By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

The Tang Dynasty

The Sui (589-618) and T’ang (618-907) dynasties of China provide the opportunity to examine the theory from two separate angles.101 On the one hand, the T’ang, and the preceding Sui dynasty, re-unified the Chinese Empire using a hybridized form of Buddhism designed to win the support of the Chinese in the South.

The success of this project enabled the Sui and T’ang to lower the physical and cultural barriers separating the North from the South. In effect, the Sui and the T’ang reduced the number of sources of transcendent credibility in the Eastern plain of China from at least two to one. This was a necessary step in unification, or to put it another way, in making the boundary between North and South less distinct.

On the other hand, the T’ang confronted other political units around the edges of their territory: the Eastern Turks in the North and the newly formed Tibetan state in the West. The Tibetan government depended on a form of Buddhism that had been borrowed from India and adapted to suit the conditions of Tibetan society. Chinese Buddhism was very different from Tibetan Buddhism in terms of how the ruler linked his (or her) credibility to a transcendent source. In addition, the T’ang, for their part, adapted their source of transcendent credibility to Taoism, albeit a Taoism that looked very similar to Chinese Buddhism. This shift occurred during the same period as the rise of prominence of Tibet. Once the Tibetans firmly acknowledged a source of transcendent credibility that was different from the T’ang source, boundaries between the two political units became more distinct.

These cases provide evidence that the distinctiveness of boundaries between political units depends on the number of sources of transcendent credibility in the system. The first case will demonstrate that the Sui and T’ang reduced the number of sources of transcendent credibility in China to one, in order to eliminate the border between North and South China and create a single, unified Chinese Empire. The second case will demonstrate that the appearance of a militarily strong polity in the West that generated compliance using a different source of transcendent credibilityfrom the Chinese resulted in a fairly distinct boundary between Tibet and China.

Who Or What Made China?

In the sixth century, “China” was a distant idea. Since the fall of the Han dynasty in 220, the region had been divided into a conglomeration of separate political units. Although there arose a variety of ruling families and rival territories, the one consistent boundary throughout this period separated the North from the South. Roughly, this boundary, starting from the east, run along the Huai River into the Qianling Mountains, where the watershed of the Huang He belonged to the North and that of the Yangtze belonged to the South. The South was significantly wetter than the North, leading to differences in core agricultural crops. This geographic boundary paralleled a political and cultural boundary as well. Thus, when the leaders of the Sui dynasty sought to reunify China in 589, they had to devise a strategy to overcome and eliminate this gash through the middle of the region. Making such a boundary less distinctive required not just a military unification, but also a unification of the source of transcendent credibility between North and South.


Background: China before the Sui Dynasty (589)

There is no easy way to characterize the political situation in China from the decline of the Han Dynasty in 220 to the Empire’s reunification in 589. This period is marked by a series of popular rebellions, a succession of local elites who gained power only to lose it to another upstart, and waves of invasions of non-Chinese peoples from the north. What was consistent throughout this period is the preservation, at least in form, of many of the institutions originally set up by the Han. In 440, the Toba Turks finally succeeded in creating a stable political unit, and despite being ethnic and cultural outsiders, consolidated their position among the Chinese elite by adopting Chinese institutions. Yet, a powerful segment of these Turks who did not want to abandon their traditional ways formed a new political unit off in 534. The “traditionalists” dynasty later became known as the Northern Chou, while the “sinicized” political unit was transformed into the Northern Ch’i. In 577, the Northern Chou conquered the Northern Ch’i. Ironically, although it was the traditionalist portion of the Wei that eventually won, it was “sinicization” that was the real winner: the traditionalists became converted to the benefits of adopting Chinese institutions, elites, and culture. In short, while the northern parts of China were very strong militarily, they remained politically unstable until 577, due in large part to disagreements over the ideological bases of government. The dynasties in the South, on the other hand, considered themselves to be the true heirs of the Han. Race and the continuity of institutions mattered. The peoples of the North were seen as impure and barbaric, with non-Chinese people continuously polluting those lands. While the North nominally kept the Han institutions, “barbarians” could not understand their proper operation. The South contained some of the best farmland in the region, which made these dynasties relatively secure economically compared with the North. The Ch’en controlled the South beginning in 557. However, its power was drastically reduced in 575 when the Northern Chou convinced the Ch’en emperor to attack the Northern Ch’i, a move that weakened the two rivals of the Northern Chou to such an extent that the Northern Ch’i were easilyconquered in 577 and the Ch’en in 589. The Ch’en’s military troubles got worse with the accession of an Emperor ranked among the least effective by Chinese historians. Thus, despite political stability and economic prosperity, the Ch’en lacked the superior military strength and leadership of the North.

It was into this environment that the founder of the Sui Dynasty, Wen-ti, stepped. Wen-ti was a senior court official in Northern Chou who had intermarried into another important court family. The intrigue of other court officials provided an opportunity for Wen-ti to stage a coup, assume leadership of Northern Chou, and set up the Sui Dynasty. It would have been difficult to deduce that a new dynasty had taken over if one merely looked at the royal court in the Northern Chou capital Ch’ang-an. The same families were still in residence, providing the corps of advisers and officials. Yet, Wen-ti understood the importance of consolidating his authority in the North before attempting an invasion of the South. To this end, he immediately created a bureaucracy that brought together elites from Northern Chou and the nowdefunct Northern Ch’i. He set this group to work in bringing the local regions under stronger central control. This group was also responsible for creating and implementing a new legal code. In addition, although Wen-ti knew he would need his troops for the upcoming invasion, he did not neglect his subjects in the far north, sending troops to the Great Wall to increase protection against invading Turks. Once these reforms were accomplished, Wen-ti’s position was secure enough that he began his campaign against the Ch’en, conquering and annexing the South in 589.

Thus, in 589, prior to the Sui conquest of the South, China was clearly divided into two political units: the Sui in the North and the Ch’en in the South. Despite changes in leadership and changes in the military capabilities of both North and South, the boundary between the two units remained fairly distinct and unmoved. The North and the South clearly saw their counterpart as an “Other.” The unification of “China” was a geographic enterprise, not an ethnic or cultural one. The dominant military of the North could conquer the South, but it could do little to allow the Sui to “rule” the South and efficiently generate compliance. What was required, the Sui learned, was a single source of transcendent credibility that was palatable in both the North and the South.

Reducing the number of sources of transcendent credibility from two to one The Sui unification of China is an interesting case study because it shows the Sui leadership recognizing that one single source of transcendent credibility was needed where there had been two. This was a conscious policy choice made by the Sui after other policies designed to eliminate the boundary between North and Southmhad failed. Thus, it is important to demonstrate, first, that the sources of transcendent credibility in the North and the South differed significantly, second, the conscious policy choices made by the Sui leadership to reduce the number of sources of transcendent credibility to one, and third, the resultant source of transcendent credibility and its level of acceptance in both the North and South.

Northern China adhered to a very different source of transcendent credibility than the South thanks to differences in historical development. Surrounded by oceans, dense jungles, and high mountains, the South was relatively isolated compared to the North. The North, on the other hand, was exposed to new influences thanks to the numerous tribes of the steppes and their position as eastern terminus of the Silk Roads. Although the North resisted these changes, they also found it prudent to adapt in ways the South was not forced to do. The influence of the peoples of the steppes continued because the Sui inherited the institutions of the Northern Chou. As has been noted earlier, the key Turk families and officials of the Northern Chou wished to retain many of the traditional religious beliefs that their ancestors had brought with them from the steppes. But, at the sametime, they recognized the value of adopting Chinese institutions and religions to more effectively rule the predominately Chinese population. Thus, many of the traditional steppe practices had already been blended into existing Northern Chinese rites and institutions.

However, the three most important influences on Northern transcendent credibility came from Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. It must be recognized that these three systems had existed together in Northern China for roughly five hundred years. Whereas, in the beginning, these systems vied with one another for the hearts and minds of the populace, over time they began to blend together. In their extreme versions, each system could (and did) act as an alternative source of transcendent credibility and, thereby, a threat to the existing government. Yet, in their more moderate versions, each system could be shown as support for the other. In short, by the sixth century, Taoism in and of itself was not a threat to the government in power, but a Taoism that excluded, for example, the legitimacy of the Buddhist teachings could very well be a threat or an opportunity for the government in power.

This syncretic trend in Northern China is very important as the source of transcendent credibility for the Sui was a hybridized version of Buddhism and Confucianism. Sui Emperor Wen-ti acknowledged the importance of Buddhism as a source of legitimacy for any government in Northern China. Buddhism had been in China for 500 years and was well integrated into every level of Chinese society. The NorthernChou were ready to adopt the more secular Confucian practices and institutions, but also wished to retained many of the religious beliefs they had brought with them from the steppes. In 574, the Northern Chou ruler instigated a severe program of repression of the Buddhist and Taoist clergy. Three years later, this policy was extended to the newly conquered area of Northern Ch’i, a region where Buddhism was much more firmly ensconced. Over the ensuing ten years, the rulers managed to enforce this incredibly unpopular policy, but failed to change the hearts and minds of the Northern Ch’i people and the elite. This costly policy combined with Wen-ti’s assurances to Buddhists contributed heavily to his successful coup. It was well known that Wen-ti was raised among Buddhist monks and nuns and that he had married a very devout Buddhist woman. In the last years of the Northern Chou dynasty, Wen-ti watched as the ruler tried (unsuccessfully) to eradicate all non-Confucian religious practices. As Emperor, Wen-ti revived Buddhism.102

The transcendental source of Emperor Wen-ti’s credibility was a hybridized version of Buddhism and Confucianism.103 The Han Dynasty had based their governance on Confucian doctrines. While many scholars argue that Confucianism is not technically a “religion,” it cannot be denied that an important facet of its doctrines is the “Mandate of Heaven” (t’ien-ming).104 Confucius argued that good government requires recapturing the institutions and practices that worked in the “Golden Age” of China, especially in the Shang and early Zhou dynasties. These dynasties incorporated the idea that Heaven placed the current Emperor in his position and, as long as he continued to rule in harmony with the cosmic forces, society would flourish while he ruled.105 Hence, Confucianism is at least “transcendent,” pointing to the legitimacy of political leadership established by Heaven. It is this argument that Wenti’s advisor, Li Te-lin, turned to in his “Discourse on the Heavenly Mandate:” compared with the Chou, the new Sui dynasty produced the least possible disruption to the cosmic order.106 Wen-ti was not especially intellectual or learned; thus, he lacked some key qualities Confucians valued. At the same time, he recognized the usefulness of Confucian doctrines for establishing legitimacy and of Confucian scholars for effective government. His Confucian advisor Su Wei convinced him that the moral health of the people and government was crucial to a flourishing society.107 To that end, Wen-ti pushed policies that focused on reinvigorating the people’s filial piety (xiao). Against the advice of Li Te-lin, Wen-ti argued that reading only the Confucian Classic of filial submission was sufficient to establish one’s character and to govern a state. This position stressed the importance of hierarchy in a family and the state (especially if you are the Emperor at the top of the hierarchy).108 Early in his reign he provided a great deal of support to Confucian schools in the hopes of producing a strong group of advisors and bureaucrats. However, by 601 it was clear that these schools were either drawing mediocre students or not effective educational institutions. Fed up with the low quality of graduates, Wen-ti closed most of these schools. Not coincidentally, on the same day he shut down the Confucian schools, he distributed large numbers of holy Buddhist relics through the empire.

One of the most important innovations of Wen-ti was blending Confucianism and Buddhism together in such a way that the contradictions between the two were ironed out and both provided complementary sources of transcendent credibility for his rule. Confucianism said that Wen-ti ruled under the Mandate of Heaven, but Heaven (t’ien) had always been a vague term.109 In the Analects, Confucius argued that questions about Heaven should wait until the questions about mankind and the  world are first answered.110 As a result, it was relatively easy to attach a conscious Being to the vague notion of Heaven. In Wen-ti’s words, it is the Buddha who “takes true dharma and entrusts it to the princes of states. We, being honored among men, accept Buddha’s trust.”111 Because it is the Buddha who has chosen the Emperor, and the Buddha is the paragon of compassion, the ruler is seen as ideal. The ruler is considered “a Cakravartin king,” which means that he is the Buddhist political ideal of a ruler who brings peace and prosperity to his land.112 The Cakravartin king is the secular counterpart of the Buddha. The word Cakra is Sanskrit for yantra, which is a physical form of a mantra, meaning that the king was something to look at to see how to be enlightened.113 Thus, Wen-ti’s duties as Emperor also included defender of the faith and generous donor. He established Buddhist temples in every region of the Empire, on the one hand fulfilling his role as donor, but on the other hand providing a visible sign to the people that Buddha’s political counterpart was in charge. The monks and nuns were put to work immediately. They served as healers, leaders of religious rituals, and other crucial roles in the community. The local people could see on a daily basis that the Emperor and the unseen forces of Nature were working on the same side, for their benefit.

A third religious factor in Chinese history, Taoism, also found a place in the Sui dynasty, though its role was minimal. Taoism had transformed over the past 800 years from a brief explanation of the Tao found in Lao-Tzu’s Tao-Te-Ching, to a  belief system that now deified the messenger, Lao-Tzu, and included many other Immortals.114 During the Han dynasty, many of the more durable concepts of Taoism had been melded into official Confucianism in order to produce a fuller philosophical/theological system.115 Thus, at the time of the Sui, Taoism was not perceived as an alternate source of transcendent credibility than Confucianism. Yet, to the extent that Taoist clergy were independent, they still represented a potential threat to the Sui’s ideology. Emperor Wen-ti honored Lao-Tzu just enough to keep the Taoists happy. Because this came at the tail end of ten years of harsh repression under the Northern Chou, Taoists believed that they had a real champion in Wen-ti. The truth is that Wen-ti only accepted Taoism to the extent that it meshed with his hybridized version of Buddhism and Confucianism. For the most part, Taoist practices that did not conform were illegal. He may have stopped the oppression of both Buddhism and Taoism, but only Buddhism received his full support. At the end of his reign, the capital Ch’ang-an contained 120 Buddhist buildings, but only ten Taoist. In short, as long as the Taoist clergy were minimalized and its most durable concepts were already appropriated, Taoism was permitted to exist.

Relationship between Emperor and Sangha Perhaps the most crucial distinction between Buddhism in the North and South involved how the clergy related to the rulers. In the fourth century, more than two centuries before the Sui reunification of China, the Buddhist clerical leaders in the North and South made clear their different stances on how monks relate to emperors.

The question was whether monks, and especially the head of the Buddhist clergy (the Sangha), should pay homage to the ruler.116 In the North, the relationship between the Buddha and the king was closely connected. As Buddhism gained popularity in the North, the ruler came to be seen as a bodhisattva well on his way to becoming a Buddha. At times, however, a ruler could assert that he was a living Buddha or even the Buddha reincarnated. The founder of the Wei dynasty (mid-fourth century) claimed such status and the Buddhist clergy backed him up. Thus, when the Sangha was asked to pay homage to the king, he could justifiably do so since he was not acknowledging the authority of mere temporal ruler, but spiritual authority already due a Buddha. According to one Sangha of the Wei dynasty, Faguo, the ruler was both the temporal and spiritual authority of every Buddhist monk.

In the South, however, there was a very different outcome to this question. The emperors in the South claimed to be persons in pursuit of buddhahood, but this was very different from actually being one. According to Huiyuan, a Sangha of the South who established the precedence that would be followed until reunification, the vocation of a Buddhist monk is to renounce the world. Nothing on earth should have any hold on a true monk. Thus, the Sangha should not bow before the ruler. If anything, the emperor should bow to the monk for the service he is provided humanity. For a variety of reasons, both political and spiritual, the leading families of the South supported Huiyuan’s position. As a result, the Buddhist clergy in the South remained almost totally independent of the Southern emperors. Such a politicoreligious hierarchy was perceived by the emperors of the North as a real and present threat to their ability to generate compliance among the peoples of the North.

This hierarchical distinction between North and South led to continued divergences between the two forms of Buddhism. Free from direct imperial supervision and feeding off of the support provided by many of the powerful families, Buddhists in the South were allowed to spend much of their time considering the philosophical ideas. Many schools sprung up as a result. Each monastery in effect had its own theology. In the North, on the other hand, such ideological experimentation was frowned on. The focus of Buddhists in the North was perfecting the practices and rites associated with attaining Nirvana. The North was more prone to invasion and war than the South, thus a focus on practices was more welcomed by the people of the North who sought stability and solace in the midst of chaos. Yet, philosophical matters remained largely undiscussed in the North, thereby protecting the theological status quo.  The source of transcendent credibility in the South was a “purer” form of Buddhism, meaning one that was less “tainted” by foreign influences.117

Buddhism was incredibly strong in the Southern dynasties.118 There is less evidence about religious practices of the rulers in the South, but this is understandable as the conquered society usually leaves less to posterity than the conqueror. There were few connections between the Buddhist clergy in the South and the clergy in the North.

Thus, not only did central doctrines differ, the hierarchy personnel differed as well. North and South had distinct Sangha who saw their position vis-à-vis the emperor very differently. In other words, a respected monk in the South was not necessarily equally respected in the North.

The Buddhist clergy in the North under Wen-ti emerged from ten years of oppression under the last Northern Chou emperor. Their concern was with their own status, not with that of the South. Their modest goals included not giving Wen-ti an excuse to withdraw support and gradually increasing their influence in society. The clergy in the South, on the other hand, had always had a relatively privileged status. They had not faced state-sponsored oppression for centuries and had come to take their position in society for granted. In addition to this, they shared the Southern dynasties contempt for the “barbarous” peoples that now populated the Northern portions of the former Han Empire. The lack of evidence and the short term of the Ch’en dynasty prevents an adequate understanding of how it related its legitimacy to a source of transcendent credibility. Clearly, rulers of all the Southern dynasties claimed legitimacy as heirs to the Han dynasty.119 However, Confucianism was not as strong in the South as it had been in the Han or was currently in the North. No adequate compromise had been reached between Buddhism and Confucianism – the success of one meant the decline of the other. Over the past century, Buddhism had clearly been in ascendance among both elite and masses. The theological innovation in the South largely concerned blending some of the ideas of Buddhism and Taoism, but this still fell short of peaceful co-existence of the two systems. As long as the form of Taoism that deified Lao-Tzu was insignificant, its existence could be tolerated.

The military conquest of the South was a relatively easy affair. Wen-ti’s efforts at consolidation of power in the North was the antithesis of the decline the Ch’en ruler experienced in the South. A year before Wen-ti launched his campaignagainst the South, he sent the Ch’en ruler a letter containing twenty crimes he had committed, suggesting that the Mandate of Heaven had been lifted. Wen-ti considered the elimination of the Ch’en ruler an obligation placed on him by Heaven, and said so in his letter. Wen-ti had 300,000 copies of a similar edict made and distributed in the South, an early form of psychological warfare. In short, Wen-ti wanted to make clear to the soon-to-be-conquered people in the South that he had the Mandate of Heaven while the Ch’en did not.120 Resisting the Sui was resisting Heaven. The Ch’en were easily defeated. Wen-ti found (as have many other conquerors throughout history) that conquest was simpler than governance. Wen-ti’s first actions in reuniting the Empire involved shifting the legitimacy of the Ch’en ruler to himself. Two policies were especially important in this. First, the Ch’en ruler and his family were kept alive and lived near Wen-ti’s court in the capital Ch’ang-an. The Ch’en ruler was instrumental in encouraging rebels in the South to do as he had done and accept the new Emperor.

The clemency shown to the Ch’en ruler was also intended to symbolize the leniency Wen-ti would show to the South once it embraced him. Second, Wen-ti had the Southern capital city, Chien-k’ang completely destroyed and turned into farmland. The people were not killed, but there was nothing left to show a city had once stood in that place. In short, Wen-ti intended his dynasty to be more than the best option, it would be the only option.

These early policies of Wen-ti failed to win him legitimacy in the South. Despite a common heritage and close proximity, these two cultures had been completely separated for the past three hundred and fifty years. A good example of this is that when the Ch’en ruler was brought to Wen-ti, neither could understand the other because they spoke different languages.121 Each society had evolved differently.

Yet, Wen-ti was determined to recreate the Chinese Empire of the Han, and thisrequired finding ways to bridge these cultural differences. In the South, it was not primarily the elites that had to be won over. This could be done (and was) by involving some of the leading families in Wen-ti’s bureaucracy. As had been the case for centuries, the elite families would often associate themselves with whichever star they perceived was on the rise. Since all dynasties North and South, Chinese or other, used some Confucian principles of government, elite officials  were useful despite multiple changes of leadership. Instead, it was the larger population that needed to be won over. This, in large part, meant winning over the Southern Buddhist clergy who occupied prominent positions in every community.

Wen-ti tried another unsuccessful policy designed to encourage the North and the South to adhere to the same source of transcendent credibility. This policy of imposing Confucian principles on the general population backfired. Wen-ti’s goal was to drive home the importance of filial piety throughout empire. To this end, everyone in the Empire was required to memorize the “Five Teachings” (Wu chiao), which basically emphasized the importance of the social hierarchy and fulfilling one’s place in it. Whether the people in the South thought this doctrine to be wrong or believed that it was a first phase in replacing Buddhism with Confucianism is unclear. What is clear, however, is that the people of the South did not like the policy of mandatory memorization the Five Teachings. Many of Wen-ti’s officials in the South were killed, and in some cases, eaten. Tradition says that as they ate the officials, the rebels said “This will make you more able to memorize the Five Teachings!”122 These popular uprisings convinced Wen-ti that a new policy was needed. The second policy was to convince the Southern Buddhists that Wen-ti was really a Cakravartin king who would not only protect Buddhism, but would enable it to thrive. Truth be told, it is unclear that this was Wen-ti’s policy. It became his policy in the latter years of his reign, but his adoption of it probably came after his son, Yang Kuang, demonstrated how effective it was in uniting the North and South. Yang Kuang, the Prince of Chin, was sent by his father with troops to crush the Five Teachings uprisings and maintain order in the South. He successfully stopped the rebellions, but recognized that the South would be won more easily with both a carrot and a stick. Part of the discontent in the South stemmed from the destruction of the capital city, which had also served as the center of Buddhism. Lacking the money from elites (who had moved to the North to serve Wen-ti), Southern clergy fretted that they would lose their place to Northern Buddhists. Yang Kuang, however, immediately began to pour money into their coffers, supported the building of newtemples, and invited them to come to his new Southern home in Yang-chou to live and work. Of course, Yang Kuang purged the Southern Buddhist clergy of any who did not support the new Sui Dynasty, but once they passed the screening process, the clergy could expect to be treated very well.

The main Buddhist school in the South was the T’ien-t’ai, headed by the legendary Chih-i. Yang Kuang struck up a friendship with Chih-i and made it clear that Buddhism in the South would merge with Buddhism in the North, not be dominated by it. Chih-i also played an important symbolic role in the merging of Northern and Southern Buddhism, which could not have been missed by Yang Kuang. Chih-i was from an aristocratic Southern family, but studied under the famous Northern Buddhist teacher Huisi. One of the central doctrines of the Chih’i’s teaching and the T’ien-t’ai School is that the philosophical aspects of Buddhism (heavily emphasized in the South) and the discipline and meditative aspects (heavily emphasized in the North) were “like the two wings of a bird.”123 Yang Kuang  promoted these teachings of Buddhism, elevated the T’ien-t’ai School and its clergy, and doctrinally ironed over the differences between Northern and Southern Buddhism.

Yang Kuang also gathered sacred books from all over the Empire, had them copied, and sent these manuscripts to important temples in the South. Gradually, Yang-chou became the Southern political and cultural capital that Chien-k’ang had been. The Buddhist clergy became the biggest supporters of the Sui in the South, reducing the resistance to the new conquerors. In 604, Yang Kuang succeeded his father with the new Imperial title, Yang-ti. When he returned to Ch’ang-an he brought with him the best of the Southern clergy. The Buddhists from the South merged with their counterparts in the North and blended into one hierarchy. Confucianism had lost favor with Wen-ti in the later years of his reign. Yangti revived Confucianism again, recreating the complementary blend with Buddhism discussed above. The Buddhist clergy held privileged places in the capital near Yangti’s court. At the same time, Confucian rituals were brought back. In particular, the Emperor traveled to one of the holy mountains, Heng-shan, and performed a Confucian ritual dating from the Han dynasty that “dramatized supreme power.”124 When blended properly, the doctrines and rituals of Confucianism did not contradict those of Buddhism, and Yang-ti recognized that a hybrid could actually produce the best of both worlds in terms of generating compliance and authority.


The Gradual Emerging of China as a Whole

In sum, China was divided both politically and religiously as late as 589. The North relied on a newly developed blend of Confucianism and Buddhism, while the South was Buddhist. The Sui Emperors conquered the South, consolidating their conquest by blending an important Southern School of Buddhism into its Confucian-Buddhist hybrid. Once this was done, the populace of the South was more willing to accept significant Confucian principles without coercion. Likewise, the people of the North were satisfied because the T’ien-t’ai School still emphasized and celebrated the Northern practices of Buddhism. At the same time, the Sui retained the Northern theological concept that the ruler stood in authority above the clergy. Finally, all of this was combined with Confucian institutions that had been the official state practices under the Han dynasty, which held a transcendent credibility all its own. Only after this hybridization was accomplished was the authority of the new Emperors secure. The distinctiveness of the boundary between Northern and Southern China in 589 is a far cry from borders of the modern nation-state system. And yet, for the time period, the Huai River-Qianling Mountain divide formed a relatively distinct boundary between Northern and Southern political units. This border, however, disappeared between 589 and 618. A military victory was insufficient to eradicate this border as the division was more than just a political phenomenon. Once the Sui imposed a single source of transcendent credibility covering both the North and South, the boundary gradually disappeared both physically and conceptually. Despite the obvious and consistent military threats from the Northern nomadic peoples, the Northern Chou also stationed troops along their southern border. This border closely followed the Huai River in the East and the Qianling Mountains further West. Because the North had a more powerful military, the South was particularly vulnerable to an invasion that crossed the Mountains and floated down the Yangtze to the population centers. A Northern invasion could either hug the coastline or proceed down the Yangtze River gorge. This made the geographic barrier a natural political and cultural boundary. Up river and on the northern side of the Yangtze, the Northern Chou built outposts that could guard any movement along the river. The Ch’en, and many of the dynasties that preceded them, had built similar fortifications downstream and on the Southern side. Thus, the River itself acted both as a highway for invasion and a heavily controlled border. In the East, the Huai River served as a similar barrier with fortifications on its North and South banks. Under such scrutiny, very little in terms of people and trade passed between North and South.

By the 580s, the military threat in the South was minimal. The Ch’en had once had a strong military power, but it was aimed primarily at the Northern Ch’i.125 The failed invasion into Northern Ch’i in 575 reduced this power to a purely defensive force. Northern Chou troop postings were intended primarily to ensure that all flow of goods, people, and troops crossing the Qianling Mountains was checked. After Wen-ti took over in 589, he added a new objective to the generals in charge along the Southern frontier: prepare to invade.

The worst part of the fighting between the Sui and the Ch’en occurred in the naval battles on the Yangtze. Once the Sui controlled the River, the rest of the fighting was minimal. Interior defenses for the Ch’en were almost non-existent. The Ch’en invested their resources primarily in creating and controlling a distinctive border. Likewise, the Northern Chou and the Sui invested the bulk of their troops along the northern boundaries with the Eastern Turks and along the Yangtze River. Military in the interior of the Sui realm consisted of local militias, not centrally controlled and trained soldiers. In short, both the Sui and the Ch’en demonstrated a credible commitment to defend their borders. Distance from the center was not the issue nor was the extent of the military threat. Control of the borders militarily and non-militarily was the primary concern. The northern shore of the Yangtze River126 was also a distinctive boundary because authority of the political unit ended sharply at the water’s edge. Persons living near the border could not appeal to both the Sui and the Ch’en’s authority.

Officials in a particular region or village were appointed by either the Sui ruler or the Ch’en ruler, depending on the side of the River. As the local official was the primary provider of justice, hierarchies of appeal and law existed, but did not cross the River. In general, persons on the North side of the River spoke a different language and came from a different culture than those on the South side. This separation was continually reinforced with new deployments of troops from the interior of each respective realm.

The reunification did not occur in an international vacuum. As the Sui and T’ang reduced the distinctiveness of the boundary between North and South, external enemies were growing stronger. Thus, some of the proxies that we would turn to here will be somewhat masked in the country as a whole. For example, the reduction ofborder defenses between North and South to nothing was mirrored by an increase in troops stationed on the edges of the Turkish and Tibetan realms. In addition, while the theory would predict a less hierarchically arranged judicial system where a border becomes less distinctive, in this case we see an increase in judicial hierarchy. However, this intensification throughout the Empire is in response to the growing threats on the frontiers. The hierarchy, however, now crossed the boundary and embraced both North and South. In other words, despite the confounding effects of China in an international system, it is still possible to see that the boundary between North and South China grew less distinctive. Following the conquest of the Sui and the pacification of the brief uprisings in the South, troops were no longer stationed along the Yangtze River.127 Controlling the flow of ideas was the last thing on the Sui ruler’s mind. In fact, ideally, he sought to vastly increase the flow from North to South in terms of ideas. Likewise, he expected the flow of economic goods to increase along the Yangtze River. As was discussed earlier, thanks to the pacification strategy of Wen-ti’s son in the South, all of these things occurred. The Yangtze was no longer a fortified border, but a highway of sorts that saw an enormous increase in traffic. The Huai River experienced a similar transformation. The expansion of the canal system primarily under Wen-ti’s heir, Yang-ti, improved the flow of traffic between what was formerly divided between Northern Chou, Northern Ch’i, and Ch’en. By 611, the Grand Canal directly linked the Huang He and Yangtze River systems. Troops that had been stationed on the River were first redeployed in the South for pacification, but within a decade, redeployed to face the nomadic tribes in the North and Northwest and to prepare for the doomed invasion of Korea.

Redeployment of troops was relatively easy, but it took some time for the cultural barriers to fall between North and South. In particular, the people in the South had always looked down on the Northern people as barbarians merely dressed up as Chinese. Such beliefs did not disappear overnight. Language barriers also took time to dissipate. However, the free flow of goods and people between North and South increased the rapidity of the assimilation. The Sui rulers and the later T’ang rulers appointed local officials in the South. Many of these officials, though not all, were transplants from the North. At the same time, however, many of the best people in the South were moved north to work in other parts of the bureaucracy. People from the North and South were forced to solve the assimilation problem in order to conduct daily affairs. By the time the T’ang took control in 618, there was little evidence that a boundary between North and South had existed.

All of these unification strategies depended on the Sui ability to create a shared source of transcendent credibility. After a number of brief uprisings in the South, rebellions no longer revolved around the idea of a North as separate from the South or vice versa. Relative internal peace reigned in the reunited China for roughly twenty years. When a new spate of rebellions surfaced, the locus had shifted to the northeast in the regions most heavily affected by the 611 Huang He flooding. Further, the rebellions were not about breaking away from the Empire, but replacing an Emperor who (in the eyes of the rebels) had so clearly lost the Mandate of Heaven. The Sui policies had solidified the idea that the Empire was eternal. Though it would go through periods of decline, the Empire would always be revived. A distinctive border tearing the Empire in half was a thing of the past.

Thus, in order to eliminate this boundary, the Sui Emperors developed and implemented a conscious strategy designed to generate compliance from the South with a minimal amount of coercion. The Sui reduction of the number of sources of transcendent credibility in China to one was instrumental in reducing the distinctiveness of the boundary between its Northern and Southern halves. To put it another way, the Sui goal of reunification depended on the Emperors’ ability to base their legitimacy on a source of transcendent credibility shared in common throughout the Empire.


China and Tibet (620-800)

Early in the seventh century, a new power was rising in the West. No one in China would have predicted that several disparate tribes of shepherds on the Tibetan Plateau would suddenly merge into a single political unit capable of extending its power all the way to the Chinese plains. And yet, the new T’ang dynasty, taking over in China after Yang-ti’s disastrous invasion of Korea on the 610s, found that their source of transcendent credibility was no longer the only source in the system. This case will demonstrate that the introduction of an alternate source of transcendent credibility induced the Chinese and Tibetans each to invest heavily in their mutual border, creating an incredibly distinct and incredibly long border between their territories. The area where the distinct border emerged had formerly been sparselypopulated, mountainous, and distant from the Chinese and Tibetan centers of power. The frontier was just that, incredibly indistinct and patrolled by tribes that preferred to be left alone. However, the rise of Tibet and its alternate source of transcendent credibility meant that this region would be the most hotly contested and highly demarcated in Medieval Asia. When the T’ang came to power in 618, they faced a new enemy on their western flank with which the Sui had not had to contend. The Tibetans as a unified people were relatively new. The land that would become Tibet was surrounded on all sides by mountains. The area itself was a large plateau in the midst of the sharp peaks of the Himalayas. The silk roads skirted this region to the north and the south, but travel across the plateau itself was avoided as a costly and fruitless venture. Thus, the many tribes that lived in Tibet were relatively isolated from external influence and, by consequence, were neither powerful nor rich. Monks from India had brought Buddhism to Tibet and neighboring Nepal in the third century, but the dominant religion was Bon, which required Shamans in order to speak to the various gods, demons, and spirits. In general, Bon resembled religions found among the small nomadic tribes of Siberia, Africa, and North America.

For reasons that are unknown, late in the sixth century a number of leaders of the various tribes on the plateau decided to make one of their number a king over them all. The lord of Yar-lung became the Spu-rgyal btsan-po. While rgyal means “king,” spu refers to the sacred nature of the king as a divine manifestation. His authority was not strictly political, but spiritual as well. From 570 to 608, he consolidated the tribes and extended their power beyond the plateau. Though the Sui had not encountered any of his forces, rumors of the growing power of the Tibetans reached Ch’ang-an. It was said (and the Sui Emperors believed) that the Tibetan king commanded 100,000 warriors. This number is clearly an exaggeration, but its credibility can probably be ascribed to the rapidity at which the Tibetans went from backward yak-herders to military power. It was the son of this first Tibetan king who gets the lion’s share of the glory in Tibetan history. Songtsen Gompo (608-650) is known as the first chos-rgyal, or “religious king,” a title given to him for his successful efforts to convert the Tibetans to Buddhism. According to the traditional Tibetan history, Clear Mirror on Royal Genealogy, written in 1364, the mother of Songsten Gompo and the mothers of his  two future wives, one a princess of Nepal and the other a princess in China, were all impregnated with a ray of light that emanated from the forehead of the Buddha Avolokitesvara. As rulers, they “brought the Dharma” to the land of Tibet. The Clear Mirror, a Tibetan history, describes the people of Tibet as being descended from the mating of a monkey and a rock-ogress.128 Hence, the Tibetans were a depraved people before the dharma came and all of their neighbors knew this and despised them for it. However, when Songsten Gompo transformed dharma laws into royal law, hetransformed the Tibetans into a blessed and happy race. In this way the traditional account describes Songsten Gompo as both political and spiritual savior of Tibet. In the end he does not die, but returns to the Buddha from whom he originally emanated. Songsten Gompo, and by relation his royal descendents, was no ordinary monarch, butwas a dharma-king.129

While there is much in the traditional account that does not pass a modern believability test, it is verified in many places that Buddhism became the source of transcendent credibility in the reign of Songsten Gompo.130 The traditional Bon religion was not so much eliminated as absorbed into Buddhism, creating a unique form that evolved in different ways than Buddhism in India or China or elsewhere for that matter. The Buddhism Tibet built on came straight from India, while Songsten Gompo also brought in various pieces of Chinese Buddhism to supplement and customize for the Tibetan culture. This was symbolized in Songsten Gompo’s marriages: his first and senior wife was from Nepal and his second wife was from China. Each brought something of their culture with them, but the pride of place belonged to the wife from the South. Songsten Gompo also imported writing from India, primarily to get Buddhist texts translated and disseminated for his people.

In terms of power, Tibet was growing, but still not a match for the reunited Chinese Empire. In the early years of his reign, Songsten Gompo requested that the daughter of the first T’ang Emperor be given to him as a wife. The first time he asked, he was refused. The Tibetan account suggests the Tibetan emissaries were laughed at.

Tibet was considered an uncivilized land unworthy of a Chinese princess. However, after several successful Tibetan campaigns that extended their border up to the Western border of China, the T’ang Emperor relented and sent his daughter to Tibet.

A temporary and wary peace settled between Tibet and China that was broken twenty years after Songsten Gompo’s death. In 670, the two armies fought along their shared boundary and this fighting continued for the next 200 years. Differences between the Two Sources of Transcendent Credibility It is important to note that even as Tibet was becoming a strong Buddhist Empire, China was shifting from Buddhism to Taoism. However, to say “Buddhism” is to brush over the differences that existed between Chinese Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. In brief, Chinese Buddhism had been heavily infused with Taoist principles, while Tibetan Buddhism was colored with the latest Indian Buddhist evolutions and Tibetan Bon.131 Both Buddhisms shared the underlying ideas of the Way and Enlightenment, yet they were very unlike each other.


Tibet’s Source of Transcendent Credibility

The Tibetans held one particular Buddha, Avalokitesvara, in highest esteem. As the legend goes, when this Buddha attained full enlightenment, so great was his compassion to ease human suffering that he chose not to go to Nirvana, but to stay and give aid to those who need it.132 In particular, Avalokitesvara looked north at the great plateau of Tibet and had compassion on the people there. He thus set in motion a series of events that culminated in his incarnation as Songsten Gompo, who brought the dharma to Tibet. Therefore, the heirs of Songsten Gompo were not merely men, but were also the descendents of the Buddha, and in some cases were seen as new incarnations of the Buddha. The modern world is more familiar with Avalokitesvara’s more recent incarnations as the Dalai Lamas. Hence, the Tibetan king derived much of his credibility from being the Buddha or at least the progeny thereof. The Buddha of compassion cares so deeply for the people that the king’s actions must be for their benefit.

Avalokitesvara also held the place of honor that any Buddha would have in China. Yet, he was only one of many Buddhas who favored the Chinese. Over time, the Chinese transformed Avalokitesvara into Guanyin, a female figure.133 There is no indication that this was done deliberately to slander the Tibetans, yet the transformation occurs during the most competitive years between them. More likely, the development of her female characteristics reflects the Taoist influence of complementary properties (wu-hsiang). Still, this religious modification probably mirrored how the Chinese viewed the Tibetans – as the yin to the Chinese yang.

Guanyin would be a very popular figure in China, specializing in compassion just as the male counterpart in Tibet. Yet, Guanyin remained but one of many Buddhas in Chinese lore.

The linkage between Buddhist credibility and the king’s right to rule varied considerably between the two political units. While kings in Tibet were seen as the Buddha, Chinese Emperors were seen as surrogates of Heaven. Chinese rulers were not divine, but they had been chosen by the divine. This distinction stayed with the Chinese rulers whether Buddhism, Taoism, or Confucianism was ascendant. The idea of the Mandate of Heaven was displaced into both Buddhism and Taoism. As a representative chosen by the Buddha, the Immortals, or Heaven, respectively, the Emperor could be seen as credibly looking after the best interests of the people. Perhaps the one exception to this would be the T’ang claim that they were descendents of Lao-Tzu.


The Transformation of China’s Source of Transcendent Credibility

From the days of the T’ang dynasty’s first emperor, Kao-tsu, the T’ang rulers attempted to replace the hybridized Buddhism inherited from the Sui with a hybridized Taoism. As has been mentioned earlier, over centuries the doctrines of Taoism andChinese Buddhism had begun to mirror each other.134 Yet, there were two essential differences important to the T’ang rulers. First, the network of Buddhist temples was far larger than that of the Taoists. Buddhism was an economic drain on the Emperor. Buddhist temples controlled large tracts of land and the peasants that worked on them. Their clergy and workforce were exempt from corvee labor and public service in the bureaucracy. The economic situation of Kao-tsu resembled that of late Medieval European kings vis-à-vis the church and monasteries. In 624, Kao-tsu was encouraged by his advisors, especially the court astrologer Fu I, to rid China of Buddhism.135

Torn between the obvious economic benefits and the unpopularity of such a move, Kao-tsu waited until 626 before issuing an edict that limited the number of Buddhist temples. In three months, Kao-tsu’s son, Li Shih-min held a bloodless coup in which he killed his brothers, retired his father, and reinstated Buddhism. It is unclear if Li Shih-min’s actions were motivated by personal piety, but clearly his move won him the affection and support of the Buddhist clergy and faithful throughout China. Li Shih-min, who became Emperor T’ai-tsung, would use his strong bargaining position with the Buddhist clergy to hybridize the Chinese version further.136

The second important difference between Buddhism and Taoism for the T’ang rulers was that Buddhism originated in India and was thus foreign, while Taoism was a Chinese product. Taoism had been gaining in popularity throughout China. T’aitsung continuously pointed out that Buddhism was a foreign religion, while Taoism was Chinese through and through. This shift was, at least in part, a response to the rising Buddhist power to the West, the Tibetans. By 646, as Tibet had extended its border to touch that of China, T’ai-tsung denounced Buddhism as a vulgar faith that misled Emperors and people. However, unlike his father, T’ai-tsung gradually and effectively shifted the basis for his legitimacy from Buddhism to Taoism. Taoist priests gained the access to the royal court that the Buddhist clergy had once had. Additionally, the royal historians claimed that the Li family direct descended from Lao-Tzu, father of Taoism.137

From this point on, the T’ang dynasty drew its legitimacy predominantly from a blend of Taoism and Confucianism.138 Buddhism was not eradicated; however, its development had to conform with the central doctrines of Taoism and, as a result, it became uniquely “Chinese.” Chinese Buddhist doctrines looked very different from those of India and Tibet. This change in Buddhism was not inordinately difficult as Buddhism in China had already begun to develop differently than in the West.139 T’aitsung favored Taoism because it was a native religion and because it was less of an economic drain.140 For the peasants, however, the difference was not too noticeable. Finally, the change happened so gradually that the Buddhist clergy, who may have been able to stop the switch early in T’ai-tsung’s reign, were powerless to respond. Because Confucianism and Buddhism resembled Taoism in terms of fundamental practices and vocabulary, the Emperors did not eschew these. These systems pointed back to Taoism, which in turn supported the legitimacy of the T’ang Dynasty. Arguably, the T’ang rulers went through brief periods of suppressing Buddhism, yet in every case there is evidence that the purpose of these more harsh measures was designed not to eradicate Buddhism, but to give the government more leverage over it. Often, harsh measures applied to Buddhist clergy were simultaneously applied to the more favored Taoist temples. Because Buddhism in China so closely resembled Taoism, the fear was not that it offered an alternate source of legitimacy, but that it, along with the Taoists, siphoned too many resources in terms of money and manpower away from the government. Even this was acceptable provided civil officials supervised.141 For most of the history of the T’ang, Taoist and Buddhist clergy presided over important government ceremonies.

There was one exception to this. Under Empress Wu (684-705), the balance ofpower briefly shifted to Buddhism. There are several reasons for this. First, she was attempting to legitimize her authority after she had essentially usurped power from her husband and children. She was not descended from Lao-Tzu as the T’ang claimed, thus Taoism was a constant reminder that she was a usurper (and a female one at that). She found an answer for bolstering her legitimacy in The Great Cloud Sutra (Ta-yunching), chapters four and six.142 In this Sutra, the Buddha informs a female divinity named Ching-kuang that, because of her conversation with him, she would be reincarnated as a universal monarch about 700 years after the Buddha achieved Nirvana. This text was copied and distributed throughout China by the Empress, with accompanying text implying that she was that reincarnated divinity. However, some scholars point out a second reason for her favoritism of Buddhism: her lover for the early part of her reign was a Buddhist monk.143 These historians point out that when this monk fell out of favor and she had him killed, she immediately shifted to favoring Confucianism, again because her new lover was her Confucian physician. It is difficult to say whether these theories are valid or if they are the product of misogynistic history-writing; however, it is certain that she did not stick with Buddhism very long. Thus, during a brief ten years of her reign, most of which was spent consolidating her rule, her method of linking credibility to a transcendent source very much resembled that in Tibet. However, the experiment was short-lived (and unsuccessful). Her successors restored the balance between the two similar religions, with favor falling heavier on Taoism. At the Council of Lhasa, held in the famous Tibetan monastery of Samye in 742, the Tibetan king summoned representatives from India and from China to debate which form of Buddhism was superior.144 The debate centered on whether enlightenment is instantaneous, the Chinese position, or gradual, the Indian view. In truth, the Indian side was also the Tibetan side. For a variety of reasons, Tibet had always allowed Indian views to have far more influence in their land than Chinese views. Hence, the outcome of the Council was decided before it started. However, as a result of this debate, the Tibetan ruler could justify a complete exclusion of Buddhist doctrines from the East. Rumor even spread that, after suffering such a humiliating defeat, the Chinese representative had the Indian representative assassinated. This provided the Tibetan king with further reasons to shut down the flow of ideas from China.


Comparison of Sources of Transcendent Credibility in Tibet and China

Thus, there were two very different sources of transcendent credibility in China and Tibet. First, the Buddhisms practiced in the two regions differed dramatically. While Tibet primarily focused on one Buddha, the Chinese followed a host of Buddhas relatively equally (The Buddha, Siddartha Guatama, being the exception, especially among those who believed he was actually Lao-Tzu). Further, depended heavily on more recent manifestations of Indian Buddhism combined with the native practices of Bon. Second, on many occasions in their rivalry China did not rely on Buddhism, but a Taoism that was very similar to Chinese Buddhism. Third, mthe link between the source of transcendent credibility and the ruler differed in the two regions. In Tibet, the king was an incarnation of Avalokitesvara or his direct progeny. In China, the emperor’s credibility depended on his role as an earthly representative of the transcendent source, whatever that source may be.

Increase in the Distinctiveness of Boundary between Tibet and China Although strong military threats had existed along this Chinese frontier prior to the arrival of Tibet and its alternative source of transcendent credibility, a distinctive border did not exist. Once this new source of transcendent credibility arrived, so too did a very distinct border between the Chinese Empire and the area ruled by the Tibetans.145 This border was well-demarcated, heavily defended, and fairly stable for long periods of time despite continuous skirmishes back and forth. In the 670s, the Tibetans expanded into areas dominated by Chinese allies and created the outlines of the border that was to exist for roughly ninety years. This period of the T’ang-Tibet rivalry can be divided into two parts, with the dividing line being the An Lu-shan rebellion in China from 756 to 763. In the first Chinese Buddhism had been transformed from its Indian counterpart, fusing many aspects of its practice closer to Taoism and Confucianism. In Tibet, Buddhism part, from 670 to 756, it is roughly possible to say that Tibet controlled the highlands and China controlled the lowlands. China controlled the Chinese plain and the Tarim Basin, along with the narrow Gansu corridor that runs between the Gobi Desert to the North and the Qilan Mountains to the South. The Gansu Corridor was the route from the heart of China to the Tarim Basin and the trade routes that passed through these to the West. Tibet, for its part, controlled the mountainous territory south of the Tarim Basin and the Tibetan plateau itself. In the 670s, it captured the Kokonor region from the T’u-yu-hun, Chinese allies. This region contained the headwaters of the Huang He River and literally overlooked the Gansu corridor and the city of Lanchow. Lanchow may be thought of as the gateway to the Gansu corridor, and thus held immense strategic importance to China. Likewise, Lanchow was the last bastion of defense between Tibet and the Chinese capital city of Ch’ang-an. At huge costs, China was able to fortify a line of defense up into the mountains, but not penetrating very far.

Hence, the border between the two political units was in the highlands, but just barely. In addition to the Kokonor region, Tibet also captured the Szechwan region. This is the mountainous area that, in effect, surrounds the Chongqing Basin and holds the upper stretches of the Yellow River. It overlooked Chinese trade routes to Southeast Asia (modern-day Myanmar). In short, Chinese authority was strongest along the trade routes and in the China plain. The border reflected this. In 763, when the An Lu-shan rebellion ended, China had been forced to withdraw all of its troops from the Tarim Basin and the Tibetan border to finally quell the revolt. China and its army was incredibly weakened. Into this vacuum stepped the Tibetans who quickly swooped into the Tarim Basin and the Gansu corridor. The new border with China was much more strategically efficient as it reduced the length of contiguous territory. Now Tibet occupied Lanchow, but recognized that holding these new territories was very different as the Chinese in this area did not appreciate the Tibetan claims to divine authority. Thus, military force was required to maintain these new prizes, which meant Tibet’s ability to exploit China’s internal weakness was limited. Thus, a new border was established between the two units that excluded Gansu from Chinese rule. A stalemate was reached with the Tibetans only after the T’ang Emperors invited the nomadic peoples of the North, especially the Uighurs, to come into China to help hold off the Tibetans. While they were fairly successful in this venture, the remedy proved worse than the disease as the Uighurs moved in and almost ended the T’ang Dynasty.

That the Chinese were committed to defending their boundaries, even those thousands of miles from the center, is without question. The Tarim Basin is a good example of this. Since roughly 600, when the reunified Chinese Empire attempted to recapture the borders of the Han Dynasty, the Tarim Basin and the trade routes were high priorities. The Chinese established the An-his Protectorate over the peoples in this region and built the “Four Garrisons,” manning these with 50,000 troops. Maintaining so many troops in such a far away place that, frankly, did not have the same plentiful resources as China proper, required the simultaneous establishment of military colonies to feed these troops. Thus, many Chinese headed West to build new settlements in the Tarim Basin. The more troops that were sent, the more auxiliary citizens followed, forcing the government to provide even more commitments to protect these colonists.

Protecting the Tarim Basin also meant protecting the narrow Gansu corridor, a series of oases wedged between the heart of the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas. This corridor was vulnerable to horseback nomads from the North. The Han Dynasty had understood this and built most of the Western sections of the Great Wall as a barrier between the nomads and the Gansu corridor. However, the Gansu was also vulnerable to attacks from the mountains to the South. In 600, the inhabitants of the Kokonor region were a relatively weak nomadic people known as the T’u-yu-hun. Through diplomacy and the threat of military force, these people were cowed into an alliancemwith the Chinese, thereby allowing China to focus on the Northern raiders. However, in the 670s, the rapidly expanding Tibetans conquered the T’u-yu-hun and made the Gansu corridor vulnerable on all sides. Thus, to the high costs in money and manpower to protect the Tarim Basin was added the costs of defending a highly vulnerable strip of land from very mobile enemies to the North and South.

Finally, Tibetan expansion eliminated other allies, protectorates, and puppet states that China had along its Western boundary. The Tibetans and Chinese both formed huge armies and had various degrees of success or failure, but none substantially changed the boundary along the edge of the mountains and the China plains. After the Tibetans captured Szechwan, China made several attempts to recover it, all ending in failure. The mountainous terrain proved too much of a natural defense. Thus, recognizing its inability to push Tibet back, China opted for a defensive strategy along its Western border, building strong fortifications on the Eastern edge of the mountains and sending troops to be permanently stationed along this border. As in the Tarim, these troops required more resources than the mountainous areas could provide, so military colonies were established near the border to grow food and provide other goods for the defenders. The presence of these colonies made the defense even more important as brief in-and-out raids could diminish food supplies and thereby jeopardize the entire border. Thus, China’s defensive strategy not only created a distinctive border with Tibet, it also necessitated that the border would grow more and more distinct over time.

Whether the Tibetans could have overcome these defenses and, at least, pushed the Chinese border out of the mountains is difficult to say since court intrigues and a series of infant rulers stayed Tibet’s expansion in the late 600s. When a new Tibetan king was able to rally the Tibetans around him and launch a new invasion in the Kokonor region to push China out of the mountains, it failed. China built stronger fortifications in the area, signaling the border that they were settling into. In 710 the Tibetans and Chinese signed a treaty that recognized the border between them. This treaty also gave the Tibetans the area in Kokonor known as the Nine Bends, which is the upper stretch of the Huang He River, an enormously important strategic area that basically opened Ch’ang-an up for invasion. However, this made the peace unstable and Tibet broke the treaty and launched an invasion, which was beaten back by the Chinese. The end result was that the original border was returned to in a stalemate and the Chinese Emperor lost all trust in the word of the Tibetans.  


Chinese-Tibetan Borders from 712 to 756: The Reforms of Hsuan-tsung

It is at this time that the Chinese Emperor Hsuan-tsung (ruled from 712-756) reformed the military to reflect the permanent border.146 Before the rise of Tibet, the neighbors that posed the largest threat to the Chinese were nomadic people. With only a few exceptions, they were smaller groups who split their time between sheep herding and minor raids into China. The Chinese strategy to counter this was to ally themselves with other nomadic peoples who would protect the frontier regions and Hsuan-tsung created nine frontier areas along the Western and Northern boundaries of China. Besides the An-hsi Protectorate that has already been discussed in the Tarim Basin, three other zones abutted the Tibetans. In the Southwest, in Szechwan, the Chien-nan Zone protected the trade road from China into modern-day Myanmar. The mountainousness of the area and its relative inaccessibility for both sides meant that fewer troops were stationed here. Every accessible route from Tibet to China was fortified, but there were few such routes. The headwaters of the Yellow River lay in this region and, thus, much of the defense focused on this “roadway.” The Kokonor Region was the site of the Lung-yu Zone. This zone was the home of many troops on both sides. Strategically, the collapse of this Zone for the Chinese would have meant the loss of Szechwan, the Gansu Corridor, and even the capital Ch’ang-an. Hence, it was extremely well fortified. The third important military frontier was the Ho-hsi Zone, located in the Gansu Corridor, protecting the sole road from China to the Tarim Basin. To the North, these troops had the benefit of the Great Wall of China, but to the South, the Chinese built new fortifications in the mountains, but on the edges. The other four zones were located along the Northern boundary of China. When the Tarim Basin is included in the calculations, as China adamantly did, the border that was permanently manned and fortified was extremely long.

The Emperor appointed a military commander for each zone. These commanders controlled everything from troop movements down to food production. Civil officials often filled this role along the Northern zones, but in the zones bordering Tibet, professional soldiers commanded. In the first two decades, this system worked extraordinarily well, largely because the early commanders were loyal serve as a buffer between raiders and the Chinese people. If the raid was larger than to the Emperor. However, the system became a liability as commanders became personally powerful militarily and economically. The Emperor responded by appointing royal princes as commanders of the zones. These princes lived in the capital with the Emperor and sent deputies to take care of their duties along the border. The surest route to becoming a top official under Hsuan-tsung was to win victoriesm against the Tibetans along the border.

The costs of maintaining permanent troops in far-off places along an incredibly long border (perhaps the longest border ever) took a toll on the Chinese Empire. Flooding of the Huang He River in 726 and 727, followed ironically by severe droughts in the same region in 727 and 728, exacerbated the financial situation. Some of the Emperor’s advisors suggested a new treaty with the Tibetans that would enable the Chinese to reduce their costs. However, the Emperor remembered when the Tibetans broke a treaty in 710. Instead, he argued that a strong offense is the best defense and staged a large-scale attack in the Kokonor Region. This came to nothing and a new treaty was signed in 730. The two sides erected a stele on the border demarcated by the treaty. In 737, the Chinese attacked again, this time succeeding in changing the border through the reacquisition of the Szechwan region that had been under Tibetan control since 680. The people of this mountainous area, the Ch’iang tribes, had grown tired of the overtaxing of the Tibetans and aided the Chinese in breaking down the Tibetan defenses. However, despite back-and-forth fighting, the rest of the border stayed relatively firm. Gains on either side were made in unpopulated areas. In 755, the allies could handle, they at least provided the time for the Chinese to raise an army from the center and march to the frontier. Such a strategy proved inadequate against the Tibetans, who easily crushed these nomadic allies. Likewise, in the North and Northwest in the 710s, a new qaghan of the Turks united many of the desert tribes and led them on raids into China. The new situation required tighter control of the boundaries. The Chinese replaced frontiers manned with non-Chinese allies with fortifications and permanent Chinese troop deployments.147 Under the new arrangement, there was a clear line at which the authority of the Chinese ended and that of the Tibetans began. These spaces did not overlap, as was the case with nomadic buffers. A mutually recognized line existed, ratified in treaties and perpetuated through the reality on the ground. Tibetan king died and a temporary peace was made. Chinese ambassadors visited Lhasa and all appeared to be calm once again.


Chinese-Tibetan Borders from 756 to 80

In 756, the An Lu-shan rebellion commenced in the Northeast of China. To quell it, the Emperor withdrew the troops stationed in the Tarim Basin. Tibet moved in from the South and the Turks and Uighurs moved in from the North. It would be 1,000 years before China would control the Tarim again. The Emperor required more troops, however, because the rebellion was only gaining strength. Thus, he was forced to pull his permanent troops off of the Tibetan border. By 763, the rebellion was done, a new Emperor sat on the Dragon Throne, but the border was incredibly changed. The Gansu Corridor was no longer Chinese, Tarim was gone, and the boundary between Tibet and China was no longer in the mountains, but in the Northwestern valleys, no more than 100 miles away from Ch’ang-an. The new Emperor had very little control over the military. In 763, the Tibetans prepped for an invasion. The Tibetans were stretched extremely thin with their troops located thousands of miles from Lhasa. Whether they would have invaded given resistance is an unanswerable question. The Chinese Emperor called on his military governor in the area, P’u-ku Huai-en, to stop the invasion, but P’u-ku refused. The Tibetans marched untouched into Ch’ang-an in 763, easily capturing the capital and forcing the Emperor to flee the city for the second time in a decade. The Tibetans knew they were stretched out further than they could maintain and pulled back after only a couple weeks. The Emperor dismissed P’u-ku. P’u-ku was an Uighur who had risen through the ranks of the Chinese military. After his dismissal, he fled to the Tibetans and led them in a new invasion the following year. In 765, he managed to create an alliance between the Tibetans and the Uighurs and invaded again, an invasion that failed only because P’u-ku got sick and died, causing the alliance to fall apart.

The Chinese did not man the new border with Tibet as well as it had in the early part of the 8th century, largely because it was still recovering from the rebellion and because it became widely understood that Tibet had reached its limits of expansion.148 Yet, for the next fifteen years, Tibet raided at will into Chinese territory and heaped enormous costs both financially and psychologically on the T’ang Emperors.149 In 783, a treaty was signed between the two, again recognizing amdemarcated border between them. In this treaty, the Chinese formally recognized Tibetan rule in the lands that had been China’s before the An Lu-shan rebellion. This border remained fairly stable until 805. Of course, this twenty-five year period was full of attack and counter-attack between the Tibetans and Chinese, but it was mostly the allies of the Chinese, especially the Uighurs, who suffered. In 800, however, China teamed up with one of Tibet’s former vassal states, Nan-chao, and struck hard into the heart of Tibet. The strong anti-Chinese Tibetan king had recently died and the new ruler lacked the ability to stop the invasion. By 805, the Tibetans were forced to pull back their troops from their extended positions and reach a truce with the Chinese. Without question, there was a correlation between the rise of a new source of transcendent credibility in Tibet, backed with military power, and the transformation of the Western Chinese boundary from one of frontiers and buffer tribes to a sharply demarcated distinctive border. Military capability alone is not an adequate explanation, as similar measures were not taken against the Turks in the North in the late seventh century, who had adopted the Chinese source of transcendent credibility.150 The Tibetans represented a qualitatively different threat, combining a new linkage between Buddhist beliefs and the legitimacy of the ruler to a large military capability. The perceived threat generated with the introduction of this alternate source of transcendent credibility compelled the T’ang rulers to respond with enormous investment of resources in creating a relatively distinct border along their western border with Tibet.


Conclusion P.2

These two episodes from Sui and T’ang China, the reunification of Northern and Southern China and the relationship between China and Tibet in the seventh and eighth centuries, demonstrate that the hypothesis can transcend cultural, geographical, and temporal boundaries. In both cases, the number of sources of transcendent credibility in the system determined the distinctiveness of the boundaries between political units. In the first case, the distinct border between Northern and Southern China was eliminated only after the Sui Emperors pursued policies specifically intended to reduce the number of sources of transcendent credibility in northern and southern China to one. In the second case presented, the East Asian regional system  witnessed the appearance of an alternate source of transcendent credibility in Tibet, backed with sufficient military capability, which induced the T’ang rulers in China to invest heavily in the creation and perpetuation of a distinct border between the two political units.



101 There are few English language sources on the Sui and T’ang Dynasties. The bulk of the historical narrative found in this part is drawn from Denis Twitchett and John K Fairbank, eds. (1979), The Cambridge History of China: Volume III: Sui and T’ang China, 589-906, Part I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) [indicated in the footnotes as “CHC”] and Charles Benn (2002), China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 1-44. Other important English-language scholars on the Sui and the T’ang mostly predate the 1979 Cambridge History, and are thus included: Arthur F Wright, Woodbridge Bingham, Charles P Fitzgerald, Howard J Weschler, Antonio Forte, and Edwin G Pulley-Blank. The same is true for the history of Tibet during the seventh and eighth centuries. Modern English-language sources are concerned primarily with Tibet as it related to the Chinese dynasties or as it relates to the current drive for Tibetan independence. Unfortunately, therefore, the historical narrative on the Chinese-Tibetan rivalry necessarily is primarily from the Chinese point of view.

102 China historian Arthur Wright has labeled this set of Buddhist practices used to directly support the Sui and T’ang dynasties as “Imperial Buddhism,” Wright (1959), Buddhism in Chinese History (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

103 “Buddhism had added an extra dimension to the Tang heritage from the Han [Confucianism].” John King Fairbank (1992), China: A New History (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press): 78.

104 On the discussion of whether Confucianism is a religion, see Xinzhong Yao, An Introduction to Confucianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

105 On the use of the “Mandate of Heaven” in the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, see KC Chang, Art, Myth, and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983): 33-35.

106 CHC 72.

107 CHC 74. One of the most important places where common ground was found between Buddhism and Confucianism was in their emphasis of moral behavior, Eric Zurcher (1959), The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China (Ledien: Brill).

108 The following is indicative of what Wen-ti appreciated in the Classic of Filial Piety: “Filiality begins with service to parents, continues in service to the ruler, and ends with establishing oneself in the world,” Wm Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, eds. (1999), Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press): 326.

109 Yao, 141-152.

110 Confucius, Analects, 11.11.

111 CHC 76.

112 De Bary, “Commentary on the Sutra for Humane Kings,” 476-480.

113 “Cakravartin” and “Sri Yantra,” in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, John Bowker, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

114 De Bary, 77-111, 392-414.

115 During the Han dynasty, official Confucianism adopted many Taoist concepts in The Discourses in the White Tiger Hall written by the historian Ban Gu (32-92 AD), which reportedly recorded discussions on Confucian ideas held at the court of the Han Emperor Zhang. De Bary, 344-347.

116 Whalen Lai (2003), “Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey,” in Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy, Antonio S Lua, ed. (Routledge): 7-19 [9-10]; DeBary, 426-29.

117 In particular, the constant invasion and occupations of Turkish peoples from the north and northwest that the northern portion of China had been exposed to for centuries.

118 Kenneth KS Ch’en, Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964).

119 CHC 5.

120 CHC 110.

121 CHC 112.

122 CHC 113.

123 DeBary 444.

124 CHC 132-33. Before his ill-fated invasion of Korea, Yang-ti also performed three ancient Confucian sacrifices traditionally done by a ruler before beginning a military campaign. CHC 133.

125 The Ch’en boundary with the Northern Ch’i lay primarily along the Huai River, which was a relatively flat plain. Thus, this boundary was more susceptible to invasion than that of the Northern Chou, who would need to cross the Qianling Mountains and float an armada down the fortified Yangtze River.

126 The Qianling Mountain range.

127 Except to protect the flow of goods and people along it.

128 For more here, consult Part I, chapter 7, entitled, “The Descent of the Tibetan Race from a Monkey and a Rock-Ogress,” Gyaltsen, The Clear Mirror: 75-79.

129 Sakyapa Sonam Gyaltsen, The Clear Mirror: A Traditional Account of Tibet’s Golden Age, McComas Taylor and Lama Choedak Yuthok, trans. (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1996).

130 Hugh Richardson (1984), Tibet and Its History; Charles Bell (1968), Tibet, Past and Present.

131 “The culture [of Tibet] was one totally alien to the Chinese…. During the eighth century Tibet was culturally united by a native culture using a native script derived from an Indian model, and with cultural ties far stronger with Nepal and India than with the Chinese. It remained little influenced by China until our times.” CHC 36.

132 “Avalokitesvara,” in A Dictionary of World Mythology, Edward Cotterell, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

133 “Guanyin,” in A Dictionary of Asian Mythology, David Leeming, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

134 When Buddhism first arrived in China in the first century AD, translators used Taoist terms to describe Buddhist concepts. For example, the Buddha achieving enlightenment was said to have “obtained the Tao.” The Buddhist saints were translated to Taoist chen-jen, or perfected immortals. In addition, Taoists were open to Buddhist ideas. Lao-tzu was said to have disappeared to the West and became the Buddha. Thus, to Taoists, Buddhism was just a lesser form of Taoism – it was said that Lao-tzu had to dumb down his teachings for the foreign audience in India. Thus, between the Han and T’ang dynasties, Buddhism in China “Taoicized” itself to be more compatible to local conditions and Taoism looked at Buddhism as more teachings of Lao-tzu, although inferior. The average person in China would not have been clear about doctrinal distinctions between the two by the time of Chinese reunification. The practices were different and the clergy were separate, but Buddhism and Taoism appeared to be two sides of the same coin. The most popular form of Buddhism in China from the 7th century on was Ch’an, a synthesis of Buddhist and Taoist ideas. Ch’an Buddhism, unlike Western Buddhism, pursued illumination in a single lifetime, rather than at the end of a series of reincarnations.  This syncretism removed the largest doctrinal distinction between Buddhism and Taoism. “Taoism,” in Encyclopedia Britannica Macropedia Knowledge in Depth, Vol 28, Philip W Goetz, ed., 15th edition (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1989): 394-407; de Bary (1999), Sources of Chinese Tradition.

135 CHC 180.

136 CHC 217-219.

137 Benn (2002), China’s Golden Age, 60.

138 Taoism had been adapting its core teachings to complement Confucianism since the latter’s ascendancy during the Han Dynasty. See de Bary, “Learning of the Mysterious,” 377-391.

139 Ch’en, Buddhism in China, 1964.

140 It was less of an economic drain primarily because there were more Buddhist monks and monasteries than Taoist monks and monasteries.

141 Ch’en (1964), Buddhism in China, 214.

142 There were many questions at the time whether the Great Cloud Sutra (known in India as the Mahamegha Sutra) was a real sutra “discovered” by Empress Wu’s lover or whether he wrote it himself to legitimate the Empress, CHC 305; Antonio Forte (1977), Political Propaganda and Ideology in China at the End of the Seventh Century.

143 Ch’en (1964), Buddhism in China: 220-222; CHC, 256-265.

144 “Council of Lhasa,” in A Dictionary of Buddhism, Damien Keown, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

145 “Until the seventh century, although Ch’iang tribesmen had created havoc during the Later Han, and later he T’u-yu-hun people living around Lake Kokonor had threatened what is now western [Gansu], the western frontier had never been of crucial strategic importance to the Chinese…. During the seventh century this situation was transformed. Tibet suddenly grew into a powerful united kingdom and embarked on a career of aggressive expansion…. From this time onwards the Tibetans constantly threatened the Chinese both in the [Gansu] corridor and in the region around Lan-chou, in which regions the T’ang was forced to maintain huge permanent armies.” CHC 35-36.

146 CHC 362-370.

147 Prior to the rise of Tibet, the Chinese military depended on local militia, known as fubing, made up essentially of the farmers of a particular area. This method was a relatively cheap way to provide adequate frontier defense against nomadic peoples. This system was no longer sufficient by the eighth century, first and foremost because, although farmers may be able to muster and defend wide frontiers, they could not be permanently deployed along the more distinct boundaries the Tibetan threat demanded. Under Hsuan-tsung, “the fubing militia had been made gradually into a professional fighting force grouped in nine commands, mainly on the frontiers under generals with wide powers to repel attacks.” Fairbank (1992), 82.

148 During the An-Lushan Rebellion, “it was decided to withdraw the entire military establishment of permanent armies from the north-west [the Tarim Basin], leaving only such small garrisons as were needed to maintain order locally…. In the long term the removal of the huge garrisons around Ho-hsi and Lung-yu left the north-west and the Chinese dominions in central Asia at the mercy of the Tibetans and the Uighurs, and marked the end of Chinese control over the Tarim and Zungharia for almost a millennium.” CHC 457. Tibet’s inability to consolidate these latest expansions was evident from its inability to hold newly invaded territory for a substantial period of time. After capturing Chang-an with almost no opposition and little external duress from the Chinese forces, the Tibetans were forced to withdraw after only two weeks. They were “in no position either militarily and politically to hold the capital.” CHC 491.

149 During the 760s, “the Tibetans attacked the frontier every autumn,” but the subsequently withdrew. These raids “severely hampered the [Chinese] government in its efforts to restore central control over various regional centers of authority in the interior of China.” CHC 491. The Tibetan inability to permanently advance further into Chinese territory and the Chinese inability to defend against both the sporadic raids and enemies to the north-east produced a détente during the late 770s and a formal treaty in 783. CHC 501.

150 CHC 181-182, 219-35, 286-287.


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