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Special> China's Tibet: Facts & Figures> Beijing Review Archives> 1983
UPDATED: May 7, 2008 NO. 24, 1983
Tibet: History and Anecdotes (I)
By Lobsang and Jin Yun

Since "Beijing Review" published five reports on Tibet last year (issues Nos. 47-51), a stream of correspondence has poured into our editorial office asking for background information. In response, we solicited contributions from Lobsang (of Tibetan nationality) and Jin Yun (of Han nationality), researchers in the history of China's nationalities. Here they offer a systematic run-down of Tibet's long history. The first half of the article, which appears in this issue, deals with Tibet from the end of the 6th century to the 18th century. We will publish the second half in the coming issue. -- Ed.

THE Tibetan people are one of the 56 nationalities that together form China as it is today, a unified, multinational country. They have, in the long course of history, contributed to the whole nation's political, economic and cultural development. The following facts, garnered from an inexhaustible ocean of historical data, bear eloquent witness to their contributions.

Time-Honoured Close Relations

As early as the late 6th century, a number of tribes in Tibet came into contact with the Sui Dynasty (581-618 A.D.) in hinterland China. Such contact, if sporadic at the very beginning, paved the way for the growth of friendly relations between the Tang Dynasty (618-907)and the Kingdom of Tibet (between the early 7th century and the mid-9th century).

Songzain Gambo and Princess Wen Cheng. In the early 7th century, Songzain Gambo, the son of Nangri Loinzain who was the leader of the Yarlung Tribe on the Tibetan Plateau, unified the territory and founded the Kingdom of Tibet, a state of slave system.

In the meantime, the Tang Dynasty was at its apex.

After Li Shimin or Emperor Taizong took the throne in 627, he did a great deal to consolidate his regime and improve relations with other nationalities. This brought about economic and cultural prosperity.

The King of Tibet was an admirer of the Tang civilization. He time and again beseeched the Tang emperor to give him the hand of one of the imperial daughters, hoping thus to cement closer economic and cultural relations with the Tang Dynasty.

In 641 A.D., Emperor Taizong presented Princess Wen Cheng in marriage to Songzain Gambo, Zainbo or King of Tibet. The princess took with her many books in the Han language and her entourage included craftsmen and experts in pharmacology and calendrical science. These promoted Tibet's economic and cultural development. A statue of Sakyamuni, brought by the princess to Tibet, is still enshrined in the Jokhan Monastery in Lhasa.

The marriage between the King of Tibet and the Tang princess brought the Tibetans and the Hans closer. After the passing of Emperor Taizong, a grieved Songzain Gambo sent his representative to offer his condolences. In his message to the Tang court, he said that if anyone should show disloyalty to the succeeding emperor he would lead his own army to the Tang capital to punish him.

The new emperor, Gaozong, who reigned from 650 to 683, was so impressed that he made Songzain Gambo "Imperial Consort and Military Commander" and "Prince of Xihai." He even erected a statue of the Tibetan king in front of the tomb of Emperor Taizong.

Princess Jin Cheng and Chide Zugzain. In 710 another member of the Tang royal family, Princess Jin Cheng, the adopted daughter of Emperor Zhongzong, was married to a Tibetan king. She was a patron of literature and the arts, and her dowry included tens of thousands of bolts of silk and brocade and books on arts and crafts. A large team of acrobats and musicians was sent along to keep her company in her new home. She later invited many monks from the Western Region (west to present Gansu Province) to Tibet. Her activities made important contributions to expanding the cultural exchanges between the Tibetans on one hand and the Hans and the Western Region nationalities on the other. Her marriage also fortified the political ties between the Hans and the Tibetans.

In a memorial to the Tang throne, her husband, Chide Zugzain, wrote, "I, your humble nephew, am a descendant of the longtime relative of the late emperor and I also have the honour to be married to Princess Jin Cheng. We are thus members of one family. May all our people under heaven live in happiness and prosperity."

Tang-Tibet Alliance. Frequent exchanges between the Tang Dynasty and the Kingdom of Tibet, however, were sometimes interrupted-by conflicts and wars which were destructive to both sides. This kindled a strong desire on both sides for friendship and peace.

This desire finally found expression in the Tang-Tibet alliance, otherwise known as "uncle-nephew alliance," concluded first in 821 on the western outskirts of Changan (today's Xian) and then in the following year on the eastern outskirts of Lhasa. The text of the alliance, inscribed in both the Tibetan and Han languages in a stone tablet in Lhasa, read in part: "We have never for a moment relinquished our desire for good relations even when anxiety and danger were looming large. We are close neighbours and long-standing relatives. We will reaffirm the uncle-nephew alliance and never forget it." The accord, which was reached during the Changqing reign of the Tang Dynasty, terminated almost all Tang-Tibet conflicts.

Tea-and-Horse Trade. The mid-9th century saw the collapse of the Kingdom of Tibet, torn apart by internal strife. During that period, the main part of China experienced the fall of the Tang Dynasty, and the Five Dynasties (907-960) and the rise of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Yet, despite these historical ups and downs, Tibetan tribes living in areas adjacent to the hinterland still maintained varying degrees of political and economic contacts with these dynasties. Such a relationship was characterized by the trade in tea and horses.

Bartering sheep, horses and animal by-products for tea and silk from the Hans was a long tradition of the nomadic Tibetans. In the Five Dynasties period and the Song Dynasty, this form of trade saw new developments.


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