The Hot Zone
China's newly announced air defense identification zone over the East China Sea aims to shore up national security
Current Issue
· Table of Contents
· Editor's Desk
· Previous Issues
· Subscribe to Mag
Subscribe Now >>
Expert's View
Market Watch
North American Report
Government Documents
Expat's Eye
Photo Gallery
Reader's Service
Learning with
'Beijing Review'
E-mail us
RSS Feeds
PDF Edition
Reader's Letters
Make Beijing Review your homepage
Hot Links

cheap eyeglasses
Market Avenue

Old Tibet
Special> Tibet in 50 Years> Contents> Old Tibet
UPDATED: March 9, 2009 NO. 10 MAR. 12, 2009
Medieval theocratic society
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

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."


Top Story
-Protecting Ocean Rights
-Partners in Defense
-Fighting HIV+'s Stigma
-HIV: Privacy VS. Protection
-Setting the Tone
Most Popular
About BEIJINGREVIEW | About beijingreview.com | Rss Feeds | Contact us | Advertising | Subscribe & Service | Make Beijing Review your homepage
Copyright Beijing Review All right reserved