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.


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