Op-Ed Contributors

Dalai Lama group flounders in rebuffing Tibetan serfdom

By Zhang Yun (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-02-23 07:56
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An article published Jan 4 by the Dalai Lama group titled "China's Claim that 'Old Tibet' Was a Feudal Serfdom is Fiction" claimed that before 1949, "Tibet was neither an ideal society nor a feudal serf system". It described old Tibet as a beggar-free, rule-of-law society without famine in which tenants were wealthy and the economy was self-sufficient. The article claimed that, compared with China at the time - and even China today - Tibet was a "far more civil society".

It has been unprecedented for the Dalai Lama group to ignore historical facts and to openly hail its past of feudal serfdom, which was actually similar to the Dark Ages in Europe. Its audacious move was also thought-provoking and has sparked two major arguments that I'd like to make to refute the article.

1. It is the consensus of the international community that old Tibet was ruled by the theocracy implementing feudal serfdom.

The decision of whether or not Tibet was ruled under a feudal serfdom system before 1959 by the theocracy should not be made by those speaking on behalf of serf-owners. Chinese and foreign historical archives, research by scholars, as well as the descendants of serfs, are more persuasive and should be relied upon to make this decision.

Old Tibetan writings

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Many Tibetan language archives have records that prove the existence of serfdom in old Tibet.

A permanent residency license issued to local serfs and administered by the Common Assembly of Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, printed in the Tibet Historical Archives Anthology, states: "All male and female slaves, land, and meadows donated by serfs belong to the monastery's Losel-ling College. In addition, serfs are not allowed to lease their land to others before reporting it to the college, and slaves are not allowed to escape. Serfs are not allowed to marry those administered by other monasteries for fear of serf loss, and they should behave themselves and pay their corvee taxes to the monastery on time."

This archive proves the following facts: first, the license issued by the Drepung Monastery openly admitted that serfs existed in old Tibet and slaves in monasteries were property and did not have individual freedoms; second, serfs were confined within the monastery's territory and were not allowed to move out; third, serfs did not have the freedom of marriage; and finally, serfs were merely tools that would only pay corvee taxes to the monastery and could talk.

Writings in Chinese

There were also records on Tibet's social system in Chinese writings from the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) to 1949. They showed objectively the basic features of a feudal serfdom society.

For instance, when author and scholar Chen Jianfu talked about "classes among Tibetan people" in his book Tibetan Issues, published in 1937, he said: "Noble families extend their control over most parts of Tibet. They have the money and power, and rule the land hand in hand with the monasteries. They act like an exclusive class. ... The nobles are cruel to their tenants, who constantly suffer from beatings that leave them covered with cuts and bruises and afraid to revolt." Moreover, "tenants have no freedom as they are restrained by their landlords."

According to the New History of Tibet, compiled by Xu Guangshi and Cai Jincheng in 1911, "some 41 articles of Tibet's criminal law were derived from the region's local customs, many of which are extremely brutal." "Criminals who commit robbery or homicide shall be sentenced to death, no matter whether they are the principal culprit or not. The culprit will be tied to a pillar and be shot to death with arrows, or he or she will be beheaded and the chopped-off head will be shown to the public. Or the culprit would be forced alive into a cave of scorpions. For those who commit theft, their family members will be detained, and the suspects will be ordered to compensate a figure several times the value of the thievery. Then his or her eyes will be gouged out, the nose cut off, or hands and feet will be chopped off."

These writings showed that old Tibet was a theocracy comprised of the nobility and leading monks. Extremely brutal criminal law was carried out in the region and tenants were deprived of personal freedoms. This is evidence of the theocratic feudal serfdom society in old Tibet.

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