Tibetan man According to the 1990 census, there were 4.6 million Tibetans in China. The census was not done with same thoroughness as the census was done elsewhere in China. In many remote areas rough estimates were made. Foreign visitors have estimated that there are probably around 6 million Tibetans in China, with about 3 million Tibetans living in the Tibetan Autonomous Region in China and another 3 million Tibetans living outside of Tibetan Autonomous Region in China. About 300,000 Tibetans live in exile outside of China.
Most Tibetans in the Tibetan Autonomous Region live in the cities or in southern Tibet, where the climate is less hostile and there are a number of valleys where barley and other crops are raised. Most of the inhabitants of the highland plateau are nomadic shepherds and yak and horse breeders. Many Tibetans live along the Yarlung Zangpo and its tributaries, from Xigaze to Zetang, where Tibetan Buddhism developed in the late 8th century. Outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Tibetans r live in traditional Tibetan areas in Qinghai, western Sichuan, southern Gansu and western Yunnan provinces.
Tibetans can also be found in Mongolia, India, Nepal, Bhutan. Russia and other parts of the world. A number of different ethnic groups, including the Bhutanese, Ladakhis in northern India and the Sherpas in Nepal follow Tibetan Buddhism and are essentially Tibetans. By one count there are 130,000 Tibetans in India; 25,000 in Nepal; 2,000 in Switzerland; 1,500 in the United States and 600 in Canada.
About 10 percent of the world’s population lives in mountainous regions and about half are vulnerable to food shortages and chronic malnutrition. Mountain states also have a proportionally high number of armed conflicts. Out of the 28 conflicts that broke or continued in the early 2000s, 26 of them were in mountains.
China's one-child policy is not enforced in most of Tibet as is the case in many minority areas in China. Many Tibetan families have five or more children with no apparent repercussions from the government. This has been done partly to assuage fears by Tibetans that the Chinese are planning to overtake Tibet by outnumbering them.
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources on the Tibetan People: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Dharma Haven dharma-haven.org ; Language Omniglot Tibetan Language page omniglot.com ; Tibetan Language.org tibetanlanguage.org ; Tibetan Language Student learntibetan.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Dharma Haven dharma-haven.org ; Tibetan Language Translation gaugeus.com/ramblings ; Tibetan Festivals Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Horse Racing Festival Dance You Tube ; Wikipedia article on Losar Wikipedia ; 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
Tibetan in Chinese characters The Tibetan language belongs to the Tibetan-Burmese branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family, a classification that also includes Chinese. There are many dialects. Some are quite different from one another. Tibetans from some regions have difficulty understanding Tibetans from other regions that speak a different dialect.
Tibetan is monosyllabic, with five vowels, 26 consonants and no consonant clusters. It uses conjugated verbs and tenses, complicated prepositions and subject-object-verb word order. It has no articles and possesses an entirely different set of nouns, adjectives and verbs that are reserved only for addressing kings and high ranking monks. Tibetan is tonal but the tones are far less important in terms of conveying word meaning than is the case with Chinese.
Written Tibetan was adapted from a northern Indian script under Tibet’s first historical king, King Songstem Gampo, in A.D. 630. The task is said to have been completed by a monk named Tonmu Sambhota. The northern India script in turn was derived from Sanskrit. Written Tibet has 30 letters and looks sort of like Sanskrit or Indian writing. Unlike Japanese or Korean, it doesn’t have any Chinese characters in it. Tibetan, Uighur, Zhuang and Mongolian are official minority languages that appear on Chinese banknotes.
Many Tibetans go by a single name. Tibetans often change their name after major events, such a visit to an important lama or recovery from a serious illness.
Tibetan Versus Chinese Languages
Most Chinese can't speak Tibetan but most Tibetans can speak at least a little Chinese although degrees of fluency vary a great deal with most speaking only basic survival Chinese. Some young Tibetans speak mostly Chinese when they are outside the home. From 1947 to 1987 the official language of Tibet was Chinese. In 1987 Tibetan was named the official language.
It is rare to find a Chinese person, even one who has lived in Tibet for years, who can speak more than basic Tibetan or who has bothered to study Tibetan. Chinese government officials seem particularly adverse to learning the language. Tibetan claims that when they visit government offices they have to speak Chinese or no one will listen to them. Tibetans, on other hand, need to know Chinese if they want to get ahead in a Chinese-dominated society.
In many towns signs in Chinese outnumber those in Tibetan. Many signs have large Chinese characters and smaller Tibetan script. Chinese attempts to translate Tibetan are often woefully lacking. In one town the “Fresh, Fresh” restaurant was given the name “Kill, Kill” and a Beauty Center became the “Leprosy Center.”
Protests in Qinghai Over Efforts to Curb the Tibetan Language
Tibetan woman in 1938 In October 2010, at least 1,000 ethnic Tibetan students in the town on Tongrem (Rebkong) in Qinghai Province protested curbs against the use of the Tibetan language. They marched through the streets, shouting slogans but were left alone by police observors told Reuters. [Source: AFP, Reuters, South China Morning Post, October 22, 2010]
The protests spread to other towns in northwestern China, and attracted not university students but also high school students angry over plans to scrap the two language system and make Chinese the only instruction in school, London-based Free Tibet rights said. Thousands of middle school students had protested in Qinghai province's Malho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in anger at being forced to study in the Chinese language. About 2,000 students from four schools in the town of Chabcha in Tsolho prefecture marched to the local government building, chanting ‘We want freedom for the Tibetan language,’ the group said. They were later turned back by police and teachers, it said. Students also protested in the town of Dawu in the Golog Tibetan prefecture. Police responded by preventing local residents from going out into the streets, it said.
Local government officials in the areas denied any protests. ‘We have had no protests here. The students are calm here,’ said an official with the Gonghe county government in Tsolho, who identified himself only by his surname Li. Local officials in China face pressure from their seniors to maintain stability and typically deny reports of unrest in their areas.
The protests were sparked by education reforms in Qinghai requiring all subjects to be taught in Mandarin and all textbooks to be printed in Chinese except for Tibetan-language and English classes, Free Tibet said. ‘The use of Tibetan is being systematically wiped out as part of China's strategy to cement its occupation of Tibet,’ Free Tibet said earlier this week. The area was the scene of violent anti-Chinese protests in March 2008 that started in Tibet's capital Lhasa and spread to nearby regions with large Tibetan populations such as Qinghai.
TIBETAN HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS
Prayer Festival Tibetans have their own calendar. It is different from the Gregorian calendar used in most of the world. The year 1958 on the Gregorian calendar, for example, was the year 2094 on the Tibetan calendar, the year of the Fire-Sheep.
The Bhutanese year is 360 days. Astrologers routinely leave out days, dates, or even months that are considered unlucky. To keep the calendar in synch with the seasons months are added. Some years have the same month twice in a row.
A person who is 30 in Western years is 32 years old in places that practice Tibetan Buddhism. A Bhutanese man told National Geographic, "We count the nine months a child spends in its mothers womb and everyone consider himself a year older on the same day, New Year's.
Pilgrimages, See Lamas, Monks, Monasteries, Pilgrims, Religion
Tibetan New Year
Tibetan New Year is set according to the Tibetan calendar, and is usually a couple weeks later than the Chinese New Year. The most important day on the Tibetan calendar, it is celebrated by Tibetans and Mongolians with people tying prayer flags, cooking flour and butter on fires of smoldering evergreens, lighting lamps, making offerings, praying at shrines and monasteries, feasting on special dumplings, socializing, lighting purifying fires with fragrant smoke from juniper, artemisia and other herbs, gambling and drinking large quantities of chang. Celebrations often feature horse racing, lama dancing and offerings to Gods.
Tibetan New Year is known in Tibet as Losar, It is a festive and sacred three-day celebration in which Tibetans engage in rites to purify and renew the spirit and pay tribute to the Buddhist ideals of wisdom and compassion. Positive and negative actions taken during the holiday are believed to influence events in the coming year. Depending on a number of factors Tibetan New Year can fall as early as mid-January and as late as late March. Some years entire months are deleted from the Tibetan Year due to inauspicious alignments of planets and other factors. Usually it is celebrated in mid or late February. It begins on the day of a new moon.
Lunar New Year last about a month. At some temples in Qinghai Province authorities allow people to carry out complex ceremonies wearing ornate, embroidered costumes and unfurl a giant image of Buddha on a hillside. Preparation for New Year begins a month in advance, when a special kind of barley is planted in little flower pots so that by the time New Year rolls around three-inch-high seedlings can be offered to Buddha. On New Year's Eve, a sorcerers dance is held to keep away nasty evil spirits; people put on new clothes and don grotesque masks; and boys go wild singing and dancing to music made by large drums and conch horns.
A traditional nighttime meal with wheat-flour dumplings is served. Some of these dumplings are stuffed with chilies. Some are stuffed with pebbles. Those that get chilies are said to be good speakers. Those that get pebbles are regarded as hardhearted. At midnight, when everybody is already in bed, Qingke wine mixed with brown sugar is served with cheese to usher in the new year with sweet dreams.
On the first day of the new year, women dress in colorful pulus and go to a well and bring back "auspicious water" for the family to wash with and the animals to drink. This ritual betokens good weather for the coming year. On the second day people visit each other and greet each other with "Happy New Year" greetings. Closer friends exchange hadas, white silk strips that express respect. During this time and boys and girls like to do a special dance with the boys hoisting the girls up onto their shoulders.
Tibetans traditionally celebrate the arrival of the new year a month later than the Chinese, with New Year’s Day usually falling in March, a month that has many political associations. Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “The month of March is a delicate time in China-Tibet relations. The Dalai Lama fled to India in March 1959, after the Chinese Army quashed a Tibetan uprising in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, during the initial Chinese occupation there. There has been a history of Tibetans protesting Chinese rule on the anniversaries of the Dalai Lama’s flight, and one such protest by monks in 2008 in Lhasa, and the suppression of it by security forces, led to the widespread uprising that enveloped much of the Tibetan plateau that spring. Since then, the Chinese government has increased the presence of security forces across the plateau each March and has barred foreigners from traveling to many areas there during that month.
Tibetan New Year Religious Practices
New Year banquet Some lamas go to a cave and mediate the entire 14 day period from the new moon of the New Year until the full moon. The caves are sometimes above cliffs at an elevation of 16,000 feet and can be reached only following dizzying trails and climbing ladders and yak-hair ropes.
During the first 15 days of the New Year many Tibetan families commission monks and nuns to recite sacred texts to bring prosperity to their households. During the same period, in monasteries, lamas chant ancient Buddhist invocations from 10:00am to 10:00pm.
Pilgrims often crawl underneath stacks of sacred texts in an effort to absorb the wisdom of the scriptures without reading them. Pilgrims ascend ridges and peaks to string prayer flags and tend fires made with fragrant herbs.
In Lhasa, pilgrims throw incense into an offering burner in front of the Jokhang, Tibet's most sacred temple. Pilgrims prostrate themselves after every two steps as they follow a prescribed circle around the old city.
Tibetan New Year Dances
During the New Year dance, monks dress as sorcerers in black hats and fancy robes and dance and make offerings to get rid of negative forces like greed, aggression and ignorance. The dance climaxes with an exorcism—the stabbing of a dough effigy of a demon, representing the dispelling of negativity from the last year. Between the dances dramatic skits are performed, often by lay people.
The performances are held in the courtyard of temples and the temple itself serves as a dressing room. Musicians and monks chant and play horns, drums, cymbals and conch shells as the dancers circle the courtyard and perform stamps, steps and hops known as “half-thunderbolt” movements that are expected to be performed smoothly and gracefully . The dancers prepare for the dance by spiritually identifying with the deity they portray. As they dance they must execute the correct movements, recite mantras and focus their thoughts on the deity.
Ian Baker wrote in National Geographic, "black-hatted monks spun on the soles of their yak-hide boots...As cymbals clashed and horns droned, the masked dancers danced to dispel the accumulated negativity of the past 12 months. Pressed against the walls of the courtyard pilgrims in fur-lined robes and richly-colored brocades witnessed this turbulent drama...As the sun disappeared behind a rock ridge, the ceremony concluded with a burning of a menacing effigy, freeing the days ahead from bondage to the past."
Many Himalayan festivals are held in the winter when villagers have lots of time and there isn't much else to do. People travel many miles, often on foot, to attend the festivals, wearing their most beautiful clothing, creating as festive and joyful atmosphere which mingles with the mystic spirit of the occasion. The are small ceremonies to bless yaks and other animals.
On festival days Tibetans throw multicolored paper money in the air so it floats like ticker tap on the crowds. Partying Tibetans like to sing, drink barley beer and throw white barely flour all over each other. Sherpa festivals feature skits with costumed figures of "drunken men" getting chased by "bawdy women," as well as dances performed by leaping and twirling monks with fierce god masks and yak butter lamps.
Monlam is a Buddhist prayer festival that begins about a week after Tibetan New Year and last about a week. Also known as the Great Prayer Festival it is usually a joyous occasion. It was banned by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution.
Bhutanese festivals, or Tshechus, are held throughout the year. They take place outdoors, in the courtyards of the great dzongs, and feature dancers in colorful silk costumes and grotesque hand-carved wooden masks. The festivals celebrate the legends, myths and history of the Bhutanese in ancient rituals of dance and music.
These days, large numbers of Chinese security forces show up at Tibetan festivals
See Festival Dances, Music and Dance, Tibetan Culture
Tibetan welcoming group
Nagqu Horse Festival
Horse festivals are big events in Tibet and Tibetan areas of China. The Tibetan Festival in Yushu in Qinghai Province in July lasts for five days. The Khampa Summer Festival in Gyegu in Qinghai Province is one of the largest gathering of Tibetan people, attracting Tibetans from all over western China. In recent years the Chinese government has tried to promote it as a tourism event. The Horse Festival in Lithang in Sichuan Province in August is another large gathering of Tibetans. All these festivals features dancing, folk performances, open air markets and horse racing
Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic, “From the monastery, Sue and I set out for the city of Nagqu, a five-hour drive north from Lhasa, to attend the annual horse festival. We want to see the legendary horses that gave their name to the Tea Horse Road. The weeklong event used to be held on the open plains, but ten years ago a concrete stadium was built so Chinese officials would have someplace to sit. When we arrive the next morning, Tibetans pack the stands: women with high cheekbones, high heels, and long braids heavy with silver and amber; men in felt cowboy hats and the long-sleeved coats they call chubas; sockless kids in cheap sneakers. Hawkers sell spicy boiled potatoes and cans of Budweiser. Blaring speakers announce each event in Tibetan and Chinese. It's a rodeo atmosphere, except for the Chinese policemen stationed every ten yards along the bleachers, marching in squadrons around the field, and lurking in plainclothes.” [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, May 2010]
Down on the field, horse and rider seem to defy gravity. A contestant gallops almost out of control, dangling like an acrobat off the side to pluck a white silk scarf from the ground. Clods of mud propel into the sharp blue sky. Holding the scarf aloft, the Tibetan cowboy wheels his rearing horse to the roar of the crowd.” [Ibid]
“The Nagqu Horse Festival is one of the few surviving events celebrating Tibet's equestrian heritage. Through centuries of selective breeding, Tibetans created a premium horse called the Nangchen. Standing only 13.5 hands high (about 4.5 feet—smaller than most American breeds), fine-limbed and handsome-faced, with enlarged lungs adapted to life on the 15,000-foot-high, oxygen-starved Tibetan Plateau, Nangchen steeds were bred to be inexhaustible and sure-footed on snowy passes. These were the horses coveted by the Chinese centuries ago.” [Ibid]
Serf Emancipation Day
In 2009, the Chinese government created a holiday in March—“Serf Emancipation Day”—to mark the defeat of the pro-independence uprising in Tibet in 1959 and the “emancipation of millions of serfs and slaves.”
In conjunction with the new holiday, Tibetans in fur hats and traditional costumes performed dances and the government handed out literature that highlighted all the great things China had done to make Tibet a safer an more prosperous place, held an exhibition showing the horrors that occurred when the Dalai Lama was in control and ran polemic articles in Tibetan newspapers with with titles like “From serfs to masters of the country.”
A show at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities in Beijing called Tibet: Past and Present was divide into two parts: the first, called The History of Tibet and Feudal Serfdom in Old Tibet featured images of peasants maimed and crippled by lords and Buddhist lamas; the second, New Tibet Changing With each Passing Day showed modern Tibet in all its glory.
Image Sources: Purdue University, China National Tourist Office, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , Johomap, Tibetan Government in Exile
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 2012