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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 March 2008, 17:57 GMT
Tibet: Transformation and tradition
In modern Tibet, the ancient sits alongside the new. Peter Firstbrook, producer of a new BBC Four series, explores how Tibet's past is influencing the future of its people.

Young Tibetan woman, Zhongar

The bride sits next to the groom, sobbing uncontrollably, a woollen blanket over her head to hide her puffy face.

It is 0300, the time that the village shaman calculated would be most propitious for the wedding. He also decided whom the girl should marry.

Zhongar is 21 years old and was not told she was going to be married until 12 hours ago.

The rest of the village has been preparing the wedding for weeks.

'Nothing to cry about'

Although her new husband is from the same village, she only vaguely remembers him from primary school.

It is traditional in Tibet for a bride to protest before the ceremony.

It shows that she is sorry to leave her parents' home. But Zhongar is not faking it.

Since being told of her impending betrothal, she has been in a room howling in anguish, the door locked in case she runs away.

None of her female relatives have any sympathy for her.

"It's always like this," says her aunt.

"I went to comfort her and advised her that this is a path in life that we all have to go through. I was given away in the same way as she is now, so there's nothing to cry about."

After getting up, I fetch water and milk the cow. Now I spend a lot of time working in the fields. When I'm free, I have to milk the cows again, weave and cook dinner

At this point, Zhongar has not been told that she will also be expected to marry the groom's younger brother when he graduates in a year's time.

In this part of Tibet, this is common practice. The system guarantees that precious farming land stays in the same family for generations.

When we went back to see Zhongar four months after her wedding, she had settled into her new family.

She was under no illusion about the pattern of her new life.

"After getting up, I fetch water and milk the cow. Now I spend a lot of time working in the fields. When I'm free, I have to milk the cows again, weave and cook dinner."

Straddling cultures

Half an hour's drive from Zhongar's village lies Gyantse, Tibet's third largest town, with a population of about 8,000 people. But it is like a different world.

A view of Gyantse
Life in Gyantse, a large Tibetan town, is very different to village life
Gyantse has seen a huge influx of Chinese migrants in the last 20 years and this can lead to tensions.

Many are of the migrants are traders, which means the more poorly paid jobs often fall to the Tibetans.

Jianzang, a local hotel owner, straddles both cultures.

He is a trained Tibetan doctor but finds he can make more money in the tourist industry.

"Most foreign guests have good manners and they behave really well," he says.

"Guests from 'China proper' are not as well behaved, especially those from poor areas. They want to stay in a good hotel but aren't willing to pay the price!"

Jianzang's ambivalence towards the Chinese is not uncommon among Tibetans.

They have lived under strict, authoritarian rule since the 1950s and in the past any sign of dissent by the Tibetan people was ruthlessly suppressed by the Chinese army.

The monk's girlfriend

Nowhere does this rigid arm of control extend further than in the monasteries.

During the 1960s, it is estimated more than 6,000 Buddhist monasteries were destroyed, only 12 survived.

Young Tibetan monk Tsephun
My master says I always wander about outside and never read the scriptures at the temple. He's very angry with me
Tsephun, novice monk

Today many are slowly being rebuilt but the lives of Buddhist monks and nuns are strictly controlled by the government.

The Pel Kor monastery in Gyantse was founded nearly 600 years ago. Tsephun is one of its few novice monks.

His great uncle Dondrup, a senior monk, arranged for him to be accepted at the monastery three years ago.

But Dondrup is part of the old Tibet whereas Tsephun has grown up in a world of television, mobile phones and computer games, and the differences can lead to conflict.

"In my generation," says Dondrup, "we couldn't watch television. We had to concentrate on chanting the scriptures. In the old society the rules were very strict."

As Tsephun turns 16, his great uncle suspects there is a girlfriend on the scene and is afraid his novice will get the girl pregnant, bringing shame to his family and the monastery.

Embracing the future

Tsephun is eventually placed with a new master but continues to resent the restrictions of monastery life.

"He moans about me from morning to night," he says.

"He's too bossy. My master says I always wander about outside and never read the scriptures at the temple. He's very angry with me."

Yet Tsephun's situation is not unusual, many of the younger monks visit tea houses, wear ordinary clothes when they are away from the monastery and have girlfriends.

In many ways, the tension between Tsephun and his great uncle reflects the changes happening throughout Tibet. Dondrup has never been part of the modern world and he does not understand its ways.

Tsephun is the new Tibet: a Tibet which is losing its culture and traditions and becoming more like the rest of China, as it embraces the 21st Century.

Peter Firstbrook is the producer of A Year In Tibet, which will be broadcast on BBC Four on Thursday, 6 March, 2008 at 2100GMT.

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