We’ve become accustomed to thinking Tibet in terms of its present status, subsumed by China, so it’s interesting to consider the time when Tibet was an occupying force in parts of China. It’s fairly well-known that the Tibetan army was once a very effective war machine that even got as far as occupying the Chinese capital in 763. But what was it like to be a person of Chinese background living under Tibetan occupation?
After their town fell to the Tibetans in 786, the Chinese inhabitants of Dunhuang were forced to abandon many of their cultural customs. For instance, they had to wear Tibetan clothes, and were only allowed to put on their traditional outfits on special occasions. A passage from the New Tang Annals suggests that this was a cause of secret sorrow:
The inhabitants of the city all adopted foreign dress, and submitted to the enemy; but each year when they worshipped their ancestors, they put on their Chinese clothes, and wept bitterly as they put them by.
The strains in the relationship between the Chinese inhabitants of Dunhuang and their Tibetan overlords can be seen in some of the letters from the sealed cave in Dunhuang. One letter (Pelliot tibétain 1083) deals with about a situation in which Tibetan officials were basically kidnapping Chinese women to be their wives. The letter is from the Tibetan minister responsible for the whole region, who had received several petitions from local Chinese about this abuse of power by Tibetan officials. To his credit, he responded by banning the practice of kidnapping, saying that the women should be able to marry according to their own wishes.
Another letter (Pelliot tibétain 1089) is a response to an uprising by the Chinese in Dunhuang against their Tibetan masters, in which some Tibetans were killed. In response to demands from the Chinese officials for greater powers, the letter sets out the hierarchy of official positions. The long list is a treasure-trove for those who study the bureaucracy of the Tibetan empire. But let us just note one thing: the letter makes it clear that even the lowest-ranking Tibetan is of higher status than the highest-ranking Chinese.
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Not that relations between the Tibetan masters and their Chinese subjects were all about hostility. Over time, a generation of Chinese grew up in Dunhuang, learning to read and write (and presumably, speak) Tibetan. Many of them even had Tibetan names. On the other hand, there was no attempt to stop people using the Chinese language, so a generation of children grew up bilingual.
Out of this came one of the great translators of the time, Go Chodrup. His work translating Chinese texts into Tibetan came to the attention of the Tibetan emperor, who issued Chodrup with commissions to translate Buddhist sutras. Though this point is much contested, it seems that Chodrup was a Chinese (his other, Chinese, name was Facheng) from the same Wu clan as the influential priest Hongbian (see the last post). Much later, some of Chodrup’s translations were accepted into the Tibetan Buddhist canon — a lasting effect of the cultural pluralism at Dunhuang.
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The Tibetanized Chinese people of Dunhuang proved to be useful to the Tibetan empire in another way. With its sophisticated papermaking resources, Dunhuang was an ideal scriptorium, and in the early ninth century thousands of copies of sutras were written here. Most of the scribes were Chinese, but they were overseen by Tibetans. Discipline was tough: wasted paper would be punished by flogging, and failure to produce the sutras on time could result in a scribe’s property being impounded, or his family being held hostage (see this post).
Presumably this didn’t happen too often, for Dunhuang turned out to be a very efficient scriptorium for the Tibetan Empire. Manuscripts of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras produced here have been discovered recently in monastic libraries Central Tibet. How do we know they came from Dunhuang? Because they are signed by the same scribes, Chinese scribes, seen in the colophons of the manuscripts found in Dunhuang itself.
Of course, some of these Chinese scribes must have felt a little rebellious under the thumb of their Tibetan masters. One wouldn’t necessarily expect to see examples of this, history being written by the victors, and so on. But I recently came across a little poem scribbled on a piece of scrap paper owned by one of the scribes (this paper is known as legtsé, wrapping paper for bundles of blank pages delivered to scribes). The scribe has signed it thus:
This is the scrap paper of Lenho Wenman. Anyone who steals it will be cut into pieces!
Elsewhere on the paper this pugnacious scribe has written the first lines of a poem. Here is my very loose translation:
We are the subjects of Tibet,
Which comes down on us like hammer blows
Though the tiger is noble
To challenge it is a great thing!
Eventually, Tibetan rule was seriously challenged by a local Chinese movement called “Return to Allegiance” which reclaimed Dunhuang in the year 848. The Chinese were their own masters again, yet they were not the same as they had been before the Tibetans came. They continued to use the Tibetan language, and to practice Tibetan Buddhism, for many years to come.
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IOL Tib J 1273: $/:/bdag cag cag ni bod kyi ‘bangs/ gar bab ni thog thog bzhin/ dpal kyang stag la ‘gran/ bzang khyad ni …
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1. Seal from Pelliot tibétain 1089
2. Detail, including seal, from Pelliot tibétain 1083.
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The translation from the New Tang Annals is from: Bushell, Stephen W. 1880. The Early History of Tibet from Chinese Sources. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 12: 435–541. (Quote from p.514)
For studies of the two Dunhuang letters, see the Old Tibetan Documents Online website.
On the Chinese-Tibetan names of Dunhuang residents, see: Tsuguhito Takeuchi. 1995. Old Tibetan Contracts from Central Asia. Tokyi: Daizo Shuppan.
And on multicultural Dunhuang, see this excellent article by Tokio Takata.
Finally, my thanks to Pasang Wangdu for discussing his insights regarding these Perfection of Wisdom manuscripts with me.