When did the destruction of Tibet’s monasteries
Documents on ‘reforming the religious system’
in eastern Tibet 1958
in eastern Tibet 1958
Jianglin Li and Matthew Akester
This paper introduces four sample documents from the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, at county, provincial and central government level, concerning the implementation of ‘religion system reform’ in eastern Tibet. They all belong to the latter part of 1958, the crucial year in which Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, as well as the mosques of the Hui and Salar peoples, in Qinghai and Gansu provinces were ransacked, disbanded and nearly all closed down by the state. The documents are presented in English translation, alongside translations of Tibetan accounts of the events of that year.
The collection consists of (1) the report on reform of the religious system by the Qinghai provincial UFWD committee (September 27th 1958); (2) the speech by Wang Feng to a forum on religion policy in Tibetan areas held by the central Party committee’s UFWD (October 7th 1958); (3) the report on religious system reform work submitted to the Qinghai provincial CCP committee by the Hualong county Party committee (October 24th 1958) and (4) the report on religion reform work by the leading group of the Central Nationalities Affairs Commission (November 1958). Since they were written with such frankness and clarity, these documents have considerable historical value in establishing the nature and function of CCP religion policy in Tibet.
It is well known that in the early years of the occupation (1950-55), the CCP was at pains to emphasise its tolerance of religion and acceptance of “national minority” sentiment, in an attempt to allay Tibetan fears. Communism was little known or understood in Tibet at that time, by and large, but the destruction of Mongolian Buddhism by Soviet Communism in the late 1920s and 1930s, and the experience of the CCP’s ‘Long March’ through eastern Tibet 1935-36, led to apprehension that the monasteries, the basic institutions of Tibetan society and civilisation, would be plundered and destroyed by the advancing Red Army. Demonstrative respect for Tibetan monasteries and temples was therefore an essential discipline imposed on the PLA and Party cadres during the consolidation phase of Communist rule, and was maintained until March 1959 in the TAR in line with the postponement of Democratic Reform there. At the same time, there was an attempt to cultivate “progressive” religious figures, who were appointed to United Front committees at provincial, prefecture and county levels, and rewarded with generous salaries.
Tibetan Buddhist monasteries did not actually come under attack until 1956, when Democratic Reform was launched in the TAPs in Sichuan and other provinces, but the monasteries were not made the focus of expropriation and “class struggle” at first. As Wang Feng told the September 1958 conference:
In the early stage of the democratic reform in Tibetan areas, there was a period of time when we purposely made many concessions to Lamaist temples, so as to reduce resistance and systematically carry out the reform according to plan. It was necessary to make those concessions. However, the counter-revolutionary Lamaist upper class thought that it was a sign of our weakness…
In Sichuan, the Central Committee once adopted the policy not to touch the temples for the time being. The main purpose of that policy is to stabilize the situation in Tibet, plus it facilitates the work of dividing and splitting the feudal class and isolating tu si, chiefs and landlords. The policy was necessary at that time. However, conditions are different now…
Conditions were different because the spring of 1958, when the systematic expropriation of monasteries seems to have begun, saw the outbreak of mass uprisings in large parts of Qinghai. The exact chronology remains uncertain, but these documents show that the change of policy under discussion occurred in the context of “suppressing the rebellion”. Wang stated that:
In recent months in Qinghai and Gansu, together with suppressing the rebellion, and through ‘speaking bitterness’, resolute struggle against rebellious elements, feudal privilege and exploitation in temples has been conducted
which confirms that ‘religion system reform’ had been ongoing through the summer of 1958, and the September forum was giving central approval for its extension to other provinces, namely Sichuan. The immediate pretext for this development was the charge that Lamas and monasteries were the ringleaders and bases of resistance to Democratic Reform:
Nationalities in the whole country are joining in the Great Leap Forward, Tibetans in Sichuan also want to leap forward, but the Lamaist system has become the most prominent obstacle stopping the people of Tibetan areas from marching forward. No forward march is possible without clearing away this obstacle. In the past we did make many concessions, yet they broke their promises anyway, going in for rebellion and sabotage. To struggle against them now, we are in a completely rightful and advantageous position. However, we need to be fully prepared, conduct more investigation and come up with a full indictment of their counter-revolutionary activities. When we strike, the blow should be hard and complete
The first confirmation of this development in official documents so far available seems to have come in May 1958, when UFWD deputy director Yang Jingren made a speech entitled “Religious Oppression is a Big Mountain bearing down on the Hui People”. A the beginning of June, the department held a ‘Symposium on the Hui Nationality and Islam’ in Qingdao, at which director Li Weihan announced that the time had come to start “religious system reform”. The time to “touch religion” was ripe, he said, as the “democratic revolution” in Hui areas had drawn to a conclusion.
This was followed by the so-called ‘July Directive’ from the CCP central committee which called for a hard line approach in Tibetan areas (outside TAR), combining the suppression of “rebellion” (resistance to Democratic Reform) with ‘reform of the religious system’, using the “Qinghai method and revolutionary method”. Since the text of this directive is still unavailable, the details are uncertain, but the documents presented here make it clear enough that expropriation of monasteries and mass arrest of Lamas and senior monks was carried out systematically in Qinghai and Gansu over the summer of 1958. It appears that following the July Directive, this offensive became known as the ‘Four Anti-s campaign’ (anti-rebellion, anti-lawbreaking, anti-exploitation, anti-privilege), or in some places it was simply called the ‘anti-feudalism campaign’. The Qinghai UFWD report forwarded to the centre on September 27th reveals that
According to statistics, in pastoral areas, 223 temples, 51.98% of the total, have disbanded; 17,685 religious personnel, 36.56% of the total, have returned to lay life. Among these, 97% of temples in Huangnan have disbanded, and 55.1% of religious personnel have returned to lay life. Adding those arrested and detained for political education, they make up to around 95% of total religious personnel. In Hainan 91.8% temples have disbanded, and 87.9% religious personnel have returned to lay life. In Haibei and Haixi, more than 80% temples have disbanded, and more than 70% of religious personnel have returned to lay life
In Gannan prefecture, there were 196 monasteries, 15,592 monks, including 226 incarnate Lamas and 810 monk officials before the launch of the campaign. Afterwards, only 6 monasteries and 249 monks remained, 205 of them at Labrang Tashikhyil (the largest monastery in the prefecture, which formerly had about 4000 monks). 192 incarnate Lamas, 667 monk officials and 384 monastery managers were arrested. Altogether 19.5% of monks were arrested.
In the Tibetan prefectures of Sichuan, the ‘Four Anti-s campaign’ seems to have got underway only in October-November. The reasons for the delay are not known. A meeting was held by the Ganzi Party Committee between October 27th and November 2nd, following on from the September ‘Forum on Lamaism’ in Beijing, to plan “launch of a large scale mass movement… to achieve thorough reform of the monastic system of feudal exploitation”. It was decided that over 5000 cadres, both civilian and military, would be sent to the counties to lead the campaign, and a regiment or battalion was stationed in each county as a military backup.
These documents thus witness the moment at which the Party leadership endorsed the abandonment of its much-vaunted policy of strategic caution in favour of a concerted attack on religious institutions in Tibetan and Hui areas, several months after this attack had actually been launched on the ground. The policy of restraint in “touching” religion was of course temporary in nature, pending the entrenchment of military and administrative control of the plateau after Liberation, and then the implementation of Democratic Reform (which began in late 1955 in agricultural areas of the Sichuan and other TAPs). The decision to abandon it in 1958 was emboldened by the launch of the Great Leap Forward and ‘Leftist’ turn in central decision-making, and justified, as shown above, by the imperative to crush the ‘counter-revolutionary rebellion’, or Tibetan armed resistance to Democratic Reform.
Now that they had dared to “touch the tiger’s backside”, the concerns for the leadership were managing popular reaction, managing international opinion and managing the effect on TAR, where Democratic Reform had been strategically postponed. The latter issue does not seem to have caused much anxiety. In Wang Feng’s words:
As for the influence on Tibet (i.e., TAR), now it is clear to us that even if we don’t touch temples, they will rebel anyway. In fact, the rebellion in Gansu and Qinghai was incited by them. The more they rebel, the better it is. When rebellion starts, we can turn bad things into good things. If you don’t do it, they will do it anyway (i.e., even if we leave the temples alone, they will still rebel), but if you do it completely they may not be able to do it anymore…
Foreign impact seems to have been of some concern. Wang’s report to the Central Committee noted that
Islam and Lamaism not only have many followers among minority nationalities inside the country, but also command a large number of followers outside the country, mainly in a considerable number of nationalist countries in Asia and Africa. Therefore, when we proceed with our work in religion, attention must be paid to how much the masses have been aroused and the level of their political awareness. A certain level of attention should be given to international impact as well
It is necessary to preserve a certain number of temples in order to show consideration for the masses’ religious faith, to prevent internal and external counter-revolutionaries from spreading rumours and fomenting discord…
To prevent such rumours
This work should be carried out under the slogans of purging counter-revolutionaries, against rightists and evildoers, abolishing feudal privileges and exploitation; there is no need to raise the slogan of religious system reform in public
Managing popular opposition to ‘religious system reform’ among minority peoples is clearly the main preoccupation in all four of these documents. As the Party Central Committee advised:
The fact that those feudal oppressors and exploiters hide behind the mask of religion, using religion as a weapon, and the masses of the concerned nationalities have deep superstitious belief in religion makes this struggle a particularly complex one
The proposed strategy was of course ideological education, ‘mobilising the masses’ for ‘anti-feudal struggle’, and particularly “Lamas from poor backgrounds”. Upholding the constitutional freedom of religious belief was important because it “prevents counter-revolutionaries from accusing us of annihilating religion”. A certain number of temples had to be preserved, former monks (those who had not joined the rebellion) had to be rehabilitated, and popular religious faith (that did not interfere with production) had to be permitted. The Party leadership at every level is at pains to stress the importance of “arduous and meticulous work” to educate the masses, and discourage attacks on “habits and customs, such as removing veils and cutting braids”.
While this was certainly the Party line, it is apparent even from official sources that the actual work of disbanding and expropriating monasteries was done under coercion and with military support. To judge from the figures of arrested religious personnel cited above, attempts to incite ordinary monks against their superiors met with little success. The Hualong work report reveals that only in 30% of the county’s villages (“Category 1 areas”) was there any trace of popular collaboration.
This is not to say that Tibetans and other minority peoples were unmoved by mass struggle campaigns such as ‘speaking bitterness’; there is no doubt that Tibetan activists recruited from poor class backgrounds, and ‘progressives’ from privileged backgrounds, made a significant contribution to the successful implementation of Democratic Reform. Still, the abandonment of all tolerance for organised religion, the cornerstone of liberal nationality policy in Tibet hitherto, was an extreme demand on the loyalties of the fledgling Tibetan cadre force recruited during the 1950s, many of whom were labelled ‘rightists’ or ‘local nationalists’ in this period. Wang Feng warned delegates to the September forum
…if a party member still refuses to change his religious standpoint after repeated education and holds on to the sentiment of defending religion, a person like this no longer meets the requirement of a communist party member. 20% of minority party members in Qinghai uphold the sentiment of defending religion. One county CPC secretary even released a person belonging to the counter-revolutionary religious upper class without approval, and told him: “Lucky that you met me, otherwise you wouldn’t be released.” This kind of person cannot be kept in the party.
In the 1961-62 rectification that followed the Great Leap Forward, some attempt was made to redress the excesses of 1958. A small number of monasteries were permitted to resume the holding of religious assemblies with much depleted numbers, some individuals were recognised as having been wrongly arrested and released from prison, some minority cadres were reinstated, and some property was returned or compensated. This period of relative leniency lasted until the launch of the Socialist Education campaign in 1964, when reopened monasteries were closed once again.
Destruction of Tibetan Buddhism---Chinese sources
Destruction of Tibetan Buddhism---Tibetan sources
 Tibet herein refers to the Tibet Autonomous Region and Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures and Counties in other provinces of the PRC. Haidong Prefecture in Qinghai, in which Hualong county (Tib: Ba yan rdzong) is included, does not have Tibetan Autonomous status since Tibetans are no longer the numerical majority there, but shall also be considered part of Tibet for the purposes of this discussion.
 ‘After we entered Xikang, the first thing we did was announce the nationality policy stipulated in the Common Programme. At the same time our troops' fine conduct found expression in some concrete matters; for instance, through observing the Three Main Rules of Discipline and the Eight Points for Attention, respecting the Tibetan people's customs, habits and religious beliefs, quartering in no lamaseries, etc., they won the trust of our Tibetan compatriots. The Tibetan people said that our troops were so good that even in a heavy rain they would neither enter nor live in their houses unless invited. This is the result of carrying out correct policies. Didn't rulers of the past proclaim good policies? The problem is they never put their policies into effect. For us, once we have formulated policies, we mean to have them carried out. As regards the ten terms we put forth, some representative figures in Tibet find them a bit too magnanimous. That is how we mean them to be. We are not deceiving anybody…’ (Speech by Deng Xiaoping at a rally welcoming the delegation sent by the Central Government to visit minority nationalities in southwest China, July 21st 1950) http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/dengxp/vol1/text/a1200.html.
 Wang Feng (1910-98) served as vice director of the State Nationalities Affairs Commission 1952-68, and had a senior role in CCP Tibet work at this time.
 Fighting began in Tongren in April, when the Xunhua massacre also took place, and quickly spread through Huangnan and Hainan prefectures, as well as Guoluo and Yushu (e.g., War in Tibet 1956, by Jianglin Li 2012; The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier: State Building, National Integration and Socialist Transformation, Zeku County 1953-1958 by B.R.Weiner, unpublished doctoral thesis, Columbia University 2012 p.379-80). Armed resistance had been ongoing in various parts of Gansu and Sichuan since 1956 (e.g., Documents related to Ngaba in the 1950s, translated by Jianglin Li 2011). The 6th session of the second Qinghai Party Congress which announced the decision to extend ‘socialist reforms’ to pastoral areas, sometimes identified as the immediate cause for the 1958 uprising, took place on April 7th (e.g., Zungs phrag dron mo gangs can ljongs su mchod, Ba ri Zla ba tshe ring (ed.), Dharmshala: DIIR 2007 p. 232). According to Tendzin Pelbar (Nga’i pha yul gyi ya nga ba’i lo rgyus, Dharmshala: Nartang Publications 1994 p.82), it was the arrest of Gungtang Rinpoche and other regional leaders in February (?) 1958 that sparked unrest throughout Labrang monasteries estates (which cover a large part of Gannan prefecture).
 The CNAC November report also states that ‘In the past few months, great achievements have been accomplished in Tibetan and Hui regions of Gansu and Qinghai by combining the crackdown on rebellion, mobilizing the masses and reforming the religious system.’ In this report, Wang seems to be harping on the success of the campaign in order to convince his superiors that ‘reforming the religious system is not only absolutely necessary, but is also possible.’
 Quotations from the directive are found, for example, in History of Democratic Reform in Ganzi Tibetan Prefecture p.76-86. We also have reports of provincial level meetings following on from the directive: in late July, the Qinghai Party Committee held a meeting of party secretaries from pastoral prefectures and counties which passed a resolution to “reform the religious system”. The resolution stated that the purpose of the reform was to “disband most of the temples”, and “abolish the incarnation system step by step” (Xinhua News Agency ed. Internal Reference August 19th 1958). Also in late July 1958, Ganzi Prefecture Party Committee submitted a document to the Sichuan Provincial Committee entitled ‘Opinion on the Anti-Rebellion, Anti-Law Breaking Struggle and Solution of the Monastery Problem’, calling for the “launch of a mass movement against rebellion and law breaking, driving the sharp edge of the mass movement against counter-revolution in monasteries” in the agricultural areas of north-east Ganzi (History of Democratic Reform in Ganzi Tibetan Prefecture p. 85)
 Xinhua News Agency ed. Internal Reference. April 23, 1959 p. 3, History of CCP in Gannan, July 1921 – July 2003 p. 234. The dates of the campaign are not specified in these sources, and we can only infer that this took place over the summer of 1958.
 As noted above, a meeting to launch the campaign in Ganzi had already been held in July. According to the county gazetteers, the campaign began in October or November in Danba (Rong brag), Jiulong (brGyad zur), Kangding (Dar rtse mdo), Yajiang (Nyag chu kha), Daocheng (’Dab pa), Luhuo (Brag mgo), Ganzi (dKar mdzes) and Dege (sDe dge) counties. Gazetteers for Xiangcheng (Cha phreng) and Baiyu (dPal yul) counties, however, record the start of the campaign in June and July. The Tibetan sources presented here suggest that the campaign was conducted in Ruorgai county (mDzod dge) in Aba prefecture in August, but did not affect Aba county (rNga ba) until October.
 History of Democratic Reform in Ganzi Tibetan Prefecture, p.86. Before the movement, there were over 320 monasteries in Aba prefecture, of which only 7 survived the campaign as “State protected monasteries”. No figures are given on the fate of the 540 monasteries in Ganzi prefecture. Confiscated monastery property included 212,000 cattle, 5,120,000 kg of grain, 247,000 farm tools, 34,000 houses, 150,000 mu of farm land, plus “other properties worth 10,270,000 yuan” (p.89). According to the gazetteers for Muli (rMu li), Sertar (gSer rta), Palyul and Xianning counties, property confiscated included 3,207 liang of gold (1 liang = 37.5 grams), 200,000 liang of silver and 125,000 silver dollars. In Xianning county alone, during the Four Anti-s movement, 25 ‘slaves’ were liberated, 445 mu of land, 368,200 jin of grain, 27,240 yuan in cash, 132 liang gold, 15,156 silver dollars and 28,940 yuan in Tibetan currency were confiscated (Daofu County Gazetteer p. 327 – Xianning county was incorporated into Daofu (rTa’u) and Yajiang counties in 1978). In the six counties of southern Ganzi, 950,000 kilograms of grain, 2000 houses, 40,000 pieces of furniture and 60,000 cattle were confiscated. (General Survey of Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture p. 142-143). No figures are given by official sources for the statues and other precious metal items confiscated from temples and monasteries.
 This remark seems to echo similar assessments by the central leadership. In mid July 1958, for instance, the CCP Central Committee had instructed the Party committee in Lhasa: “…if the reactionary elements insist on starting an armed rebellion, we will definitely use force to suppress the rebels. Rebellion by a small group of reactionaries will spark the comprehensive liberation of the overwhelming majority of the working people. So if a rebellion breaks out, it will not necessarily be a bad thing for the Tibetan people. If the Central Committee properly handles the rebellion, this bad thing will be turned into a good thing for the Tibetan people” (in Zhonggong xizang dangshi dashi ji [Important events in CCP history in Tibet 1949-94], Committee on materials for CCP history in Tibet, Tibet Peoples Publishing House, Lhasa 1995). In February 1959, Mao Zedong commented on reports from the PLA command on resistance in eastern Tibet “…rebellions like these are extremely favourable for us, because they will benefit us in helping to train our troops, train the masses, and provide a sufficient reason to crush the rebellion and carry out comprehensive reforms in the future” (Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengai [Mao Zedong’s collected manuscripts since the foundation of the Peoples Republic] Zhongyang Wenxian, Beijing 1987 vol.8 p.47-8 - cited by Chen Jian, The Tibetan Rebellion of 1959 in Journal of Cold War Studies vol.8 no.3 2006).
 In his speech to the September forum, he expressed the opinion that rehabilitating displaced religious personnel through “United Front work” would “make a good impression on foreign countries”.
 The Qinghai UFWD report also states that ‘…in order to reduce obstacles to our work and to eradicate loopholes in our work that may be used by counter-revolutionaries to create rumours, it is correct for the Provincial Committee not to publicly raise the slogan of reforming the religious system, but to raise such slogans as purging counter-revolutionaries, abolishing the feudal system of oppression and exploitation, and abolishing feudal privileges.’
 As the Panchen Lama would allege in his 1962 petition: ‘Our Han cadres produced a plan, our Tibetan cadres mobilized, and some people among the activists who did not understand reason played the part of executors of the plan. They usurped the name of the masses, they put on the mask [mianju] of the masses, and stirred up a great flood of waves to eliminate statues of the Buddha, scriptures and stupas [reliquaries]. They burned countless statues of the Buddha, scriptures and stupas, threw them into the water, threw them onto the ground, broke them and melted them. Recklessly, they carried out a wild and hasty [fengxiang chuangru] destruction of monasteries, halls, ‘mani’ walls and stupas, and stole many ornaments from the statues and precious things from the stupas…It is difficult to imagine Tibet’s Buddhist statues, scriptures and stupas being destroyed like this, but some people still say that “the broad masses of the working people have become conscious, and so they have been destroyed.” This is sheer nonsense, which comes from a complete lack of understanding of the actual situation in Tibet…we cannot agree’ (e.g., A Poisoned Arrow: the secret report of the 10th Panchen Lama, London: Tibet Information Network 1997 p.51.)
 Tibetan eyewitness accounts of Democratic Reform provide numerous instances of extreme violence committed by ordinary Tibetans against ‘class enemies’ in the course of ‘speaking bitterness’ struggle meetings (e.g., Bod mi btsan byol ba’i tshig tho (Statements recorded from Tibetan refugees), Dharmshala: Tibetan Public Relations Office 1963; rGya dmar gyis bod nang mi spyod las ’das pa’i bya ngan ji byas dngos byung gnas lugs rags bsdus gSal bar mthong ba’i me long (1959-84), Dharmshala: Tibet Cultural Press 1991). For example, one incident cited in the Qinghai UFWD report (‘…in Gangcha County, while struggling against Ketsai the counter-revolutionary Huo Fo, the masses immediately threw themselves on him, tearing up his robe, and demanded that the government execute this criminal right away’) is reminiscent of the appalling eyewitness account of the public lynching of Lamas that same year in Nags tshang shi lu’i skyid sdug (Chapters 69 and 70).
 As far as can be seen from official sources, there were 137 such monasteries in Qinghai, less than 30 in Sichuan, 5 in Gansu and 70 or more in TAR. In Guoluo prefecture (’Go log), Qinghai, for example, ‘On June 15th 1962, eight monasteries were permitted to hold assemblies - Rva rgya, dPal yul, Grub chen, Shar ’od, Khra gling, gNyan mo, Yar thang and rDo kha - with a total of 119 monks. At Rva rgya there were only 40 monks, where there had been 2,700 before 1958... In February 1964 when the Socialist Education campaign was launched, these 8 monasteries were closed down again’ (’Gu log gi lo rgyus gNyan po g.yu rtse’i bsang dud by Dam chos dpal bzang, Dharmshala: Amnye Machen publications 1999 vol.1 p.464-66).