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An Introduction to Gyelrong

Like other Tibetan cultural-linguistic regions, the Gyelrong (rgyal rong) region might be best defined by the original extent of a set of four related Gyelrong languages, which some have argued is an entirely different language family than Tibetan. Whatever the case may be, these four languages are farther removed from Central Tibetan than either Kham (khams) or Amdo (a mdo) languages, though they are clearly closely related to the other main Tibetan languages. For example, from a set of a thousand basic words in Tibetan, almost 75% were shared with other Tibetan languages. Gyelrongwas (rgyal rong ba, people from Gyelrong) currently speak a range of different languages, including Gyelrong, Kham Tibetan, Amdo Tibetan, and Sichuan Chinese, which tends to serve as a common language now. This linguistic range also represents the ethnic composition of the region, with Amdo and Kham Tibetans, Han Chinese (some residents since the 18th century military colonies were established) and the Qiang people (mostly to the southeast part of Ngawa Prefecture [rnga ba bod rigs cha'ang rigs rang skyong khul]) bordering and intermixing with the Gyelrongwa. Despite obvious linguistic differences, Gyelrongwas are lumped together with Tibetans by the Chinese state’s ethnic classification, largely because they share cultural features with the Tibetans. For this reason, it is difficult to find an accurate count of the number of Gyelrong people, but their numbers probably run into the hundreds of thousands.

The name Gyelmo Rong (rgyal mo rong) can be translated as Valley of the Queen, or “Queendom,” which hints at the significant history of the region having been ruled by women. The region is famous in Chinese historical literature and now popular culture as the “Nüguo” or “country (ruled by) women.” “Gyelmo Rong” is the abbreviation of “shar gyelmo tsawa rong” (shar rgyal mo tsha ba rong), meaning “The Hot Valley of the Queen in the East.” Gyelrong is simply an abbreviation of this longer name, though it could also be translated as “Valley of the Kings,” which would be appropriate now given the eighteen kingdoms in the region. Finally, the term Gyarong (rgya rong), which could be translated as “Chinese valley,” has sometimes been used to describe this region, but this seems to be a misnomer. Since the region is best known as Gyelrong, that is the term that will be used in this short essay.

One way of defining the Gyelrong region is by its past political history, namely by reference to the territory of the eighteen kingdoms of Gyelrong. The Chakla King (lcags la rgyal po, Mingzheng tusi) with his capital in Dartsendo (dar rtse mdo, Kangding) was at one time the most powerful and ruled the largest territory, especially after the Central Tibetan government and military was driven out of the region in 1700 until the rise of the Rapten/Chuchen (rab brtan/ chu chen, Jinchuan) kingdom in the mid-1700s. In the early 18th century the Chakla kingdom’s territory covered most of southern and western Gyelrong: all of present county of Gyezur (brgyad zur, Jiulong), and parts of Dartsendo, Tau (rta'u, Daofu), Nyachukha (nya chu kha, Yajiang), and Rongdrak (rong brag, Danba) counties. The other historically important kingdoms were located in the northern part of Gyelrong and include Tsenlha (btsan lha, Xiaojin), Trokyap (khro skyabs), and Rapten/Chuchen, southeast of Dzamtang ('dzam thang). The other minor kingdoms were Gotang (mgo thang), Gomé (mgo smad), and Gotö (mgo stod) east of Dartsendo; Drakteng (brag steng), Pawang (dpa' dbang), Geshitsa (dge shis tsa), Gyelkha (rgyal mkha), Okzhi ('og gzhi), Lunggu (lung dgu, Wenchuan), and Muchi (mu phyi) in the center of the Gyelrong region; and Somo (so mo), Choktsé (cog tse), Dzingak (rdzi 'gag), and Tenpa (bstan pa) in the northeastern part of Gyelrong, referred to as as the Four Tusi (thu'u si, Situ, 四土), in present day Barkham ('bar khams, Ma’erkang). As a result of frequent fighting between a number of rival kingdoms, Gyelrong is famous for its distinctive architecture of dramatic stone towers in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

In terms of the modern administrative units that include parts of the Gyelrong region, they are located in the most eastern and southeastern parts of Kandzé Prefecture (dkar mdzes bod rigs rang skyong khul) and the most south and eastern parts of Ngawa Prefecture. In Kandzé Prefecture: parts of Dartsendo, Tau, Nyakchukha, and all of Rongdrak, Chakzam (lcag zam, Luding) and Gyezur counties, though Chakzam has become so Sinified that its historic connection to Gyelrong is mostly forgotten and Gyezur is now thought of as more a part of Kham. In Ngawa Prefecture: Rapten/Chuchen, Tsenlha, and Barkham counties, and parts of Lunggu/Tritsang, Trashiling (bkra shis gling, Li), and Trochu (khro chu, Heishui) counties, though in these latter two kingdoms the Gyelrong kings ruled over substantial populations of Qiang people and Amdowas (a mdo ba), respectively. The current division of the Gyelrong between these two Tibetan autonomous prefectures may have something to do with the orientation of these regions toward Kham and Amdo, respectively, as well as geographic features, such as the mountain range that divides Kham from Gyelrong along the Ngawa/Kandzé boundary. To get a sense of the greatest extent of political territory under the rule of Gyelrong kingdoms in history, see this link (in the case of the eastern and western-most counties, only parts of them were included): contemporary map of counties that comprise Gyelrong cultural region.

Because parts of the historic Gyelrong kingdoms and current administrative divisions overlap so much with parts of Kham and Amdo, Gyelrong or parts of Gyelrong are sometimes included in some overviews of Kham and Amdo. For instance, Dartsendo is currently thought of as being part of Kham, and there is little discussion or memory that the Chakla Kingdom was a central part of Gyelrong in such contexts. Yet the Dartsendo region retained important elements of Gyelrong identity into the late 20th century at least. Likewise, all of Ngawa Prefecture, including Gyelrong counties, is often included in surveys of Amdo, starting back at least as early as the nineteenth century, when Brakgonpa (brag dgon pa) wrote his Ocean Annals ([deb ther rgya mtsho] often erroneously called the Amdo Dharma History [a mdo/mdo smad chos 'byung]). This inclusion in Amdo may be related to the efforts of some Gelukpa (dge lugs pa) monks, with Qing imperial support, to convert the Bönpo (bon po) monasteries and populace of northern Gyelrong after the Jinchuan wars of the 18th century.

In terms of environment features, Gyelrong is marked by steep wooded mountains and river valleys, some sections of which are narrow gorges. The most famous mountain, and a prominent Bön and Buddhist pilgrimage site, is Mount Murdo (dmu rdo) (4820 m). A single 120 mile long river basin is at the core of the Gyelrong region, though the main stem and its tributary rivers are known by many names as the river flows from north to south. The central section of the Da Jinchuan River (Great Gold Stream) is known in Tibetan as Chuchen (chu chen, Big River), while its eastern tributary the Tsen River (bstan) is known in Chinese as the Xiao Jinchuan (Small Gold Stream). Where these two rivers meet (at the seat of Rongdrak county), the confluence of them forms the Gyelmo Ngulchu River (rgyal mo rngul chu, Daduhe), which flows into the Min River (min chu, Minjiang) south of Chengdu. The upper part of the Min River is found on the eastern edges of Gyelrong.

In terms of religious history, not much has been written about Gyelrong religion in English. During the Tibetan imperial period, Vairocana was said to have been exiled in the Gyelrong region. Northern Gyelrong is also famous as a stronghold of the Bön tradition. This may partially explain why northern Gyelrong is attached to Ngawa Prefecture, as the Nangzhik monastery (snang zhig dgon) of the Ngawa grasslands and the Bön monasteries of Sharkhok (shar khog, Songpan) created natural cultural links to the northern Gyelrong region. The most important Bön monastery in the region was the Yungdrung Lhanding Monastery (g.yung drung lha lding dgon) in Rabten/Chuchen. During the Ming there was a Bön monastery in the Lunggu kingdom (just north of the Wolong nature preserve) called Jiakewa in Ming (Tibetan unknown, but this may be the temple known as Jinbo Si in Chaopo township of Lunggu/Tritsang county) that, along with its subsidiary monasteries, was the home institution to nearly 5,000 monks. There were also important monasteries in Tsenlha, Barkham, Drati (sbra ti), Trokyap (khro skyabs) and Choktsé. Finally, the northernmost kingdoms were closely connected to Nangzhik Monastery in Ngawa. In 1730 the New Bön tradition was introduced into the region by Sanggyé Lingpa (sangs rgyas gling pa) and Kundrol Drakpa (kun bkrol brag pa). This tradition is outside the mainstream Bön tradition partially because of its embrace Nyingma (rnying ma) treasure cycles and the associated narratives of Padmasambhava. The region also played an important role in the printing of Bön religious texts. During the Ming dynasty, a set of 100 Bön texts was printed in the Lunggu kingdom. In 1751 the Bön Kanjur (bon bka' 'gyur) of 281 volumes was printed by the Trochen King (khro chen rgyal po) Künga Norbu (kun dga' nor bu) to fulfill the intentions of the previous Trochen King Tseten Peljor (tshe bstan dpal 'byor). In 1764 and 1766 respectively, the Rapten and Trochen Kings sponsored the printings of a sixteen volume Bön version of the Prajñāpāramitā, called the Khamchen (kham chen), to which the family lineages (Dungrap, gdung rabs) of two of the religious kings were attached.

In terms of political history, aside from these two family lineages Gyelrong is best studied from the Chinese sources, which record contact with leading lamas from the area from the Ming dynasty as well as major wars with the Qing dynasty. From the early 15th to the middle of the 17th century the local rulers, who were mostly high lamas, participated in tributary relations with the Ming court. These monks were often actively involved in military disputes, at first with rival Tibetan groups, but by the 18th century with the Qing state itself. Both Qing wars in the Jinchuan regions were waged to keep two Bön monk-rulers (entitled shaluoben in Chinese sources; Loppön (slop dpon) in Tibetan, a title often given to the reigning king’s younger brother, who was often a monk) from expanding their power and enlarging their kingdoms (based in Chuchen and Tsenlha) at the expense of other Gyelrong kingdoms. The first Jinchuan war was fought from 1747-1749. The second Jinchuan war was waged between 1771-1776. The first Jinchuan campaign employed 200,000 laborers to support the military campaign, while the second employed over 400,000 laborers. The second Jinchuan campaign cost the Qing court 61 million taels, and involved almost 130,000 troops. Given that a Qing soldier or military laborer was considered well paid at the rate of two taels a month, this gives some sense of the cost of suppressing the Gyelrong region. In 1772 there was a token effort at forced conversion of Bönpo monasteries to the Gelukpa tradition but the Qianlong emperor’s support was only token, and he actually did not allow the Gelukpa the freedom to convert or proselytize in this region at the conclusion of the war. Instead, many monasteries were made into barracks for Qing troops. From the current strength of the Bön tradition in this area, the Gelukpa clearly did not make significant inroads during the Qing period.

Gray Tuttle, with assistance from Gyelrongwas: Dareji (Yinhong) and Tenzin Jinba


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An Introduction to Gyelrong
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Author Gray Tuttle