Tangut, Tibet and Northern Song China in the 11th Century

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Tangut Thwarting of Qarakhanid Plans for Further Expansion

After the fall of Khotan, the Qarakhanids could not press further eastward in their campaign to capture the rest of the southern Tarim. Mahmud of Ghazni attacked from the south and war ensued between the two Turkic powers from 1006 to 1008. Yusuf Qadr Khan left Khotan to fight in this war and successfully repelled the Ghaznavids. He then returned to Khotan to put down an insurrection. Having done so, he immediately resumed sending tribute and trade missions to the Northern Song court in 1009. This clearly indicates the high priority that control of the southern Silk Route trade held for him.

Internal strife for succession to the throne preoccupied the Qarakhanids in the subsequent years, with Yusuf finally emerging as qaghan in 1024. Although the Qarakhanids did not have the opportunity during this period to seize the southern Tarim east of Khotan, Sino-Khotanese trade, led by Turkic Muslim merchants, was never interrupted.

Map 27: The Height of the Qarakhanid, Ghaznavid, and Tangut Empires, First Half of the Eleventh Century
Map 27: The Height of the Qarakhanid, Ghaznavid, and Tangut Empires, First Half of the Eleventh Century

Meanwhile, the Tanguts moved ahead with their own military plans for expansion. The second Tangut emperor, Deming (r. 1004 – 1031), made peace with Northern Song China in 1006, two years after the fall of Khotan. Thereafter, the Tangut court followed the Confucian rituals and ceremony of its Northern Song counterpart, which flattered the latter’s sense of high civilization and greatly enhanced the efficiency of the Tangut court.

Up until then, the Northern Song had been friendly with both the Yellow Yugurs and Tsongka. However, the Tangut peace initiative toward the Northern Song effectively neutralized this political tilt. No longer having to worry about their eastern flank or Northern Song interference in their military designs, the Tanguts then proceeded to attack and conquer the Yellow Yugur Kingdom, beginning their campaign in 1028. The Tibetans living there fled to Tsongka, which also came under Tangut assault.

By this time, the Tanguts had grown so strong that the Qarakhanids no longer had the military possibility to push further east in the Tarim Basin. Under the greatest Tangut king, Yuanhao (Yüan-hao) (r. 1031 – 1048), the Tanguts not only completed their conquest of the Yellow Yugurs, but took as well the territory from Dunhuang to the Qarakhanid border at Khotan. They were never successful, however, in taking Tsongka from the local Tibetans.

Although the Tanguts had made peace with the Northern Song court, they heavily taxed and restricted the Central Asian trade that passed through their newly expanded territory on its way to Han China. Tsongka soon replaced Central Asia as the major trading partner for Northern Song China, especially supplying them with not only their main product, tea, but also horses, highly prized as essential for any military efforts.

Furthermore, the Ghaznavid repeated attacks and conquest of Gandhara and northwestern India between 1001 and 1021, with their looting and destruction of wealthy Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries there, effectively ended religious travel to and from India along the Silk Route. For centuries, pilgrims had gone from Central Asia or Han China to the monasteries of India to invite Buddhist teachers and bring back religious texts and relics. The last such visits recorded in Northern Song sources, however, were by Dharmashri, who arrived in Han China in 1027, and Sumanas in 1036. No further religious expeditions to or from India were possible after that.

Tangut Receipt of Han Chinese Buddhist Scriptures

The Han Chinese Buddhist canon had first been printed between 972 and 983 under the patronage of the first two emperors of the Northern Song Dynasty. Before this, the canon had existed only in the form of handwritten manuscripts. In 1029, one year after Deming had begun his conquest of the Yellow Yugurs, the Tangut emperor, having studied Buddhism as a child, had sent a delegation to the Northern Song court with an offering of seventy horses, requesting a copy of this canon. It was no longer possible to obtain texts from India. The Northern Song emperor, Renzong (Jen-tsung) (r. 1023 - 1064), granted his petition in the spirit of his predecessor’s peace treaty negotiated with the Tangut ruler.

From this period onward, subsequent Tangut emperors sent repeated missions to Han China seeking further Buddhist texts. This was not only because the most complete collection of Buddhist literature existed in the Chinese language. It was also because, initially, the Tanguts were at war with the Yellow Yugurs and the Tsongka Tibetans, the major alternative source of scriptures now that India was no longer a possibility. Although religious reasons may have motivated the Northern Song emperors’ continuing compliance with the Tangut requests, they undoubtedly also appreciated the possibility of another source of much-needed horses. They also surely hoped for a loosening of Tangut trade barriers with Central Asia.

Uighur and Yugur Assistance in Establishing Tangut Buddhism

After Yuanhao completed the Tangut conquest of the Yellow Yugurs in 1034, Yugur and Uighur cultural influence on the Tanguts began to grow. The Yellow Yugur Buddhist monasteries contin­ued to flourish under Tangut rule. Learned Yugur and Uighur monks traveled throughout the Tangut terri­tories and faith in Bud­dhism dramatically rose among the common people. A number of Tanguts settled in Qocho territory. Although there was occasional political conflict between the Tanguts and Qocho Uighurs, the two nations basically enjoyed peaceful relations, with the Uighurs accepting a subservient position to the Tanguts, as they had with the Khitans in Mongolia.

Although the Tanguts borrowed many pragmatic aspects of Han Chinese culture, they did not want to become totally assimilated. They wished to maintain their own identity, as many other non-Han rulers of parts of northern China had done before them. Like the Old Turks, Uighurs, and Khitans, they thought to create a distance by having their own writing system and translations into their own tongue. Therefore, in 1036, the Tanguts adopted a character script ­for writing their language. Developed from the Khitan characters, it was the most complex writing system ever devised in Asia.

Using this script, the Yugurs and Uighurs, having had experience with the Khitans, helped the Tanguts translate into their language not only Han Chinese Bud­dhist, but also Confu­cian texts useful for statecraft. As the script was difficult to learn, the Tanguts at first transliterated their Buddhist liturgical texts into the Tibetan alphabet, as had been the case earlier with Uighur and Han Chinese versions used in the area. Thus, Tibetan culture was also still present in the region.

In 1038, Emperor Yuanhao declared Buddhism the state religion of the Tanguts. As the Tangut imperial family considered itself descendent from the Toba Wei rulers of northern China (386 - 534), its declaration was paramount to a reinstatement of the Toba policy of state regulation of Buddhism. Therefore, in 1047, the Emperor passed ­a law obli­ging the bureaucracy and general population to perform Buddhist rituals and prayers. Thus, the spread of Buddhism among the Tanguts was promulgated by the state. With strict government control, however, the scholastic and literary standards in the Tangut monasteries were always kept stringent and high.

Subsequent Sino-Tangut Political and Religious Relations

A four-year war between the Tangut Empire and Northern Song China broke out during the latter part of Yuanhao’s reign, between 1040 and 1044. The Northern Song court undoubtedly wished for more expanded trade with the Silk Route nations, but had great difficulty gaining ascendency over the Tanguts. In 1048, Yuanhao was assassinated by his son, whom he had previously penalized for his Han Chinese Daoist leanings over nationalistic Tangut Buddhist support. Thereafter, a succession of weak emperors held the Tangut throne for half a century, often with their queen mothers holding the reigns of power. Tangut military might declined to a certain extent and Central Asian trade with Han China proceeded with less restriction.

During this period, the Tanguts, Khitans, and Northern Song China frequently attacked each other. The Northern Song was never able to gain ascendency and, as the weakest of the three, agreed, in 1082, to pay annual tribute to the Tanguts and Khitans as a means of appeasement. Both before and after this agreement, however, ­the Tanguts continued to send missions to Han China to bring back Buddhist texts. Some of the Tangut emperors and queen mothers even participated in their translation. The Yugurs and Uighurs continued to help with religious affairs, also translating into Tangut additional Buddhist texts from Sanskrit and Tibetan, but only occasionally from Uighur itself.

Buddhism continued strongly in the Qocho Uighur realm as well. In 1096, for example, the Qocho ruler presented the Northern Song emperor with a jade Buddha. The religion, however, was never legally imposed on the people or placed under strict governmental control as it was in the Tangut state. Buddhism was also flourishing in Tsongka at this time. The Tsongka court used Buddhist monks to man its missions to the Northern Song court.

The Revival of Buddhism in Central Tibet

Throughout the eleventh century, a steady stream of Tibetans went to Kashmir and northern India to study Buddhism. Many brought back with them masters from these regions to help revive Buddhism in newly constructed monasteries in their land. Although the initial activity in this direction came from the Ngari Kingdom of western Tibet, it soon spread to the central part of the country as well, starting with the founding of Zhalu (Zha-lu) Monastery in 1040.

Each Indian master or returning Tibetan student who arrived in Tibet brought with him or her the lineage of a particular of Buddhist practice. Many of them built monasteries around which crystallized not only religious, but also secular communities. It was not until the thirteenth century that clusters of these transmission lineages consolidated to form the various sects of the so-called “New Period” schools of Tibetan Buddhism – Kadam (bKa’-gdams), Sakya (Sa-skya) and a number of different lines of Kagyu (bKa’-brgyud).

Other eleventh century Tibetan masters began to discover the texts that had been hidden for safekeeping in central Tibet and Bhutan during the turbulent years of the late eighth and early ninth centuries. The Buddhist ones found became the scriptural basis for the “Old Period” or Nyingma (rNying-ma) school, while those from the indigenous Tibetan tradition, recovered slightly earlier, formed the foundation for establishing the organized Bon religion. Several masters discovered both types of text, which were often very similar to each other. Organized Bon, in fact, shared so many features in common with both the New and Old Translation Buddhist schools that subsequent masters from each of the religions claimed that the other had plagiarized from them.

The Ngari royal family continued to play an important role in sponsoring not only the translation of Buddhist texts freshly brought from Kashmir and northern India, but also the revision of previous translations and the clarification of misunderstandings about certain delicate points of the religion. The Council of Toling (Tho-ling), convened by King Tsedey (rTse-lde) at Toling Monastery of Ngari in 1076, gathered together translators from the western, central and eastern regions of Tibet, as well as several Kashmiri and northern Indian masters, and was instrumental in coordinating the work. The 1092 edict of Prince Zhiwa-wo (Zhi-ba ‘od) set the standards for determining which texts were reliable.

Qarakhanid Relations with Buddhists after the Fall of Khotan

Throughout this period, the Qarakhanids sent Muslim merchants from Khotan to the Northern Song capital via the southern Tarim route held by the Tanguts. Between 1068 and 1077, there were so many missions – at least two each year – that the Northern Song authorities had to impose limitations on their size and frequency. This trade continued until the fall of the Qarakhanids in 1137.

The strong Buddhist faith of the Tanguts, Tibetans, Qocho Uighurs, and Han Chinese never seemed to deter the Qarakhanids’ zeal for economic gain. Had their international relations been directed solely by the aim of converting infidels to Islam, they would surely have boycotted the Buddhist trade and attacked the Tanguts, Uighurs, or Ngari Tibetans when they were in a weakened condition. However, in keeping with the pattern that has appeared over and again in the history of Muslim-Buddhist relations in Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, Muslim conquest of territory has been marked by the quick destruction of the institutions of the local religions; while subsequent occupation has been characterized by economic exploitation. The latter always has required a certain degree of religious tolerance and, once established, has taken precedence in shaping political policy.