ALTERNATE NAMES: Bod Qiang
LOCATION: China (Tibet Autonomous Region); India
POPULATION: 4.6 million
LANGUAGE: Tibetan; Chinese
Tibetan civilization began near the Yarlung Zanbo River in present-day Tibet. A Tibetan kingdom was created in the sixth century AD . In the seventh century, the ruler Songtsen Gampo made Lhasa the capital of Tibet. While he ruled, the Tibetan laws, calendar, alphabet, and system of weights and measures were created. Princess Wenchen, his Chinese bride, came to Tibet in 641. She had a great effect on Tibetan culture.
Warfare and political strife weakened the Tibetan dynasty and it collapsed in 877. Tibet was conquered by the Mongolians in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Later it came under Chinese control. The Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) recognized Tibet's spiritual leaders, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. A local government was set up in Tibet, with its own minister from the emperor. This system continued under the Republic of China until 1949, when the communist revolution created the People's Republic of China. The new government created the Tibetan Autonomous Region, covering all of Tibet. The political power of the lamas was taken away and given to Tibetan leaders nominated by the central government in Beijing.
The Tibetans live on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. It extends to the Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world. Most Tibetans are found in the Tibet Autonomous Region. However, many live in Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. China's total Tibetan population was 4.6 million in 1990. There are about 100,000 Tibetans in India, and tens of thousands live in North America and Europe. Southwest Tibet has a damp, mild climate. Northwest Tibet is quite barren, but its river valleys provide land for nomads to raise their cattle.
The Tibetan language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family. It has three dialects. Tibetan is written from left to right. Tibetan writing was developed in the seventh century. In urban Tibet, many Tibetans also speak Chinese.
According to a Tibetan myth, a divine monkey married a female monster in Yarlung Valley long ago. They gave birth to six children whose descendants spread over the earth but had a hard life. They lived off of wild fruits of the forest. Then the monkey gave them seven kinds of grain, and they learned how to farm and began to speak.
Mahayana Buddhism combined with the native Tibetan religion (Bon) to create a new form of Buddhism, called Lamaism. Many different lamaist sects arose. The Gelupa, or Yellow Sect, which came to dominate Tibet, was founded by Tsong Khapa (1357–1419).
Reincarnation (the belief in rebirth) was an established Buddhist doctrine. When an important lama died, his successor (the divine child) was sought among male children who were born at about the time he died.
Bon, the native Tibetan religion, is still practiced in western Tibet and in parts of Qinghai and Sichuan. It calls for worship of gods, spirits, and nature. Its practices include ritual dance.
The Tibetan New Year takes place the first week of January and lasts three to five days. Tibetans all dress in their finest clothes. Relatives and friends pay New Year calls and visit monasteries to pray for a good year. Tibetan operas are performed. People wear masks and pretend to be gods. They sing and dance to drive away the ghosts.
The Lantern Festival is held on January 15. Huge sculptures of birds, animals, and humans made from colored yak butter are paraded in the streets of Lhasa. Festive lanterns, also made of yak butter, are hung on fences. People dance under the lanterns all night.
April 15 marks both the Buddha's enlightenment and the Chinese Princess Wenchen's arrival in Tibet. The streets overflow with people on pilgrimages, and the monks pray. People walk around the Potala Palace, go boating on the lake, and then pitch tents to rest.
Three or four days after a baby is born, a tiny piece of zamba (the Tibetans' main food) is stuck to the infant's forehead. This is a rite to make the baby pure. When the baby is one month old, the parents paint the tip of its nose with soot from the bottom of a pan to keep away ghosts. With their relatives, the child's parents go to the monastery and pray to the Buddha for protection.
Girls' hair is combed into two braids when they are under twelve years of age. They wear three braids when they are thirteen or fourteen, and five braids at the age of fifteen or sixteen. When a girl reaches seventeen, her hair is combed into dozens of braids to show that she is an adult.
There are several types of Tibetan funerals, depending on the social status of the person who has died. In a "sky burial," friends burn piles of pine tree branches and scatter food over them. The smoke is supposed to draw vultures. The body is chopped up and the bones are pounded together with zamba. Vultures eat what remains of the body. The rest of the remains are burned and the ashes are scattered over the ground. "Water burial" is for widows, widowers, and poor people. "Fire burial" is for lamas, and "ground burial" is for people who died of infection or were executed as criminals.
Tibetans are polite. When they meet, they stretch out their arms with their palms turned up, and bow to each other. To show respect, one person nods his head and sticks his tongue out. The other nods and smiles. When two people meet for the first time, one gives the other a hada. This is a long, narrow strip of white or light blue silk that is a sign of respect. It is held in both palms while bowing.
Today, young boys and girls mingle freely but still have some traditional restrictions.
Tibetans build their houses on high ground, facing south, and close to water. The walls are made from earth or piled up stones. Houses are two or three stories high. They have flat roofs, many windows, and courtyards. The living room and bedrooms are on the second floor, and the first floor is for storage or to house livestock. Herdsmen dwell in large tents made of canvas or woven yak wool.
The Tibetan family centers around males. The man inherits property. A woman must obey her husband, even when he lives with her parents. Today, most Tibetans are monogamous (married to only one person). Nomads and peasants still have arranged marriages. Lamas and shamans (spiritual leaders) are usually consulted.
Men in urban areas wear a felt or fur-trimmed hat, a short vest with sleeves, trousers, and a robe. Those in rural areas wear a very long robe with long sleeves and a loose collar. The robe is tied around the waist with a long band. Herdsmen wear the fur of a sheep year-round, and a pair of long trousers. Tibetan men all wear boots. Women usually wear a sleeveless robe with a shirt under it and a beautiful apron around the waist. A long robe with sleeves is worn during the winter. Women living in rural areas wear a sheep fur over a long skirt.
In rural areas, Tibetans eat barley, wheat, corn, and peas. They stir and fry barley and peas and grind them into flour. Then they mix it with yak butter and tea. This is called zamba. They press it with their fingers in a wooden bowl and make it into a ball before eating it. They may also cook zamba into a porridge with meat, wild herbs, and water. Their favorite drinks are barley wine and tea with butter. The main foods of Tibetan herdsmen are beef, mutton, and milk products.
Education was once reserved for monks in monasteries. Since 1949, a complete educational system from primary school to university has been created in Tibet and Qinghai. It includes medical and technical schools. However, Tibet's small population is scattered over such a wide geographic area that it is difficult for many students to travel to a school. A growing number of young Tibetans go to the cities to study.
Tibetan dances differ strongly from those of China's other minorities. The dancers' long sleeves add to their charm. They sing on high pitches and mostly in minor keys. Tibetan opera is performed in the street without any stage. There is a band, and performers sing while they dance.
Tibetan literature includes novels, poems, stories, fables, and dramas. Many works have been translated and published in other countries. The Tibetan religion has effected every part of Tibet's culture.
Tibetan herdsmen raise sheep, goats, yaks, horses, mules, and oxen bred from cattle and yaks.
Yak racing is one of the favorite Tibetan sports. It is similar to horse racing. It takes a highly trained expert to ride a racing yak. Tibetans are also excellent mountain climbers.
The Tibetans have their own theater company, opera, music and ballet performers, broadcasting stations, and film studio. Many Tibetan newspapers, magazines, and books are published each year.
Tibetan folk art includes figures of the Buddha found in monasteries and figures made of yak butter. Goldsmiths and silversmiths craft items for daily use. These include spoons, chopsticks, bowls, plates, and dishes. They also make bracelets, rings, and necklaces. Tangka is a painted Tibetan wall-hanging depicting Buddhist themes.
Lack of formal education is one of the major social problems facing Tibet today. It is hard to educate Tibet's small population because the Tibetans are scattered over huge stretches of land.
Kendra, Judith. Tibetans. Threatened Cultures. New York: Thomson Learning, 1994.
Snellgrove, David L., and Hugh Richardson. A Cultural History of Tibet. New York: F. A. Praeger, 1968.
Stein, R. A. Tibetan Civilization. Trans. by J. E. Stapleton Driver. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972.