Mon, January 19, 2009
China > Politics

"The day that changed my life"

2009-01-19 09:54:58 GMT2009-01-19 17:54:58 (Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

"The 382 legislators attending the session unanimously voted for the proposal," said Legqog, director of the Standing Committee of the Tibetan Autonomous Regional People's Congress, Jan. 19, 2009. Tibetan legislators endorsed a bill Monday to designate March 28 as an annual Serfs Emancipation Day, to mark the date on which about 1 million serfs in the region were freed 50 years ago. (Xinhua Photo)

NPC delegate, former serf Gaisang votes with other delegates to endorse a bill Monday to designate Mar. 28 as an annual Serfs Emancipation Day, to mark the date on which about 1 million serfs in the region were freed 50 years ago.(Xinhua Photo)

NPC delaget Gesang Zhuoga, offspring of a former serf, attends the meeting to vote for a bill Monday to designate Mar. 28 as an annual Serfs Emancipation Day, to mark the date on which about 1 million serfs in the region were freed 50 years ago. (Xinhua Photo)

Lhakang Losangdoje (L Front), delegate to Tibetan Autonomous Region People's Congress (legislature), raises his hand to vote for the approval of setting the Serfs Emancipation Day during the second session of the Ninth People's Congress of the region, in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, Jan. 19, 2009.(Xinhua/Gesang Dawa)

Ninth People's Congress (legislature) of Tibet Autonomous Region holds its annual, second session in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, Jan. 19, 2009. (Xinhua/Gesang Dawa)

LHASA, Jan. 19 (Xinhua) -- Tibetan legislators endorsed a bill Monday to designate March 28 as an annual Serfs Emancipation Day, to mark the date on which about 1 million serfs in the region were freed 50 years ago.

The bill was submitted last week to the second annual session of the ninth regional People's Congress (legislature) for review.

"The 382 legislators attending the session unanimously voted for the proposal," said Legqog, director of the Standing Committee of the Tibetan Autonomous Regional People's Congress.

"Serfs Emancipation Day" will take place every year on March 28.

On March 28, 1959, the central government announced it would dissolve the aristocratic local government of Tibet and replace it with a preparatory committee for establishing the Tibet Autonomous Region.

The move came after the central government foiled an armed rebellion staged by the Dalai Lama and his supporters, most of whom were slave owners attempting to maintain serfdom.

That meant the end of serfdom and the abolition of the hierarchic social system characterized by theocracy, with the Dalai Lama as the core of the leadership. About 1 million serfs and slaves, accounting for 90 percent of Tibetan population in the1950s, were thus freed.

Among the lawmakers who reviewed the bill was Gaisang, 62, chief executive officer of the Yamei Ethnic Handicraft Ltd. Corp.

"The day should have been established earlier," he said, beaming. "It is necessary to have the day remembered to comfort the old, who were once serfs, and teach the young who have little idea of that part of history."

"My parents, who were both serfs, didn't live to see the day. They died several years ago." he said.

The entrepreneur was born to the family of Tralpa (a kind of Tibetan serf) in Bailang County, Xigaze. His childhood memories were bare feet, patched clothes and a leather whip as thick as a finger.

"If you dared to offend the lord, what was in store for you was at least 50 lashes," he said.

The low point for him came in 1954, when the nearby Nianchu River flooded, inundating crops.

"Thousands of kilograms of grain rotted in the warehouses of the aristocrats, while serfs died from starvation," he recalled.

According to Gaisang, serfs then were bought and sold like animals.

His aunt, Canggyoi, was sold from Xigaze to Lhasa in her teens, and his parents didn't even know.

Gaisang's parents found his aunt, whose name had been changed by her new owner, after a week-long search in Lhasa and they cried for joy.

Now Canggyoi has a daughter and two grandchildren. Like other people above 80, she gets a pension of 300 yuan (about 44 U.S. dollars) a year. Her family's annual net income is about 5,000 yuan.


Gaisang's story is hardly exceptional.

According to Gaisang Yeshes, former head of the Tibetan Press of Ancient Books and a sociologist with the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences, serfdom developed before the Yuan Dynasty (AD 1271-1368).

Serfdom was formalized after the hierarchic social system characterized by theocracy was established in the 13th century, when the Yuan Dynasty delegated Tibetan religious leaders to administer the region. The system was further developed after the Dalai Lama became the paramount leader of Tibet.

Serfs, who accounted for more than 90 percent of the population of old Tibet, were treated as private property by their owners, including the family of the Dalai Lama. The latter owned some 80 percent of production materials -- farm land, pastures and livestock.

Serfs were classified into three categories in accordance with their possessions -- Tralpa, Duchung and Nangsan, with the third one being the most miserable who could be sold by his owner as cattle.

Landowners included aristocrats, monasteries and government officials. An exhibition by the Museum of Tibet showed that they owned 24 percent, 36.8 percent and 28.9 percent, respectively, of the arable land in the plateau region before 1959.

Landowners were entitled to legally insult, punish, buy and sell, give away, whip and even kill their serfs.

In 1733, the 7th Dalai Lama controlled 3,150 monasteries and 121,440 households, and serfs had to work for the monasteries despite lack of enough food and proper clothing.

Saixim Village, Doilungdeqen County, 50 km northwest of Lhasa, was a manor of the 14th Dalai Lama's family before 1959. Older villagers can still recall that five people were beaten to death and 11 injured in the service of the Dalai Lama's family during a 10-year period.

In the museum there are about a score of black-and-white photos to show the brutality of landowners: slaves' eyes gouged out, fingers chopped off, noses cut and the tendons of their feet removed.

In the late 1940s, when the Dalai Lama was to celebrate his birthday, the Tibetan local government issued an order that people should prepare human skulls, blood, skin and guts for the religious ceremony.

Celebration for establishment of the Serfs' Emancipation Day was held in Gyangze, Xigaze, where the aristocratic Parlha Manor has been preserved. There, Migmar Dondrup, now 75, served for 11 years as a Nangsan, the lowest of all serfs.

Squeezed into a dark, 7 sq m adobe house with his wife and daughter, Migmar was once so starved that he stole some 10 kg of barley.

"The landlord got angry after hearing that and had two men whip me in turn," recalled the old man. His legs were tied together and he was struck more than 100 times on the hips.

"I couldn't sit. While in bed, I could only lie on my side," he said. It took more than 20 days for the wounds to heal.

He was lucky compared with one of his relatives, a groom, who was beaten to death because the landlord believed he wasted fodder when feeding the horses.

But the 14th Dalai Lama seemed to have been "ignorant" of these kinds of events.

On March 10, 1983, he said in India: "In the past, we Tibetans lived in peace and contentment under the Buddhist light shinning over our snow land." He also said: "Our serf system is different from any other serf system, because Tibet is sparsely populated, and Buddhism, which is for the happiness and benefit of the people, advises people to love each other."


After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the central government originally planned to launch democratic reform and set up a preparatory committee for the establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region in 1955, acting on the appeal of local residents to abolish the thousand-year-old serf system.

However, on Aug. 18, 1956, Mao Zedong wrote a letter to the 14th Dalai Lama, saying that it was not the right time for Tibet to undertake reform.

Rabgy, an 83-year-old veteran, remembered that time well.

A native Tibetan from the northwestern Gansu Province who joined the army in 1951, he moved to Gangba County, Xigaze, in 1956, when it was named a pioneer site for democratic reform.

In March 1957, he was notified that the trial of democracy had stopped, and he was sent to study in Shaanxi Province.

"I was told that the reform would only be launched when the nobles would really support it in addition to the public appeal," the old man said over a cup of ghee (tea) made by his wife, also a native Tibetan.

He was among the many taken by surprise in March 1959, when the Dalai Lama and some of the serf owners instigated an armed rebellion. Chinese historians believe that the rebellion was intended not just to postpone the reform, but to continue the feudal serf system forever.

Rabgy returned Lhasa the next month, only to see ruins everywhere: craters in the streets, holes left by bullets on the roof of the Ramoche Temple and water in the Jokhang Temple.

The People's Liberation Army soon quelled the rebellion and the Dalai Lama fled to India, where he established a "government in exile". Later, democratic reform was introduced to free the serfs and end their misery.

Possessions of participants in the rebellion were confiscated and given to serfs for free.

Migmar Dondrup, who now lives in a two-story house of about 400sq m, remembers when the landowners' assets were distributed.

He got 1.4 ha of land and quilts the family had never used, having slept under a piece of goat furs before the reform.

Xinza Danzengquzha, 68, a living Buddha in Nagarze, Xigaze, said: "People brought out the contracts and burned them, dancing and singing around the fire."

Also a lawmaker, the former aristocrat said he learned a lot in his work after reform, including carpentry and painting.

He later worked as an editor and translator of Tibetan books and documents. He studied for three years in Beijing and went abroad several times for research. "My horizons were broadened by reform," he said.

Meanwhile, as a living Buddha, he still performs Buddhist rites.


The reform didn't mean the abolition of the traditional religion in the Himalayan region. After 50 years have passed, there are 1,700 monasteries open in Tibet, which draw tens of thousands of pilgrims every year. Strolling in the streets of Lhasa, tourists can easily find crowds of lamas and believers chanting Buddhist mantras and praying at monasteries and Buddhist statues.

March 28, 1959 was a big day to Gaisang, when the central government announced that it was dismissing the Gaxag government (the former Tibetan local government).

"Nobody who experienced those dark days would want to go back," he said.

"However, that part of history is largely unknown to young people," he added, noting that among participants in the March 14 riot last year, many were young.

"Had they known the bitterness of the old days, they would cherish their current lives more," he added. "That's why we need to commemorate Serfs' Emancipation Day."

Xinza said: "China's battle against separatists reached its climax in 2008. It is necessary to establish the day so as to have our descendants remember it forever."


This year was the first time that Indian journalist Prerna Suri visited Tibet. The correspondent from New Delhi TV, who traveled to Tibet to cover the legislative session, said her five-day visit was a good opportunity to learn more about Tibet.

"If [establishing Serfs' Emancipation Day] can increase people's belief in the government, it is a good thing," she said.

Naindra P. Upadhaya, Consul-General of Nepal to Lhasa, praised the decision to create the holiday.

He has been in Tibet for 15 months. "Life is getting better here every year," he said, adding that this proved the benefits of democratic reform.

Not everyone sees it the same way.

Thomas Mann, a member of the Brussels-based European Parliament, said having such a day was "unequalled humiliation of Tibetans," according to a report on the Deutsche Welle website. And Dhondup Dorjee, vice president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, called the decision as a "hype". The organization is among the most active advocates of "Tibet independence."

Gaisang Yeshes showed understanding of these criticisms. "The day was a festival to most Tibetan people, but doomsday to a few others," he said.

The professor compared the day to Sept. 22, 1862, when slaves were freed in the United States by the milestone "Emancipation Proclamation" signed by then U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.

"But the difference is, Tibetan people soon gained the right to vote, while black people still struggled for voting rights 100 years later," he said.

Gaisang from Xigaze said he was proud to have become a lawmaker when he started life as the son of a serf. "Now I can vote, with a say in the decision-making of the government," he said. "This was unimaginable half a century ago. People were then praying all day not to be beaten."

"I didn't dare to dream about this when I was young, in patched clothes and shivering at the sight of the leather whip," he said. March 28, 1959 was "the day that changed my life."

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