The destruction of most of Tibet’s monasteries during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76) is fairly well-known. Less well-known is the fact that Tibet’s monasteries were, by the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, already empty shells. Not only had all the lamas and monks and nuns departed—for India, or a secular life, or to prisons and labor camps—but the monasteries had been systematically looted of all their valuables.
The destruction of Tibet’s monasteries and religious monuments that occurred during the Cultural Revolution came primarily at the hands of Tibetans, even if at the instigation and coercion by the Chinese. But the wholesale pillage that preceded it was planned and executed by the Chinese state.
For Tibet, the Cultural Revolution brought the cataclysmic destruction of the monuments of Tibetan civilization and repression of the most essential elements of Tibetan culture. But equally damaging was a previous campaign, less well-known for its destructive effects, perhaps, because of its innocuous name: Democratic Reforms. The Chinese Communists relied upon two primary campaigns to transform Chinese society—Democratic Reforms and Socialist Transformation. The Cultural Revolution was a third, unplanned campaign that arose out of Communist factional politics.
Democratic Reforms were imposed in Han Chinese areas in the early 1950s. They involved the confiscation of the property and possessions of the capitalist and exploitative classes, along with land redistribution from landlords to peasants. Democratic Reforms were imposed upon central Tibet only after the failed 1959 Tibetan rebellion against Beijing’s rule.
Democratic Reforms were supposed to pave the way for socialist transformation (collectivization and communization) by transferring political power from the exploitative classes to the people. However, in Tibet, Democratic Reforms had the effect of transferring political power from Tibetans to Chinese.
Democratic Reforms in Tibet involved the repression of all rebels and class enemies and the redistribution of land to the Tibetan serfs. Primary targets of the campaign were the Tibetan Government, the aristocracy, and the religious establishment, designated by the Chinese as the “Three Pillars of Feudalism.”
The property and treasury of the Tibetan Government were confiscated by the Chinese state. The lands and possessions of the wealthy landowners were confiscated and redistributed to the poor serfs. Serfs were given title to the land in elaborate ceremonies, only to have their lands confiscated by the government a few years later during communization. The wealth of individual Tibetans was also confiscated, but reportedly much of this found its way into the hands of Chinese officials.
Another part of the Democratic Reforms campaign was the depopulation of Tibetan monasteries and confiscation of their lands and wealth. Monks and nuns were “freed” of their religious vows and many high lamas were persecuted. Monastic lands were redistributed to the serfs. Once the monasteries were emptied of their monk population, Chinese art experts and metallurgists made a systematic survey of the contents of each monastery. The most precious artworks, precious stones and the most valuable statues of gold and silver were immediately taken away. The less valuable statues and ritual objects were subsequently taken away by PLA trucks. Over a period of several years almost all Tibetan monasteries were emptied of their contents.
Many Tibetans report seeing convoys of PLA trucks headed to China with the contents of Tibetan monasteries. One Tibetan woman imprisoned in Eastern Tibet near the traditional border with China, Ama Adhe, reports seeing convoy after convoy of trucks loaded with Tibetan Buddhist statues headed to China. Adhe reports that, in the beginning, the trucks contained small, precious statues of gold and silver: later, the larger and less valuable statues were cut up and transported to China to be melted down. Ama Adhe’s story has been published in A Strange Liberation: Tibetan Lives in Chinese Hands, by Tibet scholar David Patt.
The Chinese justified the looting of Tibetan monasteries as a part of the redistribution of wealth of the Democratic Reforms campaign. Tibetans were told that they had been exploited by the monasteries and that now the wealth of the monasteries would be redistributed to all the people. By “all the people,” however, the Chinese meant all the Chinese people, not just the Tibetans.
The Chinese Communist Party claimed to represent all the people; therefore, it felt justified in confiscating Tibet’s wealth for its own purposes. Tibetan wealth was redistributed by being sold on the international art market or melted down, all for the benefit of the Chinese state. Perhaps not coincidentally, the PRC paid off its considerable debt to the Soviet Union in 1962, even though China was suffering the disastrous economic consequences of the Great Leap Forward. Some Tibetans report the rumor that the Soviets accepted Tibetan gold and artworks as payment.
Decades later, the fate of most Tibetan art is unknown. Many of the most valuable statues and scroll paintings were sold on the international art market. Many of the gold and silver statues were probably melted down. Most of the statues and religious objects of brass and copper were melted down. Many thousands of paintings were reportedly burned.
In 1982, a team of Tibetans led by Rinbur Tulku—a high-level reincarnate lama (tulku) of the Rinbur Monastery of Markham in eastern Tibet—was allowed to try to recover Tibetan artworks still in China. Twenty-six tons of statues and ritual objects were found and returned to Tibet. Some 13,537 statues of brass and copper were recovered, but almost all statues made of gold or silver had disappeared. Although many were recovered, many more statues of brass or copper had been melted. One foundry near Beijing, only one of at least five foundries that had melted Tibetan statues, had melted down 600 tons by the time the process was stopped in 1973. One can see from these figures that the total number of statues taken from Tibetan monasteries was many hundreds of thousands.
Now, a United States Congressman has announced plans to investigate China’s theft of art objects from Tibetan monasteries and individual Tibetans after the 1959 revolt. The investigation will attempt to determine the extent of China’s theft of Tibetan art, who was responsible for it, and what happened to the stolen artworks. The investigation is expected to lead to a Congressional hearing. Those with information or questions should contact Representative Rohrabacher’s staffer, Paul Berkowitz, at 202 225-2415 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Warren Smith is the author of Tibetan Nation: A History of Tibetan Nationalism and Sino-Tibetan Relations. He has published numerous articles on Tibetan history and politics and holds a PhD in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.