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Full text: Democratic Reform in Tibet -- Sixty Years On
update:March 28,2019

I. Feudal Serfdom: A Dark History
For centuries Tibet was ruled by feudal serfdom under theocracy. Millions of serfs were subjected to cruel exploitation and oppression until democratic reform in 1959.

– Serfs deprived of all rights by the three major estate-holders
The laws of old Tibet divided people into three classes and nine ranks, legalizing the unequal status of different groups and allowing the estate-holders to deny all human rights of their serfs. In the government, controlled by the three major estate-holders (government officials, nobles, and upper-ranking lamas in monasteries), all levels of official came from the families of high-ranking lamas and nobles. Children of major noble families, upon birth, would automatically obtain the fourth-highest official rank, and they could take key positions in government when they were 17 or 18 years of age. Children from middle-ranking and lesser noble families could also take up official positions in government after spending some time studying at official training schools. Most monk officials were lamas from noble families, while serfs, who constituted the vast majority of the Tibetan society, struggled hopelessly on the very bottom rung of society.

– The serfs’ life and death in the hands of the three major estate-holders
The three major estate-holders applied every means to maintain feudal serfdom, with cruel and barbarous laws and punishments imposed by judicial organs and courts set up within their scopes of influence. Apart from jails set up by the government, there were penitentiaries and private jails run by large monasteries and aristocrats where instruments of torture were kept and private tribunals were held. They cast verdicts, flogged and tortured serfs, had them chained and shackled. Volumes of documents written in Tibetan testify to the savage punishments meted out to serfs, such as cutting off the tongue, nose, hands and feet, wearing stone hat, gouging out the eyes, pulling out tendons, skinning, drowning, and even feeding them to scorpions. The Snang Rtse Shag, located to the north of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, used to be the judiciary of old Tibet. Infamously known as a “living hell”, this was where serfs were tortured and slaughtered at will to supply the upper class of the Kashag (cabinet) regime and high-ranking monks with such horrible offerings as human head, skin, flesh, heart, and intestines, which were considered “necessary” when chanting certain scriptures.

– Land, pastures and other means of production monopolized by the three major estate-holders
According to statistics gathered prior to democratic reform, a staggering 99.7 percent of all the 220,000 ha of cultivated land in Tibet was owned by the government (85,580 ha), the monasteries and high-ranking monks (80,960 ha), and aristocrats (52,800 ha), while the remaining 0.3 percent of cultivated land was owned by a handful of land-tilling peasants in remote areas. Most pastures were controlled by herd owners. A ballad among serfs of the time goes:
Even if the snow mountain melts into butter,
It is the property of the masters.
Even if the river water turns into milk,
There is not a single drop for us.

– Serfs owned and enslaved by the three major estate-holders
The bondage of serfs to the land owners was protected by the powerful theocratic rule. The Kashag regime prescribed that all serfs must stay on the land within the manor of their owners. They were not allowed to step out of the manor without permission; fleeing the manor was forbidden. Any serf who attempted to flee might receive a lashing as punishment or have their feet chopped off. The Kashag and the Dalai Lama also issued decrees prohibiting the furnishing of refuge to fleeing serfs.

With their absolute control of land, the three major estate-holders held the power of life, death and marriage over their serfs. Since serfs were their private property, they could trade and transfer them, present them as gifts, use them as gambling stakes or as mortgages for debt, or exchange them at will.

The three major estate-holders also imposed heavy corvée labor on serfs. For example, before liberation of Tibet in 1951, the Darongqang Manor owned by Gyaltsap Tajtra held a total of 96 ha of land, and 81 able-bodied and semi-able-bodied serfs. They were assigned a total of 21,266 corvée days per year, including 11,826 days working for their owners and 9,440 days for the government. The average corvée labor of each serf amounted to 262.5 days a year, or 72 percent of their entire year of labor.
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