Monks with a digital camera Tibetan society was traditionally divided into peasants (rongpa), nomads (drokpa) and monks and nuns (sangha), with hierarchal rankings of noblemen, landowners, craftsperson, peasants and slaves. There was also a kind caste system for government officials, monastic businessmen, traders, high lamas, and ordinary monks. Rank and status was often reflected in dress, housing and the speech used to address peers, superiors and inferiors.
Tibetan society has traditionally been very resistant to change. After the Communists took over Tibet, The aristocracy and titles were abolished and China became the state but most farmers continued to work the land as they have for centuries. Collective farming never really worked in Tibet. Nomads were especially resistant to it. But today things are changing very quickly as the influence of the Chinese grows on material and day to day levels.
Villages typically have a headmen. They also typically have a community association called a "skyid sdug" that coordinates prayers, dances, singing, religious festivals, marriages, pilgrimage, funerals, commercial ventures and other activities.
Untouchable-like groups can be found in Tibet as they can in Japan (the Buraku), Korea (the Paekching) and Burma (Pagoda slaves). The Ragyappa are a group of outcasts in Tibet in charge of getting rid of corpses.
See Men and Women, Rural Life, Below; See Feudal Tibet, History.
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources: Tibetan Poverty Alleviation tpaf.org ; Life on the Tibetan Plateau kekexili.typepad.com ; Tibetan Society case.edu ; Tibetan Poverty Alleviation tpaf.org ; Women, Marriage and Polyandry Center for Research of Tibet www.case.edu/affil ; Tibetan Women Resources kotan.org ; Wikipedia article on Polyandry in Tibet Wikipedia ; Women of Tibet womenoftibet.org ; Book: Women in Tibet Google Books ; Tibetan wedding in Sichuan China Vista
Links in this Website: TIBETAN PEOPLE Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN LIFE Factsanddetails.com/China ; FOOD, DRINK, DRUGS AND CLOTHES IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN HEALTH AND MEDICINE Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN FUNERALS AND DEATH Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN NOMADS Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN MINORITIES AND TIBETANS ABROAD Factsanddetails.com/China
Good Websites and Sources on Tibet: Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) www.tibet.com ; Chinese Government Tibet website eng.tibet.cn/ Wikipedia Wikipedia Tibetan Resources phayul.com ; Open Directory dmoz.org/Regional/Asia/China/Tibet/ ; Snow Lion Publications (books on Tibet) snowlionpub.com ; Photos Tibet Photo Gallery Tibet Gallery Terra Nomada Terra Nomada ; Tibetan Cultural Sites: Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture tibetanculture.org ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; Tibetan Studies and Tibet Research: Tibetan Resources on The Web (Columbia University C.V. Starr East Asian Library ) columbia.edu ; Tibetan and Himalayan Library thlib.org Digital Himalaya ; digitalhimalaya.com ; Tibetan Studies Maps WWW Virtual Library ciolek.com/WWWVL-TibetanStudies ; Center for Research of Tibet case.edu ; Center for Advanced Tibetan Studies amnyemachen.org ; Tibetan Studies resources blog tibetan-studies-resources.blogspot.com ; News, Electronic Journals ciolek.com/WWWVLPages
Poverty in Tibet
Tibet is the home of some of China's poorest people. In 1995, the average urban income in Tibet was $133 and the average rural income was $106. Nearly all the beggars in Tibet are Tibetans rather than members of other ethnic groups.
Many Tibetans earn less than $100 a year. Some are nomads who spend their summers herding yaks and their winters begging in Lhasa. Others are children with mated hair that scavenge at the trash dumps outside of Lhasa. In many places people subsist almost entirely on barley dumplings. They are so poor they can’t even afford the most basic fruits and vegetables.
Beggars and pilgrims in patched robes or hand-sewn skins were once common sight in Lhasa but not any longer. Many Chinese government agencies are involved in anti-poverty programs.
Still urban poverty exists. There are monks that spend their days begging and nights sleeping in Internet cafes for $1 a night. One who talked to the Washington Post said on a good day he makes $7; one a bad day, $3, more than a farmer can make.
See Nomads and the Modern World
Rich and Middle Class in Tibet
Rich Tibetans with
tiger skin clothes There are a handful of rich Tibetans. Denba Daji, a former horse trader and antiques smuggler, earned a fortune in Gungdon and now owns a company that markets traditional Tibetan medicines, two hotels, 20 percent of a winery in Shandong, and a seaside house in Fujian province. Some of the money he has earned has been put into things like a vocational training school for Tibetan teenagers.
Many Tibetans that are relatively well off are traders. One interviewed by National Geographic buys up rare mushrooms, known as caterpillar fungus, and sell them for large profits to traditional medicine makers. On the Chinese, he said, “Once you realize they are never going to help us you realize that you have to make your own future.”
Animals have traditionally been a sign of wealth in Tibet. Yaks are the most valuable animals. Seven goats or six sheep usually equal one yak. Nomads used to be required to sell certain numbers of animals to government agencies at a certain price. In the 1980s they began selling their yaks and sheep at market prices. Some rich Tibetans display their wealth in the form of clothing made with tiger and snow leopard skins.
Development and economic growth has helped create a Tibetan middle class. Most middle class Tibetans are employed by the government or are entrepreneurs. Many live in Chinese-built concrete apartments. One Tibetan interviewed by the Washington Post said his family was given land and he was given a job as a truck driver by the central government. He lives in a spacious two-story house with his family and has three televisions. His two sons went to university and got government jobs. “We’re very grateful to the party,” he said.
No matter how much money they have, Tibetan have traditionally given some of it to local monasteries or donated some to erect or repair local Buddhist stupas. When the Dalai Lama was told about such people he said the money “would be better spent on schools and health care.”
Tibetans have traditionally lived in towns and rural communities near monasteries. Most rural Tibetans live in small agricultural villages scattered around the mountain valleys. Villages are often made up of only a dozen houses, surrounded by fields, that are several hours walk from the nearest road. Some of the people in these villages have never seen a television, an airplane or a foreigner.
Tibetan settlements and the conditions that people live in are determined by where people live and their status. Those that live in agricultural areas near rivers live in clustered villages while nomads live in tents and monks live in monasteries. Tibetan buildings are ideally built on the southward-facing slope of a mountain in accordance with feng shui and local wind patterns. When a building is completed it is blessed by a lama who circles it twice and casts handfuls of rice in all directions.
Infrastructure projects like maintaining trails and building log bridges is usually done on a community basis. When a bridge is built over a mountain stream, for example, one family may bring in logs from a far away forest while other villagers donate their labor to build the bridge.
Some villagers migrate to warmer lowlands in the winter. Many stay put in frigid villages in the winter, spending most of their time indoors, doing things like weaving and making clothes and blankets. They and their animals live off stored food. A fire is kept going almost around the clock.
Tibet is developing very quickly. Even small towns with 20,000 to 30,000 people have Guangdong and Fujian exhibition centers and high-rise buildings like those seen Guangzhou or Shanghai.
The Tibetan love of colors is manifested in the way they ornament their clothes and homes. Many houses are brightly colored and decorated inside with colorful things.
Many Himalayan people protect their homes from evil spirits by smearing a layer of cow dung on the floor and making balls with sacred rice and cow dung and placing them on top of the doorway. The Mustangese set up demon traps and bury horse skulls under every house to keep demons out. If an abnormally high number of hardships occur at one house a lama may be called in to exorcize demons. Sometimes he does this by luring the demons into a dish, praying, and then tossing the dish into a fire.
Tibetan homes are like small compounds. Sometimes they resemble small fortresses with sloping walls, prayer flags on their turrets and flat earthen roofs pounded with sticks with rocks at the end. Some have yak dung, used as fuel, drying on the walls and stored with firewood on the roof. Others have large courtyards where Tibetan mastiffs are tethered and cows are kept In the living room may be a coal stove and a television and refrigerator covered with a an embroidered cloth.
Typical features of Tibetan buildings include: 1) inward sloping walls, made of mud bricks or stones; 2) a layer of smashed twigs below the roof that produce a distinctive brown band; 3) a flat roof made of pounded earth (since there is little precipitation there is a only a small chance the roof will collapse); 4) whitewashed exterior walls. The interior of large buildings is supported by wooden pillars.
Most Tibetans live in houses made of adobe-brick or stone walls and slate roofs or tents made of yak hair or black and white felt. Many homes have no electricity, plumbing, running water or even a radio. Yaks, sheep and cattle are sometimes kept in a stables below the house to provide warmth. Wood is a valuable commodity. It is used mainly as construction material and for making barrels for churning butter or making chang. Because animals live on the ground floor of the house, flies are a nuisance and disease-causing germs are plentiful.
A typical family of 14 in Bhutan lives in a three-story house with a 726-square-foot living room, 1,134 square foot basement-barn-stables and 726-square-foot storage attic. A two-story house in Dolpo has inward-sloping, mortared-stone walls and stone and air-dried earth bricks. Attached is a shed for tools, food and yak dung fuel.
A typical home in Mustang is a two-story, mud-brick structure with storerooms for grain and stalls for animals on the first floor and a living area for people on the second floor with a kitchen, dining room and bedroom all in one dark, windowless chamber. A sheep skull painted by a monk is placed on the front of the house to keep demons away. An altar with statues of Buddha and other deities is kept in the house.
Many homes have no toilet or even an outhouse. People and animals piss and shit right outside the door of the house, often not caring if anyone sees them. A typical bathroom in Bhutan is an outhouse in back of the house with wooden walls and roof. The toilet is usually a hole in the ground. People squat instead of sit. Many guesthouses and hotels used by foreigners have Western style toilets.
Tents, See Nomadic Tents and Possessions, Nomads
Subsidies for New Homes in Tibet
About 1.2 million rural Tibetans, nearly 40 percent of the region population, have been moved into new residences under a comfortable housing program.
“Since 2006, the Tibetan government has mandated that Tibetan farmers, herders and nomads use government subsidies to build new homes closer to roads. New concrete homes with traditional Tibetan decorations dot the stark brown countryside. But the base government subsidy for building the new homes is usually $1,500 per household, far short of the total needed. Families have generally had to take out multiple times that amount in interest-free three-year loans from state banks as well as private loans from relatives or friends.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 24, 2010]
“Though the government assures that villagers have not borrowed beyond their means, many villagers around Lhasa have expressed pessimism about their ability to repay these loans, suggesting that the degree of debt for the new houses is beyond what they are comfortable with, said Emily Yeh, a scholar at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has researched the program. This should become clearer over the next few years as loans start to become due.” [Ibid]
“In the model village of Gaba, right outside Lhasa, residents leased out their farmland for eight years to Han migrants to pay back the loans, which mostly ranged from $3,000 to $4,500. The migrants grow a wide variety of vegetables to be sold across China. Many of the Tibetan villagers now work in construction; they cannot compete with Han farmers because they generally know how to grow only barley.” [Ibid]
“Renting out the farmland was suggested by the bank, said Suolang Jiancan, the village head. It would be a guaranteed income to pay back the loans. Among the Han, it is not just farmers who are profiting from the land. Large companies from other parts of China are finding ways to tap Tibet resources.” [Ibid]
Inside a Tibetan House
Living area Most Tibetan homes don't have gas or oil heating and kerosene and wood are in short supply. Yak dung is often burned for cooking and heating. Most houses are sealed except for small hole in the ceiling that lets out some smoke but also allows some rain or snow to enter. Many Tibetans develop eye and respiratory diseases from breathing in yak-dung smoke.
Describing a Tibetan home Paula Cronin wrote in the New York Times: "The one-room home for an undefined number of adults and children, including a newborn hidden inside a blanket, was tightly organized as a ship's cabin and centered around the open fire on the floor. Enormous pots simmered over embers of yak dug cakes and juniper branches. Dried yak cheese hung from a line. Heavy blankets were folded far up the walls.”
The most important part of the house is arguably the prayer room. Pankraj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “The Tibetans love color and baroque decoration was on full display on the paneled chests painted with floral designs, and thick frescoed columns the thangkas, representing scenes from the Buddha’s life, sashes hanging from the ceiling, the pile of Tibetan scripture bound in bright-yellow silk, and the row of silver lamps before an extravagantly gilded shrine...On one relatively bare wall was poster, the mandatary picture of Hu Jintao. It was even bigger than the thangka.” Inside one of the paneled chest was a picture of the Dalai Lama.”
Describing a traditional fortress-like Tibetan home in Three Parallel Rivers area on the border of Tibet and Yunnan Province Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic: “In the center is a large, open-to-the-sky atrium, with warm sunlight dropping inside. A wooden railing set with planters for various herbs boxes in the atrium on the main floor, keeping kids from falling to the ground floor, where pigs and chickens live in splendid squalor. Up a hand-hewn ladder is the roof, a flat mud, surface with the atrium cut in the middle. The roof is covered with stores of food and fodder, pine cones piled like pineapples, two varieties of corn, chestnuts spread across a plastic tarp, walnuts on another tray, three varieties of chilies in various stages of drying, green apples in a basket, sacks of rice, slabs of pork air-drying, the carcass of what appeared to be a marmot.”
Most homes in Ladakh have a small chapel on the roof or in a shed-like temple near the home or a shrine or altar kept in an honored place in the home. Inside the chapel there may be some religious texts, a golden Buddha statue or a shrouded statue of Yamanataka, a god that is so horrible that no one should look at his image, especially women. Some shrines are decorated with pictures of lamas. Yak butter lamps are lit and offering are made to Buddha and Yamanataka to ward off evil spirits. Car accidents and illnesses are often blamed houses that are not properly protected against these spirits.
In many parts of Tibet you can find homes without toilets, without even out houses, Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine told the Washington Post he stayed at a house in Tibet as large as his own in the United States: “They could build shelters. But they didn’t build toilets...Went in the barnyard like their livestock.”
Kitchen In Dolpo many homes don't even have chairs or tables. People sit barefoot on quilts placed on the floor. Oil lamps are used for lighting. Wooden bins are used for storing grain and salt. Yak butter statutes made from dirt and flour paste protect the house from lightning and evil spirits.
The possessions of a typical family in Bhutan include a butter lamp, nine hoes and cultivators, a basket for winnowing grain, baskets, bags of rice, a ladder for reaching the attic (made from a tree), a clay pot for water, pantry cabinets, three storage chests, three blankets, a treadle-style sewing machine, a pitch fork, butter churn, cooking pots, 11 storage baskets, built-in altar, built-in earthen stove, rice milling machine, battery-operated radio, woodpile, yoke for bulls, four cats, two dogs, many chickens, dart game and candles.
The parent's most prized possession is a religious book. One of the one daughter's most treasured possessions is her jump rope. The majority of the possessions have a religious purpose: two bumpas with peacock feathers (used in water purification rituals), two jeles (double-reeded ceremonial clarinets), 14 choeps (metal bowls used for water offerings), a book of Buddhist teachings, a chodom (a table used by visiting monks), a troe (a bronze ceremonial vessel), a statue of Nämtose (god of wealth), Buddhist statues with silk robes, wind socks for temple decoration, and five rugs (for the altar room).
As one travels further into the remote countryside beds, hot water and Western toilets are replaced by cots, cold water and outhouses and then by dirty blankets, no water and behind the bushes. Men sometimes carry a knife and flint to make firesand light their pipes with burning yak dung.
Everyday Life in Tibet
Bathing in a river In the countryside adults work about 49 hours a week (7 hours a day, 7 days a week). Women often throw their young children in slings and toss them on their back when they perform chores such as butter churning. In the morning men cut firewood and bring anything of value (such as berries or mushrooms) that can be found along the way.
Life is dominated by religion. Religion is a daily, if not hourly practice. Tibetans spend much of their time in prayer or doing activities, such as spinning prayer wheels and hanging prayer flags, that earn them merit. Tibetan Buddhists also send their sons to monasteries, participate in pilgrimages, do good deeds and present gifts to lamas to earn merit.
Common rituals include rubbing holy stones together and performing the traditional blessing of dipping a finger in milk and flicking it towards the sky (more common in Mongolia than Tibet). Buildings are blessed by a lama who circles it twice and casts handfuls of rice in all directions. As one Tibetan Buddhist explained, "Before you do anything, you have to have the permission of the gods."
Describing daily life in Three Parallel Rivers area on the border of Tibet and Yunnan Province Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic:“Grandparents, parents and kids all share the farm house. All have their tasks: the scrawny uncle carrying sacks of corn and sorting horseshoes; the young mother, baby on her back, tending the stove and preparing dinner; the patriarch slowly writing something in scratchy script. The sinewy woman...is the matriarch, She slops the hogs with a kitchen pail, dumping the contents over the railing, then goes outside where she milks the cows and feeds the horses and churns the yak butter.”
“The women of the household are up for hours before dawn, hauling water and wood, milking and feeding the animals. The young mother pours yak butter tea...Her baby in one arm, she is simultaneously breast feeding, loading firewood into the stove, checking the rice, stirring the yak butter eta, tossing potato peels over the railing to the pigs, washing dishes, sorting peppers and talking.”
Describing a rudimentary water-generator used in a remote valley in Three Parallel Rivers area on the border of Tibet and Yunnan Province Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic:“At nightfall its is pitch-dark and frosty inside the house. A terrific screeching cuts the stillness, The patriarch is turning a metal crank mounted on the wall, winding up a cable. As he locks the crack arm in place, compact fluorescent light bulbs dangling around the house burst to life. The metal cable extends to a creek 400 yards from the farmhouse. There it is attached to a trough carved from a log. Turning the crank pulls the cable which lifts the through, sending a flow of creek water into a large wood cask. Plugged into tthe base of the cask is a blue plastic pipe that carries water down a Chinese-made micro-hydropower generator the size of a five-gallon drum.”
Life in Tibet at 17,000 Feet
Many Tibetans go barefoot even in sub-freezing temperatures. Not surprisingly their feet have thick leathery dark calluses on them. To keep from getting frostbite in severe cold they wrap their feet in woolen rags. To prevent snow blindness men wrap their long braids over their eyes and women smear black soot under their eyes.
The boiling temperature of water is so low that boiling water from a pot doesn't burn when it touches the skin. Vehicles often breakdown because of the elevation and are restarted again after fluid is sucked from the engine with a tube.
Tibetans on the dry Tibetan plateau have little water for washing and have traditionally considered washing to be an unhealthy, harmful practice. As a result many Tibetans are very dirty: their faces and hands are sometimes covered in a layer of greasy yak-butter and dirt, their clothes are caked in dirt and their hair is matted.
When Tibetan nomads do wash, they tend to rinse their faces and hands in yak or goat milk. To protect their skin and beautify themselves some nomad women apply a salve to their face made from boiled milk curds. Some people go through the entire life without ever taking bath.
Health at 17,000 Feet, See Health, Government and Public Services
Urban Life in Tibetan
Rural Life in Tibet
About 85 percent of the people are farmers or herders. They typically live in rural areas largely untouched by the modern world. Sounds heards in rural Tibet include: women singing while they work in the fields, monks chanting, children playing. Even places within 20 miles of Lhasa have no electricity or televisions.
Morning chores at Tibetan agricultural villages include collecting firewood or dung, making a fire and boiling water for yak butter tea, and collecting dandelions and mixing them with barley to feed to the pigs.
Communities have typically been self-sufficient and associated with monasteries or feudal lords. Land was often distributed on the basis of the needs of families and quality of the land, with families typically getting both good and bad quality land. This system is changing as the government is encouraging rural people to get more involved with the regional economy.
Life has improved for the rural Tibetans somewhat. Their taxes have been repealed. It is not uncommon to see mud brick houses with satellite dishes and nomad tents with solar panels or generators used to run boomboxes that blast out Tibetan and Chinese pop tunes. Rural Tibetans are still among the poorest people in the world and their rates of illiteracy, infant mortality and poverty are high.
See Agriculture, Society Village and Homes
Tantric Sex in Tibet
Tantric sex Tibetan Buddhism incorporates Tantric rites which include strange forms of "sexual piety." During certain ceremonies monks reportedly hug statues of gargoyle-like demons and mother-father spirits known as yabyum and then ejaculate on them. Erotic sculptures in Tibetan monasteries show women having sex with oxen. The Tantric art in some caves and temples is considered to be too explicit by the Chinese government to be put on public display.
Sex is regarded by Tantrics as a method to reach enlightenment. When practiced by a skilled monk it can induce a state of “inner bliss that is free of desire.” To achieve this monks are supposed of spend 24 years studying in a monastery first.
Judy Kuriansky is an American Tantric sex teacher and the promoter of the philosophy of “enlightenment through better sex.” In her classes on how to achieve multiple total-body orgasms, she teaches her students to do a variety of tasks—including breathing through one nostril, crawling on the floor and dancing with colored veils—all with their clothes on. Some participants describe incredible experiences. Others get headaches.
There have been some allegations that senior Tibetan monks have sexually abused young boys. On this issue a spokesman for the Dalai Lama told National Geographic, “There may have been some instances, but it was never widespread.”
Prostitutes in Tibet
Prostitute in Tibet The number of brothels and karaoke bars in Tibet has increased greatly since the Chinese began arriving in large numbers. They are found in almost every large town. A typical establishment charges $1 for a Chinese-produced Pabst Blue Ribbon and as little as $10 for a Chinese girl, most of them from Sichuan. Most of the customers are Chinese bureaucrats, soldiers, police and truck drivers.
Some teenage Tibetan girls work on construction crews during the day and work as prostitutes at night. The Los Angeles Times interviewed on 17-year-old who worked 12 hours a day on a road crew outside Tsetang, Tibet’s third largest city, and lived in a small shack in the red light on the Yarlung River, where she welcomed customers the 12 hours she wasn’t working on the road crew.
The girl pays $5 a month for the shack and eats mostly barley that she and her roommate prepare over a campfire outside their hut. She washes periodically at a public bathhouse that charges 60 cents per bath. She sends most of the money she makes to her family in her village and spends the little bit of money left over on clothes, including a fake Boss sweatshirt and Yankees baseball cap. Her pimp cheats her out of most of the money her customers pay for her services.
The girl said her costumers include migrant workers, visiting businessmen and sometimes policemen. On the police she told the Los Angeles Times, “Sometimes they pay, sometimes the don’t. Usually they tell us it’s a raid and shut the doors behind them. But when they sit down they become customers.”
Image Sources: Julie Chao http://juliechao.com/pix-china.html , Snowland Cuckoo Association, Purdue University, AFP
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2010