"Only those who have experienced a harsh winter know the warmth of the sun," Saijor Zhoigar, the former vice-president of Tibet University, said. He was comparing his life before and after the democratic reform of Tibet in 1961.
Saijor Zhoigar was indentured as a serf at the age of 7, and sent to the fields to look after cattle. There was never enough to eat or warm clothing to ward off the winter chill.
Tibet remained a society of feudal serfdom right up to the first half of the 20th century.
"An earthquake hit my hometown in Biru county in 1953. Most of the cattle were killed and our tents were destroyed. It made our lives even more miserable," Saijor Zhoigar said.
"But the Tibet government continued to levy a head tax, and even confiscated the butter my family had stored to celebrate our New Year.
"In 1957, north Tibet was hit by a snowstorm, I was 11. As the only laborer in my family, I had to herd cattle for the owner and collect dung for fuel.
"My family worshipped the living Buddha. Every time I fell into a pit and struggled to get out, I wondered where was God or the living Buddha," Saijor Zhoigar said.
Brushing away tears, the 62-year-old said another snowstorm hit north Tibet in 1987. Cattle were once again wiped out and tents destroyed. The central government immediately sent helicopters to the region to drop food, fuel and other necessities for the people.
"What a sharp contrast it was to 1957," Saijor Zhigar said.
Serfs comprised more than 95 percent of the population of old Tibet. Owners sold, mortgaged or bartered serfs just like chattel.
"The PLA, who helped the Tibetan people to quell an armed rebellion during an attempt to separate Tibet from China in 1959, saved me and sent me to a school in Lhasa," Saijor Zhoigar said.
Like many children of former serfs, Saijor Zhoigar eventually entered a college and gained a decent job on graduation.
"A serf could become a government official, or even leader of a university. It was like a dream.
"This is my story. I often say to myself: how wonderful the new Tibet is," Saijor Zhoiga said.
Yangzom, a former serf of Shannan district, is now enjoying life following his retirement as an official of the regional transport bureau.
"I thought being a serf was my destiny," Yangzom said. "Shannan was the base of the armed rebellion in 1959, I saw the armies of the Dalai Lama looting and setting fires.
"The Dalai Lama group talks about human rights. No one knows better than us. We experienced the old and new Tibet and will not allow them to reverse the wheels of history."
Tibetan Yanglag said her dearest wish as a child was to have enough to eat.
"I herded cattle for my owner at the age of 8, and never imagined I would go to school. I was freed from serfdom in 1959 and was given an education, and became a civil servant," she said.
Yanglag, the former director of the Jiangda county women's association in Changdu prefecture, bought a house in Lhasa on her retirement.
"I feel so happy with my life now. We can't allow people to destroy our ethnic unity and ruin our lives," she said.
Gaisang Doje, a retired official of the Shannan prefecture legislature said: "I never had an item of new clothing until I was 15. In old Tibet, we worked like dogs.
"The Dalai group wants to restore the old system, (because) that is paradise for them. But for us it was hell on earth."
Cangmolag, a former cadre of Tibet University, said he and his sister worked as servants in the house of a nobleman.
"My greatest wish then was to have a pair of shoes. That was all I could hope for," he said.
Cangmolag went to school after the reform and became a government official on graduation from university.
"Without the democratic reform, I would have remained a servant in the house of the nobleman. The new Tibet is a sharp contrast to the old one. No one can deny the facts of history," Cangmolag said.
(Xinhua News Agency April 16, 2008)