Interpreters, translators and travelling agents: the role of tongshi in Sino-Tibetan relations

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper, not in proceedingpeer-review


This paper examines the development of the role of a certain group of semi-officials, known as tongshi in Chinese, in Sino-Tibetan relations from the late-fourteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, i.e. during the Ming and Qing dynasties, with particular reference to the part played by tongshi in events along the pre-modern Sino-Tibetan border. Tongshi were often Tibetans in Chinese and later Manchu employment, who undertook various duties, ranging from interpreting, the translation of official documents and accompanying Tibetan tribute missions to Peking to participate in court audiences, to acting as travelling agents in Tibetan territory whither they were dispatched to acquire military intelligence for their employers. As this paper shows, the information obtained from the activities of certain tongshi was of considerable importance in permitting the Ming and Qing dynasties to maintain their notional claim to authority in the border region. The tongshi were thus instrumental to a certain degree in enabling the Ming and Qing rulers, who did not see fit to incorporate the Tibetan border regions into the Chinese empire, in their attempts nevertheless to force the Tibetans resident there to submit to a high degree of Chinese jurisdiction. Drawing on the Veritable Records (shilu) of the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors, archival materials, and Ming and Qing dynasty official publications, the development of the instituion of tongshi is traced and illustrations of their activities given.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusSubmitted - 2003
EventInternational Association for Tibetan Studies - Oxford University
Duration: 2003 Sep 7 → …


ConferenceInternational Association for Tibetan Studies
Period2003/09/07 → …

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Other Social Sciences


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