An Overview of Kham (Eastern Tibet) Historical Polities

Beginning in the seventh century, the Pugyel (spu rgyal) dynasty of central

Tibet expanded eastward across the Tibetan plateau and beyond. Numerous Tibetan troops

settled in areas along the eastern reaches of the Tibetan plateau in what are now Qinghai,

Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. With their arrival came Tibetan language, culture,

and religion from Central Tibet, and the interaction with local languages and cultures

produced the distinctive but highly diverse Tibetan cultural regions of eastern Tibet.

Natural features of eastern Tibet's geography divide it roughly into northern and southern

areas. The northern region is called Amdo (a mdo) and is covered in An Overview of Amdo

(Northeastern Tibet) Historical Polities by Gray Tuttle. The focus of the present

essay is the southern region of eastern Tibet, which is called Kham (khams) and

whose people are called the Khampa (khams pa). The political history of

Kham exhibits great dynamism from within as well as the marks of deep involvement with

neighboring Central Tibet and China. The following pages will introduce the major

polities, and historical epochs of Kham.

The Cultural Geography of Eastern Tibet

The Tibetan word kham (khams) means frontier and the Tibetan region of Kham is

named as such because it is on the frontier or marches of Greater Tibet (bod

chen), bordering regions inhabited by the Han Chinese and other ethnicities. Ancient

Tibetan documents use the term kham in compound words that refer to peripheral

areas (e.g., blon khams, "outlying area controlled by a minister"). The

overarching toponym for all of eastern and northeastern Tibet, including both Kham and

Amdo, is Dokham (mdo khams), meaning the confluence (do; of rivers and valleys)

on the frontier (kham). The literary name for Kham is Domé (mdo smad) and means

the lower part (mé) of Dokham (do). At some point the name Kham came into common usage in

literary and colloquial Tibetan. In the present day, Kham falls entirely within the

People's Republic of China and is spread between four provinces: the Tibetan Autonomous

Region, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Yunnan. Emic expressions to describe or locate the territory

of Kham include "The Four Rivers and Six Ranges" (chu bzhi sgang drug) and "The

Four Great Valleys" (rong chen bzhi). The identification and spelling of these

rivers, ranges, and valleys has varied over time and sometimes differ even between

scholars of the same time period. The recent Great Tibetan-Chinese Dictionary

(bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo) identifies the four rivers as follows: 1) Dri

('bri chu; Ch. Jinsha jiang), 2) Ma  (rma chu; Ch. Huang he) 3) Gyelmo

Ngul (rgyal mo rngul chu;  Ch. Nu jiang), 4) Da (zla chu; Ch. Lancang

jiang). The same work lists the six ranges as: 1) Zelmo (zal mo sgang), 2) Tsawa

(tsha ba sgang), 3) Markham (smar khams sgang), 4) Pombor (spo 'bor

sgang), 5) Mardza (dmar rdza sgang), and 6) Minyak Rapgang (mi nyag rab


Pastoralists, agriculturalists, mixed pastoralist-agriculturalists, town-based merchants,

and thousands of monks comprised the Tibetan population of traditional Kham. Furthermore

the broader population of Kham has always included a number of different ethnic

communities on its eastern and southern borders, and at times large numbers of Mongols and

Chinese in the heartland of Kham. A variety of dialects are spoken in Kham, most of which

differ from the Central Tibetan dialects in terms of pronunciation, syntax, vocabulary,

and idioms. The Kham dialects resist simple generalizations but scholars agree that they

preserve more archaicisms than the Central Tibetan dialects but are not as conservative in

this respect as those spoken in Ladakh and Amdo. A commonly remarked upon feature of the

Kham dialects overall is that they are largely devoid of honorifics and polite


Of all the major populations of Tibet the people of Kham have been subject to the most

pervasive stereotyping of all. The 1820 Dzamling Gyeshé, composed by a Tibetan who was not

from Kham, offers the following characterization:[2]

The people of Khams are naturally straightforward, fiercely brave, and

affectionate to their masters. They are greater in their trust and religious belief than

other Tibetans, and far surpass them in sectarian bias. They behave rudely towards

strangers, yet are unhesitatingly helpful to their best acquaintances. Nevertheless, they

have the fault of being too credulous and trusting.

A Brief Political History of Kham

The early history of Kham

For most of it's history the various population centers of Kham were not unified under

the political administration of a single polity or religious institution. Rather a

multiplicity of polities were found in Kham, few of which were notably large or

centralized. The traditional polities of Kham differed according to whether they governed

primarily pastoral , agricultural, or mixed populations. Furthermore, they varied in terms

of their productivity, level of integration into regional trade, and allegiances with

neighboring powers such as China or Lhasa. Pastoral state structures are reported to have

been organized according to distinctively tribal structures found among Tibetan

pastoralists. Most of the rulers of the pastoral polities were laypersons though pastoral

polities ruled by religious figures were not completely absent. On the other hand, lamas

and monasteries directly ruled perhaps half of the polities in which the power centers

were in agricultural regions, which may or may not also contain sizable pastoral

populations. The anthropologist of Tibet Geoffrey Samuel has outlined five "general

patterns" that emerge from his reading of the historical and anthropological data on the

polities of Kham:[3]

  1. A variety of leadership patterns prevailed, including hereditary lay rulers,

    hereditary lamas, reincarnated lamas, and administrators imposed by the Ganden Palace in


  2. Individual polities "might have subordinate status within a larger 'state'" such as

    the Ganden Palace or the Qing Empire.

  3. A particular polity might be governed by "several local rulers of more or less equal

    status," and therefore decentralized and with ever-shifting hubs of relative power.

  4. "[T]he degree of control exercised by these various polities over their populations

    varied greatly."

  5. Non-Tibetan populations - either neighboring groups or outsiders who immigrated to

    Kham, such as Oirat Mongols - were often "Tibetanized" and incorporated.

Very little is known about the political and cultural history of Kham during the imperial

period and the subsequent “dark age” that lasted from the mid-ninth to the mid-tenth

centuries. Traditional Tibetan histories narrate that during the reign of Songtsen Gampo

(srong btsan sgam po; r. ca. 629-649) several temples were built in

Kham. Songtsen Gampo's Chinese wife, Wencheng Gongzhu, traveled from the Tang capital to

Tibet through Kham in 640-641 and along the way supposedly constructed religious edifices

and left behind sacred images. The most famous of the purportedly early Tibetan temples in

Kham is the Longtang Drölma Lhakang (glong thang sgrol ma lha khang) in Denma

(ldan ma), present-day Sershul (ser shul) County. This temple originated

as one of the twelve so-called border-taming temples erected by Songtsen Gampo on the

basis of geomantic calculations made by Chinese geomancers who worked for the Tibetan

royal court. Archeologists have identified and studied inscriptions and carved Buddhist

images around Kham that date to this period. Prominent among the finds are “the most

ancient dated examples of Tibetan art known at present” - carved images in stone of Buddha

Vairocana - that date to 804 or 816.[4]

The first enduring polities of Kham were products of the thirteenth and fourteenth

century Sakya (sa skya) hegemony of Central Tibet and the Mongol empire (and, by

extension, the Yuan Dynasty). Beginning in the 1270s Sakya hierarchs helped found polities

and monasteries throughout the region that were closely aligned with the Sakya government

in Tsang (gtsang). In the Tibetan and Chinese sources pertaining to thirteenth,

fourteenth, and fifteenth-century Kham, two polities stand out as being particularly

powerful: Lingtsang (gling tshang) and Gonjo (go ‘jo, ‘go

gyo, etc).[5] The leaders of these

two polities were Sakya monks who bore the title of "great chief" (dpon chen).

The founder of Gonjo was a monk named Töntsul (ston tshul), a student of Sakya

Paṇḍita (sa skya paNDi ta kun dga' rgyal mtshan; 1182-1251).[6] When Sakya Paṇḍita and his nephew Pakpa Lodrö Gyeltsen ('phags pa blo

gros rgyal mtshan; 1235-1280) passed through Kham in 1245 on their way to Mongolia,

Töntshul aided their journey in a great display of his power and administrative abilities.

Decades later in 1274 Pakpa requested the leader of the Mongol empire, Qubilai Khan, to

elevate Töntsul's status in Kham. The request was granted and Töntsul became the

governor-general (spyi'i bdag po) of Kham. After the fall of Sakya in the early

1350s the Sakya polities in Kham continued to thrive. Subsequently, during the Ming

Dynasty, the Yongle emperor (r. 1402-1424) needed the cooperation of local leaders in Kham

to secure safe access to Tibet of his diplomatic and trade caravans and established

relations with Ling and Gonjo that persisted for generations.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

The middle to late seventeenth century was a watershed period for the polities of inner

Asia and the Himalayas, including Central Tibet, China, and Kham. Some of the fundamental

changes that occurred in Kham political life were directly instigated from outside. For

instance, the Oirat Mongol army that backed the Fifth Dalai Lama’s rise to power invaded a

swath of northwestern Kham in 1638 on their way to Central Tibet and sacked the king of

Beri (be ri) in present-day Chamdo (chab mdo) Prefecture. The resulting

power vacuum in this area was filled by the rise of the Drayap (brag g.yab)

kingdom. Some of Beri’s lands were granted by the leader of the Oirats to the nascent and

neighboring Degé (sde dge) kingdom, which was in its earliest stages of political

formation in the later 1630s. In 1677 the Dalai Lama’s Ganden Palace government formalized

the boundaries between Tibet and China and nearly all of Kham fell under the

tax-collecting authority of Lhasa. Other Kham polities that were spurred into being or

greatly impacted by the political developments in Tibet and the rest of East and Inner

Asia include the Hor States (hor khog) and Litang (li thang).

The eighteenth century was another volatile and transformative period in Kham political

history. The volatility was due to the profound, though temporary, weakening of the Ganden

Palace and instability in Central Tibet. When succession battles erupted after the the

Sixth Dalai Lama's (d. 1706) chaotic reign and early death, the Qing sent troops and

officials to Lhasa to resolve the conflicts and assert the empire more concretely than

ever before into Tibetan politics. One result of this new arrangement between Beijing and

Lhasa was a redrawing of the Sino-Tibetan boundaries in 1725 or 1726. Whereas since 1677

the official border between the two states more or less traced the outer edge of the

Tibetan plateau, the new borderline bisected Kham along the Dri River. The Qing formalized

its relations with the Kham polities within its newly expanded domain by granting the

title of "hereditary indigenous headman" (Ch. tusi) to all of the powerful 

rulers in eastern Tibet. The autobiographies of Khampa lamas from eighteenth century

contain numerous accounts of meetings between Qing officials and the kings and chiefs of

Tibetan polities, and Chinese troops intervening in conflicts between Kham polities. The

major military events of the century were the two Qing-Gyelrong (rgyal rong) wars

(1747-1749 and 1771-1776), both of which involved troops from many Kham polities who were

obligated to fight on the side of the Qing. It does not appear that any important polities

were founded during this century.

The nineteenth century

The best source for the political culture of early nineteenth century Tibet is A

Full Exposition of Jambudvīpa ('dzam gling rgyas bshad), composed in 1830 by the

fourth Tsenpo, Tendzin Trinlé (btsan po no min han bstan 'dzin 'phrin las;

1789-1838).[7] The section on Kham is structured

around a discussion of the Four Great Valleys of Kham: 1) Tsawa (tsha ba), 2) Ba

Sangen (‘ba’ sa ngan), Nyak or Nyarong (nyag rong), and 4) Gyelmo

(rgyal mo). In describing each of the valleys the author notes many of the

significant polities of the day. The polities related to Tsawa Valley that merited

inclusion were Powo, Gyeltang, Mili (or Muli), Chamdo, Drayab, and Batang (spo bo,

rgyal thang, mi li/mu li). The only important polity in Ba Sangen Valley was Litang

(li thang). Under the heading of Nyarong are included Minyak (mi nyag)

and the Hor States. Gyelmo Valley is noted for the Gyelrong states (rgyal rong dpon

khag) and many pastoral communities north of the Gyelmo Valley. At the conclusion of

this survey, A Full Exposition of Jambudvīpa singles out two polities for special

mention. The first is Degé, which it asserts is the largest or greatest of the "chiefdoms"

of Kham (khams kyi dpon khag gi nang nas sde che shos yin). This work also

highlights the Five Hor States (hor khog) and mentions its several large Geluk

monasteries. This snapshot, biased though it may be, strongly suggests that the earlier

polities of Gonjo and Lingtsang were no longer major political institutions in Kham.

Furthermore, it makes no mention of a major polity in what is now Nyarong County, Kandzé

Prefecture. Two decades after the publication of A Full Exposition of Jambudvīpa

a new state in Nyarong would emerge and plunge much of Kham into a calamitous


The valley of Nyarong is relatively isolated and for centuries had been feared as a

hotbed of bandits and marauders. In the late 1840s the leader of the middle swath of

Nyarong Valley, Gonpo Namgyel (mgon po rnam rgyal, 1799-1865), unified the entire

valley under his command, which until this time had been politically fragmented. With

aspirations of regional domination and a powerful army, Gonpo Namgyel launched successful

offensives against the Hor States, Litang, and Degé. Yudru Tsomu reports, "He also

harassed and plundered the domains of the Chakla [lcags la;  equivalent to the

above mentioned Minyak] king, the governor of Batang and other regions. Meanwhile, other

parts of Kham voluntarily surrendered to him [including Golok, Serta, Nangchen, and

Kyegundo (mgo log, gser rta, nang chen, skyes dgu mdo)]. In 1862, he not only

blocked the southern trade route between Tibet and China, but also sent troops to Chamdo

and Drayab."[8] The Khampa elites who were able to

escape to Lhasa implored the Ganden Palace to defend the troubled polities. The Lhasa army

launched military operations against Gonpo Namgyel in 1863 and pursued the warlord to his

home region in Nyarong, where they burned him alive in his fort. As the Ganden Palace had

ceded control of this part of Kham to the Qing over 100 years prior it took advantage of

their military victory in Kham to reassert influence in the region. In 1865 it instituted

the Tibetan High Commissioner in Nyarong (mdo smad nyag khog spyi khyab) and

imposed regulations and reparations on Degé, the Hor States, and others. The polities

involved in the war with Nyarong sustained much damage though were able to rebuild.

The twentieth century

The so-called "Chinese venture in Kham," mainly prosecuted by Zhao Erfeng (d. 1911)

between 1904-1911, represents the demise of the majority of Kham polities discussed

herein.[9] In 1903 officials in Sichuan resolved

to "develop" agriculture and mining in Kham and chose Batang the test site for their

strategies. The Younghusband invasion of Central Tibet the following year brought a new

sense of urgency to this development drive and the Chinese expanded the plans to include

seizing control of Nyarong from the Tibetan High Commissioner. The announced move on

Nyarong exacerbated the fears of the people of Batang that the Qing intended to completely

dominate them and they rose up. During the insurrection the Tibetans destroyed the Chinese

fields, killed the farmers, and assassinated the Assistant Amban to Tibet. Zhao Erfeng

defeated the Tibetan rebels in Batang, after which he devised a plan to remake Kham that

was more ambitious than those that led to the insurrection in the first place. Elliot

Sperling characterizes Zhao's intentions as follows, "It can safely be said that Chao

Erh-feng's aim was to sinicise K'am as far as possible, and in that way, make it into a

secure barrier against the British and a source of profit for China."[10]

A major component of Zhao's plan was to dramatically alter the demography of Kham by

inundating the area with Han Chinese settlers - farmers, miners, and merchants - but

almost no Chinese showed interest in migrating to the plateau. Consequently Zhao had to

rely on a primarily military-led course of action, but still needed a casus belli

to lead the army further into Kham. In 1908 Zhao was petitioned for assistance by one

faction of a succession dispute in Degé and he did not pass up the  opportunity to make

this the opening salvo of his broader push for regime change throughout Kham. In Degé,

Zhao imposed his selection on the throne and in a dramatic turn of events the new king

abdicated and turned over control of Degé to Zhao. In 1909 Zhao seized Chamdo and by 1910

had overpowered every major Khampa polity but Nyarong, replacing their leaders with

Chinese officials. Nyarong was easily taken in 1911; Zhao was executed in Chengdu later in

the year for unrelated offenses. With nearly all of Kham freshly under the control of the

Chinese there was a proposal to convert the region into a new province of China but it was

shelved and not realized until 1939. The people of Kham have heroically preserved their

culture in the century since Zhao Erfeng's violent intervention ending in 1911 and today

numerous townships and monasteries in Kham are among the most vibrant, innovative, and

hopeful anywhere in Greater Tibet.


[1] Yisun Zhang, Bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo

(Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1993), 808-809.

[2] Translation adapted from bTsan-po Bla-ma and Turrell

Wylie, The Geography of Tibet According to the ‘Dzam-Gling-Rgyas-Bshad (Roma:

Istituto italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1962).

[3] Geoffrey Samuel, Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in

Tibetan Societies (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 83-36.

[4] Amy Heller, “Ninth Century Buddhist Images Carved at

lDan Ma Brag to Commemorate Tibeto-Chinese Negotiations,” in Kværne, P. (ed.), Tibetan

Studies: Proceedings of the 6th International Seminar of the International Association for

Tibetan Studies, Fagernes 1992 (Oslo: The Institute for Comparative Research in Human

Culture, 1994), vol.1, 335-49 & Appendix to Volume 1, 12-19.

[5] Elliot Sperling, “Ming Ch’Eng-Tsu and the Monk Officials

of Gling-Tshang and Gon-Gyo,” in Reflections on Tibetan Culture: Essays in Memory of

Turrell V. Wylie, 75-90, ed. Lawrence Epstein and Richard F. Sherburne (Lewiston,

N.Y.: Mellen, 1990).

[6] Luciano Petech, “Ston-Tshul: The Rise of Sa-Skya

Paramountcy in Khams,” in Tibetan History and Language: Studies Dedicated to Uray Géza

on His Seventieth Birthday, ed. Ernst Steinkellner, 417-22 (Vienna: Arbeitskreis für

Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, Universität Wien, 1991).

[7] 'Jam dpal chos kyi bstan 'dzin 'phrin las and Tashi

Tsering, 'Dzam gling rgyas par bshad pa thag ring gsal bar mthong byed durba na, Or,

'dzam gling chen po'i rgyas bshad snod bcud kun gsal me long: The Rare 1830 Redaction of

the Monumental Tibetan Work on the Geography of the World (Delhi: Ngawang Sopa,

1980). Translated in bTsan-po Bla-ma and Wylie, The Geography of Tibet.

[8] Yudru Tsomu, “Local Aspirations and National

Constraints: A Case Study of Nyarong Gonpo Namgyel and His Rise to Power in Kham

(1836-1865)” (Harvard University, 2006), 291.

[9] Elliot Sperling, “The Chinese Venture Into K’am,

1904-1911, and the Role of Chao Erhfeng,” Tibet Journal 1, no. 2 (1976): 10-36.

This paragraph and the following are based entirely on this article.

[10] Sperling, “Chinese Venture,” 77.


Bla-ma, bTsan-po, and Turrell Wylie. The Geography of Tibet According to the

‘Dzam-Gling-Rgyas-Bshad. Roma: Istituto italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente,


Heller, Amy. “Ninth Century Buddhist Images Carved at lDan Ma Brag to Commemorate

Tibeto-Chinese Negotiations.” In Kværne, P. (ed.), Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the

6th International Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Fagernes

1992. Oslo: The Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture, 1994, vol.1.

'Jam dpal chos kyi bstan 'dzin 'phrin las, and Tashi Tsering. 'Dzam gling rgyas par

bshad pa thag ring gsal bar mthong byed durba na, Or, 'dzam gling chen po'i rgyas bshad

snod bcud kun gsal me long: The Rare 1830 Redaction of the Monumental Tibetan Work on the

Geography of the World. Delhi: Ngawang Sopa, 1980. Translated in bTsan-po Bla-ma and

Wylie, The Geography of Tibet.

Petech, Luciano. “Ston-Tshul: The Rise of Sa-Skya Paramountcy in Khams.” In Tibetan

History and Language: Studies Dedicated to Uray Géza on His Seventieth Birthday,

edited by Ernst Steinkellner, 417-22. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und

Buddhistische Studien, Universität Wien, 1991.

Samuel, Geoffrey. Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies. Washington,

DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

Sperling, Elliot. “The Chinese Venture Into K’am, 1904-1911, and the Role of Chao

Erhfeng.” Tibet Journal 1, no. 2 (1976): 10-36.

_____. “Ming Ch’Eng-Tsu and the Monk Officials of Gling-Tshang and Gon-Gyo.” In

Reflections on Tibetan Culture: Essays in Memory of Turrell V. Wylie, 75-90,

edited by Lawrence Epstein and Richard F. Sherburne. Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1990.

Tsomu, Yudru. “Local Aspirations and National Constraints: A Case Study of Nyarong Gonpo

Namgyel and His Rise to Power in Kham (1836-1865).” Harvard University, 2006.

Zhang, Yisun. Bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo. Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang,