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The Tibetan ethnic minority

    The 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 northwest China.
    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 historical documents.
    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 administration.
    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 provinces respectively.


    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 monks' hats.
    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 eat meat.
    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 lamaseries.
    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 religious powers.
    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 atmosphere.
    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 and braziers.
    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 butter carvings.

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