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Special> China's Tibet: Facts & Figures> Latest
UPDATED: January 19, 2009
Tibet Sets 'Serfs Emancipation Day'
Tibetan legislators endorsed a bill Monday to designate March 28 as an annual Serfs Emancipation Day

Serfdom was formalized after the hierarchic social system characterized by theocracy was established in the 13th century, when the Yuan Dynasty delegated Tibetan religious leaders to administer the region. The system was further developed after the Dalai Lama became the paramount leader of Tibet.

Serfs, who accounted for more than 90 percent of the population of old Tibet, were treated as private property by their owners, including the family of the Dalai Lama. The latter owned some 80 percent of production materials--farm land, pastures and livestock.

Serfs were classified into three categories in accordance with their possessions--tralpa, Duchung and Nangsan.

Landowners included aristocrats, monasteries and government officials. An exhibition by the Museum of Tibet showed that they owned 24 percent, 36.8 percent and 28.9 percent, respectively, of the arable land in the plateau region before 1959.

Landowners could legally insult, punish, buy and sell, give away, whip and even brutally kill their serfs.

In 1733, the 7th Dalai Lama controlled 3,150 monasteries and 121,440 households, and serfs had to work for the monasteries despite lack of enough food and proper clothing.

Saixim Village, Doilungdeqen County, 50 km northwest of Lhasa, was a manor of the 14th Dalai Lama's family before 1959. Older villagers can still recall that five people were beaten to death and 11 injured in the service of the Dalai Lama's family during a 10-year period.

In the museum there are about a score of black-and-white photos to show the brutality of landowners: slaves' eyes gouged out, fingers chopped off, noses cut and the tendons of their feet removed.

In the late 1940s, when the Dalai Lama was to celebrate his birthday, the Tibetan local government issued an order that people should prepare human skulls, blood, skin and guts for the religious ceremony.

In Gyangze, Xigaze, the aristocratic Parlha Manor has been preserved. There, Migmar Dondrup, now 75, served for 11 years as a nangsan.

Squeezed into a dark, 7 square meters adobe house with his wife and daughter, Migmar was once so starved that he stole some 10 kg of barley.

"The landlord got angry after hearing that and had two men whip me in turn," recalled the old man. His legs were tied together and he was struck more than 100 times on the hips.

"I couldn't sit. While in bed, I could only lie on my side," he said. It took more than 20 days for the wounds to heal.

He was lucky compared with one of his relatives, a groom, who was beaten to death because the landlord believed he wasted fodder when feeding the horses.

But the 14th Dalai Lama seemed to have been "ignorant" of these kinds of events.

On March 10, 1983, he said in India: "In the past, we Tibetans lived in peace and contentment under the Buddhist light shinning over our snow land." He also said: "Our serf system is different from any other serf system, because Tibet is sparsely populated, and Buddhism, which is for the happiness and benefit of the people, advises people to love each other."

The emancipation

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the central government originally planned to launch democratic reform and set up a preparatory committee for the establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region in 1955, acting on the appeal of local residents to abolish the thousand-year-old serf system.

However, on August 18, 1956, Mao Zedong wrote a letter to the 14th Dalai Lama, saying that it was not the right time for Tibet to undertake reform.

Rabgy, an 83-year-old veteran, remembered that time well.

A native Tibetan from the northwestern Gansu Province who joined the army in 1951, he moved to Gangba County, Xigaze, in 1956, when it was named a pioneer site for democratic reform.

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