The red-faced men I: Warriors with painted faces

Tibetan mounted warriors

Tibetan histories present the Tibetans before their conversion to Buddhism as violent and unlearned, without writing, law or the civilizing effect of the dharma, and possessing a number of unsavoury customs, including blood sacrifices and painting their faces red with ochre or vermilion. The description of the Tibetans as ‘red-faced men’ came to be a signifier of all of this pre-Buddhist barbarity, and of the civilizing effects of Buddhism. In the early 10th century Nub Sangye Yeshe wrote of early Tibet: “These kingdoms at the borderlands, these lands of the Tibetans, the red-faced barbarians.” A couple of centuries later the Sakya patriarch Sönam Tsemo quoted the following prophecy (spoken by the Buddha) in his history of the dharma:

“Two thousand five hundred years after my parinirvāṇa, the true dharma will be propagated in the land of the red-faced men.”

In Sönam Tsemo’s time, the date of the Buddha’s passing was thought to be around 2130 BC, which is indeed around 2,500 years before the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet in the mid-7th century. After Sönam Tsemo this prophecy continued to appear in many Tibetan histories. So, where did this characterization of the early Tibetans as ‘red-faced men’ come from? If the Tibetans did have the custom of painting their faces with ochre or vermilion before going into battle, then the first impression that their enemies—such as the Central Asian kingdoms—formed of these newcomers would have been of terrifying ‘red-faced men’.

As for the prophecy, Sönam Tsemo said that it was from a scripture called The Enquiry of the Goddess Vimala. Now this surely must be the same text as the one found in the Tibetan canon called The Enquiry of Vimalaprabhā, a Khotanese text that was translated into Tibetan. Cast in the form of a prophecy, it deals with the fears of the Khotanese Buddhists under the onslaught of the Tibetan war machine in the 7th century, and their hopes for a saviour. (FW Thomas whimsically suggested that the The Enquiry of Vimalaprabhā was the Khotanese Romance of its age and that its heroine was Khotan’s Joan of Arc!) The prophecy about the dharma being propagated in the land of the red-faced men does not in fact appear here, but the Tibetan warriors are constantly referred to as ‘red-faced men’.

It does then seem that we have the Khotanese to thank for the enduring image of the early Tibetans as ‘red-faced men’. This is only one instance of the cultural influence of Khotan upon Tibet, an influence that was later almost entirely forgotten by the Tibetans themselves. After the 10th century Khotan became part of the Islamic world, and its influence on Tibetan Buddhism ended. The Tibetans gradually forgot even the location of the place called Khotan (or rather Liyül in Tibetan), often confusing it with distant Nepal. In an odd parallel, many later Islamic geographies seem to have confused the location of Tibet with Khotan.

As a postscript to this discussion, I couldn’t ignore the much-quoted prophecy attributed to Padmasambhava which also speaks of Buddhism coming to the ‘red-faced men’, often interpreted uncritically as a reference to Native Americans:

When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the world, and the dharma will come to the land of the red-faced man.

I have never seen a reliable reference to the source of this prophecy (presumably it ought to be from a treasure text) and I’d be happy to be put right if anybody is able to point out a source. However, even if there is something like this prophecy in a genuine Tibetan source it should be pointed out that Tibetans would always have understood the phrase ‘red-faced men’ to refer to themselves.

*  *  *

See also
The Red-faced Men II: China or Tibet?
The Red-faced Men III: the red-faced women

1. Thomas, F.W. 1935. Tibetan Literary Texts and Documents, Part I: Literary texts. London: Royal Asiatic Society.
2. Vogel, Claus. 1991. “Bu-ston on the date of the Buddha’s Nirvana. Translated from his History of the Doctrine (Chos-‘byung). In The Dating of the Historical Buddha. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.

Tibetan Sources
1. Dri ma med pa’i ‘od kyis zhus pa [The Enquiry of Vimalaprabhā]. Q.835.
2. Gnubs sangs rgyas ye shes. Bsam gtan mig sgron / Rnal ‘byor mig gi bsam gtan [A Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation]. Leh, Ladakh: S. W. Tashigangpa, 1974.
3. Bsod nams rtse mo. Chos la ‘jug pa’i sgo [An Introduction to the Dharma]. In Sa skya bka’ ‘bum, vol.I.

Photograph of Tibetan soldiers in ceremonial costumes supposed to represent Imperial-period Tibetan soldiers. Taken by Lt. Col. Ilya Tolstoy and Capt. Brooke Dolan in 1942-3. See Rob Linrothe’s site.

9 thoughts on “The red-faced men I: Warriors with painted faces

  1. Dear Early Tibet,

    Congratulations on the marvelous blog entry! Yes, I’ve often wondered, as have many, about the source of that “Iron bird flies” prophecy. Did it come out of thin air, or is there some real source for it?

    For a rational reduction of it rather like yours (and mine, actually), see Stephen Batchelor’s recently uploaded essay here:

    I do have one source that would seem to put an interesting if small wrinkle in your historical argument, however. (Well, maybe not.)

    I have my own copy of the journal The Indo-Asian Culture, vol. 6, no. 1 (July 1957). The first article contains a transcription of an speech given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in New Delhi in November 1956. It may be easier to find this speech in Shakabpa’s Tibet: A Political History, pp. 329-331. I recommend having a look at the whole speech, and puzzling over His statement: “In one of the Sutras the Lord Buddha had predicted that after 2500 years of his Parinirvana, the Dharma would flourish in the country of red-faced people. In the past some of the Tibetan scholars had held that this prediction was meant for Tibet, but one scholar, Saka Shri, has however interpreted it otherwise. According to him, the prediction refers to Europe where the Dharma may flourish hereafter and some signs of this can be observed already. If the Dharma spreads all over the world, it will undoubtedly yield good fruits for our future life, but even in our present life, hatred, exploitation of one by another and the ways and deeds of violence will disappear and the time will come when all will live in friendship in a prosperous and happy world.”

    I have never seen a Tibetan-language version of this speech, although if one exists it could clarify a few things no doubt. Surely by Saka Shri, H.H. did *not* mean the 12th-13th century Shakyashri (even though He mentioned him earlier in the speech). He certainly must mean the Tibetan named Shakya Shri, often given the title Togden (Rtogs-ldan), a very well known Drugpa Kagyü and Nyingma teacher of Kham who lived from 1853-1919 CE.

    Note well that H.H.’s speech makes no reference whatsoever to the “wheeled horses” or “iron bird flies” of the longer prophecy. And while He does know that gdong-dmar-can-gyi yul (red faced country) means Tibetans in most Tibetans’ minds, there is one (perhaps *only* one) who thinks it means Europe. No mention of the Americas here!


  2. Thanks for an absolutely fascinating comment! It does seem that H.H. had prophecy quoted by Sönam Tsemo in mind. The modern history of that iron-bird/iron-horse prophecy has yet to be written. I always thought Don Lopez should have had a chapter on it in his Prisoners of Shangrila. One could of course interpret ‘red-faced’ as a reference to the pink northern Europeans and North Americans–but why only them when Tibetan Buddhism has now spread to many places where people are neither red nor pink faced?

    Funny that H.H. mentioned a Shakyashri. I’m sure you’re right that he did not mean the 12th-13th century Shakyashri, but it strikes me that it was the latter who introduced Tibet to a much later dating of the Buddha’s nirvana–544 BC (see Vogel’s article mentioned in the references above). This would of course invalidate Sönam Tsemo’s interpretation of the Khotanese prophecy as a reference to Tibet since 2,500 years after that date gives us the year 2044.

    So perhaps we should be looking forward to something significant happening that date! But then again, going by the current dating of the Buddha’s nirvana to between 420 and 350 BC by modern scholars, we will have to wait still longer, till the 22nd century…

  3. Dear Early,

    Surprise, another small postscript wrinkle. I think you’re probably right that Sönam Tsemo’s history was the first, but then it was very soon followed by Nyangral, Khepa Deu and Butön. When you look at Butön (Öbermiller’s English translation, pp. 105 & 108), you find yet another very interesting identification of the Country of Red Faces:

    rba bzhed nas gdong dmar gyi yul rgya bshad do //

    Or, as Öbermiller rather fairly translates it, “According to the opinion of Rba, ‘the country of the red-faced’ means China.”

    Hmmm. A more accurate translation would be something like, “Country of Red-Face[s] is explained in the Bazhé to mean China.”

    I’m 95% sure nothing like this quote occurs in the Stein or Mgon-po-rgyal-mtshan editions of the Bazhé (Sba-bzhed).

    But have a look at the more recently published Wazhé (Dba’-bzhed), the translation & facsimile by Wangdu & Diemberger, folio 10 verso. Their English translation is on p. 51: “The Buddha prophesied that a spiritual master for the practice of the holy doctrine would appear in a time close to the last [period of] 500 years in the country of the Red-faced.”

    {{((The footnote no. 135 here gives a reference to our prophecy as found the history by Nyangral, which would only be a few decades later than Sönam Tsemo’s history… Here in the Wazhé you can see how Butön could have gotten the impression that Red-faced country means China. But if you read carefully you will see that the words of the prophecy are being quoted by none other than the Chinese emperor of the time (8th century), addressing himself to his Tibetan visitor Ba Salnang (Sba Gsal-snang). I’m fairly certain that the emperor, in quoting the prophecy, is taking Red-Faces to mean Tibet, not China, since anyway Ba is about to return to Tibet.))}}

    Another small wrinkle on that prophecy! And still another reason to say Hmmm.

    Let’s see, so far we have the country of the red faces meaning [1] Tibet, [2] China, [3] Europe, and [4] America (perhaps more or less in that historical order?). I’m beginning to believe that iron birds can truly fly. Yes, even if the theory of universal gravitation might say, ‘No way.’ Already we’re somewhere over the rainbow. So perhaps *all* our faces are red or some invisible ultraviolet or infrared beyond the usual spectrum. All kinds of things can happen in this so-called universe of possibilities.

    (For you all Tibetanists out there, it’s lung ma bstan, not lung bstan!)


  4. Lung ma bstan indeed! Well, let me just add one more thing to your (once again) fascinating comments, which is that Pawo Tsuglag Trengwa discussed the very issue we have been struggling with here in his Scholar’s Feast (Mkhas pa’i dga’ ston), and decided the the country of the red-faced was, after all, Tibet. I don’t have time to translate the passage, but here’s the Tibetan for those able and interested enough to read it:

    // bod du chos byung ba ni lha mo dri ma med pa’i ‘od lung bstan pa’i mdor / lo stong dang lnga brgya na dam pa’i chos gdong dmar can gyi yul zhes pa bod du ‘byung bar bshad pas dus mi mtshungs par snang mod / dza’i khang thog nas mi snang bar gyur pa dag pa’i zhing du gnas nas phyis bod tu babs pa lta bu la ni ‘gal ba med to // bod du chos ‘byung tshul ‘di la’ang lo gnyis stong lnga brgya zhes zer ba mang bar snang yang stong dang lnga brgyar ‘chad pa rnams ‘grig par snang zhing ‘di ni chos rgyal khri srong lde btsan gyi dus la dgongs so // kun mkhyen bus rba bzhed nas gdong dmar can gyi yul rgya nag la bshad gsungs kyang rba bzhed na snang shi rgya nag du chos len par btang dus ju zhag mkhan mkhas pas byang chub sems dpa’i sprul pa byad ‘di ‘dra ba pho nyar ‘ong zhes ‘bag byas nas sleb pa’i tshe rgyal pos bya dga’ cher byin / gdong dmar can gyi yul du chos kyi khungs ‘byin pa’i byang chub sems dpa’ ‘byung bar lung bstan pa de khyod yin nges ces chos bam po stong tsam bskur zhes gdong dmar can gyi yul bod la ngos bzung ba ches gsal por yod to //

  5. Dear Early,

    You’re awake early this morning.

    There is one bit in your Tibetan source, apparently, that needs fixing in order for it to be intelligible.

    Instead of the phrase: snang shi rgya nag du chos len par btang dus..

    it has to read (regardless of what your text says): sang shi rgya nag du chos len par btang dus

    ‘When [Ba] Sangshi was sent to accept Dharma [texts] in China…’

    Otherwise it’s perfectly clear, especially the last part where historian Pawo Rinpoche recognizes, contrary to Butön, that the emperor ‘very obviously’ means ‘Tibet’ when he says Red-Face-Having Country…

    Maybe you’ll get time to translate it tomorrow morning bright and early?


  6. As they say, early Tibet, early to rise!

    Actually, I think ‘snang shi’ probably refers to Sba Gsal snang and Sba Sang shi as a pair, since these two are both said to have come to the Chinese emperor as bodhisattvas (see p.49 of the Wangdu and Diemberger translation of the Dba bzhed).

    Anyway I’ll translate that passage and write a bit more about it in the next few days as a new post.

  7. Thanks for posting this, it brought me some more understanding of that “iron bird” prophecy quote.

    Excellent blog by the way, I’m glad I found it. I have a blog on generally anything to do with Tibet. I’m a history undergrad major so I try to post a few posts on Tibetan history but I don’t have the resources and expertise that you have.

  8. So helpfull to get the more precise data concerning the widely used prophecies.
    I have for many years argued against the concept, that the had to do with “flying machines” or “trains”, as the “iron bird” or “iron horse” must be referring to the old mongolian calendar, widely used in Tibet, counting twelve animal-sign-years and combinig with five elements according to chinese tradition.

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