Anna Louise Strong Reference Archive

When serfs stood up in Tibet


A few miles west of Lhasa on the highway to Shigatse stood Drepung, [1]  the biggest monastery, biggest serf-owner and biggest rebel in Tibet. The rebellion having been quelled, Drepung was "under reform". We allotted an entire day to it, knowing that this gave time to see only a small part.

Drepung was a feudal state within a feudal state. The "Big Three Monasteries" — Drepung, Sera and Ganden — were for centuries the backbone of the reactionary political machine that dominated the life of Tibet. Drepung, the largest, had special privileges in appointing many of the top clerical officials in Tibet's government. Every year for the three weeks of the great Prayer Festival at New Year, Drepung's "Iron Bar Lamas" took over the entire administration of Lhasa municipality, imposing taxes and fines at will and enriching themselves and the monastery by this. Past Chinese emperors, fearing Drepung's political power, had by edict limited it to 7,700 monks, but at times these had grown to nine or ten thousand. The number had sharply fallen in recent years. Besides the central monastery, Drepung had over seven hundred subsidiary monasteries scattered all over Tibet and in the Tibetan areas of adjacent provinces.

As serf-owner, Drepung had owned 185 manorial creates with some 25,000 serf population, and 300 pastures with 16,000 herdsmen. As recent rebel, Drepung had sent 3,050 armed monks to fight the central government of China, beginning with a band of fifty who went to Chamdo in 1950 to organize against the People's Liberation Army all along its way to Lhasa and ending with over two thousand monks who had fought in the March rebellion in Lhasa in which Drepung was in major force. It was hardly surprising that Drepung had come under military control in a reform that sought to change Drepung from a dictator of law to a "law-abiding" monastery limited to religious activities.

A chill wind was tearing the sky into a patchwork of rolling clouds and bright blue openings as we skirted the northern wall of the Potala Palace and took the highway west. We soon passed the Central Transport Services on our right, where the tops of auto-busses showed above a six-foot earthen wall which the rebels had tried to storm in March and where they had been repelled by the transport workers. Soon our autos tangled with traffic coming into the city: donkey carts, laden burros, auto-trucks and even a few bicycles, these, last very new in Tibet. A group of five women waved at us from the road, the brightly colored sleeves of their under-blouses blowing gaily in the sun. We passed green swamp flats and steeply rising hill-slopes and came, just beyond the squat gilded temple of time State Oracle, to Drepung, the "Rice Heap", so-called because from a distance its cluster of buildings looks like a great heap of rice poured by some giant in a pocket between hills.

A dirt road from the highway turned towards the monastery but it grew rapidly rougher and steeper until it forced our autos and then our jeeps to stop at precisely the place where a long procession of monks in wine-colored robes had come to meet us. A front line of less than a dozen contained the dignitaries, the top three of whom were marked by long yellow sashes, which encircled their necks and flowed down inside their dark red robes. Two of these were kampo, or abbot, heads of one of the many colleges in Drepung, and the third was a kansu, a former kampo, who in retirement still kept his rank. Superior to them in learning, though not in rule, and distinguished not by yellow sash but by spectacles, was a gesi, a doctor of philosophy in Budclhist theology, its highest existing rank. His name was Miwo, and he was a Han by birth, who had studied in Peking but lived twenty years now in Lhasa where he was presently also vice— chairman of the Lhasa Branch of the All-China Buddhist Association. This fact indicated loyalty to China for the rebels denounced all organizations in which Hans mingled with Tibetans.

These four chiefs were large, dignified and corpulent, holding rank from the past and set apart from the crowd by full-fed bodies, fine-quality robes and wrist-watches. Next to them, and in fact, a little a d of them and first in the line, stood a small, thin lama in a neat but worn robe, distinguished neither by yellow sash nor spectacles but by his lean hungrinans. This was Chomei Renzin, a lama of the lower ranks who, during the rebellion, had expressed discontent at being ordered to take up arms against the state, and had been flogged for this. He was now elevated to power as chairman of the "Committee for Putting Down Rebellion" in Drepung, a temporary post which might, however, lead to future eminence in whatever new administration might be formed after Drepung was pronounced "law-abiding". It was under-stood that religious affairs would continue to be run by the kampos and gesi, but administration of daily life would be "democratically run" by a committee on which the lower lamas would be represented, they who in centuries never had a voice.

The two kampos, as monastery chiefs, exchanged hatas [2] formally with the two chairmen of our correspondents' group, and we saw again why we had elected them. Then we slowly made our way up the hill through a rabbit warren of rough stone buildings by a narrow cobbled road that was both steep and hard on the feet. A tough climb brought us to the Main Chapel, a huge golden-roofed building which looked out over many other roofs. Here we were to get our general briefing and lunch with the monastery chiefs. Then we would see the exhibition of monasteries, the new chorus of boy lamas, a new drama written and produced by the lamas' drama club, and an accusation meeting in which the monks would accuse two former Iron Bar Lamas and a Living Buddha. Whenever we wished we would break into small groups to interview individuals.

The Main Chapel at the top of the "Rice Heap" was a large, cheerless structure dating back to 1416. They said it held five thousand lamas at Scripture Chanting, but the size was masked by a dimness common to lamaist buildings and also by a forest of square columns that supported the roof and by many statues and hanging ropes of offerings that obstructed the view. What at first seemed stained glass windows at the far end turned out to be an enormous gaudy Buddha statue, three storeys high and lit from a window-like opening at second storey level. This upper light filtered down through irregular architecture and many smaller Buddhas to the nearest statues, one of Tsong Khapa, founder of the Yellow Sect, and two of former Dalai Lamas, and one very small image of a baby protected by a glass dome with seven bowls of water placed reverently before it, since this was the "baby incarnation" of a famous gesi at the time when the monastery was built. There were no chairs or benches but between the stone pillars ran long rows of worn, dusty mattress-pads on the floor on which lamas might squat for Scripture Chanting, though they could not expect to see the speaker through all the confused trappings at the plate. We later learned that only upper-class anas satin mattress-pads. The lower lamas sat on one.

We dinted by a wooden and not very elegant staircase to a third floor of this huge building and found the office for the "Putting Down of Rebellion" just under the roof. It was a long rectangle of a room, some thirty by twenty feet in size, with window-like out unglassed openings between the pillars of the far wall, giving on a distant view. These let in less light than one expected for the walls were thick and there was a wide overhang to the roof. The view itself was spectacles One looked down across gilded roofs and tall gilded fantastically shaped pillars and pagodas to a wide valley and circling hills beyond. In this valley the Young husband Expedition of the British Arrmy had camped in 1904, and threatened to blow Drepung in the earth with artillery unless the monastery supplied the troops with grain. So the lamas had gone in long file down that steep stony road, each bearing attack of barley to the British troops.

Turning back from the view to inspect the room more closely, one saw that a rectangle of tables had been laid out with dishes and tea-cups and around this were benches now softened by gaudy colored rugs. Though prepared for hospitality, it was neither a cheerful nor a restful room. It was a torture of color and ornament lavish without harmony. The many pillars were dullred, and covered with cartoons and slogans. The carpet was bright red in background, with complex figures in writhing colors. The ceiling rafters were a vivid, harsh blue and the ceiling between them was pale yellow, so that as one moved through the room, the ceiling became a changing pattern in yellow and harsh blue. The many placards on the wall were in Tibetan which we had no time to translate, but one cartoon may serve to give the tone. It was called: "the two-faced lama", and it showed a lama whose head had two faces and whose body had six arms, a form not unusual in Buddha paintings. These arms were all busily employed, three of them in praying, blessing and collecting contributions, and the other three in beating, torturing and raping. Since the victims of all these activities were also shown, the space was inartistically crammed with contradictory detail from the god to whom prayer was made to the woman who was raped. This restless picture seemed typical of the restless complexity of the room.

We were given lunch intermingled with greetings and speeches by the kampos and by Chomei Renzin, the thin chairman of the "Committee for Putting Down Rebellion". They were interpreted by a tall man in a blue cotton suit and tan overcoat who seemed startlingly modern in this setting, and who was supplied by the "working team" in charge of reform. His neatly trousered suit and brisk manner were the most military things we saw in Drepung, for though the monastery was "under military control", the soldiers seemed long since to have left, after discovering and confiscating a large quantity of weapons that were hidden under Buddha statues. The military control was expressed by two "working teams" which no doubt had the military power behind them, but which were civilian in aspect and largely composed of Tibetans, former runway serfs who had received education in the interior of China.

It was from the speeches that we learned that the Main Chapel dated from 1416; that Drepung had enjoyed for centuries many prerogatives, including the right to appoint many high clerical officials in the government of Tibet, that it had been "a center of the reactionary wing of the monasteries"; that it had maintained its own court, jail and torture system, using these not only against its own lamas, but against any laymen with whom the lamas came into conflict. We learned incidentally that the large number of vultures we saw swooping over the monastery, and that were especially visible from the high window-spaces of this room, were attracted by the "heavenly burials", the name given to the exposing of corpses to vultures, one of the accepted forms of burial in Tibet.

We were also enlightened as to Drepung's form of organization. The monastery was composed of several Tsatsangs, or colleges, and each of these had many Kangchungs, or residential areas. The ruling organ was the Lhachi Conference, [3] which had three grades : the small conference, the enlarged and the extra-enlarged. The small or inner conference had fifteen members, thirteen of whom were kampos, or heads of a Tsatsang. The first enlargement was made by adding eight members, including two kisu, the financial and business managers, the lama in charge of manorial estates and two Iron Bar Lamas, in charge of police. For the largest conference, six more upper lamas were added, including the man in charge of the Scripture Chanting Hall and a lama physician who tended sick lamas.

This organization of the monastery had not been changed by the military control, but a "Committee for Putting Down Rebellion" had been superimposed, consisting largely of lower lamas and of a few of the upper lamas who had not actively taken part in rebellion. This committee was temporary, its function being to hold political discussions about the policies of the Central Government of China and the serfdom of Tibet, with special reference to the activities of Drepung. It was part of the general san fan movement for putting down rebellion, forced labor and servitude, and included accusation meetings in which lamas were encouraged to bring out facts of long abuses. After some six months of such education, the lamas themselves were expected to set up the new administration for Drepung, in which it was assumed that religious matters would still be in the hands of the kampo and gesi, men learned in Buddhism, while obsolete offices such as those in charge of manorial estates and of usurious loans would be abolished, and the administration of housing and food and daily life would be "democratically managed" under a committee on which the lower lamas would have representation.

Drepung's part in rebellion was briefly given by Chomei Renzin. In 1950 Drepung sent fifty armed monks to Chamdo, to fight the People's Liberation Army there and also to arouse revolt against them amiong villages on the road as they came to Lhasa. In 1952, Drepung helped Lokongwa's attempt to organize for the expulsion of the Hans from Tibet. In 1956 Drepung, with Sera and Ganden, opposed the forming of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region because this was expected to introduce 'democratic reform" while the monasteries intended to keep serfdom forever and said they would "shed fresh blood" to maintain their "holy system". More recently when the "Support Religion, Anti-Communist Army" was formed in Loka in 1958, Drepung sent ihree well armed companies. In early 19 59 Drepung helped call the meeting in Jewel Park which detained the Dalai Lama in his quarters lest he contact the Hans.

These rebellious acts were done under the direction of the Lhachi Conference, Drepung's top organization. Before the armed assault against the Central Government Offices, all lamas in Drepung were ordered to recite curses against the Hans. On March 16th the Iron Par Lama Dorje Paida announced that Tibet's independence had been proclaimed and urged all lamas to join the armed ranks. "To kill one Han gives more merit than to build a Buddhist dagoba," he said.

Lamas who showed reluctance to fight were punished. "I myself," said Chomei Renzin, "was given a hundred and twenty lashes for showing dissatisfaction with fighting. Many of the lower lamas did not wish to fight, because we considered it to be against Buddhism. But only after the rebellion was put down, and after we had many discussions in the san fan movement did we finally understand that the 'holy system' we were asked to protect by fighting was not religion but serfdom, by which we also were oppressed.

"For now for the first time we have freedom of religion. We are free to be lamas or not to be lamas; we can go home and marry if we choose. We are free to go to services or not to go to services. We can have a chorus and a drama club and earn money by productive work. In the past our lives were at the disposal of the Iron Bar Lamas who could beat us for even a small trouble and even kill us if they wished. Now we are masters of our own lives and not only are we free but we have enough to eat which we never had before."

There had been 5,678 lamas in Drepung before the rebellion; now there were only 2,800. Part of this was due to seasonal variation for lamas always gathered in Drepung in winter for shelter and to get contributions at the great Prayer Festival while in summer they went to the harvest areas to get grain. The main decline came from the sending of more than two thousand armed monks to fighting in Lhasa at Jewel Park. Few of these had returned. Only a handful were killed but many were captured and many more had run away to their homes after the defeat. Some had gone to stay in monasteries in the Panchen Ardeni's territory, to be out of the political pressures caused by the rebellion. We later learned that the monasteries in the Panchen Erdeni's territory had somewhat grown in numbers through monks who fled from the turmoil caused by the conflict in the Dalai Lama's part of Tibet.

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The exhibition, which we visited after lunch, filled several rooms of this same large building. The first room, given to Drepung's share in rebellion, displayed a large stack of bayoneted rifles of both British and American makes, some Smith and Wesson 38s, Colt 45s, an American sten-gun, a US Thompson submachine-gun, some British Enfields and German Mausers, and a large quantity of dum-dum bullets also from Britain and America in the original boxes, the soft-nosed lead bullets that are illegal in war because they unnecessarily shatter the man they wound. This room also had a dummy figure of the State Oracle, in the authentic jewel-bedecked robes and crown, together with the instructions given him by the rebels to slant all history and predictions "to favor Tibet's independence".

A room on "Economic Exploitation" repeated the statistics of Drepung's manorial holdings and serfs, and gave considerable detail on how those 25,000 agricultural serfs and 16,000 herdsmen were exploited. Besides the ordinary payments in labor or grain for the use of land, there were endless kinds of taxes, a dog tax, a cat tax, a chicken tax, a donkey tax, another tax for the bell worn by an animal, a tax on owning a flower-pot, a poll-tax, a birth tax and a special tax at death whereby ear-rings and ornaments of the dead went to Drepung. Grain measures were shown, indicating that Drepung used a small ke which held 25 catties, in measuring out seed to the serfs, and a big ke, holding 32 catties, in collecting grain in return. A board used to level the grain in the measure was convex on one side and concave on the other and made a difference of another pound according to which side was used. The total difference in measuring grain gave the serf a ke of 24 catties (26.4 pounds), and took in return a ke of over 33 catties (36 pounds), a difference of over nine pounds or some forty percent on the weighing alone.

One-fourth of Drepung's total income came from usury. Interest on loans was supposed to be twenty percent but actually went much higher through many conditions, of which the difference in measures for grain was only one. Among the peculiar feudal forms of debt was one called "Chimei-jimei" whereby the monastery rented out livestock to herdsmen and exacted in return a definite amount of butter or wool per year, the catch being that the animals thus rented were usually old and ready to die, and sometimes there were no actual animals but only promises, yet the serf and his descendants were bound to these "rental" payments for generations, long after any original animals died. Another form of livestock rental known as the "birth and death rental" demanded a fixed amount of increase in the livestock, and if the cattle or sheep failed to bear the expected offspring or if any died, the unhappy herdsman was held for the payment. When debts of this or any other kind piled up beyond ability to pay, there might be the "person mortgage", by which a man became lave for twenty-five years under conditions which he rarely survived.

Drepung also carried on considerable business including the import of opium, a quantity of which, taken from the monastery stores, was displayed. Much of Drepung's trade was with the monastery serfs. When inspectors visited distant pastures they would take trade goods like brick tea, and force herdsmen to take a brick which normally cost a silver dollar and pay for it eighteen pounds of yak butter worth twenty times as much.

The privilege of making these inspection trips was much sought after by upper lamas, who often paid heavy bribes for the right to make a tour of properties, because on these journeys the "inspectors" not only made huge profits from this compulsory trade, but also had to be given presents by every manor at which they stopped. Each manor visited also had to supply women not only for the lama inspector but for his large retinue; this was called ''accompanying corveé". Lamas who had accompanied the "Foul-mouthed Tiger" on one such trip stated that at one stop all women of sixty households had been raped by the lama and his party, under the name of "accompanying corveé".

Similar burdens were imposed on the inhabitants of Lhasa city during the three weeks of the great Prayer Festival when the Iron Bar Lamas of Drepung ruled the town. They taxed donkeys, dogs, cats, chickens, flower-pots, cigarettes, snuff, wells, ponds and even taxed women for having two braids. These Iron Bar Lamas kept track of civil and criminal cases and blackmailed both sides for decisions. Merchants had to pay them heavily for the right to exist. If an Iron Bar Lama leaned his bar against anyone's gate, the householder must at once make gifts, lest some fault be found with the gate which would bring a fine. Pilgrims were taxed for scripture reading and for making pilgrimage around the Lingkor. Perhaps the oddest tax was on snow-fall; if snow fell in a man's yard or in front of his house — the month was February — he paid a "snow tax" to the Iron Bar Lama who had "brought him the snow". The new lama "activists" in Drepung had worked it out during the san fan campaign that an Iron Bar Lama could collect some sixty thousand silver dollars during the Prayer Festival.

"Freedom of religion" was the subject of another room in the exhibition and here were compiled some statistics on the causes that brought lamas into the monastery. Of 287 lamas living in a certain section of Loseling College, 124 had been entered by parents when they were under fourteen years old, 106 had entered "to escape corveé or debt", 31 in fulfilment of corveé or debt, 18 came as cripples unable to work, and only 6 declared they came from religious conviction. The small number who asserted religious reasons was doubtless influenced by the conditions under which the questionnaire was taken but the figure seems nonetheless significant.

Poorer lamas who came "for religion" must have found the monastery rules discouraging. For, as the inhibit showed, the poor lamas had to beg for permission and stick out their tongues, as proof that they were exposing a clean inside, before they were allowed to read the scriptures, and they were never allowed in the room where the really sacred books were kept. Part of what they now hailed as "religious freedom" was that "a poor lama can turn the big Prayer Wheel as much as he wishes", this being a road to merit formerly denied to the poor. "He can study and pray as he desires." The lower lamas and some of the upper strata had formed a "Cultural Relics Preservation Group" and had repaired many halls in Drepung and cleaned the religious relics and put in good shape the historic manuscripts. They were outraged at charges spread by Tibetan rebels in India that these relics had been removed.

The room on "Crimes of the Monastery" was the one most sensational to outsiders. This began with large piles of human skulls, at least a hundred, of which several score had been made into drums, with a human skin as membrane over the opening; it was explained that the skin was taken from a living body so that it would be flexible and resilient. Some skulls were made into bowls, mounted in silver, and a few had both silver and gold in the mounting. Two large cups made of skulls with silver mountings had belonged to Tsrijong, personal aide of the Dalai Lama.

Here were also "leg-bones of maidens" made into horns encased in silver. We asked: "How do you know they are maidens' bones?" We were told that this was demanded by the "monastery regulation"; only "maidens' bones" might be used for horns. There was a special organization that collected bones for the monastery. An Iron Bar Lama of Ganden had been accused of killing twelve serfs in order to get their bones.

Two skulls and two pair of arm bones were exhibited as having been brought to Drepung as proof that two herdsmen had been killed. The herdsmen had been sent to herd yaks at a place called Retsin which was very cold. Being hungry, they had killed and eaten a yak and for this the monastery had condemned them to death. A lama named Boba had been sent with five helpers to execute the sentence and bring back the proof.

Every manor belonging to Drepung had its own jail and torture system. Jails were often deliberately interested with scorpions and poisonous insects. A kind of grass called "scorpion grass" was sometimes used for flogging; it seems to have been a kind of nettle for it made the victim's body red and swollen with pain. Maiming by cutting off a hand or foot was a common term of punishment. Another way of crippling was to tie the arm or leg with a cattle skin that had been dipped in boiling salted water; this was bound in such a manner that as the skin dried it crippled the victim permanently.

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Leaving these horrors, we began to descend the monastery, terrace by terrace. We emerged on roofs where lamas sunned themselves against gilded pillars, and where other lamas blew gilded horns six feet long, Below these we came down a wide flight of stone steps in which stood a chorus of some three hundred boy lamas in red robes, while a nine-year-old boy conductor named Chiayang Tuntsun, a name much bigger than the boy, directed, them from the terrace below. They were singing lustily: "Socialism Is Good".

"Is this the choirs new repertory?" I asked in amusement.

"This is our new choir," they replied. "We never had a choir. We had chanting of scripture but if small lamas had been caught singing they would have been thrashed."

As the boys finished their song and sat down on the stone steps we saw that the terrace at the foot of the steps, where the young conductor had been standing, contained a stage. Preparations for a play were under way. The boy choir was already seated as audience. Our party also sat down to see what we were told was a locally written drama, based on an actual incident of Drepung's life. It concerned the persecution of a poor peasant and his daughter by the lama known as "Foul-mouthed Tiger", who had been a kisu in charge of finance and business for Drepung.

The play was straight melodrama with an obvious villain. The performers threw themselves into their parts with an energy indicating that Tibetans have a taste for dramatizing, and that they do it well if a bit extravagantly. The girl with bright red sleeves in the poor hovel tried to console her aged peasant father who could not pay his debts. The old man knelt to petition the obdurate kisu, and then prayed before the Buddha picture and went out in despair for a last attempt to find something with which to pay. The kisu began to flirt with the girl but she evaded his approaches.

Since Buddha gave no help to the aged peasant, the scene then shifted to the kisu's apartment where the "Foul-mouthed Tiger" prepared to close in on the girl in his own rooms. His servant was ordered to have her thrown into jail for the debt and then to offer for the chance to pay it by housework in the kisu's house. When she arrived, the kisu sent his servant away and raped the girl. The rape was done out of sight of the audience, in a bedroom adjoining the sitting-room, but the cries that came through the open door told what went on. The little boy lamas of the choir, whose faces in repose had seemed sad and empty, were smirking now to show that they knew what was occurring. Then the kisu returned to his sitting-room, a bit too obviously rearranging his clothes and sated, and prayed in front of his Buddha picture to add to lust and brutality the touch of hypocrisy that makes vil--ny absolute.

We did not wait to see much more of this for we knew already what would come, since the play was I i.ed on an incident we had been told. The girl would complain to the Iron Bar Lama, and he, instead in punishing the kisu, would punish the girl as a "witch" who seduced a high-rank lama.

We left the drama to the youthful appreciative audience and went down another wide flight of stone steps to a lower and even wider terrace, from which and shouts had been arising, interrupting our show.


1.Also spelled De-pung, Daipung, meaning "Rice Heap".

2.Hatas, silk scarves used in ceremonial greetings.

3.Or Nachi or Rachi, the liquid letters being mixed in Tibetan.