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Where did the Dalai Lama's power come from?

Professor Peter Schwieger from the University of Bonn investigates an important chapter of Tibetan history

University of Bonn


IMAGE: Dr. Peter Schwieger is from the Institute for Oriental and Asian Studies of University of Bonn with his new book. view more

Credit: (c) Photo: Volker Lannert/Uni Bonn

Who ruled over Tibet - the Dalai Lama or the emperors of China? In his book, "The Dalai Lama and the Emperor of China," Prof. Dr. Peter Schwieger, the Tibetologist from the Institute for Oriental and Asian Studies at the University of Bonn, investigates the historical background of this question. He determined: Tibetan politics were never completely free from the strong influence of their neighbors - such as China and the Mongols. The book appeared in the Columbia University Press in New York.

The traditional political-social system of Tibet was based on the social position of the "trülku." This term in Tibetan describes people who are regarded as the emanation of a spiritually significant being and as the reincarnation of enlightened religious teachers. Religious, economic, legal, and political functions were combined with the social position of the "trülku." There are many different "trülkus;" the most well-known of them is the Dalai Lama. In his new book, "The Dalai Lama and the Emperor of China," Prof. Dr. Peter Schwieger, the Tibetologist from the Institute for Oriental and Asian Studies at the University of Bonn, investigates the development of the office of the Dalai Lama - and how things went with its powerful neighbors, the emperors of China.

Certificates in Tibetan handwriting

Prof. Schwieger tried to substantially enlarge the range of the sources that were used for his study. Until now the history of Tibet had been, "mainly described on the basis of historiographical sources" - on the basis of records that were intended to be "historiography." English language Tibetan studies in particular were mainly based on such sources, criticized Schwieger: "It was not taken into account that to a great extent there are other sources: Certificates, files, and letters. Another picture of the history becomes apparent from them - freer from bias." Prof. Schwieger gathered and analyzed these kinds of records in Tibetan archives.

That is easier to write about than it was to do. Many certificates are in very poor condition - or if they remained in Tibet - are not even available to western researchers depending on the general political climate. At times Prof. Schwieger, the expert from Bonn, had to be contented with copies and editions whose reliability could not always be established beyond all possible doubt. In addition the texts are not in Tibetan print, but in various kinds of handwriting: some that were very difficult to read.

In his book, Prof. Schwieger describes the political struggle of various actors inside and outside of Tibet. To the north of the country, Mongolian tribes competed with each other, and in the east the Manchurian dynasty of the "Qing" (pronounced "ching") took the Chinese imperial throne in 1644 from the previous dynasty: the legendary Ming dynasty. Mongolian rulers and Chinese emperors tried to extend their power to Tibet as well and drastically intervened again and again in Tibet's politics and administration. According to Prof. Schwieger, "the long-term objective was the formation of a great inner-Asian empire."

The "yellow hats:" One factor among many

In Tibet the Dalai Lamas were initially only one factor among many - they led the Buddhist school of the "Gelukpa" (yellow hats). Only after complicated struggles, "the line of the Dalai Lamas gained power in Tibet" said Prof. Schwieger - first in the 17th century with the help of Mongolian support and then in the 18th century by the intervention of the Qing emperor. A close relationship developed between the religious and political elite of Tibet and the Chinese imperial court, and both sides knew how to benefit from it. The elite of Tibet needed military support for their power, and in return the Chinese imperial court needed spiritual justification of their military predominance in inner-Asia. The rulers on the dragon throne achieved stability on the western edge of their empire, and the "yellow hats" were able to unite spiritual and internal political control under one roof - in the Potala fortress in Lhasa in the person of the Dalai Lama. A type of "Buddhist theocracy" resulted - although there is no concept of God in Buddhism. "Max Weber called it a hierocracy," said Prof. Schwieger - "a rule of the holy."

One result of the investigation is, "that the emperors of the Qing dynasty influenced the institution of reincarnated clericalists in Tibet to a large extent starting in the early 18th century." Only when the empire collapsed from inner weakness in 1911, was the predecessor of the present Dalai Lama able to establish a kind of de-facto independence of Tibet. Consequently, one of the greatest disruptive factors in the modern-day relationship of many countries to China is also a result of Chinese politics.


Publication: Schwieger, Peter: The Dalai Lama and the Emperor of China. A Political History of the Tibetan Institution of Reincarnation. Columbia University Press, New York 2015, 352 pages, 50.00 US dollars / 34.50 British pounds

Media contact:

Prof. Dr. Peter Schwieger
Institute for Oriental and Asian Studies
University of Bonn
Tel.: ++49-(0)228-737465

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