Analysis of the Siege of Khotan

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The Political and Religious Climate among the Tanguts

With the establishment of the Khitan Liao Dynasty in Mongolia, Manchuria, and parts of northern Han China in 947, and the Northern Song reunification of the rest of Han China in 960, the Tanguts became pressed from both the north and the east. In southern Gansu, Ningxia (Ning-hsia), and western Shaanxi (Shan-hsi), they occupied a strategic area at the direct gateway from Central Asia to Chang’an, the eastern terminus of the Silk Route, held by the Northern Song. Although trade from the west could skirt the Tanguts by passing from the Gansu Corridor through Tsongka, their lands contained the most direct road and many powers were keen to take the area from them. The Tanguts, however, withstood all attacks. After protracted wars against both the Khitans and the Northern Song, the Tangut ruler, Jiqian (Chi-ch’ian) (r. 982 – 1004), declared himself, in 982, the first emperor of an independent Tangut Dynasty (982 – 1226), known in Chinese as the Xixia (Hsi-hsia) and in Tibetan as the Minyag (Mi-nyag).

For the next fifty years the Tanguts, wishing to expand their empire westward to control more of the Silk Route, fought incessant wars against an alliance of their immediate neighbors, the Yellow Yugurs and the Tibetans of Tsongka. The Northern Song court was friendly with both, trying to woo them from the Khitan sphere of influence. Consequently, the Tanguts continued hostile relations with both the Han Chinese and the ever-menacing Khitans to the north.

Buddhism had originally come to the Tanguts from Tang China in the seventh century. When the three Tibetan monks who fled the persecution of Buddhism in Tibet by Emperor Langdarma (r. 836 - 842) arrived in Tsongka, they gave religious instruction to a local Buddhist, to whom they gave the spiritual name Gewasang (dGe-ba gsang). The fact that this initiate then went to the Tangut territory for further studies indicates that Buddhism had become fairly widespread among the Tanguts by that time, at least in aristocratic circles.

The traditional religion of the Tanguts was a blend of a non-Confucian type of ancestor worship with the form of shamanism and Tengrism followed by most Central Asian people associated with the Mongolian steppes. Like the Turks, the Tanguts also had a cult of sacred mountains believed to be the seats of power for their rulers. Although the Tangut emperor, Jiqian, upon assuming the imperial throne, honored his native tradition by building a temple of ancestors, which received enthusiastic popular support, he also respected Buddhism. He had his son, for example, the future emperor Deming (Te-ming) (r. 1004 – 1031), study its texts as a child.

The Situation in the Tibetan Regions

Meanwhile, central Tibet was slowly recovering from the civil strife that had followed the assassination of Langdarma in 842. After several weak reigns of the last emperor’s adopted son and his successors, Tibet divided in 929 into two kingdoms. One continued on a weak political level in central Tibet and the other, the Ngari (mNga’-ris) Dynasty, established itself in the old Zhang-zhung homeland in the west. Eventually, both became interested in reviving the Buddhist monastic tradition from the monks in Tsongka.

Buddhism in Tsongka had continued to thrive, unaffected by Langdarma’s persecution. In 930, Tibetans from this area began to help translate Buddhist texts from their language into Uighur. This was five years after the Khitans had adopted the Uighur script as their second writing system and, thus, was the period when Uighur cultural influence on the Khitans was reaching its height. It is unclear if the religious cooperation of the Tsongka Tibetans with the Uighurs was exclusively with their immediate neighbors to the north, the Yellow Yugurs, or also with the Qocho Uighurs further to the west. The two Turkic groups shared the same language and culture.

Tibeto-Uighur religious contact and translation work increased during the second half of the tenth century, especially during the time when the Tibetans and Yellow Yugurs were allied in war against the Tanguts. The Han Chinese pilgrim, Wang Yande (Wang Yen-te), visited the Yellow Yugur capital in 982, the year the Tangut Empire was founded, and reported more than fifty monasteries.

King Yeshey-wo’s Efforts to Revitalize Buddhism in Western Tibet

The Buddhist monastic lineage of ordination was revived in central Tibet in the mid-tenth century from the three central Tibetan monks who had moved from Tsongka to Kham. Subsequently, the Ngari kings of western Tibet made great efforts to restore Buddhism even further to its previous level. In 971, King Yeshey-wo (Ye-shes 'od) sent Rinchen-zangpo (Rin-chen bzang-po, 958 – 1055) and twenty-one youths to Kashmir for religious and language instruction. They also visited Vikramashila Monastic University in the central part of northern India.

Kashmir, at this time, was in the final phases of the Utpala Dynasty (856 – 1003) that had followed Karkota rule. The Utpala period had witnessed much civil war and violence in Kashmir. Certain aspects of Buddhism had become mixed with the Shaivite form of Hinduism. However, by the beginning of the tenth century, Kashmiri Buddhism had received new impetus with the revival of Buddhist logic from the northern Indian monastic universities. A brief setback had occurred during the rule of King Kshemagupta (r. 950 – 958), when this zealous Hindu ruler had destroyed many monasteries. However, by the time of Rinchen-zangpo’s visit, Buddhism was slowly being reestablished.

Although Buddhism had recently reached its high point in Khotan, which had for centuries been closely connected with western Tibet, the armed struggle between Khotan and the Qarakhanids had begun in Kashgar in the year of Rinchen-zangpo’s departure. Khotan was no longer a safe place for Buddhist study. Furthermore, the Tibetans wished to learn Sanskrit from its source in the Indian subcontinent and translate themselves from the original tongue. Khotanese renditions of Sanskrit Buddhist texts were often paraphrases, whereas the Tibetans, plagued by confusion about Buddhist doctrine, wished for more accuracy. Thus, despite Buddhism also being in a precarious position in Kashmir, it was the only relatively safe, nearby place where the Tibetans could receive reliable instruction.

Only Rinchen-zangpo and Legpay-sherab (Legs-pa'i shes-rab) survived the journey and training in Kashmir and the northern Indian Gangetic Plains. Upon his return to western Tibet in 988, Yeshey-wo had already established several Buddhist translation centers with the Kashmiri and Indian monk scholars that Rinchen-zangpo had sent back to Tibet with numerous texts. Monks invited from Vikramashila started a second line of monastic ordination.

In the last years of the tenth century, Rinchen-zangpo built several monasteries in western Tibet, which at that time included portions of Ladakh and Spiti in present-day trans-Himalayan India. He also visited Kashmir twice more to invite artists to decorate these monasteries so as to attract the devotion of the common Tibetan. This was despite a change of dynasty in Kashmir, with the founding of the First Lohara line (1003 – 1101). The dynastic transition was peaceful and did not disturb the situation of Kashmiri Buddhism.

The Qarakhanid siege of Khotan had begun in 982, six years before Rinchen-zangpo’s return. On his arrival, many Buddhists were already flocking to western Tibet as refugees, which undoubtedly also helped with the revival of Buddhism there. They were probably from Kashgar and the areas between there and Khotan that lay along the Qarakhanids’ line of supply. Although most who fled would have passed through Ladakh on their way to Tibet, they did not turn to the west and settle in nearby Kashmir, a much less difficult and shorter journey. This was perhaps due to the Ngari Kingdom appearing to be more politically and religiously stable in face of Yeshey-wo’s strong rule and patronage. Another factor may have been the long cultural ties between the region and Tibet. In 821, Khotanese monks had also fled to western Tibet seeking refuge from persecution.

Tibetan Military Aid to Khotan

The western Tibetan Ngari Kingdom was just a few years old when the Qarakhanids of Kashgar converted from Buddhism to Islam in the 930s. Having arisen as a political entity from a split with central Tibet over a succession issue in 929, Ngari was at first militarily weak. It could hardly risk enmity with the Qarakhanids because of religious differences. In order to survive, it would have had to maintain friendly relations with its neighbors.

According to later Tibetan Buddhist histories, however, King Yeshey-wo of Ngari went to the aid of besieged Khotan around the turn of the eleventh century. This was undoubtedly due as much to fear of further Qarakhanid political expansion as it was to concern for the defense of Buddhism. Although the Tibetans and Qarluq/Qarakhanids had been allies for centuries, they had never threatened each others’ territories. Furthermore, Tibet had always considered Khotan within its legitimate sphere of influence. Therefore, once the Qarakhanids overstepped the boundary of this sphere, relations between the two nations changed.

According to traditional Buddhist histories, King Yeshey-wo was taken hostage by the Qarakhanids (Tib. Gar-log, Turk. Qarluq), but did not allow his subjects to pay the ransom. He advised them to let him die in prison instead and use the funds to invite more Buddhist teachers from northern India, specifically Atisha from Vikramashila. Many Kashmiri masters were visiting western Tibet at the beginning of the eleventh century and several were spreading corruptions of Buddhist practice there. As this was compounding the already poor level of understanding of Buddhism in Tibet due to the destruction of the monastic centers of study at the time of Langdarma, Yeshey-wo wished to clear this confusion.

There are many historical inconsistencies in this pious account of Yeshey-wo’s sacrifice. The siege of Khotan ended in 1006, while Yeshey-wo issued a final edict from his court in 1027 to regulate the translation of Buddhist texts. Thus, he did not die in prison during the war. According to Rinchen-zangpo’s biography, the king died of sickness in his own capital.

Nevertheless, this apocryphal account indirectly indicates that the western Tibetans were not a strong military power at the time. They were not effective in lifting the siege of Khotan and did not pose a serious threat to any future Qarakhanid expansion along the southern Tarim branch of the Silk Route. They would not be able to defend the Tibetan nomads living there.

Probable Qarakhanid Military Strategy

The Qocho Uighurs controlled the northern branch of the Silk Route. Although these rival Turkic people were not especially warlike, they were vassals of the Khitans who were a considerable military power at the time. If the Qarakhanids were to attack the Qocho realm at nearby Kucha, for example, the Khitans would undoubtedly be drawn into the war. Khotan, on the other hand, which likewise lacked a martial tradition, was far more vulnerable. Although it had been sending missions to several Han Chinese courts trying to elicit support, it was basically isolated. Ngari could hardly help with an effective defense.

The southern branch of the Silk Route, after having fallen into disuse for nearly a century and a half, had been reopened by the Khotanese in 938 and was once more carrying the jade trade to Han China. However, it was mostly deserted, except for a few Tibetan nomads, and poorly defended. To conquer the northern route would entail a series of battles to take each of the Qocho Uighur oases from Kucha to Turfan, whereas the southern route could be won by victory in merely one battle, that for Khotan.

If the Qarakhanids could take Khotan and link it to their empire, which stretched west of Khotan through Kashgar and on to the main cities of Sogdia, they would automatically command the entire southern branch of the Central Asian Silk Route as far as Dunhuang, where it joined with the northern branch. They would then control an alternative trade route to that which passed through the northern Tarim under Qocho rule and would profit enormously, both financially and in heightened prestige. They would not need to launch a military campaign to win ascendency over Qocho, but could supplant them economically instead by cutting them out of the Silk Route trade. A major factor in formulating a military strategy for capturing the southern branch of the Route, however, was how the states to the east would react to a Qarakhanid drive.

The Tangut Connection

Since the 890s when they had conquered the independent state of Guiyijun, the Yellow Yugurs had governed Dunhuang at the eastern end of the southern Tarim route where it joined the northern branch. The Yellow Yugur territory, under Khitan suzerainty since the 930s, extended southeastward from there and contained the Gansu Corridor through which the Silk Route continued. The Route then passed through Tangut-held southern Gansu before entering Han China, or diverted southward to the Kokonor region, the terminus of Arab-Tibetan trade, currently ruled by the Tibetan Kingdom of Tsongka.

As the Tanguts were extremely hostile toward the Northern Song at this time, they blocked all trade through their territory intended for Han China and became the major recipient of the goods themselves. The trade route to Chang’an was subsequently diverted to skirt the Tanguts by passing south from the Yellow Yugur territory to Tsongka and from there to Han China. Thus, in 982, with the establishment of his dynasty, the Tangut emperor, Jiqian, had immediately launched a war of expansion to take the Yellow Yugur and Tsongka territories, and cut off all access of the Northern Song to the Central Asian lands to the west.

Following the classic strategy of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” the Qarakhanids quickly established friendly relations with the Tanguts. The latter’s preference for Buddhism did not seem to be an obstacle for diplomatic negotiations. Geopolitical considerations seem to take preference over religious ones when economic gain is at stake.

Possible Military Agreements with the Tanguts

Although there are no clear records, it seems reasonable to surmise from the fact that the Qarakhanids launched their siege of Khotan also in 982, that the Qarakhanids and Tanguts made an agreement. One possibility for the terms is if the Tanguts did not obstruct a Qarakhanid takeover of Khotan and the southern Tarim, the Qarakhanids, in turn, would not interfere with a Tangut invasion of the rest of Gansu and the Kokonor region. If the Khitans were to come to the defense of the Yellow Yugurs, the Tanguts would be in a much better position to repel them than the Qarakhanids would be. For the latter to launch their own attack on the Yellow Yugurs and have to fight the Khitans as well would require an unsustainable line of supply across the southern Tarim desert waste.

If both the Qarakhanids and Tanguts succeeded in their military offensives, they would win unrivaled control of the southern Silk Route from northeastern Tibet and the borders of Han China to Samarkand, effectively eliminating the Northern Song and Qocho Uighurs from any share of the trade. Although Khotanese Buddhists may well have supported Kashgari resistance to Islam, this would undoubtedly have merely provided the Qarakhanids with a moral circumstance for imposing their siege. In those times, however, nations did not require excuses for military offensives.

It is also possible to explain the course of events without having to conjecture a Qarakhanid/Tangut mutual nonaggression pact concerning Khotan and the Gansu Corridor. Although the two nations would have needed to divide control of the Silk Route trade, the Qarakhanid Qaghan would undoubtedly also have wanted to include the Yellow Yugurs in his sphere of influence as leader of all the Turkic tribes. If direct military confrontation with either the Qocho Uighurs or Yellow Yugurs was too risky because of possible Khitan intervention, there were other means to gain their allegiance.

If, for example, the Qarakhanid Qaghan enjoyed great military and economic success in conquering the southern Tarim trade route and linking it with his territories in West Turkistan, the two Uighur groups would become convinced of his superior spiritual power (qut). Recognizing the Qaghan’s victory as a clear demonstration of his rightful authority over all the Turks as safekeeper of the sacred Balasaghun Mountain, they might give up all hopes for regaining Otukan from the Khitans and turn instead to their rightful leader. Seeing that the Qaghan had chosen religions correctly by adopting Islam and gaining its supernatural power to win Balasaghun and the southern Tarim, they would naturally also turn from Buddhism to Islam – not as a sign of submission to Allah, but of submission to the Qarakhanid Qaghan.

The Qaghan’s primary objective, then, in his southern Tarim campaign was undoubtedly not the actual spread of Islam for reasons of righteousness or the avenging of martyrs. It was much more likely, in the short term, in order to gain economic advantage and territorial gain and, in the long term, to win the religious conversion of the Turks as a means for gaining their unified political loyalty to him through the rallying device of a foreign faith. This is the conclusion that arises from the historical pattern of previous Turkic rulers leading their people to convert to Buddhism, shamanism, and Manichaeism. Regardless of the Qaghan’s motives, however, many Turks were undoubtedly sincere in their conversion to Islam.

The Disappearance of Buddhism in Khotan

Accounts of the Qarakhanid occupation of Khotan, following the siege and subsequent uprising, are marked by a silence concerning the native population. One year after the insurrection was crushed, the Khotanese trade and tribute mission sent to Han China contained only Turkic Muslims. The Turkic language of the Qarakhanids totally replaced Khotanese and the entire state became Islamic. Buddhism completely disappeared.

The Tibetans lost contact with their former possession to such an extent that the Tibetan name for Khotan, Li, lost its original meaning and came to refer to the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal as an acronym for its former ruling dynasty, the Licchavi (386 – 750). All the Buddhist myths concerning Khotan were transferred to Kathmandu as well, such as its founding by Manjushri draining a lake by cleaving a mountain with his sword. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Tibetans lost sight that these myths had ever been associated with Khotan. Thus, the Tibetan Buddhist accounts of the sacrifice of King Yeshey-wo have his imprisonment by the “Garlog,” i.e. the Qarakhanid Qarluqs, anomalously occurring in Nepal. Although there was a civil war in Nepal between 1039 and 1045, there were hardly any Turkic tribes there, yet alone Qarluqs at the time.

From this piece of evidence, added to our previous analysis, it would seem that the disappearance of Buddhism among the Khotanese was the result of the decimation of the population in the twenty-four year siege and subsequent crushing of the survivors’ rebellion, rather than by a forceful conversion of the Buddhists to Islam. The Qarakhanids were primarily concerned with converting the Turks – and not other people under their rule – as part of their effort to unite all Turkic tribes beneath them as guardians of the sacred mountain, Balasaghun. In 1043, for example, they held a mass conversion of ten thousand Turks to Islam. It was accompanied by the sacrifice of twenty thousand head of cattle, indicating the traditional shamanist tone and thus ethnic significance of the event.

The Qarakhanids followed the Umayyad, Abbasid, and Samanid examples and offered protected subject status to the non-Turks who followed other religions. The case with Nestorian Christianity is well documented. Samarkand continued to have a Nestorian metropolitan during its Qarakhanid period. Furthermore, after the overthrow of the Qarakhanid Empire in 1137, Kashgar also received a metropolitan, indicating that Nestorian Christianity was present and tolerated during their rule. One can infer that the same was true with Buddhism there, especially since these next rulers of Kashgar favored Buddhism and, during their reign, Kashgar provided several Buddhist statesmen.

The fact that there was a small Nestorian community in Khotan with two churches prior to the siege and no mention of it afterward, despite Qarakhanid tolerance of Christianity, gives further weight to the conclusion that most of the native population of Khotan, both Christian and Buddhist, perished during the military occupation. Otherwise, the Khotanese Nestorians would surely have resurfaced in historical accounts, as was the case with their brethren in Kashgar.