Rise and Fall of Tibetan Nobility
   2011-05-17 17:39:57    tibet.cn      Web Editor: Zhang
The nobility of old Tibet lived mostly in sumptuous mansions on Barkor Street. After many years of renovation, most of them are now well preserved, although a few have been demolished. Architecturally, they are by and large similar to one another in layout, resembling the siheyuan (courtyard houses) of the Han people, and have a framework consisting of "four beams and eight pillars." The main building, which always faces south, is three or four stories high. Around the yard are rooms connected by corridors leading to the yard. Due to a severe shortage of building materials, glass was not used for window panes, transparent paper or light cloth being used instead.

Nobles and their servants made up the main body of the local residents of Lhasa. A nobleman would also have grand manorial estates in the countryside. There, he had warehouses, granaries, stables, workshops, and even a prison for locking up unruly serfs. A manorial estate was virtually a self-reliant economy, and was governed by its own autonomous rules.

In 1920s and 1930s, and again in 1950s, there were two migrations by Tibetan nobles away from Barkor Street to the suburbs, where they built villas. They planted pine trees, fruit trees and willows in their large gardens. They imitated the British way of life, which they had learned from contacts with India. The beams they used for building their houses were light iron rails imported from India by trains of pack animals. Besides, they started to bring in glass panes and window frames, also from India. Now their villas were bright and spacious. The second wave of migration to the suburbs was caused by the new government offering large sums of money to purchase mansions on Barkor Street to be used as office buildings.

When the l3th Dalai Lama came to power, he pressed forward with new policies, and for a time the nobles of Lhasa became very reform-minded. In the forefront of the reforms was a family headed by Triring. This family had migrated to Lhasa from Sikkim. In the past, Sikkim had been under the jurisdiction of Tibet, and people from Sikkim had often served in the Tibetan government and owned estates in Tibet. But while Triring was living in Lhasa, Sikkim was seized by the for the Tibet's ruling class. A large number of aristocrats of the Tubo kingdom perished with the collapse of the regime. This was followed by a period of several hundred years, during which Tibet was carved up an ruled by various local powers. They were, either temporal or religious, recognized later by the imperial court of the Yuan Dynasty and imperial decrees gave them the right to own farmland and serfs. In modern times, the Tibetan aristocracy has all but disappeared.

The rise of a new nobility was particularly clear after the fifth Dalai lama came to power. Especially the clan to which the new ruler belonged gained in wealth and prestige.

On the other hand, the extinction of a clan is exemplified by the history of the Ngapoi, which was once the most powerful family group in the Gongbo area. In the mid-18th century, the head of the clan and all his immediate family were put to death after the head of the clan had fallen foul of the Dalai Lama. His manorial estates were confiscated and given to someone else. The aristocratic name of Ngapoi continued, but there was no direct connection with the once-mighty Ngapoi of Gongbo.

Shekarling living in Tsang was ennobled because of his exploits in the war against the chief of Korga. A decree was issued that his posterity was entitled to inherit this title. So all of a sudden, Shekarling became a famous noble name. But a hundred years later, this clan declined, and disappeared. People would have forgotten this name if it were not for a man of this clan who went to Lhasa as a beggar and emerged a most talented man after assiduous studies there. His learning was appreciated by the l3th Dalai Lama, and the young man was accepted into the government, and enjoyed rapid promotion. He is still remembered because of a moving poem about him titled, In Memory Of Lhasa by Shekar Migyur Lhundrup.

The son-in-law system also went through a gradual course of evolution. In old Tibet, a son-in-law was regarded as equal to a son in family status. When discussing this topic, the two renowned clans Xazha and Charong are often cited as examples. In the early l8th century, a man named Wangqug Gyaibo, who had been a monk, returned to secular life and married into the family of Xazha, thus becoming a son-in-law of the clan and inheriting a noble title. Later, he became a Kalon and then a regent. It so happened that he had no son, so he adopted his nephew Tsering Wangchuk as his son. On the strength of being a member of the Xazha clan, Tsering Wangchuk became a Kalon too. He was later dismissed and sent into exile, and his property was confiscated. It was many years before the clan began to restore its social status and recover some of its land. The only daughter of Tsering Wangchuk inherited the name Xazha, which was then passed on to her husband and again passed on to Benjor Doje, the son-in-law of the next generation.

Charong, a famous Kalon and concurrently the commander-in-chief of the Tibetan army in the early 20th century, was also a son-in-chief of the Tibetan army in the early 20th century, was also a son-in-law of a noble family. His real name was Dasang Zhamdui, and he was from a poor family. When he grew up, he served as a bodyguard of the l3tn Dalai Lama. In l9l2, suspecting treachery on the part of the leader of the Charong clan, the l3th Da1ai Lama had the latter and his son executed, and bestowed on Dasang Zhamdui the name of Charong, as well as all the Charong manorial estates.

It seems that what was important in Tibetan tradition was land and not blood lineage, the clan and not the individual. It is very difficult to trace back the history of a Tibetan clan because of absence of original family records. Details of people and events of even a few generations ago are quite vague. In some historical records, one often comes across the names of residences only. At most, there would be a radical "ba" (person) after the name of a residence. So it would be quite impossible to know who was who. In addition, generations are often miscalculated. Luckily, we are quite clear about the persons and events in this book, since the period under scrutiny is relatively recent.

Apart from the title to land and people, Tibetan nob1es were also entitled to become officials. These positions were unsalaried, but whether in the central government in Lhasa or as a county magistrate, the opportunities for amassing wealth through graft were enormous. People of humble birth were ineligible for official jobs, unless they were ennobled first, like Charong Dasang Zhamdui. In modern times, there is an instance of a wealthy merchant, a certain Sangdutsang, who was a commoner and who purchased an official position before being given an aristocratic title. Up until one or two centuries ago, official positions were hereditary too; a son automatically succeeded to his father's official position. Later reforms ensured, at least in princip1e, that a member of the nobility stalled from a low-ranking post and rose gradually. When he reached a certain rung on the ladder, his personal abi1ity and the influence of his clan became important criteria for further promotion.

However, the higher one climbed, the more risks one faced, as the power struggle intensified.

In l959, when Tibet shook of fits long history of feudal serfdom, there were, according to a census, about 200 noble clans. Together with the senior monks and the personnel of the Gaxag government, they owned almost all the farmland in Tibet.

The 200 noble clans had originated in the area between Lhasa and Xigaze. They had their manorial estates in the nearby countryside, and pasturelands in northern Tibet. But no matter where their properties were located, almost all of them preferred to live in Lhasa, leaving the management of their estates to stewards.

Much has been said about the miserable life of serfs. It is basically true. But, since they are not part of old Lhasa, I will not go into details. However, it is worth reminding the reader that a commoner's fate was controlled by someone else, and his life was, as a result, unbelievably miserable and poverty stricken. A serf might be a debtor when he was born, for one of his forefathers might have borrowed some barley many years before, which had snowballed into a huge debt under the usurious system practiced at that time. That was why the reform of l959 was hailed by poor Tibetans.



CRIENGLISH.com claims the copyright of all material and information produced originally by our staff. No person, organization and/or company shall reproduce, disseminate or broadcast the content in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of CRIENGLISH.com.

CRIENGLISH.com holds neither liability nor responsibility for materials attributed to any other source. Such information is provided as reportage and dissemination of information but does not necessarily reflect the opinion of or endorsement by CRI.


Media Scan
Seven Sentenced to Death for Drug Smuggling
A court in Shandong has sentenced seven people to death for drug smuggling; three others have been given death with a 2-year reprieve.
Survey Shows Excessive Intake of Aluminum
Residents of northern China and those under the age of 14 may be ingesting more aluminum than healthy.
• C4: Bad Boys
Join us for the latest episode of CRI's hilarious comedy news show.
• C4: World Cup Fever
Join us for the latest episode of CRI's hilarious comedy news show.
In Depth

The Sound Stage
China Revealed
My Chinese Life
Photo Gallery
Learn Chinese
"In" Chinese
Chatting in Chinese
Pop Culture
Traditional Culture
Living Chinese
Chinese Studio
Chinese Class
Learn English
Special English
Pop Chart
Everyday English
Fabulous Snaps
CRI News
China.org.cn  | Xinhua  | People's Daily Online   |  CNTV.cn  | China Daily  |  Global Times  | China Job  |  China Tibet Online  | Taiwan.cn  | eBeijing  | Beijing Today  | China-Eurasia Expo  | APEC Yiwu Conference  | Chinese Embassy in S.Africa  | Chinese Embassy in Australia  | Chinese Embassy in NZ