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Fifty Years of Democratic Reform in Tibet [full text]
Updated: 2009-03-02 18:31

I. Old Tibet — A Society of Feudal Serfdom under Theocracy

Before the democratic reform in 1959, Tibet had been a society of feudal serfdom under theocracy, a society characterized by a combination of political and religious power, and ruthless political oppression and economic exploitation by the serf-owner class, comprising the three major estate-holders — local administrative officials, nobles and upper-ranking lamas in the monasteries — of the broad masses of serfs and slaves. For centuries, the Tibetan people had been living in dire misery and suffering from the harshness of life, and their society had sunk into a grave state of poverty, backwardness, isolation and decline, verging on total collapse.

Medieval theocratic society.British military journalist Edmund Candler, who visited Lhasa in 1904, recorded the details of the old Tibetan society in his bookThe Unveiling of Lhasa: "… at present, the people are medieval, not only in their system of government and their religion, their inquisition, their witchcraft, their incarnations, their ordeals by fire and boiling oil, but in every aspect of their daily life." The most distinctive feature of the social system of old Tibet was theocracy, a system which ensured that the upper religious strata and the monasteries were together the political power holders as well as the biggest serf owners, possessing all kinds of political and economic privileges, and manipulating the material and cultural lives of the Tibetan people for their own advantage.The Unveiling of Lhasagoes on, "The country is governed on the feudal system. The monks are the overlords, the peasantry their serfs." "Powerful lamas controlled everything in Tibet, where even the Buddha himself couldn't do anything without the support of the lamas," he added. Statistics show that before the democratic reform in 1959 Tibet had 2,676 monasteries and 114,925 monks, including 500 senior and junior Living Buddhas and other upper-ranking lamas, and over 4,000 lamas holding substantial economic resources. About one quarter of Tibetan men were monks. The three major monasteries — Drepung, Sera and Ganden — housed a total of more than 16,000 monks, and possessed 321 manors, 147,000mu(15muequal one hectare, it is locally calledkein Tibet —ed.) of land, 450 pastures, 110,000 head of livestock, and over 60,000 serfs. The vicious expansion of religious power under theocracy depleted massive human resources and most material resources, shackled people's thinking and impeded the development of productivity. Charles Bell, who lived in Lhasa as a British trade representative in the 1920s, described in his bookPortrait of A Dalai Lama: The Life and Times of the Great Thirteenththat the theocratic position of the Dalai Lama enabled him to administer rewards and punishments as he wished, because he held absolute power over both this life and the next of the serfs, and coerced them with such power. American Tibetologist Melvyn C. Goldstein incisively pointed out that Tibetan society and government were built upon a value system dominated by religious goals and behavior; religious power and privileges, and the leading monasteries "played a major role in thwarting progress" in Tibet; religion and the monasteries "were heavy fetters upon Tibet's social progress"; and "This commitment... to the universality of religion as the core metaphor of Tibetan national identity will be seen... to be a major factor underlying Tibet's inability to adapt to changing circumstances."

The Unveiling of Lhasa, Edmund Candler. London: Pentagon, 2007. Portrait of A Dalai Lama: The Life and Times of the Great Thirteenth, Charles Bell. London: Collins, 1946.

Means of production mostly monopolized by the three major estate-holders.The three major estate-holders, that is, local administrative officials, nobles and upper-ranking lamas in the monasteries, and their agents, accounted for less than five percent of Tibet's population, but owned all of Tibet's farmland, pastures, forests, mountains, rivers and beaches, as well as most livestock. About 90 percent of old Tibet's population was made up of serfs, called "tralpa" in Tibetan (namely, people who tilled plots of land assigned to them and had to provide corvée labor for the serf owners) and "duiqoin" (small households with chimneys emitting smoke). They had no means of production or personal freedom, and the survival of each of them depended on tilling plots for the estate-holders. In addition, "nangzan," who comprised five percent of the population, were hereditary slaves, known as "speaking tools." Statistics released in the early years of the Qing Dynasty in the 17th century indicate that Tibet then had more than three millionmuof farmland, of which 30.9 percent was owned by the local feudal government, 29.6 percent by nobles, and 39.5 percent by monasteries and upper-ranking lamas. The three major estate-holders' monopoly of the means of production remained unchanged until the democratic reform in 1959. Before 1959, the family of the 14th Dalai Lama possessed 27 manors, 30 pastures and over 6,000 serfs, and annually squeezed about 33,000ke(onekeequals 14 kilograms —ed.) ofqingke(highland barley), 2,500keof butter, two millionliang(15liangof silver equal one silver dollar of the time) of Tibetan silver, 300 head of cattle, and 175 rolls ofpulu(woolen fabric made in Tibet) out of its serfs. In 1959, the Dalai Lama alone owned 160,000liangof gold, 95 millionliangof silver, over 20,000 pieces of jewelry and jadeware, and more than 10,000 pieces of silk and satin fabric and rare fur clothing, including over 100 robes inlaid with pearls and gems, each worth tens of thousands of yuan.

A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State, Melvyn C. Goldstein. California: University of California, 1991.

Serfs owned by the three major estate-holders.The local government of old Tibet prescribed that serfs must stay on the land within the manors of their owners, and were not allowed to leave without permission. Fleeing from the manor was forbidden. They were serfs from generation to generation, confined to the land of their owners. All serfs and their livestock with labor ability had to till the plots of land assigned to them and provide corvée labor. Once the serfs lost their ability to labor, they were deprived of livestock, farm tools and land, and degraded to the status of slaves. The serf-owners literally possessed the living bodies of their serfs. Since serfs were their private property, they could trade and transfer them, present them as gifts, make them gambling stakes or mortgages for debt or exchange them. According to historical records, in 1943 the noble Trimon Norbu Wangyal sold 100 serfs to a monk official at Kadron Gangsa, in the Drigung area, each serf for 60liangof silver. He also sent 400 serfs to the Kunde Ling Monastery as a payment for a debt of 3,000 pin of silver (onepinequals 50liangof silver). The serf-owners had a firm grip on the birth, death and marriage of serfs. A Tibetan ballad of the time goes, "Our lives were given to us by our parents, while our bodies are owned by the government. We are not masters of our own lives or bodies, or of our own destiny." All serfs had to ask their owners for permission to marry, and male and female serfs not belonging to the same owner had to pay "redemption fees" before they could marry. After marriage, serfs were also taxed for their newborn children. Children of serfs were registered the moment they were born, sealing their life-long fate as serfs.

Rigid hierarchy.The "13-Article Code" and "16-Article Code," which were enforced for several hundred years in old Tibet, divided people into three classes and nine ranks, enshrining inequality between the different ranks in law. The Code stipulated that people were divided into three classes by blood and position, each class was further divided into three ranks. The upper class consisted of the small minority of nobles, Living Buddhas and senior officials; the middle class was composed of lower-ranking ecclesiastical and secular officials, military officers, and the agents of the three major estate-holders; and serfs and slaves constituted the lower class, accounting for 95 percent of Tibet's total population. The provision concerning the penalty for murder in the Code provided, "As people are divided into different classes and ranks, the value of a life correspondingly differs." The bodies of people of the highest rank of the upper class, such as a prince or Living Buddha, were literally worth their weight in gold. The lives of people of the lowest rank of the lower class, such as women, butchers, hunters and craftsmen, were only worth a straw rope. The "Report on the Prohibition against Taking in Descendents of Blacksmiths" kept in the Archives of the Tibet Autonomous Region records that in 1953, when the 14th Dalai Lama found out that one of his servants was a blacksmith's descendent, he immediately expelled the servant, and announced that descendents of gold, silver and iron smiths, and butchers belonged to the lowest rank of the lower class, and were forbidden to serve in the government or marry people from other ranks or classes. Tibetologist Tom Grunfeld of the State University of New York, USA, noted in his bookThe Making of Modern Tibetthat equality among mankind, though incorporated in the doctrines of Buddhism, unfortunately failed to prevent the Tibetan rulers from setting up their own rigid hierarchical system.

Cruel political oppression and corporal punishments.As stipulated in the Code of old Tibet, when serfs "infringe upon" the interests of the three estate-holders, the estate-holders "have their eyes gouged out, legs hamstrung, tongue cut out, or hands severed, or have them hurled from a cliff, drowned or otherwise killed; such punishments are a warning to others not to follow their example." Any serf "who voices grievances at the palace, behaving disgracefully, should be arrested and whipped; anyone who disobeys a master shall be arrested; anyone who spy on a master shall be arrested; a commoner who offends an official shall be arrested." When people of different classes and ranks violated the same criminal law, the criteria for imposing penalties and the means of punishment were quite different in old Tibet. As stipulated in the Code, a servant who was insubordinate to his master could have his hands or feet chopped off; but a master who injured a servant only needed to give the servant medical treatment; and a servant who injured a Living Buddha was deemed to have committed a felony and would have his eyes gouged out, a limb amputated, or even put to death.

A Russian traveler in Lhasa in the early 20th century, wrote in his bookA Buddhist Pilgrim to the Holy Place of Tibet: "The offenders are mostly poverty-stricken Tibetans punished either by having their fingers or noses cut off, or, in most cases, by being blinded in both eyes. Such disfigured and blind people are seen begging in the streets of Lhasa every day. Exile is another type of punishment. Offenders are shackled and chained, and have to wear a large round wooden collar around their necks all their life. They are sent to remote regions for hard labor or work as serfs for feudal aristocrats and patriarchal chiefs. The severest punishment of all is, of course, the death penalty, with the victims drowned in rivers (as in Lhasa) or thrown over rocky cliffs (as in Xigaze)."

David MacDonald, a Briton, wrote in his bookThe Land of the Lama: "Capital punishment is deemed the heaviest category of punishment in Tibet, to which the most inhuman practice of dismemberment is added based on the hypothesis proposed by Tibetan lamas that after dismemberment the human soul cannot be reincarnated. The most common practice is to throw the condemned prisoner into a river in a leather wrapper, which will sink in about five minutes. If he remains alive after this time, he will be tossed into the water again until he dies. Afterwards, the body will be dismembered, and hurled into the river to drift downward with the current…. Even more appalling is the practice of gouging out a prisoner's eyes. A piece of heated, U-shaped iron is inserted into the eye sockets, or boiling water or oil is poured in, and the eyeballs are prized out with an iron hook."

A Buddhist Pilgrim to the Holy Place of Tibet, Gombojab Tsebekovitch Tsybikoff.

There were penitentiaries or private jails in monasteries and aristocrats' houses, where instruments of torture were kept and clandestine tribunals held to punish serfs and slaves. In the Ganden Monastery there were many handcuffs, fetters, cudgels, and instruments of torture used for eye gouging and hamstringing. The private monastery administrative office set up by Trijang Rinpoche, junior tutor of the present 14th Dalai Lama, killed and injured more than 500 serfs and poor monks, in Dechen Dzong (present-day Dagze County) jailed 121 people, sent 89 into exile, forced 538 into slavery, forced 1,025 commoners into exile, forced 72 divorces, and 484 women were raped there.

In the Archives of the Tibet Autonomous Region there is a letter from a department of the Tibet local government to Rabden in the early 1950s, saying that, to celebrate the Dalai Lama's birthday, all the staff of Gyumey would chant the sutra. To successfully complete this ceremony, some special food would be thrown to the animals. Thus, a corpus of wet intestine, two skulls, many kinds of blood and a full human skin were urgently needed, all of which must be promptly delivered. A religious ceremony for the Dalai Lama used human blood, skulls and skin, showing how cruel and bloody the feudal serfdom system under theocracy was in old Tibet.

Heavy taxes and larvée.Serf owners exploited serfs by imposing corvée labor, taxes and levies, and rents for land and livestock. There were over 200 kinds of taxes levied by the former local government of Tibet alone. Serfs had to contribute more than 50 percent or even 70 to 80 percent of their labor, unpaid, to the government and manor owners. At feudal manors, serf owners divided the land into two parts: Most fertile land was kept as manor demesne while infertile and remote lots were rented to serfs on stringent conditions. To use the lots, serfs had to work on the demesne with their own farm implements and provide their own food. Only after they had finished work on the demesne could they work on the lots assigned to them. In the busy farming season or when serf owners needed laborers, serfs had to contribute man or animal power gratis. In addition, serfs had to do unpaid work for the local government of Tibet and its subordinates, among which the heaviest was transport corvée, because Tibet is large but sparsely populated and all kinds of things had to be transported by man or animal power.

The Land of the Lama, David MacDonald. The highest school of the Gelug Sect in Tibet. — ed.

According to a survey conducted prior to the democratic reform of Tibet, the Darongqang Manor owned by Gyaltsap Tajtra had a total of 1,445muof land, and 81 able-bodied and semi-able-bodied serfs. They were assigned a total of 21,266 corvée days per year, the equivalent of an entire year's labor by 67.3 people, 83 percent of the total. The Khesum Manor, located by the Yarlung River in present-day Nedong County, was one of the manors owned by aristocrat Surkhang Wangchen Gelek. Before the democratic reform, the manor had 59 serf households totaling 302 persons and 1,200muof land. Every year, Surkhang and his agents levied 18 taxes and assigned 14 kinds of corvée, making up 26,800 working days; the local government of Tibet levied nine kinds of taxes and assigned 10 kinds of corvée, making up more than 2,700 working days; and Riwo Choling Monastery levied seven kinds of taxes and assigned three kinds of corvée, making up more than 900 working days; on average, every laborer had to do over 210 days of unpaid work for the three estate-holders, and contribute over 800 kilograms of grain and 100liangof silver.

A title of the 14th Dalai Lama before he took over the reins of government. — ed.

Exploitation through usury.Each Dalai Lama had two money-lending agencies. Some money coming from "tribute" to the Dalai Lama was lent at an exorbitant rate of interest. According to records in the account books of the two agencies, in 1950 they lent 3,038,581liangof silver as principal, and collected 303,858liangin interest. Governments at different levels in Tibet also had many such agencies, and lending money and collecting interest became one of the officials' duties. A survey done in 1959 showed that the three major monasteries, namely Drepung, Sera and Ganden, in Lhasa lent 22,725,822 kilograms of grain and collected 399,364 kilograms in interest, and lent 57,105,895liangof silver and collected 1,402,380liangin interest. Revenue from usury made up 25 to 30 percent of the total revenue of the three monasteries. Most aristocrats also engaged in usury, with the interest accounting for 15 to 20 percent of their family revenues. Serfs had to borrow money to survive, and more than 90 percent of serf households were in debt. French traveler Alexandre David-Neel wrote in his bookLe Vieux Tibet Face à la Chine Nouvelle (Old Tibet Faces New China), "All the farmers in Tibet are serfs saddled with lifelong debts, and it is almost impossible to find any of them who have paid off their debts." Serfs were burdened with new debts, debts passed down from previous generations, debts resulting from joint liability, and debts apportioned among all the serfs. The debts that were passed down from previous generations and could never be repaid even by succeeding generations accounted for one third of the total debts. The grandfather of a serf named Tsering Gonpo in Maizhokunggar County once borrowed 50keof grain from the Sera Monastery. In 77 years the three generations of the famaily had paid more than 3,000keof grain in interest, but the serf owner still claimed that Tsering Gonpo owed him 100,000keof grain. There was another serf named Tenzin in Dongkar County who borrowed onekeofqingkefrom his master in 1941. In 1951 he was ordered to pay back 600ke. Tenzin could not pay off the debt, and had to flee. His wife committed suicide, and his seven-year-old son was taken away to repay the debt by labor.

A stagnant society on the edge of collapse.Ruthless oppression and exploitation under the feudal serfdom of theocracy stifled the vitality of Tibetan society and reduced Tibet to a state of chronic stagnation for centuries. Even by the middle of the 20th century, Tibet was still in a state of extreme isolation and backwardness, almost without a trace of modern industry, commerce, science and technology, education, culture or health care. Primitive farming methods were still being used, and herdsmen had to travel from place to place to find pasture for their livestock. There were few strains and breeds of grains and animals, some of which had even degenerated. Farm tools were primitive. The level of both the productive forces and social development was very low. Deaths from hunger and cold, poverty and disease were commonplace among the serfs, and the streets of Lhasa, Xigaze, Qamdo and Nagqu were crowded with beggars of all ages and both sexes. American Tibetologist A. Tom Grunfeld pointed out that, although some people claimed before 1959, ordinary Tibetan people could enjoy milk tea as they wished and a great deal of meat and vegetables, a survey conducted in eastern Tibet in 1940 showed that 38 percent of Tibetan families never had tea to drink, 51 percent could not afford butter, and 75 percent sometimes had to eat weeds boiled with beef bones and oat or bean flour. "There is no evidence to support these images of a Utopian Shangri-la."

Plenty of evidence has demonstrated that by the middle of the 20th century the feudal serfdom of theocracy was beset with numerous contradictions and plagued by crises. Serfs petitioned their masters for relief from their burdens, fled their lands, resisted paying rent and corvée labor, and even waged armed struggle. Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme, once a Galoin (cabinet minister) of the former local government of Tibet, pointed out that "all believe that if Tibet goes on like this the serfs will all die in the near future, and the nobles will not be able to live either. The whole of Tibet will be destroyed."

"A Great Turn in the Development of Tibetan History," Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme. China Tibetology quarterly, Issue 1 of 1991, Beijing.