When the Iron Bird Flies
China's Secret War in Tibet
Jianglin Li with a Foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama


Chapter 1



Early autumn 1955.

In the Yellow River source region of Lakes Gyaring (Zhalinghu) and Ngoring (Elinghu),1 a highland pastural area 4,294 meters above sea level, Ngolo, a 22-year-old herder girl, prepared to move her herd to winter pasture, as she always did at this time of year. Ngolo’s family of six owned more than 100 yaks and 200 sheep, which made them a moderately well-off family. As a part of the large nomad group, Ngolo’s family had lived in this region, known as “Upper Golok,”2 for many generations. The area was far away from the outside world, and Ngolo knew nothing about events beyond her part of the world; she had no idea that her homeland had been “liberated” by “Red Chinese” a few years back and had already become part of the Golok Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province. However, there were rumors that the “Red Chinese” had arrived. Sometimes while fetching water from the river, she would see unfamiliar armed horsemen off in the distance, but they had not come to her area.3

The Yellow River flowed from Upper Golok down through the Bayan Har (Bayankala) Mountains and snow-capped Mount Amnye Machen (Animaqing) into the grassy hills of southeastern Golok. At the foot of a sacred mountain called Nyenpo Yutsé (Nianbaoyuze)4 lay a vast pasture-land where the Khangsar (Kangsai), Khanggen (Kanggan), and Drasar (Wasai) tribes grazed their flocks and which was known as “Middle Golok.”5

One day in early autumn, in a small tsowa under the Khangsar tribe, 8-year-old Damcho Pelsang heard a sheepdog howl outside his tent. Running out, he saw several armed Chinese cadres striding toward his tent, and he dashed toward them with excitement, no longer afraid of these “outsiders.”

Damcho Pelsang’s tsowa had only 20-odd households, totaling a little more than 100 people. His father had died when he was very small, leaving his mother, older sister, and himself. For as long as he could remember, his mother had used the “outsiders” to scare him when he was naughty. The elders said the outsiders were Ma Bufang’s soldiers. Ma was a Muslim warlord serving as governor of Qinghai at that time. Between 1921 and 1941, his army had suppressed the Tibetans of Golok seven times for resisting heavy taxes, killing thousands, plundering a large number of livestock, and taking more than a thousand women and children captive.6 The elders told Damcho Pelsang that Ma’s soldiers would kill or kidnap little boys to feed to their horses. Back when the “outsiders” were at war in Golok, Ma’s troops would kill any little boys they saw, so when the elders heard that Ma’s troops were coming, they would quickly hide all the boys. These newer outsiders said they were the people’s army and not Ma Bufang’s troops, but even so, the first time Damcho Pelsang saw them, he trembled with fear and hid in the corner of the tent, not daring to breathe lest he be discovered and carried away.

Then one day a yak trod on Damcho Pelsang’s foot, and the outsiders put ointment on the injury and bandaged it, and gave him some candy as well. From then on, the outsiders would bring candy to pass out to the children whenever they came. Damcho Pelsang gradually came to know them; the lack of a common language is not so important for a child, and the smiling faces and candy-filled hands of the outsiders communicated goodwill. Damcho Pelsang and his mother never imagined how quickly this would change.7

On the south side of the Bayan Har Mountains, a small river flowed southeast from Qinghai to Sichuan, collecting numerous streams on its way down the plateau. After winding hundreds of miles through rugged land, it became a large river the Tibetans called the Drichu (Jinsha River), the upper reach of the Yangtze River. Natural barriers formed by precipitous mountains cut off the upper reaches from the multitudes who lived along the river’s lower course. Few of those below knew that the upper region was part of traditional Tibet and was inhibited by Khampas,8 once famous for their martial prowess. For centuries the Khampas had lived in the vast region where the Yangtze source waters9 and the Drichu and Nyagchu (Yalong) rivers converge, covering most of the Yangtze’s upper basin.

Khampa tillers and shepherds flourished among the region’s mountains and valleys, the jurisdiction of their kings and hereditary chieftains.10 Among the region’s “four great kings,” the Dergé (Dege) Gyalpo ruled over a territory that extended across five of today’s counties and at its prime had 70,000 households totaling more than 200,000 people.11 In the late Qing, Zhao Erfeng,12 with his mighty army, forcibly abolished the hereditary social structure through a massive slaughter in Kham, earning himself the nickname “Zhao the Butcher.” After Zhao Erfeng died in the revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty in 1911, most chieftains returned to power, but they never reclaimed their previous glory. When Xikang became a province in 1939, most of Kham was nominally included in China’s Republican government system. Yet while many districts established county governments, their administrative power didn’t reach to the grassroots level, and without adequate military strength to protect it, a county government might be unseated at any time and some officials even lose their lives. 13 In some districts the local chieftains were simply appointed heads of the neighborhood administration (bao-jia), and the local militia was renamed the “peace preservation corps.” Government taxes were collected by local headmen and paid in Tibetan rather than Republican currency.14 For that reason, the social structure and lifestyle of Tibetans hadn’t significantly changed by the time the Communists came to power.

While Ngolo and the other herders around Ngoring Lake prepared to move to their winter pastures in 1955, Aten, the headman of Dhunkhug (Dunku) Village in Nyarong (Xinlong) along the Nyarong river, was notified by the local district head, a Chinese cadre, that he was being sent to Chengdu’s Southwest National Minorities Institute to study for one year. Dhunkhug was a small village of only six households that earned their living through both farming and herding. Aten’s father had once been the settlement’s headman, but in the traditional system, the headman of a small settlement had no salary or privileges and just did all the legwork. The family’s financial situation was unexceptional, and in years when the harvest was poor, they had to borrow grain to get by. Aten was in his thirties when the CCP arrived, and since his father had taught him to read and write, local cadres selected him to run their errands, and he became a go-between for the CCP and Tibetans. Aten had two wives, and his only daughter had just turned five. He was reluctant to spend a year studying in Chengdu, leaving his family behind with no one to look after them, but the higher-ups wouldn’t take no for an answer. Aten had no choice but to bid his wives farewell and ride his horse to Garzê, then ride by truck to Dartsedo (Kangding), where he could catch a long-distance bus to Chengdu. No one told him what he’d be learning in Chengdu, nor did anyone tell him that this was part of a much larger plan to transform Tibetan society.15

Around the same time, at the Zhichen (Xiqing) Monastery along the Nyichu (Niqu) River in northern Kham’s Garzê County, the son of the headman of Drangtsa (Zhangzha) village, 11-year-old Yetan, was studying scripture as usual. His home on the edge of the Sertar (Seda) grasslands was a small village of fifteen households. Most were farmers, but each family also had yaks and sheep, and while by no means wealthy, they lacked for nothing. The small village was buried deep in the mountains, and apart from Muslim traders who occasionally came through to trade salt, needles and thread, and other small items for the villagers’ wool and hides, outsiders didn’t come in and the villagers didn’t go out; the only reason to leave the village was to visit the monastery or ask lamas to perform Buddhist rituals.

Yetan’s father was a Horpa,16 and his mother came from the Washul shokka, the largest tribe in Sertar.17 Yetan had two sisters, and his parents had sent him to the monastery when he was small. Studying at the monastery, Yetan lived a simple and carefree life. He had never seen Chinese people, and had no idea that heaven and earth had changed places beyond the mountains.


1. In today’s Matoe (Maduo) County, Golok Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province.

2. Golok was geographically divided into three parts: “Upper, Middle, and Lower,” known as “the three-part Golok” or “the three Goloks.” Traditionally, Golok had been settled by three large tribes: Wangchenbum, Archungbum, and Pemabum. Most of the territory of Archungbum is in the present-day Chikdril (Jiu zhi) County of the Golok Prefecture. In the first half of the 19th century, Archungbum was divided into five subgroups, including Khangsar, Khanggen, and Drasar.

3. This narrative is drawn from my interview with Ngolo on October 20, 2010. In the 1950s, ordinary Tibetan people had a different term for the Communist Party’s work teams and the PLA than for the Kuomintang Army.

4. Located in present-day Chikdril County, its highest peak reaching 5,369 meters above sea level.

5. Today it is under the jurisdiction of Chikdril County. In 1956, the fifteen nomadic groups under the jurisdiction of the Khangsar totaled 749 households, while its agricultural areas included six stockades and twenty-seven villages. Most of these villages later came under the jurisdiction of Sichuan Province’s Aba County. See Jiuzhi xianzhi, p. 110.

6. Yan Zhengde and Wang Yiwu, Jinghai baike dacidian, pp. 207–8.

7. This narrative is drawn from my interview with Damcho Pelsang on November 30, 2010.

8. In Tibetan, the syllable “pa” means “person,” so Khampa means “people of Kham.”

9. In today’s Yulshul Prefecture, Qinghai Province.

10. The Tibetan term gyalpo means “king” and the four larger kingdoms were Chakla, Dergé, Bathang and Lithang. In Chinese, they are referred to as tusi, a name for the leader of an ethnic minority. “Tu” means “local” and “si” means official. After establishing political power, the CCP used a series of social reforms to eliminate this system.

11. Lai Zuozhong and Deng Junkang, “Dege tusi jiazu . . . ,” p. 177.

12. Zhao Erfeng (1845–1911) was a Qing official who at one point held a senior position at the Sichuan-Yunnan border. In 1908, the Qing emperor appointed him minister (amban) stationed in Tibet, but he never took office.

13. In 1931, the Derong County government fell and the county head was killed. The government wasn’t restored until 1937. From 1935 to 1936, the heads of Dabpa and Chatreng counties were expelled, and the heads of Dergé and Dengkhok counties were killed. Ganzi Zangzu Zizhizhou minzu gaige shi, pp. 12–14.

14. Zhao Xinyu and Qin Heping, Kangqu Zangzu shehui lishi diaocha ziliao jiyao, pp. 104–5. This book provides a detailed description of the situation in the various counties of the Kham region during the Republican era.

15. The story of Aten comes from Jamyang Norbu, Warriors of Tibe.

16. The rulers of the Hor states of northern Kham in present day Garzê, Drango, and Dawu counties under Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP) are believed to have descended from the intermarriage of Mongol or northern tribe (Huren) troops with local Tibetans during the wars of the 17th century.

17. The present-day Sertar County in Garzê TAP. Washul is the biggest tribe in the Sertar area, so the area is traditionally known as Washul Sertar (Axuseda).