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Tibet Outside the TAR: Zhaho Dzong

By Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke


Brief Description and Impressions

Like the great grazing region of Machu in southern Kanlho, Sangchu takes its name from the river that runs through it, a tributary of the Yellow River to the north whose great loop encompasses some of the richest part of eastern Amdo. South and southeast of the Sang Chu the natural boundary of the Tao River system forms the historical Sino-Tibetan divide in this part of Amdo, while a band of mountain country to the north and northeast separates Sangchu from the Hui and Chinese farming zone of Linxia. In this beautiful area of rolling grassland and forested mountains lies the monastery of Labrang Tashikhyil with Kubum Monastery the greatest Gelug monastic center of all Amdo, and one of the six chief Gelug foundations in Tibet. Since Labrang Tashikkhyilıs established in 1709, it has magnetized religious and trading activities over far-flung Tibetan regions, its spiritual influence reaching into Mongolia and even Xinjiang. For two decades after the Chinese occupation it remained closed, its buildings destroyed and its monks killed or forcibly returned to lay life. Its resuscitation since the 1980's represents one of the great success stories of Tibetan religious and cultural life under the Communist Chinese administration. China's reasons for allowing this phenomenon, and how it deals with it, form an important component of the story.

The county of Sangchu with an area of 8,600 square kilometers, covers a substantial portion of northwestern Kanlho TAP. To the west and south it adjoins thoroughly Tibetan areas; Malho TAP in Qinghai Province, and Luchu County in Kanlho. To the north lies the Linxia Hui AP, while across its eastern boundary Luchu County consists of a mixed Chinese and Hui population, with a significantly smaller proportion of Tibetans. Sangchu itself is profoundly Tibetan in population and culture, yet involves an aly: the presence of the prefectural capital Tso (Hezuo), slightly east of the county's geographical center. This extremely large and fast-developing town throws impressions of the county off-balance when considered in the

light of official statistics. The Tibetan population of Sangchu County is extremely high, yet almost 40,000 Chinese also live there. The majority of these Chinese must reside in and around the prefecture seat, yet Tso does not seem to be represented in official economic statistics, and is mentioned only in passing in sources dealing with Sangchu County. Sangchu is synonymous with Labrang Tashikhyil and the town that surrounds it: many people are unaware of the existence of the Chinese-style prefectural capital "Hezuo" within the county. Unlike most other capitals of TAP'S, Tso does not administer its own county, but resides within Sangchu County, whose seat is elsewhere, in the monastery town, caused Labulengzhen under the Chinese administration. This town is commonly known simply as Labrang, or even Xiahe the Chinese name for the county. Zhaho is the Tibetanized form of the Chinese name for the county, "Xiahe", used officially in place of the traditional Tibetan name "Sangchu".

Sangchu county town lies along the curved banks of the river, by green mountains bright with meadow flowers in summer and patched with stands of darker pines The principal civic part of town stretches from cultivated fields on its north edge through outlying residential districts to the town center, a long ribbon of development where almost all government and commercial activity takes place along the principal main street. Just past the main government sector a motorable bridge crosses the river to another extensive quarter of urban and unit development. The face of the town looks thoroughly Chinese viewed from the main street. But behind the street-front, small courtyard houses cluster along narrow alleys to form charming residential neighborhoods, some mixed and some ethnically distinct communities. Here the character of the pre-"development" town remains intact. A Hui quarter surrounds the mosque in the southwest sector of town, but many neighborhoods are filled with Tibetan residents, and even the mixed sectors of Tibetan, Hui and Chinese exude the atmosphere of older organic communities where people feel a sense of place, a confidence in their own identity, and an acceptance of variant ways of living. Sangchu's streets present a genuinely mixed ethnic profile

South, beyond the town proper, Sangchu becomes the monastery. Across a huge area between the Sang Chu and the western mountain slopes, the multiple gold-roofed lhakhangs of Labrang Tashikhyil rise from amidst acres of monastic quarters the gold stupa and green roofs of the Gungthang Chorten gracing the river-bank edge of the monastery. Labrang Tashikhyil, with its hundreds of legally-resident monks and another thousand unpermitted in its periphery, its crowds of pligrims and magnificent buildings, is Sangchu for Tibetans.

For the Chinese it is Sangchu County has, by far, the largest economy in Kanlho. GDP reported for 1994 was 186.8 million Yuan fully 50% greater than second place Thewo. The gap may be even larger than recorded. Counties with prefectural capitals generally have large tertiary production, probably reflecting the concentration of government funded administrative, financial, medical and educational infrastructural and transport activity. Dartsedo, Barkham, Pingan and Terenka (Defingha) all have economies led by their tertiary sector. Sangchu has the smallest tertiary industry of any county where a Tibetan prefectural capital is located, suggesting Tso's economic presence may be listed elsewhere.

Indeed, 53.3 million Yuan of the prefectural total tertiary output is not accounted for by county subtotals and could be Tso's tertiary product. Tourism, a tertiary component of GDP, while dominating Sangchu town, appears not to make a substantial impact on the GDP. Industrialization has not yet been well developed in Sangchu County, which earned only 17.5% of its GDP in 1994 from secondary industry. While the gross of the economy is high, a large population kept per capita GDP in 1994 to more modest levels (1,295 Yuan'4), only a few Yuan lower dm the prefectural average (1,308 Yuan).

Perhaps more interesting is the size of Sangchu's primary industry, 119.2 million Yuan in 1994, which far exceeds secondary (32.8 million Yuan) and tertiary industry (34.8 million Yuan). The county is large, and has excellent grazing and farming land, suggesting that a large rural could be responsible for the output. If three quarters of the county's population is rural and produced the entire recorded value of primary production, per capita output would have to be about 1,100 Yuan, a realistic figure. If significant natural resource extraction occurs in the county, which is probably the case, it must not appear as county production. This would be in line with the Central Government's self-awarded constitutional entitlement to Tibetan natural resources. In counties where heavy resource extraction is known to be taking place county and prefectural primary production statistics rarely give any hint of it. Only secondary industry output may show some activity based on raw material processing. Credit and wealth are transferred to provinces or the nation, an economic measure which is quite appropriately described as being in the 'national interest'.


Sangchu's rural economy depends on mixed agriculture and grazing, as well as true pastoralism In the vicinity of the county town cultivation takes place along the river valley, but hill slopes have generally been left for grazing. While barley, beans and more recently oil crops (rapeseed) are the staple local crops, vegetable supplies within the town are attentively maintained to provide for the needs of tourists, many of whom are Chinese, and to cater for the now extensive Chinese resident population. Tibetans and Hui happily avail themselves of vegetable supplies once they are there. The temperate conditions along the county's northern river valleys allows for some market gardening, but produce is also trucked from areas further north, outside the county.

While most of Sangchu's farmers are Tibetan, some Hui villages are seen nearer the county town. None of them look particularly prosperous. Their economic level does not reflect the per capita GDP for Sangchu of 1,295 yuan.


Sangchu has traditionally been an area of Tibetan pastoralism, as part of the Amdo grasslands that extend south into Luchu and Machu counties, and west across the Gansu-Qinghai provincial border into Tsolho. On the Tsolho side of the border some nomads are still grazing large herds of yaks, sheep, goats and horses across the high pastures without having been forced into fixed dwellings, but as soon as the border is crossed, fixed settlements for nomads begin to appear. One such dreary settlement on the main road is Ganjiaxiang , where Tibetan herders now inhabit dismal barrack-like housing surrounded by animal pens. The policy of nomad settlement and fencing of pastures has been severely implemented in Kanlho, and remains a high priority with the prefectural authorities.

State-run pastures also exist in Sangchu, including the Army Ranch on the Sang Chu about 40 kilometers south of the county town, the Livestock Ranch some 30 kilometers along the road between the county town and Amuquhu and the Ganja Livestock Ranch fifteen kilometers north of the county town.

Many pastoralists, in appearance and behavior typical Amdo nomads, are seen in the county town, making pilgrimage and availing themselves of Sangchu's commercial facilities. Widespread nomad settlement has not diminished the national customs and identity of all Sangchu's nomads, by any means. In Sangchu the nomads are fortunate to be in close touch with the vital religious center of Labrang Tashikhyil, which keeps alive the deeper aspects of Tibetan culture. Nevertheless, the policy of nomad settlement, in time, deeply affects the social culture that grows from the particularities of the traditional economic system of nomadic pastorahsd9. Environmental degradation resulting from disruption of the fragile grasslands ecosystem also presents serious future problems. Tibetans throughout Amdo will thus bear the consequences of the Chinese-imposed settlement policy in complex, and sadly harmful, changes to their economic and cultural life.

Natural Resources Exploitation

With Thewo and Drugchu, Sangchu provides the bulk of Kanlho's forest products', having extensive forests along both banks of the Daxia River (Sang Chu) and in the southeast comer of the county near the upper Tao River watershed. The county's major lumber yards are maintained in these locations. The provincial-level Xiabagou Lumber Camp lies about forty kilometers south of Tso near the village of Lexiu while the Daxia River Head Lumber Camp is about thirty-five kilometers east of Sangchu county town near the highway heading towards Linxia, near Wangge'ertang. Within the county town itself lumber facilities are not conspicuous. Most of Kanlho's logs, including those extracted in Sangchu, seem to be transshipped to the massive lumber storage yards of Shuangcheng, less than 100 kilometers north of Sangchu county town. Simple processing may also take place within the lumber camps. Some logs are rafted down the Sang Chu, as they were in the early 20th Century, but log flotation is not used to the wasteful extent seen in Ngawa and Kartse Prefectures. Forests seen from the main roads in the county show much secondary growth. Large timbers among the stockpiles in the Shuangcheng lumber yards must come from forests deeper within Kanlho's watersheds.

Around the county town, forest cover has been left on some slopes, but clearance has been heavy to allow for grazing and cultivation. A certain amount of wood is used in construction, although nowhere near the amounts seen in Kham and parts of Ngawa. Restoration of the principal monastic buildings at Labrang Tashikhyil would have required much large-dimension lumber. However, domestic consumption is compared to the volume of lumber shipped out of Sangchu and into Chinese markets. Chinese, rather than Tibetans, are the chief beneficiaries of lumber exploitation in Sangchu.

A variety of mineral deposits are found in the county, including copper, sulphur, arsenic, vitriol iron, lime and quartzite, and gold mining is now being carried out at Longtou, a location possibly within Sangchu". In 1994, 415 kilos of gold were extracted in Kanlho TAP.

[Reproduced by permission from TIBET: Outside the TAR, by Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke. İ1997, S. Marshall and S. Cooke.]

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