The 7th Dalai Lama, Kelzang Gyatso

A Life in Turbulent Times

Kelzang Gyatso, the 7th Dalai Lama
Kelzang Gyatso, the 7th Dalai Lama. Public Domain

His Holiness Kelzang Gyatso, the 7th Dalai Lama (1708-1757), had much less political power than his predecessor, the "Great Fifth" Dalai Lama. The turmoil that caused the untimely death of the 6th Dalai Lama continued for many more years and deeply impacted the life and position of the Seventh.

The years of Kelzang Gyatso's life are important to us today in light of China's claim that Tibet has been part of China for centuries. It was during this time that China came about as close as it ever came to ruling Tibet before 1950, when Mao Zedong's armies invaded. To determine if China's claims have any legitimacy we must look closely at Tibet during the lifetime of the 7th Dalai Lama.


During the time of Tsangyang Gyatso, the 6th Dalai Lama, the Mongolian warlord Lhasang Khan took control of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. In 1706, Lhasang Khan abducted the 6th Dalai Lama to take him to the court of China's Kangxi Emperor for judgment and probable execution. But the 24-year-old Tsangyang Gyatso died in captivity along the way, never reaching Beijing.

Lhasang Khan announced that the deceased 6th Dalai Lama had been an imposter and enthroned another monk as the "true" 6th Dalai Lama. Shortly before Tsangyang Gyatso was snatched away to his death, however, the Nechung Oracle had declared him to be the true 6th Dalai Lama.

Ignoring Lhasang Khan's claim, Gelugpa lamas followed clues in the 6th Dalai Lama's poetry and identified his rebirth in Litang, in eastern Tibet. Lhasang Khan sent men to Litang to steal the boy, but his father had taken him away before the men arrived.

By then Lhasang Khan was looking to the Kangxi Emperor for support for his wobbly hold on power in Tibet. The Kangxi Emperor sent an adviser to Lhasang. The adviser spent a year in Tibet, gathering information, then returned to Beijing. Sketches given to Jesuits in China gave them enough to go on to draw a map of Tibet, which they presented to the Emperor.

Some time later, the Kangxi Emperor published an atlas that included Tibet within the borders of China. This would be the first time that China claimed Tibet, based entirely on the Emperor's long-distance relationship with a Mongol warlord who didn't stay in power for long.

The Dzungars

Lamas of the great Gelugpa monasteries in Lhasa wanted Lhasang Khan gone. They looked to allies in Mongolia for rescue and found the king of the Dzungar Mongols. In 1717 the Dzungars rode to central Tibet and surrounded Lhasa.

Through three months of siege, a rumor spread through Lhasa that the Dzungars were bringing the 7th Dalai Lama with them. Finally, in the dark of night, people within Lhasa opened the city to the Dzungars. Lhasang Khan left Potala Palace and tried to escape the city, but the Dzungars caught him and killed him.

But the Tibetans soon were disappointed. The 7th Dalai Lama was still hidden away somewhere in far eastern Tibet. Worse, the Dzungars proved to be harsher rulers than Lhasang Khan had been.

An observer wrote that the Dzungars practiced "unheard-of-atrocities" on the Tibetans. Their loyalty to Gelugpa compelled them to attack Nyingmapa monasteries, smashing sacred images and slaughtering monks. They also policed Gelugpa monasteries and expelled lamas they didn't like.

The Kangxi Emperor

In the meantime, the Kangxi Emperor received a letter from Lhasang Khan asking for his help. Not knowing that Lhasang Khan was already dead, the Emperor prepared to send troops to Lhasa to rescue him. When the Emperor realized the rescue would be too late, he devised another plan.

The Emperor inquired about the 7th Dalai Lama and found where he and his father were staying, guarded by Tibetan and Mongolian soldiers. Through intermediaries, the Emperor struck a deal with the Seventh's father.

So it was that in October 1720, the 12-year-old tulku went to Lhasa accompanied by a great Manchu army. The Manchu army expelled the Dzungars and enthroned the 7th Dalai Lama.

After the years of misrule by Lhasang Khan and the Dzungars, the people of Tibet were too beaten down to be anything but grateful to their Manchu liberators. The Kangxi Emperor had not only brought the Dalai Lama to Lhasa but also restored Potala Palace.

However, the Emperor also helped himself to eastern Tibet. Most of the Tibetan provinces of Amdo and Kham were incorporated into China, becoming China's provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan, as they are to this day. The part of Tibet left in Tibetan control is roughly the same area now called the "Tibetan Autonomous Region."

The Emperor also reformed the Tibetan government of Lhasa into a council made up of three ministers, relieving the Dalai Lama of political duties.

Civil War

The Kangxi Emperor died in 1722, and the rule of China passed to the Yongzheng Emperor (1722-1735), who ordered the Manchu troops in Tibet back to China.

The Tibetan government in Lhasa split into pro- and anti-Manchu factions. In 1727 the anti-Manchu faction executed a coup to oust the pro-Manchu faction and this lead to a civil war. The civil war was won by a pro-Manchu general named Pholhane of Tsang.

Pholhane and envoys from the Manchu court in China re-organized the government of Tibet yet again, with Pholhane in charge. The Emperor also assigned two Manchu officials called ambans to keep an eye on affairs in Lhasa and report back to Beijing.

Although he had played no part in the war, the Dalai Lama was sent into exile for a time at the Emperor's insistence. Further, the Panchen Lama was given political authority of western and part of central Tibet, partly to make the Dalai Lama seem less important in the eyes of Tibetans.

Pholhane was, effectively, king of Tibet for the next several years, until his death in 1747. In time he brought the 7th Dalai Lama back to Lhasa and gave him ceremonial duties, but no role in government. During Pholhane's governance, the Yongzheng Emperor in China was succeeded by the Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796).

The Revolt

Pholhane turned out to be an excellent ruler who is remembered in Tibetan history as a great statesman. At his death, his son, Gyurme Namgyol, stepped into his role. Unfortunately, the volatile new ruler quickly alienated both the Tibetans and the Qianlong Emperor.

One night the Emperors' ambans invited Gyurme Namgyol to a meeting, where they assassinated him. A mob of Tibetans gathered as news of Gyurme Namgyol's death spread through Lhasa. As much as they disliked Gyurme Namgyol, it did not sit well with them that a Tibetan leader had been murdered by Manchus.

The mob killed one amban; the other killed himself. The Qianlong Emperor sent troops to Lhasa, and those held responsible for the mob violence were publicly subjected to "death by a thousand cuts."

So now the Qianlong Emperor's soldiers held Lhasa, and once again the Tibetan government was in shambles. If ever there was a time that Tibet could have become a colony of China, this was it.

But the Emperor chose not to bring Tibet under his rule. Perhaps he realized Tibetans would rebel, as they rebelled against the ambans. Instead, he allowed His Holiness the 7th Dalai Lama to assume leadership in Tibet, although the Emperor left new ambans in Lhasa to act as his eyes and ears.

The 7th Dalai Lama

In 1751 the 7th Dalai Lama, now 43 years old, finally was given the authority to rule Tibet.

From that time, until Mao Zedong's 1950 invasion, the Dalai Lama or his regent officially was the head of state of Tibet, aided by a council of four Tibetan ministers called the Kashag. (According to Tibetan history, the 7th Dalai Lama created the Kashag; according to China, it was created by a decree of the Emperor.)

The 7th Dalai Lama is remembered as an excellent organizer of the new Tibetan government. However, he never acquired the political power assumed by the 5th Dalai Lama. He shared power with the Kashag and other ministers, as well as the Panchen Lama and the abbots of the major monasteries. This would continue to be the case until the 13th Dalai Lama (1876-1933).

The 7th Dalai Lama also wrote poetry and many books, mostly on Tibetan tantra. He died in 1757.


The Qianlong Emperor was deeply interested in Tibetan Buddhism and saw himself as a defender of the faith. He also was keenly interested in maintaining influence within Tibet to further his own strategic interests. So, he would continue to be a factor in Tibet.

During the time of the 8th Dalai Lama (1758-1804) he sent troops to Tibet to put down an invasion of Gurkhas. After this, the Emperor issued a proclamation for governing Tibet that has become important to China's claim that it had ruled Tibet for centuries.

However, the Qianlong Emperor never took administrative control of the Tibetan government. Qing Dynasty emperors who came after him took far less interest in Tibet, although they continued to appoint ambans to Lhasa, who acted mostly as observers.

The Tibetans appear to have understood their relationship to China as being with the Qing emperors, not the nation of China itself. When the last Qing emperor was deposed in 1912, His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama declared that the relationship between the two countries had "faded like a rainbow in the sky."

For more on the life of the 7th Dalai Lama and the history of Tibet, see Tibet: A History by Sam van Schaik (Oxford University Press, 2011).