Tibet’s history and culture

Prior to China’s invasion in 1950, Tibet maintained a unique culture, religion and language for centuries.

Today, this culture is under threat from mass Chinese immigration and the strict control of all expressions of Tibetan culture and national identity.

China boasts of huge investment in Tibet but its economic development is primarily intended to cement its hold on Tibet and enhance its ability to exploit Tibet's natural resources. Economic development has improved conditions for some Tibetans but overwhelmingly it favours Chinese migrants, continuing to disadvantage Tibetans economically. 

Along with other countries around the world, Tibet has changed greatly over the past 70 years. However, Tibetans continue to work to preserve their culture and resist oppressive policies on a daily basis.


Tibet's history

The Chinese government wants me to say that for many centuries Tibet has been part of China. Even if I make that statement, many people would just laugh. And my statement will not change past history. History is history.

- the 14th Dalai Lama

Tibet has a long and rich history as a nation existing side-by-side with China while political power in Asia shifted between empires and kingdoms. In 1913, the 13th Dalai Lama issued a proclamation reaffirming Tibet’s independence and the country maintained its own national flag, currency, stamps, passports and army.

Following China's Communist revolution in 1948, it invaded Tibet in 1950. Overwhelmed, Tibet was forced to give up its independence. After a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama - Tibet’s political and spiritual leader at the time - fled into exile in India followed by tens of thousands of Tibetans. Since 1959, China's government has exercised total political control over Tibet, using all the tools of repression to deter and punish Tibetan resistance.

See timelines of key dates in Tibet's history.

See maps of Tibet.

Note: A number of borders are disputed in the area surrounding Tibet. Free Tibet has no position on these disputes and the borders represented on this map are provided simply to be indicative of the position of historical Tibet in relation to its neighbours.

Tibet's religion

Tibetan girl spinning prayer wheels (credit: Pedro Saraiva)

Tibetan culture and identity is inseparably linked to Tibetan Buddhism.

Religious practice and Buddhist principles are a part of daily life for most Tibetans. Monks and nuns play a key role in their communities, providing guidance and education. They are often very active in protecting and promoting Tibet's environment, language and culture.

Almost all Tibetans are deeply devoted to the Dalai Lama and his exile and treatment by the Chinese government are sources of grief and anger.

Tibetans' allegiance to the Dalai Lama and to Tibetan Buddhism is seen as a danger to the occupying Chinese state and, as a result, all aspects of religious practice are closely monitored and controlled.

Simply possessing an image of the Dalai Lama can result in arrest and torture. Monks and nuns are frequently targeted by security restrictions and they make up a significant proportion of political prisoners in Tibet.

China plans to replace the current Dalai Lama with its own puppet when the time comes. Please take action now to resist this plan and protect religious freedom in Tibet.


Tibet today

Tibetans posing for a photograph in Lhasa (credit: So_P, Flickr)

Tibet is rich in tradition and some Tibetans, particularly nomads, have lifestyles that have changed little over generations. It is also a modern country with many urban Tibetans living busy city lives.

Communications are very important to Tibetans and the use of mobile phones and the internet is extensive, including in some of the most remote parts of Tibet. While China attempts to prevent Tibetans accessing foreign media and influences, Tibetans work hard to circumvent restrictions and engage with the world beyond their borders.

Many young people are seeking new ways to resist China's rule and to preserve Tibetan culture. This includes the Lhakar or ‘White Wednesday" movement - a practice whereby Tibetans promote their own culture, speak their own language, shop exclusively in Tibetan shops and wear Tibetan clothes; every one a rejection of Chinese rule.

Traditional Tibetan life

Nomads on their motorbike (credit: Anthony Alvarez)

Moving across the Tibetan plateau whilst raising yaks and other livestock has been a way of life in Tibet for centuries.

Since the early 1990s, China has sought to enforce its control on Tibet by destroying the nomadic way of life. It has moved more than two million Tibetan nomads from the land they have lived off for generations to barrack-like urban settlements. Torn from all they know, nomads face poverty, unemployment and social exclusion.

Tibetan nomads have protested resettlement programmes and also Chinese mining and damming projects which threaten their environment. Often they resist construction that threatens to damage sacred lakes and mountains.

Credit: Pedro Saraiva


“Tibetans do not learn the value of the earth through science but through our religion and the way our ancestors protected our land over thousands of years. [...] Destruction of the land, the mining of sacred mountains and holy lakes, are more than pollution and destruction of the environment. It is a violation of our tradition, religious beliefs and the destruction of our forefathers’ legacy.” - Tibetan interviewed by Tibet Watch

Language and education

Tibetans speak a number of languages. These are completely separate from Chinese languages, and all of them are currently threatened by the aggressive promotion of Mandarin Chinese as the official language of business, education and government.  

Although the written form of Tibetan is taught in some schools, primary and secondary education is taught predominantly in Mandarin, with Tibetan as a second language. Entrance exams to universities are in Chinese. As a result, some young Tibetans are not literate in Tibetan. Many Tibetans have deep anxieties about the fate of the Tibetan script and of spoken Tibetan, but their efforts to promote the language through education are heavily repressed by the state.

Many Tibetans work to preserve Tibetan culture, such as by running local language classes. However, those doing so are coming under increasing pressure, with authorities in some areas of Tibet forcing monasteries to stop providing Tibetan classes to local communities. Tashi Wangchuk, who spoke out against the growing restrictions, was arrested in 2016 and served a five-year prison sentence. Several jailed musicians have also written songs calling for use of Tibetans' mother tongue – for example, Kalsang Yarphel, who was sentenced to four years in prison.

Tibetans also speak a number of other languages in addition to Tibetan varieties; linguists estimate that Tibetans in Tibet speak about 30 distinct non-Tibetan languages. These languages are completely unrecognised and unsupported by the Chinese government. They are in a dire situation: most of them face imminent extinction.



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