Author: knbuhrow

“Serfs” on the Roof of the World: The Importance of Terminology in Discussions of Politically Sensitive History

By Contributing Editor Kristin Buhrow

Most commonly associated with Medieval Europe, the term “serf” is commonly used to describe a certain type of peasant class with a particular set of living conditions.  From the European Middle Ages, academic discourse in English has imposed the term “serf” onto populations of landless peasants in nineteenth century Russia (Melton, 1987), early twentieth-century East Africa (Huntingford, 1931), and beyond.  This essay will explore the application of the term “serf” to peasants of a particular social and political context: the mi ser class within Pre-Modern Tibet, the political and social effects of the modern use of this term, and the importance of recognizing the politicized use of terminology in academic and political discussions more generally.


Farmland outside of Meldro Gungkar, Tibet.  August, 2017. Photography by Kristin Buhrow.


While each of the cultural contexts mentioned above exhibits a different sort of peasant class affected by unique conditions, resources, and norms, the designation of these as “serf” classes is dependent upon the existence of an interminable relationship with a particular member of the higher class—a “lord”. According to Melvyn Goldstein’s multiple treaties on the application of the term “serf,” a class’ designation as such indicates a “hereditary superordinate-subordinate relationship in which the subordinate possesses a legal identity independent of the superordinate” (Goldstein, 1971 p.522), the subordinate’s lack of legal right to terminate the relationship (Goldstein, 1971 p. 522), and “a degree of judicial control” by the superordinate over the subordinate (Goldstein 1986 p. 82).  Whatever the other conditions experienced by a peasant class, these criteria serve to determine which social classes may be designated a “serf” class (as opposed to a slave or more general peasant class) regardless of culture.

Based on the principles above, some academics and political personages have recognized Pre-Modern Tibet (1642-1959) a culture practicing serfdom.  More complex than a simple array of lord and serf relationships, however, the taxonomy of Pre-Modern Tibetan social classes involves several branches.  Firstly, Pre-Modern Tibet might be divided into two social classes: the monastic population and the laity. Focusing on the laity, this category could be divided into two clear classes:  the landed aristocracy, sger pa, and the peasants, or mi ser[1] (Goldstein, 1971 p.522-3).  Despite both sger pa and mi ser contributing children to the monastic population, those who remained part of the laity were obligated to fulfill unequal social roles.  Far outnumbering the sger pa, who constituted only about 200-350 aristocratic families, the mi ser were a more diverse population in terms of wealth, lifestyle, and location on the Tibetan plateau.

While responsive to a particular sger pa family, the condition of the Tibetan mi ser diverges with that of other global peasantries classified as serfs with regard to their ability to challenge their social superiors, accumulate resources, and even change locations.  Unlike their feudal European counterparts, Tibetan mi ser were not only able, but publicly encouraged to appeal to other members of the aristocracy and even the central court system to challenge or prosecute nefarious or unjust members of the aristocracy (Goldstein, 1971 p. 523; Bischoff, 2013 p. 12). This access to the court system and the influence of other aristocrats allowed mi ser a more powerful role in their social relationships than “serfs” in other cultural contexts.  In addition to providing peasants with prosecution rights, premodern Tibetan lords were less powerful than their medieval counterparts because they could not unilaterally alter the amount of taxes required or the amount of land serfs held (Goldstein, 1971 p.522), lords often provided minimal oversight so long as corves were met (Goldstein, 1971 p. 526). Perhaps related to a standard of minimal oversight, Tibetan mi ser did not necessarily live in destitute conditions.  The status of mi ser then, were not analogized to serfs because of high levels of poverty or total incapability to challenge the will of their lords; instead, mi ser have been analogized to serfs due to a lifelong bond to the land of one aristocratic family, extending to the lives of their descendants[2]  for multiple generations.

Within the social category of mi ser is an allowance for an alternative lifestyle which further complicates the discussion of mi ser as land-bound serf: the geographically mobile mi bogs. Translated to “human lease,” mi ser who obtain the status of mi bogs were leased to work on other estates.  This status was usually taken on voluntarily by the mi ser with approval from their sger pa landowner to allow for more freedom as to geographic location as well as the ability to travel.  Some Tibetologists claim that the existence of a status like mi bogs indicates that mi ser were free to travel, not bound to the land of a sger pa family, and therefore not able to be categorized as serfs at all (Alice Travers going as far as to assert that mi bogs were “a masterless sect of people—people without land, without master, and without a servant” [2013 p.151]).  However, while the availability of the mi bogs path does differentiate the experiences of Tibetan mi ser from other groups of “serfs,” it is important to note that even while away, mi ser still had to respond to their original sger pa family’s commands, pay an annual fee to the sger pa, travel where the sger pa commanded, and return home upon his order (Goldstein, 1986 p. 94). As such, even with the allowance of a certain number of mi ser to attain the status of mi bogs and live away from the immediate lands of the sger pa, the social relationship between mi ser and sger pa remained not only extant, but influential.  Even in cases of geographic removal, mi ser were still responsive to the owners of the lands they were obligated to work.  In this context, the term “serf” may render a fairly accurate picture of certain aspects of the lives of mi ser in Pre-Modern Tibet.

Despite its application to the Tibetan peasants of more than sixty years ago, the modern description of mi ser as a “serf” class has functioned in support of a narrative condoning the communist party’s occupation of and Sinicization efforts within Tibet.  Since entry of the communists in1959, Chinese political publications have emphasized the parallels between the mi ser sger pa relationship and the serf – lord relationship. This emphasis includes making direct reference to the mi ser population as “serfs” in English language publications. Taking one popular example, the word “serf” occurs some thirty-five times in the 2001 edition of the English language Chinese government public relations leaflet “100 Questions on Tibet” (Barnett, 2008 p. 81).  While it is true that some aspects of the Pre-Modern Tibetan peasant experience allow the mi ser to be categorized alongside serfs according to loose, culturally relative definitions, it is also likely that associating Pre-Modern Tibetan peasants with a historical system known for oppression of laborers was a conscious choice by the Chinese Communist Party to illicit support for the seizure and Sinicization of Tibet.

This support from admirers of the Chinese Communist Party and Communists worldwide was sought by appealing to a Marxist perspective of linear societal development.  In the Marxist view, a feudal society is considered less “evolved” than an industrial society; this perspective allows communists to deduce that any cultural operating on a system similar to feudalism is inferior to the more developed China.  While a necessary stepping stone to reach the higher evolutions of social structure, the stark differences between the landed and laboring classes in feudalism render the system, in the Marxist eye, “inseparable from extreme abuse” (Barnett, 2008 p.82). This narrative of Pre-Modern Tibet as a society characterized by violently abusive inequality is propagated to justify its seizure of Tibet and excuse some of the human rights abuses which take place there today.  As noted by Travers in her 2013 article, this Marxist narrative has been reinforced by the Chinese Communist Party and Western observers with communist backgrounds since 1959 (p. 143).  Understanding this politicization of historical social hierarchies, while the term “serf” is technically accurate, its use legitimizes a construction of Tibetan history which marginalizes traditional Tibetan norms and allows the Communist Party to take the role of a savior society.

In the quest for honest and fruitful discourse, it is important that all discussants be aware, not only of the historical realities of the past, but also the political context of the present.  A responsible contributor must therefore be able to earnestly describe the likely difficult conditions for life among Pre-Modern Tibetan mi ser and must acknowledge that mi ser did live within a system which could be easily abused by their sger pa counterparts.  Simultaneously, an informed discussant can not act as if openly associating the conditions of the mi ser with medieval serfdom does not have a history of politicization.  Under conditions such as these, academic and political discussions must remain open, with the choice to analogize the mi ser with serfdom available for those who have no qualms with the modern connotations.  Likewise, the choice to refrain from making the analogy or to argue against the appropriateness of the analogy should be regarded as a form of academic activism by those who wish to knowingly partake.

[1]Other variations on these Tibetan terms include sku drag for aristocracy and smad rigs for peasants (Travers, 2013 p.141).

[2] Descendants of peasants were ascribed through parallel descent, with sons going to their father’s lord, and daughters go to mother’s lord (Goldstein, 1971 p. 522).


A Reflection on the Phenomenology of Tibetan Space

By guest contributor Joshua S. Daugherty

Image 1

Milarepa, Tibet, 11th-14th century, Kagyu lineage, Taglung style. Ground pigment on cotton. 55.24×46.99cm (21.75×18.50in) HAR 65121. Rubin Museum of Art, accession no. C2002.24.5

Image 2

Milarepa, Tibet, 1600-1699, Kagyu lineage. Ground pigment on cotton, HAR 30508. Private collection. (

While exploring the pictorial depth displayed in traditional Tibetan scroll paintings known as thangkas, a rather abstract concept continually resurfaced: the notion of space. Early paintings appear shallow or flat, yet, in later centuries, the surrounding environment was expanded to include landscape elements. Questioning whether this change is material evidence of a shifting zeitgeist, I have begun to trace a thread running throughout the Tibetan imagination, one that links topographical ideas with soteriological aspirations. By looking to theories of phenomenology, it is possible to begin unravelling the way space structures lived experience in the Tibetan context.

Numerous studies trace the impact of concepts such as love and hate (Hadreas 2007), evil (Hamblet 2014), perception (Merleau-Ponty 2002), and the sacred self (Csordas 1994); each of these dissect how concepts set up a matrix of presuppositions and expectations that govern lived experience. Prior to engaging with Tibetan ideas, it is useful to briefly consider the work of Western academics who have defined phenomenological methodologies. Henri Lefebvre theorized the “spatial body” in which the conception of reality is predicated on perceptions experienced through a human form (Lefebvre 1991:194-6). The body orients the mind within the environment, which organizes the development of understanding just as language gives structure to thoughts. Considering that thoughts are formed in words, they are therefore limited by vocabulary and syntax; likewise, the mind struggles to imagine a reality beyond the known environment. Just as it becomes impossible for the human mind to experience thoughts beyond the limitations of language, the use of the five sensory perceptions to navigate reality limits the mind’s understanding of that reality. An environment which does not contact the mind via these sense faculties is unfathomable.

Moreover, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty explained, “Our perception is entirely dominated by a logic which assigns each object its determinate features in virtue of those of the rest…” Consequently, once the facts of spatial perception are perceived by sense faculties, they are organized according to logical dualism: near and far, above and below, inside and out, etc. To propose that space is underpinned by a type of logic originating from the human body, one that demarcates zones of being based on practicalities of physical movement, and superimposes notions of the metaphysical, ontological, and soteriological dimensions derived from a sense of self, requires that space take on “an essential and necessary structural role” (Merleau-Ponty 2002:313). Consequently, both Lefebvre’s spatial body and Merleau-Ponty’s logical dualism allow us to glimpse the conceptual object of ‘space’ as a structure of consciousness. Yet, such a statement can be brutal in its hegemony.

Accepting space to be a fundamental structure of human consciousness risks totalizing all human experience under the yoke of a single paradigm. Gavin Flood provides an important counterpoint in his assessment of the limitations of phenomenology when applied to religion, that it “carries with it Husserlian assumptions about the transcendental ego and an overarching rationality… [and] smuggles into the phenomenology of religion a Husserlian philosophy of consciousness.” (Flood 1999:155) While both Lefebvre and Merleau-Ponty assert that space underlies perception—and certainly, parallels between Tibetan concepts of sacred geography and macro-microcosmic spiritual domains suggest an overarching thought-structure—Flood is wise to warn us against essentializing phenomenological structures as a fact of consciousness. In many ways, Tibetan concepts of space mirror the prevailing notions of South and Southeast Asia prior to vernacularization, a time when “Mount Meru and the Ganga were locatable everywhere” and as Sheldon Pollock explained, this is “nothing in the least mystical” but rather “a function of a different, plural, premodern logic of space” (Pollock 2006:16).

In the Tibetan language, there is an inherent connection between notions of location and materiality. The word sa means both “place” and “earth;” a concise twofold definition which poetically demonstrates the problem at hand. To stand on soil is to be somewhere, which may seem rather obvious, but in the case of Tibet, topographical features possess complicated layers of attributions. A single point in space can be the form comprising a deity, a vessel of sacred energy, the domicile of either divine or demonic beings, a site embedded with residual power left behind by spiritual adepts, or some combination thereof, which can change depending on the inhabitant’s religious affiliations. Moreover, beyond these immediate details pertaining to individual sites, all locations are subsumed within a cosmic system. Therefore, to stand on Tibetan earth is not simply to be somewhere in a cavalier sense, but rather a very specific place within a complicated network of locations and ontological stratifications.

In his assessment of Heidegger’s essay ‘Art and Space’ (1969), Paul Crowther wrote, “Place comes into being not only through the relation between things, but through the event of their coming together to define a certain location, and even more importantly, through their enduring together, and individually, through time” (Crowther 2013:70). Physical space can be described as a matter of distances and directions, but also exists as an omnipresent aspect of the cultural milieu. Areas defined in relation to an ‘object’ or localized essence, are termed “place” or gnas, as the site possesses a distinct identity. Conversely, locations like yul lha or mountain gods, where consciousness is believed to be active in the site, are identities which acquire a place and possess agency. Examples of sites expressing agency include Tsibri and Mount Potalaka. The former is a mountain in Tsang, Tibet believed to have relocated from Bodhgaya, India to conceal a poisonous lake while the latter is the home of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, which also originated in India and supposedly moved to Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet (Quintman 2008:367). As the conceptualization of locations as gnas or conscious yul lha endured through time, characterizing the culture of Tibet, they inspired the continued identification of newly recognized sacred places, leading to a proliferation of moveable spaces and single sites which simultaneously exist in multiple locations.

Therefore, in Tibetan civilization, geography is not uniformly fixed in place; rather, it is subject to change over time, resulting in an ongoing, shifting amalgamation of spaces. There are many examples of locations being transported to Tibet, like the eight charnel grounds utilized in tantric rites, or sites in India replicated elsewhere. The latter includes the Mahābodhi temple, the site of the original Buddha’s enlightenment, which has been replicated in Bagan, Burma and Patan, Nepal (Buffertrille 2015:135). Another Mahābodhi temple can be found at Lung Ngön monastery in the Golog area of Tibet, where Kusum Lingpa (1934-2009) carried out several building projects in the 1990s. Other duplicated sites included at this location are the Sarnath Stūpa, Samye monastery’s Tsuklakhang, and the Bodhnāth Stūpa (bya rung kha shor). Although these structures are apparently not organized according to a larger composition, they establish links with important sites from the historical Buddha’s life, significant masters of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and important figures active during the Tibetan empire period (Buffertrille 2015:138, 142). During her investigation, the scholar Katia Buffertrille was informed of Kusum Lingpa’s motivation, “When the pilgrim could not go to the pilgrimage, the pilgrimage was brought to the pilgrim” (Buffertrille 2015:144). While the reasons for these relocations are diverse, ranging from religious veneration to economic prosperity and legitimization of power, this quote demonstrates the visiting practitioner’s pragmatic reception of these events, which in other cultural perspectives would be nothing short of mystical.

Further, the replicated sites are considered to possess the same power believed to imbue the original location, so the circumambulations performed by pilgrims at the replica bestows a similar quality of spiritual merit. Buffertrille points to several incidents in which actions done at one site are equated with actions performed at another more prestigious location. She provided the example that thirteen circumambulations around Mount Tarab are considered equal to one circuit around a more culturally significant site, Mount Kailash. Also, a site’s ability to attract pilgrims has economic dimensions. This may partially motivate claims that some sites are as potent as—or even the combined embodiment of—other well-known locations, like Tsibri in the region of Tsang, which is considered a combination of three sites: Lapchi, Tsari, and Kailash (Buffetrille 2015:145).

Lastly, although the complexity of the subject extends well-beyond the scope of this reflection, mountains also contribute a cosmological template, which is outlined in the Abhidharmakośa and the Kālacakra Tantra. The cosmic mountain as axis mundi stands at the centre of a composition comprising a macrocosmic world system, which is analogous to a second mountain-based network visualized inside the body of the practitioner. Utilizing this macro-microcosmic duality, it is possible to conceptualize processes which hover on the brink of non-conceptual thought. The subtle body is a catalyst for reversing the supposedly confused perception that the universe causes the human form to come into being, and that this form creates the mind, which in turn creates consciousness. By reversing this conception of universal-to-internal space generation and discovering the primordial awareness believed to predate material reality, the three layers of topographical, microcosmic, and macrocosmic space are united as a single entity. By locating the individual’s notion of self within Buddhist cosmology, and simultaneously recognizing a microcosm within that self, pilgrimage sites—such as the twenty-four pīṭhas identified in the Chakrasamvara Tantra—act as physical spaces where it is possible to concurrently operate on all three levels of space.

As it exists in the Tibetan imagination, space can neither be considered an “ether” wherein “things float,” nor a common characteristic; rather, it should be considered “the universal power enabling them [phenomena] to be connected” (Merleau-Ponty 2002:284). From the immediate experience of an individual, space includes a perception of the self and external objects in a cohabitated environment. Material reality composed of self, objects, and landscape are all easily recognized from the vantagepoint of the individual. Tibetan Buddhist philosophy seeks to complicate or problematize this idea by deconstructing the dualism of microcosmic and macrocosmic spatial divisions, that is to say, the internal world of the self and the larger universe in which it is contained can merge. Dualistic distinctions of interior/exterior or self/other can be obliterated. The great yogi, Milarepa (1052-1135), once said, “Having meditated on gentleness and compassion, I have forgotten the difference between myself and others” (Odier 2003:104). Milarepa demonstrates that, from a Buddhist perspective, space not only encompasses perception, sacred geography, and micro-macrocosmic metaphysics, but is the medium through which soteriological aspirations are accomplished.  While there are many nuances regarding the conception of Tibetan space, it is clear they are not somehow affiliated with a super-consciousness. Rather, these conceptions form a thought-structure upon which cultural representations of reality have been projected throughout time and from which individuals derived a variety of interpretations that bear similar characteristics

Joshua S. Daugherty is a graduate fellow at the University of Washington pursuing a PhD in the history of Art. He has previously studied art history at the University of London, SOAS and Tibetan & Himalayan Studies at the University of Oxford.