Chinese Studies
2013. Vol.2, No.4, 156-160
Published Online November 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access
Donkey’s Story: A Study on the Changes of Ecology, Economy
and Culture Based on the Change of Donkey Populations of Four
Communities in Central TAR
Yang Weiwei1, Liu Yinghua2, Luorong Zhandui3
1School of Economics and Management, Beijing University of Technology, Beijing, China
2Institute of Sociology and Economics, Chinese Center of Tibetology, Beijing, China
3Sichuan University , Chengdu, China
Email: ,,
Received August 23rd, 2013; revised September 25th, 2013; accepted October 4th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Yang Weiwei et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
Based on long time field study in Tibetan communities in central Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and
empirical knowledge, through analyzing the population change of donkeys of different communities, this
article aims at finding the reasons of the changes caused by economic and social changes, especially
changes in eco-environment, in order to provide a perspective to better understand changes in TAR.
Keywords: Tibetan Community; Donkey Populations; Environmental and Social Change
Livestock are important producing and living materials for
Tibetan farmers and herdsmen. Even in the relatively developed
farming area by the river valley, which has been appointed by
the government as commercial foodstuff production base, there
are no farmers who never engage in animal husbandry. Through
animal husbandry, farmers obtain ghee and dejecta, two impor-
tant nutrition sources for both people and farming land, with
dejecta as a major energy source. They also get fur and feather,
raw materials for cold-defense. Therefore, animal husbandry
(Luorong Zhandui 罗绒战堆, 2006) in Tibetan rural areas
plays a vital role in agricultural development and livelihood
improvement, so the complementation of agriculture and farm-
ers (Luorong Zhandui 罗绒战堆, 2009) is the foundation and
basic rule of Tibetan rural economic development.
After 1984, the Tibet Autonomous Region performed a great
reform in operation right and ownership right of major produc-
ing material, i.e. distributing farming land and livestock to
farmers and guaranteeing the consistency of this policy. The
ownership right of farming land did not entirely belong to
farmers, who merely have use right, but the property right of
livestock was completely given to farmers so they could man-
age their cattle freely. Thus, farmers’ preferences to livestock
were mainly determined by environment, need and traditional
culture, and the government did not virtually interfere. A study
of this issue can help to conclude factors contributing to farm-
ers’ preferences to their animal-breeding.
Since 1996, the authors have followed the development of
rural animal husbandry of four communities in middle Tibet,
including Village Zhaxilin, Village Chabalang, Village Cundui
and Village Lunbugang. What has impressed us most is donkey,
an animal usually receiving little attention. But it is hard to find
related statistics, and harder to search for previous research on
donkeys. Therefore, the research on the donkey, an obscure
object, has new value and may lead to new conclusions.
Change in Number of Donkeys and Stories
about History, Ecology and Economy
Retrospect of th e Number and Uses of Donkeys
Tibet, located in Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, used to be an inac-
cessible area. Although the producing and living conditions as
well as infrastructure have been greatly improved, Tibet on the
whole is still a society with profound traditional culture and
self-sufficient economy (Luorong Zhandui 罗绒战堆, 1996).
In this sense, farmers’ preferences to livestock and other eco-
nomic activities must have strong succession. The following is
a brief introduction to Tibetan democratic reforms dating from
1959, the population as well as the number (see Table 1) and
major uses of donkeys.
What requires further explanation is: before the democratic
reform in 1959, over 80% donkeys in the four communities
belonged to several “chaiba”. Most farmers were tenants or
even “langsheng” (with no freedom) attached to different
chaiba. Also, the main uses of donkeys before 1959 could be
summarized into the following three aspects:
Donkeys were a major transport tool for farmers to do their
Before 1959, nearly all farming land in Village Zhaxilin,
Village Chabalang and Village Cundui was almost possessed
by three temples in Tibet, and farmers had to bear heavy corvee.
Farmers not only had to pay ground rent to temples even 100 li
away, but also had to complete. Some older people recalled that
back then modern transport tools and roads were not available,
donkeys were the best livestock for long-distance transport.
Table 1.
Population of residents an d d o n ke ys in the 4 communi t ie s in 19 5 9 .
Zhaxilin Village
Chabalang Village
Cundui Village
Lunbugang Total
(unit: person) 350 97 200 110 757
household) 45 19 30 27 121
In 1959
(unit: donkey) 25 50 35 0 110
Note: Source: the authors’ field work in 1996.
Donkeys were the major transport tool for farmers to cut
Firewood is the most important producing material for Ti-
betan farmers. Though livestock dejecta was the most widely
used fuel, it could not meet the need. Farmers also needed to
cut bushes and plants from the mountains to make fire and fry
hulless barley. Additionally, most Tibetan farmers believe in
Tibetan Buddhism, and they do “weisang” every day as a form
of religious ritual, for which Chamaecyparis obtuse, capitate
rhododendron branchlet and leaf, as well as pine and cypress
would be cut down in farther mountains and then transported
back. Because of the remoteness and rough roads, the donkey,
as an assiduous animal good at walking in mountainous areas,
became the best transport tool fo r farmers.
Donkeys were an important help for agricultural operation.
In old Tibet, lack of agricultural machines, donkeys were the
most helpful help for farmer to transport manure and fruit of
labor in spring and autumn. In some areas, donkeys also helped
to plough and thresh. Besides, the transport of many objects
required for farmers’ daily production and life would also need
Changes in the Number and Uses of Donkeys since
For most time during 1959-1984, similar to most of Chinese
internal areas, rural districts in Tibet set up people’s communes
under the planned economy. At that time, the production team
attached to people’s communes was the basic running unit in
the countryside, and farmers had no ownership right or opera-
tion right of producing materials such as land and livestock.
After 1984, Tibetan farmers obtained the full ownership right
and operation right of livestock. Meanwhile, Tibet became
more open in every aspect, and market played a more important
role in resource allocation. One issue we are concerned with is
how farmers chose the breed of their livestock, the factors in-
fluencing the farmers’ preferences, and the relevant stories, etc.
The following table shows the number of population and live-
stock in the four traditional Tibetan communities in 1984 and
2010, respectively (see Table 2).
The table clearly shows that between 1984 and 2009, the
population and households of the 4 communities increased
steadily by 26.68% and 33.3% respectively. The number of pigs
and cattle also grew sharply. The number of pigs, cows, dzhoes
and yaks increased by 206.6%, 50.8%, 68.5% and 30.8%, re-
spectively. On the contrary, the number of donkeys, sheep and
horses decreased to different extents, with 15.38% for horses,
Table 2.
Population of donkeys in the 4 communities in 1984 and 2010.
Year Village
Zhaxilin Village
Chabalang Village
Cundui Village
Lunbugang Total
1984 500 30 180 0 710
2009 2 0 96 0 98
Note: Source: the authors’ field work in 1 984 and 2009.
17.65% for sheep and a staggering 624.5% for donkeys. Below
is the analysis of the change of donkey population in different
communities and related problems:
First, in Village Lunbugang, Maizhokunggar county, Lhasa
city, donkeys are widely used in farming areas and farm-
ing-pastoral areas by the river valley. However, this village is
an exception: donkeys have never been raised in there. Local
farmers, experts at animal husbandry and relevant people did
not give accurate answer to this issue. We approach the issue
from the following perspectives:
From historical point of view, in old Tibet, Village Lun-
bugang was controlled by local nobles, and att ached tenants and
“langsheng” needn’t ride donkeys to handle affairs.
From environmental point of view, this village is situated
west to Mila Mountain at the juncture of Linzhi district, with
better vegetation than Midwest Tibet. In summer, abundant
trees and bush make it unnecessary for farmers to cut firewood
in the distance (Nan Wenyuan 南文渊, 2008).
From population point of view, the village is a typical farm-
ing-pastoral area and farming land is distributed near cottages,
with smaller area and less production. Up to now, horses are
enough for essential agricultural activities, so it is not necessary
for farmers to keep donkeys.
From cultural point of view, Tibetans consider expensive fur
clothing, jewels and the number of cattle as symbol of wealth.
Among them, strong horses and yaks, especially female yaks
are regarded as major wealth of farmers (Tsering Dundrup
泽仁邓珠, 2005), so if they can choose, they usually choose
other livestock than donkeys.
Therefore, “being inapplicable” is a possible reason for this
and other villages in Maizhokunggar county not to raise don-
keys, but not a major one. Luxuriant grass in this area provides
a firm ecological foundation for farmers to choose the kind of
livestock they prefer, and this is probably the most important
reason. A more convincing case is Taba, a community 10 kilo-
meters west of the village. In old Tibet, this community was a
base of pottery-making in Middle Tibet. Nobles lived in Lhasa
and monks in the temple often used pottery produced here.
Local farmers needed to do much corvee about pottery. This
village is nearly 80 kilometers away from Lhasa. They had to
do much corvee to produce pottery. In other areas of Tibet,
donkeys are bound to be the major transport tool, but they have
never been bred in this village. This village is only responsible
for production, while transport is in the charge of farmers in
Dazi county. According to a senior technician in charge of pot-
tery in old Tibet, “qimo”, at that time, if green pottery was sent
to Lhasa, horses covered with brilliant clothes would be used.
This showed that donkeys as livestock for the poor seemed less
likely to appear in this village. Therefore, it was reasonable,
historically and culturally, even for the local poor to, if possible,
raise horses instead of donkeys.
The change in number of donkeys and their stories in the
other three communities after 1984 are worth exploring.
Open Access 157
Table 2 shows that, Village Cundui has a number of donkeys,
decreasing from 180 in 1984 to 96 now, and Village Chabalang
has no donkey at present, with 30 in 1984. The number of don-
keys in Village Zhaxilin has decreased from 500 in 1984 to 2
now, and the 2 donkeys are in advanced age and cannot work
any longer. Taking everything into consideration, the main
reason for the dramatic decline of donkey numbers in the above
villages could be summarized as follows:
The need to keep donkey as transport tool did not exist any
After 1984, farmers became the main body of Tibetan rural
management, and the central government exempted Tibetan
farming-pastoral areas from tax as well, thus Tibetan farmers
became the first who needn’t hand in grains to the government
in China. Donkeys successfully completed their grain-trans-
porting task.
Change of ecological environment and the government’s
environmental protection policies have reduced farmer’s re-
liance on donkeys for firewood.
From the historical point of view, firewood in Tibetan farm-
ing-pastoral areas was mainly obtained through livestock de-
jecta, along with branches of thorns, Chamaecyparis obtuse,
capitate rhododendron branchlet and leaf, as well as pine and
cypress. In the middle 1980s, the reform of Tibet not only im-
proved farmers’ living conditions but also created relaxing
religious atmosphere for farmers. The better life people had, the
more hulless barley, chang and “sang” were needed, which
required more firewood. During the 1980s and middle 1990s,
the public did not fully understand the importance of environ-
ment protection, nor did the government take effective meas-
ures to protect plants. So farmers, more frequently, cut more
firewood on a larger scale. In the early 1990s, when the number
of donkeys in these 3 communities remained the same as in
1984, farmers’ firewood piled on walls was not branches, but
the roots of thorns and bushes.
In the mid 1990s, owing to constant cutting, thorns and
bushes in Village Zhaxilin, Village Chabalang, and Village
Cundui were nearly exhausted. Faced with resource exhaustion
and environmental deterioration, the government took more
action for environmental protection and stopped farmers from
cutting plants. In the meantime, solar furnace became popular
in Tibet, and 80% farmers began to use one provided by the
government, and some wealthy farmers began to use natural gas
stove. All these enabled farmers to be less dependent on fire-
wood, which in turn weakened the status and role of donkeys,
the help for farmers to convey firewood.
Since 2000, global warming has become aggravated. When
we entered the above communities again, farmers often talked
about drought caused by shortened raining seasons and declin-
ing rainfall. A case in point is: except Village Lunbugang, the
mountains in the other 3 communities used to be full of green
trees in early July. But after 2000, this time delayed to late July
or even early August. Drought and high temperature greatly
affected the growth of grass to such an extent that for most time
during a year, farmers of Village Zhaxilin and Village Cha-
balang had to operate animal husbandry by enclosing livestock,
which led open animal husbandry to a precarious situation. The
condition of Village Zhaxilin was especially worrying. Between
2009 and June to July, 2010, because of lack of fodder, many
farmers fed their livestock by collecting leaves, and some
farmers even sold their cows. The scarcity of grass forced
farmers to change the size and structure of livestock-keeping
(Luorong Zhandui 罗绒战堆, 2002). One of the agonizing
decisions made by farmers in most Tibetan areas was to aban-
don donkeys.
With the increase of income and selling spots of natural gas,
together with exhausting firewood and the official ban, a rising
number of wealthy farmers began to use natural gas instead of
firewood, and its proportion rose sharply after 2000 (see Table
3). Additionally, since 2005, in order to protect environment
and solve the energy shortage of Tibetan rural areas, govern-
ments at different levels of Tibet set out to build marsh gas
tanks and provided free burners burners free of charge. In 2010,
in the above 4 communities, 50%, 60%, 30% and 40%, respec-
tively, farmers used marsh gas. Now, many farmers in Tibet
own “tuzao” and “ganglu” as well as solar furnaces and marsh
gas furnaces given by the government or natural gas furnaces
bought by themselves. What is more, in the past two years, the
government has built blast-equipped public furnaces for the
purpose of frying hulless barley, for which dairy manure and
straw can be used as fuels. Tibetan farmers using 5 different
kinds of furnaces should, if ever, be included in Guinness. may
even set a world record.
A recent survey shows that efforts by farmers and the gov-
ernment have decreased the consumption of firewood by 70% -
80% in Village Zhaxilin and Village Chabalang. Furthermore,
thorns and bushes tend to be exhausted in these 2 villages, so
firewood especially materials for “weisang” have to be pur-
chased from the market. Thus, in these two communities, don-
keys have thoroughly completed their mission to help farmers
convey firewood. There are no donkeys in Village Chabalang,
and there are only 2 old donkeys in village Zhaxilin.
However, in Village Cundui, there are still 96 donkeys used.
According to a survey, the firewood substitution is significant
in this village, and the consumption of firewood per household
has decreased by 60% - 70%. Compared with Village Zhaxilin
and Village Chabalang, farmers in this village still needed to
cut firewood. Villagers said that there are some thorns and
bushes in distant mountainous areas. In spite of the official ban,
many farmers still ride donkeys secretly to cut firewood in the
evening, Therefore, donkeys still play a part in carrying fire-
wood, which is perhaps an important reason why there are still
some donkey remained in this village.
The function of donkeys in agriculture is gradually being
replaced by machinery.
In the past, with poor infrastructure, producing and living
conditions, donkeys were an important help to farmers. How-
ever, with the construction of roads in Tibet and improvement
of rural living conditions, farmers have had strong passion for
buying machines. A questionnaire of the 4 communities made
in 1998 showed that tractors, female yaks and new houses
ranked the top three on the list of farmers’ investment. The
Table 3.
Proportion of natural gas furnaces used by farmers in 4 communities in
1995, 2005 and 2010.
Year Village
Zhaxilin Village
Chabalang Village
Cundui Village
1995 5% 8% 6% 0%
2005 20% 30% 25% 10%
2010 70% 90% 86% 50%
Note: Source: the aut h ors field work in 1996, 2005 and 2010.
Open Access
Open Access 159
rapid increase in machinery in different communities also
proved that many farmers had realized their dreams (see Table
According to the above statistics, in order to exclude the ef-
fect of normal growth in population and households on the
increase of machinery, average number of machines owned by
the households in 1984 and 2010 should be taken into account
(Table 5).
Through comparison we can see that in 1984 only 14 house-
holds owned one tractor and 36 households owned one car,
adding machine and grain blower, it would be very difficult for
farmers to deal with agricultural and other activities without a
certain number of donkeys. Nowadays, every household owns
one tractor and the number of other machines also has risen
drastically, therefore donkey’s role has been reduced when
farmers begin to use machines rather than donkeys. Thus, don-
keys’ function as a help of farmers has been greatly weakened,
and they are bound to be abandoned.
How Farmers Face Culture Shock in Donkey
In Tibet, donkeys is considered the model of diligence, also
an important help in various activities even family members.
Because of religious and cultural factors, Tibetan farmers never
kill donkeys and horses for food. Instead, they feed donkeys
and give proper burial upon death. But with the rapid economic
development and deepening environmental factors, the histori-
cal status and function of donkeys are challenged. It seems not
economical and necessary to raise donkeys, so they will be
abandoned unavoidably, though farmers may suffer from ag-
The word “Agony” is used to show how farmers feel when
they have to abandon their donkeys, because even though
farmers have to abandon them, they do not have proper ways to
do that. If they want to discard donkeys, they either kill them or
present them or sell them. The traditional culture forbids the
killing (Garma Jangtsun 噶玛降村, 2005). If they present or
sell them to local farmers, nobody needs or buys them. If they
present or sell them to other people, they are afraid that don-
keys will be killed, which will lead to shame and provoke
neighbors’ criticism. However, different districts in Tibet de-
velop at different rates. If one district does not use donkeys,
another district will probably use them. On the other hand,
China has large territory, and cultural differences between Tibet
and internal areas are obvious. People in Tibet do not eat don-
keys, but people in other areas do not mind or may even enjoy
eating donkey. In many areas of Han nationality, donkey meat
is regarded as a delicacy, as an old Chinese saying puts,
“dragon meat in the heaven and donkey meat on earth”. The
other 3 communities except Village Lunbugang, have their way
to abandon donkeys and cope with traditional culture and cus-
Village Chabalang is the community with the fewest donkeys,
the first to abandon them and the most complete one. In 1984,
farmers owned only 30 donkeys from people’s communes.
Located near Lhasa, this village had convenient transport, and
its productivity and living conditions ranked the first among the
4 communities. Since the 1990s, farmers in this village have
begun to buy tractors and abandon donkeys. Within 10 years,
donkeys disappeared in this village. But as to the abandoning
methods, different people had different ideas.
The old village leader told us that the main method was sell-
ing them to poor communities in Shigatse via Tibetan livestock
dealers, with 50 - 80 Yuan per donkey, while another young
leader, after drinking, said that the first 10 donkeys were sold to
farmers in Shigatse at a low price. After this, some livestock
dealers of Muslim nationality came, offering 150 yuan for one
Table 4.
Statistics of machines u sed in 4 commu nities in 1984 and 2010.
Village Year Households TractorsCars SeedersReapers Grain Blowers Motor cycles
1984 70 3 4 0
Zhaxilin 2010 83 7 5 4 7 6
1984 60 3 3 2 0
Chabalang 2010 105 120 30 60 60 3 8
1984 90 12 2 3 0
Cundui 2010 102 110 3 20 1 98
1984 33 1 1 0
Lunbugang 2010 47 30 3 2 2 25
Total 1984 253 18 7 7 0 7 0
Total 2010 337 267 38 87 63 12 137
Note: Source: data from field work by the authors in 1984 and 2010.
Table 5.
Average machine per household in 1984 and 2010.
Year Tractors Cars Seeders Reapers Grain Blowers Motorcycles
1984 14 36 36 none 36 none
2010 1.26 8.8 3.8 5.3 28 2.5
Note: Source: data from field survey by the authors i n 1984 and 2010.
donkey and promising not to kill the donkeys, eat or sell don-
key meat, but to send. Some farmers believed this, and sold
about 10 donkeys to these dealers. But soon they heard from
Lhasa that the sold donkeys had been killed in a cruel way.
Many villagers thought this harmed the traditional culture and
customs in Tibet (Kelzang Yeshe 格桑益希, 2003). From
then on, livestock dealers of Han and Muslim nationalities were
rejected. These dealers soon changed their practice, employing
Tibetans especially Kham people to purchase donkeys in farm-
ing-pastoral areas, while they themselves would wait by the
road far away from the village. The last 10 donkeys were
eliminated in this way.
Village Zhaxilin is the community with the most donkeys in
the history, and its way of abandoning donkeys was almost the
same as Village Chabalang: a small number of donkeys were
sold to Tibetan farmers in Shigatse, and others were sold to
dealers of Han and Muslim nationalities who were willing to
offer higher prices. There were many people in this village and
nearby villages who dealt with Tibet wool, and selling donkeys
to Han and Muslim dealers could not be kept as a secret. This
village is sited in deep mountains lined by many villages all the
way, so any trade in or near the village will easily attract oth-
ers’ attention and words spread quickly. In order to overcome
the obstacle of the traditional culture to the trade, farmers gen-
erally make an appointment with Tibetans employed by Han
and Muslim dealers and make a deal at a concealed spot. How-
ever, there are two households in this village who, facing the
reality that forage is scarce and donkeys cannot work any
longer, persist in their own traditional culture (Lorja Tsering
洛加才让, 2002) by protecting the donkeys’ right to live.
There are still a few donkeys in Village Cundui, because in
this village donkeys can still be used. Owing to the geographi-
cal condition, it is not very convenient to send donkeys to other
Tibetan communities. Villagers mainly depend on livestock
dealers from outside, especially dealers of Muslim nationality.
Although there are many businessmen in Lhvnzhub county
town, including livestock dealers, some dealers resell Tibetan
women and pay with forged banknotes, which contaminate
their own reputation, and thus causing Tibetans’ resistance to
businessmen of Muslim nationality. When 3.14 Event in 2008
took place, a few Tibetan people even broke into business fa-
cilities of Muslim nationality in county town. Up to now, few
businesses have recovered their business. Under this circum-
stance, Tibetan farmers face bigger cultural obstacles if they
trade with Muslim dealers.
There are many reasons that the number of donkeys in the
above communities has sharply decreased during the past
25 years, but the most important one lies in degeneration of
environment. As many farmers observed during the inter-
view, if there were enough forage in the nearby mountains,
they would keep donkeys free. But when forage is so scarce
even for cows they have no choice but to abandon donkeys.
There are many reasons for environmental degeneration,
among which too many livestock and long-term over-cut-
ting of plants are the two major ones. Even now, although
the government tries to protect the environment by admin-
istrative, economic and technological approaches, and im-
plements the official ban on cutting and provides firewood
substitution, there are other difficulties. For one thing,
farmers must raise some livestock to earn their living, so it
is hard for the government to interfere. Another reason is
that farmers have to do “weisang” for their religious belief,
for which they have to cut firewood from mountains and
nothing could substitute it. If the government interferes, it is
possible to bring about a blame for “not respecting religion”
of farmers and international communities. Thus, Tibetan
environmental degeneration in population centers will con-
Development of economy is bound to cause the change of
culture, especially the traditional culture, which should act
of its own accord. But without economic development,
people will lack economic deposits, and adherence to the
traditional culture will be a mere façade. Villagers of Lun-
bugang do not eat fish now, and villagers of Cundui cherish
the black-necked crane perching there with seasons; how-
ever, between 1960s and 1970s, with poor living conditions,
villagers often exploded fish with caught and killed cranes
with woduo, and cooked them for food. Therefore, devel-
opment is not the only factor leading to environmental
change; poverty can play a part as well.
After reform and opening-up, the development and change
of Tibetan rural areas, especially the improvement of pro-
ducing and living conditions, have been impressive. But
with the development of economy and deepening of open-
ing to the outside world, as more and more people, with
different cultural background and religious belief, come to
Tibet for various business activities, clashes and conflicts
are inevitable because of their culture shock and conflicting
interests. The government has a long way to solve these
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