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Old Chinese Histories

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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For most of the nineteenth century, ancient Tibetan history once again receded from view. Most Tibetanist scholarship during this period replaced imperial history with contemporary concerns over Tibetan doctrines, language and landscape. Historical Tibetan studies revived after 1880, when S. W. Bushell translated part of the Old Tang Annals (Jiu Tangshu) and New Tang Annals (Xin Tangshu). He and his contemporary, William Rockhill, also openly admit that Chinese sources are only partial witness to the history of Tibet.

Interestingly, Rockhill combines the (Tibetan) religious and (Chinese) military aspects of Khri Srong lde brtsan's reign in his representation. He identifies the king with Ki-li-tsan of the Tang Annals, and further cites both Chinese and Tibetan historical sources to offer us this new view of Khri Srong lde brtsan:

He availed himself of the disturbed condition of the Chinese empire during the first years of Su-tsong's reign, and “daily encroached on the borders, and the citizens were either carried off and massacred, or wandered about to die in ditches”.This sovereign is especially celebrated for the aid and protection he afforded Buddhist missionaries, to favour whom he did not hesitate to persecute the followers of the national religion of Bon-po—a strange measure for a follower of the most tolerant creed in the world!

Like Desideri, Rockhill suggests that Buddhism was still in its infancy in eighth-century Tibet. While Desideri paints a positive human portrait of Khri Srong lde brtsan, Rockhill describes a king with blood on his hands. Moreover, he points out the inconsistency between this “real” Khri Srong lde brtsan and the Tibetan tradition's celebrated image of the Dharma-protecting king. However inconsistent this image may appear to Rockhill, he nevertheless follows it in ascribing to Khri Srong lde brtsan several Buddhist works and the oversight of a major Dharma translation project. He depicts Khri Srong lde brtsan as an overzealous but devout warrior, who helped to transform Buddhism in Tibet from obscurity into the national religion—at the point of a sword.

Waddell's book The Buddhism of Tibet or Lamaism proved far more influential on non-academic readers than Rockhill's work, due in part to its encyclopaedic style and continuing availability in low-price publications. His use of Chinese sources is evident in the brief statement of Khri Srong lde brtsan's imperial power. Nonetheless, Waddell accords with Tibetan rather than Chinese histories in glossing over the intervening monarchs

between the two major pro-Buddhist kings, Srong btsan sgam po and Khri Srong lde brtsan. The latter thus appears to follow in the former's footsteps. He also focuses on Padmasambhava throughout the rest of the chapter, reflecting the traditional emphasis of Tibetan histories, if not tradition's views on Padmasambhava's Buddhism.

However, Waddell first introduced eighth-century inscriptional evidence to the field of Tibetan Studies, which transformed the study of Khri Srong lde brtsan in the twentieth century. In 1910, he published the first of Khri Srong lde brtsan's own self-presentations. This is the pillar inscription from Zhol, near the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The publication of several more eighth-century insciptions followed over the next 40 years. Meanwhile, scholars found equally antique histories in the famous Dunhuang library cave, including the Old Tibetan Annals quoted above. Twentieth-

century Tibetologists increasingly relied on these ancient sources in order to characterise Khri Srong lde brtsan's reign. They interpreted such primary sources differently, in line with their respective theses. Waddell, for example, saw them as confirming his opinion of the greatness of Khri Srong lde brtsan's empire and his low estimation of the effect that Buddhism had on later Tibetan histories. I am more interested in the period before his discovery; how Tibetan historians “forgot” these early sources and its effect on their histories' representations of Khri Srong lde brtsan.