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Tibet's Material Wealth

2003/10/14

Great Changes in Possession

I was born into a serf family in Lamu Village, Dazi County.Before the Democratic Reform, my father and my mother belonged to two different estates. My mother told me that my father was a serf belonging to the Sangang Monastery in Dazi County, while her family were serfs of the Lamu nobles. Although they lived in Lamu Village after their marriage, my father had to work at Sangang Monastery 20 kilometers away. At that time they had no lands and the family depended on little glutinous rice cakes that my mother received from herding sheep for Lamu manor, and small earnings from my father's sewing and mending. After a few years as more children were born,it became difficult to support the family. My father begged the manor to rent him a few ke of land so he could grow grain crops (15 ke equal a hectare). He managed to lease four ke of land, but then the problem was seeds. Finally he borrowed 4 ke (1 ke equals 14kg) of seeds from the Gandan Monastery through a friend.

My mother recalled that for a time things went smoothly but they didn't know that the family's burdern was to become heavier and heavier. At that time, we could only produce 75 kg of grain per ke of land because of poor soil conditions and lack of water.Even so, we could still manage to keep some money after paying the land rent. We didn't realise that the four ke of seeds deal which we were forced into by circumstances, were usurious loans. After a few years, the 4 ke of seed turned into a debt of more than 80 ke. The master of the monastery demanded payment of the debt every autumn and took away all the grain. During the Democratic Reform, a member of the working group dealing with the debts of Ganda monastery told my mother: ''The debt you owed the monastery amounted to 250 ke. If Tibet had not been liberated, it would have doubled again in a few years. But now you owe nothing to the monastery." My mother was so grateful that she went down on her knees and kowtowed.

My family story is only one of many similar in Tibet. Material wealth is the sum total of material goods possessed by a society. After liberation, possession changed greatly with the social change of Tibet.

In the feudal serf society, Tibet's material wealth, including all products (tools of production, raw materials, consumer goods, and so on) and natural resources involved in production (land, mine, forests), was in the grasp of an exploitive system. This was based on the feudal estate ownership of land and the relationship of serfs attached to the estate holder.

From the start of the feudal serfdom in the 13th century to the Democratic Reform of Tibet in 1959, Tibet's social wealth was possessed mainly by estate holders or serf owners, who accounted for less than 5 percent of the population.

According to wealth possession, people in old Tibet were divided into serfs and serf owners.

Serf owners were principally the three major estate holders - local administrative officials, nobles, monasteries and their deputies. Serfs were graded into tralpa (people who tilled plots of land assigned to them and had to provide labor for the serf owners), duiqoin (small households) , nangzan (hereditary household slaves) and vagrant.

Local administrative officials, who occupied a great deal of land, managed manors and pastures directly. The land and earnings were divided into four parts. The first part was given to Dalai Lama's relatives, officials and monasteries. The second part was salaries for high-ranking officials. The third part was salaries for other officials and administrative expenditure. The last part was special farmland which was assigned to serfs, and serfs had to turn in part of their produce as taxation.

The nobles were governmental officials who were rewarded with titles, or relatives of all successive Dalai and Bainqen lamas. Altogether about 400 families were granted with noble titles. But some died out, others lost favour and had their lands confiscated. As a result, there were only 197 families with noble titles in 1959 when the Democratic Reform began.

All hereditary nobles had certain amount of land, pastures and manors, according to their ranks. For example, the big noble Duoren occupied more than 40 thousand ke of farmland. Serfs and slaves dependent on the manors were also the noble's property.

Monasteries, one of the three major estate-holders, were refered to the upper-rank lamas. After the revival of Tibetan Buddhism in the 10th century, monasteries began to acquire a great amount of land. When the Geluc Sect (Yellow Sect) came into power, local governments and nobles granted monasteries more lands. From then on monasteries became independent economic groups. Statistics in 1959 showed that the three big monasteries in Lhasa (Zhaibung, Sera, Gandan) occupied 321 manors, l47 thousand ke of land, and 26 pastures. They owned 110 thousand head of livestocks and more than 40 thousand serfs.

These monastery-owned manors were in two divisions: the public property of monasteries and the private property of Living Buddhas and upper-ranking lamas. Some of the major Living Buddhas owned as many manors as the nobles. The deputies of serf owners were sent to manage the manors. They also made their fortunes by exploiting the serfs.

According to statistics from the early Qing Dynasty, there were 3 million ke of arable land - 30.9 percent of which was occupied by local governments,and 29.6 percent by nobles, with the remaining 39.5 percent belonging to monasteries and upper-ranked lamas.

This shows that although the three big estate holders only accounted for 5 percent of the population, they ruled the whole Tibet, and controlled almost all of the region's revenues. Now let's analyse the situation of the serfs which made up 95 percent of the population.

Tralpa meant people who tilled plots of land assigned to them. In return, they had to do corvee for the land owners, based on the size of the land assigned to them, or turn in their earnings in the form of produce or money. Usually, the estate holders didn't recall the land unless a tralpa couldn't pay or died. The land tilled by a tralpa could be passed down to his children if they could pay the dues. According to their economic situation, tralpa were divided into three groups. Ten percent of tralpa were better off, 20 percent could support their families after paying the dues, but the remaining 70 per cent were poor and always on the averge of bankruptcy due to poor production condititons and lack of farm tools and animals as well as heavy debts.

Generally, the situation of tralpa was better than that of serfs at the bottom of the scale. But their bodies literally belonged to the land owners. They were therefore also serfs.

Duiqoin were the second section of serfs. They were small households. They had no land to till, and some were impoverished tralpa. Usually they had to live by craftsmanship or doing odd jobs and pay taxes to the estate holders. If they managed to lease a little land from manors or richer tralpa, most of the harvest went to the estate holders. In old Tibet, duiqoin accounted for 30 to 40 percent of serfs, and up to 70 percent in some places.

Nangzan in Tibetan means home-bred. They were the lowest class of serfs, they had no means of production nor personal freedom. Nangzan were little better than livestock as far as the serf owners were concerned. They could be sold and presented as a gift, Nangzan were serfs from generation to generation. According to statistics in 1959, there were 60,OOO Nangzans, accounting for 5 percent of Tibet's population.

The serf strata also included vagrants, beggars and poor lamas. Before the Democratic Reform, there were 3,000 to 4,000 beggars living in Lhasa ghettos. Poor lamas were a special stratum of Tibet's Lama Group. In Tibet's monasteries, the lamas' position was related to family background. Lamas born into rich families were nobles in monasteries. But lamas from serf families had to work hard and had fewer opportunities for promotion. The poor lamas were always exploited by others.

The highly centralized possession of land and other means of production owned by the three big estate holders in Tibet deprived the serfs of the essential material means of life. The system was not only the basis for serf-owner exploitation but also the important prerequisite for serf-owner to own the serfs.

The exorbitant taxes and levies together with usuary lending were important channels through which the three big estate holders centralized social wealth.

The main form of exploitation was through corvee, taxation, land rent, and livestock rent. There were as many as 30 leviable items.

In feudal society, the three big estate holders were all creditors, including the Dalai Lamas, other Living Buddhas and high-ranking monks, The Dalai Lama had two special departments managing usury. One was vtsis bu and the other vtsis chung.These two departments lent out Dalai Lama's annual allowances as usurious loans. According to the accounts of these two departments in 1950, the year's usurious loans amounted to 151 , 929 kg of silver with a return of 15,193 kg of silver in interest. In old Tibet, all monasteries practised usury. The interests on usury accounted for 25 to 30 percent of earnings of the three big monasteries in Lhasa.

The burden of the serfs included new debts and those of descendants and guarantees. Taking descendants debt as an example, serfs didn't know how much they owed or what had been borrowed and repaid. Serf owners decided all these matters. Descendants debt was snowballing usury, and often the debt had been repaid many times. It was easier to get into debt than to get out of it. The grandmother of the serf Cering Goinbo in Mal Gro Gung Dkar Rin Cheng Lin borrowed 700 kg of grain. Three generations continued to repay the debt, but it still grew into more than 1.4 million kg of grain.

Such examples could be found everywhere.

In such a society, the Tibetan people were driven beyond forbearance. It was inevitable that the Democratic Reform would finally come about for it represented the wishes of millions of serfs.

The reform was a great turning point in Tibetan history. It was also a magnificent feat which has changed the class and economic structure of Tibet. Since then, Tibetan people have become masters of their society. Tibet's material wealth has finally returned to the serfs who create the wealth.

The Chinese Communist Party helped Tibetan people carry out the Democratic Reform,which was in compliance with the demands of the poor people and progressive public figures who made up 95% of the Tibetan population. Therefore, the reform has been supported and welcomed by the majority people in Tibet.

By the end of 1960, two years of democratic reform had been completed. Serfom and the feudal ownership system were abolished. The former serfs had their own land, livestock and other means of production for the first time.

According to the statistics, 2.8 million ke of land was confiscated or bought from serf owners, and was distributed to 800, 000 serfs and slaves without land. Tibetan people have started a new life ever since.

Now, more than thirty years have passed. Let us take a look at an ordinary Tibetan's work and life. Then we will focus on the great achievements made by Tibet.

As l have mentioned, my family members were all serfs with a heavy debt burden. When I was 6 years old, we had 18 ke of land after the Democratic Reform, but we were still poor following three years of natural calamities. Because my father died when I was very young, the burden of life was on my mother's shoulders. Although my elder brothers and sisters could help my mother, the disasters made our endeavor useless. I still remember one day when I cried for glutinous rice cakes, my mother sobbed sadly. At that time we had no grain for days and the whole family depended on the government for relief food, but I did not know this. Life was difficult, but my mother, who survived the feudal serfdom, was still satisfied. She said that since we were masters of the land, not its slaves, we did not have to provide free labor or pay rents to serf owners. She encouraged us as long as we had the land, things would improve gradually.

After the natural calamities ended, we had enough grain. As life was getting better, we bought some furniture. From then on we were on a path to prosperity. When it was Spring Festival or at other festival times, we all had new clothes. And I had an opportunity to go to school in Tibet until I went to college in Beijing.

When I graduated from the Central Nationalities Institute in 1975, I found that my family had changed greatly. When we sat down for lunch, my elder sister gave me a bowl of fried eggs, a pot of mutton and a bowl of rice. The meal was the most sumptuous that I had at home. For supper, I ate a big bowl of egg noodles and a plate of pickled Chinese cabbage. My mother prepared a silk quilt and new kha gdan (woolen blanket) for me. At first, I thought that I was getting special treatment but I found later that everybody had them.

The second day, all the people in the village held a grand ceremony for me, the first college graduate of the village from Beijing. The seniors in the village gave me highland barley wine and presented me with white hadas. In the crowded yard, people not only asked me about things in other parts of the country, but also told me of their new lives. I was very excited by their warmness and felt happy about the great changes in my hometown. It was clear that people in the village would never worry about provisions.

Since 1980, according to the actual situation of Tibet, the central government has adopted a series of special policies in Tibet, such as privatization of livestocks, household-responsibility system of land use and management, and tax exemptions. These policies have greatly spurred the local people's enthusiasm in production. I could feel and see the changes every time I returned to my hometown. People in the village always told me, ''we are really the masters of our own affairs now.''

Young people in the village, including those who had herded cows with me, begin to pay atention to their clothing. Men have black robes, leather boots, some even wear gold or silver earrings which only rich families could afford in the old society. Women look beautiful in their black or purplish blue short-sleeved robes, colorful skirts and silk and fiber shirts. At festivals, they wear high-heeled shoes, watches and bracelets. They told me about the improvements in the quality of their lives. The young people now ride bicycles to go to work in the fields.They also bring along boxes of deli cious lunch with them.

After my mother died, my elder sister managed the family. There are six people in my family, We have 25 ke of land producing 7,500 kg of grain every year.We also keep nearly 100 sheep,15 cows and other livestock. We have bought many modern machines, such as tractors, sowing and thrashing machines.In 1992, we rebuilt our houses. My sister told me with pride:'' The serf owners houses were no better than ours and their window glass was smaller than ours.In old Tibet, it would take a serf owner manager one day to go to Lhasa on horseback, but now we can do it in three hours on our tractor.''

During last twenty years, l have been to much of Tibet in the course of my work, from Chab Mdo in the east to Mngav Ris Plateau in the west and from the borde villages in the south to pastoral areas in the north, I've had an opportunity to learn of the great changes in Tibet and people's new lives. Next, I will tell you several interesting stories.

While celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Democratic Reform in Tibet, we visited the Khae Song Village in Lho Kha Sne Gdong Shan County, situated on the south bank of the Yar Klung Gtsang Po River.

Before 1959, the village's owner was Zur Khang Dbang Chen Dge Legs, one of the four Bkav Blon of the old Tibetan government. Khae Song means'' triple benefits'' in the Tibetan language because this area has fertile land, ample labor and rich resources. The statistics showed that 15, 000 ke of grain could be produced each year, but 12, 000 ke would go to Zur Khang. There was only 3000 ke left for more than three hundred serfs in the manor. And, they had to pay land rent,exorbitant taxes and loan charges with so little grain. There were always some people running away, and some tralpa became duiqoin after losing their land. Some duiqoin were degraded into household serfs or beggars.

Nyi Ma (Tshe Ring was once a serf. He was 24 when the reform took place. He remembered the serf owner telling his mother'' the little boy is mine, I can crumple him into a ball and put him in my pockets, I can also pull him into a long narrow strip as my belt.'' He said his only concern at that time was to get enough to eat because he often went hungry.

Things are totally different now for Nyi Ma Tshe Ring. He said after putting aside enough grain for his family, he can sell about 1000 kg of commodity grain every year. During the slack season, he and his son can easily earn 2000 yuan per year by doing business.

Like Nyi Ma Tshe Ring, many other former serfs and slaves in the village have become masters of the land, living a happy life. Almost all families in the village have surplus grain. Every year, the villagers sell 140,000 kg of grain. The annual per capita income is 700 yuan. At present, the village's population increased to 700. Before the Democratic Reform, few people had seen paper currency, but now, the villagers have bought 70 tractors, trucks and other modern machines. New houses can be seen everywhere in the village. Plenty of grain is good news for people who were hungry before liberation. When we visited Vgyal Vtse County in Gzhis Ka Vtse Region, we found another problem, It was difficult to sell surplus grain. Lha Pa Vah Vgyas, a fifty - year - old farmer in Lcang Ra Village told me when he was a slave in the biggest manor in old Tibet more than 30 years ago, his biggest wish was to fill his stomach. He never dreamed that someday he would worry about the surplus grain he couldn't sell out.

In his new two-story building, he showed us his storehouse filled with wheat and highland barley. He said that this was a happy family with five people and 22 ke of land. Every year they produce 8000 kg of grain. Except some used to make rice cakes and highland barley wine about 5000 kg of grain was left. He told me that he was anxious to sell grain and buy fertilizer.Almost every family had this problem because of favorable weather and scientific farming. During the visit, we found that the grain storehouses in this region had been filled with 35000 tons of grain. To solve the problem, the local government encouraged farmers to develop food processing industry and breed livestock or barter with pastoral areas.

Now that we have seen the great changes in the life of the former serfs and slaves. How about the life of their former masters?

By the way, during the Democratic Reform, the government adopted two ways to deal with the serf owners: land and other means of production were confiscated from those who opposed to the Democratic Reform, or participated in the armed rebellion aimed at splitting the motherland. The government carried out the policy of redemption towards those who did not join the rebellion. The statistics at that time showed 900, 000 ke of land was bought out, accounting for 32 percent of the region's arable land, plus 824, 000 Iivestocks accounting for 29 percent of the total, 64,200 houses and 20, 000 pieces of farm equipment. The prices were discussed and decided by the government and serf owners. Progressive nobles and poor serfs all thought it reasonable.

The serf owners not involved in the rebellion, not only received a great deal of compensation money, but also found jobs in local governments, Buddhist Association and other organizations. Some people involved in the rebellion were also given jobs in these organs after they were reformed. Many of the regional government officials are former serf owners. One of them, Vha Klu Tshe Dbang Rdo Rje, was once the commader of the rebel army in 1959. Among the high ranking officials in the Tibetan Autonomous Region Government and the regional People's Congress, four were nobles and living Buddhas.

However, during the Cultural Revolution, these people were also involved in trouble. Byms Pa was one herd owner we visited. In 1971, he and his wife were branded "herd owners"because his father and father-in-law were herd owners, That situation lasted until 1979. Byms Pa recalled :"At that time, life was hard. Besides earning our own life, we must do community work for no pay.'' He said humorously: "It was a little like doing corvee In the old days.''

During those years, although the whole family worked hard, they owed two or three hundred yuan to the village every year.However, Byms Pa said that they never went hungry because the village guaranteed everyone's needs such as grain ration, butter and meat.

When the Cultural Revolution came to an end in 4976, things turned for the better. Byms Pas was rehabilitated in 1979 and received 8000 yuan in compensation for the property confiscated from him.

When we visited his family, they had 70 yaks, 230 sheep and 4 horses. With an annual income of 7,000 yuan, their life ranked in the middle among the twelve families in the village.

Byms Pa told us that he had no complaints about his suffering during the Cultural Revolution. He said that a lot of people were in trouble, including many high ranking party officials. He added: "When all the village was inundated by flood, you could not find a dry stone"He also told us that he felt very happy now. He had built four new rooms. He spent 1 ,000 yuan installing a wind generator to light his house. He was also planning to buy a TV set because of the generator.

Byms Pa has seven children, the oldest was 21, and the youngest was 2 years old. At present, his eldest daughter works in a shop in Naqu town, and other children go to school or herd livestock.

Everyday after the children go herding, Byms Pa and his wife begin their work. His wife prepares the meal while he does house chores. Every summer he used to take butter and meat to agricultural areas to exchange for grain, but now he doesn't have to go out because the market is prosperous.

Byms Pa said that although he was much richer before the liberation, he felt happier now because he depended on himself. He told me that his biggest wish was to bring his children up and make them honest people.

The latest statistics of Tibet's revenue and expenditure show that in 1993 Tibet's GNP amounted to 3.65 billion yuan, primary industry accounting for 1 .77 billion yuan, secondary industry, 530 million yuan, and tertiary industry, 1.35 million yuan. The local government's revenue was 149 million yuan, and the average per capita income was 515 yuan.

Compared to revenue of 4 million yuan before the Democratic Reform, this is a great change.Although Tibetan people have achieved great success,Tibet's economy still lacks a solid foundation. It depends mainly on central government's support. According to statistics, the subsidies from the central government and the special investments total 25 billion yuan since 1951.

These investments relate closely to education, agriculture and animal husbandry, operation expenses such as public employees' salaries, free medical services and cultural undertakings.

Before liberation, Tibet lagged in education. Only 2 percent of children went to school. After the peaceful liberation in Tibet, especially after the Democratic Reform in 1959, Tibetan people have recognized that education is important in building a modern , united, prosperous and civilized Tibet. In 1993, education received 170 million yuan. In today's Tibet, some 200 thousand students are studying in school, accounting for 50 percent of children of school age. In order to develop education rapidly, Tibet adopted since 1980 the policies that students in key primary or middle schools under county level should not worry about eating, housing and clothing. The Tibetan government also established Tibetan middle schools in inland cities. The huge investment has brought great changes. From 1980 to 1993, the total floor space of schools amounted to 2.7 million square meters. More than 100,000 students have graduated.

At the same time, agriculture and animal husbandry,the foundation of Tibet's national economy, were exempt from agriculture taxation since 1980. Five million yuan was invested in commodity grain bases every year. At present,Tibet has set up a fixed assets system for agricultural production,which is the highest in the country when compared in terms of per capita avervage.

Financial support has strengthened the power of agriculture and animal husbandry, and Tibet has achieved good harvests for five consecutive years. Last year, the whole region produced 669 million kg of grain and the total amount of livestock on hand was 22.8 million head. Before the Democratic Reform, the total amount of livestock on hand was only 9. 55 million. Now, total meat production is 100 million kg, and milk production is 185 million kg, increasing by 108.4 and 87.4 percent over 1980 respectively. With the development of agriculture and husbandry, people have become richer. In off seasons, people engage in sideline occupations such as textile and planting economic crops. They have also established 9,118 township enterprises, attracting 51 ,000 people with 144,64 million yuan of fixed assets.

These expenditures came from the local gorernment's revenue and more than 1 billion yuan annual subsidies were provided by the central government. According to Tibetan financial departments, the central government gave Tibet huge special investments every year to strengthen its economic frastructure construction, to solve bottleneck problems, to help new industries and to enlarge its economic power. Now, Tibet has many new industries.

In 1959, Tibet's first feather factory was established in the western part of Lhasa. The categories and types of its products have increased from 10 to more than 70, and among its 350 workers, Tibetan employees accounted for 69.5 percent. In 1960, Tibet's first cement factory emerged in western Lhasa. After expanding, it has now the annual capacity of 110,000 tons of cement. At present, Tibetan workers make up 80 percent of its 900 employees.

Tibet's first civil air line (Beijing-chengdu-Lhasa) was established on March 1, 1965. In November, 1966, Gongga airport was completed. Now, after a 273- million- yuan-expansion, Gongga has become the highest modern airport in China, with the longest runways, modern waiting rooms and communication equipment. The first geothermal station in Tibet was built in July, 1977. More than 200 million yuan has been invested in the station which is the largest geothermal experimental base in China and the tenth largest in the world with 250,000 kw. of installed capacity.

In 1989, 24 million yuan was used to build the first beer factory in Tibet. Every year, 5000 tons of beer is produced: The factory has sent its products to other parts of the country and plans to develop in foreign market.Tibet's transportation has developed rapidly. A highway network connects Lhasa and other parts of Tibet with 7152 km of arterial highways and 5977 km of highways of county or town level. Post and telecommunications are fast developing with a SI 2.4 million program-controlled telephone system completed in 1992. This lifted telephone capacity to 10,000. The first batch of VAST equipment are under installation in 58 VAST ground satellite stations.During the Eighth Five- Year Plan period, almost all the counties will be connected with telephone. Seven prefectures or cities and some counties will be connected with the country's automatic telephone network. The country will provide 336.2 million yuan to these projects. Tibet's industry has formed a modern industrial system, including a ferrous metallurgical industry, electricity, textile industry and handicraft industry with nationality characteristics. There are many huge construction projects such as the biggest chromite base in China at Luobusay the largest water conservancy project in Tibet the Yangzhuoyong Lake hydroelectric station and the light industry zone in Lhsa.

These projects will set off a new upsurge in construction. It is clear that Tibet's economic power and social material wealth will be increased.

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