Tibet and China Under Mongol Domination


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In the 13th Century, the Mongols conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty. Then, in 1247, Sakya Pandita, the chief of the Sakya Buddhist sect in Tibet, traveled to the new capital in Liangzhou along with his nephew Phagpa to pay tribute and pledge allegiance to the Mongol court. Upon his ascension to the throne in 1260, Kublai Khan granted Phagpa the title of "Imperial Tutor." This established the precedent of a priest-patron relationship between Mongol rulers and Tibetan religious leaders.

Tibetan Perpective

Beginning in 1207, Genghis Khan subjugated Xixia and Tibet became a tributary state of the Mongols. In 1227 after Genghis Khan died, Tibet ceased to send tribute--sending Goden Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, to order troops against Tibet. Prince Goden tried to find an outstanding Buddhist lama in Tibet, and he chose the Sakya lama, Kunga Gyaltsen, who was also known as "Sakya Pandita." Sakya Pandita went to the Kokonor region where Prince Goden had his camp, with two of his nephews, Phagpa and Chakna. Sakya Pandita instructed Goden in the teachings of the Buddha--using the opportunity as a chance to spread Tibetan Buddhism far and wide. Sakya Pandita succeeded his authority to his nephew Phagpa, and he died in 1251. Prince Goden died soon after, and Kublai gained command of the Kokonor region. Kublai had Phagpa as his spiritual guide and teacher, and he respected him privately. However, though Phagpa insisted that Kublai should allow the practice of the Buddhist sects other than his own, Kublai did not allow this. In 1254, Kublai gave a letter of investiture to Phagpa, granting him supreme authority over Tibet. Kublai forced the people to practice, study, and to understand Buddhism.

In 1260, Kublai became the new Khan and the lama-patron relationship between Tibet and the Mongols was like the sun and the moon in the sky. Many Tibetan lamas criticized Phagpa for going to the Mongols and follow their traditions, but Phagpa did not give in, insisting that this was the best way to make the Mongols accept Tibetan Buddhism. In 1268, Phagpa presented Kublai a script, which Phagpa devised especially for the Mongolian language. It was based upon Tibetan writing, and soon it became known as "Phagpa's Script." Many official documents have been written in this language, even though it fell to disuse after the death of Kublai. In 1280, Kublai Khan had conquered all of China, and he became the Emperor of China. He died in 1295. Even though Kublai favored the Sakyapa sect, his primary descendents did not remain devoted solely to it. The Karmapa sect had been invited to the Mongol court by the year 1331.
Scholar's Perspective

A study of the role of Tibetans in China under Mongol rule is made difficult by several problems of definition: whether and to what degree Tibet was at all a part of the Mongol empire, inconsistency of terminology, the character of the sources, and whether it is at all appropriate to speak of Tibetans in China as if their nationality would be relevant. The question whether Tibet was ever conquered by the Mongols, in the sense that China was conquered, is obscured by the conflicting data preserved in later Buddhist Mongolian and Tibetan records. The Chinese sources remain silent, and all concrete data for later years of Mongol rule in China show that there was little if any direct control of Tibet proper. Considering the records of Yuan History and that by Rashid al-Din, it seems to be a fact that most of Tibet proper remained outside the direct control of the Sino-Mongol bureaucracy, and that even the borderlands were throughout the Yuan dynasty an unruly and troubled region.

The fact that licensed border markets existed for trade with Tibet is a certain indication that Tibet was treated as a foreign country by the Sino-Mongol government, because no such markets existed within China proper. They were established only in the border regions, where some trade and embassy traffic entered the territory of Chinese provinces. It indicates that Tibet was a terra incognita, a foreign country for the Chinese and Mongols of which even the geographical essentials were little known. Indigenous lamas whose government was sanctioned by the imperial court via the Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs ruled the greater part of Tibet, but they received little or no interference from the emperors.
Chinese Perspective

A few years prior to the Southern Song Dynasty’s collapse in 1279, Mongol Khan Kublai rose to power as emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. This began China’s first era of consolidated political rule by a racial minority group, lasting from 1271 to 1368. It was also at this crucial juncture that Tibet was officially incorporated into China as a subordinate territory. Beginning in the Yuan, the association between China and Tibet can be characterized as both a Buddhist Cho-yon relationship and a political relationship of sovereign and subject. The Cho-yon relationship is that between patrons and lamas, which played out specifically between the Yuan emperors and the major lamas of the Sagya sect of Tibetan Buddhism. For example, twice in two years, Kublai Khan bestowed a host of material riches upon Pagba, the Prince of Dharma of the Sagya Sect, which included gold, brocade, and livestock. In return, Pagba conducted Buddhist rituals in the emperor’s name many times over.

China's political reign over Tibet was sealed through the work of a talented, respected monk named Sapan Gunga Gyaincain. Along with his two nephews, he forged the first official political ties between Mongolia and Tibet, by writing an open letter to the Tibetan temporal and secular leaders in U-Tsang and Ngari, urging them to submit to Mongolia. To further solidify the link within the “Province of Tibet,” as Italian explorer Marco Polo described the area, and the sovereign territory of China, Kublai Khan appointed Pagba, the leader of the Sagya sect after Sapan’s death, to the position of Imperial Tutor. Other lamas of high rank were given this title as well, thereby creating a class of officials with the power to issue writs in the name of the imperial powers. Sangge, a disciple of Pagba, was given an even higher post in the Yuan court as Right-Hand Prime Minister. At the same time, the Yuan government began to levy taxes, station troops, set up postal stations, and conduct household censuses in the former Kingdom of Tubo. Thus began China’s successful rule over Tibet as one of the its many provinces.