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)

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