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This article is on Historic Tibet. "Tibet" can also refer to the Tibet Autonomous Region.
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Historic Tibet as claimed by Tibetan exile groups
Tibetan areas designated by the PRC
Tibet Autonomous Region (actual control)
Claimed by India as part of Aksai Chin
Claimed by PRC as part of TAR
? Historic Tibet commonly claimed by Chinese nationalists

Tibet (Tibetan: བོད་, Bod, pronounced p in Lhasa dialect; Chinese: 西藏, pinyin: Xīzng) is a region and formerly independent country in Central Asia and the home of the Tibetan people, the majority of which is controlled by the People's Republic of China (PRC). With an average elevation of 4,900 m (16,000 ft), it is often called the 'Roof of the World'. When Tibetans and the Tibetan government in exile refer to Tibet, they mean a large area that formed the cultural entity of Tibet for many centuries, consisting of the traditional provinces of Amdo, Kham (Khams), and -Tsang (Dbus-gtsang), but excluding the present-day Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, or other culturally related areas like Sikkim, Bhutan, and Ladakh. When the PRC refer to Tibet, they mean the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) which, according to the territorial claims of the PRC, includes Arunachal Pradesh; some Chinese nationalists may also add Sikkim, Bhutan, and Ladakh. The TAR covers the former -Tsang province and western Kham province, while other traditionally Tibetan areas have been incorporated into the present-day Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Yunnan, and Sichuan.

Lhasa is Tibet's traditional capital and the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region. Other cities in Greater Tibet include Shigatse (Gzhi-ka-rtse), Gyangtse (Rgyang-rtse), Qamdo, Jyekundo, Dartsedo, Golmud, Lhatse, Maqin, Pelbar, Sakya (Sa-skya) and Tingri.



The English word Tibet like the word for Tibet in most European languages, ultimately derives (via Arabic and Persian) from a Turkic word Tbd (pl. Tbn) meaning "the heights". (Behr, W. Oriens 34 (1994): 557-564.) The Middle Chinese word for Tibet, tufan has the same origin.

Tibetans call their homeland Bod (བོད་), pronounced p in Lhasa dialect. It is first attested in the geography of Ptolemy as βαται (batai) and in Chinese texts as fa (Beckwith, C. U. of Indiana Diss. 1977). They refer to a fatherland, rather than a motherland as does India.

The Chinese name for Tibet, 西藏 (Xīzng), is a phonetic transliteration derived from -Tsang, in use since the 18th century. The Chinese character 藏 (zng) is also used to describe Tibetan things such as the Tibetan language (藏文, zng wn) and the Tibetan people (藏族, zng z). The two characters of Xīzng can literally mean "western storehouse", which many Tibetans find offensive. However, the offending character, "zng", can also mean "treasure" or "Buddhist scripture". In addition, Chinese transliterations of non-Chinese names do not necessarily take into account the literal meanings of words; usually a positive or neutral connotation combined with phonetic similarity is enough for the transliteration to come into use.


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Flag of Tibet before 1950. This version was introduced by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1912. It continues to be used by the Government of Tibet in Exile, and as such is banned in the PRC as a symbol of separatism.

While there is little dispute that Tibet was once an independent country, there is intense dispute over the legitimacy of the PRC's rule over Tibet today.

Since 1959 the former government of Tibet, led by the 14th Dalai Lama, has maintained a government in exile at Dharamsala, in northern India. It claims sovereignty over Tibet, with borders defined as the entirety of what it terms "Historic Tibet", although it controlled only about half of that area before 1959. The Government of Tibet claims Tibet to be a distinct nation independent before conquest by the Mongol Empire (Yuan Dynasty) 700 years ago; between the fall of the Mongol Empire and conquest by the Manchu Empire (Qing Dynasty); and again after the fall of the Manchu Empire in 1912 and incorporation into the PRC in 1951. As such, it views subsequent Chinese rule in Tibet as colonial and illegitimate, motivated solely by the natural resources and strategic value of Tibet, and in gross violation of the right of Tibetan people to self-determination. It also points to the autocratic and divide-and-rule policies imposed by the PRC, as well as what it claims to be assimilationist policies of the PRC, regarding those as an example of Chinese imperialism bent at destroying Tibet's distinct ethnic makeup, culture, and identity, thereby cementing it as an indivisible part of China.

On the other hand, the PRC claims to rule Tibet legitimately, by claiming that Tibet has been an indivisible part of China de jure since Mongol (Yuan) conquest 700 years ago. The PRC contends that all subsequent Chinese governments onwards up till the PRC to have succeeded the Yuan Dynasty in exercising de jure sovereignty and some level of de facto power over Tibet in accordance with the succession of states theory, despite periods of autonomy, such as between 1912 and 1951. For example, Tibetan delegates were present in 1947 in Nanjing to take part in the drafting of a new constitution for the Republic of China, and no country gave Tibet diplomatic recognition during that period. Moreover, China considers all movements aimed at ending Chinese suzerainty in Tibet, starting with British attempts in the late 19th century and early 20th century, to the Government of Tibet in Exile today, as one long campaign abetted by malicious Western imperialism aimed at destroying Chinese integrity and sovereignty, thereby weakening China's position in the world. The PRC also points to the autocratic and theocratic policies of the government of Tibet before 1959, as well as its renunciation of Arunachal Pradesh, and as such claims the Government of Tibet in Exile has no moral legitimacy to govern Tibet.

History of Tibet

Main articles: History of Tibet and Foreign relations of Tibet

Little is known of Tibet before the 7th century, though the Tibetan language is widely reckoned to be related to the Tibeto-Burman languages and by some to Chinese as well.

According a legend in 14th century Mani Bka' 'bum, the Tibetans are descended from the union of a monkey and a rock ogress. The monkey was an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara (Spyan ras gzigs in Tibetan, pronounced Cenrezik), the Buddha of compassion, and the ogress an incarnation of Tara ('Grol ma in Tibetan, pronounced Drolma).

Tibet was a strong empire between the 7th and 10th centuries. The distinctive form of Tibetan society, in which land was divided into three different types of holding - estates of noble families, freeheld lands and estates held by monasteries of particular Tibetan Buddhists sects - arose after the weakening of the Tibetan kings in the 10th century. This form of society was to continue into the 1950s, at which time more than 700,000 of the country's population of 1.25 million were landed peasants.

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The Potala Palace in Lhasa
The borders of Historical Tibet (blue), as claimed by the Government of Tibet in Exile. The Tibet Autonomous Region (green) does not include the northern and eastern parts of this region, but does claim to include India-controlled Arunachal Pradesh.
The borders of Historical Tibet (blue), as claimed by the Government of Tibet in Exile. The Tibet Autonomous Region (green) does not include the northern and eastern parts of this region, but does claim to include India-controlled Arunachal Pradesh.

In the 13th century Tibet was incorporated into the Mongolian empire. The Mongol rulers granted secular leadership of Tibet to the Sa-skya school of Tibetan Buddhism. There followed an interregnum period in which there were three secular dynasties. There followed an interregnum period in which there were three secular dynasties. The Mongols again invaded at the start of the 16th century, declaring the remaining religious lineage, that of the Dalai Lamas, to be the official government.

By the early 18th century China established the right to have resident commissioners, called amban, in Lhasa. When the Tibetans rebelled against the Chinese in 1750 and killed the amban, a Chinese army entered the country and installed new amban, but the Tibetan government continued to manage day-to-day affairs as before.

In 1904 the British sent a largely Indian military force and seized Lhasa, forcing Tibet to open a border crossing with British India. A 1906 treaty with China repeated these conditions, making Tibet a de facto British protectorate. There was also a Nepalese mission in Lhasa remaining from a similar invasion by Nepal in 1855.

After 1907, a treaty between Britain, China, and Russia recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. The Chinese established direct rule for the first time in 1910. It was not to last long, however, as Chinese troops had to withdraw to their homeland to fight in the 1911 Revolution, giving the Dalai Lama the opportunity to re-establish control. In 1913, Tibet and Mongolia signed a treaty proclaiming mutual recognition and their independence from China. The subsequent outbreak of World War I and civil war in China caused the Western powers and China to lose interest in Tibet, and the 13th Dalai Lama ruled undisturbed. At that time the government of Tibet controlled all of -Tsang (Dbus-gtsang) and western Kham (Khams), roughly coincident with the borders of Tibet Autonomous Region today. Eastern Kham, separated by the Yangtze River was under the control of Chinese warlord Liu Wenhui. The situation in Amdo (Qinghai) was more complicated, with the Xining area controlled by ethnic Hui warlord Ma Bufang, who constantly strove to exert control over the rest of Amdo (Qinghai).

Neither the Nationalist government of the Republic of China nor the People's Republic of China has ever renounced China's claim to sovereignty over Tibet. In 1950 the People's Liberation Army entered Tibet, crushing the largely ceremonial Tibetan army and destroying as many as 6,000 Tibetan temples. In 1951 the Plan for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, a treaty signed under Chinese pressure by representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, provided for rule by a joint Chinese-Tibetan authority. Most of the population of Tibet at that time were peasants, working lands owned by the estate holders. Any attempt at land reform or the redistribution of wealth would have proved unpopular with the government. This agreement was initially put into effect in Tibet proper. However, Eastern Kham and Amdo were outside the administration of the government of Tibet, and were thus treated like any other Chinese province with land reform implemented in full. As a result, a rebellion broke out in Amdo and eastern Kham in June of 1956. The rebellion, supported by the American CIA, eventually spread to Lhasa. It was crushed by 1959, during which campaign tens of thousands of Tibetans were killed. The 14th Dalai Lama and other government principals fled to exile in India, but isolated resistance continued in Tibet until 1969.

Although he remained a virtual prisoner, the Chinese set the Panchen Lama as a figurehead in Lhasa, claiming that he headed the legitimate Government of Tibet in the absence of the Dalai Lama, the traditional head of government. In 1965, the area that had been under the control of the Dalai Lama's government from the 1910s to 1959 (U-Tsang and western Kham) was set up as an Autonomous Region. The monastic estates were broken up and secular education introduced. During the Cultural Revolution Red Guards inflicted a campaign of organized vandalism against cultural sites in the entire PRC, including Tibet's Buddhist heritage. Of the several thousand monasteries in Tibet, only a handful remained without major damage, and thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns were killed or imprisoned.

The number of military and civilian Tibetans that have died in the Great Leap Forward, violence, or other unnatural causes since 1950 is often quoted at approximately 1.2 million, which the Chinese Communist Party vehemently denies. According to Patrick French, a supporter of the Tibetan cause who was able to view the data and calculations, the estimate is not reliable because the Tibetans were not able to process the data well enough to produce a credible total. There were, however, many casualties, perhaps as many as 400,000. This figure is extrapolated from a calculation Warren W. Smith made from census reports of Tibet which show 200,000 "missing" from Tibet. Even The Black Book of Communism expresses doubt at the 1.2 million figure, but does note that according to Chinese census there was a population of 2.8 million in 1953, but only 2.5 million in 1964 in Tibet proper.

It is reported that when Hu Yaobang, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, visited Lhasa in 1980 he cried in shame when he viewed the misery and described the situation as "colonialism pure and simple". Reforms were instituted, and since then Chinese policy in Tibet has veered between tolerance and repression. Most religious freedoms have been officially restored, but monks and nuns are still sometimes imprisoned, and thousands of able-bodied Tibetans continue to flee Tibet yearly.

The government of Tibet claims that millions of Chinese immigrants to the TAR are diluting the Tibetans both culturally and through intermarriage. Exile groups say that despite recent attempts to restore the appearance of original Tibetan culture to attract tourism, the traditional Tibetan way of life is now irrevocably changed. The government of the PRC rejects these claims, pointing to rights enjoyed by the Tibetan language in education and in courts, as well as public infrastructure projects aimed at improving the lives of Tibetans, and say that the lives of Tibetans have been improved immensely compared to the Dalai Lama's rule before 1950.


Main article: Geography of Tibet
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Tibet is a beautiful mountainous terrain.

Tibet is located on the Tibetan Plateau, the world's highest region. Most of the Himalaya mountain range lies within Tibet. Its most famous peak, Mount Everest, is on Nepal's border with Tibet.

The atmosphere is severely dry nine months of the year. Western passes receive small amounts of fresh snow each year but remain traversable year round. Low temperatures are prevalent throughout these western regions, where bleak desolation is unrelieved by any vegetation beyond the size of low bushes, and where wind sweeps unchecked across vast expanses of arid plain. The Indian monsoon exerts some influence on eastern Tibet. Northern Tibet is subject to high temperatures in summer and intense cold in winter.

Historic Tibet consists of several regions:

  • Amdo (a'mdo) in the northeast, incorporated by China into the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan.
  • Kham (khams) in the east, part of Sichuan, northern Yunnan and part of Qinghai.
    • Western Kham, part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region
  • U (dbus), in the center, part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region
  • Tsang (gtsang) in the west, part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region

Tibetan cultural influences extend to the neighboring states of Bhutan, Nepal, adjacent regions of India such as Sikkim and Ladakh, and adjacent provinces of China where Tibetan Buddhism is the predominant religion.

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Early 19th-century map of Lhasa.

Several majors rivers have their source in Tibet, including:


The Tibetan economy is dominated by subsistence agriculture. Due to limited arable land, livestock raising is the primary occupation. In recent years, tourism has become an increasingly important sector, and is actively promoted by the authorities. The Qingzang Railway is being built to link the region with China proper.


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Ethnolinguistic Groups of Tibet, 1967 (See entire map, which includes a key)
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Ethnic Tibetan autonomous entities set up by the People's Republic of China. Their actual autonomy is disputed.

Historically, the population of Tibet consisted of primarily ethnic Tibetans. Other ethnic groups in Tibet include Menba, Lhoba, Mongols and Hui.

The issue of the proportion of the Han Chinese population in Tibet is a politically sensitive one. Between the 1960s and 1980s, many prisoners (over 1 million, according to Harry Wu) were sent to laogai camps in Amdo (Qinghai), where they were then employed locally after release. Since the 1980s, increasing economic liberalization and internal mobility has also resulted in the influx of many Han Chinese into Tibet for work or settlement, though the actual number of this floating population remains disputed. The Government of Tibet in Exile gives the number of non-Tibetans in Tibet as 7.5 million (as opposed to 6 million Tibetans), and considers this the result of an active policy of demographically swamping the Tibetan people and further diminishing any chances of Tibetan political independence, and as such in violation of the Geneva Convention of 1946 that prohibits settlement by occupying powers. The Government of Tibet in Exile also doubts all statistics given by the PRC government, since they do not generally include members of the People's Liberation Army garrisoned in Tibet, or the floating population of unregistered migrants. The Qingzang Railway is also a major concern, as it is believed to further facilitate the influx of migrants.

However, the PRC government does not view itself as an occupying power and has vehemently denied allegations of demographic swamping. The PRC also does not recognize the borders of Tibet as claimed by the government of Tibet in Exile, saying that it includes historically non-Tibetan areas populated by non-Tibetans for generations (such as the Xining area), making the figure of 7.5 million vs. 6 million flawed. PRC statistics state that 92% of the population in Tibet Autonomous Region is ethnic Tibetan, though this proportion is significantly lower than those given for Amdo and eastern Kham, as Han Chinese are not evenly distributed all over historic Tibet. In the TAR itself, much of the Han Chinese population is to be found in the capital. Population control policies like the one-child policy only apply to Han Chinese, not to minorities such as Tibetans. The PRC says that it is dedicated to the protection of traditional Tibetan culture; it also groups the Qingzang Railway, renovation work at the Potala Palace, and other projects as part of a costly but benevolent effort by the wealthier, eastern half of China to aid the poorer, western regions.


See also Tibetan art, Tibetan rug, Tibetan calendar.
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Large Snow Lions guard the entrance to the Potala Palace

Tibet is the traditional center of Tibetan Buddhism, a distinctive form of Vajrayana. Tibetan Buddhism is not only practiced in Tibet; it is also the prevalent religion in Mongolia. Tibet is also home for the original spiritual tradition called Bn (also spelled Bon). Various dialects of the Tibetan language are spoken across the country. Tibetan is written using the Tibetan script.

In Tibetan cities, there are also small communities of Muslims, known as Kache, who trace their origin from immigrants from three main regions: Kashmir (kachee yul), Ladakh and Nepal. Islamic influence in Tibet also came from Persia and Turkestan. There is also a well established Chinese Muslim community (gya kachee) tracing its ancestry back to the Hui ethnic group of China. It is said that Muslim migrants from Kashmir and Ladakh first entered Tibet around the 12th century. Gradually, marriages and social interaction led to an increase in the population until a sizable community grew up around Lhasa.

The Potala Palace, former residence of the Dalai Lamas, is a World Heritage Site.

Further reading & media

  • Dowman, Keith (1988). The Power-Places of Central Tibet: The Pilgrim's Guide. Routledge & Kegan Paul. London, ISBN 0710213700. New York, ISBN 0140191186.
  • Shakya, Tsering (1999). The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231118147.
  • Pachen, Ani; Donnely, Adelaide (2000). Sorrow Mountain: The Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun. Kodansha America, Inc. ISBN 1568362943.
  • Goldstein, Melvyn C.; with the help of Gelek Rimpche. A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers (1993), ISBN 8121505828. University of California (1991), ISBN 0520075900.
  • Grunfield, Tom (1996). The Making of Modern Tibet. ISBN 1563247135.
  • Schell, Orville (2000). Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood. Henry Holt. ISBN 0805043810.
  • Thurman, Robert (2002). Robert Thurman on Tibet. DVD. ASIN B00005Y722.
  • Wilby, Sorrel (1988). Journey Across Tibet: A Young Woman's 1900-Mile Trek Across the Rooftop of the World. Contemporary Books. ISBN 0809246082.
  • Wilson, Brandon (2004). Yak Butter Blues: A Tibetan Trek of Faith. Heliographica. An Imprint of Pilgrim's Tales. ISBN 1933037237, ISBN 1933037245.
  • Norbu, Thubten Jigme; Turnbull, Colin (1968). Tibet: Its History, Religion and People. Reprint: Penguin Books (1987).
  • Stein, R. A. (1962). Tibetan Civilization. First published in French; English translation by J. E. Stapelton Driver. Reprint: Stanford University Press (with minor revisions from 1977 Faber & Faber edition), 1995. ISBN 0804708061.

See also

External links





bo:བོད་ br:Tibet ca:Tibet da:Tibet de:Tibet eo:Tibeto es:Tbet et:Tiibet fr:Tibet gd:Tibet he:טיבט hi:तिब्बत it:Tibet ja:チベット ka:ტიბეტი nl:Tibet no:Tibet pl:Tybet pt:Tibete sk:Tibet sv:Tibet zh:西藏


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