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The three traditional regions of Tibet. Tibet provinces.png
The three traditional regions of Tibet.

Amdo (Tibetan : ཨ༌མདོ [ʔam˥˥.to˥˥]; Chinese :安多; pinyin :Ānduō [antwó] ) is one of the three traditional regions of Tibet, the others being U-Tsang in the west, Kham in the east. Ngari (including former Guge kingdom) in the north-west was incorporated into Ü-Tsang. Amdo is also the birthplace of the 14th Dalai Lama. Amdo encompasses a large area from the Machu (Yellow River) to the Drichu (Yangtze). [nb 1] Amdo is mostly coterminous with China's present-day Qinghai province, but also includes small portions of Sichuan and Gansu provinces.


Historically, culturally, and ethnically a part of Tibet, Amdo was from the mid-18th century and after administered by a series of local Tibetan rulers. The Dalai Lamas have not directly governed the area since that time. [1]

From 1917 to 1928, much of Amdo was occupied intermittently by the Hui Muslim warlords of the Ma clique. In 1928, the Ma Clique joined the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party), and during the period from 1928 to 1949, much of Amdo was gradually assimilated into the Qinghai province (and part of Gansu province) of the Kuomintang Republic of China. By 1952, Communist Party of China forces had defeated both the Kuomintang and the Tibetan forces and had assumed control of the region, solidifying their hold on the area roughly by 1958. Tibetan guerilla forces in Amdo emerged in 1956 and continued operating through the 1959 Tibetan uprising until 1962, fighting the People's Liberation Army and harsh Chinese land reform policies.

Amdo is the home of many important Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leaders and of lamas, monks, nuns, and scholars, including the 14th Dalai Lama, the 10th Panchen Lama Choekyi Gyaltsen, and the great Gelug school reformer Je Tsongkhapa.


Amdo consists of all of former northeastern Tibet, including the upper reaches of the Machu or Yellow River and Lake Qinghai. Its southern border is the Bayan Har Mountains. [2] The area is wind-swept and tree-less, with much grass. Animals of the region consist of the wild yak and the kiang. Domesticated animals of the region consist of the domestic yak and dzo, goats, sheep, and the Mongolian horse. [3]


Historical demographics

In historical times, the people of the region were typically non-Tibetan, such as Mongols or Tibetan speakers of non-Tibetan origin such as the Hor people. [4]

Present demographics

The Tibetan inhabitants of Amdo are referred to as Amdowa (ཨ་མདོ་པ།; amdo pa) as a regional distinction from the Tibetans of Kham (Khampa) and U-Tsang (Central Tibet), however, they are all considered ethnically Tibetan.

Today, ethnic Tibetans predominate in the western and southern parts of Amdo, which are now administered as various Tibetan, Tibetan-Qiang, or Mongol-Tibetan autonomous prefectures. The Han Chinese are majority in the northern part (Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture) and eastern part (Xining city and Haidong city) of Qinghai province. While Xining city and Haidong city are geographically small compared to the rest of Qinghai, this area has the largest population density in Qinghai, with the result that the Han Chinese outnumber other ethnicities in Qinghai generally.

The majority of Amdo Tibetans live in the larger part of Qinghai Province, including the Mtshobyang (མཚོ་བྱང་།; Haibei in Chinese) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP), Mtsholho (མཚོ་ལྷོ་།; Hainan) TAP, Rmalho (རྨ་ལྷོ་།; Huangnan) TAP, and Mgolog (མགོ་ལོག།; Guoluo) TAP, [5] as well as in the Kanlho (ཀན་ལྷོ།; Gannan) TAP of the southwest Gansu province, and sections of the Rngaba (རྔ་བ།; Aba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous prefecture of north-west Sichuan Province. Additionally, a great many Amdo Tibetans live within the Haidong (མཚོ་ཤར།; Wylie: mtsho shar) Prefecture of Qinghai which is located to the east of the Qinghai Lake (མཚོ་སྔོན།, Wylie: mtsho sngon) and around Xining (ཟི་ལིང།; zi ling) city, but they constitute only a minority (ca. 8.5%) of the total population there and so the region did not attain TAP status. The vast Haixi (མཚོ་ནུབ།; mtsho nub) Mongolian and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, to the west of the Qinghai Lake, also has a minority Tibetan population (ca. 10%), and only those Tibetans in the eastern parts of this Prefecture are Amdo inhabitants. [6]

Mongols too have been long-term settlers in Amdo, arriving first during the time of Genghis Khan, but particularly in a series of settlement waves during the Ming period. Over the centuries, most of the Amdo Mongols have become highly Tibetanised and, superficially at least, it is now difficult to discern their original non-Tibetan ethnicity. [6] Amdo has been famous in epic story and in history as a land where splendid horses are raised and run wild. [7]


There are many dialects of the Tibetan language spoken in Amdo due to the geographical isolation of many groups. Written Tibetan is the same throughout Tibetan-speaking regions and is based on Classical Tibetan.


3rd century

The Ch'iang people were early users of iron and stories abound of them in their iron breast-plates with iron swords. [8]

7th century

From the seventh through the ninth century, the Tibetan Empire extended as far north as the Tarim Basin, south until India and Nepal, east to Tang China, and west to Kashmir. [9] During this period, control of Amdo moved from Songtsen Gampo and his successors to the royal family's ministers, the Gar (Wylie : 'gar). These ministers had their positions inherited from their parents, similar to the emperor. King Tüsong tried to wrest control of this area from the ministers, unsuccessfully. [10]

9th century

In the 9th century, the central Tibetan kingdom broke into smaller polities; however Amdo and Kham maintained close culturally and religiously to the central Tibet. These small polities were small kingdoms or even governed as tribes and were officially under Chinese and Tibetan rule; however they held no allegiance to either. [11] During this same time period the Buddhist monks were forced out of their temples by rampaging Chinese. These monks wandered for a period to settle in the Amdo region. [12]

There is a historical account of an official from the 9th century sent to collect taxes to Amdo. Instead, he acquires a fief. He then tells of the 10 virtues of the land. Two of the virtues are in the grass, one for meadows near home, one for distant pastures. Two virtues in soil, one to build houses and one for good fields. Two virtues are in the water, one for drinking and one for irrigation. There are two in the stone, one for building and one for milling. The timber has two virtues, one for building and one for firewood. [3] Other stories talk about the original inhabitants of the Amdo region. These consist of the forest-dwellers (nags-pa), the mountain-dwellers (ri-pa), the plains-dwellers (thang-pa), the grass-men (rtsa-mi), and the woodsmen (shing-mi). The grass men were famous for their horses. [13]

10th century

Gewasel is a monk that helped resurrect Tibetan Buddhism. He was taught as a child and showed amazing enthusiasm for the religion. When he was ordained he went in search of teachings. After obtaining the Vinaya, he was set to travel to Central Tibet, but for a drought. Instead he chose to travel in solitude to Amdo. Locals had heard of him and his solitude was not to be as he was sought after. In time he established a line of refugee monks in Amdo and with the wealth that he acquired he built temples and stupas also. [14]

11th century

The historical Qiang came into contact with the Sumpa, then with the Tuyuhun. Then around 1032, they formed the Western Xia, which lasted into the 13th century. [15]

13th century

The Mongols conquered eastern Amdo by 1240, [16] and made the whole Tibetan region under Yuan rule, separated from the territory of former Song dynasty of China. [17] [18] A patron and priest relationship began in 1253 when a Tibetan priest, Phagspa, visited Kublai Khan he became so popular that he was made Kublai's spiritual guide and later appointed by him to the rank of priest king of Tibet and constituted ruler of (1) Tibet Proper, comprising the thirteen states of U-Tsang Province; (2) Kham, and (3) Amdo. [19] He spent his later years at Sakya Monastery in Central Tibet, which required that he travel through Amdo regularly. On one of these trips, he encountered armed resistance in Amdo and required escorts from Mongol Princes to travel through Amdo. [20] Tibet regained its independence from the Mongols before native Chinese overthrew the Yuan dynasty in 1368, although it avoided directly resisting the Yuan court until the latter's fall. [21] Under the Mongol Yuan dynasty of Kublai Khan, Amdo and Kham were split into two commandaries, which, along with Ü-Tsang, were collectively referred to as the three commandaries of Tibet.

14th century through the 16th century

The following Ming Dynasty nominally largely maintained the Mongol divisions of Tibet with some sub-division. However, from the middle of the Ming era, the Chinese government lost control in Amdo, and the Mongols again seized political control. [22]

17th century

Upper (Kokonor) Mongols from northern Xinjiang and Khalkha came there in 16th and 17th centuries. [23] Power struggles among various Mongol factions in Tibet and Amdo led to a period alternating between the supremacy of the Dalai Lama (nominally) and Mongol overlords. In 1642 the fifth Dalai Lama received both spiritual and temporal authority from the Mongol king, Güshi Khan. This allowed the Gelugpa Buddhist sect and the Dalai Lama to gain enough power to last til the present day. [24] The Mongol king also gave portions of Eastern Tiber (Kham) back to the Tibetans; however Amdo remained under Mongol control. [24]

18th century

In 1705, with the approval of the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing dynasty, Lha-bzang Khan of the Khoshud deposed the regent and sent the 6th Dalai Lama to Beijing; the 6th Dalai Lama died soon after, probably near Qinghai Lake (Koko nur) in Amdo. The Dzungar Mongols invaded Tibet during the chaos, and held the entire region until their final defeat by an expedition of the Qing imperial army in 1720. [25] [26]

When the Manchu Qing dynasty rose to power in the early 18th century it established Xining, a town to the north of Amdo, as the administrative base for the area. Amdo was placed within the Qinghai Province. [27] During this period they were ruled by the Amban, who allowed near total autonomy by the monasteries and the other local leaders. [28]

The 18th century saw the Qing Empire continue to expand further and further into Tibet as it engulfed Eastern Tibet including Amdo and even assumed control over Central Tibet. [29]

Shadzong Ritro near Taktser in Amdo Xiazong kl.jpg
Shadzong Ritro near Taktser in Amdo

The Yongzheng Emperor seized full control of Qinghai (Amdo) in the 1720s. The boundaries of Xining Prefecture, which contains most of Amdo, with Sichuan and Tibet-proper was established following this. The boundary of Xining Prefecture and Xizang, or central Tibet, was the Dangla Mountains. This roughly corresponds with the modern boundary of Qinghai with the Tibet Autonomous Region. The boundary of Xining Prefecture with Sichuan was also set at this time, dividing the Ngaba area of the former Amdo into Sichuan. This boundary also roughly corresponds with the modern boundary of Qinghai with Sichuan. A new boundary, following the Ning-ching mountain range, was established between Sichuan and Tibet. East of these mountains, local chieftains ruled under the nominal authority of the Sichuan provincial government; Lhasa administered the area to the west. The 1720s thus saw Tibet's first major reduction in area in centuries. [nb 2] Other parts of old Amdo was administered by the Administrator of Qinghai.

In all these predominantly culturally Tibetan areas, the Qing Empire used a system of administration relying on local, Tibetan, rulers. A 1977 University of Chicago PhD. thesis, described the political history of the Tibetan region in Gansu (which was historically one part of Amdo) during the Qing dynasty as follows:

In the time of the Manchu dynasty, the entire region was administered by a viceroy of the Imperial Government. That portion of the country occupied by Chinese Moslems and some other, smaller, racial units was under traditional Chinese law. The Tibetans enjoyed almost complete independence and varying degrees of prestige. The Chone Prince ruled over the forty-eight "banners" of one group of Tibetans; other Tibetan rulers or chiefs held grants or commissions- some of them hundreds of years old- from the Imperial Government. At that time the ethnic frontier corresponded almost exactly with the administrative frontier. [31]

20th century

In 1906, the 13th Dalai Lama while touring the country, was enticed by a procession of a thousand lamas, to stay at the temple at Kumbum. He spent a year resting and learning among other things Sanskrit and poetry. [32]

In 1912, Qing Dynasty collapsed and relative independence followed with the Dalai Lama ruling Central Tibet. Eastern Tibet, including Amdo and Kham, were ruled by local and regional warlords and chiefs. [33] The Hui Muslims administered the agricultural areas in the north and east of the region. [28] Amdo saw numerous powerful leaders including both secular and non. The monasteries, such as Labrang, Rebkong, and Taktsang Lhamo supervised the choosing of the local leaders or headmen in the areas under their control. These tribes consisted of several thousand nomads. [28] Meanwhile, Sokwo, Ngawa, and Choni, had secular leaders appointed, with some becoming kings and even creating familial dynasties. This secular form of government went as far as Machu. [34]

The Muslim warlord Ma Qi waged war in the name of the Republic of China against the Labrang monastery and Goloks. After ethnic rioting between Muslims and Tibetans emerged in 1918, Ma Qi defeated the Tibetans, then commenced to tax the town heavily for 8 years. In 1925, a Tibetan rebellion broke out, with thousands of Tibetans driving out the Muslims. Ma Qi responded with 3,000 Chinese Muslim troops, who retook Labrang and machine gunned thousands of Tibetan monks as they tried to flee. [35] [36] Ma Qi besieged Labrang numerous times, the Tibetans and Mongols fought against his Muslim forces for control of Labrang, until Ma Qi gave it up in 1927. [37] His forces were praised by foreigners who traveled through Qinghai for their fighting abilities. [38] However, that was not the last Labrang saw of General Ma. The Muslim forces looted and ravaged the monastery again. [37]

In 1928, the Ma Clique formed an alliance with the Kuomintang. In the 1930s, the Muslim warlord Ma Bufang, the son of Ma Qi, seized the northeast corner of Amdo in the name of Chiang Kai-shek's weak central government, effectively incorporating it into the Chinese province of Qinghai. [39] From that point until 1949, much of the rest of Amdo was gradually assimilated into the Kuomintang Chinese provincial system, with the major portion of it becoming nominally part of Qinghai province and a smaller portion becoming part of Gansu province. [40] Due to the lack of a Chinese administrative presence in the region, however, most of the communities of the rural areas of Amdo and Kham remained under their own local, Tibetan lay and monastic leaders into the 1950s. Tibetan region of Lho-Jang and Gyarong in Kham, and Ngapa (Chinese Aba) and Golok in Amdo, were still independent of Chinese hegemony, despite the creation on paper of Qinghai Province in 1927. [41]

The 14th Dalai Lama was born in the Amdo region, in 1935, and when he was announced as a possible candidate, Ma Bufang tried to prevent the boy from travelling to Tibet. He demanded a ransom of 300,000 dollars, which was paid and then he escorted the young boy to Tibet. [42]

In May 1949, Ma Bufang was appointed Military Governor of Northwest China, making him the highest-ranked administrator of the Amdo region. However, by August 1949, the advancing People's Liberation Army had annihilated Ma's army, though residual forces took several years to defeat. By 1949, advance units of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (the PLA) had taken much of Amdo from the Nationalists. [43] By 1952, the major towns in the region were fully under the control of People's Republic of China, though many of the rural areas continued to enjoy de facto autonomy for several more years. [44]

In 1958, Chinese communists assumed official control of Tibetan regions in Kham and Amdo. Many of the nomads of Amdo revolted. Some areas were reported virtually empty of men: They either had been killed or imprisoned or had fled. The largest monastery in Amdo was forced to close. Of its three thousand monks, two thousand were arrested. [45]

In July 1958 as the revolutionary fervor of the Great Leap Forward swept across the People's Republic of China, Zeku County in the Amdo region of cultural Tibet erupted in violence against efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to impose rapid collectivization on the pastoral communities of the grasslands. Rebellion also stirred the region at the beginning of the 1950s as “Liberation” first settled on the northeastern Tibetan plateau. The immediate ramifications of each disturbance both for the Amdo Tibetan elites and commoners, and for the Han cadres in their midst, elucidates early PRC nation-building and state-building struggles in minority nationality areas and the influence of this crucial transitional period on relations between Han and Tibetan in Amdo decades later. [46]

As a prelude to the Beijing Olympics, protests broke out in 2008 in Amdo, among other places. Some were violent; however the majority were peaceful. [47]


Panoramic view of Kumbum Monastery in Amdo Kumbum Monastery in Amdo.jpg
Panoramic view of Kumbum Monastery in Amdo
Labrang Monastery in Amdo Labrang4.jpg
Labrang Monastery in Amdo

Amdo was traditionally a place of great learning and scholarship and contains many great monasteries including Kumbum Monastery near Xining, Rongwo Monastery in Rebgong, Labrang Monastery south of Lanzhou, and the Kirti Gompas of Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture and Taktsang Lhamo in Dzoge County.

From 1958 to 1962, the political climate in Amdo was considered unbearable. In 1958, the arrest and murder of the Tseten Monastery's Khenpo Jigme Rigpai Nyingpo while incarcerated in Xining's Nantan prison marked the beginning of the period. [48]

Traditional pastoral economy

Amdo Tibetans' traditional lifestyle and economy are centered on agriculture. Depending on the region and environment Amdo Tibetans live in, they are either nomads (Drog pa) or farmers (Sheng pa). The economy of Amdo of has been constant throughout history and has changed little in the modern time. A typical family has two homes or bases: one for when they move up into the mountains with their animals in the summer for better grazing, and another down in the valleys where they weather harsh winters and grow fodder for their livestock in small agricultural fields. The families of some villages may make a shorter seasonal trek as their pasture may be nearby, and they may even migrant between homes each day. [49]

Local government

After 1949, the Chinese communists inherited and adopted the earlier Republican county system, and the basic arrangements of local government in Amdo have changed little up to the present day. With the advent of communist administrators in Amdo during the 1950s, a series of larger Tibetan autonomous prefectures were newly established on top of the existing county system in those places where Tibetans formed the majority of the population. This development was in line with the policy towards minority nationalities set down in the new constitution of the PRC. [50]


  1. Note: The identically-named, sparsely-populated Amdo County in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is not part of the historical Amdo province. It was directly administered by the Dalai Lama from Lhasa and is today a part of the Changtang region administered by Nagqu Prefecture in the northern part of the TAR.
  2. Kolmas 1967, pp. 41-2 quoted by Goldstein [30]

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  41. Tibet Environmental Watch 2013
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  44. Jiao 2013
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  48. Nicole Willock, Jigme Rigpai Lodro,
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  50. Huber 2002 , p. xviii


Further reading