Films Set in Tibet

The term Tibet is used in China to refer to the central and western parts of the Tibetan Plateau, which were the areas ruled by the government of the Dalai Lama from its base in Lhasa in the 1940s. In 1950, the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibet, declaring it part of the newly-established People’s Republic of China (PRC). Direct rule was imposed after a failed uprising in 1959, which led the Dalai Lama and some 80,000 other Tibetans to flee to India. Since 1965, this area has been known by the Chinese authorities as the Tibet Autonomous Region (the TAR). It is a province-level administrative entity within the PRC, divided into seven prefectures, with its capital at Lhasa.

Many foreign and exile writers use the word Tibet to refer to a much larger area – the Tibetan Plateau, or the totality of areas within the PRC which were traditionally inhabited by Tibetans. These eastern Tibetan areas, often called Amdo and Kham by Tibetans, are nowadays divided mainly into “Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures” which are under the administration of the western Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan or Yunnan. About 53% of the 6m or so Tibetans in China live in these eastern Tibetan areas.

Here the term “Tibetan films” – or more properly, “Tibetan-related films” – refers not just to films made in the TAR, but to films made anywhere within the PRC that were set in the larger Tibetan area, including both the TAR and the eastern Tibetan areas.  There were 24 such films made by PRC film studios in the years 1950 to 1995, and a roughly equal number since then. About 50 television drama series or television dramas in the PRC have been set in Tibetan areas and shown on Chinese tv channels, many of them recounting the victory of the PLA over opposing forces in Tibetan areas in the early 1950s.

This table shows the annual number of Tibet films and tv dramas (meaning films and tv dramas set in Tibet or featuring Tibetan characters) produced in the PRC between 1950 and 2012. The blue lines show the number of films, and the red lines shows television drama series.

Chart of Tibetan-related films and dramas in the PRC

All of the PRC’s mainstream or studio-produced Tibet films and Tibet television drama series were made by ethnic Chinese directors and distributed in Chinese-language versions.  This selection shows examples from various periods and genres of mainstream Tibetan films produced by state studios and television companies since the founding of the PRC in 1950. (It does not include documentaries, or arthouse fiction films set in Tibet, a significant number of which have been made by Tibetan directors working more or less independently of the studio system since 2004.)

Getag Trulku (Geda huofo, 2005)

Claimed to be the first TV series in China with a religious leaders from a minority as its hero, Getag Tulku (Geda huofo) is about a Tibetan lama who supported the Red Army in the 1930s and who died trying to help the PLA enter Tibet in 1950.
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The Gold and Silver River Band (1953)

The Gold and Silver River Band depicts two Tibetan tribes under KMT rule who are locked in a land conflict until helped by Red Army soldiers. It was the first feature film made in China to be set in a Tibetan area,
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Eagles Brave the Storm (1957)

Eagles Brave the Storm is an early Tibet film. It features a group of Chinese soldiers from the Red Army who are stranded in a Tibetan area of Qinghai during the Long March in 1936, but who lead local Tibetans in the fight against the KMT warlord Ma Bufang.
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The Multicolored Road (1960)

Based on a popular children’s book of the same name, The Multicolored Road (Pinyin: Wucailü, Chinese: 五彩路), tells of three poor Tibetan children go to seek a multicolored road that the People’s Liberation Army have constructed in another region of Tibet, where the people there are no longer sufferin
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The Serf (1963)

The most famous of all Chinese films about Tibet, Serfs (or The Serf), is the story of a Tibetan orphan who is abused by his landlord and deceived by a local lama, until the PLA arrive, suppresses the 1959 rebellion and initiates Democratic Reform.
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Yaya (1979)

Yaya (Chinese: 丫丫) is the story of a Tibetan girl called Yaya who is sold for two yuan into servitude to a wealthy Tibetan landlord. Yaya’s own daughter is in turn sold for two yuan. The daughter eventually organizes the village in which she works to resist her mother’s former owner, and durin
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Horse Thief (1986)

The first "arthouse" film in China about Tibet, Tian Zhuangzhuang's Horse Thief (Daomazei), is about a fictional Tibetan nomad in the 1920s. The film has no Chinese characters, moves very slowly, and features long, static shots showing the Tibetan landscape and religious rituals.
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The Secret History of the Potala Palace (1989)

The first serious representation of Tibetan history in film, The Secret History of the Potala Palace, is a lengthy account of the life of the most famous ruler of Tibet, the 5th Dalai Lama (1617-82), and the efforts of his regent, Sangye Gyatso (1653-1705), to maintain stability and order after his
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No. 16 Barkor South Street (1996)

One of the most important and revealing documentaries made in Tibet, Duan Jinchuan's No. 16 Barkor South Street is an observational documentary about grassroots officials and Party administrators in the heart of Lhasa as they prepare for a grand parade.
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Red River Valley (1997)

Red River Valley, released in 1997 to mark the return of Hong Kong to China, is a dramatization of the British invasion of Tibet in 1903-4 and one of the most lavish presentations so far of mainstream Chinese views on Tibet.
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Yeshe Drolma (2000)

Yeshe Dolma (Tibetan: ཡེ་ཤེས་སྒྲོལ་མ།, Wylie: Ye-shes sgrol-ma, Pinyin: Yixi Zhuoma, Chinese: 益西卓玛), as it is commonly known, was released internationally as Song of Tibet. The film is set primarily in contemporary Tibet, and based on the novel Ming by Tibetan-Chinese novelist Tashi Dawa 扎西达娃 (Pinyi
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Kekexili (2004)

Released in English as “Mountain Patrol”, the film describes a group of Tibetans who form a vigilante posse to fight the mass slaughter by poachers of Tibetan antelopes. The second feature by the writer and director Li Chuan, it was partially funded by Columbia, Canon and National Geogra
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The Silent Holy Stones 静静的嘛呢石 (2005)

The Silent Holy Stones ལྷིང་འཇགས་ཀྱི་མ་ནི་རྡོ་འབུམ(Wylie: Lhing ’jags kyi ma ni rdo ’bum, Pinyin: Jingjing de mani shi) marks the writing and directorial debuts of Padma tshe brtan, a well-known author among educated Tibetans. The film follows a young Tibetan monk (the “Little Lama”) over the three-
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Prince of the Himalayas (2006)

Sherwood Hu, the leading Tibetan writer Jangbu, and the famous Tibetan-Chinese writer Tashi Dawa create a powerful retelling of the story of Shakespeare's Hamlet in Tibet, set sometime around the second century BC, before even the arrival of Buddhism.
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Tibetan Class (2011)

Tibetan Class is a feature film depicting a fictional school for Tibetan children in an inland area of China, where the children are sent from Tibet to study throughout their middle-school education. The teacher is depicted as a paragon totally dedicated to her Tibetan students, and the film celebra
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