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Tibet Mandala
mandala To share and promote interest in Tibetan culture, people and land

The Nomadic Herdsmen and the Sedentary Farmers

by Sun-Inn Shih
October, 1996
Chinese Version

I had to meditate on how to write this topic for a long time because I wasn't really sure if there is a clear division of herdsmen and farmers in the Tibetan society. There are the pure nomads that live their lives in tents and move from place to place depending on the water and the grass. There are the pure farmers that have houses with pillars and field they cultivate all year long. However, the great majority of Tibetans have livestyles that are composed of different poportion of the two, even though they would consider themselves belong to only one of the two groups.

Here are the some varieties of a sedentary farmer's lifestyle. In the summer he could stay in the pasture-land while his wife and children stay back in his farm where he cultivate wheat, barley, etc in the fall and winter. If there is a pastural land near by the farm, the livestock may be led there during the day and brought back at night.

Very often a tribe is divided into the two groups that share the same clan name and clan chief. The herdsmen may depart during the summer and return during the winter. In some cases the hersmen and farmers trade places depending on the season. One can be the farmer during winter and be a nomad during the summer while another of the same tribe can be the nomad during the summer and a farmer during the winter. The variety is as diverse as the weather and the land.

In Amdo, herdsmen have restricted grazing areas and permanent winter houses. The group would scattered into different pastural areas in the summer and gather in the winter. They would have oat fields near their houses for their livestocks during the winter.

The line between hersmen and farmers is very vague. As a result they have close and constant contact with the other group. Majority of them either have a dual roles or have family or tribe member from the other group.

One reason for such diversity is the uniqueness of Tibetan land. The winter in the mountain is harsh, however, the plains and the valleys are tolerable because of they are expose to a fairly good amount of sun. There are the deserts and there are plenty of pastural lands in the deserts. There are fertile lands in the valley that is perfect for barley - their major cereal. It is too harsh for rice but there are plenty of wheat.

The Tibetans are always on the move. The nobles are mostly descendants of warrior who gaurd their tribes. They move from one place to another to check on their lands. They rarely live in their stone fortified castles. They live in tents that surrounded in all four directions with stockage and spears. Monks travels to learn from different montaries. Religious men and women paying pilgrimages as an integrated part of their lives. The fact is, Tibetans are travellers, regardless of the social roles they take.


  1. Stein, R.A., Tibetan Civilization , 1972, Standford University Press.