During Tibet's history, it has existed as a part of successive Chinese dynasties. Tibet was first unified under King Songtsän Gampo in the 7th century. At various times from the 1640s until 1950s, a government nominally headed by the Dalai Lamas, a line of spiritual leaders, ruled a large portion of the Tibetan region. During most of this period, the Tibetan administration was subordinate to the Chinese empire of the Qing Dynasty.
Tibetan history, as it has been recorded, is particularly focused on the history of Buddhism in Tibet. This is partly due to the pivotal role this religion has played in the development of Tibetan, Mongol, and Manchu cultures, and partly because almost all native historians of the country were Buddhist monks.
Humans reinhabited the Tibetan Plateau around 3,000 BC by Neolithic immigrants from northern China. The earliest Tibetan historical texts identify the Zhang Zhung culture as a people who migrated from the Amdo region into what is now the region of Guge in western Tibet. The Zhang Zhung are considered the original culture of the Bön religion. By the first century BC, a neighboring kingdom arose in the Yarlung valley, and the Yarlung king, Drigum Tsenpo, attempted to remove the influence of the Zhang Zhung by expelling the Zhang's Bön priests from Yarlung. He was assassinated and Zhang Zhung continued its dominance of the region until it was annexed by Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century. Megalithic monuments dot the Tibetan Plateau and may have been used in ancestor worship. It is unknown whether these monuments were built by ancient Tibetans.
The dates attributed to the first Tibetan king, Nyatri Tsenpo (Wylie: Gnya'-khri-btsan-po), vary. Some Tibetan texts give 126 BC, others 414 BC. Nyatri Tsenpo is said to have descended from a one-footed creature called the Theurang, having webbed fingers and a tongue so large it could cover his face. Due to his terrifying appearance he was feared in his native Puwo and exiled by the Bön to Tibet. There he was greeted as a fearsome being, and he became king.
The Tibetan kings were said to remain connected to the heavens via a dmu cord (dmu thag) so that rather than dying, they ascended directly to heaven, when their sons achieved their majority. According to various accounts, king Drigum Tsenpo (Dri-gum-brtsan-po) either challenged his clan heads to a fight, or provoked his groom Longam (Lo-ngam) into a duel. During the fight the king's dmu cord was cut, and he was killed. Thereafter Drigum Tsenpo and subsequent kings left corpses and the Bön conducted funerary rites.
In a later myth, first attested in the Maṇi bka' 'bum, the Tibetan people are the progeny of the union of the monkey Pha Tregen Jangchup Sempa and rock ogress Ma Drag Sinmo. But the monkey is in fact a manifestation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Tib. Spyan-ras-gzigs) and the ogress in fact the goddess Tara (Tib. 'Grol-ma).
Traditional Tibetan history preserves a lengthy list of rulers, whose exploits become subject to external verification in the Chinese histories by the seventh century.
After the death of Genghis Khan in 1227, the Tibetans stopped sending tribute to the Mongol Empire. As a result, in 1240, the grandson of Genghis Khan and second son of Ögedei Khan, Prince Godan (or Köden), invaded Tibet. Prince Godan asked his commanders to search for an outstanding Buddhist lama and, as Sakya Pandita, the leader of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, was considered the most religious, Godan sent him gifts and a letter of "invitation" to come to his capital and formally surrender Tibet to the Mongols. Sakya Pandita arrived in Kokonor in 1246. Prince Godan received various initiation rites and the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism became the religion of the ruling line of Mongol khans. In return, after a second Mongol invasion in 1247 led to the submission of almost all Tibetan states, Sakya Pandita was appointed Viceroy of Tibet by the Mongol court in 1249, marking one of the occasions on which the Chinese base their claim to the rule of Tibet.
It may be more accurate to describe this process as first North China, and then Tibet being incorporated into the Mongol Empire, which was later inherited by the Yuan Dynasty, founded by Kublai Khan in 1271. In 1253, Drogön Chögyal Phagpa (1235–1280) succeeded Sakya Pandita at the Mongol court. Phagpa became a religious teacher to Kublai Khan. Kublai Khan appointed Chögyal Phagpa as his Imperial Preceptor in 1260, the year when he became emperor of Mongolia. Phagpa was the first "to initiate the political theology of the relationship between state and religion in the Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhist world". With the support of Kublai Khan, Phagpa established himself and his sect as the preeminent political power in Tibet. Through their influence with the Mongol rulers, Tibetan lamas gained considerable influence in various Mongol clans, not only with Kublai, but, for example, also with the Il-Khanids.
The nature of Sino-Tibetan relations during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) is one where China had unquestioned sovereignty over Tibet. The Ming court's issued of various titles to Tibetan leaders. Tibetans' gave full acceptance of these titles and a renewal process for successors of these titles that involved traveling to the Ming capital. Tibet had been an integral part of China since the 13th century, as a part of the Ming Empire.
During the rule of the Great Fifth, two Jesuit missionaries, the German Johannes Gruber and Belgian Albert Dorville, stayed in Lhasa for two months, October and November, 1661 on their way from Peking to Portuguese Goa, in India. They described the Dalai Lama as "a devilish God-the-father who puts to death such as refuse to adore him." Another Jesuit, Ippolito Desideri, stayed five years in Lhasa (1716–1721) and was the first missionary to master the language. He even produced a few Christian books in Tibetan. Capuchin fathers took over the mission until all missionaries were expelled in 1745.
Güshi Khan of the Khoshud in 1641 overthrew the prince of Tsang and made the Fifth Dalai Lama to the highest spiritual and political authority in Tibet.
Tsangyang Gyatso, the Sixth Dalai Lama, was not enthroned until 1697. Tsangyang Gyatso enjoyed a lifestyle that included drinking, the company of women, and writing love songs. In 1705, Lobzang Khan of the Khoshud used the sixth Dalai Lama's escapades as excuse to take control of Tibet. The regent was murdered, and the Dalai Lama sent to Beijing. He died on the way, near Koko Nur, ostensibly from illness. Lobzang Khan appointed a new Dalai Lama who, however, was not accepted by the Gelugpa school. Kelzang Gyatso was discovered near Koko Nur and became a rival candidate.
The Dzungars invaded Tibet in 1717, and deposed and killed Lobzang Khan's pretender to the position of Dalai Lama.
An expedition sent by Qing Emperor Kangxi expelled the Dzungars from Tibet in 1720 and the troops were hailed as liberators. They brought Kelzang Gyatso with them from Kumbum to Lhasa and he was installed as the seventh Dalai Lama in 1721. Following the Qing withdrawal from central Tibet in 1723, there was a period of civil war.
After the rebellion of a Khoshuud Mongol prince near Koko Nur, the Qing made the region of Amdo and Kham into the province of Qinghai in 1724, and incorporated eastern Kham into neighbouring Chinese provinces in 1728. The Qing government sent a resident commissioner (amban) to Lhasa. Territory in the east was governed by Tibetan chiefs who were answerable to China.
Between this time and the beginning of the 18th century, Qing authority over Tibet weakened to the point of being minuscule, or merely symbolic. In 1727, the government of China began posting two high commissioners, namely Ambans, to Lhasa. Chinese historians argue that the ambans' presence was an expression of Chinese sovereignty.
Tibetan factions rebelled in 1750 and killed the ambans. Then, a Manchu Qing army entered and defeated the rebels and installed an administration headed by the Dalai Lama. The number of soldiers in Tibet was kept at about 2,000. The defensive duties were partly helped out by a local force which was reorganized by the resident commissioner, and the Tibetan government continued to manage day-to-day affairs as before. In 1751, the Manchu (and Qing) Emperor Qianlong established the Dalai Lama as both the spiritual leader and political leader of Tibet above a ministry(Kashag) with four Kalöns in it. Emperor Qianlong drew on Buddhism to bolster support among the Tibetans.
In 1791 the Nepalese Gurkhas invaded Tibet a second time, seizing Shigatse and destroying the great Tashilhunpo Monastery. The Panchen Lama was forced to flee to Lhasa once again. The Qianlong Emperor then sent an army of 17,000 men to Tibet. In 1793, with the assistance of Tibetan troops, they managed to drive the Nepalese troops to within about 30 km of Kathmandu before the Gurkhas conceded defeat and returned all the treasure they had plundered.
The 1791 Nepalese invasion and the following defeat by the Qing increased the latter's control over Tibet. From that moment, all important matters were to be submitted to the ambans.
In 1792, the emperor issued a 29-point decree which appeared to tighten Qing control over Tibet. It strengthened the powers of the ambans. The ambans were elevated above the Kashag and the Dalai Lama in responsibility for Tibetan political affairs. The Dalai and Panchen Lamas were no longer allowed to petition the Chinese Emperor directly but could only do so through the ambans. The ambans took control of Tibetan frontier defense and foreign affairs. Tibetan authorities' foreign correspondence, even with the Mongols of KoKonor (present-day Qinghai), had to be approved by the ambans. The ambans were put in command of the Qing garrison and the Tibetan army (whose strength was set at 3000 men). Trade was also restricted and travel could be undertaken only with documents issued by the ambans. The ambans were to review all judicial decisions. The Tibetan currency, which had been the source of trouble with Nepal, was also taken under Beijing's supervision.
It also outlined a new method to select both the Dalai and Panchen Lama by means of a lottery administered by the ambans in Lhasa. In this lottery the names of the competing candidates were written on folded slips of paper which were placed in a golden urn. The emperor wanted to play this part in choosing reincarnations because the Gelukpa School of the Dalai Lamas was the official religion of his court. There is general agreement that the ninth, thirteenth, and fourteenth Dalai Lamas were chosen without the urn, but with the approval by the Emperor. In such cases the Emperor would also issue an order waiving the use of the urn. The tenth Dalai Lama was actually selected by traditional Tibetan methods, but in response to the amban's insistence, the regent publicly announced that the urn had been used. The eleventh was selected by the golden urn method. The twelfth Dalai Lama was selected by the Tibetan method but was confirmed by means of the lottery. The ninth, thirteen, and fourteenth Dalai Lamas, however, were selected by the previous incarnation's entourage, or labrang.
Nepal was a tributary state to China from 1788 to 1908. In a treaty signed in 1856, Tibet and Nepal agreed to "regard the Chinese Emperor as heretofore with respect." Nepalese Vakils stayed in Tibet until the 1960s.
The first Europeans to arrive in Tibet were Portuguese missionaries who first arrived in 1624 led by António de Andrade, and were welcomed by the Tibetans who allowed them to build a church. The 18th century brought more Jesuits and Capuchins from Europe who gradually met opposition from Tibetan lamas who finally expelled them from Tibet in 1745. By the 1850s Tibet had banned all foreigners from Tibet and shut its borders to all outsiders.
In 1865 Great Britain began secretly mapping Tibet. Trained Indian surveyor-spies disguised as pilgrims or traders counted their strides on their travels across Tibet and took readings at night. Nain Singh, the most famous, measured the longitude and latitude and altitude of Lhasa and traced the Yarlung Tsangpo River.
The authorities in British India renewed their interest in Tibet in the late 19th century, and a number of Indians entered the country, first as explorers and then as traders. Treaties regarding Tibet were concluded between Britain and China in 1886, 1890, and 1893, but the Tibetan government continued to bar British envoys from its territory. During "The Great Game", a period of rivalry between Russia and Britain, the British desired a representative in Lhasa to monitor and offset Russian influence.
At the beginning of the twentieth century the British and Russian Empires were competing for supremacy in Central Asia. To forestall the Russians, in 1904, a British expedition led by Colonel Francis Younghusband was sent to Lhasa to force a trading agreement and to prevent Tibetans from establishing a relationship with the Russians. In response, the Chinese foreign ministry reasserted that China was sovereign over Tibet.
A treaty was imposed which required Tibet to open its border with British India, to allow British and Indian traders to travel freely, not to impose customs duties on trade with India, a demand from British that Lhasa had to pay 2.5 million rupees as indemnity and not to enter into relations with any foreign power without British approval.
The Anglo-Tibetan treaty was followed by a Sino-British treaty in 1906 by which the "Government of Great Britain engages not to annex Tibetan territory or to interfere in the administration of Tibet. The Government of China also undertakes not to permit any other foreign State to interfere with the territory or internal administration of Tibet." Moreover, Beijing agreed to pay London 2.5 million rupees which Lhasa was forced to agree upon in the Anglo-Tibetan treaty of 1904. In 1907, Britain and Russia agreed that in "conformity with the admitted principle of the suzerainty of China over Thibet" both nations "engage not to enter into negotiations with Tibet except through the intermediary of the Chinese Government."
The Qing put Amdo under their rule in 1724, and incorporated eastern Kham into neighbouring Chinese provinces in 1728. Chinese government ruled these areas indirectly through the Tibetan noblemen.
Soon after there was a British invasion, which alarmed the Qing rulers in China. They sent an imperial official to the region to begin reasserting Qing control, but some locals revolted and killed him.
The Qing government in Beijing then appointed Zhao Erfeng, the Governor of Xining, "Army Commander of Tibet" to reintegrate Tibet into China. He was sent in 1905 on a punitive expedition
The thirteenth Dalai Lama was deposed, reinstated, and deposed again by the Qing Dynasty government. After the Dalai Lama's title's had been restored in November 1908 and he was about to return to Lhasa from Amdo in the summer of 1909, the Chinese decided to send military forces to Lhasa to keep control over him. The Dalai Lama once again fled, this time to India, and was once again deposed by the Chinese. The situation was soon to change, however, as, after the fall of the Qing dynasty in October 1911, Zhao's soldiers mutinied and beheaded him.
In 1909 came the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin back from his 3 years long expedition to Tibet, in which he mapped and described large part of inner Tibet with surprising precision. In an interview in connection to a meeting with the Russian czar he describes the situation as follows. "Tibet is in the... hands of China´s government. The Chinese realize that if they leave Tibet for the Europeans, it will end its isolation in the East. That is why the Chinese prevent those who wish to enter Tibet. Dala Lama in is currently also in the hands of the Chinese Government"..."Mongols are fanatics. They adore the Dalai Lama and obey him blindly. If he tomorrow orders them go to war against the Chinese, if he urges them to a bloody revolution, they will all like one man follow him as their ruler. China's government, which fears the Mongols, hooks on to the Dalai Lama."..."There is calm in Tibet. No ferment of any kind is perceptible." Sven Hedin had, as a European, in parts of his travels in Tibet been forced to camouflage himself to a Tibetan shepherd and he also visited the 9th Panchen Lama.
The Dalai Lama returned to Tibet from India in July 1912 (after the fall of the Qing dynasty), and expelled the Amban and all Chinese troops. Chinese sources argue that Tibet was still part of China throughout this period. Tibet continued in 1913-1949 to have very limited contacts with the rest of the world and Lhasa was for foreigners the prohibited city. Very few governments did something similar with a normal diplomatic recognition of Tibet. The Chinese governments continued, from time to time, to assert their right to suzerainty in Tibet.
In 1949, seeing that the Communists were gaining control of China, the Kashag expelled all Chinese connected with the Chinese government, over the protests of both the Kuomingtang and the Communists. The Chinese Communist government led by Mao Zedong which came to power in October lost little time in asserting a new Chinese presence in Tibet. In October 1950, the People's Liberation Army invaded the Tibetan area of Chamdo, defeating sporadic resistance from the Tibetan army. In 1951, Tibetan representatives participated in negotiations in Beijing with Chinese government. This resulted in a Seventeen Point Agreement which formalised China's sovereignty over Tibet.
The Agreement of the Central People's Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, or the Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet for short, is the document by which the delegates of the 14th Dalai Lama reached an agreement with the government of the newly-established People's Republic of China on affirming Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. It was signed by Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme and sealed in Beijing on 23 May 1951 and confirmed by the government in Tibet a few months later. In addition, the following letter written by the Dalai Lama indicating his acceptance was also sent to Beijing in the form of a telegram on the 24th of October:
"The Tibet Local Government as well as the ecclesiastic and secular people unanimously support this agreement, and under the leadership of Chairman Mao and the Central People's Government, will actively support the People's Liberation Army in Tibet to consolidate national defence, drive out imperialist influences from Tibet and safeguard the unification of the territory and the sovereignty of the Motherland."Chinese sources regard the document as a legal contract that was mutually welcomed by both governments and by the Tibetan people.
In Tibet, the Chinese Communists opted not to place social reform as an immediate priority. To the contrary, from 1951 to 1959, traditional Tibetan society with its lords and manorial estates continued to function unchanged. Despite the presence of twenty thousand PLA troops in Central Tibet, the Dalai Lama's government was permitted to maintain important symbols from its de facto independence period.
The Tibetan region of Eastern Kham, previously Xikang province, was incorporated in the province of Sichuan. Western Kham was put under the Chamdo Military Committee. In these areas, land reform was implemented.
The PRC continues to portray its rule over Tibet as an unalloyed improvement. Most governments recognize the PRC's sovereignty over Tibet today, and none have recognized the Government of Tibet in Exile in India.
On October 29, 2008, David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, announced that Britain would recognize Tibet as historically part of the People’s Republic of China, i.e. recognize Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Before this, Britain had officially recognized the PRC's relationship with Tibet as suzerainty. Britain was the last country to recognise China's sovereignty due to its prior invasion of Tibet; this recognition would affect the legitimacy of India's claim to South Tibet.