Anna Louise Strong Reference Archive

When serfs stood up in Tibet


"Build paradise on the roof of the world," ran the slogan. The Panchen Erdeni, the liberated serfs, the farm experts, the economists and statisticians, all saw it in different terms.

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The Panchen, just verging on twenty-two, spoke of youth's future. He said: "It is bright and wide." His own life had certainly brightened and widened since he, a peasant boy in Chinghai, had been picked out as Panchen. The fine quality of the monk's robe of wine-red wool in which he entered, with its lining of bright yellow and its floating scarf of yellow silk, his tall boots of gold brocade, the gold wrist-watch entwined with a Buddhist rosary on his wrist, the new palace — all showed a fortune unforeseen in his youth. And since the "Democratic Reform" had been passed July 17 by the new government of Tibet under his chairmanship, the Tenth Panchen Erdeni might hope to go down in history as head of the government that abolished serfdom in Tibet.

The Panchen exchanged hatas with the two leaders chosen by the correspondents for such formalities. For three hours he talked informally between sips of hot buttered tea on any subjects they chose to raise — Buddhism, the rebellion, Tibet's past and future. After some refreshments he took his guests to the races of the Riding Academy of which he is the personal patron, and showed riders who could hide on the gallop behind the horse's body to shoot. Dances were performed, both religious and secular.

The ten-hour visit ended with a banquet where the Panchen's father and mother sat at one of the tables, still hale and hearty at fifty and smiling as if unaware of the rumors abroad. Some of the correspondents took photographs of the Panchen with his cheerful father and mother, and hoped to make a world scoop by disproving the headlines in the Western press which at the moment were saying that the Panchen was "under house arrest" in the Potala Palace because his father was "accused of treason for leading armed rebellion".

He expressed hope for the future of Buddhism and respect for all its many sects, "each emphasizing a different aspect of deity". In Tibet, the sects are mainly four. "But for all followers of Sakyamuni, the aim is peace, both in the sense of absence of war and of cessation of suffering for all beings in time and eternity." No reforms, he held, were needed in this teaching. But reforms are needed in the practices of believers because from time to time these become corrupt. Tsong Khapa was a great reformer in his day; new reforms are needed now.

"The people demand reform but they still believe in Buddhism. We hope that religion will be purified of its evil customs. We are confident that the Central Government will protect religion in such a form." Thus the Panchen Erdeni expected from the future a purified Buddhism with bright hopes for Tibet's youth. He seemed to feel that he had reconciled the aims of religion and politics for Tibet of 1959.

The three hours' discussion ranged over many subjects: the history of Tibet in relation to China, the sects of Buddhism, the reforms of Tsong Khapa in the fourteenth century and the reforms today. Historically, said the Panchen, Tibet has been part of China since the Mongol Dynasty seven hundred years ago.

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The serfs saw "paradise" in their present freedom from torment, their self-expression in the beginnings of government, their hope of a rapid increase in food, and beyond this, in education and all the good things of life. For the worldly details of this paradise and its possibility, I turned to the economic experts and first to the Lhasa Experimental Farm.

"What kind of a paradise can be built on the roof of the world in this half-starved Tibet?" I asked its manager Chang Chuntien. "With the new release of energy by freedom, can the Tibetan plateau provide food for a good life?"

"It can," he replied, "and fairly soon. We have proved it on this farm."

The Lhasa Experimental Farm lies a few miles west of Lhasa, just beyond Drepung Monastery on a reclaimed river bed. "The kashag would not let us have good land," said Manager Chang. "The Dalai Lama personally asked Peking in 1954 for an experimental farm and we hoped for that wide stretch of land west of the Potala, whose gentle slope is fertile and easy to irrigate and right on the main highway for peasants coming to Lhasa to see. It is uncultivated still. All we could get was a pasture in a river-bottom, half flooded, the other half boulders and sand. It took us 30,000 man-days of labor just to build the soil. For years a lot of our time went to digging ditches, dyking against the flood, blasting out rocks and carting in good earth.

"Our results have not been bad. Tibet's basic food is first barley, then wheat, peas and soy. We have developed better varieties of these and added millet and maize. Tibet had only six kinds of vegetables; we produce forty-two, of which thirty grow well in the open field and twelve in frames or hot-houses. Some crops grow better here than in the lowlands. Cabbages, carrots and tomatoes grow to enormous size without becoming coarse. Flax, hemp and jute also grow well in Tibet."

I went around the experimental farm with the manager and saw some of the enormous vegetables, a whole field of cabbages many of which were 40 inches in diameter and weighing fifty pounds, a fifty-five pound squash. I had tea with tomatoes, each of which weighed a pound and a half, yet their texture and taste was unexcelled. The farm had been getting 45 bushels per acre of barley on its average field and 90.

"We have sent personnel out into two counties to help organize better farming. In one county we have three staff members who have been living there for some time. I myself have learned a very deep lesson. I under-estimated these people. I had not realized how fast their consciousness would rise or how great their demand for information would be when it came."

Some peasants had seen in a film that elsewhere in China peasants applied much fertilizer and used tractors. They asked if this should be done in Tibet. Chang told them that fertilizing should certainly be done, and implements should be improved, but tractors would have to wait until there was a railroad to Lhasa, for it was too costly to bring tractors over a thousand miles by road.

Some peasants came to ask: "Can you help prevent hail?" Chang replied that he understood they had a temple that did that kind of thing. "Oh, that is just superstition," the peasants said. "We heard somewhere that people shot off cannon against hail." Chang told them that so far cannon had not proved a success. Nobody yet had found how to handle hail, but the farm could help them handle frost by weather reports and actions in the fields. Hail had to be handled by spreading the burden through state insurance. The peasants were interested in all these ideas.

In one place white worms were eating the crop, the farm's representative was asked what to do. He knew that religious scruples in Tibet are strong against killing any creature, even an insect pest. He replied, "I can't tell you what to do. We would kill the worms to save the crop, but this may be against your beliefs." The peasants discussed it among themselves and finally all except one aged man decided that they could kill worms with a clear conscience. The aged man said: "I'll kill if the rest of you. kill, but I am still afraid."

Chang gave one more example. Large piles of stones are found in many places along the roads of Tibet, where passing pilgrims are accustomed to add a stone and say a prayer. They are known as mani piles. Passers-by respect the piles by going around them in a prescribed manner. Recently, in fighting a sudden flood, the peasants threw mani piles into the completion of a dyke. The working committee of the Communist Party in Lhasa heard of it and wrote to their local working team.

"What are you doing, acting against religion?"

"We didn't even know of it," replied the working team. "The local peasant 'activists' did it."

"Check on those local 'activists'," replied the working committee. "Be sure they have the peasants' unanimous support. We don't want .any peasant complaints." As often happens with new recruits, the local "activists" may be a bit "dizzy with success". While the farm never discusses the Dalai Lama with the peasants, one of its personnel overheard a peasant say in a small group: "The Dalai Lama is the biggest serf-owner in Tibet! We may have to 'struggle' with him."

Chang felt that if any particular superstition now came into conflict with the need of food, that superstition would die. "Their need for a better livelihood is urgent," he said. "Now that they are free, they will find ways around any belief that conflicts with better crops.

"These old views will not die at once. We are running courses in several villages in farm techniques. The first task for the winter is to accumulate fertilizer. In most of Tibet, animal manure is used for fuel. Until new sources of fuel are developed, the choice between fuel and fertilizer will not be easy. We also urge deep ploughing with metal ploughshares, but we do not know how far they will accept this, for the old belief was that iron poisons the soil."

I discussed with Manager Chang the figures I had been given of Tibet's average yield and total harvest and amount of arable land. Cultivated land had been given as roughly three million mou, or 500,000 acres, and average yield at 100 to 120 catties per mou, or 11 to 12 bushels per acre. The total grain harvest, in barley and wheat — and peas and soy, reduced to grain equivalents in flour — was 5,866,700 bushels. Since nearly a quarter of this went for seed, this left some 4,500,000 bushels for food for all the 1,200,000 people of Tibet. This meant about 225 pounds of basic grain per person, even without a single pound for chickens or pigs. It was a half-starvation ration and it tallied with what the peasants had said. Nor was it supplemented by meat and vegetables. Tibetans ate few vegetables and almost no meat, except in the pastures where they ate meat and almost no grain.

"How long," I asked, "will it take before Tibet is well fed?"

"Not long," said Chang, "if you mean in terms of grain. Longer if you add meat and a varied diet The first swift increase will be in grain yield and this will be fast. Even this autumn the grain yield will be higher than usual. Though it was planted in serfdom, it was cultivated and reaped in freedom, and more weeding and cultivation were done than formerly. Next year the crop will be still larger, for they will plough and fertilize this winter, and plant for the first time with fairly clean seed. Under serfdom they seldom had clean seed, for all the harvest went to the master's warehouse and by the time the peasants got it back as seed, it was mixed, and usually polluted with grass.

"It will not be hard for the peasants to triple their present yield by fairly simple measures, better tools and seed, more ploughing, fertilizing, watering, now that they have freedom and initiative. To reach 30 bushels per acre should be quick. That would give 670 pounds of grain per capita after deducting seed. Tibet would be three times as well fed as it has been for centuries. There would be grain even for chickens and pigs."

"How fast can they reach that thirty bushels per acre?" I persisted. "Within five years?"

"Some peasants may reach it this autumn," replied Chang. "I should think Tibet's general average could reach it in well under five years."

Manager Chang could not tell me how much wasteland there was in Tibet that could be cultivated. I had been to several departments and nobody could tell me this. "The kashag allowed no statistics," they said. "We are gathering information now." The best guess from people who had visited many areas was that most of the best arable land was already under cultivation, though the methods were poor. The cultivated land might possibly be increased by fifty percent or even perhaps doubled, but only by expenditure of labor, in drainage, irrigation and other forms of reclamation. There was no need of reclaiming much wasteland at present. Labor should first go to raising the yield. This alone would quickly raise the standard of grain food in Tibet. With this view Chang also agreed.

Hunger for grain would, it seemed, be quickly ended. Meat, milk, butter would take longer. The growth of livestock is slow and nobody really knows how many head of livestock there are. Estimates ranged from five and a half to seven million, counting yaks, horses, cattle, sheep and goats, but not pigs. Butter is produced in Tibet. All the monasteries burn it lavishly, Jokhang alone burns 300,000 pounds a year. The nobles had it plentifully in tea. The serfs saw little of it.

While few of the products of the high pastures were enjoyed in the past by the farming population, it is in livestock of the pastoral areas that Tibet's long range future lies. While figures here only begin to be collected, Fang Tse-hin of the Working Committee's propaganda bureau told me that, from areas already investigated, Tibet's mountain pastures seemed almost limitless, but the grass was of poor quality. The pastoral regions could profit from better methods even more than the farms. They needed better grass, better breeding methods and some shelter against sudden storms.

In the Black River District (Nagchuka), he noted, there were 171,000 square kilometers listed as "grazing area", but only 80,000 were actually grazed, and here there was an average of 1.46 yaks and 2.83 sheep per square kilometer, certainly not crowded. Grass was scanty, only three or four inches high, and not very nutritious. Inner Mongolia, Chinghai and Si-kang all had much better types of grass that might be sown in Tibet. Herds had no shelter. They were eaten by leopards and other wild animals. They were wiped out by storms. An unexpected blizzard in the Black River District killed half the livestock in 1956.

Fang gave the pastoral area as close to a million square kilometers, more than four-fifths of all Tibet. Others gave a lower estimate; Fang may have been including the pastures in the agricultural area. Nobody knows precisely yet. But everyone knows that Tibet has many millions of acres of grazing lands which have been badly handled. The grazing rights were owned by absentee nobles and monasteries; the herds were owned in complex ways and under many feudal taxes which left little chance for the herdsmen's initiative. Reform in the pastures will take more time, both because of the great distances and because of the great variety of livestock ownership. But for Tibet's future prosperity, the rational development of the pastures will pay off even better than the reform in the agricultural areas.

Tibet's future lies, a few years hence, in well run pastures under a collective organization able to sow grass from planes, to breed better livestock with artificial insemination, to protect men and beasts from blizzards, to give herdsmen a decent human life. This happens already in the great open spaces of Inner Mongolia and Sinkiang; it will come in Tibet. A social system that permits the death of half the livestock by sudden blizzard has no place in modern life.

Hides and wool and fur have been Tibet's main export. By selling these abroad, the upper strata bought luxury goods from foreign lands. The rebels killed a considerable number of livestock. The Tibetan people will wish in future to use for themselves more wool, leather and fur. For both these reasons the export is not likely to rise in the next five years. Five years hence it should begin to provide Tibet's main cash income. Any great expansion will depend on better transport. What are the chances of this?

Let us first turn to industry and mining. Tibet has ten kinds of handicraft, including the weaving of coarse woolen cloth called pulu, the weaving of carpets, tanning and leather work, the making of felt boots, furniture made by carpenters, metal work in silver and also in iron. Building materials exist, stone and lime and bricks and lumber, though lumber must be transported a considerable distance. Handicraftsmen in the past have been oppressed, often to beggary; raw wool has been taken on yak-back to India and later bought back as woolen cloth, at heavy expense both ways. In the future handicraft cooperatives will be helped by government-paid instructors and by loans from the state bank. Some industry will grow on the base of present handicraft. Big industry, however, awaits better transport.

Minerals in Tibet are very many. This can be seen by the amateur from the color of the cliffs. No adequate geologic survey was allowed by the kashag, but a few investigations were made. The rather conservative statement given me by the department of industry of the Working Committee is that many kinds of minerals are clearly widespread that the geologic strata are relatively recent and not all deposits are in exploitable quantities or readily mined veins, that a proper survey is the first need, and better transport the second before any serious mining can be undertaken. By better transport, a railroad into Lhasa is meant.

Water-power in Tibet is plentiful but variable; it depends on melting snows. There are, however, many rivers sufficiently steady to give power. There are also many lakes, and those at the lower altitudes do not freeze. If Tibetans should ever develop a taste for fish and adapt their religion to permit fish-eating, they could have fish without much trouble. This is a question that need not yet be raised.

The question that must be raised is that of transport. This is the bottle-neck. The long haul from other provinces of China has always through the centuries handicapped Tibet's development. The Princess Wen Cheng in 641 A.D. brought silkworms and handicrafts; the haul was very long. More recently the price of tea for Tibetans dropped to one-third the former price when the three auto highways were opened from 1954-57. Part of the drop in price came because the nobles had formerly taken a hundred percent profit while the State Trading Company sells at cost plus transport. But most of the drop came because yak-back transport was replaced by trucks.

Truck transport, however, is also not cheap on 1,300 miles of mountain highway when gasoline for the trucks is truck-transported, and when there is little or no return freight. At present the cost of freight transport from Sining to Lhasa is reckoned at 40 fen (16 cents) a pound, without counting the return of the empty truck which is subsidized by Peking. Transport on cotton goods often costs more than the goods. Transport on heavy machinery and on minerals is prohibitive except for very important needs. Little other mining is planned until transport improves.

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From this swift survey, the plans for the building of Paradise on the roof of the world begin to appear. Hunger will quickly be banished; adequate grain needs only an increase of yield through simple methods without additional acreage. When needed, additional acreage is also available for the labor cost of drainage and reclamation. Vegetables can increase fast; they need only labor power and adequate seed. Meat, butter and milk will increase more slowly. If Jokhang Monastery should convert from butter-lamps to mineral oil or electricity, one quarter pound of butter per year per capita would be at once be added to the food supply, giving Tibetans several more glasses of buttered tea. If the more than 2,000 monasteries should go off butter, this might solve the butter ration. Failing that, butter and milk, and meat, if and when religion permits its eating, should rise steadily and be adequate within five years.

Clothing and housing will also develop, even without a railroad. Handicraft cooperatives, with a little help from state loans, will work up wool and leather into clothing, and cotton goods will come from the Chinese interior at fairly heavy transport cost. Stone will be quarried and lumber cut and brick and tile made by ancient methods, with tools somewhat improved. Food, clothing and shelter will thus increase, despite the bottle-neck in transport.

Long range prosperity, however, lies first in livestock and later perhaps in mining. Here the development depends on serious improvement in pastures and cattle-breeding, and on a geological survey. Beyond that, it depends on transport and especially on a railroad. Tibetans, by religion, have been disinclined to mining, which is said to "disturb the soil". This prejudice also should pass without conflict with the coming of the other developments, spread gradually over five years.

For the minds of Tibetans are changing. "Paradise" is more than food, clothing and shelter and material wealth. The Tibetans at last feel free! From the first ragged herdsman on the road from the airport to Lhasa we felt the joyous awakening in the land. We felt it again in the dances and greetings at the Jewel Park picnic, in the hospitality of villages, in the defiance of "accusation meetings".

Many of the Hans now working with Tibetans, said to me, as did Manager Chang: "These people keep surprising us. Now that they are freed from the shackles of serfdom, all kinds of abilities emerge. They are really a remarkable people."

Already it was clear that the Tibetan people would grow and flourish, that the long decline of their population was ended, that they had become masters of the world's high roof and this mastery would grow. They would find their own path between the old superstitions and the goals of modern life. They had a genius for drama and dancing and also a practical logic that I had seen in those filthy sweepers in the Potala when we discussed the Dalai Lama's treasuries, the happy logic that tossed those mani piles to dyke the flood.

Their land would never offer easy living; it offered the lure of earth's highest mountains and a hard yet bounteous victory over stubborn soil. They were fearless and unembarrassed in their freedom, and friendly to those who came as friend. That old peasant who chucked me under the chin and asked my age! Those six wild riders, who tossed their hatas over my hands with gallant bows! They brought to the world a new flavor, of fairy-tale and labor, of dancing and common sense, the distillation of a thousand years.

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We took off from the Tibet airport on the ninth of September when harvest was finished in Takun, at high gear in Loka, and in Lhasa just begun. We had seen the democratic reform in villages, city and monasteries in the period of the peasants' awakening till the harvest celebration and the first distribution of land. Whatever came after we must follow by news wire in Peking.

More than a thousand technicians arrived in Lhasa in early October: geologists, engineers, doctors, nurses. The new Peasants' Associations were ready for them now. A progress report to a Peking meeting said that 360,000 serfs and 2.0,000 slaves had already been emancipated and received land and taken in their own crops, running at 14.5 bushels per acre, twenty percent higher than the previous average. They were "taking the power of government into their hands at the basic level", i.e. the township. It added: "The desire for knowledge grows with every day."

The harvest moved north into higher elevations throughout October. The fields were still reported "alive with peasants singing as they gather crops". They formed mutual aid teams, and helped each other by combining draft animals. When the grain was taken, they at once began to plough for the next sowing. For the first time they were sorting seed and collecting manure. The Experimental Farm had published a booklet on cultivation for the Tibetan plateau and was sending it out, together with all the seed produced by several years' experiments with 3,069 strains of grain.

"All buildings damaged by the rebels or in battle are now repaired," read the wire from Lhasa on November 30. "A row of new silver-gray houses has been built west of the Potala. Building materials, especially brick and lime, are going out from Lhasa to other parts of Tibet," Another November wire said that the ancient "district of disaster" in Lhasa, which formerly held three brothels, four saloons, twelve gambling houses and an opium den, and was so full of brawling that ordinary people feared to pass it at night, was now a "district of happiness" with prostitution and brawling gone, streets clean, under the chairmanship of a forty-five-year-old woman, a former house-slave.

Two hundred thousand new farm tools had been found by the end of November in warehouses where they had lain since 1955. The Central Government had sent them as a free gift to the Tibetan people — they had cost a million and a half yuan — but the kashag and nobles had held them in storage. Now they were out; they included walking-ploughs, harrows, hoes and sheep-shears. With them the winter ploughing began. "New walking-ploughs are appearing in Loka," we read in mid-December. "Most of the land in Loka and Lhasa areas is being ploughed twice."

The first Lhasa Municipal Conference of People's Deputies opened on January 20th, and set up the new city administration on the same day. There were over one hundred deputies, who, for the first time in Tibet's history, had been elected by the people's organizations at grass-roots level. They included peasants, herdsmen, merchants, lamas and "patriotic upper strata". They represented the 170,000 people of Greater Lhasa, which consists of seven counties and six city wards.

"The changes of the past nine months over-shadow those of the past centuries," said the new mayor, Tsui-ko Dongchu-tseren in his opening speech. "The democratic revolution has been basically completed in Lhasa which was the stronghold of serfdom in Tibet."

Listing briefly the changes, the mayor stated that the 120,000 peasants of Greater Lhasa had become owners of the 70,000 acres they tilled, that usurious debts handed down and increasing with the generations had been either wiped out or greatly reduced, amounting to an average saving per capita of 1,500 pounds of grain which was several years' food. Work had been found for 5,000 unemployed and housing built for 300 homeless paupers. Dirty, uneven streets had been paved; the city looked clean. Before "liberation" there had not been a single public school in Lhasa area; now there were one hundred and fifty. Seven thousand former serfs and their sons and daughters had become literate.

"Old, poverty-stricken Lhasa has become a lively Lhasa full of hope," concluded the mayor.

The Great Prayer Festival, the Monlam, which ushers in the Tibetan New Year with three weeks' celebration, came with the beginning of March. The previous year it had been used to launch rebellion; pilgrims coming from all Tibet had been thrown into crowds to detain the Dalai Lama in Jewel Park and to make demonstrations against the Hans. In 1960 the Monlam opened in splendor. Prayers in Jokhang had the usual number of butter-lamps and many new silken banners. The Panchen Erdeni officiated, assisted by Living Buddhas from the Big Three Monasteries. He took the occasion to state: "The past year has seen in Tibet earthshaking changes. Former slaves have become masters of their destiny."

Figures to the end of February showed that land had been distributed to a rural population of 610,000, which was 77 percent of the population in the 57 counties where the reform had been especially pushed. (The other 21 of Tibet's 78 counties, mostly pastoral, had been left for the next year.) More than 1,080 Peasants' Associations had been organized in the five areas of Lhasa, Loka, Chamdo, Shigatse and Lhuntse, [1] and government officials were being elected at township level. The harvest of 1959, sown in serfdom but reaped in freedom, had been ten to twenty percent higher than usual. But the harvest in 1960 would certainly top it. For the land was now in the hands of the tillers and would be sown in freedom, and everywhere a campaign was developing for a bumper crop.

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With flags fluttering and drums rolling, the mutual aid teams of the liberated serfs in the Lhasa area set out on the first day of April, 1960, for the first spring sowing on their own fields. The land, the draft animals, the implements were theirs at last and the crop would be their own.

The East Wind Mutual Aid Team was out in the western suburb before the rising sun struck even the high gold roofs of Potala Palace. The beginning of sowing is a solemn national rite. Flags were set at the edge of the field and the pleasant odor of burning pine twigs rose like incense on the dawn air. The horns of the three oxen had been decorated with red streamers and white hata. The team leader Gesang Faldron offered to each of the oxen a cup of barley wine. Behind him the girl Yangdrom blessed the three ploughmen with dyed sheaves of wheat, tokens of a bumper crop.

The team leader moved into the field to break the soil. Here the ritual suddenly diverged from the past. The soil broke under three new iron ploughshares instead of the ancient wooden sticks. The new harrow broke in an hour more clods than forty men with wooden hammers once broke in a day. Three women followed, sowing the wheat seeds into the newly ploughed, harrowed, manured and watered soil. Behind them came ten people who divided the seeded land into small, neat plots for irrigation. The East Wind Mutual Aid Team of the western suburb of Lhasa was setting a target of 66 bushels of wheat to the acre, equal to the top record of the Experimental Farm!

Thus the former serfs of the Lhasa district continued the building of Paradise into the second year.


1.Formerly Takun.