Exploring Chinese History
East Asian Region
- Tibet -

Tibet, province-level administrative region of China, located in a high-mountain area in the southwestern part of the country. It is officially called the Xizang Autonomous Region.

Throughout its long history, Tibet at times has governed itself as an independent state and at other times has had various levels of association with China. Regardless of China's involvement in Tibetan affairs, Tibet's internal government was for centuries a theocracy (state governed by religious leaders), under the leadership of Buddhist lamas, or monks. In 1959 the Dalai Lama (spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and at that time the head of Tibet's internal government) fled to India during a Tibetan revolt against Chinese control in the region. China then took complete control of Tibet, installing a sympathetic Tibetan ruler and, in 1965, replacing the theocracy with a Communist administration.

The TAR covers an area of about 1,222,000 sq km (about 472,000 sq mi). It is bounded on the north by Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province; on the east by Sichuan and Yunnan provinces; on the south by Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), India, Bhutan, and Nepal; and on the west by India. Lhasa is the region's capital and largest city. Some Tibetans contend that Tibet includes parts of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces where ethnic Tibetans live.

With an average elevation of more than 4000 m (12,000 ft), Tibet is the highest region on earth. For this reason, it is sometimes called the Roof of the World. Most of the people in Tibet live at elevations ranging from 1200 m (3900 ft) to 5100 m (16,700 ft). Tibet is also one of the world's most isolated regions, surrounded by the Himalayas on the south, the Karakoram Range on the west, and the Kunlun Mountains on the north.

The southern part of Tibet is situated entirely within the Himalayas, and many of the world's highest summits are located in the main Himalayan chain, which extends along Tibet's southern frontier. Among the principal peaks are Mount Everest (8848 m/29,028 ft), the world's highest mountain; Namcha Barwa (7756 m/25,445 ft); and Gurla Mandhata (7728 m/25,354 ft). The Kailas Range, a chain of the Himalayas, lies parallel to and north of the main chain and has peaks of up to 6700 m (22,000 ft). Between the Kailas Range and the main chain is a river valley that extends about 1000 km (about 600 mi). The Brahmaputra River (known in Tibet as the Yarlung Zangbo) flows from west to east through most of this valley. The Kailas Range slopes north to the Tibetan Plateau (Qing Zang Gaoyuan). This vast tableland extends to the Karakoram Range on the west and the Kunlun Mountains on the north. The Tibetan Plateau, which slopes gradually from south to east, is broken by mountain outcroppings and has an average elevation of about 4570 m (about 15,000 ft). The eastern part of Tibet is a rugged region with numerous smaller mountain ranges interspersed by deep valleys.

The mountains in Tibet form Asia's principal watershed, or dividing line, between westward-flowing and eastward-flowing streams, and Tibet is the source of many of the continent's major rivers. The Brahmaputra is Tibet's most important river. The Indus, Ganges, and Sutlej rivers have their headwaters in western Tibet. The Salween River (Nu Jiang) rises in central Tibet and the headwaters of the Mekong (Lancang Jiang), Yangtze (Chang Jiang), and Huang He (Yellow River) are found in northern Tibet. Many of Tibet's rivers have potential for hydroelectric development. The Tibetan Plateau is dotted with numerous somewhat salty lakes, including Ngangla Ringco in the west and Nam Co (Na-mu-ts'o) in the east.

Vegetation on the Tibetan Plateau is extremely sparse, consisting mainly of grasses and shrubs. Scattered wooded areas occur in the extreme west and east. Most vegetation, however, is concentrated in the Brahmaputra, Indus, and Sutlej river valleys. These areas support a number of species of trees, including conifers, oaks, cypresses, poplars, and maples. Apple, peach, pear, and apricot trees are cultivated in the valleys.

Tibet is home to a variety of wildlife. Musk deer, wild sheep, wild goats, wild donkeys, yaks, and Tibetan antelope are common in mountainous areas. Other large mammals include leopards, tigers, bears, wolves, foxes, and monkeys. Birdlife includes geese, gulls, teal, and other species of waterfowl, as well as pheasants and sand grouse.

Tibet has a dry, cold climate with an average annual temperature of 1° C (34° F). Temperatures in the mountains and plateaus are especially cold, and strong winds are common year round. The river valleys experience a more moderate climate. Lhasa and central Tibet have an average temperature of 0° C (32° F) in December and an average of 17° C (60° F) in June. The daily temperature range is great. On a typical summer day, the temperature can rise from 3° C (37° F) before sunrise to 27° C (81° F) by midday. In general, temperatures in Tibet frequently drop suddenly after sunset. The average annual precipitation is 381 mm (15 in), with the largest amount falling in the southeast.

Tibet is rich in mineral resources, although only a few have been exploited because of inaccessibility, a lack of industrial capacity, and Buddhist admonitions against disturbing the earth for fear of harming living creatures. Gold is found in many areas, and significant deposits of iron ore, coal, salt, and borax are also present. Other known mineral resources include oil shale, manganese, lead, zinc, quartz, and graphite. Jade, lapis lazuli, and other precious and semiprecious stones are also found.

Since 1959 the Chinese government has capitalized on some of Tibet's resources by mining chromite, tinkalite, and boromagnesite; constructing hydroelectric and geothermal plants; and logging timber. In eastern Tibet, serious environmental concerns have been raised over the extent of pollution and deforestation resulting from these projects.

The population of the TAR was 2,196,010 at the time of the 1990 census, yielding an average population density of 1.8 persons per sq km (4.7 per sq mi), the lowest of any region in China. Because the 1990 census was the first properly conducted count, population figures for Tibet prior to that date were largely imprecise estimates. Experts believe that before Chinese Communists began controlling Tibet in the 1950s, the region's population was declining due to illness, poor pre- and postnatal care, and a sizeable proportion of men becoming celibate monks. It is estimated, however, that the population has nearly doubled since that time, as a result of better health care, increased availability of food, and relative political stability.

The vast majority of Tibet's people live in rural areas, and a large but diminishing part of the population is nomadic (having no fixed residence) or seminomadic. Lhasa, the capital and largest city, is Tibet's principal center of trade, tourism, commerce, education, and government, and the headquarters of the region's major religious institutions. XigazĂȘ (Shigatse), the second largest city, is also an important trade and commercial center and the home of the Panchen Lama, the second most important leader in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama.

The majority of people in Tibet are ethnic Tibetans, and the largest minority are Han Chinese, China's majority ethnic group. According to the 1990 census, 3.7 percent of Tibet's population was Han Chinese; however, this and other population figures are believed to be incomplete, as they do not include the much larger number of Han who have come to Tibet looking for work opportunities and have not officially registered as residents. The large number of Han has exacerbated already tense relations between Tibetans and China's central government over governmental policies in Tibet. There are also smaller populations of ethnic Lhoba, Moinba, Deng, Xiaerba, and Hui (Chinese Muslims).

Most people in Tibet speak Tibetan, a language of the Tibeto-Burman subfamily of Sino-Tibetan languages. Various dialects of Tibetan are spoken in different regions. Putonghua (Mandarin) Chinese, China's official language, is also used, particularly by Han Chinese, government agencies, and most commercial enterprises. People can request the use of Tibetan within the legal system. Little Chinese is heard in Tibet's rural areas.

Tibetan Buddhism is the religion of the overwhelming majority of the population. Buddhism was introduced into Tibet from India, originally in the 7th century, and then, after a period of persecution, it was reintroduced in the 11th century. Tibetan Buddhism evolved into four sects: the Nyingma, which bases its teachings on translations of the earliest works from the 7th century; the Kagyu, which was founded during the 10th and 11th centuries; the Sakya, which was founded during the 11th century and led by Tibet's principal political rulers before the Dalai Lamas; and the Gelugpa, which originated in the late 14th century and became the largest of the four. The Dalai and Panchen Lamas belong to the Gelugpa sect.

Historically, religion permeated every aspect of Tibetan life. The only educational system was religious, all cultural and intellectual activities were centered around religious beliefs, and the heads of government were Buddhist monks. However, from 1966 to 1972, during the Cultural Revolution, religious practice in Tibet was completely curtailed. Bands of Red Guards, youths loyal to Chinese leader Mao Zedong, destroyed temples and other religious structures in Tibet, and persecuted monks and nuns.

Today, Buddhism is practiced widely in Tibet. Many monasteries and other religious buildings have been rebuilt, and monks and nuns are once again openly practicing their religion. Tibetan Buddhists are expected to recite prayers and mantras regularly, prostrate themselves at religious shrines, make offerings to temples and monasteries, and participate in various other religious rituals. Tibetans also enjoy a number of religious and cultural festivals, including Lohar, the Tibetan New Year; Monlam, which celebrates the victory of Buddha over his opponents; Sakadawa, which celebrates the anniversary of the birth, death, and enlightenment of the Buddha; and the Butter Lamp Festival, which commemorates the death of Tsong Khapa, the founder of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. However, the Chinese government still enforces various restrictions, which many Tibetans deeply resent. These include a limitation on the number of clergy and the number of religious buildings. Moreover, police agents are assigned to the monasteries to prevent political activities. At times, the government also outlaws the public display of the Dalai Lama's picture.

Prior to the 1950s there was no formal educational system in Tibet and very few people were literate. Most Tibetan monks were taught to memorize religious scriptures rather than read them. The Chinese introduced secular, formal state schooling in 1952. By the mid-1990s there were more than 3000 schools in Tibet and the literacy rate was estimated at about 50 percent. Tibetan is the language of instruction in lower grades, shifting to Putonghua in later years. In the mid-1990s Tibet had four institutions of higher learning, all located in Lhasa: Tibet University, the Institute for Nationalities, the Agricultural and Animal Husbandry College, and the Tibetan Medical College.

Since assuming control in the 1950s, the Chinese Communist administration has improved Tibet's transportation infrastructure. Furthermore, Tibet's economy has grown and diversified. As a result, Tibetans in urban areas now enjoy considerably more material benefits in the form of food, clothing, housing, technology, and entertainment. Far less improvement has occurred in rural areas. Modern conveniences have also allowed for a wider dissemination of traditional culture. Tibet has a number of professional opera and theatrical troupes, which perform throughout the region and elsewhere. There are Tibetan-language television and radio programs, as well as newspapers and books.

In spite of these material changes, however, Tibet remains one of the poorest regions in China, particularly its rural areas. In the mid-1990s the average annual per capita income for city dwellers was about $120, while rural people earned about half that amount. Although the Chinese government contributes subsidies to help offset Tibet's low standard of living, controversy has developed over who benefits from this aid. China's central government has admitted that more money has gone to better the lives of Chinese officials and workers in Tibet than the lives of Tibetans.

Throughout most of Tibet's history, women were treated as second-class citizens. Although the Chinese government legalized the equality of women in the 1950s, everyday practice continues to lag far behind the law. In the mid-1990s a small number of Tibetan women held positions in local government, higher education, and the arts.

Subsistence agriculture dominates the Tibetan economy. Arable land, concentrated mostly in the river valleys, is limited in area. The principal subsistence crops are barley, wheat, buckwheat, rye, potatoes, and various vegetables and fruits. Cotton, soybeans, walnuts, tea, and hemp are grown as commercial crops. Livestock raising is the primary occupation of the Tibetan Plateau region. In addition to sheep, cattle, and goats, the herds include camels, yaks, horses, and other beasts of burden.

Some coal mining takes place in Tibet. The region's manufacturing sector has expanded since 1959 but remains limited to small-scale enterprises producing such goods as textiles and electrical equipment. The production of local handicrafts constitutes a major supply of income. Craft items include woolen carpets, fabrics, aprons, quilts, clothing, furniture, wooden bowls, gold and silver jewelry, and Tibetan hats.

There are no railroads in Tibet. The road system, which did not exist before 1950, has grown to about 22,000 km (about 14,000 mi). A trans-Tibetan highway now runs from west to east. Other highways connect the region with Xinjiang and Qinghai to the north, Sichuan to the east, and Nepal and India to the south. Tibet has two commercial airports; the more important one is located near Lhasa. Since the 1980s tourism has become an important source of revenue in Tibet. Most visitors stay in the Lhasa area, although XigazĂȘ and the base camp of Mount Everest are also popular sites.

Tibet is officially an autonomous region of China, which means that an ethnic Tibetan heads the regional government. In reality, however, major decisions are made by the central government in Beijing. Ethnic Tibetans comprise about 70 percent of government cadres (administrators) in Tibet. The most powerful officials in Tibet, including the head of the local Communist Party office, are typically Han Chinese.

Prior to the 7th century, when Buddhism was introduced into Tibet by missionaries from India, the history of the region is unclear. Buddhist missionaries developed an alphabet for the Tibetan language and initiated translations of Buddhist sacred texts. They also conducted a relentless struggle against Bon, the indigenous religion of Tibet, which was based largely on shamanism (seeShaman). In the period of Buddhist penetration, which led to the development of Lamaism (Buddhism characterized by hierarchical organization of lamas, or monks), Tibet was a strong kingdom. Toward the end of the 10th century the kingdom began to disintegrate, eventually splitting into a number of small principalities. Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan incorporated the area into his empire in 1206. In the 15th century the Mongols named the head of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism the Dalai Lama (monk with an ocean of wisdom) and in the 1640s they granted him political power in Tibet.

In the 18th century Tibet came under the control of China. However, in the course of the following century, Chinese authority diminished steadily. Meanwhile, British colonial officials in India, including administrator Warren Hastings, attempted to secure a foothold in the region. These efforts proved unsuccessful, mainly because of Tibetan resentment of an unsuccessful Nepalese invasion of Tibet in the 1790s, which the British had supported.

In 1904 the British, who were alarmed over purported Russian influence in Tibet, invaded the region. At that time, Tibet had considerable autonomy under Chinese authority. In 1906 the British and Chinese governments established an agreement by which Britain recognized the Chinese Empire as Tibet's suzerain power (state that controls another state's international affairs). The agreement also provided for the Chinese government's payment of a large indemnity to the British, who subsequently withdrew their troops. In 1907 the British and Russian governments concluded an agreement pledging noninterference in Tibetan affairs and acknowledging Chinese suzerainty.

Following the revolutionary overthrow of China's Qing dynasty in 1911, Tibetans reasserted their independence and began expelling all Chinese officials and troops from the region, which they accomplished by 1913. That year representatives of Britain, China, and Tibet met in Simla, India, to discuss Tibet's status and borders. The representatives reached a tentative agreement that provided for a region known as Inner Tibet to become part of China proper and for Chinese suzerainty over an autonomous Outer Tibet, located further west. Despite British and Tibetan acceptance, the Simla agreement was never ratified by the Chinese government, and China later repudiated the convention, refusing to abandon its claim to all of Tibet. Relations between China and Tibet grew increasingly strained, culminating in 1918 in an armed conflict in eastern Tibet. Later that year, the British helped negotiate a truce between Tibet and China. Subsequent efforts to resolve the dispute were unsuccessful.

In October 1950, little more than a year after the Communist Party had gained control of mainland China, Communist troops invaded Qamdo (Chamdo) on Tibet's eastern border. To rally the Tibetans against the advancing Chinese force, the regent, governor ruling for the 15-year-old 14th Dalai Lama, invested the Dalai Lama with full authority. However, in May 1951 the Tibetan government capitulated, signing a treaty that gave the Dalai Lama power in domestic affairs but ceded control of foreign and military affairs to the Chinese government. The treaty also provided for the return from China of the 12-year-old Panchen Lama-the Lamaist spiritual authority-whose predecessor had gone into self-imposed exile in 1923 because of monetary and political disputes with the 13th Dalai Lama. Chinese military units reached Lhasa in October. The Panchen Lama arrived there in April 1952.

The Chinese made efforts to improve communications in Tibet. They completed airfields in various parts of the region and constructed military highways. A purge of anti-Chinese officials in Tibet was reportedly carried out in early 1953. The following year, the Indian government recognized Tibet as part of China and withdrew the troops it had stationed at two Tibetan trading posts. Under the terms of an agreement signed in 1955, India ceded to China its control of telephone, telegraph, and postal systems in Tibet.

Tibetan Revolt In 1954 the Dalai Lama was appointed to a nominal position in the Chinese government. In 1956 a committee was established to prepare a constitution for Tibet as an autonomous region of China; the Dalai Lama was named chairman and the Panchen Lama first vice chairman of the committee. Guerrilla activity against the Chinese regime broke out in areas of Sichuan Province where ethnic Tibetans were living. The Dalai Lama, who was visiting India at the time, threatened not to return to Tibet. The Chinese government announced that the socialist transformation of Tibet would be postponed, but the rebellion in the east was not contained. Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama voluntarily returned to Lhasa. The rebellion grew with the aid of the United States Central Intelligence Agency until March 1959, when it flared into a full-scale revolt in Lhasa. The rebellion was to last until 1971, but after 1959 it was more a nuisance to the Chinese government than a real threat. Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama fled to India, where he established a community of Tibetans. The Chinese made the Panchen Lama the acting head of the region. On October 21, 1959, the United Nations (UN) approved a resolution deploring the suppression of human rights in Tibet. A similar resolution was passed on March 9, 1961. These resolutions occurred at a time when the UN was preventing China's Communist government from membership in the organization.

Tens of thousands of Tibetans fled Tibet after the Chinese invasion. Most settled in India. Others took refuge in the Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan. In 1965 Tibet was formally established as an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China, and the Communist government announced that the region would undergo steady socialist reorganization.

Recent Developments In 1978 the Panchen Lama, who had been jailed in 1964 for criticizing Chinese rule of Tibet, was reinstated to his official positions. He appealed repeatedly to the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet. In 1980 the Chinese admitted that Tibet had been misgoverned and announced reforms for the region. Tibetans found the reforms insufficient, and violent demonstrations protesting Chinese rule occurred in October 1987. In 1988 negotiations between the Chinese government and representatives of the Dalai Lama, which had taken place periodically over the previous decade, broke off. The Dalai Lama refused to publicly renounce Tibetan independence, and China refused to compromise on the issue of greater autonomy for Tibet.

In 1993 more demonstrations by Tibetans took place, in addition to several acts of terrorism against the Chinese. In 1995 a new conflict emerged in Tibet over the selection of the next Panchen Lama. The search committee identified 28 possible candidates and conveyed that information to the Dalai Lama in India. The Dalai Lama selected one boy, a six-year-old named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as the 11th Panchen Lama. The Chinese government, angered at having the selection process usurped by the Dalai Lama, cited the historical role it had allegedly played in the selection process of previous Panchen and Dalai Lamas. They inaugurated their own candidate, a six-year-old named Gyaincain Norbu. They held Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family in detention and began a renewed campaign to discredit the Dalai Lama. Fresh rumblings erupted within the Tibetan independence movement. In May 1996 the Chinese began a crackdown on Tibetan monasteries that resulted in the injury and death of several monks. According to some experts, talks resumed secretly between the Dalai Lama and Chinese government officials in late 1996, only to break off several months later when China sentenced the leader of the Panchen Lama search team to a long prison term.

Contributed By:
A. Tom Grunfeld

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