IV. Feudal Serfdom in Old Tibet
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