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This article is on historic Tibet. "Tibet" can also refer to the Tibet Autonomous Region.
            Historic Tibet as claimed by Tibetan exile groups
Tibetan areas designated by the PRC
Tibet Autonomous Region (actual control)
Claimed by India as part of Aksai Chin
Claimed by PRC as part of TAR
Other areas historically within Tibetan cultural sphere

Tibet (Tibetan: བོད་, Bod, pronounced in Lhasa dialect; Chinese: 西藏, pinyin: Xīzàng; older spelling Thibet) is a region in Central Asia and the home of the Tibetan people. With an average elevation of 4,900 m (16,000 ft), it is often called the 'Roof of the World'. All or most of historic Tibet (depending on definition) is currently a part of the People's Republic of China (PRC).



When the Government of Tibet in Exile refers to Tibet, they mean a large area that formed the cultural entity of Tibet for many centuries, consisting of the traditional provinces of Amdo, Kham (Khams), and Ü-Tsang (Dbus-gtsang), but excluding areas outside the PRC like Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Ladakh that have also formed part of the Tibetan cultural sphere. When the PRC refers to Tibet, they mean the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR): a province-level entity which, according to the territorial claims of the PRC, includes Arunachal Pradesh; some Chinese may also add Sikkim, Bhutan, and Ladakh. The TAR covers only the former Ü-Tsang province and western Kham province, while Amdo and eastern Kham have been incorporated into the present-day Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Yunnan, and Sichuan.


Flag of Tibet before 1950. This version was introduced by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1912. It continues to be used by the Government of Tibet in Exile, and as such is banned in the PRC as a symbol of separatism.
Flag of Tibet before 1950. This version was introduced by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1912. It continues to be used by the Government of Tibet in Exile, and as such is banned in the PRC as a symbol of separatism.

While there is little dispute that Tibet was once an independent country, there is intense dispute over the legitimacy of the PRC's rule over Tibet today.

Since 1959 the former government of Tibet, led by the 14th Dalai Lama, has maintained a government in exile at Dharamsala, in northern India. It claims sovereignty over Tibet, with borders defined as the entirety of what it terms "Historic Tibet", although it controlled only about half of that area before 1959. The Government of Tibet claims Tibet to be a distinct nation independent before conquest by the Mongol Empire (Yuan Dynasty) 700 years ago; between the fall of the Mongol Empire in 1368 and subjugation by the Manchu Empire (Qing Dynasty) in 1720; and again between the fall of the Manchu Empire in 1912 and incorporation into the PRC in 1951. Moreover, even during the periods of nominal subjugation to the Mongol and Manchu Empires, Tibet was largely self-governing. As such, it views current PRC rule in Tibet as colonial and illegitimate, motivated solely by the natural resources and strategic value of Tibet, and in gross violation of both Tibet's historical status as an independent country and the right of Tibetan people to self-determination. It also points to the autocratic and divide-and-rule policies imposed by the PRC, as well as what it claims to be assimilationist policies of the PRC, regarding those as an example of Chinese imperialism bent at destroying Tibet's distinct ethnic makeup, culture, and identity, thereby cementing it as an indivisible part of China.

On the other hand, the PRC claims to rule Tibet legitimately, by claiming that Tibet has been an indivisible part of China de jure since Mongol (Yuan) conquest 700 years ago, comparable to other states such as the Kingdom of Dali and the Tangut Empire that were also incorporated into the Mongol Empire at the time and have remained in China ever since. The PRC contends that all subsequent Chinese governments onwards up till the PRC to have succeeded the Yuan Dynasty in exercising de jure sovereignty and some level of de facto power over Tibet in accordance with the succession of states theory, despite periods of autonomy, such as between 1912 and 1951. Moreover, the PRC contends that even during this period (1912-1951) commonly held to be the last period of Tibetan independence, China continued to maintain sovereignty over Tibet; no country gave Tibet diplomatic recognition; and other signs of Tibetan acknowledgement of Chinese sovereignty were present, e.g. the presence of Tibetan delegates in 1947 in Nanjing to take part in the drafting of a new constitution for the Republic of China. Finally, the PRC considers all movements aimed at ending Chinese sovereignty in Tibet, starting with British attempts in the late 19th century and early 20th century, to the Government of Tibet in Exile today, as one long campaign abetted by malicious Western imperialism aimed at destroying Chinese integrity and sovereignty, thereby weakening China's position in the world. The PRC also points to the autocratic and theocratic policies of the government of Tibet before 1959, as well as its renunciation of Arunachal Pradesh, claimed by China as a part of Tibet occupied by India, and its association with India, and as such claims the Government of Tibet in Exile has no moral legitimacy to govern Tibet.


The English word Tibet, like the word for Tibet in most European languages, ultimately derives (via Arabic and Persian) from a Turkic word Töbän (pl. Töbäd) meaning "the heights". (Behr, W. Oriens 34 (1994): 557-564.) The Middle Chinese word for Tibet, tufan has the same origin.

Tibetans call their homeland Bod (བོད་), pronounced in Lhasa dialect. It is first attested in the geography of Ptolemy as βαται (batai) and in Chinese texts as fa (Beckwith, C. U. of Indiana Diss. 1977). They refer to a fatherland, rather than a motherland as does India.

The Chinese name for Tibet, 西藏 (Xīzàng), is a phonetic transliteration derived from Tsang (western Ü-Tsang), in use since the 18th century. The Chinese character 藏 (zàng) is also used to describe Tibetan things such as the Tibetan language (藏文, zàng wén) and the Tibetan people (藏族, zàng zú). The two characters of Xīzàng can literally mean "western storehouse", which some Tibetans find offensive. However, the offending character, "zàng", can also mean "treasure" or "Buddhist scripture". In addition, Chinese transliterations of non-Chinese names do not necessarily take into account the literal meanings of words; usually a positive or neutral connotation combined with phonetic similarity is enough for the transliteration to come into use.


Lhasa is Tibet's traditional capital and the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region. Other cities in Historic Tibet include Shigatse (Gzhis-ka-rtse), Gyantse (Rgyang-rtse), Chamdo (Chab-mdo), Nagchu (Nag-chu), Nyingchi (Nying-khri), Nedong (Sne-gdong), Dartsendo (Dar-btsen-mdo), Jyekundo (Skyes-rgu-mdo) or Yushu (Yul-shul), Golmud (Na-gor-mo), Barkam ('Bar-khams), Gartse (Dkar-mdzes), Lhatse (Lhar-tse), Machen (Rma-chen), Pelbar (Dpal-'bar), Sakya (Sa-skya) and Tingri (Ding-ri).


Main articles: History of Tibet and Foreign relations of Tibet

Little is known of Tibet before the 7th century, though the Tibetan language is generally considered to be a Tibeto-Burman language and related distantly to Chinese.

According to a legend in 14th century Mani Bka' 'bum, the Tibetans are descended from the union of a monkey and a rock ogress. The monkey was an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara (Spyan ras gzigs in Tibetan, pronounced Cenrezik), the Buddha of compassion, and the ogress an incarnation of Tara ('Grol ma in Tibetan, pronounced Drolma).

Tibet was a strong empire between the 7th and 10th centuries. The distinctive form of Tibetan society, in which land was divided into three different types of holding - estates of noble families, freeheld lands and estates held by monasteries of particular Tibetan Buddhists sects - arose after the weakening of the Tibetan kings in the 10th century. This form of society was to continue into the 1950s, at which time more than 700,000 of the country's population of 1.25 million were landed peasants.

The Potala Palace in Lhasa
The Potala Palace in Lhasa

In the 13th century Tibet was incorporated into the Mongolian empire. The Mongol rulers granted secular leadership of Tibet to the Sa-skya school of Tibetan Buddhism. There followed an interregnum period in which there were three secular dynasties. The Mongols again invaded at the start of the 16th century, declaring the remaining religious lineage, that of the Dalai Lamas, to be the official government.

By the early 18th century China established the right to have resident commissioners, called amban, in Lhasa. When the Tibetans rebelled against the Chinese in 1750 and killed the amban, a Chinese army entered the country and installed a new amban, but the Tibetan government continued to manage day-to-day affairs as before.

In 1904 the British sent a largely Indian military force and seized Lhasa, forcing Tibet to open a border crossing with British India. A 1906 treaty with China repeated these conditions, making Tibet a de facto British protectorate. There was also a Nepalese mission in Lhasa remaining from a similar invasion by Nepal in 1855.

After 1907, a treaty between Britain, China, and Russia recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. The Chinese established direct rule for the first time in 1910. It was not to last long, however, as Chinese troops had to withdraw to their homeland to fight in the 1911 Revolution, giving the Dalai Lama the opportunity to re-establish control. In 1913, Tibet and Mongolia signed a treaty proclaiming mutual recognition and their independence from China. In 1914 a treaty was negotiated in India by representatives of China, Tibet and Britain: the Simla Convention. Chinese suzerainty over Tibet and Tibetan autonomy were both recognized and a boundary negotiated between British India and Tibet which was very generous to Britain. The treaty was privately signed by Britain and Tibet; however, the Chinese side refused to sign the agreement, viewing it as being too yielding. China has never recognized the agreement nor the boundary set by it, thus paving the way to the Arunachal Pradesh dispute between China and India today.

The subsequent outbreak of World War I and civil war in China caused the Western powers and China to lose interest in Tibet, and the 13th Dalai Lama ruled undisturbed. At that time the government of Tibet controlled all of Ü-Tsang (Dbus-gtsang) and western Kham (Khams), roughly coincident with the borders of Tibet Autonomous Region today. Eastern Kham, separated by the Yangtze River was under the control of Chinese warlord Liu Wenhui. The situation in Amdo (Qinghai) was more complicated, with the Xining area controlled by ethnic Hui warlord Ma Bufang, who constantly strove to exert control over the rest of Amdo (Qinghai).

Neither the Nationalist government of the Republic of China nor the People's Republic of China has ever renounced China's claim to sovereignty over Tibet. In 1950 the People's Liberation Army entered Tibet, crushing the largely ceremonial Tibetan army and destroying as many as 6,000 Tibetan temples. In 1951 the Plan for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, a treaty signed under Chinese pressure by representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, provided for rule by a joint Chinese-Tibetan authority. Most of the population of Tibet at that time were peasants, working lands owned by the estate holders. Any attempt at land reform or the redistribution of wealth would have proved unpopular with the government. This agreement was initially put into effect in Tibet proper. However, Eastern Kham and Amdo were outside the administration of the government of Tibet, and were thus treated like any other Chinese province with land reform implemented in full. As a result, a rebellion broke out in Amdo and eastern Kham in June of 1956. The rebellion, supported by the American CIA, eventually spread to Lhasa. It was crushed by 1959, during which campaign tens of thousands of Tibetans were killed. The 14th Dalai Lama and other government principals fled to exile in India, but isolated resistance continued in Tibet until 1969.

Although he remained a virtual prisoner, the Chinese set the Panchen Lama as a figurehead in Lhasa, claiming that he headed the legitimate Government of Tibet in the absence of the Dalai Lama, the traditional head of government. In 1965, the area that had been under the control of the Dalai Lama's government from the 1910s to 1959 (U-Tsang and western Kham) was set up as an Autonomous Region. The monastic estates were broken up and secular education introduced. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards across the country, ethnic Tibetans included, inflicted a campaign of organized vandalism against cultural sites in the entire PRC, including Tibet's Buddhist heritage. Of the several thousand monasteries in Tibet, only a handful remained without major damage, and thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns were killed or imprisoned.

The number of military and civilian Tibetans that have died in the Great Leap Forward, violence, or other unnatural causes since 1950 is often quoted at approximately 1.2 million, which the Chinese Communist Party vehemently denies. According to Patrick French, a supporter of the Tibetan cause who was able to view the data and calculations, the estimate is not reliable because the Tibetans were not able to process the data well enough to produce a credible total. There were, however, many casualties, perhaps as many as 400,000. This figure is extrapolated from a calculation Warren W. Smith made from census reports of Tibet which show 200,000 "missing" from Tibet. Even The Black Book of Communism expresses doubt at the 1.2 million figure, but does note that according to Chinese census there was a population of 2.8 million in 1953, but only 2.5 million in 1964 in Tibet proper.

It is reported that when Hu Yaobang, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, visited Lhasa in 1980 he cried in shame when he viewed the misery and described the situation as "colonialism pure and simple". Reforms were instituted, and since then Chinese policy in Tibet has veered between tolerance and repression. Most religious freedoms have been officially restored, but monks and nuns are still sometimes imprisoned, and thousands of able-bodied Tibetans continue to flee Tibet yearly.

The government of Tibet in Exile claims that millions of Chinese immigrants to the TAR are diluting the Tibetans both culturally and through intermarriage. Exile groups say that despite recent attempts to restore the appearance of original Tibetan culture to attract tourism, the traditional Tibetan way of life is now irrevocably changed. The government of the PRC rejects these claims, pointing to rights enjoyed by the Tibetan language in education and in courts, as well as public infrastructure projects aimed at improving the lives of Tibetans, and say that the lives of Tibetans have been improved immensely compared to the Dalai Lama's rule before 1950.


Tibet is located on the Tibetan Plateau, the world's highest region.
Tibet is located on the Tibetan Plateau, the world's highest region.
Tibet has beautiful mountainous terrain.
Tibet has beautiful mountainous terrain.
Early 19th-century map of Lhasa.
Early 19th-century map of Lhasa.
Main article: Geography of Tibet

Tibet is located on the Tibetan Plateau, the world's highest region. Most of the Himalaya mountain range lies within Tibet. Its most famous peak, Mount Everest, is on Nepal's border with Tibet.

The atmosphere is severely dry nine months of the year. Western passes receive small amounts of fresh snow each year but remain traversable year round. Low temperatures are prevalent throughout these western regions, where bleak desolation is unrelieved by any vegetation beyond the size of low bushes, and where wind sweeps unchecked across vast expanses of arid plain. The Indian monsoon exerts some influence on eastern Tibet. Northern Tibet is subject to high temperatures in summer and intense cold in winter.

Historic Tibet consists of several regions:

  • Amdo (a'mdo) in the northeast, incorporated by China into the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan.
  • Kham (khams) in the east, part of Sichuan, northern Yunnan and part of Qinghai.
    • Western Kham, part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region
  • U (dbus), in the center, part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region
  • Tsang (gtsang) in the west, part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region

Tibetan cultural influences extend to the neighboring states of Bhutan, Nepal, adjacent regions of India such as Sikkim and Ladakh, and adjacent provinces of China where Tibetan Buddhism is the predominant religion.

Several major rivers have their source in the Tibetan Plateau (mostly in present-day Qinghai Province), including:


The Tibetan economy is dominated by subsistence agriculture. Due to limited arable land, livestock raising is the primary occupation. In recent years, tourism has become an increasingly important sector, and is actively promoted by the authorities. The Qingzang Railway is being built to link the region with China proper.


Ethnolinguistic Groups of Tibet, 1967 (See entire map, which includes a key)
Ethnolinguistic Groups of Tibet, 1967 (See entire map, which includes a key)
Ethnic Tibetan autonomous entities set up by the People's Republic of China. Opponents to the PRC dispute the actual level of autonomy.
Ethnic Tibetan autonomous entities set up by the People's Republic of China. Opponents to the PRC dispute the actual level of autonomy.

Historically, the population of Tibet consisted of primarily ethnic Tibetans. Other ethnic groups in Tibet include Menba (Monpa), Lhoba, Mongols and Hui.

The issue of the proportion of the Han Chinese population in Tibet is a politically sensitive one. Between the 1960s and 1980s, many prisoners (over 1 million, according to Harry Wu) were sent to laogai camps in Amdo (Qinghai), where they were then employed locally after release. Since the 1980s, increasing economic liberalization and internal mobility has also resulted in the influx of many Han Chinese into Tibet for work or settlement, though the actual number of this floating population remains disputed. The Government of Tibet in Exile gives the number of non-Tibetans in Tibet as 7.5 million (as opposed to 6 million Tibetans), and considers this the result of an active policy of demographically swamping the Tibetan people and further diminishing any chances of Tibetan political independence, and as such, to be in violation of the Geneva Convention of 1946 that prohibits settlement by occupying powers. The Government of Tibet in Exile questions all statistics given by the PRC government, since they do not include members of the People's Liberation Army garrisoned in Tibet, or the large floating population of unregistered migrants. The Qingzang Railway (Xining to Lhasa) is also a major concern, as it is believed to further facilitate the influx of migrants.

However, the PRC government does not view itself as an occupying power and has vehemently denied allegations of demographic swamping. The PRC also does not recognize the borders of Tibet as claimed by the government of Tibet in Exile, saying that it was devised to deliberately include non-Tibetan areas populated by non-Tibetans for generations (such as the Xining area and the Chaidam Basin) in order to enhance the perception that Tibetans are now outnumbered in Tibet. The PRC gives the number of Tibetans in Tibet Autonomous Region as 2.4 million, as opposed to 190,000 non-Tibetans, and the number of Tibetans in all Tibetan autonomous entities combined (slightly smaller than the Greater Tibet claimed by exiled Tibetans) as 5.0 million, as opposed to 2.3 million non-Tibetans. In the TAR itself, much of the Han Chinese population is to be found in Lhasa. Population control policies like the one-child policy only apply to Han Chinese, not to minorities such as Tibetans. The PRC says that it is dedicated to the protection of traditional Tibetan culture; it also groups the Qingzang Railway, renovation work at the Potala Palace, and other projects as part of the China Western Development Strategy, a costly effort by the wealthier, eastern half of China to develop the poorer, western regions.

Major ethnic groups in Greater Tibet by region, 2000 census
Total Tibetans Han Chinese others
Tibet Autonomous Region: 2616329 2427168 92.8% 158570 6.1% 30591 1.2%
- Lhasa PLC 474499 387124 81.6% 80584 17.0% 6791 1.4%
- Chamdo Prefecture 586152 563831 96.2% 19673 3.4% 2648 0.5%
- Lhokha Prefecture 318106 305709 96.1% 10968 3.4% 1429 0.4%
- Shigatse Prefecture 634962 618270 97.4% 12500 2.0% 4192 0.7%
- Nagchu Prefecture 366710 357673 97.5% 7510 2.0% 1527 0.4%
- Ngari Prefecture 77253 73111 94.6% 3543 4.6% 599 0.8%
- Nyingtri Prefecture 158647 121450 76.6% 23792 15.0% 13405 8.4%
Qinghai Province: 4822963 1086592 22.5% 2606050 54.0% 1130321 23.4%
- Xining PLC 1849713 96091 5.2% 1375013 74.3% 378609 20.5%
- Haidong Prefecture 1391565 128025 9.2% 783893 56.3% 479647 34.5%
- Haibei AP 258922 62520 24.1% 94841 36.6% 101561 39.2%
- Huangnan AP 214642 142360 66.3% 16194 7.5% 56088 26.1%
- Hainan AP 375426 235663 62.8% 105337 28.1% 34426 9.2%
- Golog AP 137940 126395 91.6% 9096 6.6% 2449 1.8%
- Gyêgu AP 262661 255167 97.1% 5970 2.3% 1524 0.6%
- Haixi AP 332094 40371 12.2% 215706 65.0% 76017 22.9%
Tibetan areas in Sichuan province
- Aba AP 847468 455238 53.7% 209270 24.7% 182960 21.6%
- Garzê AP 897239 703168 78.4% 163648 18.2% 30423 3.4%
- Muli AC 124462 60679 48.8% 27199 21.9% 36584 29.4%
Tibetan areas in Yunnan province
- Dêqên AP 353518 117099 33.1% 57928 16.4% 178491 50.5%
Tibetan areas in Gansu province
- Gannan AP 640106 329278 51.4% 267260 41.8% 43568 6.8%
- Tianzhu AC 221347 66125 29.9% 139190 62.9% 16032 7.2%
Total for Greater Tibet:
With Xining and Haidong 10523432 5245347 49.8% 3629115 34.5% 1648970 15.7%
Without Xining and Haidong 7282154 5021231 69.0% 1470209 20.2% 790714 10.9%

This table includes all Tibetan autonomous entities in the People's Republic of China, plus Xining PLC and Haidong P. The latter two are included to complete the figures for Qinghai province, and also because they are claimed as parts of Greater Tibet by the Government of Tibet in exile.
Source: 2000年人口普查中国民族人口资料,民族出版社,2003/9 (ISBN 7105054255)
Does not include members of the People's Liberation Army in active service.
P = Prefecture; AP = Autonomous prefecture; PLC = Prefecture-level city; AC = Autonomous county


Main article: Culture of Tibet
Large Snow Lions guard the entrance to the Potala Palace
Large Snow Lions guard the entrance to the Potala Palace

Tibet is the traditional center of Tibetan Buddhism, a distinctive form of Vajrayana. Tibetan Buddhism is not only practiced in Tibet; it is also the prevalent religion in Mongolia and largely practiced by the Buryat people of Southern Siberia. Tibet is also home to the original spiritual tradition called Bön (also spelled Bon). Various dialects of the Tibetan language are spoken across the country. Tibetan is written in Tibetan script.

In Tibetan cities, there are also small communities of Muslims, known as Kachee (Kache), who trace their origin to immigrants from three main regions: Kashmir (Kachee Yul in ancient Tibetan), Ladakh and the Central Asian Turkic countries. Islamic influence in Tibet also came from Persia. There is also a well established Chinese Muslim community (gya kachee), which traces its ancestry back to the Hui ethnic group of China. It is said that Muslim migrants from Kashmir and Ladakh first entered Tibet around the 12th century. Marriages and social interaction gradually led to an increase in the population until a sizable community grew up around Lhasa.

The Potala Palace, former residence of the Dalai Lamas, is a World Heritage Site, as is Norbulingka, former summer residence of the Dalai Lama. The PRC government has planned to invest 179.3 million Renminbi in the renovation and restoration of the Potala Palace and 67.4 million Renminbi in the Norbulingka, starting from 2002.

During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, zealous Red Guards destroyed or vandalised most historically significant sites in Tibet, as a part of a broader campaign waged across China to destroy pre-Revolution cultural artifacts.

Further reading & media

  • Dowman, Keith (1988). The Power-Places of Central Tibet: The Pilgrim's Guide. Routledge & Kegan Paul. London, ISBN 0710213700. New York, ISBN 0140191186.
  • Shakya, Tsering (1999). The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231118147.
  • Pachen, Ani; Donnely, Adelaide (2000). Sorrow Mountain: The Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun. Kodansha America, Inc. ISBN 1568362943.
  • Goldstein, Melvyn C.; with the help of Gelek Rimpche. A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers (1993), ISBN 8121505828. University of California (1991), ISBN 0520075900.
  • Grunfield, Tom (1996). The Making of Modern Tibet. ISBN 1563247135.
  • Schell, Orville (2000). Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood. Henry Holt. ISBN 0805043810.
  • Thurman, Robert (2002). Robert Thurman on Tibet. DVD. ASIN B00005Y722.
  • Wilby, Sorrel (1988). Journey Across Tibet: A Young Woman's 1900-Mile Trek Across the Rooftop of the World. Contemporary Books. ISBN 0809246082.
  • Wilson, Brandon (2004). Yak Butter Blues: A Tibetan Trek of Faith. Heliographica. An Imprint of Pilgrim's Tales. ISBN 1933037237, ISBN 1933037245.
  • Norbu, Thubten Jigme; Turnbull, Colin (1968). Tibet: Its History, Religion and People. Reprint: Penguin Books (1987).
  • Stein, R. A. (1962). Tibetan Civilization. First published in French; English translation by J. E. Stapelton Driver. Reprint: Stanford University Press (with minor revisions from 1977 Faber & Faber edition), 1995. ISBN 0804708061.
  • Samuel, Geoffrey (1993). Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies. Smithsonian ISBN 1560982314.

See also

External links

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