Tibet under Yuan administrative rule

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The Yuan administrative rule of Tibet (1270–1350) was a period in the history of Tibet when the region was structurally, militarily and administratively controlled[1] by the Yuan dynasty, a division of the Mongol Empire. The Mongol rule over Tibet was established after Sakya Pandita capitulated Tibet in 1244 to the Mongols, following the 1240 Mongol conquest of Tibet led by the tarkhan Doorda.[2] It is also called the Sakya dynasty after the favored Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism.

The region retained a degree of political autonomy under the Sakya lama, who was the de jure head of Tibet and a spiritual leader of the Mongol Empire. However, administrative and military rule of Tibet remained under the auspices of the Yuan ministry of Tibetan governance, or Xuanzheng Yuan (Chinese: 宣政院), a top-level administrative department separate from the provinces of Song China, but still under the administration of the Yuan dynasty. Tibet retained nominal power over religious and regional political affairs, while the Mongols managed a structural and administrative[3] rule over the region, reinforced by the rare military intervention. This existed as a "diarchic structure" under the Yuan emperor, with power primarily in favor of the Mongols.[4] One of the department's purposes was to select a dpon-chen, usually appointed by the lama and confirmed by the Mongol emperor in Beijing.[4]


Yuan Dynasty, circa 1294. Tibet was administered by the top-level department called Xuanzheng Yuan.

Conquest of Tibet[edit]

Prior to the Yuan dynasty, Tibet had previously been invaded by the Mongol Empire. The first invasion was by Prince Köden, grandson of Genghis Khan and son of Ögedei Khan. The second invasion by Möngke Khan resulted in the entire region falling under Mongol rule. Kublai Khan incorporated the region into his later Yuan dynasty, but left the legal system intact.[5] Drogön Chögyal Phagpa, the Sakya lama, became a religious teacher to Kublai, who made him the nominal head of the region.

Yuan rule[edit]

Although the Yuan maintained administrative rule of Tibet, scholarly opinion on the exact nature of this rule is disputed: according to different sources, it is considered a direct subject, an indirect part of the Yuan dynasty or an autonomous region outside direct Yuan rule, but subject to the greater Mongol Empire.[6][7][8][9] While no modern equivalents remain, the relationship is analogous to that of the British Empire and the British Raj in India.[4]

The rule was described in the Mongolian chronicle "Ten Laudable Laws", which describes "two orders", one order based on the religious and one order based on the secular. Religious is based on the Sutras and Dharani, secular on peace and tranquillity. The Sakya Lama is responsible for the religious order, the Yuan Emperor for the secular. The religion and the state became dependent on each other, each with its own functions,[10] but the will of the Emperor, through the d-pon chen, held the de facto upper hand.[4]

Through their influence with the Mongol rulers, Tibetan lamas gained considerable influence in various Mongol clans, not only with Kublai, but, for example, also with the Il-Khanids. Kublai's success in succeeding Möngke as Great Khan meant that after 1260, Phagpa and the House of Sakya would only wield greater influence. Phagpa became head of all Buddhist monks in the Yuan empire. Tibet would also enjoy a rather high degree of autonomy compared to other parts of the Yuan empire, though further expeditions took place in 1267, 1277, 1281 and 1290/91.[11]

Kublai Khan[edit]

Drogön Chögyal Phagpa was the spiritual advisor and guru to Kublai Khan. In 1260, Kublai appointed Chögyal Phagpa as "Guoshi", or State Preceptor, in 1260, the year when he became emperor of Mongolia. Phagpa was the first "to initiate the political theology of the relationship between state and religion in the Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhist world".[12][13] With the support of Kublai Khan, Chögyal Phagpa established himself and his sect as the preeminent spiritual leader in Tibet, and in the wider Mongol Empire. In 1265 Drogön Chögyal Phagpa returned to Tibet and for the first time made an attempt to impose Sakya hegemony with the appointment of Shakya Bzang-po, a long time servant and ally of the Sakyas, as the Mongol approved dpon-chen, or great administrator, over Tibet in 1267. A census was conducted in 1268 and Tibet was divided into thirteen myriarchies. While maintaining administrative control through the d-pon chen, Kublai's relationship with the Sakya Lama became known in the Tibetan tradition as "priest – patron" relationships. Subsequently, each Yuan Emperor had a Lama as a spiritual guide.[14]

According to Rossabi, Khublai established a system in which a Sakya lama would be "State Preceptor" (and later "Imperial Preceptor" or Dishi), who would reside in China and supervise all the Buddhists of the empire, and a Tibetan called dpon-chen (Ponchen) or "Civil Administrator" would live in Tibet to administer it.[15] Nevertheless, this system also led to conflicts between the Sakya leaders and the Ponchens.[16]

Kublai Khan commissioned Chögyal Phagpa to design a new writing system to unify the writing of the multilingual Mongolian Empire. Chögyal Phagpa in turn modified the traditional Tibetan script and gave birth to a new set of characters called Phagspa script which was completed in 1268. Kublai Khan decided to use the Phagspa script as the official writing system of the empire, including when he became Emperor of China in 1271, instead of the Chinese ideogrammes and the Uyghur script. However, he encountered major resistances and difficulties when trying to promote this script and never achieved his original goal. As a result, only a small amount of texts were written in this script, and the majority were still written in Chinese ideogrammes or the Uyghur alphabet.[17] The script fell into disuse after the collapse of the Yuan dynasty in 1368.[13][18] The script was, though never widely, used for about a century and is thought to have influenced the development of modern Korean script.[19]


The Sakya hegemony over Tibet continued into the middle of the fourteenth century, although it was challenged by a revolt of the Drikung Kagyu sect with the assistance of Duwa[20] of the Chagatai Khanate in 1285. The revolt was suppressed in 1290 when the Sa-skyas and the Mongol army under Temur-Buqa, Kublai's grandson, burned Drikung Monastery and killed 10,000 people.[21]

Decline of the Yuan[edit]

Between 1346 and 1354, the Yuan dynasty was weakening from uprisings in the main Chinese provinces. As Yuan declined, in Tibet, Tai Situ Changchub Gyaltsen toppled the Sakya and founded the Phagmodrupa dynasty, the rulers of which belonged to the Kagyu sect. The succession of Sakya lamas in Tibet came to an end in 1358, when central Tibet in its entirety came under control of the Kagyu sect, and Tibet's independence was restored, to last nearly 400 years.[22] "By the 1370s the lines between the schools of Buddhism were clear."[23] Nevertheless, the Phagmodrupa founder avoided directly resisting the Yuan court until its fall in 1368, when his successor Jamyang Shakya Gyaltsen decided to open relations with the Ming dynasty, founded by a native Chinese.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Scholars argue whether administrative control extended to complete political control, whether the Yuan dynasty directly ruled Tibet, and how separate Yuan rule of Tibet was from Yuan rule of Song China. However, it's accepted that the Yuan dynasty had administrative control over the region.
  2. ^ Wylie. p.110.
  3. ^ Wylie. p.104: 'To counterbalance the political power of the lama, Khubilai appointed civil administrators at the Sa-skya to supervise the mongol regency.'
  4. ^ a b c d Dawa Norbu. China's Tibet Policy, pp. 139. Psychology Press.
  5. ^ Schirokauer, Conrad. A Brief History of Chinese Civilization. Thomson Wadsworth, (c)2006, p 174
  6. ^ Kychanov, E.I. and Melnichenko, B.N. 2005. 'Istoriya Tibeta s Drevnikh Vremen do Nashikh Dnei [The History of Tibet from Ancient Times to the Present Days]. Moscow: Russian Acad. Sci. Publ.
  7. ^ Smith, W.W. 1996. 'Tibetan Nation. A History of Tibetan Nationalism and Sino-Tibetan Relations'. Boulder: Westview.
  8. ^ Sperling, E. 2004. 'The Tibet–China conflict: history and polemics'. - Policy Studies, v. 7 (Washington, East–West Center). - http://www.eastwestcenterwashington.org/publications/publications.htm.
  9. ^ 'The Mongols and Tibet. A Historical Assessment of Relations Between the Mongol Empire and Tibet'. 2009. DIIR Publ.
  10. ^ Franke, H. 1981. Tibetans in Yuan China. - In: China Under Mongol Rule. Princeton.
  11. ^ Dieter Schuh, Tibet unter der Mongolenherrschaft, in: Michael Weiers (editor), Die Mongolen. Beiträge zu ihrer Geschichte und Kultur, Darmstadt 1986, p. 283-289
  12. ^ Laird 2006, pg. 115.
  13. ^ a b F. W. Mote. Imperial China 900-1800. Harvard University Press, 1999. p.501.
  14. ^ Uspensky, V.L. 1996. Lamaist Beijing: from Shun-Chi to the Tao-Kuang. –Oriens (Moscow), no. 4
  15. ^ Rossabi 1989, p. 144
  16. ^ Rossabi 1989, pg. 221
  17. ^ Rossabi 1989, p158
  18. ^ Laird 2006, pp. 114-117
  19. ^ Laird 2006, pp. 115-116
  20. ^ M.Kutlukov, Mongol rule in Eastern Turkestan. Article in collection Tataro-Mongols in Asia and Europe. Moscow, 1970
  21. ^ Wylie, Turnell V. (1977) "The First Mongol Conquest of Tibet Reinterpreted," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 37.1: 103-133.
  22. ^ Rossabi 1983, p. 194
  23. ^ Laird 2006, p. 124


  • Laird, Thomas. The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama (2006) Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-1827-5
  • Petech, Luciano, Central Tibet and the Mongols: the Yüan-Sa-skya period of Tibetan history (1990) Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente. ISBN 0-582-79066-5
  • Rossabi, Morris. China Among Equals: The Middle Kingdom and Its Neighbors, 10th-14th Centuries (1983) Univ. of California Press. ISBN 0-520-04383-9
  • Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times (1989) Univ. of California Press. ISBN 0-520-06740-1
  • Smith, Warren W., Jr. Tibetan Nation: A History Of Tibetan Nationalism And Sino-tibetan Relations (1997) Westview press. ISBN 978-0-8133-3280-2