Until 1959, most Tibetans were indentured serfs (chapa) or slaves (langsheng) who were bought and sold. Tibet was the last country to officially abandon slavery, and then only because it was forced to do so by the Chinese Government.
Most of our information about Tibet comes from expatriate slave-owners and nobles who refused to free their slaves and left Tibet in 1959. The US Civil War demonstrates the powerful attraction that slavery holds for the owners.
Wang Xiaoyi, professor in Tibetan studies with the Central University for Nationalities, said that the society of old Tibet under a feudal system was similar to that in Europe in the Middle Ages. The wealthy class, government officials, nobles and high ranking monks accounted for less than 5 percent of Tibet’s total population but owned all the farmlands, pastures, forests, mountains and rivers, and the majority of the livestock. Serfs could be sold, transferred, given away, mortgaged or exchanged by their owners, who had the power over their births, deaths and marriages.
The serfs and slaves accounted for more than 95 percent of the population. They had no personal freedom and had to depend totally on the wealthy for their livelihood or act as their slaves from generation to generation. According to an old Tibetan saying: “What the serfs and slaves take away is only their shadow, and what they leave behind are only their footprints.”
The Chinese government felt that it had the right to instruct Tibetan slave-owners because China had exercised authority over Tibet for centuries. Indeed, Tibet has never been independent, and no country ever recognized Tibet as an independent nation.Yet the desire for independence–particularly in a country so remote and with such a unique culture–has never died. Recently there were riots in Tibet by young men advocating Tibetan independence. The uprising appears to have been more of a race riot than an independence movement, since the rioters murdered many Hui and Han Chinese and burned their buildings. For a brief, balanced introduction to Tibetan history, read Professor Melvyn Goldstein’s book, The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama. Its 100 pages quickly bring you up to date with what’s happened to Tibet in the last few centuries. Professor Goldstein has the advantage of being married to a Tibetan woman, and his father-in-law is a famous Tibetan nobleman and scholar. Another interesting source of information is the 3-part documentary, The Past of Tibet, on YouTube.
It consists of footage taken in Tibet between 1951and 1959, when the feudal system ended: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. While many Tibetans consider the Dalai Lama to be their spiritual and cultural leader, many do not. Tibet has several religions and ethnic groups, and even within Tibetan Buddhism, there are sects which do not recognize the Dalai Lama’s authority. Visiting the private homes of Tibetans–hospitable and warm people–demonstrates surprising loyalties. For example, while some homes have shrines to the Dalai Lama and spiritual figures, others devote their shrines to a most unspiritual figure: Mao Zedong. When asked why, most of these (older) homeowners will confess that they were once slaves, or the children of slaves, and that they regard Mao as many American blacks in the last century regarded Lincoln: as their liberator. Currently, the Chinese Government is attempting to placate Tibetans’ desire for independence by helping them to raise their incomes. This is an enormous and very expensive undertaking and, although it has made progress, it is too soon to judge whether or not it will be successful.