Clans And Tribes Organization Essay

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Clans and Tribes Organization Essay from the Tibetan Renaissance Seminar


This essay will attempt to explore in a preliminary fashion the organizations of the families of clans and tribes in Tibet, naming the different tribes and discussing some of the social caste divisions found in modern Lhasa.


Traditionally, Tibetan society is composed of two loose groupings: agriculturalists and nomads or pastoralists, although on the lands that are suitable for both types of activities hybrid farmer-herders dwell. These groups engage in trade for such food staples as butter, salt, horses and tea from the nomads exchanged for tsampa and other agricultural products from the farming communities. Partially due to this distribution of labor and peoples, the generalization can be made that culture and language are different from one valley to the next. Perhaps related to this phenomenon, clans would generally consolidate their power in one valley or area, either deriving their name from that place, or subsequently bequeathing their family name to the place. Dan Martin refers to them as the "Great Families." A clan is an organization loosely based on family ties and geographical association, usually through their individuated descent narratives. The clans were very influential in the government during the Imperial Period. Kings would marry several wives or consorts, usually one from each powerful family, in order to promote unity within the clans and prevent infighting, essentially by giving them a stake in the future of the throne through their offspring. Much conniving and catfighting still ensued, however, as mothers and maternal uncles of the heirs fought to secure the throne for their progeny. This is not to say that their influence was limited to this period; in fact many clans produced founders of important religious lineages, such as the Khön and the Zur. By the end of the tenth century, clans became the primary form of social organization as well as the determinant of the distribution of political power. They were also the locus of the formation of people’s identities, enhancing their sense of place and forming a sort of determinant background that molded social interactions.

Traditional Account of the Origin of the Ancestral Tribes

According to the Tibetan myth describing the origins of the human race, the Tibetan people are descended from a monkey (their father, the embodiment of Avalokitesvara or Chenrezig) and a rock demoness (their mother, the embodiment of Tara). As a result of this union, the major ancestral tribes of Tibet were formed, each tribe descending from one of these sons.

Descent Narratives

Clans usually have their own descent narrative whereby they describe the usually divine origins of the clan. They serve to demonstrate a continuous historical lineage that reaches back to heaven. This descent narrative usually describes the family's descent from a god or gods, and describes the conflict that led to their descent to earth. The description of the heavens and the events leading to thee descent is usually extensive and reinforces the idea of divinity. The moment of decent from heaven is viewed as that family's appearance on earth and the starting point of their mortal existence. However, through the descent narrative the clan is given not only a pedigree but the authority deriving from their divine nature. In a sense this can be viewed as a form of branding, in that the clan has reinforced their image and packaged it for presentation.

Early Western Anthropology/Ethnology

The author William Woodville Rockhill describes the Tibetan tribes in an 1893 report to the Smithsonian. He uses (ostensibly besides his own fieldwork) the Chinese records of Sui (AD581-618) and Tang (618-905) dynasties (R2, 19). The latter record is a fairly close copy of the former. Relying on these assessments without examination is somewhat problematic as the Chinese records speak from the point of view of their standards of civilization, tending to barbarianize the practices of the tribes which are discussed. Therefore, this essay will limit itself to the listing of the tribes themselves rather than their customs and political perception by the author.

Rockhill describes three clan divisions, following the traditional Chinese account verbatim:

  1. The T’u-ku-hun were a people who lived west of Koko-nor. They are described as having constructed cities but abandoning them for favor of tents so they could migrate with their herds. They ate barley and millet and had many yaks (R2, 20).
  2. The Tanghsiang is the second large group, with its own subdivisions of large and small families according to the size of the herds. They made yak tents and herded yaks, goats, and sheep (R2, 21)
  3. The Kingdom of Su-pi or Nu Guo (Chinese for 'kingdom of women') is an area dominated politically and socially by women, which is stressed throughout the account (R2, 23) but has never been since proven to exist in a historical sense.

R.A. Stein, in Les Tribus Anciennes des Marches Sino-Tibetaines, describes in detail the naming and numbering problems associated with traditional accounts of clans. According to some Tibetan accounts their are either four or six major tribes deriving directly from the first ancestors. Some even claim descent from the kings of Tibet (S, 3). There are generally myths associated with each clan or tribe connecting them to the traditional accounts of the Tibetan people's ancestor Trido (khri do) and his three sons, Lepa (le pa), Linpa (glin pa), and Nubpa (nub pa). Also according to Stein's translation there are several groups: the family (rigs), the line or lineage (gdun) and the clan (ru).

The sons of these three aforementioned constitute a division into six major tribes; the Dra (sbra), Don (ldon), Dru (‘bru), Ga (sga), Wa (dpa), and Da (zla) (R 16). These names have a variety of different spellings as can be seen from Stein's expanded list, which include his division into nine tribes or clans:

  1. The Se (se), closely associated with the Azha (a zha) tribe (R, 24)
  2. The Ba (sbra or dbra) (R, 25)
  3. The Dön (ldon, ‘don, gdon, sdon) (R, 31) associated with Minak (mi gnag) (R, 31)
  4. The Tön (ston, gton, don) associated with Sumpa (sum pa) (R, 41)
  5. The Ga (lga, sga, rga, dga’) (R, 46)
  6. The Dru ('bru) divided into white, black and mixed (R, 48)
  7. The Ma or Mu (smra, rma, dmu, rmu, smu) which corresponds with the clan name of the founder of Bon (R, 50)
  8. The Wa and Da (dpa, zla) (R, 66)
  9. The Go (sGo) (R, 70)

Modern Western and Tibetan Anthropolgy/Ethnology Centering on the Lhasa Caste System

Fjeld's work deals with the Lhasa caste structure and names for the different groups. As her sources, she draws heavily on Goldstein's anthropological work as well as Ugen Gombo's (although clarifying somewhat their organization of the material), and also a Chinese journal named "Xizang Renmin Chubanshe." This 1987 journal explores the different minorities of Tibet and is held in higher esteem than most Chinese sources (which are normally seen as incorporating government propaganda) due to the fact that there is no translation in English. It was undertaken using China's 1950 survey of its' nationalities. Besides her enumeration of the Lhasan caste structure, Fjeld is interested in the "the principles for construction of social classification" (F, 6). She argues that conceptions of clan's relations involve not only birth place (skye sa) but conceptions of knowledge holding and preservation, wherein the nobles act as keepers of high Tibetan culture. They are not only the political/economic elite, as social perceptions of the ideal person influence the way the nobility are treated in interactions (F, 6). Goldstein lists two major divisions of Lhasan society: lords (gerpa) and serfs (mi ser) (G 1971a: 522). Ugen Gombo, in a study not only of the existing records but of his village's caste composition, lists three divisions: nobles (ku drak), commoners (mi ser) and low families (men rig) which all have their own subdivisions. Fjeld follows Gombo in stating that Goldstein must have elided the last two categories into one.

According to "The Social History of Tibet" (Xizang Renmin Chubanshe, 1987) there are three main categories:

A 1909 study by Kawaguchi (printed in 1995) discusses the low-born caste in relation to social prohibitions. Below is a list of the classes considered polluted:

Due to the Tibetan idea that mouth contact and pollution are related, there are restrictions observed by some from interacting with certain classes considered unclean because of their occupations:The prohibitions observed include not eating with these groups, not sharing cups (mouth contact) and abstaining from sexual relations. This is also due to the fact that these occupations are considered unclean by Buddhist standards because they involve killing or removing precious metals from the earth and thereby disturbing the lurking elemental forces (F, 28). Fjeld observes that currently this practice is not rigidly observed and castes may intermingle and even intermarry.

Fjeld also discusses the particular divisions of the nobility of Lhasa into four groups (following the account of a noble (Yuthok 1990))

  1. The six Yabshi (yab shis): families into which Dalai Lamas have been born and descendents therefrom
  2. The four Depön (de pon): descendents of historically important figures
  3. The eighteen Midrag (mi drag): held political postitions
  4. The majority, the Gerpa (ger pa): not usually holding political positions, become administrators of estates


Davidson, Ronald M. Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. Columbia University Press, 2005.

Fjeld, Heidi.Commoners and Nobles: Hereditary Divisions in Tibet. NIAS Press, Copenhagen, Denmark. (2005) (F)

Rockhill, William Woodville. Notes on the Ethnology of Tibet. Seattle: Facsimile reproduction from The Shorey Book Store, 1971. (R1)

Notes on Tibet. New Delhi: Asian Publication Services, 1977. (R2)

Stein, R.A. Les Tribus Anciennes des Marches Sino-Tibetaines: Legendes, Classifications et Histoire. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1961. (S)

Uebach, Helga. "Ladies of the Tibetan Empire (7th-9th Centuries CE)." In Women in Tibet. Columbia University Press, 2005.