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China Invades Tibet 1950-1951

The Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, was the first to establish relations with China after his marriage to a Tang Dynasty princess. The Qing Dynasty intensified the efforts to bring Tibet into its fold, but it was distracted by internal problems during the latter half of its rule. Between 1950 and 1951, however, China invaded Tibet and finally drove its ruler, the Dalai Lama, into exile. This event is recorded on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History during that time.

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Origins and Early Years

Nestled between the towering Himalayas in the south and the Kunlun Mountains in the north is the vast Tibetan plateau. The western portion is bordered by Jammu and Kashmir, while the east is bounded by the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. At its center is the city of Lhasa, Tibet’s administrative center and revered by its people as a holy place in Buddhism.

According to their creation myth, the Tibetans descended from the Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteśvara, who was reincarnated as a monkey in Sothang in the Yarlung Valley. This creature mated with the ogress of the rocks who then gave birth to the first Tibetans. As the years passed, their descendants came to call the region they inhabited as “Bod” (Bö/Bön). The Chinese called them “Fan” or “barbarians” (although the term is applied to all non-Han peoples), and the word later evolved into “T’oufan.” Sogdians and Turks called them “Tüpüt,” while Arab merchants and writers used variants such as “Tibbat” and “Tübbet.”

Tibet would not stay in obscurity for long. During the early 7th century AD, the gyelpos (chieftain) of Yarlung named Namri Songtsen embarked on a series of conquests against chieftains of other Tibetan clans. After defeating them, Namri Songtsen declared himself the first king of the Tibetan empire. He died in AD 620 and was succeeded by his son Songtsen Gampo.

Tibet and China

During Songsten Gampo’s reign, ties were solidified between Tibet and China.

Ties between China and Tibet were solidified during Songtsen Gampo’s reign (c. AD 620-649). He led the Tibetan army in attacking China’s western frontier, forcing the Tang emperor Taizong to request an alliance with him. China’s alliance with Tibet was cemented with the marriage of the Tang princess Wencheng to the Tibetan king. Apart from the practice of heqin (marriage alliance), the two empires also sealed the friendship by signing the “Treaty of Uncle and Nephew” between AD 821-823.

Buddhism arrived in Tibet during Songtsen Gampo’s reign. It supplanted animism long practiced by the people, and monasteries soon cropped up all over the region.   

Songtsen Gampo’s dynasty crumbled after his death, and it was later followed by the collapse of the Tang Dynasty. Tibet maintained its independence and isolation during the rule of the Khitan Liao Dynasty and the Jurchen Jin Dynasty. This was also the case when the Western Xia Empire of the Tanguts dominated the north. They also remained isolated during the rule of the Song Dynasty, but this isolation was broken during the reign of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. Despite their reputation for ruthlessness, the Mongols allowed the Tibetans greater autonomy after they were                                                                brought into the fold.

Godan Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, appointed the Buddhist scholar Sakya Pandita as ruler of the Tibetans after the Mongol invasion. Even after the Mongols were driven back to the steppes and the Ming Dynasty rose, lamas (priests or monks) remained as rulers of Tibet. China and Tibet maintained little contact during the reign of the isolationist Ming Dynasty.

Ties between China and Tibet resumed during the reign of Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the Fifth Dalai Lama. With the encouragement of his supporter, the Mongol leader Güshi Khan, the Fifth Dalai Lama traveled to China to establish relations with the Qing emperor. Although Tibet still had a king, the Dalai Lama served as the people’s spiritual and political leader.

Relations between China and Tibet soured when Kangxi Emperor interfered with the selection of Seventh Dalai Lama. For the first time in Tibet’s history, 2,000 Chinese troops were stationed in its territory. A Qing military governor, meanwhile, was installed to supervise the region and counter the influence of the Dzungars of the north. Ambans (Qing high officials) traveled to Tibet and served as Chinese ambassadors.

Eager to undermine the Dalai Lama’s authority, Qing officials tried to pit him against the Panchen Lama (the second-highest person in the Tibetan theocracy). To the Tibetans’ relief, the Panchen Lama refused to be enticed into this power game. The murder of the Tibetan prince Gyurme Namgyal in 1750 only intensified their opposition to Chinese interference. Qianlong Emperor then scrapped Tibetan monarchy and elevated the Dalai Lama as the ruler of Tibet. During the late 1700s, China tightened its hold on Tibet and sought to isolate it from other nations.

Tibet in the Age of Imperialism

Despite the Qing officials’ efforts to isolate Tibet, intrepid European adventurers, Christian missionaries, and British officials still managed to slip into Tibet in the early 1800s. Wars and rebellions also kept China distracted, making the entry of European explorers easier than expected. In the 1880s, Russia started to stake a claim on Tibet under the pretext that the region was a part of the Mongol empire it then held.

But its rival, Britain, preempted Russian occupation and invaded Tibet in 1904. Sir Francis Younghusband led the British contingent into Lhasa and easily overcame the Tibetan army. Tibet was forced to sign the Convention Between Great Britain and Thibet [sic], giving Britain access to the kingdom and other privileges at China’s expense. Tibetans were initially optimistic, but it did not take long for them to realize that they were nothing but pawns for the two empire builders. In 1906, Britain signed the Anglo-Chinese Convention in Beijing, thereby acknowledging Chinese authority in Tibet.

China then built military outposts, roads, and telegraph lines within Tibet. 2,000 Chinese troops traveled to the region to assert China’s authority, but the Tibetans considered this an invasion. Their army, led by 13th Dalai Lama, fought the Chinese, but their outdated arms were simply no match for Chinese artillery. The Tibetan army was decimated, and the 13th Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India where he and his supporters established a government-in-exile. Despite their appeals for help to the outside world, their pleas largely fell on deaf ears. Britain—whether out of respect for the treaty it signed with China or it underestimated China’s strength—did not intervene in the conflict.

Tibet was given a brief respite when the administration changed hands from the Qing Dynasty to the Kuomintang. Troops sent by the new Chinese government were later repulsed by Tibetan soldiers. Chinese soldiers stationed in Lhasa, meanwhile, returned to China on their own or were driven out by the Tibetans. The 13th Dalai Lama returned from exile and soon declared his country’s independence. As expected, this declaration was only ignored by China.

Over the years and as the negotiations continued, the status of Tibet’s independence remained in limbo. Thinking that Britain is the key to Tibet’s independence, the 13th Dalai Lama made moves to cement an alliance by allowing British companies to enter and do business in the domain. This move, however, became unpopular with his people, so the Dalai Lama distanced himself from the British from then on. Tibet would suffer another blow when the 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933.

After many years of searching, Tibetan monks finally found the 14th Dalai Lama in the Amdo region. The 13th Dalai Lama was reincarnated in the body of a young Tibetan boy named Lhamo Thondup who was to be renamed Tenzin Gyatso.

China Invades Tibet

As the Second World War raged outside the borders of Tibet, its government tried to remain neutral. Its administrators refused the construction of Chinese supply route through its territory for fear that this would later give the enemy a foothold inside the country. Britain and the United States both stepped in and pressured Tibet to give in. Tibet had no choice but to concede.

Tibet’s leaders were anxious to reach out to the outside world when the war ended. It established relations with neighboring nations, moving especially closer to India. India soon became Tibet’s primary (if ambiguous) ally when Britain finally left the subcontinent in 1947.

In 1949, Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party overcame the Nationalists and finally drove them out to seek refuge in Taiwan. In October 1950, the People’s Liberation Army crossed Tibet’s borders and easily defeated the outnumbered Tibetan army. Chinese soldiers then proceeded to slaughter thousands of Tibetans between 1950 and 1951.

The young Dalai Lama immediately lodged a protest to the United Nations, but it was in vain as the Tibetan state was not a member. The international community was quick to condemn the invasion but made no solid action to help Tibet. To the Tibetans’ dismay, India recognized Chinese authority over them. In 1951, the Dalai Lama was forced to sign the Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet which gave China sovereignty over the state.

As the years passed, China ushered Tibet into the 20th century. But this modernization was not at all benevolent as China’s communist leaders gradually tried to curb the Dalai Lama’s power and reduce the importance of Buddhism in the Tibetans’ life. During the early 1950s, relations between China and Tibet gradually improved. The Dalai Lama visited Beijing in 1956 where he was welcomed by Mao Zedong himself. But there was no doubt about China’s intention when during one dinner, Mao famously remarked to the Dalai Lama that “religion is poison.” The Dalai Lama returned to his territory, but the situation of the Tibetans only worsened as the years went by.

Under the communists, the land was taken from wealthier Tibetans and redistributed to the poor peasants. Monasteries were destroyed, while monks were pressured to return to secular life. The Tibetans organized resistance, but they suffered harsh reprisals from Chinese troops. In 1958, Chinese authorities invited the Dalai Lama to a meeting, but his supporters steadfastly refused to let him go.

Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, was nearly hit by artillery shells in 1959. This alarmed the Tibetans who rallied behind their ruler in Lhasa. A Chinese general then renewed the invitation to the Dalai Lama but laid out a condition that he should come alone and unarmed. The Tibetans sensed an ambush, so they dissuaded the Dalai Lama from coming and convinced him to leave Tibet instead. The Dalai Lama agreed, and a crowd of Tibetans surrounded Norbulingka while he made his way out of the palace in disguise on March 17, 1959. He and his companions then made the dangerous trek to the Himalayas. They arrived in India two weeks later, to the relief of his people and his supporters in the international community.

The exiled Dalai Lama still lives in India, while many Tibetan refugees live in neighboring countries such as India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Other refugees have been resettled in Europe, North America, and Oceania.


Picture by: User:Dr. Blofeld, Public Domain, Link

Kelly, Petra K. The Anguish of Tibet. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1991.

Shakabpa, Wangchuk Deden. One Hundred Thousand Moons: An Advanced Political History of Tibet. Translated by Derek F. Maher. Leiden: Brill, 2009.

Stein, Rolf Alfred. Tibetan Civilization. Translated by J.E Stapleton. Driver. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972.

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