Interaction with Tibet, which began in the 10th century, underscores the complexities of China's diplomacy and trade. After the collapse of the Tang dynasty, Tibetans established a rival dynasty, the Xia, which controlled the Gansu corridor and trade with Central Asia and the West. Although Tibetan imperial ambitions were crushed by the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century, its leaders continued to enjoy special prominence due to the strong attachment of the Mongol court to Tantric Buddhism. A century later, the Ming toppled Yuan political authority, but Tibetan Tantric Buddhism continued to be influential among the Mongol populations on the frontiers of the Chinese empire. In efforts to control the political situation in the North and West, the Ming court renewed the Yuan practice of bestowing gifts and titles on Tibetan religious leaders and of sanctioning trade in luxury goods. Religious power politics involving Tibet and Mongolia lasted into the 17th century and imperial patronage of Tibetan Buddhism continued throughout the Qing dynasty.
Tibet, which had no indigenous silk industry, looked to China to supply these luxuries for its aristocracy and high-ranking clergy. Although some silks were manufactured specifically for the Tibetan market, many of the textiles sent to Tibet had originally been produced for the Chinese court. They were often drawn from textiles amassed by the imperial household and held in reserve for such purposes. Although highly prized, garments and furnishing fabrics were often recut to fit Tibetan costume styles or to serve new functions, which were often at variance with their original decorative schemes and symbolic meanings.