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Documentary Sheds New Light on Tibet
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A DVD portraying old Tibet as a feudal serfdom and not as a "Shangri-la" has been backed by scholars, including those living in the autonomous region.

"It is ridiculous for some people to depict old Tibet as 'a beautiful land', completely ignoring what existed at the time - feudal serfdom, said experts participating in a seminar held last Friday in Beijing.

They were discussing a newly released documentary Tibet in the Past, made by the Central News Documentary Film Studio.

According to the experts, the documentary depicts life as it was in the autonomous region between 1951 and 1959, a period when Tibet was still under a feudal system.

When Tibet was liberated peacefully in 1951, the "17-Article Agreement" signed between the central government and the local Tibet government stipulated that "the local government of Tibet shall carry out reform voluntarily, and, when the people demand reform, it shall be settled through consultation with the Tibetan leaders".

But some of the ruling class were unwilling to give up the social system that preserved their high lifestyles.

Tibet was, therefore, still under a feudal system until democratic reform was introduced in 1959.

According to Wang Xiaoyi, professor in Tibetan studies with the Central University for Nationalities, the society of old Tibet under a feudal system was similar to that in Europe in the Middle Ages.

The wealthy class, government officials, nobles and high ranking monks accounted for less than 5 percent of Tibet's total population but owned all the farmlands, pastures, forests, mountains and rivers, and the majority of the livestock.

The serfs and slaves accounted for more than 95 percent of the population.

They had no personal freedom, and had to depend totally on the wealthy for their livelihood or act as their slaves from generation to generation.

According to an old Tibetan saying: "What the serfs and slaves take away is only their shadow, and what they leave behind are only their footprints."

These serfs and slaves were also subjected to taxes and high interest loans, according to Dralo, an expert in Tibetan studies with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

According to incomplete statistics, there were more than 200 kinds of taxes levied by the Kasha (the former local government of Tibet). Slaves had to contribute more than 50 percent or even 70 to 80 percent of their labor free to the Kasha and the wealthy, and more than 60 percent of the farmers and herdsmen were burdened with similar high-interest loans.

"But the local leadership had no intention of using the tax revenue for the benefit of the common people, that is why the infrastructure and education in old Tibet was extremely backward," Dralo said.

Dralo added that Tibetan leaders often visited foreign countries and the central part of the Chinese mainland during 1950s, but they had no intention of introducing a modern social system in Tibet and emancipating its people.

"They just wanted to preserve the existing social system," said the researcher.

The legal system adopted in Tibet was based on its hierarchical social system.

According to Lhapa Phuntsog, head of the China Tibetology Research Center, the "13-Article Code" and "16-Article Code" of old Tibet divided the people into three classes and nine ranks, enshrining social and political inequality between the different ranks.

According to the codes, a person belonging to the highest rank of the upper class was literally worth his weight in gold, while that of a person of the lowest rank of the lower class was worth only the price of a rope.

Serfs could be sold, transferred, given away, mortgaged or exchanged by their owners, who had the power over their births, deaths and marriages.

Male and female serfs were required to pay a "redemption fee" if they wished to marry, and their children were doomed to be serfs for life. Serf-owners could punish them at will. They even established their own private prisons.

The punishments included flogging, cutting off their hands or feet, gouging out their eyes, chopping off their ears or tongues, drowning them and or throwing them off cliffs, Phuntsog said.

"It was an extremely dark era, with no equality, human rights or democracy as some people have drummed up," Phuntsog said. He is now in his 70s, and is a descendant of a former slave family, and the first one in his family that received an education.

"It is necessary to tell the world what a true old Tibet was, to stop some people from further cheating on more people who have little knowledge of Tibet in the past," said Phuntsog.

Phuntsog's views are shared by Tendzin Ganpa, a colleague, who was also the son of a former slave.

Ganpa's forefathers served as slaves for centuries for the serf master Sampo, the largest estate-holder in Lhasa before 1960.

"Compared with the 1,000 houses the Sampo family owned, our whole family had no place to live as my father turned older and was dismissed by the master," Ganpa said.

The Sampo family is also featured in the DVD.

The Sampo couple had already fled to India when the Tibetan photographer Tashi Wangdul arrived at their mansion to shoot a previous documentary in the 1950s.

The housekeeper at the time permitted Wangdul to take all the photos he wanted of the Sampo residence.

"There was a room full of foreign liquor, food and magazines of Hollywood stars. And clothes were made of various kinds of animal fur," recalled Wangdul in the new DVD.

"Given the comparisons between the haves and have-nots, how could anyone describe Tibet as a Shangri-la with democracy and equality," Ganpa said.

"Millions of the former slaves today won't deny the progress made in the new Tibet."

However, experts warned against the tendency of gradually forgetting what had happened in the old Tibet, with the passing of the elderly and historical records vanishing.

According to Tendzin Lhungrub, also a researcher with the China Tibetology Research Center, he conducted a survey in six years ago in Lhasa among 700 local students on the region's past history, and the results were disappointing. Few knew of the early events.

"Drastic measures must be taken to teach our children about the region's history," Lhungrub said.

He said he studied for his PhD dissertation on the changes that took place to a village close to the Potala Palace, which he believed would best mirror the dramatic changes Tibet has gone through in the past 50 years.

Hundreds of people used to live in the village serving the monks in the palace, which stood as a symbol of the supreme power of religion and politics in Tibet.

Now the residents there and their offspring have all been relocated and have been given better homes.

"The change has happened everywhere," Lhungrub said. "People are living totally different, but happy lives today in a new society."

Lhungrub listed that regional ethnic autonomy has ensured equality, unity, mutual help and common prosperity among all ethnic groups in the region.

Economic development, opening up and reform has transformed the once remote region into a relatively modern one with transport links to the rest of the world.

Tibetan Buddhism has remained the main religion and its monasteries well maintained. It is increasingly attracting more tourists from home and abroad.

(China Daily February 6, 2007)

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