Human Rights in Tibet before 1959

Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s 100 Questions, edited by Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille. Foreword by Donald Lopez. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008, pp. 81–84.

What were the conditions regarding human rights in Tibet before democratic reform? [Questions 12, 13, and 92, 2001]

Before 1959, all except 5 percent of the Tibetan population were slaves or serfs in a feudal system in which they were regarded as saleable private property, had no land or freedom, and were subject to punishment by mutilation or amputation [from both the 1989 and 2001 editions]. The serfs were liable to be tortured or killed [from the 1989 edition]. Economy and culture were stagnant for centuries, life expectancy was 35.5 years, illiteracy was over 90 percent, 12 percent of Lhasa’s population were beggars, and the Dalai Lama was responsible for all of this [from the 2001 edition].

Robert Barnett

Official Chinese texts about Tibet treat the issue of human rights as comparative. So they argue that conditions in Tibet are better than they were before China took over direct administration of the region in 1959. All Chinese sources describe the previous conditions as “feudal serfdom,” and the word “serf” occurs some thirty-five times in the 2001 edition. This approach skirts the question of whether current conditions meet international standards and implies increasingly that individual rights have to be sacrificed for economic or social rights to exist. Since 1990, Chinese leaders have justified this in terms of the need to ensure “stability.”

Melvyn Goldstein, an American anthropologist who carried out research within Tibet into pre-1959 social relations, concluded that most Tibetans before 1959 were bound by written documents to the land on which they were based and to the lord who owned that land, and so he argued that they could be described as “serfs” (Goldstein 1986,1988). Most Western scholars accept that this was broadly the case, but query the extensiveness of the practice and the politics behind the terms used to describe it. Franz Michael and Beatrice Miller argued that the less loaded words “commoner” or “subject” are more accurate than the word “serf,” partly because of ample evidence that a large number of Tibetans were able to moderate their obligations to their lords by paying off some of their dues, and so could move from place to place. Tibet also had a functioning legal system to which they could appeal in some cases (Miller 1987, 1988; Michael 1986, 1987). Dieter Schuh (1988) showed that those who might technically be called “serfs” were in fact relatively prosperous—the majority were often poorer, but in many cases they were not “bound to the land” and so were not technically “serfs.” Girija Saklani (1978) argued that the feudal-type institutions in Tibetan society were counterbalanced by factors that reflected “the principle of cohesion and collectivity” rather than of a rigid hierarchy. W. M. Coleman (1998) has pointed out that in practice the Tibetans had more autonomy than appears in the written documents, and that Tibetans could equally well be described simply as peasants with particular kinds of debts and taxation responsibilities, rather than using a politically and morally loaded term such as “serf.” Other scholars have noted that such social categories, Marxist or otherwise, are in any case rooted in European history and do not match the social system of pre-1951 Tibet, let alone the very different arrangements found among the people of eastern Tibet.

These scholars do not disagree with the Chinese claim that Tibet had a particular form of social relations that differed from those later found in democratic and Communist countries. What is contested is whether later scholars or politicians should use terms that imply a value judgment about the moral quality of these relations. This is a matter of intense dispute, because the Chinese claim about serfdom, on the surface a factual account of social relations, in fact depends for its effects on its linkage to two other elements, which are highly contestable—feudalism and extreme oppression. It is taken for granted that these are inseparable from serfdom. A conscious effort of the intellect is required to recall that one does not follow from the other.

There is no question but that Tibet was an extremely poor society for most of its members, or that the poorest were the most liable to exploitation and abuse. This was true of most sectors of any society in Asia and elsewhere until recently, including China, and is still true today in many areas. So even if it were agreed that serfdom and feudalism existed in Tibet, this would be little different other than in technicalities from conditions in any other “premodern” peasant society, including most of China at that time. The power of the Chinese argument therefore lies in its implication that serfdom, and with it feudalism, is inseparable from extreme abuse.

Evidence to support this linkage has not been found by scholars other than those close to Chinese governmental circles. Goldstein, for example, notes that although the system was based on serfdom, it was not necessarily feudal, and he refutes any automatic link with extreme abuse. “I have tried to indicate that the use of the concept of ‘serfdom’ for Tibet does not imply that lords tortured and otherwise grossly mistreated their serfs. … There is no theoretical reason why serfdom should be inexorably linked to such abuses,” he writes, noting that extreme maltreatment was unlikely since it would have been against the interests of landowners, who needed the peasants to provide labor (1988: 64–65).

There seems to be limited evidence of the systematic savagery described by Chinese writers, at least since the late nineteenth century. There was a famous case of mutilation as a punishment in 1924, but the officials involved were themselves punished by the 13th Daiai Lama for this action; he had banned all such punishments in a proclamation in 1913 (Goldstein 1989: 123–26, 61). A case of judicial eye gouging in 1934 as a punishment for treason was clearly exceptional, since no one living knew how to carry it out (Goldstein 1989: 208–9). On the other hand, there are hundreds of reports, many of them firsthand accounts, of Tibetan political prisoners being severely tortured in Chinese prisons during the early 1990s, as well as almost ninety cases of suspicious deaths in custody (see, e.g., TCHRD 2005), none of which have been independently investigated.

The more important question is why Chinese officials raise the issue of conditions in pre-1959 Tibet at all. They are entitled to argue that these might tell us something about the views of the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan rulers at that time, although this would ignore the efforts of the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas to ameliorate the social system (in 1913, for example, the 13th Dalai Lama declared an amnesty for all serfs who had run away from their landlords and gave all vacant land to whoever was working it), let alone the attempts of senior officials like Lungshar and Künphel to reform the system. But the issue is hardly relevant, since a country is not entitled to take over a neighbor merely because social or political conditions there are backward. In addition, human rights are not usually judged by improvement, as if they were economic statistics, but by whether or not they meet current international standards. A regime does not normally argue that its abuses are justified because they are less than those of a regime half a century earlier; racism in contemporary America would not be considered acceptable even if it were in a form less odious than, say, lynchings in the 1950s. The social practices of a previous regime are only of marginal relevance to the human rights practices of its successor.

In any case, China made no claims at the time of its invasion or liberation of Tibet to be freeing Tibetans from social injustice. It declared then only that it was liberating them from “imperialism” (meaning British and U.S. interference). The issue of freeing Tibetans from feudalism appeared in Chinese rhetoric only after around 1954 in eastern Tibet and 1959 in central Tibet (Goldstein 1986: 109n2). Its justification then became that it was freeing them from class oppression. In the 1980s, this also changed: it now claims to be freeing them from “backwardness,” or lack of modernization.

Chinese references to preliberation conditions in Tibet thus appear to be aimed at creating popular support for Beijing’s project in Tibet. These claims have particular resonance among people who share the assumption—based on nineteenth-century Western theories of “social evolution” that are still widely accepted in China—that certain forms of society are “backward” and should be helped to evolve by more “advanced” societies. This form of prejudice converges with some earlier Chinese views and with vulgar Marxist theories that imagine a vanguard movement liberating the oppressed classes or nationalities in a society, whether or not those classes agree that they are oppressed. Moreover, the Chinese have to present that oppression as very extensive, and that society as very primitive, in order to explain why there were no calls by the Tibetan peasantry for Chinese intervention on their behalf.

The question of Tibet’s social history is therefore highly politicized, and Chinese claims in this respect are intrinsic to the functioning of the PRC, and not some free act of intellectual exploration. They have accordingly to be treated with caution. From a human rights point of view, the question of whether Tibet was feudal in the past is irrelevant. A more immediate question is why the PRC does not allow open discussion of whether Tibet was feudal or oppressive. Writers and researchers in Tibet face serious repercussions if they do not concur with official positions on issues such as social conditions in Tibet prior to its “liberation,” and in such a restrictive climate, the regime’s claims on this issue have little credibility.


Professor Robert Barnett is Director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program, adjunct Professor of Contemporary Tibetan Studies, and Associate Research Scholar of Modern Tibetan history at Columbia University (New York).

Anne-Marie Blondeau is Honorary Professor of Tibetan Studies and Katia Buffetrille is a Research Fellow, both at École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris.

Donald Lopez, who wrote the foreword of Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China's “100 Questions”, is Arthur E. Link Distinguished Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan.

© Robert Barnett, Anne-Marie Blondeau, Katia Buffetrille, University of California Press

This excerpt was taken from Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s 100 Questions, edited by Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille. Foreword by Donald Lopez. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008, pp. 81–84.

With kind permisson from Robert Barnett and Katia Buffetrille.


Header images used by

Left image: © Bundesarchiv: Bild 135-S-14-01-09, Tibetexpedition: Schigatse, criminal with ruffle (tib. khang). Photographer: Schäfer, Ernst / Licence CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Middle image: © Bundesarchiv: Bild 135-GB-1-40, Tibetexpedition: Gyantse, weaving loom. Photographer: Geer, Edmund / Licence CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Right image: © Bundesarchiv: Bild 135-S-15-20-08, Tibetexpedition: Tschitischio, fieldwork, farmers, yaks. Photographer: Schäfer, Ernst / Licence CC-BY-SA 3.0.

More from “Authenticating Tibet”

  • Chapter I (PDF): Some Tibetans in self-exile have repeatedly claimed that Tibet and China are two different countries. What does history have to say?

More from Robert Barnett

More about Tibet as a Feudal System

The Tibet-China Conflict: History, Polemics & Propaganda

The Serfdom in Tibet Controversy

  • The Goldstein and Miller Debate on “Reexamining Choice, Dependency and Command In The Tibetan Social System: ‘Tax Appendages’ and Other Landless Serfs” – The Center for Research on Tibet