Tibetans in China
A Cluster profile of 15 Tibetan groups located in China.

[IMAGE] The southwestern portion of China is known as the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The majestic Himalayan Mountains form its southern boundaries with India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar (Burma), and Pakistan. It is here, on this vast plateau, that you will find most of the Tibetan peoples of China.

All of the people groups living in this region are usually referred to as Tibetans; however, there are actually many subgroups. The two main branches are: the Amdo and the Kham. Within these two groups are many subgroups, each speaking their own language and living in different areas.

The exact origins of the Tibetans are unclear; however, one legend says that their ancestors were a forest monkey and a demoness.

Due to the migrations of peoples and the many political developments, Tibet has become very ethnically complex. Nevertheless, it has managed to preserve its unity. Likewise, for much of its history, Tibet has successfully avoided direct foreign control. This can be attributed to its harsh environment, its physical isolation, and its independent people.

What are their lives like?
For many years Tibet existed as a flourishing, independent kingdom. However, in the seventh century, parts of it were conquered by Genghis Khan, the Mongol emperor. In 1911, Tibet once again declared its independence.

In 1950, the Chinese invaded Tibet and gained control of a strategic border area. In 1951, Tibet was forced to sign a treaty which made it a part of China. In the years that followed, the Chinese tried to force the Tibetans to assimilate into Chinese culture in many ways. Private farms were replaced with "collective" (community) farms. Religious worship was banned, and almost all monasteries and other religious monuments were destroyed. Chinese was declared the official language. In 1965, Tibet officially became an independent region of China; but it was not until 1980 that the Chinese government admitted that its policies had caused economic hardships for the Tibetans. It was this concession that saved the Tibetan identity. Holy sites were reopened and Tibetan language and culture were no longer rigidly suppressed. Unfortunately, individual incomes remained very low. Protests against the Chinese have continued since that time, but to little avail.

Today, Tibetan society has two basic levels: the family and the social classes (commoners, clergy, and nobility). Polyandry (a woman who has several husbands) is socially accepted and very common. The only exception is among the Amdo, who are usually monogamous. Some polygamy (multiple marriage partners) also exists among the wealthy and those of noble descent.

Tibet is a very barren area. Much of it is dry because of the "rain shadow effect" caused by the Himalayan Mountains. The winters are extremely cold, with temperatures well below freezing. The ability to endure such conditions has made the Tibetans one of the most rugged peoples in the world.

Tibet's climate changes little between the seasons. Lhasa's daily temperature ranges from 7C (45F) to -8C (18F). Because the monsoons are blocked by the mountains, Tibet receives only 255mm (10 inches) of rain every year. Farmable land is limited to the valleys, mainly in the east and southeast, where the plateau dips below 3,650 meters (12,000 ft.) and where a majority of the people live.

Most Tibetans are semi-nomadic, constantly moving their herds of yaks, cattle, goats, and sheep to new pastures. The economy basically rests on the farming of grains and cattle breeding. Their main crop is barley. Farmers plow with the aid of the native yak or the dzo (a cross between a cow and a yak). Butter is made from the milk of these animals. The butter is then mixed with ground barley in tea to make a dish called tsampa, a staple food for Tibetans.


What are their beliefs?
Monks from India first brought Buddhism to China between the third and the first centuries B.C. Of all the Tibetan groups, there is only one that is Muslim: the Burigs. The remaining groups are predominantly Tantrayana Lamaistic Buddhists; although a few still maintain their shamanistic traditions as well. (Shamanism is the belief that there are many gods, demons, and ancestral spirits. They depend on priests or priestesses, called "shamans", to cure the sick by magic, communicate with the gods, and control events.)

Formal Buddhism has four main branches, one of which is Lamaistic Buddhism. Most of the groups follow the same religious calendar. They also use similar types of burials: water burial, burial in trees, and cremation. All Buddhists believe that right thinking, ritual sacrifices, and self-denial will enable the soul to reach nirvana (eternal bliss) at death. They live in fear of their gods and constantly strive to appease them with chants, rituals, and sacrifices. They also believe in a continuing cycle of death and rebirth (reincarnation).

What are their needs?
Most of the Tibetan groups do not have a translation of the Bible. Neither are there radio broadcasts available in the various languages at this time. With less than 2,000 known Tibetan believers and limited resources, these people have little hope of hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Prayer Points

  • Take authority over the spiritual principalities and powers that are keeping the Tibetans bound.
  • Ask the Lord to call people who are willing to go to China and share Christ with the Tibetans.
  • Pray that the doors of China will soon open to missionaries.
  • Ask God to strengthen, encourage, and protect the small number of known Tibetan Christians.
  • Pray that God will raise up qualified linguists to translate the Bible into the various Tibetan languages.
  • Ask the Holy Spirit to soften the hearts of the Tibetans towards Christians so that they will be receptive to the Gospel.
  • Pray that God will open the hearts of China's governmental leaders to the Gospel.
  • Ask the Lord to raise up a strong local church among the Tibetans by the year 2000.

See also the following related groups:
the Central Tibetan of China; the Tibetan of Nepal, India and Pakistan.

© Copyright 1997
Bethany World Prayer Center

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