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The Kingdom of Choné by Gray Tuttle and Gray Tuttle (July 3, 2011)

The Basics

Choné (co ne) was an important historical polity in the northeast of the Tibetan plateau. It was ruled by the Gatsang (dga' tshang) family, and the ruler was the Choné King (co ne rgyal po). Its name derives from the name of a tree, the Jiaoxiang tree (交相树, also known as the Masson Pine 马尾松, lit. "horse-tail pine"). The pronunciation of Chinese "jiao" is close to that of the Tibetan "cho" (Tib. co), while Tibetan "ne" (Tib. ne) is pronounced locally as "ni" (from Tibetan for two: gnyis).[1]

Early History

Although mention of Tibetans being sent to this area is made in Dunhuang documents, and the Ga (dga') family is mentioned in Tibetan historical sources, the first source to link the events of the imperial period with the local Ga (sga, dga') ruling family seems to have been the co ne bstan 'gyur dkar chag (The Index to the Choné Canonical Collection of Commentaries), completed in 1773.[2] This source reports that in the time of the Tibetan empire, during Tri Relpachen's (khri ral pa can)reign, the interior minister or nanglön (nang blon) Ga Yeshé Dargyé (sga ye shes dar rgyas) and his retinue of ten thousand soldiers were sent to Choné in Domé (mdo smad). He is said to have ruled an area south of Choné in what is now Ngaba (rnga ba, Ngawa in Standard Tibetan pronunciation), Zungchu (zung chu, Ch. Songpan), and Dzögé (mdzod dge), all in present-day Sichuan Province, Ngaba Prefecture.[3] Ga Yeshé Dargyé's lineage gave rise to great military leaders (makwöndmag dbon), the second of which was Ga Pangtülchen (sga spang thul can), from whose lineage the kings (gyelporgyal po) of Choné are said to have issued.[4] More detailed history of the Tibetan involvement in this region is linked to the rise of Mongol power some time around the 1250s, when the Sakya hierarchs and Qubilai Qan met nearby. In 1269, when Pakpa ('phags pa) passed by this area on the way to Beijing, he left one of his disciples, Sakya Geshé Shenrap (sa skya dge shes shes rab ye shes, Ch. Xiri Yixi 希日益西), who converted the existing monastery to the Sakya tradition and became the abbot and simultaneous ruler of the area. One source says that it was he, and not the imperial Tibetan leader sent to Amdo (a mdo), who was the first generation ancestor of the later ruling family of Choné.[5]

The Kings of Choné

By 1379, Chinese sources report that the 18 divisions of Tibetans in this area became subordinate to the Chinese prefectural seat of Taozhou 洮州. A Horse and Tea Trading Station (Chama si 茶马司 ) was set up near here (in the Tiebu Valley, south of Choné) in 1404 to trade with the 18 clans of the Tebo (the bo) Tibetans. This gave the Choné Tibetan leader (and first king of Choné) Shidü (shis bsdus, Ch. Shijiadi, Xiedi) the opportunity to be recognized as the ruler of these people by the Chinese. The Ming state awarded him and five others with the position of chiliarch (Ch. qianhu 千户, Tib. tongpönstong dpon), or "leader of a thousand households."[6]

According to the leader of Choné in 1925, his family had moved to the area and taken possession of it in 1404, whereupon they informed the Ming Emperor Yongle of this fact and were recognized as local rulers, and were given a seal of authority and the surname Yang. [7] Most sources agree that the family moved into the area in 1404, but all written sources agree that recognition did not come until 1418 and that the family's power endured for twenty generations until 1949.

The kings are listed as follows:





















From the Chinese sources, the first tusi (local official) of Choné was granted authority (i.e. his authority was recognized) over some 18 clans (zu) in 1418, under the Ming Yongle Emperor. By at least the fifth generation, the ruling family (the kings) took the Chinese surname Yang and the leadership was passed on to the 20th generation: Yang Fuxing 杨复兴; this correspond to the twenty figures listed above.[9]

Religion and Politics in Choné

This polity was ruled by joint religious and political rule, with the elder son taking the role of king and the younger son becoming the head lama. If there was only one son, he would hold both positions. By the Qing period, the family intermarried with the female offspring of the local ruling Mongol khans, the Khoshut Qinwang.[10] In modern times, the king's territory seems to have been limited by the growth of Labrang (bla brang) Monastery's influence. The king's seat of power was also named Choné, and in 1925 it was a village of about 400 families (2,000 individuals) with few Chinese inhabitants.[11]

The main monastery at Choné is called Choné Gönchen Ganden Shedrupling (co ne dgon chen dga' ldan bshad sgrub gling) or Tingdzin Dargyeling (ting 'dzin dar rgyas gling, Ch. Chanding si), and during the early 15th century boasted some 3,800 monks, though this number had dwindled to a (still substantial) 700 by 1925. The monastery also received support from the Qing emperors, such as the Kangxi emperor.[12] The ruling family also took advantage of its connections with the Qing emperors to gain a great deal of power in Central Tibet, where one of the four regent incarnations, who essentially ruled Tibet between 1777 and 1895, was consistently drawn from these loyal subjects of the Qing empire. The first Tsomönling (mtsho smon gling/ tshe mon gling) incarnation Ngawang Tsültrim (ngag dbang tsul 'khrims, 1721-1791, r. 1777-1781) was from Choné. He became imperial preceptor (dishi) to the Qianlong emperor in 1762, and served as abbot of Yonghegong Monastery in Beijing. He was appointed regent (gyeltsaprgyal tshab) for the 8th Dalai Lama, and received the title Erdeni Nomun Khan in 1777, a position he held until 1781.[13] He became the 61st  Ganden Tripa (dga' ldan khri pa) in 1778 and had close connections to Sera (se ra) Monastery. He was reappointed regent of Tibet in 1790, but died the next year after serving in this position for only four months. The second Tsomönling Ngawang Jampel Tsültrim (ngag dbang 'jam dpal tsul khrims, 1792-1862/1864)[14] was also from Choné, from the Ga clan (Yang tusi) ruling family. He was best known by his Mongol name, Galdan Shiregetu Samati Bakshi. He became the regent for the 10th Dalai Lama in 1819. He has been called "by far the most forceful character  in 19th-century Tibet."[15] He held this position for a quarter of a century, though he was away in Beijing in 1829, where he was honored by the Taoguang emperor with the privilege of being able to remain mounted on horseback within the Forbidden City. In 1837, when he became the 73rd Ganden Tripa, he was apparently also put in charge of all Tibetan affairs.[16] In 1844, with the support of the rival regent lamas, who had been denied power for too long, he was impeached by the Amban Qishan. His supporters among the Sera monks freed him, but he submitted to the Qing orders, was banished to Manchuria for some time, and died at Choné.[17] The third incarnation Ngawang Lozang Tenpai Gyeltsen (ngag dbang blo bzang bstan pa'i rgyal mtshan, 1844-1919) must have been recognized shortly after his predecessor was impeached and removed from his position. He also played an important role in Central Tibetan politics. He was the 87th Ganden Tripa from 1907-1914, which left him to take the reigns of power as the sikyong letsap (srid skyong las tshab) while the 13th Dalai Lama was in exile in India.[18]

The monastery was also famous for once having been home to a rare Tengyur (bstan 'gyur) (The Coné Canonical Collection of Commentaries), a copy of which was fortunately purchased by Joseph Rock and deposited in the Library of Congress shortly before the blocks were destroyed.[19] The monastery was a fortified complex, as so many monasteries on the ethnic frontier were.[20] The monastery was famous for its dances and butter sculptures, well documented by Rock in 1925.[21]


The most important early primary historical works for this polity include the Ming shi lu明实录 (The Veritable History of Ming Dynasty), records compiled at the end of each emperor's reign; the co ne bstan 'gyur dkar chag (The Index to the Coné Canonical Collection of Commentaries) completed by the second Jamyang Zhepa ('jam dbyang bzhad pa) Könchok Jikmé Wangpo (dkon mchog 'jigs med dbang po) (1728-1791) in 1773; the 1865 deb ther rgya mtsho (mdo smad chos 'byung) by Könchok Tenpa Rapgyé (dkon mchog bstan pa rab rgyas); Bao Yongchang and Zhang Yandu's 1877 Taozhou ting zhi 洮州厅志, which cites earlier Chinese records; and the Qing shi lu清实录 (The Veritable History of Qing Dynasty) compiled in the early 20th century based on earlier records of the Qing. One source not yet examined is called simply Zhouni san zhong 卓尼三种 (Three Kinds [of Texts?] about Choné) in vol. 24 of Zhang Yuxin, Zhang Shuangzhi bian zuan. Minguo Zang shi shi liao hui bian民國 藏事 史料 彙编. Zhongguo Zang xue Han wen li shi wen xian ji chen 中國 藏學 漢文 歷史 文獻 集成 Beijing shi: Xue yuan chu ban she, 2005. See also the more recent survey: mgon po dbang rgyal, co ne sa skyong gi lo rgyus. lan kru'u : Kan su'u mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1997.


[1] Yang Shihong 杨士宏. Zhuoni Yang tusi zhuanlüe 卓尼杨土司传略. Chengdu: Sichuan minzu chubanshe. 1989: 1.

[2] Yang 1989: 3-4; TBRC W1GS66030.

[3] Yang 1989: 3.

[4] Source of this is apparently the Co ne bstan 'gyur dkar chag (The Index to the Coné Canonical Collection of Commentaries), and summarized in Bod kyi gdung rus zhib 'jug.

[5] Pu Wencheng蒲文成. 1990. Gan-Qing Zangchuan Fojiao siyuan characters [Gansu and Qinghai Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries]. Xining 西宁: Qinghai minzu chubanshe 青海民族出版社 [Qinghai Nationalities Press], 530-1.

[6] Yang 1989: 21-22, citing the Ming shi lu明实录, 107 juan, page 2.

[7] Rock, Joseph F. "Life Among the Lamas of Choni," National Geographic Magazine, vol. LIV, November 1928, pp. 569.

[8] Bod kyi gdung rus zhib 'jug.

[9] See: Yang 1989, which also includes chapters on each of the 20 generations of Co ne's rulers (p.16-132), as well as their Chinese names.

[10] For details about this lineage see the appendix in Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol; Matthieu Ricard, Constance Wilkinson, and Michal Abrams, trans. The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, 1994.

[11] Rock 1928: 572.

[12] Rock 1928: 576.

[13] Luciano Petech 1959. "The Dalai-Lama and Regents of Tibet: A Chronological Study." Vol. 47, T'oung-pao. (Reprinted in L. Petech. 1988. Selected papers on Asian history, Serie orientale Roma; vol. 60.  vol.60.), 141-142. See also TBRC Person RID: P332.

[14] He was also known by the title: Ganden Sherabtu Sharmar Depa Keshi. See: Zheng Qingyou. 1991. "Qishan and Tsemonling Nominhan." Vol. 2, Tibet Studies.

[15] Petech 1959: 141.

[16] For details of this and other titles he was awarded by the Taoguang emperor in 1825, 1834, 1839, etc. see: Zheng Qingyou. 1991. "Qishan and Tsemonling Nominhan." Vol. 2, Tibet Studies.

[17] Petech 1959: 141-142. See also TBRC Person RID: P4533.

[18] See TBRC Person RID: P4532.

[19] Rock 1928: 581.

[20] See Rock 1928: 603, for an image of the massive walls and gate.

[21] Rock 1928.