The 13th Dalai Lama and the Chinese-Tibetan Conflict

Early Life to the Defeat of Chinese Occupation Forces in 1912

13th Dalai Lama (seated)

Burlington Smith/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

It is widely believed in the West that, until the 1950s, the Dalai Lamas were all-powerful, autocratic rulers of Tibet. In fact, after the "Great Fifth" (Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, 1617-1682), the succeeding Dalai Lamas barely ruled at all. But the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso (1876-1933), was a true temporal and spiritual leader who guided his people through a firestorm of challenges to the survival of Tibet.

The events of the Great Thirteenth's reign are critical to understanding today's controversy over Tibet's occupation by China. This history is enormously complicated, and what follows is only a bare outline, based mostly on Sam van Schaik's ​Tibet: A History and Melvyn C. Goldstein's The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama. The van Schaik book, in particular, gives a vivid, detailed, and frank account of this period of Tibet's history and is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the current political situation.

The Great Game

The boy who would be the 13th Dalai Lama was born into a peasant family in southern Tibet. He was recognized as the tulku of the 12th Dalai Lama and escorted to Lhasa in 1877. In September 1895, he assumed spiritual and political authority in Tibet.

The nature of the relationship between China and Tibet in 1895 is hard to define. Certainly, Tibet had been within China's sphere of influence for a long time. Over the centuries, some of the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas had enjoyed a patron-priest relationship with the Chinese emperor. From time to time, China had sent troops to Tibet to expel invaders, but this was in the interest of China's security since Tibet acted as a kind of buffer on China's northwestern border.

At that point, at no time in its history had China required Tibet to pay taxes or tribute, nor did China ever attempt to govern Tibet. It did sometimes impose regulations on Tibet that corresponded to China's interests—see, for example, "The 8th Dalai Lama and the Golden Urn." In the 18th century, in particular, there were close ties between the leaders of Tibet—generally not a Dalai Lama—and the Qing court in Beijing. But according to historian Sam van Schaik, as the 20th century began China's influence in Tibet was "almost nonexistent."

But that doesn't mean Tibet was being left alone. Tibet was becoming the object of the Great Game, a rivalry between the empires of Russia and Britain to control Asia. When the 13th Dalai Lama assumed the leadership of Tibet, India was part of Queen Victoria's empire, and Britain also controlled Burma, Bhutan, and Sikkim. Much of central Asia was ruled by the Tzar. Now, these two empires took interest in Tibet.

A British "expeditionary force" from India invaded and occupied Tibet in 1903 and 1904, in the belief that Tibet was getting too cozy with Russia. In 1904 the 13th Dalai Lama left Lhasa and fled to Urga, Mongolia. The British expedition left Tibet in 1905 after imposing a treaty on the Tibetans that made Tibet a protectorate of Britain.

China, then ruled by the Dowager Empress Cixi through her nephew the Guangxu Emperor, looked on with intense alarm. China had already been weakened by the Opium Wars, and in 1900 the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising against foreign influence in China, claimed almost 50,000 lives. British control of Tibet looked like a threat to China.

London, however, was not so keen to commit to a long-term relationship with Tibet and looked to water down the treaty. As part of shedding its agreement to Tibet, Britain entered into a treaty with China promising, for a fee from Beijing, not to annex Tibet or interfere with its administration. This new treaty implied that China had a right to Tibet.

China Strikes

In 1906, the 13th Dalai Lama began his return to Tibet. He did not go to Lhasa, however, but stayed at Kumbun monastery in southern Tibet for over a year.

Meanwhile, Beijing remained concerned that the British would attack China through Tibet. The government decided that protecting itself from attack meant taking control of Tibet. As His Holiness serenely studied Sanskrit at Kumbun, a general named Zhao Erfeng and a battalion of troops were dispatched to take control of an area on the eastern Tibetan plateau called Kham.

Zhao Erfeng's assault on Kham was brutal. Anyone who resisted was slaughtered. At one point, every monk in Sampling, a Gelugpa Monastery, was executed. Notices were posted that the Khampas were now subjects of the Chinese emperor and were to obey Chinese law and pay taxes to China. They were also told to adopt Chinese language, clothing, hairstyles, and surnames.

The Dalai Lama, on hearing this news, realized that Tibet was nearly friendless. Even the Russians were making amends with Britain and had lost interest in Tibet. He had no choice, he decided, but to go to Beijing to placate the Qing court.

In the fall of 1908, His Holiness arrived in Beijing and was subjected to a series of snubs from the court. He left Beijing in December with nothing to show for the visit. He reached Lhasa in 1909. Meanwhile, Zhao Erfeng had taken over another section of Tibet called Derge and had received permission from Beijing to advance on Lhasa. In February 1910, Zhao Erfeng marched into Lhasa at the head of 2,000 troops and assumed control of the government.

Once again, the 13th Dalai Lama fled Lhasa. This time he went to India, intending to take a boat to Beijing to make another attempt to make peace with the Qing court. Instead, he encountered British officials in India who were, to his surprise, sympathetic to his situation. However, soon a decision came from far-away London that Britain would take no role in the dispute between Tibet and China.

Still, his newly made British friends gave the Dalai Lama hope that Britain might be won as an ally. When a letter arrived from a Chinese official in Lhasa asking him to return, His Holiness replied that he had been betrayed by the Qing Emperor (by now the Xuantong Emperor, Puyi, still a small child). "Because of the above, it is not possible for China and Tibet to have the same relationship as before," he wrote. He added that any new agreements between China and Tibet would have to be mediated by Britain.

The Qing Dynasty Ends

The situation in Lhasa changed suddenly in 1911 when the Xinhai Revolution overthrew the Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China. On hearing this news, the Dalai Lama moved to Sikkim to direct the expulsion of the Chinese. The Chinese occupation force left without direction, supplies, or reinforcement, and was defeated by Tibetan troops (including fighting monks) in 1912.

His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa in January of 1913. Upon his return, one of his first acts was to issue a Declaration of Independence from China. The conflict continued to escalate and now the 14th Dalai Lama has been living in exile since the 1950s.


  • Sam van Schaik. ​Tibet: A History. Yale University Press, 2011
  • Melvyn C. Goldstein. The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama. University of California Press, 1997
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O'Brien, Barbara. "The 13th Dalai Lama and the Chinese-Tibetan Conflict." Learn Religions, Oct. 20, 2021, O'Brien, Barbara. (2021, October 20). The 13th Dalai Lama and the Chinese-Tibetan Conflict. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The 13th Dalai Lama and the Chinese-Tibetan Conflict." Learn Religions. (accessed March 25, 2023).