Labrang Monastery’s Corporate Estates (labrang)

What was a Tibetan Corporate Estate (labrang, bla brang)?

Modern social scientists have proposed models for the evolution of authority structures in Asia. All recognize that each culture has its own specific contexts and power groups, but there are similarities in evolutionary models, which are useful for understanding Labrang’s (bla brang) monastic and lay community at large. Here, the focus is on the structures of the Labrang Monastery’s support communities, made up of predominantly nomadic and semi-nomadic groups in the surrounding areas. At the outset it is important to remember that the nomad society had different values, economies, and lifestyles than those of nearby lowland agricultural and predominantly sedentary societies. Agricultural communities had their locally defined authority structures, also with similar evolutions, for example from small subsistence level communities, to larger villages, and eventually regional groups. In nomadic areas like the Labrang properties, its community-at-large, ownership of land, monetary and currency exchange, law and enforcement, and all social processes were all very different from those of surrounding cultures, and even more different from those in the modern west.

Community Divisions

Nomadic areas were characterized by small groups called “tsowa” (tsho ba) led by chiefs, or prominent men who were able to establish themselves by their strength, leadership qualities, skill, and intelligence. The small groups might be understood as tribes, extended clan groups, and combinations of clan groups with leaders who received recognition and offerings of goods from the community in gestures of privilege, legitimization, and loyalty. The group also made offerings to Labrang or one of its branch monasteries, and sent young boys to the monastery for ordination. Again, these tsowa groups included extended clans, but often included persons not biologically related.

The second stage of community authority structures were combined tsowa  groups, often called shokpa (shog pa) – literally “section” or “wing.” The leaders of these combined shokpa groups were tribal or collected clan chiefs who were able to extend their power over a larger area and greater number of people, beyond the borders of their home group. This larger group leadership status was a result of bravery in battle against common enemies, of community consensus, sometimes reinforced by marriage alliances, natural leadership skills, or as a result of mutual economic benefit. This level of community authority required inter-group diplomacy and negotiation, over matters of pasture, and other concerns appropriate to Amdo (a mdo) highlands life.

The third level of community authority structure consisted of combinations of these shokpa groups. Leadership of these groups required more diplomacy and negotiation between shokpa groups relatively distant from one another, outside of their respective homelands. While individual or small groups of shokpa could and did form relations with a Labrang lama’s estate, the larger units, like Ngülra (ngul rwa), Dzögé Nyinma (mdzod dge nyin ma), and all eight of Labrang’s extended properties, usually consisted of several shokpa in each property. Ngülra, for example, had three shokpa, Ngawa (nga ba) had six, Dzögé Mema (mdzod dge smad ma) had five, and so on. These large groups formed long-term relationships with Labrang Monastery, and generally accepted the political leadership of Labrang, in the permanent office of resident gowa (go ba) or other monastery-appointed official. This was a representative of the monastery who lived in the usually combined shokpa groups for three-year terms. They had the task of mediating disputes, providing religious services, looking after monastery livestock, and to the extent possible with the monastery’s broad powers, providing for community security.

In sum, the three levels of community authority were individual tribal units (tsowa), groups of individual tribal units (shokpa), and groups of shokpa. There were variations to this general pattern based on economy, whether agrarian or livestock management, on population, on leadership preferences and alliances, on wealth, and other factors.

Ethnic Diversity in the Region

Labrang’s social, political, and economic infrastructures were unique. In addition, Labrang’s value system, or its sense of identity was also defined in unique ways, very much in contrast to those of its close neighbors, the Chinese and the regional Muslim groups. There were variable value systems in the Amdo region. The largest group were the nomadic Tibetans (and the regional Mongol nomad groups who assimilated Tibetan systems), with their constellations of Buddhist and regional religions. The local groups of Hui and Salar Muslims were distinct because of Islam, and their own community traditions, mostly agricultural, mercantile, and to a lesser extent highland nomadic. By far the most different ethnographic definitions in relation to the nomadic Tibetans in the greater Amdo region were those of the neighboring Chinese. Regional Chinese groups defined their civilization in Confucian terms, by their unique language and culture, their dynastic heritage, their largely agricultural heritage, and in a few words, their fundamental values.

In contrast to the Chinese and Muslims, the Labrang Tibetans identified themselves as Buddhists, heirs to the traditions of the ancient Tibetan empire, the well known sagas of Gesar, and for those connected to Labrang the proud bearers of central Tibetan Buddhist traditions. The Labrang Tibetans’ nomadic lifestyles, their community group structures, their collected religious values and Lhasa-related heritage, and their vision of the world set them apart from their neighbors. The close proximity of these distinctly different groups stimulated even stronger assertion of personal and local community identity. These factors together provided powerful incentives for community solidarity. That is, maintaining one’s personal and community commitment to Labrang Monastery, paying taxes, providing corvée, and participating in community rituals provided collective identity and strength, both metaphysical and in times of crisis, militia protection.

The important requirements of membership in the Labrang communities included a knowledge of local Tibetan language, sensitivity to the very diverse range of religious values, acceptance of the authority of the monastery and the monastic authorities, and acceptance of one’s personal and community commitment to the monastery. There were law codes, and punishment for severe transgressions, but in general petty law enforcement was a local community matter. Community members were required to observe community standards and accepted practices, but failure to pay taxes or to provide corvée were not punishable offences; such transgressions rather resulted is disassociation of the group from the larger community, or in individual cases, banishment. Inability to pay often resulted in reduced or deferred payment. In some cases corvée responsibility and sponsorship of religious events could be met by proxy. In sum, there was a broad range of tangible and intangible or religious incentives for membership in the Labrang labrang.

Revenue Generating Properties

Labrang Monastery’s revenue generating properties, its “corporate estate” or in Tibetan, its labrang (bla brang) included the site of monastery itself and all of its properties. These properties were the monastery’s “community-at-large,” and were most often made up of tsowa and shokpa groups. There were different categories of relationships between the monastery and its revenue generating properties. The two primary categories were “divine communities” and “lay communities.” Its fully owned properties were the “divine communities” (lhadé, lha sde), meaning “communities in the service of the Buddhist gods.” The other main category were those properties that were not fully owned by the monastery, but nonetheless committed to service and donation. These were the “lay communities” (midé, mi sde) which meant “communities in service of men.” The key difference is that the monastery was fully in charge of the economic and political administration of the “divine communities,” while the “lay communities” were under the jurisdiction of lay lords (pönpo, dpon po). The Labrang Monastery estate was made up primarily of “divine communities,” with few “lay communities.” The “divine” and “lay” status were moreover subject to change. As time went on, other communities formed even looser, strictly donative relationships to the monastery, sometimes called “religious communities” (chödé, chos sde). The “divine” and “lay” communities were generally in the Amdo region, contiguous to the monastery site. However, other communities far away from the monastery maintained strong ties, and were counted as monastery properties. These included communities in Heilongjiang, at Wutaishan, and in Inner Mongolia. Readers should note that the support relationships between Labrang Monastery and its estates were largely dissolved beginning in 1958 and shortly thereafter; however, much reduced religious and donative relationships remain.

The Eight Divine Communities

The Labrang Monastery and its extended community describes itself as consisting of “eight divine communities” (lha sde shog pa brgyad). In general, these eight communities were the monastery’s revenue generating properties in areas surrounding the monastery proper (some quite distant geographically), and their lay inhabitants were responsible for providing corvée. The revenues were variable and quite different in each territory, and there were even differences within single territories. In addition, the borders of the territories and their names sometimes shifted over time, because of conquests, natural disasters, or migrations. There are also exceptions to the responsibility to provide corvée (obligatory, unpaid labor for the monastery)—not all residents provided corvée—and there were different kinds of such service. Still, in spite of the variations, there are definable territories and discernable patterns of revenue and corvée.

Each of the territories has its own history, from their inclusion in the “eight divine communities,” through their histories and through variations in commitments to different Labrang corporate estates (nang chen, bla brang). It is notable that the Labrang communities, their revenues and corvée were treated like commodities. That is, they were inherently valuable, they were sometimes traded by different estate owners, and their commitments changed because of shifting allegiances on the part of the population.

Here, the “eight divine properties” are listed, leaving the important matters of revenue, corvée, and history aside, for the moment. Geographically, these communities extend from the actual site of the monastery in Sangchu/Xiahe (bsang chu) County, north into Yatse/Xunhua, south to Ngawa (rnga ba) in the north of modern Sichuan Province, east to modern Tsö/Hezuo, and west over the modern Qinghai border through the Mongol territories of Prince Erdeni.

1. The first of the eight is the collected the “four divine communities (lha sde shog pa bzhi).” This was the original endowment donated by Genkya nomads, a summer pasture called Tokti Demo Tang, in the region known as Khagya tsodruk. The Mongol Prince Erdeni invited the First Jamyang Zhepa, sponsored the construction of the earliest monastery buildings, and provided boys as novice monks and for eventual ordination.

The “four divine communities” are Tanak (mtha’ nag), Tawa Gongma (mtha’ ba gong ma),  Tawa Zhölma (mtha’ ba zhol ma) or Zayainang (za ya’i nang), and Sakar (sa dkar). These four originally nomadic communities divided into thirteen farming villages (note that some of the following thirteen villages retain the name of the original large group). The account given here is compiled from several oral sources and verified where possible by written documents. The thirteen still recognize their origins in the four groups, as follows.

  • Group one (Tanak): 1. Zayü (za yus), 2-3. Tangnak Gongzhöl (thang nag gong zhol) (two villages), 4. Ngönchok (sngon mchog);
  • Group two (Tawa Gongma ): 5-6. Tawa  Gongzhöl  (mtha’ ba gong zhol) (two villages), 7. Menkhar (man mkhar), 8. Sasoma (sa so ma);
  • Group three (Tawa Zhölma): 9. Sakar, 10. Gyawornang (rgya bor nang), 11. Pukdé (phug sde);
  • Group four: (The first of group four are today six small villages. However, three of the six are included in both # 12 and # 13): 12. Rikdra (rigs sgra), Minyak (mi nyag), Lungkartang (lung dkar thang), Gardé (mgar sde), Yikchungtang (yig chung thang, and Ludrak (glu grags); 13. Rikdra, Minyag, Gardé. Number 12 is alternatively divided into four villages instead of six. Finally, there is a tradition of dividing all of the thirteen villages into upper and lower sections.

2. Genkya-Yartsi/Xunhua (Yartsi/Xunhua was formerly considered a part of Genkya). The Ocean Annals records that “two lords of Khagya [in Genkya] donated the land, . . . The border with Rongpo was set near Serkha and Langgya.”.[1]

3. Sangkhok is located in grasslands south and southwest of Labrang Monastery, on a route from Ngülra to Labrang.

4. Khotsé is located due south of Sangkhok.

5. Dokar, the fifth of Labrang’s eight communities, is located just east/southeast of Tsö/Hezuo. Its revenues were originally the property of Drepung Gomang in Lhasa. The First Jamyang Zhepa traded some of his Lhasa properties for the local Dokar property.

6. Ngülra, located in the upper reaches of the Machu/Yellow River, in modern southwestern Gansu Province, was the sixth of Labrang’s inner districts.

7. Dzögé Nyinma's modern administrative center is at Machu.

8. Ngawa Tsodruk is in the north of contemporary Sichuan Province.


1 deb ther rgya mtsho-Lanzhou, 547.20 ff: kha gya’i be hu gnyis kyis sa phul te dgon pa btab bas byas pa che rkang tsha’i gser kha glang gya dang nye bar rong po dang sa mtshams ’dzin byed du bzhag.


For patterns of community formation at Labrang

’brug thar. mdo smad byang shar gyi bod kyi tsho ba shog pa’i lo rgyus dang rig gnas bcas par dpyad pa. Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 2002.

For relevant analyses of communities in other Asian countries

Aung-Thwin, Michael. Pagan: The Origins of Modern Burma. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1985).

Kulke, Hermann. “The Early and Imperial Kingdom in Southeast Asian History,” in Southeast Asia in the 9th to 14th Centuries. Edited by David G. Marr & A.C. Milner (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies/Australian National University, 1986), 1-22.

Tambiah, Stanley J. World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Veluthat, Kesavan. The Early Medieval in South India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009).

For Social Structures in Central Tibet

Goldstein, Melvyn. An Anthropological Study of the Tibetan Political System. PhD diss., University of Washington, 1968.

For Relevant “Segmentary” Political Groups in Asia

Davidson, Ronald M. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

Kulke, Hermann and Dietmar Rothermund. A History of India (Revised, Updated Edition). London: Routledge, 1990.

Stein, Burton. “The Segmentary State: Interim Reflections.” In The State in India 1000-1700. Edited by Hermann Kulke. (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995).