How China Reinvented an Ancient Kingdom to Advance Its Claims in the Himalayas

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How China Reinvented an Ancient Kingdom to Advance Its Claims in the Himalayas

The lack of knowledge and certainty surrounding Zhangzhung makes it ripe for exploitation and distortion, a revisionist’s dream.

How China Reinvented an Ancient Kingdom to Advance Its Claims in the Himalayas
Credit: Depositphotos

“Who controls the past controls the future,” George Orwell wrote. Rewriting history, as for any authoritarian regime, is the bread and butter of the Chinese Communist Party — and absolutely essential in the ideological narrative it wants to shape about its image and rise on the world stage.

Today, China is increasingly concentrating on the revisionism of history relating to territorial claims across its various borders, both land and sea. One area in particular that is of great focus concerns China’s southwestern borders in the Himalayas, including a fixation on an ancient kingdom known as “Zhangzhung.” Cultural experts and archaeologists in the Himalayan Indian state of Ladakh have observed that Beijing is doing a large amount of research and excavation in western Tibet relating to Zhangzhung, but there is little examination of the topic outside China.

Zhangzhung’s exact boundaries are contested by academics. Some say the kingdom comprised parts of what today includes Ladakh, Nepal, West Tibet, and Gilgit-Baltistan, while others argue the kingdom was far less wide-reaching, only cutting into the northwest edge of Nepal and part of Ladakh. Others claim that Zhangzhung and Tibet were in fact separate at some point in history. Tibetologists argue that almost nothing is known about Zhangzhung except that it was a kingdom situated in what roughly corresponds to today’s Tibet. Scholars specializing on Himalayan history also mention the difficulty in even defining Zhangzhung as a concept.

However, historical accuracy and truth are not important for Beijing’s purposes. China would obviously prefer a more comprehensive interpretation of Zhangzhung’s extent, and the lack of knowledge and certainty surrounding Zhangzhung make it ripe for exploitation and distortion. The importance of the kingdom is that it is tied to so many cultural and geostrategic dynamics China wants to manipulate today. Beijing is therefore actively creating historical revisionism through the sponsorship of archaeologists and historians to provide a new narrative of Zhangzhung in order to justify its territorial, cultural, and geopolitical control in the region. 

First is the Tibet angle. The CCP is hyper-fixated on denying the existence of a distinct Tibetan identity as well as controlling the selection of the next Dalai Lama. China wants to link Tibetan culture and religion to Zhangzhung, thereby peeling it away from its Indian roots. This achieves three goals: Not only is it a power play against Beijing’s increasingly adversarial neighbor, India, but it also serves to undermine the sense of an independent Tibetan identity and instead allows China to hijack Tibetan history itself. If China lays claim to the legendary civilization of Zhangzhung, and if Zhangzhung is the source of Tibet as we know it, then the corresponding implication is clear: Tibet is — and always has been — part of China. 

For the CCP, this logic is multidirectional. Beijing also uses its claim on Tibet to rationalize its ownership of Zhangzhung by linking the former’s origins to the latter. In other words, if Tibet is part of China, and its roots lie in Zhangzhung, then Zhangzhung belongs to China too — as well as everything it may (or may not have) encompassed, including parts of Nepal, India, and Pakistan.

Such assertions are misleading. The majority religion in Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism, is derived from Indian Buddhism, which was introduced from Kashmir to Ladakh, and later to Tibet and China, according to archaeological evidence. Most Tibetans feel some level of affinity with India due to their shared history in terms of culture and religion. In fact, Zhangzhung is thought to have engaged in relations with what is today India rather than mainland China as the CCP would like us to believe.

China sees possession and control of Zhangzhung as a zero-sum game with powerful consequences. A quote from Bai Gengsheng, who has worked as an academic at the state-sponsored Chinese Academy of Social Science, states, “The ownership of the ancient Zhangzhung civilization is ours; however, for a long time, authority for the interpretation and discourse of power were in the hands of foreigners.”

There was also a Chinese program funded by the Central Propaganda Department dedicated to Zhangzhung that began in 2013, whose aims included “reconstituting the origins and genes of Tibetan culture… [contributing] to a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of Tibetan religious and cultural heritage… [promoting] the prosperity and revival of Chinese culture… [and helping to] promote exchanges among ethnic groups, enhance ethnic unity, and build a socialist harmonious society.” The project included several players, such as monasteries, academic institutions, and party figures — a level of scope and coordination that emphasizes the fact that the CCP as a whole considers the initiative to be of political importance. 

Although history is always a battleground, archaeology in particular is not often thought of as a tool of politics. But even high-ranking CCP members are getting involved in promoting the study of archaeology when it comes to Zhangzhung. As he oversaw the Politburo’s exploration of archaeology, President Xi Jinping himself declared, “Archeological work is not only an important cultural undertaking but also has great social and political significance…. Archaeological findings reveal the origin and evolution of the Chinese civilization, its glorious achievements and great contributions to the world civilization.”

China revealed its top 10 archaeological discoveries in 2020, including the Sangsdar Lungmgo graveyard site in southwest Tibet, which was said to offer “some key findings about the early-stage history of Tibet, and shows frequent communication among the region with the area to the south of Himalayas as well as Xinjiang and other places.” While not explicitly spelled out, this site would fall under the domain of Zhangzhung.

In contrast to China’s ambitious study of Zhangzhung for its own political purposes, comparably less effort and attention is dedicated to such endeavors in neighboring India, where archaeology remains bogged down by the country’s bulging bureaucracy

Zhangzhung is also key for China in terms of its geostrategic aims, especially when it comes to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Since 2016, China has been building up infrastructure in the territory it controls and across parts of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as part of the CCP’s 13th Five-Year Plan. The objective is to develop regionally connected transportation networks through the “civil-military fusion strategy,” which intersects with Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative.

China organized conferences on the study of Zhangzhung (also romanized as Shangshung) in 2015 and 2018, with the latter including topics such as “Origin of Shangshung culture and source of Tibetan History and Culture” and  “Shangshung culture and ‘The Belt and Road.’”

Ladakh is part of a wider territorial dispute between India and Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, which has separately also led to tensions between India and China. China has controlled Aksai Chin since the 1962 war with India, calling it part of Xinjiang, while India claims it as part of Ladakh. China also controls Gilgit-Baltistan’s Shaksgam region, which it received from Pakistan in 1963. Beijing therefore has an interest in Ladakh because it would offer a wider direct passage that connects these territories to Xinjiang.

China’s claim on Ladakh is also shaped by a desire to link the province with intra-regional roads leading to Gilgit-Baltistan. Through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which forms part of the BRI, Gilgit-Baltistan provides China with overland access across Pakistan to the Indian Ocean. In addition, the expansion of infrastructure through Ladakh would enhance China’s ability to increase inter-connectivity not only through Pakistan, but also Afghanistan and Central Asia. 

The CCP is utilizing Zhangzhung to pursue both soft power and geopolitical objectives. This includes the use of cultural and religious arguments to deny Tibetan independence and identity while asserting dominance over Buddhism in the Himalayas. China is also citing the ancient kingdom to validate its own plans of economic and geostrategic expansion. Although China has various territorial disputes with India, over the last decade, this tension has escalated. Other countries in the region are also feeling the pressure

There are always revisions of history by governments, especially authoritarian regimes. But these are usually somewhat more organic, concerning matters already present within the contemporary zeitgeist and public discourse. What sets Zhangzhung apart is China’s near literal revival of the concept almost from scratch, coupled with a calculated strategy that includes state financing and concerted propaganda distribution efforts. This is effectively an example of China’s long-term strategy, but in a way that no one anticipated. If other nations want to better understand China and its goals, then they must start by looking to the past.