1959 Tibetan uprising

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1959 Tibetan uprising
Part of Cold War
Tsarong Dazang Dramdul and several Tibetan monks captured by the PLA during the uprising.
Date 10–23 March 1959[6]
Location Lhasa, Tibet Area, China
Result Chinese victory

Tibetan and Khampa protestors and militants[1]

Simultaneous rebellion in eastern Tibet:
Chushi Gangdruk
Supported by:
 United States[2]
 People's Republic of China
Commanders and leaders
Several resistance leaders[7] Luo Ruiqing (Minister of Public Security)[8]
Gen. Tan Guansen[9]
(highest-ranking PLA commander in Tibet)
Casualties and losses
85,000–87,000 killed (disputed; see below) 2,000 killed[5]
Part of a series on the
History of Tibet
Potala Palace
See also
Tibet portal

The 1959 Tibetan uprising or the 1959 Tibetan rebellion began on 10 March 1959, when a revolt erupted in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, which had been under the effective control of the People's Republic of China since the Seventeen Point Agreement was reached in 1951.[10] Armed conflict between Tibetan guerillas and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had started in 1956 in the Kham and Amdo regions, which had been subjected to socialist reform. The guerrilla warfare later spread to other areas of Tibet and lasted through 1962.

The anniversary of the uprising is observed by Tibetan exiles as the ''Tibetan Uprising Day'' and Women's Uprising Day.[11] The anniversary of its end is officially celebrated in the Tibetan Autonomous Region as Serfs Emancipation Day.

Armed resistance in east Tibet

In 1951, an agreement between the People's Republic of China and representatives of the Dalai Lama was put into effect. Socialist reforms such as redistribution of land were delayed in Tibet proper. However, eastern Kham and Amdo (western Sichuan and Qinghai provinces in the Chinese administrative hierarchy) were outside the administration of the Tibetan government in Lhasa, and were thus treated more like other Chinese provinces, with land redistribution implemented in full. The Khampas and nomads of Amdo traditionally owned their own land.[12] Armed resistance broke out in Amdo and eastern Kham in June 1956.

Prior to the PLA invasion, relations between Lhasa and the Khampa chieftains had deteriorated, although the Khampa remained spiritually loyal to the Dalai Lama throughout. Because of these strained relations, the Khampa had actually assisted the Chinese in their initial invasion, before becoming the guerrilla resistance they are now known for.[13] Pandatsang Rapga, a pro Kuomintang and pro Republic of China revolutionary Khampa leader, offered the governor of Chamdo, Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, some Khampa fighters in exchange for the Tibetan government recognizing the independence of Kham. Ngabo refused the offer. After the defeat of the Tibetan Army in Chamdo, Rapga started mediating in negotiations between the PLA and Tibetan rebels.[citation needed]

Rapga and Topgay engaged in negotiations with the Chinese during their assault on Chamdo. Khampas either defected to the Chinese PLA forces or did not fight at all. The PLA succeeded in the task.[14]

By 1957, Kham was in chaos. Resistance fighters' attack and People's Liberation Army reprisals against Khampa resistance fighters such as the Chushi Gangdruk became increasingly brutal.[15] Kham's monastic networks came to be used by guerilla forces to relay messages and hide rebels.[16] Punitive strikes were carried out by the Chinese government against Tibetan villages and monasteries. Tibetan exiles assert that threats to bomb the Potala Palace and the Dalai Lama were made by Chinese military commanders in an attempt to intimidate the guerrilla forces into submission.[17]

Lhasa continued to abide by the seventeen point agreement and sent a delegation to Kham to quell the rebellion. After speaking with the rebel leaders, the delegation instead joined the rebellion.[18] Kham leaders contacted the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), but the CIA under President Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted it required an official request from Lhasa to support the rebels. Lhasa did not act.[18] Eventually the CIA began to provide covert support for the rebellion without word from Lhasa. By then the rebellion had spread to Lhasa which had filled with refugees from Amdo and Kham.[19] Opposition to the Chinese presence in Tibet grew within the city of Lhasa.

In mid-February 1959 the CCP Central Committee's Administrative Office circulated the Xinhua News Agency internal report on how "the revolts in the Tibetan region have gathered pace and developed into a nearly full-scale rebellion." in a "situation report" for top CCP leaders.[20]

"The more chaotic [the situation] in Tibet becomes the better; for it will help train our troops and toughen the masses. Furthermore, [the chaos] will provide a sufficient reason to crush the rebellion and carry out reforms in the future, Mao Zedong."[21]

The next day, the Chinese leader saw a report from the PLA General Staff’s Operations Department describing rebellions by Tibetans in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, and Qinghai. He again stressed that "rebellions like these are extremely favorable for us because they will benefit us in helping to train our troops, train the people, and provide a sufficient reason to crush the rebellion and carry out comprehensive reforms in the future."[21]

The PLA used Hui soldiers, who formerly had served under Ma Bufang to crush the Tibetan revolt in Amdo.[22] In Southern Kham, Hui cavalry were stationed.[23]

Lhasa Rebellion

On 1 March 1959, as a traditional event, a theatrical performance at the Chinese military headquarters outside Lhasa invited officials to attend. According to a Communist source contradicting the 14th Dalai Lama's account, the Dalai Lama suggested proactively that he would like to attend.[24] The Dalai Lama—at the time studying for his lharampa geshe degree—initially postponed the meeting, but he eventually set for 10 March.[25] On 9 March 3pm, Chinese army officer told Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme that the Dalai Lama decided to attend the performance and other Tibetan officials could go directly as instructed by the Dalai Lama. Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme found this was counter the tradition, but confirmed this from Tibetan official at 6pm-7pm and was involved to arrange the matter and talked to the chief officer.[26]

According to historian Tsering Shakya, the Chinese government was pressuring the Dalai Lama to attend the National People's Congress in April 1959, in order to repair China's image in relation to ethnic minorities after the Khampa rebellion. On 7 February 1959, a significant day on the Tibetan calendar, the Dalai Lama attended a religious dance, after which the acting representative in Tibet, Tan Guansan, offered the Dalai Lama a chance to see a performance from a dance troupe native to Lhasa at the Norbulingka to celebrate the Dalai Lama's completion of his lharampa geshe degree. According to Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme, the Dalai Lama proactively asked to attend the performance.[24] According to the Dalai Lama's memoirs, the invitation came from Chinese General Chiang Chin-wu, who proposed that the performance be held at the Chinese military headquarters; the Dalai Lama states that he agreed.[27]:130[28] The planned performance date of 10 March was only finalized 5 days beforehand, on 5 March.[29] Neither the Kashag nor the Dalai Lama's bodyguards were informed of the Dalai Lama's plans[30] until Chinese officials briefed them on 9 March, one day before the performance was scheduled, and insisted that they would handle the Dalai Lama's security.[17] The Dalai Lama's memoirs state that on 9 March the Chinese told his chief bodyguard that they wanted the Dalai Lama's excursion to watch the production conducted "in absolute secrecy"[27]:132 and without any armed Tibetan bodyguards, which "all seemed strange requests and there was much discussion" amongst the Dalai Lama's advisors.[27]:132 Some members of the Kashag were alarmed and concerned that the Dalai Lama might be abducted, recalling a prophecy that told that the Dalai Lama should not exit his palace.[29]

Tibet is independent! Chinese leave Tibet!

Slogans used by protestors during the early uprising[7]

According to historian Tsering Shakya, some Tibetan government officials feared that plans were being laid for a Chinese abduction of the Dalai Lama, and spread word to that effect amongst the inhabitants of Lhasa.[31] On 10 March, several thousand[32][33][34] Tibetans surrounded the Dalai Lama's palace to prevent him from leaving or being removed. The huge crowd had gathered in response to a rumor that the Chinese were planning to arrest the Dalai Lama when he went to a cultural performance at the PLA's headquarters.[35] This marked the beginning of the uprising in Lhasa, though Chinese forces had skirmished with guerrillas outside the city in December of the previous year.[17] Although CCP officials insisted that the "reactionary upper stratum" in Lhasa was responsible for the rumor, there is no way to identify the precise source.[36] At first, the violence was directed at Tibetan officials perceived not to have protected the Dalai Lama or to be pro-Chinese; attacks on Chinese started later.[29] One of the first casualties of mob was a senior lama, Pagbalha Soinam Gyamco, who worked with the PRC as a member of the Preparatory Committee of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, who was killed and his body dragged by a horse in front of the crowd for 2 kilometres (1.2 mi).[37]

On 12 March, protesters appeared in the streets of Lhasa declaring Tibet's independence. Barricades went up on the streets of Lhasa, and Chinese and Tibetan rebel forces began to fortify positions within and around Lhasa in preparation for conflict. A petition of support for the armed rebels outside the city was taken up, and an appeal for assistance was made to the Indian consul. Chinese and Tibetan troops continued moving into position over the next several days, with Chinese artillery pieces being deployed within range of the Dalai Lama's summer palace, the Norbulingka.

File:Women's uprising protest in front of Potala March 1959.jpg
17 March 1959: Thousands of Tibetan women surround the Potala Palace, the main residence of the Dalai Lama, to protest against Chinese rule and repression in Lhasa, Tibet. Hours later, fighting broke out and the Dalai Lama was forced to flee to safety in India. Photograph: AP

On March 12 thousands of women gathered in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa on the ground called Dri-bu-Yul-Khai Thang.[11][38] The leader of this nonviolent demonstration was Pamo Kusang.[39] This demonstration, now known as Women's Uprising Day, started the Tibetan women's movement for independence.[11] On March 14 at the same location thousands of women assembled in a protest led by "Gurteng Kunsang, a member of the aristocratic Kundeling family and mother of six who was later arrested by the Chinese and executed by firing squad."[40]

On 15 March, preparations for the Dalai Lama's evacuation from the city were set in motion, with Tibetan troops being employed to secure an escape route from Lhasa. On 17 March, two artillery shells landed near the Dalai Lama's palace,[29][41][42] triggering his flight into exile. The Dalai Lama secretly left the palace the following night and slipped out of Lhasa with his family and a small number of officials. The Chinese had not strongly guarded the Potala, as they did not believe it likely that the Dalai Lama would try to flee.[43]

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 135-S-12-47-14, Tibetexpedition, Lhasa, Blick auf den Stadttempel.jpg
The Jokhang, on whose roof the last Tibetan rebels had placed machine guns to defend themselves against the PLA[44]

Rumours about the Dalai Lama's disappearance began to spread rapidly on the next day, though most still believed that he was in the palace. Meanwhile, the situation in the city became increasingly tense, as protestors had seized a number of machine guns. On 20 March, the Chinese army responded by shelling the Norbulingka to disperse the crowd, and placed its troops at a barricade that divided the city into a northern and southern part in the following night. The battle began early on the following day,[44] and even though the Tibetan rebels were outnumbered and poorly armed,[17][19][45] the street fighting proved to be "bloody". The last Tibetan resistance was centered on the Jokhang, where Khampa refugees had set up machine guns, while a large number of Tibetans circumambulated the temple in reverence. The PLA started to attack the Jokhang on 23 March, and a hard-fought, three hours-long battle with many casualties on both sides ensued. The Chinese eventually managed to break through using a tank, whereupon they raised the flag of China on the temple, ending the uprising.[44]

Two British writers, Stuart and Roma Gelder, visited the Chensel Phodrang palace in the Norbulingka in 1962 and "found its contents meticulously preserved".[46]

Republic of China's involvement and its position on Tibetan independence

Pandatsang Rapga, a pro-Kuomintang and pro-Republic of China revolutionary Khampa leader, was instrumental in the revolt against the Communists.[citation needed] The Kuomintang had a history of using Khampa fighters to oppose both the Dalai Lama's Tibetan government, and battle the Communist Red Army.[citation needed]

Rapga continued to cooperate with the ROC Kuomintang government after it fled to Taiwan; they provided training to Khampa rebels against the Communist PLA forces.[47][48]

The Republic of China on Taiwan disputed with America whether Tibet would be independent, since the ROC claimed Tibet as part of its territory. Rapga agreed to a plan in which the revolt against the Communists would include anti feudalism, land reform, a modern government, and to give power to the people.[49]

The Republic of China continued to claim Tibet as an integral part of its territory in accordance with its constitution, contrary to the claims of the Dalai Lama's Central Tibetan Administration which claimed Tibetan independence.

After the 1959 Tibetan Rebellion, Chiang Kai-shek announced in his Letter to Tibetan Friends (Chinese: 告西藏同胞書; pinyin: Gào Xīzàng Tóngbāo Shū) that the ROC's policy would be to help the Tibetan diaspora overthrow the People's Republic of China's rule in Tibet. The Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission sent secret agents to India to disseminate pro-Kuomintang (KMT) and anti-Communist propaganda among Tibetan exiles. From 1971 to 1978, the MTAC also recruited ethnic Tibetan children from India and Nepal to study in Taiwan, with the expectation that they would work for a ROC government that returned to the mainland. In 1994, the veterans' association for the Tibetan guerrilla group Chushi Gangdruk met with the MTAC and agreed to the KMT's One China Principle. In response, the Dalai Lama's Central Tibetan Administration forbade all exiled Tibetans from contact with the MTAC. Tibetans in Taiwan, who are mostly of Kham origin, support the Republic of China's position that Tibet is part of the ROC, and are against both the Tibetan exile community in India who live under the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGE) and the Communists in mainland China. The Taiwanese Tibetans are considered traitors by the TGE for their position.[50]


Professor Colin Mackerras states, "There was a major rebellion against Chinese rule in Tibet in March 1959, which was put down with the cost of much bloodshed and lasting bitterness on the part of the Tibetans."[51] The Tibetan government-in-exile reports variously, 85,000, 86,000, and 87,000 deaths for Tibetans during the rebellion, attributed to "secret Chinese documents captured by guerrillas".[17][19] Tibetologist Tom Grunfeld said "the veracity of such a claim is difficult to verify."[52] Warren W. Smith, a writer with Radio Free Asia, writes that the "secret documents" came from a 1960 PLA report captured by guerrillas in 1966, with the figures first published by the TGIE in India in 1990. Smith states that the documents said that 87,000 "enemies were eliminated", but he does not take "eliminated" to mean "killed", as the TGIE does.[53] A Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE) official surnamed Samdup released a report for Asia Watch after three fact-finding missions from 1979 to 1981, stating that a speech by premier Zhou Enlai, published in Beijing Review in 1980, confirmed the 87,000 figure.[citation needed] Demographer Yan Hao could find no reference to any such figure in the published speech, and concluded, "If these TGIE sources are not reluctant to fabricate Chinese sources in open publications, how can they expect people to believe in their citations of so-called Chinese secret internal documents and speeches that are never available in originals to independent researchers?"[53]


Lhasa's three major monasteries—Sera, Ganden, and Drepung—were seriously damaged by shelling, with Sera and Drepung being damaged nearly beyond repair. According to the TGIE, Members of the Dalai Lama's bodyguard remaining in Lhasa were disarmed and publicly executed, along with Tibetans found to be harbouring weapons in their homes. Thousands of Tibetan monks were executed or arrested, and monasteries and temples around the city were looted or destroyed.[17]

After the March 12 Womans's Uprising demonstration, many of the women involved were imprisoned, including the leader of the demonstration, Pamo Kusang. "Some of them were tortured, died in prison, or were executed."[39] Known as Women's Uprising Day, this demonstration started the Tibetan women's movement for independence.[11]

The CIA officer, Bruce Walker, who oversaw the operations of CIA-trained Tibetan agents, was troubled by the hostility from the Tibetans towards his agents: "the radio teams were experiencing major resistance from the population inside Tibet."[54] The CIA trained Tibetans from 1957 to 1972, in the United States, and parachuted them back into Tibet to organise rebellions against the PLA. In one incident, one agent was immediately reported by his own brother and all three agents in the team were arrested. They were not mistreated. After less than a month of propaganda sessions, they were escorted to the Indian border and released.[55]

In April 1959, the 19-year-old Choekyi Gyaltsen, 10th Panchen Lama, the second ranking spiritual leader in Tibet, residing in Shigatse, called on Tibetans to support the Chinese government.[56] However, after a tour through Tibet, he wrote a document in May 1962 known as the 70,000 Character Petition addressed to Zhou Enlai criticizing Chinese abuses in Tibet, and met with Zhou to discuss it. The outlined petition dealt with the brutal suppression of the Tibetan people both during and after the PRC's invasion of Tibet[57] and the sufferings of the people in The Great Leap Forward. In this document, he criticized the suppression that the Chinese authorities had conducted in retaliation for the 1959 Tibetan uprising.[58] But in October 1962, the PRC authorities dealing with the population criticized the petition. Chairman Mao called the petition "... a poisoned arrow shot at the Party by reactionary feudal overlords." In 1967 the Panchen Lama was formally arrested and imprisoned until his release in 1977.[59]

Buddhist monk Palden Gyatso was arrested in June, 1959 by Chinese officials for demonstrating during the March uprising.[60] He spent the following 33 years in Chinese prisons and laogai[61] or "reform through labor" camps, the longest term of any Tibetan political prisoner.[62][63] "He was forced to participate in barbarous re-education classes and He was tortured by various methods, which included being beaten with a club ridden with nails, shocked by an electric probe, which scarred his tongue and caused his teeth to fall out, whipped while being forced to pull an iron plow, and starved."[64] leading to irreversible physical damage.[65][66][67] Released in 1992, he escaped to Dharamsala in India, home of the Tibetan government in exile and became an internationally acclaimed activist for the Tibetan cause.

Chinese authorities have interpreted the uprising as a revolt of the Tibetan elite against Communist reforms that were improving the lot of Tibetan serfs. Tibetan and third party sources, on the other hand, have usually interpreted it as a popular uprising against the alien Chinese presence. Historian Tsering Shakya has argued that it was a popular revolt against both the Chinese and the Lhasa government, which was perceived as failing to protect the authority and safety of the Dalai Lama from the Chinese.[68]

See also



  1. Van Schaik (2013), pp. 234–236.
  2. "Status Report on Tibetan Operations". Office of the Historian. January 26, 1968.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Salopek, Paul (January 26, 1997). "THE CIA'S SECRET WAR IN TIBET". Chicago Tribune. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 11 December 2018.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Conboy, Kenneth J.; Morrison, James; Morrison, James (2002). The CIA's Secret War in Tibet. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. Retrieved 11 December 2018.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 "China/Tibet (1950-Present)". University of Central Arkansas .<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Van Schaik (2013), pp. 233, 236.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Van Schaik (2013), p. 234.
  8. Luo Ruiqing bio
  9. Van Schaik (2013), pp. 232, 235.
  10. Chen Jian, The Tibetan Rebellion of 1959 and China's Changing Relations with India and the Soviet Union, Journal of Cold War Studies, Volume 8 Issue 3 Summer 2006, Cold War Studies at Harvard University.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin. "The Genesis Of The Tibetan Women's Struggle For Independence". tibetanwomen.org. Tibetan Women’s Association. Retrieved 30 January 2019.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Grunfeld 1996, p. 9.
  13. Norbu, Dorwa (September 1978). "When the Chinese Came to Tibet | Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs". www.carnegiecouncil.org. Retrieved 2018-02-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Knaus 1999, p. 71.
  15. Knaus 1999, p. 134.
  16. Knaus 1999, p. 86.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 17.5 Official Website of the Tibetan Government in Exile. History Leading up to March 10th 1959. 7 September 1998. Retrieved March 16, 2008.
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  20. page 69
  21. 21.0 21.1 http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~hpcws/jcws.2006.8.3.pdf page 69
  22. Smith 1997, p. 443.
  23. Smith 1997, p. 444.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme (1988). 1959年西藏叛乱真相 [The True Facts of the 10 March 1959 Event] (in 中文). Retrieved 2018-11-27. 达赖喇嘛在他的卧室会见他们时主动提出:"听说西藏军区文工团在内地学习回来后演出的新节目很好,我想看一次,请你们给安排一下。"谭政委和邓副司令员当即欣然应允,并告诉达赖喇嘛,这事很好办,只要达赖喇嘛确定时间,军区可以随时派出文工团去罗布林卡为他演出专场。达赖喇嘛说,去罗布林卡不方便,那里没有舞台和设备,就在军区礼堂演出,他去看。 [While meeting with them (Tan Guansan and Deng Shaodong) in his room, the Dalai Lama initiated a request: "I have heard that after the Tibet Military District Cultural Workgroup completed their studies in China proper, their performance of their new program turned out very well, I would like to attend one such performance; please arrange for this."]<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme (1988). 1959年西藏叛乱真相 [The True Facts of the 10 March 1959 Event] (in 中文). Retrieved 2018-11-27. 1959年3月9日下午3点钟左右,西藏工委统战部李佐民同志到我家告诉我,达赖喇嘛决定3月10日去军区看文工团演出,并转告达赖喇嘛的意思说:"噶厦官员明天不用到罗布林卡了,可直接去军区礼堂等他。"<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme (1988). 1959年西藏叛乱真相 [The True Facts of the 10 March 1959 Event] (in 中文). Retrieved 2018-11-27. 当天下午六七点钟,我接到代理噶伦柳霞·土登塔巴的电话说,3月10日上午10点达赖喇嘛到军区看演出,要全体噶伦于9时到罗布林卡集合,研究好达赖喇嘛去的办法后随同达赖喇嘛一起去。因为首席噶伦索康·旺钦格列家没有电话,要我转告索康·旺钦格列."<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  28. Dalai Lama's (1990) Freedom in Exile states that "General Chiang Chin-wu... announced... a new dance troupe... Might I be interested to see them? I replied that I would be. He then said that they could perform anywhere, but since there was a proper stage with footlights at the Chinese military headquarters, it might be better if I could go there. This made sense as there were no such facilities at the Norbulingka, so I indicated that I would be happy to do so" (p. 130)
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 Shakya 1999, p. 186-191.
  30. Van Schaik (2013), p. 233.
  31. Shakya 1999, p. 188-189.
  32. Avedon 1997, p. 50 says 30,000
  33. 1959 Tibetan Uprising | Free Tibet goes as high as 300,000
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  36. page 72
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  48. Garver 1997, p. 170.
  49. Garver 1997, p. 171.
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  55. Conboy & Morrison 2002, p. 213.
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External links