Anna Louise Strong Reference Archive

When serfs stood up in Tibet


"We urge you to take this trip seriously. When Comrade Chen Yi [1] went to Lhasa in 1956, he was ill for a considerable time afterwards. People have even died of this trip. We do not want to scare you — you have all been medically checked and a doctor will travel with you to take all precautions — but you should not take it lightly. If anyone wants to withdraw, phone us by noon tomorrow. Otherwise send in the money for your expenses."

We were meeting in Peking, nineteen correspondents, writers, radio and TV men who had applied to visit Tibet. We came from eleven countries, not counting the representative of the Peking People's Daily, who was going as our host. I myself had been accepted only three days earlier and had rushed for my check-up at the Peking Union Medical College, that handsome central hospital built long ago by the Rockefeller Foundation, that has seen so much history and is again a fine center of medicine in Peking.

My blood pressure of 130 over 65 was .neatly within limits, but my age of seventy-three was against me. I would not adjust as easily as a younger person to the high elevation, which would range from 12,200 feet in Lhasa to 15,000 or more in the pastures and at least 21,000 in the flight. After an excellent electro-cardiogram the doctor gave a qualified permit: "Passed for Tibet if special care is taken and special arrangements made against over-exertion". He didn't want to be blamed if anything happened to me!

My hosts took his qualification seriously. The first ."special arrangement" was that Chao Feng-feng, my own interpreter, would travel with me. She might also interpret for the group at times — on a group trip everyone is supposed to be helpful, — but her special job was to look after me. To relieve me of the weight of my camera, my Hermes Baby typewriter, my over-night bag on the plane. Above all, to watch me like a hawk and say: "You'd better go to bed now", and "I'll get the waitress to bring dinner to your room".

We went first for a rest at the beach in Peitaiho. It might be a week before we left for Lhasa, they said; we hoped it would be more. I needed a full month's rest, for I had been working day and night to finish my book "Tibetan Interviews" before the heat of August should make work impossible in Peking. The book had just gone to the printers; Feng-feng and I already had tickets and reservations at Peitaiho. In fact I had been appalled when they phoned that I was accepted for Tibet.

"But I can't go until I have had a vacation", I protested. They replied: "It is up to you". So I had gone for my hospital check-up and left the next morning for the beach. "These group trips always have delays", I said comfortably to Feng-feng. "We might get even two weeks of rest".

The first night in cool air was marvellous; the first morning swim in that tepid sea was magic. Two weeks of this — even one week — would be a real rest. But after that wonderful swim, a phone call from Peking said we were leaving Saturday for Tibet. I got up at four the next morning and took the five o'clock train back, and went that afternoon to the first briefing, where they warned us to "take it seriously". I had had just twenty-four hours of rest in Peitaiho and just one swim. Could I face Tibet on that?

When I saw the group I was still more disquieted. They were all men and mostly young. Later I learned that there was another woman in the party, Eva Siao, doing photographs for the TV of the German Democratic Republic. They were youthful go-getters who would make three trips a day, morning, afternoon and evening. How could I keep up with that? Yet it would be unpardonable — as well as very unpleasant — to find myself a drag on the group. For we were the first correspondents — the first foreigners of any kind — to see the beginning of the new "democratic Tibet". Serfdom had been less than a month legally abolished by the resolution issued July 17th, 1959 by the new local government of Tibet. The law's enforcement had yet to be organized. This was what we were to see.

Only five months earlier, rebellion had flared in Lhasa, led by four of the six kaloons — ministers — in the kashag (local government) and by most of the top monasteries. They had announced Tibet's secession from China and attacked all offices of the Central Government with armed force including artillery. The rebellion had been quickly suppressed. Some of the rebel leaders had been captured, others had fled to India, taking the Dalai Lama.

These events had opened at long last the road lo reform. For on March 28th, just as those rebel leaders who constituted a majority of the kashag were about to flee into India, the State Council of China issued a special order dissolving the local government of Tibet — to wit, the kashag — and putting local government in the hands of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibetan Autonomous Region. This was the committee set up in 1956, with a wider representation than any Tibet government had yet had, since it united areas that had previously been in some conflict.

The Dalai Lama had been its chairman; he remained titular chairman even in absentia. The Panchen Erdeni was already i1s first vice-chairman; he was asked to become acting chairman while awaiting the Dalai's return. Members of the committee who had joined the armed rebellion were expelled and replaced' by new members. Government thus continued without a break through forms that had been already applauded throughout Tibet two years earlier. Policies, however, changed.

The first session of the Preparatory Committee, held April 8th, when rebellion had been crushed in Lhasa but not yet in Loka or Takun, did little more than announce itself and accept responsibility of government. Its leading members then left for Peking to attend the session of the National People's Congress, the government of all China, in which several of them were deputies. On their return, the Preparatory Committee held its second session, opening June 28th and lasting several weeks. A large number of "observers" were invited from all sections of the people, and here, for the first time in Tibet's long history, serfs had sat down in the same room with lords. For in the interim between the two sessions, the rebellion had been ended in Loka and elsewhere and peasant meetings had been held all over Tibet, supporting the new government and sending to it resolutions, which demanded the abolition of serfdom, "the Democratic Reform".

This Democratic Reform had been decreed in two stages. Personal servitude and the forced, unpaid labor known as ula were at once abolished; the organizing of local governments based on the peasants would take longer, and the transfer of land to the tillers longer still. For law cannot make men free; each man must take his freedom and each community must organize its law.

One of the most sensational changes would be in the monasteries, announced by the Panchen Lama himself. The courts, jails, torture system and floggings which they had imposed not only on lamas but even on laymen, would be abolished, and yield to a system of county courts under secular rule. Meantime all lamas would be given "freedom of person" as citizens, which meant the right to leave the monastery and even to marry if they should choose. Many had entered the monastery in childhood, and had never had free choice. Nobody doubted that many of the lower lamas would leave the monasteries, in which they had been, as was said in the session's discussion, "like slaves in a monk's robe".

The monasteries would probably decline sharply in numbers when lamas, placed in them as children were legally free to leave. The loss to the monasteries would mean important gain to Tibet. For the long decline of its population was generally attributed to the number of males who, as lamas, refrained from production and responsible reproduction, and also to the syphilis which followed the monasteries like a plague. The marriage and birth rate would rise now and the long decline of the population through the centuries would come to an end.

Such were the changes beginning from that July 17th resolution. We were the first foreigners privileged to go and see.

*     *     *

When Feng-feng came to call me at 4.30 a.m. I was already awake. We were to fly by chartered plane to Sining, capital of Chinghai Province, for the first night. Thence we would take small military planes, adapted to high altitudes, with cabins unpressurized but supplied with an oxygen tank that dispensed air through outlets to oxygen masks at each seat. For several hours we would fly at 21,000 feet elevation or higher, to cross the massive Tang'La Range which itself soars to 20,000 feet. Because of the elevation, the wildness of terrain and the frequent changes of weather, the flight was said to be harder than the famous "Burma Hump" route by which planes brought supplies into China during the Japanese war. We must be well padded against the outer cold at 21,000 elevation, yet prepared to descend into scorching summer sun at Lhasa. All this, plus a typewriter and camera and note-books, must be included in twenty kilograms of baggage.

Feng-feng is one of those painfully honest young women who will go up to the baggage checker and say: "Do you want to weigh these too?", and exhibit the camera which I have neatly draped under her coat and the over-night bag whose modest canvas tries to hide the eight pounds which its bottles, slippers, sweater, night-gown and accessories weigh. In this case the baggage-checker was so astounded that he waved her impatiently along. My suit-case with the typewriter had checked in at nineteen kilos, while Feng-feng's suit-case, without typewriter, was only fifteen. Officially being six whole kilos underweight, we felt gloatingly virtuous over the Czech with the two big cameras and the tape-recorder, who was really in desperate case. If anyone worries about the Czech news services, I report that a special dispensation was finally given him.

Glasses of hot tea and cold orangeade were brought to us on the plane. It was not yet eleven when we made Sian, found a bus waiting, drove to town for a big hotel lunch and got back for a take-off at noon precise. We had been very gay all morning but after lunch I began to feel my age. I yawned, stretched, kicked off my shoes in order to wriggle my feet which seemed to be going to sleep. I put it down to the heavy lunch, not followed by any nap. Later I was to learn another reason.

The wind favored us; every time our hostess passed she estimated our arrival earlier in the most auspicious way. We reached Sining at 2.30 and drove to a fine new hotel of many storeys, with gardens in the yard. I drew a suite of two rooms and bath, with floral decorated stationery in the desk and a gorgeous cerise satin coverlet heavily embroidered in orange roses on the bed. The doctor, dropping around to take my blood-pressure again, found it 120 over 65, better than in Peking. He congratulated and asked whether I had felt any oxygen lack on the flight from Sian.

"From Sian", I exclaimed. "Of course not". Then I recalled all that yawning and fidgeting and mentioned it. "You were flying at 13,000 feet, higher than Lhasa", he said. "If it didn't bother you more than that, you'll do. Your pulse is sixty at present, better than some of the young men". My spirits soared.

So I went to the interview we had with provincial officials; there were things about Chinghai to ask. We learned first, with surprise, that the city of Sining was much older than the province of Chinghai, or than any provincial boundaries hereabout. It was a walled outpost of the Tang Dynasty some fourteen hundred years ago. It had been in its time the capital of an area which is now five provinces. At the time of "liberation"[2] it had had a hundred thousand population, only half in the city proper and the rest in suburbs. Today, at our visit, it had 460,000 people, of whom 340,000 were urban, the rest rural. The growth came from its five hundred new factories, and especially from the development of the province for which Sining was organizing center. Sining was not yet on a railroad, but it would be by October first. . . (Postscript. It was.)

The province of Chinghai, we learned from another official, was formerly part of a large administrative unit which contained also Shensi and Kansu. ... Its present boundaries were set as late as 1929, when its warlord Ma Pu-fang — notorious even among warlords for graft and cruelty — exchanged recognitions with Chiang Kai-shek. Chinghai had 1,400,000 people at the time of "liberation"; now it has 2,400,000. Its biggest growth is in the Tsaidam Basin, a vast wasteland where great oil strikes have been made that are being developed. The oil goes out by trucks but will soon go by rail and later by pipeline. . . . Chinghai is in a boom!

"Chinghai", they said, in tones that would be recognized in the American West or in boom areas anywhere, "is still very sparsely settled but its future is great. Here lies the source of ten great rivers, including the Yellow and the Yangtze. Here we have over three million acres of arable land of which nearly two million have never been touched by plough. Here we have twelve million head of livestock, but there are natural grazing lands for eighty million. We have also many minerals. We have a great future here."

Chinghai adjoins Tibet and shares with it the title "Roof of the World". For while the northeast part, around Sining, is only seven to eight thousand feet in elevation, the southern part soars into great ranges and high valleys, with an average elevation of 13,000 feet. It is a multi-national province, with eight different nationalities, of which the Han majority is more than all others combined, being 1,400,000, while Tibetans rank next at 400,000 and the Huis (Moslems) come third with 220,000. Chinghai is largely composed of autonomous national districts, five of which are Tibetan. Though Tibetans rank only second in numbers, their areas comprise more than half the area. Their lands are mostly in the south, in the high pastures.

Since the Dalai Lama in his anti-China statement given June 30th from India, had been claiming most of Chinghai in his demand for "Greater Tibet", I asked why these five autonomous Tibetan areas should be organized as parts of Chinghai instead of being united with Tibet itself, which they adjoined. The local official smiled and told me that there were many reasons, but I would see the first and biggest if I would look out of our plane about noon tomorrow as we passed over the Tang'La Range. This massive range is not only 20,000 feet high, eternally snowcapped, but also very long and wide. It has been through centuries an almost impassable barrier, crossed indeed by daring pilgrims and even by a few conquering armies, but never by government administration. The Tibetans north of it have developed differently from those south of it; they do not even speak the language of Lhasa. In fact, the five different Tibetan areas in Chinghai are so separated by high ranges that they hardly understand each other; that is why there are five areas instead of one. What unites them — what gives them the name "Tibetans" — is the possession of a common lamaist religion, with monasteries where the scriptures are read in the classical Tibetan language. They differ in blood-lines, in historic development, in daily speech.

"Has Lhasa ever, in any period, had temporal rule over any part of what is now Chinghai?" I persisted. "Never! The Chinese Emperors conferred title direct on the tribal chiefs," the local official replied.

His words, I think, are true, but I also think they need some explanation. In the long feudal centuries, the monasteries themselves exercised a form of loose temporal rule. They assumed ownership of vast lands and leased these to the tribes, which they thus dominated. Their top lamas made pilgrimage to Lhasa, and carried tribute from as far as Buriat Mongolia, which is today in the USSR. But the same tribes paid tribute also to whatever warlord or governor was recognized by China's central government, and Lhasa itself paid tribute to Peking from the Tang Dynasty down. When Lhasa at last developed a secular government, the kashag, its mandate never crossed the Tang'La Range.

The claims that were being made abroad at this time, in the name of the Dalai Lama but usually without his explicit words, that Peking was committing genocide against the Tibetan people by flooding their lands with Han settlers, were based not on any events in Tibet proper, where the local government has not yet permitted new settlers, but on the booms in adjacent provinces, especially in Chinghai. These provinces have, however, been mixed areas of many nationalities for centuries.

*   *   *

After these talks with officials, and just as I was feeling cockiest, the altitude of Sining, which is only a little above 7,000, hit me. I was talking after supper with a friend in my room, when I lost interest in talk and went in a hurry to bed. I was afraid to cross the room for fear of falling, and hesitated even to sit up in bed lest I topple over. This was highly puzzling for I felt no pain at all, merely an inability to move. Feng-feng came to tell me that we would rise at 4.30 and leave for the airport at six.

"I doubt it", I replied. "I couldn't walk downstairs".

The doctor came and took my pulse and said my heart was beating properly and I would be all right. A phone call said the flight was postponed because of storms over the range.

"Postpone it for a week if you like", I replied, and settled again to sleep.

On the following day the doctor came with the consoling news that several of the younger people had been "touched by the altitude". I wasn't the only one. "You'll do all right", he said. "Take it easy till you take the plane". I worried a bit about what Lhasa would do to me, if the moderate elevation of Sining had knocked me out. I needn't have worried. Never again on the trip was I knocked helpless as I was in Sining; I do not yet know why. Perhaps the three days in bed added to the day in Peitaiho made four days' vacation; it proved to be enough!

By the second day everyone was restless and they fixed up a trip to Gumbum Monastery. The Chinese call it Ta Erh, but since we are going Tibetan, we'll use the Tibetan name. It is famous as the birthplace of Tsong Khapa, the great reformer of the 14th century, who founded the Yellow Sect, now the dominant religion in Tibet. Two of his ten chief disciples were said to have been reincarnated down the ages, these embodiments being known as the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Erdeni.

I wanted to see Gumbum but I gave heed to the doctor. "I won't risk Lhasa for a local monastery", I said. "I'll stay in bed". Then Feng-feng asked if she could go in my place. I hailed the idea. "You'll be a correspondent", I declared, and told her what facts to get.

Feng-feng is conscientious but she missed out on color. I don't yet know what Gumbum looks like except that "it spreads up the valley much further than you think when you see the front". Elsewhere I learned that it has some famous pagodas for which the present Peking government gave funds "to repair a national monument". Feng-feng had all the data tabulated about the lamas and what happened to them in the "reform". Gumbum, being in Chinghai, had its reform more than a year earlier than Tibet. It might give us a hint of what would come.

Two years ago Gumbum had between one and two thousand lamas. Some people had claimed over three , thousand, but this was denied by a county representative. "Perhaps they had three thousand long ago, but in recent years it was just over one thousand. Now it is 496. That is because the peasants got land and the lamas got 'freedom of person'." Many lamas had, therefore, gone home to work the land with their fathers and brothers. Those who remained in the monastery ran it "democratically", electing the administration. This was in two parts, the part that ran the religion and the part that ran the farm.

Gumbum had had twenty thousand acres of land; it was farmed by serfs. When the serfs were freed in 1958, the monastery was told it could keep whatever land could be farmed by its own labor. Since they had considerable livestock, they decided to keep two thousand acres of land and all the animals. Some lamas now grow grain, others vegetables, some run a dairy farm and some handle a transport service to the city for the monastery and the neighboring peasants. Some work at restoring the monastery itself; since Gumbum is a historic monument, Peking gives money for this Not all the lamas do physical labor. Of the 496 fifty are over sixty years of age and thirty are under eight; none of these work. Gumbum has also a large staff of top clerics, some ten Living Buddhas, reincarnations of famous clerics of the past. These spend their time on the scriptures, and conduct services and officiate at weddings and funerals, for the faithful pay well for the dignity of a Living Buddha at such occasions. Salaries to top clerics are paid by the Monastery Fund, seventy percent of which comes from the lamas' labor and thirty percent from contributions of believers.

The young lama who showed the correspondents through told them that he was "living much better than before". Feng-feng asked, as I bade her whether the upper lamas also lived better than formerly. He replied that he thought they did. None of the higher-ups came to report and they might say otherwise. The young lama said that top lamas got salaries for conducting services, and special gifts from believers and also kept the best houses. They no longer got big sums from exploiting serf labor, which they used to keep for their private savings. Maybe they were even using up those private savings now he wouldn't know. He knew they still lived "better than he lower lamas. Also the lamas, even the lower ones still lived somewhat better than the peasants because they already had their housing and had no big families to feed.

Several lamas had married and remained in the monastery, going home to their wives on week-ends. To stay in the monastery thus they had to be accepted by vote of the others, but if their work was good, they had no trouble. On the whole, Feng-feng did a good job.


1. 1 foreign Minister and Vice-Premier went to the formation of the Preparatory Committee for Tibet Autonomous Region in Lhasa in 1956.

2."The liberation", as referred to in China, means the liberation of China from more than a hundred years of occupation and suppression by foreign imperialist powers. Originally used during the war with Japan, it referred to the liberation of areas from Japanese occupation, by "the People's Liberation Army". There were many large "Liberated Areas" for years before the new central government was set up in Peking. Today, when "the liberation" is mentioned without quotes or qualification, it refers to the inauguration of the People's Republic of China, on October 1, 1949. However, Tibet was not "liberated" until 1951, and "the liberation of Taiwan" is still demanded before China's liberation can be considered complete.