Region Rises from Serfdom to Self-determination

March 28, 2019
Editor: Wei Xuanyi

Badro, an emancipated serf, celebrates his 99th birthday with primary school students in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, earlier this month. [Photo by Pubu Tashi / Xinhua]

Phurbu Tsering was born in Phalha Manor in Gyalze County in Tibet Autonomous Region. The house, in Paljor Lhunpo village, was once owned by the aristocratic Phalha family.

Before 1959, the family owned much of the land in the county, which is renowned for its fertility and boasts perfect conditions for the cultivation of highland barley. The Phalhas also owned Phurbu Tsering's parents, who were "house slaves", nangzan in the Tibetan language, the lowest social class.

Prior to democratic reform in 1959, Tibet had long been a theocratic feudal serfdom, a society characterized by a combination of political and religious power. It was the last region in the world to end a social system based on oppression and the economic exploitation of serfs and slaves.

The Phalha family owned 37 manor houses across Tibet, along with more than 3,000 serfs and house slaves. The room in which Phurbu Tsering was born belonged to the housekeeper of Phalha Manor, the best-preserved manor house in Tibet.

"I always have mixed feelings when I enter the room," said the 37-year-old from the village in Shigatse city. "It's where my mother gave birth to me, but also where she had been punished by the housekeeper in the past."

The residents of about half the 104 households in the village are descended from the serfs and slaves of Phalha Manor.

After the manor's last master, Tashi Wangdu, fled to India in 1959, Phurbu Tsering's parents moved into the manor from the house slaves' dwellings located diagonally opposite.


Sixty years ago, serfs accounted for about 90 percent of Tibet's population. They had no means of production or personal freedom, and their survival depended entirely on working for officials, aristocrats and high-ranked lamas in monasteries.

The upper classes owned farmland, grassland and even whole mountains. House slaves, aka "talking tools", accounted for 5 percent of the population, according to Zhang Yun, head of the history department at the China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing.

The contrast between the lives of the aristocrats and their retainers is illustrated perfectly at Phalha Manor, where the items on display and the architecture tell the stories of their very different owners.

While the master wore an Omega wristwatch and his friends sipped Scotch whisky and played mahjong in the sunroom at the top of the three-story house, Phurbu Tsering's parents lived in a tiny, windowless adobe house, which was just 1.4 meters high and could only be entered by bending down.

While the master's wife tried to decide which Louis Vuitton bags she would take on outings, Phurbu Tsering's mother was given just one item of clothing a year.

"My parents often talked about how the housekeepers punished the house slaves and serfs whenever they liked. Not many people who lived through those dark days are alive now to tell the stories," Phurbu Tsering said.

At noon, Pagor, another resident of Paljor Lhunpo, opened all the curtains in her living room. "Isn't it like the sunroom in the manor house?" the 57-year-old asked.

As a young man, her father was a Phalha family nangzan. "His job was to manage the master's horses, so he slept in the stable with the animals for many years. He was never allowed to ride them, though, because that would have been disrespectful to the masters," recalled Pagor, who like many Tibetans only uses one name.

Because Pagor's father was a good worker, the master of Phalha Manor allowed him to manage a piece of land, meaning he became a tralpa, a class of serfs who worked land assigned to them and provided free labor for their owners.

Serfs had to stay within the boundaries of their owner's manors. They were not allowed to leave without permission and were strictly prohibited from fleeing the manors.

By contrast, the owners could trade and transfer serfs, present them as gifts, exchange them, and use them as stakes for gambling and as collateral for loans, according to a white paper on Tibet's democratic reform, published on Wednesday by the Information Office of the State Council, China's Cabinet.

In the Tibet Archives in Lhasa, the regional capital, China Daily reporters saw several documents from the former government of Tibet that recorded such trades, along with several petitions from serfs begging for their taxes to be reduced and a list of people required to provide free labor.

"My father had no control over his fate. All he could ever do was to survive. It's really hard to imagine life in such a society," Pagor said.

Zhang, from the China Tibetology Research Center, said, "Of course, the majority of the landlords and serf owners didn't want the social system to change because they didn't want to lose their power and privileges. However, a small number of them had started to notice that the old system barely allowed Tibetan society to function, let alone develop."

The serfs had no incentive to work, so productivity was extremely low, and the accumulated and ever-growing heavy debts imposed on them were impossible to repay, no matter how hard they worked. As a result, many fled, leaving the land unattended, despite knowing that they would face punishment when caught, according to Zhang.

"To punish them, cruel torture methods were introduced, such as skinning people alive and gouging out their eyes. Such cruelty is rare in the world," he said. "What's more, these punishments were often ordered randomly by the serfs' owners."

The population declined in some parts of Tibet. A document from Khesum village in Lhokha city, where Khesum Manor once stood, shows that when the Surkhang family built the house in the 17th century, 606 serfs belonged to the manor. About 300 years later, the number had fallen to 302.

Dewa, 82, was born a tralpa of Khesum Manor. She started working on the farmland when she was just 8 years old. "My family had to give almost everything we harvested to the manor. We starved most of the time. If we didn't hand in enough highland barley, our land would be taken back and we would become house slaves or have to beg," she said.

The mother of seven still feels heartbroken when she remembers the moment the master took her brother away and sent him to another manor: "We could do nothing but cry inside."

Guo Kefan, a researcher at the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences in Lhasa, said most Tibetans had experienced severe oppression for a very long time, but they showed little resistance, largely because of their religious beliefs.

"They believed their current life was a punishment for bad behavior in a previous life, so they deserved to serve the masters. If they weren't willing to endure the hardship, they would continue to receive punishment in the next life," he said.

"Reform in Tibet had to come from the top. With the exception of a few aristocratic families who accumulated their wealth by becoming involved in trade with India in the early 20th century, the others had to exploit the serfs ever harder to maintain their lifestyle."


In an article published in 2009, Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme, the son of a leading aristocratic family descended from the Horkhang, former kings of Tibet, wrote that some upper-class Tibetans, himself included, believed the social system had to change.

"When the serfs all died, the aristocrats would have no chance of surviving either. In the end, the whole society would collapse," he wrote, just a few months before he died.

Born in 1910, Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme, a cabinet minister in the former Tibetan government, said he knew the old Tibet all too well. At the time, the region, which sits atop the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, was relatively isolated as a result of its location and social system, which made it extremely difficult to disseminate progressive ideas, he said.

In 1951, Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme was the Tibetan government's chief negotiator during the process of signing the Agreement of the Central People's Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet.

The agreement acknowledged the necessity of reforming Tibet's social system and stressed that "the local government of Tibet should carry out reform voluntarily".

Zhang said, "The central government was very patient toward the reform out of consideration for the special circumstances in Tibet. It didn't want to create any conflict.

"The central government focused on improving the transportation infrastructure, including constructing a road connecting Tibet and neighboring Qinghai province.

"Also, it invited groups of local officials and aristocrats to travel outside Tibet to see social development in other parts of China."

As calls for democratic reform grew, some members of the ruling class staged an armed rebellion on March 10, 1959, in an attempt to perpetuate theocratic feudal serfdom. The rebellion triggered the start of democratic reform.


On March 28, 1959, the central government dismissed the old Tibetan government. In 2009, the Tibet regional government decided to name the date "Serfs' Emancipation Day", and it has since been celebrated annually.

"The first step of democratic reform is to give people freedom. That reform wasn't achieved until 1962, when the land and other means of production were allocated to the people," Zhang said.

When Dewa's family received 1.26 hectares of land, they burned the leases they had signed with the old master. They were told that everything they harvested belonged to them, and all the serfs and house slaves of Khesum Manor became residents of Khesum village.

"Being freed may sound easy, but for some it was pretty hard to adjust," said Guo, from the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences. "Many house slaves didn't know how to farm or make a living, so people formed aid groups to help each other."

Sixty years on, almost all the manor houses in Tibet have been demolished. However, people can still distinguish the descendants of the aristocratic families from their family names and the way they speak.

"A descendant of an aristocratic family once told me that his family name is no longer associated with any privilege. Still, people are curious about his family history whenever his name is mentioned," Guo said.

Sipping tea in a courtyard in front of Phalha Manor, Palo, head of Paljor Lhunpo village, said, "If not for the manor, the villagers and other people would not be able to get a real picture of the past."

Every year, the villagers gather in the courtyard on March 28 to celebrate Serfs' Emancipation Day.

"Only one former manor serf is still alive in the village, but he's in the hospital due to poor health. I'm not sure if he will be able join the celebrations this year," Palo said.

"I should have recorded the stories of all the village's serfs and house slaves and shared them with the younger generation so they won't forget the past. Now it's just too late and I have to live with that regret."

Badro, an emancipated serf, celebrates his 99th birthday in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, earlier this month. [Photo/Xinhua]

Phurbu Tsering, a son of house slaves, explains the history of serfdom at Phalha Manor, Gyalze County, Tibet. [Photo by Zhu Xingxin/China Daily]

Pagor, resident of Paljor Lhunpo village in Gyalze

Nyima Tsering, from the Tibet Archives in Lhasa, checks documents from the former government of Tibet. [Photo by Palden Nyima/China Daily]

Phurbu Tsering introduces some of the materials used by aristocrats in the past. [Photo by Zhu Xingxin/China Daily]

Visitors trek to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, Feb 20, 2019.  [Photo by Zhu Xingxin/China Daily]


(Source: China Daily)

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