In this brief overview of the Tibetan empire, I am mostly relying on the works of Matthew Kapstein and Christopher Beckwith, and I've therefore decided to use Kapstein's (unorthodox but easy to read) transliteration of the Tibetan language. In addition, I have provided the Wylie transliteration (the harder-to-read but more accurate one, in terms of replicating the written form of Tibetan) where possible.
The image of Tibet portrayed in various media these days, of a small and peaceful nation of Buddhists unfairly in thrall to China, has no correlate in the ancient past. In the late seventh century a Tibetan-speaking government wrested control of the entirety of the Tibetan Plateau – a 200 million-year-old swathe of extreme highland larger than the entire Republic of India – and beyond, into Xinjiang, Gansu, and Shanxi, even briefly capturing the capital of Tang China at Chang’an (modern Xi’an) in 763.
Tibetan armies campaigned in Ladakh, in present-day Jammu and Kashmir, and in Bihar, present day India, even going so far as to rescue a Tang diplomatic mission lost near Tirabhukti (now named Tirhut) in 648. Nepal, or at least the Kathmandu valley, which had been under the control of the Licchavi from the early first millennium CE, also fell to Tibet’s rulers. And for a time, Tibet struggled against both China and the Arabs for control of the trade routes to the north of the Plateau, the ‘Silk Road’, a contest ultimately decided in the mid-eighth century in favour of the Arabs at the battle of Talas (or Taraz).
How this came about gives a small insight into the rise of states in general, and is of course an interesting story all of its own. It also says a lot about inner Asia in the late first millennium CE.
Written history in Tibetan goes back only as far as the early empire, with edicts and texts preserving a surprisingly rich and apparently accurate historical tradition, including both the Old Tibetan Annals and the Old Tibetan Chronicle. (In fact some details of these chronicles may be disputed - there is no evidence from the time of the Nepalese princess who reportedly married Songtsen Gampo, for example, only later reportage - but they're probably as reliable as most Chinese and European chronicles, in any case.) But Tibet had considerably older roots in the Tibeto-Burman-speaking populations that had spread across its spiky surface in the Neolithic, represented especially by the archaeological sites of Karo/Karuo, in modern-day Qinghai province, China (Amdo in Tibetan); Nyalam, on the Tibet-Nepal border; and Qugong, near Lhasa, the ancient capital of Tibet. These people raised pigs, grew millet, and appear to have avoided fish despite living near rivers (Tibetans retain a taboo on eating fish, a taboo strong enough to give rise to a euphemism, chili lapuk, or ‘turnip of the waters’, for fish eaten out of necessity). This lifestyle was widespread across the Tibetan Plateau at least 3,000 years ago, if not earlier.
|Tsampa (Wylie: rtsam-pa), the traditional Tibetan staple of roasted barley meal. Source: flickr|
Millet and pigs were characteristic of early Tibeto-Burman societies, but by the historic period the major crop was barley (Hordeum vulgare L.), the cereal that built Sumer’s cities, and the most important animal was the yak (Bos grunniens), which was apparently domesticated by the ancestors of the Qiang people of northwest China, the people noted in Shang dynasty texts as sacrificial victims in state ceremonies. These plants and animals formed the dominant means of subsistence on the Tibetan Plateau: farming, or zhingpa, and pastoral nomadism, or drokpa. The preferred lifestyle was samadrok – 'neither farmer nor nomad', a balanced combination of the two. This mix, combined with an almost Andean attempt to exploit the varying resources at different altitudes, gave the Tibetan state the mobility and resources it needed for its expansion. For most, Tibetan life was the hard life of the herder, and we shouldn't imagine that it was especially graceful, meditative, or elegant: a legal text discovered at Dunhuang dating to the early ninth century specifically mentions the legal ramifications of injury from dog-bites and yak stampedes.
There was considerable Near Eastern and Iranic influence in early Tibetan religion and in architecture, especially fortress architecture, alongside the more obvious introduction of barley. Influence from Indian states to the south came in the form of the Buddhist religion, definitively established in Tibet by 762, and also in art, myth, and, perhaps most importantly (after Buddhism), script. Chinese influence was vital in fixing Tibet’s historical traditions and in developing strong economic links across Eurasia, and China was, by a considerable margin, the most important political influence on the Tibetan empire.
Another important influence was Zhangzhung, a kingdom on the Tibetan Plateau that had been established in the early first millennium. The Zhangzhung language has been preserved in a few texts; it is Tibeto-Burman but not Tibetan, an indication of the early diversity of the region. Before the Tibetan cultural expansion (which was also the imperial expansion), much of the Himalayan region also spoke Indo-European languages, especially Dardic languages (a sub-branch of Indo-Aryan which includes Kashmiri), and there are some intriguing isolates in the valleys, including Burushaski, on the origins of which I do not wish to speculate. There are Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Chinese, Mongol, and Kashmiri words in the modern Tibetan language and even some apparent Greek influence in traditional Tibetan medicine (at least, according to Old Tibet expert Christopher Beckwith). Needless to say, Tibet is not a homogeneous entity and the roots of its empire lie across the Eurasian continent.
Important trade routes went all the way around Tibet in the middle of the first millennium: a) the Myanmar-Yunnan route to the southeast, which was important in linking northeast India, Nepal, and mainland southeast Asia with China and Nanzhao, and which mainly trafficked in horses and (later) tea; b) the ‘Silk Road’, which went north of Tibet; and c) the route through Sindh and northwest India and what is now Pakistan, which linked the Persian world with India and central Asia. Much of this land was populated by Buddhists: the Kushan empire had spread Buddhism along the ‘Silk Road’ in the early first millennium CE and much of northeast India was Buddhist, or at least a mix of various Hindu and Buddhist sects. Buddhism was also on the rise in China. Tibet, probably as a result of its difficulty of access and relative lack of useful resources, was a non-Buddhist island. It was politically fragmented, with small kingdoms like Zhangzhung holding sway over small territories and most farmers and herders living in non-state conditions. Its religions, often labelled Bön after a later incarnation developed in the tenth century, were hybrids of Iranian and Tibeto-Burman traditions, involving in particular the sacrifice by beheading of yaks and stags.
In about 600 CE, the Pugyel, the kings of Pu, rose to power across the plateau, probably through a combination of warfare and marriage alliances. It is notable that the title of the most highly respected ministers in early Tibet was zhanglön, meaning ‘minister who is a maternal uncle’, clearly indicating the role of marriage alliances in gluing the Tibetan realm together. This also made the monarchy inherently unstable as competing clans, or rii, vied for power with one another, exacerbating other structural defects in the Tibetan imperial system.
According to the sources, sometime in the late-sixth/early-seventh century, Takbu Nyazi (Wylie transliteration: sTag-ri gNyan-gzigs), ruler of Pu in the Yarlung valley, united his realm in battle against Takkyawo, lord of a rival kingdom named Zingpo. When Takbu Nyazi died, his son Namri Löntsen (Wylie: gNam-ri slon-mtshan) attacked and defeated Takkyawo with 10,000 men (so the chronicles say) and acquired the fealty of neighbouring kingdoms, including Zhangzhung on the west of the plateau. In 608, the new tsenpo, or ruler, sent an embassy to the Sui dynasty, according to the records of the Sui, indicating the strength of the new polity.
It wasn't until the reign of Songtsen Gampo (Wylie: Srong-btsan sGam-po) (b. 605-650), beginning in 617, a year before the rise of the Tang dynasty, that the empire really began to grow. Songtsen didn't rely entirely on military action, and the Old Tibetan Chronicle tells us that he promised to use his military power to ensure the safety of the herds of the Sumpa, a northeastern tribe related to the Qiang, and thereby ‘captured [them] as subjects’. Songtsen then campaigned against the Azha, a Turkic group living in Qinghai between Tang territory and Tibet, known to the Chinese as the Tuyuhun, before turning his attention to Zhangzhung, still somewhat independent of the empire. He sent his sister Semakar to marry Lignigya, king of Zhangzhung. Lignigya apparently had little regard for her and, scorned, she schemed against him, retaining her loyalty to her brother. Through her efforts, Zhangzhung was integrated into the empire despite Songtsen’s initial reluctance to violate the alliance that had resulted from the marriage.
In 634, Songtsen defeated the Azha, who had also suffered from Chinese assaults in the years prior to their conquest by Tibet. The buffer between China and Tibet was now eliminated and the two powers established direct diplomatic relations. Songtsen demanded a Chinese princess, as the rulers of many tributary states did, but was initially refused. After Tibetan troops raided Chinese territory in 638, Songtsen’s demand seemed more reasonable, and the Chinese court at Chang’an accepted the Tibetan envoy Gar Tongtsen. Gar returned to Tibet in 641 with the Princess Wencheng in tow; she was reportedly disgusted by the Tibetan custom of painting the face red, which Songtsen stopped immediately with an imperial edict. At the same time, Chinese and Tibetan scholars exchanged knowledge and ideas and a true alliance was forged between the two powers. A similar alliance developed with the rulers of the Kathmandu valley, who sent the Princess Tritsün to marry Songtsen. By 650, Nepal was little more than a Tibetan vassal.
Songtsen’s successor, Manglön Mangtsen (Wylie: Khri-mang-slon-rtsan), grew the empire yet further, taking the Tarim Basin in modern-day Xinjiang province – the location of the ancient skeletons of the Indo-European-speaking Tocharians – in about 670, along with Kashgar and Khotan, two states of the ‘Silk Road’ to Tibet’s northeast. Forts were established in Xinjiang and Gansu. Khotan was lost to Tibet in 695, managing to remain an independent kingdom until it was conquered by an Islamic army in the early eleventh century, but the Tibetan empire continued to grow under Tsenpo Düsong (Wylie: Khri 'dus-srong btsan), who invaded Nanzhao (Tibetan: Jang) in 704, possibly dying there. Under Tri Detsuktsen (Wylie: Khri-lde-gtsug-btsan), who reigned between 712 and 755, links with China were solidified, especially after the tsenpo’s marriage to a Chinese princess named Jincheng. It was during this time that the Tibetans made their first contact with the Arabs who were invading central Asia.
|A map of the empire at its peak; Nanzhao is included, although in fact the Tibetan armies only campaigned there without taking power completely, and 'Tuyuhun' and 'Azha' both seem to refer to the same group of people and therefore shouldn't be shown separately, but this is otherwise accurate (as far as I can tell). Credit: Javierfv1212, Wikipedian.|
Jincheng was a devout Buddhist, and established the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet during Detsuktsen’s reign. Unfortunately, she and many of the monks died in an outbreak of plague in 739, an outbreak that may have had its origins in the plague of Justinian. Perhaps it was brought to Tibet through conquests in central Asia, the same location from which much Buddhist influence also came. The plague outbreak coincided with a reduction in Tibetan power, a trend that was compounded by a coup deposing Tri Detsuktsen in 755 (remarkably occurring in tandem with the An Lushan rebellion, and within a few years of the Abbasid overthrow of the Umayyad caliphate) and by the adoption of Buddhism in 762. The empire managed one final push into China starting in 763 in the wake of the An Lushan event, even going so far as to capture Chang’an and install one of Jincheng’s uncles as a puppet. A system of relays was established and a new imperial office, the delön, or ‘pacification minister’, was established to administer the new territory. But by the late eighth century, the Tibetan empire was on the wane.
Buddhism was incredibly attractive to medieval Tibetans as a result of its cosmopolitan connections and its mastery of reason: it came packaged with a strong tradition of logic and a fascinating spiritual literature, which when translated into over 300 volumes served to enrich the Tibetan quotidian and literary languages in profound ways. Buddhism also came with obligations for the state, however, so its adoption had serious political repercussions. One obligation was to support the sangha and provide both land and wealth, when possible, for the monks’ upkeep. This land was given indefinitely and was not taxable. This had the effect of draining state resources and even permanently surrendering taxable land and wealth to non-state institutions, destroying the tax base on which the state depended. This is a little like what happens when modern governments tax corporations at extremely low rates while providing the infrastructure and bail-outs necessary for the corporations' existence and survival (although the economic output of such companies might be able to attenuate the damage done by their non-payment of tax). The other Buddhist obligation - arguably either more or less important in weakening Tibet militarily - was the religious imperative to limit warfare and refrain from aggressive conquest. The Tibetans appear to have taken this seriously only after their military power was already on the way out due to structural issues, chief among them the money drain to Buddhist congregations and the machinations of powerful clans.
In the early ninth century, the Tang dynasty sought a marriage alliance with the Uyghur Turks who were establishing themselves in China’s northwest. Tibet under tsenpo Tri Relpachen (Wylie: Khri-gtsug-lde-brtsan) saw this as a threat and immediately invaded China in force. Warfare in Gansu and Sichuan was intense, and the Tibetan army went so far as to massacre half of the population of Khartsen, modern day Liangzhou in the Hexi corridor in Gansu. The campaigns depleted Tibet’s finances, which were already strained by the need to support Buddhist monks, and it struck a hypocritical note in a then-nominally Buddhist society. (You may note, however, the close parallels to the story of Asoka, who laid down his arms after massacring the Kalinga; whether the Tibetan account is a semi-fictitious play on that trope or the truth of what happened probably cannot be known for sure.) The Tang and Tibetans resolved the conflict with a treaty in 821, preserved on a pillar in Lhasa known as the ön-zhang doring, ‘uncle-nephew pillar inscription’. Tibet was now firmly the nephew to China’s uncle, and the moon to China's sun.
In the wake of this treaty, and apparently disgusted at their own violence at Khartsen, the Tibetans never again successfully conquered new territory. Without the financial stimulus provided by fresh conquest, Tibet ran out of money, troops weren't paid, and squabbles began at the top. Clans formerly held together through marriage alliances and their selection for ministerial positions vied for power, including the Khön clan who would later rule much of Tibet under nominal Mongol control. The Hexi corridor fell to the Tang after the province broke from the empire, before finally the empire split into a multiplicity of kingdoms in a time known to Tibetan historians as silbü dü, ‘the time of fragmentation’. Life for the average Tibetan likely remained much the same, however: the daily grind of herding animals, churning butter, and avoiding yak stampedes and the jaws of neighbours’ dogs, with a slightly increased threat of raiding and rustling.
In the tenth century, the Kingdom of Gugé became prominent in western Tibet, and Tibetan Buddhist teachers became fashionable and important in China, especially under the Western Xia dynasty, where the monks formed the first yönchö, ‘patron-priest relations’. This later became the basis of Tibetan diplomacy with the Mongols and the Ming dynasty, giving Tibetans surprising influence in international affairs (including assisting in the creation of one of the official scripts of the Mongol empire). There was an eventual cultural revival due in part to the influence of Kashmiri artists; the institution of trülkü, or reincarnation of the master, through which the office of Dalai Lama (a much later figure) would eventually be selected, was established as a convenient way of circumventing clan rivalries; and the trade in tea, silk, and ink from China to Tibet was properly established in the eleventh century (the trade had formerly relied on other products, including staples and horses). But these days Tibet's role in global affairs is notably diminished, and Tibetan cultural hegemony on the Plateau is fading in response to Chinese political and linguistic domination, not to mention rapid urbanisation. It is thus easy to forget that Tibetans were once serious rivals to the Arabs and Chinese in central Asia, and that they campaigned well into Chinese territory at a time considered to be one of China's golden ages.