hemmed in by the high Himalayas, Tibet is a plateau region in Central Asia often called the ‘Roof of the World’.  Its inaccessibility has lured adventurers and explorers from all over the world, who are rewarded for their efforts with breath-taking vistas.

Tibet is mostly under the administration of the People’s Republic of China but it is also officially claimed by the Republic of China (Taiwan).  The Chinese government and the Government of Tibet in Exile since 1959 disagree over when Tibet became a part of China and whether its incorporation into China was legitimate.

When the Government of Tibet in Exile and the Tibetan refugee community worldwide refer to Tibet, they are speaking about the large area that formed cultural Tibet for centuries including the traditional provinces of Amdo, Kahm and U-Tsang. Not included are areas the disputed territory Arunachal Pradish (South Tibet), Sikkim, Bhutan and Ladakh which have also formed part of the Tibetan landscape.

When the People’s Republic of China refers to Tibet they mean the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), a province level entity that does include South Tibet, although this region, the Arunachal Pradish, is currently under the administration of India which considers it to be an integral part of their country.   The TAR includes the Dalai Lama’s former domain, the Potala palace in Lhasa, the secular and religious residence of Tibet’s rulers until the present Dalai Lama was forced into exile in the 1950s.

There is a large Tibetan settlement in South India near Kushalnagara, created for resettlement of Tibetan refugees who fled Chinese persecution.

Tibetans call their homeland Bod, pronounced po in Lhasa dialect, and Tibetans refer to Tibet as a ‘fatherland’.  The modern Chinese name for Tibet is a phonetic transliteration derived from the region called Tsang.  This name originated about 1700, during the Qing Dynasty.  The term can be broken down into ‘si’ (west) and ‘zang’ (literally Buddhist scripture or storage), meaning that Tsang can be interpreted to mean Buddhist scripture of the west, or the quite different ‘western storage’.  Some Tibetans are offended by this, saying that it reflect Chinese colonial attitudes toward Tibet to call it ‘western storage’, but the characters do also mean sacred treasure and Buddhist scripture, so it depends on how it is interpreted.   Also to be taken into consideration is that Chinese transliterations of non-Chinese names to not necessarily take into account the literal meanings of words.

The historic Chinese term for Tibet, used prior to 1700, is the origin for the English name ‘Tibet’.  The name was Tufan, which comes from the Turkish word ‘heights’.


The history of Tibet traditionally begins with King Srong-tasn-gam-po Songsten Gampo (604-650) although there were 27 kings before him. King Songsten Gampo is credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet, and his plans to wed Princess Wen-Cheng, a member of the royal family of the Chinese Tang Dyansty, caused conflict between Tibet and the Tang because the area of Tu Yu Hun was against the marriage.  King Songsten Gampo was in fact already married to Princess Brikhuti, a Nepalese princess who brought the statue of Shakyamuni Buddha to the Jokjang although this was not the reason the wedding was opposed.

Tibet sent an army to drive the Tang from the valleys around the Huang He, but Tang general Hou Jun Ji drove the Tibetans out of Songzhou.  After this, the Tang government allowed the contested marriage to take place, which it did in 641.

The next Tang emperor sent an army to recover Tu Yu Hun for the southern part of Qinghai (Amdo in Tibetan).  A Tibetan army defeated him and went on to conquer all the small tribes in Qinghai and southern Xinjiang.

At this time Tibet had some 10 million inhabitants, 3 million of whom were enlisted in the army.  This formidable number could face two Tang armies, the Southern Xinjiang’s 24,000 soldiers and the 75,000 Silk Road soldiers, who fought Tibet over trade controls along the Silk Road.  Eventually the Tang withdrew and the Tibetan military conquered all of the territory up to the Mongol border, including the Silk Road.

Tibet had also taken over the ethnic tribes in the present-day areas of Lijiang, Dali and Yunnan.  The borders stretched from India and Persia, giving Tibet the largest area it ever had within its control.  The military route used by the Tibetans to reach Yunnan, where they set up a military administration in the northwest, was very nearly the same as the contemporary Tea and Horse Caravan Road, a trade route less well known than the famous Silk Road. The route was extremely important however; more than 20,000 warhorses per year were exchanged for tea during the Northern Song Dynasty, for example.

After the downfall of the Tibetan Dynasty, the Tang recovered the Silk Road in 848.  The distinctive form of Tibetan society, which divides land into three types of holding – estates for the nobles, freeheld lands and estates held by monasteries – arose after the Tibetan kings had been weakened in the 10th century. This monk, masters and serfs breakdown of society could still be made into the 1950s, although Tibetans claim it is not entirely accurate and that Tibetans consist of many different backgrounds.

In 1240, the Mongols marched into central Tibet and attacked numerous monasteries.  A younger brother of Mongol ruler Guyuk Khan, Koden, took part in a ceremony recognising the Saskya lama as temporal ruler of Tibet in 1247.  Kublai Khan was a patron of Tibetan Buddhism and named the Sa-skya Lama as his ‘Imperial Preceptor’ or chief religious officials. although in practice, the Sa-skya Lama was subordinate to the Mongol khan.

When the Yuan Dynasty collapsed in 1368, the Sa-skya were overthrown and Tibet was ruled by a succession of three secular dynasties.  In the 16th century, Altan Khan of Tumet Mongolian tribe supported the Dalai Lama’s religious lineage to be the dominant religions among Mongols and Tibetans.

From the early 18th century on, the Qing sent a resident commissioner to Lhasa, which the local Tibetans did not appreciate.  In 1750 they rebelled and killed the commissioner.  The Qing army stepped in and defeated the rebels and installed the Dalai Lama as head of a new administration.  The number of soldiers in Tibet was reduced to about 2000.

Many centuries later the British sent a ‘diplomatic’ mission – but with a large military escort – into Lhasa, acting on the false information that Russia was gaining a foothold in Tibet and giving military aid to the Tibetan government.  Lea by Colonel Francis Younghusband, the British killed 1300 Tibetans on their way to Lhasa.  When they reached their destination, the Dala Lama had already fled to Mongolia but had left a signed treaty behind. The treaty made provisions for the frontier between Sikkim and Tibet to be respected, for freer trade between the British and Tibetan subjects, and for an indemnity to be paid from the Tibetan Government to the British Government for its expenses in sending troops to Lhasa.  It also permitted a British trade agent to reside at the trade mart at Gyantse.  This Anglo-Tibetan Treaty of 1904 was followed by a 1906 treaty called the Anglo-Chinese Convention,  in which the British agreed not to annex Tibetan territory or to interfere in the administration of Tibet.  In 1907, the Anglo-Russian Convention was signed, in which Britain recognised the ‘suzerainty of China over Thibet’ (an alternative and older spelling).   Britain also agreed not to negotiate with Tibet except through the Chinese Government.

In 1910 the Qing central government established direct rule over Tibet for the first time and the 13th Dalai Lama fled to British India. The Qing then deposed the Dalai Lama and instigated a search for a new incarnation.  The Dalai Lama became friends with British Political Officer Charles Bell, who wrote a history of Tibet, writing that ‘the Tibetans were abandoned to Chinese aggression, an aggression for which the British Military Expedition to Lhasa and subsequent retreat were primarily responsible.”

In 1912 the Qing Dynasty Emperor abdicated and the new Republic of China was formed.  Chinese troops in Lhasa surrendered to the Tibetan authorities and withdrew to China Proper and the Dalai Lama returned from India.  Supposedly Tibet and Mongolia signed a treaty in 1913 proclaiming mutual recognition and their independence from China, although it is a matter of dispute if such a treaty ever really existed.

The Simla Convention between China, Tibet and Britain was negotiated by not signed in 1914.  The British had tried to divide Tibet into Inner and Outer Tiber but negotiations broke down and the British demanded instead to advance their line of control.  They were in the end able to annex 90,000 square kilometres of Tibetan territory in southern Tibet (which is roughly the same area as the modern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh) while still recognising Chinese suzerainty but not sovereignty over Tibet.  The boundaries set up in the convention, the McMahon Line, was considered valid by the British and Indian governments, but not by China, who argues that because China did not sign the treaty and since it ruled Tibet, the treaty was meaningless and Southern Tibet’s rule by India was illegal.  This set the path for the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and the boundary dispute between China and India today.

The outbreak of WWI and the Chinese civil war caused the West and the troubled Chinese factions to lose interest in Tibet and the 13th Dalai Lama ruled without challenge.

Neither the Republic of China nor the People’s Republic of China has ever renounced China’s claim to sovereignty over Tibet. In 1950 the People’s Liberation Army crushed the ill-equipped Tibetan army.  In 1951, the Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet was forced upon the Dalai Lama’s representatives and Beijing affirmed Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.

Tibetans in exile argue that Tibet would have modernised itself without China’s intervention.  Any land redistribution or the redistribution of wealth would have been very unpopular in Tibet proper, but full-scale land redistribution was implemented in Eastern Kham and Amdo, with the result that a rebellion broke out in 1956, supported by the American CIA.  The rebellion, which spread to Lhasa, was crushed by 1959, but not before tens of thousands of Tibetans were killed, according to Tibetan exiles.  The 14th Dalai Lama and other government leaders fled to India, but a resistance movement was still alive in Tibet until 1969 when the CIA suddenly withdrew.

During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Red Guards took up a campaign of vandalism against cultural sites throughout China, including those important to Tibet’s Buddhist heritage. Of the several thousand monasteries in Tibet, over 6,500 were destroyed and hundred of thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns were killed or imprisoned.

The Panchen Lama, a virtual prisoner, was set up by the Chinese as a figurehead to head the legitimate Government of Tibet, mysteriously died in 1989 just as his criticism of Chinese policies intensified.  The Dalai Lama and the PRC recognised different reincarnations who would follow him.  (While officially an atheist state, the People’s Republic of China has affirmed its right to confirm high-level reincarnations.)  The Dalai Lama named a 6--year-old boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima,  as the 11th Panchen Lama, while the PRC named another child, Gyancain Norbu, who was raised in Beijing and has appeared on occasion on state media.  (Gyancain Norbu is reffered to as the fake Panchen Lama by Tibetan exile groups).  Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family have gone missing.  Tibetan exiles say they have been imprisoned; PRC officials say they have been hidden for their own protection and privacy.

As is the case throughout the PRC, there have been major economic changes since 1979 but the political system remains undemocratic and repressive.  Most religious freedoms in Tibet have been restored, but the lamas are not supposed to challenge PRC rule and many nuns and monks are still imprisoned and many Tibetans – especially nun and monks – flee the country each year.   The PRC continues to say that things have improved in Tibet, but Human Rights Watch and other groups report frequent violations of human rights.  All governments, however, recognise PRC sovereignty over Tibet; none has recognised the Dalai Lama’s government in exile in India.

Tibetan exiles claim that 1.2 million Tibetans have died due to violence since 1950 during the PRC’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, but the Chinese Communist Party denies this. A figure of 800,000 might be more accurate, but as many as 10 percent of the ethnic Tibetans might have been imprisoned, with few who survived the experience. The PRC says that there were some 8 million people in Tibet in 1737 and because of poor administration by the Tibetans, the population dwindled to 1.19 million by 1959.
Today there are about 7.3 people in Greater Tibet, which the PRC says is due to a modern, higher standard of living.

The government of Tibet in Exile argues that the Tibetan people have the right to self-determination. The Dalai Lama, to the displeasure of some, is willing to negotiate with China for the ‘genuine autonomy’ of Tibet, rather than fight for full independence.  The Dalai Lama feels that Tibet is threatened by the immigration of millions of Han Chinese, who in his view will dilute Tibet culturally and through intermarriage. Many Tibetans feel that PRC programmes benefit Han Chinese immigrants and boost tourism but do not necessarily assist native residents.

 Tibet is in many regards still lagging behind; the first major hospital was not built until 1985, several main roads were not paved until 1987 and the first students at Tibet University graduated only in 1988. The PRC however sees immense improvements compared to conditions under the Dalai Lama’s rule.  Tibetans counter that the improvements that have been made, in infant mortality, life expectancy, infrastructure and other areas would have been made without China’s help, under the Dalai Lama’s rule.


Tibet is located on the Tibetan Plateau, the highest area in the world.  The Himalaya mountain range is one of the world’s youngest, at four million years, and most of it lies within the borders of Tibet.  Mount Everest, its most famous peak, is on the border between Tibet and Nepal.

The climate in Tibet is extremely dry nine months out of the year, and average snowfall is only 18 includes because the mountain ranges prevent moisture from the ocean from reaching the plateaus. Western mountain passes remain open throughout the year, even when they receive fresh snow.  In the west there is no vegetation larger than low bushes and strong winds blow across desolate plains.  The east of Tibet feels the effects of the Indian Monsoon, while the north is very hot in summer and extremely cold in winter.

Several major rivers have their source in the Tibetan Plateau.  These include the Yellow River, the Yangtze, the Indus River, the Mekong, the Ganges, the Salween and Brahmaputra River, the main river that flows through Tibet.  In Tevetan, the Brahmaputra is called the Tsangpo.


Due to a shortage of arable land, raining livestock is the primary occupation in Tibet.  As interest in Tibetan Buddhism grows around the world, tourism is also becoming important and is promoted by the authorities.

To help develop Tibet’s economy, the Chinese government opened the Qinghai-Tibet Railway that links Tibet to Qinghai in 2006.  Opponents, however, say that it will only bring in more Han Chinese who will ultimately extinguish the local culture.  Others argue that the railway will hurt Tibet’s fragile economy, but the Dalai Lama has called for a ‘wait and see’ attitude, saying that he welcomes the railway if it benefits the majority of Tibetans.


Tibet historically has been populated by ethnic Tibetans, with some minority groups including Menba, Lhoba, Mongols and Hui. As represented by the six red bands in the Tibetan flag, the original ancestors of the Tibetan flag are the Se, Mu, Dong, Tong, Dru and Ra.   The issue of the number of Han Chinese living in Tibet is politically sensitive.  The Tibetan Government in Exile says that the PRC has purposely flooded Tibet with Han Chinese to change its demographic makeup, while the PRC denies this.


Tibetan cultural influences extend to the neighbouring states of Bhutan, Nepal, nearby regions of India and nearby provinces in China.

Tibet is the centre of Tibetan Buddhism, which is practiced in Mongolia, the Buryat Republic, the Tuva Republic and in the Republic of Kalmykia.  Tibet is also home to the original spiritual tradition called Bon.  Small communities of Muslims, known as Kachess, also exist in Tibetan cities.  In 1959 a group of Tibetan Muslims asked for Indian nationality based on their historic roots to Kashmir.  In response, the Indian government declared all Tibetan Muslims Indian citizens later on that year.

The Potala Palace, former residence of the Dalai Lamas, is a World Heritage Site, as is the Dalai Lama’s former summer residence, Norbulingka.  From the roof of the Potala, the holiest Tibetan temple may be observed.  Built as a shrine for a Buddha statue brought to Lhasa as a wedding present by Princess Wen Cheng, the Jokhang Temple sits at the heart of Tibetan Buddhism.  Surrounding the Jokhang Temple is the Barkhor market, where all manner of religious souvenirs and trinkets are all on sale. Wandering through this delightful market are Tibetan monks, pilgrims, nomads and tourists from all over the world.

During the Cultural Revolution, most historically significant sites in Tibet were completely destroyed or vandalised.   Today, the Cultural Revolution and the damage it wrought upon all of China is generally condemned as a nationwide catastrophe.  The PRC blame the Gang of Four, who have been brought to justice.  The China Western Development plan is viewed by the PRC as being a benevolent undertaking by the wealthier eastern coast to help the more impoverished west, including Tibet.

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