Economy and Religion Between China and Tibet

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Back to Tibet and China Under Mongol Domination

In 1368, the Chinese overthrew the Mongols and established the Ming Dynasty, which lasted until 1644. State policies toward Tibet changed little from those of the Yuan Dynasty. However, internal power struggles among the Tibetan elite caused the Ming to grant official offices and titles to Tibetans in power in order to help pacify the situation.

Tibetan Perpective

In 1358, Changchub Gyaltsen marched to Sakya and imprisoned some of the ministers and emerged as the new King of Tibet. The Sakya hegemony consequently was in decline. By 1368, the Ming Dynasty replaced the Yuan Dynasty and followed earlier Mongol custom by asking for a new spiritual teacher. No ruling lama of any standing accepted the invitation, however. Hearing about Tsongkapa Lobsang Drakpa’s fame, the Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang extended him an invitation, but Tsongkhapa declined and sent his disciple instead. In 1407, Deshen Shekpa, the 4th reincarnation of Karmapa Lama went to China. The Ming continued with the Mongol practice of bestowing honors and titles.

The Phamo Drupa collapsed in 1434, and by 1435, the Rinpung family exerted their power and influence by looking after civil administration while Gongma Drakpa Jungney ruled. There were constant squabbles between the Gongmas and the Rinpungs that resulted in the Rinpungs becoming more powerful and the Gongmas remaining just figureheads. By 1492, Donyo Dorje had captured Lhasa and remained there till 1517.

During these conflicts, Mongol tribes relocated themselves in the north-eastern region of Tibet. Tseten Dorje, a servant of Rinpung asserted his powers and sought Mongol help. He conquered Shigatse in 1565. Ties with the Mongols strengthened, and over eleven years, he took over four large territories in Southern Tibet and considerable areas in western and northern Tibet. There was bitter rivalry between the Karmapas supported by the Depa Tsangpas and the Gelugpa who were located in U and who were later supported by Mongols because of their reverence to the Dalai lamas as their spiritual teachers.
Scholar's Perspective

In attempting to show that the Ming maintained the Mongol rule of Tibet, it must be shown that certain elements of the Mongol system continued under the Ming. Among these are the appointment of Sakya officials and the submission of other Tibetans to these officials. During Mongol rule, the empire appointed the leader of a Sakya sect to be the leader of Tibet. As the Mongol power diminished, however, the Sakya hegemony also declined. Therefore, when the Ming attempted to appoint a leader in Tibet, there was no single leader that could be given supreme authority. Therefore, the Ming were unable to continue the same Mongol tradition of appointing of Sakya officials. Consequently, they could not carry on the same system of appointing certain religious officials. The system also differed in that, upon appointing officials, the Yuan expected the Central Tibetans to submit to this authority whereas the Ming did not.

Even the tribute system between the Ming and Tibet does not indicate a continued system of rule over Tibetans. The tribute system was an opportunity for the Tibetans rather than an obligation since the Tibetans hade more to gain with the system than the Ming.

During the Ming Dynasty, the Emperor appointed Namgyal Palzangpo, the last Imperial Tutor of the Yuan, to the position of “State Tutor.” Despite this appointment, he did not have any temporal authority over Tibet nor religious authority over the numerous schools of Tibetan Buddhism. This, however, does not indicate the Ming ruling over Tibet since, at the same time, a rival leader in Tibet defeated Sakya rulers and sent a mission to the Ming Court. This event reveals that some Tibetans did not depend of Ming authority and took control of their own affairs. In the end, the Ming did not uphold a continued system of power over Tibet.
Chinese Perspective

After the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, the Ming Dynasty maintained rule over central Tibet through the same system of granting official posts to both administrative and religious leaders. Zhu Yuanzhang, sent two imperial edicts to Tibet to inform the local leaders of “China’s unification” and to offer former Yuan officials posts in its government along with the exchange of their previous titles and seals for new ones. The last acting Imperial Tutor of the Yuan Dynasty, Namgyal Palzangpo, was one such official crucial to this continuity. The Ming appointed him State Tutor, gave him a new jade seal of authority, and allowed him to recommend other former officials to the Ming Court. His actions led numerous leaders to pledge their loyalty and receive new positions.

The differences between Yuan and Ming rule over Tibet are only in the methods used to assert control. The Ming could not ally with the most powerful Sakya sect as did the Yuan Dynasty because there were competing religious factions in Tibet during the Ming Dynasty. In order to promote pacification, Zhu Yuangzhang supported leaders from a number of different sects. Also, the Ming Dynasty was not as militarily strong as the Yuan and did not station troops in Tibet. Zhu Yuangzhang, however, still maintained sovereignty over the region.

Economic ties were an important factor in this close relationship between Tibetan leaders and the Ming Court. Tibetan officials made frequent trips to the Ming Court to pay tribute. In return for their tributes, Tibetans received generous gifts. These Tibetan tribute-envoys in fact acted as trade delegations. They began to come more frequently, becoming a financial burden to the Ming, although the Ming Court was lenient in their regulations to try to control the flood of Tibetan envoys seeking to pay tribute.


Changchub Gyaltsen: instrumental in strengthening the Phagmodrupa myriarchy, Changchub Gyaltsen put almost all the territory of the U region under his control and was victorious against the Sakya sect. Consequently, he replaced the Sakya regime with the Phagmodrupa Desi regime that was later recognized by the Yuan Dynasty.

Donyo Dorje: member of the Rinpung family. During the squabbles between the Rinpungs and the Gongmas, he attacked the U region. He later captured Lhasa and remained there until 1517.

Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang: founder of the Ming Dynasty and Emperor of China from 1368 to 1398. To come to power, he led a peasant revolution against the Mongols. His reign saw both great cultural and economic development.

Gelugpa Tradition: founded by Tsongkhapa and became the most prominent school of Tibetan Buddhism by the end of the Sixteenth Century. The Dalai Lama is its most famous figurehead.

Gongma Drakpa Jungney: enthroned in 1433 and reigned for twelve years. His reign marked by constant squabbles with the Ringpung family who controlled civil administration.

Karmapa Lama: the spiritual leader of one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The line of Karmapa reincarnations extends back to the Thirteenth century.

Namgyal Palzangpo: the last acting Imperial Tutor of the Yuan Dynasty. Upon hearing the Ming edict regarding Yuan ex-officials, he went to Nanjing in 1373 to show his allegiance. He was appointed “State Tutor” by Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and received a jade seal of authority.

Ringpung Family: ruled over Tibet from 1435-1565.

Sakya sect: religious sect that grew to be extremely powerful during the Yuan Dynasty. In order to utilize Sakya power in Tibet, the Mongols gave authority over Tibet to the Sakya lama.

Tsongkapa Lobsang Drakpa (1357-1419): founder of the reformed Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. He was a renowned theacher of Tibetan Buddhism, and his scriptures are a prime source of study today of the Gelugpa tradtion.