Anna Louise Strong Reference Archive

When serfs stood up in Tibet


Tibet  —  From Serfdom to Socialism
By Staff Members of China Reconstructs

After Tibet broke the chains of feudal serfdom it leaped a thousand years in only ten years, thrusting the old Tibet of darkness aside and surging into a thriving new socialist society. This is the strongest impression of our two-month, 5,000-kilometer tour through this vast autonomous region on China's southwest border.

Tibet has been part of China since ancient times. Its 1,200,000 square kilometers contain many mountains, lovely rivers and lakes, fertile fields and great forests. It has rich mineral resources. Its grasslands are one of China's five biggest pastoral areas. Here we met workers, peasants, herders, cadres, PLA men, teachers, students, doctors, scientists, writers, artists and lamas — the overwhelming majority of them ex-serfs or slaves. Their experiences and the changes in the areas where they have lived for generations are a part of the tremendous changes in Tibet.

The wealth of scenes captured by our cameras and the many moving stories recorded in our notebooks made us want to help the reader see how freedom from serfdom has released the wisdom and creativity of a courageous and industrious people, and examine the significance of the tremendous changes which they have brought about in such a short time under the leadership of Chairman Mao and the Communist Party in this corner of the People's Republic of China.

Great Changes

We arrived in Tibet last autumn just in time for the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the autonomous region. From the northern grasslands to the Himalayas, from the Chinsha River to Lake Pangong, in populous towns or in the snow-covered mountains along the border, everywhere there was a holiday air. Perhaps the most memorable of all were the enthusiastic marchers in the celebration parade in Lhasa. Peasants, herders and workers in bright national costume waved bouquets as they cheered the achievements of socialist revolution and construction in Tibet, tears of joy running down their smiling bronzed faces.

We got a deeper understanding of this as we visited various places in Tibet.

Tibet, where in the past one had to trade a sheep for a box of foreign matches, now has its own match factory, one of 250 new factories and mines. These are producing electricity, metals, coal, chemicals, machinery, lumber, building materials, textiles and light industrial goods. Tibet is now self-sufficient in some items of daily use. "Highland" woolen blankets sell well abroad. With the development of industry, the region now has a working class of 70,000, most of whom are Tibetans.

Agricultural production has made big increases in the past few years, in spite of the altitude which averages over 4,000 meters, and the difficult natural condition. In 1974 for the first time in history Tibet grew enough grain for itself. The 1975 harvest, up 8 percent, was 2.7 times that in 1958, the year before the democratic reform. The wooden plow has become history. Tractors and threshers are beginning to be used even in remote areas.

Commune members have started to farm scientifically. For generations it was believed that Tibet could grow only chingko barley, which yielded about 750 kilograms per hectare. Now winter wheat has been raised successfully over large areas. Some places have reaped 10.5 tons per hectare.

Basic measures are being taken to improve pasturelands for the first time in Tibet's history. Commune members are building channels to bring in water, exterminating insects and rodents, manuring pastures and grazing them in rotation. The number of livestock increases every year — there were more than 2.3 times as many head in 1975 as in 1958.

Though Tibet comprises one-eighth of China, it had no highways before liberation. Today a 15,800-km. network with Lhasa as its center reaches into every county and connects with Szechuan, Chinghai, Sinkiang and Yunnan. Two civil aviation routes link Lhasa to Peking and the rest of China.

In old Tibet almost all the working people were illiterate. There were only two official schools and a few private ones serving the sons and daughters of the serf-owning aristocracy. Today there are 4,300 primary schools. All populous towns have middle schools. There are two institutes of higher learning and three factory-run workers' universities. Every year Tibet sends a large number of students to institutes of higher learning in other parts of China.

Medical and health work, too, was non-existent in old Tibet. There were only two clinics, serving serfowners. Now every county has a hospital; factories, mines and

most county districts have clinics; communes have health stations. The people of the region are served by a corps of 4,000 full-time medical workers and 6,700 barefoot doctors and health workers. Medical care is free.

Improved standards of living and the expansion of health work have resulted in a rapid increase in the population. Tibetan and other minority nationalities in the region had been moving toward extinction. The number of Tibetans decreased by a million in the 200 years preceeding the democratic reform. In the last 15 years it has increased by 400,000. The population of very small nationalities such as the Monbas, Lobas and Dengs, who were called "wild men" and driven deep into the mountain forests, has also grown.

Masters of New Tibet

Why were such big changes possible in such a short time? An old song once sung by the serfs points to the reason.

If these two hands belonged to me,

I could pluck the moon out of the sky;

If these two hands shook off their chains.

I could turn Tibet into a heaven on earth.

For over 1,000 years, the hands of the serfs and slaves who made up 95 percent of Tibet's population had never belonged to them, never had they been able to shake off the chains of serfdom. The reactionary dictatorship of the feudal serf owning class, more savage and brutal than that in the Middle Ages in Europe, made Tibet a hell on earth. For centuries it kept the entire society in a state of impoverishment, backwardness, stagnation and decline.

Though after peaceful liberation in 1951 some economic and cultural development was carried out with the help of the central government, the fundamental problem was not solved because local political power in Tibet remained in the hands of the reactionary serf-owning class. The face of Tibet began to change radically only after the suppression of the armed rebellion of the Dalai Lama's traitorous clique and the unfolding of the democratic reform movement in 1959, when a million serfs and slaves stood up and smashed their chains, for the first time receiving land, becoming masters of the country and taking political power into their own hands.

Traveling to mountain villages or across the pasturelands, we often heard liberated serfs say proudly, "We are the masters of new Tibet! We smashed the old system with our own hands and will build a new world with them too!"

After the democratic reform, national regional autonomy was carried out in Tibet, making it possible to give full play to the Tibetan and other minority nationalities as masters of their own house. This sparked swift change from the backward state of the past and rapid political, economic and cultural development in this part of China.

Large numbers of cadres of minority nationalities now take part in managing Tibet's affairs. The region's 27,000

cadres of Tibetan, Monba, Loba and Deng nationality account for 60 percent of the total. Half the secretaries of the Tibet Autonomous Region's Party Committee are Tibetan. Minority nationalities contribute a large proportion of the leaders at the prefecture, city and county levels. Heads of county districts and communes are almost all minority people.

The overwhelming majority of these liberated serfs and slaves have come to political maturity in the course of struggle. Their political level is rising, they know their nationality's language, customs and habits, and they have close ties with the masses. They have become a powerful core force for building up the new Tibet.

Special state support for this minority nationality region's economic construction and cultural development (such as investments and subsidies) and a generous financial policy (such as light taxes and special consideration on prices) have promoted every aspect of development in Tibet. Materials, equipment and technical support from fraternal provinces and municipalities throughout the country have also strengthened growth. Many experienced cadres, workers, technicians, doctors and teachers have come thousands of kilometers to contribute their energy and skills to the region.

On the Socialist Road

After serfdom was overthrown and replaced by ownership by individual peasants and herders, Tibet faced the problem of where to head. Letting individual ownership develop freely would inevitably lead to polarization, produce a new exploiting class and provide ground for restoring serfdom. Responding firmly to the Party's call, the serfs and slaves just liberated from hell took the socialist road to common prosperity at a gallop, determined to uproot the system of exploitation of man by man — the source of oppression. A socialist education movement was carried out throughout Tibet. Over 20,000 mutual-aid teams were soon formed in farming and herding areas. Beginning in 1965 communes were set up on a trial basis in accordance with conditions in Tibet. These spread step by step throughout the region. Private commerce and handicrafts in the towns also carried out socialist transformation under Party leadership. The class structure of Tibetan society underwent a radical change. The unlimited energy and wisdom of the newly-emerging working class and the collective farmers and herders are bringing changes to the plateau every day.

The Revolution Deepens

Building socialism in the Tibet just out of feudal serfdom has been a sharper, more complex struggle than the democratic reform. After changing the system of ownership, the Tibetan people still have to thoroughly eliminate the decadent thinking spread by the serfowning class if they are to keep the revolution moving forward and prevent retrogression.

For centuries the serfowning class used the idea of "Heaven's will" and "divine authority'' to support their reactionary regime. The "living Buddhas", who also held temporal power in Tibet, were said to be ordained by heaven to rule the million serfs. The serfs were predestined to suffer appalling exploitation and oppression. During the proletarian cultural revolution and the movement to criticize Lin Piao and Confucius, the Tibetan people criticized the idea of "Heaven's will" and "divine authority" on a mass scale and smashed their mental shackles. This has further liberated their energies for transforming nature. Wherever we went, we saw channels, reservoirs and high-producing fields on what were once "sacred" mountains, rivers and land that no one had dared to touch.

The three great estate-holders — the feudal government (kasha), the monasteries and the nobility — had said that working women were bad luck and that "among ten women you'll find nine devils." There were dozens of taboos for them. Now, full of enthusiasm, they throw themselves boldly into socialist revolution and construction. Some women have organized teams to hunt once-"sacred" animals in the mountains and catch "sacred" fish in the rivers and lakes. Others have studied science and become meteorologists to oversee the "Lord of the Skies." Last year a daughter of liberated serfs was among those who scaled the world's highest peak — Qomolangma Feng. Now nearly 10,000 women cadres play an important role in building the new Tibet.

In the course of these struggles there has arisen a Marxist theoretical contingent of 30,000 workers, peasants and herders. Also political night schools, newspaper reading groups and spare-time art and literature propaganda troupes have appeared throughout farming and herding areas. Socialist ideology and culture is growing vigorously. Led by Chairman Mao and the Communist Party, the liberated serfs and slaves are working hard to realize their desire of making Tibet into a heaven on earth. Never will they let the old hell return.

The Resolution on Carrying Out Democratic Reform in Tibet Adopted by the Second Plenary Session of the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet July 17, 1959

The Resolution of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress on the Establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region August 25, 1965