Tibet Gains Independence from Mongols Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The collapse of Mongol overlordship of Tibet led to the rebirth of Tibetan culture and political independence. The resulting secular dynasty ruled most of the Tibetan plateau for the next hundred years, when conflicts between monastic and lay leaders led to its downfall.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Mongols ruled both China and Tibet. In the former, they exercised rule through a succession of emperors of the Yuan Dynasty Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), while in Tibet, they maintained a loose overlordship through the abbots of the Sakya order Sakya order of Tibetan Buddhism Buddhism;Tibet . The head abbots of the primary monastery, Sakya, which is located in central Tibet to the west of the modern town of Shigatse, were given the title of imperial preceptor, and ruled for the Mongols through a series of lower level administrators, both clerical and secular. The nature of the Tibetan-Mongol relationship at the time is best described as one of lama-patron, which stems from the conversion to Buddhism of Godan Khan Godan Khan , a grandson of Genghis Khan and overlord of northeastern Tibet, by Sakya Pandit Sakya Pandit in 1247. In effect, he offered Tibetan loyalty for Mongol protection and control. This arrangement effectively centralized political leadership of the plateau in the hands of the Sakya order, and because the Mongols allowed the Sakya abbots great latitude, they became the de facto rulers of Tibet. [kw]Tibet Gains Independence from Mongols (1368) [kw]Mongols, Tibet Gains Independence from (1368) Mongols;Tibet and Tibet;Mongols and Tibet;1368: Tibet Gains Independence from Mongols[2900] Government and politics;1368: Tibet Gains Independence from Mongols[2900] Changchub Gyaltsen Zhu Yuanzhang Sakya Pandita

Although Sakya rule was resented by the other monastic orders and some local secular rulers, none could offer a serious challenge to them because of the strength of the lama-patron relationship during the rule of Kublai Khan Kublai Khan (r. 1279-1294) and his successor, Temür Oljeitu Temür Oljeitu (Chenzong; r. 1294-1307), the first two emperors of the Yuan Dynasty. Both had a strong interest in Tibetan Buddhism and lavished wealth on Sakya monasteries. One of the principal opponents of the Sakya was the Kagyu order Kagyu order , especially those monks from Drigung monastery. These two groups battled for prestige, economic resources, and territory, and the conflict reached its peak when, with Mongol assistance, the Sakya looted and burned Drigung in 1290. Although it was subsequently rebuilt at the behest of the victorious Sakya, the conflict only served to harden the attitudes of their rivals and led to widespread hatred of the Mongol presence in Tibet.

The death of Temür in 1307, however, marked a radical change in this relationship. Subsequent Yuan emperors were corrupt, ineffective, or uninterested in Tibet, and consequently, the Sakya lost their protection and patronage. New rivalries sprang up between the Sakya and other orders, which had sought their own Mongol patrons as the Yuan Dynasty began its decline. Corruption within the Sakya order itself, where abbots of different monasteries sought political advantage through secret alliances, bribery, and poisoning of rivals, worsened this situation.

A key figure in the eventual overthrow of Sakya dominance was Changchub Gyaltsen Changchub Gyaltsen , a former Sakya monk who began his career as a minor administrator at Sakya but who rose to prominence in 1332 as a myriarch, or governor, of one of thirteen large administrative districts under Mongol rule. He was a member of the large and influential Lang family that hailed from the Yarlung region. Despite his importance, he was persecuted, arrested, jailed, and tortured during the intrigues surrounding the Mongol decline. These experiences led him to take an active role in countering Sakya power. Through alliances with monastic rivals and secular Tibetan patrons, he eventually broke Sakya power and, in 1354, occupied Sakya itself, effectively ending its dominance. Although the Mongols remained nominal rulers of the plateau for another fourteen years, they appeared to be uninterested in supporting their Sakya allies, and in any case, Changchub Gyaltsen apparently made a strong effort to avoid provoking the Mongols to do so.

The Yuan Dynasty was finally broken in 1368 by Zhu Yuanzhang Zhu Yuanzhang , a former Buddhist monk of peasant origin who led the final revolt against the Mongols and who, as Hongwu (Hung-wu), became the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). His primary concerns were the consolidation of his power and the removal of remaining Mongol influence in China, and therefore, he took little interest in Tibet. Although Changchub Gyaltsen died in 1364, his successors were able to continue his efforts, and they formed a dynasty that ruled Tibet for a century.

Many later authors describe the reign of Changchub Gyaltsen and his initial successors as a kind of golden age in Tibet. His goal was simple: to establish an authentic Tibetan state and to rid the plateau of all foreign influence. He demanded that foreign dress and manners be abandoned at his court and took a series of Tibetan royal titles that emphasized his right to rule and his rejection of ties to foreign powers. He deliberately invoked the image of the most famous of the ancient religious (Dharma) kings of Tibet—Songtsen Gampo, Trisong Detsen, and Ralpachen—and directed his own court to mimic those of the past. He relocated the capital from Sakya to Neugong, the former seat of power of the Yarlung kings, and transformed the taxation and tribute system of the Mongols, replacing it with a series of local administrators who were responsible for the collection of local taxes, of which a one-sixth were to be delivered to the state. He also sought to better protect his frontiers and established a series of guard posts along it. Perhaps most important, he and his successors saw themselves as equals to the Ming rulers and made little or no move to establish political or diplomatic relationships with them. This did not prevent the Chinese from attempting to influence the course of political development on the plateau, however. The Ming rulers became patrons of a number of monasteries, especially those of the Karmapa order, and bestowed wealth and Chinese titles on their abbots. However, this led to no significant influence on local politics.

Aside from promoting Tibetan nationalism and urging a return to the laws and legal codes of the Dharma kings, the dynasty did not seek to transform religious belief in Tibet. The Sakya were able to continue their teachings, as were all other orders. However, one interesting development during this period was the emergence of the so-called terma, or “treasure” texts. These “re-discovered” texts were said to have been written in deep antiquity and could only emerge in a new age ready to receive them. The most famous of these texts, the “Fivefold Set of Scrolls,” documented, among other things, the glories of the ancient kings, the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet, and other clearly nationalistic themes. Lamas who discovered them were known as tertons, or “revealers of treasure.” It is obvious how these terma served the developing Tibetan state, but other texts were rediscovered by monastic orders such as the Nyingma Nyingma order , and these served as means by which they could reestablish themselves in this new age.

Into this period of broad religious tolerance was born one of the most important figures of Tibetan history, Tsongkhapa Tsongkhapa , the founder of the Gelugpa Gelugpa order monastic order, which came to dominate both political and religious life on the plateau from the mid-seventeenth century until the modern era.


The decline of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty led to a stunning rebirth of Tibetan nationalism from the mid-thirteenth century to the mid-fourteenth century. Tibet shook off foreign influence at this time, and laid a solid foundation for an indigenous centralized government. Buddhism witnessed a resurgence as well during this period, and religious tolerance was promoted. Despite the broad appeal of this new Tibetan ruling dynasty, continued factional politics eventually undermined its authority, and Tibet was soon returned to conflict and hostilities between rival groups of monasteries and secular rulers.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Amitai-Preiss, R., D. Morgan, and C. Griggs, eds. The Mongol Empire and Its Legacy. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2000. A compilation of papers on the social, economic, military, and political impact of the Mongol conquests of Eurasia, with a thorough review of major controversies in Mongol studies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Department of Information and International Relations. The Mongols and Tibet: A Historical Assessment of Relations Between the Mongol Empire and Tibet. Dharamsala, India: Central Tibetan Administration, 1996. An analysis of the historical ties between the two cultures from a strongly Tibetan perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petech, Luciano Central Tibet and the Mongols: The Yüan-Sa-skya Period of Tibetan History. Series Orientale Roma 65. Rome: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1990. A complete and thorough review and analysis of the relationship between the Mongols and the Sakya order of Tibetan Buddhism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richardson, Hugh. “The Political Role of the Four Sects in Tibetan History.” Tibetan Review 11 (1976): 18-23. An overview of how the four major sects of Tibetan Buddhism influenced political processes on the plateau with a clear description of the Mongol period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richardson, Hugh. Tibet and Its History. 2d ed. Boston: Shambhala, 1984. One of the most authoritative histories of Tibet in English, revised and expanded since its first edition in 1962. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saunders, J. J. The History of the Mongol Conquests. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1971. A comprehensive history of the Mongol empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stein, R. A. Tibetan Civilization. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1972. Useful and accessible historical overview of Tibet’s history and culture.

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