20080228-TIBETMAN cnto.jpg
Tibetan man
Tibetans call themselves "Boba", "Duiba", "Tibetanba", "Weiba", "Kangba" and "Anduoba". There used to be many names by which they were called by other nationalities, such as "Tubuo" in the Tang and Song Dynasties; "Tubo" or "Xibo" in the Yuan dynasty; and "Xibo", "Tubote", "Tanggute", "Tibetanbo", "Tibetanren" in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Today the Chinese government often calls them Zang. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Generally, Tibet can be divided into farming areas and pastoral areas. Those living in pastoral areas are called nomads or pastoralists. These people sometimes build houses as home bases, for their old folks and for storage. Otherwise, they live the nomad life and in traditional nomadic tents.

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.

Websites and Sources on the Tibetan People: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Language Omniglot Tibetan Language page omniglot.com ; Tibetan Language.org tibetanlanguage.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Tibetan Festivals Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; 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 ;

Websites and Sources: Official Dalai Lama site dalailama.com ; Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) www.tibet.com ; Chinese Government Tibet website eng.tibet.cn/; Wikipedia article on Tibet Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Tibetan History Wikipedia ; Tibetan News site phayul.com ; Snow Lion Publications (books on Tibet) snowlionpub.com ; Tibetan Cultural Sites: Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; White Paper on Tibetan Culture english.people.com.cn ; Tibet Activist Groups: Free Tibet freetibet.org ; Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy tchrd.org ; Friends of Tibet friendsoftibet.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 ; Center for Research of Tibet case.edu ; Tibetan Studies resources blog tibetan-studies-resources.blogspot.com ; Book: "Tibetan Civilization" by Rolf Alfred Stein.

Tibetan Population

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Tibetan population in China: 0.4713 percent of the total population; 6,282,187 in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census; 5,422,954 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 4,593,330 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]

The population of Tibet was 3,648,100 in 2020; 3,002,166 in 2010; 2,616,329 in 2000; 2,196,010 in 1990; 1,892,393 in 1982; 1,251,225 in 1964; 1,273,969 in 1954. [Source: Wikipedia, China Census]

The population of Tibet Autonomous Region is roughly 90 percent Tibetan and 8 percent Han Chinese. Demographics for China as a whole is the reverse at 92 percent Han Chinese and less than 1 percent Tibetan. Fewer than 3 million people live in Tibet's 1.2 million square kilometers of area. Settlements are few and far between, meaning that for many people are hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest large town.

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.

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.

Places Where Tibetans Live

Tibetans live in cities, towns and villages and as nomads mostly highlands and mountainous country in Tibet and Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu Provinces. The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau rises about 4,000 meters above sea level. The Qilian, Kunlun, Tanggula, Gangdise and Himalaya mountain ranges run across it from east to west. The Hengduan Mountains, running from north to south, runs across the western parts of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. Mt. Qomolangma (Everest) on the Chinese-Nepalese border is 8,848 meters above sea level, the highest mountain in the world. The Tibetan areas are crisscrossed by rivers and dotted with lakes. [Source: China.org china.org |]

Tibetans mainly live in: 1)Tibet Autonomous Region; 2) Haibei, Huangnai, Hainan, Guoluo, Yushu, Tibetan Autonomous prefectures and Haixi Moungolian and Tibetan Autonomous prefecture in Qinghai; 3) Aba and Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous prefecture and Muli Autonomous County in Sichuan; 4) Diqing Tibetan Autonomous prefecture in Yunnan; and 5) Gannan Tibetan Autonomous prefecture and Tianshui Tibetan Autonomous County in Gansu.[Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~]

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.


Tibetan in Chinese characters
The Tibetan language belongs to the Tibetan language branch of the Tibetan-Burmese language group in the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, a classification that also includes Chinese. Tibetan, often implicitly meaning Standard Tibetan, is an official language of the Tibet Autonomous Region. It is monosyllabic, with five vowels, 26 consonants and no consonant clusters. Maxims and proverbs are very popular among the Tibetans. They use many metaphors and symbols, which are lively and full of meaning.

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. There are three main dialects: 1) Wei Tibetan (Weizang) , 2) Kang and Amdo. The For political reasons, the dialects of central Tibet (including Lhasa), Kham, and Amdo in China are considered dialects of a single Tibetan language, while Dzongkha, Sikkimese, Sherpa, and Ladakhi are generally considered to be separate languages, although their speakers may to be ethnically Tibetan. The standard form of written Tibetan is based on Classical Tibetan and is highly conservative. However, this does not reflect linguistic reality: Dzongkha and Sherpa, for example, are closer to Lhasa Tibetan than Khams or Amdo are. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 ]

The Tibetan languages are spoken by approximately 8 million people. Tibetan is also spoken by groups of ethnic minorities in Tibet who have lived in close proximity to Tibetans for centuries, but nevertheless retain their own languages and cultures. Although some of the Qiangic peoples of Kham are classified by the People's Republic of China as ethnic Tibetans, Qiangic languages are not Tibetan, but rather form their own branch of the Tibeto-Burman language family. Classical Tibetan was not a tonal language, but some varieties such as Central and Khams Tibetan have developed tone. (Amdo and Ladakhi/Balti are without tone.) Tibetan morphology can generally be described as agglutinative, although Classical Tibetan was largely analytic.

The Tibetan script, an alphabetic system of writing, was created in the early 7th century from Sanskrit, the classical language of India and the liturgical language of Hinduism and Buddhism. Written Tibetan has four vowels and 30 consonants and is written from left to right. It is a liturgical language and a major regional literary language, particularly for its use in Buddhist literature. It is still used in everyday life. Shop signs and roads signs in Tibet are often written in both Chinese and Tibetan, with Chinese first of course.

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.

Tibetan Grammar and Pronunciation

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Tibet in 1938 before
the Chinese took it over
Tibetan 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.

Tibetan is classified as an ergative-absolutive language. Nouns are generally unmarked for grammatical number but are marked for case. Adjectives are never marked and appear after the noun. Demonstratives also come after the noun but these are marked for number. Verbs are possibly the most complicated part of Tibetan grammar in terms of morphology. The dialect described here is the colloquial language of Central Tibet, especially Lhasa and the surrounding area, but the spelling used reflects classical Tibetan, not the colloquial pronunciation. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 ]

Word Order: Simple Tibetan sentences are constructed as follows: Subject — Object — Verb. The verb is always last. Verb Tenses: Tibetan verbs are composed of two parts: the root, which carries the meaning of the verb, and the ending, which indicates the tense (past, present or future). The simplest and most common verb form, consisting of the root plus the ending-ge ray, can be used for the present and future tenses. The root is strongly accented in speech. In order to form the past tense, substitute the ending -song. Only the verb roots are given in this glossary and please remember to add the appropriate endings.

Pronunciation: The vowel "a" must be pronounced like the "a" in father-soft and long, unless it appears as ay, in which cast it is pronounced as in say or day. Note that words beginning with either b or p, d or t and g or k are pronounced halfway between the normal pronunciation of these constant pairs (e.g., b or p), and they are aspirated, like words starting with an h. A slash through a letter indicates the neural vowel sound uh.

Greetings and Friendly and Polite Tibetan Words

The following are some useful Tibetan words that you might use during a travel in Tibet: English — Pronunciation of Tibetan: [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 ]

Hello — tashi dele
Goodbye ( when staying) — Kale Phe
Goodbye ( when leaving) — kale shoo
Good luck — Tashi delek
Good morning — Shokpa delek
Good evening — Gongmo delek
Good day — Nyinmo delek
See you later—Jeh yong
See you tonight—To-gong jeh yong.
See you tomorrow—Sahng-nyi jeh yong.
Goodnight—Sim-jah nahng-go
How are you — Kherang kusug depo yin pey
I'm fine—La yin. Ngah snug-po de-bo yin.
Nice to meet you — Kherang jelwa hajang gapo chong
Thank you — thoo jaychay
Yes/ Ok — Ong\yao
Sorry — Gong ta
I don't understand — ha ko ma song
I understand — ha ko song
What's your name?—Kerang gi tsenla kare ray?
My name is ... - and yours?—ngai ming-la ... sa, a- ni kerang-gitsenla kare ray?
Where are you from?—Kerang loong-pa ka-ne yin?
Please sit down—Shoo-ro-nahng.
Where are you going?—Keh-rahng kah-bah phe-geh?
Is it OK to take a photo?—Par gyabna digiy-rebay?

Useful Tibetan Words

The following are some useful Tibetan words that you might use during a travel in Tibet: English — Pronunciation of Tibetan: [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 ]

Sorry — Gong ta
I don't understand — ha ko ma song
I understand — ha ko song
How much? — Ka tso re?
I feel uncomfortable — De po min duk.
I catch a cold. — Nga champa gyabduk.
Stomach ache — Doecok nagyi duk
Headache — Go nakyi duk
Have a cough — Lo gyapkyi.
Toothache — So nagyi
Feel cold — Kyakyi duk.
Have a fever — Tsawar bar duk
Have diarrhea — Drocok shekyi duk
Get hurt — Nakyi duk
Public services — mimang shapshu
Where is the nearest hospital? — Taknyishoe kyi menkang ghapar yore?
What would you like to eat — Kherang ga rey choe doe duk
Is there any supermarket or department store? — Di la tsong kang yo repe?
Hotel — donkang.
Restaurant — Zah kang yore pe?
Bank — Ngul kang.
Police station — nyenkang
Bus station — Lang khor puptsuk
Railway station — Mikhor puptsuk
Post office — Yigsam lekong
Tibet Tourism Bureau — Bhoekyi yoelkor lekong
You — Kye rang
I — nga
We — ngatso
He/she —Kye rang

Modernization of the Written Tibetan Language

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Tibet in 1938 before
the Chinese took it over

Tibetan scripts were created during the period of Songtsen Gampo (617-650), For much of Tibet’s history Tibetan language study was conducted in monasteries and education and the teaching of written Tibetan was mainly confined to monks and members of the upper classes. Only a few people had the opportunity to study and use Tibetan written language, which was mainly used for government documents, legal documents and regulations, and more often than not, used by religious people to practice and reflect the basic contents and ideology of Buddhism and Bon religion. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 ]

Since the People's Republic of China (modern China) in 1949, the uses of written Tibetan language has expanded. In Tibet and the four provinces (Sichuan,Yunnan, Qinghai and Gansu), where many ethnic Tibetans live, Tibetan language has entered into the curriculum at varying degrees in universities, secondary technical schools, middle schools and primary schools at all levels. At some schools written Tibetan is widely taught. At others minimally so. In any case, China should be given some credit for helping Tibetan written language study to expand from the confines of the monasteries and become more widely used among ordinary Tibetans.

The approach of Chinese schools to Tibetan language study is very different from the traditional study methods used in monasteries. Since the 1980s, special institutes for Tibetan language have been established from provincial to township level in Tibet and the four Tibetan inhabited provinces. Staff at these institutions have worked on translations in order to expand the literature and function of Tibetan language and created a number of terminologies in natural and social sciences. These new terminologies have been classified into different categories and compiled into cross-language dictionaries, including a Tibetan-Chinese Dictionary, a Han-Tibetan Dictionary, and a Tibetan-Chinese-English Dictionary.

In addition to making Tibetan translations of some well-known literary works, such as Water Margin, Journey to the West, The Story of the Stone, Arabian Nights, The Making of Hero, and The Old Man and the Sea, translators have produced thousands of contemporary books on politics, economics, technology, movies and Tele-scripts in Tibetan. In comparison with the past, the number of Tibetan newspapers and periodicals has dramatically increased. Along with the advancement of broadcasting in Tibetan inhabited areas, a number of Tibetan programs have put air, such as news, science programs, the stories of King Gesar, songs and comic dialogue. These not only cover the Tibetan inhabited areas of China, but also broadcast to other countries such as Nepal and India where many overseas Tibetans can watch. Government-sanctioned Tibetan language input software, some Tibetan language databases, websites in Tibetan language and blogs have appeared. In Lhasa, a full screen Tibetan interface and an easy-input Tibetan language for cell phones are widely used.

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.”

See Education.

Protests in Qinghai Over Efforts to Curb the Tibetan Language

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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 Names

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.

As a rule, a Tibetan goes only by his given name and not family name, and the name generally tells the sex. As the names are mostly taken from Buddhist scripture, namesakes are common, and differentiation is made by adding "senior," "junior" or the outstanding features of the person or by mentioning the birthplace, residence or profession before the names. Nobles and Lamas often add the names of their houses, official ranks or honorific titles before their names. [Source: China.org china.org |]

Originally, the Tibetans didn’t have family names and they only had names which usually consisted of four words, such as Zha Xi Duo Jie. In Tibetan matriarchal society, they were given names containing one word of their mother’s name. For example the mother Da Lao Ga Mu named her son Da Chi. Family names appeared with the coming of social classes. The high class people adopted family name as their first name and thus, family name appeared. Later, Songtsen Gampo (617-650), the founder of the Lhasa-based kingdom in Tibet and gave lands and territories to his allies. These allies adopted their lands’ names as their first names. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org , June 3, 2014 ]

Many Tibetans seek out a lama (a monk regarded as a living Buddha) to name their child. Traditionally, rich people would take their children to a lama with some presents and ask for a name for their child and the lama said some blessing words to the child and then give him a name after a small ceremony. These days even ordinary Tibetans can afford to have this done.

If a male becomes a monk, then no matter how old he is, he is given a new religious name and his old name is no longer used . Usually, high-ranking lamas give part of their name to lower-ranking monks when making a new name for them in the monasteries. For example a lama named Jiang Bai Ping Cuo may give religious names Jiang Bai Duo Ji or Jiang Bai Wang Dui to ordinary monks in his monastery.

Tibetans usually give their children names embodying their own wishes or blessings towards them. In addition, Tibetan names often say something on the earth, or the date of one’s birthday. Today, most of The Tibetan names still consist of four words, but for the convenience, they are usually shortened as two words, the first two words or the last two, or the first and the third, but no Tibetans use a connection of the second and the fourth words as their shortened names. Some Tibetan names only consist of two words or even one word only, for example Ga.

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: 1) “ Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2021

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