Military Wiki
1959 Tibetan Uprising
DateMarch 1959
LocationLhasa, Tibet
Result Chinese victory


Supported by:
United States
Casualties and losses
85,000-87,000 (Disputed) see below

The 1959 Tibetan Uprising, or 1959 Tibetan Rebellion began on 10 March 1959, when a revolt erupted in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, which had been under the effective control of the Communist Party of China since the Seventeen Point Agreement in 1951.[1] Although the 14th Dalai Lama's flight occurred in 1959, armed conflict between Tibetan rebels and the Chinese army started in 1956 in the Kham and Amdo regions, which were 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 some Tibetan exiles as the Tibetan Uprising Day. The anniversary of its end is celebrated in Tibet as Serfs Emancipation Day.

Armed resistance in east Tibet

In 1951, a seventeen point agreement between 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.[2] Armed resistance broke out in Amdo and eastern Kham in June 1956.

Pandatsang Rapga, a pro Kuomintang and pro Taiwan 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 Taiwanese Kuomintang government after it fled to Taiwan; they provided training to Khampa rebels against the Communist PLA forces.[3][4] Taiwan had a dispute with America whether Tibet would be independent, since Taiwan 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.[5] Before the Communist takeover, the relationship between the Khampa and the Dalai Lama's Government had deteriorated badly. As a result, the Khampa barely opposed or even joined the initial Communist assault on Chamdo. The People's Liberation Army had occupied Kham without much opposition from the Khampas. The relationship between the Khampa and the Tibetan Dalai Lama government in Lhasa was extremely poor at the time. Rapga 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 People's Liberation Army and the Tibetans.

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 invasion.[6] By 1957, Kham was in chaos. People's Liberation Army reprisals against Khampa resistance fighters such as the Chushi Gangdruk became increasingly brutal. Reportedly, they included beatings, starving prisoners, and the rape of prisoners' wives in front of them until they confessed. Monks and nuns were forced to have sex with each other and forcibly renounce their celibacy vows. After torture, these men and women were often killed.[7] By the late 1950s Tibetan rebels numbered in the tens of thousands.[8] Kham's monastic networks came to be used by guerilla forces to relay messages and hide rebels.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[11] 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.[8] 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.[12] When Mao Zedong read it on 18 February, he commented:

“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.”[13]

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.”[13]

The PLA used Chinese Muslim soldiers, who formerly had served under Ma Bufang to crush the Tibetan revolt in Amdo.[14] In Southern Kham, Hui cavalry were stationed.[15]

Lhasa Rebellion

On 1 March 1959, an unusual invitation to attend a theatrical performance at the Chinese military headquarters outside Lhasa was extended to the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama—at the time studying for his lharampa geshe degree—initially postponed the meeting, but the date was eventually set for 10 March. On 9 March, the head of the Dalai Lama's bodyguard was visited by Chinese army officers. The officers insisted that the Dalai Lama would not be accompanied by his traditional armed escort to the performance, and that no public ceremony for the Dalai Lama's procession from the palace to the camp should take place, counter to tradition.[10]

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 with relation to ethnic minorities after the Khampa's 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 the Dalai Lama's memoirs, the Dalai Lama agreed,[citation needed] but said that the Norbulingka did not have the facilities, and suggested the new auditorium in the PLA headquarters in Lhasa as a more appropriate venue.[16] Neither the Kashag nor the Dalai Lama's bodyguards were informed of the Dalai Lama's plans 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.[10] Some members of the Kashag were alarmed that were not also invited to lead a customary armed procession, recalling a prophecy that told that the Dalai Lama should not exit his palace.[16]

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.[17] On 10 March, several thousand[18][19][20] 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 communists were planning to arrest the Dalai Lama when he went to a cultural performance at the PLA's headquarters.[21] 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.[10] 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.[22] At first, the violence was directed at Tibetan officials perceived not to have protected the Dalai Lama or to be pro-Chinese; attacks on Hans started later.[16] 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 two kilometres.[23]

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. 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,[16][24][25] triggering his flight into exile. On 19 March the Chinese started to shell the Norbulingka,[25] prompting the full force of the Uprising. Combat lasted only about two days, with Tibetan rebel forces being badly outnumbered and poorly armed.[8][10][26] Two American Marxist writers, Stuart and Roma Gelder, visited the Chensel Phodrang palace in the Norbulingka in 1962 and "found its contents meticulously preserved". They did not claim that the Norbulingka had not been damaged.[27]

United States involvement

The United States funded training and arms for the guerrillas in Tibet prior to the uprising and for several years following. From 1959 to 1964, Tibetan guerrillas were secretly trained at Camp Hale by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).[28]

The Tibetan project was codenamed ST Circus, and it was similar to the CIA operation that trained dissident Cubans in what later became the Bay of Pigs Invasion. In all, around 259 Tibetans were trained at Camp Hale. Some were parachuted back into Tibet to link up with local resistance groups (most perished); others were sent overland into Tibet on intelligence gathering missions; and yet others were instrumental in setting up the CIA-funded Tibetan resistance force that operated out of Mustang, in northern Nepal (1959–1974).

Sino-Soviet Split

The Soviet Union offered moral support to the Tibetan rebels, saying that theirs was a "legitimate grievance" against the Chinese.[29]


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".[8][10] Tibetologist Tom Grunfeld said "the veracity of such a claim is difficult to verify."[30] Warren W. Smith, a broadcaster from 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 does not take "eliminated" to mean "killed", as the TGIE does.[31] 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. 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?"[31]


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.[10]

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.”[32] 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.[33]

In April 1959, the-19 year-old 10th Panchen Lama, the second ranking spiritual leader in Tibet, residing in Shigatse, called on Tibetans to support the Chinese government.[34] However, after a tour through Tibet, in May 1962, he met Zhou Enlai to discuss a petition he had begun writing at the end of 1961, criticising the situation in Tibet. The petition was a 70,000 character document that dealt with the brutal suppression of the Tibetan people during and after the Chinese invasion of Tibet.[35] In this document, he criticized the suppression that the Chinese authorities had conducted in retaliation for the 1959 Tibetan uprising.[36] 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.[37]

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.[38]

See also


  1. 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.
  2. Grunfeld, Modern Tibet, 9.
  3. John W. Garver (1997). The Sino-American alliance: Nationalist China and American Cold War strategy in Asia (illustrated ed.). M.E. Sharpe. p. 172. ISBN 0-7656-0053-6. Retrieved 2011-12-27. 
  4. John W. Garver (1997). The Sino-American alliance: Nationalist China and American Cold War strategy in Asia (illustrated ed.). M.E. Sharpe. p. 170. ISBN 0-7656-0053-6. Retrieved 2011-12-27. 
  5. John W. Garver (1997). The Sino-American alliance: Nationalist China and American Cold War strategy in Asia (illustrated ed.). M.E. Sharpe. p. 171. ISBN 0-7656-0053-6. Retrieved 2011-12-27. 
  6. John Kenneth Knaus (2000). Orphans of the Cold War America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival (illustrated ed.). PublicAffairs. p. 71. ISBN 1-891620-85-1. Retrieved 2011-12-27. 
  7. Knaus, Orphans of the Cold War, 134.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 "Inside Story of CIA's Black Hands in Tibet. The American Spectator, December 1997". Retrieved 2009-02-28. 
  9. Knaus, Orphans of the Cold War, 86.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 Official Website of the Tibetan Government in Exile. History Leading up to March 10th 1959. 7 September 1998. Retrieved March 16, 2008.
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Chushi Gangdruk". Archived from the original on 2009-05-04. Retrieved 2009-03-28. 
  12. page 69
  13. 13.0 13.1 page 69
  14. Warren W. Smith (1996). The Tibetan nation: a history of Tibetan nationalism and Sino-Tibetan relations. Westview Press. p. 443. ISBN 978-0-8133-3155-3.,+formerly+the+troops+of+Ma+Pu-fang,+and+Inner+Mongolian&dq=Few+Amdo+Tibetans+were+able+to+escape+to+central+Tibet.+A+particular+aspect+of+the+suppression+of+the+revolt+in+Amdo+was+the+use+by+the+Chinese+of+Hui+(Chinese+Moslem)+cavalry,+formerly+the+troops+of+Ma+Pu-fang,+and+Inner+Mongolian&hl=en&ei=aYKnTK2TCIWglAe-puz7DA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCUQ6AEwAA. Retrieved 2010-06-28.  (note, the link has malfunctioned)
  15. Warren W. Smith (1996). The Tibetan nation: a history of Tibetan nationalism and Sino-Tibetan relations. Westview Press. p. 444. ISBN 978-0-8133-3155-3. Retrieved 2011-06-01. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 Shakya 1999, pp. 186-191
  17. Shakya 1999, pp. 188–9
  18. Avedon 1997, p. 50 says 30,000
  19. 1959 Tibetan Uprising | Free Tibet goes as high as 300,000
  20. Tell you a True Tibet - How Does the 1959 Armed Rebellion Occur?, People's Daily Online, April 17, 2008 (Excerpts from Tibet - Its Ownership And Human Rights Situation, published by the Information Office of the State Council of The People's Republic of China) : "The next morning, the rebels coerced more than 2,000 people to mass at Norbu Lingka, spreading the rumor that 'the Military Area Command is planning to poison the Dalai Lama' and shouting slogans such as 'Tibetan Independence' and 'Away with the Hans'."
  21. page 71
  22. page 72
  23. Dalai clique's masterminding of Lhasa violence exposed. 30 March 2008. Retrieved 31 March 2008. Archived 2009-05-04.
  24. Smith 1996 p. 446
  25. 25.0 25.1 Richardson 1984, pp. 209-10
  26. Chushi Gangdruk
  27. Stuart and Roma Gelder, Timely Rain: Travels in New Tibet, in Monthly Review Press, New York, 1964, facing p. 160 : "He [the dalai-lama] was told this building with other palaces in the Jewel Park was reduced to ruin by Chinese gunfire soon after he left. We found its contents meticulously preserved."
  28. A British Documentary about the CIA and Tibetan resistance movement
  29. Richard Wich (1980). Sino-Soviet crisis politics: a study of political change and communication. Volume 96 of Harvard East Asian monographs. Harvard Univ Asia Center. p. 178. ISBN 0-674-80935-1. Retrieved 2011-09-09. 
  30. Grunfeld 1996, pg. 247
  31. 31.0 31.1 Hao, Yan (March 2000). "Tibetan Population in China: Myths and Facts Re-examined". p. 20. 
  32. Conboy & Morrison 2002, pg. 220
  33. Conboy & Morrison 2002, pg. 213
  34. Feigon 1996, pg. 163
  35. The 10th Panchen Lama
  36. Hostage of Beijing: The Abduction of the Panchen Lama, Gilles Van Grasdorff, 1999, ISBN 978-1-86204-561-3 fr:Pétition en 70 000 caractères
  37. International Campaign for Tibet,
  38. "A Review of The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947". Retrieved 2009-02-24. 


  • Avedon, John. In Exile from the Land of Snows: The Definitive Account of the Dalai Lama and Tibet Since the Chinese Conquest (1997) Harper Perennial. ISBN 978-0-06-097741-2
  • Conboy, Kenneth, and Morrison, James. The CIA's Secret War in Tibet (2002) University Press of Kansas. ISBN 978-0-7006-1159-1
  • Feigon, Lee. Demystifying Tibet: Unlocking the Secrets of the Land of the Snows (1996) Ivan R. Dee, Publisher. ISBN 978-1-56663-089-4
  • Grunfeld, A. Tom. The Making of Modern Tibet (1996) East Gate Book. ISBN 978-1-56324-713-2
  • Knaus, Robert Kenneth. Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival (1999) PublicAffairs. ISBN 978-1-891620-18-8
  • Laird, Thomas. The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama (2006) Grove Press. ISBN 978-0-8021-1827-1
  • Richardson, Hugh E. Tibet and its History Second Edition, Revised and Updated (1984) Shambhala. ISBN 978-0-87773-376-8
  • Shakya, Tsering. The Dragon In The Land Of Snows (1999) Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-11814-9
  • Smith, Warren W., Jr. Tibetan Nation: A History Of Tibetan Nationalism And Sino-tibetan Relations (1997) Westview press. ISBN 978-0-8133-3280-2

External links

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).