The great Tibetan Empire inside Central Asia: 

The History of the fight for Power among Turks, Arabs, Chinese and Chinese during the Early Middle era

Christopher I. Beckwith

Before the Game between the Russians and the British, some early great empires competed for influence and control inside Central Asia. Inside the great Tibetan Empire of Central Asia, Beckwith gives a narrative of happenings running from between 600 to 850 and presents a handful of Tibetan point of view, but uses Arab and Chinese sources and offers what is likely a history of Tarim basin and the surrounding areas.

The origin of Yarlung dynasty is just mirky; This is a historical narrative that commenced around 600. The seventh century witnessed a 3-way battle over the great Tarim basin between the Chinese, Mongolic-native speaking people also called the T’u-yü-hun Tibetans or the Aza. The defeat of the Tibetan Tang in 670 was the end of 2 decades of the Chinese domination of Tarim Basin”, named “the Pacified West”.

A seesawing balance of power ensued, which involved the Western and Eastern Turks (On oq). The Tibetans always had the ascendancy, not until an internal collapse gave the Chinese the opportunity to retake the “4 Garrisons” — Kucha, Khotan, Agni, and probably Kashgar — in 692.

The early 8th century saw the Tibetans focus their attention to “Western Regions” inside Tukharistan and Pamirs. The Arabians under the command of general Qutayba fought against the Western Turks, while the Chinese and the Tibetians  interfered. In 715 the Arabians took a raiding party and Ferghana as they reached Kashgar, which brought them to the the Tang Empire  border, but the importance of the event wasn’t comprehended by both parties at the time.

The conflict between Tibet and China still continues, with the Tibetans in partnership with the Türgis confederation of Western Turks. Tibetan states in the west have defected to the Chinese, with the Tibetans being defeated by the Chinese troops in Little Balur and also blocking their way to the west. Meanwhile, A Sogdian revolt was subdued by the Arabs.

The alliance of the Tibetan-Türgis fought both the Arabs and  the Chinese, but that period witnessed an increase in power from the  Chinese, with 750, “the acme of Chinese political power and military inside Central Asia”. The Chinese were also successful in battle against the eastern Tibetans. However, their success in battle brought about the conflict between the Tang and the Arabs, who won them in the great battle of Talas in 751.

A Lu-shan rebellion in 755 and an ensuing conflict was what weakened the Tangs as well as gave the Tibetans their ascendancy, though they did not take Khotan, not until the early 790s. Other key members include the Uyghurs and Qarluq confederation, while the Tibetans got involved in a conflict with the Arabs. Beckwith’s continued his narrative in less detail (in 765, the Old Tibetan Annals ended) down to 866, when only bits and pieces was what remained of the great Tibetan Empire.

In his epilogue, Beckwith talks about the medieval great Tibetan Empire using the context of a broader Eurasian history, stressing the very importance of international trade and Central Asia during that period. He was very critical of others and Pirenne who have dismissed the Tibetans and Franks as “barbarians” and went on to downplay what the achieved — and he’s got a reasonable case here, though he went far in putting down the early Arab caliphate, the Byzantine Empire and Tang China. (Beckwith has taken some idiosyncratic positions: for instance, his prologue, a complain about no evidence for the Sino-Tibetan family language.  however, he is up front about his limits: his inability to scan Arabic for names and the lack of familiarity with  South Asian sources.)

The great Tibetan Empire inside Central Asia presents a continuous narration of political and military events, without an attempt to cover religion and culture also. It is dense with the names of places and people, but the main text is very readable, with discussions of sources, historiography, epigraphy, the links to archaeology, and much more relegated to the footnotes, which will take up about a third of most of the pages. The only map provided is ok but too small; readers who are not familiar with the region will have little trouble following the events. And there is a useful 15 page bibliographical essay that discusses the sources for the period.

As being the one and only general history of the region in the early medieval era, The Tibetan Empire inside Central Asia will be essential reading for area specialists. Its layout also makes it accessible to lay readers with some background in the area.