How contemporary Tibet might’ve been seen by a Tang dynasty historian

How contemporary Tibet might’ve been seen by a Tang dynasty historian

How contemporary Tibet might’ve been seen by a Tang dynasty historian


Gurgon Kyab was born in Chentsa in Amdo, Tibet, part of Qinghai province. He is a historian, writer and scholar. He graduated with a Master’s degree in History from Qinghai Nationalities University in Xining in 2004. He compiled a Tibetan language text book in 2008 for university students and has published two books since then – “The Literary Tradition” (རྩོམ་རིག་གཞུང་ལུགས) in 2010 and “The Loan of Gratitude” (དྲིན་གྱི་བུ་ལོན), a commentary on Gedun Choephel’s famous history “The White Annals”, in 2011. He blogs on Tsenpo and Samsara.

Gedun Choephel’s observation that more foreigners have written about our customs, lifestyle, and behavior than our own people is true. In the account of Tibet written during the Tang dynasty, it is stated that, “Warriors are well respected. Sons respect their fathers and mothers respect their sons. Men are never far from their knives, bows and arrows. Younger ones take the lead and older ones follow them on the roads. In general, the younger men get more respect than the older men. If a man dies naturally, it is considered bad, and if he dies in battle he is considered a hero. If many people from a single family get killed on the battlefield, their armor will be hung up on the door and the family will be very proud.”(1)

When you read such historical accounts, you might be surprised that such were the customs of our ancestors.

However, if those Tang Dynasty writers had not passed away and were to visit present-day Tibet, I am certain that this is what they would write:

There is a nation called Tibet in the west. They are honest and easily manipulated by others to become their servants. Among their own group, they are not very honest and do not trust each other. Their king is a monk, who has lost his country and left for exile, but his countrymen still have unbreakable faith in him. They have letters, but they don’t use them well. They have many Buddhist schools and disputes between them occur consistently. They love precious stones, gold, silver and so on. Even though they have good resources of gold in their country, they prefer buying ornaments from others by paying a high price for them. They have livestock, but they don’t sell or slaughter them. In addition, eating meat is not considered virtuous and there are few people who break the law of virtue and eat meat secretly. They have various local laws and if men break the law, they are punished by being dressed in women’s clothes and getting sent out to prostrate in their bare feet for long distances.

They don’t learn any skills or crafts in order to earn their livelihood. Instead they pick caterpillar fungus, a worm during the winter which becomes a fungus in the summer. It fetches a good price and picking caterpillar fungus for one month easily covers their expenses for a year.

Someone who leaves home from a very young age for a monastery to study Buddhism is called a monk. These monks can’t keep a family or a wife. The head of these monks is a lama who can himself keep a wife or girlfriend as he wants. People call this wife or girlfriend a “consort” or a “secret wife” with great respect. The high status of the lama is not only unchanging for his whole life, but also for his future lives. He is forever the lama of this monastery. If a monk does anything against his wishes, this monk will be expelled from the monastery and live a cursed life.

Most of the people love to speak about the law of karma. It is something that has become a habit. But in reality, no one cares about it. Older generations genuinely respect their own vows or pledges, but now people don’t take them seriously and take pledges as if they were eating tsampa. Young people take one vow after almost every word they speak. If there are some brave-hearted men among them, these malicious cowards start criticizing and accusing them until they become totally silent. The youth are brave, but the elders intimidate them and gradually tame them.

Nomads leave their grassland and farmers move to the city. After a few years, it is quite normal for them to have turned into Chinese people.

They are compassionate towards outsiders, and beggars from outside beg by reciting mani mantras at the gathering places. If the beggars can’t recite mantras, it is enough for them just to show their thumbs. They are good at memorizing things, but they also forget things easily.

These things above might be written in the annals by today’s Tang Dynasty writers. If the following generations were to read these lines a thousand years later, do you think they might say, “Were our ancestors really so strange?”

1) Gedun Chophel’s White Annals

The link to the original article in Tibetan is at

(Translated by Dhondup Tashi Rekjong)