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Tibet Outside the TAR: Zungchu Dzong

By Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke


Brief Description and Impressions

The town of Zungchu has been an important point of historical contact between the Tibetans and Chinese. It was here that the Chinese, in 638, became aware of the powerful new rival that had arisen west of their borders seemingly from nowhere, as a 20,000-strong Tibetan army camped outside the town walls and threatened to destroy the town unless the Emperor of China sent a princess to marry the King of Tibet. Not much more than a century later the town really did fall to the Tibetans, and 600 years passed before the Chinese took it back again. The town they rebuilt remains as the framework of Zungchu today, for centuries the furthest thrust of Chinese administration into the southern Amdo grasslands. Beyond Zungchu, the world was Tibetan.

The county of Zungchu covers an area of 8,324 square kilometers, watered by the uppermost reaches of the Min River system which provides extensive river valley agricultural areas, while the land rises to higher grasslands in the northwest. Much of it is, or was, richly forested. Like other counties of eastern Ngawa T&QAP, Zungchu has a more mixed population than the far more demographically Tibetan areas further north and west. The historic county seat, officially called Jinanzhen, is a genuinely a multicultural town, with elements of several ethnic cultures intact and co-existing - Tibetan, Chinese, Qiang and Hui. Politically these have been the dominant force in the town for several centuries, irrespective of a large Tibetan presence. Ming wars and gates still surround the core of the town, and old Qing bridges cross the Min River around which the town spreads. But cultural and demographic influences are mixed, and this interesting balance characterizes the town today.

The town lies in a wide river valley surrounded by intensively-terraced hillsides with higher, once-forested ranges behind. Most of the town is still contained within the old Chinese walls inside the curve of the river, but is now spreading south, as expanded growth necessitates decentralization. The highway from Zoge enters from the north but skirts the edge of the town, channeling heavy through traffic away from the historic walled area. The main town street therefore still runs in a straight line between the old north and south city gates, bisected by a cross-street running down to the old east gate. Zungchu is probably the least destroyed of all towns encountered in Ngawa or Kartse TAP'S, and an example of what is possible if care is taken to preserve people's own lifestyles without denying access to the modem. Everyone would benefit if such a balance were successfully employed in other historic towns, Lhasa for example,

Because Zungchu has been continuously under Chinese administration since the Ming Dynasty it must count as a Chinese town, but this is not what has preserved it The Chinese have destroyed their own towns as completely as they have destroyed Tibetan ones. Nor did official protection save it: the town was not declared a cultural relic until 1989'. Perhaps the Communist lacked sufficient Tibetan symbols to incite Tibetan political passions, and its growth did not forge ahead so quickly that its old Chinese walls had to be removed to make way for greater socialist development.

Extensive, generally uninspired modern construction has of course occurred since the 1950's, but much of the town is taken up with traditional houses, all built in the old Chinese style of post and beam with wooden panels, topped by a tiled roof with wide eaves. One area of such housing to the north is largely Chinese; another to the west is Hui and Tibetan (more Hui than Tibetan), and another to the east, across the river, is Tibetan and Hui (more Tibetan). These houses have been newly-built; few are survivors from the past. Like Tibetans, many Chinese and Hui also like to express architectural traditions when they have the opportunity. Though homes are architecturally similar, differences in decor, such as the use of prayer flags, give clues as to the ethnicity of occupants. Despite many Tibetan residents, there is no construction giving any hint that Tibetans had dominance within the town, nor any sign of a gonpa in or very near the town precincts. The closest Tibetan monastery lies several kilometers away, now enrolled in the official tourist itinerary that the State pursues here. The pleasant multi-ethnic character of Zungchu is striking after the more oppressive, occupying presence of the Chinese elsewhere, but Zungchu has been a mixed-ethnic town for many centuries. The heavy hand of modem central control is there but people are living harmoniously in Zungchu despite it.

As in most county towns, many units in Zungchu are in the process of upgrading their facilities. Though an active effort has obviously been made to encourage home building in traditional styles, there seems to have been no effort at all to design official office or commercial buildings to be even slightly harmonious with the pleasant atmosphere of those large neighborhoods, despite the special historical and tourism status of the town. Even the newest unit constructions exhibit pure Chinese-modem style, intent on symbolizing economic success.


Zungchu is very 'average' economically. Its GDP (137.6 million Yuan in 1994 puts it fifth of Ngawa's thirteen counties; by population it is sixth. Like most of the other counties, production is led by the primary sector (60 million Yuan, or 44%, in 1994). Tertiary industry, which would include tourism hotels and transport as well as most of local government's activities, is predictably somewhat stronger than most other Ngawa counties, producing 38.4 million Yuan in 1994. Only Maowun and Barkham (with its array of state offices) were more productive in tertiary industry. Per capita GDP m 1994 was modest at 2,117 Yuan8. Per capita net rural income, winch should more accurately reflect a the level of livihood enjoyed by the largely rural population, was 772 Yuan in 1992.


All ethnic groups among the Zungchu county population engage in agriculture, the main form of local economy. Principal crops include wheat, barley, apples and walnuts, as well as economic crops like tea, Chinese prickly ash and raw lacquer. The land around the county town is intensively cultivated in neat fields and terraces, a pattern that continues further south and blends towards the north with grazing. In the immediate vicinity of the county town farmers are Hui and Chinese as well as Tibetan. The incidence of Tibetan farming villages decreases gradually towards the south, but forms the majority of villages moving northwards. As is the case in other parts of Ngawa, the Qiang farm the most difficult land, high in the mountains.

Farmers must enjoy a reasonable economic level, judging by the comfortable houses they have built in the countryside and the number of rural dwellers shopping in the county town. Zungchu is a fertile region, able to support a variety of crops in a climate that only becomes extreme in the higher grasslands. Tibetan farmers and herders visiting town were frequently dressed in good quality, if not elaborate, traditional clothing, and had the means to take advantage of the ready availability of commercial goods. The economic level of farmers in Central Tibet is invariably much lower. Official statistics placed per capita rural net income for Ngawa T&QAP at 772 Yuan in 1992, higher than for the other Tibetan autonomous areas within Sichuan Province, Kartse TAP and Mili TAC".


The northern half of Zungchu County is part of the Amdo grasslands, and inhabited by Tibetans whose principal economy depends on pastoralism. Evidence points to early implementation of the forced nomad settlement policy, which seems to have been applied more widely in Ngawa Prefecture than Kartse TAP. Chinese maps show the grassland area of Zungchu covered with pastoral settlements, far more numerous than township and village names. East of the Z6ge-Zungchu highway in the most northerly protrusion of the county is the Songpan State Ranch, a unit that may employ, or have once employed, some form of forced labor.

Facilities concerned with the exploitation of pastoral products, namely meat-processing or cold-storage, were not located in the county town, although all kinds of meat seemed readily available at the market or in restaurants. Sources closer to the town mixed agricultural-grazing rural dwellers may account for this. On the grasslands Tibetan herders appeared to be living a hard but sufficient fife, and some certainly had cash for shopping in the county town. Their level of prosperity did not, however, match that of Zoge nomads dressed in costly leopard skin. Official figures suggest that pastoralists in fact enjoy slightly less prosperity than farmers. The 1992 per net income of 535 Yuan for the category "agriculturalists and pastoralists" in Ngawa T&QAP" is less than for the category "rural population!', of 772 Yuan

Natural Resource Exploitation

As in most of Ngawa T&,QAP, lumber exploitation dominates Zungchu's state-sector economy. The upper Min watershed is richly forested, and has been heavily logged for decades. Environmental warnings of reduction of the mean flow of the Min River because of desertification through rapid deforestation have been sounded. Lumber trucks form a sizable proportion of traffic on the highway, while logs are floated down the Min River towards the Chengdu collection districts. Piles of hundreds at a glance are often seen stranded along the banks or caught on rocks in mid-stream. Wastage here, as in the Dadu, Xianshui and Yalong Rivers in Kartse TAP is shocking. In the county town, extensive forestry industry facilities he along the highway at the northeast comer, just outside the old walls. Here a very large Forestry Hostel was built in the 198Is, and a modem office block for the Forestry Office has recently been constructed next door. Opposite these administration and accommodation are other transport facilities winch appear to be part of the whole lumber-industry complex.

As in other lumber-rich counties, lumber exploitation does bring some immediate benefits to local people. Building materials used in tradtional wooden construction becomes readily available, as the new wooden houses in lumber industry must provide some of the funding for the spate of new building. But chief beneficiaries are the Chinese, who receive the vast bulk of timber cut in Zungchu via the Mim River and the road logging traffic. Most truck drivers seen in the area were Chinese. A high percentage of forestry workers must also be Chinese in a county where 42% of the population is already documented as Chinese and itinerant economic migration is an easy prospect from the Chinese population centers of the Chengdu districts. Environmental damage with long-term consequences is certainly a problem.

In scenic natural areas such Huanglong east of the county town, where tourism is a rapidly-expanding industry, forest preservation may be taken seriously because to do so will provide economic returns. Elsewhere the prospects are less certain, as a ravenous Chinese lumber market intensifies pressure on domestic sources. Increased lumber exploitation also endangers valuable wildlife in Zungchu, where forests are reportedly inhabited by the giant panda, red panda and golden-haired monkey. Medicinal plants are another forest product sought with increasing earnestness. Stress on Zungchu's forest resources seems bound to increase as China's economic development escalates. Peripheral "nationalities" areas like Zungchu have the exploitable natural resources so desperately needed to sustain the economic boom in inland and coastal China, where such resources no longer exist. It is virtually inconceivable that in the near future environmental concerns, let alone consideration of ethnic minorities' rights to control resources in autonomous areas, will result in decreased resource exploitation.

[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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