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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."


May 23, 2010


You would think that the first requirement in reporting a natural
disaster would be getting the name of the geographical location right,
especially in the case of an earthquake, which unlike a messy flood or a
roving tornado, has an identifiable epicenter.

The initial reports in the New York Times, BBC, and CNN on the recent
earthquake at Kyigudo mentioned that it happened in ?? a remote area of
Western China.? Only later, and especially when Tibetan monks in their
distinctive wine-red robes appeared in their many hundreds for rescue
and relief work, was the fact of the town?s Tibetan name and the
region?s Tibetan identity revealed.

This widespread amnesia regarding most things Tibetan is, of course, the
result of China?s long-standing strategy of renaming and re-designating
(in pinyin spelling) Tibetan villages, towns, settlements, areas and
geographical landmarks ? sometimes even re-situating them,
administratively and cartographically, with the long-term intention of
eradicating the special historical and cultural identities of all
Tibetan areas, and making it appear that they had been part of China all
along ? or that they were just uninhabited wilderness that China was now
opening up for development.

The devastating earthquake of 2008 also received this amnesia treatment,
nearly always being referred to as the Great Sichuan Earthquake, even by
some Tibetans [1]. The Chinese city of Dujiangyan in Sichuan
understandably got most of the media attention in China and the West
because it was hardest hit in terms of human lives lost. But it should
be noted that sub-standard construction (especially of school buildings)
was one of the main reasons for the staggering victim count, and not
just the destructive power of the quake itself, which was more intense
in Tibetan areas to the west.

In fact the epicenter of the earthquake was in the Tibetan area of Lungu
(Ch. Wenchuan) in the Ngaba (Ch. Aba) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.
Many Tibetans also perished in other neighboring earthquake-affected
Tibetan areas, including Rongtrak (or Tenpa, Ch. Danba) County in Kandze
(Ch. Ganzi) Prefecture and Drugchu (Ch. Zhouqu) County in Kanlho (Ch.
Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu province. Then of course
there is the area of Wolung in Ngaba itself where the Chinese have set
up their Panda Reserve, which was greatly affected by the earthquake.
The people of Wolung are Tibetans and, that is one reason, I explain to
my children, why the clumsy, slow-breeding, and essentially defenseless
Panda, has managed to survive till now, while nearly every other kind of
wildlife (no matter how swift, stealthy, cunning or ferocious) in China
proper have long disappeared into the exotic meat-markets of Guangzhou
and elsewhere (see Colin Thubron, Behind the Wall pgs 182-186 & 190-192).

The Ngaba Autonomous Prefecture and the areas south of it, which now
come under Kandze Autonomous Prefecture was, before this divide-and-rule
gerrymandering by the PRC, the Tibetan region of Gyalrong with its own
unique history and culture. The great scholar Samten Karmay notes that
the name of this region in Tibetan is spelled as rGyal rong which is
derived from its full name rGyal mo tsha ba rong. It is related to the
name of the river rGyalmo dngul chu (The Queen?s Silver Stream) which is
the main river in the region. Although now absorbed into Sichuan
province this whole region is geographically cut off from the actual
Sichuan basin by the watershed of the massive mountain ranges. Samten-la
tell us ?In Tibetan geographical vocabulary the region is described as
rong or ?gorge?. It is one of the four great gorges, rong chen bzhi, of
Tibet. They are : Kongpo-rong, Atag-rong, Tsawa-rong and
Gyalmo-rong.?[2] Samten-la also mentions a dispute as to whether
Gyalrong is a part of Kham or Amdo.

After the earthquake I sat down to write an hommage of sorts to the
people of Gyalrong, but the March Uprising and everything else that
followed, the crackdown, the Beijing Olympics, sidetracked me. That I
knew little about this part of Tibet, didn?t help. Then a couple of
weeks ago I came across a brief account I had written on Gyalrong in
1998, that I had completely forgotten about [3]. I reproduce it here
with some additional information. The piece is not very illuminating on
Gyarong culture, people or even history, and is just a summary account
of one war in that region. But what a war. One might even call it a
Tibetan Thermopylae, noting the fact that the rest of Greece was not
doing very much when Sparta was facing the Persian invasion. But if we
take into account the unique religio-political factors and the
importance of stone fortifications and engineering skill to the
defenders, then the Gyalrong war is perhaps more comparable to the
heroic defense of Malta in 1565 by the Knights of St. John against the
overwhelming military might of the Ottoman Empire.

In the 18th century, when Manchu power was at its ascendancy in Asia,
the Qing imperal army fought two long wars in the Gyalrong region of
Eastern Tibet which overshadowed all the other campaigns that were
undertaken during the reign of the emperor Qianlong. Though these wars
were fought against the two relatively small Tibetan kingdoms of Rabden
and Tsanlha, in expense alone (sixty-one million taels[4]) to the
Imperial treasury, they far exceeded the costs of the campaign against
Burma in late 1760s (nine million taels) and the two campaigns against
the Gurkhas from 1788 to 1792 (over three and a half million taels, and
where Tibetans did most of the fighting). Even the conquest of Ili and
Zungaria, a war which lasted five years (1755-1760) and involved a
territory almost ten times as large as Gyalrong, cost only twenty-three
million taels, approximate one-third of the cost of the two Gyalrong
wars.[5] Besides the tenacity, military skills, and fierce spirit of the
Tibetans of Gyalrong, the formidable stone towers and forts of the
region played a vital role in its effective defense.

Even in just a photograph of the ruins of these imposing towers one is
struck by the sense of power, skill and science that the Gyalrongwas
brought to bear in their long struggle against Chinese imperialism. The
towers come in different shapes: squares, octagons, hexagons and
star-shapes. I read somewhere that these unique configurations gave the
structures their strength to withstand even earthquakes. We must also
bear in mind that no cement or any sort of mortar was used in the
construction, just dry wall techniques, but of a very sophisticated
kind. It is impossible not to marvel at the architectural and
engineering skill of the Tibetans of the past when one views these
ruined towers and, of course, the Potala Palace, the Gyangtse Kumbum and
the iron suspension bridges of Thangton Gyalpo.

Lamas and dharma types who assert that there is nothing worthwhile in
Tibetan culture besides Buddhism, should, one day, be made to carry the
stones to rebuild these towers, as Marpa made Milarepa do to atone for
his evil deeds.

According to such scholars as J. Dehergne, Luo Shufu and A.W. Hummel
??the stone forts (of Gyalrong) would perhaps have been impregnable had
A-kui, the Manchu General not made use of cannons constructed under the
directions of the Portuguese, Felix da Rocha?. A Portuguese Jesuit
missionary, da Rocha (1713-1781) was in the permanent employ of the
Imperial court. ?He not only directed the construction of the cannons to
be used (perhaps designed for ease of transport in this rugged terrain
JN) but he served as ?surveyor? as well, when they were actually in use,
arriving at the front late in 1774 in time for the main assault on the
Great Gold Stream,? (Da Jinchuan, the Chinese name for Rabden). [6]

In Lhasa, the Ganden Phodrang government, far from regarding the Manchu
attack as foreign aggression against a kindred Tibetan realm, saw this
as an opportunity to defeat an old religious rival ? Gyalrong being one
of the last strongholds of the Bon faith. Changkya Hutoktu Rolpae
Dorjee, the Gelukpa lama in Peking who was the religious advisor to the
Manchu Emperor, undertook a special Buddhist ?magico-religious? rite for
the defeat and destruction of the Bonpos of Gyalrong and for the victory
of the ?emanation of Manjushri?, the Manchu emperor. In 1775 the last
great fort of the king of Rabden fell to Jesuit cannons and, presumably,
Gelukpa magic. In the same year the imperial army destroyed the Yundrung
Lhateng, the great Bon monastery of the Rabden Royal House. A new
Gelukpa monastery was built at the site.

The two Gyalrong military expeditions were such a significant drains on
the Chinese imperial treasury that China?s national budget would
ultimately suffer from depletion over the next fifty years and the Qing
dynasty would never again approach the heights of its former imperial power.

(Note: I was told that Gyalrong rose up against the Communist Chinese
occupation force in 1956. Any information on this conflict would be much

1.Tsewang Namyal ?Jyekundo Earthquake - Next Steps and Lessons? Phayul,
April 22
2. Samten G. Karmay, Feast of the Morning Light: The Eighteenth Century
Wood-engravings of Shenrab?s Life-stories and the Bon Canon from
Gyalrong, Senri Ethnological Reports 57, National Museum of Ethnology,
Osaka 2005.
3. Jamyang Norbu, ?Missionary Cannons Defeat the Tibetans of Gyalrong?,
Lungta, Tibetan Journal of History and Culture, AMI, Dharamshala, Vol II
Winter 1998.
4.Tael (?; pinyin: li?ng) was a measure of silver about 40gms. Modern
studies suggest that, on purchasing power party basis, one tael of
silver was worth about 4130 modern Chinese yuan in the early Tang
dynasty and 660.8 in the mid Ming dynasty.
5.Dan Martin, ?Bonpo Canons and Jesuit Cannons?, The Tibet Journal
Vol.XV No.2 Summer 1990, Dharamshala.
6. Roger Greatrex, ?A Brief Introduction to the First Jinchuan War
1747-1749)?, Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 6th Seminar of the
International Association for Tibetan Studies, Fagernes 1992. Vol.I The
Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture, Oslo, 1994.
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