The Political Debate
Chinese sources portray Tibet before 1950 as a feudal serfdom in which serfs suffered terribly under the despotic rule of lamas and aristocrats. Some Tibetan sources describe the people as happy, content, and devoted to Buddhism. On the other hand the Tibetan Phuntsok Wangyal, who founded the Tibetan communist party in the 40's, describes the old system as unequal and exploitative.
One of the earliest publications in English to apply the term serf to Tibet was Marxist sympathiser Anna Louise Strong's work from 1960, When Serfs Stood up in Tibet, published by the Chinese government. Another seminal promoter of the term is historian A. Tom Grunfeld, who based his writings on the work of British explorers of the region, in particular Sir Charles Bell. It has been argued that his book is not supported by traditional Tibetan, Chinese, or Indian histories, that it contains inaccuracies and distortions, and that Grunfeld's extracts from Bell were taken out of context to mislead readers. Grunfeld is a polarizing figure for the Chinese, who praise his work, his scholarship, and his integrity; and the Tibetans, who match this praise with condemnation, calling him a "sinologist" who lacks authority on Tibetan history due to his inability to read Tibetan and his not having been to Tibet before writing his book. Political scientist Michael Parenti's 2003 (revised in 2007) essay Friendly Feudalism:The Tibet Myth was largely based on the preceding work of Stuart and Roma Gelder (Timely Rain: Travels in New Tibet 1964), Strong and Grunfeld,.
Melvyn Goldstein has produced many works on Tibetan society since the 1960s and used serf to translate the Tibetan term mi ser (literally "yellow person"; also translated as peasant") and to describe both the landless peasant classes and the wealthier land holding and taxpaying class of families. He has written, "with the exception of about 300 noble families, all laymen and laywomen in Tibet were serfs (Mi ser) bound via ascription by parallel descent to a particular lord (dPon-po) though an estate, in other words sons were ascribed to their father's lord but daughters to their mother's lord." In his 1989 book A History of Modern Tibet Goldstein argued that although serfdom was prevalent in Tibet, this did not mean that it was an entirely static society. There were several types of serf sub-status, of which one of the most important was the "human lease", which enabled a serf to acquire a degree of personal freedom. This was an alternative which, despite retaining the concept of lordship, partially freed the 'mi ser' from obligations to a landed estate, usually for an annual fee. In 1997 Goldstein used the term 'serf' in the following, more cautious, way "...monastic and aristocratic elites ... held most of the land in Tibet in the form of feudal estates with hereditarily bound serflike peasants." Powers has characterized Goldstein as "generally pro-China" but also called his History of Modern Tibet "the most balanced treatment". Goldstein describes himself as having conservative political views. According to William Monroe Coleman, China misrepresents Goldstein's usage as support for their version of Tibetan history.
Goldstein distinguished serfdom from feudalism, and applied the term "serfdom" but not "feudalism" to old Tibet. Furthermore, he made some effort to avoid appearing to support China's invasion of Tibet, writing that the PRC left the traditional system in place, not only after the invasion of 1950, but even after the Dalai Lama's flight into exile in 1959. He pointed out that in 1950, Chinese rhetoric claimed that China was freeing Tibet, not from serfdom, but from imperialist influence. Nevertheless, his usage has been misinterpreted as support for the Chinese Marxist viewpoint, in which feudalism and serfdom are inseparable, and old Tibet is consistently described as "feudal serfdom".
Not all writers who use the term "serfdom" to describe pre-Communist society in Tibet do so pejoratively. Pico Iyer, a journalist whose father is a friend of the Dalai Lama and who has himself been in private conversation with him for over thirty years writes: "Almost as soon as he came into exile, in 1959, the Dalai Lama seized the chance to get rid of much of the red tape and serfdom that had beset Tibet in the past". The Dalai Lama himself used the term 'serf' in 1991, saying: "The relationship between landlord and serf was much milder in Tibet than in China and conditions for the poor were much less harsh."
Several Tibetan sources portray Tibetan peasants and workers to support their own view of a Tibetan people who were not only independent of China, but found the Chinese alien and incomprehensible, and who suffered genocide under Chinese rule. Richardson, the British Trade Envoy to Tibet in the 1940s, agrees with Tibetan authors, stating there was little difference between the rich and the poor.
Journalist Thomas Laird notes that scholars debate the applicability of these terms to Tibet, and struggle with a lack of sufficient data. Journalist Barbara Crossette asserted in 1998 that "scholars of Tibet mostly agree that there has been no systematic serfdom in Tibet in centuries."
The Tibetan Government-in-Exile says about conditions in Tibet pre-Communism:
Traditional Tibetan society was, by no means, perfect and was in need of changes. The Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders have admitted as much. That is the reason why the Dalai Lama initiated far-reaching reforms in Tibet as soon as he assumed temporal authority. The traditional Tibetan society, however, was not nearly as bad as China would have us believe.
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