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Fifteenth Century Tibet: Cultural Blossoming and Political Unrest

Fifteenth Century Tibet: Cultural Blossoming and Political Unrest
Item Code: NAW322
Author: Volker Caumanns and Marta Sernesi
Publisher: Lumbini International Research Institute, Nepal
Language: English
Edition: 2017
ISBN: 9789937030427
Pages: 336
Other Details: 9.50 X 7.50 inch
weight of the book: 0.52 kg

We shall begin this journey by stating that, of course. there never was any such thing as a Tibetan 15th. century. On the plateau, time was not counted anno domini, nor measured in centuries or millenniums. The calendar was articulated in sexagenary cycles (rab byung) starting in 1027, so that the period under consideration fell under the 7. and 8th. cycles (1387-1506). However, to talk about the 15ts century in relation to Tibet is more than a handy shortcut, a conventional means of immediately pointing to the timeframe we wish to consider. In fact, it is a means of placing the discourse about Tibet within the wider frame of global history. Positioned in the heart of the Asian continent, at crossroad between South Asia, East Asia, and Central Asia, was not Tibet pan of the 15. century world? Can we study the history of Tibet in isolation from the wider developments in Asian history, and world history at large?

Periodization is. of course, one of the chief means by which historians construct narratives, interpret data to construct coherent accounts, and individuate discon-tinuities. Bryan Cuevas (2006: 44) has noted how "there has not been much sustained reflection on the critical question of periodization in the historical study of Tibet." and indeed, scholars have not yet agreed on an overarching scheme for treating Tibetan history. Any such division is not only artificial and provisional, but also has a wide range of political and ideological implications that the choice of terms such as "Renaissance," "Middle-Age," or "Modem Era." for example, would immediately convey.

Hence, the historian faces a difficult alternative: does (s)he wish to treat Tibet within the global context, allowing a fuller understanding of its role in it, as well as investigating the circumstances that influenced the turn of events on the plateau? In this case, one would need to look beyond the Tibetan historical narrative, and employ "borrow." terms and notions in order for Tibet to be understood in a wider historical discourse. Alternatively, the historian of Tibet might prefer to employ emit categories and understandings of the periodization of Tibetan history. But in this case the risk is that the focus will become too narrow, and that one will end up thinking of Tibet's history in isolation.

The "long century" that we are looking at in this volume begins in the middle of the 14' century. Usually, in order to construct periodization schemes, "threshold" dates are established (e.g. 1492,1789) that symbolically mark major discontinuities. although even events such as revolutions are now understood as processes lasting in time. We suggest that one such significant date, for Central and East Asia, including Tibet, can be identified to be 1368, since that is the conventional date that marks the end of the Yuan dynasty. In fact, the Yuan dynasty kept China and Tibet closely connected to the Mongol Khanates: it promoted cultural exchanges, and the transmission of knowledge and technologies throughout Eurasia (see e.g. Allsen 2009; Biran 2015). The court had a distinct plural and cosmopolitan character, and Tibet, which was integrated into the Mongol Empire, participated in these exchanges. The advent of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) marked a major shift in the power relations in East Asia and Central Asia, and Tibet witnessed dramatic political and cultural changes as well. This is usually indicated, in studies on domestic history, as being the transition from the Yuan-Sa skya Hegemony to that of the Phag mo gru, and it is dated variably to 1349,1350,1354,1358, or 1361.

The following period saw political unrest and ongoing civil wars. As the overall administrative centralized system collapsed, the Tibetan territory formerly controlled by the Yuan dynasty was fragmented into a number of smaller policies. Individuals and families were able to rise to a new prominence, or considerably strengthen their position, to become key political players during the 15. century. Even though the Phag mo gru succeeded, at least for a while, in reorganising many of the local powers around their rule. they were not capable of controlling the fringes of the plateau, so that Western and Eastern Tibet were effectively autonomous. In central Tibet (dBus gTsang) there were frequent conflicts, shifting alliances. and maneuvers to gain political influence, while the fortunes of the ruling Phag mo gru nobles were on the decline (1432) and the Rin spungs pas made a bid for power. A profound transformation of the religious and political configuration of Tibet, which came to full maturation during the following century, was initiated at this time. In fact, many of the contributions in this volume look at the 16. century as well, and it may be argued that the next main moment of discontinuity should be identified as being in 1642, with the coming to power of the 5° Dalai Lama.

The policy of the early Ming in relation to Tibet is a politically charged topic, and as such it has been variously interpreted and debated (see e.g. Sperling 2004: 11-12, 26-27). Elliot Sperling. in his dissertation (1983), analyses the scholarly proposition. which was widely repeated at the time, that the early Ming emperors adopted a "divide and rule" policy in Tibet, and concludes that this thesis is not supported by documentary evidence. Shen (2007) also considers this definition inapt, and argues that the policy was characterized by a much more passive attitude of "accommodating barbarians from afar." Both scholars underline the importance of commerce in the diplomatic relationships between Ming China and Tibet: it was sought to keep the routes open, and the old Yuan relay stations, between the capital and the plateau, and the "tribute missions" to the court were sanctioned occasions for commerce, which involved the exchange of paper money, textiles, clothing, and tea for Inner Asian goods (Rossabi 1975: 60-83). In particular, the horse-tea trade became of high strategic importance for the Chinese. In fact, the Ming military depend. on Tibet for the supply of the highly coveted inner Asia horses, ideally suited for warfare against the Mongols. The development of this trade influenced the overall Ming policy towards Tibet, and it became so important that it influenced population movements (Sperling 1988).


The present volume constitutes the proceedings of the conference Towards a History of 15 th. Century Tibet: Cultural Blossoming, Religious Fervour and Political Unrest, held at the Lumbini International Research Institute from March 9-14, 2015, and organised in collaboration with Christoph Ciippers. We wish to thank him, as well as everyone working at the LIRI center, for the smooth organisation and wonderful hospitality. We also wish to thank the Reiyukai for the generous financial support. Finally, we wish to thank Basanta Bidari, for acting as our knowledgeable and amiable guide during our day trips.

The seminars held at the LIRI were inaugurated in March 2000, and entail a week of talks, excursions, and plenty of occasions for exchange and discussion. We wish to thank all the participants to the conference for the very constructive and informed conversations, and all the knowledge shared. Moreover, shortly before the conference, Kathmandu International Airport was closed due to a minor plane accident, causing disruption to the travel of many of the attendants. We wish to thank everyone for travelling nonetheless, and for participating in our small gathering. Besides the speakers represented in the present volume, we were joined in Lumbini by Dan Martin, Tibor Porcio, and Eva Kamilla Mojzes.

Sadly, two of our colleagues and friends that spent the week in Lumbini with us are no longer in this world. They are Edward Henning and Elliot Sperling, whom we wish hereby to remember, and to whom we dedicate the present volume.

Edward was a generous, warm-hearted and extroverted character, and he will be greatly missed. He sent its his paper before the illness broke out, and hence it is included, after some minor editing, in the present volume. We wish to thank his wife Ayse for the permission to publish. We wish to take this opportunity to remember the pleasure of sharing a good meal conversing with Edward, listening to the stories and experiences from his remarkable life. Knowing his hospitality and friendliness, we are sure that many share such fond memories of him.

Elliot's recent and unforeseen passing has left a great void. In remembering the brilliant, kind, and witty man, we cannot but feel that the discipline has lost one of its most gifted scholars. His contribution to the LIRI seminar concerned the economic and demographic growth of Eastern Tibet during the 15h century. Last December he felt that the paper was not yet finalised for publication, and hence, unfortunately, we are not able to include it in the present volume. A great number of homages and memories of Elliot have been shared after his demise, and we partake in the grief at his loss, as well as expressing our gratitude to have been able to share the week in Lumbini with him.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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