Wencheng (c. 620–680)

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Wencheng (c. 620–680)

Chinese princess of the Tang Dynasty who married the first king of Tibet and founded the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, making her instrumental in establishing Buddhism as the national religion of Tibet. Name variations: WenCheng. Pronunciation: WHEN-chin. Born Wencheng into the family of Emperor Tang Taizong; adopted and raised by his Empress Zhangsun; given the title of princess and provided with a classical Confucian education; enjoyed the educational advantages of Chang-An, then one of the most cosmopolitan capitals of the world; married Songzan Ganbu (or, according to the Tibetan alphabet, Srongbtdan Sgam-po), king of Tibet.

In 607 ce, Songzan Ganbu had unified the mountainous country of Tibet and made Lhasa its capital. Eager to attract the more advanced technology of China to his new country, and desiring to elevate Tibet's standard of living, culture and art, in 634 he approached the court of the Chinese emperor Tang Taizong, asking to be granted a bride of the Han Chinese people.

The request was not unusual for the Tang emperor's court. His dynastic predecessors had often made peace or strengthened military alliances through marriages between princesses and the chiefs of outlying minority tribes to the north and west, helping to secure the state's political safety. Equally important, in areas bordering China, such alliances made trade safer along the legendary Silk Road, the caravan route for sending and receiving goods overland all the way to the Mediterranean. For the leaders of lands around China, political friendship was one advantage gained through diplomatically arranged marriages, but so was the level of culture that could be passed into the vast areas on the periphery of China, where a cultivated Chinese woman could bring religion, writing, silk growing and other forms of agriculture to the less developed kingdoms that were still in transition from their past as loosely organized nomadic tribes.

At the sophisticated Tang court, however, Tibet seemed so remote as to be barely worth notice, and the upstart king at first found his request refused. Frustrated and insulted, Songzan Ganbu responded by declaring war against the Tang, and was defeated. But in 640, when the ambitious ruler from the high country repeated his request, sending his prime minister Ge'erdongzan to the emperor's capital Chang-An, he was better received. One reason, no doubt, was the 5,000 liang (about 9,000 ounces) of gold included as a gift in the prime minister's retinue. At any rate, Emperor Taizong presented the king of Tibet with the lovely, cultured Princess Wencheng as a bride. The marriage alliance marked the beginning of a political link that became the basis for all future claims by China to attachment, and eventually control, of Tibet.

Princess Wencheng was a daughter of a member of the family of Emperor Tang Taizong. She had been adopted and raised by his Empress Zhangsun in their luxurious court, given the title of princess, and provided with a classical Confucian education. Living at the beginning of the Golden Age of the Tang dynasty, she enjoyed the educational advantages of Chang-An, then one of the most cosmopolitan capitals of the world. Once the marriage was arranged, she also knew the importance of her role in Tang politics, representing the new bond of friendship between the two countries. As compensation for leaving the sophisticated court behind, Emperor Taizong lavished the princess with a large personal dowry of silk clothes, fine furniture, expensive jewelry, and many books that would find their way into Tibetan libraries, as well as the many gifts she was to share with her new people, such as farming implements, seed-grains, technical manuals and musical instruments. By such gifts, the Tibetan portion of the border of Taizong's empire was to be made secure, and newly formed Tibet was to be bordered by a friendly ally and free to expand its own culture.

Conducted to Tibet by a large convoy of retainers and her escort Li Daocheng, Wencheng reached the Qinzang plateau, where she was met by a party of Tibetans who greeted her with gifts of horses, cattle, yaks and boats. She and her retinue were offered food and drink, then a song was sung to her in welcome:

Don't be afraid of crossing the prairie
A hundred horses are waiting for you.
Don't be afraid to climb over the snow
A hundred docile yaks are waiting for you.
Don't be afraid to ford the deep river
A hundred horse head boats are waiting for you.

It had taken the princess' party one month to travel from Chang-An to Lhasa. Songzan Ganbu met her near Lake Zalin and rode with her into the capital, where she was met with another musical greeting. The king respected her cultivated tastes and dressed in the rich silk clothes she had brought him. They were married in Lhasa, and their nuptial chamber was in the grand Potala palace, built by Songzan Ganbu on the sacred mountain of Putuo Hill. Potala means Buddha's Mountain, and the enormous structure placed high on the side of the mountain, facing south, overlooked the entire city of Lhasa. A part of the original palace still remains today. The oldest remaining section is the Guanyin temple in the portion known as the Red Palace, where Princess Wencheng began her life with her new husband. The main section of the surviving Potala is actually a combination of two palaces built during the 17th century by the 5th Dalai Lama. The Red Palace, completed in 1693, and the White Palace built from 1645 to 1653, were added onto the remaining structures of the Potala of Princess Wencheng's time, part of which was destroyed in the 8th century by lightning.

Also brought to Tibet by Princess Wencheng was a gilded bronze statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha. Under her supervision, the Jokhang Temple was built to house this sacred object. The temple, called the Dazhousi in Chinese and the Jokhang in Tibetan, is considered one of Tibet's holiest places, located in the oldest part of the city. Its great hall and first two stories are the original structure; above the entrance are two enormous copper dagobas, covered with gold leaf, and a gilded prayer wheel placed between them is held by two gilded statues of goats. Inside, the Sakyamuni Buddha was set on a gold throne embraced by two pillars of solid silver. Nearby are statues of Wencheng and Songzan Ganbu, as well as of Princess Tritson , his Nepalese wife, representing another political alliance through marriage. In addition to Princess Wencheng and Princess Tritson, Songzan Ganbu also had three Tibetan wives, whose children founded Tibet's Tubo dynasty. All lived together in the grand Potala palace, later the home of the Dalai Lamas, filled with thousands of rooms that eventually housed thousands of monks.

While Buddhism was known in Tibet before the arrival of Princess Wencheng, it was her faith and the construction of her Jokhang temple that helped to spread the Buddhist faith, and laid the foundations for the emergence of the Dalai Lamas and the rule of Tibet as a theocracy. It is appropriate, perhaps, that the statue brought by Wencheng was of the historical Buddha who always appears crosslegged on a lotus flower, as in meditation. Before Wencheng's arrival the common local religion was Bon, a faith filled with demons and magic.

To this day, a painting remains showing the arrival of Princess Wencheng in Lhasa. Tradition says that she and her husband knelt before the Jokhang temple after its completion and planted saplings of willow trees she had also brought from Chang-An. The old willow tree trunk which remains in front of the temple-monastery is said to be one of those trees.

From China, Princess Wencheng had also brought artisans to introduce the arts of papermaking, textile weaving and new techniques in metallurgy and architectural design. Also introduced were the principles of grinding wheat, making pottery, constructing field tools, brewing wine, and making ink stock. The Tibetans mastered Han techniques of agriculture, and adopted the Chinese system of planting. Many gave up their animal-skin tents, reminders of their nomadic days, and constructed Chinese-style houses. The upper class eventually adopted silk clothes and cultivated the art of embroidery.

Princess Wencheng introduced the lunar calendar into Tibet, along with seed grains and planting cycles based on the calendar that improved agriculture. The band of musicians she had brought enlivened music at court and changed Tibetan music by introducing stringed instruments. Some of the original instruments she brought as gifts can be seen each year on February 13, according to the Tibetan calendar, and have been well preserved for more than a thousand years.

Songzan Ganbu, eager for every form of improvement, also sent an emissary named Sambhota to India to learn a system of writing, and Sambhota created the Tibetan alphabet, based on the Sanskrit writing of Kashmir. This new system of Tibetan writing was adopted within 20 years, and was widely used to write laws, records and Buddhist scriptures. The new written language stimulated trade and economic exchange with China, and Tibet prospered. At the death of Emperor Taizong, Songzan Ganbu sent 15 different types of elaborate Tibetan jewelry as sacrificial offerings in his honor, and when the next Tang emperor ascended the throne, the king declared his military loyalty in a petition, along with an offering of extravagant gifts. In return, he was made magistrate of Xihai. In 650, at the death of Songzan Ganbu, the Tang emperor sent an emissary to attend the funeral and pay his respects to Princess Wencheng, verifying the good relations between two countries.

During the lifetime of Wencheng, Tibet adopted a postal system similar to the one in China, utilizing riders with mail satchels who rode horses in 100-mile relays akin to the later American pony express, improving communication between Lhasa and Chang-An. After the death of Wencheng, political alliances through marriage were continued when the Tang princess Jin Cheng married Tibet's King Chidai Zhudan. In 821 ce, the Tibetan king Chirao Bajin and Tang emperor Tang Muzong commemorated the long interlinking of blood lines with the erection of several stelas bearing the names of the common relatives of the allied nations, along with the inscription: "Co-operate Peacefully as One Family."

Princess Wencheng lived in Tibet for 40 years. Her life is commemorated every year on two dates of the Tibetan calendar: April 15, the day of her arrival in the country, and October 15, her birthday. Plays performed on these occasions retell her story. The goodwill ambassador who married out of diplomacy became much more than an envoy. She instructed Tibet in the Buddhist faith, and irreversibly influenced the fortunes of its people. Before her death, funerals for women of her position were thought to be so unimportant that they were not even recorded. Hers was to be an exception. When Wencheng died on May 7, 680, the Tibetans held a great funeral in her honor. Her death date is still commemorated by people who recite her good deeds, wearing paper hats and carrying bamboo poles.

By the 10th century, Buddhism had begun to assume political as well as spiritual leadership in Tibet. Monasteries were fortified, their estates grew in wealth and influence, and the Buddhist lamas began to assert authority over the faithful. In 1572, the first Dalai Lama was proclaimed. The title was conferred by the Mongols, whose chief at the time was Altan Khan; Dalai means "ocean" and Lama means "man of profound wisdom," ascribing a deep knowledge to the bearer of the title. The Dalai Lama, in turn, appointed the Panchen Lama who ruled from Xigaze, 227 miles from Lhasa.

In 1913, the 13th Dalai Lama proclaimed Tibet independent from China, but when the Communists came to power in China in 1949, they reasserted control over Tibet; in 1965, they established Tibet as an "autonomous region" known as Xizang Zizhiqu. During China's Cultural Revolution, many temples and monasteries in Tibet were destroyed, but the Jokhang Temple founded by Princess Wencheng still remains, a symbol of her power and her faith. She is commemorated in legends, plays and songs not only in Tibet but in China as well.


The author is grateful for consultation with Professor Zhu-lei, chair of the history department, Wuhan University, 1988–89, and Gerard Massacrier, professor of French, Wuhan University, 1988–89.

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Bo Yang. Genealogical Tables of Chinese Emperors, Empresses, Princes, and Princesses. China: Friendship Publishing, 1986.

Ji Zhong. "Princess Wencheng—A Chinese Dance Drama," in Women of China. April 1980, pp. 20–21.

"Princess WenCheng," in The Dictionary of Famous Women of Hua Shia (China). Trans. from Chinese by Lucia P. Ellis. Beijing: Hua Shia Publishing House, 1988.

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Barbara Bennett Peterson , Ph.D., Professor of History, University of Hawaii, and editor of Notable Women of Hawaii (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1984)