Little is known of the beginnings of the Tibetan people. They originated from the nomadic, warlike tribes known as the Qiang. The Yarlung kings unified much of central Tibet and extended it into central Asia, northern India and Pakistan. It was through conquest that Buddhism made its appearance in the kingdom, although bloodthirsty theological disputes weakened its support and clerical monastic Buddhism experienced a 150-year hiatus, coinciding with the collapse of the Tibetan empire in 842.
By 907, China had recovered almost all the territory it had lost to the Tibetans, and the two states had little contact until Genghis Khan's arrival in 1239. The Mongols were impressed enough by the by-now resurgent Tibetan Buddhism that they made it the state religion of the Mongol Empire in East Asia. The collapse of the Mongol empire ended the relationship a century later.
In the 15th century, the rise to power of the Gelugpa order of monks, whose lamas were believed to be reincarnations of their predecessors, once more attracted Mongol approval. The third such lama received the title of 'Dalai', meaning 'Ocean,' and implying 'Ocean of Wisdom.' It marked the Gelugpa's entry into turbulent waters of worldly affairs. Not surprisingly, the local nobility monastic elite saw the alliance as a threat, and conflict ensued. In 1611 the king attacked Drepung and Sera monasteries. The fourth Dalai Lama fled Tibet and died at the age of 25 (he was probably poisoned) in 1616. In 1640 Mongol forces intervened. The Tibetan king was taken captive and later executed. The fifth Dalai Lama assumed power within Tibet, which was pacified with Mongol backing by 1656.
When he died in 1682, the Tibetan government encountered succession problems: the hastily-enthroned sixth Dalai Lama was noted for his 'unbridled licentiousness'. At the same time, relations with the new Chinese Manchu Qing Dynasty quickly soured and in 1705 Mongol forces descended on Lhasa, capturing the Dalai Lama. The choice of his successor was just as controversial. He was deposed during the invasion of a rival group of Mongols in 1717, who were ousted in turn by the Chinese, who brought the seventh Dalai Lama with them. The Chinese were received as liberators by the Tibetans, and Emperor Kang Xi declared Tibet a protectorate of China - a historical precedent for the Communist takeover nearly 250 years later.
The Manchu overlordship appointed a king at one stage, but temporal rule reverted in 1750 to the seventh Dalai Lama, who ruled successfully until his death in 1757. The last Chinese military intervention took place in reaction to a Gurkha invasion from Nepal in 1788. From this time Manchu influence in Tibet receded. One significant outcome of that intervention was a ban on foreign contact, imposed because of fears of British collusion with the Gurkhas.
The Brits lost official contact with Tibet, but, fearing Russian expansion into Central Asia, decided to nip Russian designs in the bud. A 1903 expedition discovered that the Dalai Lama had fled to Mongolia with a Russian 'adviser'. However, an Anglo-Tibetan convention was signed via negotiations with a lama whom the Dalai Lama had appointed as regent in his absence. The accord implied that Tibet was a sovereign power with the right to make treaties of its own. The Manchus objected and in 1906 the British signed a second accord that recognized China's suzerainty over Tibet.
In 1910, with the Manchu Qing Dynasty teetering on the verge of collapse, the Manchus made good on the accord and invaded Tibet, driving the Dalai Lama once again into flight -- this time into the arms of the British in India. It was during this period of flight that the Dalai Lama became friends with Sir Charles Bell, a Tibetan scholar and political officer. The relationship was to see the British playing an increasingly important role as mediators in problems between Tibet and China.
In 1911 a revolution in China spread to Tibet, and in 1912, the last of the occupying forces were sent back to China. In 1913 the 13th Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa. For the next 30 years, Tibet enjoyed freedom. British-led attempts at modernisation were resisted, and soon a conservative backlash quashed all ongoing innovations.
The present (14th) Dalai Lama was installed as the Dalai Lama in 1940. The 1950 Communist Chinese 'liberation' of Tibet prompted the Tibetan government to enthrone the 15-year-old 14th Dalai Lama, but it did little to protect the tiny Tibetan army. Britain and India, traditional friends of Tibet, managed to convince the UN not to debate the issue for fear of incurring Chinese disapproval.
The Chinese 17-point Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet promised a one-country, two-systems structure but provided little in the way of guarantees. A rumoured 1959 Chinese plot to kidnap the Dalai Lama triggered an uprising that the Dalai Lama was powerless to prevent. On 17 March, he disappeared, arriving in India fourteen days later.
The Chinese abolished the government and set about reordering Tibetan society. Ill-advised agricultural reforms resulted in mass starvation. The Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) was established in 1965, a year before the Cultural Revolution, a movement that was to cost Tibet dearly. The first Red Guards arrived in Lhasa in July 1966, continuing the destruction of Tibetan cultural and religious monuments over the next three years. Periodic uprisings were brief and subdued brutally. In 1975 foreign journalists described a land whose people had been battered by Chinese-imposed policies and atrocities. That same year, the last CIA-funded Tibetan guerilla bases, in Mustang, northern Nepal, were closed down.
Repression costs big bucks, so Mao's successor softened the line and called for a revival of Tibetan customs. In mid-1977 it was announced that China would welcome the return of the Dalai Lama and other refugees. Before agreeing to return, the Dalai Lama sent three fact-finding missions, who returned with a catalogue of 1.2 million deaths, the destruction of 6254 monasteries and nunneries, the absorption of two-thirds of Tibet into China, 100,000 Tibetans in labor camps and extensive deforestation. China replied with a plan to improve living conditions and freedoms, dropping taxes for two years, embarking on a program of extended personal freedoms in concert with authoritarian one-party rule.
The early 1980s saw the return of limited religious freedoms, but those who exercised their religious freedoms did so at considerable risk. Talks aimed at bringing the Dalai Lama back broke down in 1983, and the Chinese decided that they did not want the Dalai Lama to return after all. Around this time, Tibet was targeted for mass immigration, and financial incentives were offered to Han Chinese willing to emigrate. In 1984 more than 100,000 Han Chinese took advantage of the incentives.
In 1986 tourism came to Tibet, and foreigners were on hand to witness the violent repression of demonstrations in 1987. Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama had become a prominent international figure, working tirelessly from his government in exile's base in India. The Chinese rejected his peace plan, which dropped his claim to outright independence. His efforts and commitment to non-violence were rewarded in 1989 with the Nobel Peace Prize.
Tibetans have won back many religious freedoms, but at great expense. Monks and nuns are regarded suspiciously by the authorities and are often subject to arrest and beatings. Han immigration poses the grave danger that Tibetans will become a minority in their own country. Protests and government crackdowns have continued and the Chinese are no closer to reaching an agreement of any kind with the Dalai Lama.
While Chinese authorities have trumpeted recent rapid advances in industrial and agricultural output, there is also evidence of a new approach to assimilating Tibet into the motherland. A combination of foreign investment, ongoing Han immigration and exclusive use of the Mandarin in higher education ensure that only Sinicised Tibetans will be able to take advantage of progress.
On the positive side, the US government appointed a 'Special Coordinator for Tibet' in 1997, and in 1998, the UN human rights commissioner, Mary Robinson, visited Tibet. There is even talk of a rapprochement between the government in exile and Beijing. However, as long as there are no further bloody crackdowns in Lhasa, foreign countries are likely to support the status quo to protect important trade relations with China.