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Tibetan feudal serfdom under theocracy and Western European serfdom in Middle Ages
15 April 2008 | Guangming Daily

2008/04/17


 

Tibet: Its Past and Present

 

    BEIJING, April 17 (Xinhua) -- The Guangming Daily on April 15 published an article based on interviews with three Chinese scholars concerning the Tibetan system of feudal serfdom under theocracy and Western European serfdom in the Middle Ages.

    Following is the full text of the article:

    The three experts who gave interviews were:

    Zhang Yun, research professor of the Institute of History of the China Tibetology Research Center (CTRC).

    Tanzen Lhundup, research professor and deputy-director of the Institute of Social Economy of the CTRC.

    Meng Guanglin, professor and course convenor of world history of the Middle Ages at the School of History of Renmin University of China.

    The reporters who conducted the interviews:

    Yuan Xiang and Xing Yuhao with the Guangming Daily

    

    The Tibetan feudal serfdom under theocracy was a combined dictatorship of monks and aristocrats

    Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Jiang Yu said (at a press conference on April 8): "The Dalai Lama is the head representative of the serf system, which integrated religion with politics in old Tibet. Such a serf system, which harbors no democracy, freedom or human rights in any form, was the darkest slavery system in human history. Only serf owners could enjoy special privileges under such a system."

    Jiang also said: "The 'middle way' approach that the Dalai Lama is pursuing is aimed at restoring his own 'paradise in the past', which will throw millions of liberated serfs back into a dark cage. Such a 'middle way', who can accept it?"

    Reporter: Jiang Yu's words revealed that the nature of the Dalai Lama's "middle way" is to restore serfdom. In terms of history, what kind of system was the Tibetan serf system?

    Zhang Yun: Before the democratic reform in 1959, Tibet was a society of feudal serfdom under the integration of religion and politics and the dictatorship of monks and aristocrats, one even darker and more backward than medieval Europe.

    Tanzen Lhundup: British diplomat Sir Charles Bell, who was regarded as "an expert on Tibet", wrote in his book "Portrait of a Dalai Lama: The Life and Times of the Great Thirteenth": "When you come from Europe or America to Tibet, you are carried back several hundred years. You see a nation still in the feudal age. Great is the power of the nobles and squires over their tenants, who are either farmers tilling the more fertile plains and valleys, or shepherds, clad in their sheepskins, roaming over the mountains."

    Serf owners in Tibet were composed of local officials, aristocrats and high-level monks. They barely made up 5 percent of the total Tibetan population but possessed all the farmland, pastures, forests, mountains and rivers, and most of the livestock.

    According to official statistics dating from the early Qing Dynasty in the 17th century, the local government owned 30.9 percent of more than 3 million ke (1 hectare equals 15 ke) of farmland in Tibet. Aristocrats owned 29.6 percent and high-level monks, 39.5 percent.

    Before the democratic reform in 1959, Tibet had 197 families belonging to the hereditary aristocracy, including 25 large families. The seven or eight biggest such families each owned dozens of manors and tens of thousands of ke of land.

    Zhang Yun: The number of serfs surpassed 90 percent of the population in old Tibet. The serfs were further divided into three categories, namely "treba" (sharecroppers), who rented land from serf owners and worked as compulsory laborers and "dujung", which means small households working for lords. Besides these two types of serfs, there were "nangsen", who made up 5 percent of the total population. They were household servants for lords for generations without any production materials or personal freedom.

    Serf owners cruelly exploited serfs through compulsory labor and usury. Serfs toiled throughout the year but could hardly feed themselves, and usually had to make a living by borrowing at usurious rates. French Tibetologist Alexandra David-Neel wrote in her book "Old Tibet Faces A New China": "In old Tibet, all the peasants are serfs who are in debt for a life-long time. They also had to pay exorbitant taxes and levies and do heavy compulsory labor. "They totally lost their personal freedom and became poorer and poorer every year," she wrote.

    Meng Guanglin: As far as I know, serfdom was established in the 10th century in western Europe. As Karl Marx said, serfdom was one of the major slavery systems in human history and the essential representation of the feudal exploitation system.

    Serfs were a kind of agricultural laborer in the feudal society of western Europe. On the basis of feudal land ownership, the feudal lords owned land and other production materials and depended on personal dependent relations to control the serfs. They used "supra-economic coercion" to enslave them. In other words, they used political means, laws and customs, besides economic means, to control their personal freedom and exploit their surplus labor.

    Serfs were subservient to their owners in three respects: first, they did not have personal freedom and were their owners' property; second, the land they worked on belonged to their owners, so they were attached to their owners; third, they did not have equal legal rights the same as their owners and were judged by lords in court.

    Reporter: Serfs did not have any political rights and were exploited in the economic sense. They had to toil and do hard labor year after year. It seems that the system of western European serfdom in the Middle Ages was quite similar to the Tibetan feudal serfdom under theocracy.

    Meng Guanglin: Yes, it was of the same nature as serf systems, under which laborers were deprived of production materials and products, enjoyed no respect for their dignity or personal rights, and their creative spirit was suppressed.

    The system was a concentrated expression of personal dependence relations in traditional societies, which equals "direct governance and dependence relations."

    In this type of relationship, humanity, personality, human rights and humanism were all devastated, and the noble value of human individuals was sacrificed to the rights of lords and theocracy.

    Zhang Yun: In old Tibet, serf owners owned the serfs and treated them as private property. They could sell them, give them as gifts, use them to pay debts and trade them for other serfs. The Thirteen-Article Code and the Sixteen-Article Code, which were practiced in Tibet for hundreds of years, divided people into different categories and stipulated that they had different legal rights.

    Serf owners built public prisons and private prisons in accordance with both written and unwritten laws. The local government had courts and prisons. Large monasteries also had courts and prisons. Lairds could build private prisons in their manors.

    The punishments for serfs, which included gouging out eyes, cutting off ears, hands and feet, pulling out tendons, and throwing people into rivers, were cruel and savage. Handcuffs, fetters, sticks and clubs and cruel instruments of torture for gouging out eyes and pulling out tendons were found in Gandan Monastery, one of the biggest monasteries in Tibet.

    Therefore, the Tibetan feudal serf system under the integration of religion and politics was a dictatorship of monks and aristocrats. "Under such a system, serfs -- who made up a majority of the population in Tibet -- had no democracy, freedom or human rights in any form. Only serf owners could enjoy privileges."

    Meng Guanglin: Based on the above statements, the feudal serf system under the integration of religion and politics was an even darker and crueler system than European serfdom in the Middle Ages.

    Only by breaking loose from the shackles of this system, could the Tibetan people be freed and liberated and their great enterprise and creativity be brought into full play and the development of history be pushed forward. As Karl Marx pointed out: "Liberty in any form is all about bringing back to people the relationship between their world and themselves."

    

    Theocracy shackled people's spiritual life under feudal serfdom

    "To understand 20th century Tibetan history, therefore, it is necessary to understand that Tibet was, in many fundamental ways, a pre-modern theocratic polity, and this was not because of any unusual isolation." -- American Tibetologist and anthropologist Melvyn C. Goldstein, "A History of Modern Tibet".

    Reporter: Under the feudal serf system, no matter in old Tibet or in western Europe in the middle ages, theocracy controlled and shackled people's minds. In addition to expropriation of personal freedom, it also deprived commoners' freedom of thought. Isn't this another dark side of the system?

    Meng Guanglin: Yes, shackling people's thoughts and behavior was indeed a conspicuous aspect of the dark feudal serfdom. Although western Europe in the middle ages was not under a completely theocratic system, the integration of religion and politics was the guarantee of the feudal serf system.

    The problem does not lie in religion or belief, but in the church's monopoly and control of people's religion and thought. For example, in medieval Europe, commoners had no right to read or interpret the Bible. Instead, the right lay in the hands of the clergy. Everyone who betrayed the church's faith, thoughts and criteria would be labeled as a heretic and be expelled from the church, which meant neither his life or property could be safeguarded.

    Zhang Yun: In the old theocracy in Tibet, which featured a dictatorship by monks and nobles, this dark side was more fully demonstrated in a crueler way -- the religious authority ruled people's Earthly lives with administrative power, while terrorizing them in the name of meting out rewards and punishments for their afterlives with religious privileges.

    Due to historical and cultural reasons, many Tibetans believe in Buddhism and thus believe in an afterlife. The ruling class, however, just utilized this to serve their own interests. British expert Edmund Candler said in his book, "The Unveiling of Lhasa," that "the monks are the overlords, the peasantry their serfs." The poor and the small tenant farmers "work ungrudgingly for their spiritual masters, to whom they owe a blind devotion".

    In fact, we know that most of the common monks in old Tibet also failed to cast off their identities as serfs. The so-called "monk forces" were only comprised of an extremely small number of upper-class monks and nobles with a monastic background. As Sir Charles Bell stated in his Portrait of A Dalai Lama: the Life and Times of the Great Thirteenth:

    "Does it not matter to you whether you are reborn as a human being or as a pig? The Dalai Lama can help to secure that you will be reborn as a human being in a high position, or, better still, as a monk or nun in a country where Buddhism flourishes."

    On the contrary, if you refused to listen to them, you would not be reincarnated from generation to generation. The "monk forces" just used this kind of spiritual intimidation to safeguard their theocracy.

    Reporter: Education was vital for people to shed theocracy's control over their spiritual lives. The church had monopolized education in Europe before the 12th century. With the burgeoning of the commodity economy, however, secular schools began to emerge and western universities started to mushroom. Though these colleges were to some extent controlled by the church at that time, they still played a vital part in freeing people from the shackles of medieval theology. Did old Tibet, with feudal serfdom under theocracy, have similar educational institutions?

    Zhang Yun: No. In old Tibet, education and the right to education were monopolized by the ruling class featuring a dictatorship by monks and nobles. The only way to get access to education was to enter monasteries to "read scriptures". Although this made it possible for serf's children to become monks, their status was only shifted from a "serf" of lords to a "serf" of the monasteries.

    Only the offspring of the nobles could use it as a channel to the upper echelons. Under the theocratic system, monks accounted for a large proportion of the members in the Kasha (the former local government of Tibet). They held the absolute power to punish and execute innocent people at will, while members of the Kasha enjoyed practical economic interests. How could commoners have any hope under those circumstances?

    Under such a dark system, people had no right to express their thoughts and they even had no right of thought. They should listen to whatever the living Buddha said, otherwise, it would be considered a crime.

    It was such a dark system that led to a gradually closed and conservative old Tibet. It fully showed that the system not only fettered Tibetan people's thoughts, but also harmed traditional Tibetan history and culture, including the passing on of religion. It merits noticing that as early as the 15th century, Europe had bid farewell to the medieval shadow. The darker dictatorship in Tibet, however, lasted until the 1950s.

    

    Attempts to return Tibet to a feudal serfdom system advocating the integration of politics and religion go against the times

    "As Tibet attempted to adapt to the rapid changes of the 20th century, religion and the monasteries played a major role in thwarting progress."

    -- by American Tibetologist and anthropologist Melvyn C. Goldstein, "A History of Modern Tibet," 1913-1951, the Demise of the Lamaist State, P37)

    Reporter: Why did Europe and China's Tibet react differently to serfdom when it stood in the way of social development and progress?

    Meng Guanglin: The cruel serfdom and theocracy in the West led to the rebellion of farmers in the form of "heresy" at the time. For example, low-ranking missionaries in 14th century England including John Ball, one of the preachers of Lollardy (an anti-clerical movement), demanded: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"

    The Lollards demanded the abolishment of serfdom, forced labor, land tax, tallage (an agricultural production tax) and differences in property, to ensure equality among the classes of society. Prompted by Ball, the English Peasants' Revolt erupted in 1381 as peasants led by Walter Tyler entered London and severely weakened the reigning class. The Jacquerie revolt at about the same time in France, and the German peasants' revolt in the 16th century, all erupted for the same purpose.

    Zhang Yun: The old reigning authorities in Tibet integrated politics with religion and isolated the serfdom region (Tibet) from the outside world. In this region, people had no control over their lives, no free will. Social production was suppressed and halted, and the population declined. However, the brutal reign continued, even worsened.

    Tanzen Dhumdup: In the 1950s, the serfdom system in Tibet could no longer fit in with the times. Serfdom became the root cause of Tibet's poverty and falling behind the world. Under the serfdom system, the Tibetan people, both monks and secular people, could not live a better life, and Tibet could not make progress.

    The peaceful Liberation of Tibet in 1951 brought light to the abolition of the serfdom system. However, some leading personages of Tibet at the time still had doubts about democratic reform, and a good number of monks still needed more time to learn about reform. Moreover, some high-ranking secessionists close to imperialistic countries who were among the leading personages used religion and ethnicity as illusions to instigate ethnic conflicts, and it took time to disillusion the common Tibetan people.

    The central government decided to take a more cautious measure to push for reform. According to the "Agreement of the Central People's Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet" ("17-Article Agreement" for short) signed by the central government and the Tibet authorities, "the Central Government will not use coercion to implement such a reform, and it is to be carried out by the Tibetan local government on its own; when the people demand reform, the matter should be settled by way of consultation with the leading personnel of Tibet."

    In the meantime, the central government has provided help for Tibet in terms of goods and financial support. Government subsidies to Tibet topped 357 million yuan between 1952 and 1958.

    The central government waited eight years for the peaceful democratic reform of Tibet, as did millions of Tibetan peasants. But some people in the upper ruling strata of Tibet, in order to preserve feudal serfdom, staged an armed rebellion on March 10, 1959.

    After the rebellion failed, the backers of the Dalai Lama fled abroad, still hoping to restore serfdom in Tibet and advocating "Tibet Independence".

    Their actions since then have gone against the times and the well-being of the people of Tibet, and they will not succeed.

    Zhang Yun: Now, the Dalai Lama has been calling for "democracy" all the time. But as we can see, the "government in exile" of the Dalai Lama's group still advocates the integration of politics and religion. The Dalai Lama claimed that he would give up his power in exchange for the freedom of the Tibetan people.

    That means that the Dalai Lama now actually rules the "government in exile", which advocates the integration of politics and religion, while also stating that he would renounce his ruling position in return for the so-called "high level of autonomy in Greater Tibet".

    Who would believe that kind of self-contradictory statement? In other words, the Dalai Lama wanted nothing other than "Tibet Independence" and the restoration of the feudal serfdom system, which advocates the integration of politics and religion in Tibet.

    Reporter: The old Tibet is far from the Shangri-la of some westerners' minds. Modern Europe cannot return to what it used to be 500 years ago. And China's Tibet cannot return to the old Tibet, ruled by the backers of the Dalai Lama, where a feudal serfdom system advocating the integration of politics and religion still existed. Anyone who attempts to, or dreams of, returning Tibet to a dark reign is doomed to fail.

 

 

 

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