A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State


By Melvyn C. Goldstein

University of California Press

Copyright © 1991 Melvyn C. Goldstein
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0520075900

The Manorial Estate and Serfdom, 1913–1951

The two types of economically productive landholdings in Tibet were manorial estates held by lay aristocrats, monasteries, and incarnate lamas, and land directly held by the government. The majority of the country's land and people were organized into manorial estates: recent Chinese accounts state that they accounted for 62 percent of the total arable land, 37 percent in the form of religious estates and 25 percent in aristocratic estates.7

Manorial estates were hereditary and, as in Europe, the main source of wealth. They consisted of arable land and a "bound" labor force of serfs obligated to farm it. Tibetan manorial estates consisted of two distinct sections: demesne fields, constituting about one-half to three-fourths of an estate's arable land, from which the lord received the total yield; and the remaining fields, from which the serfs derived their subsistence. The serfs' primary function was to cultivate the lord's demesne fields. They did all the agricultural work on these fields, at the times specified by the estate lord. They received no wages and, generally, no food from the lord on the days they worked. The lord, however, provided seed and, in most cases, plow animals. Serfs were also responsible for such other tasks as repairing the lord's house, transporting his crops, and collecting his firewood. They also often had to make some payments in kind. Some serfs, moreover, were selected in childhood for lifetime labor obligations as soldiers, monks, nuns, or house servants.8

In Tibetan social theory, serfs were obliged to provide this free labor because they held a treten ("tax base"), consisting of their hereditary tenement fields. They had complete control over these fields with the exception of the power of sale. They planted what and when they wanted, and they retained the entire harvest. They could also lease their fields to others. Within any given estate, the tax a serf was obligated to pay was specified in written documents. The total labor and tax obliga-

Epstein 1983: 406. The late Surkhang Shape estimated that monastic and lay estates accounted for slightly more than 50 percent of the total land including Kham (eastern Tibet), and for a greater percentage of Central Tibet. Epstein's figure is derived from official figures exhibited in Lhasa.

House serfs (servants) did not have their own land base but were supplied with food and clothes by the lord.



tion of a family of serfs was normally proportional to the percentage of the tenement fields it held. For example, in the Nyare valley east of Sera monastery, a woman we will call Pema grew up as a serf of Sera monastery. Her family had to pay taxes on two tax bases, one directly from the monastery and the other from the central government. They were a wealthy family with landholdings (42 ke of land) larger than those currently held by families in Nyare.9 Pema's family tax obligations were substantial. They had to send one worker virtually every day to work on their lord's demesne fields or to do other tasks such as carrying manure. In addition, they had to provide a second laborer during the period from the sixth day of the Tibetan seventh month to the twentieth day of the Tibetan twelfth month, and then another worker in autumn for sixty-one days. They also had to supply a special type of cookie when the monks of Sera went on their annual retreat for sixteen days in the seventh month, and perform the difficult corvée transportation obligation.

The transportation corvée was one of the backbones of the central government's administration of the country. Tibet was divided into major routes which were subdivided into stations (satsig ), each of which was located one half-day's walk from the next to insure that peasants in one area would be able to make a round trip to the next station in a single day. The system operated simply. The central government issued permits (lamyik ) authorizing the holder to demand transportation and riding animals, often numbering in the hundreds, from the serfs upon presentation of the permit at a station. Holders of these permits could also obtain shelter and food either free or at minimal cost.10 This system enabled the government to move people and goods effectively throughout its vast territory at no expense to itself and with no need to employ officials in villages throughout the countryside. Providing animals and accommodations on demand was one of the most difficult labor obligations for serfs, because the permit holder could arrive at a station as late as the afternoon before the animals were required. This made it necessary for the serfs to maintain sizable numbers of carrying animals

A ke is a standard Tibetan volume measure, equivalent to about 33 pounds of barley.

Surkhang, interview.



in their houses rather than in distant pasture areas.11 In turn, this meant that they had to grow or purchase enormous quantities of fodder for these animals.

Tibetan serfs, however, were not necessarily downtrodden, and some serfs, such as Pema's family, held substantial amounts of land and were quite affluent. They might well have their own "hereditary" servants and numerous tenants who provided agricultural labor in return for the lease of some of their fields. The Tibetan serf system also had a category of landless serfs who could live and work away from their estate, although they were still tied to their lord, to whom they paid an annual fee called mibo ("human lease").12

Serfdom was the foundation for the manorial estate system and for the political and monastic system. It was an efficient system of economic exploitation that guaranteed to the country's religious and secular elites a permanent and secure labor force to cultivate their landholdings without burdening them either with any direct day-to-day responsibility for the serfs' subsistence or with the need to compete for labor in a market context.

The Tibetan serf-based system also delegated substantial government rights to the lords. As a consequence, the government maintained no police or magistrate force in the rural areas, and district commissioners intervened in local disputes only when one of the parties brought the case before them. The serf-estate system therefore greatly reduced the need for a complex and elaborate structure of government and relieved the government of the necessity of generating large revenues for the salaries of lay officials and for maintaining a vast monastic complex in which as many as 15 to 20 percent of the males were monks.13 It is not surprising, therefore, that at the height of its power, during the period 1913–1951, there were only 400 to 500 fully gazetteered lay and monk officials administering a country that contained at least

Animals such as yaks, mules, and horses were normally kept in mountain pasture areas several days' distance from the village.

For detailed discussion of human-lease serfs see Goldstein 1971, and Goldstein, 1986.

Surkhang (interview) said that a government survey conducted in the 1950s revealed a total of about 90,000 monks in Tibet, and the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences mentioned a 1950s survey reporting 2,700 monasteries and 120,000 monks (Pawang, interview). It is not clear whether these refer to the same survey.



one million inhabitants in an area that was almost as large as Western Europe.14

This, however, does not imply that the central government did not exercise authority over the entire country; it did.



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