Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Of Horses and Motorbikes
Lilian Iselin, University of Bern
JIATS, no. 6 (December 2011), THL #T5716, pp. 429-450
Section 2 of 5 (pp. 431-436)

Pastoralist Space, Processes of Place-making, Movement, and Horsemanship

Pastoralists are nomadic. In the decades since the appropriation and integration of the pastoralist areas of AmdoA mdo into the Chinese state and their collectivization the nomadic system of the pastoralists have had to adapt to changed circumstances. There is markedly less flexibility in their patterns of movement than before.7 Scholars have described a revival of a traditional “nomadic lifestyle” after the introduction of the household responsibility system in the 1980s; they also state [page 432] that nomads have adapted to changed conditions.8 Patterns of movement were resumed by individual households where they had been organized differently during collectivization.9 In TangkorThang skor, as elsewhere, the construction of winter houses promulgated by government policies, decreased frequency in the allocation of pasture lands to individual households or groups of households (rukorru skor), an increase in the number of households, and other such factors, contributed to a change towards an almost “semi-settled” lifestyle. According to information given by local headmen of some settlements of TangkorThang skor and also by one of the township leaders,10 pastures used to be redistributed according to herd size every three to four years within settlements by their heads in consultation with households and groups of households. The frequency of redistribution is now much reduced. Summer pastures are commonly used in most settlements of TangkorThang skor, but each household has its own more or less fixed place where they put up the tent and around which their herds will graze. This has resulted in a less flexible cycle of migration, though more research would be needed to substantiate this. Additionally, there is the perception that pasture, once plentiful, has become a resource that needs to be distributed with care, and around which there is potential for conflict.11

However, even as such things have changed, pastoralists still move since their fields – located in their herds – are mobile, as Ekvall has so cogently stated.12 A cycle of migration to different pasture grounds is maintained to ensure the wellbeing of the herds and gain maximum benefit for the herds as well as to take care of the pasture and maintain it for future use.13 Distance and frequency of moving the herds to new pasture ground depend, of course, on a variety of factors such as herd densities, availability of grass, climatic conditions and so forth. In TangkorThang skor distances for migration may be shorter than elsewhere and movement to other pastures less frequent, but mobility is still maintained.

A typical pattern of movement, which has been related to me by a number of pastoralists from TangkorThang skor showed the following features: In all areas of TangkorThang skor winter pastures are now leased to households on a fifty-year contract and [page 433] fenced.14 The majority of pastoralists have built winter houses, sometimes of mud, although increasingly brick and cement is used. According to some communications from the older people, the pastoralists of TangkorThang skor have always had built winter structures. They did not live in tents while they were on their winter pastures. However, those structures were much less stable, and some local informants maintained that they had to be rebuilt every time they returned to their winter place. In spring, usually May or June, the first move takes place. In many areas of TangkorThang skor this is a temporary move to the summer pasture and is decided upon by the heads of the settlements.15 They may remain there for as long as a month and then return to their fenced winter pastures for another three weeks to one month to give the grass on the summer pasture time to grow. Pastoralists will, when they return to the winter place, put up their tents within the fenced winter pasture, oftentimes within walking distance to the winter house, but will continue to live in and function from the tent. The definite move to the summer pasture will happen sometime in July and the nomads will stay there until September or October, depending on grass growth and climatic conditions. For some there may be a move within the area allocated for summer pasturing, but that is not very common in TangkorThang skor which is relatively lush during the growing season. In late autumn the pastoralists of TangkorThang skor will return to their winter pasture and the cycle of movement will be concluded. Pirie described a similar pattern of movement for the pastoralists in Machu County (Machu Dzongrma chu rdzong, Maqu xian, 玛曲县), an area adjacent to TangkorThang skor that is climatically as well as ecologically comparable.16

Change resulting from fenced pastures and a shift in property rights have been discussed in a number of papers17 and are not the subject matter here. However much those patterns of movement have changed due to privatization of winter pasture and fencing, pastoral movement is deeply imbedded in the lived experiences of the pastoralists and pertains to more than the seasonal migration pattern. Movement within the landscape has shaped socio-cultural practices of a nomadic people. Williams, who wrote about Inner Mongolian pastoralists, states that “traditional Mongol spatiality is rooted in a landscape characterized by mobility and mutability”18 and I would argue that the same can be said about Tibetan pastoralists. As they move the landscape changes, or rather their perception of it changes. As pastoralists move from winter to spring, from spring to summer, from [page 434] summer to autumn pasture, their perspective of the land changes. As they put up their tents within the winter pasture, but away from the house, they perceive a familiar landscape from a different angle. As they make decisions regarding when to move, they get to know the land more intimately. There is a vast knowledge about the land, where the grass grows best, where a swamp can be crossed or how it can be circumvented.19 Movement allows them to know the land more intimately, to embrace its spaciousness and vastness and to make place within it, or in other words “to in-habit” the land, to use Humphrey’s phrase.20 The migration pattern provides a frame within which fine-grained movement of pastoralists – as they pursue their daily activities and live their lives – transforms space into lived place, as de Certau has argued, although for processes of appropriation of space in an urban setting.21 Within the context of the pastoralists, such movement is located in everyday activities of herding. In the morning, the women of a household will go out and start the milking of the yak cows.22 After the milking the herd will be driven out to pasture, or left to wander on their own. During the day the herdsmen – or women – may check on them, direct them to a different area, or move them closer towards the tent, where the noon milking may happen. Male (and occasionally female) members of the tent may take a horse and ride off to visit some friends. The woman of the tent may walk over to the neighbors to get some starter for the yoghurt she is planning to make, to help with the sewing of the tent, or for any reason requiring neighborly assistance or simply company. This is a very precursory glimpse of some of the everyday activities happening around a nomad’s tent as experienced by the author. Pastoral activities require movement. There are comings and goings around the tent of nomads, of herds as well as of people. The latter, as they pursue activities required by nomadic animal husbandry, are going out from the tent, wandering into different directions, and may decide on a trip to a market place, to a monastery, to a meeting of social, religious, or political nature, and so on. And while such everyday practices happen, the tent, the focal point of pastoralist daily activities, itself is moved periodically and makes movement patterns even more fluid and mutable.

Migrational movement and the more fine-grained movements required by the daily activities and by the socio-cultural practices of everyday life, are – not exclusively, but to a large part – processes in which the horse and horsemanship play an important role. Horses give humans speed and flexibility as well as – from [page 435] the vantage point of the horseback – improved vision. Many of the everyday practices of the pastoralists require movement. Scouting out land, watching herds, driving them out to pasture, looking for stray animals and so on are facilitated, and in fact – in vast areas such as the grasslands of southern AmdoA mdo – made possible by the horse. Horsemanship provides the pastoralists with an effective means to pursue animal husbandry in areas where range and speed would be limited if not for the horse. According to sources documenting the pastoralists of AmdoA mdo in pre-modern times,23 pastoralism was a highly precarious undertaking. People lived dispersed over wide areas and then as now had to reckon with cattle thieves, wild animals attacking the herds, unpredictable weather and so on. Ekvall argues that the exigencies of the pastoral life required independence of action, quick reactions, valiant behavior, and above all, the ability for speed; qualities that are fostered by horsemanship.24 In the context of the pastoral way of life horsemanship, which facilitates movement and provides speed and flexibility in action, has taken on meanings that exceed the solely practical. It finds expression in a number of performative and discursive practices: the way people talk about horses, recognition given to good horsemanship, horse races as an important part of their summer activities, and the role horses play in their rituals connected to the local territorial gods are a few examples.

Pastoral space in TangkorThang skor stretches over a wide area. Movement, even within the daily round of activities, may cover distances that are not, or only barley manageable on foot. The landscape of TangkorThang skor is dominated by wide open grassy plains, rolling hills and broad, flat-bottomed valleys interspersed with wetland areas and low mountain ranges. The lay of the land gives, to the casual observer, an impression of unlimited space, open land, vastness, and spaciousness.25 Visibility, in a land such as that of the pastoralists, although seemingly easily achieved, is limited. The space pastoralists inhabit is vast, and moving through it becomes a more reliable way of seeing, knowing and relating to the land than does mere employment of the visual senses. Migrational movement, movement within the pastoral economy to and from pastures, movement to the sacred places of pastoralists, such as monasteries, holy mountains and lakes, movement to market places is, or used to be, negotiated mainly by horse, although sometimes on foot or by yak. A study of those movements, setting them out as a drawn line on a map, differentiating them by the means of movement, may give some interesting insights. However, I would like to suggest that movement itself, the myriad steps of riders [page 436] on their horses, of herdsmen and women walking in and around the tent, out to pasture and back, make pastoral space into inhabited place.

If, as I have elaborated above, pastoral space is made into place by movement around the tent and the pastoral economy, which is in itself mobile and mutable, and if these movements are maintained to a substantial degree by horsemanship, then what does this mean in terms of the new vehicle of movement adopted by a significant number of herders in recent times? Does the employment of motorbikes enforce these processes of place-making or does it contradict them? Does it simply replace one means of transport for another? I am going to argue that the motorbike is used to negotiate disjunctures and shifts that have occurred through historical, economic, and political developments of the last four decades since pastoral society went through massive transformation after its integration into the People’s Republic of China. Patterns of movement have changed due to the above-mentioned factors. In TangkorThang skor and quite possibly in other parts of pastoralist AmdoA mdo too, the most visible change has come to be located in an “urban center,” which constitutes a modernity with which the pastoralists engage.26 Tibetan pastoralists of TangkorThang skor have adopted a new vehicle for movement linked to this modernity – the motorbike. The Tibetan term applied is “trültaphrul rta” and means “motorized horse.” This “motorized horse” is the one vehicle which is used to access this modernity and integrate it into pastoralist spatiality. The following section presents some ethnographic material to elucidate shifts in the social practices of pastoralists and how they are negotiated by the motorbike.

[7] See for example Daniel Miller, “Tough Times for Tibetan Nomads in Western China: Snowstorms, Settling Down, Fences and the Demise of Traditional Nomadic Pastoralism,” Nomadic Peoples 4, no. 1 (2000): 95; Fernanda Pirie, “Feuding, Mediation and the Negotiation of Authority among the Nomads of Eastern Tibet,” Halle: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Working Paper 72 (2005): 9; Emily Yeh, “Tibetan Range Wars: Spatial Politics and Authority on the Grasslands of A mdo,” Development and Change 34, no. 3 (2003).
[8] Melvyn C. Goldstein and Cynthia C. Beall, Die Nomaden Westtibets. (Nürnberg: DA Verlag Das Andere, 1991): 183; Angela Manderscheid, “The Revival of a Nomadic Lifestyle,” in A mdo Tibetans in Transition: Society and Culture in the post-Mao Era (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 280.
[9] Some structures of herding management remained during the collectivization period. However, the labor division was such, that different labor was divided among work groups (da dui) rather than among members of a household. See Graham E. Clarke, “China’s Reforms of Tibet, and their Effects on Pastoralism,” Institute of Development Studies, Discussion Paper 237 (1987): 35.
[10] Personal communications.
[11] I was frequently told that there are now more people, more households and more herd pressure than there used to be.
[12] Robert. B. Ekvall, Fields on the Hoof: Nexus of Tibetan Nomadic Pastoralism (New York: Holt, Rinehardt and Winston, 1968): 31-43.
[13] Miller, “Tough Times,” 95-96; Camille Richard, “The Potential for Rangeland Management in Yak Rearing Areas of the Tibetan Plateau,” in Yak Production in Central Asian Highlands, Proceedings of the 3rd International Congress on Yaks, Lhasa (2002): 13.
[14] The space allocated for winter pasture was, during division, increased in relation to summer pasture (personal communication).
[15] This corresponds to what Manderscheid has reported about pre-collectivization period in Dzamtang County (Dzamtang Dzong’dzam thang rdzong, Rangtang xian, 壤塘县). In that area pasture was later allocated by the bureau of agriculture, which indicates considerable regional variation in practices of pasture allocation. See Manderscheid, “The Revival,” 280.
[16] Fernanda Pirie, “Segmentation within the State: The Reconfiguration of Tibetan Tribes in China’s Reform Period,” in Nomadic Peoples 9, nos. 1 and 2 (2005): 85.
[17] See Melvyn C. Goldstein, “Nomads of Golok: A Report,” http://www.case.edu/affil/tibet/tibetanNomads/documents/RDP-WebsiteReport.DOC, 1996; Pirie, “Segmentation”; Yeh, “Tibetan Range Wars.”
[18] Dee Mack Williams, Beyond Great Walls: Environment, Identity, and Development on the Chinese Grasslands of Inner Mongolia (California: Stanford University Press, 2002), 67.
[19] See for example Daniel Miller, “Looking Back to Move Ahead: Integrating Indigenous Nomadic Knowledge into the Modern Range Profession in China,” Society for Range Management’s Annual Meeting, Special Session: Rangeland Professionals and Society: Future Directions (2001). http://www.cwru.edu/affil/tibet/booksAndPapers/miller.looking.back.to.move.ahead.pdf (accessed February 2006).
[20] Caroline Humphrey, “Chiefly and Shamanist Landscapes in Mongolia,” in The Anthropology of Landscape: Perspectives on Place and Space (Oxford: OUP, 1995): 135.
[21] Michel de Certau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkely and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1984): 91-110.
[22] The yak cows are brought in the night before and tethered outside the tent or the house. In some place, however, I have observed that yaks are left to graze during the night and brought in for the milking in the morning.
[23] There are a number of travelers, explorers and missionaries who have written about nomadic life in AmdoA mdo or other pastoralist areas of the Tibetan plateau. Among them the most noted are R. B. Ekvall, M. Hermann, J. F. Ford, Alexandra David-Neel, and others.
[24] Ekvall, Fields on the Hoof, 39-41, 75.
[25] Some interlocutors from TangkorThang skor interestingly expressed these kinds of feelings in reverse, when comparing it to the experience of space in places other than the grasslands. One interlocutor explained to me the – according to him – unpleasant feelings of being in Hong Kong, describing it as the absence of space. Others, students who attended a Tibetan Middle School located in the deep valleys of the neighboring farming area, at times expressed homesickness and bemoaned the closeness of the mountains. “I can’t see the sky” or similar statements were not uncommon. Seemingly, pastoral space of TangkorThang skor is taken for granted until it is challenged by alternative perceptions.
[26] See for example Pirie, “Segmentation,” 88.

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 ).