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Q: Tibet's position vis-a-vis Imperial China 19th century ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: Tibet's position vis-a-vis Imperial China 19th century
Category: Reference, Education and News > General Reference
Asked by: wolvies-ga
List Price: $20.00
Posted: 28 Oct 2003 12:08 PST
Expires: 27 Nov 2003 12:08 PST
Question ID: 270528
I will leave this question up until it gets an answer...unless of
course it is fully answered in Comments when its rather pointless, lol

I am trying to understand Tibet's position with regard to the Chinese
Empire. Tibet had its own vassals - Ladakh, Nepal, Bhutan etc. Then
Tibet was a vassal of China. In addition I have seen Kokonor as a
vassal of Tibet

How did Tibet fit in to the Chinese polity. Was it equal to Vietnam,
having its own supreme ruler and its own vassals

Also, how did Tibet deal with Russian and British intrigues ? I get
the impression that China more or less left them to themselves, like
with Vietnam

Is Digsalot still answering questions ? I would be intrigued on his
take on this. If not, please feel free to give a full answer.


Request for Question Clarification by digsalot-ga on 28 Oct 2003 15:27 PST
Hi wolvies

I'm only going to be able to work intermittantly for a couple of days
so I'm leaving this open in case another researcher can get to it

If not, then I will grab it again when I can.

Welcome back.

Subject: Re: Tibet's position vis-a-vis Imperial China 19th century
Answered By: digsalot-ga on 29 Oct 2003 23:16 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hello there

Good to see you again.

The formal relationship of Tibet to China dates back to the 13th
century when Tibet became an adimistrative region of China.  In 1271,
Kublai Kahn established the Yuan Dynasty and took Tibet as an
admistrative region under the direct control of the central government
and exercised jurisdiction over it.  The Kahn also made Tibet a
hereditary fief for his seventh son.

The rank of imperial tutor was instituted and administrative and
religious heads were appointed. Pagba, leader of the Sagya Sect in
Tibet, was appointed as first imperial tutor, which along with his
position as head of the Zongzhi, Yuan, gave him a key official
position within the central government. Pagba, who was in charge of
both the political and religious affairs of Tibet, initiated the
theocratic system of integrating government administration with
religious affairs.

The "Benqin" system was established. The Benqin, in his capacity of
supreme Tibetan administrative official nominated by the imperial
tutor and approved by the emperor, assisted the imperial tutor in
handling the administrative affairs of Tibet.  The area was divided
into administrative units and local officials were appointed. After
taking a census, the Yuan court divided Tibet into 13 Wanhus
(communities of 10,000 households each). The chief of each Wanhu was
directly appointed by the Yuan imperial court.

Later the Qing Dynasty, which ended in 1911, strengthened its hold on
tibet.  The titles of Dali Lama and Panchen Lama were officially
granted by the emperors and the court set up offices for the High
Commissioners sent to Tibet and the Kasha (local Tibetan governments).

Since the Yuan Dynasty, successive Chinese governments have practiced
various political systems in Tibet, including the wanhu system, the
hereditary headmen system, the fief system, the Kaloon system and the
system of dispatching commissioners to Tibet. Tibet has, since the
13th century, been under the jurisdiction of the Chinese government.

Now what I have stated above is a generalized version of the history
of the relationship between Tibet and China.  Call it a "technical"
history, if yiou want.  Now we get into the controversy of just how
much control there really was and all the various political
implications as to how it should be interpreted.

Just so you know Wolvies, regardless of what I say in this answer,
there will be people taking exception to it as the subject is quite
sensitive to many.  So I'm going to present a couple of versions of
things and many readers of this answer might well know no more at the
end of it than they did before they started reading it.  It is that
kind of situation.

So as we look closer, while the "technical" history has Tibet under
Chinese rule since the 13th century, just how strong was that rule?

During the Yuan Dynasty, Tibet was administered separately by the
Mongols through local Tibetan rulers, in contrast to China, which the
Mongols ruled directly.  While the "Imperial Tutor" was part of the
Mongol Chinese Court, he was also Tibetan and the the "Benquin" was
also nominated by him.  So, the rule of Tibet was in Tibetan hands
while nominally being a district of China.  Actually, Tibet came under
Mongol dominance before the Mongols ruled China.  The reality being
that both Tibet and China wound up under the rule of a third party,
the Mongols.  The Yuan were not a Chinese dynasty.

Excuse me while I stop and scratch my head over this a little bit.  I
confuse easily.

Now, here we have Tibet as an administrative district of China under a
third party, the Mongols.  Even though it was a district of China,
Tibet did not lose its sovereignty during this period. The
relationship between Tibet and the Mongols was a unique priest-patron
relationship known as Cho-yon. Tibet received protection from the
Buddhist Mongol emperors in return for spiritual guidance from the
ruling lamas of Tibet. The relationship involves a reciprocal
legitimation of authority.   Emperors of the later Chinese Ming
Dynasty nominally granted titles to certain Tibetan officials but
exercised no effective control over Tibetan affairs or over the
successive changes in the Tibetan government. Nor did the Ming
Emperors exercise any effective control over the Dalai Lamas, who
later took control of Tibet.

During the Qing Dynasty, the Dalai Lamas and the Manchu Emperors
reestablished the Cho-yon relationship. During the 18th century, the
Emperor's protection was invoked four times under this relationship.
The Emperors' representatives in Lhasa, the Ambans, initially served
only as liaisons to the Emperor. In 1793, the Emperor purported to
grant the Ambans power to exercise control over Tibet's external
affairs, but this was presented to the Eighth Dalai Lama as a
suggestion, not an exercise of Imperial power. Moreover, within a few
decades, the Ambans exerted virtually no influence in Tibet and the
Qing Emperors stopped providing the protection that was their side of
the Cho-yon relationship, effectively ending it.

Even though Tibet depended on Chinese protection four times in the
18th century as a loose vassal state, Tibet still acted as though it
was an independent country.  Tibet had its own civil service, judicial
and taxation systems, as well as a postal and telegraph service, and a
separate currency.

Later in this period the British had close and profitable ties with
China. The Chinese had persuaded the British that they exercise
'suzerainty' over Tibet. Therefore on September 13, 1876, the
Sino-British Chefoo Convention, which granted Britain the 'right' of
sending a mission of exploration into Tibet, was signed. The mission
was abandoned when the Tibetans refused to allow them on the grounds
that they did not recognise China's authority. Two more similar
agreements, the Peking Convention of July 24, 1886 and the Calcutta
Convention of March 17, 1890, were also repudiated by the Tibetans.

The Tibetan Government refused to have anything to do with the British
who were dealing over their heads with the Chinese. This coincided
with new contacts between Russia and Tibet around 1900-1.

There followed an interchange of letters and presents between the
Dalai Lama and the Russian Czar. This strengthened British fears about
Russian involvement in Tibetan affairs. As the Russian power in Asia
was growing, the British Government felt that their interest was at
stake. Tibet was invaded by a British expeditionary force under
Colonel Younghusband, which entered Lhasa on August 3, 1904.

A treaty was signed between Tibet and Great Britain on September 7,
1904. During the British invasion Tibet conducted her affairs as an
independent country. Peking did not so much as protest against the
British invasion of Tibet.

When the British invaded Tibet, the 13th Dalai Lama went to Mongolia.
The Manchus, who were then ruling China, made one last attempt to
interfere in Tibet through the military campaigns of the infamous Chao
Erhfeng.  Mhen the Dalai Lama was in Kumbum monastery in the province
of Amdo, he received two messages - one from Lhasa, urging him to
return with all speed as they feared for his safety and could not
oppose the intruding troops of Chao Erhfeng, and the other from
Peking, requesting him to visit the Chinese capital. The Dalai Lama
chose to go to Peking with the hope of prevailing upon the Chinese
Emperor to stop the military agression against Tibet and to withdraw
his troops.

When the Dalai Lama finally returned to Lhasa in 1909, he found that,
contrary to all the promises he had received in Peking, Chao Erhfeng's
troops were at his heels. During the annual Monlam festival of 1910,
some 2,000 Manchu and Chinese soldiers under the command of General
Chung Ying entered Lhasa and indulged in carnage, rape, murder,
plunder, and wanton destruction. Once again the Dalai Lama was forced
to leave Lhasa. He appointed a Regent to rule in his absence and left
for the southern town of Dromo with the intention to go to British
India if necessary. Events in Lhasa and the pursuing Chinese troops
forced him to leave his country once again.

In India the Dalai Lama and his ministers appealed to the British
Government to help Tibet. Meanwhile the Manchu occupation force tried
to subvert the Tibetan Government and to divide Tibet into Chinese
provinces - exactly what, not half a century later, the Communist
Chinese would do.

But, when the news of the 1911 Revolution in China reached Lhasa, the
Chinese troops mutinied against their Manchu officers and attacked the
Amban's residence. Fighting broke out between rival Manchu and Chinese
generals. Then, in a desperate attempt to regain their dwindling hold
in Lhasa, the Chinese attacked the Tibetans. By then, however, the
Tibetans had reorganised themselves with orders coming from the Dalai
Lama in India. Chinese troops in Lhasa, and elsewhere in Tibet were
overcome by the Tibetans and finally expelled in 1912. During this
period of fighting and confusion the new ruler of China, President
Yuan Shih-kai, tried to send military reinforcements to the beleagured
troops while at the same time trying to placate the Tibetans. He
apologised for the excesses and

Even before the British invasion, The Tibetan government controlled
the borders and issued passports to its people, which were recognized
internationally. It entered into treaties as a sovereign with other
states, including Great Britain, Ladakh, Nepal and Mongolia. Tibet
also negotiated as an equal sovereign with China and Great Britain at
the Simla Conference of 1913-14.

Tibet formally expelled the last garrisoned troops of the Qing Emperor
in 1911, an unmistakable act of sovereignty, and repatriated them to
China in 1912. The Kuomintang Government invited Tibet to join the
Nationalist Republic, but Tibet declined. The Nationalist Government
attempted unilaterally to assert control over Tibet until 1918 and
then again beginning in 1931, but failed. In 1949, Tibet expelled the
last remaining Chinese representatives.

So, the answer to your question is that while Tibet was "technically"
a part of the Chinese Empire (and that depends on whom you ask) it
functioned as an independent state with its own vassals and foreign
policy practices.  The association was so loose that it might as well
not have existed at all.

The "technical" history I provided comes from the Chinese government. 
The "loose" version of that history comes from the Tibetan Government
in Exile.  The fact that Tibet did participate as an international
equal in the negotiations taking place at the turn of the century
seems to support the "loose" association.

Websites used to compose the above:

"Tibet Justice Center - Tibet Justice Center Reports - The Case
Concerning Tibet - Summary"

"Tibet History" - - From
website "Tibet Trip" - A chinese version of Tibetan history

"Tibet's History -- Myth to Leader's Exile" - - From World Tibet
Network News

"Tibet in the early 20th century" - - by Wangchen Gelek
Surkhang - some rather detailed history here including the reasons the
Tibetans decided not to trust Russia or China.

"Surmang - Tibetan History and Geography" - - From the Surmang

"Free Tibet Campaign - A Chronology of Tibetan History" - - From Free Tibet

You know the drill by now.  If I may clarify anything, just ask.


Clarification of Answer by digsalot-ga on 30 Oct 2003 00:29 PST
The last word of the 21st paragraph should be "more."

Request for Answer Clarification by wolvies-ga on 31 Oct 2003 01:32 PST
Excellent answer as always, thank you very much. I was wondering if
you came across anything with regard to Tibet's vassals, especially
Kokonor which appears to be in China proper ? If not, don't worry :)
I'm away all weekend but will check in on Sunday evening if I can.


Clarification of Answer by digsalot-ga on 31 Oct 2003 10:05 PST
Working on it.  Be ready when you get back sunday.

Clarification of Answer by digsalot-ga on 02 Nov 2003 01:42 PST
Since your question dealt mostly with the 19th century, Kokonor was no
longer an issue.  It had been fully integrated into the Chinese empire
after the revolt of 1723 and remained there till the end of Dynastic
china.  It did have a feudal relationship with Tibet before that time.

After the fall of the last Chinese dynasty in the early 20th century,
there seems to have been a period of semi-independence and the region,
now called Qinghai was added as a Chinese province in 1928.  Most of
what is found under Kokonor or Koko Nor deal with the lake rather than
the region.
You will find a brief overview of the current status in this
Encyclopedia Britannica article.

Beyond that, there seems to be a dearth of information about Kokonor
on the web or even in the local library.  What I have found, that
seems to delve into Kokonor more deeply consist of books, costing a
$100 or more, and an online paper for which there is a fee.
You can order the paper here:

Even under the name "Khökhnuur," I find little else.

There is also the complication (I'm good at finding those, it seems)
that Tibet is (was) actually three distinct areas, U-tsang, Kham and
Amdo. The region known as U-tsang is what most of us in the West think
of today as "Tibet" and that region is known as the Tibet Autonomous
Region.  The other two regions of Tibet have been incorporated into
parts of Gansu and Sichuan provinces and into the new (1928) Chinese
province of Qinghai, a Chinese translation of the traditional name of
Kokonor, which means "Blue Lake."

So, we need to do a little mental and historic juggling here.  We
could possibly say that the region of Kokonor (Qinghai) had a "vassal"
relationship with Tibet (or at least part of it did) because a part of
it is (was) actually Tibet itself in as much that while the three
regions together formed traditional Tibet, each of the three regions
had a loose relationship with the other two almost as a feudal system
of equals united under a single head at Lhasa.

I need an aspirin.

Ladakh is a little easier to handle.  While it had close ties to
Tibet, Ladakh had been independent since the middle of the tenth
century.  Its ruling dynasties were descendents of the kings of Old

That independence ended in the 19th century after a time of war ending
with the emergence of the British as the strong power in North India. 
Ladakh, along with Baltistan, were incorporated into the new states of
Jammu and Kashmir.  After the partition of India, Balistan became part
of Pakistan and Ladakh remained in India as part of the state of Jammu
and Kashmir.

Ladakh's "vassal" relationship with Tibet was not a vassal state in
the classic sense with the rulers of Ladakh paying homage to Tibet, it
was a vassal in the religious sense in that Ladakh Buddhists
considered Lhasa as their spiritual center.  Sort of on the order that
countries which are "officially" Roman Catholic are independent
nations but have a "religious subservience"  and are vassals of the

Nepal gets a little complicated again but it could not truly be called
a vassal of Tibet.  Actually, for a time it was a vassal of China,
though the Nepalese never recognized the fact.  In India, during the
mid-19th century, the Mughal Dynasty "informally" laid claim. 
Although the Mughals never exercised direct lordship over Nepal, their
empire had a major indirect impact on its institutional life. During
the sixteenth century, when the Mughals were spreading their rule over
almost all of South Asia, many dispossessed princes from the plains of
northern India found shelter in the north.  Along with these exiles
came Mughal military technology, including firearms and artillery, and
administrative techniques based on land grants in return for military
service. The influence of the Mughals is reflected in the weapons and
dress of Nepal's rulers in contemporary paintings and in the adoption
of Persian terminology for administrative offices and procedures
throughout Nepal.

Meanwhile, in Tibet domestic struggles during the 1720s led to
decisive intervention by the powerful Qing rulers of China
(1644-1911). A Chinese force installed the sixth Dalai Lama (the
highest ranking Tibetan religious leaders) in Lhasa in 1728, and
thereafter the Chinese stationed military governors (amban) in Lhasa
to monitor local events.  You may want to relate this back to the
first part of the answer.

 In 1729 Nepal sent greetings and presents to the Chinese emperor in
Beijing, after which the Qing viewed Nepal as an outlying tributary
kingdom (a perception not shared within Nepal as mentioned earlier -
though they did pay tribute to Beijing every five years after 1792 ).
The expansion of big empires in both the north and south thus took
place during a time when Nepal was experiencing considerable weakness
in its traditional center. Nepal lived a charmed life--isolated,
independent, and quarreling in its mountain valley as the systems
around them became larger and more centralized.  During this time,
Nepal was influenced to various degrees by Hindu ideas and practices. 
So by the late 19th century, Nepal was a mixture of Persian Islamic,
Tibetan Buddhist, Hindu cultures all bubbling and boiling together. 
No wonder they spent their "charmed" lives quarreling with each other.

The main relationship between Nepal and Tibet was trade and the
Nepalese maintained trading agencies in important Tibetan settlements.
 the traditional Buddhists of Nepal had a relationship with Lhasa much
like that of Ladakh.

Nepal was also composed of many little warlords who were constantly
changing alliances and while there was an awareness of the distinct
culture of the Himalayan area, there was  no "real concept" of Nepal
as a nation till later in the 20th century.

So, Nepal cannot be called a vassal of Tibet, though Nepal did invade
Tibet a few times, demanded Tibet surrender the Kuti and Kairang
passes north of Kathmandu, threatened Shigatse, seat of the Panchen
Lama, the second highest-ranking lama in Tibet, and extracted promises
of tribute which were never kept.   One cannot call that relationship
being a "vassal."

Bhutan, on the other hand, did have a vassal relationship with Tibet. 
It was late in developing and was based first on a Chinese seizure of
the area and later help provided by the Dali Lama.

At the beginning of the 16th century, it was ruled by a dual monarchy
consisting of a Dharma Raja, or spiritual ruler, and a Deb Raja, or
temporal ruler. For much of its early history the Deb Raja held little
real power, as the provincial governors (ponlops) became quite strong.
In 1720 the Chinese invaded Tibet and established authority over
Bhutan. Friction between Bhutan and Indian Bengal culminated in a
Bhutanese invasion of Cooch Behar in 1772, followed by a British
incursion into Bhutan, but the Tibetan Lama's intercession with the
governor-general of British India improved relations.  The Chinese
invasion of 1720 and the later situation with the British, cemented
the relationship between Bhutan and Tibet.

See? - - I knew at least one of these relationships with Tibet was
going to be easy.

If you need more, let me know.

wolvies-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $15.00
Excellent, and full of much extremely useful detail. Superb service
from the great Digs :)

There are no comments at this time.

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