Tibet’s armed resistance to Chinese invasion

March 10th is Tibetan Uprising Day. This day commemorates the heroic resistance by Tibetans to Chinese Communist imperialism. In the coming days I’ll tell you the tale of how the Tibetans fought against evil empires, which led to the escape of Dalai Lama on March 20, 1959, and the establishment of the Tibetan government. This post will describe the history of Tibet’s political and military life in the early decades of the 20th century before Mao Zedong invaded in 1949.

These are extracts from the law school treatise and textbook I coauthored. Firearms Law and Second Amendment: Regulation, Rights and Policy (3d ed. Aspen Publishers, 2021. You can access eight of 23 chapters on the internet for free, including Chapter 19 Comparative Law. The Tibet materials are located at pages 1885-1916. These sections cover the history of the Mao Zedong dictatorship from 1949 to 1976, which is the most brutal regime ever. Here are citations that I have provided for direct quotes. Additional citations can be found in the online textbook Chapter.

While history is not always perfect, it does offer some valuable lessons from the Tibetan resistance about the factors that interfere with or hinder the armed struggle against tyranny.

The greatest resistance against Mao’s rule in the 1950s was from Tibet. “The Tibetan Revolt was an international embarrassment both for Mao and for China; it should be considered as one factor in Mao’s eclipse, and in the retrenchment laws of 1960s.” Warren W. Smith. “The Nationalities policy of the Chinese Communist Party (and the Socialist Transformation of Tibet”)” Tibet Reform and Resistance 53, 67-68 (Robert Barnett & Shirin Akiner eds. 1994).

In other words: The Tibetan resistance helped Mao end the Great Leap Forward. It was a policy which had forced Chinese peasants to become slave laborers and caused the worst human famine, killing many millions. The Tibetan resistance indirectly saved the lives of millions of Chinese by helping to end the Great Leap Forward.

Tibet’s territory and autonomy

Sections of Chapter 19 from the past Firearms law The case studies in textbooks are of Armenian resistance to genocide during World War I by other Christians and Jewish resistance to Holocaust during World War II. Tibetans were able to maintain a long-standing and strong gun culture, which was not the case with European Jews or Ottoman Christians. The Tibetans immediately realized that the orders to surrender or register their guns was an order to be enslaved.

Historic Tibet in China map
About 25% of China’s land is governed by the Chinese Communist government are ruled over by ethnic Tibetan areas.

Tibet was once made up of three major provinces, Kham (southeast), Amdo(northeast) and U-Tsang (“west”). The two eastern provinces housed more than half of the Tibetan population. Lhasa in U-Tsang is the capital. Kham, Amdo and the U-Tsang areas comprise most of Central Tibet. Chamdo, which is the westernmost Kham Province, also forms part of Central Tibet. The Khampos from Chamdo could resist the Chinese invasion and help to draw the rest Central Tibet into an armed rebellion against them.

Tibet provinces
These are the three Tibetan provinces.

Tibet was long independent, but acknowledged the sovereignty of Mongol and Chinese empires. The term “suzerainty”, however, was deliberately vague. The term implies nominal sovereignty over an autonomous, semi-independent or internally self-governing state to the extent that the meaning of the word can be determined. Hugh Richardson High Peaks and Pure Earth: Collected Writings about Tibetan History and Culture 625-30 (Michael Aris ed. 1998).

According to Tibetans, it was a priest-patron relation. Tibetan Buddhist priests were responsible for religious leadership. Patrons also helped protect Tibet. For Tibetan relations with Mongols who adopted the Buddhism that they had learned from Tibetans, the priest-patron model proved to be quite accurate. Despite Tibetan pride, the priest-patron model was not used by the Chinese to treat Sino-Tibetan relationships. The Chinese did not believe they could learn anything from the mountain barbarians. Everything in Tibet lay beyond China and the Great Wall. The logistics of supplying a foreign military presence to Central Tibet were particularly difficult. This resulted in long-term de facto autonomy.

China’s Manchu Dynasty, which seized much of Kham (and Amdo) from Tibet during the middle of the eighteenth century and kept them in their possession until 1911. The Manchu Dynasty launched a campaign against the Buddhist clergy and attempted to populate Tibetan regions with Sichuan peasants. Zhao Erfeng, the bloodthirsty Chinese general who led Lhasa’s capture and exile of the 13th Dalai Lama took control.

Tibet did not feel any obligation to the new Republic of China, regardless of the nominal allegiance it thought it might have to the Manchu Dynasty of Peking. The Chinese army was defeated by the Tibetans in a revolt on August 12, 1912.

In 1917-18, Tibet repelled an attack from the Republic of China and advanced further into Tibetan ethnic regions that were previously under Chinese control. They were retaken in the 1918 Treaty of Rongbatsa. However, in 1931-1932 the Republic of China moved the Tibet Army back to the Yangtze. Drichu) River.

The 1914 Simla Accord is the best historical document to draw the boundaries of India-China Tibet. The three-way negotiation between Tibet, China and British India produced substantial documentary evidence to support their claims. However, the Chinese only offered assertions. The Simla Accord separated Tibet into “Outer Tibet”, (Central Tibet, some Eastern Tibet), and “Inner Tibet”, (the remainder of Eastern Tibet). Parties recognized the “suzerainty China” as well “autonomy”, and “territorial independence” of Outer Tibet. Simla Accord art. 2. China will not make Tibet a Chinese province. Great Britain won’t annexe Tibet. Id.China and Great Britain will not send troops to Tibet, with some exceptions. Neither would they interfere in the civil administration of Outer Tibet under the “Tibetan government” located in Lhasa. Italics. arts. 3-4. Inner Tibet:[n]Nothing in this Convention will be deemed to affect the rights of the Tibetan government in Inner Tibet. These include the power of selecting and appointing the high priests for monasteries, and full control over all matters that concern religious institutions. Italics. art. 9. The treaty included a map that showed the borderlines of Inner Tibet & Outer Tibet. Italics.

The Simla Accord was negotiated by the three parties. However, China’s central government refused to ratify the agreement. Simla tried to appease China by granting Inner Tibet more areas than Outer Tibet. Great Britain and Tibet agreed to the agreement; however, China would not be able to enjoy the benefits of the accord until China signed it.

Despite the Simla Accord’s legal implications, it was still the truth: there wasn’t a modern border between Tibet & China. Instead, there were overlapping zones and open areas and locally governed territories. Carole McGranahan, “From Simla, RongbatsaThis is The British Boundaries to Tibet and the ‘Modern’ Boundaries,” 28 Tibet J. 39, 40 (2003). Kham fell “mostly under local control of hereditary monarchs, chiefs and lamas. . . .” Italics. Tibetans and Chinese did not think of the contested regions in the sense that European nation-states had defined their own borders—as exact lines where a nation enjoyed 100 percent sovereignty on its side, and no sovereignty on the other. This situation was unchanged up to the Chinese invasion in 1949.

The Japanese invasion of Manchuria began in 1931 and distracted the Republic of China. “By 1930, the majority of Tibet had regained de facto autonomy.” Kenneth
Conboy & James Morrison, Secret War in Tibet by the CIA 5 (2002).

The majority of Eastern Tibetans that lived in Tibet and China were self-governing. Many people were either pastoralists, or nomads. If they did feel any loyalty to an unknown capital, it was Lhasa with whom they had a shared language and religion. Not to Nanking or Peking. From 1927 to 1937 and 1945-1949, Nanking was China’s capital. It had also been an imperial capital during previous centuries.

Although Kham was respectful to the Dalai Lama’s wishes, Kham’s leaders didn’t necessarily feel responsible for the government of Lhasa. The Amdowas (northeastern Tibet), were made up of hundreds nomadic tribes with their own armies, temples and laws. Jianglin Li, Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 195945 (2016) Maoist imperialism is most likely to be fought by the Eastern Tibetans.

Today’s “Tibet Autonomous Region,” which was officially created by China in 1965, doesn’t include large areas of ethnic or historic Tibet. Amdo’s majority has been moved to China’s Qinghai, and a lesser part to Gansu. Although the Chamdo province of Kham can be found in Tibet Autonomous Region of China, Kham’s majority is divided currently between China’s Qinghai Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces. One quarter of China’s territory is made up of Tibetan areas.

There is a moral obligation to use force to end the suffering

Tibetan identity has long been closely tied to Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana), which is distinct from the Hinyana (a/k/a Theravāda), Mahayana, or Zen sects of other nations. Although Buddhist scriptures tend to be pacifist, this is not the only way they can be. Buddhist teachers created martial arts. Buddhist nations used the armed forces for self defense as well as those of other countries. Buddhism’s core principle is ahimsa. This means compassion for other people. According to many Buddhists including the current Dalai Lama (the present Dalai Lama), ahimsa is the ability to choose violence against others in order reduce suffering. David B. Kopel, Self-defense in Asian Religions 2 Liberty L. Rev. 79 (2007).

Manjusri painted
Tibetan Bodhisattva achieved enlightenment, but continued to live on Earth in order to assist sentient beings.

Tibetan Buddhists knew the martial example Manjushri, Manjushree Manjusri, Bodhisattva Wisdom. His transformation was a result of a successful mission against Death. His appearance is often shown in many paintings as he holds a holy book and a fiery sword. Manjusri’s  sword cut through the roots of ignorance. Vajrapani was another bodhisattva who pugnaciously protected Buddhist guardians in distress. Vajrapani, another bodhisattva, pugnaciously defended embattled guardians of the Buddhist faith. The Epic of King Gesar told the historical (according to Tibetans) story of the great warrior king from days of yore who fought enemies of dharma—Buddhist teachings and the natural order of existence.

The history of Tibet is littered by examples where monks took arms in times when Buddhism was threatened. . . . [W]Monks, who are defending faith, could be “the most remarkable of soldiers” with their stamina and discipline bolstered by monastic life. Mikel Dunham, Buddha’s Warriors – The Story of the CIA Supported The Chinese Invasion and Tibet’s Ultimate Fall, Tibetan Freedom Fighters 149 (2004).

Manjushri's sword
Manjushri’s sword.

Tibet does not only have a Buddhist population. Long ago, there was a Muslim minority in Tibet that was revered and free from religious restrictions. Lhasa was home to four mosques. It was established in the tenth century. The Bon religion faced persecution as an opponent to Buddhism. It was mainly found in eastern Tibet by the turn of the 20th century. This is well outside Lhasa’s reach.

Proposal of the Dalai Lama for Collective Defense

Tibet’s independence was not recognized by the Dalai Lama Thupten Gyatso (birthname Choekyi Gyaltsen) who proposed an alliance between Tibet and Nepal, which would include military training for young soldiers. The Dalai Lama was the head of state but the majority of Tibet’s quasi-feudal political power was held by the three monasteries of Lhasa. They had armed monks. dob-dobsThe number of police and army in Tibet was much smaller than the one that existed. Because a large military buildup would have required significant taxes on monasteries, they voted down the proposal. The alliance proposal was rejected by Nepal and Bhutan.

Dalai Lama Thupten Gyatso wrote the following:

Even on minor borders bordering hostile troops, efficient and well-trained troops should be present. This army needs to be trained in war as an effective deterrent against all adversaries.

Additionally, today’s era has all five forms degeneration and the “red ideology”. [He then summarized communist abuses of Buddhism in Outer Mongolia.]The future will see this system being forced from both within and without this land. . . . If, in such an event, we fail to defend our land, the holy lamas . . . They will all be wiped out without any trace of their names. . . . Moreover, our political system . . . will be reduced to an empty name; my officials . . . They will subjugate my people like slaves to them; they will fear for their lives and be subject to miseries day and night. It will be a long time before such an era.

Roger E. McCarthy, Tears Of The Lotus: An Account of Tibetan Resistance to Chinese Invasion 1950-1962, at 37-38 (1997).

Is it possible that the defense system could have saved Tibet. Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama currently in Tibet said that he was certain it would. Dalai Lama with Jean-Claude Carrière, Dialogs on Violence and Compassion: Conversations About Life Today149 (1996) La Fource du Bouddhisme (1994)).

According to Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama died in 1933. The Panchen Lama (second rank) was also killed. People would then wait until the reincarnated soul of the Panchen Lama’s child. Lhamo Thondup, the thirteenth Dalai Lama, was born in 1935. As a child, Lhamo Thondup was identified as possible Dalai Lama. He was elevated to the throne in 1940 and given the religious name Tenzin Gyatso. As Dalai Lama are chosen early in life, the time it takes for them to become mature enough that they can assume leadership would be many years. A regency would rule Tibet during this time. The history has proven that regencies can prove dangerous as the government is weak and vulnerable to intrigues. The death of the 13th Dalai Lama made it clear that the Tibetan government, as it existed, was not prepared for the future. Premen Addy, “British and Indian Strategic Perceptions on Tibet,” Tibet Reform and Resistance35. According to the regent, the “regent allowed the military’s decline while filling his pockets at Tibetan economic surpluses”. Dunham is 49.

According to the current Dalai Lama, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, he might decide that he does not want to be reincarnated. It seems that his primary motive is to avoid communist interference during the selection process. Although they are officially atheists, the communist leaders of China today have taken control of “controlling and recognising reincarnations.” The Dalai Lama says that communist Chinese will “wait for my death” and recognize any Fifteenth Dalai Lama they choose. September 24, 2011, The Dalai Lama’s Reincarnation. China had declared that China’s next Dalai Lama selection process must comply with Chinese law. The current Dalai Lama responded, “In the future, if you see two Dalai Lamas come, one from this country and one selected by Chinese, then nobody trusts, nobody will respect.” [the one chosen by China].” Sophia Yan, China Says Dalai Lama Reincarnation “Must Comply” with Chinese Laws The Telegraph, Mar. 21, 2019.

Tibetan Arms Culture

Although Tibetans are known for their long-standing tradition of arming themselves, many of their weapons were either matchlocks and flintlocks. These items have long since been out of fashion in the rest the world.

It is difficult to have a matchlock at all times, they are not suitable for long range, can’t be concealed and it takes a while to reload. While Flintlocks are better than matchlocks in almost all aspects, they still fall short of firearms made since the middle-nineteenth centuries, which use metal cartridges and can reload much more quickly and have greater power. Tibet had no manufacturing industries for firearms because it was economically behind. Tibetans had the ability to and were capable of making their own knives, swords, and other tools.

During World War II Tibet remained neutral. It did not authorise Allied arms shipments for the Republic of China’s army, which was fighting Japanese invasion. There are times when gun supplies increase in wartime. Tibetans have, in Kham especially, seized the chance to buy a range of new firearms.

The number of formalized military units in Tibet was small. Eastern Tibet was home to about ten thousand militia and regulars as of the middle of 1930s. Half of these had British Lee-Enfield.303 bolt-action rifles. Lhasa had 300 police officers and less than a thousand soldiers. For most of the country, militias armed with matchlocks provided protection. Generally, military training was apathetic. On the eve of the 1949 communist invasion, “Tibet’s army—if you could call it that—was at most ten thousand troops with nineteenth century weapons.” Dunham 56.

Even though many Tibetan firearms were poor, Tibet had a rich arms culture. The Tibetans were able to ride, shoot, and master swordsmanship, which were skills that were acquired early on in their lives. Such skills had always been necessary for survival—whether for protection against bandits, or for hunting in an environment where neither game nor ammunition were abundant.

“Khampas had a lot of weapons,” were skilled in brigandage and were “incomparable horsesmen, hunter and trackers.” Dunham, 7. At 7. A sword or large knife was always attached to the waist of even the most poor of beggars. He knew how to use it. Italics. At 17. Armed families were wealthy. Monasteries also had arsenals with warrior monks. dob-dobs.

At the outset of the war, the Tibetans far outperformed the People’s Liberation Army in China (PLA). Chinese suffered ten times as many casualties from the Tibetans than the Chinese. Chinese marksmen were far worse than the Tibetans. The PLA required that all be done in a certain way, but the Tibetans were able to think independently, make decisions, and even survive. PLA officers didn’t lead their troops in battle, they stayed at the rear and shot those trying to escape.

A captured Chinese army document states that PLA soldiers shot 20 rounds per Tibetan guerilla killed. However, for Tibetans who were shooting at PLA it was only one bullet, one kill.

Kham, Amdo and Central Tibet are at over 3,000m. Tibetan physiology evolved so that Tibetans are able to breathe very thin air. Lowlanders, on the other hand, have much harder times.

The Tibetan people provided support and shelter for the guerillas of Tibet. They could run away, hit and then disappear. Many people believe it is impossible for guerrillas in enemy territory to survive for very long. This belief shows a lack of understanding of the proper relationship between troops and people. You could think of the former as water, and the latter as the fish that live in it. These two can’t exist in harmony. Only undisciplined soldiers can make people enemies, and they cannot exist together like a fish that has been taken from its natural element. Mao Tse-tung, On Guerrilla Warfare, ch. 6 (1937).

The corrupt Tibetan government collapsed when the Chinese communists invade Tibet. However, Tibetan people rose up anyway, which will be discussed in the next post.