Tibetan Buddhism in China

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The following is an offshoot of the main article on the status of Tibet

Tibetan Buddhism in China

The Princess Bride

On a cliff at the eastern entrance to the Leba Valley of Yushu Tibetan Prefecture, part of China's north-western Qinghai province, are a number of line carvings that have been there for more than 1, 300 years.

They include the figure of a lady dressed in typical Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) royal garb, a man in ancient noble Tibetan attire and the image of a buddha.  There are also some  bodhisattvas and a few maids

Su Bai, an expert in Tang Dynasty grotto art, an archaeology professor with Beijing University, dated the carvings to the mid-7th century, when Buddhism was first introduced to Tibet and then became prevalent during the reign of Songtsen Gampo.  In fact, the local Tibetans say that they are the legacy left by the attendants of Princess Wen Cheng, who accompanied her when she, in 641, left to marry that Tibetan king.

Starting in 634, he twice sent envoys to Chang'an, the Tang capital that is today's Xi'an in Shaanxi Province, proposing a marital alliance.  Finally, Li Shimin, the second Tang emperor, agreed.

We know that the princess bride and her party took the route west from Chang'an to Xining in today's Qinghai Province, and then turned south at Sun-Moon Mountain that marks the border between the agricultural and pastoral areas.  Then, further south, the princess and her entourage cut through three vast barren deserts known as takla.

Legend has it that the Tibetan king came all the way from Lhasa to meet his fiancee near the source of the Yellow River, north of Yushu at lakes Zhaling and E'ling. 

After an arduous journey up the Bayan Har Mountains that rise 5, 200 metres above sea level, they crossed the Yangtze at Tongtian ("way to heaven"), the river's upper reach to get to the lush Leba Valley.  Here, the princess was so overwhelmed by the natural beauty that they spent a month there.

It is said that, in gratitude to the Buddha, Wen Cheng then had the figures carved into the cliff.  The three-metre high figure of the robed Buddha is wholly encircled by a nimbus.  The royal couple facing the Buddha, is depicted at half the Buddha's height.  Each holds an offering: the man a lidded bowl, and the woman, a flower. After more than 13 centuries, their expressions are still visible.

Wen Cheng is said to have brought some cereal seeds with her, and also showed the local inhabitants techniques for growing vegetables and for milling flour.  It is also said that she left her footprints on the cliffs and people would come to worship them.  20 kilometres away, at the valley's western entrance, is a small shrine named for the princess that lends support to the legend. 

Along the valley are rocks engraved with Buddhist inscriptions in Tibetan that were left by later pilgrims.

The royal party reached the Batang Grasslands before entering Tibet proper via Changdu.

In 710, thirty years after Wenchen's death in Lhasa, the Chinese-Tibetan alliance was renewed when Jincheng, another Tang princess, was sent to Lhasa at the request of the Tibetan monarch.  Her company followed the same route, and it is believed that the Wencheng Temple was built at her request.  Carved on cliffs behind the building are other  Buddhist scriptures, these in both Chinese and ancient Tibetan, but not many characters remain discernible.

~ China Daily (Xiong Lei) Mar. 5/02 

Significance of This Type of Marital Alliance

It is remarkable in these times, when China maintains that Tibet was never a power of any importance, that open discussion and mention is made in Chinese media of the Songtsen Gampo - Wen Cheng alliance.  It is a historical and political fact that highborn ladies were offered to the rulers of other nations only in an attempt to cement political and military alliances.  And such women were married off only to princes of higher status for, in that region, it was the man's prerogative to choose. 

Also, we know that the alliance was at the "request" of the Tibetan king.  Furthermore, although the Tang emperor was, at first, loathe to accommodate the request, finally he was moved to comply. 

In other words, desirous of friendly relations with a powerful neighbour, the Chinese  emperor was somehow persuaded of the wisdom in marrying off an imperial daughter to the ruler of Tibet; not the other way around.   Therefore, the marriage of Wen Chen to King Songtsen Gampo demonstrates a move on the part of the Chinese to placate and forge a tie with the powerful, independent neighbour that was Tibet.   

And we should not overlook the fact that Wen-cheng was not the Tibetan ruler's principal queen.  He had already espoused Belsa of Nepal, and was yet to marry 3 other women.  All three were high-born Tibetans, the last of whom bore him a son.

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