Monday, June 29, 2015

Has Always Been a Part of China, Huh?

The Smallpox Edict and its willow tree,
Photo from the Pitts River collection

Michael Henss (b. 1941), the noted Swiss scholar of Tibetan art, has now at long last published the fruits of a lifetime of labor, a two-volume boxed set devoted to the architectural and artistic monuments of Central Tibet. Among the thousand and one matters in his book that might bear discussion, one thing certainly caught my eye. On page 41, M.H. notes that the Smallpox Edict — a Manchu period edict long ago studied by L.A. Waddell and more recently by H. Richardson — has something of interest to say about the historical relationship between China and Tibet. Of course it is important to bear in mind that the author of that edict was one of the official representatives of the Manchu Government, called the Ambans, stationed in Lhasa: one named Ho Lin.  In this stone inscription made in 1794 CE, Ho Lin says that during the Tang and Song dynasties Tibet was “not yet incorporated in its [the Chinese] territory,” and was “established as a vassal” only during the Qing dynasty. (n.b. The quote marks here mark words from Richardson's translation.)

Actually, in Ho Lin's estimation, Tibet would have been made a vassal of the Qing dynasty nearly one hundred years before he had his inscription made. Checking Richardson's edition of the Tibetan text, the words used there for “established as a vassal” and “incorporated into its territory” are in both cases the very same Tibetan phrase chab 'bangs-su bkod[-pa].  This phrase we could translate as was subjected politically. Nothing in the expression carries any notion of territory, let alone an incorporation of territory.*
(*Perhaps someone would care to comment on the Chinese version, and Stein's translation of it that Richardson made use of.)

The phrase dang 'gres che didn’t make sense to Richardson, so he suggested reading 'brel in place of 'gres. I suggest reading 'gros instead. The whole passage could then be translated, ‘In olden times, during the time of the Thangs and Bzungs (i.e., the Tang and Sung) kings [Tibet] had much communication with the great kingdom of China, yet it had not been made subject to her power. It was in the time of our great emperor Tha'i-tsung-'un* that [Tibet] was made subject to her power. As it has been up to the present time a little more than one hundred years...’

Richardson's reading:  སྔ་སོར་ཐངས་དང་བཟུངས་ཀྱི་རྒྱལ་པོའི་དུས་རྒྱ་ཡུལ་རྒྱལ་ཁབ་ཆེན་པོ་དང་འགྲེས་ཆེ་ཡང་ཆབ་འབངས་སུ་འཁོད་མི་འདུག་ཅིང་། ངེད་ཚོའི་གོང་མ་ཆེན་པོ་ཐའི་ཙུང་འུན་གྱི་དུས་ནས་ཆབ་འབངས་སུ་འཁོད་པ་བཅས། ད་བར་ལོ་ངོ་བརྒྱ་ལྷག་ཙམ་སོང་འདུག་པར་རྟེན།...
(*Richardson identifies as “Emperor T'ai Tsung Wên Huang Ti,” posthumous name of Abahai, the first real member of of the Ch'ing [Qing] dynastic line (reigned 1626-1643). Of course the Amban is mistaken, since at this time the Manchus had never come anywhere near Tibet, although they did offer some patronage to Tibetan Buddhist teachers [Grupper]. He is just referring to the founding of the Manchu dynastic rule over China.)

Somebody ought to do a study of the following fascinating phenomenon: I’ve noted over the years, even if I didn’t think to note down exact dates, that post-Republican China has dated Tibet’s belonging to China to [1] the Tibeto-Sinitic marriage alliances of the Tang dynasty way back in the 7th and 8th centuries. Then they moved it up to [2] the period of Eurasian ‘world domination’ by the Mongols in the 13th century. And most recently some have been saying Tibet was made part of China [3] in the Ch'ing/Manchu period, a time when another ‘national minority’ (as Tibetans, Manchus, Mongolians and Hui would later come to be labeled) ruled over the Han (i.e., Chinese). But why the sudden leap backward I’ve noticed in recent months? It seems positively counter-evolutionary. We should have a look at that.

Since the middle of April of this year, the Beijing committee that decides these things determined the new thing they’ll tell the world about Tibet is that “it has been a part of China since antiquity.”* Nicely ambiguous and so subject to interpretation, still it puts the unity of the Han and Tibetan nations so far back into unknowable history as to be unfathomable. I guess that is their motive for making this new move in their very very slow chessboard game. Sure, they hate it when we outside people comment on the matter, with their huffy none-of-your-business attitude. If we persist in our ignorance of the “truths” they so considerately extend toward us they will (with considerable regularity) pull out their ultimate wildcard and call us anti-Chinese, or even worse, accuse us of containment (whatever that means these days, if anything).
(*Truth by committee I call it. Go ahead and Schmoogle that phrase [including the quote marks] “part of China since antiquity,” then try “has always been a part of China,” and you will see what I mean about the periodization of Beijing’s eternal truths. Just about everybody there repeats what they are told to repeat (I hope you will not need to ask yourself why this is so), whether they agree with it the least bit or not; well, besides one very exceptional professor of Fudan U. by the name of Ge Jianxiong. Back in 2007 there was a lot of press [look here] about his position that China wasn’t always as big as it is right now...  Duh... Imagine that!)

The Smallpox Edict, however carved in stone it may be, reflects the views of a benevolent yet arrogant (yes, you heard right, arrogant... after all, he calls Tibetans stupid and savage... the heights of arrogance in my book) functionary of the Manchu government from his station in Lhasa. Its date of 1794 is significant, since it comes soon after the end of the Gorkha war in 1792, and the subsequent Manchu attempt in 1793 to isolate Tibet from the countries on its southern borders, trying to gain control over Tibet’s foreign trade with South Asia (Engelhardt, p. 240). This was the time when Manchu power was at its height, when Golden Edicts were issued forbidding such normal Tibetan cultural practices as sky burial, or attempting to oversee the selection of recognized incarnations, edicts that by all accounts went unheeded in Tibet by everyone except the Amban and his coteries. So, to make clear what my main point is before this blog gets too long, the Amban Ho Lin directly contradicted presentday Beijing’s wistful notion that Tibet has been a part of China since antiquity. Ho Lin at the same time obviously had no vested interest in promoting Tibet’s independence, quite the contrary. This makes his statement that much more remarkable.

§  §  §

Afterthoughts and notes on sources:

Well worth observing, I believe, is the position on the issue of Tibet’s [in]dependent relationship with the Manchus that may be found in the geographical work by Tsenpo Nominhan (བཙན་པོ་ནོ་མོན་ཧན་), writing as he was in the same era as the Amban. He was one of the Tibetan Buddhist teachers with the closest of ties to the Manchu court, yet he was perfectly clear that Tibet was not a part of China. Find and read this lengthy essay:

Lobsang Yongdan, “Tibet Charts the World: The Btsan-po No-mon-han’s Detailed Description of the World, an Early Major Scientific Work in Tibet,” contained in: Gray Tuttle, ed., Mapping the Modern in Tibet, International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (Andiast 2011), pp. 73-134, particularly pp. 99-100:

“Although the Btsan-po was one of the Qing Emperor’s seal-holding lamas, he did not consider Tibet to be a part of China or part of the Qing Empire.”*

(*Go to the essay itself for more about the borders between Tibet and China. He awards Tibet, and not China, the central position in Jambu Island. Just like other Tibetan historical sources, he lists both China (རྒྱ་ནག་) and Tibet (བོད་ཡུལ་) as nations and territories within a larger list of nations and territories that also include India (རྒྱ་གར་), Nepal (བལ་ཡུལ་), Mongolia (སོག་ཡུལ་ or ཧོར་ཡུལ་) among others.) 
* * *

The main sources on the Smallpox Edict that I know of are these:
L. Austin Waddell, Lhasa and Its Mysteries, Dover Publications (New York 1988), reproducing the 1905 edition, with the Smallpox Edict illustrated opposite p. 340, and discussed on p. 362.

N.V.L. Rybot, “A Small-Pox Edict Pillar at Lhasa,” Man, vol. 26 (1936), pp. 180-181.

Hugh Edward Richardson, “The Smallpox Edict of 1794 at Lhasa,” Journal of Oriental Studies, vol. 6, nos. 1/2 (1961/4), pp. 114-124.

Hugh Edward Richardson, "The Smallpox Edict of 1794 by the Amban Ho-Lin," contained in: H.E. Richardson, Ch'ing Dynasty Inscriptions at Lhasa, Serie Orientale Roma series no. 47, Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente (Rome 1974), pp. 55-61.

On political conditions at the time, and especially the Manchu containment policy regarding Tibet, see Isrun Engelhardt, “The Closing of the Gates: Tibetan-European Relations at the End of the Eighteenth Century,” contained in: Henk Blezer, ed., Tibet, Past and Present: Tibetan Studies I, Brill (Leiden 2002), pp. 229-245. Another relevant study is one by the late Anne Chayet, “À propos du règlement en 29 articles d'e l'année 1793,” Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie, vol. 15 (2005), pp. 165-186. On the Ambans and their degree of involvement in Tibetan politics, there is a remarkable new paper by Kalsang Norbu Gurung, “The Role of Ambans in the Dalai Lama Government according to the Ten-Point Edict of 1795,” contained in: C. Ramble, P. Schwieger, A. Travers, eds., Tibetans who Escaped the Historian's Net: Studies in the Social History of Tibetan Societies, Vajra Books (Kathmandu 2013), pp. 27-39.  The classic study on the Ambans is Josef Kolmas, The Ambans and Assistant Ambans of Tibet (A Chronological Study), Archiv Orientalni, Supplementa VII (Prague 1994), in 86 pages.  On early Manchu patronage of Tibetan Buddhism, see in particular Sam Grupper, “Manchu Patronage and Tibetan Buddhism during the First Half of the Ch'ing Dynasty,” Journal of the Tibet Society, vol. 4 (1984), pp. 47-75. Here you can find some information on Abahai’s support for several Buddhist teachers of the Sakyapa school. You may be interested to read the earlier Tibeto-logic blog on the issue of historical Independence dated April 15, 2008 entitled “Tibetan Independence: Testimonies from Two Professors and a Bird.” It is no doubt embarrassing to find oneself used in this way (and it is hardly the first time this has been done to European and American students of Tibet), but a press item was produced that makes as if M.H. were lending his support to Chinese rule of Tibet (just schmoogle the title “Swiss Scholar: Tibet Now No Doubt a Better Place” since for some reason I don’t relish the idea of directly linking CCTV pages). They did the same thing to Jimmy Carter and Helmut Kohl, so he would seem to be in good company.  Oh, and another matter, did you notice the "pock" marks in the stone of the inscription that half succeeded in effacing half of the inscription? There is no doubt that members of the Younghusband Expedition (Waddell being among them) shared among themselves the story that this was a result of Tibetan magical thinking, thinking that this smallpox monument, if chipped off and consumed, would protect them from smallpox. I set this story aside as one of many British stories about Tibet until such time as I find verification from a Tibetan source that there is any truth to it. Meanwhile, I will assume that all those chips were made in it because Tibetans didn’t appreciate it very much. Perhaps it wasn't so much damaged that they could not still make out the ethnic chauvinism and anti-Tibetan rhetoric of its author. But then it is only the side with the Chinese character version that is defaced (according to Rybot), and that fact could also bear some significance.

Wikipedia has a page on the “Tibetan Sovereignty Debate” (here). As is often the case in Wikis the many hands pulling it this way and that make for very choppy reading. I also have a fundamental opposition to their official opposition to what they call “research,”* thinking they could use a whole lot more of it. I’m sure the “talk” page is the more interesting one, beginning with “Opening 'Sentence' Sucks.”
(*They dismiss research under their terms “special research” and “original research,” while insisting that their writers always err on the side of generalities or what is believed to be generally accepted. This is a fundamentally conservative position that denies independent thought, retards new ideas and discourages freshly drawn conclusions based on larger bodies of data (you may want to see how Wikipedia defends its demands for “no original research” here). More particularly, in the page in question, it discourages writers from bringing forward evidence that is only available in Tibetan language [that would, after all, be “original research”], even though so few of the Tibetan histories and historical sources most germane to the issue have been translated.)

Nota bene:  

There are some who may think that since there are and have been conflicting and contradicting testimonies on the issue of Tibet’s [in]dependence that it is something indeterminate and therefore unknowable, that we should simply shrug our shoulders and give up (or pass over it in the manner of diplomats these days: Oh well, there are different sides to every issue and the truth must lie somewhere in between). 

I beg to differ. Yes, sure, we ought to hear the words of all parties in the historical “debate” but do so constantly bearing in mind who the people doing the talking were, and what their interests (and their jobs) were, in order to better comprehend who they were, what they were talking about, and what their motives were. In other words we need to approach the malleable and situational statements of the various parties historically. Doing so will surely give us a healthy skepticism when politicians of one country or another make their next pronouncements on the subject. That will help us preserve or achieve our own independence of thought. This sort of independence seems to be in short supply to judge from what I’ve been reading in the press lately. Even so, there is no good excuse for falling into agnosticism or nihilism, since when all is said and done Tibet’s own historical tradition is the one that has to carry the most weight in our thinking, and most assuredly not the self-serving historical constructions and calculated statements of a neighboring culture with its sometimes-frustrated aims to impose upon, isolate, engulf or thoroughly devour him.


Somebody just reminded me that some of the issues raised here have already been covered better in an essay by Elliot Sperling  published in China Perspectives back in 2009. He shows, among other things, that the views of Ge Jianxiong are not as exceptional as I had thought (and, in fact, E.S. has shown elsewhere that G.J.’s views were seriously misrepresented in the world press). The essay, entitled “Tibet and China: The Interpretation of History since 1950,” is easily accessed here, and I very much recommend reading it.

[July 13, 2015]  

I also would like to point to E. Sperling’s contribution entitled “Tibet” in the following volume:  Naomi Standen, ed., Demystifying China: New Understandings of Chinese History, Rowman & Littlefield (Lanham 2012), pp. 145-152, where he demonstrates what “ancient times” (or “antiquity”) is supposed to mean. I’m still mystified how imperial control is supposed to be established retrospectively. I guess the reason is it’s really mystifying.


  1. Dear Dan,

    Although I am ignorant of the intricacies and complexities of the political history of Tibet and China, I am tempted to make some speculations regarding the following: “The phrase dang ’gres che didn’t make sense to Richardson, so he suggested reading ’brel in place of ’gres. I suggest reading ’gros instead.” And then you seem to translate “dang ’gros che” as “had much communication with.” The difficulty with the suggested reading is such a usage does not seem to be known or natural. One might try sgros (as in gsung sgros “discourse, dialogue”) but also this does not sound convincing. I venture to make two completely opposite suggestions, namely, to read (a) dang ’dris che yang and (b) dang ’gras che yang (as in ’khon ’gras and zhe ’gras). (a) “Although earlier during the periods of Tang and Sung, [Tibet] was in closer terms with the great country of China, [she] did not come to be under the rule [of China] (snga sor thangs dang bzungs kyi rgyal po’i dus rgya yul rgyal khab chen po dang ’dris che yang chab ’bangs su ’khod mi ’dug). (b) “Although earlier during the periods of Tang and Sung, great animosity (or resentment) reigned between [Tibet] and the great country of China, [Tibet] did not come to be under the rule [of China] (snga sor thangs dang bzungs kyi rgyal po’i dus rgya yul rgyal khab chen po dang ’gras che yang chab ’bangs su ’khod mi ’dug). Historically, I don’t which of the two would be more plausible.



  2. Hi D, I keep reflecting on this phrase, but I'm still not ready to settle for any of the alternatives I've heard so far, including Richardson's and including my own. (I was thinking if 'gros was the intended verb here, it probably isn't even in the right case...) I sort of like your 'gras reading, but then doesn't this verb all by itself refer to the ill will that exists between enemies? If so, it doesn't seem to fit very comfortably within the complete sentence as we have it. It does have the virtue of saying something true about Tibeto-Chinese relations during the Tang & Sung times, largely bellicose. But I think we ought to hold off coming to a final decision about the meaning until we hear from the Chinese side. I mean that quite seriously, my reasoning being it is most likely that the original version is the one written in Chinese, and that the Tibetan is 'based' on the Chinese. The meaning of the Chinese could very well force our hands into choosing one possibility over the other in our reading of the Tibetan translation. So, with the hope that someone else will weigh in on this issue, I will leave it at that for now.
    Yours, D.

  3. Dear D,
    What about bgros[-pa]? It goes very nicely with the dang, as in dang bgros, meaning to confer or deliberate with... 'There was much discussion with China...' This spelling bgros (past form of bgro) was actually what I had in mind when I offered my alternative translation.
    Yours, D

  4. There are enough problems with this blog entry I'm thinking I ought to take it down and try to make it better rather than leaving it up there. I definitely should have read E.S.'s two essays carefully before putting it up, it could have saved me from some inaccuracies in my way of representing the PRC side of things.

  5. Here's the relevant passage in Chinese (with added punctuation):

    Stein's translation (reproduced by Richardson in Ch'ing dynasty inscriptions...):
    "Though since T'ang and Sung [times] it has had relations with China, it was not yet incorporated in its [our] territory."

    "Although had relations" (雖通 suī tōng) looks like the best translation in this context.

    "Did not yet belong to/had not been incorporated into its territory" (未隸版圖 wèi lì bǎntú) is just as straightforward. Bǎntú is attested with the meaning 'territory' (which it also has in the modern language) since Tang times. (Earlier it had referred to 'maps' and other 'charts'.) The same phrase was applied to Taiwan in a Qing document.

    My source for the Chinese text is a series of blog posts by Zhang Husheng 张虎生 that present an article he published (in an abridged version) in China Tibetology (《中国藏学》) in 2006. Zhang comments that the 'territory' phrase is just He Lin's biased (失之偏谬) personal view, and that it doesn't reflect contemporary historical reality.

    On an unrelated note, here's another quote from Zhang's article, talking about the 'Tang willow' (唐柳, ཇོ་བོའི་དབུ་སྐྲ) in Jokhang temple, associated with princess Wencheng:

    "The Tibetan people greatly cherish this willow tree, and they deify it. During the 'Cultural Revolution' the tree was destroyed by fire and today only a stump remains. It is a witness to the history of Tibetan-Han friendly relations."

    1. Thanks, P'i-kuo, that helps a lot. It shouldn't be too surprising that the Chinese and Tibetan texts of the 'same' document wouldn't exactly match! It does call for some rethinking about all the wishful thinking that was going on. I was also thinking that the words in this blog, "attempting to oversee the selection of recognized incarnations, edicts that by all accounts went unheeded in Tibet by everyone except the Amban and his coteries" might need rethinking after I finish reading Peter Schwieger's new book, as I think I must! Called "The Dalai Lama and the Emperor of China: A Political History of the Tibetan Institution of Reincarnation," it deals precisely with this issue, if I understand correctly (even on a good day never a sure thing). Thanks for writing!

    2. It's possible to get a preview of Peter Schwieger's new book here:

  6. Just a note to say that the "since ancient times" position is still taken, as you can see in this example from the Chinese ambassador in London, responding to an earlier Guardian piece by Dharamsala Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay. I wonder when this historically silly idea will be found to be as worthless as it in truth is.


Please write what you think. But please think about what you write. What's not accepted here? No ads, no links to ads, no back-links to commercial pages, no libel against 3rd parties. These comments won't go up, so no need to even try. What's accepted? Everything else, even 1st- & 2nd-person libel, if you think they have it coming.

Follow me on