Serfs’ Emancipation Day (also called Serfs’ Liberation Day), held on March 28 each year, is a Tibetan national holiday to mark what China calls freedom from serfdom. Multiple state-level functions and ceremonies are held on this day, especially in the capital city of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. According to state media, this democratic reform freed around one million Tibetan serfs.
History of Serfs’ Emancipation Day
Tibet had been under China’s rule for a long time — since 1720. A revolution later, Tibet became a de-facto independent region in 1911, separate from the rest of China.
However, China and Tibet’s shared border, a region called Kham, was long sought after by neighboring authorities. Half of this land was under the previous Chinese government (the one before establishing the People’s Republic of China) and part was controlled by Tibetan authorities.
Once the new Chinese government was established, a delegation of Tibetan government officials opened a dialogue — in 1950 — to secure assurances that the People’s Republic of China would respect Tibet’s territorial integrity. While the talk itself was delayed by a few months, due to a debate about the proposed location — it was eventually held at the end of the same year. China, however, proposed another alternative. They would be responsible for Tibet’s defense, trade, and foreign relations. To maintain the China-Tibet relationship, the Tibetans agreed to these terms, and the relationship became like a preceptor and patron. Later, author and Tibet scholar Melvyn Goldstein noted, the aim was not to invade Tibet but to get Tibetans and the government to accede to China’s sovereignty over Tibet. The following year, in 1951, after more talks (and a Chinese invasion in which they crossed the Khampa border), saw Tibet fall under China’s rule.
Although a special document, known as the ‘Seventeen Point Agreement,’ was signed in 1951 agreeing to China’s authority over Tibet, the Dalai Lama (then-spiritual leader of Tibet) and the People’s Republic of China later repudiated this agreement. The Dalai Lama fled to India in March 1959, and Zhou Enlai, the then-Premier of the People’s Republic of China, declared the dissolution of the government of Tibet.
He issued a State Council Order to this effect. The order also called for stopping all uprisings from nationals, and to confiscate rebel possessions that were to be handed over to the serfs. China estimated that over a million such Tibetan serfs — reportedly comprising 90% of the population — were freed from bondage.
In January 2009, 50 years after this political liberation, the Chinese government established Serfs’ Emancipation Day to highlight the democratic reform and economic prosperity that China brought to Tibet. The bill for establishing this day was put before the second annual session of the ninth Regional People’s Congress for review. It was unanimously approved by the 382 legislators attending the session and, thus, this day was born.
Serfs’ Emancipation Day timeline
Tibetan government representatives arrive to speak to the newly created People’s Republic of China for assurances that their independence is not under threat.
The Government of Tibet eventually accepts China's authority over Tibet, although this is done under duress.
The spiritual leader of Tibet, along with 20 or so supporters (including six Cabinet Ministers) flee Tibet, reaching India, where they establish the independent Tibetan government in exile.
Held in Lhasa, it begins with a procession from Potala Palace and is presided over by Governor Qiangba Puncog.
This law approves the continued and additional funding for all Tibetan communities inside Tibet, as well as exiled Tibetans in India and Nepal.
Serfs’ Emancipation Day FAQs
When did serfdom end in Tibet?
According to China, serfdom ended on March 28, 1959, with the dissolution of the Tibetan political structure.
Why did China invade Tibet?
The People’s Republic of China’s leader, Mao Zedong, ordered that preparations be made to march into Tibet as it was unlikely that Tibetans would give up their de-facto independence voluntarily. This invasion was to push the Tibetan government to negotiate with China.
Is Tibet a free country?
Legally, Tibet is an independent state under illegal occupation by the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) government.
How to Observe Serfs’ Emancipation Day
Read up on the ‘what’ and ‘why’
Multiple academicians and scholars have studied the events leading up to this day. You can even look up first-hand accounts from those who have been on the frontlines of this issue.
Watch the celebrations
Records of old events are available online for anyone to view. The celebrations include processions, speeches, and people of all ages dressed in traditional clothing.
Learn more about the land
Check out travel websites, cultural articles, and other sources for a glimpse into Tibetan culture and traditions. Maybe this will influence your next vacation!
5 Fascinating Facts About Tibet
It was largely isolated
Before the 1950s, Tibetans had little to no communication with outsiders, and their economic development was minimal.
The first known religion is not Buddhism
It is actually 'Bon', a form of shamanism that encompasses a belief in gods, demons, and ancestral spirits who are responsive to priests or shamans; with the rise of Buddhism in Tibet, both religions intermingled and came to have many points of resemblance.
The legend of the Tibetan people
An ancient Tibetan people state that Tibetan people originated from the union of a female demon and a monkey.
The highest point on Earth
Mount Everest, which is recorded as the highest point on Earth, is on the border of Tibet and Nepal; it is a major tourist attraction for both countries.
Tibet's UNESCO World Heritage site
The historic Potala Palace complex, situated in Lhasa, was the winter palace of the Dalai Lamas until 1959; it was later designated as a World Heritage site (and a museum).
Why Serfs’ Emancipation Day is Important
We get a look at Tibet's history
This near-remote place needs more global exposure. Knowledge about such days and events might help with that.
Tibet's relationship with its neighbors becomes clear
The long history between two nations, China and Tibet, and other neighbors too, is revealed. So, too, are the actions that spurred the creation of this day.
We can weigh in on the debate
People across the globe have their own thoughts about the occupation and even about Serfs’ Emancipation Day. The more we learn about this day, the more capable we are of forming our own opinion and maybe adding our voices to the debate that continues to this day.
Serfs’ Emancipation Day dates