- The Rise of Gönpo Namgyel in Kham: The Blind Warrior of Nyarong by Yudru Tsomu
In the study of Tibetan history, scholars often focus on the political history of Ü-Tsang (Central and Western Tibet), and few books specifically discuss the political history beyond Ü-Tsang. Yudru Tsomu, associate professor at Sichuan University explores the history of Kham and attempts to improve understanding of the political history of Kham during the 19th century in her book The Rise of Gönpo Namgyel in Kham: The Blind Warrior of Nyarong. Starting from the rise and fall of Nyarong’s native chieftain Gönpo Namgyel, she analyzes Kham politics and the relationships among the Qing Empire, the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government, and native chieftains in Kham during the 19th century.
In Chapters 1 and 2, Yudru Tsomu introduces the historical background surrounding the rise of Gönpo Namgyel. She argues that 19th century Kham was split. The regions of Kham to the west of the Yangtze River were ruled by the Tibetan government, and regions to the east were ruled by dozens of native chieftains. These chieftains had their own armies, and they could collect taxes in their own way. Furthermore, as in the feudal system, the chieftains assigned their land and people to their subordinates for administration. In terms of external relations, Kham maintained certain close relations with Ü-Tsang and the Qing Empire. The monasteries in Ü-Tsang intervened in the local affairs of Kham by taxing and appointing the abbots of their affiliated monasteries in Kham, and lamas from Kham could influence politics in Ü-Tsang by rising to a high level within the Tibetan government in Caesaropapism. At the same time, local chieftains were pleased to accept the imperial title of Tusi to demonstrate their allegiance to the Qing Empire. However, Yudru Tsomu also stresses that chieftains’ allegiances to the Qing Empire took their own interests into consideration: “When the national strength of the Qing was great, indigenous leaders were compelled to submit to the Qing as they found the Qing titles useful for bolstering their authority, and doing so had the advantage of Qing military protection against any potential invaders.” (p. 29). Another consequence of this realist strategy was that some chieftains acted against the Qing Empire by expanding their own territories when the Empire experienced periods of weakness. The Qing Empire was in a period of decline in the 19th century. The rapid expansion of population largely reduced the cultivated land per [End Page 180] capita and social poverty became increasingly prominent, which resulted in various local rebellions. The Qing Empire also faced invasion by Western powers, including the first and second Opium Wars (1840–1842 and 1856–1860 respectively). These factors greatly weakened the Qing Empire and made it powerless to stop Gönpo Namgyel’s initial rise. Ü-Tsang also suffered from internal strife and external troubles while the Qing Empire was in crisis. There was a serious political struggle between the nobles and the Lamas in Ü-Tsang in the mid-19th century. The Tibetan government in Ü-Tsang also declared war with the Dogras and the Gurkhas in 1841 and 1856, respectively. These crises forced the Tibetan government to avoid involvement in Kham politics during the time Gönpo Namgyel’s power was increasing.
Yudru Tsomu reveals the factors contributing to Gönpo Namgyel’s success by examining his hometown of Nyarong, family background, and early life in Chapters 3 and 4. Gönpo Namgyel’s rapid rise in Kham was surprising, because Nyarong was divided prior to his conquest. Furthermore, he was simply an ordinary chieftain from Middle Nyarong. Yudru Tsomu attributes Gönpo Namgyel’s successful rise to power to Nyarong’s distinctive sociocultural environment and Gönpo Namgyel’s unique personality of cunning and belligerence Nyarong was considered a major transportation and commercial hub between Ü-Tsang and the Chinese interior. Many officials and businessmen had to pass through Nyarong. There was not a united government in Kham or even Nyarong to maintain...