Stories of Horror Throws Light on Cruelty of Serfdom in Old Tibet
We are going to tell you some stories that took place in old Tibet, before the Democratic Reform in the late 1950s, about how, for the sole ¡°crime¡± of being slaves or serfs, people had their limbs amputated, eyes gouged out or noses cut off. These stories of horror might be beyond comprehension of any person with the least sense of human civilization, even though they are real.
The system of serfdom practiced in old Tibet featured a combination of civil and religious rule, under which the vast majority of the Tibetans, the serves and slaves, had their lives placed at the mercy of serf owners and religious aristocrats. Here goes an old folk song:
My parents gave me life
But my body belongs to the government; I¡¯m alive - only in theory
As I¡¯m deprived of freedom.
Sufferings of Slaves and Serfs
Bhaqing, now 63, was born a slave because his mother was a slave. At 12, he was already doing what a strong, healthy adult would find difficult to do-serving three dozen lamas while tending a flock of yaks. Never in a day did he have a breathing spell, as he was also charged with carrying water and collecting firewood and dried yak droppings for fuel. At 20, he was press-ganged into the Tibetan army.
¡°I was reluctant to be a soldier, but I had to,¡± Bhaqing recalls. ¡°I was told that if I refused to be a soldier, I would have to hire a person to serve in the army in my stead or be jailed for three years. They also said that I would receive 100 lashes each and every day while in jail.¡±
Believe it or not, many recruits, who were also slaves or serfs like Bhaqing, had to rob or steal in order to survive because the old Tibetan army did not provide them with food and uniforms. Unwilling to rob or steal, Bhaqing sold his rifle instead and, for that, he had his legs skinned, his cheeks torn open and his nose cut off. ¡°My wrists were tied to the tail of a horse after I confessed to the regiment commander what I had done,¡± he recalls. ¡°The horse kept galloping for five days, dragging me on the rock-strewn road. I was barely alive when finally I found myself in jail. Then they skinned my legs. While doing so, they kept sprinkling salt water on the raw flesh. About two weeks later, they dragged me to the side of a river for a public display of how a ¡°criminal¡± was to be punished. They hooked my cheeks, and then pull the hooks in opposite directions until my cheeks were torn open. In the end, they cut off my nose.¡±
A display of wooden leg shackles used on slaves and serfs in old Tibet.
Bhaiqia, a former serf at Anduo County in northern Tibet, had his right hand cut off and his brother had his eyes gouged out allegedly for stealing three horses belonging to a lamasery. Though serfs, Bhaiqia and his brother had been able to buy two yaks and six sheep with money they had saved. ¡°We were trapped by the son of a local herd owner,¡± Bhaiqia says. ¡°The guy told us that he had found three horses around, saying that nobody would claim them. He asked us to drive the horses to his grazing ground and promised to keep them for us. My brother did as he said.¡±
But, before long, a lamasery sent people to come and claim ownership of the horses. The brothers apologized and returned the animals along with some gifts. Despite that, the local government arrested them, accusing them of having angered gods by stealing from a lamasery. The brothers were jailed for three months, during which the elder had his right hand cut off and the younger, his eyes gouged out. ¡°It is only then did we come to realize that we had been taken in,¡± Bhaiqia says. ¡°The guy who had cheated us was an official at the local government. He had engineered everything against us, in order to rob us of our yaks and sheep.¡±
Chaiba Cideng, another serf, and his brother had the ankle tendons pulled out for being unable to pay the contributions due to their master. The family raised 28 heads of cattle, for which every year they had to pay their master 24 kilograms of butter, two live sheep and two sheep skins, plus six ounces of silver. ¡°We¡¯d got to pay an extra 150 ounces of silver every time the master went out for travel,¡± Chaiba Cideng says.
When Chaiba Cideng was 25 years old, snowstorms hit the area and 26 heads of their cattle died in the disasters. The family had to beg for a living and six members of the family died of hanger and cold. Despite that, the family had to pay the dues all the same. On advice of their parents, Chaiba Cideng and a brother went into hiding. When the master got wind of what the brothers had done, he had their parents and two sisters jailed and tortured. A few days afterwards, the brothers were caught from their hiding place and sent to the prison affiliated to a lamasery. Then the brothers had their ankle tendons pulled out before a crowd. ¡°They cut open our ankles, and pull out the tendons as hard as they could until the tendons were broken,¡± Chaiba Cideng recalls. ¡°After that, they poured boiling butter on the wounds. We lost consciousness. After I came to, I saw dogs around, licking our blood on the ground.¡±
In Headmen¡¯s Houses
When Taba Chaiba was 14, his mother died. The family had seven children. Unable to support them, the father sent the eldest children to local headmen¡¯s houses, hoping that they would have a chance of staying alive by being there.
One of Taba Chaiba¡¯s younger sisters worked for a headman named Baichong. It so happened that one day, the girl overturned a milk bucket and, for that, Baichong¡¯s wife struck her with a rock on her belly. Three days afterwards, the girl died. Then came the death of a brother, who was just 11 years old. The horses he was tending ran astray and he was flogged for that. Unable to bear the suffering, the boy tried to run away. Chased by the headman all over the mountain, he fell from a cliff while running pell-mell.
At 18, Taba Chaiba found himself in the mansion of the local headman, where he toiled day and night as a slave. He ran away like his brother. He was caught a few days afterwards, and had his right kneecap removed. ¡°The wound festered, and was infested with maggots,¡± he says. ¡°Though barely able to walk, I had to work, this time for the headman¡¯s sister.¡±
The story of Taba Chaiba was far from exceptional in old Tibet. At 12, Yundian, now living at Xigaze in western Tibet, was already forced to work for a lamasery, tending 60 yaks and 100 sheep. ¡°Never did I have enough to eat,¡± she recalls. ¡°At night, I slept in the animal shed, side by side with the sheep. Once a wolf took away a sheep from the flock. For that, I got a sound beating.¡±
The worst came in the summer of 1953 when 40 sheep died of an infectious disease. ¡°The master gave us two days to pay back, which we were certainly unable to do,¡± Yundian says. ¡°So we decided to run away.¡± The escapees, Yundian, her mother and her stepfather, were caught before long. ¡°My mother had her fingers cut off, and my stepfather, his eyes gouged out,¡± she says. ¡°I was tied to a tree and flogged. The beating was so hard that my left eye went blind.¡±
At the hand of Religious Upper Class
One day in the first half of 1950, a building at a monastery caught fire. Serfs in the area rushed to the scene and, together with some of the lamas, put out the fire before it spread to other parts of the monastery. No serious damage was caused. The living Buddha of the monastery, however, stated categorically that this was a case of arson. Four serfs were thrown into the jail affiliated to the monastery as suspects of the alleged ¡°crime.¡± They were buried alive a few weeks later, after torture failed to exhort confession from them. One of the victims, Gelong, had his hands cut off before he was buried alive. The hands, already mummified, are still there, kept in a box at the monastery.
Showing the authors the mummified hands, Gesang, Gelong¡¯s widow, says that she and another woman were also jailed. ¡°We were forced to strip half naked, and were tied together,¡± she says. ¡°They beat us with a club of hard timber, as hard as iron, and they threatened to bury us alive, too. Our legs were festered, stained with pus and blood.¡±
The women were tortured day after day, until they were transferred to a government prison at the foot of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, where they were jailed, together with two men, in a damp, dark cell infested with scorpions. Gesang stayed there for six months without trial, before she was exiled to southern Tibet, along with her children, a son and two daughters. ¡°They (officials) sold my son and pocketed the money immediately after we arrived (at the place of exile),¡± she says. ¡°To protect the girls from being sold, I ran away with them. The younger girl died shortly afterwards. I and the elder girl went to Lhasa, where we had to beg for a living.¡±
Whence the Cruelty?
After reading these stories, you may wonder why the ruling class of old Tibet could be so cruel to those they ruled. Ask any former slave or serf, a man or a woman like Bhaqing, Bhaiqia or Gesang, and you will get the same answer: their sufferings resulted from those centuries-old laws, written or unwritten, designed to nail the wretched down in an eternally dark abyss.
A cage in which those convicted as criminals were forced to stand to be humiliated in public.
Two legal codes were practiced in Tibet before the late 1950s, the Quechimu, or the ¡°religious code¡± and Jiachimu, or the ¡°secular code¡±. The religious code applied to cases in which lamas were the accused. A lama came under the jurisdiction of the secular code only after he was deprived of the religious status he had enjoyed. Both codes date back to 1,300 years ago, when Tibet was a slavery society under the Tubo Kingdom. As time went by, the codes were ¡°updated¡± by incorporating, in particular, laws of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) when China was ruled by the Mongols. There were also statutes enacted by local governments. Lamaseries, too, could make ¡°laws¡± to suit their own needs. Beside these written laws and statutes, the slaves and serfs had to abide by numerous unwritten laws and statutes, under which their masters were authorized to punish them in whatever ways. Likewise, civilian and religious aristocrats were able to set up their own prisons to jail any of their subjects with whom they had found faults. In short, whatever an individual member of the ruling class said would be law.
The old legal codes divided people into three categories, those of the upper class, those of the middle class and those of the lower class. People belonging to a specific class were re-divided into three groups who were different in social status. Based on this kind of division, the codes stated in explicit terms that the class of serf owners and religious aristocrats was divine-mandated to rule the slaves and serfs. In other words, the slaves and serfs were destined to suffer, and on no account must they resist this divine will. Here are some legal provisions pertaining to slaves and serfs: ¡°Thou shall not be disobedient to the Wise and the Noble;¡± ¡°Thou shall follow the way traversed by the previous kings;¡± and ¡°Thou shall speak and act according to Buddhist teachings.¡± Cases involving people of different social status were handled with vastly different ways. Let¡¯s see some of the legal provisions pertaining to this: ¡°The subordinate beating the superior and the petty official showing disobedience to his senior shall be a serious crime;¡± ¡°Being rebellious on the part of the populace shall be a serious crime.¡± In old Tibet, ¡°Any person refusing to be obedient to his or her master shall be arrested.¡± The codes obliged the thief to pay an indemnity seven or eight times the value of what he or she had stolen from a commoner, and 80 times the value of the articles stolen from a serf owner, a lamasery or a nobleman. In case the victim is a top ruler, the indemnity, in value, would be ten thousand times the stolen articles. The servant would have his hands and legs cut off for causing physical injuries to the master. In case the master caused physical injuries to the servant, the master would have the servant treated but would not pay any indemnity. In case a senior official, a high ranking aristocrat or a master living Buddha was murdered, the person convicted of the crime would be sentenced to death plus an indemnity in gold of the same weight as the victim. In contrast, the indemnity would be of the same value as a straw rope if the victim was a blacksmith, a slaughterer, a beggar, a vagrant or a woman of the lower class. Corporal punishments included amputation of the limbs and having the ankle tendons pulled out, the eyes gouged out, the tongue or nose cut off and the kneecaps removed. Death sentences were often carried out by having the condemned drowned or the hurtled down from a high cliff. After sentencing, a common criminal or a criminal from a faraway place was left at the mercy of street gang leaders, or was ordered to beg, with his or her feet shackled, during daytime and jailed for the night. Tools of torture included iron chains, handcuffs, leg shackles, whips, clubs, as well as wooden cages in which the criminal-in many cases innocent-was ordered to stand for exposure to public humiliation. A victim could also have his hands fried in boiling oil or be forced to ride a bronze horse white hot in fire. The person could also have his neck broken and die by ¡°wearing¡± a stone ¡°cap¡± weighing scores of kilograms.
We have countless more stories to tell about those untold sufferings that slaves and serfs in old Tibet were forced to undergo, from which it won¡¯t be difficult for us to draw a proper conclusion on what kind of society old Tibet was.
Archive research by Li Chaoqun & Jia Fu, who and the author work with the Ethnic Groups¡¯