Before the Democratic Reform of 1959 Tibet had long been a society
of feudal serfdom under the despotic religion-political rule of
lamas and nobles, a society which was darker and more cruel than
the European serfdom of the Middle Ages. Tibet's serf-owners were
principally the three major estate-holders: local administrative
officials, nobles and upper-ranking lamas in monasteries. Although
they accounted for less than 5 percent of Tibet's population, they
owned all of Tibet's farmland, pastures, forests, mountains and
rivers as well as most livestock. Statistics released in the early
years of the Qing Dynasty in the 17th century indicate that Tibet
then had more than 3 million ke of farmland (15 ke
equal to 1 hectare), of which 30.9 percent was owned by officials,
29.6 percent by nobles, and 39.5 percent by monasteries and upper-ranking
lamas. Before the 1959 Democratic Reform, Tibet had 197 hereditary
noble families and 25 big noble families, with the biggest numbering
seven to eight, each holding dozens of manors and tens of thousand
of ke of land.
Serfs made up 90 percent of old Tibet's population. They were called
tralpa in Tibetan (namely people who tilled plots of land
assigned to them and had to provide corvee labor for the serf-owners)
and duiqoin (small households with chimneys emitting smoke).
They had no land or personal freedom, and the survival of each of
them depended on an estate-holder's manor. In addition, nangzan
who comprised 5 percent of the population were hereditary household
slaves, deprived of any means of production and personal freedom.
Serf-owners literally possessed the living bodies of their serfs.
Since serfs were at their disposal as their private property, they
could trade and transfer them, present them as gifts, make them
mortgages for a debt and exchange them. According to historical
records, in 1943 the aristocrat Chengmoim Norbu Wanggyai sold 100
serfs to a monk official at Garzhol Kamsa, in Zhigoin area, at the
cost of 60 liang of Tibetan silver (about four silver dollars)
per serf. He also sent 400 serfs to the Gundelin Monastery as mortgage
for a debt of 3,000 pin Tibetan silver (about 10,000 silver dollars).
Serf-owners had a firm grip on the birth, death and marriage of
serfs. Male and female serfs not belonging to the same owner had
to pay "redemption fees" before they could marry. In some cases,
an exchange was made with a man swapped for man and a woman for
woman. In other cases, after a couple wedded, the ownership of both
husband and wife remained unchanged, but their sons would belong
to the husband's owner and their daughters to the wife's owner.
Children of serfs were registered the moment they were born, setting
their life-long fate as serfs.
Serf-owners ruthlessly exploited serfs through corvee and usury.
The corvee tax system of old Tibet was very cruel. Permanent corvee
tax was registered and there were also temporary additional corvee
taxes. Incomplete statistics indicate the existence of more than
200 categories of corvee taxes levied by the Gaxag (Tibetan local
government). The corvee assigned by Gaxag and manorial lords accounted
for over 50 percent of the labor of serf households, and could go
as high as 70-80 percent. According to a survey conducted before
the Democratic Reform, the Darongqang Manor owned by Regent Dagzhag
of the 14th Dalai Lama had a total of 1,445 ke of land, and
81 able-bodied and semi-able-bodied serfs. They were assigned a
total of 21,260 corvee days for the whole year, the equivalent of
an entire year's labor by 67.3 people. In effect, 83 percent of
the serfs had to do corvee for one full year.
The serfs engaged in hard labor year in and year out and yet had
no guaranteed food or clothing. Often they had to rely on money
borrowed at usury to keep body and soul together. The annual interest
rate for usurious loans was very high, while that for money borrowed
from monasteries was 30 percent, and for grain 20 or 25 percent.
Monetary loans from nobles exacted a 20 percent interest, while
that for grain amounted to 20 or 25 percent.
Gaxag had several money-lending institutions, and the Dalai Lama
of various generations had two organizations specialized in lending
money. Incomplete records in the account books of the two cash-lending
bodies of the Dalai Lama in 1950 show that they had lent out about
3.0385 million liang of Tibetan silver in usurious loans.
Snowballing interest of usurious loans created debts which could
never be repaid by even succeeding generations and debts involving
a guarantor resulted in the bankruptcy of both the debtor and the
guarantor. The grandfather of a serf named Cering Goinbo of Maizhokunggar
County once borrowed 50 ke of grain (1 ke equal to
14 kg) from the Sera Monastery. In 77 years the three generations
had paid more than 3,000 ke of grain for the interest but
the serf-owner still claimed that Cering Goinbo owed him 100,000
ke of grain. There was another serf named Dainzin in Donggar
County who in 1941 borrowed one ke of qingke barley
from his master. In 1951 when he was asked to repay 600 ke,
he was forced to flee, his wife was driven to death and his seven-year-old
son was taken away to repay the debt by labor.
In order to safeguard the interests of serf-owners, Tibetan local
rulers formulated a series of laws. 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. They clearly stipulated
that people were unequal in legal status. The codes stipulated,
"It is forbidden to quarrel with a worthy, sage, noble and descendant
of the ruler"; "persons of the lower rank who attack those of the
upper rank, and a junior official who quarrels with a senior official
commit a serious crime and so should be detained"; "anyone who resists
a master's control should be arrested"; "a commoner who offends
an official should be arrested"; "anyone who voices grievances at
the palace, behaving disgracefully, should be arrested and whipped."
The standards for measuring punishment and the methods for dealing
with people of different classes and ranks who violated the same
criminal law were quite different. In the law concerning the penalty
for murder, it was written, "As people are divided into different
classes and ranks, the value of a life correspondingly differs."
The lives of people of the highest rank of the upper class, such
as a prince or leading Living Buddha, are calculated in gold to
the same weight as the dead body. The lives of people of the lowest
rank of the lower class, such as women, butchers, hunters and craftsmen,
are worth a straw rope. In the law concerning compensation for injury,
it was stipulated that a servant who injures his master should have
his hands or feet chopped off; a master who injures a servant is
only responsible for the medical treatment for the wound, with no
other compensation required.
Making use of written or common law, the serf-owners set up penitentiaries
or private jails. Local governments had law courts and prisons,
as had large monasteries. Estate-holders could build private prisons
on their own manor ground. Punishments were extremely savage and
cruel, and included gouging out the eyes; cutting off ears, hands
and feet; pulling out tendons; and throwing people into water. In
the Gandan Monastery, one of the largest in Tibet, there were many
handcuffs, fetters, clubs and other cruel instruments of torture
used for gouging out eyes and ripping out tendons. Many materials
and photos showing limbs of serfs mutilated by serf-owners in those
years are kept in the hall housing the Tibetan Social and Historical
Relics Exhibition in the Beijing Cultural Palace of Nationalities.
Under the centuries-long feudal serfdom, the Tibetan serfs were
politically oppressed, economically exploited and frequently persecuted.
A saying circulated among serfs, "All a serf can carry away is his
own shadow, and all he can leave behind is his footprints." Old
Tibet can be said to have been one of the world's regions witnessing
the most serious violations of human rights.
Despite the cruel rule of the feudal serfdom, Tibetan laboring
people never ceased their resistance struggles. They strove for
their personal rights by making petitions, fleeing, resisting rent
and corvee and even waging armed struggle. However, they were subjected
to ruthless suppression by the three big estate-holders. The law
of old Tibet stated, "All civilians who rebel all commit felonies."
In such incidences not only the rebel himself would be killed, but
his family property would be confiscated and his wife be made a
slave. The 5th Dalai Lama once issued the order, "Commoners of Lhari
Ziba listen to my order: .... I have authorized Lhari Ziba to chop
off your hands and feet, gouge out your eyes, and beat and kill
you if you again attempt to look for freedom and comfort." This
order was reiterated on many occasions by his successors in power.