Tibet, also known as TAR, is a democratic region in China that is very poor, and is
mainly inhabited by Buddhists. Throughout its long history, Tibet at times has governed
itself as an independent state and at other times has had various levels of association with
China. Whatever China ‘s involvement in Tibetan affairs, Tibet’s internal government was
for centuries a theocracy, under the leadership of Buddhist lamas, or monks. In 1959 the
Dalai Lama fled to India during a Tibetan revolt against Chinese control in the region.
China then took complete control of Tibet, installing a sympathetic Tibetan ruler and, in
1965, replacing with a Communist administration (Encarta 1).
The TAR covers an area of about 472,000 square miles. It is bounded on the north
by Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province; on the east by Sichuan and
Yunnan provinces; on the south by Myanmar (formally known as Burma), India, Bhutan,
and Nepal; and on the west by India. Lhasa is the region’s capital and largest city (Schaller
With an average elevation of more than 12,000 feet, Tibet is the highest region on
earth, and for this reason, it is sometimes called the Roof of the World. Most of the people
in Tibet live at elevations ranging from 3,900 feet to 16,700 feet. Tibet is also one of the
world’s most isolated regions, surrounded by the Himalayas on the south, the Karakorum
Range on the west, and the Kunlun Mountains on the north (Encarta 1).
The southern part of Tibet is situated entirely within the Himalayas, and many of
the world’s highest summits are located in the Himalayan chain, which extends along
Tibet’s southern frontier. Among the peaks are Mount Everest(29,028 feet), the world’s
largest mountain; Namcha Barwa(25,445 feet); and Gurla Mandhata(25,354 feet). The
Kailas Range, a chain of the Himalayas, lies parallel to and north of the main chain and
has peaks of up to 22,000 feet. Between the Kailas Range and the main chain is a river
valley that extends about 600 miles. The Brahmaputra River (known in Tibet as the
Yarlung Zangbo) flows from west to east through most of this valley (Encarta 1).
The mountains in Tibet form Asia’s principal watershed, or dividing line, between
westward-flowing and eastward-flowing streams, and Tibet is the source of the continent’s
major rivers. The Brahmaputra is Tibet’s most important river. The Indus, Ganges, and
Sutlej rivers have their headwaters in western Tibet. Many of Tibet’s rivers have potential
for hydroelectric development (Encarta 1).
Vegetation on the Tibetan Plateau is extremely sparse, consisting mainly of grasses
and shrubs. Scattered wooded areas occur in extreme west and east. Most vegetation,
however, is concentrated in Brahmaputra, Indus, and Sutlej river valleys. These areas
support most species of trees, including conifers, oaks, cypresses, poplars, and maples.
Apple, peach, pear, and apricot trees are cultivated in the valleys (Encarta 1).
Tibet is home to a variety of wildlife. Musk deer, wild sheep, wild goats, wild
donkeys, yaks, and Tibetan antelope are common in mountainous areas. Other large
mammals include leopards, tigers, bears, wolves, foxes, and monkeys. Bird life includes
geese, gulls, teal, and other species of waterfowl, and also pheasants and sand grouse
Tibet has a dry, cold climate with an average annual temperature of 34 degrees
Fahrenheit. It is very bitter in Tibet in the winter (Harrer 39). Temperatures in the
mountains and plateaus are especially cold, and strong winds are common year round. The
river valleys experience a more moderate climate. Lhasa and central Tibet have an average
temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit in December and an average of 60 degrees
Fahrenheit in June. The daily temperature range is great. On a typical summer day, the
temperature can rise from 37 degrees Fahrenheit before sunrise to 81 degrees Fahrenheit
before midday. In general, temperatures in Tibet frequently drop suddenly after sunset.
The average annual precipitation is 15 inches (Encarta 2).
The Tibet pamphlet states that Tibet is rich in mineral resources, although few have
been exploited due to inaccessibility, a lack of industrial capacity, and Buddhist
admonitions against disturbing the earth for fear of harming living creatures. Gold is
found in many areas, and significant deposits of iron ore, coal, salt, and borax are also
present. Other known resources include oil shale, manganese, lead, zinc, quartz, and
Since 1959 the Chinese government has capitalized on some of Tibet’s resources by
mining chromite, tinkalite, and boromagnesite; constructing hydroelectric and geothermal
plants; and logging timber. In eastern Tibet, serious environmental concerns have been
raised over the extent of pollution and deforestation resulting from these projects (Encarta
The Population of TAR was 2,196,010 in 1990, yielding an average population
density of 4.7 persons per square mile, the lowest of any region in China. The vast majority
of Tibet’s people live in rural areas, and a large but diminishing part of the people is
nomadic or seminomadic. Lhasa, the capital and largest city, is Tibet’s principal center of
trade, tourism, commerce, education, and government, and the headquarters of the
region’s major religious institutions (Encarta 2).
Most people in Tibet are ethnic Tibetans, and the largest minority is Han Chinese,
China’s majority ethnic group. According to the 1990 census, 3.7 percent of Tibet’s
population was Han Chinese; however, this and other population figures are believed to be
in complete, as they do not include the much larger number of Han who have come to Tibet
looking for work opportunities and have not officially registered as residents (Encarta 2).
Most people in Tibet speak Tibetan, a language of the Tibeto-Burman subfamily of
Sino-Tibetan languages. Various dialects of Tibetan are spoken in different regions.
Putonghua (Mandarin) Chinese, China’s official language, is also used, particularly by Han
Chinese, government agencies, and most commercial enterprises. People can request the
use of Tibetan within the legal system (Encarta 2).
Tibetan Buddhism is the religion of the overwhelming majority of the population.
Buddhism was introduced into Tibet from India, originally in the 7th century, and then,
after a period of persecution, it was reintroduced in the 11th century (Encarta 2).
Historically, religion permeated every aspect of Tibetan life. The only educational
system was religious, all cultural and intellectual activities were centered around religious
beliefs, and the heads of government were Buddhist monks (Encarta 2).
Today Buddhism is practiced widely in Tibet. Many monasteries and other religious
buildings have been rebuilt, and monks and nuns are once again openly practicing their
Before the 1950s there was no formal educational system in Tibet and very few
people were literate. Most Tibetan monks were taught to memorize religious scriptures
rather than read them. The Chinese introduced secular, formal state schooling in 1952. By
the mid-1990s there were more than 3000 schools in Tibet and the literacy rate was
estimated at about 50 percent. Tibetan is the language of instruction in lower grades,
shifting to Putonghua in later years. In the mid-1990s Tibet had four institutions of higher
learning, all located in Lhasa: Tibet University, the Institute for Nationalities, the
Agricultural and Animal Husbandry College, and the Tibetan Medical College (Encarta 3).
Since assuming control in the 1950s, the Chinese Communist administration has
improved Tibets transportation infrastructure. Furthermore, Tibets economy has grown
and diversified. As a result, Tibetans in urban areas now enjoy considerably more material
benefits in the form of food, clothing, housing, technology, and entertainment. Far less
improvement has occurred in rural areas (Encarta 3).
Tibet remains one of the poorest regions in China, particularly its rural areas. In the
mid-1990s the average annual per capita income for city dwellers was about $120, while
rural people earned about half that amount. Although the Chinese government contributes
subsidies to help offset Tibets low standard of living, controversy has developed over who
Subsistence agriculture dominates the Tibetan economy. Productive land,
concentrated mostly in the river valleys, is limited in area. The principal subsistence crops
are barley, wheat, buckwheat, rye, potatoes, and various vegetables and fruits. Cotton,
soybeans, walnuts, tea, and hemp are grown as commercial crops. Livestock raising is the
primary occupation of the Tibetan Plateau region. In addition to sheep, cattle, and goats,
the herds include camels, yaks, horses, and other beasts of burden (Encarta 3).
The regions manufacturing sector has expanded since 1959 but remains limited to
small-scale enterprises producing such goods as textiles and electrical equipment. The
production of local handicrafts constitutes a major supply of income. Craft items include
woolen carpets, fabrics, aprons, quilts, clothing, furniture, wooden bowls, gold and silver
jewelry, and Tibetan hats (Encarta 3).
Tibet has no railroads, but does have highways and airports. The road system,
which did not exist before 1950, has grown to about 14,000 miles. A trans-Tibetan highway
now runs from west to east. Other highways connect the region with Xinjiang and Qinghai
to the north, Sichuan to the east, and Nepal and India to the south. Tibet has two
commercial airports; the more important one is located near Lhasa. Since the 1980s
tourism has become an important source of revenue in Tibet. Most visitors stay in the
Lhasa area, although Xigaz and the base camp of Mount Everest are also popular sites
Tibet is officially an autonomous region of China, which means that an ethnic
Tibetan heads the regional government. In reality, however, major decisions are made by
the central government in Beijing. Ethnic Tibetans comprise about 70 percent of
government cadres (administrators) in Tibet. The most powerful officials in Tibet,
including the head of the local Communist Party office, are typically Han Chinese (Encarta
The Chinese ruled Tibet, but it decreased, and Britain tried to take over but failed.
In the 18th century Tibet came under the control of China. However, in the course of the
following century, Chinese authority diminished steadily. Meanwhile, British colonial
officials in India, including administrator Warren Hastings, attempted to secure a foothold
in the region. These efforts proved unsuccessful, mainly because of Tibetan resentment of
an unsuccessful Nepalese invasion of Tibet in the 1790s, which the British had supported
The Panchen Lama is reinstated, so China announces reforms, but they were
violent, and the Panchen Lama refused to renounce Tibet’s independence. In 1978 the
Panchen Lama, who had been jailed in 1964 for criticizing Chinese rule of Tibet, was
reinstated to his official positions. He appealed repeatedly to the Dalai Lama to return to
Tibet. In 1980 the Chinese admitted that Tibet had been misgoverned and announced
reforms for the region. Tibetans found the reforms insufficient, and violent demonstrations
protesting Chinese rule occurred in October 1987. In 1988 negotiations between the
Chinese government and representatives of the Dalai Lama, which had taken place
periodically over the previous decade, broke off. The Dalai Lama refused to publicly
renounce Tibetan independence, and China refused to compromise on the issue of greater
autonomy for Tibet (Encarta 4). In 1993 more demonstrations by Tibetans took place, in
addition to several acts of terrorism against the Chinese.
In 1995 a new conflict emerged in Tibet over the selection of the next Panchen
Lama. The search committee identified 28 possible candidates and conveyed that
information to the Dalai Lama in India. The Dalai Lama selected one boy, a six-year-old
named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as the 11th Panchen Lama. The Chinese government,
angered at having the selection process usurped by the Dalai Lama, cited the historical role
it had allegedly played in the selection process of previous Panchen and Dalai Lamas. They
inaugurated their own candidate, a six-year-old named Gyaincain Norbu. They held
Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family in detention and began a renewed campaign to
discredit the Dalai Lama. Fresh rumblings erupted within the Tibetan independence
movement. In May 1996 the Chinese began a crackdown on Tibetan monasteries that
resulted in the injury and death of several monks. According to some experts, talks
resumed secretly between the Dalai Lama and Chinese government officials in late 1996,
only to break off several months later when China sentenced the leader of the Panchen
Lama search team to a long prison term (Encarta 4).
Now Tibet is a democracy, instead of a Theocracy, or Communism, and the people
still live in poverty. They get to elect the Dalai Lama. And the leader of the search party
Encarta Encyclopedia, CD-ROM. New York: Microsoft Corporation, 1993.
Harrer, Heinrich. Seven Years In Tibet. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1953.
Schaller, George B. “Tibet’s Remote Chang Tang.” National Geographics 15 August 1993: 62.
Tibet. United States:n.p., n.d.