649 – The year China first invaded India

The geopolitical implications of Xuanzang’s round-trip

The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s journey to India and back is well-known (see Samanth Subramanian’s review of Mishi Saran’s book in Pragati). What is not so well-known is that his trip led, unintentionally, to a diplomatic spat between the China and India that ultimately resulted in the first Chinese military expedition to ‘punish’ the Indians.

Harsha-vardhana of India had earlier sent emissaries to Chang’an and in 643, around the time of Xuanzang’s departure from India, a Tang mission under a military official called Wang Xuance had repaid the compliment. Five years later, in 648, Wang Xuance was back in India at the head of a more impressive embassy that was doubtless influenced by Xuanzang’s reports on Harsha.

But this time ambassador Wang Xuanxe received a very different reception. Harsha had died the previous year, his empire was already crumbling, and a Brahminical reaction had set in against the Buddhist community. Evidently, Xuanzang’s long sojourn and his influence on Harsha had encouraged the idea that Chinese support was enabling Indian Buddhists to subvert the political primacy claimed by India’s priestly caste. Wang Xuance’s 648 mission was therefore waylaid. Its valuables were stolen, its personnel detained and Wang Xuance himself barely escaped with his life. He escaped to Tibet.

There he took advantage of a rare moment of amity in Sino-Tibetan relations. In the 630s the great Srong-brtsan-sgam-po [Songtsen Gampo] had been engaged in sporadic warfare with Tang forces in both Sichuan and Qinghai. Unusually the Tibetans fought not to keep the Chinese out of Tibet but to secure closer relations with them, or rather, to secure parity of treatment with that extended by Chang’an to their local rivals…(In 641) with a view to ending their raids, Tang Taizong had granted the Tibetans what was in effect a ‘peace-through-kinship’ treaty. It was sealed as usual with the dispatch of an imperial princess. Further exchanges followed, the Tibetans regarding them as evidence of Tang vassalage and the Tang as evidence of Tibetan vassalage.

Into this happy state of mutual misunderstanding straggled Wang Xuance on his way back from his rebuff in India. The rout of an embassy from the Son of Heaven, not to mention the Heavenly Qaghan, could not go unavenged. Wang Xuance demanded troops for a retaliatory attack on India and the Tibetans obliged. It was thus a joint Sino-Tibetan force that in 649, probably by way of the Chumbi pass between Sikkim and Nepal, crossed the Great Himalaya and inflicted heavy defeat on Harsha’s successors. ‘Thereupon’, says the standard Tang history, ‘India was overawed.’

Elsewhere it is recorded that Wang Xuance brought back as prisoner to Chang’an the man who had supposedly usurped Harsha’s throne. A statue of ‘this contumacious Indian’ was erected among the many in front of Tang Taizong’s tomb and ‘so [the Indian] found lasting fame—but as a trophy and an emblem’. Needless to say, Indian tradition is blissfully ignorant of all this. The Sino-Tibetan incursion probably affected only a corner of Bengal and had no known repercussions. Though a Chinese assault on Indian territory had been shown to be feasible, it would not be repeated until the 1960s. [John Keay/China – A History pp243-244]

Another account offers more and slightly different details:

With the growth of close relations between Nepal and Tibet, Nepal became well known to China as well. In 648-49, during the reign of Narendradeva, son of Udayadeva II, who is believed to have succeeded his father to the kingship in 643, with the help of Tibet, the Nepalese and Tibetan forces combined to avenge an insult offered by a chief of Tirhut (Tirabhukti) to an embassy from China, led by [Wang Xuance] and proceeding to Harsha’s court. This chief of Tirhut is described incorrectly in Chinese accounts as the usurper of Harsha’s throne. [Ram Rahul/Making of Modern Nepal International Studies 16:1]

Someone, Ambassador Wang perhaps, might have inflated the status of the captive to impress the emperor.

Also, given that there is no concept of sovereign equality in the Chinese system of international relations, it is reasonable to speculate whether the Wang’s embassy itself might have been, much like what led to the ‘mutual misunderstanding’ with the Tibetans, a suggestion of paramountcy. Within the context of a backlash against Buddhist political influence, such a suggestion could well have provoked the treatment that Wang received. Not unlike the treatment the Manchu emperor meted out to the papal missionaries a millennium later.

Related Posts: On the New Himalayas and on India’s omphaloskepsis

7 thoughts on “649 – The year China first invaded India”

  1. ah, interesting. Evidently I hadn’t reached page 244 when I quoted John Keay in my tweets.

    But in a way doesn’t it reinforce John Keay’s claim that China didn’t have imperial ambitions vis-a-vis Indian territories? In 649, they apparently sought to avenge an insult and in 1962, they sought to correct India’s aggressive and stupid ‘forward’ policy. And as you excerpt indicates, they cud have invaded India at any point perhaps from the time of Han dynastry, if they wanted to.

    By Invasion, I mean an attempt to grab territory or loot. There is nothing wrong in bestowing Chinese emperors with the honor of being non-meddlesome. Even Indian emperors were not as imperialistic as the Europeans. But Cholas did invade for plunder, not just non-Tamil lands in India but also Lanka and Java. Guptas tried their hand in SE Asia too. And Babur famously sent Humayun to realize his dream of capturing Samarkhand (which ofcourse didn’t materialize).

  2. Balaji,

    I cannot comment on their “intentions”. I can comment on their capabilities. They did not have the capability to invade India for the purpose of grabbing and holding territory in 649.

    Here’s Bushell’s 1880 work (compiled from Chinese sources):

    The great King Siladitya, who called himself King of Magadha, is mentioned as having sent a mission to the T’ang Emperor after his interviews with the Buddhist monk Yuanchuang, which arrived in 641,in answer to which a Chinese envoy, Li Yipiao, was sent to India. Another mission arrived with offerings of pearls, incense and p’uti fFicus religiosa) trees, and Wang Yuants’e was sent to India, the Kings of the otner four divisions of which all sent tribute.

    At this time the King of Central India, Siladitya, died, and one of his ministers, who had usurped the government, led troops against Yuants’e, who, having only a following of thirty horsemen, fought with them, but their arrows being soon exhausted, they were captured, the foreign troops plundering all the tribute offerings from the other countries. Yuants’e escaped alone in the night, and fled to the T’ufan, who led 1200 well-armed warriors, together with over 7000 Nepal horsemen, to follow Yuants’e. He and the assistant envoy, Chiang Shihjen, led the troops of tbe two countries, and advanced as far as the capital of Central India, where they fought for three days in succession, and inflicted a great defeat, cutting off 3,000 heads, while some 10,000 were drowned in the river; the minister was taken, and brought back with them to the imperial capital, where they arrived in 648.[SW Bushell/The Early History of Tibet. From Chinese Sources/JRAS 12:4]

    Now 8200 Tibetan & Nepalese horsemen can raid Bihar, advance to Kanyakubja and even kill 13000 of their adversaries. Note that these were not even Chinese troops—which would have had to be supplied from across the Himalayas—but mainly Nepalese troops (perhaps like modern Gurkha contingents). Around the same time, when Korea broke off tributary relations, Bushell cites Chinese records saying that the “Son of Heaven himself led a million warriors across the Liao (river) to chastise it, overthrew its cities and destroyed its armies..”

    I think it’s pretty easy to declare that you don’t intend to do something when you know you can’t do it.

  3. hmm, I have to perhaps read a lot more Chinese history to come to a conclusion. But I see your point.

    But in your example, I wud still argue that Korea was within the ambit of a Chinese emperor’s strategic space while India wasn’t. Besides plundering and punitive raids [as Joe Biden wud argue even now] require far less troops than an occupation force.

    As innumerable raids have proven, except for few empires, Indian kingdoms have easily been run over by foreign invaders. So your example perhaps reinforces the weakness of Indian kingdoms, rather than Chinese.

  4. Balaji

    But in your example, I wud still argue that Korea was within the ambit of a Chinese emperor’s strategic space while India wasn’t.

    That’s the point. It was not in the strategic space because of reasons of unsurmountable geography.

    So your example perhaps reinforces the weakness of Indian kingdoms, rather than Chinese.

    It suggests, as Panikkar says, that Indian kingdoms didn’t bother to study the world outside the subcontinent. I don’t think we can say anything about “weakness of Indian kingdoms”. For all the weakness, unlike the Mayas and Incas, we’re still around.

  5. This is certainly of historical interest. But given its antiquity, it’s not clear to me if there’s something one can “learn” from this in the context of current India-China relationship.

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