Travis Benjamin Thurber
A Review of Four Rivers, Six Ranges
Andrugtsang Gompo Tashi (1905-1964), a Tibetan merchant born in Molha Khashar, a Lithang river valley village in Kham, became the leader of a resistance group known as Four Rivers, Six Ranges (Chushi Gangdrug) in 1958. For the next couple years, he and his band of guerilla freedom fighters did their best to fight off the Chinese communist “liberation” of Tibet but were severely challenged by limited resources and training. In the end they were defeated and the remnants of the group fled to India, where Gompo Tashi passed away from battle wounds and ill health. This paper is a review of his autobiography, as compiled from his memoirs by his nephew Tamding Tsepel Andrugtsang.
The struggle for Tibetan freedom and independence has recently become more of a political battle than a physical one, but this has not always been the case. In the memoirs of Andrugtsang Gompo Tashi, a Tibetan businessman turned freedom fighter, this point is made clear. According to his autobiography, entitled Four Rivers, Six Ranges (Chushi Gangdrug in Tibetan), the 1950s were fraught with oppression and massacre for the Tibetan people. Four Rivers, Six Ranges is the story of a wealthy Khampa merchant who was unable to sit back and watch as his people were deprived of their rights, and who felt compelled for the sake of his country and religion to fight back against the encroaching forces of the communist Chinese.
The account opens with a short introduction by the fourteenth Dalai Lama, praising Andrugtsang’s aims and sacrifices. This introduction is followed by a preface written by Andrugtsang’s nephew, Tamding Tsepel (who compiled the memoirs several years after the death of Andrugtsang), which sets down the purpose of the book, making claims to be the first accurate account of the events contained within. Coupled with the fact that the book was published in the Tibetan refugee town of Darjeeling, India, these initial details should cue the reader to take the story with a grain of salt, remembering that the views expressed are representative of only one side of a large historical debate, and are not necessarily an exact reproduction of Andrugtsang’s writings.
The initial three chapters provide an introduction to the geography and culture of Kham, the area east of central Tibet and west of China proper. Andrugtsang was born in a small village situated in the Lithang river valley, called Molha Khashar. The main activities of the villagers involved subsistence agriculture and livestock. For the most part, his village was self-sufficient: eating their own produce and bartering among themselves for specialized services such as carpentry and tailoring; the only necessity for outside trade was cloth. Andrugtsang’s family was rather wealthy and dealt in the trade of wool and cigarettes, among other things. As a boy, Andrugtsang had the privilege of practicing riding, marksmanship, wrestling, and rock climbing; activities that would later benefit his military career. He also enjoyed reading tales of legendary war heroes.
As a teenager, Andrugtsang studied at a local monastery where he learned the tenets of Buddhism, which strongly influenced his beliefs and actions for the remainder of his life. At age seventeen, he obtained his first taste of battle by joining a volunteer force charged with ousting a roaming bandit group from the Lithang area, an endeavor that met with great success. Then, following a brief stint as a hunter, Andrugtsang inherited the family business, in which he began to see firsthand the Chinese attempts at assimilating Tibet.
Rife throughout these first three chapters is a subtle criticism of modernization. Andrugtsang depicts the indigenous Tibetans as a blissfully isolated and religious people, whose needs are completely satisfied by living a simple, devout lifestyle: “One reason for [Tibet’s] simple, undeveloped economy on the eve of the Chinese invasion was doubtless the state of contentment and limitations of wants induced by religious devotion” (21). In other words, the Tibetans have no need of the Western ideal of modernization or the communist ideal of liberation, because “the average Tibetan farmer…was contented and happy” (21). Andrugtsang also praises the Tibetans robust health, effective indigenous medical system, and sense of humor. He decries the Chinese claims that the lamas were malignant dictators as fabricated and completely denies the existence of serfdom in Tibet. He goes so far as to claim that the monastic system actually provided a great opportunity for social mobility, since anyone could become a monk.
How much of this is true is unclear, as it could have been written later in Andrugtsang’s voice as pro-Tibet propaganda, or it could have been a result of his aristocratic upbringing; he simply may not have noticed the problems. Nevertheless, he summarizes his ideology and political position clearly in this statement: “A simple, peaceful people, contented with their lot, engrossed in religious ritual and taking delight in traditional forms of recreation, all they asked for was to be let alone in their isolated valleys and hilly plateaus. And yet this was asking for too much. Tibet was invaded and the Tibetans were forced to resist the Chinese by violence” (31). From this point forward, Andrugtsang devotes his life fully to the cause of Tibetan freedom.
Andrugtsang’s initial confrontations with the “peaceful liberation” occurred when he was doing business in Lhasa. First, a large shipment of his wares was intercepted and confiscated by Chinese officials, and some of his employees were imprisoned. While he managed to get his employees released, his shipment was lost forever, and he never received compensation despite his complaints. Second, many Tibetans of Chinese descent were deported from Lhasa back to China, despite having lived there for several generations (55). Subsequently, the Chinese began taking a census of all Khampas and Amdowas living in Lhasa, with the rumored intent of deporting them as well. At the same time, reports were coming in that monasteries were being destroyed and their inhabitants massacred. All this was occurring while politically the Chinese were claiming to have nothing but good and peaceful intentions with Tibet. Outraged, Andrugtsang left Lhasa and spent the next couple years establishing a network of merchants united against Chinese oppression.
At first, his group focused on securing the release of political prisoners and obtaining widespread support for the Dalai Lama, but it soon evolved into a large force of volunteer revolutionaries, willing to sacrifice their lives to rid their homeland of its oppressors. In June of 1958, this force united with other local renegade groups and certain army divisions in the town of Trigu Thang, located south of Lhasa, to become the Chushi Gangdruk, meaning “four rivers, six mountain ranges,” and together they dedicated themselves to violently resisting the Chinese. The resistance soldiers were popularly known as the Volunteer Freedom Force (VFF), and recruits poured in from all over Kham and Amdo; an initial count put the VFF at 5,000 men. In a public statement, Andrugtsang expresses their mission as follows: “Our movement did not generate from any motives of disloyalty or disrespect toward our government nor was it conceived in any spirit of lawlessness. Our sole objective was to resist and oust the Chinese who were oppressing our people…We were rebelling not from choice but from sheer compulsion” (72).
After acquiring arms and ammunition, appointing leaders, and establishing a code of conduct, the VFF began to garner Tibetan support by eradicating bandit gangs. The Chinese, aware of their existence, funneled support to the bandits in an effort to squash the rebellion without too much exertion. But their support was not enough, and the VFF gained fame and valuable training from the ordeal. Finally, beginning in late 1958, the People’s Liberation Army was forced to face the VFF directly.
Early on, the VFF scored many victories through knowledge of the terrain, superior mobility, and guerilla tactics. The Tibetans were by far outnumbered by the Chinese, but were able to dull this disadvantage with their fierce and wild fighting style, often intimidating the Chinese troops into fleeing. Andrugtsang attributes their success to the “holy charm boxes” (73) worn around the bodies of the warriors. Unfortunately, in early October of 1958, after many weeks of constant fighting and marching, the VFF ran dangerously low on food, ammunition, and stamina and were eventually surrounded by the unrelenting Chinese forces, sustaining heavy losses and injuries before barely escaping.
Back at the capital city of Lhasa, simultaneous to the fighting, a political battle was also being waged. The Chinese ambassadors refused to acknowledge any of the oppressive activities taking place in Kham, sticking by their claim that they wanted only the best for Tibet and its people. They even installed a puppet committee for the administration of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which might have been a useful entity had the Chinese not controlled all the members with threats. Andrugtsang writes that “it soon became apparent that the so-called autonomy was nothing less than a farce. With a solid bloc of controlled Tibetan votes in the Committee in addition to those of the Chinese members, the real representatives of the Tibetan people had little voice in decision making” (39). The committee was often ordered to condemn the VFF as mere rebels and bandits who cared nothing for the future of Tibet.
Nevertheless, they fought on. Regrouping from the first major defeat, Andrugtsang, not one to be disheartened, went on another recruiting tour of Kham and Amdo in late December of 1958, obtaining 7,000 new volunteers. With these reinforcements, he pushed east, winning many battles and even capturing a Chinese fortress at Tengchen in January 1959. But at this point the VFF’s days were numbered; the Chinese began using their planes to bomb the hapless Tibetan forces, and the People’s Liberation Army moved into Lhasa, filling the city with ordnance shells, killing many citizens and forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India. The VFF tried to resist, but were finally overwhelmed by the Chinese numbers and superior weaponry. In the face of these odds, the great Chushi Gangdrug began to dissolve from within: “The serious reverses we had suffered had, however, affected the morale of our force and the will to continue the struggle was considerably weakened” (103), writes Andrugtsang. Following these losses, the Dalai Lama summoned Andrugtsang to India, and the violent struggle was, for the time being, lost.
In adjusting to his new life in India, Andrugtsang expresses much regret at his inability to further contribute to Tibetan liberation: “It was a galling thought that the volunteer force, which had fought so long against such heavy odds and performed so many deeds of valor, had no further role to play” (104). Nevertheless, he did not fail to notice the kindness of the Indian government in accepting the Tibetan refugees into its society: the people were given jobs and homes, and their children were educated. Although suffering from ill health, Andrugtsang made one final effort to hassle the Chinese. He organized small groups of armed volunteers to harass the Chinese troops patrolling the border, allowing more Tibetan refugees to access the safe haven of India.
In September of 1964, after a long life of valiant struggle, Andrugtsang Gompo Tashi passed away due to battle wounds. His final prayer, characteristic of his lifestyle, inspires subsequent generations to continue his fight: “May the tragedy of Tibet be a warning and a lesson to all mankind and impel people everywhere to resist tyranny and suppression of human rights.”