Emergent climate crisis in Tibet


Blog one  of two on climate change , glaciers, rivers and China’s ecological civilisation


snow melt and glacier melt on five of the major rivers originating in Tibet. From left: Indus, Ganges, Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, Gyalmo Ngulchu/Salween and Zachu/Mekong
Source: ICIMOD Himalayan Climate Atlas 2015

When 11,000 scientists world wide issue a warning that collectively we face “untold suffering due to the climate crisis”, yet the world’s governments response is totally inadequate, we pay attention, for  a moment.  We move on. Someone really oughta do something.

The global climate emergency, long coming and now peaking, faces crunch time when all world governments gather in Madrid early December 2019. Starting 2 December,  the Conference of the Parties (COP25) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change assembles. The popular swell of demands for urgent and effective action to reduce carbon emissions and hold climate warming to no more than a manageable 1.5 degrees, is set to climax.

The world will be watching , to see if governments are at last willing to do more than talk vaguely of “common but differentiated responsibilities” to act. Currently each country selects  its own targets. That is as far as the world got in Paris in 2015. Since then, climate extremes have only gotten worse. What seemed a distant danger is now happening to us all: more intense droughts, floods, fires, cyclones, blizzards.

never mind the Potala, just look at those cumulus humilis AND cumulus fractus
Source: Atlas of Clouds over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, 1986

Will COP25 Madrid 2019 change anything? As always, all the hopes, fears and attention will be on the biggest emitters, none bigger than China. The smaller countries, other than photogenic Pacific islands disappearing under rising waves, tend to be also-rans. The world’s emerging economies, global south, developing countries, whatever you call them, did almost nothing to cause the climate crisis, and get little attention, except for one country that positions itself as the leader and exemplary role model for all developing countries: China.

In a world where the US denies the reality of climate change, and Europe is unable to agree on anything, it is understandable that the hopefuls pin their hopes on China. But that is hope against hope. All China ever agreed to in Paris in 2015 was to reduce the carbon intensity of its heavy industries. China did not agree to actually begin reducing its carbon emissions until 2030; yet 2030 is the date set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for the world to complete its emissions reductions, if we are, as a planet, to have a real chance of stopping climate warming from running away uncontrollably.

ICIMOD’s 2015 Himalayan Climate & Water Atlas

What of Tibet? By area, the Tibetan Plateau is almost two percent of the planet’s land surface, the same size as Western Europe. Tibet matters, not only because of its extent but its height, half way up into the troposphere, so high it diverts the jet stream around Tibet, not over it. Nowhere else on earth does that. In winter the jet stream, racing west round the mid latitudes, diverts around the south side of the plateau; in summer it switches to divert round the northern edges of Tibet.

only the Tibetan Plateau can split the jetstream

China is acutely aware that the Tibet is upriver, with both of China’s great rivers, the Yellow and the Yangtze, rising in the glaciers of Tibet. Tibet is also upwind of lowland China, and the climate in Tibet, capable of drawing monsoons deep inland, has a profound impact on the climate of Asia. It’s only in recent decades that climate scientists managed to connect the dots and discover how interdependent climates are, how teleconnections and forcings influence climates far away.

The intense cold of Tibet in winter is well known, less well known is how fast the entire Tibetan plateau heats in spring, especially on the bare rock of the mountain slopes, above the vegetation line. Intense sun, in the largely dry springtime climate, heats the thin air and bare rock of Tibet fast, which drives the monsoon dynamic, both the arrival in summer of the South Asian monsoon from the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal; then, a little later, the arrival of the East Asian monsoon from the tropical Pacific

So Tibet does matter, not only to Tibetans. It matters especially to China and Japan, most immediately downwind, but weather and climate in Tibet have measurable effects in North America too.

However, the world knows little about climate change in Tibet, although the Tibetan exile government has tried for a decade or more to raise the profile. So this Rukor blog lays out the evidence on what is likely to happen in Tibet, over the coming decades, if the world succeeds in Madrid 2019 in effectively curbing emissions, and if the world yet again fails to take effective action to reduce emissions.

This blog draws on the extensive mapping and modelling done by climate scientists on the future climate of Tibet, not only the melting of the glaciers, but the whole range of climate changes under way, and accelerating. This blog features maps of the future climate of Tibet, in the 2040s, 2060s, even in 2095, both on the assumption that carbon emissions are globally reduced, and on the alternative assumption the world fails to take effective action.

The great rivers of Tibet and their downstream populations. Source ICIMOD

China congratulates itself on being the global leader in ecological civilisation construction, but the data on Tibet suggest otherwise.


From Brooklyn to Bangladesh the headlines arising from the latest IPCC report, on Oceans and Cryosphere, have focussed on the prospects of a dangerous rise in the levels of the seas lapping our shores.

Far from the shores, and the headlines, the IPCC also reported on the high mountains and glaciers at the start of the water cycle. It is there that climate change is impacting lives right now, in myriad ways.

In the Himalayas, Tibetan communities have skilfully managed precipitous, precarious environments for thousands of years, but now face ruin caused by climate change. The IPCC report on the cryosphere –the world’s cold regions- and the oceans details the remarkable adaptability of Tibetans, in the mountains and across the high Tibetan Plateau, as climate change changes everything. Adaptable as they are, those changes are accelerating, cancelling customary livelihoods.

It’s not only the headline writers in lowland cities who seldom notice the multiple impacts of climate change right now in the highlands, it is also the politicians, who now benefit from increasing river runoff as glaciers melt.

This is especially so in China, where the great Yellow River, cradle of China’s civilisation, runs dry, exhausted by draining off its waters for heavy industry,  especially coal, coal chemicals and coal-fired power plant cooling towers, across northern China. http://paper.people.com.cn/zgnyb/html/2018-02/26/content_1839095.htm


Rather than turn away from dependence on coal, or commit to specific emission reduction targets, China quietly enjoys a secret dividend, of increased flow, down the Yellow River from the glaciers of Tibet, as they melt at unprecedented rate.

runoff increasing, on Tibetan rivers, 2014

The glaciers at the head of the great rivers coming from Tibet –the Indus, Yangtze and Mekong as well as the Yellow- can dispense this special dividend only for a while, until they dwindle and disappear. Now the IPCC has put a timeline on this. Peak water will come as soon as mid-century; after that the shrinking glaciers will retreat upslope, unable to replenish, fading from view. By the end of this century they will largely be gone.

The IPCC, marshalling all available evidence, says: “Melt water from glaciers in the mountains can be an important source of water in hot and dry years or seasons when river runoff would otherwise be low, and thereby also reducing variability in total river runoff from year to year, even hundreds of kilometres away from the glaciers. As glaciers shrink, annual glacier runoff typically first increases, until a turning point, often called “peak water” is reached, upon which runoff declines.” IPCC  SROCC  2-25, 2-28

Glacier melt raises river flows Source: Immerzeel, 2013

“The average winter runoff is expected to increase (high confidence), and spring peak maxima will occur earlier (very high confidence). Although observed and projected trends in annual runoff vary substantially among regions and can even be opposite in sign, there is high confidence that average annual runoff from glaciers will have reached a peak, with declining runoff thereafter, at the latest by the end of the 21st century in most regions. The projected changes in runoff are expected to affect downstream water management, related hazards and ecosystems.” IPCC SROCC 2-26

This Rukor report delves not only into the implications of the IPCC Cryosphere and Oceans report, but also brings you the scientific research IPCC relies on.

when will peak water pay its best dividend to those downriver, before dwindling as glaciers shrink? Blue assumes world acts to effectively limit carbon emissions, red assumes world fails to cut emissions. Source: IPCC 2019

IPCC estimates of the glacier melt dividend downstream. In High Mountain Asia, which is mostly the Tibetan Plateau, the key question is when will increased runoff due to climate warming peak, and then dwindle as the glacial sources dwindle and disappear? The two graphs offer two differing answers, because they are based on two differing scenarios of future climate change emissions reductions. The graphs in blue assume the world will act quickly and effectively to reduce emissions; those in red assume governments fail to act and carbon emissions will continue rising. In both scenarios peak water will be mid-century, and then decline.

For the news cycle, and the attention span of political leaders, that’s way in the future. What matters now, and for decades to come, is increased runoff, a free public good delivered cost free for as long as it still snows in the Kunlun, Tian Shan, Tanglha, Amnye Machen , Hengduan and Himalayas: the mountains surrounding Tibet.

In the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra basin, who extracts its waters, and in which month?

Only some of those mountain ranges capture monsoonal moisture and hold it as snow and ice, gradually releasing their melt into streams and rivers flowing across China. The Indus River benefits more from snow and ice melt, more on that below. Of China’s great rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow, both originating in Tibetan glaciers, the Yangtze is by far the bigger, its runoff augmented not only by glaciers at the source but also in Kham, well down the Dri Chu/Yangtze/Chang Jiang. The snowpeaks of Kham, such as the pilgrimage mountain Khawa Karpo (Meili Snow Mountain in Chinese) capture, store and release a lot of water.

For lowland China, the only river in need of a climate induced dividend of extra runoff is the Yellow.  The dividend on the Yellow may be much less than on the Yangtze, where it only prolongs the flood season. On the Yellow River (Huang He in Chinese) the dividend may be quite modest, and not deliver extra water far below Tibet. The Yellow is one of the longest rivers in the world, much of it through desert.

genererating “green” energy in Inner Mongolia from coal and water from Tibet, delivered by the Yellow River

In recent decades, there have been serious proposals to greatly boost the Yellow River’s flow by diverting water away from Yangtze tributaries in Tibet, building dams to impound water, canals and tunnels to get that water across to the Yellow River which, in some Tibetan areas, is only 100 kms away, with mountains in between. This is the sort of challenge China’s engineers can overcome, at great cost to both budgets and nature.

Officially, this huge project is the third stage of the three-stage South-to-North Water Transfer Project, and the first two stages, in lowland eastern China, are complete and operational. The third stage, still on the books of successive Five-Year Plans, is officially the Western Route, and has been thoroughly mapped. Yet there are no indications that it will actually be built. There may be many reasons why it languishes. The other two canals have been somewhat disappointing in delivering sufficient water northwards to be worth the cost. Damming and diverting water across Kham Kandze prefecture, a troubled area, would be expensive and difficult. But the bottom line is that even if done, it would not deliver enough water to the Yellow River to lift its river flow as far as the lower reaches, closest to Beijing, where extra water is most badly needed.

Diverting the Yangtze to the Yellow River, if it works as planned, would deliver its’ dividend to the heavily polluting industries of Qinghai Xining and Gansu Lanzhou, traversing Ningxia and then looping lengthily through arid Inner Mongolia, the core of China’s coal mining belt. There would be no increased flow beyond that, in Henan or Shandong.

No doubt the oil refineries and salt lake metals producers of Xining and Lanzhou would appreciate the availability of more water, likewise the steel mills and mass array of coal-fired power stations in Inner Mongolia.  But they are not the centre of Chinese power, and may be on the brink of a similar de-industrialisation to China’s rust belt North-east. Older, more polluting heavy industries face new difficulties, not only from enforcement of pollution laws, but from China shifting the world’s factory abroad and further inland to coal-rich, oil-rich Xinjiang.

River runoff of five great Tibetan rivers now and in 2040s. Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong. In each box, left bar is actual runoff measured from 1998 to 2007, next bar is runoff predicted for 2040s. On each river runoff will increase.

If these water-intensive and resource-intensive industries cannot succeed in persuading Beijing to further dam Kham Kandze, it is because the dividend of extra water would fail to get far enough downstream. Likewise, the dividend of extra runoff into the Yellow River from shrinking glaciers may not suffice to impact far downstream. No-one has sufficient evidence to be sure. The 14th Five-Year Plan for 2021 to 2025 is currently being actively debated among China’s policy elites; we may soon see whether the Western Route of the South-to-North Water Transfer Project still exists.


IPCC tells us that even if carbon emissions are dramatically and rapidly cut and succeed in limiting global warming to 1.5C, 36% of the glaciers along the Hindu Kush and Himalayan range will have gone by 2100. If emissions are not cut, the loss increases to two-thirds.

The scientists watch as climate change sweeps aside all past calculations of risk and reward in the high mountains of Asia that ring Tibet. The IPCC report is recognised as authoritative because it draws together all that is known, all that has been measured and extrapolated to let us know what we, as a planet, are in for.

peak water, rise and fall as glacier melt accelerates Source: IPCC 2019

IPCC says: “At first, glacier runoff increases because the glacier melts faster and more water flows downhill from the glacier. However, there will be a turning point after several years or decades, often called ‘peak water’, after which glacier runoff and hence its contribution to river flow downstream will decline. Peak water runoff from glaciers can exceed the amount of initial yearly runoff by 50 percent or more. This excess water can be used in different ways, such as for hydropower or irrigation.” 2-28

IPCC reminds us we have all tended to regard water coming to us from upriver as a common pool resource, taken for granted, uncosted, a free public good to be exploited at will, without consequences. Economists call this an externality, which means provision of water doesn’t show up in the accounts. Now, in the era of climate change, nothing we took for granted can any longer be taken for granted. Common pool resources do have finite limits, which need to be respected, and governed for the welfare of all, for ecosystem health.

IPCC’s Summary, running to 1070 pages, is far from the only source we can turn to. The Kathmadu-based International Centre on Mountain Development (ICIMOD) also published, in 2019,  a massive summation of all that is known about the Tibetan mountains and their glaciers.

The 2019 ICIMOD Hindukush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People, only 627 pages, also identifies the payoff downstream of icemelt high in the mountains: “Recent work shows that within each basin there is significant variability; the closer one gets to the glaciers and snow reserves within a basin, the greater the relative importance of glacier and snowmelt runoff. Several large-scale benchmark studies have focused on quantifying the importance of glacier and snowmelt runoffs in the overall hydrology of large Asian river basins. Glaciers have the potential to provide seasonally delayed meltwater to the rivers. Meltwater can make the greatest contribution to river flow during warm and dry seasons, which is particularly important to the water budget in water-scarce lowlands that are densely populated. A global study estimating seasonally delayed glacier runoff relative to precipitation input showed that the Indus basin had the greatest human dependence on glacier water within the HinduKush Himalaya.” (p.262)

In 2015 ICIMOD published a detailed study of climate change and its likely effects, between 2021 and 2050 on the six major rivers originating in southern Tibet: the Indus, Ganges, Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, Gyalmo Ngulchu/Salween and Zachu/Mekong. ICIMOD’s HIMALAYAN CLIMATE AND WATER ATLAS: IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE ON WATER RESOURCES IN FIVE OF ASIA’S MAJOR RIVER BASINS, after reviewing the historic record of rainfall and temperature for each river, and after running computer projections for the year 2050, on a scenario of the world acting to curb emissions (RCP 4.5), and another scenario in which the world fails to do anything effective about emissions (RCP 8.5), came to the conclusion:

 “Under both RCP scenarios, the amount of glacier and snow meltwater will decrease, while the amount of rainfall-runoff will increase, for the upper basins of the Brahmaputra, Ganges, Salween and Mekong. For the upper Indus basin, the contribution of glacial melt is projected to increase in both scenarios, and the contribution of snow melt and rainfall to runoff are projected to decrease for the extreme cases in the RCP 8.5 scenario. Overall, no significant decrease in runoff is projected until at least 2050 for all of the basins.

forecasting Tibet temperature increase: top two maps cover years 2036 to 2065, bottom two 2066 to 2095; two left maps assume world acts to reduce carbon emissions, right two maps assume little effective action to limit emissions

“An increase in runoff is projected for both RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5 scenarios for the upper Ganges (1–27%), Brahmaputra (0–13%) and Mekong (2–20%) basins. Increasing precipitation is the main driver of this change, which will compensate for decreasing contributions of glacial and snow melt. For the upper Indus and Salween basins, the picture is uncertain and varies depending on the scenario. Under the RCP 4.5 ensemble mean, the total upper Indus river flow increases (12%), while under the RCP 8.5 ensemble mean, it decreases (–5%) compared to the reference period. In the upper Salween basin, the projected change in total river flow ranges from –3 to +19%. The difference is mainly due to a reduction in snow melt and rainfall runoff under RCP 8.5, caused by a decrease in precipitation, although glacial melt increases in both scenarios.” (p 78)

Predicting Tibet winter temperature increases in coming decades (upper maps) and rainfall (lower maps). Assumes world acts to curb emissions (left maps) or fails to curb emissions (right maps).


The deep irony is that China persists in taking its great rivers rising in Tibet as common pool resources for exploitation; while accusing Tibetan pastoralists of abusing the common pool resource of Tibetan pasture lands for unsustainable exploitation

What China above all wants from Tibet is water, and is willing to depopulate Tibet to maximise water flow. Yet in reality the alpine meadows of Tibet are inseparable from the rivers flowing for a thousand kms or more through them, from their glacial sources across the pastoral landscapes before tilting to the lowlands.

Predicting rainfall and temperature to year 2050, in the watersheds in Kham of Salween/Gyalmo Ngulchu and Mekong/Zachu. Seasonal changes to rainfall (left maps) and temperature (right maps). Assuming world limits carbon emissions (upper maps) or fails to limit emissions (lower maps).

China, however, treats the rivers as sacred, and their pastoral meanderings among Tibetan livestock producers as a threat to the reliable provisioning of lowland China with upland water, glacially pure. When assessing grassland, China assumes common pool resources will inevitably be abused, because what belongs to everyone thus belongs to no-one. Yet when it comes to the waters of Tibet China treats this common pool resource as vitally valuable to lowland China, to be protected upstream by cancelling human land use.

China in early 2019 announced a massive expansion of hydro dams and power grids on the rivers of Tibet, especially on the Yangtze (Dri Chu in Tibetan) and its many Tibetan tributaries, as damming of the Yellow River in Tibet was completed decades ago. As the world’s most hydraulic economy, China has impounded, diverted and extracted more water from rivers than anywhere on our planet. In t[1]he name of renewable energy and carbon emissions mitigation, China is intensifying these programs. China’s anxiety over water means it also publishes more on water problems than any other country.

Two great rivers in Tibet Kham: upper Salween/Gyalmo Ngulchu and Mekong/Zachu: predictions of seasonal changes in rainfall (left maps) and temperature (right maps) for decades to 2050. Assuming world limits carbon emissions (upper maps) or fails to limit emissions (lower maps)
two great Tibetan watersheds: Gyalmo Ngulchu/Salween from Kham through Myanmar, and Zachu/Mekong from Kham to Vietnam

Yet China’s argument for depopulating vast rangelands of Tibet, especially in the river source area, which is bigger than Germany, is that the nomads irresponsibly degraded the land by overgrazing, paying no heed to the health of the commons.

Factually, this is baseless. Many Chinese scientists have shown in fieldwork studies of the skilful use of pasture by Tibetan nomads, who always move on well before grasses are overgrazed, mindful of the need to protect their long term livelihoods.[2] It is China’s restrictions on nomadic mobility that caused the overgrazing which China blames on careless nomads abusing the commons.

China has invested much effort in quantifying the runoff dividend, also in hydro damming the Yellow River in many places in Tibet (Qinghai in Chinese), plus excessive extraction of Yellow River waters in arid regions with abundant coal, to supply all of China with electricity and much else, even milk from Inner Mongolia from intensive factory farms made possible only by abundant water coming down the Yellow River, traversing the desert.

factory farming milk productionn by Mengniu corporation, Inner Mongolia, heavily reliant on water from distant Tibet

Water as a free public good has been foundational for all these lowland industries, so much so that China officially labels Tibet as China’s Number One Water Tower, gravity feeding endless water to the lowlands. Water shows up very little as a cost in the accounts of industrial enterprises, only as a last mile expense of installing pumps and pipes for extraction. Since the actual value of water to industry, intensive agribusiness and cities has never been internalised as an actual cost, the glacier melt runoff dividend is likewise off the account books, a silent dividend.

scientising the clouds of Tibet
Source: Atlas of Clouds over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau,1986

That dividend shows up not in the corporate bottom line but politically, in China’s program to depopulate the Tibetan highlands, to clear out the pasture users between the glaciers and the lowlands. Guaranteeing water supply is officially the main driver of the policy of closing pastures to grow more grass and protect water supply, a policy over the past two decades that has made redundant hundreds of thousands of skilled Tibetan pastoralists in the river catchments below the glaciers but above the Chinese industrial consumers.

On the Yellow River, the dividend will peak seasonally when it is most needed downriver, in winter, the season when the Yellow River in some recent years has dried up altogether hundreds of kms before reaching the sea. Winter temperatures are rising fast in Tibet.

On the five great rivers of southern Tibet, in the 2040s decade, predicting how much snowmelt (top map) and glaciermelt (middle map) will contribute to flow.
Source: ICIMOD Atlas of Himalayan Climate, 2015
across the Himalayas and southern Tibet, the contributions of seasonal glaciermelt and snowmelt.
Consistent increase in High Asia’s runoff due to increasing glacier melt and precipitation. 1998 to 2007 Contribution to total flow by glacier melt (a), snow melt (b) and rainfall runoff (c) for major streams during the reference period (1998–2007)
Nature Climate Change, 4, 587-592, 2014

While agriculture has little need of water in winter, factories and cities need reliable water provisioning year-round. Climate change in Tibet is especially strong in winter, IPCC reports, with rapidly rising temperatures releasing glacier melt even in winter. Further, the IPCC reports evidence that in Tibet as climate change accelerates, summer flow will decrease by as much as 10 per cent. (Section Changes in River Runoff)  The summer monsoon, especially along the Yangtze, is flood danger time, so a summer flow reduction and a winter boost would be ideal. China needs its dividend, which makes it reluctant to act decisively to reduce emissions, curb climate warming and save the planet.

No-one can say how big the glacier melt dividend will be in coming decades. Attempting to quantify it would require far more river flow gauging stations, meteorological stations and remote sensing satellite data. Even the IPCC, ICIMOD and the scientists whose work they review and summarise, cannot say with certainty how big a dividend China will obtain by gravity flow from Tibetan glaciers and rivers.

But that dividend is just the added benefit of what China routinely harvests from Tibet, the daily flow of river runoff from the plateau, from a common pool resource taken for granted, until it is deemed under threat –by the very people in Tibet who have protected streams and rivers for thousands of years.[3]


gruesome, threatening clouds of Tibet
Source: Atlas of Clouds over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, 1986

[1] Wen Li  (State Key Laboratory of Eco-hydraulics in Northwest Arid Region of China), Water Ecological Environment Protection under Changing Environment: A Systematic Review and Bibliometric Analysis, Journal of Coastal Research, Special Issue No. 93, 2019

[2] Y B Li, Gongbuzeren (Gonpo Tsering), W J Li (2014) A Review of China’s Rangeland Management Policies. IIED country report. IIED, London. http://pubs.iied.org/10079IIED

LI Bo et al., Review of CCA Studies in SW China,

https://www.iccaconsortium.org › 2015/08 › regional-review-south-west-china-en

when glaciers collapse in Tibet, they can race downslope ar astounding speed, in 2016

[3] Xiaoli Shen , Zhi Lu, Shengzhi Li, and Nyima Chen, Tibetan Sacred Sites: Understanding the Traditional Management System and Its Role in Modern Conservation, Ecology and Society 17(2): 13.

Freely downloadable from: http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-04785-170213

XÉNIA DE HEERING and Élisabeth Guill, Providing Access to Water: The pump, the spring and the klu: Brokerage and local development on the Tibetan Plateau,  China Perspectives, No. 1 (93) (2013), pp. 61-71

glaciers grind rocks; later the retreating and collapsing glaciers expose toxic mercury in ground up rock
Source: IPCC 2019 and Zhang 2014
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Blog one of four on the Chinese film industry in Tibet #gabriellafitte

Gang Rinpoche is a story of a farming/herding family, their everyday piety, the routines of taking out the yaks to graze, of going to the woodlands to gather firewood, cut to length and split, loaded onto pack yaks, to be stacked near the house. Always in motion, always something that needs doing. Humdrum everyday life in Kham Markham, southeastern Tibet, where the trees are plentiful. This film is also known as Paths of the Soul.

The first suggestion of plot movement is the old guy who announces he really wants, before he dies, to do the pilgrimage to the distant holy city of Lhasa. Within minutes, many others agree to join him, no drama, no tension or argument, the woodheap is high, the autumn tasks of preparing for winter are done. We are about to go on the road.

leaving the village to begin a prostration journey of over 2000 kilometres

The road, the path broad or narrow, the journey within or without are all metaphors occurring repeatedly throughout Tibetan and Buddhist culture. The spiritual journey within is mirrored and enacted by the pilgrimage journey without.  Lena Herzog and her film maker husband Werner titled their book on Tibetan pilgrimage, Pilgrims: Becoming the Path Itself.[1]  Kham has plenty of pilgrimage sites of its own, such as the holy Khawa Karpo mountain.[2] But Lhasa is a once-in-a-lifetime special.

The path is the path of practice, of familiarisation with the methods of self transformation, so they become embodied, ingrained. The entirety of Buddhism and its many methods can be reduced to ground, path and fruition; meaning a preparatory intellectual understanding of the logical coherence of the teachings, the path that does the work of a change of mind, and the fruition of fully awakening to the nature of reality.

You cannot travel on the path before you have become the path itself”; a saying the Herzogs attribute to the historic Buddha: could this  be the ticket for the cast about to take to the road? Or does it demand far too much from movie-goers for whom pilgrimage is at best exotic, unfamiliar? Must we too become the path?

Fortunately, this is a romantic confection, attributable not to Buddha but Blavatsky. From a Buddhist viewpoint one takes to the path in order to gradually familiarise, to eventually become the path; it’s not a prerequisite. Meditation practice, whether seated or on foot, is above all a familiarisation.


On this Paths of the Soul path the camera keeps a certain distance. Unlike the conventions of Hollywood drama, we are not fed emotion in close-up, or by a swelling score on the soundtrack. We are so used to being manipulated; we expect it. This is a movie in which the audience has to work to fill in the gaps, and we aren’t used to that, even when Tibetan directors such as Pema Tseden and Sonthar Gyal ask just this of us. Pema Tseden tells us he holds his camera back to give the viewer space to fill in the rest. Yet doing that work is all the harder when daily drogpa routines are no longer familiar, as is the case for Tibetans in scattered exile worldwide.

Zhang Yang

This is a movie that takes for granted that the viewer can and will contribute, can read into landscapes and faces what’s happening, beyond the undramatic dialogue of people who take risks every day, and routinely deal with them by deadpan understatement. Our ability to access conversations is facilitated by both Chinese and English subtitles, just as well since the spoken Tibetan is in such varied dialects that it’s clear this is not a doco, it’s a doco drama, an electric shadow dramatization of sama-drog semi-nomadic family life, acted by a cast from various places, chosen for their ability to be themselves with cameras rolling. More on that later.

The plan is to go in time for Losar, the midwinter heralding of a new year, a time of festivity and communitas, a traditional time for pilgrimage, when there is little to do at home, no grass to take the yaks to, only a few hands need stay behind to feed straw to the animals downstairs. Quite quickly, in plot exposition, the plan is amplified: as well as distant Lhasa, they hope to make it to the much farther Gang Rinpoche, the holiest of holy mountains, a journey of thousands of kms, especially auspicious because in the 12-year cycle, this is the most beneficial year to go. All this is sorted in the first 10 minutes. It’s all doco realism: this isn’t a musical.

Will you be able to prostrate all day?


Back to the many tasks of autumn: grinding the harvested barley for tsampa, spinning the shorn wool, drilling an awl through wood to make a frame for yaks to carry loads. All so everyday, all so unfamiliar to Chinese and international audiences alike. It’s easy to see this as humdrum and boring, lacking in cues that alert us to conflict, or even just a little tension. Attention wandering, we may wonder if this is meant to be timeless, ahistoric Tibet, or maybe decades ago, or maybe today. Incidental details: an electric motor to grind the barley, the puffer jackets, baseball caps, motor bikes, solar panels, a mobile phone, quietly bring us into the present. The sacred journey is through the mundane.

More of the complexities of life emerge in conversation, dealt with matter of factly: if you plan to do lots of prostrations while on pilgrimage, can you do it while pregnant? No problem. “Yes, I can.” That’s all it takes to decide. We are all of 12 minutes in. Shots of ewes lambing take longer. Likewise the butchering and freeze drying of a slaughtered young yak, all part of the autumn harvest. Facts of life on the pasture.

The village butcher is also the village drunk, he knows full well the consequences in lives to come of taking life, and wants to join the pilgrimage to atone. Again, everyone agrees: he’s in.

Nine years old Gyatso will take to the road too


How can it all be so straightforward? Where’s the agonising, or a dramatic turn where the wrongdoer awakens? There’s none of that: we are among people for whom a deep trust in Buddha, dharma and sangha, and especially in the living Buddhas, is immanent, pervading all questions, all decisions. Even the tension between caring for livestock day in day out, and having to slaughter a few for winter survival, has a ready resolution. Is this for real? We are still only 14 mins in and already too much has happened, yet seemingly nothing much has happened.

This is where the viewer really has to work, to imagine life as an individual and in a community defined by deep faith, a life dedicated to the inward path unseen by the lens, with the dedication modernity devotes to education, career, accumulation, values and individuality. How to imagine that? How to believe it when we see it?

Winter has arrived, the ground is white, the chorten stupa is white, the khatag offering scarves are white as the men walk up to the white latse flags to replace the faded white lungta prayer flags.  The pilgrimage party is growing, it’s new year’s eve, which means an early start next morning. 16 mins in.

We now know who is going on this road movie and why, what motivates each one. two more are going because in a collective effort to build their house two men died, so two men in the owner’s family will do the pilgrimage to make amends.

 A child can’t be left behind, it’s beyond an elderly grannie to care for her, so she too will go. It’s all so matter of fact.


Is that why it is so hard to engage, and why the film flopped? How can we identify with so many people so quickly, enter their world and go on the road with them, when they all agree so immediately to an epic life-changing road trip?

We know our road movies: it’s a quest, usually for the unknown, for the rainbow, rather than for an awakening familiar to all. We know our noir: everyone has darkness within them. We know our kung-fu movie; the answer to everything is in who has the best moves. We know our historical romances, we know our genres and suspend disbelief accordingly. So why can’t we enter normal Tibetan rural life? Why does it seem abnormal, unbelievable, impossibly pious?

Men cut hand-sized wooden blocks to slide hands along freezing roads in full length prostrations, women cut and sew sheepskin aprons to keep  warm. Preparing for this road takes more than a tank of gas, and it’s all home-made, apart from the sneakers, bought by the dozen.

These are the practicalities of the inner journey through the outer world. A trailer is loaded with bedrolls and jerry cans; this is a major undertaking, but it’s all do-able. Hitched to a basic two-stroke tractor, we are off, victory banners strapped to the sides. We are 21 mins in, more than 90 to go. Crank the engine, cross the bridge and onto the sealed road, China’s gift. As the tractor putt putts ahead our pilgrims start their relay race, clacking the hand sandal wooden blocks strapped to their hands, taking refuge in guru, Buddha, dharma and sangha; head, throat, heart and down they go, one by one on the narrow, icy road, leaving plenty of room for traffic.

tea by the roadside, with China’s gifts: thermos and poverty-alleviation tractor, repurposed here to alleviate poverty stricken mental attitudes

 Only now do we start to see close-ups, of bodies sliding on the bitumen. Very soon, a pause for tea from the thermos, another Chinese gift, as the ten prostrators, young and old sit or lie on the road, shielded by the tractor as motorbikes and VW Santana race past.


When the sun is low they find a sheltered spot, between road and a small stream, unload the trailer: poles, steel spikes, hammers, a heavy woven yak hair tent rises, slung over the poles. Bedrolls are hauled in. By the stream, the women ladle water into the empty plastic jerrycans.

As dark falls, trucks sweep by on their long and lonely traverse, but inside the tent everyone is toasty, round the cast-iron stove, eating and comparing sore muscles. Day one is done? Not yet: first everyone chants in unison the praises of Tara, the fierce protector, who liberates all, the swift heroine, whose eyes are like an instant flash of lightning. Only then does each one wriggle into sheepskin bedding, lights out.

Morning is signalled by a Highway 318 milestone marking 3436 kms, all the way to Shanghai far, far to the east, proclaiming this two lane blacktop to be a national, nation-building road. In Tibet, Highway 318 runs westward, from Chaksam to Dartsedo, Nyagchu, Lithang, Bathang, Markham, Palsho, Pome, Nyingtri, Kongpo Gyamda, Meldro Gungkar, Taktse and then Lhasa. One of only  two east-west highways, soon to be upgraded to a four or even six lane expressway, this is a major artery of modernity. Many centuries ago the great yogi Thangtong Gyalpo built his iron chain link bridges across major Tibetan rivers, to facilitate pilgrimage; now China’s gift unrolls across Kandze, the big trucks roaring past.


China’s gifts are not edited out, as if Tibet is timeless. Nor are they made central, as if China’s investments are the core of the story, making this long distance pilgrimage possible. The tractor is clearly another gift, with slogans painted on it in Mandarin (and Tibetan) signalling it is fupin kaifa ,扶貧開發, meaning “poverty alleviation and development.”

Tractors, jerrycans, milestones, highways, mobile phones are simply part of life, to be taken as we find them because the whole approach of the pilgrims is to take life as they find it, with neither attraction nor aversion, praise or blame, a thoroughly Buddhist approach. How undramatic. China, however, does expect its gifts to be received with manifest gratitude. The anthropologists remind us gifts are conditional on reciprocity, even an entire economy of gifts and mutual obligation.[3] China’s gifts insist on gratitude in response. The quid pro quo is unspoken yet compulsory.

On we go, in single file in the morning sun. Already the sneakers are starting to look scruffy. Gyatso, the girl child in the rear walks on and on with the head/hand/heart clacking of the hand sandals, to keep up. Walking is faster than prostrating, or kowtowing as the subtitles misleadingly call it.

Lunch by the roadside, the iron stove smokes, butter tea is churned, frozen meat is sliced and chewed. In the evening we are camped by a frozen river, good for an improvised skate, pulled alongby mother. Wielding a wood splitter, one of the men breaks up enough ice for the pot to go on the stovetop. Inside the tent, it’s time for running repairs, restitching sheepskins, filing rough spots on the hand sandals, regluing loose sneaker soles. It’s all so damn practical, this business of inner transformation. Are we watching a movie or an extended Youtube manual on Prostration 101?


Are we unable to get more into this movie because it’s all unconvincing amateur acting, or an inept director? Is it because director Zhang Yang is working in a language he doesn’t understand? The Tibetan director Pema Tseden faced similar problems in casting and filming The Search back in 2009, with similar incomprehension among audiences in exile, who preferred to believe old Tibet had long disappeared.

Like Pema Tseden in The Search, Zhang Yang’s focus is on deeply religious Tibetans on the road. Pema Tseden went on the road in 2009 searching for a contemporary Drimé Kunden; seeking someone as selfless as Drimé Kunden, the operatic Buddhist model of unhesitating compassion, willing to take out his eye for a rapacious blind beggar who demands it.

To the modern mind, the figure of Drimé Kunden, for starters, has to be mythical, his exemplary offering of an eye utterly exaggerated over centuries of retelling.   Drimé Kunden is a figure from classic Tibetan Lhamo opera, thus not from real life? To go on a quest, through modern Amdo for anyone with similar generosity has to be a fool’s errand. To modern minds, Pema Tseden and Zhang Yang alike are asking us to believe the unbelievable; so our difficulty with entering into Gang Rinpoche isn’t so much that the director is Chinese. Zhang Yang is mindful that any movie audience is going to need more context, more background, and tries hard to provide it without being too obvious.

Both directors give us long shots rather than close ups, trusting us to do the emotional work for ourselves, rather than manipulating us to emote on cue. Pema Tseden’s movies are hard to relate to because he doesn’t set the scene enough; while Zhang Yang is hard to relate to because he tries too hard to contextualise? Can’t both be true, surely.

It took a while before Pema Tseden was appreciated beyond Tibet, but now he is widely respected for bringing a distinctively Tibetan eye to film making. Pema Tseden, rather than pushing us to believe a lost Tibet still exists, “deconstructs the myth of a pre-existing Tibetan people, and builds upon individual and fragmented narratives to create a new collective subjectivity, thus opening the way for a new understanding of Tibet. This case study demonstrates how Pema Tseden’s in-between position (between languages, cultures and geographical areas) permits him to develop a cinema that gives space for Tibetans to become, giving the viewer a rare insight into contemporary Tibet.”[4]


Back on the nékor pilgrimage, a high mountain is close, the sky is ominous: mountains make their own weather. In the morning it’s snowing, with a stiff wind, but the prostrators keep at it, while in the gloom heavy laden trucks roar west and empty trucks roar east.

Camping spot for the night is near an isolated farmhouse. Politely they ask for firewood. It is readily offered; everyone respects pilgrims, who do it to end suffering for all.

About to give birth in the nearest hospital: Chinas gift.

In the night our mother-to-be goes into labour, is helped into the trailer, the tractor cranked by torchlight, off into town and yet another Chinese gift: a small hospital, white coated staff, sterile set up, a baby safely delivered. All is well. It’s a boy, truly a child of the road. The rest catch up by taxi van, everyone crowds around, the baby is named. Can mother and newborn go right back out on the road, in midwinter? They can. Is this too little plot or too much? Can we believe that women used to nomadic mobility, used to being far from modern facilities, can just keep going?

To be born, or die, on pilgrimage is highly auspicious, we are reminded. The new family do get the warmer of the two tents. Next morning the newborn, swaddled in sheepskins, gets to ride in the trailer, everyone else is back on the blacktop.

a new grandson, born on the road


Reaching a house build, all local timbers, they are hailed over and invited to share tea. “We are from Markham”, our group explains. By the milestones they have done 141 kms, Shanghai is farther than before. The home builders say they wish they too could walk and prostrate all the way to Gang Rinpoche too. Next year.

The girl’s head hurts. Can Gyatso keep going till Pangda, the next town, where our Highway 318 meets up with Highway 214 from the north, all the way from Xining? Yes, she says. There will be a pharmacy in Pangda. During tea break a man worries: should she keep prostrating? Yes, her mother says, it’s good for you. He asks Gyatso directly: can you keep this up? I can, she says.

Really? Can we believe? Is this bravado, or group pressure? Or bad script writing? Maybe none of these: two months of prostrating all day every day actually does change the mind, making everything possible. Since liberation and enlightenment are possible, the Buddha tells us, this intensively embodied experience of body, speech and mind working together might just do it. Theory meets practice. We are still only 50 mins in, an hour to go.

At a stop overlooking a river far below, they stop to build stone cairns to local gods of place, Gyatso fetches the last rock to top it off, clearly she’s ok.

Next day, as the highway zigzags in switchbacks downslope, we see our party from far above, then in close up, as last night’s invocation of Tara the protector continues, one of the few moments where sound runs on beyond sight. On and on, chanting, praying and prostrating, through icy landscapes, tunnels blasted through cliffs, portions of highway roofed by avalanche shields, on and on. By now, watching this is either dead boring, or awesomely riveting.


There’s to be no shortcuts either. A grandpa appears, a self-appointed disciplinarian gegu: make sure your forehead touches the pavement; to the girl Gyatso: less walking, more prostrating; to the young Khampa warrior: take that red braid out of your hair. This is all said with the same absence of affect as everything else said, just do it, plain and simple, no drama.

ploughing the fields, early spring, with yak power and engine power

Turns out this grandpa isn’t just a stickler, he also invites them all in to his farmhouse for the night and, since the tractor is leaking oil having lost a screw, which could take a while to fix, they’ll stay a day or two and help with the new year ploughing. This interlude is a collective effort, as always. Some ploughs are pulled by walking tractors, some by yaks. Ploughing is festive, a coming together of the clan. Being sama-drog, farmer-herders, our pilgrims know how to plough. The grandpas wonder why the young are in such a hurry these days to get it all done, time is not short, spring is still ahead, there’s hay stored up on poles beyond the reach of the yaks. There’s snow on the ground, a portent of soil moisture sufficient to start the barley crop, come spring. These are the facts that matter, along with a pious heart, and an aspiration to fulfil the vow to the lama to merge the mind with his enlightened example.

In plain language grandpa reminds us of the right frame of mind for doing nékor pilgrimage; lamas have said it more poetically:

“Without desire, attachment, or any particular agenda or itinerary,
With no selfish concerns, simply roaming freely from place to place
For the sake of others, benefitting impartially those to be trained—
This is the way of the very best type of pilgrim.”


We are halfway through this movie, time for a plot recap, explaining to host grandpa that the village butcher is off alcohol altogether as part of making up for slaughtering livestock. Grandpa is delighted, he’s not such a grinch after all. He even gives Tsering Chodon a new sheepskin, the old one’s worn out.

Back on the road yet again next morning, Tsering Chodon takes a break to breastfeed her baby. Passing a loose cliff face, there’s a rockfall, the young man doing his nékor pilgrimage because men died while building his house, is injured, hit in the leg. In the tent he laments his misfortune, first the accident when a truck overturned and the two men died, then the compensation payment, now this: is this divine displeasure? “I just don’t understand why this has happened.”

We moderns know shit happens. It’s random. The group’s father figure reminds us of the Buddha’s timeless advice: this is the human condition, to suffer is normal, what matters is motivation, and our disheartened young man has not wavered in his motivation, to benefit others. So it’s all good, we’ll just rest a couple days, and recuperate. No itinerary.

Nyingtri: peach blossom time in early spring


The poverty alleviation tractor, China’s gift, chugs on, put to Tibetan use to assist in the transformation of poverty stricken mind, a novel and profound use never imagined by the developmentalist donors. As the lamas say: “One of the problems we have is feeling poverty-stricken. To overcome that, we have to be direct, and we have to trust ourselves. We are not poverty-stricken. If we are capable of smiling, we have goodness in us, always. Whether young or old, very old or very young, still, there are always possibilities of a smile. So keep smiling. Enjoy your goodness.”

By now we are nearing Nyingtri, we can tell by the peach blossoms, it must be March, the rapeseed crop is turning the fields yellow, spring comes early here. Time to lessen the heavy clothing, wash hair by the river. They hail another pilgrim, a naljorpa yogi from even further, from the foothills of Tibet in Sichuan, accompanied by his wife pulling a handcart, and their donkey. So why is she in the shaft, not the donkey? It’s precious to her, we are told, not to be overworked, it’s only for pulling uphill. “We see the donkey as family, we go through thick and thin together.” He is to be taken round the Barkor circuit of blessings  too when they reach Lhasa, we all need liberation. They have been on this pilgrim path nearly eight months by now. Pitstop over, a top-up of tsampa flour, and it’s back on the road. This was filmed before the Nyingtri expressway sliced across lakes, now nowhere to go when trucks roar towards you.

Why does so much go wrong? Hit by falling rocks, illnesses, an unexpected birth, blizzards, trucks hurtling at everyone, and eventually a death. Are these simply plot devices to hold our interest? Narrative hooks? Overly programmatic directing? Actually, pilgrimage is meant to be hard, purifying work, an experience of the bardo, the limbo between worlds, between moments, between one life and the next. Pilgrimage is meant to be challenging, as the great 19th century pilgrim Shabkar reminds us:

“When I made the pilgrimage of the Tsa ri ravines/ When traversing with difficulty the treacherous paths/ The rivers and bridges of the land of Lho/ It occurred to me that it must indeed be like this/  When travelling the perilous paths of the bar do.”[5]

The hardships of pilgrimage were vividly expressed a century ago by an English plant hunter, Frank Kingdon-Ward, whose greedy motivation for entering the beyul hidden land of Kham Pemako was to collect flowering specimens that might adorn English gardens:

Past the peach blossoms that these days make Nyingtri/Bayi a favourite of Han tourists, and briefly into Bayi town, buying more sneakers in bulk, 30 at a time: they don’t last but are cheap. Nyingtri (Linzhi in Chinese) these days has its own Hilton hotel.

keep on prostrating, through China’s new city of Bayi/Linzhi/Nyingtri

 A moment later, we are out in the fields again mountains and clouds towering above. This is the road to Lhasa, soon to become the high speed electrified rail line from Chengdu  to Lhasa as well. What takes the pilgrims months will be trip of 13 hours, the railway constructers tells us. Pressurised, heated, insulated the whole way. Progress.


Next challenge: the highway fords an ice cold stream. What to do? It’s not dangerous: SUVs heading the other way cross readily, the tractor and its trailer would too. But they decide together to not only go through on foot, but to continue prostrating. Only the baby and the tractor driver get it easy. No wonder their sneakers wear out quick.

However, this isn’t a via dolorosa penance: the wet clothes are taken off, dry ones put on. Practical.

keep mindful and carry on prostrating

 Camping for the night by a big river means another drenching, from the rain. Summer is close. Time for a reminder from our grandpa that we all by now have bumps on our foreheads, but what counts is not action but motivation, a pure heart, no need to be a Drime Kunden,  “what matters most is your heart; if your forehead hurts, it reflects piety in your heart, and kindness.”


A hundred kms from Lhasa, the inevitable crash. An SUV rams the tractor, no-one too badly hurt but the front axle is broken, the wheel is off, spare parts a long way ahead or behind. What to do? Is this a modern Trials of Job? What more could befall them?

With much the same resourcefulness nomads need on the grassland when disaster strikes, the men pull and push the trailer a ways ahead, then walk back to the tractor to complete their unbroken prostrations. No shortcuts. Repeat, uphill.

Camping yet again, approaching the pass, from there it’s downhill to Lhasa. Phone reception is good up here, time for the girl to phone grandma back in the village near Markham, they miss each other.

Up, up to the pass, no motorists stop to help. Hauling the trailer by hand is hard, even with all hands pushing. Breaking into a ragged song of ascent, where the chorus line is that we may have the same mother, but our paths in life differ, some are more fortunate than others. We accept the results of past karma; as for future karma, we make our own, here and now.

Finally the pass is reached, festooned with prayer flags proclaiming victory to the gods, a moment to tie on a few more, and refresh the battered old trailer with new victory banners, as the prostrators catch up. Everyone tosses their sheaf of tiny paper windhorses to the winds.

at the pass down to Lhasa


Downhill is so easy, joyful all the way, camping on green grass, dancing barefoot in a circle dance, the trials of Job it is not. But one quarter of movie time is still ahead, and we are at Highway marker 4504 kms to Shanghai. It’s the urban fringe, the Potala in the distance. The holy city has been attained.

Inside the great temples our ragged pilgrims join the throng, touching foreheads to altars and to an empty throne: whose throne could that be?

With the right motivation, you can ignore the lenses of the Han tourists and the official posters of China’s Tibet, and keep the mind on what matters: receiving the blessings of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, making them tangible, a lived experience. Tibetans do still know how to do that, and be changed by it.

Khatag silk scarves at the ready, it’s time to meet Lama Thubten, a distant uncle, who has been busy giving teachings. He knots their scarves, the knot of communitas. A special blessing for the baby.

In their cramped urban lodging, time to wash clothes, and think about pressing on all the way to Gang Rinpoche, Mount Kailash. But money is short, and the tractor still needs repairs.

As always Buddhist economics intervenes. A woman at the window is unwell, and lama Thubten has instructed her to purify by doing 100,000 prostrations. Can she pay them to do it for her, she just can’t manage it herself? Why of course. And, as their patron, the benefits accrue to her, she has fulfilled the lama’s instructions.

how do broke pilgrims make a bit of cash in Lhasa? Join the global precariat, washing cars

Something will always turn up. There’s also the itinerant work gigs available in a city where Tibetans do all the low paid unskilled work, cleaning cars to look like they belong in town, stacking scaffolding on construction sites. Our men, in hard hats, go to work. Hardly Chinese gifts, just the precariat work of the global gig economy.

in overcrowded Lhasa, you can still do the Barkor prostration circuit by night, unmolested by tourist cameras

But by night, when the tourist crowds are gone, they can do their nékor round the Barkor circuit, undistracted. 

Time has passed, the baby is almost walking. Money in hand, time to move on, even if it means leaving a budding romance.


In a flash we are out of the city, but where? Out of the fog our prostrators emerge, on the road again, where it can snow even in summer. We are at the holy Mapam Tso, Lake Manasarovar, camped by the shore.

Then at last Gang Rinpoche, the holiest of mountains and fount of Tibetan civilisation. On the 53 kms kora circuit around the mountain, our young mother has baby strapped to her back, taking the prostrations well, but grandpa is struggling. Prostrating through the talus in snow and scree is not easy.

Waking up in the yak hair tent, grandpa Yangpei has died. Quick, get a lama to make sure his consciousness has left, and is free to deal with the bardo. Father delivers an impromptu eulogy: he was a good man, raised kids when the wife died young, he loved invoking the Buddhas to be tangibly present, he never picked quarrels, was always kind, now he has died at Gang Rinpoche, this is a blessing. Passing away here connects him to the holy mountain.

Grandpa died on he circuit, his body is now an offering to all sentient beings

Monks arrive, chanting the mantra of compassion. Seated on the ground, the unmistakable holy mountain in the background, with damaru hand drum and drilbu bells they offer the body to the circling vultures, as the family brings out their progenitor in a winding sheet, laid at the feet of the monks. It is complete, it is finished, life goes on. China today prefers to eradicate all evidence of the departed, and many Han Chinese now mourn the death of graves.


A little below, the adult sons make small cairns of granite stones, adorned with the dead man’s boots  knives, and silk scarves. A little tsampa is sprinkled on another rock where a small fire gives of fragrant smoke, another offering to unseen spirits, a signal to the vultures.

That’s decisively the last goodbye, time for everyone to move on, in this world or the next. On with the leather aprons, on with the prostrations through the scree of the great peak. The best of tributes to grandpa is to keep right on. Slowly, the entire group passes from right to left and off-screen, Gang Rinpoche majestically unmoving, overlooking all.

The final scene is a long shot, all white snow and looming slopes, the pilgrims small in a vast landscape, the clacking of woodclad hand against hand the only sound. We are done.

This is a neglected movie that prompts many questions, explored in the next blog. #gabriellafitte

prostrating round Gang Rinpoche/Mt Kailash in winter

[1] Lena & Werner Herzog, Arcperiplus, London, 2002

[2] Alexander Patten Gardner, The Twenty-five Great Sites of Khams: Religious Geography, Revelation, and Nonsectarianism in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Tibet, PhD dissertation, University of Michigan, 2006

[3] Emily Yeh, Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development, Cornell, 2015

[4] Vanessa Frangville (2016): Pema Tseden’s The Search: the making of a minor cinema, Journal of Chinese Cinemas: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17508061.2016.1167335

Dan Smyer Yu (2014) Pema Tseden’s Transnational Cinema: Screening a Buddhist Landscape of Tibet, Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 15:1, 125-144, DOI: 10.1080/14639947.2014.890355

[5] Mathieu Ricard, The Life of Shabkar, SUNY, 1994, 254

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blog two of four on movies filmed in Tibet #gabriellafitte

For a while, Gang Rinpoche/Paths of the Soul was a surprise hit with Chinese audiences, doing better than Hollywood megamovie Transformers, released at the same time. Media speculated why.


Throughout Gang Ripoche  the director refrains from deploying basic story telling film techniques that are embedded in media-saturated audiences, as film analyst Chris Berry reminds us: “In the interior scenes, the camera often pans or tracks laterally across the people in the room as they talk. Point-of-view and shot-and-reverse shot structures are avoided. Not only does this discourage identification with any individual character on the part of the audience, but also it gives a sense of almost ethnographic observation and distance of the pilgrims as a mass, because they all share the same values and culture.”[1]

This seems to be the problem. We are primed to select which individual we identify with, and who we dislike. While each pilgrim has specific personal reasons for going on nékor, once they are on the road they become a collective noun, the nation incarnate. Zhang Yang seldom pushed his cast to do take after take, necessary to the shot-and-reverse grammar of film that enables the viewer to see in close up the range of emotions as characters wrestle with what to do next.

Is this a failing? If we just don’t care, don’t engage with individuals we can identify with, we aren’t going to care much about the group; they are just too agreeable. This makes it, Berry suggests, more like an ethnographic  film of types, rather like the minority ethnicity albums of past centuries, in which Han painters focussed on typically different behaviours, as seen through Han norms.[2] Typology is for museum dioramas, not the box office.

Director Zhang Yang insists the lack of drama is simply because, to Tibetans, taking months or even a year or two to do a pilgrimage is not heroic, or even exceptional, it’s ordinary, even natural. The cast we meet is not exceptional. Not only are they not heroic, they are not especially sinful either, and thus on a path of redemption. For a butcher to awaken to the harm he has done by animal slaughter is the same natural awakening we all experience, and which, in Tibetan opera, is a pivot in the drama, yet always happens offstage, because awakening is ordinary and inevitable.

Zhang Yang says: “For the Tibetan Buddhist, to make this pilgrimage at least once in your lifetime is a must, so it’s natural that they do it. What’s difficult was not to motivate the cast to do the pilgrimage but to explain to them what shooting a movie was and persuade them to participate. So I took a lot of time explaining how shooting the film would be. After the process, shooting the movie was not that difficult. What was difficult, in the beginning, was to find the right village, where all the actors I wanted in the movie were together. I was very lucky to find the village. For real Tibetan Buddhists it’s very natural that during the one or even two-year duration of the pilgrimages that a pregnant woman would give birth to a baby while she was on the road,” he says. “That’s what I had encountered before and why when I shot the film, I tried to find a village with such an actor – a pregnant woman – so I could include this scene in the movie. Very luckily, I found one. In the beginning, as I told her that on the road we would wait for the moment she gave birth and would capture it on camera.”

Maybe we recoil from Paths of the Soul/Gang Rinpoche because this ordinary readiness to undertake a year of full-on 24/7 practice for the welfare of all sentient beings, is too confronting. We all, Tibetans and nonTibetans alike, live busy modern lives, trying to stay in control and solve problems, beset by anxieties and risks. That others can so readily handle all risks, all challenges so calmly, and keep on prostrating, is just too much.

Gyatso phones the folks back home

So the easiest response is to distance ourselves, to accuse these Tibetans filmed in 2015 of living in the past, or in a timeless ethnographic present, outside of history. That makes them artefacts, relics of a lost past, when Tibet was timeless, before modernity irrupted and accelerated everything.

Yet what if Gyalwa Karmapa is right, that we have become so busy, we are unable to understand emptiness, and thus unable to relate to others, perhaps only to one or two people whom we are able to love, keeping others distant? “We can’t understand other sentient beings because we are trapped in the same wrong views they are trapped in. It’s as if we are in a prison of our own making. You actually made the prison all by yourself. You made the prison; you are the prisoner, and you are the one who keeps the prison under lock.”


So let’s try a different angle, with a different film, also set in Tibet, which makes all the right camera moves. A very different movie single filing through the snow, released to coincide with the 2019  70th birthday of the People’s Republic, makes clear why some movies work and some, like Gang Rinpoche, fail. The Climbers is a 2019 hit, an epic set in 1960, of the first Chinese ascent of Chomolangma, Mount Everest. The Climbers, at a breathless pace,recapitulates China’s 1960 conquest of a Tibetan mountain, only seven years after Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and a New Zealander were first to the top. Two Tibetan actors have minor roles, Choenyi Tsering, and Tobgyal.   The poster for the film proclaims: “For the country to climb the top, not to let the soil go.”

Reviewers beyond China found it a bit too full on: “a mode of storytelling that is 80% score-driven. Thunderous trumpets announce every step Fang makes in the right direction; keening strings signal lovey-dovey business. You should be able to cling to the traces of a sports-movie arc discernible beneath the layers of bombast.”   It’s not only Chinese audiences who respond emotionally to trumpets and strings, swooping drone shots and CGI generated thrills. After all, Chinese movie makers learned this from Hollywood. Ticket sales on the first day of release were RMB 164 million, and film studio share prices rose. Then it faded fast. By trying too hard, too obviously to be both a romance and a wolf warrior badge of patriotism, The Climbers failed to revive interest in a forgotten triumph of 60 years ago.

Pema Tseden says he seldom swoops into close-up for the money shot because he respects his audience, gives them space to decide for themselves what to make of a scene; but we have become used to having our emotions manipulated by experts, our adrenaline surges on cue.

We have also sped up. Tibetanist scholar Roberto Vitali, responding to Pema Tseden’s films notes: “I have heard complaints that the movie is slow. Those, who say so, have probably not experienced the way time flows on the Tibetan plateau, away from the towns transformed into Chinese steel and mirror monsters. Time seems to be immemorial on the sandy plains and the hills lit by the sun. Life flows with a rhythm that has its own pace and everyone ― men, animals, even fierce winds ― seem to be aware of that.”

1960 is remembered in Tibet and throughout China as the worst of three years of famine, not for this mountaineering triumph, because all the film shot then fell off the mountain and was forever lost.  A great leap to top a Tibetan mountain,  was all part of the 1960 Great Leap to beat the West in steel production, at a cost of 30 million or more starving to death.

The Climbers does not ignore the famine , instead brazenly  making it a further reason for patriotism. Even in the official trailer, one doubter asks: “Can climbing a mountain feed a few hundred million hungry people?” The decisive answer: “If a few hundred million people can only worry about what’s for dinner, what hope do we have for our nation?” This gratuitous insult to the grandparents of today’s ticket queue, those who did survive Mao’s great famine, is for today’s generation: patriotism is more important than eating.


A more obvious comparison with Gang Rinpoche/Paths of the Soul  is a 2008 doco that is not only focussed on Tibetan nékor pilgrims prostrating all the way to Lhasa, it also starts in Kham. Even more obscure than Gang Rinpoche, this one hour Korean doco joins a group of Khampa men prostrating through all weathers and all landscapes, even up and down steep, stony slopes, way off-road, slip-sliding on the ice. More remarkably still, it too starts in winter and ends seven months and 2100 kilometres  later in Lhasa, covering the same route and same seasonal cycle as Zhang Yang’s lens nearly a decade later.

Asian Corridor in Heavenis a six-part series made by Korean Broadcasting System, in collaboration with  Japan’s NHK, Taiwan’s GTV, TRT and BBTV

Episode two, Road to Pilgrimage, and all six eps follow conventions of the doco genre, including a voice over narrator, overlaid music, hand held camera, lots of close ups and mid shots, occasional long shots. Only at the very end do key characters speak direct to camera, about why they do it.

The viewer is with this party of five, Busa, Lulu, Dawa, Choeji (Chogyal?) and Lappa (Lhagpa?), who have not even a tractor to pull a trailer of gear. They have only two light handcarts, each pulled by one of the five men, sometimes up slopes so steep they have to constantly weave across both traffic lanes, to lessen the gradient. In some places the road, designed by China in the 1950s for underpowered truck engines unable to manage steep gradients, so the road to or from a pass is endless switchbacks. There the men head off road, straight down or up hill, boulders, snow, ice and rubble notwithstanding, prostrating as best they can, without a break.

making the hand plank sandal to literally hit the road with

It’s riveting viewing. For starters, there’s no doubt as to whether it is staged for the camera, or scripted, it is palpably real. There’s nothing programmatic about it. The nuts and bolts of how to survive months on the road, in gales, blizzards, ice and snow gradually reveal themselves, the same basic technologies of survival as in Gang Rinpoche, including inventive roadside bricoleur  stitching of leather aprons about to fall apart.

The viewer has time to see it all, the voice over is minimal, the music never too insistent. Lots of close-ups, you can choose who to identify with. Although it is an ethnographic doco, one of six filmed in Tibet, it is emotionally engaging. It all works, in ways Gang Rinpoche doesn’t.

By the time we are almost done, we  are really keen to find out why would anyone do this, and we are ready for the matter of fact answers, from Lhagpa,  a young Khampa who has awakened after alcoholic years, and now, having purified mind and body, intends a full time religious vocation. His body/mind prostrating prayers, he tells us, have been to become a different person, and there is little reason to doubt he has done it. His voice is not one of yearning, nor of 12-step AA self-recrimination. He is matter of fact: you can decide to become a different person, you can then actually become a different person, and my culture has specific methods to achieve this, and they do work.

The older man, Busa, is calmly facing mortality and the next life, saying that, at 66, “I want to someone with a big heart in my next life, so that I can lessen the sufferings of others.” This is the classic bodhisattva path. After seven months on the road, you can believe it.

Yet Asian Corridor in Heaven never got any traction outside of Korea, and disappeared completely, but with an afterlife online, subtitled in English. Why this depiction of one of the core strengths of Tibetan civilisation remains so unknown is a mystery.

Tibet tech


What hope have quiet movies, amid such hype? Whether directed by Tibetan Pema Tseden or Han Chinese Zhang Yang, the problem is the same: conflict and conquest are more cinematic than a quest for inner goodness. This is so from Gang Rinpoche’s first frames, in the cusp of the annual completion of the labour-intensive summer and autumn production cycle. The camera turns us to the undramatic but equally labour-intensive group winter work of pilgrimage.

before enlightenment: chopping wood…………

Everyone does autumn harvest, but meanings differ sharply. When the Kham harvest is in, the barley threshed and ground, it’s time to change the agenda, a home truth embodied in the Chinese phrase 秋后算账 qiu hou suan zhang, “to balance the books after the autumn harvest”. However these days, in China, this has come to mean “to take revenge when the time is ripe”. The downfall of Tibetans is their optimism; the downfall of the Han is their fearfulness, as another old saying has it.

To go on nékor pilgrimage once the harvest is in is to do embodied spiritual practice. This is now unfamiliar to the modern world, whether Han, Western or Tibetans in exile, pursing the promise of modernity, of becoming a true self. Who these days has a whole winter to spare? We see the prostrators in action, but still struggle to see why they do it.

The lamas say “dharma practice is not just about working with the mind, but involves all aspects of us. In Buddhism, when we talk about self-transformation, it is not seen as purely mental. Self-transformation is seen as transformation of the totality of one’s being. One’s physical body, one’s vocal capacity, and one’s mind all become transformed simultaneously. In the West when we use the word ‘spirituality’, it has the connotation of contrasting with the corporeal. However, in Buddhism there is no tradition of seeing body and mind, corporeality and spirituality, in dualistic terms. Our body stores its own version of memory.  Freeing the body of this is a way of transforming one’s body. Doing different practices that deal with the body frees it up.”[3]

Gang Rinpoche/Kailash as axis mundi, the centre of the world

Could it be that uneducated Khampa nomads know something urban sophisticates don’t? is their year-long pilgrimage just remarkable piety, or something more?

The film does take us through a full year, from winter to winter, and the filming actually took a year. This was a full-scale production in every way, with budget, crew, post-production all on industrial scale.

Yet it rose without a trace, failed commercially. Chinese audiences complained that nothing happens. In every scene an obstacle or challenge arises and everyo0ne readily agrees to just keep on prostrating. No drama.  Why then did Gang Rinpoche fail with Tibetan audiences too?  Pilgrimage is culturally familiar, even if today’s generation has other things on their mind.

Could it be the overtly Buddhist theme? Other movies steeped in Buddhism from beginning to end, such as Martin Scorsese’s 1997 Kundun, and Dzongsar Khyentse’s 2003 Travellers and Magicians come to mind as exemplary tales of  Buddhist practice, and they have both become beloved classics.

Are Scorsese and Dzongsar Khyentse simply better story tellers?   They deftly create believable characters more so than Zhang Yang or Pema Tseden.

Yet there is more to consider. For decades now, very few Tibetans growing up in exile have felt drawn to the inner path, be it monastic or as a yogic adept in the community. For decades, the rebuilt monasteries in India relied on Tibetans fleeing the father land, in order to pursue a religious vocation. When that stream ran dry over a decade ago, those labour-intensive monastic establishments were at a loss, only partially met by recruiting from the Himalayan belt.

There is no pilgrimage in exile, nor in a crowded world is it imaginable. There is the India circuit of the key holy places of the life of the historic Buddha, and many exile Tibetans immerse themselves in the Mon Lam intensive prayer season in Bodhgaya.

The gifted writer Tsering Wangyal Dhompa calls the lost father land, in the lives of today’s generation, as the miscellany under grandma’s bed, to be brought out occasionally, but increasingly remote, strictly for the old folks. Exile has gone too long, the new generation re-invented themselves, adapted to the speed of modernity, and moved on. Who has time these days for pilgrimage?

These may be why Gang Rinpoche, sometimes known as Paths of the Soul, disappeared before wider audiences could know it exists.  Actually, it didn’t quite fail commercially, taking box office receipts of RMB 100 million, probably enough for the seven production companies investing in it to get their money back. It was also enough for director Zhang Yang, determined to continue his offbeat path, to get to make the 2019 Dali’s Voice, to some acclaim, even though it is shot entirely in a remote indigenous town, not far below Tibet, and privileges soundtrack over visuals, again confounding audience norms. Zhang Yang says this latest film grew out of Gang Rinpoche.


According to China’s business media: “The low-budget docudrama, “Paths to the Soul,” has been more profitable per screening than Hollywood juggernauts such as the latest “Transformers” movie, which opened in late June. “Paths to the Soul” raked in over 40 million yuan ($5.88 million), or nearly three times its production cost, during its first 11-day run despite being shown in less than 2% of theaters in the country.”

What is remarkable is that this movie resonated with an unexpected audience: urban China’s new generation of start-up entrepreneurs, those brave enough to plunge into the ocean of business, endure all difficulties, eat bitterness and eventually reap the rewards. They saw in the Tibetan pilgrims the same willingness to handle all challenges, and keep going. The pilgrims would be most unlikely to see themselves as eating bitterness, as they evidently take the world as it is, as it manifests. Yet the concept of eating or speaking bitterness has a long revolutionary history, and a contemporary usage.  “During the Mao era, campaigns were organised in which people would  ‘speak bitterly’ (suku) about the past, and ‘recall past bitterness in order to savour the sweetness of the present.’”[4]  For Tibetans speaking bitterness was compulsory, meaning denunciation of revered lamas and disliked landlords alike, accusing them of profiting from the seat of the workers. Failure to speak bitterness could readily result in oneself being denounced and punished as a green brained lackey of the serf owners.

Today, it has shifted meaning. Now it means a willingness to undergo hardships in order to fulfil a great goal. For entrepreneurs out to disrupt business as usual, with visions ahead of their time, Gang Rinpoche was an inspiration, both for the new capitalists and to inspire their staff. That’s how Gang Rinpoche made some money. And then it quickly vanished.

No way would these pilgrims consider themselves to be eating bitterness; again Han and Tibetan understandings diverge. Same scene, different meanings.

two lane blacktops through Tibet are being replaced by four lane tollroad expressways

There is, however, a tinge of bitterness in some Chinese responses to Gang Rinpoche. Qiang Ge, of the CCP Central Committee Party School in Beijing, a specialist in modernity in Tibet, has angrily asked why this movie takes China’s gifts to Tibet for granted, and fails to feature their key role in making pilgrimage possible.  He has also accused Tibetan “peasants” of stubbornly resisting Chinas 1970s introduction of winter wheat as a new farmcrop, only to later benefit from it.[5]

Qiang Ge pointedly asks: “When you feel sympathy for the devout prostrating Buddhists, have you ever thought about those who paved the road upon which they kneel? Whether in artworks or when we travel through Tibet, we always see them prostrating with their heads on the road. But who actually built this road? It was built by generations of construction workers under the guidance of the Party’s leaders.  I respect even more the construction workers who defied all setbacks and struggles; ‘Bitter sacrifice strengthens bold resolve/ Which dares to make sun and moon shine in new skies’ (a quote from one of Mao’s poems), that was their great spirit.  In the Old Tibet, a pilgrimage by prostrating all the way to Lhasa did not exist. Because there was no road. Tibet’s topography was complex and arduous, it was even difficult for monkeys to cross many places on four legs, so it would have been even more difficult for people kneeling down. Secondly, pilgrimages did exist, but they were only made by a very small group of aristocrats.”

Qiang Ge, still advocating class warfare, seems as angry at the film maker as at the ungrateful Tibetans. It seems he has never seen Tibetans prostrating where there is no road, in the rubble of the lower slopes of holy mountains.

A young Tibetan intellectual in Tibet who calls himself Riga was also angry at Gang Rinpoche on its 2017 release, for the all-too-familiar reason that it reproduces a coloniser fantasy: “these seemingly benign images leave us bewildered as we begin to believe the myths that we are being sold. With Tibetan Buddhism more popular than ever, in China and the West, Tibet and Tibetans have become objects of the bourgeois Han imagination. Objects upon which their own longing can be inscribed.  In the contemporary context, and especially in regard to independent filmmaking, depictions of Tibet are rooted in fantasies of a dissatisfied bourgeois class. Tibet becomes somewhere timeless and ahistorical, existing as an anachronism in which we may find an antidote to the disorientation of our modern secular condition. And by assuming the role of the passive observer we become participant in the commodification of our own culture. The dominant representation of Tibet sees filmmakers regurgitating tired stereotypes about Tibet. Celebrating Tibetan filmmaking might be best done by underscoring what is not unique to it.”

Fortunately, the entire Gang Rinpoche movie is freely available online, so judge for yourself.

There is one further reason why this movie rose without a trace, never engaging a Tibetan audience. It brings us back to genre. This is a drama in doco style. It’s this elision that seems to be the problem, a transgression of the boundaries of truth, and reality, and what counts as authentic.

This directorial decision is Zhang Yang’s original sin, dooming the entire movie. For many Chinese viewers, the doco format robs it of drama, and of emotional engagement with this character or that. It is merely an ethnic curiosity, an album of gestures and postures of difference.

Tibetan audiences, hearing the greatly differing dialects of the key characters, realised quickly that this is no doco, but a drama staged to look like a doco, making it inauthentic. Authenticity is bigger than ever in these times of essentialised identity. Zhang Yang’s genre bending is illegitimate, it seems.

Zhang Yang is not a director on the talk show circuit pumping his work; he prefers that his movies speak for themselves. Although he doesn’t say much, he has been very clear that this melding of drama and doco was a conscious choice, unlike his other movies before and since. When Gang Rinpoche was released, in 2017, Global Times noted: “Shot in the style of a documentary, Zhang used non-professional actors that he handpicked for the film, leading to a blend of scripted fiction and spontaneous reality. It is this method of depicting the group’s journey that has received the most criticism from moviegoers as some feel that a documentary format is not appropriate for a fictional story.  Zhang Yang said  ‘I think, on the contrary, this film presents another type of reality, which is what I wanted,’  Zhang said responding to the criticisms that a fictional pilgrimage should not have been filmed in a documentary style. He defended his decision by pointing out that even documentaries end up being edited to make a coherent story and that, in his opinion, those who are filmed are more or less performing in front of the camera. ‘My method is to rely on a documentary format to restore the truth. From my point of view, you can say that a director’s purpose is to present an artistic reality.’”

This is a direct challenge to our genre silos, our conditioned expectations. Zhang insists that the doco genre, for all its slice-of-reality hand-held authenticity is nonetheless sliced, into an edited representation. If fiction, as the saying has, is truth without facts, this film is a search for truth, a sun-beaten path Zhang Yang has trodden along with his cast. It was in every sense a long journey for all, starting in winter and ending in winter, reflecting the reality that filming did actually take a year.

in the yak hair woven tent at night, running repairs to scuffed clothing

Zhang Yang boldly asserts that reality and artfulness, far from being opposites, actually go together. This is a reminder of the Buddhist teaching that there is no pure, unmediated sensory perception; all we perceive is instantly mediated by our accumulated mental categories and concepts, so inseparably and immediately that what we hold dear as being authentic experience is actually conceptually framed. Zhang Yang’s framings unapologetically blur doco and drama, because that’s life.

Maybe the movie he did next, Up the Mountain, in a remote Yunnan village succeeded better in  fusing art and reality, the authentic and the representation, direct perception and skilful editing. Inspired by Gang Rinpoche, Up the Mountain, 2018, got rave reviews, for good reasons, notably Zhang Yang’s painterly touch and skilful editing. But that’s another story, for another time.

a prostrating yogin stops for a cup of tea

The point surely is that Gang Rinpoche, the first full-length film to take prostration pilgrimage seriously, on its own terms, tries to show us not only the practicalities of prostration in all weathers, but to give us an inkling of the frame of mind required to persist, despite all challenges. Zhang Yang  holds his mirror up for us to see not only the body and speech of prostration but also mind.

This matters, because prostration is the most photographed and least understood of all Tibetan behaviours. No tourist to Lhasa leaves without shots of prostrators in action, signifying only an inexplicably exotic behaviour that defies rationality. The snorting of a bull or scampering of a monkey are more explicable.

This is why Zhang Yang chose his cast, and, despite not wanting to say much, is quite upfront about how and why he did his casting, in much the way Chaucer cast his Canterbury Tales pilgrims. “In a press release for the film, Zhang explained that he already had a picture in mind of what he wanted to present on screen: First an old man in his 70s or 80s, who possible could die during the journey; a pregnant woman who would end up delivering her baby on the way; a butcher looking to atone for taking so many lives; and a child of about 7 or 8 who could add some interesting elements and uncertainty to the journey. He also wanted a mature and sober middle-aged man in his 50s who could act as the group’s leader. Having these characters in mind, Zhang and his film crew traveled through South China’s Yunnan Province and Southwest China’s Sichuan Province and Tibet until he met Tsring Chodron, a young pregnant woman whose father-in-law’s uncle had longed to go on a bowing pilgrimage his entire life. Soon after he found other local people who fit the bill for the characters he wanted to portray in his film.”

Once he found the pregnant woman, willing to give birth on the road, he knew he had a movie, the whole project could go ahead. She did indeed give birth on the road, in pain but unafraid. And the journey continued.

This is the mind of devotion as the path that clears all obstacles, inner, outer and secret. As Patrul Rinpoche says:  “Devotion unlocks the door to all Dharma/ It clears the obstacles to all practice/ It brings out the benefits of all oral instructions/ It is offering a request to the guru’s completely compassionate mind/ and it becomes a vessel for all blessings/  It gathers the quintessence of all meditative accomplishments/ It is devotion –the singular, sufficient, pure remedy/  It can’t be conquered by any demons/ It can’t be stopped by obstacles/  It cleanses itself of all defiling stains/ It is devotion, and should be known as such/ It prevents the birth of false desires/  At the time of death there’s no pain of life suddenly cut short/ It pacifies the false appearances of the bardo/ It is devotion, and should be known as such.”[6]

This devotion is what Han domestic tourists are seldom able to comprehend, as they train their lenses on pilgrims at the Lhasa Jokhang flat on the ground in devotion, trust and faith, enacting the deepest sources of Tibetan strength.

So Zhang Yang may be one of the few Han Chinese to enter into Tibetan life, not as voyeur or ethnographer, but as a mirror, fully aware that he is an artist making artistic decisions throughout a movie of almost two hours, a self-knowing mirror.

 Gang Rinpoche has its flaws, but it deserves better than a quick dismissal.

How is it possible a Chinese director can enter so fully into Tibetan life? Did he script it, or was the plot collaborative, in effect coming from the cast?

There’s precedent for that, for example Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes, a successful plunge into the lives of the Yolngu of far northern Australia. All de Heer had as a starting point was a collection of  black and white carefully staged ethnographic photos taken almost a century ago by anthropologist and biologist Donald Thompson, who had posed Yolngu hunters in their bark canoes on the monsoonal wetlands, spears in hand. When de Heer showed up, Yolngu couldn’t at first relate to naked warriors in flimsy bark canoes out on the mosquito infested swamps; and, as Christians, they had no willingness to disrobe for the camera. Patiently, with a lot of workshopping, Yolngu warmed to the idea, coming up with lots of jokes, and an entire plot, which de Heer bought into. The result was an instant classic. It worked so well, there was a follow-up doco with the director telling the story of how it all came about.

Is this how Gang Rinpoche was made?  Can we consider it a Tibetan film?


[1] Chris Berry,  Pristine Tibet? The Anthropocene and Brand Tibet in Chinese Cinema, 249-274 in K.-C. Lo, J. Yeung (eds.), 2019, Chinese Shock of the Anthropocene, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-6685-7_12

[2] The art of ethnography : a Chinese “Miao album” / translation by David M. Deal and Laura Hostetler ; introduction by Laura Hostetler., University of Washington Press, [2006

[3] Traleg Kyabgon, Integral Buddhism, Shogam, 2018, 39-40

[4] Jeffrey JAVED, 诉苦 Speaking Bitterness, in Christian Sorace, ed, Afterlives Of Chinese Communism Political Concepts From Mao To Xi, 2019, Verso & ANU Press, free download: https://press.anu.edu.au/publications/afterlives-chinese-communism

[5] 国家的策略性:农业技术变迁中的政治因素基于一个少数民族案例的研究,  社会 (Society), 2017, 37 (05): 78-104

[6] Dza Patrul Rinpoche, Plaeful Primers on the Path tr Joshua Schapiro, in Holly Gayley ed., A Gathering of Brilliant moons: Practice Advice from the Rimé Masters of Tibet, Wisdom Publications, 2017, 67

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Once Upon a Time in the West of Tibet

Blog three of four on the Chinese film industry in Tibet #gabriellafitte


Chinese movie directors increasingly make Tibet the set. It helps a lot if you film in Tibet, and if the landscapes and people of Tibet do much of the work of carrying the actual meaning.

For Tibetans, this raises interesting questions. What does Tibet have to say? What does the cinematographer deliver,  as the emotional message conveyed by Tibetan settings and Tibetan actors in bit parts? Is Tibet merely exotic, or is its presence onscreen freighted with meaning?

Sometimes, the answers are straightforward. In Zhang Yang’s Soul on a String the upper Tibet setting instantly stands in for the badlands of America. The arid canyons and windswept uplands of the Changtang take us to the mythical American West, we know in a flash a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, even if the plot device is a silly mishmash of Chinese fantasies about the mysteries of Tibet.

Soul on a String tells the story of Taibei, a Tibetan wanderer from a distant time who discovers a sacred stone in the mouth of a deer and begins a quest to return the stone to its rightful home on the holy mountain of the Buddha’s handprint. Ok, that’s a pretty ropey premise, but as a basis for lots of lone treks through dunes, ravines, mountains and endless plains, and lots of fights, it’s standard issue. It’s the action, and the tension leading to explosive action that counts. It’s a Western after all.


Then there’s Wang Chao’s Looking for Rohmer, the most recent of the Chinese movies shot in Tibet, around Kham Lithang. This gay romance has had a troubled passage through the censors, which delayed its release for years, slashed it to 83 minutes, with a complete name change from the 2015 Seeking McCartney to the 2018 Looking for Rohmer. The delay and the cuts were fatal. As a result, this is a movie that has disappeared without a trace, surviving only on pirate platforms: https://ok.ru/video/1172877347405

For Tibetans, however, this Sino-French coproduction is worth a closer look, because Tibetan landscapes and Khampas play a big role, not just as scene setters or exotic backdrops.

From the opening moment we are in a bleak, frigid Tibet, sweeping along a road flanked by the snow peaks that killed this love, the grieving survivor in close up. 34 minutes later, after much exposition, set in Paris as well as Beijing, we are back on that road into the Tibetan mountains near Lithang, where this romance so discreetly blossoms. Cut to dark interior shots, as our grieving lover sighs and suffers.

 How do we know we are still in Tibet? On the soundtrack a woman’s voice melodiously chants dharani in Tibetanised Sanskrit, then a sudden cut to a parked police car, lights flashing. A Tibetan man shuffles into shot, and prostrates. And prostrates. We never discover anything about him, he remains as faceless and enigmatic as the empty police car, as the two protagonists meet on either side. This is Tibet as mood music, with archetypal Tibetan scenes standing in for the yearnings of the men for each other, and the danger in the flashing lights. Tibet does the emotional work we see only fleetingly on the faces of the two men drawn to each other.

A moment later we are on the road to Dartsedo (Kangding in Chinese) in eastern Tibet. Suddenly we are wandering into a monastic courtyard, where the monks energetically debate Madhyamaka logic on the nature of reality, externalising the interior musing of the grieving Han protagonist on what is reality or illusion. Again it’s Tibet that provides meaning,   momentum, exposition, and a foretaste of the existential issues.

Later, after a return to Paris, a Lhamo dancer awaits his turn, and meets our two leads. The dancer, in wig and elaborate costume, is as near to a crossdresser as we are going to get: again Tibet tells us the subtext.


Zhao Jie, our protagonist joins a band of jongleur Tibetan minstrels for a few joyous minutes, as they  truck their act from pasture to pasture, enacting a Tibetan mystery play on the meaning of everything. Rapturously our hero transcends his urban reserve, merrily joining in, at last one with himself, the land, the dance, the great love of his life. The elegant mudras of Lhamo gesturing take on a feminine cast. Tibet is the land of the possible, an alternative universe where Tibetan men dress as women, always singing, always dancing.

This is the homoerotic climax, a rapturous liminality among a Khampa brotherhood. Never has kneading tsampa in a bowl looked so sensuous, nor pouring hot milk heated on a campfire.

A princely Tibetan dancer and our urban Chinese seeker face off, each holding erect a shiny new prayer wheel in hand, with mountains faux and actual the dramatic set. Cut to an aspiration prayer soundtrack from a Lhamo performance, circle round the prop mountain, twirling the prayer wheel: everything Tibetan is a source of joy and fulfilment. Tibet has revealed its true face. We are almost 60 mins into this foreshortened, censored movie.


The truckload of jongleurs toils uphill, the brotherhood still singing. We are back to grief and yearning for the lost lover from across the sea. The soundtrack mingles the merry Khampas and the campest aria from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly:

One good day, we will see
Arising a strand of smoke
Over the far horizon on the sea
And then the ship appears
And then the ship is white
It enters into the port, it rumbles its salute.

Do you see it? He is coming!
I don’t go down to meet him, not I.
I stay upon the edge of the hill
And I wait a long time
but I do not grow weary of the long wait.

And leaving from the crowded city,
A man, a little speck
Climbing the hill.
Who is it? Who is it?
And as he arrives
What will he say? What will he say?
He will call Butterfly from the distance
I without answering
Stay hidden
A little to tease him,
A little as to not die.
At the first meeting,
And then a little troubled
He will call, he will call
“Little one, dear wife
Blossom of orange”
The names he called me at his last coming.

Back in France, a Catholic Mass commemorates the life of the young Frenchman killed in the avalanche, consoling his mother; while in a Tibetan monastery, the monks, with his body, release him into another life.  Rohmer will live forever, in the skies and mountains of Tibet. Finally we see him, the French object of desire, alive, in the monastery, reverently doing his kyab su chi, taking refuge.  Like the old Tibetan man prostrating past the flashing police car, whose face we never see, our Frenchman does his chag tsälo prostration. He has found fulfilment. “Death is not nothingness. The soul lives on”, he tells us. ”If I die, I want to be like the Tibetans.”

It is winter above Lithang, snow everywhere. Rohmer, who was ready to die in the unseen avalanche, is finally cremated, as the vultures circle above, as the monks chant. “Only death can set you free.”


Finally, again in France, we are at the vineyard, fondly remembering the dead Rohmer through his family photo album. As Zhao Jie is falling asleep, he is immediately back in Tibet, amid the flailing Lhamo dancers, revealing their true faces: Zhao Jie and his beloved Rohmer. Thus the movie ends.

Looking for Rohmer begins in desolate grief, expressed by bleak snowy Tibetan hills. It ends with grief healed by the transcendant power of love, expressed by exuberant Khampa dancers who welcome the French man and the Chinese man into their Lhamo dancing. The repeated intertwining of Madama Butterfly’s inconsolable grief and hopeless hope, with the plunging, swooping, swirling healing power of the Tibetan dancers, are a call and response, antiphonally positing grief and loss as the human condition, answered decisively by the Tibetan embrace of life, including a willingness to let go of it.


 Looking for Rohmer was released to screens early in 2018 and died immediately. “’I thought I’d come to the cinema to show support. But to my disappointment, I didn’t see much gay love. I only saw natural sceneries,’ commented one Weibo user. ‘The movie is still inside the closet,’ another user added.”

“’Finally! A movie that tells a gay story can be publicly screened — I’m definitely going to watch,’ one fan wrote in 2016, after the trailer was released. But Sixth Tone found that some opinions had changed after fans watched the movie. ‘I thought I was watching a documentary film about the scenery in Tibet’, wrote another user. ‘The product after censorship is a perfunctory, sucky movie.’

This movie was butchered by China’s homo-averse censors and completely failed commercially as a result. That’s   sad for Chinese gay audiences expecting more, but it should now be seen through Tibetan eyes.  Despite publicity in gay media, on the BBC and in The Economist, Looking for Rohmer flopped everywhere. Not gay enough for the audience waiting expectantly for years, too gay for the censors.  Call Me by Your Name it’s not.

Because this movie did little to serve socialism with Chinese characteristics, it was mutilated and failed. But that is no reason for Tibetans to ignore it. Nor is today’s obsession with identity, appropriation and imperialism a reason to dismiss it as just another Chinese colonial power grab.  There is more to film art than identity politics.

Of course, it does take it for granted that China’s Tibet is indeed China’s Tibet. In official narratives, including the many “patriotic” movies set in Tibet, the China’s Tibet story is the standard narrative of liberation from serfdom, into the light of progress, development, modernity and civilisation,  all guided by China. All so predictable. Patriotic movies have become a genre of their own, zhuxuanlu 主旋律.

Maybe that is why there is plenty of room in the vastness of Tibet for narratives, told through Chinese eyes, as well as by Tibetan directors.


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Censorship and Genre Moviews

Is Tibet a genre in its own right?

Blog four of four on the Chinese film industry in Tibet: this is a coda. #gabriellafitte

Movie directors in China have a hard time. Directors anywhere must juggle finance, script, casting, shifts in public taste, and the years it usually takes between acquiring rights and hitting the screen. Any director out to recover costs, or even make a profit, must somehow reconcile the sharply differing tastes of Chinese and global audiences. Movie makers in China have the added danger of a ferocious censorship system staffed by suspicious minds alert to the slightest suggestion of critiquing how China is governed.

Not surprisingly, many movies never make it, or are held up for years by the censors, or emerge from the bureaucratic maze so mutilated the movie is an audience flop. It takes patience, skill and artistic flair to weave through the maze.

One shortcut path is to make a genre movie. Each genre has its own assumptions and conventions, that’s what defines a genre. In a noir you expect everyone to be crooked. In a Western, a lone hero has to shoot it out with the baddies. Audiences and censors can then relax, we know we are looking at a Western, a gangster noir, a chop-socky martial arts, a doco dressed as fiction, a drama that looks like a doco.

Genre conventions provide cover for directors when script and then footage reach the censors. The central character is a thug and clearly the police are in his pocket? Hey, this is a noir after all. The couple falling in love are gay? Yes, but their passion is conveyed not by bodies touching but by landscape and crowds of extras dancing. The knife fights are too violent? It’s just a Western set in the badlands, with a bit of martial arts, after all, a fantasy no-one will take seriously

Looking for Rohmer climaxes


Does it help a Chinese movie get past the censor if it is shot in Tibet? It seems so, as Tibet has become, in Chinese imaginaries, the land where anything is possible, where the normal no longer applies. Expect more movies made in Tibet by Chinese directors, even if few of them allow Tibetans to speak for themselves.

Does it help a Chinese movie get Chinese audience eyeballs if it is shot in Tibet? That’s not clear. Even a doco drama like Gang Rinpoche, in which Tibetans do get to speak for themselves, as themselves, got limited traction at the box office. And the “patriotic” spectaculars of the PLA liberating Tibet from itself, with plenty of Tibetan speaking parts, often struggle commercially, simply because there are now so many violent action hero movies, including those set in a science fiction future, to watch. Who needs to revisit the 1950 battle for Chamdo when Chinese action heroes so satisfyingly beat Americans to pulp in contemporary Africa, or defeat alien space invasions?

Does it help Chinese movies win international audiences if shot in Tibet? On the arthouse and film fest circuit, yes, but that’s as far as it goes. Western audiences who buy into Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop version of mystical Tibet seem unable to relate to the unhyped daily routines of a Tibetan nomad family doing their everyday livestock management tasks, around the hearth talking of the prospect of a pilgrimage to distant Lhasa, or even to the farther distant Gang Rinpoche/Kailash. It’s all too slow, the camera –as in Pema Tsedan’s Tibetan movies- is too distant, there’s not enough emotion or drama.


There are other Chinese movies, not associated with Tibet, that also sneak past the censors, because they are genre films, and, in keeping with genre, you can get away with a lot. Jia Zhangke’s recent Ash is the Purest White is an example. Jia, a top director at the top of his game, made a movie Tibetans who grew up in Tibet will recognise as true to life, recognisably familiar. The lead is a small time local standover man who makes his money bullying and threatening locals who fail to pay debts, or make landlords unhappy. He is a very close friend of the police, so it’s clear the state is onside, part of the action. He enforces the will of the powerful, whether they are businessmen or officials.

Ultimately, as China changes fast, as cities swallow villages, he sees everywhere new opportunities to scale up his intimidation and thuggery, and make much more money; again an accurate reading of where China is heading. But he fails. Small fish get eaten by bigger fish. China is a kleptocracy.

How this got past the censors is a mystery. Jia Zhangke is a top director, but that doesn’t always help. What does help is the crime noir thriller genre, in which it’s a given that crooks are everywhere, and what they all do is crooked. It is Jia Zhangke’s genius that there is not one single scene or even frame a censor could call subversive, yet it all adds up to a subversive depiction of life in new era China, where authority routinely relies on thugs to enforce local government schemes, and thugs rely on local government for protection. Tibetans in Tibet know this well.

Censors are fixated on rooting out suspicious moments, and are unable to stand back and see how the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Jia Zhangke is a visual poet, and his framing of landscape does a lot of work ensuring we, the audience, see what the censors never saw.

Another miracle of sliding past the censor was the now classic Farewell My Concubine.  The BBC recently reminded us: “Back in 1993, Farewell My Concubine – regarded as one of the great works of Chinese cinema – made it to the big screen. It reveals the turbulence and brutality of China’s modern history through the lives of two Peking Opera artists, and also explores the love and hate that burns between those two men. The film also criticises the Cultural Revolution. The award-winning film by renowned director Chen Kaige managed to clear the censorship tests more than two decades ago, and is still screened proudly today. Mr Chen has described it as a ‘miracle’”.


Of course, one way of ensuring there is not the slightest danger of censorship is to make your movie so innocuous, your characters all cute and endearing, and animate the lot in a Dreamworks Hollywood studio. That tells you what you need to know about Abominable. Interestingly, the villains, out to capture our lovable yeti are scientists and American millionaires, none bearing any resemblance whatsoever to Jeffrey Katzenberg, boss of Dreamworks. This feel good flick is so American it had to be extensively  reverse -engineered in China to play to Han tastes.

No-one asked Tibetans about yetis surfing the rapeseed fields, but one Tenzing Norgay Trainor, an 18years old Florida Sherpa, grandson of the first man atop Everest,  does get to voice a main character. And in this identity-obsessed, authenticity fixated era, the  voiceover actor and the way his character, Jin, are drawn, there’s  a likeness, PLUS they both like the same shoes.  It doesn’t get more real than that.

The punchline of the movie: “When you set your mind on something, nothing is impossible”, a credo of the self-made capitalist success myth. Dale Carnegie goes anime.


It’s the shoes…………
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Among the many reasons China has failed to colonise the Tibetan Plateau, none is more foundational than Han shortness of breath when lowlanders ascend to Tibetan heights.

Over many centuries of Han expansion, China has developed many methods for peopling conquered lands with Han peasants, backed by Chinese garrisons who not only guard the new territories but also consume the food the immigrant peasants grow. That didn’t work in Tibet, the climate is too cold, the air too thin, hypoxic in scientific terminology, and far too many incoming Han Chinese, military and civilian alike, succumbed to such severe altitude sickness that returning to lower altitudes was the only treatment possible.

classic tantric Tibetan trulkhor exercises to breathe deeply

This has been so for decades, and remains so today, greatly restricting mass Han settlement, and the active fighting fitness required of soldiers able to do battle, even in heavy snow that requires great exertion. This thoroughly unsatisfactory constraint has shaped China’s ability to make Tibet China’s. In recent years, China has looked to science and hitech to govern Tibet from afar, from the skies by satellite data, and by remote control from distant cities, as a way of governing without having on the ground a large, politically reliable cohort of Han immigrants.

China’s military scientists say of CMS, chronic mountain sickness: “In Tibet, an overall prevalence of 5.6% in immigrant civilians was reported; in Lhasa immigrant civilians, the CMS rate was 2.2-8.7%. In a similar young soldier population in Tibet, the CMS prevalence was reported to range from 9.3% (in Lhasa at 3,650 m) to 30.4% (in an area at 5,000 m), which is similar to our findings.” This is serious. As well as headaches, chronic mountain sickness causes difficulty sleeping, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), cyanosis –feet and hands turning blue- dilatation of the veins and paresthesia, loss of sensation in hands and feet.

China has also turned to science to crack the mystery of how Tibetans can be so at home in Tibet, able not only to survive the thin air, but do extremely hard work, churning cream into butter, chasing wandering yaks, rounding up herds, hunting wolves, driving animals over the high passes, threshing barley etc. The fitness of the Tibetans and the palpable unfitness of so many Han sent or drawn to Tibet remains an embarrassment.

Now, in what is being presented as a scientific breakthrough, computational geneticists seem to be on the verge of nailing the secret. This has been a long story, of decades of research, based on making thousands of Tibetans give blood and other biological samples, for intensive laboratory analysis.

Sino-German computational genetics in Shanghai

The recent breakthrough comes from a team based at the Chinese-German Institute for Computational Genetics in Shanghai, a joint venture of the Max Planck Institute and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Their access to big data crunching computer power was essential. They analysed blood taken from 240 Tibetans and 240 Han in Tibet, enabling them to map both the Tibetan phenotype and genotype, so now the big task ahead is to figure out how they connect, what genetic variant causes what phenotypical characteristic of Tibetans. Other blood based research projects have taken the blood of thousands of Tibetans.

 Until now, most of the research on this annoying constraint on the Han has been done in the city of Xianyang, in Shaanxi province, just outside the provincial capital, Xi’an.

Why would the Tibet Minority Nationalities University in Lhasa, Xizang Minzu Daxue, be in charge of a laboratory in distant Xianyang? Lhasa runs its Key Laboratory of High Altitude Environment and Genes Related to Disease of Tibet, but it is in Xianyang. The city is not just comfortably close yet comfortably far from grimy Xi’an and its seven million inhabitants, Xianyang has its own medical university and good research facilities. Xianyang also has a deep lineage, all the way back to emperor Qinshihuangdi, who conquered all the warring kingdoms of ancient China, creating the first empire. The ruthless Qinshihuangdi, famous worldwide for his terracotta warrior army nearby, was the progenitor of China, of one-man rule, of a powerful state that could force all around to pay tribute. It seems fitting. then, that conquering the secrets of Tibetan mitochondria is based there. Key Laboratory for Molecular Genetic Mechanisms and Intervention Research on High Altitude Disease of Tibet Autonomous Region, School of Medicine, Xizang Minzu University, Xianyang Shaanxi 712082,is the full official name.

Tibetans and Han are different, in fundamental ways

As the name suggests, “high altitude disease” is not a Tibetan problem, it’s a Han Chinese problem, and a serious one, as roughly one in ten Han who go to Tibet suffer altitude sickness so severe they have to leave, no matter what. A further 10% to 30% manage to soldier on, despite chronic altitude sickness. Yet to solve this Han problem vast computational power was needed, to crunch vast accumulations of genetic data, from vast numbers of Tibetan blood providers. Tibetans, as usual, provide answers to  China’s problems.

Whether those blood extractions were voluntary, coerced, or obtained by falsely pretending the blood collection was to check the health status of donors, and then give useful feedback, is not at all clear. In both Xinjiang and Tibet “convenience police stations” have been set up in urban areas, which invite the locals to give blood and other biological samples, incentivised as a health check. Worldwide big corporations similarly vacuum up data on individual lives and habits, drawing in each of us data providers with the promise of convenience, comfort, and individuality.

60,000 years of Tibetan genetics mapped

But mass sampling of the genetics of an entire people, a whole nation, so fundamentally distinct from the Han supermajority, is extraordinarily invasive. It is meant to be extraordinarily revealing, but it turns out, surprise, surprise, that this is far more complex than anyone had supposed; and despite the excitement at the August 2019 announcement, this top-level Sino-German team is no closer to identifying the specific gene that gives Tibetans their strength, to live well on a vast island four to five kilometres into the sky, with the surrounding mountains much higher still. All this crack research team found for sure is that the likeliest candidate for the innermost secret of the Tibetans turns out to have little or nothing to do with how profoundly Tibetans are adapted to altitude. For the past decade Chinese scientists locked in on genetic variant peculiar to Tibetans, in the expectation of proving this is what results in Tibetan adaptation to altitude. “EPAS1 is so far the most well-recognized candidate gene for high-altitude adaptation of Tibetans, as well as other human and non-human species on the highlands. However, no adaptive functional variant has been identified in EPAS1, leaving an unsolved problem in this field.” Back to square one.

classic Tibetan treatment for breathing difficulties: golden needle heated by moxa

It is one thing to map the full genetic code of the Tibetans, another to figure which typically Tibetan genetic variant results in inborn climatic capability. It’s just too complex, so it may yet be many more years before China’s best labs, whether in Shaanxi Xianyang or Shanghai, can pinpoint the secret source of Tibetan strength.

Tibetan characteristics, quantified


Actually, as is usual with computational genetics, the latest team, from Shanghai, are better at projecting far into the past rather than unlocking a key to a future in which Han can breathe Tibetan air and not fall ill. It is at this point that the story gets really interesting for Tibetans.

The genetic variants found in the cells of Tibetans, and not in Han Chinese, are ancient, going back to the earliest human settlements in Tibet, which means going back 60,000 years. That means today’s Tibetans are descended from ancestors, of various human and near-human species, who interbred and shared their genes around. It means today’s Tibetans, who are deeply interested in lineage, history and prehistory can go back  much, much further than the three or four thousand years of Zhang Zhung and Yundrung Bon, the preBuddhist culture of the Tibetans.

Until very recently, while there was evidence that humans had inhabited Tibet as far as 60,000 years ago, it was not clear whether they shared the same genetics as modern Tibetans. They may have been another species, with no direct connection to contemporary Tibetans. That uncertainty has now been resolved. Those Denisovans from Siberia, and other early inhabitants of Tibet 60,000 years ago ARE the ancestors of modern Tibetans. That is the clear outcome of the latest research.

The findings of this Chinese team of geneticists could be summarised:

1) adaption to highland living involves more, and more widespread genetic variations than previously identified

2) Tibetan Highland population is more different from lowland populations and different in more ways than previously thought

3) Tibetan plateau populations are ancient, older than previously thought, and the most ancient of Eurasian populations

4) the only way newcomer populations have adapted is by joining the existing Tibetan population ie by becoming Tibetan. Mandatory mingling, genetic fusion of Tibetans and Han works only in that direction.

more Tibetan characteristics, ennumerated


This all suggests an impressive adaptability common to Tibetans. Other scientists, the palynologists, have charted the climatic ups and downs, the advancing and retreating glaciers of Tibet, also over many thousands of years, which also changes our picture. If the palynologists are right (and they too extrapolate backwards from the present into the deep past, like the geneticists) the Tibetans have managed to live in climates both considerably warmer than today, and much colder than today, and still thrived.[1]

Palynology is the science of ancient seeds, dormant in the soil, occasionally -if you know where to look- for thousands of years, a reliable guide to what used to grow in a specific landscape which today may no longer support those plant species. Palynologists, many from Germany, roam the pastures of Tibet looking for seed fragment clues to past climate change. The more they find, the more we can respect the Tibetan ancestors for handling extremes.

do Tibetans have anything to say about embryology: human development in the womb? Yes.


However, Tibetans as well as Han will be more interested in the future, and what the latest findings mean. What has been clear for years is that the genetic change that makes Tibetans distinctive is genetic at the most profound level, within the mitochondria at the heart of each cell. Mitochondria are transmitted across generations only on the female line, from mother to daughter and son, but only the daughter can then transmit further, to the next generation.

So if China were to decide the only way  to make Han Chinese better suited to life in Tibet is to crossbreed mixed Tibetan/Han marriages, those marriages would have to be restricted to Han men marrying Tibetan women. It just doesn’t work the other way around.

Does China have any such plan? It would take a long time, and would require social engineering of mixed marriages on a big scale. China does promote inter-ethnic mingling, with slogans and campaigns in both Xinjiang and Tibet promoting intermarriage. The purpose of these mass campaigns is assimilation, dissolving the Tibetan and Uighur sense of distinctive difference into a singly nationality, the one Chinese race.  This assimilationist agenda, although not publicly announced, is well documented in many Chinese sources as the driver of ethnic policy over the past two decades, supplanting the earlier policy of minority nationality territorialised autonomy.

Assimilation, like genetic mixing, is also a slow process, but these days China is forcing the pace, most evidently in Xinjiang, where Han are ordered to live in the homes of Uighur families, to instruct Uighurs how to become civilised, how to respect the central state, how to live in apartment tower blocks, how to refrain from spitting, how to become modern urban consumers, how to memorise and repeat official slogans. The coercive mass campaigns are chauvinist, racist, arrogant and deeply resented, yet no-one calls this Great Han Chauvinism (as Mao once labelled it) for what it is.

Will China succeed in making the Uighurs Chinese by mass detention, mass recitation of party-state slogans, mass relocations, followed by release from detention under ongoing surveillance to detect any behaviour that does not comply with the Han norm? As well as the cruelty of the mass detentions and mindless mandatory parroting of official slogans, many observers wonder if this racist mass campaign can possibly achieve its goal, or only breed resentment and a deeper sense of difference.

Part of the assimilation campaign throughout China’s far west –in both Xinjiang and Tibet- is intermarriage between ethnicities. Theoretically, this mobilises minorities to greater mobility throughout China, moving to bigger cities, better jobs, entrepreneurial opportunities anywhere in  China, wherever the factors of production are most favourably congregated. But the reality is that both Tibetans and Uighurs face intense discrimination in central and eastern China, suspicion, mistrust, fear and refusal of service the moment an ID card declaring Tibetan or Uighur nationality is produced, on demand. In almost any society around the world, the most mobile are the young men, and it is exactly the young men who are most feared by Han as possible terrorists.

So if there is to be inter-racial mingling, as promoted by official slogans and campaigns, whether for assimilation or genetic mixing, it will in practice mean Han Chinese men coming in to Tibetan and Uighur communities and families, and breeding. This is deeply repugnant to both Uighurs and Tibetans, especially to the men, who resent the loss of “their” women.

If China gets serious about such social engineering within families, such resentments could boil over into serious danger to stability. So far, even in Xinjiang, the exhortations to intermingle, intermarry and interbreed have seldom been enforced coercively. The slogans remain aspirational, unenforceable in practice. But what if interbreeding proves to be the only way a large Han population could colonise Tibet?

At present, this is all speculative, and Tibetans have many more immediate concerns. China too has the immediate and ongoing concern that so many Han Chinese emigrating to Tibet are struck down by chronic mountain sickness, CMS, to use medical jargon which medicalises living in Tibet –on the plateau, not up a mountain- as a disease.


A Chinese medical team trying to quantify precisely the extent of the “disease burden” experienced by otherwise healthy young Han males coming to Tibet put this clearly: “CMS imposes a considerable burden on Chinese immigrants to Tibet. Immigrants with characteristics such as a higher residential altitude, more advanced age, longer highland service years, being a smoker, and working in engineering or construction were more likely to develop CMS and to increase the disease burden. Higher blood pressure and heart rate as a result of CMS were also positively associated with the disease burden.”[2]

The authors identify construction and engineering, occupations requiring actual physical exertion, as particularly problematic. This 2012 report is by a team from another lowland institute focussed exclusively on Tibet as a medical condition, the College of High Altitude Military Medicine, Third Military Medical University, 30 Gaotanyan Street, Shapingba District, Chongqing. If Han construction workers are hit by crippling headaches induced by hypoxia (low oxygen) in Tibet, so too are soldiers laden with backpacks and weapons. No doubt these researchers also tested Han soldiers, and reported their findings to the relevant organs. Presumably, that is a state secret.

Tibetans ARE genetically very different to Han

If Tibet is a disease, it is chronic, and only gets worse as time passes. If you suffer CMS but continue to stay in Tibet, those blinding headaches don’t go away, it worsens: “CMS is a hypobaric, hypoxia-related illness that presents with polycythemia leading to cardiac failure or neurological disorders. CMS seriously affects the health of highland immigrants and often results in significant declines in productivity and quality of life. Patients usually experience decreased exercise tolerance, loss of memory, headache, dizziness, and fatigue. Compared with their Tibetan counterparts, Han suffer from significantly higher rates of CMS when they reside in highland areas.”

Polycythemia means having way too many red blood cells, caused by a body accustomed to the heavier, thicker air of Xianyang or Chongqing travelling up to the Tibetan Plateau. The red blood cells transport oxygen all over the body, essential to all bodily functioning.

The human body quickly produces more red blood cells if it finds itself suddenly short of oxygen, it’s a natural adaptive response. That’s fine if you are a lowlander just visiting. If you are an athlete seeking competitive advantage, you might even choose to train at high altitude so as to produce those extra red blood cells, available to deliver oxygen to muscles when you are pumping hard on the race track.  So short term polycythemia is not a problem, but in the long term, if that is the only way for the body to get more oxygen, you are in trouble. Cardiac failure looms.[3]

This is precisely where Tibetans have an unfair advantage, from a Han perspective. How do they do it? This has been researched for decades, which is why there are two institutes in Xianyang and Chongqing dedicated solely to cracking the secrets of Tibetan inner strength.


The military scientists tell us the typical response of military commanders in Tibet is to order their soldiers to suck it up, to overcome their headaches, breathlessness and fatigue by willpower, but now this will no longer do: “The decline in health status induced by CMS in the immigrant population has been underestimated in the past. The authorities focus on acute mountain sickness because it can cause obvious loss of manpower in some emergency situations. By contrast, CMS, of which the symptoms are generally not severe, tends to be ignored by the authorities. They believe that CMS does not affect day-time work very much, and it can be overcome by will power and courage derived from military discipline and patriotism. However, the disease not only gradually reduces the state of health and quality of life of individuals, but it also decreases the working capacity of the whole population. In the health service system for Chinese highland troops, CMS has not been considered to be an occupational disease or to warrant compensation. Currently, the highland troops only calculate the prevalence of CMS. Quality of life is not considered to be important by the authorities, and the reduction in health cannot be quantitated.”

Patriotism does not cure chronic mountain sickness. Shouting patriotic slogans, in unison with your platoon, does not generate a pathway to get oxygen to cells that need it, without clogging the arteries with too many red blood cells.

 Patriotism is no longer enough; it is time for big science, armed with big data, to step in and conquer Tibet. The language of conquest features prominently in the ways the Han Chinese researchers, whether in  Shanghai, Xianyang or Chongqing, tackle the problem. The Shanghai team says: “The adaptive genetic variants map provided by this study help to narrow down the targets for further investigations on the genetic basis and molecular mechanism of high-altitude adaptation of Tibetans, and provides new perspective for unrevealing the mystery of human conquest of the extreme environment at high altitude. Notably, this study proposed that multiple variants may jointly deliver the fitness of the Tibetans on the Plateau, where a complex model is needed to elucidate the adaptive evolution mechanism.”

The language of conquest is also used for the earliest human settlement of Tibet: “In fact, it was a long journey for human to conquer the Tibet Plateau. A previous study by Xu’s team estimated that the genetic origin of the Tibetan highlanders could be traced back to around 40,000 to 60,000 years ago, in the middle-late Paleolithic. The early migrants to the plateau had extensive genetic admixture with each other, and had further gene flows with the latecomers, leading to the admixed descendants with very complex genetic makeup — inherited from ancestry lineages of modern human and archaic hominins (e.g. Altai Neanderthal, Denisovan and other unknown archaic species). During this process, some archaic genomic segments that were advantageous to the high-altitude adaptation were retained, and were accumulated to high frequencies through natural selection.”

How can China catch up, when it took 60,000 years of natural selection to produce Tibetans who manage to get enough oxygen to their muscles without overloading the blood circulation with too many red blood cells? The 2019 breakthrough actually complexifies the task further. There are now many more genetic variants to look at, and no-one knows which variant in the Tibetan genotype results in the greater ability Tibetans have to get enough oxygen from thinner air. So a lot more research will be needed, and a lot more Tibetan blood.

Shanghai, and its Sino-German computational  genetics lab, has emerged as a competitor with Xianyang and Chongqing in the race to reconquer Tibet. Blood will flow.

China’s military scientists have taken the placentas of Tibetan women immediately after they gave birth, to test whether Tibetan genetic capability to thrive at altitude starts in the womb: “The mitochondria of placents were isolated as soon as possible or their placents were put into the liquid nitrogen after their baby birthes for RNA isolation. All the subjects were healthy, age-matched, no different in the baric index and unrelated with each other. Written consent was obtained from all subjects in agreement with guideline from the ethical committee of the Third Military Medical University.”[4]

Does Chinese research help Tibetan women birthing?

To have gotten this far has taken scientists, both Chinese and international, enormous effort.[5] That’s only a beginning. What next?

The deeper China delves into the lineage of the Tibetans, the more surprising the results. Far from conquering, China’s big data wrangling has revealed enormous complexity within the Tibetan genome, and a heritage of adaptation to climate and altitude at the most profound level. The lineage of Tibetans, according to both the geneticists and palynologists, stretches way back, way beyond history, into deep time. Conquering and colonising Tibet just got harder.

However, China is exploring other pathways for cracking the secrets of altitude adaptation. Chinese scientists are busily analysing the molecular biology of Tibetan pikas, and Tibetan mastiffs, which seem to have crossbred long ago with Tibetan wolves, thus acquiring the hemoglobin capacities of wolves to sprint at high altitude in pursuit of prey. Since contemporary China is fascinated with being themselves wolf warriors, this research is generating much interest.

[1] Frank Schlutz and  Frank Lehmkuhl,  Holocene climatic change and the nomadic Anthropocene in Eastern Tibet: palynological and geomorphological results from the Nianbaoyeze Mountains, Quaternary Science Reviews, 28 (2009) 1449–1471

[2] Gao et al.  Burden of disease resulting from chronic mountain sickness among young Chinese male immigrants in Tibet    BMC BioMed Central Public Health 2012, 12:401, freely downloadable from http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/12/401

[3] Fan-Yi Kong, Qiang Li, and Shi-Xiang Liu,  Poor Sleep Quality Predicts Decreased Cognitive Function Independently of Chronic Mountain Sickness Score in Young Soldiers with Polycythemia Stationed in Tibet, HIGH ALTITUDE MEDICINE & BIOLOGY, Volume 12, Number 3, 2011

[4] Luo Yongjun, Gao Wenxiang et al, Altered expression of mitochondrial related genes in the native Tibetan placents by mitochondrial cDNA array analysis, Journal of Medical Colleges of PLA 24 (2009) 10–17

[5] 1.          Moore, LG, Niermeyer, S, Zamudio, S. Human adaptation to high altitude: Regional and life-cycle perspectives. Yearb Phys Anthropol. 1998; 41: 25-64.

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3.             Hochachka, PW, Clark, CM, Holden, JE, et al. P-31 magnetic resonance spectroscopy of the Sherpa heart: A phosphocreatine adenosine triphosphate signature of metabolic defense against hypobaric hypoxia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 1996; 93(3): 1215-20.

4.             Garrido, E, Segura, R, Capdevila, A, et al. Are Himalayan Sherpas better protected against brain damage associated with extreme altitude climbs? Clin Sci. 1996; 90(1): 81-5.

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10.          Hochachka, PW, Stanley, C, Mckenzie, DC, et al. Enzyme Mechanisms for Pyruvate-to-Lactate Flux Attenuation – a Study of Sherpas, Quechuas, and Hummingbirds. Int J Sports Med. 1992; 13: S119-S22.

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13.          Weitz, CA, Garruto, RM, Chin, CT, et al. Growth of Qinghai Tibetans living at three different high altitudes. Am J Phys Anthropol. 2000; 111(1): 69-88.

14.          Gill, MB, Pugh, LGC. Basal Metabolism + Respiration in Men Living at 5,800 M (19,000 Ft). J Appl Physiol. 1964; 19(5): 949-&.

15.          Ward, M. High Altitude Deterioration. Proc R Soc Ser B-Bio. 1954; 143(910): 40-2.

16.          Schneider, A, Greene, RE, Keyl, C, et al. Peripheral arterial vascular function at altitude: sea-level natives versus Himalayan high-altitude natives. J Hypertens. 2001; 19(2): 213-22.

17.          Erzurum, SC, Ghosh, S, Janocha, AJ, et al. Higher blood flow and circulating NO products offset high-altitude hypoxia among Tibetans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2007; 104(45): 17593-8.

18.          Patitucci, M, Lugrin, D, Pages, G. Angiogenic/lymphangiogenic factors and adaptation to extreme altitudes during an expedition to Mount Everest. Acta Physiol. 2009; 196(2): 259-65.

19.          Beall, CM, Laskowski, D, Strohl, KP, et al. Pulmonary nitric oxide in mountain dwellers. Nature. 2001; 414(6862): 411-2.

20           Beall, CM, Cavalleri, GL, Deng, L, et al. Natural selection on EPAS1 (HIF2alpha) associated with low hemoglobin concentration in Tibetan highlanders. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010; 107(25): 11459-64.

21.          Jeong, C, Witonsky, DB, Basnyat, B, et al. Detecting past and ongoing natural selection among ethnically Tibetan women at high altitude in Nepal. Plos Genet. 2018; 14(9): e1007650.

22.          Peng, Y, Cui, CY, He, YX, et al. Down-Regulation of EPAS1 Transcription and Genetic Adaptation of Tibetans to High-Altitude Hypoxia. Molecular Biology and Evolution. 2017; 34(4): 818-30.

23.          Chen, QH, Ge, RL, Wang, XZ, et al. Exercise performance of Tibetan and Han adolescents at altitudes of 3,417 and 4,300 m. J Appl Physiol. 1997; 83(2): 661-7.

24.          Havryk, AP, Gilbert, M, Burgess, KR. Spirometry values in Himalayan high altitude residents (Sherpas). Resp Physiol Neurobi. 2002; 132(2): 223-32.

25.          Droma, T, McCullough, RG, McCullough, RE, et al. Increased vital and total lung capacities in Tibetan compared to Han residents of Lhasa (3,658 m). Am J Phys Anthropol. 1991; 86(3): 341-51.

26.          Brutsaert, TD. Do high-altitude natives have enhanced exercise performance at altitude? Appl Physiol Nutr Me. 2008; 33(3): 582-92.

27.          Halperin, BD, Sun, SF, Zhuang, JG, et al. ECG observations in Tibetan and han residents of Lhasa. J Electrocardiol. 1998; 31(3): 237-43.

28.          Gilbert-Kawai, ET, Milledge, JS, Grocott, MPW, et al. King of the mountains: Tibetan and Sherpa physiological adaptations for life at high altitude. Physiology. 2014; 29(6): 388-402.

29.          Wu, TY, Wang, XQ, Wei, CY, et al. Hemoglobin levels in Qinghai-Tibet: different effects of gender for Tibetans vs. Han. J Appl Physiol. 2005; 98(2): 598-604.

30.          Pugh, LGCE. Excerpts from: Physiological and medical aspects of the Himalayan Scientific and Mountaineering Expedition, 1960-61. Wild Environ Med. 2002; 13(1): 57-.

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You may have heard rumours that the climate of Tibet is warming remarkably fast, and this is dangerous.

photo Jan Reurink

China’s official media, however, assure us that climate change in Tibet is all good, even that it contributes to the construction of ecological civilisation. There is nothing to worry about if Tibet warms, and eventually becomes suitable for Chinese crops and Chinese settlement.

The alarmists point to the melting of the glaciers, the shrinking of permafrost, the loss of wetlands, the widespread flooding in Tibet in 2018, as danger signs.

Tibetan lakes which for centuries gradually shrank, now grow quickly. Source: see footnote 1

But the upside is more rain, lakes brimming full, and that means more water for the uppermost catchments of China’s great rivers, so it’s all good.[1] Further, China is making progress with  geoengineering even more rainfall over the river sources, rather than letting monsoon clouds drift further inland into the remotest pastures, such a waste. What matters most is that lowland China is provided with more water from Tibet. Climate change plus geoengineering plus remote monitoring by big data satellites all add up, in official eyes, to a dividend, not at all a reason for alarm.

rising lake levels across Tibet. Source: https://aqua-monitor.appspot.com/

These days the alarmists include the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which in early August 2019 reported that climate change is accelerating in Tibet, and that official policies aren’t helping. Further, the removal of livestock production from the traditional Tibetan pastoral landscapes, on a very broad scale, is the wrong move in a world where food security for billions of people is precarious.

The IPCC’s alarm was amplified by reports by International Campaign for Tibet and Minority Rights Group, which identified China’s policy failures on the rangelands and their consequences, which drive rural Tibetans deeper into poverty and insecurity, as herd size limits are enforced, or nomads are removed altogether to urban settlements.


No need, we are now told by China’s official media, to be gloomy; in fact it’s all good: “The wild animals in the Sanjiangyuan area are frequent, the lake area in the Qaidam Basin continues to expand, the water body area of ​​Qinghai Lake has increased for 17 consecutive years, and the grassland ecosystem in the Qinghai area of ​​Qilian Mountain National Park has been improved. All this marks the ecological indicators of Qinghai Province; it is good.”

solar power potential of Tibetan Plateau

Climate change, especially in Tibet, actually has its upside, transforming a cryosphere into landscapes that are becoming recognisable from a Chinese lowland perspective: capable of supporting more forest and eventually more cropping land; capable of delivering water reliably, over a lengthening wet season, to the lowlands; capable of  generating massive amounts of hydropower, wind power and solar power, all of which can be transmitted great distances to the coastal factories on ultra-high voltage power grids. It’s all good.

glaciologist Tao Yandong

Climate change in Tibet, viewed Sinocentrically, is actually a dividend, especially in the provisioning of water, both from glacier melt and from climate change induced rainfall increase, to be further enhanced by blasting Tibetan skies with rockets laden with silver iodide in the hope of enhancing rainfall even further, in the Yellow River catchment, for downstream benefit. It’s all good.

glacier melt explained

In the long term, the glaciers will be gone altogether, and the dividend will become a deficit. But that seems to be several decades away. Around the world, many would like to believe China’s planners think in decades, but the loss of the glaciers is for them far over the horizon, too far; while the dividend is now. In recent years there was considerable uncertainty as to whether melting glaciers were generating increasing runoff, with several scientific studies a decade ago suggesting that, counterintuitively, runoff was decreasing. More recently the Chinese Academy of Sciences has put a big effort into quantifying glacier melt and hydrological data on streamflows; it looks good.


This dividend is seldom spoken of openly; it doesn’t look good. Nor does China acknowledge that rapid warming, permafrost melt, glacier shrinkage, unseasonal snowstorms  and heavy flooding across Tibet in 2018 are actually bad for Tibetan livelihoods, wildlife and ecosystems. The official Qinghai Scitech Weekly quoted above goes on, in the same article, to say: “In the winter of last year, there was snow in the pastoral area of ​​southern Qinghai.” That is the only mention of the climate disasters in Tibet, where extreme weather events are becoming more extreme, as elsewhere worldwide.

The pastoral areas of southern Qinghai are bigger than the whole of Germany, and are prime pastoral landscapes, highly productive, but vulnerable to sudden and unpredictable extremes. A blizzard in early winter can block the high passes, as herds are being brought down to lower overwintering pasture. A blizzard in late winter can blanket the ground in snow so deep even yaks cannot paw through it, and delay the crucial grass growth timing of the beginning of spring, the time herd animals are weak after the long winter.

advancing desertification, vegetation blasted by gales, 2016

Extremes also mean prolonged dry spells, triggering desertification, for which drogpa nomads are usually blamed. It’s a complex picture: to what extent is desiccation/desertification a long-term process spanning centuries and millennia; to what extent is it now accelerating?

The winds that erode the grasslands are winds that could be used to generate wind power, saving the rivers from hydrodamming. Source: Global Wind Atlas

Further complexities arise when Chinese scientists try to track the seasonal thaw and refreezing of permafrost in huge portions of upper Tibet. When permafrost melts in the warmer months, or in the longer term, does this allow more water to seep deep rather than run off to the rivers and to downstream China? When permafrost freezes again, does this prevent water from trickling deeper, forcing it into the rivers? China, fixated by numbers, wants to know the answer, but generating enough data is not so easy.

In nearby Mongolia, a free country with deep experience of mobile pastoralism, and of climate change, such extreme winters, known as dzud, can be mitigated by resolute collective action, co-ordinated by government, NGOs, local authorities and the herders themselves, activating the customary otor,  a longhaul transfer of stranded stock to areas unaffected by disaster.[2]

NOMADIC PEOPLES (2008) VOLUME 12, ISSUE 2, 2008: 35–52

No such program exists in Tibet.  Mongolia also pioneered indexed disaster insurance for pastoralists, carefully designed to pay out to nomads when they lose a lot of animals in an extreme weather disaster. No such indexed herd insurance exists in Tibet, even though Mongolia has shown it can be done without great expense.

When disaster strikes, some Tibetan prefectures do now have reserve stockpiles of fodder as emergency relief, if it can be delivered to drogpa nomads on site.  But the only way to rebuild a herd is to have as many animals as possible at all times, a customary logic Han Chinese consider irrational. From their perspective the purpose of having livestock, in any modern market economy, is to sell as many animals as possible for slaughter as soon as they attain maximum weight gain as they become adult.

Official China argues, plausibly, that excessive herd size puts too much pressure on available grass, yet it fails to provide the pastoralists with effective insurance that eases the anxiety that a small herd, and a blizzard, add up to immiserisation, and destitution. That means a one-way ticket to a distant concrete apartment block, on an urban fringe, for permanent resettlement, with land rights cancelled.


But China does invest heavily in high-tech monitoring of climate, to keep track of all those overbrimming lakes and extra lakes, and in order to calculate the exact auspicious moment for firing up the rockets to blast silver iodide into the upper atmosphere of Tibet, to induce rainfall over the Yellow River catchment. Most of the Qinghai Scitech Weekly article is about the high tech:

“The Qinghai Ecological Weather Centre, established in 2018, consists of a centre, three platforms, and six major systems (ie Qinghai Ecological Meteorological Centre, ecological meteorological big data management platform, ecological meteorological service analysis platform, and ecological meteorological product release platform; business system, service system, technical system, science and technology support system, phantom security system, system standardisation system.) Through pre-construction, the role of ecological meteorological monitoring, early warning and assessment is more significant, and the comprehensive monitoring system for ecological meteorology is further optimized. Further enhanced, the ecological meteorological support standard system was basically established, laying a foundation for promoting the construction of Qinghai ecological civilization pioneer zone.”

This impressive investment includes “weather radar, ground-based microwave radiometer, lightning location, GPS/MET water vapor remote sensing, airborne cloud particle measurement system, raindrop spectrometer, the comprehensive regional observation system consisting of automatic weather stations provides basic support for scientific monitoring and evaluation of high-altitude air resources in the province, effective identification of weather-activated data gathering and quantitative assessment of operational efficiency.”

All this equipment, not only on the ground but on satellites equipped with many ways of monitoring the vastness of the Tibetan Plateau, is for the primary purpose of making more rain, where China wants it, rather than letting clouds drift by even further inland to Hoh Xil/Achen Gangyab UNESCO World Heritage area. Cloud seeding is the result of all this monitoring. The same article says: “Although it is in the ‘Chinese Water Tower’, the shortage of water resources has always been a ‘short board’ ‘短板’ that plagues the province’s economic and social development and ecological environment protection. The artificial rainfall enhancement operation is currently relatively mature and most effective. In recent years, the meteorological department of our province has continuously enhanced the capacity of ecological civilization to build meteorological support services through long-term ecological monitoring, strengthening scientific research, artificial rainfall enhancement, etc., and provided powerful meteorological support for the construction of ecological civilization in our province.” It’s all good.

Lenin defined communism as socialism plus electricity; China defines state capitalism as Marx plus rockets.

Climate change enhances the construction of ecological civilisation, a dividend that calls for rejoicing. Only worry-warts and snowflakes would see this march towards ecological civilisation as bad. Typically, International Campaign for Tibet, amplifying a major report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, identified the many downsides of accelerating climate change in Tibet.  So negative. Likewise, Minority Rights Group recently identified the negative impacts on Tibetan livelihoods of climate change. Some folks would complain, even at the gates of paradise.

Since climate change, is all good, at least in Tibet –one quarter of China’s total territory- why not build more coal-fired power stations, to accelerate climate change further? China is doing just that: “Internationally, China has pledged to peak carbon emissions by 2030 at the latest, but it has been reluctant to promise an absolute cap on emissions. China’s carbon emissions are still increasing. China’s electricity demand has started to tick upwards again in the past few years. In response, the China Electric Power Planning & Engineering Institute, a research body, recently called for a short-term expansion of capacity over the next three years. Similarly, in March the China Electricity Council suggested that coal-power capacity should expand to 1,300 GW by 2030.” That’s a 30 per cent increase on current capacity.


After the IPCC warned in 2018 that anything beyond a 1.5 degree climate warming worldwide will be disastrous, the UN Secretary-General called for all countries to act to achieve that upper limit. Guterres specifically called for no more coal-fired power station construction after 2020. He was quickly repudiated by China, which persists in insisting that all the heavy lifting has to be done by the richest countries, leaving China free to burn ever more coal, for many years to come.

China burns more coal than the rest of the world put together, and will still do so in 20135

China’s rhetoric of constructing ecological civilisation looks all good, until you look more closely at what it means in practice. Many of China’s international partners know that if they are to have any chance of persuading China to pull its weight, they must slather China’s ecological civilisation construction with praise: China can exert  various  kinds  of international influence:  leadership  by example; leadership via resources such  as  knowledge  and financial  support; and  leadership  in coalitions and partnerships. Time is of the essence. Ecological civilization is  an  inspiring  vision  that  will govern policies  of  many  types  in  China’s  New Era. However, it is a concept that is at an early stage of understanding in other countries and globally. Now is the time to  introduce  this  important  approach  to  the  world with the aim of seeking synergies with  global,  regional  and  other  national  concepts  and strategies  of  other  countries  in  the  interest  of sustainable  development. By  securing  full  public  participation regarding  ecological  civilization, the pathway to a Beautiful China can speak to our hearts as well as our minds.”

That’s the language of CCICED, the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, where leaders of Asian Development Bank, World Bank’s Global Environment Facility, UN Convention on Biodiversity, World Wildlife Fund, and The Nature Conservancy NGOs line up to praise China, in the hope of gently persuading it to ease up on the coal, even set some actual emissions limits. Little wonder the rest of the world gets the idea that China’s “ecological civilisation construction” means something good.

where DNA damaging, cancer inducing ultraviolet rays are most intense


In the actual world we live in, China persists in objecting to findings that pinpoint the most climate-toxic of emissions to China. The ozone hole over Tibet, which lets harmful ultraviolet radiation damage all living things in Tibet, is not shrinking, and much scientific research has identified the reason. Chinese factories manufacturing refrigerant chemicals and industrial foam sprays continue to pump into the atmosphere the deadliest of emissions, far more dangerous than carbon dioxide, which eventually gathers over Tibet, to the detriment of all life. Despite the evidence, China continues to deny this, or to take effective action.

While the UN calls for taking seriously the climate crisis, limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees, Chinese scientists say Tibet will warm by four degrees by century’s end. It is all good.

spraying chlorofluorocarbon: China’s secret ozone layer killer

The Montreal Protocol, a UN treaty banning ozone depleting manufacture and emissions, is flouted, breaking international law. However, China’s experts quibble, saying the research pinning the blame on China is of dubious reliability, makes too many assumptions, has too little observational data to be certain. We recognise a familiar voice. For decades, the reality of climate change was denied by similarly attacking the scientific evidence as insufficient. The inherent assumption is that dangers that also make profits are not to be dealt with until totally proven.

But the ultraviolet hitting the surface of Tibet, unshielded by a protective ozone layer in the uppermost atmosphere, damages the DNA of all living beings, plants and animals. China’s failure to do anything much to find and close the polluters, in the words of scientists from the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration “could seriously undermine the protocol and set ozone repair back by nearly a decade.”

That’s a further decade of ultraviolet rays blasting Tibet, a prime cause of skin cancers; an extra decade of careless, pointless damage to life in Tibet, and no-one talks about it. Isn’t “ecological civilisation construction” meant to protect life, in tangible ways? Not all good.


Is China’s passion for ruling distant Tibet by satellite just tech enthusiasm? Just a boyish belief in the latest gadgets that promise to govern Tibet, fire the cloud seeding rockets at just the right moment, all from a remote control room? Is that why China brushes aside concerns that climate change, ozone hole and geoengineering in Tibet might have downsides?

As usual, in today’s China, there’s all that, and more. It just so happens that in mid 2019 China launched a new stock exchange for the hi-tech corporations that make satellites and imaging equipment.

The July launch of the STAR Market, within the Shanghai Stock Exchange but with very different rules, made three new billionaires overnight on the day of launch. This is crony capitalism with CCP characteristics.

Timing is everything. Talking up China’s hi-tech unicorns to an IPO valuation astronomically in excess of their actual performance is a delicate art, if the sons of CCP bosses are to make their instant billions. The new Nasdaq-on-Yangtze had to achieve several carefully calibrated goals at once. There had to be excitement that hi-tech, especially satellites and their builders, is the wave of the future, a sure-fire investment guaranteed to be profitable. There had to be an unprecedented relaxation of stock trading rules allowing those spectacular valuations and speedy profit-taking; while shutting out mom and pop investors who stand to lose all when hyped stock prices deflate. If there are too many ordinary folk, who have little idea of the risks they are taking with their own money, who later get burned, that becomes a political problem for regime stability, so the STAR market ruled them out, while ruling the high roller insiders in.

It all worked, at least initially, so well there is now talk of the Shanghai STAR Market reducing China’s dependence on Hong Kong as a source of investment capital. Another plus. Made in China is suddenly producing star performers, whose corporate valuation vastly exceeds actual earnings.

launching the STAR Market, July 2019: who wants to be a billionaire?

China’s state capitalism has pulled off a brilliant illusion. The 140 corporations listing their shares on the new Shanghai STAR market are state-owned, with all the backing of the party-state to guarantee they can never go broke, whatever happens, without a state bailout. Not only are the initial share sellers state-owned, so too are the initial share buyers, according to analysis by the Financial Times. It’s all a magical illusion.

Xi Jinping decreed the invention of STAR Market, November 2018

What has any of this got to do with Tibet? One of the state-owned corporations listing its shares for trading on the STAR Market is China Satcom, a profitable satellite builder and operator, a subsidiary of the state-owned giant CASC, China Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation. CASC is the core of China’s military-industrial complex, maker and launcher of missiles and commercial rockets, usually from the Jiuquan base in the desert of NW China, totally dependent on water from the Dola Ri mountains (Qilian Shan in Chinese) of northern Amdo.

CASC and China Satcom tell investors they don’t really need the money, since the state provides all, they are only in the market for capital because they were instructed to do so, to show blue chip stocks are now buyable. China Satcom, according to its voluminous regulatory filing with the Shanghai Stock Exchange, seeks only a modest RMB one billion capital raising. That’s reassuring.

Judging by the first batch of 25 corporations to complete their listings on the STAR Market, the remaining 115 applicants, including China Satcom, will fly. This is hardly surprising, since there is every indication that the party-state is behind it all, and even if all else fails, remains the guarantor. In fact, just to make sure the launch went well, the buyers as well as the sellers were frequently state-owned, a carefully orchestrated display of party-state confidence in itself.

If the STAR Market succeeds, China reduces its dependence on both the US and Hong Kong, advances its hi-tech Made in China 2025 plans for mastery of the industries of the future. The high throughput satellites China Satcom makes will turn Tibet into big data uploads and downloads, faster than ever. Xi Jinping, who announced the STAR Market in November 2018, has achieved the sort of win/win he often proposes.

And who will be the biggest winner? Who holds lots of shares already, likely to rocket in price when China Satcom IPO is completed?  “Wen Yunsong, son of former Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, served as China Satcom’s chairman between 2012 and 2015 and then stayed on as a director until 2017.”

CASC launches another remote sensing satellite

The younger Wen, sometimes known as Winston Wen, may soon join the instant billionaires from the first STAR listings: “’I woke up at 10am, and the share price had doubled,’ she said. ‘It definitely surpassed my expectations. It was money that came from the heavens without me doing anything.’ For Ms Xu, it is a moment for celebration. A handful of company presidents who have become instant billionaires are also in luck.”

Tibet is becoming an integral part of how to take money from the heavens, without doing anything. It’s all good

CASC military missiles: the same corporation pomoting geoengineering/cloud seeding over Tibet is the manufacturer of China’s intercontinental ballistic missiles

[1] FANG Yue, Changes in inland lakes on the Tibetan Plateau over the past 40 years, Journal of Geographic Science, J. Geogr. Sci. 2016, 26(4): 415-438

[2] Daniel Murphy,  Disaster, Mobility, And The Moral Economy Of Exchange In Mongolian Pastoralism, Nomadic Peoples, 22 (2018): 304–329.

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TIBETAN EMPLOYMENT IN NATIONAL PARKS ཡུལ་དང་དུས་ཀྱི་རྣམ་འགྱུར་ལ་བརྟེན་ནས། བོད་ལ་ལས་དང་མ་རྩའི་དོན་ལ་བརྟག་པ༎

Blog one of three on the fate of Tibetan nomads, frogs, green iron rice bowls and highland clearances

Tibetan Sanjiangyuan park ranger in his best brocade chuba with pillion passenger http://youtube.com/watch?v=Jq7XCRB_pDU explaining all.to camera alongside

 (This blog is an expanded version of a presentation by Gabriel Lafitte to the Paris seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, July 2019)


Li Xiaonan, head of the Sanjiangyuan National Park says: “after living in the hardships of the past ecological degradation, Sanjiangyuan herders now have an ‘ecological bowl’ and ate the ‘green rice’, tasted the sweetness of protecting the ecological environment.”[7]

Today the iron rice bowl  is overtly back, in this new iteration rebadged as the green rice bowl, a guarantee to every remnant drogpa nomad family of Yushu and Golok prefectures, that one family member now has a job for life, employed by the Sanjiangyuan National Park. The guarantee is explicit: one state employee per family, not more nor less. A year prior to the 2020 official launch of the Sanjiangyuan National  Park the number of local Tibetan staff to be employed  is precisely 17,211.

Many are already employed, and can already be seen in video docs online, engagingly sharing with us their joy at being out on the range, on their motorbikes, protecting wildlife. It all looks so good. This is much more sophisticated than China’s usual clunky propaganda, more plausible, more like the win/win eveyone hopes far.

It has a dark side: the ongoing, accelerating exclusion of more and more drogpa nomads from their pastures, in the name of national parks and wildlife protection. And the newly employed green rice bowlers are at the heart of the state’s machinery of exclusion and depopulation.

How to tell such a confusing story? Why would anyone doubt the word of a handsome Tibetan ranger telling a young English woman the delights of wildlife ranger work, even though it comes from China Intercontinental Communications Centre, CICC, now partnering with National Geographic and al Jazeera to get its docos into the mainstream?

Employing Tibetans doesn’t look at all like depopulating Tibet, so we need to wind back to the iron rice bowl days, meaning not only a guaranteed state salary but better access to health care and a pension after retirement, security to the grave, provided directly by the state.

Mass settlement of nomads, Golok Pema county

This return of the almost forgotten iron rice bowl is a master stroke by a state that, in contemporary China’s unique fusion of state capitalism, retains dirigiste allocative power and a highly centralised capacity to redistribute. As a metaphor, the green rice bowl is immediately understandable to livestock producers accustomed to living off uncertainty, but increasingly uneasy with their peripheral position in a glittering urbanised world instantly accessible on their mobile phones.

This recursion is thus welcome, a return of certainty, and the 17,000 jobs allocated for Tibetan staff resident in Sanjiangyuan will be keenly sought, among the 72,000 herders deemed eligible to apply.


In the revolutionary decades (1949 to 1976) the iron rice bowl, tiefanwan, connoted a state bent on industrial mastery, with iron and steel manufacture the highest priority.  It was the ultimate and universally understood symbol of security for life, the end of famine, the arrival of a people’s republic, in which the people own everything.

The green rice bowl is overtly about wildlife protection and poverty alleviation, less overtly about urbanising drogpa.  Urbanisation has replaced the walled compound enclave, as revolutionary push is replaced by urban pull. The privileged few who gain green rice bowl employment by the State Forestry and Grasslands Administration, will deploy daily from compounds, while their relatives will be encouraged, sometimes compelled, to depopulate the rangelands so  the land of Tibet can become pristine grassland wildernesses, patrolled by the one family member remaining, with green rice bowl status.

mass settlement of nomads, Rebkong

In these ways the state achieves several objectives. It raises the cash income of drogpa families, fulfilling the pledge of central leaders to entirely eliminate all poverty, even in “contiguous destitute areas”  个集中连片特困区贫困 by 2020; it brings the state back in as guarantor of nationwide water provision, wildlife protection, biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation, carbon sequestration, carbon market product creation, land degradation neutrality. Above all, it establishes sovereign state power as the active agent in command of the territorialised pristine grassland wilderness of eastern Tibet.


Never before has the geo-body of Tibet, which was traditionally stateless, been so deeply inscribed by nation-building state power, neatly partitioned by a rigid zoning system into an upper riparian zone designated exclusively for provision of environmental services, and a mid riparian zone, in Amdo and Kham, zoned for economic production of hydropower and water for industrial and urban consumption below.

This transformation achieves its apotheosis in the new system of national parks stretching across the Tibetan Plateau, about 30 per cent of the Tibetan sky island, which constitutes one quarter of the PRC geo-body.

Tibetan park rangers release a blue sheep.
Source: Qinghai Scitech Weekly, 31 July 2019

In the recent past, the declaration of nature reserves and other categories of protected areas, notably wetlands, has been criticised as “paper parks” existing mostly as administrative categories, with little investment in actual biodiversity conservation management.

The new national park system is different. It comes at a time when China is not only much wealthier, it’s core goals now look beyond industrialisation and the primitive stage of accumulation, and China is keen to establish its credentials as the builder of an “ecological civilisation.” Previous protected areas were under provincial control, the national parks are indeed national, under central control, and bound up with China’s national reputation as exemplary global agent.

The new approach is better funded, more comprehensive in its interventions, more extensive in its reimaginings of landscape management, and more sophisticated in its recourse to  ”top-level design”, derived from systems engineering. Part of this new sophistication is to go beyond the binary opposition of livestock production versus grass production, the famous Marxist dialectic of “the contradiction between grass and animals.”

Zato, at the source of the Mekong, now a neatly geometric Chinese town

The new approach, partly prompted by the suggestions of international partners, is more inclusive, less inclined to zero/sum exclusions. Now the new slogans speak of the “endogenous enthusiasm of the herder masses” to be mobilised, under state management, to do the actual work of park patrolling, gathering data on species numbers, and picking up rubbish. This endogenous enthusiasm is the basis of the green rice bowl guarantee of state employment, and implicitly, the loyalty of the 72,000 family members of whom 17,211 are to be employed, to the benevolent state provider of the green rice bowl.

This is enormously attractive, at a time when pastoral production remains as risky as ever, perhaps riskier as climate change accelerates, and city life appears seductively attractive, over the horizon yet instantly legible on the mobile phone everyone now has.

Tsering Bum, in a recent book on drogpa life, tries to explain to his friends why he wants to live among the nomads: “I made many friends while living in Ziling (Xining) and by 2015, many had worked in the NGO sector for years. When we met to catch up and I told them that I wanted to live in a rural community for the next year or two, their common reaction was that without internet access, I would be so bored that, within two weeks, I would probably give up and return to Ziling. Many Tibetans I know are like others living in China today – they view city life as highly desirable. It was easy to discuss my plans with friends in the NGO sector, owing to our shared interests and backgrounds. Many I interacted with thought that I should work in a city or, even better, work in a government office in order to have an “iron rice bowl” – job security for life. I understand this reaction. Economic development has facilitated and driven urbanization, creating ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ as binary opposites. Many in China are convinced that the city is the space for the civilized and developed, whereas rural areas are symbolic of backward, uncouth people. The goal then of higher education is to live and work in a city.”[1]

The green rice bowl is the arrival of city values in the countryside, the security of urban predictability, with a lifetime job guarantee, while still out on the grassland. It is deeply attractive, to those who have visited the cities, drawn in on the new tollroad expressways giving quick access to distant cities, but are yet to find an urban niche. Not only do the skills of pastoral production not translate to urban economy skills, in the urban context such skills are incomprehensible, and the risks routinely taken are deeply alarming to city folk.

Spontaneous endogenous Tibetan enthusiasm for protecting wildlife: not done at state direction

Hence the endogenous enthusiasm of the herder masses to protect ecosystems, 着牧民保护生态的内生动力全面激发, Zhe mùmíng bǎohù shēngtài de nèi shēng dònglì quánmiàn jīfā to use a phrase attributed to Li Xiaonan, director of the Sanjiangyuan National Park Administration.[2] This is an advance on the standard “tragedy of the commons” narrative that blames nomads for degradation, refuses to admit evidence of successive past policy failures as alternative explanations for pasture degradation, and is amnesically silent on past efforts by drogpa to protect both wildlife and pastoral landscapes.

Endogenous enthusiasm for Xi Jinping on his inspection of Changjiang resettlement village, Gormo, 2016

Is it the benevolence of central leaders to ascribe endogenous enthusiasm for doing the state’s work in remote landscapes? Is endogenous enthusiasm  not only presumed by the state employer of drogpa, but prescribed?

We need to look more closely at what the job is, beyond cleaning tourist garbage, checking the camera traps for sightings of elusive snow leopards, and counting birds. The core duty of the green rice bowlers is to finalise the exclusion of most fellow drogpa nomads from the core Sanjiangyuan landscapes. This is why  endogenous enthusiasm is mandatory.

Completing the highland clearance is the culmination of the official depopulation agenda, starting 2003 with the declaration of tuimu huancao, close pastures to grow more grass, as the ruling slogan. In fits and starts, as new quotas for nomad removals descend from above to local officials, and batches of deportees are recruited.

Well before 2003, Animal Husbandry Bureau officials were instructing drogpa to reduce herd size, to sell more animals for slaughter, to reduce grazing pressure on the limited land allocations awarded to each drogpa nuclear family. For decades this pressure on herds and herders reduced not only the total population on the land, but also reduced those who remained to poverty, as herd sizes fell below subsistence level, often in a seasonal disaster. The immiserisation of remaining nomads has been a major push factor in family decisions as to whether and when to give up the struggle, and move to the urban fringe.

Resettled nomads greet Xi Jinping in Gormo, at Changjianyuan village, 2016

In 2020, in the Sanjiangyuan National Park, this piecemeal process of depopulation becomes total. Until now, as several fieldwork ethnographers have reported, there has been some to and fro, as nomad families did move to town, yet could somehow keep their herd, in the hands of relatives, on lands not yet vacated. Sometimes young adults relocated to the concrete cantonments could slip past the surveillance cameras and return for the busy summer production season, to do the intensive milking, weaning, shearing and rotational grazing that generates an abundance of food and fibres for another year.

Until now, the total exclusion of all drogpa, and the complete cancellation of their mode of production, has not been absolute. Now, with the ceremonial opening of the Sanjiangyuan National Park in 2020, the final solution has arrived.

Nomad resettlement, Golok Pema county

Employment of the green rice bowlers locks in and polices the end to such workarounds. For the first time, the police force out on the rangelands will be Tibetan, with knowledge of the land and its winding valleys where cattle can be kept away from official scrutiny. For the first time, policing will be by state gamekeepers whose knowledge of drogpa ways is unparalleled.

Economists, looking from afar, are tempted to call the green rice bowl state employment, a welcome return of the state, with social security guarantees of lifetime employment that lifts the poor out of poverty. The state is keen to see it that way, announcing that the monthly pay of 1800 RMB suffice to keep a family of five or fewer above the official poverty line.

Policing the rangelands, enforcing removals, ensuring there is no backsliding, no surreptitious herding, no ongoing pastoral production, no high country drifters left, are the core responsibilities of the green rice bowlers, policing the compliance of their own folks, in the core zones of the new national park.

Qinghai Scitech Weekly 31 July 2019

This chimes well with the tropes abounding at the highest levels of the party-state. Now that the party’s disciplinary apparatus has formally taken over the state disciplinary machinery, the task of their combined capacity to police the entire forest of the Chinese population calling upon party members to be good “forest rangers” of the “political ecology,” which requires a clear understanding of the relationship between the so-called trees and forests. At the highest level, the rectifiers  整风  of the entire nation are forest rangers who uproot diseased trees that have no place in a healthy forest, while protecting those trees deemed suitable to remain. At the lowest level, the rectifiers of the rangelands enforce the closing of degraded pastures and permanent removal of the offending drogpa nomads, emptying the stage for the next act in the drama, the reintroduction of the tourist masses to partake of virginal wilderness.

diseased trees must be eliminated from the forest

In current CCP jargon setting drogpa to police drogpa is the phrase 主惩小恶, 以诫大恶, pay attention to punishing the small evils in order to forestall the larger evil. Now that the state has at last attained mastery over Tibetan landscapes, which took 60 years, the task is shifting from uprooting diseased trees to prophylactic prevention of any reversion to the bad old days when nomads were beyond the gaze of the state, inherently an affront to the panoptic scrutiny of the party-state.

Source: J Marc Foggin, Environmental Conservation in the Tibetan Plateau Region: Lessons for China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the Mountains of Central Asia, 2018


Tibetan exnomads loyal to this official agenda are employed not only as eco-inspector park rangers  立新增生态管护员岗位 but overtly as police enforcing exclusion.  The park rangers sweep through the entire landscape doing three full patrols per month: “a total monthly comprehensive patrol protection zone for three times a month. During the period, several clues of ecological violations were discovered by the inspectors and reported to the relevant government departments.” They are the frontline, but not empowered to punish; that is the role of the police, who are also often Tibetans, ex-nomads who have decided to fall in line with the overwhelming power of the party-state.

The police must contend not only with drogpa evading mandatory displacement, but drogpa already removed to urban fringes seeking to return, now reduced to destitution because official algorithms allocate less than survival rations to them, because they had little land to begin with. The complex formulae awarding subsistence payments (transfer payments or payments for environmental services in official jargon) are based on previously granted, now cancelled, land tenure certificates. Those scanty rights to secure tenure were issued 20 to 30 years ago, long enough for a new human generation to come up. In some cases families grow beyond the capacity of allocated land to support them, pushing them into poverty, since customary drogpa processes for regularly re-assigning pasture according to need are no longer recognised by the state. Those squeezed into poverty by the rigid land allocation system are then further penalised on removal to urban fringes, because they had so little to be compensated for losing.

Official media acknowledge this double penalty for being poor: “the resettlement created several ‘ecological enclaves,’ which caused difficulties in terms of government management. Meanwhile, some of those who left did not have much grassland before, resulting in lower subsidies. Because of this, a small group of them have been trying to move back to the grassland. Moreover, conflicts over land still exist in natural preservation work, the Global Times reporter learned. For instance, Tanggula (Tanglha in Tibetan) town residents are currently in a dispute over grassland with the Hoh Xil preservation station.”

Mass resettlement of nomads Machen Dawu

This presents the police with much work to do, both pushing remaining drogpa off their lands, and preventing desperately poor resettled drogpa from illicitly returning to their lands and livelihoods. Many of the police have been recruited from the earlier batches of the displaced, who have by now had 15 years on the fringes of Gormo, the Han Chinese petrochemical industrial city of Tibet, (Golmud in Chinese). They have seen the allocative, redistributive power of the authoritarian state close up, and decided to go with the strength.`

Official media give us a glowing portrait of a couple enjoying the new life, 500 kms from their traditional pasture high in the Tanglha Ri mountain range at the source of the Yangtze. She is now a cadre, he is a policeman. “Resettlement was an important part of the project. Over 55,000 herdsmen from 10,140 households abandoned the nomadic life and settled down in brick houses on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, according to the Xinhua. Aqie Jamo was one of them. She was resettled in Changjiangyuan village, 10 minutes by car from Golmud, the second largest city in Northwest China’s Qinghai Province. Aqie Jamo now works in the local town government. Her husband is a police officer. Every month, he spends 15 days in the Tuotuo River area in Tanggula, where Aqie’s family used to live. Aqie Jamo’s two children, who are 6 and 1, do not have to experience the harsh childhood their mother did. Every morning, Aqie Jamo drives her older child to school in Golmud city. ‘There are more social resources here, which make our lives easier,’ Aqie Jamo said. ‘Also, there is more oxygen.’”

Aqie Jamo (Gyalmo?) expresses her gratitude at being able to breathe the thicker air of Gormo, a sure sign the words attributed to her address the standard Han apprehensions, the thin air, never a problem for Tibetans, but always high on the Han list of reasons to fear Tibet. Also attributed to her is the comfort of life ten minutes by car from the urea, potash and PVC plastics factories of Gormo, which thicken the air further. Mentioned almost in passing is that her husband, a policeman, works back home on their former rangeland, 500 kms away, in a rotation of 15 days on duty 24/7, with 15 days a month off.

Gas pipelines pumping Tibetan and Xinjiang gas to inland China

What does her husband do for that half of each month out on the Tanglha Riwo rangeland at 4700 m altitude, a high pasture indeed? The lawless days of Hui hunters and gold diggers exploiting wildlife and riverbeds with impunity are long gone, and this alpine desert landscape is close to being what China now calls “no-man’s land.” It seems the sole duty of a policeman on duty is to ensure all grazing ceases, even though the high-impact Qinghai Tibet Engineering Corridor, with its new expressway, bisects the Tuotuo/Tongtian (uppermost Dri Chu/Yangtze) as it crosses the Tanglha high passes. Aqie Jamo’s husband is at the forefront of tuimu huancao compliance enforcement. Grass trumps Tibetan livelihoods, and negates Tibetans as owners of their pasturelands.

Aqie Jamo’s unnamed husband is the frontline of nomad exclusion enforcement, recruited because he knows the land and its people, and is used to the hard life. He is just who the party-state needs, to uproot the diseased trees, the recalcitrant and recidivist nomads who still see their land as their only lifeline. He is the decisive closure of the Tibetan pastoral lifeway, cancelled by decree after 9000 years of sustainable and productive landscape curation.

This does not mean all nomads will soon be gone, Tibet is just too vast, and official policy in many areas supports ongoing pastoralism. The closure is most intensive in the core area to be declared Sanjiangyuan national park in 2020, around 150,000 sq kms, less than half the total area of the Sanjiangyuan protected area of 363,000 sq kms, bigger than Germany.

Sanjiangyuan is being rolled out in stages, over several years, with no announced timeline for full expansion to its planned full size. Exclosure of the pastoral mode of production has taken decades already, and will take more years, although the pace is accelerating.

What sort of life do exnomads have in the new concrete settlements? The next blog in this series of three takes us into the lives of Tibetans displaced by China’s nation-building agenda.

[1] ཚང_ཚ_རངིངི_འ_མ_Tsering Bum རང_ང_ཁམས ི ང ངོངོ བ བདོདོི_ིའ_གོག_པ_དང_ི_དོདོ_ི_ིའཇགིགི ེནེན__Guardians of Nature: Tibetan Pastoralists and the Natural World, Asian Highlands Perspectives, 2016

[2] Herdsmen become the main body of ecological protection of Sanjiangyuan, Qinghai Scitech Weekly 10 April2019  http://www.cnepaper.com/qhkjb/html/2019-04/10/content_1_4.htm

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FATE OF THE NOMADS: neither sheep nor goat, deer nor horse, cow nor donkey

Blog two of three on Tibetan nomads, frogs, green iron rice bowls and highland clearances


China’s program of steadily depopulating rural Tibet, especially in the upper watersheds of the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong Rivers, is not the only possible way ahead. Quietly, Chinese NGOs such as Shan Shui and Plateau Perspectives have shown in practice that rangelands and pastoralists do go together, in the future as well as in the past, doing “eco-husbandry”, as active, skilful landscape managers.

Du Fachun

A key figure in these on-the-ground experiments in sustainable drogpa pastoralism is Du Fachun, even though his decades of immersion in the back country of Tibet has been appropriated by China’s official propaganda media, reducing him to bumper sticker simplification.

Du Fachun

Du Fachun’s three decades of careful fieldwork in Tibet and other minority ethnicity areas, detailing how relocation of traditional land managers works out in practice, has been reduced by the party-state propaganda machine to a single word. Tibetans, Du Fachun said, are “amphibious”, at home on land and water, adaptable. An academic career leading research teams interviewing urbanised pastoralists over decades boils down to one word.

How reassuring to know Tibetans are adaptable. It makes the mission of the state, to turn rural Tibet into wilderness, and Tibetans into modern citizens literate in Chinese, easier.

Du Fachun’s photo of a grassroots revolving loan fund for Lari villagers

CCP media Global Times reports on resettled Tibetans on the outskirts of Gormo, in Changjianyuan village:

Global Times, CCP media

However, if one looks beyond that one word, to the lifework of Du Fachun, his careful questioning of sedentarised Tibetan nomads reveals their exit from a constrained life of poverty on the open range, under strict herd size limits, to ongoing, even worse poverty on the urban fringes. From poverty to poverty is not the story official China likes to tell, and Du Fachun’s social scientific work at Institute of New Rural Development, Yunnan University, has been ignored, in favour of the sedentarisation/civilisation success story inspected and validated by Xi Jinping in 2016.


Du Fachun 杜发春did manage to gather his team’s fieldwork over decades into a book published in 2014, which shows the failure of the central state to live up to its promises of lifting the herder masses out of poverty by relocating them to straight striplines of concrete boxes lining the southern approaches to the industrial city of Gormo (Golmud in Chinese). Those straight lines of  regular modernity line the road, but are kept 15 to 20 kms from the Han industrial city, where only standard Chinese is spoken. Situating the resettled thousands well out of town but hundreds of kms from their customary landscapes, is intended to be salutary, minatory, a halfway house or bardo, suspended between worlds, a first entry into history and civilisation, a test of whether they can reinvent themselves, ideally with primary loyalty transferred to the state.

Du Fachun’s 2014 book on Sanjiangyuan resettlement of drogpa nomads

Du Fachun, however, found these geometric containers of human lives far from fulfilling their pedagogic promise. They were indeed a bardo, a suspension of life, awaiting the eventual plunge into some new rebirth. His 2014 book, summing up a decade of interviews as fresh waves of displaced were deposited in these new model villages, shows a picture quite different to the upbeat depictions in official media.[1] The book discusses the vulnerability, conflict and integration of ecological migration enclaves; analyzes the composition, follow-up livelihood and employment types of Sanjiangyuan relocation herdsmen with a large number of survey data. 

It finds that limited government subsidies make it difficult to maintain the promised follow-up livelihood of relocated herdsmen. The employment rate of immigrants is low, the urban adaptability is weak, and the environmental recovery effect of the emigration place is poor. Du Fachun’s comparative study of the experience and lessons of foreign ecological immigrants emphasizes that it should be avoided or reduced as much as possible. Social problems that may be caused by ecological immigration; a series of alternative policies are proposed for the dilemma and problems of Sanjiangyuan ecological immigrants.

Du Fachun draws on worldwide experience.  Next year, 2012, he published a low key critique[2] of official policy and its consequences, arguing that shengtai yimin resettlement policy “rationale and consequences need rethinking, from both an ecological and socio-economic perspective. This article draws on field research and a case study in Madoi County to argue the logic for resettlement, to examine its socio-economic consequences and environmental effects, and to explore possible solutions. Grassland degradation cannot simply be attributed to overgrazing and population growth, hence the idea of improving grassland by simply implementing resettlement projects may sound implausible. The paper then analyses the process and policies of resettlement and examines its socioeconomic changes and environmental effects. Although the herders are provided with free accommodation and a certain amount of subsidies, many cannot adapt well to the new urban lifestyle and some have an identity crisis, while their quality of life after resettlement is in general not very satisfactory due to high living expenses.

“The 2004 Sanjiangyuan General Plan closely links eco-resettlement with efforts to restore grazing land to grassland. The plan called for the relocation of 55,774 people (10,142 herding households), the reduction of livestock by 3.2 million sheep units, the imposition of a ten-year grazing ban on the abandoned grasslands, and a period of off-season and rotational grazing (QECC 2003). Herders who agreed to be resettled would receive compensation. Data from the Ecological Resettlement Management Office of the Qinghai Development and Reform Commission indicates that eighty-six new settlement villages were built between 2004 and 2010. Small towns or suburbs were also established to house herders who left the grassland. As a result, eighty-six resettlement communities sprouted up in urban areas or rural townships, near markets along the state highway, and in neighbourhoods around fodder bases in the Sanjiangyuan.

“Each resettlement household was provided with a 45 sq m house (valued at RMB 800/sq m), a 120 sq m barn (priced at RMB 200/sq m), and a RMB 400 one-off taxi fare for one family to move to a new town. In addition, the government implemented a compensation policy of RMB 8,000 annually for families (regardless of family size) which continued to obey the ten-year grazing ban.

The classic Tibetan story of the small frog who outwitted the predatory crow: artwork by famous Tibetan artist Dedron


“The eco-migrants experienced drastic changes in their livelihood security, identity and adaptation. First, livelihood security: according to interview data, ecological resettlement, to some extent, improved the housing, education, medical care and transportation conditions of the migrants, but their overall living standard actually fell. The following are the comments made by interviewees. ‘Everything here costs money. A slice of meat costs 10 RMB, so does a bag of livestock dung

“We can’t afford them. Yet when we lived on the grassland, we didn’t need very much at all. We got everything from our livestock. Before we came here, we sold all our livestock, tore down our houses, and gave our grasslands back to the state. Now we can’t find any jobs and we just stay at home doing nothing all day long.’ (Mr Dawa, 52, Golok Xincun, September 2009)

“‘My family had about a hundred yaks and three hundred sheep. Our grassland was about 4,600 hectares. We were satisfied with our lives. However, after we moved to town my whole family [ten people] mainly relied on government subsidies. We received about RMB 10,000 per year, which was less than our income from raising two yaks on the grassland. What’s worse, our expenses here are much higher due to inflation. My family seldom buys meat or milk nowadays.’ (Mr Jiayang Danzeng, 55, Heyuan Xincun, September 2009)

Tibetans resettled in rural areas

“Most resettled herders interviewed had similar accounts. They relied on subsidies because few alternative job opportunities had been created for them. However, these subsidies were insufficient to meet daily expenses for food, water, electricity, clothing, transportation and religious activities. Moreover, the price of daily necessities was driven up by increasing inflation in China, but resettlement subsidies were not correspondingly increased.

“Some resettlers undertook various off-farm activities, such as digging up caterpillar fungus, knitting blankets for sale, operating small businesses, or working as security guards, taxi drivers, or construction workers. The unstable nature of these low-income jobs resulted in their standard of living declining after resettlement. Local government invested funds and effort to provide technical training and jobs, but it proved hard to create alternative industries for the resettlers. Qinghai Provincial Poverty Alleviation Office tried to support the establishment of a Tibetan blanket manufacturer in Heyuan Xincun. Ecological settlers in the village held great hopes for the factory, but it went bankrupt in October 2010. A local official from Gyaringhu rural township commented that the cost of transporting raw materials from the provincial capital of Xining was very high, and the skills of the eco-migrants were generally poor. Second, identity: eco-migrants faced unfamiliar surroundings after resettlement, and some experienced culture shock and social disruption (Li 2008).

former nomads learn to use engraving machines: Global Times, Gormo

“Migrants who moved to new prefectures had identity crises due to increasing marginalization. Some joked that by leaving their grassland, they had lost their identities as herders. Their new identity had not yet been formed.

“They did not hold urban resident registration identity cards to become citizens. Most of them could not adapt well to urban life. Instead, they were rather like the odd-looking Père David’s Deer – neither deer nor horse, cow nor donkey. These frustrations and uncertainties further led to their dissatisfaction with the poor quality of infrastructure, land management, education and social security in the new resettlement villages.”

That same year, 2012, Du Fachun teamed up with Cao Qian, a Helsinki University sociologist, and published in Chinese on global experience of projects to enhance rather than cancel nomad livelihoods while improving ecological outcomes.[3] Du Fachun expanded further on what China can learn from others in 2014.[4] He emphasized that emigration as a solution to the presumption that pastoralists on pasture are incurably poor, and emigration as solution to land degradation, have both been abandoned worldwide, in favour of a new paradigm of inclusiveness and co-management of common pool resources.

nomad resettlement, Rebkong (Tongren in Chinese)

Du Fachun has quietly introduced China to new thinking. Usually China is quick to adopt new approaches, ever keen to be up with the latest, even to excel and become exemplary leader in implementation of new concepts. But not when it comes to those uncivilised, backward drogpa nomads of Tibet, who actually could do more for the land, more for wildlife and more for China on their land rather than off it.


Du Fachun describes the Tibetans as “amphibious”, a metaphor for adaptability, at home on land or in the water. Official propaganda media are quick to pick up this phrase to validate urbanisation of drogpa nomads as a good thing.

Yet it is a trope worth thinking with further. Is the new concrete settlement the land or the water? Is the rangeland, with its endless braided streams, the land or the water? Surely the sub urban concrete, these days often an apartment tower, is land, complete with police station, bright lights and surveillance cameras. Surely the open range, a sea of grass waving in the wind, is the water.

Modern China, like any modern state, has a passion for separating land and water, each in their own regulated space. Revolutionary China set about draining the swamps, haunted by memories of the revolutionary soldiers sucked into Tibetan marshes on their Long March. Today’s China is obsessed with Tibet’s redefined primary function, the provision of water to lowland China. In contemporary jargon of environmental services, this means both water retention, and water provisioning. Tibet is now engineered to retain pure water as much as possible, no longer in the melting glaciers, but in the flow of the greatest of rivers –the uppermost Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong- as they flow gently across the gently dipping meadows of Amdo where only the slight gradient of the plateau floor keeps them moving through the mountainous lip of this enormous island in the sky. Only as those rivers incise their way down deep valleys do they become wild and, in modern eyes, suitable for damming, for endless cascades of dams. This is mostly for the electricity but also for water retention, to smooth out the annual summer monsoon influx to make water available far downriver long after the monsoon clouds have gone.

All of this engineering of landscape requires that land and water be separated and regulated, which may well, incidentally, require shifting human populations out of the way. More displacements.

Yet the alpine meadow pasture lands are rich in herbage because land and water mingle, that is what makes them fertile and abundant. The Amdowa  Tibetans are people of both land and water, of horses and cattle readily fording streams, of seasonal nomadic shifts of camp upstream to the high country before the summer rains set in fully, returning to the lower winter pasture after the summer rains, and swollen rivers, have passed. Tibetan nomads have always preferred to camp near a stream.

Amphibians, frogs for example, are not only at home on land and in the water, they move between them, their life cycle is built around transitioning back and forth. How can Tibetans still be adaptably amphibious when stranded 500 kms from water, and from home?

For the thousands of Tibetans of Changjiangyuan village, 500 kms from their traditional rangelands, the loss of water is as deep as the loss of pasture. Changjiangyuan and nearby Kunlun National Culture Village, the Potemkin villages of China’s nomad resettlement program, were inspected by Xi Jinping in 2016. Changjiangyuan is named after the absent river, with an absent name in an absent language. Changjiang is the Yangtze, in Tibetan the Dri Chu, but even Han China only calls it the Changjiang a long way downriver, well past Tibet, at the Three Gorges. Upriver, in Tibet,  it is, for all Chinese, the Tongtian and further  up, closest to the glacial source, the Tuotuo.

Yet the model Tibetans of Changjiangyuan –Yangtze source- village are stranded in a parched land, not only 500 kms from home, but far from all water, on the edge of the oil and gas fields of Tibet, in the arid Tsaidam Basin. Gormo city (Golmud in Chinese) is the second biggest city of Amdo, busily turning the millions of tons of Tibetan lake-bed salts and oil extracted annually over many decades, into petrochemicals, chemical fertilisers, plastics, explosives and myriad producer goods, the essential materials for distant manufacturers. China made Golmud the most industrialised part of Tibet despite its lack of rain, because that is where the oil was found and later, the gas fields.

So why did China decide to park thousands of Tibetans, deemed surplus to the requirements of “ecological civilisation” in a semi-desert? The answer does not lie in the soil. The soils of the Tsaidam basin are saline, infused with salts deposited in this lowland (by Tibetan standards) over millions of years of rainfall and evaporation. These soils do not bear crops, even if irrigation water could be found. Chinese scientists, led by Li Runjie 李润杰 did eventually manage, by decades of experimentally draining salts to the subsurface soil, to actually grow a good crop of wheat on 2000 mu (133 hectares)  of Hexi State Farm land.[5]

Li Runjie, hero of saline soil reclamation, courtesy Qinghai Scitech Weekly July 2019

There are no Tibetan livelihoods to be found based on land or water anywhere near the new settlements. Their location is due to their proximity to a Chinese city. They are well outside the “walls” of this heavy industrial base of Golmud, separated by 15 to 20 kms of desert and expressway,  designed to keep them out of both customary pasture and the new city, yet lure them to city life, where all facilities, services, offices and permissions, comforts and shopping malls are to be found, as well as the peteochemical refineries.

Because the oil and gas had to be deliverable to the heavy industries of distant Gansu Lanzhou, China was quick to push through a highway, then a railway which much later was extended to Lhasa, and most recently an expressway. Tankerwagon trainloads continue to haul Tibetan oil from Gormo to Lanzhou, two million tons extracted each year, and also haul the refinery products of the Gormo petrochemical plants. This then is the perfect spot for a Tibetan nomad settlement, not in an exclusively Han Chinese city, but on its outskirts, strung out along the road, on display to all who pass by on their long highway drive towards Lhasa or Lanzhou. This is where the drogpa have landed, where even water to drink must be a dispensation of state power. This is hardly the amphibious life Du Fachun has in mind.

Tibetans indeed are adaptable, as are Tibetan frogs. Contemporary Tibetan painter Dedron tells us how a defenceless yet clever Tibetan frog outwits a ravenous crow. It’s a classic. Maybe the resourceful drogpa frogs on the outskirts of Gormo will yet outwit the central  planners and petrochemical factories, and somehow hop home? Maybe they will grow their powers by first making it rain in their new desert home, recalling an old Hindu ritual Tibetans learned way back:

“Tantric techniques for controlling the weather are nothing unusual in the Tibetan tradition: weather-makers were even employed by the Lhasa government to ensure rain at appropriate times and to keep hail off vulnerable sites. The technique used by the senior lama of Tshognam, however, does not belong to the usual Tibetan repertoire but was assimilated by his grandfather, “Doctor Dandy,” from the “outsiders’ religion” (Tib. phyi pa’i chos) — specifically, from Hinduism: he learned it, it is said, from a mendicant Indian pilgrim. The ritual is performed in the summer, with the intention of ensuring that the pastures are well watered and that the snow-melt that irrigates the buckwheat crop is supplemented with rain.

“Two hollow wax models of frogs are made. Through a hole in the back, the frogs are filled with various ingredients, including the excrement of a black dog and magical formulae written on slips of paper, and the holes are sealed with a wax lid. One of the frogs is stuffed into the mouth of one of the springs to the east of Te, and the other is burned at a three-way crossroads. The principle of this method is apparently to pollute the subterranean serpent-spirits and the sky gods, and induce them to wash away the contagion by producing water from the earth and the heavens.”[6]


our little Tibetan frog safely back home, having outsmarted the predatory crow

Will the frog outwit the big state crow? What are the inner strengths of the traditional Tibetan drogpa mode of production, living off uncertainty? Will the green iron rice bowl prevail, a victory of suburban certainty over open range risk taking?  These are the issues explored in the third blog in this series of three.

[1] Du Fachun 杜发春,  Sanjiangyuan Ecological Immigration Research,  三江源生态移民研究BeiJing : China Social Sciences Press, 杜发春著2014

Zhou Huakun; Zhao Xinquan ;Zhang Chaoyuan;Xing Xiaofang;Zhu Baowen; Du Fachun, 周华坤;赵新全;张超远;邢小方;朱宝文;杜发春,The Dilemma and Sustainable Development Strategy of Ecological Immigrants in the Three Rivers Source Area, China三江源区生态移民的困境与可持续发展策略Population.Resources and Environment, 2010 中国人口资源与环境    

[2] Fachun Du, Ecological Resettlement Of Tibetan Herders In The Sanjiangyuan: A Case Study In Madoi County Of Qinghai, Nomadic Peoples, volume 16, issue 1, 2012: 116–133

[3] Du Fachun, Cao Qian, 杜发春 曹谦 Ecological Animal Husbandry: The Trend of Economic Development of Animal Husbandry in the Western Grassland, 生态畜牧业:西部草原畜牧业经济发展的走向 Original Ecological Ethnic Culture Journal 2012, 4 (01): 118-127 原生态民族文化学刊 2012, 4 (01): 118-127

[4]  Du Fachun 杜发春, A Review of Western Academic Ecological Emigration Studies 国外生态移民研究述评, Ethno-National Studies 民族研究, 2014, (02): 109-120 

[5] Li Runjie and the indissoluble bond of water, Qinghai Scitech Weekly 28 Nov 2018

[6] Charles Ramble, Navel of the Demoness: Tibetan Buddhism and Civil Religion in Highland Nepal,   Oxford University Press, 2008, 174

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Blog three of three on Tibetan nomads, frogs, green iron rice bowls and highland clearances


Bogged by the waters of the desert: Tibetan exnomad park rangers on patrol

Pastoralism worldwide is confined to drylands, which receive enough rain for grass to grow, but not forests. The drylands are between the desert and the arable. By definition, such lands are inland, often upland as well, as in Tibet, dependent on rain from distant oceanic sources, by definition environments of great uncertainty, precipitation unpredictable.

There is much to learn from the debates about pastoralism elsewhere, especially Africa, where urban elites govern the remote drylands, assuming those rangelands, at best, are unproductive and backward; at worst are exacerbating desertification and disaster. In recent decades these assumptions have been questioned by serious re-assessments, which suggest that traditional pastoralists not only make a living despite uncertainty but actually from uncertainty, by flexibly and quickly responding to unpredictable and changing circumstances, by mobility. Saverio Kratli calls this “living off uncertainty”,[1] which in Tibet could be said to be an art central to the drogpa mode of production. This China has never understood. Living off insecurity is fast losing its attraction. The green rice bowl means security, even beyond the working life, into retirement with support from a pension fund.

Siling/Xining today

Today the pull of urban comforts and certainties is irresistible. The centralisation of schooling, health care, offices and shopping malls in cities makes a life of uncertainty and endless adaptability far less attractive. This is irreversible. The pull of urban life is strong. In recent years China closed 80 per cent of primary schools in Tibet, centralising access to schooling in bigger towns and cities. But the push is also strong, pushing drogpa from their land, cancelling what limited land tenure rights they had been granted, compelling the sale of livestock, emptying the land in the name of biodiversity conservation.

Tibetans weaving livelihoods from uncertainty did not separate into exclusive categories the wild and the domestic, human and animal, nature and culture; all had the same status, all were to be protected, which is what Tibetans continue to teach to children. It’s a nice video.

Tibetan attitudes to animals -wild and domestic- are explained by the scholar Peter Schwieger: “Although Tibetan language confirms that there is a clear categorical boundary between man and animals in Tibetan society, there is—unlike in Western societies—no strict ontological boundary between the two. This is on the one hand due to the animist worldview deeply rooted in Tibetan culture, but on the other hand also due to basic Buddhist concepts which explain animals as possibly one’s own forms of existence in previous or future lives. Moreover, as beings bound to the process of cycling through one rebirth after another, they are all considered as living beings to be liberated.”

The lamas remind anyone with ears that uncertainty is the human condition, it is all we have, we must adapt as appropriate to changing circumstances. Uncertainty, conditionality, impermanence, contingency, unpredictability are the realities of life, where causes and conditions combine and dissolve, each moment. To suppose we can control all risks is impossible, yet China is more determined than ever to govern all risk away by removing the drogpa nomads away from their landscapes.

Xi Jinping Thought overlooks the salt lake beds of the Tsaidam Basin, where China extracts millions of tons of salt annually, processed in Gormo/Golmud nearby


Yet many questions remain. It is the central state that has nationalised the territories constituting the new national parks, and it will expect active gratitude, loyalty and compliance from those it employs under green rice bowl guarantees. What is particularly unclear at present is whether the privileged 72,000 drogpa of the huge Sanjiangyuan National Park are to become the only pastoralists permitted to remain on the rangeland, and still engaged in the pastoral mode of production. Does tuimu huancao, the slogan since 2003, the closing of pastures to grow more grass, still hold sway? It seems so.

The master narrative has not changed. Degradation is still the driver of policy, and blame for degradation is still solely the fault of drogpa, even if they now do have an acknowledged endogenous enthusiasm for protection, under state direction.

If anything, the institutionalisation of National Parks as a system of uniform top-level design reifies these categories further. While Tibetans from Golok and Yushu are to be employed as rangers and field data collectors etc., Han Chinese are being recruited to staff Sanjiangyuan research institutes to aggregate the field data, key metrics such as water retention, degradation of grasslands, biomass gains, and biodiversity species abundance; all numerical grist for scientific management and further evidence of China’s mastery of modernity. The distinction between those entering history –the Tibetans- and the agents of ecological civilisation construction is precise.

The recent Global Times report[2] makes it clear that the “resettled” drogpa now housed on the outskirts of Gormo/Golmud, a long way from their customary Yushu pastures, have entered history and are no longer timeless:  ”Aqie Jamo, 29, still gets frightened when she looks back on her childhood experience of herding sheep alone in the mountains. Once, when she was 7, she and her flock got caught in a storm, and all she could do was find a hole in the ground and hide inside it.
Aqie Jamo is the daughter of a Tibetan herdsman. At that time, her whole family lived a nomadic life.”

Now she and her policeman husband are exemplary citizens, with not only a horrifying past but a guaranteed rice bowl future as low level officials. They have entered history. Becoming civilised, acquiring human capital, learning the urban life, living in a high rise apartment with no space for animals, all propel the timeless uncivilised nomads onto the conveyor belt of history, a first step on the long journey to the inevitable goal of modernity with Chinese characteristics.

People’s communes are good


When the modern developmentalist state arrived in Tibet, especially in the vast stateless pasturelands of eastern Tibet, pastoralists were amazed. The very first incoming instantiations of a distant power establishing force majeure authority over the grasslands was military. The violence of “liberation” is now well documented.

PLA soldiers, when not actively fighting, camped in compounds. This was familiar, even in remote pastoral valleys of Amdo, because expeditionary forces come equipped with supplies for their campaign and, if militarily successful, then dig in as an occupation force to prevent further outbreaks of conflict. Many areas of eastern Tibet not only have memories of past conquest centuries ago, by Mongol armies and by forces despatched from Lhasa, but remember the way the soldiers literally dug in, seized land, made their forts into cantonments, produced their own food. Soldiers married local women. So there are many districts and dialects tracing their distinctiveness back to the time, many centuries ago, when their ancestors arrived as soldiers, and stayed.

The modern, centralised, command and control state rapidly grew well beyond those military compounds. Wherever the redistributive state was able, through coercion, to direct emigrant settlers, including demobilised revolutionary soldiers, to settle the virgin unploughed lands of Xinjiang and Amdo, new compounds grew.[3]

Initially, to the displaced pastoralists, these compounds, the production bases of a Construction Corps or State Farm, were less familiar than the military compounds. Their physical shape was legible, even if the compound was fenced to sharply demarcate the immigrant new reality that was superimposing itself onto the fluid, unfenced older pastoral reality. It was evident that the immigrant Chinese workers every morning left the compound in trucks, to build roads and other basic infrastructure, and returned each evening to the fenced safety of the compound. The fenced, sharply demarcated compound was the urbs, the walled town, in miniature, implanted into the rangelands.

Even if drogpa were fenced out, it was apparent that within the compound the Han had built dormitory housing, canteens, workshops, even factories, and administrative headquarters, with  a school and a first aid station. It was a complete, self-enclosed world, the proto city in miniature, as a single enterprise.

What remained mysterious, not at all evident, was the source of this vigorous implantation of compounds. What was driving this new economy? Conquest, even when acutely painful, is comprehensible. Attempts at ploughing and cropping pastoral lands were comprehensible as efforts to live off the land, even though most such experiments failed. So what was driving  all this compound based activity? A new kind of economy had arrived, in the wake of a new kind of military power spearheaded by modern artillery. How to make sense of this?


Soon enough Tibetans were themselves inside the compound, rounded up like their animals, in the hasty collectivisation of the Great Leap Forward.[4] It was the great misfortune of Tibet to experience total military defeat in the late 1950s, when Mao’s revolutionary enthusiasm for mobilising all productive forces was at its height, and nomads were rapidly consolidated into production brigades.

Although it took decades for the communes to collapse, the earliest years were especially disastrous. Cadres held greater power over Tibetan lives than feudal rent-seeking land owners had ever had. Tibetans were compulsorily agglomerated into communes, their herds compulsorily aggregated, and  herders were granted survival rations only if they earned work points sufficient to have labour translated into flour.

In these ways rural Tibetans discovered the iron rice bowl, the guarantee provided by the revolutionary state that if you are absorbed into a danwei work unit, itself part of a collective or a commune, the distant state will feed you, for life. The unbreakable, life-long iron rice bowl was the primary source of regime legitimacy, especially across lowland China, with recent memories of warlord ruin, civil war, Japanese invasion and famine.

Tibetan pastoralists, used to a life of acute uncertainty out on the range, where anything could happen, were deeply struck by the magic of the iron rice bowl. Even when the worst famine ever known[5] reduced communards to eating bark and grass, and dying, the promise of the iron rice bowl retained allure. The state’s failure to fill those iron rice bowls with food, after three years of starvation, eventually turned out to be temporary, and the magnetic attraction of iron rice bowl security returned.

Smash the iron rice bowl, get gloriously rich


China’s decisive turn to neoliberalism in the 1980s dramatically changed the concept of the iron rice bowl, which suddenly epitomised all that was inefficient, bloated, overstaffed, unproductive about China. The new slogan, under Deng Xiaoping, was the necessity of smashing the iron rice bowl. Under Deng and later Zhu Rongji, and with external support from the World Bank, payrolls were slashed, guaranteed employment for life was stigmatised. While factory workers were made redundant, the administrative and managerial classes only grew, especially in Tibet, where industrialisation was limited to a few extraction zones, and the maintenance of “stability” became a huge source of employment. The iron rice bowl, especially in Tibet, lived on, even if in public discourse it was no longer the raison d’etre of state legitimacy.

Across China, among the older generation, there remains a nostalgia for the iron rice bowl time, not only because of its secure employment guarantee, but because its stands for a period of shared values and common purpose, in contrast to the hypercompetitive present. But the iron rice bowl is long smashed, except in Tibet, where the surveillance state constitutes as much as 60 per cent of the economy of Tibet Autonomous Region.


Cities exist because they reach deep into the countryside, making it into a hinterland. Cities extract from the ecosystems and production landscapes of the countryside all of their water supply, food production and clean air to blow away urban pollution. Urbanism is entrenched as the primary mechanism for attaining all of China’s goals of new era prosperity, post-industrial as well as industrial development, poverty alleviation and much more. Yeh and Makley distil this succinctly: “the ideology of urbanism has replaced that of industrialization as the medium of history and progress. Thus, as Oakes put this, ‘The state in China reproduces itself in urbanism, not merely by constructing cities, but in the way the state is restructured and reorganized in the form of urban institutions.’”[6]

The benevolence of the central state remains the hegemonic speaking position, but the state, in its benevolence, now shifts from depicting the lumpen category of herders as the sole cause of ecological degradation, to also being its victims, thus deserving benevolence.


The new slogan is “one household, one post” 一户一岗  yi hu yi gang, as the mechanism for fulfilling the most labour intensive part of park administration, the data gathering generated by painstaking observations of wildlife in habitat, plus garbage disposal, and property maintenance, none of them jobs likely to attract motivated Han year round.

The state acquires, out on the open range, an ability to scrutinise the privileged green rice bowl few, usually found only in cities, under hitech surveillance. One household, one post fits into old Chinese governance structures of collective responsibility and collective punishment if any family member is deemed guilty of infraction. The loyalty of the entire family is thus guaranteed. Filial piety of the peripheral to the central is thus guaranteed.

By pinning to the state the secure livelihoods of green rice bowl clients of state power, the security state, as patron, ensures the loyalty of entire families, including those who now live in cities.  The new national park system, especially the elaborately planned Sanjiangyuan, extends the reach of the urban state into vast areas primarily designated for urban consumption, by mass tourism, on the promise of seeing not only Tibetan antelopes and gazelles but even snow leopards. This is a new form of urbanism, which requires pristine wilderness as the setting that will attract the urban leisure masses, rather than pastoral production landscapes, nowhere near as attractive to urban imaginations.


But what of the other customary residents of Sanjiangyuan and beyond, their traditional stewardship of landscapes and wildlife, the maintenance of their sacred sites, their secure land tenure rights, their food security?

On official statistics, as recently as 2016 Amdo/Qinghai still had 4.8 million yaks and hybrid cattle on the hoof, over 12 million sheep despite a decline in sheep raising in prospering Yartsa gumbu caterpillar fungus collection districts,[8] and 1.8 million goats. This includes nonpastoral and minimally Tibetan areas of eastern Qinghai, where animals are penned and fed on fodder crops.[9] Within the new Sanjiangyuan National Park the yak herd was 900,000 in Golok prefecture and 1.9 million in Yushu prefecture; sheep in Golok 390,00 and in Yushu 530,000, in 2016.

The human population of rural Golok, excluding the prefectural seat, was 168,000 and of rural Yushu 368,000 in 2016.[10] The number of households was 70,000 in Golok (rural and urban) and 110,000 in Yushu. To these can be added the several counties included in Sanjiangyuan, beyond these two prefectures.

What will happen to all those animals, to the pastoral production system on which Tibetan food security and herd genetic diversity depends, and to the many households which will not obtain a “one household, one post” state guaranteed green rice bowl? What will happen to the large number of animals “freed for life” tsethar, free to wander until they die of natural causes, freed by their pastoralist owners, from the prospect of slaughter?[11] If the rangelands are remade into pristine grassland ecosystem wilderness, who will ensure the sentient beasts freed to live out their days are not poached by new arrivals?

Figures on the total size of Sanjiangyuan in official reports vary between 152,000 sq kms and 363,000 sq kms. This is a huge discrepancy . Much remains unclear. While the rural population of Sanjiangyuan is around 600,000 people, overwhelmingly engaged in livestock production on the rangelands –some of the best pasture lands of the entire plateau- what is not clear is the staging of Sanjiangyuan. It seems the scope of the park is planned to widen over the years beyond 2020, and that the 2020 launch is focussed on the defined “core” and “buffer” districts mapped by scientists as crucial for distant lowland water supply and compromised by land degradation.

Also unclear is the pace and extent of displacement of drogpa, as there are other ongoing official policies that continue to promote livestock production, while pushing it to feedlots with Chinese characteristics, intensively fattening livestock on urban fringes, while also continuing to support the traditional Tibetan mode of production on the open range. This is confusing.

Even in a single media story, several policies, pulling in different directions, are listed, as if there is no contradiction. On one hand, the construction of urban fringe intensive high rise housing blocks for former nomads continues to get bigger; on the other hand there are programs to stockpile fodder so that, when a disastrous blizzard happens, emergency fodder supplies can be trucked to remote, snowed-in areas to save the lives of starving animals unable to paw through heavy snow to feed.

There are also plans for a compensation scheme, which is intended to pay modest amounts to drogpa nomads who lose some herd animals to predation by snow leopards, wolves or bears. While this may not be a big expense for government, it is a sign that for some time to come, extensive open rangeland production will continue, and herders will be incentivised to not hunt down wolves, bears or leopards, because compensation will be payable, to avoid human-wildlife conflict, as conservationists call it.

Taken together, this suggests policy incoherence, but the Tibetan Plateau is huge, policy implementation varies a lot in different areas. What is clear is that, in the core 152,000 sq kms of Sanjiangyuan, the mobile mode of extensive pastoral production is officially outmoded, and is to end.

Amidst the precious wildlife to be protected, the Tuotuo river -the uppermost Yangtze- passes under the new expressway from Gormo to Lhasa
The new expressway bridge over the uppermost Yangtze/Tuotuo, the same high pasture area where Tibetan nomads have been removed to Gormo


The shift in the official Chinese imaginary of the entire Tibetan Plateau, from industrial extraction of raw material producer goods, to a post-industrial leisure and hospitality destination marketed as a pure land of grassland wilderness, is a dramatic transition, with far yet to go.

The origins of this transition, consonant with China’s overall transition from world’s factory to post industrial services-driven economy, go back at least a decade, especially in Tibet Autonomous Region. Perhaps there was a recognition that despite massive infrastructure investment, the sheer size, aridity and cryospheric climate of Tibet meant the dream of wealth accumulation from resource extraction was unlikely to eventuate on anything like the scale Mao envisaged.

Chinese planners see the liminal moment, the dawn of the new era, as 2009: “On the 18th of January 2009, the State Council of China principally approved the proposal submitted by the People’s Government of the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China (TAR), to conserve and build the Tibetan Plateau as an ecoshelter. This is considered one of the most ambitious national environmental protection and restoration programmes in China. It will last twenty years, and over 15.5 billion Yuan (2.4 billion USD) will be invested. According to the final proposal  of The National Development and Reform Commission, 2009, the programme was launched because of the significant function the Plateau plays in stabilizing the climatic system, maintaining water resources and hosting rich biodiversity, which was being depleted by increasing grassland degradation, desertification, soil erosion and biodiversity loss. The programme included five conservation projects (rangeland conservation; forest fire and disease control; protection of wild plants and animals and construction of protected areas; wetland protection; and development of alternative rural energy), four restoration projects (forest shelter building, grass planting, rangeland restoration, and desert and soil erosion control), and one monitoring and assessment project. It is an undoubtedly magnificent programme.”[12]

Tibetan artist Dedron, painter of the story of the little frog outwitting the voracious crow

That assessment of China’s pivot, by plateau research scientists in Beijing, Kunming and Lhasa, was published in 2011. Since then this ambitious and magnificent program has gotten bigger and better financed, to now include the four new national parks in Tibet, with Sanjiangyuan the headliner. The ambitious mission has grown to making China an exemplary:

  • ecological civilisation,
  • a model to be emulated throughout the developing world,
  • a global leader in biodiversity conservation,
  • water retention and provision,
  • carbon sequestration,
  • land degradation neutrality,
  • payment for environmental services,
  • participation in carbon markets, and more.
  • Attaining UNESCO World Heritage status for many of the new protected areas is also a high priority.

As the vision of Tibet as ecological safety barrier has progressed, Sanjiangyuan, China’s Number One Water Tower, has come to the fore as the most important of all providers of environmental services from Tibet, and the locus of innovative inscriptions of state power, including the mobilisation of a cohort of Tibet park staff with guaranteed green rice bowl employment.

Yet the resourceful, adaptable land and water frogs of Tibet may amphibiously find ways of being both urban and rural, maintaining identity and curating their ancestral landscapes, leaping from nomadic uncertainty to rice bowl certainty and back again.

To be realistic, the scattered Tibetan drogpa frogs have little chance of evading the predatory crow, if other Tibetans just look on, and do nothing.

It’s not only Chinese cadres who disdain nomads, the experts at living off uncertainty. Secular urban Tibetans also dismiss the pastoralists as backward, as Tsering Bum reminds us. The nomads face the power of the party-state alone, to be removed, family by family, by China’s latest technology of enforcement: the green iron rice bowl police.

Trung trung black-necked crane (grus nicollis) endemic to Tibetan Plateau, protected by Tibetan grass roots community conservation Shan Shui

[1] Saverio Kratli, Living Off Uncertainty: The Intelligent Animal Production of Dryland Pastoralists, European Journal of Development Research, 2010,  Vol. 22, 5, 605–622

Saverio Krätli, Wenjun Li et al, A House Full of Trap Doors: Identifying barriers to resilient drylands in the toolbox of pastoral development; IIED Discussion Paper, 2015

[2] Shan Jie in Golmud,  Tibetan villager resettlement program leads to improved ecology in Qinghai, Global Times Published: 2019/April/16    http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1146161.shtml

[3] Greg Rohlf, Dreams of Oil and Fertile Fields, The Rush to Qinghai in the 1950s, MODERN CHINA, Vol. 29 No. 4, October 2003 455-489

[4] Dhondub Choedon, Life In The Red Flag People’s Commune, 1978

[5] Ian Johnson, Finding the Facts About Mao’s Victims, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2010/dec/20/finding-facts-about-maos-victims/

[6] Emily T. Yeh & Charlene Makley (2018): Urbanization, education, and the politics of space on the Tibetan Plateau, Critical Asian Studies, 50, 4, 2018

[7] Herdsmen become the main body of ecological protection of Sanjiangyuan, Qinghai Scitech Weekly 10 April2019  http://www.cnepaper.com/qhkjb/html/2019-04/10/content_1_4.htm

[8] Kabzung/ Ga Errang, The case of the disappearance of Tibetan sheep from the village of Charo in the eastern Tibetan Plateau. Tibetan pastoralists’ decisions, economic calculations, and religious beliefs, Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines , 50 | 2019,

[9] Qinghai Statistical Yearbook 2017, table 12-16

[10] Qinghai Statistical Yearbook 2017, table 4-4

[11] Gillian G. Tan,  “Life” and “freeing life” (tshe thar) among pastoralists of Kham: intersecting religion and environment , Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines [Online], 47 | 2016

[12] Fu Yao, Tu Yan-li , Yang Yong , To build the Tibetan Plateau as Eco-Shelter: from Policymaking to Designation, Action and Reconsideration; in: Pastoralism and Rangeland Management on the Tibetan Plateau in the Context of Climate and Global Change, Hermann Kreutzmann, Yang Yong, Jürgen Richter eds, GIZ German Development Agency, Bonn, 2011

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