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Tibet Outside the TAR: Changzam Dzong

By Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke


Brief Description and Impressions

Chagzam lies on the eastern boundary of Kartse TAP. The whole length of Chagzam County is bisected by the Dadu River which forms a steep valley rising on its eastern extreme to the Erlangshan mountain range where Luding County, and the Tibetan autonomous prefecture, begin. Only 3,508 Tibetans were registered as living in Chagzam County in 1990, compared to 63,114 Chinese. With its county seat lying closer than any other in Kartse TAP to Chengdu and its spreading satellite towns, Chagzam County already has the second largest population in the prefecture, although it is the smallest county in area (2,165 square kilometers). Nothing except for the occasional Tibetan in the street marks Chagzam as a "Tibetan" place today.

Chagzam county town, on the edge of the traditional Chinese-Tibetan cultural divide, has by now been physically as well as demographically sinicized on the model commonly seen in Tibetan autonomous areas, but like a few other smaller county towns in the TAP's may yet be saved grosser development by virtue of its relative lack of space to spread. Crammed onto a narrow belt of flatter land mostly on the northeastern bank of the Dadu River, Chagzam already covers as much of the ground as can be built on in the vicinity including the recent acquisition and development of a section about half a square kilometer in area across the river and connected by a large new bridge. Some of the new buildings here appear to be schools. Historically, Chagzam has longer, or at least closer, connections with China than most other places in Kham since it is further east and situated on a geographical feature - the Dadu River - long considered a natural boundary and erstwhile official line of demarcation between the Tibetan and Chinese spheres in this part of the world. It also enjoys the distinction of having been visited by the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722) on one of his personal expeditions to expand and consolidate his imperial holdings. In 1705 he had the Luding Bridge built across the Dadu. At the time the bridge was a minor frontier construction, but after the Red Army fought a decisive battle there against Nationalist troops during the Long March in 1935, it assumed new significance for the Communist Government who declared it a national cultural relic in 1961 and symbol of their own right of passage and occupation in the region. The county town's current administrative name, Luqiaozhen. (Luding Bridge Town), commemorates this famous construction.

Chagzam currently functions mainly as a transport stop for traffic heading in and out of Dartsedo (Kangding). From Chagzam it is possible to proceed to Chengdu by two routes: northeast over the Erlangshan Pass, or southeast to Shimian, where highways lead either to Chengdu or deeper into southeastern Sichuan. Since the Erlangshan Pass is frequently blocked by snow and dangerous to negotiate, much of the traffic takes the Shimian route, an excellent paved road providing easy access for Sichuanese goods and personnel into Kartse TAP, and the removal of lumber out of it. Chagzam with its one narrow main road, causes something of a bottleneck at a crucial junction, but not such an obstacle that the dynamic is adversely affected. The authorities are in any case pressing ahead with transport improvement plans. In Spring 1996 a series of stone and cement bulwarks was being constructed along the Dadu to safeguard the highway below Chagzam from flooding and collapse, while the highway between Chagzam and Dartsedo was being widened. These are large projects requiring significant planning, funding and manpower, indicating the importance of the route in current policy for the region.


Chagzam is primarily an agricultural county in terms of local economy, with some grazing on the upper hillsides where cropping is not possible. Most of the farmers are Chinese and have cultivated the area for generations. Ethnic minorities are also from Chagzam including the Yi and Tibetans. Along the highway hugging the Dadu River and one of its tributaries between Chagzam and Dartsedo, farmers cultivate the river valley with fixed crops of corn, rice, wheat, beans, vegetables and fruit trees, supplemented by the raising of chickens and pigs. Most still live in traditional wooden farm houses grouped in small villages, some clinging to high alpine slopes where terraces have been carved into the steeps hillsides, inaccessible to vehicles. In these higher areas farmers also graze cattle, but typical Tibetan pastoralism is not practised in Chagzam County. Agricultural patterns look very similar to those practised along the Dadu River in the county of Shimian south of Chagzan.

In the roadside settlements some modem transport and commercial facilities have grown up over the past decade or so, but still appear to be simple local enterprises, developed by individuals to take advantage of passing traffic. In 1992 the agricultural per capita income for Kartse TAP was 523 RMB. placing the prefecture's farmers on a fairly poor level compared to many of inland and coastal China's rural dwellers. Farmers cultivating the county's more productive land at lower elevation along the river valleys would have surplus produce to sell on the market, but those on the highest slopes could not be living much above subsistence level.


Chagzam is not an area of high-elevation pastoralism such as is found in Tibetan areas beyond the Chedo-la in Dardo County. In the higher mountain areas herders graze cattle and some sheep, but agriculture, or a mixed farming and grazing economy, is practised more widely in Chagzam than most other parts of Kartse TAP. Chinese sources claim Chagzam as a rich pastoral area, but little evidence of its pastoral produce is seen on the local market.

Kartse TAP's Chinese population requires a high availability of pork, strongly preferred by Chinese over beef or mutton. Official sources report that although pork production is expanding, it still does not satisfy prefectural markets and supply. The eastern counties of Chagzam, Dartsedo, Tenpa and Nyarong have been recognized as model mixed agricultural-pastoral areas, most suited to raising pigs because of their climate, fodder resources, more concentrated markets in township and mining areas, and more convenient transport facilities. Chagzam is already a primarily Chinese county in terms of population, but the other three counties still have predominantly Tibetan populations. Tibetans, whose traditional staple crop has hitherto been barley, have seen their agricultural land and sometimes pastures turned into wheat fields in many localities over the past four decades, in Central Tibet as well as parts of Kham and Amdo. The Chinese demand for pork has the potential to threaten the traditional beef and mutton market, if not extensive grazing land as such. Already in Dartsedo, where the Chinese town population is high, only pork is widely available on the local market.

Natural Resources Exploitation

Lumber is without doubt the main natural resource exploited in Chagzam County. Like much of Kartse TAP it has rich forests, a valuable source of raw materials for China's burgeoning construction industry. Most of Kartse TAP's lumber traffic also passes through the town of Chagzam as the gateway to Kham on its way from the prefectural forests to the massive lumber yards of Chengdu and its outlying districts like Mingshan and Qionglai At any time of day Chagzan¹s main street is clogged with lumber trucks, their registration plates showing they operate under license from units in Kartse TAP, Chengdu, Ya'an, or as far away as Chamdo in the TAR (plates "Lang B": a B)]. Some trucks carry huge logs, obviously from virgin forests. The volume of lumber being transshipped is staggering but the Chinese market seems to have infinite capacity to absorb forestry products as development races. From the Chinese standpoint the forests of Kham, while distant and difficult to access, are still an internal source.

Many logs are also floated down the Dadu River for collection at Shimian, the growing Chinese town in the neighboring county to the south of Chagzam. Between Chagzam and Shimian piles of sometimes hundreds of logs are dotted along the river or scattered up the riverbanks, marooned when water levels fall over winter. Such logs may not be salvaged by locals since the logs are considered the property of the State. This wasteful practise has been in operation since the 1959s, when Chagzam together with Tenpa, Dawu and Nyarong, was designated one of four "water transport areas" for floating logs down river to supply the needs of the newly-developing lumber industry". Chinese sources claim that since the 1950's till c. 1990, a volume of 28 million cubic meters of lumber has passed the Luding Bridge via floatage along the Dadu River. Calculated at a load of 8 cubic meters of lumber per truck, it would take one hundred trucks a day, every day, for a century, to move this volume of lumber by road. Chinese statistics of this kind are notoriously inaccurate, but clearly a huge amount of lumber has been extracted from Tibetan areas to supply Chinese markets.

Many small lumber processing and storage facilities are found along the stretch of the highway that runs to Shiman from Chagzam. Logs seen in these plants are generally smaller and probably supply the local market, but most lumber that passes through Chagzam is bound for stockpiles closer to Chengdu, thence shipment to other parts of China.

Closer to Chinese areas than most of Kartse TAP, Chagzam has already been logged quite widely, at least close to roads. Itinerant loggers must now penetrate into more isolated valleys for extraction and on-site processing, such as in the Xinxing area. This extremely hard life nevertheless attracts Chinese workers, who in overpopulated inland counties must seek further afield to make a living. Ya'an Prefecture, Chagzam¹s eastern neighbor, had a Chinese population of 1.37 million in 1990 Virtually no trace of the value of extracted logs can be glimpsed in county or prefectural statistics. China does not view itself as unjustly stripping resources from Tibet because it does not regard local governments as owners of natural resources. This privilege is reserved for the State. Regional autonomy does not accord Tibetans any control over their natural resources. Given the importance of resource extraction in developing economies, this alone is sufficient to assure that Tibetan areas have little hope of either guiding their economies or being principal beneficiaries of it.

Chinese gold miners have been coming to Chagzam since the late Qing Dynasty. Currently some of Chagzam's mineral resources are being exploited, including crystal at Hailuogou, gypsum at Gang'an, and coal and iron. The Dadu watershed also provides Chagzain with rich water resources. The county's newest hydro-electric power station at Chenjiaheba began production in 1992. A reliable electricity supply is a prerequisite for urban and industrial development.

[Reproduced by permission from TIBET: Outside the TAR, by Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke. ©1997, S. Marshall and S. Cooke.]

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