tibetan converts who refused to renounce their Christianity were also killed. Area Qin officials were also attacked and killed.

1911: Sun Yatsen’s Republican Revolution ends the Qing Dynasty and thus, any residual imperial political authority over Tibet. Republican China is too weak to exert authority over Tibet, but continues to claim Tibet as an integral part of Chinese territory.

III. 1911 to Present

1913: The 13th Dalai Lama, Tupden Gyatso, returns to Lhasa with a Tibetan army and declares Tibet to be an independent nation. He expels all Han officials from the country.

Contacts between Tibetan officials and the the Republic of China's officials are intermittent as the 13th Dalai Lama continues steps towards an independent Tibetan nation.

But the 13th Dalai Lama’s policies of modernization and nation-building are reversed by the large, landowning theocracy and aristocrats. Their view is that Chinese authority over Tibet has never adversely impacted the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, changed the Tibetan way of life, or challenged their economic monopoly.  Thus, there was no need to modernize or create a Western style nation - or to antagonize China.

Under pressure, the 13th Dalai Lama guts his reforms and ends his drive for independence. For better or for worse, with the end of the reforms, Tibet continues to be an extension of China.

Tibet’s two major cities Lhasa and Shigatse continue to function more like competing City States than as part of the same nation. The Dalai Lama administers Lhasa and its environs from his seat, the Potala Palace. The Panchen Lama, the second highest Lama and official head of a competing Buddhist monastic area, administers Shigatse and its immediate area from his own seat, the Tashilhunpo Monastery.

The 13th Dalai Lama retires to his summer palace, attends only to spiritual duties, and in his spare time, engages in his favorite hobby, garding. He dies in 1933 and after a Chinese condolence mission arrives in Lhasa, the officials are allowed to stay and operate a liaison office to resolve the Tibet question.

1937-1949: Japan invades China and war rages there until Japan’s surrender in 1945. The end of WWII is but the start of the Chinese civil war between Nationalists and the Communists. At this time, Chinese officials are only intermittently present in Tibet and exercise little to no authority. By 1949, the Communist armies consolidate control over mainland China.

1948: A trade delegation of Tibetan travels to the US and Britain on a Tibetan passport with a visa stamped by Britain. This is the single known use of Tibetan issued passports.

Note: 1911-1949 - it is during this period that Free Tibet advocates assert that Tibet was functioning as a de jure (and if not de jure, then a de facto) independent nation, including the issuance and use of a Tibetan passport. The PRC equally asserts that Tibet, like so many other regions of China, had been neglected due to a series of wars wreaking havoc for nearly a century, but that China had consistently asserted its legal sovereignty over the Tibet region.

1950: Chinese Communist troops resume control over Tibetan populated towns and areas in Chinese provinces that Tibetans call Kham and Amdo.

1951: The People’s Liberation Army moves peaceably into Lhasa. The bulk of them encamp outside Lhasa in tents and pay for everything they need.

1950s - early years: Under Mao's gradulist policy towards Tibet, the People’s Republic of China slowly starts to reestablish administration over the Tibetan Plateau, including Lhasa and Shigatse, Tibet’s two largest cities. Initially, many Tibetans see the Han as representing much needed change and modernization. Amongst the young, many start to wear trendy Chinese dress over traditional Tibetan garb.

But later, as Chinese hard-liners push for a harsher “socialist transformation” over Mao’s gradualist policy, the earlier welcome fades. Armed Tibetan resistance starts in Kham/Western Sichuan and spreads onto the Tibetan Plateau, including in and around Lhasa. Kham Tibetans form into a resistance called “Four Rivers, Six Ranges.” Their name is a description of the Kham region, comprised of four rivers and six mountain ranges.

1955: PRC-constructed highway reaches Lhasa and connects it to the rest of the country.

1957: The CIA trains Tibetan guerillas in Colorado and drops armaments within Tibet. The resistance continues, but the Chinese slowly push it towards the west and south of Tibet and then contains it.

1959: PRC-constructed railroad line extends to Lhasa and integrates it into the Chinese rail network.

1959 - March: Based on a rumor that the Chinese intend to arrest or even kill the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibetans gather day after day in a series of large gatherings in the plaza outside the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, the Norbulingka.

This gatherings erupt into a series of anti-Chinese riots, now known as the Tibetan Uprising. The Dalai Lama slips out of Lhasa and over the Himalayas into India. He is granted asylum.

The remaining Tibetan guerilla force are essentially defeated during the PLA’s pursuit of the Dalai Lama. Many guerillas lay down their arms and join the Dalai Lama in India.

1959-1964: Ideological reeducation campaigns begin in Tibet. Urban dwellers and farmers are forced to engage in study sessions, rallies, and struggle sessions, often violent, against former Landlords and “reactionaries.” Lamas of monasteries with large land holdings as well aristocratic landowners are often targeted. Land owned by monasteries (the largest landholders) and aristocratic families are confiscated and redistributed. Monks and nuns are discharged and directed to take up work. Many are assigned to work units.

1965: The commune system is imposed on both farmers and nomadic herders.

1966-1976: The Cultural Revolution arrives in Tibet with a vengeance. Red Guard cadres, mostly Tibetans, vandalize and destroy thousands of monasteries and temples. Religious contents are destroyed or sent elsewhere to China and stored. Many are later sold to foreigners in the markets of Hong Kong. Thousands of younger monks and nuns are sent home and told to start new, secular lives.

Thousands more, usually older ones, are killed, tortured and imprisoned.

Ethnic Tibetan Red Guards are among the most zealous persecutors of this ideological rampage, including against monasteries, monks, nuns, and other Tibetans deemed class enemies under Maoist thought.

All over Tibet, in small towns, villages, and the countryside, Red Guards force Tibetans to engage in “struggle sessions.” Use of violence is common and many Tibetans are maimed or mentally imbalanced for life or killed. Two factions of Red Guards engage in internecine armed combat in Lhasa and throughout its outlying areas. As a result, farming and even nomadic herding are neglected, causing great economic hardship in Tibet (as in the rest of China).

Note 1 - the genocide figure: It is the violence during these two ideological periods that provide the basis of the Free Tibet movement’s claims of genocide (of up to 1.2 million) and the imprisonment, torture, and killing of thousands of monks and nuns.

Note 2 - the context of millions who did die throughout China: Whatever the true numbers killed in Tibet, it is estimated that elsewhere in China, between 20 to 30 million died due to famines exacerbated by the Cultural Revolution alone (earlier millions more died from the failures of The Great Leap Forward). Thousands upon thousands more were killed by direct violence during this fratricidal period.

Asserting this context isn’t to seek to justify the ideologically based killing anywhere during this time period. But it is an important context to keep in mind, and is often ignored in discussions of the numbers of Tibetans killed since the reimposition of Chinese authority in 1950. All within China suffered horribly. The Cultural Revolution ended in the mid-1970s.

Note 3 - genocide figure revisited: The earlier oft-repeated genocide figure of 1.2 million (or up to 1.6 million) ethnic Tibetans has faded somewhat from credible use, mainly because there seems to be no reliable evidence supporting its substantiation.  

Also, Patrick French, a former Director of the Free Tibet Campaign in London, stated:... after scouring the archives in Dharmsala while researching my book on Tibet, I found that there was no evidence to support that figure.”

NY Times Op-Ed, March 22, 2008 - Patrick French “He May be a God, But He’s No Politician”

1978: The hard-liner policy is repudiated. Authorities release a large number of Tibetan prisoners, announce that Tibetans could visit relatives abroad, and issues visas to a group of Tibetan exiles to visit Tibet. Informal talks take place in Hong Kong with Gyalo Thondup, the

elder brother of the Dalai Lama, at his residence in Hong Kong.

Early 1980s: Temples are rebuilt throughout Tibet. Monks, nuns, and new child monks stream back into monasteries destroyed or shuttered during the Cultural Revolution. The government impose limits on the number of monks in each Monastery. Signs in Tibetan are mandatory on shops and official buildings and officials are instructed to speak Tibetan in dealing with locals. Photos of the Dalai Lama remain banned.

1987-88: A series of riots erupt against the Chinese government.

1988: The Dalai Lama makes a major address at Strasbourg where he relinquishes the goal of an independent Tibet and proposes that Tibet could be an autonomous dominion, under China’s rule, and as part of China’s territory. Free Tibet advocates are unhappy about his changed stance.

1989 - January: The Panchen Lama dies. Beijing secretly invites the Dalai Lama to participate in the memorial funeral, underscoring a unique opportunity to informally discuss the political situation with top Chinese officials directly. This appears to be a sincere proposal. The Dalai Lama rejects the invitation. This seems to be a turning point as it appears from this time forward, the Chinese government decides that it no longer needs the Dalai Lama to achieve its goal of full integration of Tibet into a multi-ethnic Chinese nation.

1989 - October: The Dalai Lama is awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

1990s: The Chinese government continues to consolidate its authority

over Tibet. Vast sums of money are spent to rebuild temples, new schools, roads, water projects, and buildings. Thousands of Han and Uighur laborers flock to Tibet for jobs. Investors create the infrastructure for tourism. Many more Han open shops and restaurants.

But many Tibetans are granted business loans on easy terms to open up travel agencies, stores, guest houses, and retaurants. Foreign businesses investing in Tibet are required to partner up with a local Tibetan business person.

The Free Tibet movement and the Dalai Lama continue to internationalize their cause, winning growing numbers of Westerners including the support of political leaders and celebrities.

2008: In the months preceding the Beijing Olympics, violence erupts in Lhasa over several days. Tibetans loot, trash, and burn Han-owned shops and also some owned by Tibertans. The riots almost cause the destruction by fire of the entire Barkhor Plaza and Tibetan Buddhism’s most holy temple, the Jhakhong Temple as the rioters overturned and burned responding fire trucks. A han mother and her two young daughters burn to death in the back of their shop. Many Lhasa shops do not have back entrances. In total, at least 10 Han Chinese burn to death during the riots.

Tibetans also attack the Muslim-Hui people and destroy their businesses.

Chinese troops restore order. Many Tibetans are shot and wounded or killed. Hundreds, if not thousands, are arrested and detained.

The number of casualities are unknown: security personnel, troops, Tibetans, Han, and Hui died during these few days plus during an ensuing period of "night-raids" into Tibetan neighborhoods followed by incarceration that included light to heavy interrogation and torture.

The Free Tibet movement characterizes these riots as “spontaneous,” but the Chinese claim they were part of a plan to disrupt the Olympics and coordinated from outside Tibet by the Dalai Lama and his supporters.

Individual travel to Tibet is no longer allowed.  Prior to the March incident, the local government was about to end all special travel restrictions to the TAR.  Foreign tourists would have only needed the general PRC tourist entry visa, ending the practice of separatley applying for a Tibet travel visa. A plan to allow flights to fly directly from Germany through Bangkok into Tibet was summarily cancelled.  Typically, foreigners flew into Beijing or Shanghai before switching flights into Tibet.

Few journalists are granted journalist visas and when granted, accompanied by Chinese officials. Tourists joining official tour groups can easily obtain tourist visas into Tibet (as I did in October 2008, through a Tibetan owned and operated tourism agency).

Many NGOs or foreign operated non-profit service agencies close shop as their operating permissions lapsed and not renewed.  Apparently, it was determined that many of their sympathies are with the Free Tibet movement.  However, other foreign NGOs, politically neutral, continue to operate in the TAR.

2009 - Present: Travel to Tibet is allowed under guidance of official tourist agencies and with a special travel visa. Intermittently, foreign travel is halted at special times, such as in the week leading up to, and following, the 60th Anniversary Founding of the PRC on October lst.

As of 2018, foreign journalists are still rarely allowed visas into the TAR and other Tibetan autonomous regions. Even if granted, they are accompanied by government officials and their intinerary organized by the local authorities.

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