A Tibetan man wearing a traditional fur hat.
Living in the highest mountainous region in the world, the Zang people of Tibet arrived from India over two thousand years ago. Numbering around 5.4 million people in the 2000 census, they are one of China’s fifty-five officially recognized ethnic minority groups.
The Zang ethnic minority of China, or Tibetans, mainly live in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and in Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. Their population in the 2000 census was around 5.4 million, although statistics can be unreliable. The Zang’s ancestors, known as Ch’iang, were nomads from India who herded sheep and cattle. They moved westward, climbing the Himalayan mountain chain along the Yarlung Zangbo River over 2,000 years ago. Zang live in the highest mountainous region in the world, about 7,000 meters above sea level, which is remote and inaccessible, with virtually uninhabited high mountains and plains of intense cold, and abundant mineral resources.
Zang people developed two basic ways of life: one agricultural, settled in the warmer river valleys, and the other nomadic, which spread north and east into mountainous steppe grasslands also inhabited by Mongolian tribes.
Today Zang people live in three main regions: U-Tsang (west and central Tibet), Kham (Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces), and Amdo (northeast and Gansu Province), and speak regional dialects of a Tibeto-Burman non-tonal language. They have their own writing system, based on the Devanagari script similar to Sanskrit, which was developed in the 600s under the great Tibetan warrior king Srong-btsan sGam-po (620–650? CE) who unified the country. He is credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet and building the Jo-Khang temple in the capital of Lhasa, influenced by Nepalese and Chinese wives. The Chinese Princess Wencheng cemented an alliance with the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE).
Zang have been known for their great devotion to religion. Tibetan Buddhism or tantric lamaism is a mixture of Mahayana Buddhism and the Tibetan nativist religion of Bon, a kind of animistic shamanism. It has a number of schools emphasizing different traditions, and, until the era of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), many Tibetan males (estimates vary between 20 and 50 percent of the male population) lived as monks in thousands of monasteries. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) it is claimed that 6000 monasteries were destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of religious killed or forcibly laicized. In recent decades, the government of the PRC has rebuilt many of the destroyed monasteries and permitted some monks to return.
The Tibetan kingdom from the 660s to 1200 was powerful and independent until the rise of the Mongols. After envoys of Chinggis Khan (1162–1227) demanded Tibetan submission in 1207, the Mongols and the Tibetan Buddhist sect of Sa-skya developed a Patron-Priest relationship with the Mongolian army installing its grand lama as the religious leader of Tibet in exchange for support of Mongolian military and political power in Tibet. The ‘Phags-pa Lama (1235–1280) became the tutor of Khubilai Khan (1215–1294), who introduced Tibetan lamaism to his court during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). With the end of Mongol rule in China, Tibet degenerated into political and religious turmoil.
Tsong-kha-pa (1357–1419) was a great Buddhist reformer who established the dGe-lugs-pa (“Yellow Hat”) sect of reincarnating lamas. The highest reincarnation was called the Dalai Lama. This system rose to religious and then political supremacy in Tibet through the support of Western Mongol leaders, particularly Altan Khan (1507–1582), who created the title of Dalai Lama and renewed the Patron-Priest alliance between Tibet and Mongolia of Khubilai’s period that competed against the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). A Mongol army invaded Lhasa to install the 5th Dalai Lama (1617–1682), the first to combine religious and secular power in Tibet and the builder of the Potala Palace (the largest structure in Tibet). During the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), Tibet closed itself off from foreigners, who were not allowed to enter the capital of Lhasa under pain of death. In 1720s the Kham and Amdo regions of Tibet were incorporated into the Qing Empire and Chinese high commissioners (ambans) were posted in Lhasa. The Qing emperors financially supported lamaism and engineered the selection of the Dalai Lamas by the drawing of lots in Beijing.
The twentieth century was a turbulent one for the Zang. The British Younghusband expedition of 1904 invaded Tibet to temporarily occupy Lhasa. Chinese armies invaded in 1905 and in 1910, but retreated during the decades of civil war and Japanese invasion, although neither the Republic of China nor the PRC ever renounced claim to control over Tibet. In 1951 Tibetan and PRC authorities signed an agreement affirming Chinese sovereignty. In 1959 an anti-Chinese rebellion spread to Lhasa and the 14th Dalai Lama (b. 1935) fled to Dharamsala in north India where he still lives with his government in exile; in 1989 the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1965 U-Tsang and western Kham were made an autonomous region, monastic estates were disbanded, and secular education introduced. The regional government today includes Han Chinese as well as members of the Zang ethnicity. Since 1980, economic development has accelerated, most religious freedoms have been restored, and Tibet has been opened up for tourism, although the situation of the Zang is a sensitive issue for the PRC and the outside world, and violent demonstrations are not uncommon.
Tibetan culture and customs are unique. Its Buddhist iconography, epitomized by thankha painting, is vividly colored with elaborate religious representation. The palace and temple architecture consists of massive wooden structures with flat roofs and multiple windows, and ornate interiors. Homes are made from rocks, wood, and cement, while nomads live in yak-hide tents. Zang men and women have plaited hair. Women wear long-sleeved wrapped gowns over white blouses with colorfully stripped woolen aprons, while nomadic men wear trousers covered by a long-sleeved gown. Zang often exchange khatas, a long, usually white, ceremonial silk scarf.
Tibetan cuisine is distinctive, utilizing the main agriculture crop, barley. Tsampa, the main staple of Tibetan cuisine, is barley flour that is roasted and rolled into dough; barley is also made into meat-filled dumplings called momo. Yak, goat, and mutton meat, cheese, yogurt, and buttered milk-tea are common. Tibetan wool rugs, a Tibetan calendar, and Tibetan medicine are renowned. Zang celebrate many religious festivals and the Tibetan New Year’s festival.
R. A. Stein. (1972). Tibetan civilization. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Snellgrove, D., & Richardson, H. (1995). A cultural history of Tibet. Boston & London: Shambhala.
Goldstein, M. C., & Beall, C. M. (1990). Nomads of western Tibet. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Source: Campi, Alicia. (2009). Tibetans (Zang). In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2288–2290. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Tibetan women at a market in Xiao Zhongdian, a rural area known for its breathtaking scenery. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
The central room of the Wong family’s house in the Tibetan village of Shan Qiao. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
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