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Book Excerpt: Tibet’s relations with Qing China

Though ties were initially friendly, they soured in the long-term, recounts ‘Echoes from forgotten mountains’

By Jamyang Norbu
Published: Saturday 09 September 2023

The Potala Palace, once the winter home of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet. Photo: iStockThe Potala Palace, once the winter home of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet. Photo: iStock

Tibet’s initial encounter with the Qing (Manchu) Empire began agreeably enough in 1651 with the third Emperor Shunzhi, a devout Buddhist, inviting the Fifth Dalai Lama to Beijing and receiving him as an “independent sovereign” according to most historical accounts. A deeply spiritual person, the Emperor wanted to travel beyond the Great Wall to welcome the Dalai Lama. The Chinese ministers in the court opposed the Emperor’s decision as being submissive and unseemly, and recruited the help of the Jesuit astronomer Johann Adam Schall von Bell (head of the Imperial Board of Astronomy) who submitted a memorial indicating that though “. . . the Sun is the symbol of the Monarch, yet Venus dares to challenge its brilliance” and so on—thus making it unsafe for the Emperor to undertake a long journey outside the Great Wall.

The Manchus gained a toehold in Tibet in 1720, helping the Tibetans expel a ravaging Dzungar Mongol army and escorting the twelve-year-old Seventh Dalai Lama to Lhasa. Actual Qing protectorate rule in Tibet was established some years later and done so with a memorably terrifying introduction. Exploiting a civil war in Tibet, a Manchu expeditionary army marched into Lhasa in 1728. On 1 November that year, in a meadow by the banks of the Bamari canal, a few miles south-west of the Potala, seventeen Tibetans (on the losing side of the civil war) were put to death by professional executioners of the Manchu army. The principal prisoners, two ministers of the Kashag (cabinet) Ngabö and Lumpa, were put to death by the uniquely Chinese form of execution known as língchí, sometimes translated as the “lingering death” or “death of a thousand cuts,” whereby the condemned person had small portions of his body methodically sliced off with a knife over an extended period of time—perhaps even a week or so—till he finally died.

Thirteen others were decapitated while two high lamas were slowly garroted to death. Concluding his description of this event the Italian historian, Luciano Petech, noted: “The work of Chinese justice was completed by the traditional execution of all the nearer relations of the culprits, small children not excepted.”

But by the beginning of the twentieth century, the power of the Manchu Imperial representatives in Lhasa, the Ambans, had waned considerably. A national consciousness had begun to assert itself in a new generation of Tibetan officials who came together around the young Thirteenth Dalai Lama forming a “National Party” according to L.A. Waddell, a contemporary British ethnologist based in Darjeeling, “. . . that saved the young Dalai from the tragic fate of his predecessors, and rescuing him and the Tibetan government out of Chinese leadingstrings by a dramatic coup d’état.”

Acts of defiance against the Chinese increased. Even a somewhat rash military action was undertaken against the British, who, in addition to its annexation of Sikkim, Tibetans regarded as colluding with the Chinese to undermine Tibetan sovereignty. In fact, by recognizing China’s claims of suzerain authority over Tibet, Britain had secured, in addition to favourable trade-agreements, China’s formal recognition of Britain’s military annexation of Burma in 1885.

But, in 1905, in a last burst of imperial power play the energetic and ruthless Qing official Zhao Erfeng (later viceroy of Sichuan province) invaded and captured large areas of Eastern Tibet, burned down monasteries, butchered thousands of monks and deposed a number of ancient independent and semi-independent Tibetan kings and rulers on the Sino-Tibetan frontier. Tibetans were ordered to shave the front of their heads and adopt Chinese-style pigtails as a symbol of their allegiance to the Qing Emperor. Both sexes were enjoined to discard their traditional chuba robes and wear cotton trousers “in the interests of morality.” The first large-scale population transfer of Chinese peasants, ex-soldiers and lumpen elements from such cities as Chengdu, Ya’an and others, to Tibet was, with European and American missionary collusion, set in motion. Zhao in a memorial to the throne proudly described his grand enterprise in Eastern Tibet “. . . as a colonial one, comparable to that of the British, French, Japanese and Americans in Asia and Africa.”

Finally on 12 February 1910, the troops of “Butcher” Zhao, as his Sichuanese subjects called him, approached Lhasa. The Tibetan cabinet sent a monk official, Khenchung Jampa Chosang, to parley with the Chinese, but he and his entourage of eight were all beheaded. When the Chinese force reached Lhasa, it fired on some Tibetan policemen and also on officials and citizens near the Jokhang Temple. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama had just returned to his own capital city a little more than a month earlier, from a previous exile forced on him by the British invasion of his country—the innocuously named Younghusband Expedition—ordered by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India.

Excerpted with permission from Echoes From Forgotten Mountains: Tibet in War and Peace by Jamyang Norbu @2023 by Penguin Viking

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