Tibet - Background information

Domestic yak Yundrok Lake Tibet China by Dennis Jarvis CC-BY-SA
The domestic yak is found across the Tibetan Plateau © Dennis Jarvis CC-BY-SA

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Tibet: the Bradt Guide

Post-1950 Tibet

After their victory in the long-running civil war in 1949, the forces of Mao Zedong wasted little time in announcing their next target would be the ‘return of Tibet to the embrace of the Motherland’. The Chinese invaded Tibet from the east in 1950. Their justification for invasion was to liberate the Tibetans from ‘feudalism’. However, it is dubious whether this came to pass: Tibetan nobility and clergy were simply replaced with harsher Chinese masters.

Under a document called the 17-Point Agreement – dictated by the Chinese in 1951 – the 14th Dalai Lama would remain at the head of the Tibetan government, but China would be in charge of military matters and other key facets. The 17-Point Agreement quickly turned into a sham: monastic lands were confiscated, tribal lands were collectivised, and it soon became apparent that the Chinese idea of schooling was very different from the Tibetan idea. Tibetans had little empathy for the zeal of Maoism, and alongside the construction of hydro-electric stations, experimental farms and roads, armed resistance took place at various points (particularly in eastern Tibet) from 1954 to 1959. Concerned for his safety, those close to the Dalai Lama engineered his escape on horseback to India. In 1959, he crossed the border into northeast India and into exile. Behind him, Lhasa fell into chaotic fighting. Tens of thousands of Tibetans were killed in the subsequent uprising.

In India, meanwhile, the Dalai Lama renounced the 17-Point Agreement and set up his government-in-exile.

Barely recovering from the vicious reprisals of 1959, Tibet was hurled headlong into the madness of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), which hit Tibet harder than any other part of China.

Chinese officials would later blame destruction of monasteries on this period, when in fact many buildings were blown up or dismantled before the onset of the Cultural Revolution. With the flight of the Dalai Lama, the Chinese dissolved the remnants of the Tibetan government, and set up the Tibet Autonomous Region (1965), splitting the area of Ethnic Tibet in half. All forms of Tibetan customs and worship – public and private – were banned, including barter. Large numbers of Tibetans died in labour camps and prisons.

Since the 1960s, Chinese policy in Tibet has see-sawed – sometimes harsh and repressive, at other times loosening up. China’s human rights record in Tibet, meanwhile, has been appalling, constituting one of history’s worst cases of cultural genocide.

In 1987 major rioting took place in Lhasa: this was followed by intermittent demonstrations that were brutally put down by Chinese troops. Martial law was imposed in 1989 and not lifted for over a year. Since 1996, it has been forbidden to own or display any image of the Dalai Lama in Tibet: this followed in the wake of a major falling-out over the choice of the 11th Panchen Lama. Little dialogue has taken place between the Chinese and the Tibetan government-in-exile over the issue of Tibet. China has tightened its grip on the region, ruling what is today the largest colony in the world.

The greatest uprising since 1959 took place in the spring of 2008. A protest that started in Lhasa, initiated by monks from Sera and Drepung, spread across the entire plateau, involving Tibetans from all walks of life – urban dwellers to nomads. A vicious crackdown ensued, with over a thousand Tibetans believed killed –and many more missing or imprisoned. Since 2009, over 150 Tibetans have self-immolated to protest against Chinese rule.

In mid-2016, Chinese authorities in Lhasa staged ‘celebrations’ to mark the 65th anniversary of the signing of the 17-Point Agreement for the ‘peaceful liberation of Tibet’. Looking back on those 65 years, the Chinese see Tibet as a great success story – the socialist transformation for Tibetans from primitive feudalism to a much higher standard of living. From the Tibetan point of view, those 65 years have been a complete catastrophe, a sad story of pillage, rape, torture, dislocation and destruction – a deliberate attempt to obliterate their culture, their religion and their values.

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Tibet: the Bradt Guide

Though they had no sewage systems or concept of garbage disposal, in the realm of conservation the Tibetans were light years ahead of the West (at a time when the Tibetans were still in control of their environment). The Buddhist compassion for all life – human, other animal or insect – protected Tibet’s wildlife, and in a sense made Tibet one great wildlife preserve. Because Tibet was isolated from the rest of the world for so long, it sheltered rare species: even in the 1990s, species thought long extinct were discovered in Tibet (a breed of small forest pony was found in Kham, and the Tibetan red deer was found in the Shannan district). Huge herds of wild gazelles, antelope, wild asses and yaks used to graze the grasslands of central Tibet. If animals were culled, the Tibetans took only what they needed, so impact on the wildlife was minimal.

Tibetan wild ass Tibet China by Karan Dhawan India CC-BY-SA
The kiang or Tibetan wild ass is endemic to Tibet © Karan Dhawan India CC-BY-SA

In the 1940s, American adventurer Leonard Clark reported: ‘Every few minutes we would spot a bear, a hunting wolf, herds of musk deer, kiang (wild ass), gazelles, big horned sheep, or foxes. This must be one of the last unspoiled big game paradises.’ His words were in some ways prophetic: with the coming of the Chinese in the 1950s, everything changed rapidly. Chinese soldiers machine-gunned wildlife not only for food, but for export to China – and for sport. Some of Tibet’s once-plentiful wildlife now faces extinction: in the last 40 years, large mammals have gone the way of the bison in North America. Apart from supplying China with meat, there is a demand for rare animals in Chinese restaurants and for Chinese traditional medicine. This has decimated numbers of the snow leopard, for instance.

Tibetan Buddhists have a profound sense of sacred landscape. Larger lakes and mountains were sacred and were left untouched, and mining was not practised. With its harsh environment, Tibet has a delicate ecological balance – one with which the Chinese are interfering. Such interference can have disastrous consequences, leading for example to increased desertification at Qinghai Lake, or destruction of an entire ecosystem. This may well be happening with the building of a hydro-electric project at Lake Yamdrok Tso – a highly controversial project that the Chinese have rushed, with uncertain results. Other large dams are under construction in Kham and dozens more are planned. The Chinese have made a priority of exploiting Tibet’s untapped oil and mineral wealth. Oil fields in Amdo produce over a million tons of crude oil a year. In 2001, Chinese scientists announced the discovery of billions of tons of oil and gas in the remote Changtang region of northern Tibet.

The Dalai Lama once said that he could understand Chinese anger with Tibetan ‘separatists’, but what did they have against the trees? It is estimated that over 50% of Tibet’s forests have been cut down since 1959 – mostly in eastern, northeastern and southeastern Tibet. If massive clear-cutting takes place on the slopes of the Tibetan plateau, there will be nothing to stop landslides and mudslides cascading down during monsoon season into neighbouring nations such as Burma and India. There could be unbridled erosion and flooding in these areas; the monsoon patterns themselves could be affected by changes in the ecological balance in Tibet. Severe flooding of the Yangtse in the late 1990s is, according to Chinese sources, directly attributable to deforestation at the edge of the Tibetan plateau. The situation became so critical that in 1998 Chinese authorities issued a ban on logging in the upper reaches of the Yangtse and Yellow rivers.

Apart from exploitation of natural resources comes the threat of pollution. Although Chinese officials have shied away from the topic, there is evidence that remote parts of Tibet have been used for the dumping of nuclear waste. China is intent on using Tibet as a missile-launching site, targeting Indian cities. There are a number of missile bases and military airfields scattered around Tibet. Far more progressive is the Dalai Lama’s vision. He calls for complete demilitarisation of the region of Tibet, to serve as a buffer between the nations of India and China. He envisages the transformation of Tibet into a sanctuary, a zone of peace – as it once used to be.

On paper, there have been attempts by Chinese officials to set up nature reserves, but in effect there is little protection or policing going on, and these are largely cosmetic. The reserve with the highest profile is Qomolangma Nature Preserve, in the Everest region, with a 34,000km2 zone said to be under protection (although it is a mixed-use zone, with herders living within the boundaries). Under the guidance of renowned naturalist George Schaller, the mega Changtang Nature Reserve (around 247,000km2) was established in 1993, but poaching of Tibetan antelope proceeds at a brisk pace within its confines.

People and culture

Tibetan culture, isolated for thousands of years, developed along very different lines from that of neighbouring India or China. There are two streams to Tibetan culture: religious arts and folk arts – the sacred and the profane.

Ongkor Festival Tibet China by Bbbar, Dreamstime
The Ongkor Festival is a Tibetan harvest celebration performed at the end of summer © Bbbar, Dreamstime

Folk arts

The folk arts of Tibet (the profane side) derive largely from the nomad herder culture, with hard drinking and partying at festival time, like the annual horse-racing festivals held all over the Ethnic Tibetan region. Rather like Wild West cowboy rodeos, these events are a mixture of horse races and other competitions, plus song-and-dance events. They are also a prime venue for matchmaking among the widely scattered nomad clans, so nomad women show up dressed in their finest clothing and jewellery. In exuberant foot-stomping dances, Tibetan boots become musical instruments all of their own, and with a simple horse-hair fiddle, nomad musicians can create strident music. High-pitched Tibetan ‘yodelling’, performed by women, is especially haunting and evocative of the vast grasslands. Often performed in a welcome ceremony is the yak dance. Two performers don a single yak-skin costume, with one performer up front, shaking the head and horns, and the other performer at the back, wagging the tail. The feisty yak may perform backrolls, or it may charge – with horns forward – causing members of the audience to scatter in all directions. Similar in concept is the snow lion dance, again with two performers inside a single costume. Sometimes there may be male and female snow lion dancers, and a cub as well.

Sacred arts

Tibetan culture is closely linked to Tibetan Buddhist beliefs – in former times most literature, music, dance and drama, painting, sculpture and architecture was inspired by those beliefs. The bulk of Tibetan literature is based on its Buddhism, as texts were printed with inked woodblocks at certain monasteries. Two massive works of Buddhist literature are the Kanjur (Canon of Buddhist Law, 108 volumes) and the Tenjur (commentaries on the Kanjur, in 228 volumes). These are mostly translated from Sanskrit. An exception to religious literature is the epic of Gesar of Ling, the legendary 11th-century king who fought monsters, demons and even yak demons. This was a staple of Tibet’s former wandering storytellers, who committed the long tale to memory. And they would have needed a prodigious memory because this thousand-year-old tale runs to millions of words. It is thought to be the longest verse saga ever written – even longer than Homer’s Odyssey. If you can imagine a Tibetan Lord of the Rings, that might come close.

Unlike Theravadan Buddhist traditions, monks at Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are actively involved in the creation of artwork, using formulaic methods. Inspiration is the goal of the artwork – assisting the viewer with meditation and in attaining spiritual realisation – and thus the creation becomes far more important than the creator. As a result, most Tibetan art is anonymous. However, there are instances where great lamas and teachers also happen to be creators, like the lama-teacher-sculptor Zanabazar in Mongolia. Sculpture at monasteries is generally of bronze or copper with highlights in gold or gilt. Fine silver statuary is also found. Murals covering the entrance and interior walls of monasteries depict Buddhas and bodhisattvas, protector deities, and other themes. Tankas (wall hangings, either painted scrolls or appliqued on cloth or silk) originated as objects of meditation and were formerly used for teaching purposes by travelling lamas (no longer seen within Tibet).

Other objects to assist with meditation are mandala murals and mandala tankas – the mandala is a mystic circle design or cosmogram. A unique Tibetan monastic art form is the creation of sand mandalas – circular sand paintings made by monks with coloured sand over a period of several weeks. Elaborate ceremonies take place at the monastery during and after completion of the sand mandala: it is then destroyed, to indicate the impermanence of all things.

Monasteries in Tibet used to stage an annual ceremony called Cham, with masked dances and accompanying longhorn music performed by the monks. In these rituals, the monks wore masks representing demons, spirits and mythical animals. Cham dance is still occasionally seen within Tibet, but the authorities are highly suspicious of any large gathering of Tibetans, so the chances of seeing a Cham dance in Tibet are rare (in fact, the chances of witnessing one are higher in other parts of the Tibetan world).

Because of their close link with Tibetan Buddhism, many of the Tibetan arts are proscribed or no longer practised in Tibet itself. That means you have to go to the exile community for the real culture. Tibet’s cerebral sacred music is showcased in albums such as Freedom Chants, recorded in India by the exiled Gyuto Monks, who are also featured on the soundtracks for the movies Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet. These monks have mastered the Tibetan meditation technique of chanting with a deep three-note chord, which places such a strain on the vocal chords that the singer is in danger of becoming mute if he overdoes it. As the story goes, throat singing derives from the abbot of a monastery in Tibet who, some 600 years ago, saw a vision of Death. A strange noise came out of his chest and frightened Death away, and monks have been chanting like this ever since. To the untrained ear, it sounds like a human didgeridoo. The monks are able to chant three octaves in a single note because the area around their thorax is more relaxed than that of most mortals. This style of singing is eerily beautiful, and said to enhance meditation –though some find it most disturbing. The weird art of throat singing is also practised in some other Tibetan Buddhist realms such as Tuva and Mongolia, where a high-pitched whistle is added to the three-note dirge.

Oddly enough, Tibetan sacred music has found a place in New Age offerings. Firmly established with New Age musicians is a former monk, Nawang Kechog. Kechog has mastered a number of instruments including the bamboo flute, the Tibetan longhorn and the aboriginal didgeridoo: his albums include Quiet Mind, Sounds of Peace and In a Distant Place.

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