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When the Chinese Came to Tibet

From our Archives: 100 for 100

September 1978

Sakya Monastery, Sakya, Tibet. CREDIT: Moszczynski

Dowa Norbu (1949-2006) was a small child when the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950. It took two years for the news to reach his isolated town.In this compelling first-hand account, he explains the Chinese strategies for taking over Tibet. These included co-opting the ruling class, presenting themselves as modernizers rather than Marxist revolutionaries, and doling out generous payments in silver dollars to rich and poor alike. But as he shows, the brutal face of the occupation soon became plain.

Norbu and his family escaped from Tibet in 1959. He went on to become an accomplished scholar and a champion of the Tibetan cause. He wrote books and articles about Tibet, and was considered one of the leading intellectuals of the Tibetan diaspora.           

WORLDVIEW magazine ran from 1958-85 and featured articles by political philosophers, scholars, churchmen, statesmen, and writers from across the political spectrum. Find the entire archive online here.


My home town, called Sakya, is located in Western Tibet. The news about the Chinese invasion of 1950 reached us sometime in 1952. A soldier whose family lived in a house next to ours brought the astounding news. He announced that the "enemies of our faith" were advancing rapidly from the east and that there would be no peace and happiness in the land of snow.

Despite the alarming news, no one in Sakya sharpened his sword or dusted his bow and arrows. Our government neither declared a state of emergency nor conscripted the young into the army. Instead, we witnessed quite a few unusual religious rites of the sort called mangdog, meaning prevent or negate war. After the revolt against the Chinese in 1959, a number of leading monks were imprisoned, charged with mangdog, which was interpreted as treason against China.

The Chinese invasion was not perceived as a threat to the territorial integrity of Tibet—although Tibet had assumed a distinct geographical entity as an independent country in the seventh or eighth century—but more as a threat to our faith. The Chinese “liberators” were called tendra—enemies of the faith. The Khampa guerrillas, who led the Tibetan nationalist resistance, called themselves ten-sung, defenders of faith. And the main aim of the movement at its peak was the defense of Buddhism, personified by the Dalai Lama.

The first Chinese—a group of about ten—came to Sakya in about March, 1953. A funny incident took place on their arrival. Some laborers carrying manure to the fields met ten strange-looking khaki-clad horsemen on the way. Now the instinctive reaction of a religious Tibetan to “evil forces” is a ritual called dogpa, meaning negation of the evil, which consists of simultaneously clapping hands and cursing. And that is exactly what the laborers did. The Chinese were visibly pleased, joining enthusiastically in the clapping. Later on we would be told that this was a new way of welcoming and congratulating.

The Chinese team explained their intrusion to the Sakya and local authorities by stating that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the Communist party of China (CPC) had marched a great distance, climbed high mountains, crossed big rivers, and braved the worst weather in the world—all to serve the Tibetan people, a long lost brother-member of the great Motherland, China. The Chinese mission in Tibet was to usher in a new era of progress, with connotations of new miracles to a preindustrial people. As soon as the people of Tibet were able to rule by themselves, the Chinese comrades would return home—or so was defined for Tibetans the alien concept called autonomy.

This assuring, disarming message was expected to filter down from the upper strata of the society to the masses. The initial Chinese policy wisely took into account the separate and independent Tibetan civilization that had developed through centuries. The signing of the Seventeen-Point Agreement of 1951 between China and Tibet and the policy that followed it indicate the Chinese recognition of Tibet's cultural and political independence.

The wall that separated the Chinese and Tibetans was as enormous as the Wall of China. When the first Chinese Communists arrived in Sakya there was the same kind of curiosity a native shows to the foreigner, the same kind of hostility, though more spiritual than physical, the invaded shows to the invader. In fact, at that time (1953) we could have identified ourselves much more easily with a Ladakhi living as an Indian citizen than with a Chinese. Our sense of independence was based more on our life and culture than on law or history, canons by which non-Tibetans decide the fate of Tibet. Even at the time of the Chinese ascendency in Tibet the Chinese power was limited to the presence of an amban (imperial resident) and his escort of one to two hundred soldiers in Lhasa. All that the average Tibetan, like my parents, knew of the now complex Sino-Tibetan relationship was that the Dalai Lamas were gurus to the Chinese “Buddhist” emperors, who were considered patrons of Tibetan Buddhism. Beyond this perception, as far as the Tibetan people were concerned, there existed no concept like Chinese “suzerainity” or “sovereignty” over Tibet. Such terms were imposed by European legalistic interpretations of and inferences from a non-European relationship between Confucian China and Buddhist Tibet.

Tibet was not ripe for revolution in the sense China was. The economic conditions of Tibetan peasants and herdsmen were far better than those of Chinese peasants; there had been no famine recorded in Tibetan history. Moreover, the popularity of Buddhism and the power of the Buddhist “church: made it practically impossible for the Chinese to be an ideological rival—at least for the time being.

Between 1953 and 1955 Chinese soldiers passed through Sakya. To use a Tibetan metaphor, the first batch of Chinese soldiers were the “leading mule.” Troop after troop passed through Sakya to “defend the frontiers of the Motherland." In contrast to the ill-disciplined Tibetan army, the PLA behaved well.

In 1956 a large contingent of blue uniformed Chinese civilians (as opposed to khaki-clad soldiers), officially called “working personnel,” came to Sakya to open a school, start youth and other organizations, and set up a local branch of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region, a body to replace the Tibetan Government.

When the Chinese opened their school in Sakya, they politely suggested that the small traditional ones be merged with the new ones. Along with thirteen other boys I was then learning the Tibetan language and laboriously practicing calligraphy. My teacher advised my mother that I should join the Chinese school.

Looking back now I recall that the vast majority of the eighty-two students in the Red School were the sons and daughters of aristocrats and officials. The Chinese Communists cultivated and pampered the lords and lamas of Tibet for almost a decade.

Peking's strategy for the role of the traditional ruling class in Tibet was very important: They were to be the vanguard of peaceful revolution. Their moral sanction and active cooperation would help the Chinese to achieve the top priority task of the People's Republic of China: unification. After Tibet, only Taiwan remained. The Chinese expected the traditional ruling class to help them to minimize the chances of anti-Chinese revolt before the Chinese could consolidate their power.

The Tibetan rulers, with a few exceptions like Tibet's last prime minister, Lhukhangpa, willingly cooperated with the Chinese. But the nobility's knowledge of the Chinese was fundamentally what they heard from polite comrades who persistently quoted a clause from the Seventeen-Point Agreement stating that “officials of various ranks shall continue to hold office as before,” and also from the socialist slogan, “From each according to his ability, and to each according to his merit and need.” I heard many young aristocrats in Sakya explaining these two concepts with feigned originality. Instead of reading the new books specially translated for them, the Tibetan educated elite decorated their houses with them “Democratic reforms,” the Chinese assured the credulous members of the ruling class, “would be carried out from above and not from below.” It was up to the upper class to decide whether or not to reform. If they studied the “new way” and sent their children to the new school, they would undoubtedly occupy the best positions even in the new society. Names and titles might vanish, but in substance they would continue to enjoy the same privileges as before.

It was not so much the egalitarian aspect of the future ideal society that excited the young. Nor did the Chinese emphasize it. What excited us were the miracles of the magic wheel.

The Chinese Communists posed in the Fifties more as modernizers or industrializers than as Marxist revolutionaries. And this was largely responsible for the willing cooperation of the upper classes. While projecting the vision of a future Communist society, the comrades made no mention of “class struggle” and the hard labor to bring about that transformation. The magic wheel was to do history's job. By the time we reached the classless society, the industrial revolution would be complete and everything would be done by machines. A time would come when our meals would be brought right up to our mouths by machines. Thus whenever I heard the mantra-like phrase “socialist society,” I at once used to imagine a pushbutton Shangri-la.

Delegates from all over Tibet were invited to visit China's best factories, mines, and educational institutions and to observe their armed forces. The purpose seemed twofold: to impress preindustrial Tibetans with China’s scientific and technological progress, and to intimidate Tibetans with Chinese armed might. Many of the delegates returned admiring the “New China.” One of the delegates from Sakya, Bartso, a friend of my teacher, seemed to have developed a veneration, along the old religious lines, for China's Chairman. One day, to my utter surprise, I saw a green rubber figure of Mao Tse-tung on his altar, equating Mao with the gods.

The Chinese Communists' spending of silver dollars, called da-yuan, was decisive in winning the active cooperation of the rulers and passive acquiescence of the masses. Da-yuans were paid most lavishly to the aristocrats and officials for their cooperation; to the young for undergoing indoctrination courses; and of course to the laborers for building Chinese military roads. I received thirty da-yuans per month for attending the Chinese school. My elder brother and sisters who worked on Chinese road building were paid three or four silver dollars per day. One such silver dollar could fetch about four Indian rupees in the 1950's.*[1]

After March, 1959, my brother and sisters were paid the equivalent of one such dollar in paper currency for much harder labor.

Some popular songs and sayings about the silver dollar da-yuans give some idea of the extent of Peking's generosity during this period. The Chinese “working personnel” used to say that the sheer quantity, not value, of da-yuans spent in Tibet would be enough to build a “silver dollar road” from Peking to Lhasa. There is a song by an anonymous author that the Dalai Lama quotes in his writings: “The Chinese Communist Party is like a kind parent/To whom we owe a great debt of gratitude/They give us silver dollars like showers of rain.”

While the ruling class was thus lulled, wooed, and deceived, and while the young were indoctrinated, the Chinese intelligently employed the masses on strategic road-building, which began almost immediately. The Chinese learned lessons from Chinese imperial history. Since the eighteenth century China had been persistent in its attempts to gain effective control over Tibet. But in the past the enormous physical barriers made any colonial conquest meaningless.

How did Tibetans respond? My mother was not untypical of Tibetan people. With her characteristic earthy commonsense, she dismissed almost everything the Chinese did or promised with a cryptic, intuitive phrase, “not a good sign.” Tibetan peasants and herdsmen doubted, suspected, even detested the “enemies of faith” who had been ordered to smile. The common people, being illiterate, were unreceptive to new ideas, if not hostile to an ideology that opposed the very spirit of their way of life. The Chinese knew that. Instead of trying to arouse a stubborn and “superstitious” peasantry, the Chinese made them work on roads that would make the “liberation” at least a military reality.

The Lhasa revolt of 1959 did not touch us in Sakya at all. Fortunately we were far away from the fighting that went on between 1954 and 1956 in Eastern Tibet. However, we used to hear about the resistance from the increasing number of Khampa “pilgrims.” They were actually the farsighted Khampa guerrillas making an honorable retreat to India.

The 1959 revolt was a culmination of a six-year resistance that began in Kham and spread gradually to Lhasan Tibet. When the PLA first crossed the Tibetan frontiers, Khampas actually assisted the Chinese soldiers. Relations between Lhasa and some Khampa chieftains had previously been strained, although their spiritual allegiance to the Dalai Lama was absolute. What then made the Khampas turn against the Chinese?

The Khampas are inhabitants of Eastern Tibet, which borders China. The Manchu Dynasty and the succeeding republican regime began gradually nibbling away at Tibetan territories next to China. The Simla Agreement and the British division of Tibet into “Outer” and “Inner” appeared to have given quasi-legal sanction for the Chinese annexation. When the Communists marched in in 1950, they crossed all the former Tibetan territories, which were by then part of China but whose inhabitants were ethnic Tibetans; then into areas of Tibet proper; and finally halted at Chamdo. The Chinese Communists began to treat greater parts of Kham as part of China proper. Most of the Khampas who led the Tibetan resistance missed the honeymoon period of Chinese Communist administration. In parts of Kham “democratic reforms” began as early as 1954. In Sakya they were carried out only after the 1959 revolt. The experience of Khampas I have met indicates that the Chinese in Eastern Tibet behaved and acted more hastily, intolerantly, and impatiently than they did in my area of Tibet.

The Lhasa uprising became a rallying point for a pan-Tibetan religious nationalism, whose nearest parallel might be Hindu revivalism during the early phase of the Indian National Movement. Ironically the Khampa-led resistance developed crudely along Maoist lines: Rebels got their supplies and intelligence from the local people, and used hit-and-run tactics to attack Chinese posts.

After the successful suppression of the Lhasa uprising, a group of Chinese working personnel, escorted by some PLA men, arrived in Sakya in April, 1959. Their mission was to arrest immediately all local officials and high lamas on charges of treason against China, to disarm completely the local population, and to introduce at once what they called the “long-awaited democratic reforms.”

The Chinese simply sent a characteristic circular to all officials and high lamas asking them to attend a political education (lobjong) program. It seems no one suspected the Communist meaning of “reeducation.” My mother recalls that one of the high-ranking officials even sent his servant to buy an Indian fountain pen and an exercise book. Tibetan writing instruments were not only cumbersome but “old” as well; he wanted to please the Chinese with his “new- outlook.” So officials and high lamas went to prison as if to school.

There is yet more irony in this tragic drama. At the time of this official’s arrest, two top-ranking officials were away in their estates fairly close to the Sikkim border. They were ordered to return immediately for lobjong. So a fortnight after the mass arrest we saw the two lords return on horseback, accompanied by their usual retinue of servants, riding rather ceremoniously to prison. They could easily have escaped.

In a subsequent public meeting the Chinese told us that the members of the reactionary upper classes, with the exception of two families, were found guilty of treason against the “Motherland.” The treason consisted of involvement in a separatist movement whose aim was to snatch Tibet from the arms of the Motherland. In Sakya no one was directly or physically involved with the 1959 revolt, but the Chinese were paranoiac about the nationalist movement and spared neither time nor effort in tracing out the remotest connections with the revolt. The prisoners in Sakya were accused of three principal “crimes”: assisting the Sakya Lama to escape to India; assisting the Khampa guerrillas with food supplies and weapons; and performing rituals to prevent Chinese war-making. Tibetan nationalist activities were called counterrevolutionary as well, and nationalist sympathies became a most serious crime. If a poor peasant was found guilty of having connections with rebels, he was a first-class political criminal and treated harshly.

In Sakya four peasant leaders tried to organize a peaceful demonstration in support of our governor, who was respected for his sense of justice and concern for the people. We people of Sakya wanted to plead before the Chinese and persuade them not to mistreat the governor. The pleading was to be done in the traditional Tibetan style with a khadar, a ceremonial scarf. The four leaders got a severe public flogging and were imprisoned. If Tibetan leaders had been able to publicize incidents like this to the people, they could have set Tibet ablaze with revolt.

Soon after the mass arrest, the entire town of Sakya, in common with the rest of Tibet, was divided into groups of ten families called Mutual Aid Teams, and I was able to watch the Chinese organizational skill and zeal. Each team had its chairman and secretary, who ensured and enforced group efficiency. Through these organizations the Chinese made us work or sleep, sing or cry, as the party wanted.

Some Tibetans collaborated with the Chinese, including China-trained Tibetan cadres who served mostly as interpreters, and locally recruited “progressives” who, after the 1959 revolt, were mostly ex-criminals and their close relatives. For example, the nominal “number one” man in the Sakya administration was Namgyal, a runaway convict who committed murder in Lhatse; and the chairman of our mutual aid team, Tsering, was the wife of a murderer from Sakya. Such people used their positions to pay off old scores.

Distribution of land and property confiscated from the “reactionary upper strata clique” was the next, much-publicized move. As lower middle peasants, our family did not get anything. My oldest sister, who was classified as poor peasant, received two old silk shirts, a pair of ornate old boots worn by some senior lamas on festive occasions, a huge ant-eaten wooden box, two tables, one wooden saddle, and a brocade chuba. No valuables, with which the rich houses abounded, were distributed; they were stored away in one place. The poor peasants were not satisfied. As our nextdoor neighbor remarked: “Uncles [Chinese] ate the meat and gave us the bones.” The Chinese, who continually took the pulse of the people, soon knew the growing discontent and launched at once a new campaign with the slogan, “A needle is better [more useful] than a bar of gold.”

By the end of April our life had acquired a new pattern; it fell into a dull two-stemmed routine, from which no one could escape. Meetings and work. Work and meetings….

The Chinese anti-Buddhist activities and preachings, which were part of the ideological or indoctrination meetings, were most keenly resented by all sections of Sakya. When we saw our most venerated lamas carrying human excrement, mixing it with water, and sprinkling it over a newly made Chinese vegetable garden, many of us shed tears. That was part of their lao-dun (hard labor). During thamzing (artificially created class struggle) lamas were accused and sometimes beaten by native progressives under Chinese supervision. To demonstrate publicly that what we considered gods or goddesses were "mud images," the Chinese converted the most dread she-spirit of Sakya, called Sakya Bamo, into a scarecrow and used “her” on duty at the vegetable garden.

After instructing us that our religion was poison, proving that our gods were just “mud images,” and that holy monks were among the three worst “blood suckers” in Tibet, the Chinese told us we could have freedom of religion. It was as if some strict Tibetan parents had told their son that the girl he loved was their enemy but that he could marry her anyway. Out of nearly five hundred monks in the Great Sakya Monastery, only thirty-six remained. The thirty-six were mostly aged and became objects of ridicule. They were described as having “an old unpurgeable green mind,” or being “negative examples.”

They all were required to live in the Great Monastery. One hundred seven small monasteries stood vacant, without a soul to look after them. Marriage was openly encouraged, and those monks who married were applauded and congratulated.

We were not openly prohibited from private worship, but as we became more “progressively” educated we were expected not only to give up, but to develop an aversion to, religion. We could not invite lamas to perform our annual family rituals. Once an interpreter caught us offering a butter lamp and scolded my mother, saying, “What is the use of burning useful butter in the air?” After that our family altar was shifted to our dark storeroom.

The attacks on Buddhism were one of the main items of our ideological remolding. The substance and objectives of all meetings and indoctrination were to create a new cosmology, not dissimilar to our old conceptions: horrors of hell, i.e., the old order; happiness of heaven, i.e., the new era.

In 1959 there were two meetings daily: during lunch break a discussion at our team level, after work in the evening a mass meeting at town level, and once a week a mass meeting at the district level. But mere attendance was not enough. You had to participate actively in what was called “digging out our hearts and minds, one by one, in abusing the old society and praising the new one.”

At the weekly district-level meeting we had thamzing. The Chinese comrades attempted to create class struggle. A political prisoner would be brought before a mass meeting, and the few selected native “progressives” would get up one by one and loudly accuse the captive of various crimes. If the Chinese discovered any aristocrat as yet unhumbled or any “counterrevolutionary” with nationalist sympathies, they would call us at once for thamzing—as we used to summon butchers to slaughter sheep.

After the fall of Lhasa it seemed that life had only two sides: indoctrination and hard labor. The office holders of each team made sure that everyone who was not too sick or too disabled or too young worked hard and worked every day of the week, except when we had a public meeting. There was no Chinese guard at our elbow forcing us to work, but they employed an ingenious idea called ideological incentive. A professor in a place like the London School of Economics, who enjoys a Western bourgeois life, might find this fascinating to contemplate. But it's quite another matter for those who have to practice it. When we were building a road, for example, each team was given a daily task. The competition revolved around seeing who or which team exceeded the target and by how much. Just reaching the target was not enough. At the end of each day's work the Chinese boss and his interpreter and the chairman of Sakya district would examine each team's performance and declare the result on the spot. At a special public meeting a young man called Nyima Tashi was declared the “most patriotic, the most industrious worker” and was given a picture of a space rocket; a middle-aged woman called Sonam Dolma, the “most unpatriotic, the laziest worker.” They painted a pig on her forehead.

[1] Da-yuans were pure silver coins weighing twenty-five grams each, minted by China's Kuomintang regime and warlords. After coming to power in 1949 the Communists did not use da-yuans in China. The silver coins were used in Tibet because other Chinese paper currency was not accepted by Tibetans. The exclusive use of da-yuans in Tibet in the Fifties indicates the extent to which the Chinese were willing to make concessions and give special treatment to Tibetans during the honeymoon period.