Fifty years ago, the Tibetan society comprised serfs and slaves (referred to as serfs), who constituted 95 percent of Tibet's total population, and the three kinds of manor lords (referred to as serf owners), who constituted 5% of the total population. The three manor lords were officials (of the local government), feudal lords and the upper stratum of the clergy. They owned all land in Tibet (including farmland, grassland, forests, mountains, rivers, river beaches and wasteland), serfs attached to land, and most livestock. In land distribution, the former Tibetan local government directly managed 40 percent of all land, and feudal lords and monasteries owned 30 percent each, whereas serfs basically had nothing. A folk song in Tibet sings: "Wherever rays of the sun reach, that is land belonging to the lord; wherever the water flows, that is land belonging to the lord; and wherever mountain shadows cast, that is land belonging to the lord. The serf does not own a piece of land the size of a sole. What he takes away is nothing but his own shadow." This landowning system inevitably led to economic exploitation of the serfs by serf owners. A principal form of such exploitation is corvee labor called wula in Tibetan.
Wula was a Turkic term. Originally, it refers to services provided by the central government of the Yuan Dynasty along the route between Tibet's Lhasa and Qinghai's Xining..Such services included the provision of horses to officials traveling along the route, transmission of official documents and transportation. Later, it evolved into a term referring to all gratuitous labor services in Tibet. It included corvee, poll tax and land tax. Corvee labor was the simplest and most primitive form of land tax in Tibet under the serf system. Serfs had to devote two-thirds of their time every year to laboring gratuitously on land owned by serf owners, all the while using their own farm tools and eating their own food. And they did labor service under the watchful eyes of feudal lords' agents, foremen and hatchet men, who were ready to punish any perceived disobedience with leather lashes and bludgeons.
Aged slaves who were too old to work any more were driven out by the owners and became beggers.
According to customary law in Tibet, this corvee labor was divided into two major categories: one was labor services, those performed by people and animals (it is called gang zhuo in Tibetan, meaning labor performed on legs); the other consisted of goods and money (it is called na tun, meaning services given away with hand). Of corvee labor, gratuitous labor accounted for about 60 percent, and goods and money 40 percent. With regard to wula labor, a feudal lord would often say: "All land goes with corvee labor, and all serfs have a master." Serfs would say: "Whatever the lord says is wula labor;" and "Wula labor is as numerous as hairs on a yak."
To see how numerous wula labor was, we list the following common varieties in Tibet: woman serfs' labor, official-carrying labor, medicinal materials labor, dyestuffs labor, tiger skin labor, fruit labor, poll tax, paper labor, woolen felt labor, tilling labor, rapeseed oil labor, fuel labor, cattle dropping labor, egg tax, grass tax, mountain tax, broom tax, butchering tax, flower pot tax, scripture chanting fee, and god-inviting fee. These did not include land tax, special land tax and special corvee labor stipulated by the Tibetan local government.
A dying orphan at Nyingchi in old Tibet.
In short, whatever was produced somewhere and it was needed by a serf owner, sure there would be a corresponding wula labor. And serfs owned by different feudal lords had to provide different labor services. This means serfs in different areas had different labor burdens. At the Zhangduo manor in Dazi County, for example, serfs had to provide 14 varieties of corvee labor. Calculated in grain equivalent, this exploitation accounted for 68 percent of the serfs' total incomes. And this is the serfs' external corvee labor only. They had to provide internal labor to feudal lords, too. Local serfs said: "Whatever serf owners needed for production and in their daily life, they would surely demand corvee labor from the serfs." Internal corvee labor accounted for more than 65 percent of a serf's total work time. In Tibet as a whole, the serfs were deprived of more than 80 percent of the fruit of their labor by way of wula labor. Serfs in Tibet endured untold sufferings under the wula labor system.
A slave family who escaped to Lhasa had nowhere to stay but the street.
In Xaitongmoin County in Xigaze Prefecture, the sevenmember. Xuelong Dengzhu family tilled 3.5 ke of corvee land (a ke of land is land requiring 13 kg of seeds for reproduction). The entire family had to work all year round on land owned by their feudal lord. They scarcely had time left for their corvee land. When the sowing seasons came, they had to sow the lord's land first. When weeding became necessary, the lord's land had to be weeded first. When a drought hit, the lord's land was irrigated repeatedly but there was no way they could irrigate their corvee land. When barley turned yellow, they dared not begin harvesting on their own land before harvest had been completed on the lord's land. Their corvee land was of the poorest quality. They had no fertilizer for the land, nor had they time to do careful tilling. And that is why they could harvest very little from the corvee land. The family was busy throughout the year, but hunger and cold always accompanied them. The parents, taking their children, had to run away. But wherever they went, they continued to work for feudal lords, went begging and continued to suffer from hunger and cold.
Caiwang Erzhu used to live in Rixi township in Qamdo's Ningjing County. From his grandfather's time, his family was a labor-providing household for the county government. The four-member family tilled 20 ke of land but, because the land was largely infertile, it yielded little. Every year the family harvested slightly more than 60 ke of grain (about 810 kg) from the 20 ke of land (Surveys show that a ke of seeds yielded only 4-5 ke of harvest on average in old Tibet). Of the 60 ke of grain, half was turned over to the county government, leaving only about 30 ke for the family itself. The family lived a half-starved life all the year round. In slack seasons or in winter, Erzhu's parents worked elsewhere or went begging. When they became really desperate, they had to borrow money from feudal lords.
Whomen slaves also had to carry loads as heavy as more than 100 kilograms.
Corvee providers for monasteries had the same fate as those working for the government and feudal lords. Caiwang Gongbu was a corvee provider for a small lamasery in Qamdo called Gushe. His family of five tilled 15 ke of land owned by the lamasery. Aside from turning over grain to the lamasery as land rent, the family had to pay a firewood fee and a grass fee, which were equivalent to 10 taels of Tibetan silver in value. But greater burden came in the form of corvee labor the family had to provide to the local government and Tibetan soldiers. And they had to report for service whenever they were called and give whatever was required, all the year round. For example, they were asked to give money, firewood, grass, cattle, animal droppings, butter, meat, woolen felt and wool. They had to buy whatever was not available at home and, if they couldn't afford, they had to borrow money. Every year, the family, in addition to providing labor services to the lamasery, had to contribute 200 taels of Tibetan silver worth of goods and services to the local government and Tibetan soldiers, which amounted to more than 300 ke of grain.
Among serfs were a group called dul qiong, which means "small households" in Tibetan. A dui qiong mainly tilled a small piece of land owned by a feudal lord or the feudal lord's agent. In return for the right to till the land, the household provided labor services for the feudal lord or his agent. This was a pure form of labor rent. For such households, the burden of labor rent was even heavier than that for ordinary labor-providing households. Land rented to dui qiong households usually accounted for 5-10 percent of a feudal lord's total land. Compared with ordinary laborproviders, dui qiong led an even more miserable life and had an even lower social status.
A lang sheng(slave) family doing weaving covee in old tibet.
Nixia lives in Dengda village in Qamdo's Zogang County. His family's dui qiong status dated back to his grandfather's time. His parents died of hunger and disease when he was still young. At the age of 20, he found himself all alone and remaining a dui qiong to Lord Dengda Cang. He tilled half a ke of rented land and, together with other serfs in the village, tilled 70 ke of land owned by Lord Dengda. All their labor on the lord's land, from spring sowing to autumn harvest, was free. Yield from his rented land could last him no more than three months. He had to go begging after he had run out of supplies. Even as such misery dogged him, he had to pay dozens of taxes (labor services), including a water service, a grass service, a poll tax and a sunbathing service. He served Lord Dengda for more than 40 years. Nixia recalls: "One day, the local government tried to draft my son to the Tibetan army. Implorations from our family of four produced no result. They seized my son, who was trying to escape, and beat him up. When I tried to protect my son, they hacked my head twice with a knife. Blood rolled down my head and I lost consciousness. My son was taken away and I gradually became blind."
Slaves (called long sheng in Tibetan, meaning "fed at home") had neither means of production nor freedom of the person. They were feudal lords' personal property. Feudal lords called them "animals able to speak." Their children continued to be slaves. The following two examples show what a miserable life slaves in old Tibet used to live.
Duo Zhawa lives in Yamu township in Xigaze, s Ngamring County. His parents used to rent a small piece of land from a feudal lord. But because they couldn't pay back their debt, the landlord took back the land. His parents became migrating beggars. To make a living, they sold themselves to Lord Losang Wang as slaves at the price of a cake of tea and some used clothes. From then on, both served the lord's household day and night, and they had not enough to eat and wear. When Zhawa was ten years old, the lord sent him to northern Tibet to pan for gold. He was given a sheng (about a liter) of highland barley each day and a cake of tea each month, nothing else. He was ordered to pan for at least four qian of gold (about 20 grams) within four months. At the time, the gold was worth 2,700 taels of Tibetan silver, whereas the life expenses he received from his lord were worth just 200 taels. In nine months, the feudal lord could get a net profit of 2,500 taels of Tibetan silver from this child slave. The rate of exploitation was 90 percent. Because he worked in hunger, Duo Zhawa contracted serious gastroenteritis and felt pain in the stomach all the time. As he always stood knee-deep in water, he had arthritis and could barely walk. His younger brother was also a slave. He was raped and beaten to death by the feudal lord.
A serf whose left arm was cut off by the serf owner in old Tibet.
A man called Danzhen lives in Nedong County in Shannan Prefecture. His ancestors were all slaves. He herded 150 pigs for Lord Shangdeng at a very young age. When he was 12, there was a downpour, and four piglets were frozen to death. He was beaten up by the lord, who yelled:" You have to pay back the dead pigs, or I, 11 cut back your grain ration." Danzhen was consequently deprived of one month's grain ration, and he had to eat his father's ration. His father was also a slave of the lord's. When Danzhen turned 15, the lord said to him: "Danzhen, you are about to convert to a chaba, or serviceprovider. A chaba has land to till and is after all better than a slave. I'll let you rent 30 ke of my land. The harvest from 25 ke belongs to me; and that from 5 ke belongs to you." Why was the lord so magnanimous? It turned out that most members of a chaba household who used to till the 30 ke of land had died at the hands of the lord. The one surviving member was too old and fragile to till the land, and the land was taken away from him and the man was driven out of the manor village. When he forced Danzhen to sign the contract, the lord said: "You are my slave and I am your master. You are like my hand. Whatever I tell you to do, you must do it." Thus, Danzhen converted from a slave to a chaba. When spring sowing came and Danzhen had no seeds, he borrowed 30 ke of seeds from his feudal lord after giving the latter a harda (a piece of silk presented to a person as a show of respect) and 30 eggs and imploring him repeatedly. But the seeds were adulterated with 5-6 ke of sand and tiny stones. He borrowed an ox from his lord. The ox would not pull the plough and he gave the beast several lashes. The lord found this and beat Danzhen unconscious. As a chaba, Danzhen had to provide more than 20 varieties of internal labor services for the lord. He decided to escape. But before he cleared the village, he was seized and beaten up by the lord. He was then sent to the prison, where he was further beaten up. Afraid that he might die in the prison, the local government drove him out of the prison. Finding him useless, the lord took back the 30 ke of land and announced that Danzhen continued to be his slave. By then, Danzhen was paralyzed.
In Tibet 50 years ago, the situation in pastoral areas was no better than in agricultural areas. Wula labor was extremely heavy there and serfs tending livestock were even worse off' than farming serfs. This is because feudal exploitation in pastoral areas killed any labor enthusiasm on the part of serfs, resulting in even lower productivity there than in farming areas. In pastoral areas in Tibet as a whole, the survival rate of cattle and sheep was low. According to statistics from most areas, cattle had a 40% pregnancy rate and their young had a 50% survival rate; and sheep had a 70% pregnancy rate and their young had only a 30% survival rate. Serf owners iin pastoral areas collected a "pastoral rent." Serfs paid such rent with butter and wool (or hair), their amount being determined by the size of the herd. All young animals bom of rented livestock belonged to serf owners. Under this system called xie in Tibetan, the rate of exploitation stood at about 50%. There was another system called jie mei ql mei in Tibetan. Compared with "pastoral rent," or the xie system, this was more like blackmail. It ran like this: when a contract was signed, a pastoral landlord would force serfs to accept old and weak animals as rented livestock and calculate the amount of rent according to the original size of the rented herd. Such animals had a high death rate and gave birth to few young. Exploitation rate was even higher than the xie system. A tribe in Qinglong Township in Xigaze's Saga County had 44 herdsman households. In the early 1950s, the families had only five cattle and two sheep left but had to continue paying rent according to what they rented 100 years previously: 78 head of cattle and 196 sheep.
Herdsman Baiqia, a serf, lives in Riqing Township in Nagqu's Amdo County. At ten, he began working for a pastoral lord as a servant. Aside from tending cattle and sheep, he had to do household chores for the lord. He had neither enough to eat nor enough to wear. Sometimes he ate innards of dead cattle and sheep and was beaten up for this. He also had to do labor service for the local government. An official said to him: "Since you have feet, you must provide foot service." At 16, he began providing a postal corvee in the northern Tibetan plateau, between Amdo and Heihe.
Dui qiong's coarse food in old Tibet.
Zhaba is another former herdsman serf, who lives in Baihui Township in Qamdo County. When he was 14, his family had 20 head of cattle and other small pieces of property. For the 20 head of cattle, the family every year had to turn over to their pastoral lord the following: a big packet of butter, four whole slaughtered sheep, 16 bales of grass, two ke of ginseng fruit, an ox hide, two sheepskins and 100 taels of Tibetan silver. The lord ordered: "You must report yourself for service whenever you are called." The family needed to provide (pay) a so-called "ear service" for all human beings, dogs and other animals on the farm. For every ear of the objects of his service, the family must pay one tael of Tibetan silver. The burden was too heavy for the family, which later sold or slaughtered most of the livestock. By the time Zhaba was 30, all the livestock had gone. But this was no escape from misery for the family. They had to provide corvee labor for lamaseries and the local government. As providers of "foot services," they delivered letters, carried officials on back and built houses for them; and they provided officials with firewood as "kitchen men." They became slaves of the local government.