Hell on Earth – The Tibet Myth

By Jigme Duntak

In 1979 a book titled Great Changes in Tibet was published in the People’s Republic of China. Within this book the early 20th century Tibetan society, prior to its occupation by the PRC in 1950, is described as a “hell on earth where the labouring people suffered for centuries under the darkest and most reactionary forms of feudal serfdom.”[1] This depiction of traditional Tibetan society is promoted and maintained by the PRC who argue that before 1959 all but 5 percent of the entire Tibetan population were slaves or serfs in a feudalistic system where they were treated as “saleable private property”.[2] Consequently, the PRC perceives itself not as the invaders of Tibet in 1950 but rather as the liberators of the serf and slave masses that had comprised the other 95 percent of the population. This perception of Tibet has also become increasingly spread throughout the West through works like Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth by Michael Parenti in which he writes of a pre-Communist Tibet characterized by oppression, manipulation, mutilation and torture.

In spite of what is depicted in the works of Parenti and the PRC, it should be addressed as to why it is inaccurate to depict the early 20th century pre-Communist labour systems in Tibet as a system characterized by abusive “feudal serfdom”.

The Debate on Serfdom in Pre-Communist Tibet

Melvyn Goldstein, an American anthropologist who carried out research within Tibet on pre-1959 social relations, is one of the most well known scholars on Tibetan social history. As early as 1968, Goldstein made use of the terms “serf” and “serfdom” in describing the characteristics of traditional Tibet. However, many scholars on Tibet disagreed with Goldstein’s assertion and in rebuttal published a number of works about traditional Tibetan society in which the term “serfdom” was avoided since it was deemed to be inappropriate.

In reply to these works, Goldstein published an article in The Tibet Journal in 1986 to confront what he recognized as an “erroneous impression that there is a new scholarly consensus which holds that there was no serfdom in Tibet.”[3] Goldstein concluded from his research and fieldwork that traditional Tibetan society was a society with hereditary serfs. However, he stated in his 1986 work that traditional Tibetan society “clearly possessed opportunities for social and physical mobility.”[4]

This description of pre-communist Tibetan society by Goldstein goes against the definition of serfdom put forward by the economic historian Stanley L. Engerman. According Engerman, serfs did not own property rights in themselves and thus did not have certain rights in law such as freedom of movement.[5] The peasants of the traditional Tibetan labour system therefore did not fit into Engerman’s definition of a “serf.” In actual practice, they were not all bound to the land since they could choose to flee from their lord (which I will further elaborate on later) and also “a large number of Tibetans were able to moderate their obligations to their lords by paying off some of their dues, and so could move from place to place.”[6]

Goldstein however, although acknowledging the freedom of both social and physical mobility that existed, still concluded that the labour system was one that should still be labelled as “serfdom”. He based his assertion on his research, which he argued, shows that “there was an intrinsic element of control by lords over the labor of their hereditary serfs,”[7]and therefore constituting a system of serfdom.

Scholars on Tibet actively debate this question of whether the peasants of Tibet in the early 20th century can be constituted under terms like “serfs” or “serfdom”. Much of the disagreement over this question is due to lack of solid data which results in part due to the complexity of the socio-economic structures of Tibet that varied from region to region and also the political motivations of depicting the pre-Communist Tibetan society as a brutal feudal serf society or what Goldstein identifies as a “revisionist approach to Tibetan social structure that downplays the existence of massive servitude.”[8]

The Perceived Link between Serfdom and Feudalism

Interestingly, Goldstein points out a confusion that exists in assuming a link between the nature of serfdom with “feudalism” and “feudal society”. He explains that the majority of Marxist scholars define feudalism in terms of serfdom, such as Marxist economist Paul Sweezy who writes of feudalism being, “an economic system in which serfdom is the predominant relation of production, and in which production is organized in and around the manorial estate of the lord.”[9]This confusion sheds light on the prominent use of the word “serf” and “feudal serfdom” in the description of prior conditions in Tibet by Chinese sources.

The Chinese claim of serfdom in Tibet is perplexed by this confusion of an assumed link between the nature of serfdom with “feudalism” and “feudal society”. Along with this perceived link between serfdom and feudalism is a perceived link of feudalism and extreme oppression. Although serfdom and feudalism existed in many pre-modern peasant societies of the world, including China at that time, “the power of the Chinese argument… [is built upon] its implication that serfdom, and with it feudalism, is inseparable from extreme abuse.”[10]

Differing Accounts of Pre-communist Tibet

Within the aforementioned book Great Changes in Tibet is a collection of writings by various Chinese authors on “post-liberated” Tibet. However, one section of the book is written by a Tibetan named Pasang who writes about the conditions of her life prior to the “liberation.” She describes herself as having been born as a “slave” in a slave’s family under reactionary serfdom. Her forefathers are described as having been “slaves under the rule of the manorial lords – the reactionary Tibetan local governments, the nobility and the monasteries.”[11]

Interestingly, and also confusingly, she uses the term “slave” as an equivalent or conjunction to the term “serf.” This is also apparent in other works by the Chinese government like the 100 Questions and Answer about Tibet which does not distinguish much difference in their description of both forms of servitude. Pasang continues to describe her hardships and abuses as a slave when she was forcefully taken to the manorial lord’s estate at the age of nine, “they beat and abused me every day…I was always beaten black and blue and it hurt me all over to lie down to sleep.”[12]

She also writes about the rights which they did not possess as slaves, “we had mouths but no right to speak. We had legs but no freedom of movement.” When her mother and younger brother had died of hunger, Pasang writes that the “manorial lord” had taken her elder sister away as payment of “death tax” and also forced her to become his slave.[13]

This portrayal of Pasang’s life as a “slave” in pre-communist Tibet is a stark contrast to the life described by, the late, Thupten Jigme Norbu as a young boy of comparable age born into a “peasant” family. He describes his family as poor farmers working on what small strips of land they had and with no more than three or four cows. Norbu writes that, “…it never struck us for a moment that we were living in poverty. We were only conscious of our happiness as a family and as a village.”[14] His writings of his early life describe a labour system of communal collective work in which homes were grouped into small “family clusters”. In Norbu’s village of Tengtser, his family cluster was the largest comprising of seven or eight houses.[15] Neighbours always helped each other and all of the fields were mixed up, Norbu explains this practice as having “always been the custom to divide the land, grading it from good to poor, each family taking a share of the poor land as well as the good.”[16]

Factors to Consider

In comparison to the life of Pasang, Norbu writes of no abuses, denial of rights or imposing lords. The only abuses he writes of are the beatings he would receive from his mother when he caused trouble with his sister or stayed out all day playing. Both of these Tibetans had lived their early life in different regions of Tibet. Pasang’s family had lived in “Konka County”, in what is the traditional Tibetan region of Kham, and Norbu’s family had lived in the eastern district of Amdo in the village of Tengtser. This difference of location is an important factor to consider when attempting to understand these two differing accounts and also in any study of the socio-economic structure of pre-Communist Tibet since structures varied from region to region.

Another factor to consider when reading the accounts of both of these Tibetans from lower class origin, and other comparable accounts, is the potential political investment in the promotion of such very contrasting accounts of life as a lower class Tibetan “peasant”, “serf”, or “slave”. Pasang, within her writings, mentions her later appointment as “chairman of the Langhsien Count women’s association and later deputy county head,” and also writes about her loyalty to Chairman Mao and her praise of the Chinese Communist Party. Comparably, Thupten Jigme Norbu was the elder brother of the Dalai Lama and was recognized as the reincarnation of the Taktser Rinpoche at the age of eight.

The Contradictory Notion of an Abusive Lord

In Pasang’s description of her early childhood as a slave in pre-communist Tibet, she writes of the brutal treatment she had received by her manorial lord. In detail she describes how she had been beaten black and blue to the point where it was painful for her to lay down and in one case where she had been “beaten unconscious” and then awoken to find her body covered with wounds and blood.

This description by Pasang of her brutal early life is synonymous with the description of traditional Tibet given by the PRC’s 100 Questions and Answers about Tibet in which it describes the status of human rights in traditional Tibet as a society where “serfs in [the] feudal system, had no land or freedom, and were subject to punishment by mutilation or amputation” and were even “liable to be tortured or killed.” [17]

This is also synonymous with Parenti’s description of pre-Communist Tibet in which he highlights the many abuses of the “rich secular leaders” and “rich theocratic lamas”. Parenti describes how young boys would be regularly taken from their peasant families and brought into the monasteries to be bonded for life as monks. A monk named Tashi-Tsering reports in Parenti’s work that “it was common for peasant children to be sexually mistreated in the monasteries.”[18] Parenti writes of how the life of the Tibetan serf had no schooling or medical care and how treatment by lords was “little better than slaves.”

He continues on about the sexual abuses of the lords in his writing of another case in which a 22-year old woman who had been a runaway serf reports that, “Pretty serf girls were usually taken by the owner as house servants and used as he wished; [they] were just slaves without rights.”[19] Parenti also reiterates the PRC’s depiction of a pre-communist Tibet characterized by an abusive “feudal Tibet” where “torture and mutilation” like the practice of “eye gouging, the pulling out of tongues, hamstringing, and amputation – were favored punishments inflicted upon thieves, and runaway or resistant serfs.”[20]

This general depiction of traditional Tibet as a society characterized by abusive “feudal serfdom” is not a fair or accurate depiction. According to Goldstein, “extreme maltreatment [of serfs] was unlikely since it would have been against the interests of landowners, who needed peasants to provide labor.”[21] Therefore the depictions by the PRC and Parenti of a pre-Communist Tibetan society characterized by torture, mutilation, and particularly amputation seem illogical when considering that the peasant was the source of labour and material for the lords in a land where both were scarce. If the landowning lords had practiced torture, mutilation, amputation, or even outright killings as the PRC claims, than the supposed victim’s ability to work and generate material for the lord would have been reduced or lost altogether.

Most importantly, contrary to what is written by the PRC and Parenti, there is little evidence of systematic savagery in Tibet since the late nineteenth century. In 1925 there had been a famous case of a mutilation punishment but the officials involved in the action were soon after punished themselves by the 13th Dalai Lama as a result of breaking his proclamation of a ban on all such punishments in 1913.[22] However, in 1934 there was a case of a judicial eye gouging carried out as a punishment for treason, exceptional for its time since no one living knew how to carry it out. “On the other hand, there are hundreds of reports, many of them firsthand accounts, of Tibetan political prisoners being severely tortured in Chinese prisons during the early 1990s, as well as almost ninety cases of suspicious deaths in custody, none of which have been independently investigated.”[23]

Of course as in any general statement of a social practice there would have be undoubtedly certain deviance from the norm, such as cases of abuse by landowning lords on their peasants, but the depiction of these specific cases as evidence for a reflection of the overall systems characteristics is an inaccurate and unfounded assertion.

Therefore, although it would have been theoretically illogical to practice such abusive measures on a “serf” or “slave”, the writings by Pasang on her early life cannot be completely dismissed as fabrication, rather this case cannot be justly asserted as a microcosm of the pre-communist Tibetan labour system as a whole.

Also notable is the mention of hunger by Pasang, as mentioned above from her writings. Pasang states that her mother and younger brother had died of hunger as a result of their terrible condition in pre-communist Tibet and that it was not until Tibet “was peacefully liberated” that she began to “see the sunshine and live a new life.”[24]

However the serf labour system in Tibet did not result in the relegation of the serfs to a situation of semi or real starvation. “The essence of the system was for lord to ensure that he had enough serf laborers to farm his part of the estate and continue the flow of food and other products without interruptions, and to do so he needed a viable peasant labor force.”[25] Therefore a starved peasant labour force would not be in the interest of the landowning lord who depended on the labour of his peasant to derive his own livelihood.

Voting With Their Feet

The individual reports of abuse by Pasang, the PRC, Parenti, and other sources, used to argue a reflection on the pre-communist Tibetan society as a whole is an illogical argument because of the relative ease of the peasant’s option to escape from their estate and lord. In fact, in Pasang’s own account of her life she writes of her own escape from her abusive manorial lords.[26] This option of escape is also mentioned in the works of both Goldstein and Beatrice D. Miller, and was a key point in the debates between the two on the question of whether the Tibetan peasant could be classified as a “serf”. Miller describes this as the Tibetan peasant’s ability to “vote with their feet”[27] and Goldstein describes it as the Tibetan serfs’ ability to become “runaways”.

Although both perceive this ability of the Tibetan peasant or serf in different perspectives, in regards to advancing their argument within their debate, both agree that the case of being able to run away “greatly moderated the potential and actual abusiveness of the miser’s [(peasants or subject (*a debated translation))] subordination to their lord and resulted in large numbers of miser moving to different areas where they in effect had no lord and thus had actual (though not legal) physical mobility.”[28] The Tibetan peasant or serf could therefore run away if they had been abused by their lord or had committed a crime or mistake which would have resulted in some form of physical abuse. They also may have chosen to run away if they had amassed a debt or labour obligation that they could not or wished not to fulfill, and also if they did not want to adhere to a certain order given by his or her lord, such as an order to serve as a soldier.[29]

If successful, the Tibetan peasant could obtain a sustainable life working for others. There was no national or local police to chase down and bring back the serf or peasant back to his lord. The only hope in catching a runaway was if the lord himself was able to do so, this was particularly difficult if the runaway had left the area where they were known by sight. Thus many runaways fled to very distant areas and were able to escape capture.[30] The recapturing of runaways was also made increasingly difficult by the fact that Tibet was a region with scarce labour surpluses, thus “few would [have questioned] a “gift” of labor from a runaway.”[31]

Therefore, as well as the economic incentive the Tibetan lord had in maintaining the wellbeing of the serf, the lord also had incentives in treating the serf fairly or else fear the migration of his serfs to other areas where they could escape their unfavourable conditions.

The Right to Adjudication in Pre-Communist Tibet

The power of the Chinese depiction of pre-Communist Tibet as a society of “feudal serfdom” lies in the confused implication that serfdom, and with it feudalism, is inseparable from extreme abuse. French historian Marc Bloch wrote in criticism of this same confusion advocated by Marxist Maurice Dobb in Dobb’s definition of feudalism as “virtually identical with what we usually mean by serfdom: an obligation laid on the producer by force and independently of his own volition to fulfill certain economic demands of an overlord.”[32] In contrast, Bloch defined serfdom as showing the characteristics of three main components. The first component was that the serf was hereditarily tied to the land and lord; second the serf, unlike the slave, had rights and possessed land, which he did not own, from which he derived his livelihood, and thirdly the lord had the legal rights to command his serfs and also judicial authority over them.[33]

In 1987, Miller wrote a response to Goldstein’s work in regards to the three components asserted by Bloch cited by Goldstein. Miller countered Goldstein’s argument of labelling “serfdom” on the labour practices of traditional Tibet by pointing out that in his own work he had written in acknowledgement of the Tibetan system’s other “overriding, central legal and judicial system to which all – including the aristocracy – were subject.”[34] This meant that Tibetan peasant could appeal to a central legal and judicial system within the central government to file grievances against the lord, in comparison to a “serf” who would not have this right since his legal and judicial system would be vested in his lord.

Miller highlighted that in Goldstein’s own admission his statement contradicts Bloch’s third component of serfdom which states that the lord had legal rights to the serf’s labour and also judicial authority over them. Miller also pointing out that the peasant’s relationship with the lord was “contractual in nature” and as a result any unilateral invalidation of the terms in the contract was legally a “breach of contract.”[35]

She therefore concluded that this did “not seem to bear much resemblance to “serfdom,” since the lord was equally bound by the contract” and also had to adhere to certain traditional customs and written documents.[36] Moreover, the Tibetan lords were held accountable to the central authority and “ultimate landlord” (the Dalai Lama’s government), who had enough power to “confiscate estates from these lords, who were powerless to assert their claims, or to contest the actions against them.”[37] The peasant therefore had legal rights and thus the lords could not unilaterally, and legally, alter the amount of taxes required or the amount of land the serfs held. “If a serf felt his lord had (or was) overstepping his authority-whether this involved land, taxes, or the lord’s settlement of some dispute – the serf could unilaterally take his grievance to the central government for adjudication.”[38]

The serf also had the right to maintain full control over all of his possessions and it was therefore possible for certain serfs to become very wealthy[39] but it was the ability and right of the Tibetan serf to appeal to central body, which possessed power over the lords therefore holding the lord accountable to his actions against his serfs, which acted as a moderating influence on the treatment of serfs.

Why the Debate?

The issue of Tibetan social history prior to occupation of the People’s Republic of China is a hotly contested field with many different factions and academics asserting different perceptions and accounts of what they present as the “truth.” Hindering the debate on the social history and labour practices is also the lack of solid data which results in an inability to make a definite full statement or account of the general nature of social practices in pre-Communist Tibet. The People’s Republic of China and its supporters have political investment in the “truth” being perceived as an early 20th century Tibet ruled by a regime tainted by a labour structure of brutal “feudal serfdom,” and therefore they advance this position. Similarly those against the occupation of Tibet may choose to downplay the existence of a massive servitude in an attempt to counter the depiction of the early 20th century Tibet presented by the PRC.

Hell on Earth?

The allegation of a pre-Communist Tibet characterized by a labour system of abusive “feudal serfdom,” by the PRC and other various academics and writers, is an inaccurate and unfounded assertion. The system of servitude in Pre-communist Tibet was such that a general practice of extreme forms of abuse by the landowning lords would have been both unlikely and illogical since such a practice would prove counterproductive to the economic aims of the lords. Tibetan lords that engaged in physical abusive practices of their labourers would face the consequences of losing or hindering the productivity of their labourers to death or injury, and those that engaged in actions of unfair or illegal tax raises or land acquisitions from their labourers would face the adjudication of the higher central authority or the runaway of their labourers to other areas where they could find more favourable conditions. Finally and most importantly, the PRC and other writers who present this depiction of a dark and abusive early 20th century Tibet have no grounds in making such claims since there is no concrete evidence to reflect this assertion.

The depiction of pre-Communist Tibet as a dark and abusive place for 95% of the Tibetan population is only a pragmatic stance taken by the PRC and its assertion has no basis in factual evidence. As Robert Barnett, founder and director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia notes, “China made no claims at the time of its invasion or liberation of Tibet to be freeing Tibetans from social injustice…the issue of freeing Tibetans from feudalism appeared in Chinese rhetoric only after around 1954 in eastern Tibet and 1959 in Central Tibet.”[40]

[1] Great Changes in Tibet. (People’s Republic of China: Great Wall Press), 1972

[2] Anne-Marie Blondeau & Katia Buffetrille. Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s 100 Questions. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008) 81.

[3] Melvyn C. Goldstein, “Reexamining Choice, Dependency and Command in the Tibetan Social System: “Tax Appendages” and other Landless Serfs.” The Tibet Journal. XI, Number 4, Winter 1986: 79

[4] Ibid

[5] Stanley L. Engerman. “Slavery and the other forms of coerced labour: similarities and differences,” in M.L. Bush ed., Serfdom and Slavery: Studies in Legal Bondage, (London and New York: Longman) 20

[6] Robert Barnett. “What Were the Conditions Regarding Human Rights in Tibet before Democratic Reform? [Questions 12, 13, and 92, 2001],” in Anne-Maria Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille ed., Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s 100 Questions, (Berkeley: University of California Press) 2008 81

[7] Goldstein, “Reexamining Choice, Dependency and Command in the Tibetan Social System: “Tax Appendages” 79

[8] Melvyn C. Goldstein, “Freedom, Servitude and the “Servant-serf” Nyima: a re-rejoinder to Miller.” The Tibet Journal Vol. XIV, No.2 1989 56

[9] Goldstein, “Reexamining Choice, Dependency and Command in the Tibetan Social System: “Tax Appendages” 81

[10] Barnett 82

[11] Pasang, “New Look of the Tibetan Plateau” in, Great Changes in Tibet. (People’s Republic of China: Great Wall Press) 1972 1

[12] Ibid 2

[13] Ibid

[14] Thubten Jigme Norbu, and Colin M. Turnbull, Tibet: it’s History, Religion and People, (London: Chatto & Windus), 1969 52

[15] Norbu 54

[16] Ibid 57

[17] Barnett 81

[18] Parenti, Michael. “Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth.” Michael Parenti Political Archive. http://www.michaelparenti.org/Tibet.html (updated and expanded version, January 2007).

[19] Ibid

[20] Parenti

[21] Barnett 81-83

[22] Ibid 83

[23] Ibid

[24] Pasang 2

[25] Melvyn C. Goldstein, “On the nature of the Tibetan Peasantry: a rejoinder.” The Tibet Journal, 1987 65

[26] Pasang 3

[27] Beatrice D. Miller, “A Response to Goldstein’s Reexamining Choice, Dependency and Command in the Tibetan Social System.” The Tibet Journal. XII, No.2, (1987): 66.

[28] Goldstein, “Reexamining Choice, Dependency and Command in the Tibetan Social System: “Tax Appendages” 105

[29] Ibid 104-105

[30] Ibid 105

[31] Beatrice D. Miller, “Last Rejoinder to Goldstein on Tibetan Social System.” The Tibet Journal. XIII No.3 1988 65

[32] Goldstein, “Reexamining Choice, Dependency and Command in the Tibetan Social System: “Tax Appendages” 81

[33] Ibid

[34] Miller, “A Response to Goldstein’s Reexamining Choice, Dependency and Command in the Tibetan Social System.” 65.

[35] Miller, “A Response to Goldstein’s Reexamining Choice, Dependency and Command in the Tibetan Social System.” 67

[36] Ibid

[37] Ibid 65

[38] Melvyn C. Goldstein, “Serfdom and Mobility: An Examination of the Institution of “Human Lease” in Traditional Tibetan Society.” The Journal of Asian Studies. Volume XXX, Number 3, May 1971 523

[39] Ibid

[40] Barnett 83


One thought on “Hell on Earth – The Tibet Myth

  1. Daba


    Thank you for bringing some clear thinking and reasoning to an area of political polemic where we rarely find much if any. There are so many forms of social & economic subordination, and to collapse all that variety into one category such as ‘serfdom’ or ‘slavery’ doesn’t do much for our understanding. When I worked in factories, or as a janitor, I often felt like a slave and very often used the word to describe my position in society.

    The manoral culture of some parts of Tibet once resembled the manoral culture of the American south, with complicated systems of obligation. One of the most important of these was share-cropping, in which the farmer agrees to work the land and return to the landowner a part of the harvest. Americans would never agree to call share-croppers by the term ‘slave,’ since the position of slavery is also well known to them, and quite different.

    It’s very important to look into and understand the variable levels of coercion vs. contractual agreement that are involved in the various types of relationships.

    In most earlier Asian societies, there was an idea that the King was the owner of all the land. And you are very right to point out that landowners in traditional Tibet could have their land taken away from them and given to another. They were the conduits through which tax obligations (including labor ‘tax’ of u-lag or corvée) to the government were paid. In the CCP polemical sense, I suppose then that the manoral lords were ‘slaves’ (and not just share-croppers) in relation to the Lhasa! Even today Americans can have their land taken away from them without much legal recourse if the government decides a road needs to go through their property.

    All this is just psychological cover for the fact that modern-day Tibet inhabitants are ‘slaves’ to the CCP. They are made to owe everything to the state, and what rights do they get in return?

    So thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this issue. Usually, when the subject comes up, I recommend people read Chapter 3 of William Monroe Coleman’s master’s thesis at the University of Hawaii entitled “Writing Tibetan History: The Discourses of Feudalism and Serfdom in Chinese and Western Historiography.” In case anyone is interested, a PDF can be downloaded here: http://tinyurl.com/ysw8km.

    Now I can also recommend that they read this blog entry.

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