Tibetans with a population of 4,593,100 mostly live in the Tibet
Autonomous Region. There are also Tibetan communities in Qinghai,
Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.
The Tibetan language belongs to the Tibetan
sub-branch of the Tibetan-Myanmese language branch of the
Chinese-Tibetan language family. According to geographical
divisions, it has three major local dialects: Weizang, Kang and
Amdo. The Tibetan script, an alphabetic system of writing, was
created in the early 7th entury. With four vowels and 30
consonants, it is used in all areas inhabited by Tibetans.
The areas where Tibetans live in compact
community are mostly highlands and mountainous country studded
with snow-capped peaks, one rising higher than the other. The
Qinghai-Tibet Plateau rising about 4,000 meters above sea level
is run through from west to east by the Qilian, Kunlun,
Tanggula, Gangdise and Himalaya mountain ranges. The Hengduan
Mountains, descending from north to south, runs across the
western part of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.
Mt. Qomolangma on the Sino-Nepalese border is
8,848 meters above sea level, the highest in the world. The
Tibetan areas are crisscrossed by rivers and dotted with lakes.
Animal husbandry is the main occupation in
Tibet where there are vast expanses of grasslands and rich
sources of water. The Tibetan sheep, goat, yak and pien cattle
are native to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The yak is a big and
long-haired animal, capable of with-standing harsh weather and
carrying heavy loads. Known as the "Boat on the
Plateau," the yak is a major means of transport as well as
a source of meat. The pien cattle, a crossbreed of bull and yak,
is the best draught animal and milk producer. In farming, the
fast ripening and cold- and drought-resistant qingke, a kind of
highland barley, is the main crop. Other crops include wheat,
pea, buckwheat and broad bean. In the warmer places in the river
valleys, there are rape, potato, turnip, apple and walnut.
People also grow rice and cotton in river valleys in southern
Tibet where the weather is very warm.
The dense forests in the Tibetan areas
provide shelter for many precious animals such as sunbird,
vulture, giant panda, golden-haired monkey, black leaf monkey,
bear and ermine. The forests also produce precious medicines
such as bear's gallbladder, musk, pilose antler, caterpillar
fungus, snow lotus and glossy ganoderma.
These areas are also richly endowed with
hydro-power and mineral resources. There are enormous amounts of
hydropower and terrestrial heat for generating electricity, and
huge reserves of natural gas, copper, iron, coal, mica and
sulfur. The landlocked lakes abound in borax, salt, mirabilite
and natural soda. ilfields have been found in recent years in
the Qaidam basin in Qinghai and the northern Tibet Plateau.
The Tibetans first settled
along the middle reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River in Tibet.
Evidence of the new and old stone age culture was found in
archaeological excavations at Nyalam, Nagqu, Nyingchi and Qamdo.
According to ancient historical documents, members of the
earliest clans formed tribes known as "Bos" in the
Shannan area. In the 6th century, the chief of the Yarlung tribe
in the area became leader of the local tribal alliance and
declared himself the "Zambo" (king). This marked the
beginning of Tibetan slavery society and its direct contacts
with the Han people and other ethnic groups and tribes in
At the beginning of the 7th century, King
Songzan Gambo began to rule the whole of Tibet and made
"Losha" (today's Lhasa) the capital. He designated
official posts, defined military and administrative areas,
created the Tibetan script, formulated laws and unified weights
and measures, thus establishing the slavery kingdom known as
"Bo," which was called "Tubo" in Chinese
After the Tubo regime was established, the
Tibetans increased their political, economic and cultural
exchanges with the Han and other ethnic groups in China. The
Kingdom of Tibet began to have frequent contacts with the Tang
Dynasty (618-907) and the Tibetan and Han peoples got on well
with each other. In 641, King Songzan Gambo married Princess Wen
Cheng of the Tang Dynasty. In 710, King Chide Zuzain married
another Tang princess, Jin Cheng. The two princesses brought
with them the culture and advanced production techniques of
Central China to Tibet. From that time on, emissaries traveled
frequently between the Tang Dynasty and Tibet. The Tibetans sent
students to Changan, capital of the Tang Dynasty, and invited
Tang scholars and craftsmen to Tibet. These exchanges helped
promote relations between the Tibetans and other ethnic groupss
in China and stimulated social development in Tibet.
From the 10th to 12th century, Tibet fell
apart into several independent regimes and began to move towards
serfdom. It was at this time that Buddhism was adapted to local
circumstances by assimilating certain aspects of the indigenous
religion, won increasing numbers of followers and gradually
turned into Lamaism. Consisting of many different sects and
spread across the land, Lamaism penetrated into all spheres of
Tibetan life. The upper strata of the clergy often collaborated
with the rich and powerful, giving rise to a feudal hierarchy
combining religious and political power and controlled by the
rising local forces.
The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) founded by the
Mongols in the 13th century brought the divided Tibet under the
unified rule of the central government. It set up an institution
called Xuanzhengyuan (or political council) and put it in charge
of the nation's Buddhist affairs and Tibet's military,
governmental and religious affairs.
Phagsba, a Tibetan lama, was given the title
of imperial tutor and appointed head of the council. The Yuan
court also set up three government offices to govern the Tibetan
areas in northwest and southwest China and Tibet itself. The
central government set up 13 Wanhu offices (each governing
10,000 households) in Inner and Outer Tibet east of Ngari. It
also sent officials to administer civil and military affairs,
conduct census, set up courier stations and collect taxes and
levies. Certificates for the ownership of manors were issued to
the serf owners and documents given to local officials to define
their authority. This marked the beginning of the central
authorities' overall control of Tibet by appointing officials
and instituting the administrative system there.
The ensuing Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) carried
over the Tusi (headmen) system in the Tibetan areas in northwest
and southwest China. In Tibet proper, three sect leaders and
five secular princes were named. These measures ensured peace
and stability in the Tibetan areas during the Yuan and Ming
dynasties, and the feudal economy there developed and culture
and art flourished. Tibet's contacts with other parts of the
country became more frequent and extensive.
The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the last
monarchy in China, set up a government department called
Lifanyuan to administer affairs in Tibet and Mongolia. In Tibet,
the Qing emperor conferred the titles of the "Dalai
Lama" (1653) and "Bainqen Erdini" (1713) on two
living Buddhas of the Gelugba sect of Lamaism. The Qing court
began to appoint a high resident commissioner to help with local
administration in 1728, and set up the Kasha as the local
government in 1751. In 1793, the Qing army drove the Gurkhas
invaders out of Tibet and formulated regulations concerning its
The regulations specified the civil and
military official appointment systems and institutions governing
justice, border defense, finance, census, corvee service and
foreign affairs, establishing the high commissioners' terms of
reference in supervising Tibetan affairs.
In other areas inhabited by Tibetans in
northwest and southwest China, the Qing court continued the Tusi
(headmen) system established by the Yuan and Ming dynasties, and
put them under the administration of the Xining Commissioner's
office (established in 1725) and the Sichuan governor (later the
Sichuan-Yunnan border affairs minister).
After the Republic of China was founded in
1911, the central government set up a special department to
administer Mongolian and Tibetan affairs. In 1929, the
Kuomintang government set up a commission for Mongolian and
Tibetan affairs in Nanjing and established Qinghai Province. In
1939, Xikang Province was set up. The Tibetan areas in northwest
and southwest China, except Tibet, were placed under the
administration of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, Xikang and Yunnan
Under the rule of feudal
serfdom, which combined political and religious powers, the
Tibetans' social life and customs and habits bore obvious marks
of their historical traditions and distinctive culture.
As a rule, a Tibetan goes only by his given
name and not family name, and the name generally tells the sex.
As the names are mostly taken from the Buddhist scripture,
namesakes are common, and differentiation is made by adding
"senior," "junior" or the outstanding
features of the person or by mentioning the birthplace,
residence or profession before the names. Nobles and Living
Buddhas often add the names of their houses, official ranks or
honorific titles before their names.
All Tibetans, men and women, like to wear
ornaments. Men usually wear a queue coiled on top of the head.
Some cut their hair short, like a canopy. Women, when coming of
age, begin to plait their hair into two queues or many tiny
queues which are adorned with ornaments. Both men and women wear
felt or fine fur hats. They wear long-sleeved silk or cloth
jackets topped with loose gowns which are tied with a band on
the right. Women in some farming areas wear sleeveless gowns or
home-spun wool. Herdsmen and women do not wear jackets, but are
clad in sheepskin robes, with sleeves, collars and fronts edged
with fine fur or dyed cloth laces. Men wear trousers and women
wear skirts. All men and women wear woolen or leather boots. Men
have long waistbands while women in farming areas wear aprons
with beautiful patterns. They use woolen blankets as mattresses
or cushions and their quilts are made of sheepskin or wool. Poor
peasants and herdsmen have neither mattresses nor quilts.
They often leave one or both arms uncovered
while tying the sleeves around the waist, making it convenient
for working. The Tibetan gown which is very big also serves as
both mattress and quilt at night. Lamas wear the kasaya, a
patchwork outer vestment of purplish red felt. They wrap their
bodies with long pieces of cloth and wear aprons, tall boots and
Zamba, roasted qingko barley or pea meal
mixed with tea, is the staple food of Tibetan peasants. Tea with
butter or milk is the favorite of all Tibetans. Buttered tea is
made in a wooden tub. In pastoral areas, the staple foods are
beef and mutton. They eat out of wooden bowls and with
short-handled knives which they always carry with them. The
Tibetans take five or six light meals a day and have a liking
for qingko wine. Sour milk and cheese are also standard fare. In
some areas, people also eat rice and noodles. Women in pastoral
areas use butter as ointment to protect their skin. Lamas may
People in the farming areas live in stone
houses while those in pastoral areas camp in tents. The Tibetan
house has a flat roof and many windows, being simple in
structure and color. Of a distinctive national style, Tibetan
houses are often built on elevated sunny sites facing the south.
In the monasteries, the main hall also serves
as the prayer hall, with dagobas of different sizes built in
front of the main entrance for burning pine and cypress twigs.
There are numerous prayer wheels, which are to be turned
clockwise in praying for happiness and hoping to avert disaster.
Communications were poor in the old days,
with yaks and mules as the chief means of transport. Riding
horses were reserved for the manorial lords, who decorated the
saddles according to their ranks and positions. Cattle hide
rafts, wooden boats and canoes hewed out of logs were used in
water transportation. Suspension, cable and simple wooden
bridges were seen occasionally.
In some big towns and monasteries, there were
a few carpenters, blacksmiths, stone carvers and weavers. They,
too, had to perform services and pay taxes to manorial lords and
were looked down upon by other people.
Farmers used crude implements such as iron
plough shares, hoes, sickles and rakes and wooden tools.
Cultivation was extensive, with crop rotation and fallow.
Weeding and manuring were done very rarely, resulting in low
output. In livestock breeding areas, the tools were even more
primitive. Herds were moved about with the seasons, and the
herdsmen never laid aside fodder nor built sheds for the winter.
Farmers and livestock breeders had no way of resisting natural
calamities and pests, but praying to gods for protection.
Natural disasters usually devastated large tracts of land and
took heavy tolls of animals.
The Tibetan family is male-centered and
marriage is a strictly inner-class affair. Marriage
relationships vary from place to place. In some areas, cousins
on the male line are forbidden to marry while cousins on the
female line who are several times removed are allowed to marry
each other. In other areas, cousins on the male line who are
several times removed may marry each other, with no restrictions
on intermarriages between relatives on the female line.
Monogamy is the principal form of marriage.
There is no inhibition on social intercourse between young men
and women before marriage.
The husband controls and inherits the
property of the family and the wife is subordinate to the
husband, even if he is married into a woman's family. The
proportion of polygamy is small. Marriages between serfs had to
be approved by their manorial lords. When serfs on different
manors got married, one party had to pay a certain amount of
ransom to the manorial lord of the other party or the manorial
lord of one party had to give a serf to the other lord as
compensation. Without the permission of their manorial lords,
the serfs could not get married all their lives.
The commandments of the yellow sect Lama,
which holds a predominant position in Lamaism, forbid the monks
to marry. Monks belonging to the other sects are free to marry
and the weddings are held at religious services in their
The most common form of burial in Tibet is
sky burial, called Jator, meaning "feeding the birds."
The bodies are taken to the Jator site in the mountains and fed
to vultures. Upon the death of a reincarnate living Buddha, a
grand ceremony is held. Having been embalmed with spices and
antiseptics, the body is wrapped in five-colored silk, and
enshrined in a dagoba. The bodies of ordinary living Buddhas and
higher lamas are usually cremated after being rubbed with
butter, and the ashes are kept in a designated place as the last
dedication to the monastery. But cremation is forbidden in the
harvest season. All these forms of burial indicate that the
deceased have gone to the next world.
In the old days, ceremonies and religious
rites were held for weddings, burials or births in the homes of
manorial lords. For the serfs, however, these meant nothing but
extra services. Women had to give births outside their houses
and women serfs had to work only a few days after delivery. Lack
of proper medical care and nutrition resulted in a very high
infant mortality rate.
The strict social caste system was manifested
even in the use of language. The Tibetan language has three
major forms of expression: the most respectful, the respectful
and the everyday speech, to be used respectively to one's
superiors, one's peers and one's inferiors.
The social distinctions were also reflected
in people's dresses, houses, horses and Hadas -- silk scarves
presented on all social occasions to show respect.
Lamaism belongs to the Mahayana School of
Buddhism, which was introduced into Tibet in the seventh century
and developed into Lamaism by assimilating some of the beliefs
and rites of the local religion called "Bon." Lamaism
is divided into many different sects, each claiming to be the
orthodox. Apart from the Red sect, all the others, including the
White sect, the Sakya sect and the Yellow sect, established at
different times local regimes that integrated political and
The Yellow sect practices the institution of
reincarnation of living Buddhas. The Dalai Lama and Bainqen
Erdini are supposed to be the reincarnations of two Grand Living
Buddhas of the Yellow sect. It was stipulated during the Qing
Dynasty that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, the Bainqen
Lama and other Grand Living Buddhas of the Yellow sect had to be
approved by the Qing court or determined by drawing lots from a
gold urn. When a Grand Living Buddha dies, his disciples are
required to choose a child, in most cases from a noble family,
to be his reincarnation. Monasteries of the Yellow sect are
scattered all over the Tibetan areas. The most famous of them
are the Sera, Drepung, Zhashi Lumpo and Qamdo, as well as
Lapuleng in Gansu and Ta'er in Qinghai.
In the western part of Tibet and the pastoral
areas of Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, the early Tibetan native
religion, the Bon, known locally as the Black sect, is still
active. There are also Taoist temples built by the Han people,
mosques built by the Huis and some Christian and Catholic
churches built by foreign missionaries in a few places.
A large amount of cultural relics, including
ancient scripts, woodblock, metal and stone carvings, have been
preserved in the Tibetan areas. The engraved block printing
technique was introduced from other parts of China. Some books
were written in Sanskrist on loose leaves. Apart from the two
well-known collections of Buddhist scriptures known as the
Kanjur and the Tanjur, there are works on prosody, language,
philosophy, history, geography, astronomy, mathematics and
medicine as well as novels, operas, biographies, poetry, stories
and fables, which are all distinguished for their unique styles.
Many of the early works, such as the Thirty Rules of Tibetan
Grammar, the four-part Ancient Encyclopaedia of Tibetan
Medicine, Feast of the Wise, the epic Princess Wen Cheng,
world's longest epic poem King Gesser, the biographical novels
Milarib and Boluonai, the Sakya Maxims and the Love Songs of
Cangyang Gyacuo (the Sixth Dalai Lama), are very popular and
have been translated into many languages and distributed in
China and abroad.
Education in the Tibetan areas used to be
monopolized by the monasteries. Some of the lamas in big
lamaseries, who had learned to read and write and recite
Buddhist scriptures and who had passed the test of catechism in
the Buddhist doctrine, would be given the degree of Gexi, the
equivalent of the doctoral degree in theology. Others, after a
period of training, would be qualified to serve as religious
officials or preside over religious rites.
Tibetan medicine has a long history. Doctors
of this school of medicine pay great attention to practical
skills. They diagnose illnesses by observation, auscultation,
smelling, interrogation and pulse feeling. They also know how to
collect medicinal herbs and prepare drugs and are skilled in
acupuncture, moxibustion and surgery. Tibetan doctors are
especially outstanding in veterinary medicine.
The Tibetans have their own calendar. They
designate the years by using the five elements (metal, wood,
water, fire and earth), yin and yang, and the 12 animals
representing the 12 Earthly Branches. A year is divided into
four seasons and 12 months; which have 29 or 30 days.
The technique of Tibetan sculpture is superb.
The portraits of the Grand Living Buddhas are the very images of
the persons depicted. Tibetan painting features fine lines,
well-knitted composition, vivid expressions of figures and
bright colors. Tibetan architecture is unique in style, with
buildings neatly arranged or rising like magnificent towers and
castles. The Potala Palace in Lhasa was built on the sunny side
of a mountain slope. With golden roofs and white-washed walls,
the building rises naturally with the slope, looking extremely
imposing. It is a masterpiece of Tibetan architecture.
Maxims and proverbs are very popular among
the Tibetans. The metaphors are lively and pregnant with
meaning. Tibetans are also good dancers and singers. Their songs
and music are well-modulated in tone and the words fit well with
the tunes. They often dance while they sing. Their dancing is
beautiful with movements executed either with the arms and waist
or with legs and feet, and the tap dance is most typically
Tibetan. Most of the musical instruments were introduced from
the interior of China. Long-handled drums and trumpets are the
main musical instruments used by the lamas. They can depict
natural sounds, the cries of animals and the singing of birds
that can be heard at a great distance. Religious dances are
often performed by people wearing masks of deities, humans or
animals. The Tibetan opera is one of the famous opera forms in
China. It is performed without curtain or stage. In the past,
all performers were men. Wearing masks, they danced and sang to
the accompaniment of musical instruments. Sometimes the
orchestra would chime in with the singers, creating a lively
There are many taboos and activities that
bear a strong mark of religion. Buddhists are forbidden to kill.
Many wild animals, including fish, field vole, Mongolian gazelle
and vulture, are under protection. The Tibetans, rich or poor,
all have family niches for keeping Buddha statues. Most people
wear a metal amulet box, about the size of a cigarette case, on
the breast, and turn prayer wheels. It is forbidden to turn
prayer wheels counter-clockwise and stride over ritual objects
The Tibetan New Year is the most important
festival in Tibet. People in their holiday best extend greetings
to each other and go to the monasteries to receive blessings. On
the 15th day of the first moon, all major monasteries hold
religious rites and all families light up butter lamps when
night falls. It is also the occasion for lamas in the Ta'er
(Ghumbum) monastery in Qinghai and the Qoikang monastery in
Lhasa to display their exquisite and beautifully decorated