Medieval Tibet: A Tang Dynasty Chinese Description

Here is a very interesting description of medieval Tibetan life and manners from the records of the Tang Dynasty of China, most probably written before 640 AD:

  • The country has a very cold climate, oats, barley, wheat and buckwheat grow there, there are yaks, excellent horses and dogs, sheep, and pigs.
  • The capital is known as Lhasa, where there are city-walls and houses with flat roofs.
  • The king and his nobles live in felt tents which are joined together as one large one.
  • They sleep in unclean places and never wash or comb their hair.
  • For the most part people lead a pastoral life with their flocks and herds without fixed habitation.
  • They dress in felt and leather.
  • They like to paint themselves with red ochre(an earthy mineral oxide, a face paint).
  • The women plait(braid) their hair.
  • They worship the heavens and believe in sorcerers and soothsayers.
  • They do not know the seasons, and their year begins when the barley is ripe.
  • Their games are chess and dice, for music they have conch-shells(spiral shell horn) and drums.
  • They have no writing for official purposes, and they fix arrangements by means of knotted cords and notched tally-sticks.
  • They make [water] vessels by bending round a piece of wood and fitting in a leather bottom, or they make basins of felt.
  • They drink beer in their cupped hands.
  • There are hundreds of thousands of men ready to bear arms, and in order to levy troops they use a golden arrow(as a symbol of authority).
  • In order to give warning of enemy attacks they use fire and smoke signal.
  • There is a watch-post every hundred li(a Chinese unit of distance, equivalent to about half a kilometer or one third of a mile).
  • Their armor and helmets are excellent. When they put them on their whole body is covered, with holes just for the eyes.
  • Their bow and their sword never leave them.
  • They prize physical strength and despise old age.
  • A mother salutes her son, and a son has precedence over his father. When they go out and in, it is always the young men who go first and the older men afterwards.
  • Military discipline is strict. In battle it is not until the troops in front have been completely wiped out that the troops behind come up into line.
  • They prize death in battle and hate to end their lives by sickness.
  • Those families of whom several generations have died in battle are considered of highest rank.
  • But when someone is defeated in battle or runs away, they fix a fox-tail to his head to show that is cowardly like the fox. A great crowd will assemble and he is certain to be put to death.
  • According to their custom they feel great shame in this matter, and they consider that it is far better to be dead.
  • As punishment, even for a small fault, they take out the eyes, or cut off the feet or the nose.
  • They give floggings with leather whips just as they see fit and without and regulated number of lashes. For prisoners they dig down in the earth several dozens of feet, and they keep their prisoners there for two or three year.
  • The kings and five or six of his followers are bound in friendship and they are called ‘living in common’. When the king dies, they are all killed sacrificially. His garments, his treasure, the horses he has ridden, are interred, and a large chamber is made which is covered with a mound. Trees are planted there, and it is in this place that the ancestral sacrifices are performed.

Its interesting to see the differences and similarities of Tibetans from this time period from the Tibetans of later periods, after Buddhism, or even presently. I found the custom of the son having precedence over the father very interesting since I’ve never heard of this custom before and also because it something you never hear about in East Asian customs since elders are supposed to be revered and even worshiped.

Sources: Smellgrove, David & Hugh Richardson. A Cultural History of Tibet. Boulder, Colorado: Prajna Press, 1980.

Links: http://www.chinahistoryforum.com/index.php?showtopic=18197

2 thoughts on “Medieval Tibet: A Tang Dynasty Chinese Description

  1. Anonymous

    wow, truly a warrior society, quite similar to that of the Spartans. But i guess in those days, it was all about glory for almost all the chiefdoms, city states, and kingdoms. thanks you for the posting.

  2. Ann

    Thanks so much for this info. I didn’t find as much at Ucla, I’m sure I would have if I looked longer. I am doing a research presentation on a Tibetan yogi saint named milarepa and am looking for a map of Tibet showing that time period. If you can share any references or maps, I could print, I would be most gratefull. Love&light ann Parkes RN Phn msn

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