Book Review: The Rise of Gönpo Namgyel

If you're going to shell out the $110, might as well buy direct from the publishers (same price as Amazon).
Click the image to buy direct from the publishers (there’s no discount at Amazon).

A couple months ago I turned over a new leaf on this blog and posted a short book review of My Tibetan Childhood.  Today I’ll continue that trend with a short review of Yudru Tsomu’s The Rise of Gönpo Namgyel in Kham: The Blind Warrior of Nyarong (Lexington Books, 2015).  As with the earlier review, this is not meant to be full, formal book review such as one might encounter in a peer reviewed academic journal.  Instead, it is simply some of my own thoughts on the book (which, fortunately, I quite enjoyed).

Gönpo Namgyel is not an unknown figure to the Tibetological community, particularly to those interested in Kham.  Indeed, his shadow looms large over many discussions of recent Khampa history, seeming to mark a line of demarcation, so that it often feels natural to speak of pre and post Gönpo Namgyel periods.  Further, the basic outline of his story—military conquest of Degé, Litang and much of the region, followed by a fiery death at the hands of Lhasa based troops—is reasonably well know.  Yudru Tsomu, therefore, is not introducing a new figure, or telling a wholly new story.  What she does do, and does with admirable skill as both a historian and a writer, is to flesh out that basic story with a wealth of detail and to situate those events in the broader context of the time.  The latter point is where she really shines, arguing convincingly that Gönpo Namgyel should not be understood merely as a provincial figure from the remote borderlands.  Instead, she shows the degree to which Gönpo Namgyel’s rise was only possible because of weakness in both Central Tibet and Qing Dynasty China.  Further, Yudru Tsomu demonstrates that Gönpo Namgyel’s success conquering neighboring chiefdoms and principalities posed a direct threat to the economic and political ties between Lhasa and Beijing, ultimately reshaping the political landscape of the border.

In broad outline, The Rise of Gönpo Namgyel consists of two major sections.  In the first, consisting of chapters 1 through 4, Yudru Tsomu lays out the background necessary for understanding Gönpo Namgyel’s life and extraordinary success.  To me, this was some of the most interesting material in the book, particularly chapters one and four, where she discusses Nyarong culture. She argues convincingly that Gönpo Namgyel was not on a search for wealth, or trying to advance a political agenda.  Instead, “family feuding, a tradition of vengence taking, banditry, and matrimonial alliances and estrangements were the ingredients that fomented crisis in Nyarong.” (244)

Following this are three chapters that lay out the details of Gönpo Namgyel’s various military confrontations and his eventual defeat.  Some of this material was a little dry and repetitive to me, but it will be gold for those interested in the military and political culture of Kham.  For this discussion, Yudru Tsomu relies heavily on oral accounts and official government documents, and she does an admirable job of creating a nuanced storyline from minimal materials.  I also applaud her inclusion of multiple accounts, when different sources sometimes contradict each other.  I was struck, however, by the near absence of biographical sources (rnam thar and rang rnam).  The events surrounding Gönpo Namgyel are given significant discussion in Jamgön Kongtrül’s Autobiography, for instance, but while this text appears in her bibliography, it was not cited in the text itself.  I don’t know that including this or similar sources would have changed Yudru Tsomu’s conclusions at all, but they might have added something.

Finally, prior to concluding, Yuru Tsomu presents a chapter that looks at the ramifications of Gönpo Namgyel’s activities for Sino-Tibetan relations from the time of his fall through the collapse of the Qing.  This chapter may be the most interesting to those who are interested in Tibetan history, but are not specifically interested in Kham.

On the whole, then, Yudru Tsomu’s work is a standout contribution to the study of Tibetan history.  She has taken a well known (but not well enough known) figure and presented his life with as much depth and clarity as possible.  Perhaps more importantly, she clearly demonstrates why his life and activity matter.  Indeed, if I have any real complaints they are not with Yudru Tsomu’s work, but with the cost of the book and its production values.  I am aware that publishing is expensive, and publishers need to recoup their costs.  But $110 is a lot to spend on a book that is neither antiquarian nor a large format art book.  (In all fairness, I should note that Lexington is hardly the only press to go this route—I’m looking at you Brill and Routledge.)  Further, my copy of the book had a few printers errors.  The margins were off a bit, and there was an annoying black line along the bottom of each page.  More significantly (and amusingly), the entire text block was glued into the binding upside down, leading to situations where I would be sitting in a coffee shop, reading a book that looked upside down to all observers.  Kind of fun, if not exactly classy.

Who Wrote “The Words of My Perfect Teacher”?

Possible photo of Patrül.[4]

The Words of My Perfect Teacher (tib: ཀུན་བཟན་བླ་མའི་བཞལ་ལུང།) is one of the most famous and popular works to emerge from nineteenth century Kham. It was written by Patrül Rinpoché in the late 1840s or even 1850.[1] Patrül, however, does not take credit for authoring this text, insisting that all he did was to reproduce what his teacher, Jigmé Gyelwé Nyügu, had taught (hence the work’s title: The Words of My Perfect Teacher). Such attribution in Tibetan works can often feel like something of a trope, an attempt to gather legitimacy by associating the work with a famous forebear. Thus, both Tibetans and westerners usually refer to “Patrül’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher,” rather than “Jigmé Gyelwé Nyügu’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher.”

In this case, however, I wonder if Patrül was actually telling the truth, and if we should speak of the ideas in The Words of My Perfect Teacher as Jigmé Gyelwé Nyügu’s, only nominally filtered through Patrül. In suggesting this, I’m thinking primarily of this work’s strident denunciations of meat eating:

At the time a sheep or other animal is to be slaughtered, it first has inconceivable terror as it is taken from the flock. Blood blisters form wherever it is seized. Then it is flipped upside down, its limbs are bound with cord and its muzzle is tied.[2] The in and out flow of the breath is cut off, and it experiences the terrible suffering of death. If it requires a little time to die, the evil butcher beats it, calling out angrily, ‘This one won’t die!’. … Anyone who can eat such things is a true demon![3]

One would think that the author of this passage (and the many other anti-meat passages in The Words of My Perfect Teacher was probably a vegetarian. And yet, there is no indication in the third Dodrubchen’s Biography of Patrül that Patrül ever adopted vegetarianism (though he is credited with preventing nomads from offering meat to lamas during rituals). Further, I have found nothing in Patrül’s other writing to indicate that he was particularly opposed to meat. The Words of My Perfect Teacher, it seems, stands alone in this regard.

Jigmé Gyelwé Nyügu, on the other hand, was a vegetarian (or at least was remembered as one). In his own Autobiography, Khenpo Ngakchung claims that Jigmé Gyelwé Nyügu became vegetarian during an early retreat at Mt Tsari, and never touched meat again. Being vegetarian was not unheard of in pre-modern Tibet, but it was not easy and took a certain measure of dedication. Presumably, those who adopted the diet did so out of strong convictions, of the type that could produce an emotionally laden diatribe like the one above. So perhaps we should take Patrül Rinpoché at his word when he claims that The Words of My Perfect Teacher should be attributed to his perfect teacher, rather than to himself.

[1] These dates are my own calculation: In his Short Biography of Patrül Rinpoché, Dodrubchen 03, Jigmé Tenpé Nyima writes that Patrül wrote this text while in retreat at Dzokchen monastery. In the next line, Dodrubchen says that Patrül left Dzokchen to see Shabkar, who, unfortunately, died before the two could meet (I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting.) Hence, my suggestion that The Words of My Perfect Teacher was written just prior to Shabkar’s death in 1851. If I’m wrong, please let me know!

[2] Refers to a popular method of slaughtering where the animal is suffocated by binding a cord around its muzzle. The meat produced by this method, still rich with blood, is said to be particularly tasty.

[3] དཔལ་སྤྲུལ་རིན་པོ་ཆེ། ༼ཀུན་བཟན་བླ་མའི་བཞལ་ལུང།༽ in དཔལ་སྤྲུལ་གསུང་འབུམ། དེབ༼ཉ (སི་ཁྲོན:སི་ཁྲོན་དཔེ་ཚོགས་པ། དང་སི་ཁྲོན་མི་རིགས་དཔེ་སྐྲུན་ཁང། 2009) 314-315.
See also: Patrül Rinpoché: The Words of My Perfect Teacher Padmakara, trans. (Boston: Shambhala, 1998) 203.

[4]I saw an old (pre-1950) print of this photo in Kham recently, with Patrül’s name written underneath, though that certainly does not confirm the photo beyond doubt. According to Rigpa Wiki (where I got this photo) Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoché thought that it was actually one of Patrül’s incarnations. There can’t have been too many cameras in Kham prior to Patrül’s death in 1887.

Trash Collection at Yachen Gar

Fig. 1: Trash Truck at Yachen Gar, June 2010
I have recently moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where my wife Eliza has started at job teaching at Wofford College. One of the remarkable things about my new town is the trash collection: everyone uses the same trash can, and then a truck with a robotic arm comes by, picks up the can, and dumps the contents into the truck. No trash collectors involved, other than the person driving the truck.

Fig. 2: Houses at Yachen Gar
Other people may be more familiar with this type of trash collection, but I have only seen it in one other place: the late Khenpo A-khyuk‘s encampment at Yachen Gar, in remote Kham (see fig. 1). As those who have been to Tibet recently can attest, trash is a major issue. When Eliza and I visited Dzogchen Monastery in 2007, trash cans were overflowing, the hillsides were covered with refuse, and there was a huge pile of assorted garbage just outside the town. I get the impression that Tibetan culture simply has not yet figured out how to deal with all of the potato chip wrappers, beer bottles and cheap clothes that have accompanied it’s rapid introduction to modernity over the last few decades.

Fig. 3: Getting the Can on the Truck
Yachen Gar is a new religious center, about six hours away from Kardzé on in one direction and Pelyül in the other.[1] It has grown rapidly since its founding in 1980, and when I visited in June of 2010 there were several thousand residents. Each of these monks and nuns are responsible for their own housing and food, and the facility is composed almost entirely of homemade shacks (see fig. 2). Not the kind of place you would expect to find cutting edge trash collection. And yet there was this blue and white truck, making it’s way down the major streets, with two women putting the matching blue trash cans in position, and the truck doing the rest. Truly remarkable. This is not to say that the trash situation at Yachen Gar has been taken care of entirely (I watched one nun throw an old plastic washbasin in the river), but these trucks were a remarkable sight, and a sign that things are moving in the right direction.


Pitching in to build a colossal Mani Wall. Every one of those stones is inscribed, and the whole collection could easily cover a football field to a depth of several meters.
[1]Yachen Gar is one of the most remarkable religious institutions in Tibet today. Like Khenpo Jikmé Püntsok‘s more famous institute at Serta, it was founded by a charismatic tertön in the period just after Deng Xiaoping allowed religious practice. Since then it has grown to be one of the most active and vital teaching centers in the Tibetan world–both inside the PRC and among the exile communities. Sadly, the founder, Khenpo A-khyuk, passed away in July. This is a huge loss, not just for Yachen Gar, but for Tibetan Buddhism and the Nyingma tradition throughout Kham. It remains to be seen how this will affect Yachen Gar on a daily basis. I will be traveling through the region in the coming year, and will post whatever thoughts come to mind, though I will leave a thorough analysis of the coming transition to others. For more info on Khenpo A-khyuk and Yachen Gar, please read Antonio Terrone’s excellent article, “Householders and Monks: A Study of Treasure Revealers and their Role in Religious Revival in Contemporary Eastern Tibet.”, found in Buddhism Beyond the Monastery: Tantric Practices and their Performers in Tibet and the Himalayas, published in 2009 by Brill. You may have to use inter-library loan to get this, as Brill has priced it at a whopping $136.

How do You Spell Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ Anyway?

Figure 1: Maṇi on a hill near Tau with a subscribed a-chung.

A while ago I wrote a post about the proliferation of giant hillside renditions of oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ, the mantra of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion and mythical patron of all things Tibetan. This mantra, known simply as the maṇi, is one of the most pervasive practices of Tibetan Buddhism, being inscribed on stones, rendered across hillsides and recited by millions of Tibetans daily. One early Jesuit missionary, ignorant of Buddhism but struck by the pervasiveness of the maṇi mantra, reported that the Tibetans worshiped the god ‘Manipe’.[1] Despite the pervasive presence of the maṇi in Tibetan religiosity, however, there does not seem to be consensus on how it should be spelled.

Figure 2: A pool table converted to a maṇi plaque near Katok Monastery. No a-chung.

An observant reader may have noticed that the hillside maṇi pictured in my earlier post has a small a-chung (འ) underneath the oṃ (ཨཱོཾ; see figure 1). Most renditions of the maṇi that you see around Tibet, however, lack this subscribed a-chung (ཨོཾ; see figure 2). This tells us a couple of things. First off, the fact that all of those hillside maṇis I saw last summer uniformly included the same quirky spelling probably means they are all the work of one industrious person or group. Secondly, either that person or group is just plain wrong, or there are multiple traditions floating around for how to spell one of Tibet’s most important cultural touchstones. And that’s kind of neat, and definitely worth looking into.

Given that the maṇi is a Sanskrit phrase rendered in Tibetan script, the obvious first stop for someone trying to resolve this riddle is to figure out how the syllable should be written in Sanskrit. While I, unfortunately, don’t read Sanskrit, I do know several people who do, and I’ve spent the last few weeks grilling them about how one should properly write the syllable oṃ in the language of the gods. (the next bit is kind of technical, and I’ve probably got it wrong anyway, so if you’re in a rush feel free to skip to the conclusion) When rendering Sanskrit in Tibetan script, a subscribed a-chung like the ones we see here is used to turn a short vowel into a long vowel. So, for instance, the short ‘a’ (ཨ; अ in Devanagari, the most common Sanskrit srcipt) becomes the long ‘ā’ (ཨཱ; आ) with the addition of a subscribed a-chung. Sanskrit, however, does not have a short ‘o’, so an a-chung is not needed to create the long syllable ‘ō’ (ཨོ; ओ). Instead, adding the a-chung to ‘o’ gives us ‘au’ (ཨཱོ; औ). So, without the a-chung, we have the syllable ‘oṃ’ (ཨོཾ; ओं) and with the a-chung we have the syllable ‘auṃ’ (ཨཱོཾ; औं). As for which is the correct spelling, I am told that in general practice the syllable is usually rendered ‘oṃ’. This is the familiar glyph ॐ, and would seem to favor those versions of the maṇi that lack the subscribed a-chung. On the other hand, the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, an early Indian scripture that deals entirely with this sacred syllable, is less straightforward. In its opening line, the syllable is spelled ‘oṃ’, but a few lines later the constituent phonemes are identified as ‘a’, ‘u’ and ‘ṃ’.[2] Finally, Wikipedia, that great arbiter of all knowledge, spells it ‘auṃ’. So, even in the Sanskrit, we have multiple ways of spelling the syllable oṃ. Or is it auṃ?

Figure 3. Three maṇis in an old manuscript of the Maṇi Kabum. No a-chungs.

Another way to look at this would be to consider historical and contemporary instances of the maṇi and see what percentage of them have an a-chung. Here, the balance clearly seems to tip in favor of oṃs without a-chungs. Sitting around on my computer, I have two scans of a Tibetan text known as the Maṇi Kabum.[4] As its name implies, this text is one of the most important Tibetan works on the maṇi ever composed (its title can be loosely translated as Collected Works on the Maṇi), so it seems like a good place to look. No a-chungs in either copy (See figure 3). Additionally, a few months ago I remember seeing a 13th century funerary slab from Mongolia with the maṇi on it with no a-chung.[3] So this spelling is attested at least that far back. Further, the images produced by searching google for ‘maṇi stone’ almost invariably lack a subscribed a-chung, which goes someway towards showing how widespread this spelling is. The epigraphical record, however, does not entirely favor the no a-chung camp.  Browsing the Tibeto-Logic blog a while back, I came across these images of the syllable oṃ from texts preserved in the Dunhuang caves (see figure 4).[5] These ancient doodles, at least a thousand years old, have large, clear, unmistakable subscribed a-chungs. Whatever happened later, at least we know that oṃ could be written with a subscribed a-chung a long time ago.

Figure 4. Oṃs from Dunhuang, with subscribed a-chungs.

We started out with a quandary: should the first syllable in the ever-present mantra oṃ maṇi padme hūm have an a-chung? We looked at the Sanskrit, and concluded that in general use the Sanskrit does not require an a-chung, but that there were notable instances indicating it should be there. Then we checked the epigraphical evidence, which overwhelmingly favored the anti a-chung element, except for that pesky Dunhuang scribble, which just happens to be the oldest version of the syllable I’ve seen. (No, I haven’t combed through the rest of the Dunhuang documents. Anyone interested in doing so can look through most of them at the International Dunhuang Project. Let me know what you find.) If it seems like we’re no closer to an answer than we were at the beginning, that’s probably correct. But, at least now we have some idea why we don’t know anything.

Thanks to Karen Lang, Kurtis Schaeffer, Dominic DiZinno, Ben McClintic and Eva Natanya for their sanskritic insights.

[1] Lopez, Donald S. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1999. p 117. If you read latin and prefer the original, check out pages 72 and 73 of Kircher, Athanasius. China Monumentis: Qua Sacris Quà Profanis Nec Non Variis Naturae [et] Artis Spectaculis Aliarumque Rerum Memorabilium Argumentis Illustrata. Meurs: Jacobum, 1667.

[2] Olivelle, Patrick. The Early Upaniṣads: Annotated Text and Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. p. 473-477.

[3] This was on loan to the UVA Art Museum, but the docent yelled at me for trying to take a picture, so I can’t produce any photographic evidence.

[4] Those with access to TBRC can download the Punaka edition of the Maṇi Kabum, reference W19225.

[5] These images are from Pelliot Tibetain 1230

How to Build a Monastery

Every monastery I visited this summer had some sort of construction project going on. While not all of these were epic in scope, it was hard to escape the idea that Kham is experiencing a boom in monastic construction. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, including new wealth among Tibetans, interest in Tibetan Buddhism among the Han Chinese, tourism revenues, and so forth. That analysis, however, I will leave for others. What I’m more interested in here is the style in which this construction is performed. Basically, I observed two major construction models, ‘traditional’ and ‘concrete’.

Paplung Monastery

Palpung Monastery serves as a great example of the former. Palpung sits on a promontory overlooking the Bei Chu river, a tributary of the Dri Chu. It is a beautiful location, overlooking a wooded valley, and below high, grassy slopes. Miraculously, the main temple hall seems to have survived the Cultural Revolution fairly intact, even though most of the religious artwork and other artifacts were destroyed or removed. When I visited in June, there were several buildings under construction, mostly houses for resident monks (like many traditional monasteries, monks at Palpung reside in their own homes, rather than in collective dormitories). In each instance, the buildings were being constructed using the standard timber construction seen all over the area (see photo 1). With the exception of an electric saw for shaping the beams, there were no modern construction methods in evidence. Importantly, the construction work did not negatively interfere with the life of the monastery, and no one I spoke with seemed bothered by the activity.  (For more on the architecture, art and conservation measures at Palpung, visit the Palpung Architecture Project)

Construction at Katok

This contrasts with Katok Monastery, which typifies the ‘concrete’ construction style. At Katok, there were no less than three major construction projects going on simultaneously. Each of these buildings required large numbers of dump trucks, concrete mixers and workers. While I’m sure that the results will be impressive, the current situation can only be described as chaotic and dirty. In his Footprint Tibet guidebook, Gyurme Dorje extols the serenity of Katok monastery, saying, “Anyone viewing the majestic setting of Katok’s red and white buildings which cover the peaceful mountain top can appreciate why the concept of ‘sacred outlook’ or ‘pure visionary perception of the landscape’ is so significant here.”[1]

Construction debris flowing down a hillside at Katok

While this may have been true in the past, Katok monastery’s peaceful mountaintop is currently dominated by construction noise.  An entire hillside has been turned black by detritus poured out by a continuous stream of dump-trucks (see photo 3). Arriving here after the peace of Palpung, the activity, dirt and noise was quite a shock. Furthermore, I was not the only one who objected to all the activity: several of the monks I spoke with also expressed distaste at what was going on, even questioning the need for the new buildings at all.  Looking at the black debris on the hillside, one monk commented, “Nothing will grow there again.”  Like many monasteries, Katok does not have a clear hierarchical structure with a single head. Instead, different lamas are each responsible for their own sections of the monastery. In the case of Katok, this seems to have lead to competing construction projects, with little regard for the overall impact on the monastery or its environment.  To be fair, timber construction has its own environmental problems.  All those trees have to come from somewhere, and even in pre-modern times, deforestation was a real issue in Kham.  Still, the difference between the construction and its attendant environmental issues at Palpung and Katok is striking, and I can’t help but feel like there must be a better way to do this.

Katok is not alone in choosing concrete over more traditional construction methods.  Almost every monastery I visited had some form of construction work going on, and most were employing concrete construction methods (Karndzé Nunnery is another notable exception. The new Chenrezik temple there was being built entirely with traditional stonework).  Of course, as a tourist, it is easy to praise the beauty of traditional construction and denigrate modern techniques. The monks who live in these monasteries, however, may appreciate the conveniences provided by modern construction (such as, say, basic plumbing). Nevertheless, it seems like something has been lost when an already significant monastery, like Katok, dedicates so much capital to a project, only to damage its own environment in the process.


[1]Dorje, Gyurme. Footprint Tibet. 3rd ed. Footprint, 2004, p 494.

Claiming the Land

A Large mani on a hillside near Tau Prefecture. Click to Enlarge.

I’m now two weeks into my first trip to Tibet in three years. Many things are the same, but many are different. Last time I was in this region of Kham, I remember being struck by several huge mani mantras inscribed across entire hillsides, often in strategic locations above villages or near river confluences. In the intervening three years, these mantras have notably increased in both size and frequency. On the road from Dartsedo to Karndzé it seemed like every village had at least one of these epic endeavors. It is hard to escape the idea that the region’s Tibetans are making a strong statement about the identity of their land.

Of course, this is not the first time that Tibetans have used the construction of religious monuments to claim or alter the identity of their land. If we are to believe Tibetan historical accounts, the importation of Buddhism was only made possible by the construction of twelve temples by the sixth century king Songtsen Gampo. The construction of these temples suppressed a malevolent demoness who had been obstructing Buddhism. By building the temples, the king suppressed the opposing forces and established Tibet as a Buddhist nation.

Nor is such activity limited to the Tibetan Imperium. On a smaller scale, it remains common for local Tibetan communities to deal with malevolent spirits by erecting prayer flags or a small chörten. As with Songtsen Gampo’s temples, these constructions effectively overcome whatever was polluting or obstructing the area, restoring its proper Buddhist identity.

Three manis (one obscured by trees) not far from Bamé. Click to Enlarge.

It is not surprising, after the events of the last half century, that Tibetans here would feel a need to re-assert the Buddhist (and thereby Tibetan) nature of their land. Nor, I suppose, should it be surprising that the pace of that activity has increased since 2008 (in addition to the new hillside manis, I saw three large chörtens under construction between Dartsedo and Karndzé as well as numerous new prayer flag arrays and smaller chörtens). Nevertheless, these constructions, and the sentiments they represent, seem worth noting for those of us who try to keep our fingers on Tibet’s pulse.

[Added 7/8/2010]:

As I was leaving Kham, driving from Karndzé to Dartsedo, I noticed a monument I did not see on the way up.  It was laid out across a hillside and made out of white stones, just like the large mani mantras discussed above.  It was, however, written in Chinese and located directly below a large police station.  While I was unable to get a picture, and only had a few seconds to try and read it, I’m pretty confident the first phrase said something along the lines of ‘work hard for a good country’.  Apparently, at least some elements in the Chinese government have grasped the importance of marking the landscape in this way, and have decided to get in on the act!

Sorry about the poor photos, most were taken from moving vehicles!

Suggested Reading:

Update on Yushu Earthquake Relief Efforts

[updated May 21, 2010]

It has now been over a month since the devastating earthquake in Yushu, the capital of Yushu County in Qinghai Province (see my original post here). In that time, many people have stepped up and helped out, and the current situation seems to be fairly stable. Thank you to everyone who donated to relief efforts. This seems like perhaps a good time to highlight the efforts of the region’s monastics. Despite the fact that many of their own monasteries were destroyed, teams of monks and nuns provided much of the early relief manpower, digging out survivors and offering solace to the dead and bereaved. I have often heard complaints that Tibetan monastics do not engage in enough social justice work, so it was particularly gratifying to see so many helping in Yushu. Additionally, it is important to acknowledge the Chinese government’s efforts in Yushu. From most accounts the government’s efforts have been robust and dedicated, especially considering the the difficulties involved in getting tons of relief supplies across a thousand miles of damaged, high-altitude roads. The New York Times ran a series of articles (on April 17th, 18th and 23rd) discussing the tension between the monks and government officials, but I have heard from people on the ground that this tension was not as pronounced as they reported.

Woman in a home built from cardboard and bricks from earthquake ruins. Courtesy of Tamdin Wangdu.

Now that the immediate needs of residents have largely been met, attention has turned to reconstruction. Tamdin Wangdu of the Tibetan Village Project has reported that government efforts are focussed on long-term reconstruction, a project which could take several years to complete. In the meantime, many of the families who live in Yushu are still homeless, and could still use our help. Both the Tibetan Village Project and Plateau Perspectives continue to provide much needed aid in the region, supplying water filers, all-season tents and the training required for individuals to find new jobs. All of this without the bureaucracy that can slow-down and hinder government efforts. Please take a moment to look over their websites, and consider donating. Small amounts can still make a big difference.

The following is an appeal from Tamdin Wangdu of Tibetan Village Project, from an e-mail dated May 19th:

There is no hope of finding anyone else alive and basic needs for food have been met, but in other ways the situation the ground is unfortunately rather different from what has been reported in the news. In particular, there is still a shortage of tents to provide sufficient shelter for all of the people who are homeless. This may have been overlooked, since the official response locally, and also the international response, is now focusing on longer-term relief efforts. This is also necessary, as is the work of NGOs, social organizations and others in the area who are looking to focus on mid-term social needs, such as rebuilding businesses, providing training and facilitating the flow of information. Meantime, however, shelter is by far from adequate. In short, Yushu needs more tents.

If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me, and I will do my best to answer, or at least to pass the question along to someone who might be able to answer it.

Thanks to Robbie Barnett, Gray Tuttle, Clay Goforth, Brenton Sullivan, Tamdin Wangdu and Losang for providing information on relief efforts.

Yushu Earthquake Relief Efforts

[last updated April 22, 2010]

As many of you probably know by now, an earthquake struck northeastern Tibet during the early morning hours of April 14th. The earthquake had its epicenter about 30km from Jyekundo, the capital of Yushu County in Qinghai Province, China. (Click here for an interactive map, courtesy of THL) While the area is sparsely populated, the reports I’ve seen have indicated that casualties and damage are both pretty extensive. The area is populated primarily by Tibetans, andmany individual family homes have collapsed (originally it was reported that these were mostly built with traditional adobe construction, though I have now heard that most were, in fact, built of cinder blocks with pre-fab concrete roofs). As with the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, many schools collapsed. Currently, over 2,000 people are listed as dead, with over 12,000 injured. The following is an excerpt from a blog post by Losang, of Plateau Perspectives. The full report is well worth reading and has several striking photos.

My family and I were in our 3rd floor apartment building when the earthquake hit. There was a smaller earthquake (around 4.7) that occurred around 4am and neither my wife or I could get back to sleep. When the big quake hit, my wife was using her computer while our younger son Norbu (18 months old) was playing in the living room. Tsering, our older son who is 3 years old, was still asleep in the back bedroom. … Norbu flew across the room when the quake hit. My wife was also violently thrown to the ground. Everything in our apartment began to be tossed around, breaking when it hit the walls or floor. I ran to the back bedroom and grabbed Tsering and grabbed him as my wife grabbed Norbu off the floor. Together, we ran to the door. I paused long enough to grab my shoes, coat and a bit of money. I opened the door and one of our Tibetan neighbors assisted us in carrying Tsering down the 3 flights of stairs to the ground floor. All of us were in just our pajamas. I was the only one of my family who managed to get shoes.

The Associated Press is reporting that large convoys of relief material is finally making it to Jyekundo, just in time for Hu Jintao’s arrival. The New York Times has also been emphasizing the role that monks have played in relief efforts, though I have heard that their report on tensions between monks and police may suggest more tension than there actually is.

The following groups still need assistance. As the relief effort shifts to rebuilding, it is more important than ever that local NGOs and others who know the people and landscape have the resources they need to be effective.

Local NGOs

Snowland Services Group is a Tibetan NGO currently on the ground in Jyekundo. While their own operations were hard hit during the earthquake, and at least one staff member was killed, they are seeking to provide water, food, tents, clothing and bedding. Recently, they have organized a relief consortium in Xining called Yushu Earthquake Response (YER). Other members of this group include Shem Women’s Group [click here for my earlier post on this group], Pentok Institute, Sanchuan Fazhan Cujinhui, Tsong Ka Charity Association and Xiangcun Zhiyou. The organization does not have its own website, yet, but funds donated to the Tibet Village Project will be routed to them, through existing contacts.

Plateau Perspectives is a western NGO also based in Jyekundo, and may be the only western NGO authorized to distribute aid so far. They have many years of experience and contacts in the region and already have gotten at least one team of doctors into Jyekundo, with the government’s blessing. They also have the most fully developed web-presence of these small groups,, a site which now includes video taken just a few minutes after the earthquake hit. Donations cane be made through this site.

Rokpa is an international NGO that runs a school in Jyekundo. I have heard that all of the children survived, though one teacher was killed and the school buildings are in rubble. They are also accepting donations for earthquake relief, though they do not yet have a dedicated website set up. Donations can be made through their general website, and should be noted as being for earthquake relief.

Sichuan Quake Relief is an organization founded to provide relief efforts after the 2008 Sichuan Quake, who have now turned their attention to the Yushu Earthquake. They have managed to get beyond the town of Jyekundo to reach some remote villages, and have found them devastated, with no relief in sight. Donations can be made through their clear and well organized website,

Gerald and Elena are a pair of foreign workers teaching Tibetans in Xining, the provincial capital. As of April 15th, they had organized at least one truckload of supplies, including blankets, water, food and tents. The total bill for the supplies came to just over $700; proof that small donations really can help. They can be reached through Gerald’s e-mail address:

Global NGOs

In my original post, I said that foreign NGOs operate under strict regulations in China, so it was not feasible to donate to large groups like the Red Cross. I have since noticed that both the Red Cross and Mercy Corps are soliciting donations for Yushu Earthquake relief, so presumably they are planning to put relief operations in place as soon as they can. I’m still not sure what kind of red tape they will have to deal with, however. If you are interested in donating to either of these groups, click here: Red Cross, Mercy Corps.

If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me, and I will do my best to answer, or at least to pass the question along to someone who might be able to answer it.

Thanks to Robbie Barnett, Gray Tuttle, Clay Goforth, Brenton Sullivan, Losang and Tamdin Wangdu for bringing these groups to my attention.