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Tibet As It Was -- Before Chinese Rule

By Mary Anne Reardon

Since March, 2011, at least 33 Tibetans have set themselves on fire. More than 24 have died. This extreme form of protest against Chinese rule is an attempt to bring the world’s attention to their plight. Over six decades have passed since the first Chinese troops invaded the realm of the Dalai Lama. This article, the first of two, describes life in Tibet when the Chinese onslaught began, October 7, 1950. The next article will describe Tibet under Chinese rule.

In 1958 this Buddhist country was a blank spot on the globe, little known or understood. In many ways it was a place that time forgot, with a traditional culture completely untouched by modern society. The area occupied by Tibetans comprised about a fourth of China’s land mass as it is today. This included eastern Tibet, known as Kham, and northern areas known as Amdo. Much of Tibet is a high altitude plateau. It is one of the most mountainous countries on earth and nearly the most sparsely populated. Never properly tabulated, the population was estimated to be about six million. Habitable land lies between 10,000 and 15,000 feet altitude with passes rising to 18,000 feet. As it had for thousands of years, in 1950 the yak’s pace dictated the tempo of life. Farmers still used wood plows with iron shares. The real Tibetan world existed in the grasslands among the nomads with their yaks, goats and sheep, their yak-skin tents and their Buddhist faith.

The grasslands of the northern Tibet area of Ambo (now Gansu Province)

Tibet was a land of mysticism. Governed by a feudal system, the ancient structure of its society was not without flaws. Men, land, animals – all belonged to the Dalai Lama, whose orders were the law of the land. Since the 14th Dalai Lama was 15 in 1950 this authority was exercised by regents. Most arable land was divided into large estates, of which monasteries controlled a third while the 200 noble families controlled the rest. Below the nobles were farmers, herdsmen, other commoners and serfs. Peasants on landed estates were bound to the soil and paid taxes in labor, crops, and cash. They were allotted small plots to cultivate and were free to sell what they grew.

Religion came first; it inspired the culture and was the center of the Tibetan’s life. Lhasa means “The Place of the Gods”. Buddhism came to Tibet in the 8th century. It incorporated many aspects of the pagan Bon religion which worshiped nature, as well as Hinduism with its gods, goddesses and charms. All life, even that of the tiniest gnat, was considered sacred. Any activity that involved digging was a slow process because each living creature had to be rescued from a shovel full of dirt and moved to safety.

Buddhists believe in reincarnation; their lives are devoted to seeking a higher rebirth. From the poorest serf to the richest noble the best room in their home was a shrine or chapel. Every nomad’s tent had a shrine. Religious festivals were frequent. Pilgrimages to sacred places were an important religious duty. Pilgrims would finger a rosary of 108 beads with one hand while with the other spinning a prayer wheel filled with sacred writings and prayers written on strips of paper.

Pilgrim from Tibetan village in Lhasa

Superstition played an important role in determining one’s actions. There were auspicious days, weeks, even years. Extreme measures were taken to avoid evil spirits and appease demons. Illness was attributed to evil spirits and a priest, rather than a doctor, consulted for a cure.

Tibetans believe that the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of Chenrizi, the lord of mercy and the patron deity of Tibet. The Dalai Lama is considered all powerful, the possessor of all knowledge. All religious and secular power were vested in him. He was advised by a cabinet of three lay persons and one monk, and a legislature called into session only infrequently. Before any important decision was made the State Oracle was consulted for advice, which was invariably followed.

Every family had a son or at least one relative who was a monk. Monks constituted a fourth of the male population. In 1950 Tibet had 6,000 monasteries, temples and shrines. Every village had a monastery. Some monasteries had more than 5,000 monks. Every government position was held by one monk and one lay person. The monks were very conservative – a powerful force opposed to change, and thus largely responsible for the backwardness of the country.

Monasteries were quite wealthy. In addition to the estates they owned, each monastery had a large store of silks and brocades from China. From time to time conflicts broke out between monasteries. Monks murdered monks causing turmoil in the government.

The entire population was brought up to be hostile to foreigners who were kept miles away from Lhasa. The monks feared any sort of foreign influence that might undermine their authority. In 1950 only eight foreigners were known to reside in Tibet.

Lhasa had a population of about 10,000 with 17,000 monks in nearby monasteries. A majority of the 200 noble families lived in or near the city.

Two mothers of noble families. From: Resistance and Reform in Tibet by Robert Barnett. Indiana University Press. 1994.

The wealthy built elegant houses with glass windows. Glass was a real luxury as it had to be imported at great expense. Most homes covered their windows with white or ecru cloth or paper. The poor had no windows, only a hole in the ceiling to allow smoke to escape. Electricity on a limited basis was available exclusively to the homes of the affluent and to the mint.

A few schools provided only the most basic education. Children of the wealthy were sent to India or were educated in monasteries. The vast majority of Tibetans were illiterate and most believed that the world was flat. Few Tibetan books other than scripture existed. Printing books was a laborious process because each letter was carved into a separate block of wood. This work was done in the monasteries. Paper was locally made. A one-page weekly newspaper was printed in India.

In 1950 there were two radio transmitters and six radios in the country. In January, 1950, Tibet broadcast to the world for the first time. The United States sent several radio sets, but no one could figure out how to assemble them.

On religious grounds, the wheel was banned from everyday life. It was a religious symbol – the Wheel of Dharma (Buddhist law and theology).

Wheel of Dharma. Two deer atop Jokhang Temple Lhasa.

Goods were carried on the backs of men and animals – not in carts.

The Laden Yak. From: Portrait of the Dalai Lama by Sir Charles Bell. Publisher – Collins. 1946.

Unpaved lanes could be found in towns but throughout the countryside travelers used animal tracks as paths. These sufficed for the large trading caravans, so vital to the economic life of the country. Tibetans were great traders; each year they traveled to Mongolia, Nepal and India, and some years to China.

The 13th Dalai Lama was eager to modernize the country and improve the small outdated army, but he was vigorously opposed by the monks.

Tibetan Soldier with old-style gun. From: Portrait of the Dalai Lama.

He did import three automobiles in 1904. Since fuel had to be brought from India on the backs of mules his cars seldom left the garage. The present Dalai Lama was mechanically inclined and at the age of 14 enjoyed taking them apart and reassembling them.

A medical school offered a ten-year course. Medicines were predominately herbs, gathered each spring by the students in the nearby hills. In the practice of medicine Buddhist doctrines were strictly adhered to. The only surgery was bloodletting; the only inoculations for smallpox. Although sanitary conditions were very poor and sewage disposal nonexistent, most serious diseases and epidemics were avoided by virtue of the cool climate and pure air.

Overall, the Tibetans were a quite happy and contented people, with ready smiles. They loved to laugh and were kind and generous to friends and strangers alike. Their lives revolved around their Buddhist religion and they cherished the Dalai Lama. Even serfs were content; Buddhism taught them that their lot in life was the result of their previous existence. Therefore they strove to earn a higher reincarnation by prayer and good deeds.

In 1950, when Chinese troops threatened, Tibetans called on their gods for protection and they were confident that their religion would suffice to preserve their independence. The outcome will be discussed in my next article.