The brutal past

10:05, April 10, 2008


Prior to 1959, Tibetans were divided into three social strata within nine grades:

  • The King of Tsang and other rulers belonged to the upper grade
  • Geshes, teachers of morals, abbots, high-ranking officials, or "headmen who had more than 300 attendants and servants" were in the middle grade

  • the independent bachelors, servants doing odd-jobs in government offices" were relegated to the upper grade of the lower stratum

    • "blacksmiths, butchers and beggars who had permanent residence and paid taxes", to the middle grade of the lower stratum
    •  "women, beggars, butchers and blacksmiths" to the lower grade of the lower stratum

Left: Serfs carry goods to the Potala Palace. Right: A herdsman’s left foot was chopped by the head of his tribe. File photo

Medieval Laws

A clause in Article 3 of the Thirteen Laws, states: "Persons of low social stratus who quarrel with those of high status shall be arrested".

Article 8 of the Thirteen Laws says: "A drop of blood of the people of high status is worth one qian (0.16 oz) of silver, while a drop of blood of the people of low status is worth one li (one 10th of a qian) of silver".

Some serf owners tortured their slaves by chopping off their feet and hands, gouging out their eyeballs, cutting off their tongues or pushing them off cliffs.

They could do this legally, because they were protected by the Thirteen and Sixteen Laws.

Article 4 of the Thirteen Laws stipulated: "Those who loot, kidnap, steal and kill, commit armed robberies or rebel against the authorities shall be punished corporally by: gouging out the eyes; cutting off the foot, tongue or hand; being pushed off a cliff; drowning; or execution."

Land Ownership

Archive records for  June 1959, indicated  that of the 3.3 million khals (in Tibetan measurements, about 541,200 acres) of land under cultivation in Tibet, officials owned 1.2 million, or about 39 percent; aristocrats owned 790,000, or 24 percent; and the high clergy owned 1.2 million, or 37 percent. Other Tibetans owned about 5 percent.

Majority are serfs

The serfs and house-slaves who accounted for 95 percent of the population were the property of serf owners.

Even their offspring became the property of the serf owners from birth.

The manorial lords had the freedom to exchange serfs or present serfs to each other as gifts.

Serfs had to pay high interest on their debts by doing corvee (unpaid labor) or by selling their own children. A anrchive record reads as follow: "Being unable to pay back the money and grain we owe Nedong Dekhang, we, Tsewang Rabten and my wife, serfs of the Dusong Manor, must give up our daughter Gensong Tonten and younger son Padma Tenzin to Dekhang to repay the debts. The descendents of their son and daughter will be Dekhang’s serfs."

Another archive record dated 1947 by Drashi Choda to pay off his debt by letting his sister Tsering Lhamo work for Lharang without pay for 10 years, reads:
"I, Drashi Choda, belong to the Nari Monastery of the Nari Manor. I borrowed 34 khal (about 1,047 pounds) and 3 sheng (0.085 bushels) of grain from the Lharang granary in the Wood-Monkey year, the interests of which amount to 6 khal (184 pounds) and 14.5 sheng (0.41 bushels). The principal and the interest total 40 khal (1,232 pounds) and 19.3 sheng (0.49 bushels) of grain.

"As I am unable to pay back the sum annually, I ask my younger sister Tsering Lhamo, who shares weal and woe with me, to pay off my debts by doing 10 years’ unpaid service for the Lharang beginning at the first day of the 12 month of this Fire-Dog year."

About 90 percent of Tibet’s 1 million people were homeless then. Of the 20,000 in Lhasa at the time, more than 1,000 families lived as beggars.


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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