When were the monasteries destroyed in Tibet?

I have to confess that I am not much familiar with the history of Tibet/China and that I am in a learning process. My interest mainly comes from a sense of justice I have for Tibetans and their sad situation.

Destruction of Kham monasteries.
Destruction of Kham monasteries.The Tibet Mirror supplied the first and most detailed Tibetan news of events in
Kham and the destruction of the monasteries there. (Carole McGrahanan: Arrested Histories, 243.)The first drawings of the destruction of monasteries appeared in November 1956.(Image and information taken from Isrun Engelhardt – Tharchin’s One Man War with Mao [PDF], p. 190.)
Recently during a discussion of members of an adult education center in Germany one man said, that it were the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) who destroyed the monasteries in Tibet. But one Tibetologist who was present corrected him and said that most of the monasteries were already destroyed before the Cultural Revolution. However, the adult education center member didn’t believe the Tibetologist and after a check in all for him available history books, travel books and the internet he came to the conclusion that it were the Red Guards who destroyed the monasteries in Tibet. He concluded – based on his research and own experiences in Tibet in the 90ies* – that there might not be any authentic source that can approve the claim by the Tibetologist that most of the monasteries were destroyed already before the Cultural Revolution.

»Most often, what is forgotten is forgotten because it no longer fits in with the current version of events, especially one constructed by an elite group. Sometimes, indeed, unwelcome memories are systematically destroyed by leaderships. (Coney 1997)

Leaderships exclude memories by expelling individual malcontents or by simply not referring to unwelcome historical facts until they ‘cease to be part of the group repertoire of memories’. Changing the name of the leader or group also allows memories associated with previous designations to fade whilst promoting the creation of new memories. The project of deliberately excluding histories, however, is not always completely successful because repressed memories ‘can return to haunt the margins of a discourse and continue, despite their apparent absence, to influence its structure’. Alternatively, competing versions of events may only become temporarily submerged within the dominant account and may later ‘rise again to the surface of the collective memory’. (Kay 2004  : 82; see PDF)

This analysis by David Kay with respect to the history of a New Religious Movement, the NKT, might be well applicable also for this case.

Let’s remember: when China occupied Tibet China’s leadership claimed to come to “liberate” Tibet from “Imperialism” (US and UK imperialists). The Tibetans mocked about this claim because there was no American and only about a handful of Britains in Tibet. Later China claimed it had “liberated” Tibet from “Feudalism” and even later that it had “liberated” Tibet from “Backwardness”. These are all cases of rewriting history. (See also Robbie Barnett in: Blondeau-Buffetrille: Authenticating Tibet, pp. 81–84.)

What are the facts and the sources which approve the Tibetologist’s point of view and disapprove the adult education center member’s point of view?

The facts about the destruction of monasteries in Tibet

Vice Governor Pu Quiong reported that before the rebellion of 1959, which led to the flight of the Dalai Lama, there were 2,700 temples and monasteries with 114,000 monks and 1,600 “living Buddhas”. The “democratic reforms” reduced the monasteries to 550 with 6,900 monks until 1966. After the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1978 were only eight monastery with 970 monks left. Since 1978 until May of this year [1987] 230 monasteries have been renovated or rebuilt again. (Stuttgarter Zeitung, 20 July 1987)**

It were official Chinese statements which approved what also the Tibetans in exile said, that most of the monasteries in Tibet were destroyed before the Cultural Revolution. They were destroyed during the “democratic reforms” which the PRC enforced after the Tibetans’ unsuccessful uprising on 10th March 1959 in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. (For the uprising see also: Blood In The Snows by Tsering Shakya and The Dalai Lama’s Press Statements, Statement issued at Tezpur, 18th April, 1959.)

Tsewang Norbu commented:

For a long time it was easy to blame for the crimes in Tibet alone the so-called left-wing elements of the Cultural Revolution, of which the present Chinese leadership distances itself. The West has made this version uncritically their own.

With this detailed and blunt statistics the Vice Governor of the Autonomous Region of Tibet (ART) officially confirmed the contention of the Tibetans (in exile) that most of the destruction took place before rather than during the infamous Cultural Revolution.

These figures relate only to the so-called ART, which accounts for about half of the actual Tibet.

The Tibet Information Network (TIN) document “Poisoned Arrow. The Secret Report of the 10th Panchen Lama“. (T.I.N., London 1997) quotes from the “Petition of 70,000 characters” by the young 10th Panchen Lama that he submitted to Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in 1962, and for which he became later imprisoned (1966–1967). Chairman Mao called the petition “… a poisoned arrow shot at the Party by reactionary feudal overlords”:

… the monastic and secular masses, those people felt disappointed and hurt, incompliant and discontented. But because the masses had temporarily and for a short period suffered strict oppression, they were pressurized and had no alternative but to appear slightly indifferent towards religious belief on the surface, but this was a result of great pressure. Because the religion which they deeply believed in and loved had been greatly weakened, and because they were not permitted to believe, religious feelings grew stronger in the thinking of many people, and their belief was deeper than in the past. So suppressing the wishes of the masses and contravening the will of the people became precisely the reasons for our isolation and was that which brought about failure. This contravenes the instructions of the Party, which have frequently been pointed to and taught, that we should cast aside those actions which cause a serious rift between ourselves and the masses. The people who did these things were truly short-sighted and narrow-minded, and they could only become a laughing-stock

Third, the situation as regards the monasteries alter democratic reform

(1) Before democratic reform there were more than 2,500 large, medium and small monasteries in Tibet. After democratic reform, only 70 or so monasteries were kept in existence by the government. This was a reduction of more than 97%. Because there were no people living in most of the monasteries, there was no-one to look after their Great Prayer Halls [da jing tang] and other divine halls and the monks’ housing. There was great damage and destruction, both by man and otherwise, and they were reduced to the condition of having collapsed or being on the point of collapse.

(2) In the whole of Tibet in the past there was a total of about 110.000 monks and nuns. Of those, possibly 10.000 fled abroad, leaving about 100,000. After democratic reform was concluded, the number of monks and nuns living in the monasteries was about 7.000 people, which is a reduction of 93%.

(3) As regards the quality of the monks and nuns living in the monasteries, apart from those in the Zhashenlunbu [Tashilhunpo; Tibetan bkra shis Ihun po] monastery, who were slightly better, the quality of the monks and nuns in the rest of the monasteries was very low. For most of those of the monks(3)nuin each monastery who were religious intellectuals or who were “good monks” who conducted their affairs in accordance with their religion, the situation was as described above; during democratic reform, owing to attacks and so on it was basically difficult for them to live in peace, and because of this they did not live in the monasteries, or very few of them did so. In reality, the monasteries had already lost their function and significance as religious organizations. (p. 52)

The 10th Panchen Lama states in the same petition:

Those who have religious knowledge will slowly die out, and religious affairs are stagnating, knowledge is not being passed on, there is worry about there being no new people to train, and so we see the elimination of Buddhism, which was flourishing in Tibet and which transmitted teachings and enlightenment. This is something which I and more than 90% of Tibetans cannot endure. (p. 57)

Other authentic sources

Warren Smith: Tibetan Nation: a history of Tibetan nationalism and Sino-Tibetan relations

The number of “functioning monasteries”, according to a Chinese estimate, had dropped from 2,711 in 1958 to 370 in 1960, while he number of monks had been reduced from an estimated 114,000 to 18,104 (both figures refer only to the TAR).  (n.8) – p. 544
n. 8  Jing Sun, “Socioeconomic Changes and Riots in Lhasa” (unpublished paper), 1990,1 citing Zjang Tianlu, Population Change in Tibet (Beijing Tibetan Studies Publishing House of China, 1989), 28. These figures refute the common Chinese contention that the destruction of Tibetan Religion took place during the Cultural Revolution and was exclusively the fault of the “gang of four”. Only the physical destruction took place during the Cultural Revolution.

Less than 1,000 monks remained in the eight monasteries not destroyed during the Cultural revolution. (n. 64) – p. 561
n. 64  Ch’ing Jun : “Socioeconomic Changes and Riots in Lhasa.” Must be the same as in n. 8, only author’s name written differently.

Tsering Shakya: The Dragon in the Land of Snow

By the beginning of 1970, all the monasteries and temples have been vandalised by the Red Guards and left to ruin. – p. 349

Informative on this subject also

  • Robbie Barnett in: Blondeau-Buffetrille: Authenticating Tibet,  pp. 88–90
  • From Liberation To Liberalisation Dharamsala: The Information Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama 1982
    From the second fact finding delegation in 1980: Phuntsog Wangyal The Report From Tibet, pp. 139–140:


In Peking, the Chinese authorities acknowledged the widespread destruction of monasteries that had taken place during the Cultural Revolution. They expressed their regret at the loss of part of ‘their’ national heritage and treasures, and explained how, in an effort to preserve what remained, they had passed decrees to protect them. The delegates could see ruins of monasteries in the distance everywhere they went. Even some of the larger ones, that housed 7–8,000 monks, are now completely non-existent, and the delegates had to be told when they were standing on the spot where once the main temple had been. In some monasteries, the main temple is still standing, in very bad condition, and devoid of statues, paintings or books. Such buildings that do remain are used for storing grain or fertilizer, as cowsheds;…

The official Chinese explanation is that all religious objects and monuments were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and by the Tibetan people. From their own enquiries and interviews with hundreds of people all over Tibet, the delegation formed the following picture of what had actually happened. Most monasteries were destroyed between 1959 and 1961. The larger, more famous ones remained until the Cultural Revolution in 1967, when they too were destroyed. The destruction of monasteries and religious objects was carried out systematically. First of all, special teams of mineralogists were sent to religious buildings to find and extract all the precious stones. Next, experts on metal arrived and marked all metal objects which were subsequently removed. Then, trucks were sent from local commune headquarters, the walls were dynamited, and all wooden beams and pillars were taken away. Clay images were destroyed in the hope of finding precious objects inside them. Finally whatever remained—bits of wood and stone—were removed by the local people. Sometimes the main temple was used for storage, in which cases, the paintings on the walls would be rubbed out—or at least their eyes—whitewashed, or covered with human excrement.

In their three and a half month journey, the delegates saw temples or monasteries in only three places; Gyangtse, Shigatse and Lhasa. There were no sign of any other places of worship, but in spite of the physical destruction of monasteries, temples and shrines, there are still signs of the existence of a strong religious faith in Tibet …

See also

In German

* He was professionally and without minders in Tibet for a German institution in the 90s and had asked himself the Tibetan monks, when the monasteries were destroyed. The Tibetan monks answered that the monasteries were destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. This might demonstrate the effectiveness of the re-education and propaganda in Tibet that China (even by force) imposes on Tibetans and their own people.

** The newspaper quotes Vice Governor Pu Quiong from the official Chinese press conference conducted in Lhasa that was part of the visit of Germany’s chancellor Helmut Kohl to Tibet in July 1987. The press conference was held in Chinese language and the Chinese authorities offered an official translation into German. The tapes of this press conference still exist.

Last edited by tenpel on July 21, 2013 at 12:28 pm