March 28 – Serfs' Emancipation Day in Tibet

Posted on March 28, 2020

There are a lot of emancipation days - and many of them deal with the freeing of enslaved peoples.

Today, Tibet Autonomous Region of China celebrates the freeing of serfs.

Tibet is seen here in red; the rest of China is colored yellow.

Serfdom was a lot like slavery in many ways. It was very common in medieval Europe and during widespread time periods elsewhere in the world, such as China (although some scholars disagree on when and where the term serfdom is appropriate).

Serfs could be bought, sold, or traded, like slaves. But generally they could only be sold together with the land they were on. This tended to keep families together and in familiar homes.

Serfs could be mistreated and had no rights over their own bodies. They were basically bound to particular plots of land, and they were required to work for the lord who owned the land. We generally think of serfs working in the lord's fields, growing and raising his food, but serfs also worked in the lord's mines and forests, and they built and maintained the roads that crossed his lands.

Serfs in medieval Europe

Unlike enslaved people, serfs in many feudal societies were considered to have certain rights in exchange for their labor and loyalty:

They were entitled to protection and justice. If some other lord invaded their land, or if ruffians stole from them, their own lord and his armed soldiers would defend or avenge them.

Also, serfs were given the right to grow their own food on certain fields within the lord's possession.

Serfs - or "poor people" in relatively modern Tibet

At least one historian considers that Tibet maintained serfdom centuries after Western nations abandoned or outlawed the practice, until 1959. (Other historians say that another label, tenancy, is much more appropriate and that the two systems were quite different.) On this date in 1959, the premier of the People's Republic of China issued an order dissolving the Tibetan government (China had controlled Tibet from 1951 on), and the People's Liberation Army was ordered to confiscate the possessions of the Tibetan landowners, who were rebelling against China, and give them to the serfs. According to China, the serfs made up 90% of the population of Tibet and lived in poverty, with no land and few rights. The March 28, 1959, action was considered democratic reform.

Of course, many Tibetans describe China's action on this date in a very different way. It was suppression, many say, and unfair to a people who deserve self-rule. This holiday is considered by many Tibetans to be propaganda. But some seem to enjoy it:

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