Brief History and Geography of Tibet

Shigatse Monastery in Tibet
Shigatse Monastery. Ratnakorn Piyasirisorost / Getty Images

The Tibetan Plateau is a huge region of southwestern China consistently above 4000 meters. This region that was a thriving independent kingdom that began in the eighth century and developed into an independent country in the twentieth century is now under the firm control of China. Persecution of the Tibetan people and their practice of Buddhism is widely reported.


Tibet closed its borders to foreigners in 1792, keeping the British of India (Tibet's southwestern neighbor) at bay until the British desire for a trade route with China caused them to take Tibet by force in 1903. In 1906 the British and Chinese signed a peace treaty that gave Tibet to the Chinese. Five years later, the Tibetans expelled the Chinese and declared their independence, which lasted until 1950.

In 1950, shortly after Mao Zedong's communist revolution, China invaded Tibet. Tibet pleaded for assistance from the United Nations, the British, and the newly independent Indians for assistance to no avail. In 1959 a Tibetan uprising was squelched by the Chinese and the leader of the theocratic Tibetan government, the Dalai Lama, fled to Dharamsala, India and created a government-in-exile. China administered Tibet with a firm hand, prosecuting Tibetan Buddhists and destroying their places of worship, especially during the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

After Mao's death in 1976, the Tibetans gained limited autonomy although many of the Tibetan government officials installed were of Chinese nationality. The Chinese government has administered Tibet as the "Autonomous Region of Tibet" (Xizang) since 1965. Many Chinese have been financially encouraged to move to Tibet, diluting the effect of the ethnic Tibetans. It's likely that the Tibetans will become a minority in their land within a few years. The total population of Xizang is approximately 2.6 million.

Additional uprisings occurred throughout the next few decades and martial law was imposed upon Tibet in 1988. The Dalai Lama's efforts to work with China toward solving problems to bring peace to Tibet earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Through the work of the Dalai Lama, the United Nations has called upon China to consider giving the Tibetan people a right to self-determination.

In recent years, China has been spending billions to improve the economical outlook for Tibet by encouraging tourism and trade to the region. The Potala, the former seat of the Tibetan government and the home of the Dalai Lama is a major attraction in Lhasa.


The Tibetan culture is an ancient one that includes the Tibetan language and a specific Tibetan style of Buddhism. Regional dialects vary across Tibet so the Lhasa dialect has become the Tibetan lingua franca.


Industry was non-existent in Tibet prior to the Chinese invasion and today small industries are located in the capital of Lhasa (2000 population of 140,000) and other towns. Outside of cities, the indigenous Tibetan culture is comprised primarily of nomads, farmers (barley and root vegetables are primary crops), and forest dwellers. Due to the cold dry air of Tibet, grain can be stored for up to 50 to 60 years and butter (yak butter is the perennial favorite) can be stored for a year. Disease and epidemics are rare on the dry high plateau, which is surrounded by the world's tallest mountains, including Mount Everest in the south.


Though the plateau is rather dry and receives an average of 18 inches (46 cm) of precipitation each year, the plateau is the source for major rivers of Asia, including the Indus River. Alluvial soils comprise the terrain of Tibet. Due to the high altitude of the region, the seasonal variation in temperature is rather limited and the diurnal (daily) variation is more important—the temperature in Lhasa can range as much as -2 F to 85 F (-19 C to 30 C). Sandstorms and hailstorms (with hail of tennis-ball size) are problems in Tibet. (A special classification of spiritual magicians was once paid to ward off the hail.)

Thus, the status of Tibet remains in question. Will the culture be diluted by the influx of Chinese or will Tibet once again become "Free" and independent?

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Rosenberg, Matt. "Brief History and Geography of Tibet." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Rosenberg, Matt. (2023, April 5). Brief History and Geography of Tibet. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "Brief History and Geography of Tibet." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).