An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Tubo 吐蕃, Kingdom of Tibet

Feb 6, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Tubo 吐蕃, often erroneously read Tufan, was the great Tibetan kingdom that flourished from the 7th to the 9th centuries and whose military and diplomatic acitivities had a great impact on the Chinese Tang empire's 唐 (618-907) withdrawal from its colonies in the Western Territories 西域. The Tibetan name of the country was Bod, from which the Chinese name 蕃 is derived.

Ancient Chinese sources tell the Tibetans one of the Western Qiang 西羌 tribes that lived of pastoral nomadism on the Qinghai Plateau and the Tibetan Highland. Yet some of them also engaged in agriculture and planted barley, wheat and buckwheat. During the late 6th century the Tibetan tribe of the Yarlung living in a side-valley of River Tsanpo was unified under one leader whose position was called btsan-po (Chinese rendering zanpu 贊普). The king was assisted in government by a senior counsellor (blon chen, Chinese translation dalun 大論) and a junior counsellor (blon chung, Chinese translation xiaolun 小論). In 629 King Srong brtsan sgampo (Song-tsen Gam-po, Chinese rendering Songzan ganbu 松贊干布, r. 618-641) conquered the lands of Sapi 薩毗 and Yangtong 羊同 in Eastern Tibet and created the kingdom of Great Tibet. His capital was Lhasa, in Chinese sources called Luoxie 邏些 (modern form Lasa 拉薩).

Tibet established not only economic, but also diplomatic relationships with the Chinese Tang empire 唐 (618-907) and the states of India. From both countries, ideas of government, religion and literature came to Tibet. Tibet adopted the Brahmi script of India, juristictional and economic rules from India and China, as well as administrative and military patterns from China. Tibet soon became a militarily prevalent state and dominated the peoples of the Tuyuhun 吐谷渾 and the Tanguts 黨項 that lived in the regions of modern Gansu and Qinghai. The government of Tibet came to know that the Chinese used a kind of alliance system with their powerful vassals by exchanging princesses (heqin 和親 "peace by marriage") and therefore also required a Chinese princess, like the Türks 突厥 and the Tuyuhun.

In 640 Princess Wencheng 文成公主 was married to the king of Tibet. The Tibetan king therefore supported the Tang commissioner Wang Xuance 王玄策 in a campaign against the Indian king Arunashwa (Chinese rendering Aluonashun 阿羅那順). Yet a few decades later the Tibetans destroyed the realm of the Tuyuhun and threatened the regions of Longyou 隴右 and Hexi 河西, the westernmost provinces of the Tang empire. They also conquered the Greater and Lesser Burusho 大小勃律 and critically endangered the Chinese control over their Protectorate of the Pacified West (anxi duhufu 安西都護府), and often battled with Tang troops and Türkish units.

In spite of all military conflicts the Tang court in 709 married Princess Jincheng 金城公主 to king Khri lde gtsug brstan (Tri-de Tsug-ten, Chinese rendering Qilai suozan 棄隶蹜贊, r. 704/12-755). The Princess was bestowed a bath town in the region of Hexi that served as her appanage. The Tibetans therefore incessantly attacked the province of Hexi. The Tang government therefore enforced the garrisons in that region and entrusted the military commissioners (jiedushi 節度使) with a higher military power. This situation lasted until the mid-8th century, when Tang China was disturbed by the rebellion of An Lushan and lost control over many provinces. The Chinese protectorate in the west finally fell into the hands of the Türks, the Uyghurs 回鶻 and the Tibetans who contended for power over the city states on the Silk Road. The kings of Tibet could even gain control over the kingdom of Nanzhao 南詔 in the modern province of Yunnan that had been a vassal to the Tang empire until that date.

Tibet had become one of the largest empires in Asia and covered not only the area of what it today known as the so-called Autonomous Region of Xizang (Tibet), but also parts of Xinjiang, Qinghai, Sichuan, and of Yunnan. In 763 Tibetan troops even sacked the Tang capital Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi). Tibetan pressure on the Tang empire only slackened from 789 on when the Tang were able to establish an alliance with the Uyghurian khanate and the king of Nanzhao again declared his status as a vassal to the Tang. The politics of conflict were thereafter replaced by attempts at realliance.

In 823 a bilateral treatise between Tibet and Tang China was declarated, and a bilingual stele was erected in Lhasa commemorating the unity of the two empires. In 842 Glang darma (Lang Darma, Chinese rendering Lang Dama 郎達瑪, r. 842-846) died without a heir. The Yarlung dynasty had come to an end, and the throne passed on to the late king's brother-in-law, but the latter was challenged by a large number of members of the Tibetan aristocracy, and the unified kingdom of Tubo disintegrated. Some border regions returned to be part of the Tang empire, like Dunhuang 敦煌 that was transformed into the military prefecture of Shazhou 沙州.

With the advent of Buddhism in Tibet society changed to a large extent. The native religion of Tibet was a religion called Bon or Bön, a kind of shamanism with mystical and shamanistic features. It was enriched by a kind of late Buddhism that is often called "esoteric". One of the most important features of this so-called Tantric Buddhism is the use of a special kind of incantations that are called tantra. In Tibet this late Indian Buddhism was merged with shamanic forms of religion, in which the priests (lama) played a very important spiritual role. Tibetan Buddhism is therefore also known under the name of Lamaism. King Khri srong lde brtsan (Tri-song De-tsen, Chinese rendering Qisong dezan 棄松德贊, r. 756-797) initiated the office of chos-plon ཆོས་བློན་ (Chinese rendering quelun 卻論), a monk counsellor and so laid the foundation of the later influence of religion on lay government.

Table 1. Kings (btsanpo, Chinese reading zanpu 贊普) of Tubo 吐蕃 618-846
title [read like] (other name) Chinese version (other name) reign
Srong brtsan sgampo [Songtsen Gampo] (Khri srong lde brtsan [Thrisong Detsen]) Song-zan gan-bu 松贊干布 (Qi-zong nong-zan 棄宗弄贊) (r. 618-641)
Gung srong gung brtsan [Gungsrong Gungtsen] Gong-ri gong-zan 共日共贊 (r. 641-646)
Srong brtsan sgampo (again) (r. 646-649)
(Khri) Mang srong mang brtsan [Mangsong Mangtsen] Mang-song mang-zan 芒松芒贊 (r. 650-677)
Khri 'Dus srong [Düsong Mangpoje, Tridu Songtsen] Qi-du-song 棄都松 (Qi-nu-xi-nong 器弩悉弄, Du-song mang-bu-jie 都松芒布結) (r. 677-704)
Lha (r. 704-705?)
Khri ma lod La-ba-bu 拉跋布 (r. 705-712)
Khri lde gtsug brstan [Tride Tsugten] (Mes ag tshoms [Me Agtsom]) Qilai suozan 棄隶蹜贊 (Chide zuzan 赤德祖贊) (r. 712-755)
Khri srong lde brtsan [Trisong Detsen] Qi-song de-zan 棄松德贊 (Qi-li-su-long-lie-zan 乞黎蘇籠獵贊) (r. 756-797)
Mu ne btsanpo [Mune Tsenpo] Mou-ni zan-pu 牟尼贊普 (Mou-nai za-nbu 木奈贊普, Zu-zhi-jian 足之煎) (r. 797-799)
Khri lde srong brtsan [Tride Songtsen] (Sad na legs [Senalek]) Chi-de song-zan 赤德松贊 (Sai-na-lei 賽那累) (r. 799-815)
Khri gtsug lde brtsan [Tritsug Detsen] (Ral pa can) Chi-zu de-zan 赤祖德贊 (Ke-li-ke-zu 可黎可足, Re-ba-jin 熱巴巾)
reign motto Skyid-rtag (Yitai 彝泰) 815-838
(r. 815-841)
Khri 'U'i dum brtsan, Glang darma [Lang Darma] Lang Dama 郎達瑪, Da-mo 達磨 (r. 842-846)
Table 2. The Dalai Lamas (Chinese reading Dalai lama 達賴喇嘛)
No., title Chinese version life time
[I] Gendün Drub Gen-dun Zhu-ba 根敦朱巴 1391-1474
[II] Gyalwa Gendün Gyatso Gen-dun jia-cuo 根敦嘉措 1475-1542
III Gyalwa Sonam Gyatso Su-nan jia-cuo 素南嘉措 1543-1588
IV Yönten Gyatso Yun-dan jia-cuo 云丹嘉措 1589-1617
V Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso A-wang luo-sang jia-cuo 阿旺羅桑嘉措 1617-1682
VI Rigdzin Jamyang Gyatso Cang-yang jia-cuo 倉央嘉措 1682-1706
VII Kelsang Gyatso Ga-sang jia-cuo 噶桑嘉措 1708-1757
VIII Jampel Gyatso Qiangbai jiacuo 強白嘉措 1758-1804
IX Lungtog Gyatso Long-duo jia-cuo 隆朵嘉措 1805-1815
X Tsültrim Gyatso Chu-chen jia-cuo 楚臣嘉措 1816-1837
XI Kedrub Gyatso Kai-zhu jia-cuo 凱珠嘉措 1838-1856
XII Trinle Gyatso Cheng-lie jia-cuo 成烈嘉措 1856-1875
XIII Thubten Gyatso Tu-deng jia-cuo 土登嘉措 1876-1933
XIV Tenzin Gyatso Dan-zeng jia-cuo 丹增嘉措 1935-
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Further reading:
Hoffman, Helmut (1994). "Early and Medieval Tibet", in Denis Sinor, ed. The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 371-399.