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Tibet 1920-c. 1925

Bod, Bö, བོད་

Last modified: 2020-07-11 by ian macdonald
Keywords: tibet | sun | moon | stars | snow lion | ying-yang | orb: burning | mountains |
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[1920 Tibetan flag] image by Corentin Chamboredon, 10 April 2020

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The following information (translated) is from Roberto Breschi's interesting Italian vex-site.

National and state flag, adopted near 1920, confirmed during the spring of this same year and described in a document found in the archives of the French ministry of foreign affairs. Ratio 5/6. Replaced a few years later with (the German Flaggenbuch of 1926 [d9e27a] already shows a new design). The design, rather naive, shows a snow lion, symbol of the power of the dalai-lama, looking at the only elements higher than it: the moon, the sun, and the stars who all enlighten the dalai-lama. The mountains on the background represent the inviolability of the country and the burning sphere near the lion's legs represent the will of the Dalai-Lama to protect Tibet from its enemies. It is the first distinctive emblem of modern Tibet. It seems that the former Chinese imperial flag had been risen between 1912 and 1920.

I have additional details on the national flag from a Chinese website:

Meanwhile, Britain had persuaded the authorities in Tibet to send a delegation to the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi. The Tibet government complied, and the arrival of the delegation was hailed by the major Indian newspapers. Hugh Richardson, the commercial attaché at the British Embassy in New Delhi, suggested that if the delegation had its own flag it would be claiming to represent an independent country. He wasted no time in notifying the Gaxag. But Tibet had no national flag, and so the Gaxag sent its army's flag, which showed a lion against a back ground of snowy peaks.

This is probably the real origin of the national flag. The 13th Dalai-Lama tried to make Tibet fully independent and internationally recognized. The reason why he didn't keep the army flag is probably political. Between 1914 and 1933 (death of the 13th), the army went through major reforms. It became a little but real national army with foreign instructors and began to successfully expel the Chinese troops from eastern Tibet.

Nevertheless, the army met three important obstacles:

a) the monasteries were absolutely opposed to a national army who would have diverted young men from religion and religious power
b) the nobility would have lost its privilege and justification with a conscript army
c) the eastern Khampa principalities who wanted to keep their independence both from China and Tibet. The army didn't win this political fight, and that's why a new flag rose on Tibet.

Corentin Chamboredon, 18, 20 March 2006

I found this additional information in Tibet (1846-1952): les missionnaires de l'impossible, Les Indes Savantes, Paris, 2008, p. 205. Laurent Deshayes wrote:

The French documentation about this new Tibet is quite rich. One can clearly distinguish a Dalai-lama seeking to develop the attributes of a sovereign nation : stamps, currency, an embryonic foreign affairs ministry, and a flag which symbolism, explained to the French consul by a tülku [note: a reincarnated lama] in 1920, shows a real political agenda. The central device is a snow lion, "the king of the mountains who represents the power of the Dalai-lama. Above it are the sole sun, moon and stars. The lion looks at these celestial bodies to implore their light. The hope of the Dalai-lama is based on the sky whose the latter is the incarnation. The lion watches over the mountains in order to avoid any foreigner could cross them without permission. The burning ball between the lion's paws stands for the Dalai-lama, whose claws are strong enough to crush revolutionaries and troublemakers who could try to harm Tibet".

Laurent Deshayes then give the reference of the original text in the archives in a footnote (n°359): dispatch of the French consul in Chengdu to the minister of France in China of the 28/08/1920.
He adds:

The nationalist tone of the description wasn't yet relevant in 1913-1914, but the symbolism was valid. A color photograph of the flag (55 x 60 cm) is joint to the dispatch. Note that it is not the current Tibetan flag ; R. A. Stein, La civilisation tibétaine, Le Sycomore, Paris, 1981, p.46, gives an image of this flag, with nevertheless a doubt on its real use. The French consul's dispatch proves it was in use at least until august 1920.

Corentin Chamboredon, 1 May 2009

Image above is based on a black and white photograph of the flag in the 2011 edition of La civilisation tibétaine / Rolf Alfred Stein (published by L'Asiathèque) and it is shown whole. I tried to stick as much as possible to its original design.
Corentin Chamboredon, 10 April 2020