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Tibetan Origins in the Tang History

In modern scholarship there has been some discussion over the origins of the Tibetan people. One recent opinion comes from Michael L. Walter who states the following:


It seems that the final creation of a central, imperial authority was not, as formulated by Tucci long ago, the result of a "conquering aristocracy". It was, rather, the result of the superimposition of a small outside group, with a leadership structure built around an inspirational warrior leader, the btsan-po, on a set of tribal aristocracies brought under his often unsteady central control.1


In my recent reading of the Tang dynasty history, which was was initially compiled in 945 and revised in 1060,2 I realized that his stated view accords with what we see in the classical Chinese history. With respect to whether this is a plausible explanation for Tibetan ethnogenesis, several of the individuals mentioned in the history do appear in earlier histories as significant leaders, which lends some credibility to the story, however I am not in a position to make any conclusions. It is nevertheless valuable to have a classical Chinese perspective on the origins of the Tibetan people.


The detailed history of Tibetan affairs begins in year 634 with the first contact between the Chinese court and Songtsen Gampo, to whom the Zhang Zhung and various Qiang peoples submitted to. This perhaps tentatively marks the beginning of the Yarlung empire. From here there are detailed accounts of interactions with Tibet, both peaceful and otherwise. The Tibetan history comprises two whole scrolls in the Old Book of Tang, which is comparatively long, but reveals how significant a neighbor Tibet was to the Tang empire. There are also two scrolls dedicated to the Western Turks, who were another enduring foe to the Chinese in this period.


The following is from scroll 196a of the Old Book of Tang (舊唐書卷196上).




吐蕃,在長安之西八千裏,本漢西羌之地也。


Tibet is 8000 li west of Chang'an. It was originally in the Han [206 BCE - 220 CE] the land of the Western Qiang people.


其種落莫知所出也,或雲南涼禿發利鹿孤之後也。利鹿孤有子曰樊尼,及利鹿孤卒,樊尼尚幼,弟傉檀嗣位,以樊尼為安西將軍。


It is unknown where their tribe came from. Some say they are decedents of Tufa Lilugu 禿發利鹿孤 of the Southern Liang [397-414]. Lilugu had a son named Fanni 樊尼. When Lilugu died, Fannni was still young. His younger brother Nutan 傉檀 ascended the throne. Fannni was made general of Anxi.


後魏神瑞元年,傉檀為西秦乞佛熾盤所滅,樊尼招集余眾,以投沮渠蒙遜(name),蒙遜以為臨松太守。


In year 1 of reign era Shenrui 神瑞 [414] during the Later Wei [386-534], Nutan was destroyed by Qifo Chi Pan 乞佛熾盤 of the Western Qin [385-431]. Fannni summoned together the remaining masses to join with Juqu Mengxun 沮渠蒙遜. Mengxun made him the governor of Linsong.


及蒙遜滅,樊尼乃率眾西奔,濟黃河,逾積石,於羌中建國,開地千裏。


When Mengxun died, Fannni quickly led his masses west. They crossed the Yellow River and went beyond Mt. Jishi. They founded a country in Qiang and opened up 1000 li of land.


樊尼威惠夙著,為群羌所懷,皆撫以恩信,歸之如市。


Fanni was imposing and benevolent. He was cherished by the Qiang tribes. All were treated with grace and trust. They gathered to him as if being in a market.


遂改姓為窣勃野,以禿發為國號,語訛謂之吐蕃,其後子孫繁昌,又侵伐不息,土宇漸廣。歷周及隋,猶隔諸羌,未通於中國。


He then changed his family name to Suboye 窣勃野 and named the country Tufa. As a dialect variant it was called Tubo. His descendents flourished. They further ceaselessly invaded other countries and their realm gradually expanded. Through the Northern Zhou [557-581] and Sui [581-618] dynasties, they had no contact with China as they were still separated by the Qiang tribes.



貞觀八年,其贊普棄宗弄贊始遣使朝貢。


In year 8 of reign era Zhenguan [634], their Tsenpo Trisong Songtsen [Gampo; bTsan-po Khri-srong Srong-btsan] first dispatched envoys to pay tribute at court.


弄贊弱冠嗣位,性驍武,多英略,其鄰國羊同及諸羌並賓伏之。


Songsten inherited the throne as a young man. He had a martial disposition and was quite strategically minded. The neighboring countries of Zhang Zhung and Qiang peoples all submitted to him.3





1 Michael L. Walter, Buddhism and Empire The Political and Religious Culture of Early Tibet (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009), 23.



2 These are respectively the Old Book of Tang (Chn. Jiu Tang Shu 舊唐書) and New Book of Tang (Chn. Xin Tang Shu 新唐書).


3 Despite a degree of Buddhism being introduced, his reign was marked by continual violent expansion and conflict. He inherited the throne from his father Namri Löntsen between 625-627. In the days before his father's reign central Tibet had been controlled by a confederacy of clans including the dBas, Myang and mNon. Namri Löntsen had obtained oaths of allegiance from these tribes with which to expand his territories to the north and east of Lhasa and to Kong Po. Later the Dagpo rebelled and had to be reconquered. Following Namri Löntsen's death these problems mounted. The histories differ on what later transpired. The Tun-Huang Chronicles state the following:


...the paternal subjects rebelled; the maternal subjects revolved. ... The father gNam ri was given poison and died. The son Srong btsan firstly wiped out the families of the rebels and the prisoners.


Meanwhile Butön Rinchen Drup (1290-1364) relates the following:


...Thirteen years of age he ascended the throne and, brought under his power all the petty chiefs of the borderland who offered him presents and sent their messages (of submission).


See The History of Tibet Volume I The Early Period: to c. AD 850 The Yarlung Dynasty, edited by Alex McKay (London, UK: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 338.