Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Prior to 1950, Tibetan farmers' primary crop was high-altitude barley, with wheat, buckwheat, peas, mustard, radishes, and potatoes following in importance.
Irrigation systems were coordinated by the village, which was also the cooperative unit for corvée. Nomads raised yaks (animals particularly suited to the high altitude and severe climate of the north), sheep, a cow-yak crossbreed, and at lower altitudes, cattle and goats. At annual or biennial markets throughout Tibet, rural nomads and farmers exchanged produce and purchased other commodities. For distant nomadic communities, annual grain-trading expeditions occurred in the late fall; each encampment of tents functioned as a unit and each family contributed a member or supplies to the group traveling down to the market in the lower regions. The large urban centers, such as the capital city of Lhasa, had daily markets displaying goods from all over the world. Particular areas of Tibet were well known for the production of certain crops or the manufacture of certain items or raw products. For example, bamboo for pens and high-quality paper came from the southeast, excellent horses from the northeast, wood products from the east, and gold, turquoise, and other gems from two or three specific areas in the south and west. Currently, most of the manufactured products in Tibet come from urban centers in the PRC, but local markets in the rural areas continue to allow for pastoralist-peasant exchange.
Industrial Arts. Tibetans practiced a wide range of traditional trades, including flour milling, canvas painting, paper making, rope braiding, wool and fiber processing, weaving and textile production, tanning, metalwork, carpentry, and wood carving. Individual household or small-scale production was the norm, with the exception of a few activities, such as the printing of religious manuscripts and books, which was handled at large monasteries on more of a mass-production basis.
Trade. There is evidence of Tibetans trading extensively both on and off the plateau as early as the seventh century A.D. —exporting raw materials and importing manufactured products. Overland routes to China, India, Nepal, and Central Asia allowed the large-scale export of animals, animal products, honey, salt, borax, herbs, gemstones, and metal in exchange for silk, paper, ink, tea, and manufactured iron and steel products. The government granted lucrative yearly monopolies on products such as salt. In the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, British, Russian, and Chinese missions to Tibet tried to control trade and open markets in the country. Since 1950 trade has been regulated by the PRC.
Division of Labor. There were traditional distinctions in wealth and status among both the peasants and nomads. Hired laborers and servants freed wealthier families from most of the manual labor of daily life. Social distinctions between aristocrats and commoners or between different strata of the commoner class were reflected in dress, housing, and speech used to one's superiors, peers, and inferiors.
Although Tibetan women are in charge of child rearing, food preparation, cooking, and other domestic activities and men do the bulk of the work outside of the home, both genders are commonly capable of performing all basic household and nonhousehold tasks. In the monasteries and nunneries, same-sex occupants perform all of the household and external tasks for the community. In larger cities, butchering, metalworking, and other low-status crafts were traditionally confined to particular groups.
Land Tenure. Prior to 1955, much of the Tibetan plateau was considered the ultimate property of the central government in Lhasa and the ruler of Tibet, the Dalai Lama. Each peasant household had a deed, in the name of the eldest male, to the property that it farmed. Many of the peasant farmers were also organized into estates, which were an intermediate form of title holding by monasteries, incarnate lamas, or aristocratic families. The laborers attached to the estate owed taxes and corvée to the lord and were not free to move elsewhere without permission. Being bound to an estate, however, did not prevent some families from hiring others to fulfill their obligations to the lord or from traveling for purposes of trade and pilgrimage. These three levels of ownership constituted the bulk of Tibetan land tenure before 1950. Land-reform policies in Tibet under the Communist government have involved a few experiments with collective farming and ownership. Most rural peasants still farm the land of their family household, but intermediate titles have generally been extinguished.