Alex McKAY

In 1959 Tibet, now an autonomous region of China, revolted against Chinese rule. Many Chinese were surprised when they were not welcomed as liberators following the 1949–1950 invasion, viewing their takeover of Tibet as succor from a feudalist system. The Tibetans were greatly outnumbered and ill-equipped for revolt. Their uprising was crushed, and the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual and temporal leader, was forced to flee to India.

The status of Tibet, located in southwestern China, has long been disputed. Tibet enjoyed de facto, if not legally recognized, independence during the era of Republican China (1912–1949), but the Chinese, in their period of turmoil, oddly claimed that Tibet was still part of their territory and that the Tibetans were one of the “five races” that made up China. They continued to claim Tibet as part of China in such forums as the Simla Convention of 1914—at which British India and Tibet agreed on the Indo-Tibetan frontier and various trade issues, but China’s participants refused to sign—and at the 1922 Washington conference, a meeting between nine nations to decide post–World War I policy in the Far East.

The Communist takeover in China in October 1949 was an obvious threat to Tibetan self-determination because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), led by Mao Zedong (1893–1976), was prepared to use military force to take over Tibet, for Mao, like his Republican predecessors, considered Tibet to be a part of China lost as a result of the actions of the European imperial powers. During 1949–1950, Communist forces took over Tibetan-speaking areas such as Amdo, and gathered on the frontiers of the Lhasa-controlled regions of Kham (eastern Tibet). After attempts to arrange negotiations on neutral territory failed, in October 1950 Chinese military forces invaded Tibet from the north-east and east and quickly conquered the largely demilitarized Tibetan state after the commander of their garrison at Chamdo, Ngawang Jigme Ngapo, fled and was captured by the Chinese.

During the 1950s China applied with increasing force policies designed to transform traditional Tibetan society and to integrate Tibet into the Communist system. As a result, Tibetan resistance to the assault on their culture and religion quickly increased, culminating in the nationalist revolt of 1959. However, the Tibetans were greatly outnumbered and ill equipped for armed conflict. Their resistance was crushed, and the fourteenth Dalai Lama (b. 1935), Tibetan spiritual and temporal leader, was forced to flee into exile in India. Since then China has continued to rule Tibet by military force, and the Dalai Lama, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, remains leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile in northern India.

Events of 1950–1958

In January 1950, when India formally recognized the new Communist government in Beijing, China informed India of its plans to peacefully “liberate” Tibet from its traditional monastic rulers and from foreign powers. To the Communists the Tibetans were an oppressed people living at the mercy of a feudal elite, and the Chinese expected to be welcomed as liberators. When Sino-Tibetan negotiations failed, China launched a full-scale military invasion of Tibet on 7 October 1950. An appeal by El Salvador on behalf of the Tibetan Government-in-exile to the United Nations went unanswered because of Tibet’s ambiguous status under international law. Tibet had an army of only eight thousand men, and within days Chamdo, the main Tibetan administrative center in Kham Province, fell to the invaders.

Kham was home of the Tibetan-speaking Khampa peoples, who, although loyal to the Dalai Lama as head of their Tibetan Buddhist faith, had considerable autonomy and did not necessarily view themselves as subjects of either Lhasa or Beijing. The Khampas had a strong martial tradition, and Kham became the center of armed opposition to China.

After the invasion by China the Tibetan National Assembly asked that the young Dalai Lama assume full secular power in Tibet several years earlier than planned. Meanwhile, China forced a Tibetan delegation to sign the Sino-Tibetan Agreement of 1951 (known as the “Seventeen Point Agreement”), by which Beijing absorbed Tibet into its territory. China soon breached guarantees of Tibetan autonomy and religious freedoms in that agreement as China began to absorb the Tibetan administration and to usurp functions of the Tibetan government. Chinese soldiers and settlers moved into Tibet in increasing numbers, especially after completion of a drivable road to Lhasa through eastern Tibet in 1954. Many Chinese Communists had sincerely expected to be greeted as liberators by the people they saw as feudal masses; they were surprised by Tibetan opposition to their presence.

In 1954 the Dalai Lama went to Beijing, where he met Mao Zedong, and in 1956 the Dalai Lama was allowed to travel to India for celebrations of the 2,500th anniversary of the enlightenment of the Buddha. While he was there the Indian government advised him to accept Chinese control of Tibet, and, with China hinting at compromise, the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet hoping to reach a solution through discussion with the Communist leadership.

The years 1955 and 1956 brought a quick acceleration of the transition to Communism throughout China, climaxing in the disastrous Great Leap Forward policy in 1958. Tibet experienced an accelerated program of collectivization, the widespread institution of “class struggle,” especially against monastic authorities, and attempts made to render the large Tibetan nomadic population sedentary.

These Chinese policies triggered a strong reaction by Tibetans. By 1956 a guerrilla movement, the Chushi Gandruk (Four Rivers, Six Ranges) was active in eastern Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s policy of nonviolence meant he was not able to offer his personal support to the guerrillas, and he continued to attempt to mediate a peaceful solution to the crisis until his departure from Tibet. However, many elements of the Tibetan government supported the guerrillas, who were then defending primarily Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan social system rather than explicitly trying to create a nationalist movement.

Tibet’s resistance to the Chinese Communists attracted the intention of the intelligence services of various countries, including the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). By 1958 CIA aid began to reach the guerrillas.

Uprising and Exile

By 1959 the turmoil in eastern Tibet had created a sizable influx of refugees entering Lhasa, which worsened food shortages created by the large numbers of Chinese troops stationed there. By early March of 1959 the population of Lhasa was further increased by the large crowds who gathered for the Monlam Chenmo (Tibetan New Year) celebration, traditionally an unruly period when the monastic powers dominated the secular structures of state.

Contributing to the instability in Lhasa was an invitation to attend a theater performance issued to the Dalai Lama by the Chinese military commander in Lhasa. On 9 March the Dalai Lama was instructed by the Chinese to come to the military barracks the next day without his usual armed escort. The Tibetan public interpreted his invitation as a Chinese attempt to seize the Dalai Lama.

A crowd estimated at thirty thousand people (Lhasa’s population in 1950 was around twenty thousand) gathered around Norbu Lingka, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace. The primary goal of the crowd was to prevent the Dalai Lama from accepting the Chinese invitation, but the apparently spontaneous demonstration took on a nationalist character as the crowd also began to protest
Chinese presence in Lhasa and to demand Tibetan independence. A showdown became inevitable.

On 17 March Chinese troops fired artillery shells into the grounds of the Norbu Lingka, apparently in an attempt to frighten the Tibetans into submission. That night a plan was put into operation whereby the Dalai Lama, disguised as a Tibetan soldier, was smuggled out of the palace. His escape was kept secret for several days, and with a small group of supporters he traveled south through the mountains to India. Eighty to a hundred thousand Tibetans joined him in India, and a Tibetan government-in-exile was established at Dharmsala in northern India.

Meanwhile, in Lhasa the Chinese began a full-scale military crackdown. Exact figures are difficult to ascertain, but thousands of Tibetans were killed or executed, with Chinese army intelligence reports admitting that Chinese forces “eliminated” 87,000 of their opponents in Lhasa and surrounding areas in March–October 1959 alone.

Forgotten Footnote

The Communist invasion of Tibet stimulated a sense of Tibetan national identity, and in the eyes of Tibetans and much of the world, the uprising of March 1959 was a nationalist uprising against the rule of a foreign power. Tibetan resistance subsequently coalesced around the Dalai Lama, whose insistence on nonviolent resistance has meant that armed Tibetan resistance to China has been largely forgotten. The uprising of 1959 remains a historical division between traditional and modern Tibet and with events in 1989 and 2008 is often referred to by those who are involved in campaigns for Tibetan autonomy or independence.

Further Reading

Ali, S. M. (1999). Cold war in the high Himalayas: The USA, China and South Asia in the 1950s. Richmond, U.K.: Curzon.

Barnett, R., & Akiner, S. (Eds.). (1994). Resistance and reform in Tibet. London: C. Hurst.

Goldstein, M., Siebenschuh, W., & Tsering, T. (1997). The struggle for modern Tibet: The autobiography of Tashi Tsering. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Richardson, H. (1984). Tibet & its history. Boston: Shambhala.

Shakya, T. (1999). The dragon in the land of snows: A history of modern Tibet since 1947. Washington, DC: Columbia University Press.

Smith, W. (1996). Tibetan nation: A history of Tibetan nationalism and Sino-Tibetan relations. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Carry out an execution before seeking the decree.


Xiān zhǎn hòu zòu

Source: McKay, Alex. (2009). Tibetan Uprising of 1959. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2285–2287. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Tibetan Uprising of 1959 (1959 nián Xīzàng Qǐyì 1959 年西臧起义)|1959 nián Xīzàng Qǐyì 1959 年西臧起义 (Tibetan Uprising of 1959)

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