Understanding Tibet

In all the world, there is no other place like Tibet. This mysterious land is larger than the states of Texas and California combined, and is unique for its altitude, extreme weather, vast pastureland and distinct form of Buddhism.

Tibet is home for some of the oldest people groups in China, and has drawn spiritual seekers for centuries. Unfortunately, the truth of Jesus Christ has been kept out of the land for hundreds of years.

The Tibetans are one of the 55 minority people groups of Mainland China. According to the 2000 census, there are about 5.4 million Tibetans in China, with about half in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Tibetans are also found in the provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan. They are called Zang inside China.


The Tibetans originally lived along the banks of the Yarlung-Zangbo River.

In the seventh century Songzen Gampo established the first great Tibetan state. At that time the Tibetans began to have greater contact with the Han Chinese.

In 641 the king married the Han princess Wen Cheng of the Tang Dynasty, establishing friendly relations between the groups for many years.

Ruled by Buddhist lamas since the 7th century, Tibet was conquered by the Mongols in the 13th century and the Manchus in the 18th. Although independence was regained after a revolt in 1912, by 1951 China had resumed control.

In 1965 the Tibet Autonomous Region was established. There has been serious political unrest in recent years, as Tibetans call for independence from Chinese rule.

In some rural Tibetan areas, people build stone houses on sunny slopes and live on the second floor, leaving the first floor for animals or storage. Other farmers, particularly in the drier north, build houses of packed dirt. Every house has a courtyard. In the pastures, people live in tents woven from yak hair that provides coolness in summer and warmth in winter.

Parched barley mixed with tea, known as zanba, is a staple of the nomad Tibetan diet. Butter tea and milk tea are common beverages. The Tibetans are good dancers and singers, with Tibetan New Year being the most important holiday. Special religious ceremonies commemorate the ‘Enlightenment of Buddha’ and other important religious events.


Tibetan is a Tibeto-Burman language with written script. There are three distinct dialect areas: Lhasa, Kham (Kang) and Amdo (Anduo).


The main economic activities are agriculture, animal husbandry and industry (carpets and farm machinery). Situated on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the greater Tibetan area contains one of the five largest pasturelands in China. A type of cold and drought-resistant barley, which grows quickly, is the main crop.

The Tibetans are Lamaist Buddhists. Buddhism began to be firmly established in Tibet around 620 AD, with the main Buddhist missionaries coming from India.

The king at that time believed in Buddhism and had monasteries built and Buddhist scriptures translated. Sharp and intense conflict arose between Buddhism and the aboriginal Bon religion. In its several-hundred-year struggle with the Bon religion, Buddhism finally prevailed.

However, it absorbed numerous doctrines, rites and divinities of the Bon, thus forming Tibetan Buddhism with evident local characteristics. Before the Cultural Revolution, Tibet had 2700 temples and monasteries and about 110,000 monks and nuns. Prior to that, Tibet was a theocracy where the officials and priests were treated as nobles.

From the age of five, boys in their thousands enter lamaseries to become monks and learn the Buddhist scriptures. The dalai lama, meaning Ocean of Wisdom, is the highest priest and god-king of Lamaistic Buddhism. Tibetans believe that when a dalai lama dies his soul is reborn in a newborn baby. Soon after the death of each dalai lama, the search begins to find his successor.

Since 1980, China’s government has supported the repairing of temples and monasteries in Tibetan areas and has recently been promoting Tibetan language education along with Mandarin from primary school onward.

Christianity and Lamaism are diametrically opposed, so Tibet has strongly resisted Christianity for centuries. TEAM, the Christian Missionary Alliance (CMA), the China Inland Mission (now OMF International) and other organisations worked diligently in this difficult land prior to its closing in 1949.

Although relatively few Tibetans responded in that period, some house churches have recently developed in several key Tibetan areas with the total number of Tibetan Christians in all three major dialect groups now numbering in the hundreds.

The Bible was translated into Tibetan script in 1948, but this specific dialect is now understood by very few Tibetans, so new works are in progress. Scripture portions and evangelistic materials ranging from written tracts to the Jesus film and other video and audio CDs are now being distributed.



  • The dedication of Christians sponsored by TEAM, CMA and CIM in the early 20th century and for the seed of the gospel that they planted in Tibet.
  • Emerging house churches in all three dialect areas. May their faith be infectious and their fellowship mission-oriented.
  • The Scripture portions that are now available in Tibetan dialects. Praise God also for the availability of the Jesus film in Tibetan and for the power of the gospel message, which can surmount all obstacles and cultural boundaries.


  • The Lamaist Buddhists in Tibet – that God would bring them into contact with Christians, and would work great miracles through seemingly insignificant exchanges.
  • The ongoing production of accessible Christian resources and for their distribution. May their use not only lead to true conversion but also encourage Christian discipleship and maturity.
  • The small, but growing number of Christians in Tibet – may they be given courage, strength, wisdom and vision.
  • A peaceful resolution to the Tibetans’ struggle for independence. Pray for those in positions of power, that they would truly desire the best for those they lead.
  • Safety and wisdom for Christians working in the area.

Accessed from: http://www.omf.org/omf/uk/asia/china/about_china/people_groups_of_china/tibetans

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