The independent scholar Jianglin Li—evidently no longer based in China—has a useful website War on Tibet, working with Matthew Akester. I’ve been reading her book
- When the iron bird flies: China’s secret war in Tibet
(Chinese original, Taiwan 2012; English translation by Stacy Mosher of the revised version, 2022, 550 pages).
After her 2010 book Tibet in agony: Lhasa 1959 (English version 2016), When the iron bird flies describes the brutal military conflict in Tibetan regions from 1956 to 1962, which has long remained a closely guarded secret. It supplements chapters in Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows (1999) (see his review of Li’s book) and vols 3 and 4 of Melvyn Goldstein’s magnum opus A history of modern Tibet (2013, 2019), as well as recent volumes like Conflicting memories.
The main focus of When the iron bird flies is the regions of Kham and Amdo (for some sources on the latter, click here), whose chiefdoms had always been resistant to external political power. Li’s account is based both on Tibetan accounts and classified Chinese documents within the PRC, as well as interviews with Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal.
Traditional Tibet, comprised of the three provinces of Kham, Ü-Tsang, and Amdo,
in current Chinese administrative divisions. Source: Marvin Cao.
For several years after occupying minority regions the Communists moved slowly; but the trigger for the convulsions of the late 1950s was “democratic reform”—their euphemism for coercive land reform and expropriations. It was launched over several stages in different provinces: in Yunnan in 1955, Sichuan in 1956, Gansu and Qinghai in 1958, and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) in 1959. Revolts broke out widely as the reforms were being imposed. Li introduces the system that soon became routine: work teams, struggle sessions, the fixing of class statuses, taxation, confiscation of grain and guns, assaults on monasteries. Even Tibetan activists groomed to the Communist cause were shocked to see the disastrous effects of reform when they returned to their localities.
The “first shot in the Khampa armed rebellion” came at Sertar county in Garzê. In response the Sichuan Party bosses only escalated the situation.
By the end of March 1956, eighteen of Garzê Prefecture’s twenty counties and forty-five of its seventy-seven townships had experienced full-scale or localised insurrections involving a total of 16,000 people and more than 8,000 firearms. During this time, fourteen land reform work teams came under attack, and ten county seats were besieged or encircled. More than 200 land reform cadres were killed, and the PLA suffered more than 300 casualties.
Reform was not invariably met by resistance:
In Middle Village and Lower Village in Ngawa’s Trokyab county, land reform was completed in about three months without conflict. But when the work team proceeded under order to Upper Village to launch land reform, it came under attack, and almost all of the thirty land reform work team members were killed.
But heavy taxation and grain confiscations led to food shortages.
Resistance by the Hor Drango (Shouling) monastery in Drango county was suppressed in March 1956. After Communist troops “annihilated more than 700 people,” “the Shouling temple’s eighty-member council sent representatives to the county’s Work Committee to deliver a written assurance that they would not resist taxation again”. This indicates that taxation was the direct reason for the Drango monks’ resistance.
As both Chinese and Tibetan sources show, with many of the most influential monks and laypeople having been recruited to official positions in the CCP system, resistance came mainly from the lower middle classes, including farmers, herders, monks, and traders. Li studies the class composition of areas, with tralpa (who leased land and cultivated their own crops) and gepa (who cultivated land or worked as servants for landowners, headmen, or monasteries):
The vast majority of peasants in these regions cultivated their own fields. Tralpa were not necessarily poor, and families with surplus labourers could engage in trade or hire themselves out. As a result, when the Tibetan regions were divided into class categories, the landlords, rich peasants, and middle peasants were mainly tralpa, whom the CCP classified as “serfs.”
As in Han Chinese regions, class classification was arbitrary and variable by locality. With land that had previously been communally owned now becoming state property,
a district designating 10 to 20% of its people as “landlords and rich peasants” meant that a relatively large portion of the middle stratum had their assets confiscated; this caused many of them to join in uprisings. [….]
Every stage of the land reform process in Kham, from its preparations to its implementation, demonstrated the arrogance and high-handedness of the CCP regime, as well as the ignorance and brutality of its cadres.
Numerous problems in the “redistribution” of resources were intractable. Resistance to land reform was inevitable. In response the Party requested military reinforcements while mobilising Tibetans into the army—who, hastily trained, suffered the heaviest casualties. The first battle, over nine days in March 1956, was in Lithang in southwest Garzê (cf. this post).
In a series of battles, both sides suffered heavy casualties. Determined to crush all resistance, on 29th March the air force dispatched two Tupolev Tu-4 aircrafts (a gift from Stalin to Mao) to strafe and bomb the monastery. Next day the PLA made their final assault.
This battle being the PLA’s first major military operation in the Tibetan region, its shock wave was felt by both the Chinese and the Tibetans. Tibetans were shocked by the “iron bird,” a powerful modern weapon they had never before seen or heard of, while the Chinese commanders were surprised by the willpower of the Tibetan resistance. In the following years, Tibetan willpower and Chinese modern weaponry would clash over and over again.
Southwest of Lithang, the people of Chatreng were also fiercely independent. Again, the early years of Chinese occupation were relatively mild, but in mid-February 1956,
Chatreng’s two main monasteries received a document from the work team. As Tibetans recall it, the document included seven points:
1) Lamas and monks have to be eliminated; 2) monasteries and their contents have to be eliminated; 3) worship and ritual are prohibited; 4) the wealthy and eminent members of the community have to be eliminated; 5) all land will be appropriated by the state; 6) all property will be appropriated by the state; 7) everyone has to obey the Liberation Army and serve them. If you do not agree to this, we will bomb you from the air and send troops on the ground and wipe you out. […]
The Tibetan leaders of Chatreng secretly held a meeting to discuss the document and then sent a messenger to deliver a strongly worded reply:
You officers, district heads, and soldiers are here in our land without the slightest justification, and have no business imposing these seven points, which are completely unacceptable. You had better leave immediately, otherwise we have also made our war preparations, and there is no doubt that we will fight.
From 20th March county government bases were besieged by the local Tibetans. When the surrounded Chinese finally managed to send word to Zhou Enlai, reinforcements were dispatched. On 2nd April bombers were again deployed, destroying large areas of Sampeling monastery and killing over two hundred monks and laypeople. Three monasteries in the region were bombed over nearly a month. Chatreng was destroyed.
Among the land reform work teams were many Tibetan activists trained by the Chinese. In Nyarong (yet another region long resistant to external power), 185 out of 257 members were Tibetan. The rebellion there began in February 1956, as land reform teams came under attack, with insurrections breaking out in 78% of rural townships. Again, PLA reinforcements were sent. Coercive reforms continued throughout the year.
In Ngawa prefecture, Sichuan province (focus of Barbara Demick’s Eat the Buddha), uprisings broke out from March 1956, again prompting Chinese military intervention. As elsewhere, “goodwill troupes” occasionally sought (vainly and cynically) to mollify a furious population even while persisting in reforms.
The following chapters turn to what became the TAR, where reforms were delayed, with a useful survey of the early years under occupation. But by 1956 news of the violence in Kham was causing great alarm in Lhasa among the Tibetan leadership and public. Li describes the intense diplomatic intrigue in 1956–57 surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit to India, involving Zhou Enlai, Nehru, and the USA—as Zhou emptily promised the Dalai Lama that there would be no reforms for six years. The Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa on 1st April to find the situation increasingly tense. Meanwhile the CIA-trained Chushi Gangdruk (“Four Rivers and Six Ranges”) volunteer army prepared to resist Chinese occupation.
The “socialist transformation” continued, with forced collectivization around Golok Prefecture in 1958, as the Great Leap Backward (my apt term) caused untold suffering right across China. By August,
resistance among the Qinghai Tibetans had spread to five autonomous prefectures, 24 counties, 240 tribes, and 307 monasteries, involving more than 90,000 people. The Chinese government sent in five army divisions and 30 regiments of various kinds, plus 25 companies of armed police and local militia, for a total armed force of more than 50,000, including air force, artillery, infantry, cavalry, armoured troops, and others. […]
In Chikdril County, 1,050 people, nearly 10% of its total population, were arrested within three years. More than half of these captives died in prison over the next five years, and some were in jail until the early 1980s. Of the hundreds of herdsmen arrested from the Khangsar clan, only about twenty of them ever made it home again.
At least 9,262 people were arrested in Golok Prefecture, the vast majority of them males in the prime of life; in some places the proportion of young men to young women was one to ten.
As the military campaign shifted north from Sichuan and Yunnan to Qinghai and Gansu, Li documents the horrific “Yellow River massacre” at what later became Khosin Township (Yulgen county) on 1st June 1958—as ever, carefully assessing the conflicting sources.
After a Chinese convoy was ambushed in Yulshul, rebellions broke out at monasteries, with bombers again deployed. Over a third of the population of Yulshul died in these years. Many survivors were imprisoned in labour reform camps, where they died or suffered for long years. With food shortages worsening, in May 1958 the PLA murdered monks at the Drakar Drelzong monastery in Tsikorthang, Tsolho Prefecture; in September there was a bloodbath at Drongthil Gulch. A second wave of assaults took place from June to September 1959.
As the Chinese military administration was convulsed by Rectification and Anti-rightist campaigns, Tibetan resistance to reform was widespread—though what Chinese sources portray as rebellion (thus creating a pretext for massacres) was sometimes a mere exodus of herders fleeing collectivization. Refugees were described as “bandits” if they were killed, or “liberated masses” if they were captured. Resistance continued in 1959, met by massive troop deployments, with further major battles.
In 1958 a major arrest and denunciation rally took place at Kumbum monastery in Rusar county, Qinghai. The monastery then has 1,615 monks—remarkable in itself, we might suppose. Tibetan Buddhist life had been relatively unscathed through the early years of occupation; but now the CCP initiated a secret “religious reform movement”, in which Buddhist activity was specifically targeted, notably the monasteries. A document from the period noted the scale of the issue:
more than 5,000 monasteries of various sizes, and 450,000 religious personnel, among which there are more than 3,000 lamaist temples and 250,000 lamas in Tibet; 20,000 lamas in Mongolia and Xinjiang; and a total of 2,000–3,000 lama temples and more than 170,000 lamas in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, and other provinces.
Apart from ideology, the monasteries possessed substantial assets, in land and precious material artefacts—Li gives regional instances of the assets confiscated, metal statues and religious implements. Labrang monastery (in Gansu), with its 4,000 monks, was surrounded in April 1958; after “reform” began in June, over 1,600 people there were arrested, imprisoned, or executed. Many monasteries were now destroyed. In Qinghai province,
223 monasteries in the pastoral areas have been disbanded, 51.98% of the total, and 17,685 religious personnel have returned to secular life, composing 36.56% of the total. Among these, 97.5% of the monasteries in Huangnan prefecture have been disbanded, and 55.1% of religious personnel have returned to secular life; adding in those arrested or sent to group training brings it to around 95% of the total. In Hainan prefecture, 91.8% of the monasteries have been disbanded, and 87.9% of religious personnel have returned to secular life. In Haibei and Haixi prefectures, more than 80% of the monasteries have been disbanded, and more than 70% of the religious personnel have returned to secular life. The emergence of these new scenarios shows that religion is on the brink of total collapse.
The Anti-rightist campaign gave another pretext to denounce religious figures. As a Qinghai document declared:
After a large number of religious monasteries have been destroyed and a large number of religious personnel have returned to secular life, all localities must rapidly launch religious systemic reform work in the monasteries that have been purposely retained. […] The monasteries that remain must be controlled by progressive elements and must be completely controlled under the party’s leadership.
Another Party document explained:
In order to look after the religious beliefs of the masses, block rumours and provocations by counterrevolutionaries inside and outside of China, and facilitate the centralised management of lamas who have not returned to secular life, preserving some temples is essential. As to the appropriate number to retain, this should be according to the influence of the temple and the views of the masses. Rank the temples; in principle it is undesirable to retain too few. […] In terms of retaining temples, it is advantageous at present to retain more rather than less.
By the beginning of 1959, the vast majority of monasteries in Amdo and Kham had been closed down, occupied, or destroyed. I note that whereas in post-reform China the Cultural Revolution makes a scapegoat for a far more protracted range of abuses, in the vast heartland of the Han Chinese, the Communists began destroying temples from the early 1950s—in some areas as soon as they took power, even before the national “Liberation”. I’m also reminded that food shortages there predated the 1959–61 famine by several years, following collectivization. Yet Tibetan religious faith was not extinguished: it went underground.
Struggle meeting against monk officials in Sera monastery.
Struggle meeting against a Tibetan government official in Lhasa.
Lhasa was “the last hope”, where activists and ordinary people from Kham sought refuge in ever larger numbers. Li surveys the fateful events leading to the Dalai Lama’s escape to India—described in greater detail elsewhere, including her own earlier book. But as resistance continued, fierce battles took place in Lhoka, Namtso, and Mitikha. 1960 saw further campaigns. She looks in more detail at the covert activities of the CIA Tibet Task Force. The extended resistance in Chamdo from 1959 to 1962 was yet again ruthlessly suppressed with annihilation campaigns and aerial bombing.
Finally Li attempts to collate the conflicting statistics over the whole region—deaths in conflict, arrests, Chinese troop numbers, confiscated assets, and so on. Just the figures suggesting population decrease are staggering.
From 1956 to 1962, the iron horse galloped wildly across the plateau. Wherever its iron heels trod, the flames of war were ignited, monasteries collapsed, scriptures were burned, people were killed, and leaders fled into exile. The political system, economy, military, culture, and society of the Tibetan people were completely destroyed.
And again she reminds us of the tragic personal experiences buried beneath such statistics.
In an Afterword, Li considers the “rehabilitation” of the early 1980s, further evidence of the grievous losses of the secret war. She notes the Panchen Lama’s 1962 petition; and she hints at the further wave of destruction that was to follow with the Cultural Revolution, observing the ironic fates of some of the worst central and regional Chinese masterminds of the holocaust, purged and humiliated.
* * *
So much for the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”—the succession of atrocities reminds one of the genocide of Native America, or the wartime devastation of the Bloodlands. While we should take into account the grievous wounds inflicted by Maoism in the Han Chinese heartland through the period, this doesn’t diminish the horror of the Tibetan case.
After the individual memoirs that I reviewed recently (here and here), the broader canvas and more dispassionate tone of this volume are no less affecting; Tibetan and Chinese documents are interwoven with personal stories, some recounted by ageing exiles in India. Whereas in the 1950s the Chinese presence in Tibet was novel and tenuous, by the 1970s, following the violence of the Cultural Revolution there, it became a fait accompli, with the suppression of public memory seeking to bury the story of the appalling brutality of the late 1950s. But the imprint of the period clearly remains deep in people’s hearts, making a backdrop to the sporadic unrest that continues to erupt around Amdo, Kham, and the TAR.
For those studying expressive culture, all this makes an important reminder that the much-vaunted “singing and dancing of minority peoples” could hardly be maintained during such a traumatic period of social disruption. Yet, remarkably, after the downfall of Maoism in the 1980s, people pieced together the fragments of cultural life with alacrity, while adapting to new social changes (see e.g. Some folk ritual performers).