The Tibetan Uprising of 1959

China Forces the Dalai Lama into Exile

Norbulingka was first built in the 1780s as a retreat for the Dalai Lamas.
The Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's Summer Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, which was destroyed by the Chinese Army during the 1959 Tibetan Uprising but later rebuilt. lapin.lapin on Flickr.com

Chinese artillery shells pummeled the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's summer palace, sending plumes of smoke, fire, and dust into the night sky. The centuries-old building crumbled under the barrage, while the badly outnumbered Tibetan Army fought desperately to repel the People's Liberation Army (PLA) from Lhasa...

Meanwhile, amidst the snows of the high Himalaya, the teenaged Dalai Lama and his bodyguards endured a cold and treacherous two-week-long journey into India.

Origins of the Tibetan Uprising of 1959

Tibet had an ill-defined relationship with China's Qing Dynasty (1644-1912); at various times it could have been seen as an ally, an opponent, a tributary state, or a region within Chinese control.

In 1724, during a Mongol invasion of Tibet, the Qing seized the opportunity to incorporate the Tibetan regions of Amdo and Kham into China proper. The central area was renamed Qinghai, while pieces of both regions were broken off and added to other western Chinese provinces. This land grab would fuel Tibetan resentment and unrest into the twentieth century.

When the last Qing Emperor fell in 1912, Tibet asserted its independence from China. The 13th Dalai Lama returned from three years of exile in Darjeeling, India, and resumed control of Tibet from his capital at Lhasa. He ruled until his death in 1933.

China, meanwhile, was under siege from a Japanese invasion of Manchuria, as well as a general breakdown of order across the country.

Between 1916 and 1938, China descended into the "Warlord Era," as different military leaders fought for control of the headless state. In fact, the once-great empire would not pull itself back together until after World War II, when Mao Zedong and the Communists triumphed over the Nationalists in 1949.

Meanwhile, a new incarnation of the Dalai Lama was discovered in Amdo, part of Chinese "Inner Tibet." Tenzin Gyatso, the current incarnation, was brought to Lhasa as a two-year-old in 1937 and was enthroned as the leader of Tibet in 1950, at 15.

China Moves In and Tensions Rise

In 1951, Mao's gaze turned west. He decided to "liberate" Tibet from the Dalai Lama's rule and bring it into the People's Republic of China. The PLA crushed Tibet's tiny armed forces in a matter of weeks; Beijing then imposed the Seventeen Point Agreement, which Tibetan officials were forced to sign (but later renounced).

According to the Seventeen Point Agreement, privately-held land would be socialized and then redistributed, and farmers would work communally. This system would first be imposed on Kham and Amdo (along with other areas of the Sichuan and Qinghai Provinces), before being instituted in Tibet proper.

All the barley and other crops produced on the communal land went to the Chinese government, according to Communist principles, and then some was redistributed to the farmers. So much of the grain was appropriated for use by the PLA that the Tibetans did not have enough to eat.

By June of 1956, the ethnic Tibetan people of Amdo and Kham were up in arms.

As more and more farmers were stripped of their land, tens of thousands organized themselves into armed resistance groups and began to fight back. Chinese army reprisals grew increasingly brutal and included wide-spread abuse of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns. (China alleged that many of the monastic Tibetans acted as messengers for the guerrilla fighters.)

The Dalai Lama visited India in 1956 ​and admitted to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that he was considering asking for asylum. Nehru advised him to return home, and the Chinese Government promised that communist reforms in Tibet would be postponed and that the number of Chinese officials in Lhasa would be reduced by half. Beijing did not follow through on these pledges.

By 1958, as many as 80,000 people had joined the Tibetan resistance fighters.

Alarmed, the Dalai Lama's government sent a delegation to Inner Tibet to try and negotiate an end to the fighting. Ironically, the guerrillas convinced the delegates of the righteousness of the fight, and Lhasa's representatives soon joined in the resistance!

Meanwhile, a flood of refugees and freedom fighters moved into Lhasa, bringing their anger against China with them. Beijing's representatives in Lhasa kept careful tabs on the growing unrest within Tibet's capital city.

March 1959 - The Uprising Erupts in Tibet Proper

Important religious leaders had disappeared suddenly in Amdo and Kham, so the people of Lhasa were quite concerned about the safety of the Dalai Lama. The people's suspicions therefore were raised immediately when the Chinese Army in Lhasa invited His Holiness to watch a drama at the military barracks on March 10, 1959. Those suspicions were reinforced by a none-too-subtle order, issued to the head of the Dalai Lama's security detail on March 9, that the Dalai Lama should not bring along his bodyguards.

On the appointed day, March 10, some 300,000 protesting Tibetans poured into the streets and formed a massive human cordon around Norbulingkha, the Dalai Lama's Summer Palace, to protect him from the planned Chinese abduction. The protestors stayed for several days, and calls for the Chinese to pull out of Tibet altogether grew louder each day. By March 12, the crowd had begun to barricade the streets of the capital, while both armies moved into strategic positions around the city and began to reinforce them. Ever the moderate, the Dalai Lama pleaded with his people to go home and sent placatory letters to the Chinese PLA commander in Lhasa. and sent placatory letters to the Chinese PLA commander in Lhasa.

When the PLA moved artillery into range of the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama agreed to evacuate the building. Tibetan troops prepared a secure escape route out of the besieged capital on March 15. When two artillery shells struck the palace two days later, the young Dalai Lama and his ministers began the arduous 14-day trek over the Himalayas for India.

On March 19, 1959, fighting broke out in earnest in Lhasa. The Tibetan army fought bravely, but they were vastly outnumbered by the PLA. In addition, the Tibetans had antiquated weapons.

The firefight lasted just two days. The Summer Palace, Norbulingka, sustained over 800 artillery shell strikes that killed an unknown number of people inside; the major monasteries were bombed, looted and burned. Priceless Tibetan Buddhist texts and works of art were piled in the streets and burned. All remaining members of the Dalai Lama's bodyguard corps were lined up and publicly executed, as were any Tibetans discovered with weapons. In all, some 87,000 Tibetans were killed, while another 80,000 arrived in neighboring countries as refugees. An unknown number tried to flee but did not make it.

In fact, by the time of the next regional census, a total of about 300,000 Tibetans were "missing" - killed, secretly jailed, or gone into exile.

Aftermath of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising

Since the 1959 Uprising, the central government of China has been steadily tightening its grip on the Tibet. Although Beijing has invested in infrastructure improvements for the region, particularly in Lhasa itself, it has also encouraged thousands of ethnic Han Chinese to move to Tibet. In fact, Tibetans have been swamped in their own capital; they now constitute a minority of the population of Lhasa.

Today, the Dalai Lama continues to head the Tibetan government-in-exile from Dharamshala, India. He advocates increased autonomy for Tibet, rather than full independence, but Chinese government generally refuses to negotiate with him.

Periodic unrest still sweeps through Tibet, especially around important dates such as March 10 to 19 - the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Tibetan Uprising of 1959." ThoughtCo, Feb. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-tibetan-uprising-of-1959-195267. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2017, February 6). The Tibetan Uprising of 1959. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-tibetan-uprising-of-1959-195267 Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Tibetan Uprising of 1959." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-tibetan-uprising-of-1959-195267 (accessed September 26, 2017).