Category Archives: Central Asia

Qianlong Emperor’s Achievements

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 49-50:

Qianlong was enthroned in 1735 at the age of twenty-four and would rule longer than any Chinese emperor ever had, or ever would again. He presided over massive frontier wars in Central Asia and sponsored cultural projects of a scale unimaginable in the West. (At a time when there were more book titles in China than in the rest of the world combined, he oversaw the compilation of a literary encyclopedia that ran to more than thirty-six thousand volumes in length and would fill a large room.) He was an accomplished and prolific classical poet and a renowned practitioner of calligraphy, and with a firm hand for government and a taste for over-the-top displays of power and beneficence he guided the empire to its apex of prosperity.

The first Qing rulers had begun the work of carving out their empire’s borders after the conquest of Beijing from the Ming dynasty in 1644. Over generations they expanded westward into Central Asia, beyond the original heartland of the fallen Ming, assimilating new territories in the southwest and the island of Taiwan to the east. But it was not until Qianlong’s reign in the eighteenth century that the Qing Empire reached its fullest flower, largely setting the boundaries for the Chinese state that exists today. At its peak under Qianlong, the empire reached all the way from Manchuria in the northeast to the provinces of Guangxi and Yunnan in the southwest, and from Taiwan off the eastern coast deep into Central Asia with the territories of Xinjiang and Tibet in the far west. It was an empire of four and a half million square miles, larger than all of Europe put together.

When Macartney came to pay his respects, Qianlong was just turning eighty-two. He was a sturdy man with drooping eyes, slight jowls, and a long mustache. His reign had been long enough that he was the same ruler who sat on the throne at the time of James Flint, the same who had originally ordered British trade confined to Canton. By the time of the Macartney embassy, Qianlong had ruled China for nearly fifty-eight years. He was not alone in his longevity either, for his grandfather Kangxi had reigned for sixty-one years, from 1661 to 1722, the two of them forming the backbone of one of the most powerful dynasties in China’s long history.

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Charms of Exile in Dharamsala

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle p. 242:

The exile community was headquartered three hundred miles north of New Delhi in the former British resort town of McLeod Ganj, a village in upper Dharamsala developed by the British military in the mid-nineteenth century as a cantonment for troops administering the region. The British had been drawing up plans to turn it into a summer capital, when, in 1905, an earthquake devastated the town and forced their retreat to lower, firmer ground. After India’s independence, the town was left with an inventory of empty real estate—quaint colonial buildings crumbling into the hillsides. When the Dalai Lama fled to India, a shrewd merchant who ran McLeod’s general store prodded the Indian government to offer him the village as his base. It suited the needs of the Indian government to accommodate the Dalai Lama in a place that befitted his status but was comfortably out of the way so as not to irritate the Chinese government too much.

Dharamsala appealed as well to the Tibetans, who appreciated its relatively cool temperatures, mountain air, and auspicious name—“dwelling place of the dharma” in Hindi. All slopes and switchbacks with barely a horizontal surface in sight, Dharamsala didn’t much resemble Tibet, but a snow-capped spur of the Himalayas was visible in the distance. Around the Dalai Lama sprung up an entire parallel universe of Tibet, hinting of home. The Central Tibetan Administration had its own ministers and parliament, schools, museum, library, and civil service employees—even a civil service exam. (“We don’t have a country but we have bureaucracy,” a spokesman told me, apologizing for the requirement that a press pass was needed to visit a school.) Empty storefronts filled up with hotels, cafés with multilingual menus and cuisine, English-language bookstores, yoga studios, and boutiques selling copper singing bowls and prayer beads.

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Tibetan Protests, 2008

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle p. 182:

MARCH 2008 SAW protests throughout the region. Men on horseback stormed a township near Labrang Monastery. Police opened fire on protesters in at least one other town in Sichuan province, Kardze (or Ganzi in Chinese). But Ngaba’s protest was the deadliest outside Lhasa, cementing the town’s reputation as a hotbed of discontent. “There’s a saying that when there is a fire in Lhasa, the smoke rises in Ngaba,” the head of an exile association told me a few years later. Although the uprising in Lhasa was for the most part peaceful, it was marred by some nasty personal assaults that strayed far from the Dalai Lama’s teachings on nonviolence. Tibetan gangs attacked random Han Chinese civilians riding motorcycles on a main street in Lhasa and torched shops belong to Hui Muslims, the result of a long history of Buddhist-Muslim tensions in the area. At least twenty were killed, including members of one entire Hui family, burned in their shops. The facts remain unconfirmed because there has never been an opportunity for independent reporting. According to the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, which obtained some leaked autopsy reports, at least 101 Tibetans were killed by security services that opened fire on demonstrators.

Ngaba’s Tibetans more closely adhered to the nonviolent ideal. They did not vent their anger against Chinese civilians, only against the police and military. Although there was some looting, for the most part Tibetans spared Hui shops from attack—testament to the long history of congenial relations with Muslims in Ngaba. And in this deadly day of fighting, there were no reports of serious injuries sustained by Chinese in Ngaba.

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China’s New Tibet Policy, 1994

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 144-145:

Tibet policy was handled by the United Front Work Department, a Soviet-inspired organization designed to coordinate relations between the Party and outsiders, including ethnic minorities. At a meeting in 1994 known as the Third National Forum on Work in Tibet, the Party directed the United Front to rein in Tibetan religious life. “The struggle between ourselves and the Dalai clique is not a matter of religious belief nor a matter of the question of autonomy; it is a matter of securing the unity of our country and opposing splittism,” read an internal version of the statement produced at the forum. The monasteries, they claimed, were breeding grounds for activism.

The new policy criminalized many aspects of Tibetan culture and religion. In the past, Communist Party members had been prohibited from visiting temples and monasteries and keeping shrines in their homes, but now the ban was extended to all government employees. That was a large slice of the workforce in a Communist system and included teachers, bus drivers, conductors, and the millions who worked for state-owned enterprises. All monks and nuns were also targeted for what was called “patriotic education,” indoctrination sessions to foster loyalty to the Communist Party.

At first these new policies applied only to what the Chinese designated as the Tibet Autonomous Region, centered around Lhasa. As part of Sichuan province, Ngaba was still enjoying the intellectual and cultural renaissance that had begun the decade before. But by the late 1990s, the United Front decided to expand the campaign, and their first target was Kirti, as one of the largest and most influential monasteries in the region.

It started so abruptly and dramatically that monks remembered the exact date: June 15, 1998. A work team of officials from the United Front and the State Administration for Religious Affairs showed up at Kirti. They set up a long table and chairs at the entrance to the assembly hall, a long gold-peaked building raised three feet off the ground, which gave the impression of being on a stage. All of Kirti’s monks, some of them quite elderly, were directed to sit cross-legged on the pavement in front like children—a breach of etiquette that was shocking to the younger monks who had never seen anybody position themselves above their seniors in that way. They also were appalled by the way the Communist Party officials were chain-smoking. Tibetans don’t smoke as much as Han Chinese and certainly never in a monastery.

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Tibetan Monastery Schools

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle p. 143:

MONASTERY SCHOOLS ARE often criticized for their old-fashioned ways. Students are instructed by rote memorization and are disciplined with the rod when their eyes invariably droop from the tedium. Kirti, however, was more like an elite boarding school. The school, which had opened in 1994, taught math and science as well as the traditional subjects like Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan language. The Dalai Lama, frustrated by the inadequacy of his own education as a young monk, had called for Tibetan monasteries to offer a more modern curriculum. Many Tibetan writers, filmmakers, and academics were monastery-educated. Kirti itself produced notable figures such as the vice president of PEN International’s Tibetan Writers Abroad, Lobsang Chokta Trotsik, and Go Sherab Gyatso, an essayist and blogger.

The young monks engaged in a ritualized form of debating, as integral to their studies as it is among Talmudic scholars. One group of monks would be assigned to defend a thesis, and the others to challenge it—punctuating the question with a sharp clap of the hands. If one took too long to answer a question, the other monks would protest with a round of three claps, indicating disapproval. A successful defense of a thesis would be approved with a vigorous round of stomping on the pavement, the monastic equivalent of a high five. The subject itself might be existential—what is the meaning of the Buddhist dharma or the impermanence of worldly phenomena—but it was carried out with such gusto to make it exercise for the body as well as the mind. The debates took place outdoors in the large courtyard in front of the main assembly hall, where members of the public could watch. Sometimes the debates lasted until eleven P.M. Dongtuk would tumble into bed past midnight, exhausted and exhilarated. He loved it. He was one of the best debaters in his age group, which gained him status not usually afforded to a short, unathletic boy with poor eyesight.

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Tibetan Wealth in Caterpillar Fungus

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 100-101:

Tibetans also discovered a niche that was almost uniquely their own: collecting medicinal herbs. Herbs were commonly used in both Chinese and Tibetan medicine, and many of the more valuable were found on the Tibetan plateau. Beimu, an alpine lily used to treat coughs, grew at altitudes of more than 10,000 feet, and Tibetan nomads were perfectly situated to collect it.

Most lucrative was Cordyceps sinensis, a prized ingredient in traditional medicine, believed to boost immunity, stamina, and lung and kidney function. Tibetans call it yartsa gunbu, meaning “summer grass, winter worm,” or simply bu, “worm,” for short. [In Chinese, it’s 冬虫夏草 dōng chóng xià cao ‘winter worm, summer grass’.] The worm is actually a fungus that feeds on the larvae of caterpillars. In the past, the worm was commonplace enough that Tibetans would feed it to a sluggish horse or yak, but the Chinese developed a hankering for it that sent prices soaring. Chinese coaches with gold-medal ambitions would feed it to athletes; aging businessmen would eat it to enhance their sexual potency. At one point, the best-quality caterpillar fungus was worth nearly the price of gold, as much as $900 an ounce.

Tibetans had a natural monopoly on the caterpillar fungus. Non-Tibetans didn’t have the local knowledge or the lung capacity to compete. The best worm was in Golok, northwest of Ngaba. Nomadic families would bring their children with them, sometimes taking them out of school because their sharp eyesight and short stature allowed them to more easily scan the ground for the worm amid the grasses and weeds. The season ran for approximately forty days of early spring, the time when the melting snow turned the still-brown hills into a spongy carpet. The families would camp out for weeks in the mountains. In a good season, a Tibetan family could make more in this period than a Chinese factory worker could earn in a year.

The Communist Party would later brag about how their policies had boosted the Tibetan economy, but the truth was that nothing contributed as much as the caterpillar fungus, which according to one scholar accounted for as much as 40 percent of Tibetans’ cash earnings. Unlike earnings from mining and forestry, industries that came to be dominated by Chinese companies, this was cash that went directly into the pockets of Tibetans. The nomads acquired the spending power to support the new shops and cafés. The golden worm was part of a cycle of rising prosperity.

Until the 1980s, trade between the Tibetan plateau and southern China had gone only in one direction. Tibetans were eager customers for the newfangled electronics and ready-to-wear clothing stamped out by China’s new factories, but Han Chinese didn’t have much taste for Tibetan products like dairy and lamb. The medicinal herbs gave the itinerant traders something to put in their suitcases when they went on shopping trips to Shenzhen and other southern Chinese cities.

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A Sino-Tibetan Romance

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 80-81:

Nobody was more surprised than Gonpo to learn that Xiao Tu had developed romantic feelings toward her. She didn’t consider herself much of a beauty. Her dimpled cheeks and the slight gap between her front teeth gave her a girlishly cute, jolly appearance that masked her abject loneliness. Her eyebrows curved upward in perpetual question marks. Working in the fields had darkened a complexion that was already a shade too dark by Chinese standards of beauty. She didn’t feel particularly feminine either, dressed in a baggy, padded military-style uniform with two pockets across the chest and two pockets below the waist.

Xiao Tu was one of the most popular bachelors on the farm. He had a long, straight nose like a Manchu princeling and a clear complexion. Not only was he a good dancer, always the most coveted partner, he was invariably onstage doing comedy routines. He came from a family of teachers; despite the Communists’ attempt to eradicate the privileges of class, when it came to dating, education and background still mattered.

“You can have anybody you want. Why this one?” his friends asked him. “Why a Tibetan?”

Among the recognized ethnic minorities, some were so assimilated as to be virtually indistinguishable from Han Chinese, who made up 90 percent of the population. That was not the case with Tibetans. For all the Communist propaganda about harmonious relations, prejudices ran deep. Han Chinese often disparaged Tibetans as savages. Luohou, or backward, they called them, and often still do. Tibet in Chinese is called Zang, 藏, a character that literally means “storehouse” or “treasure,” but Chinese would sometimes use the homophone zang, 脏, meaning “dirty.” This was a more conservative era when intermarriage was frowned upon. In Xinjiang, which was largely Muslim, intermarriage between local Uighur women and Han men was illegal until 1979.

It wasn’t hard for Xiao Tu to answer the question of why. Gonpo stood out among the other young women who eyed him on the dance floor. She was without pretense or affect. She didn’t flirt with him; she didn’t tease him. She was utterly straightforward, and, he felt, honest in a way that others were not. She said exactly what she thought without calibrating her words to elicit some reaction from him. He trusted her completely, and she trusted him. With little of the melodrama that often accompanies young romance, the two became inseparable.

His family raised no objection. Xiao Tu’s grandmother had been a devout Buddhist before the revolution; she approved of her favorite grandson marrying a woman with core beliefs. They liked that Gonpo was a studious type. They had been quietly supporting Gonpo’s studies by sending books. As for Gonpo, she had no surviving family to object one way or another. Xiao Tu’s qualities were beyond what she had ever imagined in a partner.

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Tibetans Take the Great Leap Forward

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 43-45:

The Communist Party had identified feudalism and imperialism as the greatest evils of society. Their dilemma was how to destroy feudalism without becoming imperialists themselves; they couldn’t simply force “reforms” on the Tibetans. In order to live up to their own lofty propaganda, they needed the Tibetans to carry out reforms voluntarily, joyfully. To convince them, they dispatched young Chinese recruits, some of them still in high school, to spread the word. These young Chinese cadres lectured about the corruption of the aristocracy and the monasteries, which also had large holdings of land. Delek remembers their speeches.

“You will be your own master,” the Chinese promised poorer Tibetans. “We will topple the feudal landlords.”

“Nobody will be able to exploit you anymore.”

“Religion is superstition. You are worshipping demons.”

The mass uprising never materialized. But the pitch did appeal to those Tibetans who hoped the redistribution of wealth would improve their lot in life. Tibetans who joined forces with the Communist Party were known as jiji fenzi, which loosely translates from Chinese as “activists.” The Tibetan term was hurtsonchen—the lowest level of enforcers, the collaborators who squealed on and beat up neighbors who resisted Communist rule. As a reward, hurtsonchen were allowed to loot clothing, shoes, and household goods from their wealthier countrymen. But anything of real value went to the Party-controlled communes, which turned out to be far greedier than the worst of the feudal landlords. Tibetans of this generation refer to this period simply as ngabgay—’58. Like 9/11, it is shorthand for a catastrophe so overwhelming that words cannot express it, only the number. But there are some evocative figures of speech. Some will call it dhulok, a word that roughly translates as the “collapse of time,” or, hauntingly, “when the sky and earth changed places.”

The “Democratic Reforms” in eastern Tibet roughly coincided with the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s misguided experiment in jump-starting the Chinese economy. Like so many catastrophes, it was the result of ambition run amok. Mao was a utopian who hoped to create not just a new society, but new, improved human beings. He believed that people could transcend their individual desires for the greater good and through collective enterprise boost their living standards and the country’s output. This was to be accomplished by herding 700 million people into cooperative farms.

Even to a child as young as Delek, it was obvious that Mao’s reforms were doomed to failure. The Chinese cadres in charge of the Tibetans had no experience with herding and even less with farming at high altitudes. Most of the Chinese troops came from lower-lying regions; they didn’t realize that barley was the only grain that thrived in the plateau and that the higher altitudes couldn’t support crops at all and were better used for grazing. Giddy from Mao’s exhortations, they denied the expertise of the people who had lived off the land for generations, insisting that the Tibetans were backward. “As the Han are the bulwark of the revolution…any thinking against learning from the Han nationality and welcoming the help given by the Han nationality is completely wrong,” expounded one propagandist at the time. The nomads were made to hand over animals to the collectives that didn’t know how to keep them alive, and to farm land that would never produce crops.

The result was years of failed harvests and dead animals. Grasslands where the crops failed were now stripped bare of vegetation, exposed to the winds that swirled through the plateau spewing dust into the air. The Communist cadres didn’t understand that the Tibetan way of sustenance required both nomads and farmers; in order to obtain enough nutrition, people needed to swap their animal products for grains, and that required markets. Now the markets were closed. Buying or selling grain was forbidden. Internal travel restrictions were imposed so people could no longer barter goods with other villages. When Delek’s mother returned from Lhasa, she would saddle up a horse in the dead of night to visit a cousin in another village with whom she could trade some butter for barley to prevent her family from starving. She only dared make the trip a few times a year.

Unlike Han Chinese, Tibetans had little experience with famine—the exception being the Long March interlude of 1935 and 1936 when the Red Army decimated their food supply. In the past, Tibetans were poor, often poorly nourished because of the scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables, but they rarely went hungry.

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Tibetans Encounter the Long March

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 22-23:

The Communists were ensconced 1,200 miles away at the borders of Jiangxi and Fujian provinces, where they had formed a mini–Soviet state. When Chiang’s forces launched an attack to dislodge them in 1934, the Communists broke into three armies and escaped in a retreat that would become known as the Long March. For the Chinese Communist Party, this is an epic event, enshrined in revolutionary ballads and operas—roughly the equivalent of the exodus out of Egypt, except it was not Moses but Mao leading the Red Army to safety.

With Chiang’s army in hot pursuit, the Communists fled farther and farther west into China before turning north in Sichuan province. For Tibetans, it marked their first encounter with the Chinese Communist Party. It did not go well.

The Red Army of the 1930s was not yet the formidable fighting machine that it would later become. The Chinese soldiers were short of equipment, food, and local knowledge. The last overlords of the plateau, the Qing, were Manchus, not Han; the envoys they sent to the plateau were usually Manchus or Mongols. Many of the maps and documents were in Manchurian. The Red Army soldiers were mostly Han from the lowlands of eastern and southern China.

Idyllic though Tibet looks in those coffee table books, the habitat is brutal to the uninitiated, the weather perilously unpredictable. You can be soaked through the skin one minute, charmed the next by a magnificent double rainbow, then shriveled by ultraviolet rays of the high-altitude sun. Hailstones big as chicken eggs can kill an adult yak and occasionally humans. The oxygen-starved atmosphere leaves newcomers faint and headachy. Even Tibetans get lost in swirling blizzards and die of exposure.

The Tibetan plateau was terra incognita for the Chinese. “Where are we? Have we left China?” one bewildered young soldier asked his commanding officer as they trekked through grasslands to the east of Ngaba, this according to a book by Sun Shuyun, The Long March: The True History of China’s Founding Myth. The commanding officer admitted that he didn’t know himself. He suggested they wait until they encountered somebody who spoke Chinese. They didn’t. The most pressing concern for the Red Army was a lack of food. The Chinese soldiers started by picking crops from Tibetan fields—some of them unripe—and stealing stockpiles of grain. They captured sheep and yaks for slaughter. Many young Communists were still idealistic about helping the poor, and the memoirs reflect that they sometimes left IOUs after they looted Tibetan larders. It didn’t do much good because there was a limit to how much food could be raised. The plateau couldn’t support a large population, certainly not the thousands of newly arrived soldiers. For the first time in living memory, Tibetans experienced famine conditions.

At some point, the Chinese discovered that the Buddhist monasteries contained not only the treasures of Tibetan civilization, but potential comestibles. Drums were made of animal hides that could be eaten if boiled long enough—a technique the soldiers knew because they’d already consumed their own belts, rifle straps, leather bags, and the reins of horses. They even ate figurines that had been sculpted out of barley flour and butter, according to a memoir discovered by scholars Jianglin Li and Matthew Akester, who have extensively researched this period.

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Tibetan Origins

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 14-15:

Tibetans themselves have a fanciful origin myth with nods to both Darwinism and Buddhism. Although there are various permutations to the story, the gist is that the Tibetan people are the descendants of an ape and an ogress who mated on a cliff above a vast inland sea that once covered the Tibetan plateau. (The part about the sea is supported by geological evidence.) The ape was said to be a manifestation of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, gentle in nature, and the ogress a pitiless warrior.

These qualities would be inherited by their descendants, the Tibetan people, whose destiny would be shaped by competing strains of compassion and cruelty.

Even after the introduction of Buddhism, imported from India in the seventh century, the Tibetans were hardly pacifists. Nor were they particularly insular, contrary to the latter-day reputation of Tibet as a hermit kingdom. In an era when horsemanship was the most essential skill of war, Tibetans ranged across central Asia, sacking cities and subduing other peoples who were incorporated into the Tibetan nation. Under the great emperor Songtsen Gampo, the Tibetans built an empire that rivaled those of the Mongols, Turks, and Arabs. For a brief moment in history, fleeting but hardly forgotten, the Tibetans were even more powerful than the Chinese. In 763 the Tibetans sacked Chang’an, the Tang dynasty capital city now known as Xi’an, home of the terracotta warriors. Their occupation of the city lasted only fifteen days, but it would be long remembered by Tibetans with pride.

The Tibetan empire collapsed in the mid-ninth century and fragmented into minor principalities. It was not until 1642 that a strong, centralized Tibet was reestablished under the leadership of a succession of Dalai Lamas installed and supported by the powerful Mongols. The fifth Dalai Lama had the Potala Palace built on the ruins of the fortress of Songtsen Gampo, giving the impression of an unbroken line of succession with the past. But his Tibet was less than half the size of the former empire, with most of the formerly Tibetan lands to the east split up among various smaller kingdoms and fiefdoms, of which the Mei kingdom of Princess Gonpo’s ancestors was one of many.

Gonpo’s ancestors came originally from the western reach of the plateau, near Mount Kailash—a region called Ngari, which might account for the name Ngaba. Perhaps to enhance their legitimacy, they claimed to have migrated during the ninth century, the golden age of Tibet, as warriors under the command of the great emperors. When the Tibetan empire collapsed and receded, an official history suggests, they remained behind in the east, establishing their own fiefdom.

Ngaba was the perfect place to go rogue. It was the very embodiment of the old Chinese chestnut “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” It was more than one thousand miles from Beijing—at least a month’s journey by horseback—and nearly as far from Lhasa. By the time the Mei kingdom was firmly established in the eighteenth century, the eastern reaches of the Tibetan plateau had been annexed by the Manchus, who had conquered China and established the Qing dynasty. But the Qing emperors were stretched too thin to bother with the tiresome task of governance. They would send in the cavalry only if fighting between fractious chieftains threatened the empire. The attitude seemed to be “Let the barbarians rule themselves.” They even gave imperial seals to many of the local rulers, Gonpo’s ancestors included, confirming their authority to rule.

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