views updated


LOCATION: China (Tibet Autonomous Region); India
POPULATION: 5.4 million
LANGUAGE: Tibetan and Chinese
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: China and Her National Minorities


The middle reaches of the Yarlung Zanbo River in present-day Tibet were the cradle of the Tibetan people and of Tibetan civilization. According to literature written in ancient Tibetan language, the "Six Yak Tribes" of Tibet took shape in the mountainous southern area of present-day Tibet. Ancient Chinese books called them "Bod Qiang." In the 6th century, the chieftain of the Yarlung tribe became "Gambo" (king) by unifying the other tribes through political alliance and military force. The new kingdom established direct communications with the Chinese and other nationalities in northwest China. In the early half of the 7th century, Songtsen Gampo ruled the whole Tibetan area. He made Lhasa the capital of all Tibet. Under his leadership, Tibetan writing, calendar, laws, weights and measures, etc., were created and set up. He divided his territory into four provinces and put them under the command of Tubo, establishing a dynasty of his own based in part on the slave system. The Tang Dynasty (618-907) of China and the Kingdom of Nepal agreed to be related to Tibet by marriage. It was these matrimonial relations that led to the coming of Buddhism and of Chinese civilization into Tibet. Princess Wenchen, Songtsen Gampo's Chinese bride, came to Tibet in 641 and exerted a deep cultural influence on the Tibetans. Tibet continued to grow in power, and its armies conquered local chieftains in Yunnan and Qinghai and annexed different tribes in the northwest and southwest Tibetan provinces. On one occasion in 763, they made a breakthrough into Chang'an (present Xi'an). Because of its excessive military activities, internal strife, and slave uprisings, the Tibetan dynasty was weakened and ultimately collapsed in 877. Between the 10th and the 12th centuries, local governments were established in the former provinces, none being able to recreate the political unity. A large part of Tibet submitted to the authority of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The Emperor of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) put an end to the state of disunity, subordinating all of Tibet under the command of his central government. The administration of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) continued the Yuan policy toward Tibet, appointing Tibetan officials in the northwest and southwest Tibetan areas. Furthermore, the Ming recognized the three "Dharma Kings" and "five nobilities" of Tibet. The central government of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) set up a special ministry to administer matters relating to the main non-Chinese nationalities of China, in particular Tibet, Mongolia, etc. It recognized formally the two Living Buddha of Gelupa (Yellow Sect of Tibetan Buddhism), the Dalai Lama (1693), and the Panchen Lama (1713); established a local government in Tibet; and appointed a resident minister to Tibet, who handled affairs jointly with the local government. This system continued under the Republic of China until 1949. As for the Tibetans dwelling outside Tibet, they were under the administration of provinces where they lived, namely Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. Following the liberation in 1949, the People's Republic of China established the Tibetan Autonomous Region, covering all of former Tibet. The political power of the former lamas was abolished and transferred to civilian government, whose Tibetan leaders are nominated by the central government in Beijing.


The Tibetans are disseminated on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau at an average altitude of 4.8 km (3 mi) above sea level. The Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau extends to the Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world, where both the Yellow River and the Yangtze River take their source. The plateau contains a great many lakes, including Qinghai Lake, the largest saltwater lake in China. The Tibetans are mainly concentrated in Tibet Autonomous Region, although considerable Tibetan populations are also found in Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. The overall Tibetan population in China was estimated at 5.4 million in 2000. There are about 100,000 Tibetans in India, and tens of thousands living in North America and Europe. The mountain barriers composed by the Himalaya, Gangdise, Kunlun, and Tanggula ranges isolated the Tibetan people for centuries. The Yarlung Zanpo River crosses the length of southern Tibet. Southwest Tibet is called the granary of Tibet because of its damp and mild climate, suitable for growing highland barley, wheat, rice, corn, broad beans, and rape (an herb of the mustard family). Northwest Tibet is rather barren, although some river valleys provide pastureland for nomadic cattle-raising. Tibet abounds with potential hydro-power, solar, and geothermal energy.


The Tibetan language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family, Tibeto-Burman group, Tibetan branch. There are three dialects. Tibetan script, written from left to right, was developed in the beginning of the 7th century. The phonetic alphabet comprises 30 consonants and 4 vowels. Ancient Tibetan script is very important in Buddhist studies, for many sutras originally written in Sanskrit or other languages were lost, and only their Tibetan version is still extant. In urban Tibet, many Tibetans also speak Chinese.


According to an important Tibetan myth, a divine monkey married an ogress in Yarlung Valley in remote antiquity. They gave birth to six children who multiplied and spread on the earth. However, their descendants lived on wild fruits of the forest and suffered from their hard life until the divine monkey gave them seven kinds of grain. Thereafter, they learned how to farm and speak. It is said that the first descendant who cultivated land in Tibet established himself near Zetang (Tse-tang), where some Tibetans still pay homage to their ancestors every year.

Another myth concerns the youngest prince of Jiangsheng (a descendant of God). Having failed to ascend the divine throne, he escaped to a mountain and descended to the Yar-lung Valley. A herdsman asked him where he was from. Unable to answer in the language of the herdsman, he could only point to the mountain. Misunderstanding what he meant by his gestures, the herdsman thought he had descended from the heaven to be king. The boy was carried on the shoulders, given the title Nyentri Tsenpo (king on the shoulders), and became the first king of Tibet.


Buddhism, originating in northern India, split into two principal schools, Hinayana (Small Vehicle) and Mahayana (Large Vehicle) after the death of its founder, Sakyamuni. Hinayana was stricter and favored monastic life; Mahayana was more liberal and addressed itself to society in general. It was Mahayana Buddhism that took root in Tibet and interacted with the native Tibetan shamanistic religion, called Bon, to form an original form of Buddhism, namely Lamaism. Many different lamaist sects arose —the White, the Red, the Flowery, and so on. The Gelupa, or Yellow Sect, which was eventually to dominate Tibet and lead to the establishment of a kind of theocratic state closely allied to the secular nobility, was founded by Tsong Khapa (1357-1419).

Reincarnation was an established Buddhist doctrine. When a high-status lama died, it became the custom to seek his new incarnation (the divine child) among male children who had been born at about the same time. This solved the problem of succession, for monks could not marry and beget heirs.

In western Tibet and pastoral areas in Qinghai and Sichuan, the native religion of Bon still exists. This is a shamanistic faith that worships gods, spirits, and natural phenomena, practicing sacrificial offerings, divination, and shamanistic dance and trance.


There are quite a few Tibetan festivals, all established according to the Tibetan calendar (a combination of solar and lunar calendars) and mostly related to their religious traditions. The Tibetan New Year takes place in the first week of January and lasts for three to five days. The Tibetans all dress in their finest clothes. Relatives and friends pay a New Year call to each other and pray for a good year in the monasteries. Tibetan operas are performed. Wearing masks, people disguise themselves as gods; they sing and dance to drive the ghosts away.

The Lantern Festival is held on January 15. Many huge sculptures of birds, animals, and personages made of multi-colored yak butter are paraded in the streets of Lhasa. Various festive lanterns, also made of yak butter, are hung on the trellises. People dance beneath the lanterns all night long.

April 15 marks the double anniversary of the enlightenment of Sakyamuni under the buddhi tree and the date of the Chinese Princess Wenchen's arrival in Tibet. The streets overflow with pilgrims while the monks participate in reciting scriptures and other religious services. People walk round the Potala Palace, go boating on the lake, and then pitch a tent for rest.


Three or four days after a baby's birth, a tiny piece of zamba (the Tibetans' main food) is stuck to the infant's forehead. This is regarded as a purification rite. When the baby completes its first month of life, the parents paint the tip of his nose with soot from the bottom of a pan in order to divert the attention of malevolent ghosts. Accompanied by their relatives, the child's parents go the monastery and pray to the Buddha for protection. They may also call on a wealthy household and ask for their blessing so that the baby may be wealthy when it reaches adulthood.

Girls under 12 comb their hair into two braids; three braids when they are 13 or 14; five braids when they are 15 or 16. When a girl reaches 17, expert female hairdressers are invited to comb her hair into tens of braids to indicate that the girl has reached adulthood.

Tibetan funerary rituals are varied and complex, taking into account the social status of the deceased. "Sky burial" is a common practice closely related to Buddhism. The corpse is placed on a platform on a high, lonely place. Family members are not supposed to be present, while friends of the dead burn piles of pine tree branches nearby. Blood, meat, cheese, milk, butter, and zamba are cast over the branches. Heavy smoke rises up to the sky to draw vultures. A professional chops up the body and pounds the bones together with zamba. The remains are exposed to the vultures and leftovers are burned into ashes and scattered over the ground. "Water burial" is reserved for widows, widowers, and people of low economic condition; "fire burial" is for lamas; and "ground burial" for those who died of infectious diseases or who were executed as thugs and murderers. "Stupa burial" is a privilege of the Living Buddhas and other high-ranking lamas. The corpse is rubbed with salty water, dried, coated with spices, and then placed in a stupa made of gold, copper, wood, or cement, according to the rank of the dead.


The Tibetans are courteous. When they meet, they stretch their arms, with palms upward, and bow to each other. To show respect, one nods the head and sticks the tongue out, while the opposite side nods smilingly to return the salute. When people meet for the first time, one must present a hada; it is also important on festivals. A hada is a long and narrow band of silk (sometimes a cloth), white or light blue, which serves as a symbol of respect. During the presentation, one must hold it on both palms while bowing. If the social position of the two sides is similar, the receiver should take the hada also on both palms and return a hada of his own. If the hada is presented to a Living Buddha, it should be placed before his feet.

Nowadays, young boys and girls are free to meet each other socially. However, some of the restrictions of the past, due to the rigid stratification of society, still influence social behavior between young people of both sexes.


Tibetans build their houses on high ground, facing south, close to water; walls are made by piling up stones or by rammed earth. Houses have two or three stories with a flat roof, many windows, and a courtyard. The living room and bedrooms are located on the second floor, while the first floor is for storage or livestock. Herdsmen dwell in large tents made of canvas or woven yak wool. The tents are easy to set up and to pack for the nomads' many displacements. The traditional means of transport is the yak or donkey, which may serve as mounts or as draught animals. The Tibetans also use a peculiar yak-skin canoe framed with wood and wrapped by a whole yak skin. The yak is an animal only living in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau; tough and cold-resistant, it is a valuable means of transport. Because of the many rivers criss-crossing the high plateau, bridges are important. The Tibetans have devised different kinds of bridges, such as the chain bridge for walking, the steel cable bridge for sliding, and the simple wooden bridge.


The Tibetan family is male-centered. The man inherits and monopolizes the property. Women are subordinate to their husbands, even when he lives with the wife's parents. According to custom, women do have a name, but not a surname. The aristocrats put the house or manor name before their own name. In fact, the title is linked to the property of the hereditary manor and has nothing to do with blood ties. The names are different for different sexes. Most of them originate from Buddhist scriptures.

In the past there was a variety of family structures. Today, most families are monogamous. Polygamy appeared only among the rich and is rarely seen in the present. Polyandry (a woman taking more than one husband) also existed, due mainly to economic factors, such as the inheritance and monopoly of property; it was accepted as part of the social structure. Arranged marriage still exists both among nomads and peasants. Lamas and shamans are usually consulted. The Gelupa, or Yellow, sect of Lamaism strictly forbids its monks from marrying, but those belonging to other sects are allowed to have a wife. In these cases, the wedding follows religious rites and is held in the monastery.


Men living in urban areas wear a felt or fur-trimmed hat, a short vest with sleeves, trousers, and a robe with a long waist-band. Those who dwell in rural areas wear a very long robe with very long sleeves and loose collars. They put it on from the top and tie it with a long waistband. The robe has a very large pocket inside above the waistband for storing money and personal articles. The herdsmen wear a worn-out sheep fur all year round and a pair of long trousers. They wear different styles of hats: bell-shaped, tube-shaped, single-peaked, or double-peaked. The hat is made of felt for the summer and of fur or padded cotton for the winter. Tibetan men all wear boots. Women usually wear a robe without sleeves, with a shirt inside and a beautifully designed apron around the waist. A long robe with sleeves is worn during the winter. Women living in pastoral areas wear a worn-out fur over a long skirt. Both sexes wear their hair long and combed into braids. Some males, however, cut their hair short, in particular the monks. In their monasteries, monks wear the kasaya , a patchwork outer vestment, usually in purplish-red.


In rural areas, Tibetans eat highland barley and wheat supplemented by corn and peas. They stir-fry barley and peas and grind them into flour. Then, they mix it with yak butter and tea. This is called zamba. During meals, they knead it with their fingers in a wooden bowl and make it into a ball before eating. They may alternate and cook zamba into a gruel with meat, wild herbs, and water. Their favorite drinks are buttered tea and wine made of barley. The herdsmen take beef, mutton, and milk products as their staple foods. Buttered tea is also their favorite. In rural areas they take five or six meals a day, while in pastoral areas they usually take three or four. Their tableware includes only a knife and a wooden bowl. The bowl is personal. They do not use chopsticks, but eat zamba and meat with their hands. As a rule, lamas recite scriptures before meals. Meat and fish are not taboo to lamas. However, Tibetan lamas in Gansu and Qinghai provinces prohibit fish, shrimp, chicken, and eggs.


In the past, education was reserved for the monks in the monasteries. Since 1949, a complete educational system from primary school to university (including medical and technical schools) has been developed in Tibet and Qinghai. Furthermore, an increasing number of young Tibetans go to inland cities for various studies. However, the cultural and educational level of the Tibetans is still below average among the national minorities of China.


Anyone who has seen a Tibetan dance must remember the peculiar movements of the dancers' limbs, which differ markedly from the dances of other nationalities. Their long sleeves enhance the charm of their postures. Their songs are high-pitched, mostly in the minor mode. Tibetan opera is usually performed in the street without any stage. Accompanied by a band, they sing while dancing. Most of the singers, if not all, are males. When the melody approaches a climax, the musicians of the band participate in the chorus, heightening the sense of participation. Tibetan literature is rich and diversified, including novels, poems, stories, fables, dramas, biographies, etc.; many works have been translated into other languages and published in other countries. Lamaism has influenced every aspect of Tibetan cultural life: writing, music, architecture, sculpture, etc.


Besides the sheep, goat, yak, horse, and mule, the herdsmen also raise a hybrid ox (from cattle and yak), which is the best draught animal of the plateau as well as a source of milk. The other fine varieties of livestock include the Hequ and Datong horses and the Gongbu mule.


Yak racing, comparable to horse racing, is one of the favorite sports of the Tibetans. On account of the yak's eccentric movements, it takes a highly trained expert to mount a racing yak. Tibetans also excel in mountain climbing.


The Tibetans have developed their own theater company, opera, music ensembles, ballet ensemble, broadcasting station, television station and film studio, thus ensuring the preservation and development of their cultural life. A great number of Tibetan newspapers, magazines, monographs, translated works, and literary masterpieces are published each year.


Popular culture has been deeply marked by Lamaism. The figures of Buddha in the monasteries, especially the clay sculptures of the Great Living Buddha (with his "real body" covered by clay) and a great variety of yak buttered figures are all highly skilled sculptures. Gold vessels and silverware include articles for daily use, such as flagons, spoons, chopsticks, bowls, plates, and dishes, as well as ornaments, such as bracelets, rings, and necklaces. Tangka is a kind of Tibetan painting for wall hanging, always depicting Buddhist themes.


Lack of formal education is one of the most important social problems facing Tibet today; the problem is due, in part, to the scattering of a thin population over vast expanses of land, making communication and concentration very difficult. However, without new advances in education, there can hardly be any further prosperity and development of the Tibetan nationality.


The Chinese constitution states that women have equal rights with men in all areas of life, and most legislation is gender neutral. However, there are continued reports of discrimination, sexual harassment, wage discrepancies, and other gender related problems. The gap in educational level between women and men is narrowing with women making up 47.1% of college students in 2005, but only 32.6% of doctoral students.

China has strict family planning laws. It is illegal for women to marry before 20 years of age (22 for men), and it is illegal for single women to give birth. The Family Planning Bureau can require women to take periodic pregnancy tests and enforce laws that often leave women with no real options other than abortion or sterilization. Though minority populations were previously exempt from family planning regulations, policy has changed in recent years to limit minority population growth. Today, urban minority couples may have two children while rural couples may have three or four.

Prostitution and the sex trade is a significant problem in China involving between 1.7 and 5 million women. It involved organized crime, businessmen, the police, and government workers, so prosecution against prostitution has limited success. In 2002, the nation removed homosexuality from its official list of mental illnesses, and though it is still a taboo topic, homosexuality is increasingly accepted, especially in large, international cities.


Chiao, Chien, Nicholas Tapp, and Kam-yin Ho, ed. "Special Issue on Ethnic Groups in China." New Asia Bulletin no 8 (1989).

Dreyer, June Teufel. China's Forty Millions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Eberhard, Wolfram. China's Minorities: Yesterday and Today. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1982.

Goldstein, Melvyn C. A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Gustafsson, Bjorn A., Shi, Li, and Sicular, Terry, eds. Inequality and Public Policy in China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Heberer, Thomas. China and Its National Minorities: Autonomy or Assimilation? Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1989.

Lebar, Frank, et al. Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1964.

Ma Yin, ed. China's Minority Nationalities. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989.

Perrin, Jacques. "Les Sociétés tibétaines." In Ethnologie régionale II ( Encyclopédie de la Pléiade). Ed. Jacques Lemoine. Paris: Gallimard, 1978.

Ramsey, S. Robert. The Languages of China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Shin, Leo Kwok-yueh. The Making of the Chinese State: Ethnicity and Expansion on the Ming Borderlands. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Stein, R. A. Tibetan Civilization. Trans. by J. E. Stapleton Driver. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972.

Wiens, Harold J. Han Chinese Expansion in South China. New Haven: The Shoestring Press, 1967.

—by C. Le Blanc