Influential Silk Road Women


The Marriage of Wencheng (625-680 C.E.)
Connecting Tang China and Tubo Tibet

Illustration of Songtsan Gambo and Princess Wencheng
in "The Ancient Tangbo Road, Princess Wen Cheng’s Route to Tibet"
Bai Yu, Hong Kong China Tourism Press, 1994

In 640 C.E., the emissaries of Songtsan Gambo, one of Tibet’s most powerful rulers, arrived at the border of China to escort the Tang Dynasty Princess Wencheng to Tibet. There, a year later, she married King Gambo, the thirty-third ruler of the Tubo Dynasty. Through the centuries, this event and Wencheng’s influence was and is celebrated. In Tibet, generations of poets have written numerous verses to eulogize her. Her statue and that of Songtsan Gambo are worshiped in the Jokhang Monastery. The chamber where they spent their first married life is still kept intact there as well. Two traditional days are devoted to her: the fifteenth day of the fourth month of each Tibetan year (the day when Princess Wencheng arrived) and the fifteenth day of the tenth month of each Tibetan year (the birthday of Princess Wencheng). At each, the population turns out to sing and dance in commemoration of her influence.

Information about Wencheng also appears in Chinese videos, travel guides, cultural relics and historic sites. Tourists now may follow the ancient Tangbo Road, the route Wencheng took going from Xi’an (then called Chang’an), China, to Lhasa, Tibet, a route which was part of the southern Silk Road until the end of the Tang and Tubo dynasties in the early 900s.

Who was Wencheng? Princess Wencheng was one of the lesser princesses surrounding the court of the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taitsung of Tang Li Shimin. She apparently was well educated, intelligent and beautiful. Above all, she was steeped in the culture of the Chinese Buddhism. When Songtsan’s troops reached the borders of China, as part of his drive to expand Tibet’s boundaries and influence, the Chinese emperor, in hopes of promoting harmonious relations, offered Wencheng to King Gampo as a bride. A substantial dowry accompanied her, as did promises of trade agreements and safe passage on this Silk Road route which connected the capital at Xian and Llasa.

Wencheng’s dowry contained not only gold, but fine furniture, silks, porcelains, books, jewelry, musical instruments, and medical books. Of more importance, she arrived with the intent of introducing new agricultural methods. Seeds of grains and rapeseed which can adapt to high altitude climates were planted by Chinese craftsmen. Hoe plows, and other farm tools, and technical advice to on how to increase Tibetan agricultural productivity appeared. Han artisans also were brought to pass on their skills in metallurgy, farming, weaving, construction, and the manufacture of paper and ink. Wencheng is also credited with helping to developed Tibetan alphabet and writing.

Wencheng’s Influence - Two Perspectives: The Chinese and Tibetans today venerate Wencheng for somewhat different reasons. In the Chinese view, Wencheng was one of a number of so called “diplomat brides” who brought much needed Han Chinese culture to the peoples beyond their borders, whom the imperial court often looked down upon as barbarians. Wencheng thus served to forge a cultural as well as political link between China and Tibet, which today is still cited in their claim of long historic ties to Tibet.

The Tibetan perspective has important differences. For Tibetans, Wencheng is venerated most often because she was Buddhist, and, along with Songtsan Gambo's Nepalese wife, Bhrikuti Devi, is said to have introduced Buddhism to Tibet. In Tibet, Wencheng is popularly known as Gyasa, and sometimes is worshiped as a goddess of mercy. She is praised for bringing a sacred image of Sakyamuni (the Buddha) with her, which is still enshrined in the center of the main hall of the Jokhang Monastery. The Jokhang is the spiritual center of Tibet and the holiest destination for all Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims.

The view that Wencheng was a “savior” of a backward Tibetan culture, is challenged by Tibetans who chafe at the idea that it was, and is, China who promoted Tibet’s technical and social progress. They say that Songtsan Gambo, who established his capital at Lhasa and built the Tubo regime into a powerful kingdom, was the one whose nation building strategy purposely sought ways to inject new cultures into his kingdom. His marriages to important women from Nepal and China were planned as ways to foster improvements in Tibetan life.

Regardless of divergent views, the marriage of Princess Wencheng and Songtsan Gambo did solidify this portion of the Silk Road as a major route for trade and cultural connections between he two kingdoms.

Statue of Wencheng in
Tibetan Temple dedicated to her.

Think About Questions

•  What advantages for connecting the Tang and Tibetan dynasties did this marriage generate?

•  Why the fascination with the Princess and her marriage? What might be the advantages in continuing to promote Wencheng’s story?

Written Sources

• Bai Yu, The Ancient Tangbo Road, Princess Wen Cheng’s Route to Tibet, Hong Kong China Tourism Press, 1994.

• Tales collected by Lide, Feng, & Kevin Stuart, Asian Folklore Studies, Vol.51 No.2 Oct. 1992.

Web Links

•  Women in World History: “Diplomat Brides” essay. This short biography situates Wencheng with other Chinese princesses sent as brides to solidity ties between China and peoples to its West.

•  ThinkQuest Online Lesson: “The footsteps of Princess Wen Cheng”.
This project, based on the route Princess Wencheng took to Tibet, enables students to understand the history of her times, and introduces them to the natural scenery, historical sites, and Tibetan people's culture and habits along the route.

•  Wencheng Legends Lesson: Identifying Multiple Perspectives
In this activity students read four legends about Wencheng to identify multiple views about her influence on Tibetan life, including the perception that she was a positive agent for change.

Influential Women Women and Silk Production Exploring Primary Sources
  Tang dynasty’s Wu Zetian   Making Silk   Primary Source Lessons
  Princess Wencheng   Wearing Silk  
  Sorghaghtani Beki   Reviving Silk Traditions  
  Empress Irene    

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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