Indiana University Bloomington
Choose which site to search

Book Review: A History of the Tibetan Empire

A History of the Tibetan Empire: Drawn from the Dunhuang Manuscripts
By Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang; translated by Meghan Howard and Tsultrim Nakchu. Dehra Dun: Songtsen Library, 2011. 651 pp.

Reviewed by Eric Fry-Miller, Indiana University

The publication of A History of the Tibetan Empire is a clear advancement in the study of the Tibetan empire and has wide-ranging implications for the broader historical study of central Eurasia. The book was originally published in Tibetan in 2010 as Bod btsan po’i rgyal rabs: Tun hong bod kyi yig rnying las byung ba and was edited by Tashi Tsering. The present volume is a bilingual version that contains an English translation of the original Tibetan along with many supporting materials in Tibetan.

The book opens with forewords by Heather Stoddard and Tsughito Takeuchi, which are followed by an essential introduction by the translator, Meghan Howard. The author’s own introduction comes next, where one finds an introduction to the material, a brief history of Dunhuang, a useful overview on Tibetan scholarship on the Tibetan Empire that has used the Dunhuang manuscripts, and a methodological explanation of how the book was compiled.

The main sources used for this work were drawn from manuscripts found in the library cave of Dunhuang, which was likely sealed up near the beginning of the 11th century, only to be rediscovered by Wang Yuanlu at the beginning of the 20th century. The original texts were removed from the cave in the early 20th century by Aurel Stein from Britain, Paul Pelliot from France, and others, and taken to libraries throughout the world. It is only in recent years, however, that many of the manuscripts are being made available to the international scholastic community. A History of the Tibetan Empire is based in large part on a series of manuscripts that have become known as the Old Tibetan Annals and the Old Tibetan Chronicles.  These materials that are currently housed in the Stein collection of the British Library and the Pelliot Tibetan Collection of Bibliotèque nationale. A number of other Tibetan manuscripts from the library cave were also used in this work’s development, along with later Tibetan documents like the lde’u chos ‘byung attributed to De’u Jose (11th century) and the nyang ral chos ‘byung that has been attributed to Nyangral Nyima Ozer (12th century). Chinese sources like the Tang Annals (Tang shu) were also consulted.

In the translated volume many key passages from source texts are directly reproduced in very clear color photos at the end of each chapter. An immensely helpful annotated transliteration of these original documents by Drikung Chetsang is also included in the book, as well as English translations of a modernized Tibetan interpretation of these key passages. (For both the annotated Tibetan transliterations of the original manuscripts along with their modernized Tibetan renderings, one must consult the Tibetan version of this book.)

The book is divided into fifteen chapters. It starts by placing the Tibetan people within the scope of human history writ large, and continues with an overview of the historical periods of the ten overlords (3000-1700 BCE), eighteen kings of Zhangzhung (1700-1100 BCE), and the scattered kingdoms (1100-390 BCE). The book then continues with Nyathri Tsenpo, the first of the forty-three Pugyal Emperors (bstan po) of Tibet, who are claimed in this worked to have ruled from 390 BCE to 842 CE. In the following chapters Drikung Chetsang draws on a wide range of documents, many from the Dunhuang manuscripts, to piece together the history of these Tibetan emperors. This discussion includes the utilization of many sources that, to the best of my knowledge, have not been widely mentioned in previous English-language publications. Drikung Chetsang also challenges a number of previously held assumptions about the dates, locations, and terminologies used in these ancient texts. Throughout the book there are many pictures of artifacts, photographs, paintings, maps, and helpful charts of the Pugyal emperors and their ministers.

The book concludes with a number of extremely useful bibliographies. There is a Tibetan-language bibliography of articles related to Tibet’s imperial period by Tashi Tsering, a bibliography of publications covering Tibet’s imperial period in western languages compiled by Emanuela Garatti and Thomas Keribuel, a Chinese-language bibliography of articles on the same period, and a list of references used in the compilation and translation of this book.

While this book will be particularly valuable for those with an interest in early Tibetan history and generally curious for those interested in the dynamic interactions that the Tibetan people have had with their surrounding neighbors throughout central Eurasia, there are a number of caveats that must be taken into consideration. First, the early dates and histories provided in this work, especially those related to people and events occurring before the end of the 6th century, can not be taken as literal historical fact. Drikung Chetsang himself mentions in his conclusion that the “Rise of the Empire more properly began with Namri Songtsen,” who may have ruled Tibet from the end of the 6th century through the first part of the 7th.  TIbetan histories have generally agreed that a formal Tibetan system of writing only developed in the 7th century, and it is thus difficult to regard as historically accurate stories earlier figures or events.  Secondly, the present volume at times presents the history of Tibet from the perspectives of later Buddhist and Bön texts, mentioning events like the Samye debate, figures like Padmasambhava, and elements of the the Bön spiritual tradition that were surely embellished, if not entirely fabricated, well after the times in which they were said to have existed. Nevertheless, the expert historian is likely well aware of these quibbles and should not have too much difficulty navigating through the discussions contained in this book, especially since the sources for most of the materials are clearly labeled. It would have been quite valuable to have a detailed page index with which to pilot through this thick volume, but the clear and detailed table of contents is at least a start. It should also be mentioned that due to a printing error, a few of the pages of annotated Tibetan transliterations in chapters four and six were not printed entirely properly. An erratum to cover these few pages is apparently in the works and will be included with latter editions of the book.

These minor points notwithstanding, the overall value of this book in furthering the study of Tibetan history ought not to be underestimated: it is an essential reference work for anyone researching the imperial period in Tibetan history. The English translation of the original makes it immediately accessible to a wide, non-Tibetan speaking audience. The presence in the work of skillfully annotated Tibetan transliterations of the Dunhuang texts, including the Old Tibetan Annals, Old Tibetan Chronicles, and a number of others, will surely provide scholars with a clearer understanding of their contents. While one may not fully agree with all of the theories on Tibetan history that are presented in this volume, they do remain an important reflection of essential native Tibetan scholarship on the subject that undoubtedly can no longer be overlooked. Indeed, this volume is part of a growing testament to the excellence shown by contemporary native Tibetan scholars in understanding and weaving together a variety of complex primary sources into a single useful narrative. This volume is a Tibetan’s history of the Tibetan Empire more than anything else: a merging of elements from classical legends (which have important historical value in themselves) together with a historical understanding arrived at through a unique style of textual criticism. As such, it is essential to recognize that even though such a text might not meet high academic standards for historical study (not that these are often met by anyone), it is a priceless contribution to the field of Tibetan studies that should not be ignored.