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The Lhoba ethnic minority

Population: 2,300

Major area of distribution: Tibet

Language: Lhoba

Religion: Lamaism

The 2,300 people of the Lhoba ethnic minority have their homes mainly in Mainling, Medog, Lhunze and Nangxian counties in southeastern Tibet. Additionally, a small number live in Luoyu, southern Tibet.

The Lhobas speak a distinctive language belonging to the Tibetan-Myanmese language family, Chinese-Tibetan language system. Few of them know the Tibetan language. Having no written script, Lhoba people used to keep records by notching wood or tying knots.

People of this ethnic group were oppressed, bullied and discriminated against by the Tibetan local government, manorial lords and monasteries under feudal serfdom in Tibet. Being considered inferior and "wild," some were expelled and forced to live in forests and mountains. They were not allowed to leave their areas without permission and were forbidden to do business with other ethnic groups. Intermarriage with Tibetans was banned. They had to make their living by gathering food, hunting and fishing because of low grain yields in the region.

Life in the Past

Largely farmers, Lhoba men and women are skilled at making bamboo objects and other crafts. They bartered such objects and animal hides, musk, bear paws, dye and captured game for farm tools, salt, wool, clothing, grain and tea from Tibetan traders. Their pilgrimages to monasteries were good opportunities for bartering.

Hunting is essential to the Lhobas. Young boys start early to join adults on hunting trips. Upon reaching manhood they tracked animals in deep forests either collectively or alone. The game they caught was partly distributed among villagers, partly used for bartering and some was extorted from them by the manorial lords.

There were essentially two classes -- "maide" and "nieba" -- within Lhoba society before Tibet's liberation in 1950. The "maides" considered themselves as nobles, while regarding the "niebas" as inferior people who should be at their disposal. The descendants of this latter class of people could not become "maides" even if they became wealthy and owned slaves. They could only become "wubus" -- a group of people having a slightly higher position than the "niebas." Young men and women of these different groups could not marry due to strict class distinctions. The "niebas," who were slaves to "maide" owners, had no means of production. They were beaten, jailed or even executed if they were caught running away or stealing.

Women's status in their families, as well as in society, was particularly low, and they had no inheritance rights.


Customs, habits and dress of different clan members vary. Men in northern Luoyu wear sleeveless, buttonless, knee-length black jackets of sheep's wool. They wear helmet-like hats either made from bear skin or woven from bamboo stripes or rattan laced with bear skin. Barefooted, they wear bamboo earrings, necklaces and carry bows and arrows or wear swords at their side. Women have narrow-sleeved blouses and skirts of sheep's wool. They also go barefooted. Apart from their silver or brass earrings, bracelets and necklaces, the women wear a variety of waist ornaments such as shells, silver coins, iron chains and bells. Heavy ornaments are considered a symbol of wealth.

Diets also vary in different localities. Staple foods are dumplings made of maize or millet flour, rice or buckwheat. In places near Tibetan communities people have zamba, potatoes, buttered tea and spicy food. Being heavy drinkers and smokers, at celebrations the Lhobas enjoy wine and singing to observe good harvests and good luck.

Many suffered from goiter, an endemic disease caused by lack of salt. Some were undernourished and some were born deaf and mute. Epidemic diseases were rampant due to the poor living conditions. The population of this ethnic group kept declining before liberation in 1951.

Conditions improved for the Lhoba people after the liberation of Tibet in 1951. Production was boosted and people's living standards and general health improved with loans and relief extended by the government. The Lhobas, who previously were serfs, got land, farm implements and draught animals. They began a new life since the democratic reform carried out in Tibet after 1959 when the central government put down an armed rebellion launched by the reactionary elements of the upper stratum of Tibet. For the first time they were treated as equals by society. Now they are well represented in government at regional, county, district and township levels.

With the help of their Han and Tibet neighbors, they have adopted advanced, intensive farming methods. They opened up land on hills and began cultivation of new areas. Hunting, handicrafts and other sideline businesses developed at the same time. Farming has been further improved as more capital construction projects have been completed, improved animal and crop strains adopted and scientific farming methods popularized.

Before liberation, most of the Lhobas were illiterate. Some elderly people could not count. Now children attend day schools while adults learn at evening classes. A few young people are studying in institutions of higher learning in the cities of Beijing, Nanjing and Lhasa.

People see films shown by film projection teams sent by government or army units. Trained doctors and other medical personnel have replaced the witch doctors who in the past were invited to cast spells to chase ghosts and demons from the sick, a practice that cost many lives. There are clinics and health centers in Lhoba villages.

Transportation and communication have been improved in the rocky areas inhabited by the Lhobas, with newly built roads and bridges opening up more of the region.

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