Anna Louise Strong Reference Archive

When serfs stood up in Tibet


From day to day I was hoping to find Lachi, the young Tibetan woman I had known in Peking and doe-scribed in the first chapter of "Tibetan Interviews." . A former serf in the Chamdo area, she had run away sat the age of thirteen to the People's Liberation Arimy and walked with it all the way to Lhasa. Later she was sent to Peking to study at the Institute of National Minorities where, incidentally, she had been a classs-mate of one of Apei's children, the serf and serf-owner studying together.

I had seen her off in May at the Peking railway station, already a young graduate of twenty-two, very proud to have been chosen to go back to Tibet witth the first group. I recalled the quiet fervor with which she said in my study: "For the rebirth of Tibet, for my own people, I will do anything." I had asked for news of her in Lhasa but nobody had heard her name.

Then suddenly she found me. She saw my name in the Lhasa newspaper in the list of foreign correspondents and writers who were visiting Tibet. She sent me word that she was working in Jokhang Monastery as a member of the "working team". Only her name was "Nachi", not "Lachi". Liquid sounds are rather interchangeable in Tibetan and the way they are put into foreign tongues depends on the interpreter. They knew her in Lhasa as "Nachi"; that was why she had been hard to find.

My youthful enthusiast had landed in the holiest place in Tibet and was helping to change that hot-bed of rebellion into a law-abiding institution. She suggested that I meet her there and see her place of work. So at eight in the morning on a day when a religious festival brought more pilgrims than usual, I went to Jokhang to meet Nachi, to learn her work and to get a private tour of Tibet's holiest spot.

Jokhang is both a temple and a monastery. Its edifice is large and doubtless imposing but there is no place from which it can be seen as a whole. From distant hills or roof-tops you can glimpse the sea of golden roofs with their ornamental cupolas and dagobas. But when you approach on the ground, Jokhang fronts on a cobbled street so narrow that only part of its high, light-colored ornamental front wall can be seen at one time, while the side and rear walls disappear completely into the shops and buildings that have grown in the centuries around Jokhang and cluster against it.

The cobbled street widens a bit in front of the main entrance to give access to pilgrims. Here women were throwing themselves face down on the pavement and crawling towards a tall and very ancient doorway, past a booth where a lama collected funds. The lama glanced at me and paid no further notice for he saw in me a foreign unbeliever and he was busy taking donations from the faithful. He wrote each donor's name on a thin slip of paper, and burned it at once in the court in the donor's sight. Thus the "record of merit" went straight to heaven, while the earthly bookkeeping left the lama fairly free in accounting for funds.

I went past him and past the forms of women face down on the flagstones, and past another lama who was slowly advancing into the temple by measuring his length on the ground and then rising and throwing himself forward again. He was on pilgrimage all the way from Inner Mongolia, but if he had measured the entire two thousand miles length by length it might well have taken more than a man's life. I came through the dark entrance into the dim light of a courtyard open to the sky, and then through another dark archway into another open court which was partly roofed by one of those high flying canvases appliqued with "auspicious designs"; here the designs especially included the "wheel of change". The casual architectural combination of ancient stone with flimsy canvas was to appear often in Tibet. Despite the brightness of the day, the courts were dim, partly because of the canopy but more because the height of the walls made the entry courts like bottoms of deep wells. Hundreds of grey-brown pigeons flying about in search of food also darkened the courts and dirtied them.

As I waited in the entry court for Nachi, a very filthy lama passed, carrying a large copper tea-pot to his dormitory somewhere in the building and several dirty barefoot boys moved about for any alms they might pick up or steal. The pilgrim from Inner Mongolia who was" inching his way length by length face down, caught up with me and passed on into the temple. The entrance into Tibet's Holy of Holies seemed just a bit filthier than anything I had yet seen.

Then Nachi came, in a very fresh blue robe lined with old rose, with an apron of bright horizontal stripes edged at the top with gilt brocade and with her long braids held in a neat coil by combs at the top of her head. I wondered how she made out in a monastery for she was a very good-looking young woman of twenty-two. She came eagerly to greet me and when I commented on her dress she said it was given her in Peking by the Institute for her graduation, but the apron was bought in Lhasa. Then the lovely charmer became a dignified organizer and introduced me to the two lamas she had brought with her, a patient worn-looking man of forty-three named Ngawang Miju and a tall youth of twenty-four with a clean and glowing face and two gold teeth showing when he smiled, who was called Lobsang Tele.

Ngawang Miju was chairman of the "Jokhang Committee for Quelling Rebellion". He smelled badly from two feet away. Above his wine-red robe he had a long-suffering face. He had been put into the monastery at the age of nine and had thus been a monk for thirty-four years but in Jokhang less than a year. Jokhang was constantly replenished by changing monks from other monasteries, who came for a short stay in this holiest place.

Ngawang Miju was illiterate. At one time he had spent three years "learning to read the scriptures" but this was mostly by rote and what he learned did not survive the following years in which his hours were filled with labor for the upper lamas. Besides, even if he could still "read scriptures" he could not have read a newspaper or any modern book, for scriptures are in ancient Tibetan. Now that the rebellion was put down and schools were open for everyone, Ngawang Miju hoped that he might learn to read and write and also learn a trade, such as tailoring. He intended to remain in the monastery for he knew no other way of life. He would attend the religious services but he also wanted some self-supporting work. Ngawang Miju said little more about himself.

Lobsang Tele was in every way vocal and energetic and full of tales of his past oppressions. He also had been put into the monastery at the age of nine; he supplied the detail that he came from a serf family, a duichun family. He thought he had been flogged "at least a thousand times". Many of the upper lamas had flogged or kicked him but his teacher, who was actually his master, had been by far the worst. ' The master had often been drunk and at such times especially brutal. The youth had markings left on head and hips and arms from many floggings. He said that once, when he was twelve, and his teacher found some fault of carelessness in the way he swept the ground, his hands and feet had been tied and he had been hung head down from a beam and flogged in this position while the rope was jerked up and let drop. His master had asked his parents to come and see, saying that their son was a very bad boy who needed punishing.

This brutal teacher, whose name Lobsang Tele gave, was working now in the new hydro-electric plant as a captured rebel and the youth had listed him as one whom he wanted to bring before an "accusation meeting" that his evil deeds might be known to the world. I asked Nachi if there was any likelihood that the teacher would be brought before such an "accusation meeting". She replied that this would depend on how many people demanded it. "There is not time," she said, "to accuse every evil person but only those against whom the demand is very strong." I felt that she had more to tell of Lobsang Tele later.

"Did anyone in the monastery ever show you kindness?" I asked the youth. "Buddha teaches kindness and compassion to all living creatures. Didn't anyone follow this teaching?"

The young lama replied that he had heard plenty of talk in the scripture halls about "kindness to all living creatures", but had "never seen any kindness shown by an upper stratum lama to a poor lama. If any upper class lama refrains from flogging you, that is already very good. I never saw an upper lama give food to a poor lama who was hungry. They treated the laymen who were believers just as badly or even worse."

The youth was firm in his declaration that he had no intention of remaining a lama. He had a girl already and intended to marry. He had listed this demand with the "working team". They had advised him to wait until he got more education and learned a skilled trade. His girl agreed on this with the "working team". So Lobsang Tele was now full of plans for becoming quickly a skilled factory worker. It was clear why he looked cleaner and brighter than the other lamas. He was really a handsome youth, a bit impetuous, perhaps unstable.

The two lamas told how the rebellion had come in Jokhang. The head of the monastery had gone on March 10th to Jewel Park to the meeting that declared Tibet's "independence" from China, and had returned with the head of a municipal department and ordered the lamas to put on civilian clothes and take up arms. There had been 130 lamas at the time in Jokhang but only fourteen had really taken up arms and some of these had only knives. The monastery chief had a rifle and a pistol. Rumors of all kinds had gone around, that Living Buddha Pebala, a progressive, had been shot, that the Hans had kidnapped the Dalai Lama.

Five hundred Tibetan soldiers had come on the 20th, and camped in the outer courts of the monastery and set up cannon in front of the gates. The lamas had been ordered to help build fortifications on top of the monastery. They also dug a well, preparing for a long siege. Lamas were posted as sentinels at the four outer gates.

"The soldiers fought from here on the twenty-first," said the two lamas. "They shot the cannon and the PLA shot back. Some lamas were formed into groups to guard the gates but most of them ran away and hid in the dark chapels. Even those ordered to guard the gates did not remain very long at the gates; they also ran and hid. The Tibetan soldiers themselves ran away on the night of the 21st. So the lamas surrendered the next morning. The PLA took away the top leaders of rebellion and sent them to work on the new power-plant for Lhasa 'to repair some of the damage they had done'."

Next came the "working team" to organize meetings and classes for the lamas. Jokhang had normally only about a hundred resident lamas, but the "working team" arranged for seven hundred lamas from twenty-eight smaller monasteries to come to Jokhang for the political instruction. Most of these had joined the rebellion but without much understanding. The upper lamas had given them orders and they had obeyed. Now the lamas were studying through collective discussion the reasons why they had joined the rebels, and their entire relation to the upper lamas. They visited groups in other monasteries and attended "accusation meetings" and heard a few talks by Communists on the Marxist view of Tibet's serf society and the democratic reform that was being organized. Later, each one would make up his own mind what he wanted to do in the new society now being formed. Some made up their minds very quickly but the "working team" asked them to wait till the end of the discussions before they finally decided.

"Was any damage done to Jokhang in the fighting?" I asked.

"A little," they replied. "A shell splinter knocked off a small piece of roof and another shell splinter hit the top of a shrine. These things have been repaired. There was not much damage because the Tibetan soldiers heard on the megaphone that they had been everywhere beaten, and they ran away in the night."

Ngawang Miju offered to show me through the temple, I went forward into a pit of darkness, holding Nachi's hand. It was hard to see my footing on the uneven flagstones, and there were many dimly seen projections over which one might turn an ankle and trip. The interior seemed huge but its size was felt rather than seen. The only light came from butter-lamps and of these there were thousands. Sometimes they outlined the aisles, each lamp giving a tiny pinpoint of light and all twinkling far into infinity, till the light was swallowed in darkness. Sometimes a huge tub of yak butter stood at an aisle corner, holding hundreds of pounds of stale butter, with dozens of small wicks burning on its surface. We met lines of pilgrims each carrying a butter-lamp and some individual worshippers carrying large containers of butter as an offering to Jokhang.

Jokhang burned over eight hundred pounds of butter daily, according to Ngawang Miju, a large amount for a hungry land. All of this burning could not make it light in Jokhang; neither the roof nor the far walls ever became fully visible. As my eyes adjusted and as I was led around the outer edges of the space, I saw that most of the outer wall was a succession of small chapels, each with its images and with a few butter-lamps. These chapels were so much darker than the main temple that I did not go into them.

I turned rather to the brightest part of Jokhang, a small enclosed space near the center of the temple, formed like a chapel partly open on three sides, where the lamps of a thousand pilgrims standing in a long approaching line fell on the holy "self-created" Buddha statue brought to Lhasa long ago in 641 A.D. by the Princess Wen Cheng. Ngawang Miju led me so close that, peering upward, I could see the Buddha head in pale gold. The figure inclined slightly forward from the tall, upright box in which it stood, a shrine shaped like an upended coffin. Then I as quickly past and hardly knew what I had seen.

The throng had been so great and the tiny butter-lamps so dim and yet so dazzling and the time so brief before I was carried past that I hardly knew if it had been a box or part of the outer wall of a shrine, and if the Buddha's nose ran, as I thought, like the nose of a Greek statue, a straight line down from the forehead. My chief memory was of the crowd, a long, thin, patiently waiting line of tiny lights that suddenly merged into a confused, pushing throng around the Buddha, each seeking to hold for a moment the object of the quest and all pushed quickly forward into darkness by the many who came behind.

We went out from the darkness of Jokhang and I was glad to see the sun and taste the air.

* * *

A few days later Nachi came to my room for a leisurely talk over tea-cups. I asked for her personal experiences and she began with the railway station in Peking where we had said good-by. She had gone off with a hundred and fifty-three former serfs, now graduate students, packed tightly into two railway cars, all bound for Lhasa to help in the coming reform.

"For the first few stations," she said, "many of us were crying from saying good-by to so many friends and to our student days. Then somebody said: 'the time for crying is over', and we began to sing. We sang all the rest of the way to Lhasa. My favorite song is the Tsangpo River, about our great rivef in Tibet. We broadcast Tibetan songs from the broadcast-car on the train to the other passengers. We also helped clean and sweep the cars. The train workers and the passengers thanked us for our good deeds.

"After four days we reached Shatung in Kansu where we left the railroad to go the rests of the way by trucks. In Shatung the PLA welcomed us and saw us off. We sat on our luggage, twelve persons to a truck. In some places we stopped in a small house at night, in other places, in tents. At every place they gave us food and tea and the food was better than at the Institute because there was much more meat. At every stop we helped the other travellers and we helped the station workers clean the tables and sweep the ground and floor. We got thanks from the station workers.

"We had a very cheerful journey of seventeen days to Lhasa. In Lanchow we had a two-day rest and in Tunhuang we saw the famous caves. Everywhere we were surprised by the great changes. In 1956 there were no houses on this road and now Gormo was a city and there were houses right on top of Kunlung Range and on snowy mountains. We thought how great is our motherland and how hard the Hans work. Now we Tibetans also will make great changes! We felt patriotic like a song in an opera, and very eager to help the democratic reform."

In Lhasa the new student-workers were eager to start work at once but were ordered to take seven days' full rest to adjust to the altitude. They were lodged in the Lhasa Hostel of the Working Committee on the outskirts of the city, where there were beds for several hundred guests. Relatives who lived in Lhasa poured into the hostel to greet the new arrivals. Parents came with tea and cakes and wept for joy to see children who had gone away years ago with thin, yellowish faces, hungry and under dangerous conditions, and who now came back rosy and robust and educated and ready to rebuild the land. Nachi's parents lived far away in Batang beyond Chamdo, a twelve days' journey by bus. They did not meet her in Lhasa but exchanged telegrams and letters and she found a married sister in Lhasa who came to greet her.

"All the other students' families seemed to me like relatives too," she said.

For seven days the leaders of different government departments visited the students and discussed with them different lines of work. On the eighth day assignments were announced. On the ninth day a big farewell party was held, and the students turned in the money saved from their travel allowance, and blew it on extra cakes. On the tenth day they began to scatter to jobs all over Tibet, some to organize in villages, some to work with the military control, some to Loka, some to Shigatse. They had discussed on the way what they would do if the work assigned was not to their liking and had decided they would take any task assigned and try to do it well.

It was some days longer before Nachi got her assignment. After two short temporary jobs, she was called to the United Front Section of the Working Committee of the Communist Party, under which the monasteries came. Dean Wei of the office asked if she was willing to work with lamas. She replied that she would do any work assigned but had little knowledge of lamas. He asked if she was afraid of them. She replied that she was not. She was then assigned to the "working team" in Jokhang and she spent several days reading and discussing monasteries. After this her work in Jokhang began.

"I was a little afraid at first for from childhood I had an uncanny feeling about lamas and monasteries. Long ago I had believed that lamas were holy and had special powers. Now I myself was assigned to help lead these lamas out of dark oppression. By the second day I began to get acquainted with the lamas and then I was no longer afraid. I saw that the poor lamas had suffered very much, like other poor people. Some were in the monastery because of poverty and others because they wished to flee from the forced labor service, and some were very young when their parents put them in because of the monastery's demand. They always thought that life in the monastery would be better than the hard life of serfs. But they found that they had to work like slaves for the upper lamas, and to borrow money for food from their own monastery. They were flogged and tortured like serfs. Their life was no better than mine had been long ago when I ran away.

"So I wanted to do anything I could do to help those poor lamas. Many of them, I saw, were already 'activists' who were exposing the rebels. Even those who fought on the side of the rebels had done it because they were ordered by upper lamas and were themselves confused. They were looking to me for knowledge and help. Then I realized that if any lama was evil and tried to harm me, I would find many friends around who would protect me. So I ceased to fear and on the fifth day of my work I moved into Jokhang to live."

Nachi's work in Jokhang has in part been described. She was one of a "working team of thirteen members. They first got acquainted with the lamas, and led them to tell the story of their past lives and to describe their past oppressions. When they found "material for a meeting", a group discussion would be held, or even an "accusation meeting", in which upper lamas who had been especially brutal would be accused by the lamas they had oppressed. Nobody would be physically ill-treated in such a meeting; its purpose was to help the poor lamas understand the source of their oppression. In the past, the lamas had been told that all their misery was caused by their karma, their destiny which doomed them for sins in a past incarnation. Their present duty or, earth was to submit and obey in the hope that their next incarnation would be a better one. The discussions began to show them the immediate present causes of their misery and with these, a way of change.

Lamas who had been captured in actual battle had first been taken away and confined. Then a sorting process began. Men who expressed a desire to help the Tibetan people were sent to work on the construction of the power-plant for Lasha; about a thousand captured rebels had been working there, not even under guard, but organizing their own supervision. They got a small sum of pocket money besides their food, and from time to time, a group was released.

Lobsang Tele, said Nachi, had been a very eager rebel; he had taken up arms very willingly and had wanted to kill not only the PLA men but all the Hans and even all Tibetans who associated with Hans. He had been captured in armed fighting and had been sent to work on the power-plant; that was how he knew that his former master was working there. Lobsang Tele's loyalties had changed fast and apparently completely. He had shown qualities of leadership and had been in charge of a hundred workers at the power-plant. He had clearly much useful ability and much energy. His change was, however, a little too sudden to seem very stable and when he wanted at once to marry, the "working team" had advised him to wait until he learned some technical skill.

It was Nachi's impression that at least half of the lamas wanted to leave the monastery. "There has been no canvassing of their future intentions for we think they should wait and study before making decisions," she said, "but I know the present intentions of many of them from remarks that they volunteer. Some have parents who want them to come home, some have found girls they want to marry, some want to study further, some want to get jobs. In all these matters they are free to choose, for the July 17th resolution on democratic reform gave the lamas 'freedom of person'. However, our 'working team' has a good deal to say about it, for they come to us for recommendation to a school or a job, and perhaps for a room if they want to take a wife." It was the policy of the "working team" to advise them all to take time before making up their minds, to finish the political courses in Jokhang before leaving and to learn a trade before taking a wife.

Thirteen lamas, on their own insistence, had already gone from Jokhang to the Lhasa secondary school; three of these had married. "Each must make up his own mind in the end about his future relation to the changing society," said Nachi. "They are of all types."

I smiled at Nachi's cool appraisal of the lamas and especially at her analysis of Lobsang Tele's development. I had wondered whether she might not herself be falling in love with one of these lamas, even perhaps with this handsome young Lobsang Tele. She seemed emotionally quite aloof. So I asked whether any of the lamas had approached her with any intent of love-making during her residence within monastery walls.

"No," she said, "I have a pistol and can protect myself if need be. But it has not been needed."

"Don't any of them want to marry you?" I bluntly asked. Nachi blushed and replied that she had already a young man of her own, a boy she had known years ago as a child in Batang and whom she had met again in Lhasa, where he was in the People's Liberation Army, in the military control. I marvel constantly at the youth of today's China, and at the good sense with which they seem to choose their way among their emotions. Nachi wouldn't fall for one of those confused and recently converted lamas. She had picked a boy whose family was known to her family for generations, and whose job was as good as one could find in Lhasa. I asked if they planned to marry soon.

"My friends all say that I should marry soon," replied Nachi, "when we finish these courses in Jokhang. This task will end with September, and most of my friends think that would be a good time to marry. But I want first to work through the land reform and have some experience of the work in villages, until the land is divided. I am working now with lamas because I am assigned to this and because, if the reform is not done properly in the monasteries, the land reform also will suffer. Personally, I would rather work among peasants and especially among the women. I think I can establish closer relations of confidence with old peasant women and mothers than I can with lamas. When the work in Jokhang ends I hope for transfer to some village work until the completion of the land reform."

"What does the young man say?" I asked.

"He says it shall be whenever I say," replied Nachi. I wondered if their discussion had been as tranquil as her words. Quite possibly it had, for both of them are China's modern youth.

Three months earlier, Nachi had been an eager graduate from the Institute of National Minorities, a girl of much promise and considerable knowledge of heavy serf labor but with no experience in responsible work. Now she was already an organizer of the new Tibet. In a year or so more she would be a wife and presently a mother but the land reform came first.

For this would remain with her as the great event in her people's collective life.

* * *

Between the visits with Nachi I went to see an "inhabitants' committee" in the south end of Lhasa and found the beginnings of new city organization at work. The former municipal government had been dissolved as feudal, corrupt and honeycombed with rebellion. A municipal commission had been set up, under temporary military control, but containing local citizens with experience in city affairs. Tsuiko, its vice-chairman, was a progressive noble who had been one of the secretaries of the kashag. It was from him that I learned that Lhasa city had a population of some 35,000, now divided into four administrative wards — north, south, east and west — with two additional wards in the suburbs. Outside all this lay the far larger Lhasa area, which included eight counties in addition to the city, and was equivalent to a large province, in area and population about one tenth of all Tibet.

In each of the city wards a "working team" now functioned, like that on which Nachi worked, set up by the Working Committee of the Communist Party, which organized all over Tibet. As Nachi's team had helped create a committee of lamas through which it operated, so the "inhabitants' committees" had also grown up in the wards for the purpose of improving the living conditions. There were twenty-seven "inhabitants' committees" in Lhasa city.

We found "Inhabitants' Committee Number Six" of the south ward in an ancient, pretentious and rather dilapidated building on a narrow cobbled street. It had been one of many properties of Tsrijong, a cleric in the Dalai Lama's service, and as a former center of rebel activities, was now requisitioned. We climbed steep, narrow stairs to the upper floors where its former owner had lived when in residence and sat down with several members of the "inhabitants' committee" who had come to meet us.

The chairman was named Pintso, a .rather retiring man whose history I never learned. The man who did the most talking was Purbu, a dark man in a cream colored shirt, tan sweater and black felt hat with a steady flow of cigarettes. He was by trade a handicraftsman who made fancy decorated felt boots. For the committee he was in charge of the san fan drive and had handled unemployed relief. Six or ten members appeared, some of whom came and went. Several women sat modestly back in the corners, apparently not quite used to their new sex equality.

It was Pintso who made it clear, with the members all nodding assent, that the "inhabitants' committee" was not "state power". It did not even expect to become "state power" but would remain an association of citizens for neighborhood improvement. As such it would help set up "state power" and assist it. This distinction seemed very clear to these Tibetans, though most of them were illiterate and had only a few weeks experience in politics. They already knew in experience that the four regular schools of Lhasa, three primary and one secondary, were run by "state power", but that the hunger for education was far beyond what the state could supply and so the "inhabitants' committees" had organized thirty-five special night-schools and courses for illiterates with two thousand pupils. Their own committee ran both a primary school for ninety pupils and an evening school for thirty-five adults.

Through the "inhabitants' committee" the citizens were awakening to a democratic political life, and learning their relations to "state power". The 110,000 pounds of "relief grain" for the hungry unemployed of Lhasa and the two and a half million pounds of seed grain given on loan without interest to the peasants came from "state power" as emergency relief, but Purbu had personally organized some of its distribution. "State power" repaired the damages of battle to Potala, Jewel Park, Jokhang, Ramogia and other buildings in Lhasa and made the six miles of new road. But the "inhabitants' committees" were cleaning up their own neighborhoods, sweeping streets and yards with a vigor unknown before, and turning swamp land that bred disease into vegetable gardens that gave food to the poor. It was they who located homes for the homeless and brought the sixty-nine orphans to the primary school where "state power" then took charge of their maintenance. Already these relations were becoming clear.

This "inhabitants' committee" had been organized April 3, 1959, two weeks after the rebellion was quelled. It included 298 households of whom 93 were handicraftsmen, 50 traders, 15 were of the nobility and 140 had been "poor people", the beggars and homeless unemployed. The area ran from a stretch of the Lingkor, the outer circle where pilgrims measured their round by falling length after length on their faces, to the edge of the Parkor, the inner circle on which Jokhang faced, and took in sundry lanes and alleys between.

A notorious bit of wasteland on the Lingkor where homeless people had camped in hovels or ragged tents or even in the open air had given the committee its first problem. "We got them all settled with housing, jobs and relief grain," said Purbu. "Many went back to their villages where the land reform will give them land."

"Where did you get the housing?" I asked. "Did you build new?"

Purbu replied that some wards in Lhasa had built new housing but their neighborhood had not needed this, for there were many rental properties belonging to rebels and these had been used for the homeless inhabitants. This led into a discussion of housing. All houses in the neighborhood, said Purbu, had formerly belonged to the kashag, the nobles or the monasteries, and the people had rented rooms in them. Rents had been very high. "I myself had to pay twice the rent of whole year just for the permit to move in. After this I paid 1,250 taels a year and also had to do labor service for my landlord, carrying water and bundles."

After the rebellion was put down, the inhabitants did not change the ownership of the houses; for this they had no power. But they had stopped paying rent. They made the small repairs and went to the military control if any big repairs were needed. When the democratic reform was accomplished and the Tibetan people created their new Autonomous Region and permanent government, then the ownership of houses would also be decided. Meantime the people stopped paying rent and labor duties but kept up repairs. They considered that rebel property was subject to confiscation, but if its owner had fled to India or been captured, while his family still lived in the house, they let the family have it, for they also had to have a place to stay. If the rebel's family had a lot of extra courts and rooms that were empty, the committee might ask them to take in some neighbors. All these housing arrangements were rather temporary because some people would move to villages and some to other jobs. Meantime nobody was without shelter, and that eyesore of hovels and ragged tents on the Lingkor was cleaned away.

I did not even have to ask if all this house changing was handled by military requisition. It was clear that a military requisition could be had if needed, and that probably the committee had secured some formal paper to take over the Tsrijong property as headquarters. It was equally clear that families of rebels would be rather quick to agree to any reasonable "temporary" use by their neighbors rather than invite a military requisition which might be more drastic and permanent. The combination of local initiative on the spot with military control in the offing seemed a neat way to get results with the least friction.

The second main task of the "inhabitants' committee" had been the reclamation of an acre and a third of "waste land", where they had drained stagnant pools and planted a vegetable garden. They had also planted trees around the garden and along their main street and dug an irrigation ditch to water the garden and the trees. They had established "sanitary control". The streets and alleys had formerly been very filthy for people used them casually as privies, but now some "public toilets" had been set up and the entire neighborhood was on the lookout to keep people from dirtying their streets. People took turns in sweeping the yards and adjoining street.

"Who gets the vegetables from the garden?" I asked. Purbu replied that those who did the work had the right to the vegetables in proportion to the work they did, but actually, many people had helped plant the garden because they wanted to beautify the neighborhood and not because they especially wanted vegetables. They would let their vegetables go to the poor. I had no time to learn whether this was an act of benevolence or community spirit, or a disdain for vegetables.

What had happened to the fifteen nobles who owned houses in the neighborhood? The committee had a full report. They began with a brief survey of the past. "Under the former government," said Purbu, "the citizens couldn't raise their heads. The kashag appointed heads of every handicraft, and these were gangsters who beat up the workers as they liked. Besides the heavy rents there were heavy taxes, especially at the Great Prayer Festival when for three weeks the Iron Bar Lamas of Drepung were given charge of Lhasa municipality. They imposed more than sixty new taxes. Women were taxed for having more than one braid of hair. You were taxed for wearing leather shoes. You were taxed for having a dog or a cat and an extra tax for a bell on the dog's neck. You were taxed for every flower-pot. If it snowed on your street and in your yard — and the Great Prayer Festival is at New Years when of course it snows — you were taxed "for the benison of the snow" and if you cleaned it off, you were taxed because your ground was wet. If you couldn't show tax receipts for everything, you got a flogging or a very big fine."

The old municipal government had helped organize the rebellion. On March 10 it gave orders that men and women should gather in Jewel Park to prevent the Dalai Lama from going to the theatrical performance in the auditorium of the Military Area. Rumors were spread that the Hans would kidnap the Dalai Lama and all good Tibetans were urged to keep him in Jewel Park even if they had to lie down in front of his car on the road. People who did not go to the rebel gathering were fined fifty taels for women and five hundred for handicraftsmen. Later the municipal government began conscripting all men from 16 to 60 into the rebel ranks and punishing any who refused to join. They said they were defending religion and the Tibetan nation so most of the people at first submitted, but later they saw that the rebels themselves made battlefields of holy places and raped nuns and gouged out citizens' eyes.

"So people began to see that the nobles and the kashag brought much suffering to the Tibetan people," concluded Purbu, "and now that life becomes better, this is due not to the nobles but to the Communists."

With this preamble Purbu stated that of the fifteen nobles who had residences in their neighborhood, six took no active part in rebellion. Three were progressives, one was too sick to take part in anything, one was away from home, and the sixth was a clerical officer who had just come home from a journey and had not been back long enough to be drawn into any local activity. These nobles lived as before and their homes were untouched.

Nine nobles had actively joined the rebels. Three of them had fled to India while six were captured in fighting and detained. One of the latter, a high official in the Dalai Lama's Peking office named Ramba, had repented of rebellion and been released and was again in his home. What happened to the houses of the other eight nobles depended on whether they had families living in them. Families of rebels who lived in the neighborhood were unmolested. Clerical nobles had no families living with them. Their houses, like this of Tsrijong, might be used by the "inhabitants' committee" for some local need.

"Struggle meetings" had been held against two nobles, Shadza and Piroba and against two gangster bosses of the boatmen and the carpenters. People from the whole south ward had come to hear. Another big rebel, Tsarong, had lived in this neighborhood and had been captured in the Potala surrender. His serfs demanded a "struggle meeting", but Tsarong was seventy years old and died of a stroke before any meeting was held. [1]

"The people demanded a 'struggle meeting' with six other nobles," said Purbu, "but these have not been held." It seemed likely that there would be no more "struggle meetings" for the campaign of the "three abolitions" was drawing to a close. The harvest would come and then the land reform. The purpose of "struggle meetings" had not been to punish all the nobles but to awaken the people to the causes of past suffering and to a sense of the people's power to end this suffering. This was basically accomplished by accusing the worst nobles and there was no need of accusing everyone.

The most exciting people one met in these "inhabitants' committees" were those who after long years of torment had suddenly awakened to life. In almost every person you met there was a notable human story, but some knew better how to tell it than others.

Lando was an example. She was a woman of 36, born a household slave. When she was only eight years old, her father had been flogged into paralysis and lay in his bed unable to rise. The overseer came to order his attendance and when the slave failed to rise, he was flogged in bed for "shamming", so that he died. While the girl of eight clung weeping to her mother, the overseer saw that the man was dead, so with a curse he kicked the mother in the belly and dragged the girl away as a slave. She tended sheep and slept in the barn with them. More than once she was raped and when found pregnant, was flogged unconscious and sold to another owner "to get rid of the shame". Once it was her master who raped her and the master's jealous wife who hung her to a beam, beat her into unconsciousness and sold her. For twenty-eight years Lando lived in this torment. Often she prayed for death but she feared to commit suicide lest she be born into an even worse incarnation. In all those years she never knew if her mother was living; communication was difficult between illiterate serfs.

When the "working team" in its round of getting acquainted with serfs, asked Lando if she had been "oppressed", she didn't know the meaning of the word. Nobody had ever talked about "oppression" but only about "fate". What happened, she thought, was her inescapable karma.

So the "working team" made it simpler and asked: "Did your master flog you or molest you or did he give grain for seed?" Then Lando understood and the misery of her life burst out of her in words so eloquent that she became the best speaker in the first "accusation meeting" she attended. She had the whole, audience weeping and shouting: "Down with serfdom!" She was unanimously elected on the committee for putting down rebellion and increasing production.

Lando became what is known as an "activist". Life, she feels, has just begun. The "working team" helped find her mother, whom Lando had thought dead. The two are living together. Lando will learn to read, to study politics, to improve agriculture or to work at some trade. Her loyalty to the Communist Party that opened this new life to her is passionate and clear.

The awakening of human beings from bondage to freedom has happened often before in human society. Usually it has been in bloody uprising at heavy human cost. Seldom has it been done with such careful social engineering as today in Tibet. Only when I met these newly awakened serfs did I fully understand how the Working Committee had been sent as what in military affairs is called a "task force", an organized force to do a definite task. It was sent by the Communist Party of China into a Tibet where there were no Communists but only serfs and their masters. Its task was to liberate and transform this Tibet at minimum human cost.

This could not be done by a victory in Chamdo, nor by giving government orders. It could only be done by awakening all over Tibet the people who would seize their chance for life. This was why no reforms were imposed in 1951 and serfdom was endured for eight years. Thus thirty percent of the nobles had been won, far enough at least so that they agreed to sell their estates to the government. However complete or incomplete their loyalty, their participation in government would ensure enough contact with the past for a peaceful transition. The loyalty and vital drive would come from the serfs. These were being reached, one by one, by the "working teams", now that the rebellion had been quelled.

The loyal nobles, the education of the lamas, the organization of the handicraftsmen as the new working-class, all had their place. But all of this was preparation for the revolution that was spreading through the countryside, through the awakening of the serfs.


1.Tsarong is well known to foreign visitors in Tibet. He was not born in the Tsarong family, which was a very ancient noble family. He had been a gardener for the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and had become for some years his "favorite". Since the original Tsarong was loyal to China, the Thirteenth Dalai had him thrown off the roof of the Potala Palace, together with his son, thus exterminating all male Tsarongs. He then gave the name, the property and the women to his young favorite, who married both the daughter and the daughter-in-law of the house and became the richest man in Tibet. This Tsarong kept contacts with America and was Lowell Thomas' host in Tibet.