Category Archives: Qinghai

Amdo Art China Fortresses Qinghai Tibet

The Buddha and the Gods of War, pt. 1: The Many Foundings of gNyan Thog Fort

(Part 1 of three, click to jump to Part 2 and Part 3).

gnyan thog panorama small

Above: The south-east gate of the southern fort of gNyan Thog, and a panorama of gNyan Thog village and monastery from the temple hill north of the village.

The village of gNyan Thog (ch. Nian Du Hu 年都乎, 35.533816, 102.021554) is located just south of Rongwo town in the valley of Rebgong, northern Amdo, or Chinese Qinghai 青海. There are perhaps fifteen hundred or two thousand people living there. Originally there were two little fortresses there, both of which survive now partially, and a new town spreading outside them. There’s also a large Tibetan-Buddhist monastery, nestled at the foot of a hill with a temple on top. The houses there are made of mud with flat roofs, packed in tightly so that one can step easily from the roof of one house to the next, gazing down into pleasant little courtyards.

Like the Rebgong valley generally, the people of gNyan Thog are a strange mix of things. Officially they are Monguor/Tu Nationality 土族; the Tibetans call them Dor Do or Dor sDe, although some say this is pejorative. At home they speak a language which is Mongolic but heavily interlaced with Tibetan and Chinese. This language is shared with a few other villages scattered down the valley, “Red Gate” sGo dMar (ch. Guo Ma Ri 郭麻日), “New Channel” rKa gSar (ch. Ga Sha Ri 尕沙日), and “Tuo Family [Fort]” Tho Gya (ch. Bao An 保安/Tuo Jia Tun 脫家屯). Everyone in gNyan Thog also speaks fluent Amdo-dialect Tibetan and this is their main written language. gNyan Thog people can pass perfectly for Tibetans and intermarry with them freely. Nowadays everyone in gNyan Thog also knows Chinese, and the language was spoken by some there in the past as well.

For a village of its size, gNyan Thog has attracted a decent amount of scholarly attention. There’s at least two articles on the place in English, notably by scholars lCags Mo Tshe Ring, Gerald Roche, and Kevin Stuart. In Tibetan and Chinese there is a whole literature on gNyan Thog, including two recently-published books. This partially has to do with the fact that a large block of educated and intelligent people in northern Tibet are products of the Rebgong school system and therefore writing short articles on villages in that valley has become a cottage industry among the unemployably literate class of Amdo. It also has to do with the fact that gNyan Thog is just an interesting place. It’s a fortress-village with its own language, an unknown ethnogenesis, a unique and very lively village ritual system, a large monastery, all sorts of artistic production (many of the inhabitants work in the Thangka-painting trade), and a number of sources speaking to its history.

I got interested in gNyan Thog because it’s one of the few village fortresses in Amdo which (a) still exists or can be easily reconstructed, and (b) more importantly, has multiple, detailed written sources pertaining to its creation, and (c), also has a remarkable amount of pre-Cultural Revolution art surviving within the village. For this reason I’ve made a series of trips there. The first was alone and on a lark in the summer of 2011 while walking, when just by chance I got invited to the town kLu Rol ceremony. The more recent two trips were with a more series research motive. Incidentally they were also in extremely good intellectual company. In spring of 2016 I went to gNyan Thog and sGo dMAr with Anna Sehnalova, a Tibetologist of Charles University and Oxford and expert on Amdowa Religion, and later that summer I visited gNyan Thog and Bao’an/Tho Gya with Hannah Theaker, a Ming-Qing history of the north-west, also from Oxford.

A map of gNyan Thog village is below, compiled by myself and Anna. Presently existing houses and fences are colored BLACK. I’ve outlined the now-destroyed routes of the walls in GRAY, as well as a few rough contour lines to indicate the location of slopes and hills. dMag dPon Khang “General’s Houses” are put in RED. Buddhist institutions are set in BLUE. These include the buildings of the large gNyan Thog Monastery, a sNgags Khang “Tantric Hall” for the rNying Ma practitioners of the village, and several Ma Ṇi Khang “Mani-Wheel Houses”, little shrine rooms with prayer wheels inside. The buildings within gNyan Thog Monastery which are not actually chapels (i.e. mainly monks’ residences) are outlined in blue and colored black. Click on the image to view the full-size map.

  1. Go’u Mo Ri Lang Gyi dMag dPon Khang – “The General’s House of Go’u Mo Erlang”. This is located on a hilltop dominating the village to the north. From left to right, the shrine contains images of Bya Khyung, A Mye rMa Chen, Go’u Mo Ri Lang in the center, then gNyan Chen, and dGra ‘Dul. 
  2. rMa Chen sPom Ra’i dMag dPon Khang – “The General’s House of the Great sPom Ra of the Region rMa”. This is located on a raised platform which straddles the northern gate of the fort, which leads under and out to the west. There is a large statue of rMa Chen in the center, a smaller statue in a palanquin on the left, and a statue dGra ‘Dul dBang Phyug. 
  3. gNyan Chen Thang Lha’i dMag dPon Khang – “The General’s House of the Great gNyan, God of the Plains”. On the upper story of what appears to be a renovated village house. We were not able to get inside of this one and thus don’t know precisely which gods are worshiped therein. 
  4. A Mye Bya Khyung Gyi dMag dPon Khang – “The General’s House of Grandfather Garuda”. Also on the upper story of a house, looking down towards the south-eastern gate. In the shrine, on the left is A Mye Dar rGya, in the middle is Ge Sar, and on the right is A Mye Bya Khyung. 
  5. [gNyan Thog Monastery] Tshogs Chen – “Great Assembly Hall”
  6. [gNyan Thog Monastery] Byams Pa’i Lha Khang – “Maitreya Chapel”
  7. [gNyan Thog Monastery] sGrol Ma’i Lha Khang – “Goddess Chapel”
  8. [gNyan Thog Monastery] mGon Khang – “Protector Chapel”
  9. [gNyan Thog Monastery] Sa ‘Dzin Lha Khang – “Earth Grasping Chapel”. There are also multiple other Ma Ni Khang chapels (not numbered) along the sKor Ra route going around the monastery. There are also several other large monastery buildings including dining halls, residences, etc.
  10. sNgags Khang – “Tantric Hall”. There are two buildings here, one of which was being newly built when we visited. This is the center for the rNying Ma community in gNyan Thog. 
  11. Ma Ṇi Khang – “House of Maṇi Wheels”. A little shrine in Chinese style.
  12. Ma Ṇi Khang – “House of Maṇi Wheels”. Just within the northern gate of the fort, in a little square at the road junction. 
  13. Ma Ṇi Khang – “House of Maṇi Wheels”. This is located over the main gate leading into the southern fort from the south-east. Locals aver that the same shrine existed before the Cultural Revolution.
  14. Ma Ṇi Khang – “House of Maṇi Wheels”. Located over the main gate leading into the northern fort from the south-east.

As for when and how the forts of gNyan Thog were built and what the name of the place means, there are at least four different sets of stories. Each of these accounts can be related to a broader theme in the city legends of China and Tibet, and for this reason they’re worth laying out one by one.

I have a few sources on this. The first is a Chinese-language book called “Vicissitudes of the Commanders of the Thousand Households” 把總千戶滄桑, which is a sort of memoir and family history by the former thousand-household commander of gNyan Thog village, Sha Bo Tshe Ring (given in Chinese in his book as Xia Wu Cai Lang 夏吾才郎). The second is a Tibetan-language book called “The History of the gNyan Thog Maitreya Monastery” gNyan Thog Byams Pa gLing Gi Lo rGyus, by one bLo bZang sNyan Grags. This contains a long section detailing the original Mongol progenitors of the inhabitants of gNyan Thog and their various deeds and wives. This account is reduplicated in Chinese in Sha Bo Tshe Ring’s “Vicissitudes” and has also been translated into English by lCags Mo Tshe Ring and published as “The Origin of gNyan Thog Village and the History of Its Chieftains”.

I had hoped to gather some of the primary sources for these accounts but so far have not been entirely successful. Sha Bo Tshe Ring has recently passed away and apparently due to funerary restrictions his son was unwilling to talk to me. According to people in gNyan Thog monastery, bLo bZang sNyan Grags has fled into exile in India. From one of his friends (a scholar named bLo bZang Don Grub) I was able to retrieve one short source text, titled “A Brief Clan Genealogy of gNyan Thog” gNyan Thog Gi Rus mDzod Rags Tsam. This gives an interesting account which informs that of bLo bZang Snyan Grags and Sha Bo Tshe Ring, but is not identical to their rendition – obviously it was one of several sources which they combined and rationalized to form composite accounts. The text doesn’t date itself and bLo bZang Don Grub wasn’t sure of its provenance, but I suspect it was probably composed recently. The text is attached below if the reader is interested.

gnyan thog gi rus mdzod rags tsam page 001

As for the other sources of these accounts, we may compile a short list. bLo bZang sNyan Grags’ book has a short bibliography (!), which lists mostly rnam thar biographies of spiritual leaders but gives two sources related apparently to the history of gNyan Thog fort (as opposed to just the monastery; sNyan Grags 397-8). The first is “A Limitless and Impartial Look at the Lineages of Rebgong” (Reb Gong Rus mDzod lTa Ba mKha’ Khyab Phyogs Bral), by rGya Za’i dGe bShes (rGya Za is a place-name, but it’s hard not to translate this as “The Chinese-Eating Geshe”). The second is “The Documents of the gNyan Thog Chieftains” (gNyan Thog dPon Po’i Yig Tshang), attributed to someone with the impressive name of “A-Krong, the Tantrin and Magician” (A Krong sNgags Pa mThu Ba). Who this is I do not know.

Sha Bo Tshe Ring mentions a series of sources in the context of his account, including two Tibetan language documents which “appeared one after another in the society of the 1990s” 九十年代社會上陸續出現, titled “The Origins of the Family of the Local Commanders of gNyan Thog” 年都乎土把總族源 and “The Generations of the Local Commanders” 土把總世家傳承. I don’t know the Tibetan names of these sources; they could overlap with the ones listed by bLo bZang sNyan Grags above. Sha Bo Tshe Ring also lists secondary sources which were compiled from documents held at gNyan Thog monastery and various oral reports, including “A Historical Inquiry into the History of the Tu People of the Four Forts (Five Tun) of Reb Gong” 同仁四寨子(五屯) 土族歷史考察, “A Summary of the Generations of the Local Commanders of gNyan Thog Village in Reb Gong” 同仁年都乎土把總世家要略, “The Gaze of General and Impartial (?) Emptiness” 普空不遍(偏?)之見, which is according to him a history of the Nang So chieftains of Rong Bo Monastery, “A Introductory Gazetteer of gNyan Thog” 年都乎簡志 , and “The Monguor of the Yellow and Huangshui Rivers Region” 河湟蒙古爾 (Tshe Ring, p.40-41). These sources apparently form the bases of both his and bLo bZang sNyan Grags’ accounts. I don’t have any of these texts, although I’d rather like to get my hands on them if I could.

At some point I would like to return to collect some of these primary texts and similar accounts about other fortresses in Rebgong. For now though we can use the secondary sources to relate in a general way the stories about the creation of gNyan Thog fort. At least three of them are already available in English and they’ve all been extensively picked over in Chinese and Tibetan so this is on the whole not actually anything new, but it’s interesting to me to try to get at them in the original languages, and I don’t think anyone’s tried to compare them against the larger body of Chinese and Tibetan fortress founding legends.

1) Founding a City on the Body of a God

The first story is basically etymological. The name “gNyan Thog” can be read literally as “atop (thog) the fierce one (gnyan)”. gNyan can be an adjective meaning “fierce” and is also the name of a class of wrathful demons. The below explanation recalls the ancient Sino-Tibetan mythos of cities founded atop the bodies of deities in order to suppress aquatic spirits. The most famous examples of this are the tales of the separate foundings of Beijing and Lhasa, of which the latter instance would certainly be familiar to the inhabitants of gNyan Thog fort. Many other instances of this trope can be pointed to, mainly from China, dating back at least to the Song Dynasty.

mkhas pa kha cig gis gnyan thog ni gser chen gzhung mdo’i phyogs thams cad nas ‘bab pa’i chu mig klu gnyan gnas pa’i steng du chags pas na de ltar grags zer la / yul dbus kyi gnyan thog gi sde nas mched par ‘dod ces yul dbus nas byung bar bshed ba’ang yod / a rol rin po che’i gsung las / che btsan gnyan gsum ‘dzoms pa’i thog ma’i sde zhes gsungs /

“Some scholars say that all of the fountains which flow down from the confluence at Middle Great-Gold are the domain of a fierce Naga (gnyan klu). gNyan Thog village was built on top of this, and hence it got the name. There is also the saying that they came from a village called gNyan Thog in Central Tibet. A Rol Rinpoche’s works have a section, “The Village Founded Upon the Great, the Powerful, and the Fierce”.

gNyan Thog Byams Pa gLing Gi Lo rGyus, p. 16

A Rol Rinpoche is a reincarnated lama (sprul sku) line from the White-Cliff Monkey-Fort monastery (Brag dKar sPrel rDzong) in rTsi Gor Thang county. I’ve not been able to track down this reference, although I hope find out in the future. One villager that I talked to opined that this passage refers to a small spring which is located in the gullies beneath the fort, now nestled in between new apartment blocks. This is the spring in which the men of the village and the images of the gods are washed during the kLu Rol and Wutu ceremonies.

2) Black-Clad Warriors, Daoist Thunder Magic, and Chinese Geomancy

The second account is elaborated at length in multiple sources. Although the chief protagonists of the foundation myth are all Mongol (hor), it is my view that this story can be read as being strongly Chinese in its themes. For one thing, the tale repeatedly credits its miracles to “Chinese Daoist knowledge” (rgya nag ta’o ca’o rig pa). The Mongols learn their war magic from Daoist adepts. Daoist geomancers divine the best spots for constructing forts, and only a Celestial Master of the Zhang lineage in Central China is able to understand the “heavenly letters” (eight Chinese characters) that portend the flourishing of the gNyan Thog chieftains. Further, the whole tale recalls the 16th century religious systems of the Xuan-Da north of Beijing, in which a black-robed Daoist martial thunder deity (The Perfected Warrior, Zhen Wu 真武) is the tutelary god of the fortress, invariably situated on an artificial mound built on the northern side of the fort. In gNyan Thog’s case, the main ancestors of the village are Mongol warlords who have mastered Daoist thunder magic and are associated with the color black. The foundation of gNyan Thog village in all accounts is symbolized by the creation of an offering pit and a temple to the gods of place (gzhi bdag lha khang) on the “rear mountain” (gyab ri) to the north of the village, the site of the present Erlang Temple.

The most detailed version of the story is given in “The History of gNyan Thog Manjushri Monastery”. Although it is reproduced in several other accounts. According to these stories, the original progenitor of the people of gNyan Thog was a Mongol chieftain named Black-Horse Hor Dor (rTa Nag Hor Dor), who was enfeoffed in the 1260s with a chunk of land somewhere on the Yellow River banks in Amdo. According to bLo bZang sNyan Grags, Black-Horse Hor Dor and especially his son Hor Tho Lung were powerful Daoist adepts.

hor se chen rgyal po la med du mi rung ba’i dmag dpon chen mo hor tho lung zer ba de nyid ni rgya nag da’o ca’o chos lugs pa’i slob brgyud nas gnam lcags thog ‘bebs kyi gdam ngag thob ste rlung ‘gugs byes nas gnam sa kha rdeb pa lta bu dang / ral gri’i kha nas me sbar ba / chu bo gyen du ‘dren pa / sku stod phyu chen nag po dgra ‘joms ber nag ring mo gyon pa / sku smad du me rlung ‘khrul ‘khor bcu gsum gyi brgyan pa’i smad gos dmar po rlung gi phur ma gyon pa ‘di la /

“At the time of the death of Khubilai Khan (AD 1294), an evil general named Hor Tho Lung studied the arts of China’s Daoist religion. He attained the oral instructions for the spell called “Iron-Sky Thunder (thog)”. By controlling the winds he could beat the sky against the earth. He could shoot fire from his sword and instruct water to run uphill. On his upper body he wore a great black chuba which was a long enemy subduing robe. On his lower body he wore a red lower robe which was the vessel of the winds, adorned with thirteen magic circles of fire and wind.”

gNyan Thog Byams Pa gLing Gi Lo rGyud, p.16-17

By force of his magic powers, this Mongol general formed an encampment at a ford called the Good Place of Using Boats (sa bzang gru spyod) on the Yellow River in the Amdo highlands. This became known as the Encampment (sgar) or Fortress (mkhar) of the Thunder Fierce One (gnyan thog) and was the first incarnation of gNyan Thog village. After Black-Horse Hor Dor’s death, the tribes under his command split up. A portion moved to the grasslands of present-day rGan Gya north of La Brang Monastery.

As to the historicity of any of this, there’s some circumstantial correspondences. A character named Black-Horse Hor Dor appears elsewhere in Tibetan histories – he is the leader of the first Mongol expedition to Tibet, which famously sacked Rwa sGreng Monastery in 1240. The name is usually give in Mongol as Doorda Darkhan, although I’m not sure in what other sources he appears (Gardner). We might point to this as one possible origin for the Tibetan name for the people of gNyan Thog, “Dor Do”. This in any case is the standard Tibetan reference for this name; I need to look deeper into it.

Just because nobody seems to have said this, it should be noted that there was a second and actually better-attested general who fought under the early Mongol Khans, also called Black Horse (ch. Hei Ma 黑馬). He was so named after a black foal born to the family’s white mare at the time of his birth. His father Liu Bolin 劉柏林 was a Chinese subject of the Jin who defected to the Genghis, and his son Black Horse was raised as a soldier in the Mongol armies. Black Horse fought in all parts of China under four Mongol emperors, and serving notably towards the end of his life (d. 1262) in the conquest of Sichuan and the governance of the city of Chengdu. He had twelve sons, of whom the Yuan Histories give biographies of two. Presumably as a mark of their Mongol loyalties and identities, Black Horses’ sons chose not to adopt their father’s surname Liu 劉 but instead to take on as a new surname the name of the Mongol dynasty, Yuan 元, eg. Tibetan Hor. The Yuan History notes that one of Black Horse’s grandsons, Yuan Wei 元緯, fought in the famous sieges of the Fishers’ Fort and, after his father’s death in 1281, became a military governor 宣慰司 of the Western Circuit of Sichuan 四川西道, eg., Kham and south-eastern Amdo. (Yuan Histories, Exemplary Accounts, 36 11-17 元史列傳三十六11-17, see Sturgeon, Donald.) We can also point that Du Shi’s AD 1280 account of the upper route of the Yellow River records that soldiers and officials, presumably Mongols, were stationed near the Yellow River bank somewhere in the riverine plains around modern mDzod dGe rDzong. Du Shi refers to this place with a Mongol name, Ha La Bie Li Chi Er 哈剌別里赤兒. (Ha La in Du Shi’s transliteration is usually Mongol Shar “yellow”, probably referring to the Yellow River.) Could this have been the Good Place of Using Boats?

de yang sras tha chung ‘di rab byung lnga ba’i bgrang bya nyer gcig pa me phag lor ‘khrungs shing / dgung lo nyer gsum pa rab byung lnga ba’i bgrang bya zhe gsum pa sa bya lor / sa bzang gru spyod sgang nas gnas gzhir spor te mdo smad bsang chu dang dgu chu zhes pa’i bar na / gser chen gzhung shes grags pa’i nye ‘gram na / sa ming la la ri dang dge ri zhes pa’i sa de gnyis kyi ‘dris mdo nas gnas gzhi bzung ste mkhar bskor ba la sngon ltar mkhar ming la gnyan po’i skar thog ces ‘bod cing kho tsho’i sde ming la yang gnyan thog gi sde dang gnyan thog gi mkhar zhes zer / sa bzang gru spyod rab ka la sngon ltar gnyan thog skar dang gnyan thog mkhar shul zhes grags so //

“The youngest son [of Hor Tho Lung, named O Chi Go Bu Me Thu Me Lun] was born in the twenty first year of the fifth sixty year cycle, or the fire pig year. In the earth bird year, or the forty third year of the fifth yearly cycle, he was twenty three years old. In this year, they moved from the place called the Good Land of Using Boats to near the place known as Middle Great-Gold, which is in mDo sMad between the gSang River and the dGu River. At the confluence of the rivers of the places which were named La Mountain and dGe Mountain, they began a new settlement and built [lit. encircled] a fortress. Originally this fortress was called the Thunder [thog] Fortress of the Fierce [gnyan] Ones. Their village was also called the Village of the Thunder Fierce Ones [gnyan thog] or the Fortress of the Thunder Fierce Ones. The original Good Land of Using Boats was then known as the Encampment of the Thunder Fierce Ones or the Ruins of the Fortress of the Thunder Fierce Ones.”

gNyan Thog Byams Pa gLing Gi Lo rGyus, p.20-21

There are in fact the remains of at least two fortresses on the plains of rGan Gya. One is a ruin in square Chinese style which Bian Qiang in “A History of Fortifications in Gansu” calls in Chinese “The One Lord Fort” 一公城. He also provides a transliteration for the Tibetan name, the Si Mao Fort 斯矛古城, but I’m not sure what the Tibetan meaning is. Bian Qiang claims that this fort was a Song Dynasty trading post built during the reign of Gusiluo 唃厮啰 (11th century AD). The second fort is the better known “Swastika Fort” g.Yung Drung mKhar / ch. “Eight-Corner Fort” 八角城, an unusual fortification in the shape of a cross surrounded by a circular ring of moats and moat walls. Whether either of these is the fort supposedly built by O Chi Go Bu Me Thu Me Lun and his tribe I don’t know. In any case, the Mongols remained at this location for about forty years and then moved once again:

dus der sa dpyad rig pa la mkhas pa’i ta’o ca’o chos lugs pa zhig gnyan thog to’u pa tsi’i mdon du phebs nas sa ‘di khod tsho’i mi rgyud mang po ‘phel ba’i gnas ma yin par reb gong gser mo ljongs su gnas bsang po mi phyugs longs spyod ‘phel ba’i sa zhig yod pas / khyod tshos sa der gnas gzhi spor na mi nor longs spyod ‘phel bar nges zhes lung bstan pa ltar sde ‘di’i khyim nyung shos shig da lta’i rgan gya […] nas bsdad pa la gnyan thog ‘brog zer zhing / sde ‘di’i mang shos ni hor o chi go bu me thu me lun dgung lo re drug pa rab byung drug pa’i bgrang bya nyer drug pa chu ‘brug (spyi lo 1352) lor reb gong gser ljongs yul gyi dgu chu sngon mo’i byang phyogs bse chu’i mdor gzhi bsung bas […] reb gong gser mo ljongs su hor rgyal khab chen mo’i dmag dpon chen po dor rta nag po’i rgyud dang rgya bod kyi btsun mo gnyan du bsdebs pa’i mi rgyud las reb gong gnyan thog zhes su grags pa’i sde ‘di chags so //

“At this time, a geomancer (sa dpyad rig pa) who was wise in the Daoist religion came before the head of gNyan Thog and said, ‘This place is not one in which your descendants will propagate greatly. In the Golden Land of Rebgong there is a good place, at which your men, herds, and wealth will increase. If you establish a settlement at this place, it is certain that your riches and people will grow.’ For this reason a minority of families who remained at rGan Gya now are called the Nomadic gNyan Thog. […] In the year that Hor O Chi Go Bu Me Thu Me Lun was sixty six, which was the twenty sixth year of the sixth sixty year cycle, or the water dragon year (AD 1352), the majority of the tribe moved to the Golden Land of Rebgong. They established their base in front of the dGu River on the north side and on the lower side of the bSe River. […] Thus in the Golden Land of Rebgong the descendants of the general of the great kingly house of the Mongols Black-Horse [Hor] Dor, mixed with Tibetan and Chinese wives. Their line became known as Rebgong gNyan Thog, and in this way the village was established.

de nas tho’i pa tsi o chi go bu me thu me lun dgung lo brgyad ju bzhes dus rmi lam du rgya mi’i cha byad mthong ba tsam gyis dngangs skrag skyes ba’i mi gsum yong nas nged gsum las gcig gis khed kyi mi rgyud la zhabs zhu yag po byed rgyu yin zer nas ko’i phyag gi ral gri ‘od ‘phro ba zhig to’i pa tsi’i snying khar shugs kyis btsugs pas / khong shin tu skrag nas gnyid las bslangs skabs kho’i dbu sngas su rdo leb gru bzhi ba zhig gi steng du gnam yig yig ‘bru brgyad gsal bor babs ‘dug pa la sus kyang klog mi shes pa de la mi yig gsal bor byas nas bris te rgya nag tu ‘kher te / ta’o ca’o pa’i slob dbon chen mo krang co hrin la gzigs rtog zhus skabs / yi ge ‘di lung bstan gyi yi ge yin pas gter du sbas shig dang de’i don phal cher ‘di ltar yin te /

gnas mchog ‘di ru sdod nus na /  / bskal ba mtha’ la ma stongs bar / /
skes bu grangs med dpon du ‘gyur / / shes rig bod kyi rgyan du ‘gyur / /
longs spyod ‘dzad med lhun gyis ‘grub / / mi la lha yi rgyab rten yod / /
dpon la rgyal bo’i cho lo ‘byung / / kun la bde skyid phun sum tshogs / /

zhes gsal bor bris te gnang zhing /

“After this, when the chieftain O Chi Go Bu Me Thu Me Lun was eighty years old, in a dream he saw three men dressed as Chinese. As soon as he saw them he was greatly afraid. The three men approached him and said, ‘we three have one task – we will do your descendants great service.’ Then one of them stabbed the chieftain through the heart with a beam of light from a sword in his hand, and with great fright O Chi Go Bu Me Thu Me Lun awoke. Upon his pillow he found a square stone upon which clearly appeared eight syllables in heavenly letters. However, nobody could read them, so in order to find someone who could understand these letters O Chi Go Bu Me Thu Me Lun brought this stone to China. There he asked the great Daoist master Krang Co Hrin [Perhaps Zhang Zhaocheng 张昭成?] to look at the stone. The master said, ‘These letters are a prophecy, which are a hidden treasure. The meaning is no doubt this:

If you dwell in the power of this holy place / The limits of your kalpas will not be exhausted /
Your numberless sons will become chiefs / And their wisdom will be the ornament of Tibet /
You will accumulate inexhaustible wealth / And your people will have the support of the gods /
The chieftains will achieve rank from kings / And everyone will achieve happiness and abundance /

In this way the Daoist master gave a clear explanation.

lung bstan gyi yi ge de hor rgyal drug pa chen po ye sun the mur la phul skabs / rgyal pos gnam yig rdo babs ma la gzigs pas / rdo yig de skyon gyis ma gos pa byas nas sa der gter du sbas nas gzhi brtan por gnas na / bdag gong ma’i bka’ yig las lhag pa yin zhes gsung nas / bka’ yig gser bris phyag bstar ma’i cho lo gnang bas / gnyan thog dpon tho’u pa tsi o chi go bu me thu me lun gyis gnam yig rdo babs ma de gong ma’i bka’ ltar gnyan thog sde ba’i rgyab ri’i steng gzhi bdag lha khang bzhengs te / de’i mdun ngos su ri zur gsum hom khung ‘dra ba’i steng du gter du sbas / de nas hor gnyan thog tho’u pa tsi o chi go bu me thu me lun dgong lo gya brgyad pa (spyi lo 1408) la ‘das so /

“These prophetic characters were shown to the sixth Mongol emperor, Yesün Temür (r.1323-1328, sic). When the king saw these heavenly letters which had fallen on a stone, he said “These stone letters are not tainted by any flaw. Hidden there as a treasure, it is a place which can form a firm foundation. This is greater than any decree of myself, the emperor.” Thereupon he gave the chieftain a decree written in his own hand in golden ink granting him a title. Then the chieftain of gNyan Thog O Chi Go Bu Me Thu Me Lun according to the order of the emperor and with the heavenly letters fallen on a stone erected a temple to the gods of the place on the hill behind gNyan Thog village. Then he placed the stone as a treasure in something which looked like a triangular offering pit in front of the temple. Then the chieftain of gNyan Thog village O Chi Go Bu Me Thu Me Lun, at the age of one hundred and eight, passed away.”

gNyan Thog Byams Pa gLing Gi Lo rGyus, p.21-23

The “Brief Clan Genealogy of gNyan Thog” gives a slightly different version of this story, which we can summarize briefly. Chenggis Khan has four generals, each of which is skilled in a different art. Black-Horse Hor Dor is one of these who has the ability of Daoist thunder magic (mthu). His descendants use this magic to unite the Mongols, Tibetans, and Chinese who live between the Yellow and the Yangzi rivers in Amdo. After some time they move to Rebgong. There they construct a settlement, and for divine assistance they erect palace of the gods and a triangular offering pit on the peak of the rear hill behind the town (gzhi bzung ste khong gi bsten pa’i grogs byed kyi lha’i pho brang gi zur gsum hom khung lha bu’i rgyab ri’i sna kha nas bzhengs pas /). This dual creation of the town and the temple of the gods of the place on the northern hill signifies the establishment of the village.

This account may or may not represent an accurate genealogy of the gNyan Thog chieftains. However, returning to the interpretation given at the start, we may postulate that the mythic interpretation in these accounts (Daoism, black-clad thunder mages, Chinese geomancy and divine intervention in village foundation) draws strongly on the themes of mid-Ming Chinese fortress legends. This makes some sense: in the next section we will see that the mid to late Ming was historically a time of fortress building and Han immigration in Rebgong.

There are also some nice if recent drawings of the twelve Mongol-Manchu warriors of Erlang / Ri Lang drawn on either side of the gate of his temple on the hill above gNyan Thog. This is the spot where the original offering pit and the temple to the god of the place were set at the mythical foundation of the village. With the central god Erlang in the temple itself, the figures make thirteen soldiers.

ri lang lha khang








Finally, the whole story seems to be reflected in village ritual. Below are scenes from the 2011 kLu Rol festival in gNyan Thog, in which the God-Descender (lha babs) shaman Rin Chen dByams is possessed by the god Er Lang on the “rear peak” (rgyab ri) and leads a procession carrying the god’s image down to the spring beneath the village. The image and the devotees are washed in the spring, and then the palanquin is processed through the streets of the village to the households of three hereditary leaders, ultimately arriving at the household of the Tu Ba Zong chieftains who are the descendants of Black Horse Hor Dor. Here it rests for three days before being returned to its temple. The chieftain at the time the below photo was taken was Sha Bo Tshe Ring, the author of one of the book which forms one main source on gNyan Thog history. He has since passed away and his son has assumed the position of symbolic village head.

Above: The Shaman Rin Chen dByams on the street in gNyan Thog fort.

Above: Er Lang’s palanquin entering Sha Bo Tshe Ring’s house.

Above: A narrow street within gNyan Thog fort.

So here we have a very nice set of correspondences. The story connects the Monghuor inhabitants of the village to the ancient Mongol empire, and, written in Tibetan, it also points to the larger body of Daoist and folk religion legends about fortress building current in late imperial China. It accounts for the creation of the village space in a way that has cosmological echoes – the recognition of an “axis mundi” at the “rear mountain” symbolically allows the village to take root. The story is represented in village art in a manner that points to a particular ethnic value system – the fierce depictions of Manchu-Mongol war chiefs on the walls of the Er Lang/Ri Lang temple recall the martial ideals of the inhabitants’ Mongol ancestors. Finally, the story and the spatial/social structures created by it are reproduced annually in village ritual – the god descends to a particular villager, who processes the deity’s image down from the “Rear Hill”, through the space of the fort, and into the home of the village chieftains who are this tale’s inheritors.

3) Ming Military Farms, Han Colonists, and the Imperial City Temples

The next account is not technically a story of the building of gNyan Thog fort, but nevertheless it is an account of fortress building which is located within gNyan Thog fort and involves its inhabitants. The story comes from an stele located outside the Earth-Subduing Chapel (sa ‘dzin lha khang, more about this later) of the gNyan Thog monastery, and relates the efforts of the chieftain of the fort, Wang Tingyi 王廷儀, to fortify the valley and specifically to reconstruct the fortress of Protecting-Peace 保安堡 / Tuo Family Military Farm (ch. Tuo [Jia] Tun 脫[家]屯, tb. Tho Gya). The stele bears the title “Stele of the Great Ming Dynasty” 大明碑, but the date is illegible, except for the last two characters …八年 “eighth year”. (This is according to the transcriptions, of which see below; no date is visible to me.) Sha Bo Tshe Ring notes that the events recorded in the stele took place in the second year of the Wanli Reign or 1574 – this is attested both by the “Gazetteer of Xunhua” 循化志 and by a stone tablet bearing this date which was found when the walls of that fort were demolished in the 1950s. He also points out that the wording of the stele seems to imply that its hero, Wang Tingyi, was dead at the time of writing. So we can put the date of the erection of the commemorative stele sometime between 1580 (eg., the eighth year of the Wanli Reign 萬里八年) and the end of the dynasty in 1636, with the added caveat that it be a year with a regnal period ending in eight.

The text of the stele itself presents a problem. The face of the stone is severely worn, with the bottom half of each line now essentially illegible. I have the text of two transcriptions, one of which was posted on a placard next to the stele itself and another of which appears in Sha Bo Tshe Ring’s book (52). Both of these transcriptions seem to have been made at a time when considerably more of the stele was legible, and one or the other of them seems to have relied upon the other, but they differ from each other in a number of places, and they also differ from the legible sections of the original stele. Most of these differences are minor, with the exception of one line which seems to have been skipped over entirely by the original copier. I have tried to reconstruct a composite version here, relying on the original stele when possible, adding in information from the transcriptions as necessary, and correcting mistakes in the transcriptions as I could (eg. 寧河武順王 for 寧何武順王, etc.). The language is sometimes difficult and the frequent breaks make the meaning in some sections difficult to interpret. In any case the general story and tone is clear enough.

In the previous narrative, while the Mongols were treated somewhat fearfully, they were nevertheless recognized as the ancestors of the village and therefore the protagonists of the founding narrative. This is not the case in the Great Ming Dynasty stele, in which they represent the un-named antagonists. In 1559 Altan Khan (1507–1582), chieftain of the Tümed and for the better part of the sixteenth century the great northern nemesis of the Ming Dynasty, raided into Qinghai. Altan Khan’s son Bingtu 丙兔 seized the region around Qinghai Lake, while his grand-nephew Bintu 賓兔 occupied the smaller but extremely strategic grasslands of Pine Mountain 松山. In 1570 Altan Khan raided into Qinghai a second time (Qing Hai Tong Shi, 287). Later on in 1598 the Ming were able to dislodge the Mongols from the pastureland around Pine Mountain and erected a fort and long walls there, thus cutting off the route between Qinghai and Mongolia, but Bingtu’s branch of the Tümed remained on the shores of Kokonor until the 19th century. Later in the seventeenth century other Mongol groups would follow. We can infer that the arrival of several tens of thousands of heavily armed warriors with their flocks and families on the pasture-lands of northern Tibet had an effect – beyond the Mongols themselves, the sudden conquest must have caused ripples of population displacement across Amdo. This is clearly felt in the gNyan Thog stele. Although the exact enemies remain unclear, it is clear from the text that there is unrest among the highland peoples, and the villages of Rebgong no longer feel safe. While the text never mentions the Mongols by name, it does once use the word lu 虜 “captives”, “wretches”, which in Ming dynasty sources frequently refers to the Mongols; I’ve translated it “barbarians” below. I’ve also conventionally translated the word fan 番 as “Tibetan” throughout the text, but in truth the word can refer to any of the plateau peoples of western China, including probably the gNyan Thog Monguor themselves. The text is as follows:

“In the region of Protecting-Peace which is located beyond the borders of River Prefecture of West-of-the-Long-River Commandery, forts were built, officials were installed, and military rations were increased. The man who achieved this, Wang Tingyi, gave succor to the Tibetans, achieved great deeds, and assisted the officials. For this reason we have truthfully recorded this with a worshiping stele:”

蓋聞西域之土羌之地乃唐世以來開創故得恢復中夏而逐遐慶矣 / 自我太祖高皇帝龍飛遺衛國公諡寧河武順王鄭公征崑崙從達河 / 海撫夷以邊馬忠靡[ ]不貢[ ][ ][ ]
“It is said that the lands of the local barbarians in the Western Regions were opened up from the period of the Tang Dynasty. Therefore the distant lands rejoice that they have now been restored to China. After our Great-Ancestor Emperor took his Dragon Flight (i.e., since Zhu Yuanzhang declared the Ming Dynasty in AD 1368), he sent out the Nation-Protecting Lord, also called the Pacifies-the-Yellow-River Makes-Obedient-by-Arms King, Lord Zheng (Zheng Yu 鄭愈, 1337-1377). Lord Zheng conquered the Kunlun and reached the [source of the] Yellow River and Qinghai Lake. He gave succor to the barbarians, and with horses on the border he scattered the [ ] who did not give tribute [ ][ ][ ].”

服以是[ ][ ]豢養之恩而番族從兹孚信者何可勝計也夫保安 / 者為三秦之咽喉挾九邊之鼎峙[ ] / 地東[ ]邊多[ ][ ]西接討來歸德南鄰捏工莽剌北抵果木黃河然而番部[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]
“In service of this [ ][ ] nurturing benevolence and because of this from the tribes of the Tibetans those who served and had faith in him were beyond count. Therefore the region of Protecting-Peace is the throat of the Three Lands of Qin, and it holds up one leg of the tripod of the Nine Borders of the Empire. In the east of this land [ ] on the border there are many [ ][ ]. To the west it reaches to the Tao Lai River and Gui De, while to the south it borders on Nie Gong (Reb Gong?) and Mang La (Mang Ra?). To the north it reaches Guo Mu and the Yellow River. Therefore the regions of the barbarians [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]”

桀番無時(??)[ ][ ]已故是地無官守防無軍所恃如彼中廷儀向為屯首即心懷赤忠漢番皆並推益以 / 是倡義率眾並咨 / 各部院道築堡曰保安設官曰防禦並于計吳脫李四寨選士五百名均之以月餉河營協防兵一 / 百名加之以口糧在斯地比昔稱雖更□往時有加焉繼而招愆期荷 / 參台李公以廷儀撫番[ ][ ]創始[ ][ ]總理通?[ ]又蒙
“The fierce Tibetans at no time (??) [ ][ ] to the end. Therefore this place had no officials appointed and no military stationed here to rely on. In the midst of this, Wang Tingyi became head of the military farm (tun 屯). His heart held bravery and loyalty, and he wished that the Han and the Tibetans should unite together to work for benefit. For this reason he made a proposal for a righteous work and led the masses. He proposed to various bureaus, departments, and routes that fortresses should be built. He asked that Protecting-Peace have an official appointed and be defended. He also told the four forts of Ji (gNyan Thog) Wu (Seng Ge gZhong), Tuo (Tho Gya), and Li (rKa gSar and sGo dMar) that they should choose five hundred soldiers and give them a monthly ration. One hundred soldiers from the River Prefecture (Hezhou) Cooperative-Defense Army should be given additional grain. In this place this was more than the original amount, although it was increased [ ] in the past, it was also added to (?). As the plans continued they became delayed. He Cantai, and Lord Li, with Wang Tingyi gave succor to the Tibetans [ ][ ] and created [ ][ ][ ] the president, which reached to (?) [ ] and could also be inherited (?).”

協守河州付總兵周公以[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]委之以該堡中軍則鈴制漢番而地方頗為得人至如[ ][ ] / 逼臨虜穴無資戰守逐捐集[ ][ ][ ]民[ ]不頌戴如此在廷儀恩信馭之于番撫摩[ ][ ][ ]功 / 之不可盡述勞之不可盡[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]廷儀高士[ ]求隱逸不復出漢番(?)思[ ][ ][ ] / 俱接踵而至再三懇求欲為廷儀[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]其他向時廷儀勤于王事[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] / 來求雖不能文傳以述其往跡以示[ ][ ][ ][ ]其功耶故立石篆記云
“The vice head of the military at the cooperative garrison of River Prefecture, Lord Zhou, used [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] delegated it, in order that the military within this fort could govern both the Han and the Tibetans. Therefore many people arrived at this place, as [ ][ ]. As the place pressed closely to the lairs of the barbarians (lu) and there was not the resources to hold it in battle, therefore they gathered together money [ ][ ][ ][ ] the people [ ] did not praise it. In this situation, Wang Tingyi benevolently urged them to offer succor to the Tibetans [ ][ ][ ]. His achievements cannot be fully described, nor can his labors be fully [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] the great gentleman Wang Tingyi [ ] they all fled and hid, and did not emerge again. The Chinese and the Tibetans both thought [ ][ ][ ]. They all put their feet to the road and arrived in that place in redoubled numbers. They honestly wished for Wang Tingyi to [ ] [ ][ ][ ][ ] other than these. In previous times Wang Tingyi had labored at the affairs of lords [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] …arrived begging that although it could not be recorded by writing, in order to describe the traces of his works, in order to display [ ][ ][ ][ ] his deeds, therefore this stele text was erected as a record.”

欽差總督陝三邊軍務兵部左侍郎叶 / 欽差巡撫陝西都察兼院兼左付都禦史賈 / 欽差巡撫陝西川湖等處理檢查巡史李 / 欽差整臨鞏兵備道兼陝西按察史劉 / 欽差協守陝西臨河等處地方付總兵周

[The below titles are extremely approximate and elide details in many cases.]

“Appointed-By-The-Emperor Left Assistant to the Superintendent of the Soldiers’ Bureau Responsible for the Military Affairs of the Three Borders of Shaanxi, Surnamed Ye

Appointed-By-The-Emperor Mobile Capital Censor of Shaanxi Province, Surnamed Jia

Appointed-By-The-Emperor Mobile Inspector of Shanxi, Sichuan, and Huguang etc., surnamed Li

Appointed-By-The-Emperor Inspector of Shaanxi in Charge Of Strengthening the Military and Provisioning the Roads, surnamed Liu

Appointed-By-The-Emperor Cooperative Vice Comptroller of Soldiers for Places in Shaanxi Along the River, surnamed Zhou”

欽依保安堡築堡防禦蘭州衛指揮事張繼武 / 欽依保安堡防禦守備蘭州衛指揮事夏光裕 / 欽差保安堡防禦守備河州衛指揮事脫九勒镌 / 河州付將營把總河州實授百戶晚生何尚德頓首拜撰 / 本堡臨造刊篆糧房薛英邵希[ ]王天裕 / 督工防軍宋祥 / 總小旗劉[ ][ ]馬[ ][ ]馬[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] / [ ][ ][ ]郭關[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] / 劉[ ][ ]何七巴張大牙俞棠劉[ ][ ] / 馬[ ][ ]馬[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] / [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]張且把 / 上李寨總旗馬束李章他李棠李[ ][ ] / 南土木匠巴不如牙石匠馬巴落馬六禾 / 鐵匠吳屯王加保李屯[ ][ ][ ] / [ ][ ][ ][ ]八年八月朔日立石畫匠梁大智

“Depending-On-The-Emperor Protecting-Peace Fort Fortress Construction Defending Lan Prefecture Commandery Controlling Officer Zhang Jiwu

Depending-On-The-Emperor Protecting-Peace Fort Defense Preparation Lan Prefecture Commandery Controlling Officer Xia Guangyu

Depending-On-The-Emperor Protecting-Peace-Fort Defense Preparation River Prefecture Commandery Controlling Officer Tuojiu Lejuan

Written with head bowed respectfully to the floor by River Prefecture Vice-General and Commander of the Garrisons Hezhou Leader of a Hundred Households, the Late-Born Monk surnamed De

Fortress Engraver (?) Ciying Zhaoxi (tb. Tshe Ring bKra Shis?) of the granary [ ] …Wang Tianyu

Work Overseer of the Defensive Force Song Xiang

Small-Banner Leader Liu [ ][ ] Ma [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]

[ ][ ][ ] Guo Guan [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]

Liu [ ][ ], He Seven and Eight, Big-Tooth Zhang, Yu Tang, Liu [ ][ ]

Ma [ ][ ] Ma [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]

[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] Zhang Qieba

Upper Li Fort Banner Commanders Ma Shu, Li Zhangta, Li Tang, Li [ ][ ]

Southern Earth-and-Wood Craftsman Babu Ruya, the Right Craftsmen Ma Baluo and Ma Liuhe

Metalworker Wang Jiabao of Wutun Village and Li Fort [ ][ ][ ]

[ ][ ][ ][ ] eighth year, the first day of the eighth month we erected this stele, by the stone mason and painter Liang Dazhi.”

The basic narrative here is clear. Rebgong has been a strategic part of China since the Tang dynasty. Chinese armies entered the valley again at the start of the Ming (the late 14th century). Nevertheless at the present time (1574) the valley has found itself “beyond the passes” and without government troops protecting it. The highlands are in chaos and the military farm villages are exposed to raids. Wang Tingyi, the presumably Monguor head of the Ji Military Farm (eg., gNyan Thog), cherishes both the Chinese and the various non-Tibetan peoples. For this reason he decides to raise up a garrison and petition the authorities for more defensive troops. To do this he enlists a multi-ethnic cast which is given mostly Chinese names, but which also seems to include Muslims, Tibetans, and other groups. Wang Tingyi is so effective in this program of fortress building and military strengthening that the “fierce Tibetans” do not dare attack and many immigrants arrive to live in his new fortresses. The long-standing result is the creation of a Chinese-style walled administrative center in Rebgong – Protecting Peace / Tuo Military Farm 保安堡/脫家屯/Tho Gya. This settlement was and remains the main Han Chinese settlement in the Rebgong valley; until the 1950s it contained the entire adminstrative and symbolic apparatus of high-Ming Chinese governance.

I’ve appended a tentative map of the walled area of Protecting-Peace here. Myself and Hannah Theaker spent a good part of a day questioning villagers about the locations and identities of various structures here, but we were not always able to get clear answers. Particularly the associations of the two opera stages seem unclear to me, as well as the existence or non-existence of an articulated temple tower such as that found in nearby Gui De 貴德. The largest temple complex in the village, the Temple of the God of Walls and Moats 城隍廟, was razed entirely in the fifties or sixties and locals seemed to have only vague memories of what it contained, although villagers did note that the main god inside it sat on a high platform. There was also a Tower of the God of Literature 文昌閣 over the inner northern gate, and a small shrine to the God of the Earth 土地神 at the far eastern corner of the walls. Any, all, or none of these things may have constituted the fortress’ temple tower. The areas of both barbicans have been heavily altered and for the northern one I’ve more or less just filled in some houses in gray to give an idea of how it probably looked.

  1. 戲台 Opera Stage: Not sure of direction or related temple; it’s possible that it originally faced down the length of the fort to the Temple to Lord Guan at the other end, but this is speculative.
  2. 文昌閣 Tower to the God of Literature: This stood on a high pavilion over the gatehouse.
  3. 燕王廟 King Yama Temple: This is the original attribution of this structure. At present the plaque “Temple of the God of Walls and Moats” 城隍廟 has been placed on the outside. Inside there is an image of 地藏 Kṣitigarbha and some other small Buddhist images.
  4. 城隍廟 Temple of the God of Walls and Moats: This was the largest temple complex in the village; it is now completely gone and the space is occupied by the town middle school. We questioned various locals about this structure but got vague reports. The main god was named Imperial Grandfather 皇爺 (隍爺?) and sat on a high platform. There was also a shrine to the Empresses 娘娘 and an opera stage 戲台. 
  5. 衙門 Yamen: The old Ming- and Qing-dynasty center of government was converted into a school at the Communist takeover but has since been pleasantly restored as a museum and community gathering place.
  6. 廟宇 Shrine Room: There was a gatehouse 門樓 over the southern gate which contained idols 菩薩, but of which gods nobody remembered.
  7. 關公廟 Temple to Lord Guan: This was located within the southern barbican space. The keepers of the temple seemed adamant that it was built there in the forty sixth year of the Qianlong reign or 1781. Although they declined to present evidence, there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason to disbelieve them. The shrine contains images of God of Fire 火神, Lord Guan 關公, and the Horse King 馬王.
  8. 土地廟 Temple to the God of Earth: This stood on top of the fortress wall, at the far eastern corner of the fort.

Above: The modern town of Protecting Peace / Tuo Family Military Farm (保安/Tho Gya). The photo is taken from the walls of the Iron Mountain Fort (鐵山城/lCag Ri mKhar), looking north. The old walled area is at center, while the lower Tibetan/Monguor town at the Bod sKor Monastery is at the left.

Above: The Lord Guan Temple 關公廟 in what was once the south-eastern barbican of the Protecting-Peace Fort. The remains of the inner wall are visible at top.

Above: The early Communist-era facade of the Protecting-Peace Yamen. After the prefectural seat was moved up the valley to Rongwo, the old Ming-Qing Yamen was converted into a school.

Above: The refurbished interior of the Yamen, now a small museum and community center.

None of these temples in Protecting-Peace have dates on them anymore, but as a set they’re fully consistent with the general mid-Ming accessories of a mid-sized fortress such as this. If all of these were indeed erected with the re-creation of the fort in 1574, then Wang Tingyi’s efforts represent not just a political step closer to the Chinese authorities and Chinese military protection but the introduction of an entirely new religio-spatial system into the Rebgong valley. In light of what comes next, it’s notable also that Wang Tingyi is praised for erecting a fortress to house Chinese soldiers, and for attracting presumably Chinese immigrants into the valley. We shall see below that this narrative had its discontents.

4) Sacrificing the Self to Serve the Dharma

In the final account of the building of gNyan Thog fort, we have moved from the sixteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth. The story centers a historical chieftain of gNyan Thog fort named Wang Rab brTan 王喇夫旦, who was arrested in 1728 for usurping power in the Rebgong valley and ultimately executed. The events came immediately on the heals of the 1723 rebellion of the Mongol chieftain Lobsang Danjin (tb. bLo bZang bsTan ‘Dzin, ch. 罗卜藏丹津), whose revolt was crushed by the Qing armies with great destruction and loss of life. The war resulted in the decisive pacification of the independent Mongol Khanates of the region, the physical destruction of many of the Tibetan monasteries which had lent their support to the rebels, and the extension of direct Qing control over the previously independent or semi-independent highlands. This forms the background for the terse account below, in which the Chinese garrison in Rebgong, cut off from supplies and reinforcements by the war, turns to the chieftain of gNyan Thog fort for support. The account comes from the 1820 gazetteer of Xunhua: 


“In the seventh year [of the Yongzheng Reign, 1729], Shaanxi commander Yue Zhongqi 岳鐘琪 memorialized: I have exhaustively inspected the Protecting-Peace Fort (Bao An Bu) which belongs to River-District (He Zhou) of Western-Peace Commandery (Xi Ning Zhen). The region is isolated and located outside of the border passes. On all four sides it is surrounded by the Tibetans. In the past there was one official in charge of provisioning and one hundred and twenty soldiers, who garrisoned the place and keep the peace. The establishment of an official and soldiers was originally to quell the Tibetans. However, in accordance with the notices of requisition, the garrison conscripted soldiers on its own, and the number of local people in the garrison increased. Thus the original purpose was not completed. They raised soldiers from the Tibetan tribes in order to make up gaps in the units. This got to the point that the native commander-of-a-thousand Wang Rab brTan was able to coerce control over the garrison’s necessities. For all of the rations and all of the military appointments they relied only on themselves, and did not follow the garrison provisioning superintendent. The local Tibetan soldiers were all reinstated. Their tails were held high and would not drop (i.e., they were arrogant). Every day Wang Rab brTan indulged more of his greed and pride. Gradually he became wild and unrestrained. After this, the officials memorialized that soldiers needed to be sent to enter into his lair. Although Wang Rab brTan had his Tibetan tribesmen, they were awed and afraid of our soldiers, and Wang Rab brTan was captured. The Tibetan soldiers he had coerced into following him were not able to expand their previous crime, nor was it expedient to command as before that they draw rations from the Protecting-Peace fort. Therefore the original Tibetan soldiers were commanded to return to their [homes].”

Jiajing-Era Gazetteer of Xunhua, 27
嘉慶循化志, 27

In response to these events, Yue Zhongqi recommended that the garrison at Protecting-Peace should be increased from a hundred and twenty soldiers to two hundred, all presumably drawn from the interior. According to Sha Bo Tshe Ring, Wang Rab brTan was brought to Xining and executed (Tshe Ring, 57-58).

Even the rather hostile account here doesn’t actually accuse Wang Rab brTan of colluding with the rebels, and in fact his response to the whole thing was to provide his local garrison with food and locally levied troops in its time of need. One rather suspects that his real crime was just being a powerful local leader in the wake of a violent rebellion of minority peoples who was not ethnically Chinese. In any case the legend of the righteous chieftain unfairly executed by the Chinese spread – Sha Bo Tshe Ring notes the existence of a whole cycle of folk songs found as far north as Hualong 化隆, centering on an innocent chieftain named Ka Ji Jie Luo 卡吉傑落 who, when he is finally beheaded in Xining, bleeds pure white milk in the place of blood. And of course the legend lived on at gNyan Thog fort.

For the final account I will quote from “A Brief Clan Genealogy of gNyan Thog”, which gives an impassioned rendition of this story and its significance. Here the Gazetteer of Xunhua’s “Wang Rab brTan” has become dPal Chen sTobs rGyas “The Great Hero of Expanding Power”. In the story the chieftain’s unjust execution is tied in with the creation of gNyan Thog fort, the founding of the monastery next to it, and the general history of the Rebgong valley:

khong dgung lo nyer gcig thog rab byung bcu gnyis pa’i me byi lor rgya nang du gong ma ta’ chen rgyal rab gsum pa dang mjal te rgyal bos gnyan thog tho’u pa tsong la dmag dpon chen po pa gi tsi < yi ge brgyad > zhes cho lo gnang ste dmag mkhar bzo skrun gyi gron dngul srang stong lnga drug tsam gnang ba ‘id khyer la reb gong gser mo ljongs su dmag mi lnga brgya shong ba’i dmag mkhar gcig bskor gron dngul gyi mi ‘dang tse rgyal bos mdzod nas blangs na chog zhes zhal gsungs gang mang gnang / de nas gnyan thog dpon po tho’u pa tsong la dmag dpon gyi go gnas thob ste phyir rang yul du ‘byor nas / rab byung bcu gnyis pa’i sa glang lor gnyan thog mkhar zhes brtsigs te mkhar de’i ming la gnyan thog to’u pa tsong dmag mkhar zer bas gling gsum la gyang dang gling gcig [ ] mtha’ byas te dmag mkhar gyi ming btags te gling gcig la gron dngul gyi mi ‘dang zer bas /

“In the fire mouse year of the twelfth sixty-year cycle, [the chieftain dPal Chen sTobs rGyas] was twenty one years old. He went into inner China to meet the third emperor of the Great Qing Dynasty. The emperor granted him the rank of Great General of Eight Characters [ch. Ba Ge Zi 八個字]. He also gave him five or six thousand catties of silver for expenditure in constructing a garrison fort. The emperor said, ‘if this money is not enough to build a garrison fort in the Golden Land of Rebgong which can hold five hundred soldiers, then you may take more from the royal treasury.’ Therefore the emperor gave him as much money as possible. Thereupon the chieftain of gNyan Thog, having attained the rank of general, returned to his own land. In the earth elephant year of the twelfth sixty year cycle, he erected the gNyan Thog fort. The name of this fort was the Garrison Fort of the gNyan Thog Chieftains. On three sides there were walls and on one side there was [a cliff]. Because of this, it was also called ‘There Wasn’t Enough Money for One Side’.”

rgyal bo chen po la yar zhu phul te gong ma ta’ chin rgyal bos slar yang gnyan thog dpon po la dmag mkhar bzo skrun gyi dngul srang sum stong gnang nas dmag mkhar bzang bo zhig bskor dgos zhes gsungs te gnang / gnyan thog dpon po tho’u pa tsong ni chos la blo sems dkar ba dang / sangs rgyas kyi bstan pa’i sbyin bdag byed rgyu shin tu dad pa’i dmag mkhar bzo skrun gyi dngul lhag ma rnams gnyan thog dgon pa’i nang rten dang / phyi yi mkhar bskor te dgon pa de’i nang gi rten dang mchod rdzas rnams ‘dzoms po byung ba / phyi yis dgon pas lcags ri bzang bo bskor ba’i dgon pa de’i phyi nang kun mdzes par rgyan pa’i dgon pa zhig tu gyur ba de ni bla na ma mchis pa’i dpon po tho’u pa tsong dpal chen stobs rgyas khong gyis lus srog phangs med du gtong bar ma ‘dzems par dmag mkhar de’i gron dngul mang che ba rnams dgon pas phyogs su phul ba de gong ma ta’ chin rgyal bos gsal bor thos nas /

“After this a report was made to the emperor of the Great Qing Dynasty. The emperor said, ‘Give the chieftain of gNyan Thog another three thousand catties of silver, with which to build this garrison fort well.’ But the chieftain of gNyan Thog fort had a white heart turned to religion, and greatly wished to be a patron of the Buddhist teachings. Therefore he took this extra money for the building of a military garrison and used it on religious items for the interior of gNyan Thog monastery and a fortress wall for the exterior. Thus the sacred objects and offerings inside of the temple became abundant and the wall outside of it was erected as the Iron Mountain which encircles the earth – all within and without was adorned beautifully. After this the emperor of the Great Qing Dynasty heard clearly that the incomparable chieftain of gNyan Thog dPal Chen sTobs rGyas without regret to his life or body and without a care had given the majority of the expenditure money for the garrison fort to the monastery.”

reb gong gser mo ljongs kyi nang so la gong mas bka’ yig ‘byor te gnyan thog hor khri tsi’i dpon po tho’u pa tsong gi go gnas bzung yod pa’i skyes mchog chen po chos srid gnyis kyi bdag po dpal chen stobs rgyas ni yon tan nor bu phreng ba mgrin pa’i do shal du sprad cing dpal ‘dzangs rtul phod kyis zhwa ser bstan pa’i don la byas rjes bla na ma mtshis pa bzhag pa’i rgya nang du gong ma chen po ta’ chen rgyal bo’i sku mdun du dgung lo nga drug ste rab byung bcu gnyis pa’i lcags phag lor phebs dgos byung ste rgya nang nas gong ma’i khrims ltar rang srog shor /

“The Nang So government of the Golden Land of Rebgong received an order from the emperor. The chieftain of the Mongol fortress of gNyan Thog, who held the rank of Tu Ba Zong, that great and excellent being who was lord of both governance and religion, dPal Chen sTobs rGyas, the rosary of jewels of wisdom, his throat garlanded with necklaces, whose achievements for the teachings of the Yellow Hats are incomparable, was sent to the interior of China to the presence of the emperor of the Great Qing Dynasty. At the age of fifty six, in the iron pig year of the twelfth sixty year cycle, according to the laws of the emperor in the interior of China the chieftain lost his life.”

khong la sras gnyis yod pa’i che ba rdo rje bkra shis / chung ba ‘jam dbyangs rgya mtsho yin / rdo rje bkra shis kyis rang gi yab gi sku gdungs la bdag po rgyag par rgya nang du song ste sku gdung gdan drang nas ta ho rgya’i rdo ris khus khe rgyal mkhar nas sku gdung sa la sbas / dbu gdan drangs te gnyan thog tu yong nas rang gi pha mes dpon po rnams kyi gnas sa ru sbas / dus de nas bzung gnyan thog tho’u pa tsong dpon rab gang yin rung / gnyan thog dgon pas drin bzos ched gnyan thog tho’u pa tsong gi rgya lwa dang rgya zhwa rma bya de pho’i sgro dang / byi ru dmar po’i tog bcas mnabs (?) te dgon pa’i ser phreng gi mgor phebs srol yod /

“dPal Chen sTobs rGyas had two sons. The elder was named rDo rJe bKra Shis, while the younger was named ‘Jam dByangs rGya mTsho. rDo rJe bKra Shis went to inner China take possession of the body of his father. Having laid out a receptacle, the son buried his father’s body at the rDo Ris Khus Khe Royal Fortress of Da Ho rGya. (Perhaps ch. Da He Jia 大河家, a fortified town on the Yellow River bank. rDo Ris Khus Khe is obscure to me; conceivably rDo Ris = rDo sBis and Khus Ke = ch. Qi Tai 奇台?) The son took his father’s [severed] head to gNyan Thog, and buried it in the place of the ancestral chieftains. From this time onward, whoever held the position of the Tu Ba Zong chieftaincy, the custom existed for him to walk at the head of the line of monks at gNyan Thog monastery, wearing a Chinese robe and a Chinese hat with the feathers of a male peacock and red coral on top, all for the sake of the kindness which had been done to the monastery.”

dpon po ‘di’i sku drin la reb gong ni dmag sa chen po shig tu ma gyur ba yin / dpon po dpal chen stobs rgyas kyis rang srog phangs med tu bzhag nas / reb gong gi bde skyid la dmig nas rgya dmag reb gong phyogs su ma drangs pa dang / zhwa ser gyi bstan pa rgyas pas don la ta chin rgyal bo’i dbu bskor nas dmag mkhar ma bskor bar dgon pa’i phyogs su gong mas gnang ba’i dngul mang che ba sangs rgyas kyi bstan pa’i phyogs su btang ba’i mthar rang srog phangs med du gong ma ta chin rgyal bo’i mdun du phul te /

“By the benevolent sacrifice of this chieftain, Rebgong did not become a place with many soldiers. Because the chieftain dPal Chen sTobs rGyas laid down his own life without selfishness, for the happiness of Rebgong the Chinese soldiers were not induced to come there. For the benefit of the teaching of the Yellow Hat Sect, the Emperor did not from his inner regions create a military fortress, but instead the majority of the money given by the Emperor was sent to support the Buddha’s teachings. All this was the result of dPal Chen sTob rGyas without selfishness offering his own life before the emperor.”

dpal chen stobs rgyas kyis ta chin rgyal bo la zhu phul nang tu zhu rgyu / nga yi srog la babs pa ni rgyal bo’i khrims srol dang dmangs kyi lugs srol dang mthun no // on kyang rgyal bo chen po’i gser snyan du phul rgyu ni spyir rma chu sngon mo’i nang lung dang / sgos reb gong phyogs la dmag khral mi dgos zhes gong ma chen po sa skyong mi yis dbang bo’i sngon zhal bzhes gnang yod pa ni rgyal bo’i gsungs la ‘khrul ba med do / / dus ‘dir nges srog la babs dgos pa ni rgyal bos bka’ ni ri gzar gyi rbab rdo dang (?) mtsungs pa’i gzha’ thub med pa yin mod / on kyang sangs rgyas kyi bstan ba dang / sems can gyis bde skyid ni mi nyams gong nas gong du ‘phel bar smon lam ‘debs / nga ni skye ba nas kye ba’i bar du reb gong gser mo ljongs su sangs rgyes kyi zhal mthong ba dang / chos kyis gsung skad rna ba’i thos sar yang yang skyes par shog zhes gsungs nas rang srog blos btang /

“dPal Chen sTobs rGyas offered this request to the Emperor of the Great Qing Dynasty: “That my life should be forfeit is in accordance with Your Majesty’s laws and with the customs of the common people. The speech I melodiously offer to your golden ear is as follows: Your Majesty, the protector of the earth, previously gave a promise: ‘generally in the valleys which lay before the Yellow River or specifically in the region of Rebgong, we will not need to pay the military requisition.’ Your Majesty’s orders have no flaw. Now my life is forfeit – Your Majesty’s command is as a boulder plunging from a steep mountain, and no man can avoid it. But I pray that the Buddha’s teachings and the happiness of all sentient beings will imperishably achieve greater and greater propagation. From each birth until the next, may I be born again and again into that place of gazing upon the countenance of the Buddha and hearing in one’s ears the words of the Dharma, the Golden Realm of Rebgong!” Having said these words, he gave up his life.”

One rather suspects that the author of this had read the “Great Ming Stele” about Wang Tingyi and wrote the above story as a riposte. Wang Tingyi and dPal Chen sTob rGyas/Wang Rab brTan are mirror images of each other. Both are gNyan Thog chieftains in a time of war with the Mongols. Wang Tingyi builds a fortress for Chinese soldiers; dPal Chen sTob rGyas prevents such a fortress from being built. Wang Tingyi brings official, soldiers, and immigrants into the Rebgong valley; dPal Chen sTob rGyas sacrifices his life to keep them out. Wang Tingyi serves the emperor; dPal Chen sTob rGyas deceives the emperor and serves the Dharma instead. Wang Tingyi is associated with the Chinese religio-administrative edifice of the Protecting-Peace Fort; dPal Chen sTob rGyas built the gNyan Thog monastery. Both are lionized for their respective actions, Wang Tingyi in Chinese and dPal Chen sTob rGyas in Tibetan. It is almost as if one story was intentionally invented to negate the other. 

Even more strangely, both of their stories are found within a single small structure in gNyan Thog Monastery. The “Earth Subduing Temple” sa ‘dzin lha khang is the present location of the Great Ming Stele 大明碑. It is also the first building in gNyan Thog Monastery and it contains dPal Chen sTob rGyas/Wang Rab brTan’s image – I don’t have a photograph of this, but a small drawing of him can be found on the side-boards of the octagonal roof caisson 藻井. The walls of the Earth Subduing Temple contain images, painted at the time of the monastery’s founding, of the jātaka stories – stories which extoll the virtues of sacrificing oneself to serve the cause of righteousness. So they’re both found literally in the same small building in the monastery.

I’m going to turn to this fascinating structure in part 2, but for the moment, one last thing about the chieftains of gNyan Thog. Dotted around gNyan Thog village are four “Generals’ Houses” dmag dpon khang. One of these is the shrine to Er Lang/Ri Lang discussed above. Another is to A Mye rMa Chen, the Great Ancestor God of the rMa Region. These are the gZhi bDag “Base Lords”, “Gods of Place” of the village. Since the shrine to A Mye rMa Chen has lovely old paintings on the walls I’ve stuck them in here. They represent one more theory of space, religion, and authority, and one that is quite indigenously Tibetan – mounted warrior gods with their retinues, each located on a particular peak, each guarding the village from a different shrine.

The first set comes from the outer corridor of the rMa Chen dMag dPon Khang. The set here goes left to right. According to the elderly man who keeps the shrine and identified the deities to myself and Anna Sehnalova, these were painted in the 1940s or ’50s, but in some cases have been re-touched recently.

001 and 002 dgra lha and ge sar

Above Left: dGra Lha rTa Thug dKar Po – “The Enemy-God of the White Stallion”
Above Right: Ge Sar gLing Gyi rGyal Po – “Gesar, King of gLing”. The hero of Tibet’s famous oral epic.

003 bya khyung

Above: A Mye Bya Khyung – “Grandfather of Garuda [Mountain]”. Garuda Mountain is a prominent peak that flanks the Rebgong valley on the west.

004 rma chen 'gri gzhugs

Above: rMa Chen Khri gZhugs – “The Great Grandfather of the Yellow River, Seated on a Throne”

005 go'u mo'u ri lang

Above: Go’u Mo’u Ri Lang – “Go’u Mo’u Erlang”. Go’u Mo’u is apparently a transliteration of something in Chinese, but nobody seemed to know of what.

006 dgra dgul

Above: dGra ‘Dul – “The Suppressor of Enemies”

007 rma chen

Above: rMa Chen Khri bZhugs – “The Great Grandfather of the Yellow River, Seated on a Throne” (again)

008 gnyan chen

Above: gNyan Chen Thang Lha – The Great gNyan Demon, the God of the Plains. According to the locals, this refers not to the famous gNyan Chen Thang Lha in Central Tibet but to another mountain between gTsos and Linxia 臨夏, called in Chinese the Mountain of the Prince 太子山.

009 and 010 brag dkar and ra rdzong

Above Left: Brag dKar sPun gSum – “The Three Brothers of the White Cliffs”. The White Cliffs in question are presumably those north of Labrang.
Above Right: A Mye Ra rDzong – “Grandfather of the Goat Fort”

The below are from the interior of the shrine room. They represent the inner retinue (nang ‘khor) of A Mye rMa Chen. It was not possible to photograph all of these due to hangings covering parts of the walls, therefore I think in total two panels of the set are missing. Also the shiny finish of the wood and the bright electric light in the room made it difficult to take pictures without a glare. The figures include: four deities in each of the four directions; several un-named daughters, each mounted on birds, and one daughter who is a queen among the nāga; sons numbered one through four and six through nine, and another character named Nab sTeng gSer gZhi who may or may not be the missing fifth son. Sets of paintings displaying these deities are rare and this specific assemblage is probably unique.

small cardinal gods combined east and west

Above Left: Shar Du ‘Dzum Chen lDong Khrom – “In the East, [mounted on a] Great Dzum, the Thousand-Garrison [Leader]”

Above Right: Nub Du ‘Bri lDong dNgul Gar gShog [sic] “In the West, [mounted on a] Female-Yak, the Thousand-Gold Military Wing”

small cardinal gods combined south and north

Above Left: Byang Du gNyan Chen Thang lHA – “In the North, the Great Fierce One, the God of the Plain”

Above Right: lHor dByi Chen Rab sDe – “In the South, [mounted on a] Great Lynx, of the Best Tribe”

small sras mo 009 dbyangs can sgrol ma

small sras mo 008 illegible

small sras mo 007

small sras mo 004

Above: Sras Mo – “Daughters”

small sras mo 002 - klu rgyal ma

Above: Sras Mo / kLu rGyal Ma – “A Daughter, Queen of the Nāga”

small unclear - nab steng gser gzhi

Above: Nab sTeng gSer gZhi – “Golden Base [Lord] Upon a Nab [perhaps his mount?]”

small sras combined 001 and 002

Above Left: Sras Dang Po / bKra Shis Don Grub – “The First Son: bKra Shis Don Grub [a common Tibetan name]”

Above Right: Sras gNyis Pa [illegible] – “The Second Son: [name illegible]”

small sras combined 003 and 004

Above Left: Sras gSum Pa [illegible] – “The Third Son [name illegible]”

Above Right: Sras gZhi Ba – “The Fourth Son”

small sras combined 006 and 007

Above Left: Sras Drug Pa [illegible] – “The Sixth Son [name illegible]”

Above Right: Sras bDun Pa – “The Seventh Son”

small sras combined 008 and 009

Above Left: sras brgyad pa [illegible] – “The Eighth Son [name illegible]”

Above Right: sras dgu ba [illegible] – “The Ninth Son [name illegible]”

(Continued in Part 2)

China Qinghai Tibet Translation

Some Early Chinese Descriptions of the A Mye rMa Chen Range




Above upper: The holy peak of the Great Grandfather of the Yellow River, A Mye rMa Chen.
Above middle: Tibetan nomads shifting pastures on the plains of rMa Stod County, south of the mountain.

Above lower: An encampment on the plains by the Yellow River in rMa Stod.

Early last month, I ordered a cheap reprint of the 1695 Wanli era “Gazetteer of Xining Commandery” 西寧衛志. The second chapter, titled “Mountains and Rivers” 山川, begins as follows:

崑崙山 在衛治西北故臨羌縣境. “漢書: 地理志” 注云: “崑崙在臨羌, 西北有王母石室, 仙海, 鹽池. 西有弱水, 崑崙山祠. 唐長慶中, 劉元鼎使吐蕃云: 三山中高四下, 曰紫山, 古所謂崑崙. 魯曰悶摩黎.” 元潘昂霄 “黃河志” 云: “吐蕃朵甘思東北鄙有大雪山, 即崑崙. 自山腹至頂皆雪, 炎夏不消, 遠年成冰.” 洪武間, 西平侯沐英, 征西將軍鄭愈追羌俱至此山. […]
Mount Kunlun: This mountain is located within the borders of Bordering-on-the-Qiang County, which is to the north-west of the commandery seat. The Geography section of the Han History says of it, ‘Mount Kunlun is in Bordering-on-the-Qiang. To the north-west there is the stone house of the Queen Mother [of the West], the Sea of the Immortals, and the Salt Lake. To the west there is the Weak Water and the Temple of Mount Kunlun. During the Changqing reign of the Tang Dynasty (AD 821-824), an envoy to the Tibetans, Liu Yuanding, wrote: ‘There are three mountains of which the middle is the tallest, and it descends steeply on all four sides. This is called the Purple Mountain, and it is this which was in ancient days called Mount Kunlun. The barbarians call it Men Mo Li. During the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) Pan Angxiao wrote in ‘Gazetteer of the Yellow River’: ‘In the north-eastern borders of Tibetan mDo Khams, there is a great snow mountain. This is Mount Kunlun. From the waist of the mountain to the peak it is entirely covered in snow. Even in the heat of summer it does not melt, and over many years it has become ice.’ During the Hongwu reign (1368-1398) the Duke of Xiping, Mu Ying, and the general of the western armies Zheng Yu both pursued the barbarians and reached this mountain.”

Mount Kunlun is a mythical paradise or axis mundi of Chinese legend. It is the pillar of heaven: shamans live on this mountain, various Daoist visionaries journey to it, the Yellow River and other rivers as well flow out from it. The most detailed classical sources for this place are the “Narrative of Mu, Son of Heaven” 穆天子傳  and the Classic of Mountains and Seas 山海經. (I’ve translated all of the sections about the Kunlun from the latter source in a previous post.) I was thus intrigued here to discover that in the 16th century, the inhabitants of Xining City where I live in modern Qinghai province considered the Kunlun to be an actual mountain, located within the jurisdiction of their commandery. The place was distant and the accounts contradictory. Nonetheless, various historical people who were not flighty Daoist poets had reached this mountain and left descriptions of the place and the journey, including transcribed toponyms from the local non-Chinese languages.  

The obvious candidate for such a mountain is the most famous peak in north-eastern Tibet, A Mye rMa Chen (Amne Machen). At 6282 meters, this mountain absolutely dwarfs anything in hundreds of kilometers. The god who lives in this mountain, rMa Chen sBom Ra, is worshiped throughout mDo-Khams as the great genius loci (gZhi bDag) of the entire upper Yellow River regions. (The name A Mye rMa Chen means “Great Yellow-River Grandfather”). In a very real sense, this mountain defines the Yellow River in its upper reaches. The Yellow River rises from pools on the plateaus some 350 kilometers to the west, passes through the two great lakes of sKya Ring and sNgo Ring, and continues east along the southern flank of A Mye rMa Chen. When it reaches the plains of mDzod dGe, the river loops north and then west, flowing parallel to its earlier route along the northern slope of A Mye rMa Chen. In this way the mountain defines the first thousand kilometers of the Yellow River’s flow. Although the mountain was located deep in the country of the feared mGo Log tribes, the deity was worshiped all over Amdo. By 1695, surely knowledge of this had made its way to Xining, the nearest Chinese city. If we should search for an actual holy Kunlun Mountain which is the pole of heaven and from which the Yellow River flows, and which also was located somewhat south of Xining and had a name that was knowable in the Tibetan language, surely this is our candidate.

Since my good friend Anna Sehlanova is writing a PhD thesis at Oxford about this mountain and its god, I decided to see if I could pull up any references in early Chinese sources that seemed to be clearly describing this mountain. This was done by following up the references in the above article and also by scanning through this book “Study on the Kunlun and the Origins of the Yellow River”, 崑崙河源考, a Qing-dynasty kaogu 考古學 work that compiles various legendary and true accounts. Through this method I was able to find four accounts that seemed like they referred to A Mye rMa Chen, all translated in full below. These accounts stretch in time from AD 635 to 1382. Of them the first account seems most sketchy to me (it could refer to A rMye rMa Chen, it could not). The second seems like it probably does and the third and fourth accounts certainly do describe this mountain. The fourth account even provides a poem about the place and a brief description of rMa Chen sBom Ra‘s worship by Tibetans.

The essential bit of evidence demonstrating that all of these accounts do refer to A Mye rMa Chen is a correct hydrological description of the region. All of these accounts state, in one way or another, that the Yellow River rises in a series of pools and then flows into lakes. (The accounts usually refer to these as the “Lakes where Stars Rest” 星宿海, I’m not sure where this name originates.) From there after several hundred kilometers (the number differs) the river passes under the foot of a great snowy mountain, and this is usually given a name in the barbarian language and is stated to be the Kunlun of Chinese legend. This hydrology, given separately in each account, is essentially correct – and the “Kunlun Mountain” in question is mt. A Mye rMa Chen.




Above upper: The plain of the Yellow River in rMa sTod County.
Above middle: The view from a pass in rTsi Kong Thang County, on the way to A Mye rMa Chen, and a ceiling in a monastery near Xia Dawu.
Above lower: A nomad encampment west of the mountain in rMa Stod County.

The earliest account is the most sketchy, but it seems worth translating if only for interest.

A bit of explanation is needed for this and further accounts. In at some point between BC 138 and BC 125, the Han emissary Zhang Qian reached Lop Nor in modern Xinjiang. The account of this provided in the Sima Qian’s “Historical Records” 史記 would confuse Chinese geographers literally for the next two thousand years:

“West of Khotan, the water all flows to the west, and from there enters the Western Sea. East of Khotan, the water flows east, and flows into the Salt Marsh (eg. Lop Nor). From the Salt Marsh the water sinks down and goes underground. South of it [Khotan?] is the origin of the Yellow River. There is much jade here. The Yellow River flows into the Middle Kingdom.

史記, 列傳, 大宛列傳, 6
Historical Records, The Exemplary Account of Da Wan, 6

From this Zhang Qian deduced that the water in Lop Nor lake (which has no outlet to the sea) in fact flowed underground and burst out into China as the Yellow River. The mountains south of Khotan were, therefore, the Kunlun:

“The envoy of Han [eg. Zhang Qian] exhausted the source of the Yellow River. It flows from Khotan, and in these mountains there is much jade, which is mined and brought forth. The Son of Heaven consulted with old maps and books, and called these mountains from which the Yellow River emerges “The Kunlun”.

史記, 列傳, 大宛列傳, 26
Historical Records, The Exemplary Account of Da Wan, 26

Interestingly, Sima Qian himself didn’t totally buy this story about Kunlun. In his “appraisal” at the end of the biography of Zhang Qian, Sima Qian quotes the now-lost “Basic Record of Yu” for a description of the Kunlun:

“The Grand Historian Says: According to ‘The Basic Record of Yu’, ‘the Yellow River flows out of the Kunlun. The Kunlun is three thousand five hundred li tall. This is where the sun and moon hide from each other in order to shine and glow by turns. On the top there are the Sweet Springs and the Jade Lake’. In recent times the envoy Zhang Qian reached behind Parthia, and exhausted the source of the Yellow River. Did he actually see what the ‘Basic Record’ calls the Kunlun?

Therefore I say that that for the mountains and rivers of all the nine parts of the world, the record in the “Book of Documents” [eg., ‘The Tribute of Yu’] is near to describing them correctly. As for the fantastic creatures described in ‘The Basic Record of Yu’ and the ‘Classic of Mountains and Seas’, I won’t even speak of them.”

史記, 列傳, 大宛列傳, 37
Historical Records, The Exemplary Account of Da Wan, 37

Despite this well-placed skepticism of the emperor’s pronouncement that the Kunlun had been located, Sima Qian was doubting only that the mountains Zhang Qian had seen were indeed the mythical axis mundi. He did not dispute that source of the Yellow River had been found. Thus the idea that Zhang Qian had discovered the source of the river in Xinjiang remained a widely accepted in China until the 19th century. The statement “The envoy of Han exhausted the source of the Yellow River” 漢使窮河源 even became a set phrase, and we shall see it repeated in the later accounts. Indeed, this is why the range that borders the Tarim Basin to the south even today bears the official name “Kunlun”. Later on multiple people would reach the actual source and write accurate accounts of it in Chinese. Nevertheless, the powerful orthodoxy of these classical accounts kept everyone arguing back and forth for the next two millenia.

As a corollary to the above, a second mountain was identified as the point from which the Yellow River spilled out of its underground channel and into the known lands of China. This was called the Mountain of Piled Rocks 積石山. The basic source for this is a brief mention in the “Tribute of Yu” section of the Book of Documents, which was one of the Four Books and Five Classics 四書五經 of Confucian orthodoxy.

[Yu the Great] channeled the Yellow River from the Mountain of Piled Rocks to the Dragon Gate, and thence south to the northern side of Mount Hua.

尚書, 夏書, 禹貢, 17
The Book of Documents, The Book of Xia, the Tribute of Yu, 17

In Yu’s great re-ordering of the world during the legendary Deluge, the Mountain of Piled Rocks was the highest point along the Yellow River to which he reached, and therefore the western boundary of known China. For all we know this Mountain of Piled Rocks was probably A Mye rMa Chen too. Later (at least by the fourteenth century) on it came to refer to a particular hill on the river-side west of Lanzhou, which bears this name today. In any case in the following account it seems that the “Mountain of Piled Rocks” may refer to A Mye rMa Chen.

The below comes from the section of the New Tang History 新唐書 on the lands of the Tuyuhun. The Tuyuhun were a nomadic state in that occupied the northern part of the Tibetan Plateau from the third century AD until the first half of the seventh, at which point they were defeated and their lands seized by the expanding Tibetan Empire. The section below describes the victorious campaigns of the celebrated Tang general Li Jing against the Tuyuhun Khagan Murong Fuyun. This took place in AD 635, or just before the advance of the Tibetan armies under Srong bTsan sGam Po into Qinghai:

[The Tuyuhun Khan] Murong Fuyun had gone to the plain of Tulun, and from there intended to escape to Khotan. [The general] Ci Wanjun led riders in pursuit for about a hundred li, and defeated him. But the troops lacked water, to the extent that they had to cut their horses and drink the blood. [The generals] Hou Junji and Li Daozong rode across the empty wasteland for over two thousand li. [In this place] there was frost at the height of summer, and little grass or water. The soldiers ate ice and the horses had snow as fodder. After a month, they passed the River [sic] Where Stars Rest and arrived at the upper part of Bo Lake. They gazed upon the Mountain of Piled Rocks, and viewed the source of the Yellow River. [The general] Chi Shi Si Li led riders to strike at the baggage train of the barbarians. The two armies met at Da Fei river and the valley of Po Luo Zhen.

新唐書, 列傳146上, 西域上, 32
New Tang History, Exemplary Accounts 146 A, “The Western Regions A”, 32

The Old Tang History 舊唐書 biography of Hou Junji 侯君集 gives a slightly different account: 

…[In this place] there was frost at the height of summer, and on the mountains there were great masses of snow. In continuous battles they fought past the River Where Stars Rest, and reached the Bo Lake. Each time they met the barbarians, they achieved great victories and spoils. In the north they could see a Mountain of Piled Jade [sic]. They observed that the source of the Yellow River flowed out of it.

舊唐書, 卷七十三, 二
Old Tang History, Volume 73, 2

The battles around this mountain are described in somewhat more detail in the Exemplary Accounts biography of Xue Wanjun 薛萬均:

At this point Xue Wanjun was promoted to the vice-commander of the Qiemo Route army, and followed Li Jing on his campaign against the Tuyuhun. The army passed by Qinghai Lake. Xue Wanjun and [his younger brother] Xue Wanche each took a hundred soldiers and rode ahead of the main army. They came across the barbarians. Xue Wanjun rode out alone against them, and none dared face him. He returned and told all of the generals, “It will be easy to deal with these bandits.” He returned and pressed the attack, killing over a thousand. He was as brave as three armies. The barbarians fled to the Mountain of Piled Rocks. A great wind lifted the banners, and Xue Wanjun said, “The barbarians are coming!” and he roused the soldiers. Thereupon the barbarians arrived. Xue Wanjun rode straight ahead and slew their general. The rest of them fled away. He pursued them to the wastes of Tulun and then returned, meeting Li Jing at Qinghai Lake.

新唐書, 列傳 19, 侯張薛 17
New Tang History, Exemplary Accounts 19, “Hou, Zhang, and Xue”, 17

In the wake of these campaigns, the entire region of modern Amdo was put under direct Chinese control. The area was organized into thirty two counties (ch. zhou 州), with the regional command at Song Zhou 松州, modern Songpan. The section the Western Regions in the New Tang History comments on the Tang dominion in this area as follows:

Under this system, east from the head of the Yellow River and the Mountain of Piled Rocks, all the country belonged to the Middle Kingdom.

新唐書, 列傳146上, 西域上, 5
New Tang History, Exemplary Accounts 146 A, “The Western Regions A”, 5

As to the identity of this Mountain of Piled Rocks, a few things can be pointed out. The first is that the description of Li Jing and his generals’ campaigns puts them in roughly the right area to stumble upon A Mye rMa Chen – and all the accounts have this mountain at or near the Yellow River source. Second, the Tang soldiers are described as seeing both the source of the Yellow River and a “River Where Stars Rest”, which presumably corresponds to the lake of the same name in later descriptions. 

Third, the “Bo Lake” 柏海 is an interesting question. Earlier in the same New Tang History passage quoted above the general Li Daozong says that “The Bo Lake is near to the source of the Yellow River. No one has ever reached it before.” 柏海近河源,古未有至者。Six years later in AD 641, Li Daozong would visit this lake a second time, this time escorting the famous princess Wencheng 文成公主 to meet her betrothed, the Tibetan emperor Srong bTsan sGam PoThe Old Tang History says, “Srong bTsan sGam Po led his tribes and soldiers past the Bo Lake, and came himself to meet [Princess Wencheng and Li Daozong] at the source of the Yellow River.” 弄贊率其部兵次柏海,親迎於河源。[舊唐書, 卷二百七, 五 / Old Tang History, Volume 207, 5.] The supposition that Li Daozong’s “Bo Lake[s]” is the present day sNgo Ring and sKya Ring thus makes some sense – these lakes are near the source of the Yellow River and are a natural point at which to meet an envoy, located roughly half-way between the last Chinese cities on the Huangshui River and the Tibetan capital at Lhasa.

Finally, this Mountain of Piled Rocks, whether or not it was A Mye rMa Chen, was considered important enough to Li Jing’s campaigns that a replica of it was actually built on his wife’s grave in inner China. 

When Li Jing’s wife died, the emperor ordered that her tomb be built according to the example of [the Han Dynasty generals] Wei Qing and Huo Qubing. It was constructed in the shape of the Steel Mountain and the Mountain of Piled Rocks, in order to display Li Jing’s victories.

新唐書, 列傳 18, 二李勣 11
New Tang History, Exemplary Accounts 18, “The Two Lis, Jing and Ji”, 11

So it may be that Li Daozong and Hou Junji and their troops riding across the highlands in pursuit of the Khaghan of the Tuyuhun in AD 635 were the first Chinese people in history to lay eyes on the great mountain of A Mye rMa Chen. Or it may have been a totally different mountain and the Bo Lake a totally different lake. Hard to prove with certainty, but it seems possible, and interesting to imagine…

IMG_1301 (1)

two golok images

Above upper and lower: Two views of the A Mye rMa Chen massif from Great Horse Pass (rTa mChog Nya Kha) on the south-western side of the sKor Ra route. 
Above middle: A herdsman in rTsi Kong Thang county

The second account seems much more certain than the first. It takes place about two hundred years after the first in AD 822, during the waning years of the Tang dynasty. The account and particularly the famous stele inscription of the treaty described in the account are well-known in Tibetological literature, and both have been translated in full before (see Bushell, 519 for the below account). Nevertheless just for fun I’ve done it again here, with commentary. 

The first account we have read above, of Li Jing, his gallivanting generals, and their triumphant adventures across the highlands of Qinghai, is full of the strength and confidence of the early Tang 初唐. Two hundred years later, the second account is redolent of the decline and conquest of that once-great dynasty. A bit of background is needed to make sense of the narrative in this account, which is intended not simply to describe a diplomatic mission but to also evoke a particular historical memory.

After Li Jing’s original conquests in the 630s, the area of modern Amdo would remain contested between the Tang and the Tibetans for over a hundred years. The Tang built military garrisons and tuntian forts where they could, and the mobile Tibetans would attack these settlements or raid their fields and flocks when opportunities presented themselves. This long struggle culminated for the Chinese at least in the siege of Rock-Castle Fort 石堡城. The traditional location for this fort has it atop the Mountains of the Sun and Moon (ch. 日月山, tb. Nyi Zla Ri) in Huangyuan County, just over the pass from the eastern edge of Qinghai Lake. (There’s an interesting minority opinion that has it on the south side of the Tao River in modern Jo Ne County 卓尼縣, but I’ll leave that argument for now.) 

hacheng and riyue shan small

Above: The walls of the Qing-dynasty Black Fort 哈城 in Huangyuan County 湟源縣, with the Mountains of the Sun and Moon and the putative location of the Rock-Castle Fort in the center background. According to the generally accepted geography, the “Red Ridge” 赤嶺 which was the Tang-Tibetan boundary established in 733 was at the top of the pass suggested to the left of this picture.

The Tibetans occupied the Rock-Castle Fort in 741 and the Tang could not ignore it – the fort commanded one of the main passes leading onto the northern plateau and directly threatened the Chinese farmland of the Huangshui Valley. The general Huangfu Weiming 皇甫惟明 laid siege to the place in the following year but was unable to take it. The place remained a dagger aimed at the heart of Tang for eight more years until in 749 the famous general Geshu Han 哥舒翰 was sent to reduce it, which he did, with catastrophic losses. The “Comprehensive Mirror of Resources for Governance” 資治通鑑 gives an account of the battle: 

“The emperor ordered the commandant of Right-of-the-Long-River Commandery Geshu Han to take the troops of the Right-of-the-Long-River and West-of-the-Yellow-River Commanderies, as well as the troops of Abusi of the Turks, and add to these with troops from the Northern Regions and East-of-the-Yellow-River Commanderies, in total sixty three thousand, and take the Rock Castle Fort of the Tibetans. This fort was defended by sheer cliffs on three sides, and there was only one path up to it. Although there were only a few hundred Tibetans within the fort, they had got much rations. They had also piled up wooden rams and boulders [for rolling down on attackers]. The Tang soldiers attacked the fort from both the front and the rear, but were not able to subdue it. Geshu Han made an assault [continually] for several days but could not take it. He summoned his lieutenants Gao Xiuyan and Zhang Shouyu and wished to execute them [for their failure]. The two of them begged for three days of life in which to achieve victory. They were able to take the fort within the limit. They captured the Tibetan Xi Nuo Luo of the Steel Knife [Fort], as well as four hundred others. The dead among the Tang armies were numbered in the tens of thousands.”

資治通鑑 216, 24
The Comprehensive Mirror of Resources for Governance 216, 24

Incidentally, this is probably what the famous poet Du Fu was talking about with his reference to “the head of Qinghai Lake” in his famous “Song of Soldiers and Carts” 兵車行. In the poem he stands on the bridge at Xianyang 咸陽橋 north of the capital, watching soldiers march west towards the front.

君不見,青海頭,”For sir have you not seen – at the head of Qinghai Lake
古來白骨無人收。Those ancient white bones which now no man collects.
新鬼煩冤舊鬼哭,The new ghosts lament their sorrows, the old ghosts cry –
天陰雨濕聲啾啾。Beneath the darkened heavens and in the wet of rain, their voices rise up.

In any case, when the An Lushan rebellion broke out seven years later, Geshu Han and all his armies holding the garrisons on the Tibetan border were recalled to defend the capital. In a series of events immensely famous in Chinese history, Geshu Han was posted to the Tong Pass 潼關 east of Chang’an, forced by court politics to make an attack on the rebels at Luoyang 洛陽, defeated, and captured, and eventually executed. The rebel armies marched over the pass and took and sacked what was perhaps the greatest city in the world. The Tang dynasty was crippled and for a thousand years no Chinese army marched again into the  highlands of Amdo.

Sixty years later, the account given here is in some sense a bitter journey through that history. In 821, the envoy Liu Yuanding was sent to Tibet to negotiate the fixing of the border between the two nations. This border stood nowhere near the original Tang garrisons along the Yellow River high up in Amdo, but instead ran along the line of the Qinling 秦嶺 range, a dangerous and humiliating few hundred kilometers from the Tang capital. The account describes Liu Yuanding crossing this range and traveling up the valley of the Wei , Yellow 黃, and Huangshui 湟水 rivers through Tibetan-held territory, meeting hordes of Chinese people eager to greet a Tang envoy after sixty years of foreign rule. Everywhere he sees the remnants of China’s past greatness – the destroyed walls of Lanzhou, the toppled boundary stones at the Red Ridge, the abandoned fortifications built by Geshu Han all those years ago. When he reaches the Stone-Castle Fort he beholds it with a sad fascination – it is the site of China’s last, bloody victory over the Tibetans before the whole empire was shattered, the scene of Geshu Han’s last pyrrhic victory before the catastrophe at the Tong Pass, the grave of tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers, the end of Chinese civilization before the high wilderness of Tibet, and he probably the first Chinese official in sixty years to lay eyes on the fabled walls of this place.

Beyond the Red Ridge and the Stone-Castle Fort, Liu Guanding has entered into an alien land. Strange tombs of dot the hillsides, and he journeys on an ancient and crumbling road through a weirdly fertile waste. Finally (and the length of this journey is elided), he reaches the bTsan Po’s summer court on the upper pastures of the sKyid Chu river, and here is all barbaric splendor. A huge ring of pikes is set in the grassland, guarded by soldiers and shamans, and surrounding a massive tent where the Tibetan emperor sits in state, flanked by war chieftains and Buddhist monks. But even the very opulence of this foreign court reminds him of his own dynasty’s fall – the entertainers are all Chinese, no doubt carried off by the Tibetans, and as the envoys feast they play sad old Chinese court songs. 

Finally, on the return journey, Liu Yuanding inquired to his Tibetan escorts as to the source of the Yellow River. Perhaps this took place as they were fording it along the upper reaches in rMa sTod, because he mentions the conditions of the crossing here. The Tibetans told him, and perhaps he saw in the distance, that the river arose in a place called “flooding and welling” 洪濟, and that it flowed down from here a distance of some many li, and that there stood a great mountain which the local people called Men Mo Li and the Chinese had once known as Kunlun.

The 822 stele recording the terms of this treaty still sits outside the Jo Khang temple in Lhasa. Liu Yuanding’s name is recorded on it in Chinese 劉元鼎 and in Tibetan, as Le’u ‘Gwan Deng. I’ve translated the full account from the New Tang History section on Tibet below, with some help from the modern-Chinese version found here. I took the Tibetan names in this version from Li Fang-Kuei and Pan Yihong’s articles, see the bibliography for details.

“In the first year of the Changqing Reign (AD 821), when they heard that a princess had been given in a marriage alliance to the Uyghurs, [the Tibetans] attacked Clear-Border Fort. They were driven away by Li Wenyue. Then the envoy Qi Li Tuo Si arrived at the court and asked for a treaty to be made. The emperor allowed it. Cui Zhi, Du Yuanying, and Wang Bo assisted in the process. They recommended that the treaty be reported to the Imperial Temple. The Official of Rites told them, ‘The emperors Suzong and Daizong both tried to make treaties with the Tibetans, and they did not report it to the Temple. The Dezong Emperor made a treaty during the Jianzhong reign, and in order to strengthen the bonds of the agreement, began the custom of reporting it to the Temple. After the treaty meeting at Pingliang, it was not again reported. The practice has been ceased.’ Therefor the officials dropped the matter.

[Note: All of the names here are preceded by elaborate bureaucratic titles, which I’m not going to try to translate, so this is approximate.] They appointed the official Liu Yuanding as the envoy to the treaty meeting. His subordinate was Liu Shilao. The prime minister as well as the high officials Han Gao and Niu Sengru, Li Jiang of the Ministry of Personnel, Xiao Fu of the Ministry of the Armies, Yang Yuling of the Ministry of Households, Wei Shou of the Ministry of Rites, as well as the other high officials Zhao Zongru, Pei Wu, Liu Gongchuo, Guo Cong, as well as the Tibetan envoy Na Luo all had a treaty meeting in the western suburbs of the capital.

For a message to the treaty meeting, the bTsan Po sent the following: ‘Our two nations should not raid each other. If there are any who should flee to the other side, they should be given grain and clothes and returned.’ The emperor assented to this. All of the the officials signed their name onto the treaty document. Just at the time this treaty was taking place, the Tibetans sent riders and attacked Lu zhou. The commandant of Ling zhou Li Jincheng met them in battle at the Great Stone Mountain, and defeated them. After this the barbarians sent another envoy, Zhao Guozhang. They also sent gifts of confidence [?] to the Prime Minister.

The next year, envoys were received asking to settle the border. Liu Yuanding met with the Tibetan official Na Luo in his nation, and demanded that all of the barbarians affix their names to the treaty documents. Yuanding passed through Chengji, Wuchuan and arrived at the Guangwu range near the Yellow River. Previously, before the walls of this city had been destroyed, the area around Lanzhou was all paddy fields, with peaches, pairs, and lush green willows, and the inhabitants were all people of the Tang dynasty. Now when they saw the banners and canopies of an envoy, they crowded either side of the road to look on. When Yuanding arrived at the city of Longzhi, a thousand old men came weeping to pay their respects, asking if the Son of Heaven was well. One of them said to Yuanding, “It was not long ago that the Chinese armies left here – even today our sons and grandsons have not forgotten the garb of the Tang dynasty. Does the court remember us here? When will our armies return?” When he finished speaking they all began to wail. Yuanding pressed this man more closely, and found that he was originally from Feng County [in the interior].

From there they passed by the Stone Castle Fort. This is built on a cliff wall which is extremely sheer, and the path leading to it is twisting. The barbarians call this the Steel Knife Fort. Going right from there about ten li, the rocks are all red, and the barbarians call this the Red Ridge. The boundary stones that An Wangyi and Zhang Shougui once set here [in 733] had all been upended, and only those stones put their by the barbarians still stood. The Red Ridge is more than three thousand li from Chang’an. In previous days this was located within the commandery of Longyou. This is called the Menhuanlu River, from which it is about a hundred li south to the Lha Sa [ch. Luo suo] river. This is a tributary of the gTsang [ch. Zang] River.

South west of the Yellow River, the land is flat as a whetstone. The plain is a wilderness but very fertile. In the valleys along the rivers there is much tamarisk, and on the hills there are cedars. On the slopes there are a great many grave tumuli, and besides each one is built a little room. These are all painted red, and upon them are drawn white tigers. These are all the graves of barbarian nobleman who committed great deeds in war. In life they wore tiger skins as clothes, and in death these drawings advertise their bravery. Those who died along with them are buried to the sides. From there they crossed the Xi Jie Luo Range. The road here is made of drilled stones, such that carts could travel upon it. This was the road that Princess Jincheng once traveled to Tibet on. From there they arrived at the Valley of Elk [ch. Mi Gu, perhaps Tb. Nyen Kar or Mer Khe?], and stayed in that place.

The northern tributaries of the gTsang River are the summer encampment of the bTsan Po. At the four corners of the camp were spears, and every ten paces were planted long white pikes. In the middle were set great banners so as to create three gates, which were separated at about a hundred paces. Soldiers guarded these gates, as well as shamans with bird hats and tiger belts, holding drums. Anyone who entered this enclosure was searched. In the center of the encampment there was a tall pavilion, surrounded by treasured balustrades. The bTsan Po sat here in a great tent, which was ornamented with gold in the manner of dragons, tigers, and leopards. His hair was tied in a knot which looked like the morning clouds, and he carried a sword enameled with gold. [The monk named] dPal Chen Po [ch. Bo Che Bu] stood  on the bTsan Po’s right, and all of the ministers arrayed themselves beneath the pavilion.

When the Tang envoys first arrived here, the official named Xi Da Re came to the treaty meeting. A great entertainment was put on to the right of the court, with food and wine, as it would have been done in China. For music they sang “The Song of the King of Qin Breaking Formations”, as well as “Liang County”, “The Barbarians on Wei River”, “Important Records” and various other songs. All of the hundreds of performers were people from the Middle Kingdom. The plinth for the meeting was ten paces wide, and six feet high. The Tang envoys and about ten of the barbarian officials sat across from each other, while about a hundred chieftains sat beneath. Above them was set a great couch. dPal Chen Po ascended this, and announced the treaty, while another man standing at his side translated. The envoys smeared the blood of the sacrificial animals on their lips [to formalize the treaty], while dPal Chen Po did not. At the conclusion of the meeting, they once again swore their allegiance to the image of the Buddha. They drank water with tumeric, and all the envoys wished each other well, then descended from the meeting plinth.

On Liu Yuanding’s return journey, he was a guest of the barbarian general Zhang lTa bZan (ch. Shang Ta Zang) on the Great Xia River. He gathered more than a hundred of the eastern officials [of the Tibetan empire] and posted the treaty text upon a high pavilion, so that all would know it. In this way each would be restrained by the treaty to protect his own land and not invade the other side. He dated it to the seventh year of the Tibetan sKyid rTag reign.

Zhang lTa bZan said to Liu Yuanding, “The Uyghur are a small nation. Once I undertook an expedition against them. I reached to within three days of their city and was about to take it. Then I received word that our bTsan Po had died, and so I returned. And yet they are not truly my enemies. Why are the Tang so afraid of them, that they favor them so?”

Liu Yuanding replied to him, “The Uyghurs have merit, and they respect the terms of treaties. Never have they caused chaos or advanced soldiers to seize a single inch of our territory. Therefore we favor them.” By this Zhang lTa bZan was silenced.

Liu Yuanding forded the Huangshui River, and reached the Valley of the Dragon Springs. From there to the north-west one can see the Barbarian-Killing River. The old walls built by Geshu Han were scattered all over this place. The Huangshui River exits from the Meng Valley, and when it arrives at the Dragon Springs it merges with the Yellow River. As for the upper course of the Yellow River, it rises at the Flooding-and-Welling Ridge and then flows to the south-west for two thousand li. The water here is narrow. In the spring it can be forded, while in the summer and autumn it must be crossed on boats. About three hundred li south of it are three mountains, of which the middle is highest, and they descend steeply on all four sides. This is called the Purple Mountain. It is located in the land of Yang Tong. What was in ancient days called the Kunlun is this. The barbarians call it Men Mo Li Mountain. To the east it is a five thousand li distance to Chang’an. The Yellow River has its source in the midst of this, and from there it flows slowly down, gathering together many streams. It’s color here is red, and the distance of its flow is very great. Where it joins other waters it becomes muddy. For this region for generations the lands of the western barbarians have been called the lands of the Yellow and Huangshui Rivers. From the source of the Yellow River, it’s about five hundred li to the north-east to the “sand tail” called Mo He Yan. The sands are about fifty li wide, north of Sha County. To the south-west where they enter the land of the Tuyuhun, the sands narrow, and for this reason it’s called the “sand tail”. It can be conjectured that this is located south of the place called South-of-Sword-Gate. That which Liu Yuanding experienced and saw, can be roughly summarized as above.

新唐書, 列傳141下, 吐蕃下, 25-27
New Tang History, Exemplary Accounts 141 B, “The Tibetans B”, 25-27

Despite some garbling as to the direction of flows and which river is a tributary of which, the hydrology here is essentially correct. The Yellow River wells out of the ground beneath high ridges and flows down for at least a thousand Chinese li (Liu Yuanding has it at two thousand, going south-west) before reaching a great snow mountain of multiple peaks. This is the Chinese Kunlun of old and the local people of Yangtong call it (Middle Chinese) Mòn Mwâ Liei 悶摩黎. This name may (or may not) be the earliest attestation of sBom Ra, and seems to have some continuity with the name given in the next account three hundred years later, (Modern Mandarin) Yi Er Ma Bu Mo La or Middle Chinese Jek Ńɨ́ [Ma] Pǝw Mâk Lât 亦耳麻不莫剌. The brief description also carries with it the interesting suggestion that this name sBom Ra (which has no clear meaning in Tibetan) might have originated in the non-Tibetan language of Yangtong 羊同, the land in which this mountain is supposed to be located. Yangtong is a very obscure kingdom which receives a one-paragraph description in the Tang Comprehensive Encyclopedia 通典, which tells us little useful about this place and people other than that it was indeed located in modern Qinghai province. 





Above upper: A valley on the road to A Mye rMa Chen in rTsi Kong Thang county.
Above middle and lower: Three scenes along the Yellow River, I think near the area that Du Shi called “The Nine Fords” (Modern Khalkha. 
Yesön Garam), now in rMa sTod County. In the middle two A Mye rMa Chen (Du Shi’s “Mountain of Heaven”, Turkic. Tenghri Tagh) is visible on the northern horizon.

The third account comes from the Geography 地理 section of the Yuan History 元史. The text more or less tells its own story. As a brief background, over the course of the early 13th century, the Mongol Empire conquered most of Asia, including by the 1240s the Tibetan Plateau. In 1271 Qubilai Qaγan declared the Yuan Dynasty in Northern China, and by 1279 the conquest of all of China was complete. The next year, presumably in response to having become the most powerful man in the history of the world, Qubilai Qaγan decided to settle once and for all the whole issue of where the Yellow River came from. To this end he chose a Mongol officer named Du Shi and sent him off to Amdo to figure this out. 

The description of Du Shi’s journey is preserved in a peculiar dual-format, which is explained in the text itself below. The description is fairly garbled and the toponyms are hard now to trace, but nevertheless the basic description seems clear. With google maps and some familiarity with the region, one can easily follow the river from the source of the river west of rMa sTod down past sNgo Ring and sKya Ring, along the southern flank of A Mye rMa Chen, down through the gorges in the south of mGo Log, and out to the great riverine plains of mDzod dGe.

A few clues in the text allow us to reconstruct in more detail the Mongol explorer’s precise itinerary through this country. The narrative states clearly that he began his voyage from He County 河州 (modern Linxia 臨夏) and proceeded over the mountains and west from there. The description of the Yellow River between modern roughly rMa Chu County and Gui De 貴德 is accurate but extremely sparse, suggesting that the Du Shi did not actually follow the river in this section. Finally, there’s a confused reference apparently to a lake and a river which are well north of the Yellow River’s route, Alag Lake and the Ulaan River in modern Dulan County.

From this we can speculate that the account given below (which runs from the source down-stream) is the opposite of the direction in which Du Shi actually made his journey. He set out from He County, reached the river at the garrison and postal relay station somewhere on the plains of modern mDzod dGe, and followed the river up from there along the south side of the A Mye rMa Chen range to the source. Having achieved his objective, he took a faster route home, riding north via the above-mentioned Alag Lake and Ulaan River back to the city of Gui De. From there he used river transport to return all the way back along the Ordos Loop to the Central Plains and made it back to Khanbaliq by winter. Later on, the Chinese compilers of his journey confused Alag Lake with rGya Ring and sNgo Ring and thoroughly muddled the various Mongol and Tibetan hydronyms of the mDzod dGe plains, leaving the garbled account below.

I’ve made this speculative map of Du Shi’s journey in Amdo with annotations here. The blue represents the route of the Yellow River, the black is my guess at Du Shi’s route.

A few other interesting things can be pointed out. Perhaps most curious is the great diversity of languages found in the toponomy – Du Shi gives place names in both in Mongol and in Tibetan, with a few more apparently in Chinese, as well as at least one (that of A Mye rMa Chen!) in some form of Turkic. Another worthwhile point to notice here is that sometime between the 8th century and the 13th, the “Mountain of Piled Rocks” seems to have migrated from it’s high-Tang position at A Mye rMa Chen to its current location as a hill (and county) on the Yellow River west of Lanzhou. Finally we can note the mention of the “Envoy of Han” 漢使” and the “exhausting” 窮 of the Yellow River source, a reference to which we will return again later. 


In ancient times, nobody knew the source of the Yellow River. “The Tribute of Yu” traces the source of the Yellow River, but it stops at the mountain called Piled Rocks. In the Han Dynasty, The Envoy of Han Zhang Qian was granted a seal and sent out on a mission to reach the Western Regions. [He wrote that] passing the Jade Gate, he saw two rivers meeting in confluence. [One of these rivers] took its source in the Onion Range, passed by Khotan, and flowed into the Salt Lake. From there it went underground for a thousand li, until it arrived at Piled Rocks Mountains and there re-emerged. During the Tang, Liu Yuanding was sent to Tibet. He made inquiries as to the source of the Yellow River, and arrived at the answer at Men Mo Li Mountain. Therefore for all of the years and months of history, to plumb the depths of this was a great difficulty, and what knowledge had been attained was not more than the above. Of all those over the generations who have discussed the source of the Yellow River, only those two truly sought out the root of the matter. The other explanations are strange and circuitous, and none of them are true. The reason for this is that during the ages of the Han and Tang, the outer barbarians had not all been fully conquered, and the roads were not all fully opened. Therefore such a journey was winding and difficult, and nobody was able to easily reach these places and exhaust their extremities.

The Yuan Dynasty possessed all beneath heaven. From the edge of the sea and all within and without, wherever the footsteps of men reached, they set up postal relays, and wherever these messengers went it was [as convenient] as if they were travelling in the very center of the country. In the seventeenth year of the Zhiyuan Era (1280), Du Shi was made an Official with Power of War and Amnesty, granted a Golden Tiger Seal, and sent to find the source of the Yellow River. Du Shi accepted the order, and that year arrived in He County. Sixty li east of the county seat, there is a place called Pacifying-the-River Station. Another sixty li south-west of the station there is a mountain called Horse-Killing-Pass, where the forest is thick and the barriers are high. From there lifting his feet he went gradually higher, until after a day he had reached the top. Journey west the land became even higher. After four months travel Du Shi reached the source. That winter he returned to make his report, and described the locations of the things he had heard [?]. Later on, the Hanlin scholar Pan Angxiao got a report of Du Shi’s journey from Du Shi’s younger brother Kuokuo, and wrote it up as “Gazetteer of the Yellow River”. Zhu Siben of Linchuan also got from Balijisi’s [an obscure Mongol official] family an illustrated volume in Brahmi characters [sic, probably means Tibetan] which came from the archive of the imperial tutor, and translated it into Chinese. When compared to the gazetteer by Pan Angxiao, both have areas which are more or less detailed. Therefore today we have taken the two books and set down their narratives here, and where they differ, we have annotated them below.

According to these accounts, the source of the Yellow River is in the western extremity of Tibetan mDo Khams.  In this place there are a hundred springs welling forth, pouring out in all directions. Du Shi was not able to examine them all closely, since the area is about seventy or eighty li square, all looked down on by a great mountain. The springs sparkle and shine like stars, and therefore they are called huodun nao’er. “Huodun” means “The Resting Place of Stars”. [Modern Khalkha. Oddyn Nuur “Lake of Stars”] Balijisi’s version reads, “The Yellow River has it’s origin in the south-west of the central continent, three thousand li directly west from the Southerner [ch. Man] Department of Sichuan’s Horse Lake, a thousand five hundred li north-west of Yunnan’s Lijiang district, and two thousand li south-west of Sa Si Jia [tb. Sa sKya?] in the imperial military region. The water comes welling out of the ground here as if it were a well. There are about a hundred such wells. They flow to the north-east for about a hundred li, and then combine to form a great lake, which is called Huodun Nao’er.”

The various streams here flow together, and at nearly five or seven li from this place, they converge into two huge pools, which are called Ala Nao’er. [There is today a lake Alag Nuur “The Speckled Lake” located about sixty kilometers across the ranges north of sKya Ring and sNgo Ring. There seems to be some confusion here with this lake and the Ulaan River (Du Shi gives Hu Lan; it means “red”) which flows down from it.] Going west and then east, [the two lakes] are joined and are subsumed into each other. Travelling for one day, gradually it turns laterally to the east and becomes one river. This is called the Red Treasure [ch. Chi Bao] River. After another two or three days, another river comes from the south-west, which is called the Yi Li Chu. This joins with the Red-Treasure River. After another three or four days travel, another river comes from the south, which is called Hu Lan. After this comes another river, which is called the Ye Li Shu, which flows into the Red Treasure River. By this point the flow has gotten large, and it begins to be known as the Yellow River. At this point the color is very clear, and it can be forded by a person.

Balijisi’s version reads, “The source of the Hu Lan River is in the mountains to the south. In this place there are great mountains and lofty ranges, which stretch laterally for a thousand li. This river flows for about five hundred li, until it merges with the Ye Li Chu river. The source of the Ye Li Chu river is also in the southern mountains. This river flows north-west for five hundred li, until it finally joins the Yellow River.”

After another one or two days’ travel, the river branches into eight or nine legs. The name of this place is Ye Xun Guan Lun, which can be translated as “Nine Crossings” [Modern Khalkha Yesön Garam]. This place is about five or seven li wide, and can be forded by horses. Traveling another four or five days, the water becomes muddy. The local people inflate leather sacks, and ride these to cross it. In other cases, they bind together wood and shields in the form of a boat, tie it together with hair and leather, then cross on it. These boats can only fit two men at a time. From here two mountains press the river on either side to form a gorge, at a distance of sometimes one li, sometimes two or only half a li. The depth of this gorge can only be guessed.

In the north-east of mDo Khams there is a great snow mountain, which is called Yi Er Ma Bu Mo La [tb. A Mye sBom Ra?]. This mountain is the highest of all, and its name can be translated as Teng Qi Li Ta [Presumably Turkic Tenghri Tagh, “The Mountain of Heaven”]. This is Mount Kunlun. From the waist of the mountain to the peak it is all snow, and it does not melt in winter or summer. The local people say, that after many years it becomes ice, and this can be seen in the sixth month [sic]. From the where the river splits into eight or nine legs, it flows to Mount Kunlun, traveling for about twenty days.

Balijisi’s version says, “From the place with the muddy water, the river flows north-east for two hundred li, until it merges with the Huai Li Huo Tu river. The Huai Li Huo Tu river has its origins in the mountains to the south. It flows directly north and then turns west, flowing for about eight hundred li until it meets the Yellow River. From here the Yellow River once again flows to the north-east for another hundred li, until it passes the region called Guo Lang Ma Ha. From there it flows directly north a hundred li, then turns and goes to the north-west for two hundred li. It turns once again and flows directly north for a hundred li, then turns once again and flows east, passing beneath Mount Kunlun. The Tibetans call this Yi Er Ma Bu Mo La. This mountain is extraordinarily tall. The mountain range stretches across the land for about five hundred li, and the Yellow River follows its foot, flowing east. It passes the two places called Sa Si Jia Kuo Ji and Kuo Ti.

The Yellow River flows about half a day’s ride south of Mount Kunlun, and from there west for about five days, until it reaches the regions called Kuo Ji and Kuo Ti. These two places are connected to each other. After another two days, it reaches the place called Ha La Bie Li Chi Er. This is an important place from which roads lead in all directions, and there are many brigands here. An official and soldiers have a garrison here. Close to it, about two days ride to the north, the Yellow River passes by.

Balijisi’s version reads, “the Yellow River passes Kuo Ti, and merges with the Yi Xi Ba Si Jin River. The Yi Xi Ba Si Jin River arises north of the Steel Leopard Range, and flows directly north for a total of five hundred li, until it merges with the Yellow River.”

West of the Mount Kunlun, people are extremely few. Most of them live south of this mountain. The mountains here are not particularly tall, and the river is therefore scattered and winding. Of wild animals there are yaks, wild horses, wolves, leopards, and ibex. East of the Kunlun, the land gradually drops down, and there are cliffs and gorges and barriers, and places so narrow that a fox could jump [from one side to the other]. Travelling for about five or six days, another river comes from the south-west, which is called Na Lin Ha La, which can be translated as “The Narrow Yellow River”. [Presumably Modern Khalkha Nariin Shar, “Narrow Yellow”. It seems to me also that this river has been conflated with the Qi Er/Li Ma Chu (tb. dKar rMa Chu, “White Yellow River”?) below, and that both of them probably refer to the river which is marked on modern maps as the White River 白河.]

Balijisi’s version reads, “The Ha La River arises from north of the White Dog Range. The water flows to the north-west for five hundred li, until it merges with the Yellow River.”

After another two days, a river comes from the south, which is called the Qi Er Ma Chu. The two rivers [sic] merge into the Yellow River.

Balijisi’s version reads:  “From the place where the Ha La River and the Yellow River merge, the river flows due north for two hundred li, passing the A Yi Bo Postal Station, then turns to the north-west. From here it flows along the northern flank of the Kunlun for two hundred li, where it merges with the Qi Li [sic] Ma Chu. The Qi Li Ma Chu arises to the north-west of Wei and Mao Counties, on the north side of the Min Mountains. The water flows north, passing through the territory of ancient Dang County, where it flows due north and then turns to the west for about four hundred li, turning then to the north west, and after another five hundred li, it merges with the Yellow River.”

The Yellow River flows north, and then turns west, passing north of the Kunlun. Then it flows to the north-east, and after about half a month’s travel, it arrives at Gui De County. This place is called Bi Chi Li. From early times it was made a county and had a government by officials. This county is within the prefecture which governs the Tibetans and other areas, which has its seat at He County. Another four or five days from there, one reaches the county called Piled Rocks. This is the “Piled Rocks” from the “Tribute of Yu”. After another five days, one reaches the Peaceful-Village Border Gate in He County. Another day’s journey down, there is the place called the Casting-Nets Pit. From here the Yellow River goes north-east for one day, until the Tao River merges with it from the south.

Balijisi’s version reads, “From the place where the Qi Li Ma Chu river merges with the Yellow River, the river goes north-west, and merges with the Peng Za river. The Peng Za river has its source north-west of Peng Za mountain. The water flows due west for seven hundred or so li, passing the place called Zha Sai Ta Shi, until it meets the Yellow River. Then the river turns to the north-west and flows for three hundred li, then turns to the north-east, where it passes Xi Ning County, Gui De County, Horse Ridge, in total eight hundred li, until it merges with the Miao river. The Miao River has its source from near the military hostel at Qing Tang valley. It flows due east for five hundred li, passing Er Ba Postal Station until it merges with the Yellow River. From there the river flows to the north-east, passing Earth-Bridge Postal Station and the Receiving-the-Qiang Fort in old Piled Rocks County. From the edge of Gou Mi Postal Station in Guo County the capital [sic] is in total about five hundred li. The river passes He County and merges with the Wild [ch. Ye Pang] River. The Wild River has its source north of Westward-Leaning Mountain. The water flows north-east for about a hundred li, where it merges with the Yellow River. From there the river flows north-east for about a hundred li, passing Treading-On-White Fort and Golden River Postal Station to where it merges with the Huangshui River and the Great Flow [ch. Hao Men] River. The Huangshui River has its source beneath the Qilian Mountains. It flows due east for about a thousand li, and the Great Flow River pours into it. The Great Flow River has its origin in Shan Dan County, south of the county seat beneath Shan Dan Mountain. The water flows south-east for seven hundred li, and then merges into the Huangshui River. Then both of these merge with the Yellow River. The Yellow River flows again about a hundred li to the north-east, where it merges with the Tao River. The Tao River has its source north of the Sheep-Scattered [ch. Yang Sa] Range. It flows to the north-east, passing Along-the-Tao Governorate, in total about eight hundred li. Finally it merges with the Yellow River.”

After another day, the Yellow River arrives at Lan County [eg. Lanzhou]. It passes the North Bu Ford and arrives at Singing Sands County. From here it passes Ying Ji Li and flows east, passing south of Ning Xia Governorate. From there it flows east, arriving at Eastern-Victory County, which belongs to the Da Tong Route. From its source to the lands of the Han, this river merges and strings together all of the narrow creeks and streams from the north and the south. And yet nobody knew or had recorded its extremity. All of the mountains were covered in grass and stones, and once you arrived at Piled Rocks, they were entirely covered in forest which was extremely thick. It is said that the Yellow River has nine bends. This area recorded has two bends, [one of which is?] from Qi Er Ma Chu to Bi Chi Li at Gui De County.

思本曰:「[…] 大概河源東北流,所歷皆西番地,至蘭州凡四千五百餘里,始入中國。又東北流,過達達地,凡二千五百餘里,始入河東境內。又南流至河中,凡一千八百餘里。通計九千餘里。」
Balijisi’s version reads, “[Here follows a longish paragraph describing the known route of the Yellow River from Lanzhou to the point where it exits onto the North China plain. This isn’t terribly interesting so I’ll leave it out.] It can roughly be said that as the Yellow River flows north-east from its source, all of the land that it passes belongs to the Tibetans [ch. Xi Fan]. From the source to Lan County [Lanzhou] it’s about four thousand five hundred li, and it is at this point that the Yellow River enters the Middle Kingdom. From there it flows again to the north-east, passing the lands of the Tatars, at a length of two thousand five hundred li. From there it first enters the prefecture of East-of-the-River. There it flows south into the prefecture of Central-River, in total a thousand eight hundred li. In total it can be computed at nine thousand li.

元史, 志15, 地理6, 500-504
Yuan History, Gazetteer 15, Geography 6, 500-504


IMG_1335 (1)


Above upper: Another view of the A Mye rMa Chen, at sun-down at Great Horse Pass.
Above middle and lower: nomad children in a school at rMa Chu Zhang (ch. Huang He Xiang 黃河鄉) and an encampment in the snow on the plains of the Yellow River south-west of the mountain in rMa sTod.

The final reference to A Mye rMa Chen comes from a text called Compilations on the Western Regions 西域集, which was written by a Chan monk named Zong Le 宗泐 sometime in the 1380s. This text is apparently lost but it’s briefly quoted in the “Study on the Kunlun and the Origins of  the Yellow River”, 崑崙河源考. In 1369 the Yuan Dynasty fell and the Ming Dynasty was declared in its place. Ten years later in 1379 the monk Zong Le had the back luck to annoy the Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋. The famously irascible emperor told him to go across the Himalayas to India and “find more Buddhist scriptures”. Zong Le was 61 years old at the time. Judging from his account and the poetry attached to it he seems to have taken the whole thing with a sense of humor.

He traveled to He County and from there made his way across the Tibetan Plateau, crossing the Yellow River on the frozen ice, to reach mNga’ Ris. From there he crossed the Himalaya to Nepal and visited the Buddhist holy sites of northern India and then returned the way he came, arriving back in China five years after he left in 1382.

Zong Le’s writing is both vivid and erudite, and he is refreshingly willing to question his own Sino-centric knowledge. He is also interested in Tibetan religion and seems to have understood some of their language. The below is as quoted in “Study on the Kunlun and the Origins of  the Yellow River”, 崑崙河源考:

“The origin of the Yellow River is at Mao Bi Er Che Bo Er Mountain. The Tibetans call the Yellow River Mao Chu [tb. rMa Chu]. The Yak River is called the Bi Li Chu [tb. ‘Bri Chu, “The Female-Yak River” eg., the upper Yangzi]. Chi Ba [Mountain] divides the regions [of flow]. The water which arises from the south-west of this mountain flows into the Yak River. The water which comes out on the north-east side is the source of the Yellow River. When at the western Mountain of Returning Stars I tasted this water, the Tibetans all joked with each other, ‘The Chinese is drinking the Chinese water!’.”

“From the source of the Yellow River it is about seven or eight hundred li east to reach Mount Kunlun. For about three hundred li the river is fordable. Then it goes under the Kunlun and merges with the Kunlun rivers. The traditional account of the Middle Kingdom is that the Yellow River has its source at the Kunlun, but this is not true. The Kunlun is called Mao Bu La Ke. This mountain is the greatest and tallest. In all the four seasons it is covered with snow, and a god lives there. The Tibetan books have descriptions of how within the realm [of this god] he is to be worshiped. There are nine mountains, and this is one of them. These are also recorded [sic].”

The same source, “Study on the Kunlun and the Origins of  the Yellow River”, 崑崙河源考, also contains the following wry poem by Zong Le. The poem is about the the mythical Kunlun, the real mountain A Mye rMa Chen, the god rMa Chen sBom Ra, and that “Envoy of Han” who claimed to have “exhausted the source of the Yellow River” all those fifteen hundred years before. I’m sure there are other interesting Chinese accounts of A Mye rMa Chen, but right now this poem is the last thing I feel like translating.


積雪覆崇岡 The massed snows covered high in mists
冬夏常一色 Whether winter or summer, the color never changes.
群峰譲獨雄 The ranks of peaks give way to a lone hero –
神君所棲宅 The abode of a gentleman god.
傳聞嶰谷篁 Legend has it that in the bamboo thickets of Mount Xie
造律諧金石 They make flutes with sound sweet as gold.
草木尙不生 But here no grasses have ever grown
竹産疑非的 And I doubt you could get any bamboo.
漢使窮河源 “The Messenger of Han exhausted the source of the Yellow River”
要領殊未得 And yet perhaps in truth we still haven’t yet reached the point –
遂令西戎子 And it’s been making these western barbarians
千古笑中國 Laugh at our Middle Kingdom for the last thousand years.
老客此經過 This old traveler passing here
望之長嘆息 Gazes upon it all and heaves a long sigh
立馬北風寒 With our horses stopped the north wind is cold
回首孤雲白 and when I look back, the lonely clouds are white.

IMG_1322 (1)


Below Upper: Looking east towards the A Mye rMa Chen massif on the plain of rTa Bo Zhol Ma.
Below Lower: The glacier at Little Cliff Settlement Pass (tb. ‘Brag sDe’u Nya Kha) on the A Mye rMa Chen circumambulation road. 

[Note: all the pictures in this post come from a walking trip from sKu ‘Bum Monastery to rMa sTod County via A Mye rMa Chen and its circumabulation route in spring 2009]



Generally speaking, please excuse my atrocious bibliography habits.

The following works I got from the Chinese Text Project: (Sturgeon, Donald. Chinese Text Project. Web. 18 May 2016. <>.) This is bad bibliographic practice, but, the precise editions I used are “wiki” versions found there. In rough chronological order:

  • 尚書 “The Book of Documents”
  • 史記 “Historical Records”
  • 舊唐書 “The Old Tang History”
  • 新唐書 “The New Tang History”
  • 通典 “Comprehensive Encyclopedia”
  • 資治通鑑 “Comprehensive Mirror of Resources for Governance”
  • 元史 “Yuan History”
  • 崑崙河源考 “Study on the Kunlun and the Origins of  the Yellow River”

Secondary works are as follows:

  • Bolor Dictionary. Bolorsoft LLC. Web. 18 May 2016.
  • Bushell, Stephen W. The Early History of Tibet from Chinese Sources. London: Trübner, 1880. Print.
  • Dotson, Brandon, and Guntram Hazod. The Old Tibetan Annals: An Annotated Translation of Tibet’s First History. Wien: Verlag Der Osterreichischen Akademie Der Wissenschaften, 2009. Print.
  • Dorofeeva-Lichtmann, Vera. “Where Is the Yellow River Source? A Controversial Question in Early Chinese Historiography”. Oriens Extremus 45 (2005): 68–90. Web.
  • Enoki, Kazuo. “Tsung-Le’s Mission to the Western Regions, 1378-1382.” Oriens Extremus 19 (1979): 47-53. Print.
  • 何, 孝荣. “元末明初名僧宗泐事迹考.” 中國民族宗教網. 中國民族报社, 22 Dec. 2014. Web. 18 May 2016.
  • Li, Fang-Kuei. “The Inscription of the Sino-Tibetan Treaty of 821-822.” T’oung Pao44.1 (1956): 1-99. Web.
  • 劉, 敏寬. 西寧衛志 (明). Ed. 繼光 王. 西寧: 青海人民出版社, 1993. Print.
  • Pan, Yihong. “The Sino-Tibetan Treaties in the Tang Dynasty.” T’oung Pao 78.1 (1992): 116-61. Web.
  • “新唐書, 列傳一百四十一譯文.” 詩詞吧. 古詩文網. Web. 18 May 2016.

EDIT: One last source; the title in English is “Machen Pomra in Chinese-Language Historical Sources”. I didn’t actually use the below when writing this, but afterwards someone sent it to me and it covers basically the same territory as what I wrote, with a few more Qing Dynasty sources (I didn’t bother with these) and interesting stabs at getting the original Tibetan names. The author of this paper (a scholar at Lanzhou University of Nationalities named Liu Tiecheng) and I came to most of the same conclusions. So, if you want an actual well-cited academic paper about this topic, see the below, it’s very good! 

  • 劉, 鐵程. “漢文史料中的”瑪卿邦熱”(19th-20th Century).” 中國民族學 10 (2013): 99-104. Print.


Art China Qinghai Tibet Translation

The Long Valley of Trefoils, or, Some of the Outer Regions of ‘Ol Mo Lung Ring

bon rgya dgom pa


'ol mo lung ring stretched FULL

Above upper: The monastery of Hundred Bon (tb. Bon brGya dGon Chen) in a the mountains above Rebgong.
Above middle: Inside the big new pagoda in Bon brGya
Above lower: A map of the Bon holy realm ‘Ol Mo Lung Ring, which hangs in the main prayer hall.

Last November, my friend Jasper Henderson and I made a trip up to Rebgong to attend a ‘Cham dance at Hundred-Bon Monastery (bon brgya dgon chen). While we were there, we took the opportunity to photograph the details of a giant map of the Bon holy land ‘Ol Mo Lung Ring which hangs in the main prayer-hall there (see picture above). This was apposite since at the time I was being bothered by some Ukrainian kid who showed up from this left-fascist group Sut’ Vremeni and in good Nazi-esotericist style seemed convinced that “Dark Bonpo” was the key to their movement’s world domination and that Sergei Kurginyan and the other luminaries at the top where in on this too. Against this background of general Russo-Tibetan weirdness it seemed useful to go and see some Dark Bonpo for ourselves. And since the whole Sut’ Vremeni Bon interest was apparently influenced by the zany late-60s theories of Whatshisface Kuznetsov and Lev Gumilyov about Bon geography being an elaborately disguised map of Sasanian Persia, it seemed worth it to photograph the big ‘Ol Mo Lung Ring diagram too.

(It’s worth stating at the outset here that I’m a skeptic about the whole “Bon texts contain information brought from Central Asia” theory. Among other things the whole Bon holy-land called sTag gZig equals “Tajik” idea, which is quoted as fact in a whole number of sources, seems extremely unproven to me. These Tibetological authors seem blithely content to ignore the complicated history of that ethonym in Central Asia, as well as the fact that sTag gZig already has a perfectly good mythical-toponym meaning in Tibetan [“Tigers and Leopards”]. The rest of the not-obviously-invented geography about this place seems to refer fairly explicitly to Mount Kailash and the regions surrounding it. I’m not saying that some aspects of Bon didn’t come from Central Asia but this seems very unproven to me at present.)

Anyways photographing this map was easier said than done – the map hangs quite high up in the dimly lit hall. The monks brought us two tall stools, and we balanced precariously there. Jasper shone a flashlight on the painting and I, trying to keep my hands steady, was able to photograph some of the lower bits. Then, because this blog is generally about sacred geography, world mountains, and visual lists and itineraries in Asian art, I’ve tried to translate some of the captions here.

Katie Buffetrille published an article in 2009 (“Khyung Mo Monastery [A’mDo] and it’s ‘Map’ of ‘Ol Mo Lung Ring”) which briefly describes a nearly identical map which hung another nearby Bon monastery, Khyung Mo dGon Pa in Tri Kha / Guide 貴德. Later on I went to this monastery but wasn’t able to see the map there. In any case her pictures and descriptions demonstrate that the two maps were almost identical. Buffetrille’s map in Khyung Mo monastery was produced in the ’70s or ’80s by a local painter who copied it from an original by one sBra Ser Pandita, who was active in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. At least one other copy of the map exists, located in dGa ‘Mal dGon Pa in Shar Khog (Buffetrille, 323). If there is such a detailed dedication on the Hundred-Bon map I didn’t see it, but it’s unarguably another late 20th century copy of this, no doubt made from one of the neighboring maps.

The dedication on the map (located just beneath the palace of Sham Po in the lower-center) reads as follows:

mchan yig bris pa dge slong bsod nams g.yung drung dang / lha bzo ‘od gsal lha mgon rnam sras sku mched gsum / rgyu ‘byor yon bdag dad ldan so nag dbang phyug gis  / dmangs sgor stong phrag gnyis bcas phul ba’i bsod nams kyi / dge ba’i mthu la brtan nas zhing ‘dir myur du skye bar shog / sarba mngaga lam /

The notes were written by dGe sLong bSod Nams g.Yung Drung / The artists [lit: “god-makers”] were the three brothers, ‘Od gSal, Lha mGon, and rNam Sras / The donor of the wealth [for the painting], the faithful one, Black-Tooth dBang Phyug / made an offering of two thousand yuan / may the power of the meritorious virtue quickly arise at this place / Sarva Mangalam!

As both Katia Buffetrille and Dan Martin point out, there seems to have been a slow process of elaboration of this sacred geography over the centuries. The earliest eleventh or twelfth century Bon geographical descriptions give a fairly sparse list of countries which seem to be derived partly from early Buddhist sources – of the non-Buddhist locations which appear in these lists, one of them is sTag gZig ‘Ol Mo Lung Ring (Martin, 260). Later on these geographies became increasingly elaborate and, to my eye, increasingly fantastical, until at least by the 19th century gigantic maps such as the one above were being produced, containing hundreds of individual place-names. The one below is reproduced in both Snellgrove (plate XXII) and Martin (p. 270) – Dan Martin speculates that it was created based on 12th century geographical texts and some other source, possibly the 14th century gZi brJid (Martin 275). He also points out that it seems to be mainly a gazetteer of places associated with the life of the mythical Bon founder, sTon Pa gShen Rab.

from snellgrove

I don’t think I’m up to a full comparison of all these sources at the moment, which would necessitate a full transcription of the entire map and a long paper in itself. In any case the map in Hundred-Bon and the one supplied by Martin and Snellgrove seems to have one major difference, which is that in their version there are in total six rings of earth and water, while the Hundred-Bon and Khyung Mo versions only have five.

There’s also the below Thang Ka. This is reproduced in Dan Martin (Olmo Lungring, a Holy Place Here and Beyond) and also on the wikipedia page for sTag gZig ‘Ol Mo Lung Ring, which is where I downloaded the image. According to the citation in Martin’s article, this is a 19th century Tibetan production which is currently in the possession of the Rubin Museum in New York, and that’s all the information I’ve been able to get on it.


Speculatively, it could also be pointed out regarding the apparently rather recent production of all of these Bon maps, that there are two fairly obvious and nearby Buddhist inspirations for the large-scale depiction of ‘Ol Mo Lung Ring. The first is the big depictions of Shambhala commonly found on the flanking walls of the entrances of large Buddhist monasteries in at least in Amdo and probably elsewhere too. These usually show the circular realm of Shambhala (tb. Sham BHa La) surrounded by mountains and the armies of Raudra Chakrin (tb. Drag Po ‘Khor Lo Can, “The Fierce One of the Wheels”) marching out to defeat the forces of evil at the end of this age. If Buddhists were going to depict their Central Asian holy realm in their monasteries, the Bonpo obviously felt the need to match them.



Above: The holy realm of Shambhala, arranged like an eight-spoked wheel. 


Above: Raudra Chakrin slaying the king of the Mleccha.

The second inspiration for the Bon ‘Ol Mo Lung Ring drawing is probably the great cosmological diagrams which can less commonly be found flanking the same entrances as the Shambhala drawings. These usually show the great axis-mundi Mount Meru, with the concentric rings of mountains, seas, and continents spreading out at its foot. This concentric cosmology is suggested in the Bon map by the nested squares of lands and seas, which increase in sanctity as one travels inward and culminate in the white mountain of Kailash (tb. Gangs Ti Se) at the center.


Above: An cosmological diagram showing Mt. Meru with the heavens extending from its tip, surrounded by rings of mountains and nine continents. Taken from sGo dMar dGon Pa in Rebgong.


Above: Another more contemporary-style image of the Buddhist cosmos from La Mo bDe Chen in gCan Tsha.

Depictions of Mount Meru go back to even before the birth of the Buddha, but the detailed diagrams of Raudra Chakrin’s ride out of Shambhala seem to have been a fairly recent topic in Tibetan monastic art. Speculatively, this may suggest something as to the impetus for the Bonpos to start producing pictures of their own holy land.

Returning to our original Bon map of ‘Ol Mo Lung Ring, I’ve tried to translate some of the place names attached to the pictures. Going in a widdershins Bon kora, I’ve started out from the lower-left corner and swung right from there to the central palace in the lower part of the picture. The upper parts, while maybe more interesting, were too high up to photograph easily and so I haven’t been able to reproduce or translate them in detail. East faces down in this map, hence the great palace of Sham Po on the eastern river Na Ra Dza Ra there. Thus west is at the top, north to the right, and south to the left. Excuse my bad Tibetan translation skills please, and correct all mistakes you find!


The Lower Left Corner:

lower left - FULL

lower left charnel ground

dur khrod // mya ngam thang nag sdobs chen khyab pa bsgral ba’i dur khrod // dpal mgon // dur khyi //  dur bya // ma mo yum // dbal bon // sa ‘dul mchod rten // tur me //

Charnel Ground // The Liberating Charnel Ground [called] Black Plain of Suffering, Full of Powerful Ones. // The Glorious Protector // Charnel Dog // Charnel Birds // Female Ma Mo // A Bonpo of Fire // An Earth Subduing Stupa // Charnel Fire /

lower left - bya ri gtsug ldan

g.yung drung gtsug gshen rgyal ba // bya ri gtsug ldan ‘bar ba naks tshal gyi dgon pa /

The Eternal Highest gShen King // The Forest Monastery of the Bird Mountain of Shining Peacocks


lower left - rtag gzigs bya ri

lower left - rtag gzigs bya ri - detail

rtag gzigs bya ri gtsug ldan gyi grub gnas /

Perfected Place of the Bird Mountain of Peacocks in rTag gZigs /

lower left - rang byung mchod rten

rang byung mchod rden dkar po // phyag [ ] mchod pa’i zhing mchog /

A Self-Arising White Stupa // The Pure Realm of Hand [ ] Offerings /

lower left - gser gling

lower left - gser gling - detail 01

gser gling gser rgyud ces pa rgyal po’i khab / gnod sbyin pho mos sgo khyi byas pa’i tshul /

The House of the King who Speaks the Golden Tantra of the Golden Realm / The Place Where Male and Female Yakshas Act as Door-Dogs /

lower left - gser gling - detail 02

gnod sbyin pho /

A Male Yaksha /

lower left - brag seng ge rgyab bsnol

lower left - brag seng ge rgyab bsnol - detail 01

lower left - brag seng ge rgyab bsnol - detail 02

brag seng ge rgyab bsnol /

The Lions of the Cliffs, Opposite to Each Other /

lower left - phya rje rgyal po

phya rje rgyal po’i rgyal sa / [ ] ling ma’i yul // btsun mo /

The Kingdom of the King [called] the Lord of Fate / The Land of the [ ] Ling Ma. // A Pure Woman /

lower left - dga' ldan lha yi yul

lower left - dga' ldan lha yi yul - detail

lower left - dga' ldan lha yi yul - detail 02

dga’ ldan lha yi gling / ston pas lha sa bon ‘khor bskor ba’i gnas yin /

The Realm of the Joyful God / This is the Abode where the Buddhas of the God’s Place Bon Turn the Wheels /

lower left - gsas khang pad ma

gsas khang pad ma ba bkra gling / lha mo su brgya’i pho brang / btsun mo phya za ‘gu li[ ] ma’i sgrub pa sbyang ba’i […]

The Brilliant Realm of the Lotus Temple / The Palace of a Hundred Goddesses / […] of the Practice and Attainment of the Pure Woman of Fate [‘gu li{ } ma?]


The Lower Left Center:

lower center left - FULL

lower center left - bdud ma hrang khagrub pa thob pa stong dang rtsa brgyad bzhugs / shin tu gnyan pa’i gangs yin sgom pa dka’ // bdud ma trang [?] kha chen btul ba’i gnas //

The Dwelling of the One Thousand and Twenty Eight Achieving and Attaining Ones / The Snow is Extremely Fierce, and [there is?] Very Austere Meditation // The Abode of the Taming of the bDud Demon, the Great Trang Kha.

lower center left - charnel ground

sos med khrag mtsho dge stig lam bsgral ba’i dur khrod // sa ‘dul mchod rden // dbal bon khro gtum gdang bkra // dur bya // dur khrod // dur me // bstan pa’i zhing// mkha’ ‘gro // / bdud rgyal stong dur shing // dpal mgon keng chen rag gcod /

The Charnel Ground of Liberation from the Road of Good and Evil, [Called] The Lake of Blood from which there is No Resurrection// Earth Subduing Stupa // A Wrathful and [gdang] Splendid Bon of Fire // Charnel Bird // Charnel Ground // Charnel Fire // The Plane of the Teachings // A Dakini // The Charnel Tree of the Thousand bDud Demon Kings // The Blood-Cutting [?] Glorious Lord, the Great Keng /

lower center left - chu bon ra dza ra la

chu bo na ra dza ra la gru gzings kyis bsgrod pa’i tsul /

The River Na Ra Dza Ra La, the Place Where One Must Travel by Boat /

lower center left - dben gnas shel brag

lower center left - dben gnas shel brag - detail 01

lower center left - dben gnas shel brag - detail 02

dben gnas shel brag gnam skas can /

The Crystal-Cliff Hermitage, which has a Sky Ladder /

lower center left - gsas rje lhos kyi zhing khams

gsas rje hos kyi zhing khams / hos dang ba yi rang gi rgyal sa /

The Realm of the Holy Lord of the Hos / The Royal Land of the Pure Hos /

lower center left - od kyi lha ri

rin chen khrus kyi rdzing bu / dpag bsam shing skyid tsul // ‘od kyi lha ri spo mthon / khams chen po brgyad dang dge bsnyen theg pa gsungs pa’i gnas // a mo li ka’i  rta rgyang grag gcig gis [ ] ba yong /

The Pool where Jewels are Washed / The Happy Realm of the Wish-Granting Tree // The Lofty Summit of the Mountain of the God of Light / The Eight Great Realms and the Realm of the Words of the Vehicle of Those who Approach Virtue / The Horse of A Mo Li Ka which Arrives [ ] over a Distance of One rGyang Grag [~two miles] /

lower center left - phyags gyung trung ba

lower center left - phyags gyung trung ba - detail 01

shar phyogs [?] gyung trung ba gling chen /

The Great Swastika Realm of the Eastern Regions /

lower center left - ri bo sha kya seng ge

ri bo shakya seng ge rtsa ba rgya mtsho gling drug ‘khyil ba’i dbus / mchod rtan bkra shis mang gi gtsos cir yang sprul sku’i mchod rtan brgya dang brgyad / rgyal bu dge ba’i ‘khor lo can la bstan pa rjes su bzhag /

In the Midst of the Six Ocean Realms of the Shakya Lion Mountain Peak / There are Many Auspicious Stupas and Everywhere There are One Hundred and Eight Stupas of Reincarnated Lamas / [?] These Were Placed After the Teachings [by the?] Virtuous Prince who Holds the Wheels /

lower center left - sman la nyams len

sman la nyams len mdzad pa’i dgon pa /

The Monastery of Acting Upon Experience in Medicine /


The Lower Central Palace:

lower center palace - FULL

shar phyogs gsas mkhar sham po lha rtse gnas / 
The Realm of the Holy Peak of Sham Po, in the Fortress of the gSas in the Eastern Regions.

lower center palace - mtha' yi rgyal phran

lower center palace - mtha' yi rgyal phran - detail 01

lower center palace - mtha' yi rgyal phran - detail 02

lower center palace - mtha' yi rgyal phran - detail 03

mtha’ yi rgyal phran nams kyis [ ] rigs kyi rgyal sa nas che rtags [?] yig tshang blangs nas phyir pebs pa’i tsul /

The Place where All the Greatest Feudal States Take The Insignia and Documents of their Greatness from the Kingly Realm of [ ], and then Return /

lower center palace - gyung drung dgu brtsegs

lower center palace - gyung drung dgu brtsegs - detail 01

lower center palace - gyung drung dgu brtsegs - detail 02

g.yung drung dgu brtsegs mthong ba’i shar phyogs na rgyal rigs la skad rigs mi gcig pa sum cu yod / grong khyer ‘bum tso brgyad yod / 

In the Eastern Regions there are Thirty Different Languages of Each Royal Line of the Nine Swastika of the Thousand Tiers / There are Ten Thousand and Eight Cities /

lower central palace - rin chen khrus gyi rdzing bu

rin chen khrus kyi rdzing bu /

The Pool of Washing Jewels /

lower central palace - rin chen khrus gyi rdzing bu - detail 02

lower central palace - rin chen khrus gyi rdzing bu - detail 01

chu bo chen po na ra dza ra la zam pa btsugs pa’i tshul /

The Place Where a Bridge Has Been Erected on the Great River Na Ra Dza Ra /

lower center palace - kun bzang rgyal ba

kun bzang rgyal ba rgya mtsho’i sku /

The Oceanic Body of the All-Good King /


The Dividing Rings:

The central realm of ‘Ol Mo Lung Ring is separated off from the outer realms by five rings of mountains and five rings of water. From the innermost to the outermost, these are the First Ring, the Mountains of Gold (ra ba gcig pa gser gyi ri), the Second Ring, Mountains of Silver (ra ba gnyis pa dngul ri), the Third Ring, the Mountains of Conch Shells (ra ba gsum pa dung gi ri), a fourth ring of red mountains which is not labelled in my pictures at least, and the Fifth Ring, the Mountains of Pearl (ra ba lnga pa mu tig gi ri). Each of these is separated by a lake (mtsho) of the same substance. This regions is marked as “Belonging to the King of the Nagas, Takshaka” (klu rgyal ‘jog pos bdag byed). A few pictures:

ringed rivers 01

ringed rivers 02

ringed rivers 03


The Inner Realm:

center sanctum FULL straightened

The inner realm of ‘Ol Mo Lung Ring is surrounded by a ring of great palaces and kingly seats. After another ring of water, it becomes a land of stupas, monasteries, and siddhas, rising up in nine tiers to the great world-mountain at the center. A sKor Ra path leading around the mountain can be seen at the base the first tier. Generally speaking though this was all too high up in the dim rafters of the prayer-hall for me to photograph in detail, so I’ve only got a general description.

The mountain is labeled:

g.yung drung dgu brtsegs ri’i rtse mo / srid pa’i gangs ri dkar po / shel dkar gyi mchod rten brtsegs [?] pa’i tshul /

The Female Peak of the Nine Swastika Tiered Mountain / The White Snow Mountain of the Universe / The Land of the Layered Stupa of White Crystal /

From the top it seems that there is a route leading up to a higher paradise, but this was entirely too high to see clearly or photograph.



The ‘Cham


initial procession panorama

As for the ‘Cham itself, it was pretty cool. I’ve attached a few pictures. The order of dances and processions was as follows:

  1. A parade of all of the members of the ‘Cham and monks from the monastery: carrying tall banners and following white chalk marks left on the courtyard floor.
  2. Zhwa Nag brGyad: “Eight Black Hats”
  3. mChod Pai Lha Mo bZhi“Four Offering Goddesses”
  4. Keng Rus bZhi“Four Skeletons”. These came out to bring a heart on a chopping block to the big torma in the center of the ‘Cham. Later on they walked around among the spectators to collect money.
  5. dMu bDud Tang Srid Pa rGyal Mo gNyis“The dMu bDud Demon and the Queen of Existence”
  6. sTag Ri Rong: “The Tiger of Mountains and Valleys” This was by far the most popular god in the ‘cham. The whole monastery went crazy when stag ri rong came out, screaming out the name and going into byin ‘bebs trances.
  7. rMa rGyal Pom Ra: “The King of the Yellow River, Pom Ra”. (Another name for A Mye rMa Chen)
  8. A bSeSo far as I know, this name doesn’t have a meaning.
  9. dMag dPon gNyis“Two War Chiefs”
  10. Shel Khrab Can“The Crystal-Armored One”
  11. Bya Tang Seng Ge gNyis“The Bird and the Lion”
  12. Once again the keng rus “skeletons”
  13. All of the dancers came down together, along with many of the monks: They continued to dance around the courtyard for almost an hour, as many different things took place – the people crowded together to pass under the torma, fireworks were set off, etc., until all the gods and monks were slowly sent back up into the monastery one by one.

019 the mass dance, a bse

gshin rje yab and dmu bdud 02

022 rma chen pom ra tang stag ri rong tang dmu bdudl

Works Cited:

  • Buffetrille, Katia. “Khyung Mo Monastery (A’mDo) and Its ‘Map’ of ‘Ol Mo Lung Ring.” East and West 59.1-4 (2009): 313-26. Web.
  • Martin, Dan.
    • “Olmolungring: A Holy Place Here and Beyond.” Bon, The Magic Word: The Indigenous Religion of Tibet. Ed. Samten G. Karmay and Jeff Watt. New York, NY: Rubin Museum of Art, 2007. 99-123. Print.
    • “‘Ol-Mo-Lung-Ring, the Original Holy Place.” Sacred Spaces and Powerful Places in Tibetan Culture: A Collection of Essays. By Toni Huber. Dharamsala, H.P.: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1999. 258-97. Print.
  • Snellgrove, David L. The Nine Ways of Bon. London: Oxford U, 1967. Print.
China Gansu Inner Mongolia Photos Qinghai

A Shout-Out for a Friend


Above: Our camel, Subutai the Magnificent, resting on the grasslands in the Qilian Mountains

This is super after-the-fact, but I thought I’d put up a link here to my friend Adam Rouhana’s photo site, Among other things, this has got pictures from a walking trip we made from Lanzhou-ish to Dunhuang in the summer of 2014, partially in company of an extremely truculent camel that we bought in Alashan. The trip went Jingtai 景泰 – dPa Ris / Tianzhu 天祝 – Wuwei 武威 – Minle 民樂 – Zhangye 張掖 – Alashan Right Banner 阿拉善右旗 – Sunan 肅南 – Qilian 祁連 – Yumen 玉門 – Dunhuang 敦煌. I think Adam’s pictures at their best really get to the austere weirdness of rural west China, whether it’s camel-wrangling in the Gobi desert or the surreal lives of the petite-bourgeoisie in boom-town county-level Communist Gansu. Not many people genuinely attempt to see that world in all it’s weird glory, and in that sense I think these photos are actually something quite rare.

There’s also awesome photos from Morocco, the US, Palestine, and other places. So, you should check it out. Here are some of my favorite China pictures. All photos copyright Adam Rouhana, etc.:







Click here for more!

Art China Qinghai Tibet

Ambulatory Trees



These are some pictures from the ambulatories around the sides of Qutan Monastery 瞿曇寺 near Xining in Qinghai. These had pretty drawings of blue trees and were also the only place I could safely take photos without being spotted by the door-minder-monk and slapped with a 500 kuai fine. I went there with my friend Avi Conant. The dating of the pictures turns out to be complicated. The following is from “Sino-Tibetan Artistic Synthesis in Ming Dynasty Temples at the Core and Periphery”, by Karl Debreczeny, Tibet journal, Apr 2003, Vol.XXVIII(1-2), 56.

Qutansi is especially famous for its 400 square meters of extant murals along the
covered gallery, which depict the life of Sakyamuni Buddha (Fig.21), and whose
style is described by the Chinese scholar Jin Weinuo as being “related to both
Chinese and Tibetan [traditions], but with Chinese brushwork, heavy colors and
blue-green landscape styles predominating.”^53 This gallery was also built in 1427,
probably as part of the same Xuande-period construction program as Longguodian,
overseen by the court eunuch Meng Ji. Interestingly, architectural features identical
to Longguodian, down to the distinctive animals which decorate the roof-line
(Fig.22), appear throughout the first section of the covered gallery, such as in
“Maya’s Dream,” as if the artists used Longguodian as an architectural model for
their depiction of Maya’s palace. However, only about a third of the extant painting
in the gallery (mostly on the east and west walls north of Baoguang Hall up to the
large bell and drum towers) is thought to date to the Ming-period; the rest of the
gallery was repaired and repainted after 1782, coinciding with the previously cited
renovations made to Qutandian.

Since I took these pictures from all along the ambulatory, they can, confusingly, be dated to both the 18th and the 15th centuries.

Another interesting question related with this place is the fortress walls around it. With respect to these, there’s an interesting theory put forth in Aurelia Campbell’s 2011 University of Pennsylvania PhD thesis, “The Impact of Imperial and Local Patronage on Early Ming Temples at the Sino-Tibetan Frontier”. This is on p.128, descending into a footnote.

Qutansi was originally surrounded by an earthen fortress (chengbao 城堡) and
was entered through a defensive structure known as wengcheng 瓮城, which forced
visitors to enter at a right angle, rather than from straight on (fig. 12.1). In the Ming
dynasty, it was not unusual to see fortifications around monasteries in this part of the
country; in some cases, monasteries even doubled as military garrisons.^293

Footnote 293 reads:

See, for instance, the description of Honghuasi in Minhe county in Chapter One. Pu Tianbao
mentions another temple in Minhe, Kedekesi 喀的喀寺 [sic], with a fortress. Pu Tianbao, “Qutansi
wenwu luyou ziyuan kafa de tansuo,” Qinghai minzu yanjiu (Shehui kexue ban) 12, 4 (2001): 24-
25. Isabelle Charleux believes that the fortifications seen in temples in Amdo were left over from
the Central Asian tradition of constructing square fortified monasteries in the ninth to the eleventh
centuries, such as those at Turfān, Qocho, and Duldur-āqur. This subject requires further
investigation. Isabelle Charleux, “Buddhist Monasteries in Southern Mongolia: A Preliminary
Survey,” in The Buddhist Monastery. A Cross-Cultural Survey, ed. Pierre Pichard and Francois
Lagiarde (Paris: École Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, 2003), 24.

Let it be stated, for the record, that I do not think that the decision to enfold Qutan Monastery in a fortress has anything to do with Central Asian monastic architecture. Rather, it has to do with the structure of Chinese village fortresses, of which there used to be many in the area. But this is already another argument.