Feature: Former Tibetan serf recalls 60 years of change
LHASA, March 28 (Xinhua) -- On a moonless night, two scrawny, exhausted boys frantically escaped their fates of becoming Nangsans, or house slaves, by slipping out of Shannan, southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, and journeying to the present-day regional capital Lhasa.
The orphaned boys, 13-year-old Thubten Gyaltsen and his younger brother, staggered on blistered feet and begged for three days to reach Lhasa. "What I thought then was to live on," said the now 82-year-old man. Although the escape took place 69 years ago, the night is still burned into Thubten Gyaltsen's memory.
Years after their escape, democratic reform led by the Communist Party of China (CPC) was launched and feudal serfdom was finally abolished in Tibet. A million serfs and slaves including Thubten Gyaltsen were emancipated and started to embrace a new life.
Thubten Gyaltsen and his family now live in a two-story house with 13 rooms and a garage in the city of Xigaze. Five in his family of six enjoy wages or pension, and three have college degrees.
Ahead of Serfs' Emancipation Day, which falls on Monday, Thubten Gyaltsen looked back on the extraordinary history he has witnessed in Tibet.
HELL ON EARTH
Thubten Gyaltsen hailed from the present-day Nedong District, Shannan City, which was once a manor owned by a feudal lord. Serfs here could barely fill their stomachs, wore tattered clothes and engaged in a life-and-death struggle.
"My parents were serfs. My mother died when I was 9, and my father passed away when I was 12," he recalled. "As orphans, we could not afford to pay the head tax, and were forced to be Nangsans in the manor."
In old Tibet, governmental officials, aristocrats and senior lamas, who represented merely 5 percent of the population, had a monopoly on almost all cultivated land, pastures, mountains, rivers and most livestock. The other 95 percent, comprised of serfs and slaves, had no personal possessions nor personal freedom, let alone human rights.
Nangsans were the most miserable of serfs and could be sold by their owners as cattle. Thubten Gyaltsen's uncle was a Nangsan. He delivered a message to his nephew: "If you become a Nangsan, your life will be hell on earth. Try to escape." Thubten Gyaltsen and his younger brother fled for their lives in April of that year.
Life in Lhasa was not much better. They slept on the streets and had no one to depend on. To survive, Thubten Gyaltsen became a servant for a wealthy family.
"I was 13 years old then. The steward made me work as an adult. I did not have enough to eat, and slept beside an earthen stove at night," he said.
Two years later, he decided to return to Shannan to look for his uncle. "I heard that my uncle was not a Nangsan anymore, and he worked for the CPC. I was looking forward to finding him."
SECOND CHANCE AT LIFE
Once Thubten Gyaltsen finally joined his uncle, a CPC official told him: "You have suffered a lot. If you want to lead a happy life, you must learn to read and be literate." He was then sent to a cadre academy in Lhasa to study.
"I was full of excitement. I did not feel like a human being during serfdom. The CPC gave me a second life," he said. The second time he visited Lhasa, he wore new clothes, a pair of leather shoes and rode in on the back of a horse.
On March 28, 1959, the central government led the people in Tibet to launch the democratic reform, abolishing Tibet's feudal serfdom under a theocracy. Thubten Gyaltsen returned to Lhasa from a school in Xianyang City of northwest China's Shaanxi Province and participated in the campaign.
The democratic reform gave new life to Tibet. Serfs and slaves were given land, domestic animals and houses of their own. They have become the masters of the nation, Tibet and their own fates, and turned themselves into grassroots cadres, students, teachers and doctors.
Thubten Gyaltsen became a local cadre in Xigaze and joined the CPC in 1980. He spent most of his time serving people at the grassroots level.
Today, hunger and poverty are a thing of the past for people of all ethnic groups in Tibet. By the end of 2019, all registered poor residents in Tibet had shaken off poverty, marking the elimination of absolute poverty in the region for the first time in history.
"Our lives couldn't be happier, and we are experiencing a totally different world compared with the old days," Thubten Gyaltsen said. "I have no regrets following in the steps of the CPC, and luckily, my choice was correct."