Society, culture and religion

Tibet today

Tibet is rich in tradition and many Tibetans still have lifestyles that have changed little over generations.

It is also a modern country with urban populations living lives that would be recognisable to most people across the world. Communications are very important to Tibetans and mobile phone, smart phone and internet use is extensive, including in some of the most remote parts of Tibet.

While China attempts to prevent access to foreign media and influences, Tibetans work hard to circumvent restrictions and learn about the world beyond their borders.

Tibetans are deeply proud of their unique culture nevertheless.


Tibetan culture is inseparably linked to Tibetan Buddhism. Over the last 1,000 years, Tibet has developed a unique, spiritual and peaceful culture with Buddhism at its heart.
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Many people’s lives are wholly dedicated to Tibetan Buddhism, which features elaborate rituals and advanced philosophical discussion.

The belief in reincarnation and the role of Lamas are also fundamental aspects of this school of Buddhism.

China strictly curtails the practices and traditional institutions of Buddhism and monks and nuns frequently suffer under China's regime.

The Dalai Lama

Lamas are spiritual teachers. The Dalai Lama is the most senior figure in Tibetan Buddhism. The current Dalai Lama, the 14th, is considered to be the reincarnation of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion.

For generations, Dalai Lamas have also been the rulers of Tibet but the current Dalai Lama has given up any political role and is now a purely religious figure.

Because of the Dalai Lama’s central place in Tibetan culture, the Chinese Government is trying to diminish his importance. He is demonised in state media and has been exiled since 1959.

In most areas of Tibet, it is illegal to sell or possess images of the Dalai Lama.

The Panchen Lama

Another important figure in Tibetan Buddhism is the Panchen Lama. Tibetans refer to the Dalai Lama as the sun and the Panchen Lama as the moon.

Panchen Lama.jpgThe current Panchen Lama (left) was abducted by Chinese authorities at the age of six in 1995, just days after he had been recognised by the Dalai Lama.

Nothing is known about his and his family’s whereabouts or wellbeing to this day. You can read more about the Panchen Lama on our political prisoners pages.

Nomadic agriculture

Due to the unique conditions to be found on the Tibetan plateau, pastoral nomadism is the traditional form of agriculture.

The Chinese government wants to replace nomadic agriculture with intensive, modern practices. Nomads have been forced to settle in urban areas, with pastures fenced off and land previously used for grazing herds designated for industrial ventures.

This re-settlement policy is having a severely negative impact on Tibetan herders’ ability to maintain their traditional livelihoods and threatens to eradicate this form of cultural identity. It also risks damaging the sensitive environment of the Tibetan plateau.

In 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur for Food agreed with Free Tibet's findings that nomads are the victims of a ‘serious policy failure’.

Read more about nomadic agriculture

Language and education

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The Tibetan language is under threat as Chinese has replaced Tibetan as the official language.

Tibetans are in a highly disadvantaged position to get further education than their Chinese class mates. Secondary education is taught exclusively in Mandarin and entrance exams to universities are in Chinese. While China claims massive investment in Tibet, the level of education of Tibetans remains extremely low.

In 2005, only 11.5% of the Tibetan population had secondary education or higher. The illiteracy rate for the TAR is a staggering 45% (2005) compared with 10% (2004) in China as a whole.

More and more Tibetan parents are sending their children to Chinese language primary schools, hoping it will lead to improved employment opportunities. Those children often end up not being able to read, write or even speak Tibetan.

Attacking the language is part of the Chinese government’s plan to forcibly assimilate Tibetans into China.

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Top photo: Pedro Saravia
Bottom photo: Miguel Angel Horcajada