Tibetan people: Wikis


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བོད་པ། / 藏族
Songstengampo.jpg1st Dalai Lama.jpgDalai Lama 1430 Luca Galuzzi 2007crop.jpg

Bundesarchiv Bild 135-S-12-20-36, Tibetexpedition, Regent von Tibet.jpgBundesarchiv Bild 135-BB-099-02, Tibetexpedition, Tsarong Dzasa.jpg13th Shamar Rinpoche.jpg
Sogyal Rinpoche LL AMR 2006-01.jpgYungchen Lhamo-01.jpgPenorRinpoche.jpg

(1st row) Songtsän Gampo1st Dalai Lama14th Dalai Lama (2nd row) Jamphel Yeshe GyaltsenTsarongMipham Chokyi Lodro (3rd row) Sogyal RinpocheYungchen LhamoPenor Rinpoche
Total population
5.4 million
Regions with significant populations
Tibet Autonomous Region, and parts of Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu provinces of  China
(claimed by Tibet Central Tibet Administration)[1] 5.4 million
 India 190,000
 Nepal 16,000
 Bhutan 1,800
 United States 9000
 Canada 5,000
 Switzerland 1,500
 Taiwan 1,000
 United Kingdom 650
 Australia 500

Tibetan, Rgyalrong, Baima language (bqh), Muya language (mvm), Mandarin, Hindi


Predominantly Tibetan Buddhism, Bön

Related ethnic groups

The Tibetan people (བོད་པ།, 藏族, Zàng Zú) are indigenous to Tibet and surrounding areas stretching from Central Asia in the North and West to Myanmar and China Proper in the East and India, Nepal and Bhutan to the south. Numbering 5.4 million, they are the 10th largest of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the People's Republic of China.



Modern demographics for the Tibetan people are a matter of dispute, as the Government of Tibet in Exile claims that the number of Tibetans has fallen from 6.3 million to 5.4 million since 1959, [1] while the government of the People's Republic of China claims that the number of Tibetans has risen from 2.7 million to 5.4 million since 1954. [2] The SIL Ethnologue documents an additional 125,000 Tibetan exiles living in India, 60,000 in Nepal, and 4,000 in Bhutan. The Central Tibetan Administration establishes a Green Book (a kind of Tibetan citizenship identity certificate) to Tibetan refugees. Based on CTA data there are approximately 145,150 Tibetans in diaspora: a little over 100,000 in India; in Nepal there are over 16,000; over 1,800 in Bhutan and more than 25,000 in other parts of the world. Tibetan communities are present in the USA, Canada, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, France, Taiwan, Australia, Mexico and Costa Rica.

Tibetan Nomad in 1950.

Tibetan exile groups estimate the death toll in Tibet since the invasion of the People's Liberation Army in 1950 to be 1,200,000.[2] On the other hand, official records provided by the Chinese government indicate an increase of ethnic Tibetan population in the Tibet Autonomous Region from 1.2 million in 1952, to 2.6 million by the end of 2000. Both of these estimates remain dubious, however, as a proper census was never taken by either the Tibetan government or the Chinese.

"The estimate provided by the Tibetan government in 1953 of a population of 1 million for the TAR excluded that for Chamdo which was not placed under the jurisdiction of the TAR until 1956. It was not based on a proper census but was the result of informed guesswork. Most of the statements of the PRC on the nature of population changes in the TAR up to the 1960s are similarly based on such guesswork."[3]

Much of this growth is attributed by PRC officials to the improved quality of health and lifestyle of the average Tibetan since the beginning of reforms under the Chinese governance. According to Chinese sources, the infant mortality rate in Tibet was 35.3 per 1,000 in the year 2000, as compared to the 430 infant deaths per 1,000 in 1951.[4] The average life expectancy for Tibetans rose from 35 years in 1950s to over 65 years in the 2000s. These statistics are once again problematic, and lack comparison to the rest of China.

"In 2004, UNICEF reported that, despite notable recent improvements, the infant mortality rate in the TAR was 53 per thousand live births and the maternal mortality rate "was over 400 per 100,000 live births, up to eight times higher than the national rate" (UNICEF 2004). Melvyn Goldstein and his colleagues put the infant mortality rate at 12.9 percent in their 2002 survey, although they describe this as low compared to certain communities in Nepal (Goldstein et al. 2002). Infant mortality in China as a whole was officially rated as 3.1 percent in 2003. In 2005, official sources put infant mortality in the TAR at 3.1 percent in 2004 (People's Daily Online, March 31, 2005) or 2.6 percent, lower than the average in China (Feng Jianhua 2005). Other official Chinese publications put the maternal mortality rate in Tibet in 2001 at 327.3 per 100,000, compared to 43.2 per 100,000 in China as a whole, according to Ministry of Health figures. One NGO survey put the rate in one area nearer 700 per 100,000 (Tibet Poverty Alleviation Fund n.d.: 5). The high rate of perinatal deaths among both mothers and children as late as 2000-2001 and the relative rapidity with which these have since improved suggest that rural health conditions may have remained retrograde until the 1980s, when figures first became reliable. . . . One foreign survey found that 51 percent of rural Tibetan children were small because of malnutrition (Harris et al. 2001: 341-47). Only 39 percent of households in Tibet have iodized salt, compared to 95 per cent throughout China, a deficiency that leads to severe incidence of mental retardation and goiter (UNICEF 2004)."[5]


The Tibetan language encompasses many dialects. Khampas have several Kham language dialects which may be unintelligible to Amdowas, and the Lhasa dialect may be unintelligible to both of those groups.[6]

Physical adaptation to high altitudes

Ethnolinguistic Groups of Tibetan language, 1967 (See entire map, which includes a key)
Ethnic Tibetan autonomous entities set up by the People's Republic of China. Opponents of the PRC dispute the actual level of autonomy.

The Tibet Paleolithic Project is studying the Stone Age colonization of the plateau, hoping to gain insight into human adaptability in general and the cultural strategies the Tibetans developed as they learned to survive in this harsh environment.

The ability of Tibetans to function normally in the oxygen-deficient atmosphere at high altitudes - frequently above 4,400 metres (14,000 ft), has often puzzled observers. Recent research[7][8][9][10] shows that, although Tibetans living at high altitudes have no more oxygen in their blood than other people, they have 10 times more nitric oxide and double the forearm blood flow of low-altitude dwellers. Nitric oxide causes dilation of blood vessels allowing blood to flow more freely to the extremities and aids the release of oxygen to tissues. What is not yet known is whether the high levels of nitric oxide are due to a genetic mutation or whether people from lower altitudes would gradually adapt similarly after living for prolonged periods at high altitudes.

Genetic origins

An elderly Tibetan woman.

The distribution of Haplogroup D-M174 is found among nearly all the populations of Central Asia and Northeast Asia south of the Russian border, although generally at a low frequency of 2% or less. A dramatic spike in the frequency of D-M174 occurs as one approaches the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau of western China. D-M174 is also found at high frequencies in Japan but it fades into low frequencies in the Han populated mainland China between Japan and Tibet.

Stein observes:[11]

Different racial types live side by side or coalesce. The predominant strain in most cases in Mongoloid, but many travellers have been struck by the prevalence of what they describe as a 'Red Indian' type (in Kongpo, among the Hor nomads, and in Tatsienlu). Others have noted a European, 'Hellenic' or Caucasian element which seems sometimes to be identical with the preceding type, and sometimes to denote a separate type altogether, especially in north-eastern Tibet. A dwarfish type occurs in Chala, a district of Kham. Though all these are but impressions, the fact that different groups exist is plain. According to travellers with no special claim to scientific knowledge, the brachycephalic type predominates in the farming communities of the Brahmaputra valley and in the south-east. In Ladakh, it would appear to have been superimposed on a dolichocephalic strain (no doubt Dards). Northerners, as in the Changthang lakes region—the Hor and Golok people—are themselves dolichocephalic , on the other hand. However, anthropologists merely distinguish two types: one distinctly Mongoloid and of slight build, typical of Kham. Blue-eyed 'blond' types have also been observed in the north-east.

The romantic claim that American Hopi and Tibetans are related has not found support in genetic studies. Some light has been shed on their origins, however, by one genetic study[12] in which it was indicated that Tibetan Y-chromosomes had multiple origins, one from Central Asia while the other from East Asia.

Traditional explanation

Tibetans traditionally explain their own origins as rooted in the marriage of a monkey and a mountain ogress.[13] Tibetans who display compassion, moderation, intelligence, and wisdom are said to take after their fathers, while Tibetans who are "red-faced, fond of sinful pursuits, and very stubborn" are said to take after their mothers.


Three monks chanting in Lhasa, 1993.
A prayer wheel with chorten in background.

Most Tibetans generally observe Tibetan Buddhism or a collection of native traditions known as Bön (also absorbed into mainstream Tibetan Buddhism). There is also a minority Tibetan muslim population.

Legend said that the 28th king of Tibet, Lhatotori Nyentsen, dreamed of a sacred treasure falling from heaven, which contained a Buddhist sutra, mantras, and religious objects. However, because the Tibetan script had not been invented, the text could not be translated in writing and no one initially knew what was written in the it. Buddhism did not take root in Tibet until the reign of Songtsen Gampo, who married two Buddhist princesses, Bhrikuti and Wencheng. It then gained popularity when Padmasambhāva visited Tibet at the invitation of the 38th Tibetan king, Trisong Deutson.

Today, one can see Tibetans placing Mani stones prominently in public places. Tibetan lamas, both Buddhist and Bön, play a major role in the lives of the Tibetan people, conducting religious ceremonies and taking care of the monasteries. Pilgrims plant prayer flags over sacred grounds as a symbol of good luck.

The prayer wheel is a means of simulating chant of a mantra by physically revolving the object several times in a clockwise direction. It is widely seen among Tibetan people. In order not to desecrate religious artifacts such as Stupas, mani stones, and Gompas, Tibetan Buddhists walk around them in a clockwise direction, although the reverse direction is true for Bön. Tibetan Buddhists chant the prayer "Om mani padme hum", while the practitioners of Bön chant "Om matri muye sale du".


Tibetan with typical hat grinding fried barley. (1938 photo)
Tibetan wrestlers in 1938

Tibet boasts a rich culture. Tibetan festivals such as Losar, Shoton, Linka (festival), and the Bathing Festival are deeply rooted in indigenous religion and also contain foreign influences. Each person takes part in the Bathing Festival three times: at birth, at marriage, and at death. It is traditionally believed that people should not bathe casually, but only on the most important occasions.



Tibetan art is deeply religious in nature, from the exquisitely detailed statues found in Gompas to wooden carvings and the intricate designs of the Thangka paintings. Tibetan art can be found in almost every object and every aspect of daily life.

Thangka paintings, a syncretism of Indian scroll-painting with Nepalese and Kashmiri painting, appeared in Tibet around the 8th century. Rectangular and painted on cotton or linen, they usually depict traditional motifs including religious, astrological, and theological subjects, and sometimes a mandala. To ensure that the image will not fade, organic and mineral pigments are added, and the painting is framed in colorful silk brocades.


The Tibetan folk opera, known as Ache lhamo, which literally means "sister goddess" or "celestial sister," is a combination of dances, chants and songs. The repertoire is drawn from Buddhist stories and Tibetan history.

Tibetan opera was founded in the fourteenth century by Thangthong Gyalpo, a lama and a bridge builder. Gyalpo, and seven girls he recruited, organized the first performance to raise funds for building bridges, which would facilitate transportation in Tibet. The tradition continued uninterrupted for nearly seven hundred years, and performances are held on various festive occasions such as the Lingka and Shoton festival. The performance is usually a drama, held on a barren stage that combines dances, chants, and songs. Colorful masks are sometimes worn to identify a character, with red symbolizing a king and yellow indicating deities and lamas. The performance starts with a stage purification and blessings. A narrator then sings a summary of the story, and the performance begins. Another ritual blessing is conducted at the end of the play. There are also many historical myths/epics written by high lamas about the reincarnation of a "chosen one" who will do great things.


A landscape in Ladakh with numerous chörtens.

The most unusual feature of Tibetan architecture is that many of the houses and monasteries are built on elevated, sunny sites facing the south. They are commonly made of a mixture of rocks, wood, cement and earth. Little fuel is available for heating or lighting, so flat roofs are built to conserve heat, and multiple windows are constructed to let in sunlight. Walls are usually sloped inwards at 10 degrees as a precaution against frequent earthquakes in the mountainous area. Tibetan homes and buildings are white-washed on the outside, and beautifully decorated inside.

Standing at 117 meters in height and 360 meters in width, the Potala Palace is considered the most important example of Tibetan architecture. Formerly the residence of the Dalai Lama, it contains over a thousand rooms within thirteen stories and houses portraits of the past Dalai Lamas and statues of the Buddha. It is divided between the outer White Palace, which serves as the administrative quarters, and the inner Red Quarters, which houses the assembly hall of the Lamas, chapels, 10,000 shrines, and a vast library of Buddhist scriptures.

Tibetan nomad and felt tent. 1938.


Tibetan medicine is one of the oldest forms in the world. It utilizes up to two thousand types of plants, forty animal species, and fifty minerals. One of the key figures in its development was the renowned eighth century physician Yutok Yonten Gonpo, who produced the Four Medical Tantras integrating material from the medical traditions of Persia, India and China. The tantras contained a total of 156 chapters in the form of Thangkas, which tell about the archaic Tibetan medicine and the essences of medicines in other places.

Yutok Yonten Gonpo's descendant, Yuthok Sarma Yonten Gonpo, further consolidated the tradition by adding eighteen medical works. One of his books includes paintings depicting the resetting of a broken bone. In addition, he compiled a set of anatomical pictures of internal organs.


The Cuisine of Tibet reflects the rich heritage of the country and people's adaptation to high altitude and religious culinary restrictions. The most important crop is barley. Dough made from barley flour, called tsampa, is the staple food of Tibet. This is either rolled into noodles or made into steamed dumplings called momos. Meat dishes are likely to be yak, goat, or mutton, often dried, or cooked into a spicy stew with potatoes. Mustard seed is cultivated in Tibet, and therefore features heavily in its cuisine. Yak yoghurt, butter and cheese are frequently eaten, and well-prepared yoghurt is considered something of a prestige item.


Man with a spear. Eastern Tibet. 1938

Most Tibetans wear their hair long, although in recent times due to Chinese influence, some men do crop their hair short. The women plait their hair into two queues, the girls into a single queue.

Because of Tibet's cold weather, the men and women wear long thick dresses (chuba). The men wear a shorter version with pants underneath. The style of the clothing varies between regions. Nomads often wear thick sheepskin versions.

National Literature

Tibet has national literature that has both religious, semi-spiritual and secular elements. While the religious texts are well-known, Tibet has the semi-spiritual Gesar Epic, which is the longest epic in the world and is enjoyed by people in Mongolia and Central Asia too. There are secular texts such as The Dispute Between Tea and Chang (Tibetan beer) and Khache Phalu's Advice.

Marriage customs

Polyandry is practiced in parts of Tibet. A typical arrangement is where a woman may marry male siblings. This is usually done to avoid division of property and provide financial security.[14] However, monogamy is more common throughout Tibet. Marriages are sometimes arranged by the parents, if the son or daughter has not picked their own partner by a certain age.

See also


  1. ^ Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization - Tibet
  2. ^ Source List and Detailed Death Tolls for the Twentieth Century Hemoclysm
  3. ^ Fischer, Andrew M. (2008). "Has there been a decrease in the number of Tibetans since the peaceful liberation of Tibet in 1951?" In: Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China's 100 Questions, pp. 134, 136. Edited: Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-24464-1 (cloth); 978-0-520-24928-8 (pbk).
  4. ^ http://www.unescap.org/esid/psis/population/database/chinadata/tibet.htm Tibet]
  5. ^ Barnett, Robert (2008). "People at the side of the Dalai Lama also said that the hospitals in Tibet only serve the Han people. Is that true?" In: Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China's 100 Questions, pp. 106-107. Edited: Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-24464-1 (cloth); 978-0-520-24928-8 (pbk).
  6. ^ Robert Barnett in Steve Lehman, The Tibetans: Struggle to Survive, Umbrage Editions, New York, 1998. pdf p.1
  7. ^ "Special Blood allows Tibetans to live the high life." New Scientist. 3 November 2007, p. 19.
  8. ^ "Elevated nitric oxide in blood is key to high altitude function for Tibetans." http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-10/cwru-eno103007.php]
  9. ^ "Tibetans Get Their Blood Flowing": http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2007/1029/2
  10. ^ "Nitric oxide and cardiopulmonary hemodynamics in Tibetan highlanders": http://jap.physiology.org/cgi/content/full/99/5/1796
  11. ^ Stein (1972), p. 27.
  12. ^ Su, Bing, et al. (2000)
  13. ^ Stein, R.A. (1972). Tibetan Civilization. J.E. Stapleton Driver (trans.). Stanford University Press. pp. 28, 46. 
  14. ^ Stein (1978), pp. 97-98.


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