Tibet before the Chinese Revolution

Before the Chinese revolution Tibet was a feudal medieval relic. Even by the standards of pre-revolutionary China, Tibet was backward politically, economically and socially.

The backwardness was such that even the wheel was not in use in Tibet. There was no plumbing, even in the houses of the rich, and in 1957 Alan Winnington noted

“the question of whether the world is flat or whether it moves round the sun is just as full of politics in present-day Tibet as it was in Galileo’s Europe.

” Moreover, Tibet at the time of the Chinese revolution had no schools or hospitals. The rich either had tutors at home for their children or sent them to school in India, a practice started during the 1920s when British imperialism controlled Tibet. There were no roads, so little communication with the outside world. Such transport of exports and imports as there was was effected by peasants forced to perform this


service for their masters, who had to provide their own animals for the purpose.

What social system could succeed in keeping this area of 1,200,000 inhabitants and 1,200,000 square miles so very backward and detached from the modern world? The distinction of having condemned the area to such exceptional backwardness goes to the Tibetan feudal system, the vicious and cruel class rule of the 5% of the population that constituted the feudal nobility, backed up by theocratic Lamaism. Like the Catholic church of medieval Europe, the monasteries of Tibet were themselves large feudal landlords. They also exploited the peasantry through usury.

If 5% of the population consisted of the nobility and their administrators, the rest was made up of 60% peasants, 20% herdsmen and 15% lamas. The peasants were serfs, and these fell into three categories. 45% of them were




), another 45%




), and the remaining 10%







were the highest stratum of serf, whose families had been attached to the same manor for generations. Despite their relatively high status – among serfs, that is – 70% of them lived in poverty. The


were ‘black’ people who had themselves left their masters (or whose parents or remoter ancestors had), but had been forced to place themselves at the disposal of another master because there was no place in Tibetan society for someone born a serf to be without a master. It was illegal to leave a master, and could lead to cruel punishment for a serf who was caught. The


, however, by putting themselves at the disposal of another master, sometimes managed to free themselves from the original one. Their status with the new master, however, was even lower than the


, and they tended to be still poorer. In addition to being obliged like the


to work from two-thirds to three-quarters of their time on their masters’ land, they were required to hand over by way of rent part of the crops they grew on the small parcel of land allocated to them to their master. The


were simply slaves. They worked for their masters without payment of any kind. Even their children did not belong to them but to their masters.

In these circumstances, it was very hard for peasants to produce sufficient to feed themselves and still have enough seed for the following year’s sowing. 80% of serfs were in debt to the monasteries, the aristocracy or the local government in respect of loans that they had been forced to incur, some of them totally incapable of repayment. Interest at extremely high rates was exacted from them in addition to all the other forms of exploitation.

With the heavy burden of the feudal nobility and the monasteries on their backs, the peasants were never able to improve agricultural methods, even if they had been allowed to do so. Production methods were unbelievably primitive. Ploughs were wooden. Farm machinery did not exist anywhere in the region.

The compliance of the serf masses was secured by means of force and religion.

Religion, as it always does, holds out glowing promises of justice, freedom and equality, but delivered only subjugation and misery. Lamaism reconciles its adherents to the dire hardship and glaring injustice of their lives by telling them that they are paying for ‘sins’ in earlier lives (disobedience and rebellion) and promising them a good life in their next incarnation if they meekly submitted to their fate. While preaching the non-violence that is supposedly the hallmark of Buddhism, however, Lamaism is an integral part of a system designed to hold down the oppressed masses by utmost brutality. It is not simply that other-wordly monks looked the other way while the nobility dished out the necessary cruelty. The monks themselves dispensed these cruelties too.

The same monks who preached that it is unforgivable to kill a fly, a louse or even bacteria, thought nothing of administering floggings to peasants and fellow monks of serf class for the slightest infraction of a million arbitrary regulations. Serious offences did not normally lead to death sentences, after all Buddhists aren’t suppose to kill living creatures, but they did lead to floggings from which the victims could not but die.

Anna Louise Strong spoke to a young lama of


background at Jokhan monastery. She noted that he had

“markings left on hands and hips from many floggings.”

The lama himself claimed it had been over 1000. She asked him:

“Did anyone in the monastery show you any kindness? … Buddha teaches kindness and compassion to all living creatures. Didn’t anyone follow this teaching”. She continues:

“The young lama replied that he had heard plenty of talk in the scripture halls about ‘kindness to all living creatures’, but had ‘never seen any kindness shown by an upper stratum lama to a poor lama. If any upper class lama refrains from beating you, that is already very good. In never saw an upper lama give food to a poor lama who was hungry. They treated the laymen who were believers just as badly or even worse” (

When the Serfs Stood up in Tibet,

New World Press, Peking, 1960, p.120).

She also wrote, in connection with the system of government in Tibet:

“The complicated mechanism of government handled only the affairs of the upper class. Commoners were ruled directly by their masters. Every manor house and monastery had its jail, usually a rough stone cell in a cellar with little air or light and no toilet facilities expect the floor. Manors and monasteries had their own whips for flogging, their own torture implements. A master had the right to cut off the hand or foot or gouge out the eyes of a disobedient or runaway serf. There were special instruments for these punishments, and also for ham-stringing or slicing off the heel or otherwise crippling a serf.”

Following the Chinese revolution, there were attempts by British and US imperialism to detach Tibet from China, using their influence with the Dalai Lama’s advisers. Opinion within the Tibetan ruling circles as to their best course of action was divided, however, and no immediate steps were taken. The British and Americans were reputedly proffering contradictory advice, with the Americans suggesting the Dalai Lama flee to India, from where he would be financed by them to mount an anti-communist holy war, while the British were telling him that to retain any influence he would need to stay in Tibet. In the meantime, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army took steps to secure Tibet against the encroachment of foreign imperialism into Chinese national territory. There was, moreover, a certain amount of warlord conflict between Tibetan nationality and Han nationality warlords which needed to be quelled. When the PLA moved towards Tibet, it found itself confronted by the Tibetan army at Chamdo. As might be expected, the fighting forces of such a backward region as Tibet could not amount to much and indeed, they were defeated in a 2-day battle, during which part of the Tibetan army simply went over to the PLA.

Apei, the Commander-in-Chief of the Tibetan forces, expected at this point to be put to death. Instead he was mobilised to convince the Dalai Lama of the advantages of co-operating with China, of which Tibet had been an integral part since the 13th century. Even when the British mounted an aggression to take possession of Tibet under Younghusband in the 1920s, they recognised Chinese sovereignty in the area by sending the Chinese government the bill for their armed aggression. Apei was successful in convincing the Tibetan nobility that, for the time being at least, they should not oppose Chinese sovereignty – the alternative clearly being to become themselves vassals of US and/or British imperialism, a fate that most did not relish. As a result agreement was reached in March 1951 for Tibet to retain its autonomy within the People’s Republic of China and to be allowed to progress towards socialism at its own slow pace.

In this agreement Peking agreed

“not to abolish the existing political structure”

and “

not to use compulsion for reform”,

to allow the governmental powers of Tibet’s two spiritual leaders, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Erdeni, to continue, as well as rule by the clique of nobility known as the Kasha. The Kasha, in turn, agreed to make some progress towards reform in its own time, in consultation with the people to ascertain their desires. In addition, the clan warfare that had beset Tibet for centuries was halted,


was undermined by the PLA’s practice of paying peasants for the services which they had hitherto had to perform free for their masters.

Although the agreement did not by any means clear out the rotten Tibetan social system, improvements did begin to be made in peasants’ lives. The Chinese, for instance, provided interest free seed loans, with a view to improving the quality of the crops in the region. They distributed 380,000 iron farm tools to replace the traditional wooden ploughs. They also introduced better quality livestock. Three great roads were built, schools and hospitals were introduced.

Even these small reforms, together with the opening up of contacts with the rest of China, shook the foundations of the old society to such an extent that the feudal nobility realised that the old society could not survive the winds of change. These sections of society, with the high-class lamas who controlled the monasteries, were soon plotting with foreign powers with a view to organising secession.

Their rebellion and its consequences will be dealt with in the next issue of