NationalGeographic.com [an error occurred while processing this directive]


 
Feature
More to Explore

Did you know?
Related Links
Bibliography
NGS Resources

On Assignment

On Assignment

Tibetans
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

Zoom In

Get the facts behind the frame in this online-only gallery. Pick an image and see the photographer’s technical notes.

Zoom In Thumbnail
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Zoom In Thumbnail
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Zoom In Thumbnail
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Zoom In Thumbnail
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Zoom In Thumbnail
Click to ZOOM IN >>


map

Tibet
Tibetan map Thumbnail
Click to enlarge >>


Tibetans

By Lewis M. SimonsPhotographs by Steve McCurry



Adapting to the realities of Chinese rule, Tibetans still manage to hold on to cherished traditions.




Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Watching his daughter on a homemade ladder smoothing varnish over the red-and-yellow trim of their large new log house, Norbu Choden smiled with the satisfaction that even if there was no getting the Chinese out of Tibet, he’d finally figured out how to benefit from their decades-long occupation of his homeland. “Once you understand that they’re never going to help us,” he said, “you realize that you have to make your own future.”

Norbu made his by transforming himself from a herdsman to a middleman. Like many of the five million Tibetans living under China’s flag, he’d spent nearly all of his 48 years in eastern Tibet driving shaggy yaks through alpine meadows, eating their meat and butter, living in a tent woven from their coarse black wool, barely getting by from one brutal winter to the next. Now he leaves the hard work to others, while he buys and sells for profit.

The middleman has a long and storied history among Chinese, but his vital economic role has largely eluded the grasp of Tibetans. Before Norbu’s metamorphosis, he would look on with envy as Chinese from neighboring Sichuan Province arrived each spring, buying up a wrinkled little fungus that he and other nomads had dug from the ground in their spare time. The Chinese then sold the brown Cordyceps, known as caterpillar fungus, for huge profits to traditional medicine makers.

Gradually the thought took hold: If the Chinese can do it, why couldn’t Tibetans? Why couldn’t he? The government in Beijing had long since declared that personal wealth was no longer a social evil; indeed, Deng Xiaoping himself had said back in the 1980s that to get rich was “glorious.” So, nervous but hopeful, Norbu sold off his animals two years ago and went into the Cordyceps business.

Earning as much as $750 a pound from medicine makers in Chengdu, the Sichuan capital, Norbu made his risk pay off. Now he is by his own assessment a rich man. He displays the symbols of his new wealth: the coral-and-turquoise-studded jewelry he and his wife wear on their fingers and wrists, around their necks, and in their long, glossy black hair; the copper pots gleaming in the spacious log-walled kitchen; the sunny mountain mural in the main room. His rosy-cheeked wife still wears the chuba, the wraparound woolen robe traditionally favored by both women and men, but Norbu, tall and rugged, has switched to dark trousers and open-collared white shirt—what Tibetans refer to as “Chinese clothes.”

Norbu says what satisfies him most is that he’s used some of his wealth to help restore the Buddhist shrine, or stupa, across the dust-blown road from his house. For him, as with nearly all Tibetans, Buddhism is a constant, overriding presence, involving never ending rituals to assure good fortune and, ultimately, rebirth. In Tibet, as in all Buddhist countries, the faithful erect stupas and place relics inside them to bring good to their lives. Norbu’s shrine was one of thousands of religious structures destroyed by Red Guards during the decade-long Cultural Revolution launched in 1966; by the time it was over, youthful communist zealots had killed millions throughout China—including tens of thousands of Tibetans.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.


E-mail this page to a friend.

Subscribe

multimedia

VIDEO Steve McCurry talks about Tibet’s recent past and present ongoing challenges. Click here.
 


Forum

What are the positive—or negative—effects of China’s control of Tibet? How would life be different for Tibetans if they had been left to determine their own destiny? Join the discussion.




In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.


Although today the Chinese government considers the Dalai Lama to be a troublesome and disruptive figure seeking to split Tibet from China, there was a time when it saw him as the key to the union of the two countries. In 1954, some time after the new Chinese Communist government began to assert control over Tibet, the teenage Dalai Lama was brought to Beijing and made a vice president of the Steering Committee of the People’s Republic of China. During his visit the young Dalai Lama met with Mao Zedong many times and also, on one occasion, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The years following the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet in 1955 saw his relationship with the Chinese government deteriorate. In 1959, as the people of Lhasa rose in rebellion fearing his abduction by the Chinese, the Dalai Lama fled to India and formed a Tibetan government-in-exile to contest Chinese domination of his homeland. Thousands of Tibetans fled with him as the Chinese seized direct military control of Tibet, crushing all resistance. The years since have seen the Chinese government attempt to expunge traditional devotion to the Dalai Lama from Tibet, accusing its former vice president of, among other things, deceitfulness and terrorism.

—Tom Cannell

Did you know?

Related Links
Tibetan Government-in-Exile
www.tibet.com
As the official website of the Tibetan government-in-exile, this site offers news updates, explanations of Tibetan Buddhism, and statistics on Tibet and Tibetans around the world.

Kham Aid Foundation
www.khamaid.org
Kham Aid Foundation’s mission is to bring assistance to the people of eastern Tibet (Kham). The foundation works to improve health care, educational opportunities, economic development, and environmental protection. The foundation is also helping to preserve eastern Tibet’s cultural heritage by assisting in renovation projects for such landmarks as the Derge Parkhang.

Internation Campaign for Tibet
www.savetibet.org
The International Campaign for Tibet promotes human right and democratic freedoms for the people of Tibet. Site includes press releases, feature stories and news about Tibetans.

Tibet Information Network
www.tibetinfo.net
The Tibet Information Network (TIN) is an independent news and research service that monitors and reports on the political, social, economic, environmental, and human rights situation in Tibet.

Free Tibet Campaign
www.freetibet.org
This London-based organization, whose mission is to achieve Tibet’s independence from China, provides current news reports on developments in Tibet as well as Tibetan-themed merchandise.

U.S. Tibet Committee
www.ustibet.org
Offering slide shows on Tibet and essays from Tibetans in exile, in addition to links to histories and fact sheets on Tibet, this site provides unique insight into the lives of Tibetans.

Top


Bibliography
Bstan-dzin-rgyo-mtshe (Dalai Lama XIV). Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. Harper Collins, 1990.

Goldstein, Melvyn C. A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State. University of California Press, 1989.

Goldstein, Melvyn C., William Siebenschuh, and Tashi Tsering. The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography of Tashi Tsering. M. E. Sharpe, 1997.

Shakya, Tsering. The Dragon in the Land of the Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947. Columbia University Press, 1999.

Wu, Harry. Troublemaker: One Man’s Crusade Against China’s Cruelty. Times Books, 1996.

Top


NGS Resources
Harper, Damian. The National Geographic Traveler: China, National Geographic Books, 2001.

Baker, Ian. “Tibet Embraces the New Year,” National Geographic (January 2000), 82-93.

Wilby, Sorrel. “Nomads’ Land: A Journey Through Tibet,” National Geographic (December 1987), 764-785.

Ward, Fred. “In Long-Forbidden Tibet,” National Geographic (February 1980), 218-259.

Top


© 2002 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

National Geographic Magazine Home Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe