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Tibetan People & Tibetan Ethnic Group
Written on 16th February 2017

The Tibetans with a population of 5.4 million mostly live in the Tibet Autonomous Region. There are also Tibetan communities in Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.

Tibetan language 

The Tibetan language belongs to the Tibetan sub-branch of the Tibetan-Myanmese language branch of the Chinese-Tibetan language family. According to geographical divisions, it has three major local dialects: Weizang, Kang and Amdo. The Tibetan script, an alphabetic system of writing, was created in the early 7th century. With four vowels and 30 consonants, it is used in all areas inhabited by Tibetans.


Living Area

The areas where Tibetans live in compact community are mostly highlands and mountainous country studded with snow-capped peaks, one rising higher than the other. The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau rising about 4,000 meters above sea level is run through from west to east by the Qilian, Kunlun, Tanggula, Gangdise and Himalaya mountain ranges. The Hengduan Mountains, descending from north to south, runs across the western part of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.


Main Occupation

Animal husbandry is the main occupation in Tibet where there are vast expanses of grasslands and rich sources of water. The Tibetan sheep, goat, yak and pien cattle are native to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The yak is a big and long-haired animal, capable of with-standing harsh weather and carrying heavy loads. Known as the "Boat on the Plateau," the yak is a major means of transport as well as a source of meat. The pien cattle, a crossbreed of bull and yak, is the best draught animal and milk producer. In farming, the fast ripening and cold- and drought-resistant qingke, a kind of highland barley, is the main crop. Other crops include wheat, pea, buckwheat and broad bean. In the warmer places in the river valleys, there are rape, potato, turnip, apple and walnut. People also grow rice and cotton in river valleys in southern Tibet where the weather is very warm.

Tibet History

Tibetan history can be traced back to thousands of year, with the written history dates back to the 7th century when Songtsan Gampo, the 33rd Tibetan king, sent his minister Sambhota to India to study Sanskrit who on his return invented the present Tibetan script based on Sanskrit.Tibet's history can be divided into 4 periods:

1. The Tsanpo's Period

This period starts from Nyatri Tsanpo, the first of the Tsanpos, in 127 B.C (historians differ in view of the date, but this date is taken from the White Annales, a reliable book on Tibetan history) and ends in 842 A.D. at the death of Lang Dharma, the last of the Tsanpos, who was assassinated by a Buddhist monk owing to Lang Dharma's ruthless persecution of Buddhism. During this period some 42 Tsanpos had ruled over Tibet among which Songtsan Gampo's rule was considered as the zenith. Songtsan Gamoi was an outstanding ruler, he unified Tibet, changed his capital to Lhasa, sent Sambhota to India to study Sanskrit and promulgated a script for the Tibetan on the latter's arrival to Tibet, married Princess Wencheng of the tang Court and Princess Bhrikuti Debi of Nepal, built the Potala and the temple and the temple of Jokhang 

2. The period of Decentralization

This period began in 842 A.D. the year of Lang Dharma's assassination, and ended in about 1260 A.D, when Pagpa, the Abbot of Sakya monastery, became a vassal of Kublai Khan, the first Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. During this period a little is known in history except that Tibet became decentralized into a number of petty principalities. 

3. The period of Sakya, Pagdu, and Karmapa's Rule

This period began with Sakya's rule over Tibet, followed first by Pagdu's rule in Lhaoka and then by Karmara's rule in the Tsang region (Shigatse). The sakya period was the time written Tibet officially became an inseparable part of China.

This period lasted from 1260 A.D to 1642 A.D during which political powers centered in the three regions of Sakya, Pagdu, and tsang successively ruled over Tibet. 

4. The period of the gandan Podrang's Administration

This period is the period in which the Dalai Lama ruled Tibet. It started in 1642 A.D. when the 5th Dalai Lama overtook the ruling power from the Tsang ruler. It basically ended in 1951 when Tibet was liberated and came to a complete end in 1959 when rebellion led by the Dalai Lama was pacified and the People's Government of the Tibet, Autonomous Region was set up.


Serf System 

Before the democratic reform was carried out, the Tibetan areas were dominated by the serf system that integrated political and religious powers.

The local government set up by the Qing Dynasty in Tibet, which was called Kasha, was run by four Kaloons (ministers), three laymen and one lama. The local government consisted of two offices. One was called Zikang (auditor's office), which was formed by four lay officials who administered all affairs about lay officials and audited local revenue, corvee and taxes. The other was called Yicang, a secretarial office formed by four lamas who administered all affairs about religious officials. The Tibetan local government accepted, in name, the leadership of the Dalai Lama or a regent.

The Dalai Lama was served by several Kampos or lama officials who took care of the Dalai Lama's office and affairs of his residence – the Potala Palace.

Owing to historical developments, there were some regional regimes beyond the control of the local government. In Outer Tibet, an internal affairs office called Nangmakang was formed by Bainqen's important Kampos, which was later called Bainqen Kampo Lija  (changed into a committee after liberation). It accepted, in name, the leadership of Bainqen. Similarly, several other areas were governed by the local sect leaders or headmen. These were the legacies of the Tusi and Wanhu systems.

The basic administrative unit, equivalent to a county, was called Zong in Tibetan and the unit under it, equivalent to a district, was called Si, short for Sika or manor. Some large Sikas had the status of the Zong. Certain tribal organizations still existed on a few pastoral areas, which were subject to the leadership of the Tibet local government.

In Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, some Tibetan areas came under the administration of the provincial governments in the Qing Dynasty. But most of the areas were still under the jurisdiction of Tusi officials and big monasteries.

The local regimes established on the basis of feudal serfdom that integrated political and religious powers were in the hands of feudal manorial lords, who were either lamas or laymen. They expanded the Tibetan army or formed local retainer forces to protect their reactionary rule. They formulated laws and regulations, set up prisons and used instruments of torture. Even the manors and monasteries had their own private prisons. They seized serfs' property by hook or by crook, punished them at will and executed serfs trying to run away or accused of violating the law. They used such shocking tortures as gouging out the eyes, cutting off the nose or hands, hamstringing or breaking the kneecap.

Tibetan society was rigidly stratified. The people were divided into three strata in nine grades, according to the size of the land they possessed. The social ladder extended from senior officials, hereditary aristocracy and higher lamas all the way down to herdsmen, serfs and craftsmen. But, generally speaking, these people fell into two major opposing classes -- the serf owners and the serfs.

The Tibet local government was legally the owner of all the land and pasture. It in turn parceled out the land to the aristocrats and monasteries as their manors. The officialdom, the nobility and the clergy thus became the three major categories of feudal lords.

The manors held by the officialdom, called Zhungchi, were directly managed by the local government and contracted out to serfs for rent. Part of the rent was used as remuneration for senior officials and the rest portioned out to government offices as their operating expenses.

Noble titles in Tibet were hereditary or granted for meritorious services. Ranking was commensurate with the amount of property possessed. There were about 200 to 300 noble families in Tibet. About 20 of them owned scores of manors each.

The manors of monasteries were bestowed by the local government or donated by the nobles. Some of them were the property of the monasteries and the rest belonged to higher lamas. A number of manors owned by monasteries were totally controlled by the top living Buddhas or lamas there.

The three major categories of feudal lords and their henchmen accounted for about five percent of the Tibetan population. The nobles and the monasteries each owned about 30 percent of the land in Tibet and the remaining 40 percent belonged to the local government.

The land and pasture in the Tibetan areas other than Tibet were controlled by headmen, local officials and other members of the ruling groups and monasteries.

The serfs included Thralpas and Dudchhong, who accounted for over 90 percent of the Tibetan population. With no land or personal freedom, they were chattels of their lords.

Thralpas were persons doing unpaid labor. In Tibet, a thralpa tilled a small piece of land rented from the manorial lord, which was called thralkang land. To obtain such a piece of land, a thralpa had to perform all kinds of services for the local government and do unpaid labor on the manor.

Dudchhong, meaning small household, is a lower rank among the serfs made up of bankrupt thralpas. Dudchhongs were not allowed to till thralkang land. Instead, they had to depend on manorial lords or richer thralpas, doing hard work for them while tilling a tiny piece of land to feed themselves.

Five percent of the Tibetans were house slaves, called Nangzan.

With no means of production or personal freedom, they were the most heavily oppressed class in Tibet and had to do the hardest jobs all their lives.

Besides, some remnants of clan society still lingered on in the nomadic tribes in remote areas. On the other hand, in villages close to the Han people's farming areas, a landlord economy had emerged.

Serfs in all Tibetan areas were overburdened with exorbitant rents in cash or in kind. More than 70 percent of their annual proceeds were taken away by manorial lords, plunging them into dire poverty.

Apart from paying exorbitant rents, serfs had to do all kinds of corvee labor, which was called Ulag.

Taxes and levies in Tibetan areas were innumerable. Some levies had been temporary at first and were later made regular. In certain places, scores or even more than 100 different kinds of tax were recorded.

All the manorial lords, especially the monasteries, were usurers. They cruelly exploited the serfs by forcing them to accept loans at usurious rates of interest or exchange of unequal values. Usurious loans often ruined the serfs and their families or reduced them to beggary or slavery.

The serfs and slaves, who accounted for over 95 percent of the population, were bound for life to the land of the manorial lords, ordered about and enslaved from generation to generation. They were freely given away as gifts, donations or dowries, sold or exchanged for goods. Long shackled by feudal serfdom, the population of the Tibetan ethnic group showed little growth and production stagnated.



Tibetan Culture 

Under the rule of feudal serfdom, which combined political and religious powers, the Tibetans' social life and customs and habits bore obvious marks of their historical traditions and distinctive culture.

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 the 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 Living Buddhas often add the names of their houses, official ranks or honorific titles before their names. 

All Tibetans, men and women, like to wear ornaments. Men usually wear a queue coiled on top of the head. Some cut their hair short, like a canopy. Women, when coming of age, begin to plait their hair into two queues or many tiny queues which are adorned with ornaments. Both men and women wear felt or fine fur hats. They wear long-sleeved silk or cloth jackets topped with loose gowns which are tied with a band on the right. Women in some farming areas wear sleeveless gowns or home-spun wool. Herdsmen and women do not wear jackets, but are clad in sheepskin robes, with sleeves, collars and fronts edged with fine fur or dyed cloth laces. Men wear trousers and women wear skirts. All men and women wear woolen or leather boots. Men have long waistbands while women in farming areas wear aprons with beautiful patterns. They use woolen blankets as mattresses or cushions and their quilts are made of sheepskin or wool. Poor peasants and herdsmen have neither mattresses nor quilts.

They often leave one or both arms uncovered while tying the sleeves around the waist, making it convenient for working. The Tibetan gown which is very big also serves as both mattress and quilt at night. Lamas wear the kasaya, a patchwork outer vestment of purplish red felt. They wrap their bodies with long pieces of cloth and wear aprons, tall boots and monks' hats.

Zamba, roasted qingko barley or pea meal mixe d with tea, is the staple food of Tibetan peasants. Tea with butter or milk is the favorite of all Tibetans. Buttered tea is made in a wooden tub. In pastoral areas, the staple foods are beef and mutton. They eat out of wooden bowls and with short-handled knives which they always carry with them. The Tibetans take five or six light meals a day and have a liking for qingko wine. Sour milk and cheese are also standard fare. In some areas, people also eat rice and noodles. Women in pastoral areas use butter as ointment to protect their skin. Lamas may eat meat.

People in the farming areas live in stone houses while those in pastoral areas camp in tents. The Tibetan house has a flat roof and many windows, being simple in structure and color. Of a distinctive national style, Tibetan houses are often built on elevated sunny sites facing the south.

In the monasteries, the main hall also serves as the prayer hall, with dagobas of different sizes built in front of the main entrance for burning pine and cypress twigs. There are numerous prayer wheels, which are to be turned clockwise in praying for happiness and hoping to avert disaster.

Communications were poor in the old days, with yaks and mules as the chief means of transport. Riding horses were reserved for the manorial lords, who decorated the saddles according to their ranks and positions. Cattle hide rafts, wooden boats and canoes hewed out of logs were used in water transportation. Suspension, cable and simple wooden bridges were seen occasionally.

In some big towns and monasteries, there were a few carpenters, blacksmiths, stone carvers and weavers. They, too, had to perform services and pay taxes to manorial lords and were looked down upon by other people.

Farmers used crude implements such as iron plough shares, hoes, sickles and rakes and wooden tools. Cultivation was extensive, with crop rotation and fallow. Weeding and manuring were done very rarely, resulting in low output. In livestock breeding areas, the tools were even more primitive. Herds were moved about with the seasons, and the herdsmen never laid aside fodder nor built sheds for the winter. Farmers and livestock breeders had no way of resisting natural calamities and pests, but praying to gods for protection. Natural disasters usually devastated large tracts of land and took heavy tolls of animals.

The Tibetan family is male-centered and marriage is a strictly inner-class affair. Marriage relationships vary from place to place. In some areas, cousins on the male line are forbidden to marry while cousins on the female line who are several times removed are allowed to marry each other. In other areas, cousins on the male line who are several times removed may marry each other, with no restrictions on intermarriages between relatives on the female line.

Monogamy is the principal form of marriage. There is no inhibition on social intercourse between young men and women before marriage.

The husband controls and inherits the property of the family and the wife is subordinate to the husband, even if he is married into a woman's family. The proportion of polygamy is small. Marriages between serfs had to be approved by their manorial lords. When serfs on different manors got married, one party had to pay a certain amount of ransom to the manorial lord of the other party or the manorial lord of one party had to give a serf to the other lord as compensation. Without the permission of their manorial lords, the serfs could not get married all their lives.

The commandments of the yellow sect Lama, which holds a predominant position in Lamaism, forbid the monks to marry. Monks belonging to the other sects are free to marry and the weddings are held at religious services in their lamaseries.

The most common form of burial in Tibet is sky burial, called Jator, meaning "feeding the birds." The bodies are taken to the Jator site in the mountains and fed to vultures. Upon the death of a reincarnate living Buddha, a grand ceremony is held. Having been embalmed with spices and antiseptics, the body is wrapped in five-colored silk, and enshrined in a dagoba. The bodies of ordinary living Buddhas and higher lamas are usually cremated after being rubbed with butter, and the ashes are kept in a designated place as the last dedication to the monastery. But cremation is forbidden in the harvest season. All these forms of burial indicate that the deceased have gone to the next world.

In the old days, ceremonies and religious rites were held for weddings, burials or births in the homes of manorial lords. For the serfs, however, these meant nothing but extra services. Women had to give births outside their houses and women serfs had to work only a few days after delivery. Lack of proper medical care and nutrition resulted in a very high infant mortality rate.

The strict social caste system was manifested even in the use of language. The Tibetan language has three major forms of expression: the most respectful, the respectful and the everyday speech, to be used respectively to one's superiors, one's peers and one's inferiors.

The social distinctions were also reflected in people's dresses, houses, horses and Hadas – silk scarves presented on all social occasions to show respect.

Lamaism belongs to the Mahayana School of Buddhism, which was introduced into Tibet in the seventh century and developed into Lamaism by assimilating some of the beliefs and rites of the local religion called "Bon." Lamaism is divided into many different sects, each claiming to be the orthodox. Apart from the Red sect, all the others, including the White sect, the Sakya sect and the Yellow sect, established at different times local regimes that integrated political and religious powers.

The Yellow sect practices the institution of reincarnation of living Buddhas. The Dalai Lama and Bainqen Erdini are supposed to be the reincarnations of two Grand Living Buddhas of the Yellow sect. It was stipulated during the Qing Dynasty that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, the Bainqen Lama and other Grand Living Buddhas of the Yellow sect had to be approved by the Qing court or determined by drawing lots from a gold urn. When a Grand Living Buddha dies, his disciples are required to choose a child, in most cases from a noble family, to be his reincarnation. Monasteries of the Yellow sect are scattered all over the Tibetan areas. The most famous of them are the Sera, Drepung, Zhashi Lumpo and Qamdo, as well as Lapuleng in Gansu and Ta'er in Qinghai.

In the western part of Tibet and the pastoral areas of Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, the early Tibetan native religion, the Bon, known locally as the Black sect, is still active. There are also Taoist temples built by the Han people, mosques built by the Huis and some Christian and Catholic churches built by foreign missionaries in a few places.

A large amount of cultural relics, including ancient scripts, woodblock, metal and stone carvings, have been preserved in the Tibetan areas. The engraved block printing technique was introduced from other parts of China. Some books were written in Sanskrist on loose leaves. Apart from the two well-known collections of Buddhist scriptures known as the Kanjur and the Tanjur, there are works on prosody, language, philosophy, history, geography, astronomy, mathematics and medicine as well as novels, operas, biographies, poetry, stories and fables, which are all distinguished for their unique styles. Many of the early works, such as the Thirty Rules of Tibetan Grammar, the four-part Ancient Encyclopedia of Tibetan Medicine, Feast of the Wise, the epic Princess Wen Cheng, world's longest epic poem King Gesser, the biographical novels Milarib and Boluonai, the Sakya Maxims and the Love Songs of Cangyang Gyacuo (the Sixth Dalai Lama), are very popular and have been translated into many languages and distributed in China and abroad.

Education in the Tibetan areas used to be monopolized by the monasteries. Some of the lamas in big lamaseries, who had learned to read and write and recite Buddhist scriptures and who had passed the test of catechism in the Buddhist doctrine, would be given the degree of Gexi, the equivalent of the doctoral degree in theology.

Others, after a period of training, would be qualified to serve as religious officials or preside over religious rites.

Tibetan medicine has a long history. Doctors of this school of medicine pay great attention to practical skills. They diagnose illnesses by observation, auscultation, smelling, interrogation and pulse feeling. They also know how to collect medicinal herbs and prepare drugs and are skilled in acupuncture, moxibustion and surgery. Tibetan doctors are especially outstanding in veterinary medicine.

The Tibetans have their own calendar. They designate the years by using the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth), yin and yang, and the 12 animals representing the 12 Earthly Branches. A year is divided into four seasons and 12 months; which have 29 or 30 days. 

The technique of Tibetan sculpture is superb. The portraits of the Grand Living Buddhas are the very images of the persons depicted. Tibetan painting features fine lines, well-knitted composition, vivid expressions of figures and bright colors. Tibetan architecture is unique in style, with buildings neatly arranged or rising like magnificent towers and castles. The Potala Palace in Lhasa was built on the sunny side of a mountain slope. With golden roofs and white-washed walls, the building rises naturally with the slope, looking extremely imposing. It is a masterpiece of Tibetan architecture.

Maxims and proverbs are very popular among the Tibetans. The metaphors are lively and pregnant with meaning. Tibetans are also good dancers and singers. Their songs and music are well-modulated in tone and the words fit well with the tunes. They often dance while they sing. Their dancing is beautiful with movements executed either with the arms and waist or with legs and feet, and the tap dance is most typically Tibetan. Most of the musical instruments were introduced from the interior of China. Long-handled drums and trumpets are the main musical instruments used by the lamas. They can depict natural sounds, the cries of animals and the singing of birds that can be heard at a great distance. Religious dances are often performed by people wearing masks of deities, humans or animals. The Tibetan opera is one of the famous opera forms in China. It is performed without curtain or stage. In the past, all performers were men. Wearing masks, they danced and sang to the accompaniment of musical instruments. Sometimes the orchestra would chime in with the singers, creating a lively atmosphere.

There are many taboos and activities that bear a strong mark of religion. Buddhists are forbidden to kill. Many wild animals, including fish, field vole, Mongolian gazelle and vulture, are under protection. The Tibetans, rich or poor, all have family niches for keeping Buddha statues. Most people wear a metal amulet box, about the size of a cigarette case, on the breast, and turn prayer wheels. It is forbidden to turn prayer wheels counter-clockwise and stride over ritual objects and braziers.

The Tibetan New Year is the most important festival in Tibet. People in their holiday best extend greetings to each other and go to the monasteries to receive blessings. On the 15th day of the first moon, all major monasteries hold religious rites and all families light up butter lamps when night falls. It is also the occasion for lamas in the Ta'er (Ghumbum) monastery in Qinghai and the Qoikang monastery in Lhasa to display their exquisite and beautifully  decorated butter carvings.