The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama

The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama

by Melvyn C. Goldstein

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520923256
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/03/1997
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 165
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Melvyn C. Goldstein is John Reynolds Harkness Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University as well as Director of the University's Center for Research on Tibet. He is author or coauthor of over eighty articles and books on Tibet, including A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951 (California, 1989), Essentials of Modern Literary Tibetan: A Reading Course and Reference Grammar (California, 1991), and The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography of Tashi Tsering (1997).

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The Snow Lion and the Dragon

China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama

By Melvyn C. Goldstein


Copyright © 1997 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-92325-6


The Imperial Era

Political contact between Tibet and China began in the seventh century A.D. when Tibet became unified under the rule of King Songtsen Gampo. The dynasty he created lasted for two centuries and expanded Tibet's borders to include, in the north, much of today's Xinjiang province; in the west, parts of Ladakh/Kashmir; and in the east, Amdo and Kham—parts of today's Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. Because many of the eastern and northern territories that Tibet conquered were kingdoms subordinate to China's Tang dynasty (618–907), the Chinese were well aware of the emergence of this powerful kingdom. Songtsen Gampo received a Chinese princess as a bride, and at one point in the eighth century when the Chinese stopped paying tribute to Tibet, Tibetan forces captured Changan (Xi'an), the capital of the Tang dynasty. By the early ninth century, Sino-Tibetan relations had been formalized through a number of treaties that fixed the border between the two kingdoms. It is clear, therefore, that Tibet was in no way subordinate to China during the imperial era. Each was a distinct and independent political entity.

During the era of the kings, Tibet transformed into a more sophisticated civilization, creating a written language based on a north Indian script and introducing Buddhism from India. The first monastery was built not far from Lhasa at Samye in about 779 A.D. The importation of Buddhism, however, produced internal conflict as the adherents of the traditional shamanistic Bon religion strongly opposed its growth and development. Ultimately, this discord led to the disintegration of the royal dynasty when the pro-Bon king was assassinated in the middle of the ninth century by a Buddhist monk angry over his persecution of Buddhism.

For the next two hundred years Tibet languished. The once great empire became a fragmented, disunified collection of autonomous local principalities. Buddhism also paid a heavy price as it was driven out of the central part of Tibet. Then, in the eleventh century, Indian Buddhist monk-teachers such as Atisha visited Tibet and sparked a vibrant revival of Buddhism. Tibetan lamas and their disciples constructed new monasteries, and these gradually developed into subsects of Tibetan Buddhism. With no centralized government, the most important of these sects, the Sakya, the Karma Kargyu, and the Drigung Kargyu, became involved in political affairs, supporting powerful lay chiefs and being supported by them in return.

In China, meanwhile, the powerful Tang dynasty collapsed in 905 A.D., and like Tibet, China experienced a period of disunity (known as the era of the Five Kingdoms, 907–960). During this period a series of buffer states occupied the frontier between China and Tibet. There is no evidence of political relations between Tibet and China. Similarly, during the three centuries of the Sung dynasty (960–1279), Tibetan-Chinese political relations were nonexistent. Chinese histories of the period barely mention Tibet.

All of that changed in the thirteenth century, when a new power rose in the heart of inner Asia.


The unification of the diverse Mongol tribes by Genghis Khan in the late twelfth century led to one of the greatest explosions of conquest the world has ever seen. Mongol armies swept out of the Mongolian plains and mountains and conquered immense spans of territory, including Tibet, which submitted bloodlessly to the Mongols in 1207. Tibet paid tribute to Genghis Khan, and Mongol forces did not invade Tibet or interfere in the administration of its principalities.

The death of Genghis Khan in 1227 produced important changes. Tibetans ceased sending tribute to Mongolia and the new supreme khan, Ogedai, ordered a cavalry force under the command of his son Godan into Tibet. They advanced almost to Lhasa, looting several important monasteries and killing hundreds of monks. During this attack Godan's field commanders collected information on important religious and political leaders, and in 1244, based on their reports, Godan summoned a famous lama of the Sakya sect—Sakya Pandita—to his court in what is now Gansu. The Sakya lama arrived in 1247 and made a full submission of Tibet to the rule of the Mongols. He also gave religious instruction to Godan and his officials, and in turn was placed in charge of Tibet as viceregent. Sakya Pandita sent a long letter back to Tibet telling his countrymen that it was futile to resist the Mongols and instructing them to pay the required tribute. It also said, according to Tibetan sources:

The Prince has told me that if we Tibetans help the Mongols in matters of religion, they in turn will support us in temporal matters. In this way, we will be able to spread our religion far and wide. The Prince is just beginning to learn to understand our religion. If I stay longer, I am certain I can spread the faith of the Buddha beyond Tibet and, thus, help my country. The Prince has allowed me to preach my religion without fear and has offered me all that I need. He tells me that it is in his hands to do good for Tibet and that it is in mine to do good for him.

Thus began the curious relationship Tibetans refer to as "priest-patron" (in Tibetan, mchod yon). Tibet's lama provided religious instruction; performed rites, divination, and astrology; and offered the khan flattering religious titles like "protector of religion" or "religious king." The khan, in turn, protected and advanced the interests of the "priest" ("lama"). The lamas also made effective regents through whom the Mongols ruled Tibet.

Godan was succeeded by one of the greatest of the Mongol rulers, Kublai Khan. He became the supreme khan of all the Mongols in 1260 and went on to conquer China in 1279, founding the Yuan dynasty. Sakya Pandita, in the meantime, was succeeded by his nephew, Phagpa, who developed a privileged relationship with the extraordinarily powerful khan. Kublai became a great patron of Buddhism in general and of the Sakya sect in particular, making Phagpa his imperial tutor as well as the ruler of Tibet under his authority. The relationship between Kublai and Phagpa, however, was complex. In keeping with the "priest-patron" ideology, Phagpa was much more than a conquered subject put on the throne. An amazing disagreement between the two, documented in both Tibetan and Mongolian records, illustrates the great stature that Tibet's lamas held among the Mongols. When Kublai asked Phagpa to serve as his spiritual tutor, Phagpa agreed but insisted that Kublai show deference to his superior religious stature. Kublai initially refused, but eventually relented and agreed to sit on a throne lower than the lama when he was receiving private instruction, as long as the lama sat lower in all other settings.

Contemporary Chinese scholars and officials consider this the period when Tibet first became part of China. Nationalistic Tibetans, by contrast, accept only that they, like China, were subjugated by the Mongols and incorporated into a Mongol empire centered in China.

The Sakya ruled in Tibet for roughly a century, until they were overthrown in 1358 by one of their governors. The Yuan dynasty was too weak to do anything but quietly accept this turn of events. In fact, just ten years later the Yuan dynasty itself was overthrown and replaced by an ethnically Chinese dynasty known as the Ming. Relations between Tibet and China continued during the Ming dynasty, but unlike their Yuan predecessors, the Ming emperors (1368–1644) exerted no administrative authority over the area. Many titles were given to leading Tibetans by the Ming emperors, but not to confer authority as with the Mongols. By conferring titles on Tibetans already in power, the Ming emperors merely recognized political reality.

Then, in the seventeenth century, political events in Tibet and China saw the rise of two new powers.


When Tibet was subjugated by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, the Geluk, or Yellow Hat, sect of the Dalai Lama had not yet come into existence. Tibet was dominated by several "Red Hat" Buddhist sects such as the Sakya and Kargyu. The emergence of what was later to become Tibet's greatest sect occurred only in the late fourteenth century, when a brilliant Amdo monk named Tsongkapa came to central Tibet in 1372 to seek teachings from all the great lamas of the day. A charismatic figure, he found an appalling state of moral decline in central Tibet, particularly in regard to the vow of celibacy, and he began to preach a reformist doctrine that emphasized strict monastic vows of celibacy, and scholastic study as the path for enlightenment. This marked the beginning of the Geluk, which in Tibetan means, "the system of virtue."

In 1408 Tsongkapa began the custom of convening a month-long Great Prayer Festival in the heart of Lhasa, and in 1409 he founded his own monastery—Ganden—on a ridge about twenty-seven miles east of Lhasa. As he began to write and teach, he attracted a circle of devoted disciples who spread his ideas, creating a new and vibrant Buddhist sect. To differentiate themselves from the earlier sects, the followers of Tsongkapa took to wearing yellow instead of red hats and thus have come to be known as the Yellow Hat sect. Within a short time Tsongkapa's disciples built what were to become the Geluk sect's two largest monasteries—Drepung (in 1416) and Sera (in 1419). Located just outside of Lhasa, those two monasteries became small monk-towns, housing over fifteen thousand monks by 1950. Another of Tsongkapa's famous disciples, Gendundrup, extended the influence of the Geluk sect into southwest Tibet (Tsang) when he built the famous Tashilhunpo monastery near the town of Shigatse in 1445.

As these followers of Tsongkapa gained support among the aristocracy and their sect grew in size and importance, they engendered the suspicion and hostility of the more powerful established sects like the Karma Kargyu who were closely allied with the rulers of political Tibet, the princes of Rimpung (and following them, the Tsangpa kings). The fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, in fact, were characterized by extensive civil and religious strife in Tibet, the Yellow Hat monks coming into recurring conflict with the Karma Kargyu and their political supporters. In 1498, for example, the Rimpung king actually forbade the Yellow Hat monks of Sera and Drepung from participating in the Great Prayer Festival begun by Tsongkapa, limiting the prayer festival to monks of the Kargyu and Sakya sects. By the early seventeenth century the sectarian conflict had worsened. In a dispute between the Geluks and the pro-Karma sect Tsangpa king, the king's troops in 1618 killed a large number of Geluk monks, occupied Sera and Drepung monasteries, and prohibited a search for the incarnation of the fourth Dalai Lama, who had recently died. The Geluk retaliated in 1633, attacking and defeating the Tsangpa king's troop garrisons around Lhasa with the help of several thousand Mongol followers. A peace agreement was negotiated, but Mongols were again playing a significant role in Tibetan internal affairs, this time as the military arm of the Dalai Lama, the main incarnate lama of the Geluk sect.

The idea of reincarnation as a method of religious succession was developed by the Karma Kargyu sect in 1193, hundreds of years before the Yellow Hat sect emerged on the scene. The idea derives from the Buddhist belief that all humans are trapped in an endless sequence of birth, death, and rebirth until they achieve nirvana (enlightenment). In the Mahayana school of Buddhism (into which Tibetan Buddhism is subsumed), some enlightened beings (bodhisattvas) defer their final release from the cycle of birth and rebirth—nirvana—and return to human form to help the remaining sentient beings progress toward enlightenment.

In the late twelfth century the great Karma lama Düsum Khyempa used this concept to prophesy his own rebirth; and soon after he died, his disciples discovered a child into whom they believed he had emanated. That child was considered to be Düsum Khyempa in a new body, so the charismatic authority and stature of the old master lama were now inherent in the child. In a world where religious sects constantly competed for lay patrons, the religious and political benefits of this form of rebirth were striking, and it quickly became a general part of the Tibetan religious landscape. Incarnate lamas developed lineages, which functioned like corporations in the sense that they came to own property and peasants and retain a legal identity across generations. New incarnations of the initial great lama formed an unbroken line of succession. As long as everyone accepted the validity of the discovery process, the powerful charisma of a holy lama could be routinized and the focus of devotion and support continued. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Yellow Hat sect also adopted this tradition when one of their most important religious leaders, Gendundrup (the founder of Tashilhunpo monastery) died in 1474. His disciples searched for and discovered his reincarnation in the body of Gendun Gyatso, a young boy who became the second in the new incarnation lineage. When Gendun Gyatso died in 1543, his consciousness emanated into the body of another boy, Sonam Gyatso, who became the third in that line of lamas.

Sonam Gyatso was an energetic proponent of the Yellow Hat sect's ideology with strong missionary tendencies. His fame reached the ears of a powerful Mongol ruler called Altyn Khan who invited Sonam Gyatso to visit him. In 1578 they met in today's Qinghai province (Amdo). Sonam Gyatso impressed the khan with his spirituality and religious power, and they exchanged honorific titles in the manner of the time. The lama enhanced the stature of the khan in relation to other Mongol chiefs by giving him the title "king of religion, majestic purity," and the khan gave Sonam Gyatso the Mongolian title of dalai, "ocean" in Mongolian, the implication being that his knowledge or spirituality was as vast as the ocean. Thus was born the title Dalai Lama. Sonam Gyatso was the first to hold the title, but since he was the third incarnation in the Yellow Hat sect's incarnation line, he came to be known as the third Dalai Lama, with the titles of first and second Dalai Lama given posthumously to his two predecessors.

Sonam Gyatso solidified his relationship with the Mongols by spending the remaining ten years of his life in Mongolia and the nearby Kham and Amdo regions, giving teachings and making important inroads for the Yellow Hat sect. Much of this success was at the expense of the older Karma Kargyu and the pre-Buddhist Bon sects. When he died in 1588, the Geluk-Mongol tie was intensified as his reincarnation, the fourth Dalai Lama, was discovered in Mongolia in the body of the great-grandson of none other than Altyn Khan. The fourth Dalai Lama was taken to Lhasa in 1601 accompanied by an entourage of Yellow Hat lamas and nobles who had traveled to Mongolia for this purpose. They were escorted by a contingent of armed Mongol followers. The new Yellow Hat sect, therefore, came to be closely associated with the Mongols. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this close religious/political relationship became a critical component of Sino-Tibetan relations.

The Mongolian fourth Dalai Lama died in 1616 and was succeeded by the fifth Dalai Lama who was discovered in central Tibet, not far from Lhasa. Sectarian strife intensified in his youth, when an ally of the Tsangpa king started to persecute Geluk monks and institutions in Kham and talked of moving into central Tibet to attack the Geluk sect's main centers. The Geluk feared this was the beginning of a concerted effort to wipe out their sect and turned for help to their Mongol adherents in the person of Gushri Khan.

Gushri Khan was the chief of the Qoshot tribe, a branch of the Western Mongols who were based in Dzungaria, in present-day northeast Xinjiang. As a follower of the Dalai Lama he answered his lama's call for help and between 1637 and 1640 defeated the anti-Geluk forces in Amdo and Kham, resettling his whole tribe in the process in Amdo. Then, at the request of Sonam Chöpel, the chief steward (administrator) of the fifth Dalai Lama, Gushri marched into Tibet where he attacked the Tsangpa king himself at his home base in Shigatse. The Geluk sect sent its own force of supporters and monks to assist him, and in 1642 they captured Shigatse. The king of Tibet (the Tsangpa king) was executed.

Gushri Khan gave supreme authority over all of Tibet to the fifth Dalai Lama, appointing the Dalai Lama's chief steward, Sonam Chöpel, as regent to carry out the day-to-day affairs of state. The main rival of the Yellow Hat sect, the Karma Kargyu, bore the brunt of the defeat and were actively persecuted by the Geluk government. Much of their wealth and property was confiscated and many of their monasteries were forcibly converted to the Geluk sect. The Yellow Hat sect therefore quickly eclipsed all the others in size, strength, and wealth.


Excerpted from The Snow Lion and the Dragon by Melvyn C. Goldstein. Copyright © 1997 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Preface, ix,
The Imperial Era, 1,
Interlude: De Facto Independence, 30,
Chinese Communist Rule: The Mao Era, 37,
The Post-Mao Era, 61,
The Future, 100,
Notes, 133,
Bibliography, 143,
Index, 147,
Illustrations follow page, 90,

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