Tibet is a sparsely populated region on a high plateau north of the Himalayas. In fact, for thousands of years, many Tibetans have lived in areas that are now provinces of China: Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan provinces. The Chinese province of Tibet is the largest part of ethnographic Tibet. For the vast majority of its history, Tibet has been an independent country, separate from China. However, because of its peaceful Buddhist nature, Tibet has never had a strong military, and so has not been able to defend itself. At various times in its long history, it has turned to the Mongols, the Manchus and the British to protect it.
The people of Tibet speak a language that is not a dialect of Chinese (the language of the majority Han ethnicity of China). The Tibetan language is similar to Burmese, the Dzongkha language of Bhutan, and various minority languages of Yunnan province. Tibetan has a written script imported from northern India.
Before Buddhism spread to Tibet, they had a shamanistic Bon religion. All Tibet Buddhist sects are part of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. The current “Yellow Hat” Geluk Buddhist sect was introduced into Tibet in around 1400 by an Amdo monk named Tsongkapa. The Yellow Hat form of Buddhism came to dominate Tibet in the years before Tibet came under Manchu rule. The Dalai Lama is the main leader of the Yellow Hat Buddhists, while the Panchen Lama is a secondary leader.
Tibet was conquered by Genghis Khan, paid him tribute, and became part of the Mongol empire. The Chinese interpreted this as Tibet becoming part of China, but the Tibetans saw themselves as parallel to the Chinese, both parts of the Mongol empire. During Mongol rule, the main Buddhist sects were the Red Hat sects, Sakya and Kargyu. When Tibet was allied with the Mongols, Tibet provided the Mongols with religion, and the Mongols provided the Tibetans with military protection.
During the ethnic Chinese Ming dynasty, Tibet’s relationship with China was one of suzerainty: the Ming dynasty controlled Tibet’s foreign affairs, while Tibet had control of its own internal affairs.
The Qing (Manchu) Dynasty ruled China from 1720 to 1911. During the Manchu (Ching) Dynasty, Tibet was under the protection of the Manchus. During the late nineteenth century the British, who were in India, established trade relations with Tibet.
Republic of China (1911):
When Sun Yatsen took power in 1911, he saw Tibet as part of China and wanted to expel the British from Tibet. Britain was not willing to fight for Tibet. Britain did make Bhutan and Sikkim into Indian protectorates. The British made a part of Tibet near Bhutan into the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Mongolia was able to become an independent country after World War II due to the support of Joseph Stalin.
People’s Republic of China (1949):
In 1950 the Chinese People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet and conquered the Tibetan army at Chamdo. Little blood was shed before Tibet surrendered. Tibet turned to the United Nations for help in preserving its autonomy from China, but the United Nations refused to support Tibet, due to the opposition of Britain and India. Between 1951 and 1959 China left Tibet alone to run its own affairs. In 1959 the C.I.A. supported a rebellion for independence in Tibet, but it failed. The C.I.A. continued to support the Tibetan rebels in their base in Nepal. The Chinese communists claimed that they were trying to liberate Tibet from feudalism and serfdom. They outlawed Buddhism and collectivized agriculture. The Tibetan were allowed to keep their language, however.
During the late 1960s the United States abandoned its support for Tibet, because it wanted to improve relations with the PRC.
Until the twentieth century, no Chinese people lived in Tibet. Many Han Chinese and Hui Muslims have moved to Tibet since 1984 to work in modernizing the Tibet and building infrastructure. There are now many Han Chinese living in Tibet, but they are regarded as being only temporary workers. The Chinese have become more tolerant of Buddhism since Mao passed away. Their religion is no longer outlawed, as it was during the Mao years. The PRC one-child rule is less strictly enforced in Tibet.
The Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government live in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. In 1989 the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize. The rulers of China do not want Tibet, the Uyghur Turkic Muslim people, Taiwan or Hong Kong to be independent. Many Tibetans would settle for what Hong Kong currently has: one country two systems. But the Chinese rulers don’t want them to have that. The United States Congress has made efforts during the past 25 years to give greater recognition to Tibet. The author believes that it is unrealistic to believe that the PRC will ever allow Tibet to become a separate country.