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An Introduction to the Amdo Cultural Region

The Amdo (a mdo) part of the greater Tibetan cultural region is an area roughly the size of France in the northeastern portion of the Tibetan Plateau and is characterized by a shared language and a distinctive social structure and religious culture. This region is demarcated most importantly by a shared language, which is mutually unintelligible to people from Kham (khams) and Central Tibet (people from Ladakh [la dwags] have an easier time understanding the Amdo language, because the regions farthest from Central Tibet preserved certain elements of ancient Tibetan speech from the imperial period). Even within Amdo there is a great variation of dialects, but in general Amdo Tibetans can communicate with one another. Amdo’s social structure is defined most importantly by the basic community units of tsowa (tsho ba), which consist of groups of families (only rarely of a single clan) that share a responsibility to support each other on important social occasions such as marriage and funerals. Amdo’s religious culture is characterized by a remarkable lack of conflict between the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, which have co-existed without any recorded armed conflict in this region. Although the Geluk (dge lugs) tradition dominates most of northern-eastern (farming) Amdo, the Nyingma (rnying ma) tradition is also well-represented there and in Golok (mgo log) through the presence of key monasteries and, more importantly in some areas, village Mani (ma ni) or Tantric Halls that serve a lay community of practitioners. The Sakya (sa skya) and Kagyü (bka' brgyud) traditions were strong in Amdo from the 13th and 14th centuries, but they were gradually replaced in almost all of Amdo by the Geluk tradition in the 17th century. The Jonang (jo nang) Tibetan Buddhist and Bön (bon) traditions also have a significant presence in Amdo, especially in the southeastern regions.

Amdo’s environment is incredibly varied, ranging from soaring mountain ranges and deep forested valleys much like the Canadian Rockies (though populated with pandas) to high altitude grasslands to lower river valleys (2000 meters) and barren wastes. In general, the higher altitude regions to the south and west (Golok, Ngawa [rnga ba], etc.) are inhabited by nomads, while in the lower elevations of the north and east (Tsongkha [tsong kha], Choné [co ne], etc.) there are farming communities. The main river running through the region is the Ma River (rma chu, Huanghe, Yellow River), the main lake is the vast Tso Ngön (mtsho sngon, Kokonor [Mongolian], Qinghai, Blue Ocean), and the highest mountain range is the Anyé Machen (a myes rma chen) range. The geographic center of the continental People’s Republic of China’s territory is just east of the Amdo cultural border, near the town of Linxia.

Amdo is distinguished by incredible ethnic diversity, especially at the northern and northeastern edges of the Tibetan plateau, which made in-migration fairly easy compared to the rest of the plateau. Chinese, Kazakhs, Salar Muslims originally from Central Asia, ethnic Chinese, Mongol (Dongxiang and Bao’an), and Tibetan Muslims, Monguor, Mongol, Uighur and Chinese (maybe as many as 150,000) Tibetan Buddhists represent some of the many ethnic and religious groups that have intermixed in this area for centuries.

In terms of cultural and intellectual contributions to Tibetan civilization, Amdo was home to the three scholars of the post-imperial period who managed to preserve Tibetan Buddhist traditions that were driven out of Central Tibet in the ninth century. They passed these traditions on to Gongpa Rapsel (dgongs pa rab gsal) who then transmitted the teachings to students from Central Tibet who returned there to reintroduce Buddhism in Ü (dbus) and Tsang (gtsang). In the fourteenth century, Tsongkhapa Lozang Drakpa (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa), the founder of the Gelukpa (dge lugs pa) tradition was born in Amdo, though he lived his adult life in Central Tibet. Two lamas famous for the poetic songs came from the Rebgong (reb gong) region of Amdo, Kelden Gyatso (skal ldan rgya mtsho) in the 17th century and Zhapkar (zhabs dkar) in the 19th century. The 18th & 19th century Gelukpa intellectuals from Amdo, such as Sumpa Khenpo (sum pa mkhan po), the Cangkya (lcang skya), Tukwan (tuguan) and Tsenpo (btsan po) incarnations, made important contributions to religious doxographies, world geography, history, and religious biography. In the 20th century, the 14th Dalai Lama and 10th Panchen Lama were both born in Amdo as well. Also in the 20th and 21st centuries, Amdo has become an important source for modern Tibetan literature, from the early work of Gendun Chopel (dge 'dun chos phel) to Dondrup Gyel (don grub rgyal) to Jangbu (byang bu) and many others. Amdo leads the Tibetan regions in the numbers and diversity of literary magazines, both secular and religious in origin.

Politically, the Amdo region has never been home to a single polity that ruled the entire region, nor has it ever been a distinct state or province of any other polity. While the Tibetan empire dominated the region for centuries and its impact shaped the region for over a millennium, the Tsongkha kingdom at the turn of the 11th century was the only Tibetan polity based in the area that ever dominated the region. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the Coné kingdom and the Kagyü tradition’s Drotsang (gro tshang) monastery represented significant centers of power. The Qoshud Mongols starting with Gushri Khan ruled the region from 1638 to 1724, though they gave significant command over local land and subjects to monasteries such as Gonlung. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) the Coné kingdom and Labrang (bla brang) Monastery respectively also ruled over large territories on the eastern edge of Amdo, while the Golok federation dominated much of the southwestern highlands. The political history of Ngawa is largely unstudied and deserves more attention.

In terms of the current administrative units of the People’s Republic of China, the core of Amdo is in Tso Ngön (mtsho sngon, Qinghai) province, though few Tibetans inhabit areas very far west of the great lake Kokonor, and Yülshül (yul shul, Yushu) prefecture to the south is part of the Kham cultural region. In Gansu, the autonomous county of Pari (dpa' ris, Tianzhu) marks the northeastern-most extension of the Tibetan culture, though Tibetan culture at one time reached Liangzhou (Wuwei) as late as the 14th century. In southern Gansu, Kenlho (kan lho, Gannan) prefecture is composed of Tibetan autonomous counties. Some remnants of the previous spread of Tibetan culture extend beyond the eastern borders of Kenlho, in areas that are now Muslim or Chinese in culture, such as Linxia (formerly ruled by Tibetans). A significant portion of Sichuan province is also part of Amdo, mostly in the northern and eastern parts of Ngawa (Aba) prefecture, though excluding the areas of Gyelrong (rgyal rong), and including Sertar (gser thar, Seda) county in Kandzé (dkar mdzes, Ganzi) prefecture. In terms of major cities, the capital of Qinghai province, Ziling (zi ling, Xining), is the only large city in Amdo, though both Xining and Lanzhou are home to minority nationality universities with significant Tibetan studies programs. Other important towns include Rebgong (Tongren), Labrang (Xiahe), Tsö (gtsos, Hezuo), and Chapcha (chab cha, in Gonghe county), as all have vibrant Tibetan communities and Tibetan teachers’ colleges.

An Introduction to the Amdo Cultural Region
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Author Gray Tuttle