Before the democratic reform started in the late 1950s, Tibet experienced hundreds of years of feudal serfdom in which politics and religion went hand in hand and the clergy and aristocracy dictated, very much like Europe in the Middle Ages in many respects.
The serf owners (officials, aristocrats and high-ranking clergy), who accounted for about five percent of the Tibetan population, possessed all the farmland, pastures, forests, mountains, rivers and mineral deposits, the majority of the herds and 50 to 70 percent of the products put out by the labor of serfs and slaves. The serfs, more than 90 percent of the population, had no land, no housing and no personal freedom. Their lives belonged to the plantations of their lords. Domestic slaves, accounting for five percent, had nothing. Their masters owned them completely.
Serf owners handled serfs as properties, buying and selling them, presenting them as gifts, mortgaging them, or using them in barter trade. They had final say on the serfs' births, deaths and marriages.
The Thirteen Codes and The Sixteen Codes, which functioned in old Tibet for hundreds of years, divided people into nine classes on three levels and made it clear that they enjoyed no equal legal status.
Women were listed as the lowest, particularly poor women. It was stipulated, for instance, that people differed in terms of classes and therefore their life prices also differed. The value of upper-class people on the top level, such as princes and living Buddhas, was equivalent to the amount of gold needed equal to weigh the corpse, while the lives of the lower-class people in the third level, such as women, butchers, hunters and artisans, were worth only a piece of straw rope. According to a study of Tibetans living on the pastures, the life-price of men was twice that of women.