Relooking early phase of Nepal-China relations 

There are interesting episodes in Nepal-China relations. Every such episode has contributed to making of the Nepal-China relations in one way or the other.

Photo: OP Jindal Global

Laxmi Basnyat

  • Read Time 4 min.

There is something unique about Nepal-China relations. It has economic, trade and transit, cultural, military and many more aspects to it.  Sino-Nepal Military Relation is at the core of other relations and it starts with Nepal-Tibet relations, the Tibet which was forever dependent on China which later annexed it. 

Sino-Nepal Military Relation has several phases. This article looks into the relations in the early phases. Diplomatic, or political relation is the spinal cord between any two or many countries. All other relations like trade and transit, cultural, historical, military, academic fall under the diplomatic relations. 

Sino-Nepal Military relation is one part of Nepal-China diplomatic relations, among many. We should define Sino-Nepal Military Relations at the background of Nepal-China relations. It is common knowledge that Nepal-China relations begin with the Manjushree of China. Some written historical accounts show that during the prehistoric time, Manjushree, a sage, came to Nepal and cut open the Chobhar gorge of Kathmandu to drain the water from Kathmandu, which used to be a huge lake, thereby making the Kathmandu Valley suitable for human settlements and human habitations, writes Hiranya Lal Shrestha in his book Sixty Years of Dynamic Partnership. Having drained the water from the lake after cutting open the Chobhar gorge, says the book, human settlements started and the place was given the name of ‘Manjupattan’.

Some historical evidence shows that after the spread of Buddhism in China, Nepal and China enjoyed relations at the non-governmental level for centuries. Balchandra Sharma has written in his book Nepalko Aitihasik Ruparekha that the diplomatic including trade, military, pilgrim relations between the two countries started after the rule of Tang dynasty in China. 

Secondly, there was a tradition of sending religious envoys to the countries back then. As such, Tsen Tsai from China was delegated to Nepal as a religious envoy in 306. He came to Nepal and met the then king. In 406, another Chinese citizen, Fahien, had come to Nepal as a religious envoy of China to Nepal. Then in 636, Hu Wen Sang came to Nepal as a religious envoy and stayed as a guest in the then royal palace.  As per the available records, he was the first foreigner to describe Nepal, including its size and area. Hu Wen Sang has recorded Nepal’s total area as being 4000 square Li (one Li being four miles).

 Kaji Bhima Malla led the war with Tibet and took Kerung and Kuti under control. This was the first military confrontation between Nepal and Tibet. 

Thirdly, around 647, during the rule of King Narendra Dev, two Chinese envoys—Li Pyao and Wang Chhen-Se—had gone to the palace of Harshabardhana, the king of Kannauj of India. King Harshabardhana was immensely happy with them and showered them with a lot of wealth before bidding them farewell. Soon after, Harshabardhana was assassinated by his Commander-in-Chief Arunaswa (Arjuna) and usurped the throne. Then he looted the wealth of the Chinese envoys, humiliated them, and chased them away from the country. They somehow managed to save their lives and entered Nepal. When the Chinese emperor came to know about it, he appealed for military support from Nepal and Tibet and appealed to these two countries for revenge against Arunaswa. Accordingly, Nepal sent 7000 troops of horse backed cavalries’ troops and Tibet sent 1200 infantry troops to help China. That was the first Sino-Nepal bilateral military alliance for a diplomatic cause. The joint forces of Nepal and Tibet reached Kannuj of India and defeated his army and took him captive. He was then extradited to Tibet, where he was executed. 

Fourthly, Nepal and Tibet had wedding relations too. During the Lichhawi rule in Nepal, the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo, who had a very good relationship with and access to China, married Nepali princess Bhrikuti. Then during the rule of Lichhabi king Jaya Bhimdev, the Tibetan king asked for assistance from Nepal to send sculptors to build a monastery and Chaityas in Tibet.

Chandra Prasad Neupane has written in his book Araniko Mahakabya that Nepal sent Balabahu Lachhime, who later became famous as Araniko, leading a group of 80 masons and carpenters. After exemplary work in Tibet, Chinese emperor Kublai Khan called Araniko in Peking. The team led by Araniko reached Peking in 1262 and in 1271 it completed the White Pagoda which stands with pride in Peking (Beijing) even today. The team is said to have built several Chaityas in various places of China. 

Finally, Kazi Bhim Malla was a ministerial level Commander-in-Chief during the reign of King Laxmi Narsimha Malla (1620-1641) and his son King Pratap Malla (1641-1674) of Kantipur.  He marched to Tibet with his armies to secure a trade treaty that led to much prosperity in the nation. For sure, Malla armies were along with Kaji Bhima Malla for his personal security and show of force to Tibetans. Malla himself led the war with Tibet in a Tibetan village and Kerung, a frontier pass that was a main link to Tibet, was taken under control. He captured Kuti too. 

This was the first military confrontation between Nepal and Tibet. Following that Nepal’s trade hegemony started up to the Treaty of Betrawati, which ended the Sino-Nepal War. 

There are interesting episodes in Nepal-China relations. Every such episode has contributed to the making of Nepal-China relations in one way or the other. 

Laxmi Basnyat, an MPhil scholar at Tribhuvan University, is researching Nepal-China Military Relations.