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Tibet in 50 Years
Special> Tibet in 50 Years
UPDATED: March 4, 2009
Full Text: Fifty Years of Democratic Reform in Tibet
Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China March 2009, Beijing


Tibet has been an inseparable part of China since ancient times. The peaceful liberation of Tibet, the driving out of the imperialist aggressor forces from Tibet, the democratic reform and abolition of theocratic feudal serfdom in Tibet were significant parts of the Chinese people's national democratic revolution against imperialism and feudalism in modern history, as well as major historical tasks facing the Chinese Government after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Prior to 1959, Tibet had long been a society of feudal serfdom under theocratic rule, a society that was even darker than medieval society in Europe. The 14th Dalai Lama, as a leader of the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism and also head of the Tibetan local government, monopolized both political and religious power, and was the chief representative of the feudal serf owners, who, accounting for less than 5 percent of the total population of Tibet, possessed the overwhelming part of the means of production, and monopolized the material and cultural resources of Tibet. The serfs and slaves, making up over 95 percent of the total population, suffered destitution, cruel oppression and exploitation, and possessed no means of production or personal freedom whatsoever, not to mention other basic human rights. The long centuries of theocratic rule and feudal serfdom stifled the vitality of Tibetan society, and brought about its decline and decay.

In 1951, the Agreement of the Central People's Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet (hereinafter the 17-Article Agreement) was signed. The Agreement enabled Tibet to repel the imperialist forces and realize peaceful liberation, and created the essential prerequisites for Tibet to join the other parts of the country in the drive for common progress and development.

The 17-Article Agreement prescribed the necessity of reforming the social system of Tibet, and stressed that the local government of Tibet shall carry out reform voluntarily. However, in consideration of the special circumstances of Tibet, the Central People's Government adopted a circumspect attitude toward the reform. With great patience, tolerance and sincerity, it reasoned and waited for the local upper ruling strata of Tibet to carry out reform voluntarily. Instigated and supported by imperialist forces, however, some people in the upper ruling strata, despite the ever-growing demand of the people for democratic reform, were totally opposed to reform and proclaimed their determination never to carry it out. In an attempt to perpetuate feudal serfdom, these people publicly abandoned the 17-Article Agreement and staged an all-out armed rebellion on March 10, 1959. In order to safeguard the unity of the nation and the basic interests of the Tibetan people, the Central People's Government took decisive measures to quell the rebellion together with the Tibetan people. Meanwhile, a vigorous democratic reform started on a mass scale in Tibet. The reform overthrew Tibet's feudal serfdom system under theocracy and liberated about 1 million serfs and slaves, ushering in a new era with the people becoming their own masters. The democratic reform was the most extensive, deepest and greatest social reform in the history of Tibet, and signified an epoch-making event in Tibet's history of social development and the progress of its human rights, as well as a significant advance in the history of human civilization and universal human rights.

Over the past half century, thanks to the care of the Central People's Government and aid from the whole nation, the liberated people of all ethnic groups in Tibet have, in the capacity of masters of the nation, enthusiastically participated in the grand course of constructing a new society and creating a new lifestyle, and worked unprecedented miracles in Tibetan history. The social system of Tibet has developed by leaps and bounds; its modernization has advanced rapidly; Tibetan society has undergone earth-shaking historic changes; and remarkable progress has been witnessed in the cause of human rights that has attracted worldwide attention.

The year 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the democratic reform in Tibet. The magnificent process of the democratic reform and the profound changes that have taken place in Tibet over the past 50 years shed light on the laws governing the social development of Tibet and expose the lies and rumors of various kinds spread by the Dalai Lama clique about the so-called "Tibet issue," and the evil nature of the 14th Dalai Lama through facts, making clear historical rights and wrongs, and the truth about Tibet and its development and changes.

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 book The 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."1 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 Lhasa goes 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.2 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, 147,000 mu (15 mu equal 1 hectare, it is locally called ke in 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 book Portrait of A Dalai Lama: The Life and Times of the Great Thirteenth that 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.3 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."4

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 5 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 5 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 3 million mu of 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 33,000 ke (one ke equals 14 kg - ed.) of qingke (highland barley), 2,500 ke of butter, 2 million liang (15 liang of silver equal one silver dollar of the time) of Tibetan silver, 300 head of cattle, and 175 rolls of pulu (woolen fabric made in Tibet) out of its serfs. In 1959, the Dalai Lama alone owned 160,000 liang of gold, 95 million liang of 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.

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 60 liang of silver. He also sent 400 serfs to the Kunde Ling Monastery as a payment for a debt of 3,000 pin of silver (one pin equals 50 liang of 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 that "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, noted in his book The Making of Modern Tibet that 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.

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