The Establishment of the Pagmodru Hegemony
Dorjey-gyelpo (1110 – 1170), a highly educated monk from Kham, disciple of the Kagyu master Gampopa, arrived in Central Tibet in 1158. He was given the name “Pagmodrupa” (Phag-mo gru-pa), meaning “One from Sow’s Ferry,” since he built a hermitage at a ferry crossing. This hermitage eventually expanded into the Pagdrui Densatel Monastery (Phag-gru’i gDan-sa thel or gDan-sa mthil). One of the disciples of Pagmodrupa’s disciple Drigungpa was Chen-nga Rinpoche (sPyan-snga Rin-po-che Grags-pa ‘ byung-gnas) (1175 – 1255). He became abbot of the monastery and appointed Dorjey-pel (rDo-rje dpal) of the Lang (rLangs) family as head of the nearby Nedong (sNe-gdong) estate.
When the thirteen-myriarchy structure was established in 1268, Dorjepal became the Myriarch Magistrate of Pagmodru. This position remained in the Lang family, where it became customary for one unmarried son to head both the monastery and the myriarchy. Thus, the Lang family played a role in Pagmodru similar to that which the Kon family played in Sakya. Pagmodru was in U Province, the eastern half of Central Tibet, while Sakya was in Tsang Province, the western half.
Jangchub-gyeltsen (1302 – 1364) was born into this Lang family. At twelve years of age, he began studying Buddhism and administration at Sakya. In 1322, he was appointed by the Sakya Chief Magistrate as the Pagmodru Myriarch Magistrate, granted the appropriate title “Tai-situ” in the name of the Yuan emperor, and returned to Nedong. Thereafter, he became known as Situ Jangchub-gyeltsen.
Jangchub-gyeltsen soon began a military campaign to recover land lost to a neighboring myriarchy. This conflict continued through 1345. The Sakya Chief Magistrate Gyelwa-zangpo (rGyal-ba bzang-po) was displeased by Jangchub-gyeltsen’s persistence in this matter and dismissed him as myriarch magistrate. Jangchub-gyeltsen refused to step down, even when Sakya and the surrounding myriarchies allied against him and he was imprisoned and tortured.
The alliance against Jangchub-gyeltsen began to fracture due to increasing jealousy between Sakya Chief Magistrate Gyelwa-zangpo and his Internal Minister Wangtson (Nang-chen dBang-brtson). Gyelwa-zangpo felt his survival in power depended on finding a strong ally, and so he offered to restore Jangchub-gyeltsen’s freedom and titles for a guarantee that Jangchub-gyeltsen would not challenge him.
On his release in 1352, Jangchub-gyeltsen reassumed his position in Nedong and immediately went on the offensive. By 1354, with Gyelwa-zangpo’s help, he soon controlled all of U. At a meeting with the Sakya Lama Kunpangpa (Bla-ma Kun-spangs-pa), Gyelwa-zangpo apologized to Jangchub-gyeltsen for how he had been treated. This reconciliation did not agree with Internal Minister Wangtson, who stripped Gyelwa-zangpo of his duties, imprisoned him, and took over as Sakya Chief Magistrate.
Four years later, in 1358, Wangtson assassinated Lama Kunpangpa. This event, along with a rumor that Wangtson had poisoned Gyelwa-zangpo, caused Jangchub-gyeltsen to take his army to Sakya, imprison Wangtson, and replace four hundred court officials and the newly appointed ruling lama.
The Pagmodru hegemony of Central Tibet (U and Tsang) dates from this coup in 1358. Some other Tibetan sources date Jangchub-gyeltsen’s release from prison and receipt of the title “Tai-Situ” at 1347 and the beginning of the Pagmodru hegemony at 1349, when Jangchub-gyeltsen took over all of U.
In an attempt to reestablish the Tibetan Empire of Songtsen-gampo and Tri Songdetsen, Jangchub-gyeltsen then reorganized the thirteen myriarchies into districts (rdzong), each with a District Magistrate (rdzong-spon). He himself, as ruler, took the purely Tibetan title “Desi” (sde-srid), roughly equivalent to “Prime Minister.” Following Buddhist principles, he set a fixed agricultural tax rate of 1/6 of the crop yield, developed an infrastructure of roads, bridges, and ferries, and staffed military posts in rough areas to protect travelers from bandits. Abolishing Mongol law and re-establishing traditional Tibetan law, he instituted a progressive criminal justice system that investigated crimes before levying one of thirteen levels of punishment. Previously, the Sakya lamas had followed the Mongol custom of simply executing suspects without trial.
Throughout his life, Jangchub-gyeltsen’s monastic vows remained important to him. For example, neither women nor wine were permitted into the innermost areas of his palace at Nedong. When he died in 1364. His nephew Jamyang-shakya-gyeltsen (‘ Jam-dbyangs sha-kya rgyal-msthan) (1340 – 1373), also a monk, succeeded him.
The Ming Dynasty’s Claim of Being the Heir of the Mongol Rule of Tibet
Thus, Tibet and China fell under the Mongol Empire at different times, and they gained independence from that empire at different times.
Although parts of Amdo were subject to Mongol raids subsequent to Chinggis Khan’s conquest of the Tangut regions in 1227, the Mongols did not establish formal control over the Tibetan cultural areas of Amdo, Central Tibet, and Kham until 1264 – 1265 CE. This occurred when Pagpa returned to Central Tibet with Mongol cavalry. Before this time, Tibet was an independent land. Although not under a unified rule, Tibet was nevertheless not under foreign rule either.
The independent Southern Song Dynasty of China, on the other hand, succumbed to the Mongols with the founding of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in 1271. With the final conquest of the Southern Song territory in 1279, all traces of an independent China were ended. The Mongol incorporation into their empire, partially in 1214 and completed in 1234, of the northern Chinese territories ruled by the Jurchen was not a loss of independent Chinese rule of Chinese territory.
Central Tibet’s independence from the Mongols came in 1358 with Jangchub-gyaltsen’s final overthrow of Sakya hegemony. China’s independence, on the other hand, occurred in 1368, while Amdo remained under Mongol control until 1370. Kham, with its very sparse population, was never strongly administered even during the Yuan period. Therefore, it would be historically inaccurate to conclude that the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) in China inherited a claim on Tibet from the Mongols. This is because not only had the Mongols lacked any vestiges of rule in Central Tibet or Kham when the Ming Dynasty was founded, but also the Mongol emperors had not even recognized the Pagmodru hegemony while they still held the Chinese throne.
The History of the Ming Dynasty (Chin. Ming-shi) records the establishment of a District Military Command Office (Chin. Du zhihui shisi) with jurisdiction over Western and Central Tibet and Kham, as well as a Pacification Office. Nevertheless, Western scholars, such as Elliot Sperling (“Did the Early Ming Emperors Attempt to Implement a `Divide and Rule’ Policy in Tibet?” in Proceedings of the Csoma de Körös Memorial Symposium) and Melvyn Goldstein (The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet and the Dalai Lama), discount that their officers had any actual authority or were ever even present in Tibet. The Ming history, after all, was compiled in 1739 by scholars of the subsequent Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912) and, as was the case with most Chinese dynastic histories, written in such a way as to legitimize the continuity and rule of a new dynasty. Relations between Tibet and China during the Ming period were primarily limited to the trade of Tibetan horses for Chinese tea, carried out on the Chinese borders of Kham and Amdo. Ming troops were never present in Tibet.
Comparison with Ming China’s Relations with the Mongols, Monguors, and the Uriyangkhai, and the Jurchen
After the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, although many Mongols retreated to Mongolia, many also remained in China, especially those that had been stationed in China and had assimilated Chinese ways. A significant number of defeated Mongol troops were incorporated into the Ming army, some into the Ming bureaucracy. The same was the case with many Uighurs who had served in the Yuan administration of China. The Ming policy was to further Sinify, as much as possible, the Mongols and Uighurs who remained in China, including those that had settled in the border regions between Kham and Sichuan. The Ming Sinification policy did not encompass the Tibetans, however, since Tibetans had neither served in the Yuan military nor in the Yuan administration of China, nor had they migrated to parts of Yuan China.
The Ming forces made several attempts to conquer Mongolia. They fought with the Northern Yuan army on several occasions, and although sometimes the victor, they never gained sovereignty over Mongolia. The last Ming military expedition to Mongolia was in 1422. Mongolia remained fragmented into the so-called “forty and four tribes” – forty tribes of Eastern Mongols and four of Western Mongols.
In the early fifteenth century, several Eastern Mongol tribes migrated to the south of the Gobi Desert, in what is present-day Inner Mongolia, and drove out the Chinese immigrants who had settled there. In contrast, not only did the Ming forces never invade Tibet, they were never even able to penetrate into Tibetan territory. Moreover, the Tibetans did not drive the Chinese from their border regions.
The situation in the Kokonor and Gansu regions of Amdo vis-a-vis the Ming Chinese differed from that in Central Tibet and Kham. Under Mongol administration, Central Tibet had been divided into thirteen myriarchies, while Kham had been sparsely populated and did not require an elaborate administrative apparatus. Amdo, on the other hand, had a long history of a mixed population. From before the Mongol period there were Tuyuhun, Uighurs, Tanguts, and the Tibetans of Tsongka. They fought incessantly with each other.
The Tibetan kingdom of Tsongka had been conquered and incorporated into the Jurchen Empire in 1182, although the Jurchen never conquered the Tanguts. Several decades later, the Mongol forces took both the Tsongka and Tangut lands. A significant portion of the inhabitants in Tsongka, around the Kokonor, Xining, and southwestern Gansu regions of Amdo, became known as the Monguors. Many scholars assert that the Monguors were descendents of the Tuyuhun, as evidenced by their Tibetan name “Tu” and their Chinese name “Turen.” Andras Rona-Tas (Tibeto-Mongolica: The Tibetan Loanwords of Monguor and the Development of the Archaic Tibetan Dialects), however, has argued more convincingly, on linguistic grounds, that the Monguors were the Mongol descendents of the troops of Kolgen, Chinggis Khan’s sixth son. Many among the Mongol troops, however, undoubtedly intermarried with local Tsongka Tibetans and Tuyuhun. The Monguors came to play an important role in the development of Tibetan Buddhism in Amdo.
The Ming forces did not conquer southern Gansu until 1370, two years after the fall of the Yuan Dynasty. The Monguors there did not retreat to Mongolia as many other Mongols elsewhere in China had, but rather they surrendered to the invading forces. Monguors were already quite different from the other Mongol groups at this time, since they had adopted agriculture. They had even taught farming to the local Amdo Tibetans. Thus they had a vested interest in remaining in the area and not returning to nomadic life.
Rona-Tas reports that although some Tibetans around Xining also surrendered to the Ming forces together with the Monguors, the Tibetans around the Kokonor region to the west fiercely resisted the Chinese forces. The Monguors, however, assisted the Chinese in subduing a Tibetan uprising there in 1375. Thus, the Monguors continued to dominate the Amdo region even after the fall of Yuan administration.
Henry Serruys (“The Mongols of Kansu during the Ming,” Melanges, vol. 10) reports that throughout the Ming Dynasty, the Monguor areas of Gansu remained an autonomous region. The people there did not pay taxes to the central Ming government, just local taxes. The area had many small villages inhabited by Han Chinese, while the Monguors often lived in enclaves surrounded by them. Thus, the Monguors could easily be surveilled by Chinese informants and be reached by Ming forces if necessary. Although Rona-Tas explains that the Monguors served the Ming government as border guards against the Mongols, Serruys questions this conclusion. He points out that the Ming army with Mongols in it defended the borders in Gansu, while the Monguors were responsible for peace in their own territories. The Monguors also were active in the horse for-tea-trade between China and Tibet, often acting as intermediaries for goods traveling to and from Central Tibet and China.
The situation in Amdo, then, differed considerably from that in Central Tibet and Kham. The latter two areas did not have Chinese settlers or Mongol descendents living in them, and thus they lacked any non-Tibetan groups that could cooperate in one way or another with Ming China.
In 1389, three Eastern Mongol tribes, known collectively as the Uriyangkhai, submitted themselves to Ming China. Tired of the civil wars that had broken out among all the numerous Mongol tribes after the fall of the Yuan, they turned to China to help establish stability. Their soldiers became units of the Ming military system garrisoned in their own territory, which lay in the region spanning the northeastern corner of present-day Mongolia and northwestern Manchuria.
Henry Serruys (Sino-Mongol Relations during the Ming, vol. 2: The Tribute System and Diplomatic Missions, 1400 – 1600) describes that the Ming government treated the Uriyangkhai as a protectorate serving as a buffer zone outside of China proper. They did not interfere in internal matters, but rather maintained trade missions with them. Because the Chinese always feared an alliance of the Uriyangkhai with the other Mongols, they maintained a friendly policy. As their areas lacked Han Chinese settlers, the Uriyangkhai enjoyed more independence under the Ming umbrella than did the Monguors.
During the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongols had maintained some military garrisons in Manchuria, but mostly had let the native Jurchens rule themselves. Unlike the case of Tibet, however, the Mongols promoted agriculture and mining in Manchuria, in order to profit from them. After defeating the Mongols, the Ming armies never invaded Manchuria and thus never held hegemony over it or collected taxes. Rather they maintained trade relations with Manchuria, especially in order to procure horses, furs, and ginseng.
After 1400, the Ming government made a military arrangement with the Jurchen similar to that which they had forged with the Uriyangkhai. They regarded the Jurchen and Uriyangkhai as forming together a territorial unit totally separate from Mongolia or China.
Many Jurchen had adopted forms of Korean Buddhism. Morris Rossabi (The Jurchens in the Yüan and Ming) reports that in order to win more influence over the Jurchen, the Ming court established a Prefectural Buddhist Registry for Manchuria in 1417, with a Jurchen monk as its head. As was the case with the bureaucratic apparatus that the Ming created for Tibet, it performed no actual function.
The Hongwu Emperor and Founding of the Ming Dynasty
In 1368, the Ming Dynasty replaced the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China. The Ming founder, the Hongwu Emperor, Ming Taizu (r. 1368 – 1399) had been a Buddhist monk for some years earlier in his life. In 1369, he sent a mission to Central Tibet, but it was turned back. The second mission, however, led by the envoy Xu Yunde, arrived and informed the Tibetans with titles and positions granted by the Yuan rulers that the Ming Dynasty reconfirmed them. The Emperor’s envoy invited various great lamas from different schools to the imperial court in Nanjing. Among them was the Fourth Karmapa, who turned down the invitation.
The Tibetan lamas who were later invited to the Ming court did not have the political status that those who had earlier attended the Mongol court had held. Titles, such as “Tai-situ,” that during the Sakya hegemony had carried with them political authority in Tibet were now merely honorary and had no political significance. The most obvious example was the Fifth Karmapa’s disciple Chokyi-gyeltsen (Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan) (1377 – 1448), who received the title “ Tai-situ” from the third Ming emperor and became known as the First Tai Situ Rinpoche.
In fact, the Hongwu Emperor placed restrictions on Buddhist monks in China to limit their political power. Nevertheless, the Ming founder showed sincere interest in Buddhism. He sent the Han Chinese monk Zongluo to Tibet between 1378 and 1382 to bring back certain Buddhist texts. When the Empress died in 1382, he sent Buddhist monks to the courts of the various princes, to recite sutras on her behalf. These included the Han Chinese monk Daoyan, whom he sent to the Prince of Yan, in the area of Daidu (Beijing), which was governed by the prince who eventually became the Yongle Emperor (Yung-lo; Wade-Giles: Yung-lo), Ming Chengzu (r. 1403-1424).
The Yongle Emperor and the Fifth Karmapa
Henry Serruys (“A Manuscript Version of the Legend of the Mongol Ancestry of the Yung-lo Emperor” in Analytica Mongolica) relates the legend that the Yongle Emperor was actually born a Mongol, not a Han Chinese. When the Ming founder captured the Yuan capital Daidu, he had taken as his wife the pregnant queen of the last Yuan emperor. Her son became the Yongle Emperor. He came to the imperial throne by overthrowing the Hongwu Emperor’s young grandson and successor, the Jianwen Emperor, Ming Huizu (r. 1399 – 1403).
The Yongle Emperor was a great patron of both Chinese scholarship and Buddhism. Soon after assuming the throne in 1403, he commissioned the compilation of The Great Yongle Encyclopedia (Chin. Yongle Dadien). It was completed in 1408. In over 11,000 volumes, it encompassed all fields of learning. Less than 400 volumes have survived to the present.
Also in 1403, the Yongle Emperor invited to Nanjing the Pagmodru spiritual head, Dragpa-gyeltsen (1385 – 1432), who later became the Fifth Pagmodru Prime Minister (r. 1409 – 1434). Dragpa-gyeltsen turned down the invitation and so the Emperor invited instead the Fifth Karmapa (Kar-ma De-bzhin gshegs-pa) (1384-1415). When the young Karmapa arrived in 1407, he was received with the highest honors.
According to tradition, upon his attainment of enlightenment, the First Karmapa was presented with an ethereal black hat crown (dbus-zhva nag-po) by dakinis (mkha’-‘ gro), celestial maidens, somewhat akin to “spiritual angels.” It was said to have been woven from the hair of a hundred thousand of their ranks. The Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, at the age of three declared that he had the black hat crown above his head. Thus began the first line of Reincarnate Lamas (sprul-sku, “tulku”) in Tibet.
The Third and Fourth Karmapas also had identified themselves by declaring that they too had an ethereal black hat crown above their heads. As a symbol of their close bond, the Third Karmapa had presented a red hat crown (dbus-zhva dmar-po) to one of his main disciples, Dragpa-senggey, who later became known as the First Zhamar Rinpoche (Zhva-dmar rTogs-ldan Grags-pa seng-ge) (1284 – 1349).
The Yongle Emperor perceived the ethereal black hat crown above the Fifth Karmapa’s head and presented him with a physical replica of it. The Fifth Karmapa then developed a “Black Hat Ceremony,” in which he put on the hat while totally absorbed on being the human embodiment of Avalokiteshvara (sPyan-ras-gzigs), the Buddha-figure embodying compassion.
The Emperor asked the Fifth Karmapa to perform Buddhist ceremonies in honor of his late parents. According to Elliot Sperling (“The 5th Karma-pa and Some Aspects of the Relationship between Tibet and the Early Ming” in Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson), the Yongle Emperor wished to form an alliance with the Karma Kagyu leader similar to the lama-patron relationship between the Yuan Mongol emperors and the Sakyapas. The Fifth Karmapa, however, turned him down and left the next year.
Analysis of the Ming Emperors’ Invitations of Tibetan Lamas
The requests by the Ming emperors for Tibetan lamas to visit China and the freedom the lamas exercised in responding to these requests, characterize the Sino Tibetan relationship at this time as one of mutual independence.
The Ming policy that evolved was to grant titles and lavish gifts to any leading lamas who would accept an invitation to China, regardless of their school affiliation. According to Turrell Wylie (“Lama Tribute in the Ming Dynasty” in Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson), this policy was intended to fragment the Tibetan lamas by rewarding all of them and discouraging any special lama-patron relationship. The aim was to woo the Tibetans away from forming any further alliance with the Mongols.
Eliot Sperling, however (“Did the Early Ming Emperors Attempt to Implement a ‘Divide and Rule’ Policy in Tibet?”), disputes Wylie’s analysis. According to Sperling, the Tibetan religious establishment was already fragmented before the founding of the Ming Dynasty. One cannot say that Ming influence in Tibet was so great that it helped to maintain that disunity. For the most part, Ming China was powerless in Tibet.
For example, two years after the Fifth Karmapa’s departure, a Tibetan language school was established in Beijing for training diplomats. The Yongle Emperor had by this time moved the Ming capital from Nanjing to Beijing. The Chinese envoys that were sent to Tibet, however, the so-called “Golden Document Holders” (gser-yig-pa), were murdered there. The Fifth Karmapa negotiated and, in the end, no Chinese troops were sent in. In fact, Ming China was never able to dispatch any military expeditions beyond the Sino-Tibetan border.
The Yongle Emperor and Tsongkhapa
The Yongle Emperor twice invited the founder of the Gelug (dGe-lugs) School, Tsongkhapa (rJe Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa) (1357-1419), to visit China. Tsongkhapa had arrived in Central Tibet from his native Amdo in 1372 and, by the reign of the Yongle Emperor, had gained great prominence. The Emperor sent as his envoy Houxian, the same official he had previously sent to invite the Fifth Karmapa.
Tsongkhapa declined the first invitation in 1409, as he was involved with establishing the first Monlam (sMon-lam) Prayer Festival in Lhasa with the support of the Pagmodru Prime Minister Dragpa-gyeltsen. In that same year, he also founded what became the first Gelug monastery, Ganden Monastery (dGa’-ldan dgon-pa).
Tsongkhapa therefore sent in his stead his disciple Jamchen Chojey (Byams-chen chos-rje Sha-kya ye-shes) (1354 – 1435).
Dieter Schuh (“Wie ist die Einladung des fünften Karma-pa an den Kaiserhof als Fortführung der Tibet-Politik der Mongolen Khane zu verstehen?” in Altaica Collecta) points out that this invitation followed one year after the Fifth Karmapa’s rejection of the Yongle Emperor’s overtures for establishing a lama-patron alliance with one of the religious factions within Tibet. He suggests that the Emperor sought a similar arrangement now with the rising faction in Lhasa that would soon become the Gelug School. Jamchen Chojey returned to Lhasa without entering into any such arrangement.
Perhaps partially to win over the scholarly Tsongkhapa, the Yongle Emperor sent for a handwritten manuscript of the Kangyur. He then sponsored a block print edition of it in 1410, in Beijing, and this became known as the “ Yongle Kangyur.”
When the Yongle Emperor invited Tsongkhapa to China a second time in 1414 and was again refused, Jamchen Chojey went once more to the Ming court. Jamchen Chojey became the Emperor’s personal teacher, and was granted many gifts and a highly reverential title. He also founded the Huangsi (Yellow Temple) monastery in Beijing. Despite this lama-patron relationship between Jamchen Chojey and the Yongle Emperor, no political arrangement was ever concluded between Ming China and the Gelugpas.
After returning from China, Jamchen founded Sera Monastery (Se-ra dgon-pa) in 1419. Another of Tsongkhapa’s disciples, Jamyang Chojey (‘Jam-dbyangs chos-rje bKra-shis dpal-ldan) (1379 – 1449), had founded Drepung Monastery (‘ Bras-spungs dgon-pa) three years earlier, in 1416. Together with Ganden Monastery, they constituted the three major Gelug monasteries. They were all located around Lhasa, in U Province.
The Yongle Emperor died in 1425, and was succeeded by the Gungyan Emperor, Ming Renzong, who ruled for less than a year. He was followed by the Xuande Emperor, Ming Xuanzong (1425 – 1435), and then the Zhengtong Emperor, Ming Yingzong, who held the Ming imperial throne twice, 1436 – 1450 and 1457 – 1465. During his first reign many changes occurred in Tibet.
The Rise of the Rinpung Family
Dragpa-gyeltsen died in 1432, and the ensuing conflict between his nephews for control of Sakya signaled, in 1434, the beginning of the collapse of the Pagmodru hegemony. This year marked the end of the peaceful period in Central Tibet that had started during the reign of Jangchub-gyeltsen. It was followed by a century-long power struggle between the Pagmodru faction, backed by the Gelugpas, in U Province and the Rinpung faction, backed by the Karma Kagyupas, in Tsang Province.
Under the Pagmodru Prime Minister Dragpa-gyeltsen, Namka-gyeltsen (Nam-mkha’ rgyal-mtshan) had administered the Rinpung and Sakya districts in the Tsang Province of Central Tibet. As was customary, he took the family name Rinpung (Rin-spungs). In 1435, the Rinpung family conquered Shigatse (gZhis-ka-rtse), also in Tsang Province, under the leadership of Dondrub-dorjey (Don-grub rdo-rje). Eventually, much of Tsang allied with the Rinpung family.
The Oirat Mongol Empire and Its Trade with Ming China
In this same year, 1435, the Mongols became briefly reunited after their fragmentation following the fall of the Yuan Dynasty. Power had shifted from the Eastern Mongols, descending from the line of Chinggis Khan, to the Western Mongols, known collectively as the Oirat, who had never been under the rule of the Mongol Yuan Empire.
The Oirat consisted of a confederacy of four tribes, several of which were to play an important role in future Tibetan history. These were the Torgut (later known as the Kalmyks), the Choros (later known as the Dzungars), the Dorbot, and the Khoshut (Qoshot). Their greatest leader was Esen Tayisi (r. 1439 – 1454) of the Dorbot tribe. Under him, the Oirat Empire stretched from East Turkistan to Manchuria and from Siberia to the Great Wall.
The Oirat conducted nearly annual missions to China, trading horses and camels for tea and silk. The Chinese called these missions “tribute missions,” while the Oirat saw them in economic terms. Buddhist monks headed some of these missions, indicating that Buddhism still held an important position among the Oirat, although not as strong as during the Yuan period.
The Oirat missions became so large and the resulting support demanded by them while in China became so great, that the Ming rulers tried to limit their size in 1442. The Oirat did not comply and tension increased between the Oirat and the Chinese.
The Minyag Kingdom in Kham and Its Trade with Ming China
During this period of rising tensions between the Oirat Mongols and the Ming Chinese, the populations near in the northwest fault line between the two civilizations felt threatened. This area spanned northeastern Amdo and southern Gansu, which during the Ming Dynasty included Ningxia and northern Shaanxi to the east. This was the main focal area of the horse-for-tea trade between the Tibetan regions and China. Consequently, large migrations out of this region took place at this time. From the Amdo side, many Tanguts, including their hereditary king, migrated to Kham, while many Chinese moved to the areas of Sichuan and Yunnan adjacent to the east of Kham.
Moreover, many Tibetans from Central Tibet also migrated to the Kham area, as trade dwindled between Tibet and its southern neighbors: Nepal and Muslim-ruled India. Among them was Lodro-tobden (Blo-gros stobs-ldan) of the powerful Gar family, who settled in Derge (sDe-dge), northern Kham. The royal line of Derge descends from him.
The Monguors, however, remained in the Amdo area, and supplied information about the Oirat activities to the Ming government. Serruys (“The Mongols of Kansu during the Ming”) reports that many Mongols moved into these northeastern areas of Amdo during this time. Presumably, they were Oirat.
The Tangut immigrants established their own Tibetanized kingdom in Kham, known to the Tibetans as “Minyag” (Mi-nyag). Trading posts developed on the Sino-Minyag border in Kham and this area soon supplanted Amdo as the center of the horse-for-tea trade between the Tibetan regions and China. During the Zhengtong Emperor’s first reign, eight missions were sent from this border region to the Chinese imperial court in Beijing. These were also taxing on the Chinese economy.
The Karmapa line had been extremely popular among the Tanguts since the times of the First Karmapa and many successive Karmapas were born in Kham. During his first reign, the Zhentong Emperor invited the Sixth Karmapa (Kar-ma-pa mThong-ba don-ldan) (1416 – 1453) to his court, but had been turned down. The Ming Emperor was perhaps still seeking a Tibetan political ally.
The Oirat Defeat of Ming China and Its Effect on Chinese Relations with Tibet
In 1450, the Oirat, led by Esen Tayisi, attacked China over disputes concerning what the Oirat viewed as unfair trade policies. The Zhentong Emperor went off to fight the Oirat, leaving his younger brother temporarily on the imperial throne as the Jingde Emperor, Ming Daizong (1450 – 1457). The Ming forces suffered a massive defeat and the Zhentong Emperor was taken hostage. Esen Tayisi assumed the title of “Esen Khan.” With the Ming economy extremely battered, the Tibetan missions to China were limited in 1453 by imperial decree. When no ransom was forthcoming from China, Esen Khan released Zhentong, who was subsequently imprisoned by his brother.
Esen Khan soon lost his power and was assassinated in 1454. Subsequently, the Oirat confederacy broke apart, while the Zhentong Emperor staged a coup and retook the Ming imperial throne. During his second reign, the Zhentong Emperor turned against Buddhism.
The next Ming Emperor, the Chenghua Emperor, Ming Xianzong (r. 1465 – 1487) resumed exchanging presents with Tibetan lamas. Albert Chan (The Glory and Fall of the Ming Dynasty) reports that the Emperor invited many monks from Tibet and Mongolia. During his reign there were thousands of Tibetan monks in the Ming capital. They recited prayers at court and were treated lavishly, carried everywhere in sedan chairs. Even government officials had to make way for them. They were also given large grants of land and money to build temples and monasteries. According to Chan, the extravagant expenditures by the imperial court on Buddhist monks and rituals and, later, on Daoist rites were one of the main causes for the eventual downfall of the Ming Dynasty.
The Chenghua Emperor also exchanged presents with the Seventh Karmapa (Kar-ma Chos-grags rgya-mtsho) (1454 – 1506). Nevertheless, he never invited the Seventh Karmapa to his court. The Seventh Karmapa, however, was invited to the Minyag court in Kham, where he stayed from 1467 – 1471 and was highly honored.
The Fourth Zhamarpa and the Rinpung Incursion into U
The Fourth Zhamar Rinpoche (Zhva-dmar Chos-kyi grags-pa ye-she) (1453 – 1526) was a contemporary of the Seventh Karmapa. He served as the Chief Counselor to the Rinpung princes. In 1479, with the sponsorship of Donyo-dorjey (Don-yod rdo-rje) (1462 – 1512) of the Rinpung family, the Zhamarpa founded Yangpachen Monastery (Yangs-pa-can dgon-pa). It was situated north of the Karmapas’ seat at Tsurpu Monastery outside of Lhasa and became the seat of the Zhamar line.
Lhasa and likewise Tsurpu lay in U Province, where Pagmodru was also located. Although the Fourth Zhamar Rinpoche was born in and allied with the Rinpung faction in Tsang, he wished to gain a foothold in U. The Gelugpas had already gained a foothold in Tsang when Tsongkhapa’s disciple, Gyelwa Gendun-drub (rGyal-ba Ge-’dun grub) (1391-1474), posthumously named the First Dalai Lama, had founded Tashilhunpo Monastery (bKra-shis lhun-po dgon-pa) there in 1447. Tashilhunpo had been built on the outskirts of Shigatse, which had been under Rinpung jurisdiction since 1435.
Donyo-dorjey and the Fourth Zhamarpa then wanted also to sponsor a new monastery for the Karmapa in Lhasa. This was in accord with the wishes of the Seventh Karmapa. Their application, however, was refused by the Gelug Magistrate of Lhasa. Instead, the monastery was begun outside of Lhasa, but it was destroyed by Gelug monks from Sera and Drepung Monasteries.
Since the establishment of the annual Monlam Prayer Festival in Lhasa, the Gelugpas had maintained jurisdiction in Lhasa. It seems that the Karma Kagyu faction, especially with the political backing of the Fourth Zhamarpa, wanted to challenge the Gelugpas’ hold over Lhasa and their influence in U by building even more monasteries in and around the city.
In 1480, Donyo-dorjey led a retaliatory attack against U, prevailing in several small districts before continuing to Nedong. His attack on Lhasa in 1481 did not succeed. But, as the Rinpung family now controlled both U and Tsang, the Pagmodru family still ensconced as figureheads in Nedong had no real power. The Pagmodru, however, continued to support the Gelugpas.
In 1485, the Rinpung army attacked the district of Gyantse (rGyang-rtse) in Tsang, to complete their hold on Tsang Province, but was defeated. They tried again in 1488 and, this time, they were successful. In 1492, Donyo-dorjey invaded U again, capturing three districts, and in 1498 he captured Lhasa, remaining in power there until 1517. During this period, from 1498 to 1517, due to Donyo-dorjey’s support and under the lead of the Fourth Zhamarpa, monks at Drepung and Sera were barred from celebrating the Monlam Prayer Festival in Lhasa.
In 1517, the Rinpung faction withdrew from Lhasa, as the Pagmodru faction temporarily received support from the Drigung Kagyupas. This allowed the Gelug monks to resume celebration of the Monlam Prayer Festival.
Dayan Khan and the Preoccupation of Ming China with the Mongol Threat to the North
Meanwhile in Mongolia, after the breakup of the Oirat confederacy in 1454, the Eastern Mongols elected Markorgis, a descendent of Chinggis Khan, as their khan. His nephew, Dayan Khan (1464 – 1524) succeeded in reuniting all six Eastern Mongol tribes after becoming Khan in 1487. The six tribes, often referred to as the “Six Myriarchies of Dayan Khan,” were comprised of the three Right-Wing tribes (the Ordos, Yongshiyebu, and Tumed) in the west and the three Left-Wing tribes (Chakhar, Khalkha, and Uriyangkhai) in the east. The Uriyangkhai had previously formed independent units of the Ming military, stationed in northwestern Manchuria.
At about the same time as Dayan Khan became Grand Khan of the Eastern Mongols, the next Ming Emperor, the Hengzhi Emperor, Ming Laozong (r. 1488-1506) ascended the throne. He paid no attention to events in Tibet, as he was fully occupied with the Mongol threat that Dayan Khan posed to the north of China. Dayan Khan had sent an envoy to establish trade relations with China, but the Ming Emperor had the envoy killed. This prompted Dayan Khan to send military expeditions against China.
The Zhengde Emperor’s Overtures to the Eighth Karmapa
The next Ming Emperor, the Zhengde Emperor, Ming Wuzong (r. 1506 – 1521), ascended the imperial throne in the same year as the Eighth Karmapa (Kar-ma Mi-bskyod rdo-rje) (1506 – 1554) was born in Kham. The Emperor gave himself the Buddhist title of “Dharmaraja” (Dharma King) and sent a mission to Tibet to invite a great lama to his court. The party was attacked and robbed on route and never succeeded in reaching Tibet.
The Zhende Emperor considered himself in some way as a second incarnation of the Seventh Karmapa, like one being a speech emanation and the other being a mind emanation. He took the Tibetan name Rinchen-pelden (Rin-chen dpal-ldan) and sent a letter of invitation to the ten-year-old Eighth Karmapa in 1516. In it, he explained that the two of them had a deep karmic relation. The young Karmapa declined the invitation and withdrew from Kham to Central Tibet.
Albert Chan relates that the Zhengde Emperor nevertheless had large numbers of Tibetan monks at his court and often dressed as a Tibetan monk himself. He even studied Buddhist texts in Tibetan. Like the Hengzhi Emperor, however, the Zhende Emperor did not become involved with affairs in Central Tibet.
The next Ming emperor, the Jiaqing Emperor, Ming Shizong (r. 1522 – 1566) reacted against the Buddhist excesses of his two predecessors and favored Daoism instead. He not only degraded the Tibetan lamas, but also suppressed Buddhism. Tibetan lamas rarely went to China after this, although they still maintained some connection with China.
The Migration of Mongol Tribes to Amdo and the Establishment of the Tsangpa Hegemony
After Dayan Khan’s death in 1524, the rift between the Right- and Left-Wing tribes began once more. Two of these Western Mongol tribes, the Tumed and the Khalkha, would play major roles in the events that subsequently unfolded in Tibet. The Tumed Mongols ruled in the Ordos region of what later became “Inner Mongolia.” They gradually extended their domain into northeastern Amdo, since the local Tibetan overlords were involved in squabbles among themselves.
Meanwhile, in Central Tibet, the Rinpung rulers continued in power in Tsang. In 1548, the Rinpung Prime Minister Ngawang-namgyel (sDe-srid Ngag-dbang rnam-rgyal) appointed Zhingshag Tseten-dorjey (Zhing-shag Tshe-brtan rdo-rje) as Governor of Tsang at Shigatse. Starting in 1557, Tseten-dorjey rebelled against the Rinpung authorities, overthrowing them and declaring himself King of Tsang in 1565. Gradually, he took over most of Tsang and eventually U as well. Thus began the Tsang hegemony. Just as the Fourth Zhamarpa supported the Rinpung rulers, now the Fifth Zhamarpa (Zhva-dmar dKon-mchog yan-lag) (1525 – 1583) became the chief advisor of the King of Tsang.