The Chinese under Tibetan rule

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.

*  *  *

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.

*  *  *

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.

*  *  *

Tibetan text

 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 …

*  *  *


1. Seal from Pelliot tibétain 1089
2. Detail, including seal, from Pelliot tibétain 1083.

*  *  *


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.

11 thoughts on “The Chinese under Tibetan rule

  1. In 1965 I discovered the poem “Jade Flower Place” by Tu Fu (Du Fu – 712-770) in the collection THE WHITE PONY by Robert Payne. It was that which began my lifelong career as a poet. Because I took refuge in 1986 as a Buddhist with a Tibetan Lama I often felt I was a child of two warring households like the Montagues and Capulets.

    You can look to DU FU’S LAMENTS FROM THE SOUTH by David R. Mc Craw for many enlightening poetic references to the Tibetans that back up this scribe’s opinion.

  2. Hi Dan,

    Well, according to “Choix de documents tibétains” the inscription is *bde blon gyi rtsis gyi phyag rgya*, confirming that this document was sent from the office of the chief minister for the region of the Tibetan empire that contain Dunhuang, the Delön (bde blon). I’m sure you also see the swastika, a sign denoting permanence, power, other the generally positive connations that it held for millenenia before the mid-20th century.

    Apart from that, I think it’s a matter of “say what you see.” Two seated figures, as the editors of “Choix de documents tibétains” point out (and that is all they commit to). Clearly the one on the left is on the higher seat, an almost universal sign of higher rank, and is wearing something on his head that may be a turban (which we know that the tsenpos wore, though I don’t think this is meant to be a tsenpo). He seems to be sitting cross-legged, possibly in the position we know in Indian art as lalitasana, “royal ease”. Perhaps there was already an influence from Indian/Nepali art here (which brings to mind your most recent post)?

    The figure on the right is kneeling, wearing a smaller hat, and it seems to me that he is being handed something by the figure on the left. So, perhaps he is the messenger, taking the letter? Or the minor official who is to be the recipient of the letter? Any ideas?


  3. Dear Sam, Thanks for that, I’m starting to see what you said is there, which must make it really there, I would imagine. You think the bigger and higher guy is the [Tibetan] Bde-blon, head of the general Bde-khams region way up there in the NE of the plateau? And you think the smaller guy is the local Chinese (or whatnot) peon chafing under barbarian rule? That would make it a fitting illustration for today’s blog, wouldn’t it?
    Just trying my best to learn something new.

  4. Dear Sam,

    Thanks for a very interesting piece. I’ve recently been reading some post-848 Chinese poetry from Dunhuang that is heavy on anti-Tibetan sentiment. But I don’t read Tibetan, so your translation of the Tibetan poem was especially intriguing to me. I did a Google search with the words and found that there is a very similar version in PT 1290:
    bdag chag ni bod kyI ‘bangs / gar ‘bab ni thog thog thog bzhIn / dpa’ khyad ni stag dang ‘gran / bzang khyad zhes bzhIn …
    Could you tell me how the two versions are different and what you might make of it?


  5. gar ‘bab ni thog thog thog bzhIn /

    Hmmm. Where it [/they] fall[s] is on top (thog) of the roof (thog) like lightning (thog)?

    Depending who is speaking, it might sound like praise. Maybe grudging praise?

  6. Dear Shao-yun,

    Many, many thanks for pointing out the other, more complete instance of this poem. With no time to really grapple with this question, I turned to Ariane Macdonald’s discussion of this manuscript (you can see the reference on the OTDO page you provided the link for). She calls these two lines a “déclaration formulée par des ‘sujets du Tibet’, suivie de voeux” (p.318). But she expresses great hesitation in how to interpret them. On the line that Dan has ingeniously translated above, she offers something similar: ‘où qui’il tombe, avec la rapidité et la précision de l’éclair’ (p.326). She seems to think that the poem offers a positive view of the Tibetan overlords. The line about tigers, she suggests, is saying that the Tibetans rival the qualities of the tiger (not, as I suggested, that one should challenge the tiger). Given the presence of these lines in Pelliot tibétain 1290, under some semi-official texts, I am beginning to be inclined to agree with her. That would make the verses a declaration of obedience, rather than the opposite. Still, the existence of such a text begs the question of why it was needed; if it is valourizing the power of the Tibetan empire, it also carries an implicit threat for those non-Tibetans chafing at the bit.

  7. Pingback: On the Birth of Tibetan Literature « Lhakar Diaries

  8. Dear sam,
    i am thankfull to you for your research materials.It helped me in better understanding my country’s (tibet)history.what i had been taught in school is history written from religious point of deals only with religious your articals gives real history to is sad but true that disintregation of tibetan empire’s main cause was buddhism but in our school book it is not mentioned.

  9. Good article, but I have to say some people are coming to me telling me that “Tibet ruled over China” and are using this article as their source. I hope to clear things up here once and for all:

    1) Tibet ruled Dunhuang, a Chinese settlement, NOT China. It would be like saying China ruled over Russia just because they got the entirety of modern day Amur Oblast and Albazin after defeating the Russians in a war. Ruling a small part of a large country after a skirmish, conflict, or war does not mean you ruled that country.

    2) Tibet conquered Chang’an in 763 but that does not mean they ruled China. They merely marched into Chang’an virtually unopposed because the Chinese were busy fighting the Anshi/Anlushan Civil War (the world’s largest and most destructive civil war costing 36 million live). That sat in the city for 14 days, did not do much related to “ruling China” practically and were easily thrown out when the Chinese took notice and care.

    In short and summary: great article but Tibet never ruled China.

  10. Dear Tianming, thanks for your comment, which I have pondered for a while. I think you are right that the title of this post ‘China under Tibetan Rule’ was potentially misleading, so I have renamed it ‘The Chinese under Tibetan Rule’.

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