The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia:
A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages

Christopher I. Beckwith

Princeton University Press 1987
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005
A millennium before the Great Game between the British and Russians, earlier great powers competed for control and influence in Central Asia. In The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia, Beckwith provides a narrative of events running from around 600 to 850 CE, with the greatest detail in the first half of the 8th century. He presents a Tibetan perspective, but uses Chinese and Arab sources and gives what is effectively a general history of the Tarim basin and surrounding areas.

The origins of the Yarlung dynasty are mirky; a historical narrative commences around 600. The 7th century saw a three-way struggle over the Tarim basin between the Tibetans, the Chinese, and a Mongolic-speaking people called the `Aza or T'u-yü-hun. A Tibetan defeat of the Tang in 670 "marked the end of two decades of Chinese domination of the Tarim Basin", under the name "the Pacified West".

A seesawing balance of power ensued, which also involved the Eastern Turks and Western Turks (the On oq). The Tibetans had the ascendancy until internal collapse allowed the Chinese to retake the "Four Garrisons" — Khotan, Kashgar, Kucha, and probably Agni — in 692.

The early 8th century saw the Tibetans turn their attention to the "Western Regions" in the Pamirs and Tukharistan. The Arabs under general Qutayba fought the Western Turks, with interference from both Tibetan and Chinese. In 715 the Arabs took Ferghana and a raiding party reached Kashgar, bringing them to the borders of the Tang Empire, but the significance of the event was not understood by either party at the time.

Conflict between China and Tibet continued, with the Tibetans allying with the Türgis confederation of the Western Turks. Tibetan client states in the west defected to the Chinese, with Chinese troops defeating the Tibetans in Little Balur (probably the Hunza valley) and blocking their route to the west. Meanwhile the Arabs subdued a Sogdian revolt.

The Tibetan-Türgis alliance fought both Chinese and Arabs, but the period saw increasing Chinese power, with 750 "the acme of Chinese military and political power in Central Asia". The Chinese also had a run of successes against the Tibetans in the east. But their success brought the Tang into conflict with the Arabs, who defeated them in the battle of Talas in 751.

An Lu-shan's rebellion in 755 and ensuing dynastic conflicts weakened the Tang and gave the Tibetans the ascendancy, though they didn't take Khotan until the early 790s. Other key players included the Qarluq confederation and the Uyghurs, while the Tibetans became involved in a protracted conflict with the Arabs. Beckwith's narrative continues in less detail (the Old Tibetan Annals end in 765) down to 866, when only bits and pieces remained of the once powerful Tibetan Empire.

In an epilogue Beckwith situates the early medieval Tibetan Empire in the context of broader Eurasian history, stressing the importance of Central Asia and international trade during the period. He is highly critical of Pirenne and others who have dismissed the Franks and Tibetans as "barbarians" and downplayed their achievements — and he makes a reasonable case here, though he goes too far the other way in putting down Tang China, the Byzantine Empire and the early Arab caliphate. (Beckwith takes other idiosyncratic positions: his prologue, for example, includes a rant about there being no evidence for a Sino-Tibetan language family. In other places, however, he is up front about his limitations: an inability to scan Arabic for names and a lack of familiarity with the South Asian sources.)

The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia presents a near-continuous narrative of military and political events, with no attempt to cover culture and religion as well. It is dense with the names of people and places, but the main text is readable, with discussions of historiography, sources, epigraphy, links to archaeology, and so forth relegated to the footnotes, which take up around a third of most pages. The one map provided is decent but too small; readers not already familiar with the geography of the region will have trouble following events. And there's a useful fifteen page bibliographical essay discussing the sources for the period.

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

December 2005

External links:
- buy from or
Related reviews:
- Christopher I. Beckwith - Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present
- books about Central Asia + Mongolia
- books about China + Chinese history
- more medieval history
- books published by Princeton University Press
%T The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia
%S A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages
%A Beckwith, Christopher I.
%I Princeton University Press
%D 1987
%O bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0691054940
%P 269pp