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Independent Tibet – The Facts

Jamyang Norbu

http://www.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=26803 Phayul[Friday, March 05, 2010 12:46] This is a considerably revised and expanded version of the document, Losar Gift for Rangzen Activists, that I posted on Feb 25, 2009. This version has new information and illustrations. Last year when I was in India I gave a talk and powerpoint presentation based on this essay at a number of Tibetan schools and centers. I am happy to report that everyone was uplifted and energized by the sheer volume of indisputable facts substantiating Tibetan independence. It may have hit a sore spot in Beijing, though, for I was denounced at length on bbs.tibet.cn for this specific presentation. In order to ensure Beijing ’s continued “sensitivity” on the issue of Tibetan independence, a Chinese translation (in traditional as well as simplified script) will be up on lovetibet.ti-da.net, and other sites thanks to freedom activist Rosaceae. A full Tibetan translation will be at www.khabdha.org, and also be published in Tibet Times, all thanks to Gedun Rabsal la. You can also go on rangzen.net for the translations and for downloading print-ready pdf files to make flyers. I would like to thank all organizations that printed and distributed flyers last year, and would encourage them and others to do so again this year on March 10th and other occasions. Feel free to contact me for questions or suggestions.

Jamyang Norbu

Independent Tibet – The Facts


Great Seal of the Dalai Lama presented to him by the Tibetan National Assembly in 1909

Tibet was a fully functioning and independent state before the Chinese invasion. It threatened none of its neighbors, fed its population unfailingly, year after year, with no help from the outside world, and owed nothing to any country or international institution. Although insular, theocratic and not a modern democracy, Tibet maintained law and order within its borders and conscientiously observed treaties and conventions entered into with other nations. It was one of the earliest countries to enact laws to protect wildlife and the environment – recurrently cited in the “Mountain Valley Edicts” issued since 1642 [1], and possibly earlier. [2]

Tibet abolished capital punishment in 1913 (noted by many foreign travelers [3]) and was one of the first nations in the world to do so. There is no record of it persecuting minorities (e.g. Muslims [4]) or massacring sections of its population from time to time as China (remember Tiananmen) still does. Although Tibet ’s frontiers with India, Nepal and Bhutan were completely unguarded and Tibetans were “great travelers” [5], very few Tibetans fled their country as economic or political refugees. There was not a single Tibetan immigrant in the USA or Europe before the Communist invasion.

Tibetan soldiers with national flags


On the dawn of 5th October 1950, the 52nd, 53rd & 54th divisions of the 18th Army [6] of the Red Army (probably over 40,000 troops) attacked all along the cease-fire line (mentsam-shagsa) on the Drichu River guarded by 3,500 regular soldiers and 2,000 Khampa militiamen. Earlier, in late 1949, Communist forces had entered areas of Eastern (Kham) and North-Eastern Tibet (Amdo) then under the military occupation of Nationalist (Guomindang) supported war-lord regimes. Recent research by a Chinese scholar reveals that Mao Zedong met Stalin on 22nd January 1950 and asked for the Soviet air force to transport supplies for the invasion of Tibet. Stalin replied: “It’s good you are preparing to attack Tibet. The Tibetans need to be subdued.” [7]

An English radio operator Robert Ford (in Tibetan government service) at the Chamdo front wrote that Tibetan forward defenses at the main ferry point on the Drichu River fought almost to the last man. [8] In the south, at the river crossing near Markham, the frontline troops fought heroically but were wiped out, according to an English missionary eye-witness. [9] Surviving units conducted fighting retreats westwards. Four days into the retreat, one regiment was overwhelmed and destroyed. Two weeks after the initial attack, the Tibetan army finally surrendered. The biography of a Communist official states “Many Tibetans were killed and wounded in the Chamdo campaign.” and “… the Tibetan soldiers fought bravely, but they were no match for the superior numbers and better training” [10] of the Chinese forces. According to the only Western military expert who wrote on the Chinese invasion of Tibet “…the Reds suffered at least 10,000 casualties.” [11] One regiment of the Red army attacked from Xinjiang, but, in an account by a Chinese soldier [12], the advance guard was held back, to a near standstill, by the nomadic militia of Gertse in Ngari (Western Tibet). This soldier also writes that the Red Army leadership could find no Chinese maps of the region to plan their invasion, and eventually had to use one published in British-India. In 1956 the Great Khampa Uprising started and spread throughout the country culminating in the March Uprising of 1959. Guerilla operations only ceased in 1974. “A conservative estimate would have to be no less than half-a-million” [13] Tibetans killed in the fighting. Many more died in the subsequent political campaigns, forced labor camps (laogai) and the great famine. The revolutionary uprisings throughout Tibet from 1987 to 1990 and most recently in 2008 -followed by draconian Chinese reprisals – clearly demonstrate that the struggle continues today.


The modern Tibetan national flag was adopted in 1916. [14] Its international debut was in the National Geographic Magazine’s “Flags of the World” issue of 1934. [15] It even featured in a cigarette-card [16] series in Europe in 1933. The flag was probably too new to appear in the very first flag issue (1917) of the National Geographic, but Tibet does receive mention in an article on medieval flags in that same issue. [17] According to an eminent vexillologist, Professor Pierre Lux-Worm, the national flag of Tibet was based on an older 7th century snow lion standard of the Tibetan Emperor, Songtsen Gampo. [18] It should be borne in mind that over 90% of the flags of the nations in the UNO were created after WWII, including the national flag of China. The Tibetan flag made its official international appearance in 1947, at the First Inter-Asian Conference, which Mahatma Gandhi addressed. The Tibetan flag was displayed alongside other flags of Asian nations, and a circular flag emblem placed before the Tibetan delegation on the podium. [19]

Ancient lion standard – courtesy of Tenzin.G.Tethong and AMI

First Inter-Asian Conference, Delhi, 1947.


The old Tibetan national anthem or national hymn, Gangri Rawae or “Snow Mountain Ramparts” [20] was composed in 1745 by the (secular) Tibetan ruler Pholanas. [21] It was recited at the end of official ceremonies and sung at the beginning of opera performances in Lhasa. [22]

When the Tibetan government came into exile in India, a more modern national anthem, Sishe Pende [23] (“Universal Peace and Benefits”) was adopted. The lyrics were composed by the Dalai Lama’s tutor, Trichang Rimpoche, who was considered a great poet in the classical nyengak (Skt. kaviya) tradition.


Detail from 1827 map [24]

Most pre-1950 maps, globes and atlases, including the earliest maps on record of Asia, depict Tibet as an independent nation, separate from China. Tibet is variously referred to as Tobbat, Thibbet or Barantola. A map of Asia drawn by the Dutch cartographer, Pietar van der Aa around 1680 shows Tibet in two parts but distinct from China; [25] as does a 1700 map drawn by the French cartographer Guillaume de L’isle, where Tibet is referred to as the “Kingdom of Grand Tibet.” [26] A map of India, China and Tibet published in the USA in 1877 represents Tibet as distinct from the two other nations. [27] An 1827 map of Asia drawn by Anthony Finley of Philadelphia, clearly shows “Great Thibet” as distinct from the Chinese Empire. [28]

Martin Behaim’s globe at Nuremburg

The oldest existing globe in the world, and possibly the first terrestrial globe ever made, was constructed by Martin Behaim (geographer to the king of Portugal) in 1492. It depicts the world before the discovery of the Americas. Tibet is clearly identified in German as “Thebet ein konigreich”, or “ Tibet, a kingdom”. [29]

The largest stained glass globe in the world (in Boston), based on the Rand McNally 1934 map of the world, shows Tibet as a separate nation. [30]

The “Mapparium” in Boston, MA.

Early Chinese maps do not feature Tibet as a part of China. In a landmark map of China [31] drawn in 1594 by Wang Fen (or Wang Pan?), a senior Ming Legal Officer, there is a note stating that the map included the whole of China ’s territory. But no Tibetan areas, not even the eastern-most regions of Amdo or Kham, appear on the map.

Upper section of 1594 Ming Map

Following the publication of the atlas commissioned by the Manchu Emperor Kangxi and created by French Jesuit cartographers, some Chinese and European maps begin to depict Tibet as a colony or protectorate of China. The Jesuits could not personally survey Tibet (as they had surveyed China and Manchuria), since Tibet was not part of the Chinese Empire. So they trained two Mongol monks [32] in Beijing and sent them to make a secret survey of Tibet. Similar clandestine surveys of Tibet were conducted by British mapmakers using trained Himalayan natives and even a Mongol monk. An American sinologist, writing on such issues, notes that, like European colonial powers, China used cartography to further its “Colonial Enterprise” in Tibet and Korea. [33]


Literary sources [34] refer to gold, silver and copper ingot-coins, even cowrie shells, being used as currency in ancient Tibet. From circa 1650 silver coins for Tibet (the Bhal-tang) were struck in Nepal under a treaty agreement. [35] In 1792 following the defeat of Nepal by a joint Tibetan-Manchu force, coins bearing both Tibetan and Chinese inscriptions were circulated. But the Tibetan government continued to issue its own coin with only Tibetan legends as the Kongpar tangka (1791-93) and the Gaden tangka (1836-1911). A silver coin, the Kalsang tangka, was struck in 1909 possibly to mark the 13th Dalai Lama’s return to Lhasa from Peking.

Kongpar tangka, Gaden tangka, Kalsang tangka and three Srang coin

After the expulsion of the Chinese army in 1912, Tibet minted gold, silver and copper coins (in the “srang” currency unit) using Buddhist and Tibetan designs and bearing the name of the Tibetan government. Paper currency was introduced into Tibet in the early 20th century, and according to the numismatist Wolfgang Bertsch, these bank notes were “small works of art.” [36] A unique aspect of Tibetan banknotes was that the serial numbers were handwritten by a guild of specialist calligraphists, the “epa”, to prevent forgery.

Even after the Communist invasion, Tibetans successfully resisted Chinese efforts to take over its currency. Official Chinese currency only came into use after the flight of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government from Tibet in March 1959. [37] In its entire history, official Chinese currency had never been used in Tibet before 1959.


The Tibetan government issued its own passports to travelers entering its borders or (the few) Tibetans who traveled abroad. Before WWII, the term “passport” covered visas and travel documents in general. The earliest record of a Tibetan passport issued to a foreign traveler is in 1688 to an Armenian merchant, Hovannes (Johannes). [38] In 1780 a passport was issued from Lhasa [39] to Purangir Gossain, an emissary of the Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings, who hoped to open up Tibet to trade with the East India Company.

Passport issued to first Everest Expedition, 1921 (courtesy of Rinchen Dorjay).

The Tibetan government gave its approval for the first-ever Everest expedition in 1921. Charles Bell, the visiting British diplomat in Lhasa wrote “I received from the Tibetan Government a passport in official form, which granted permission for the climbing of Mount Everest.” [40] The subsequent Everest expeditions of 1924 and 1936 [41] also received passports from the Tibetan government. Passports were sometimes issued for scientific undertakings: the Schaeffer anthropological expedition of 1939, [42] Tucci’s ethnological expedition of 1949 [43] and the plant hunter Frank Kingdon Ward in 1924. [44]

Shakabpa passport

President Roosevelt’s two envoys to Tibet in 1942 were presented their passports at Yatung. [45] The Americans Lowell Thomas Jr. and Sr. visited Tibet in 1949, and were issued “Tibetan passports” at Dromo. “When the Dalai Lama’s passport was spread out before us, I could not help thinking that many Western explorers who had failed to reach Lhasa would have highly prized a document like this.” [46]

Since 1912 passports were also issued to Tibetans leaving for foreign countries. [47] The first modern Tibetan passport [48] with personal information, photograph and space for visas and endorsements was issued in 1948 to members of the Tibetan trade mission. It was modeled on the international one-page fold-out model of 1915. Britain, the USA and seven other countries issued visas and transit visas for this document.


Treaty Pillar of 821-22 AD

One of the most important treaties between the Tibetan Empire and the Chinese Empire (concluded after a decisive Tibetan military victory) dates back to AD 821-822. The text, in Tibetan and Chinese was engraved on three stone pillars (doring). The only surviving pillar is near the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. [49] One clause affirms that between the two nations “…the very world ‘enemy’ shall not be spoken”.

Shol Doring

Another article regarding the frontier (near the present Gansu-Shaanxi border) makes clear that “All to the East is the country of Great China; and all to the West is, without question, the country of Great Tibet.” [50]

This treaty pillar is sometimes mistaken for the more eye-catching Shol doring before the Potala Palace, on which is inscribed the record of another great Tibetan victory, the capture of the Tang Imperial capital of Changan in 763 AD.

As an independent nation, Tibet entered into treaties with neighboring states: Bushair 1681, Ladakh 1683 and 1842, Nepal 1856 and so on.

Tibet signed a number of treaties and conventions with Britain culminating in the Simla Treaty of 1914 by which British India and Tibet reached an agreement on their common frontier. [51] India ’s present-day claims to the demarcation of its northern border (the McMahon Line) is based on this treaty which was signed by independent Tibet – not China.

In January 1913, Tibet and Mongolia signed a treaty in Urga, the preamble of which reads: “Whereas Mongolia and Tibet having freed themselves from the Manchu dynasty and separated themselves from China, have become independent states, and whereas the two States have always professed one and the same religion, and to the end that their ancient mutual friendships may be strengthened…” [52] Declarations of friendship, mutual aid, Buddhist fraternity, and mutual trade etc., follow in the various articles. The Tibetan word “rangzen” is used throughout to mean “independence”.

Mongolian Tibet Treaty of 1913


Foreign Bureau personnel

A Bureau of Foreign Affairs was established in 1909 [53] after the 13th Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa from Peking, and the Tibetan people, in symbolic rejection of Manchu rule, presented him with a new national seal. [54] The Foreign Bureau appears to have been reconstituted in 1941. [55] It conducted diplomatic relations with Britain, USA, Nepal, independent India and China. Nepal set up its legation in Lhasa in 1856, China in 1934 and Britain in 1936. Foreign ministry officials represented Tibet as an independent nation in the Inter-Asian Relations Conference convened in India March 23, 1947 to assess the status of Asia in the period following WWII. Tibet was also represented at the Afro-Asian Conference in 1948. Many participating nations were yet to be decolonized making Tibet one of the few established independent nations in that early pan-Asian gathering. [56]

A letter from the Foreign Bureau dated 2nd Nov 1949, to “Mr. Mautsetung”, describes Tibet as a religious nation, independent from “earliest times”, and requests the Communist leader to “issue strict orders” to his officers not to cross into Tibetan territory. Regarding Tibetan territory earlier annexed by China the letter states that “…the Tibetan government would like to open negotiations after the settlement of the Chinese Civil War.” [57]

Foreign Bureau letter to Mao Tsetung


President Roosevelt’s envoys and gifts (above) to the Dalai Lama

Tibet was a declared neutral country (bharnas gyalkhap) during WWII. The Tibetan government successfully resisted pressure from Britain, a threat of invasion from China, and even the personal request of President Roosevelt [58] to allow construction of a military road through Tibetan territory, or allow the passage of military supplies. In a humanitarian gesture, passage of non-military goods was later permitted. Tibet granted political asylum to two Austrian climbers [59] who escaped from a British POW camp in India. It also provided hospitality and transport to American flyers whose plane crashed in Tibet in 1944. [60]


The modern Tibetan postal service was built on courier systems used during the early Tibetan Empire and later Mongol Imperial rule. A “pony express” (atrung) service was used for official missives, while general mail was carried by a system of postal-runners (bhangchen or dakpa). A Central Post and Telegraph Office (dak-tar laykhung) was created in 1920 in Lhasa [61] which took over the old postal stations (tasam) throughout Tibet. Postage stamps of various denominations were indigenously designed and hand-printed, and are now collector’s items. Though not a signatory to the International Postal Treaty, a system was created so that letters from Tibet could be delivered to foreign addresses, [62] and letters from abroad be delivered inside Tibet.

Tibetan postage stamps and envelope with New Jersey address

Spencer Chapman, visiting Lhasa in 1936, declared that, “the postal and telegraph system is most efficient.” [63] The same system continued for some years after 1950. The Czech filmmaker Vladimir Cis (working for the Chinese Communist government) had a letter from his family in Prague delivered to him in the wilderness of Tibet by a postal-runner in 1954. [64]

A telegraph line from India to Lhasa was completed in 1923, along with a basic telephone service. Both were open for public use. The event was commemorated in a publication of the Royal Geographical Society, London. [65]

The Tibetan capital was electrified in 1927. The work of installing both the hydroelectric plant and the distribution system was undertaken near “single-handedly” [66] by a young Tibetan engineer, Ringang. All these projects were initiated and paid for by the Tibetan government.

Radio Lhasa was launched in 1948 and broadcasted news in Tibetan, English and Chinese. [67]


The fact that Tibet was a peaceful, independent country is attested to by the writings of many impartial western observers who not only visited pre-invasion Tibet, but even lived there for considerable periods of time – as the titles of some of their memoirs seem to proudly proclaim: Twenty Years in Tibet by David McDonald [68], Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer [69], and even Eight Years in Tibet, the biography of Peter Aufschnieter. [70]

Richardson at a Lhasa garden party

The premier scholar on Tibet, Hugh Richardson, lived for nine years in Tibet, and his many writings [71] reveal a country that was functioning, orderly, peaceful and with a long history of political independence and cultural achievement. He later wrote, “The British government, the only government among Western countries to have had treaty relations with Tibet, sold the Tibetans down the river…” Richardson also acknowledged that he was “profoundly ashamed” [72] at the British government’s refusal to recognize Tibet ’s historically independent status.”

Sir Charles Bell

Another great scholar and diplomat, Charles Bell, regarded as the “architect of Britain ’s Tibet policy,” was convinced that Britain and America ’s refusal to recognize Tibetan independence (but which they sometimes tacitly acknowledged when it was to their advantage) was largely dictated by their desire “to increase their commercial profits in China.” [73]

It is almost certain that none of the official propagandists who demonize Tibet in Chinese publications had witnessed life in old Tibet. In fact, none of Beijing ’s Tibet propagandists in the West (Michael Parenti, Tom Grunfeld, Barry Sautman, Melvin Goldstein et al) [74] had visited Tibet before 1980. The first two misrepresent old Tibet by selectively quoting English journalists and officials (L. A. Waddell, Percival Landon, Edmund Candler, Captain W.F.T. O’Connor) who accompanied the British invasion force of 1904, and who sought to justify that violent imperialist venture into Tibet by demonizing Tibetan society and government.

Dr. Shen with Tibetan Foreign Secretary, Surkhang Dzasa

The only high-ranking Chinese official with scholarly credentials who spent any length of time in old Tibet was Dr. Shen Tsung-lien, representative of the Republic of China in Lhasa (1944-1949). In his book Tibet and the Tibetans, Dr. Shen writes of a nation clearly distinct from China, and one that “…had enjoyed full independence since 1911.” He writes truthfully of a hierarchical, conservative society “fossilized many centuries back” but whose people were orderly, peaceable and hospitable – but also “notorious litigants,” adding that “few peoples in the world are such eloquent pleaders.” Shen also mentions “Appeals may be addressed to any office to which the disputants belong, or even to the Dalai Lama or his regent.” [75]

Jamyang Norbu