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Of Horses and Motorbikes:
Negotiating Modernities in Pastoral A mdo, Sichuan Province

JIATS, no. 6 (December 2011), THL #T5716, pp. 429-450.

© 2011 by Lilian Iselin, IATS, and THL

[page 429]

Abstract: This paper is a preliminary study examining the shifting roles of horses and motorbikes and how these modes of transportation make visible changes in nomad spatiality. Since the 1980s change has accelerated in Tibetan pastoralist areas of AmdoA mdo in the People’s Republic of China. Winter houses, fenced pastures, electricity supplies, modern means of transportation, education for all and so forth. are in the pastoralist context equated with modernization and development. Participation in such processes not only changes the pastoralists’ way of life outwardly, but also has an effect on pastoralists’ spatial contexts. The emergence of a new means of movement – the motorbike – has become the vehicle with which this newly emerging space is negotiated and engaged with.


Dusk is falling over the plains at the upper knee of the Yellow River (Machurma chu, Huang he, 黄河). A herd of yak is driven homewards – by a rider on a motorbike, his head wrapped in a long scarf leaving only his eyes visible. Driving slowly and carefully he finds a way over the pasture – the headlight and an occasional honking of the horn gently move the herd towards the corrals of its winter quarters.

The grasslands of northwestern Sichuan in the People’s Republic of China (Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo, 中华人民共和国) are the home of Tibetan nomadic pastoralists who, although neither untouched nor unchanged by history, continue to live according to patterns shaped by the ecological and climatic cycle of the seasons and embedded in the cultural and social knowledge of the pastoralists [page 430] (drokpa’brog pa, mumin, 牧民).1 Concepts such as “modernity” or “globalization” coined with specific meanings in social and anthropological studies may not hold much meaning for and are not referred to by the pastoralists. However, they have come face to face with various aspects of these transformative forces and have responded in their own ways. This paper examines the shift from horse to motorbike. It focuses on disjunctures created by changes and transformations brought about by economic, political, and historical processes of development and modernization, and how these disjunctures have opened up new spaces. I will examine spatiality and processes of place making in the Tibetan pastoralist context and the role that horses – and in recent times motorbikes – play in these processes. I will argue that movement has played an integral part in the cultural process of how pastoralists relate to the land, appropriate it and engage with it, thus making space into place. I will further maintain that the use of motorbikes has come to play a role in accessing space created by shifts and disjunctures due to processes of modernization and development as played out in the pastoral context.

The following is based on field work conducted in TangkorThang skor (Tang ke, 唐克)2 located in the northwestern corner of Sichuan in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture (Ngawa Börik dang Changrik Rongkyong Khülrnga ba bod rigs dang ch’ang rigs rang skyong khul, Aba Zangzu Qiangzu Zizhizhou, 阿坝藏族羌族自治州). TangkorThang skor is a township (xiang, )3 of approximately six thousand inhabitants who are predominantly pastoralists. The territory encompasses about 1450 square kilometers and is divided into seven settlements (dewabde ba) corresponding to the former division of the township in work units (rukhakru khags, da dui, 大队).4 The administrative center (location of government offices, schools, health facilities, teahouses, shops and increasingly residential quarters predominantly inhabited by the older population) is located near the confluence of the KachuRka chu and Yellow Rivers, at a distance of five kilometers from the local monastery and three kilometers off the main road which connects the two neighboring provinces of Sichuan and Gansu and runs through TangkorThang skor lands.

[page 431]

The territory of TangkorThang skor is located in an ecological zone traditionally and ideally suited for animal husbandry, which is the economic base for the pastoralists.5 It is said to be one of the wealthier areas of pastoralist AmdoA mdo (Anduo, 安多). This probably accounts for an early proliferation of motorbikes, even at a time when they first started to make an appearance in the pastoralist context of AmdoA mdo in the 1980s. The people of TangkorThang skor may have been quicker and economically better able to acquire motorbikes than pastoralists from other regions. However, the trend can be observed in other areas of the Tibetan plateau as well. The analysis that I am presenting here might not be equally applicable to other pastoralist regions, but will provide an example of the shift from horse to modern means of transportation and possible implications.6

I will start with a discussion on pastoral spatiality and processes of place-making. I will seek to provide a basis from which we can understand the uses of the horse in the Tibetan pastoral context and why, I argue, it holds an important place in the way pastoralists engage with their land. This will be followed by a presentation of some ethnographic material discussing the uses of horses and motorbikes. After the presentation of a historical trajectory, which will build the frame for understanding changes in the pastoral landscape, shifts in pastoralist spatiality and increased fragmentation of space, I will provide a preliminary analysis of the way pastoralists engage with such shifts and disjunctures.

[1] Drokpa’Brog pa is the term Tibetans use for pastoralists – people whose economy and culture is based on animal husbandry as opposed to agriculturalists who work the land.
[2] I have lived in Sichuan since January 1999 and have visited TangkorThang skor many times informally from 1999 until now (2007), making observations, talking to friends and people of TangkorThang skor. Additionally, I spent several two- to three-week periods in the area, using the classic anthropological tools of participatory observation, as well as semi-structured and unstructured interviewing.
[3] A township is the smallest administrative unit in the People’s Republic of China. It generally shares a government, schools, clinics and other infrastructure and comprises between two and six thousand people.
[4] “Work units” were formed during collectivization and numbered. Generally they comprised the former sub-groups of the tribal structure of TangkorThang skor, with the exception of the work units number one and seven, both of which were formerly part of one tribe – SoktsangSog tshang – which during collectivization was integrated into the township of TangkorThang skor. The seventh settlement is not usually referred to according to the numeric system, but rather by its Chinese name, “Ma chang” (马场). It was set aside for horse rearing during the collectivization period and was under the administration of the province.
[5] See Mugé Samten GyamtsoDmu dge bsam gtan rgya mtsho, Gsung ’bum pod gsum po bzhugs so [Collected Works: Volume Three] (Xining: Qinghai Minzu Chubanshi, 1997), 377-81.
[6] In other nomadic regions of cultural Tibet, I understand, trucks are acquired instead of or in preference to motorbikes. Some of the processes described in this paper would probably equally apply to the use of trucks, others are specific to regions where motorbikes are preferred. Reasons to give preference to one or the other can likely be found in the terrain, distances that need to be covered, availability and market trends. Comparative research in different pastoralist regions of cultural Tibet would be needed to give conclusive answers.

Note Citation for Page

Lilian Iselin, “Of Horses and Motorbikes: Negotiating Modernities in Pastoral A mdo, Sichuan Province,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5716 (accessed ).

Note Citation for Whole Article

Lilian Iselin, “Of Horses and Motorbikes: Negotiating Modernities in Pastoral A mdo, Sichuan Province,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 429-450, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5716 (accessed ).

Bibliography Citation

Iselin, Lilian. “Of Horses and Motorbikes: Negotiating Modernities in Pastoral A mdo, Sichuan Province.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 429-450. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5716 (accessed ).