the Tibetan Declaration of Independence

One hundred years ago, on February 13, 1913, the 13th Dalai Lama made a proclamation stating his intention to govern Tibet as an independent country. This was an unusual declaration of independence because he did not declare that his country was to become independent — instead, he declared that Tibet had always been independent, but their special relationship with the Qing emperors had resulted in some interference from Beijing. He declared that this interference would be at an end and Tibet would be like any other independent country.

For a long time, the only English translation of this document available was by W. D. Shakabpa in his English-language book Tibet: A Political History. However, Shakabpa’s translation has been criticized as being a bit vague, and Chinese scholars such as Shi Shuo have even claimed that Shakabpa misinterpreted key points for political reasons. Thus, it was to the good that Tibetologist Derek F. Maher completed a new English translation of the declaration as part of his translation of Shakabpa’s magnum opus, One Hundred Thousand Moons. However, until now, Maher’s complete version has not been available online. For this reason, I have typed it up and I am posting it below. I hope that Professor Maher, his publisher, BRILL, and the estate of Tsepon Shakabpa will agree that publishing this document here is suitable as fair use.

I – the Dalai Lama, the protector of the three worlds, lord of all the conqueror’s teachings on the earth throughout time, the omniscient Dorjé Chang, who was prophesied as the Oceanic Lama by the Buddha from the land of India – speak to you as follows:

This should be made known to all the monks and lay people, the powerful, the weak, and those in between, and to the heads of civil and military posts, all the citizens of Tibet, this land of medicinal plants which is fringed with cook, white mountain peaks; hence, messengers should be sent to report it. As it was prophesied by our compassionate teacher from India [Buddha], from the time of the ancient religious kings up to the present time, the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara has continually come to this land of medicinal plants of the cool earth. I have taken this land as my instrument, protecting sentient beings with compassion and whatsoever methods are required to tame them.

Previously, the preceptor-patron relationship has been enjoyed since the time of the Mongolians Genghis Khan, Alten Khan, and so forth, through the series of Chinese kingdoms, the Ming Dynasty and so forth to he Manchu Dynasty, which developed a preceptor-patron relationship with the great fifth Dalai Lama. Each side would protect the other. Nevertheless, recently some Chinese functionaries in Sichuan and Yunnan, out of avarice, have ceaselessly worked to intimidate and terrorise us out of our land. Moreover, under the pretense that they were protecting the trade marts, many Chinese soldiers have reached as far as Lhasa. It is clear that within the precept-patron relationship[p between China and Tibet, there is no sense of of subordination of one to another; consequently, I left for the Indian border with my ministers, planning to conduct negotiations with Beijing by wire. Nevertheless, after we left, armed Chinese troops were dispatched to kill or capture me by any means necessary. Having no other choice, we crossed the border for the time being.

Upon arriving in India, I sent a telegram to the Chinese side. Although I recounted our situations one item after another, the emperor was relying upon corrupt minsters, and so I did not receive any sort of reply. Through the force of actions and their inevitable effects, a change in the unstable Manchu Empire became unavoidable. All exalted or humble Tibetan people took up the struggle against the Chinese troops, each according to his ability, and consequently, every single Chinese soldier who was in Ü Tsang was expelled. Thereupon, I returned safely to the land possessed of religion, my protected place. The Chinese that remain in Kham are also to be expelled in turn.

The Chines side had a wicked plan that this land of Tibet should ave upheld the responsibilities of the preceptor-patron relationship, while ultimately, they would bind us as servants. Those schemes have dissolved, like a clump of sand or like a rainbow in the sky; sentient being have arrived at a fortunate time in which they can experience happiness and joy with religion and resources. From this point onward, the following out to be put into practice by all people – monks and lay people, the powerful and the weak – as mentioned above:

1) Finding and offering respects to this precious Buddhism, the foundation of whatever benefit and happiness have come to this part of the world, depends upon the preservation of the sacred places. Hence, people should untiringly take responsibility for continuously proffer worship at all monastic institutions and caring for them without distinctions, including the great sites – Rasa Trülnang and Gyetap Ramoché temples in Lhasa – and Tradruk and Samyé, and the three monastic seats, Drepung, Sera, and Ganden monasteries.

2) The abbots, teachers, and monks, of the various Buddhist schools without distinction should enhance the pure traditions of sūtras and the old and new tantras before they decline. Those traditions that have declined should be restored, and the rituals should be explained and studied. There must be enhanced efforts and exerted in teaching, learning, and meditating and in the protection and observance of the precepts.

3) High government officials involved in collecting taxes or enforcing the law should perform their jobs jobs honestly; both the government and the people must be untiring in their efforts to make improvements. Beyond that, central government officials posted at Ngari Korsum and Domé are coercing their subject citizens to purchase commercial goods at high prices and have imposed transportation rights exceeding the limit permitted by the government. Houses, properties, and lands belonging to subject citizens have been confiscated on the pretext of minor breaches of the law. Furthermore, citizens’ limbs have been amputated as a form of punishment. Henceforth, such sever punishments are forbidden.

4) Tibet does not have wealth, power, and technology like other nations. It is a free country abiding in peace and happiness in accordance with our religion. If these days, through taking greater responsibility in the duties, civil and military officials can enhance our military preparedness, enabling us to protect the stability of our territory, then the minor hardships that arise among the tax conscripts and at waysides along the roads in Kham can be mitigated. Upon giving detailed consideration to the historic reasons for the improper land claims the Chinese have made on us through time, all Tibetans should volunteer, without needing to be persuaded. Everyone ought to take greater responsibility for protecting and defending our land.

In addition, by tirelessly scouting along the borders in the highlands and the lowlands, to the south and north, people should remain vigilant in not permitting foreign spies to enter. If even minor suspicious rumors emerge, people must send a report to the government immediately by pony express or by traveling daily. Naturally, people are not permitted to undertake provocative actions based on minor pretexts, whether it is out of boredom or for no reason at all.

5) Tibet has few people and a tremendous amount of uninhabited land. Yet, even though some industrious people have considered clearing land, the local leaders have objected out of greed. Landlords, being unable to do anything at all to put such plans into effect themselves, are jealous about others’ endeavors. Hence, these improper practices which undermine the foundations of our progress in all sorts of ways are not at all auspicious for oneself or others. Henceforth, industrious people whose homes have deteriorated can clear land amidst whatsoever unused public lands there are. Hence, government, private, or religious interests are not permitted to obstruct in any way whoever is able to plant things like willow and mustard that will lead to improvements. Land taxes will not be collected until three years have passed; after that the land will be assessed for its size and usefulness. The cultivator will have to pay taxes to the government a royalty to the landlord every year. The land will belong to the cultivator in perpetuity.

Both the government and the public are to bring this about. It would be a matter of serving and protecting the kind government if all people were to implement these things just as I have explains them. Also, it is certain that the degree of happiness and virtue will increase for everyone in the country, oneself and others. Thus, reflecting carefully on the profit and loss, everyone must voluntarily engage in correctly and adopting the good and abandoning the bad in both religious and secular affairs.

This proclamation must be announced in every district. Copies should be posted in busy areas and originals should be kept in the district registers. Officials must enact it.

Written at the inconceivable second palace of Avalokiteśvara, the Potala Palace, on the eight day of the month of miracles in the Water-Female-Ox Year (1913).


8 thoughts on “the Tibetan Declaration of Independence

  1. I notice that the Maher translation has “free country” when the original has rang-dbang, which is *the* early word for independence (it means doing things on one’s own power, without needing to serve or by served by another; the word rang-btsan is a neologism hardly used in earlier times, even if I know of one example). The intention of this term rang-dbang is quite clear in the context, since the Thirteenth goes on to talk about military power and defense from encroachments by neighboring countries, in particular China. I think to use the word ‘free’ here is unfair, in fact cheating us of that all-important statement about independence (not, as someone recently pointed out, a ‘declaration’ of independence, only a reaffirmation of something Tibet already in fact had). Anyway, I think this issue is important enough to comment on and discuss, don’t you? I’ve discussed these terms some in a blog dated TUESDAY, APRIL 15, 2008, entitled “Tibetan Independence: Testimonies from Two Professors & a Bird.”

    For comparison, here’s the relevant paragraph from Shakabpa’s abbreviated English history: “Tibet is a country with rich natural resources; but it is not scientifically advanced like other lands. We are a small, religious, and independent nation. To keep up with the rest of the world, we must defend our country. In view of past invasions by foreigners, our people may have to face certain difficulties, which they must disregard. To safeguard and maintain the independence of our country, one and all should voluntarily work hard. Our subject citizens residing near the borders should be alert and keep the government informed by special messenger of any suspicious developments. Our subjects must not create major clashes between two nations because of minor incidents.”

  2. Otto Kerner

    Thanks for your comments, Dan. So, rang-dbang meant “independent”, but didn’t it also mean other things? I believe Geoffrey Samuel mentioned that the status of Chamdo under the Lhasa government was described as rang-dbang rang-btsan, in which case it clearly didn’t mean that Chamdo was a sovereign state. My impression of the declaration as a whole is that no one sentence by itself unambiguously means that Tibet is a sovereign state, but, taken as a whole, that is clearly the point. Maher has communicated this by rendering the phrase in question as “free country”, which could mean several things out of context (e.g., Wales and Scotland are free countries), but in the context of the declaration it seems unlikely that it means anything other than full sovereignty.

    The passage you quoted from Shakabpa’s translation is precisely the part that has been called into question. In Tsewang Norbu’s recent translation on TPR (, he also calls this passage an error on Shakabpa’s part, even though he also uses the word “independent”.

    Do you have access to the text of Tibetan original? I have not been able to get a hold of it.

  3. Dan

    Dear Otto,

    I’m not sure of it, but I think ‘free’ means we can and do go about by our own will (make our own decisions), while ‘independent’ means we can and do go about by our own power.  In any case, there is a significant difference of realms of usage in the English words ‘free’ and ‘independent.’  I think the right question to ask is whether there is a history of using the word rang-dbang (the opposite of gzhan-dbang, to be under the power of another) to mean going about under one’s own power, regardless of the context.  Then, if we see this word (as here) in the particular context of a nation or country and it’s ability to protect itself from territorial designs by its neighbors, then we have to take that to be talking about an independent nation or country.    I mean, wouldn’t it be easy to turn the tables on what you said about rang-dbang meaning “other things” in Tibetan, and say “Well, when Americans say they live in a ‘free’ country, doesn’t ‘free’ mean other things?”  I mean, I’m not sure what point you want to go on to make.  Let’s go and find out the meanings of rang-dbang in all kinds of contexts in the history of Tibetan literature and come to conclusions about it.  Why not?  Still, when all is said and done, it means ‘independence’ in those different contexts.  When it’s in a national or political context it means independence in a national or political context.  Or am I missing some subtle point you were trying to make?  In any case, I’m happy to have this conversation, and hope others will join in. 

    If I were at home I would have easy access to the Tibetan text of Shakabpa’s full-length history, but am traveling at the moment.  I think Tsewang Norbu’s point was (and I do agree with it):  “As you will see both in the Tibetan text and English translation, at no point do we find any hint that the Great Thirteen was declaring Tibet´s independence but reiterating her independent status.”  My only quibble is that the English word ‘declaration’ does not in general indicate that it must be an original or initiating declaration.  One might make declarations over and over again.  All you have to do is declare something, whether that something is something new or not!  But maybe he has a point in that many people might make the assumption that it would be something new.

    Yours, Dan


  4. དོན་ཚན་བཞི་པ།

    This is the entire section 4 as found on p. 222 of the 2nd volume of Shakabpa’s Bod kyi srid don rgyal rabs. It may be compared with the Maher translation vol. 2, p. 761.

    A footnote on p. 223 says that the whole thing was copied from a document kept at Seng-rdzong (compare the Maher translation of note 1 on p. 780).

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