Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Tibetan Serfs Never Forget their Past

10:07, June 04, 2009 
In 1956, I was employed by the Tibet Daily as a news photographer. During those early days, I witnessed many cases in which serfs suffered indescribably heavy manual labor and untold miseries.

Fifty years have passed since then and yet I still keep a fresh memory of the course of the serfs' emancipation.

Purgatory on the earth

A female serf carrying a large pile of barley straw which was several times heavier than her weight. (1956) (Photo source:

Once I went to cover the eastern suburbs of Tibet's capital of Lhasa. Passing a lord's manor, I saw a female serf who weighed about 40-odd kg carrying a pile of barley straw hood at least 100 kg and tottering by inches. However, such a scene was so common in Tibet then, where almost 95 percent means of production and subsistence were all in the hands of three lords -- the government, nobles and senior lamas-who accounted for less than five percent of Tibet's entire population.

According to the code of laws in old Tibet, the society fell into three classes. Life of those of the lowest class like blacksmiths and butchers was only worth a thread of straw rope.

Little serf beggar had to fight with stray dogs for food. (1956) (Photo source:

Later in the same year, I encountered two child beggars fighting for food with stray dogs outside a monastery in Northern Tibet's Nagqu pastoral area. Both of them were Duchung, who were in the lowest position of the serfs. Influenced by the Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetans always considered dogs as their friends. Some people would feed those stray dogs for some time, during which the child beggars had to wait before fighting with those dogs for the charity of the "kind-hearted." Such a phenomenon also occurred in Tibet's other cities or prefectures like Lhasa and Xigaze.

Even so, this was not the way to live. Children or aged beggars dying a sudden death could often be seen at street corners. Particularly in winter, many vagrants would be starved or frozen to death. Every morning, the staff in the Lhasa municipal government just pushed a cart and collected those bodies like disposing of rubbish in streets.

Serf Dbyangscan, escaping from Nyemotsong to Lhasa with her children, had to go begging in streets. (1959) (Photo source:

Besides, feudal lords treated serfs in various brutal punishments such as eye gouging, ear/arm/feet cutting, skin peeling and tendon pulling... I had read an official document of Tibet's local government of Gaxag, which wrote: "For the sake of chanting Buddhist scriptures on the Dalai Lama's birthday celebration... we are in the need of a single fresh intestines, two head skulls, animal and human blood and an entire human skin. We look forward to the delivery at soon as possible." The above-mentioned "intestines" and "skin" were both required to come from a person alive and serfs were always the victims.

That dismal sight, I think, was no less than a purgatory on the earth.

On March 28, 1959, the Central Government announced the dismissal of Gaxag and abolished the feudal serfdom in Tibet, marking the emancipation of one million serfs. Before this, their miserable life still had continued.

Chimi Tsomo was born a serf. One day after she turned 40, her left hand finger was cut off when she was cutting hay. The pain was so intolerable that she blacked out for a while. Her 15-year-old daughter cried aloud for help, but the manor's housekeeper just turned his back on. After coming around, Chimi found a dog eating her cut-off finger. Without taking any medicine for bandaging, her injury festered, resulting in her hand almost decayed soon.

At this sight, another serf managed to find some butter and pressed her injured finger into the boiled pot. Chimi fainted at once with a heart-breaking scream. Anyhow, her hand was saved that way.

The code of law in old Tibet stipulated that serf owners could treat their serfs as they liked, whereas serfs might not file any complaint.

Serf Tsering kept his dried broken-off arm all the time. (1959) (Photo source:

Tsering, serving in a manor of Nyemotsong near Lhasa, once was ordered to lift his left arm by his owner who then liked to kill the time. Upon Tsering's lifting, the owner took out a rifle and shot off his arm on the spot. Poor Tsering could do nothing but see the owner walking off with a laughter.

Having kept his dried broken-off arm, Tsering didn't ask for grievance until the Democratic Reform was initiated.

In 1990, I revisited Tibet. Tsering, in his seventies, enjoyed his late years happily in the company of his grandchildren.


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