Tibetan Sub-Groups

The Ergong (Erh-gong) People


The 60,500 Ergong live in unique white, flat-roofed houses, lined with red timbers. The Ergong are known for their elaborate Tibetan style paintings that line the walls inside of their houses. Someone in the family, taking many months, usually does this painting.

If you are looking to be in the middle of Ergong culture, you want to see Daofu city. A large Tibetan temple (the biggest in Daofu County) is in Daofu city, providing a place for about 200 monks to worship and study each day. Most monks are Ergong, with a few being Zhaba. In the mornings, you can watch the monks, young and old, chant and read scriptures in the big temple rooms.

You can also walk to the second floor of the temple which houses some enormous god statues, masks, and yak-butter sculptures. The monks are very friendly here, and will let you take pictures and video. The Ergong speakers hold festivals in January and the summer months.

The Ergong have also been called Western Jiarong, but their language is distinctly different. They speak their mother tongue (also known as Daofu language) within their own communities, but speak Chinese with outsiders.

In 1903 two Frenchmen moved to Daofu to share their Christian belief, and built a church with 10 classrooms. The government welcomed them both. Their church bought fields with the purpose of providing jobs for farmers who would work the fields, and cared for some children by building and running an orphanage. Believers were first baptized and then attended church every Sunday. Seventy percent of the Chinese in town were Christians, only a handful of Tibetans were Christian believers. Some Tibetans accepted some of the Christian beliefs, but still held onto Tibetan Buddhism. In 1949, the government told the Frenchmen to leave the country. There were no new believers after this time. The church was destroyed and changed into a children’s dormitory for a school. Later it was rebuilt into a Tibetan Buddhist temple (see picture), which it remains today on the east side of town. Some of the people in town believe there may be a few old Chinese Christians in town, but there is only one known Ergong Christian.

Location: western Sichuan: western Danba (17,000), Daofu (28,000), southern Luhuo (6,500), and eastern Xinlong counties in the Ganzi Prefecture; and Jinchuan (Guanyingqiao) (5,000), and southern Zamtang (Shangzhai) (4,000) counties of Aba Prefecture in NW Sichuan. Daofu city is 3,125m high

The Ersu (Erh-soo)


The Ersu are a small group of about 20,000 that are spread out over a big area. They are noted for their use of an ancient pictographic script. They believe they came from Lhasa a few hundred years ago. They do not have any temples, but worship in their homes.

They have been assimilated into much of the Chinese and Yi way of speaking and living. The 3,000 Ersu in Mianning (called Lisu) only have 2 monks, both living in Mianning city. They come to the villages to help with burials. Their last Bon temple (in Huyi) was destroyed in the 60’s. The Ersu live in remote areas but most have TV’s and telephones. They can receive some radio signals, but few people listen to the stations. There are a few old Ersu ladies that live in Jiulong city.

Location: Southern Sichuan: Shijin, Yanyuan, Ganluo, Yuexi, western Mianning, northern Muli and southern Jiulong (3 villages) counties. 1-2,000 live in Xia Ka and an additional 1,000 in other Jiulong county areas. The main areas where the Ersu live are Ganluo County and the western part of Mianning County.

The Niamuyi (Niah-mouyee)


The 5,000 Niamuyi believe they came from Lhasa 400 years ago. There was a family of 10 brothers in this time. They believed that Tibetans shouldn’t marry Chinese, but the Tibetan King married a Chinese, which caused a war that led 5 of the brothers to this area where they became war-tower keepers. Ironically they now commonly intermarry with the Chinese and Yi nationalities. They believe they are related to the Ersu people because they have the same ancestors.

Most believe in the black sect (Bon) of Tibetan Buddhism, but currently have no temples. Most worship is done inside their house or at the family’s personal Holy Mountain. When someone dies, they kill an animal (goat, sheep, or pig) sending the animal to their god as an offering, which they believe will save the dead person. Most families have 3 or 4 children.

Location: southern Jiulong and northern Muli counties. The main city is Luopo (Muli), which has between 700-1,000 Namuyi along with some Ersu.

The Pumi of Sichuan (Poo-mee)


The Pumi of Sichuan have a distinctive identity because of their isolated location, and the influence of nearby cultures. They live in the midst of mountain peaks and riverfilled gorges with very little level ground to cultivate. Over 50,000 Pumi live in southern Sichuan alongside 12 other nationalities including Yi, Mongols, Naxi, and Miao. The landscape and ethnicity between the Sichuan Yunnan border have much in common.

About 40,000 Pumi live in Yunnan Province and can understand more than 60% of the Sichuan Pumi language, but are not classified here because of their religion being classified differently (Polytheism, Animism and Ancestor worship). Most Pumi can speak Chinese. All Sichuan Pumi have their own Holy mountain for each family, though they all worship Gong Ga mountain, and Three Brothers mountain. They also have a stone that the women worship if they can’t have a baby.

When a man dies, they burn his body, take the bones covered with red clothes, and take the remains to the top of their family’s mountain. If they don’t do this, the son and grandsons will have bad luck. They also believe in a tree god. They believe a legend that says someone poured dog and cat blood on a tree that died, causing bad luck on the Pumi for many years.

There are 3 main Gelukpa monasteries in the Pumi area and others, which are undergoing restoration. The main Monastery in Wachang holds important religious dances each May and November. The Pumi talk about their spiritual King; a 21 year old who people believe knows the future, and can ask the sky to change weather. They also believe he can give good luck to people. He is not a political King, but a King in which the people look towards for spiritual guidance. The area they live in is one of the most gospel-neglected places on earth. There is no history of the gospel being taken into this area, and there is not knowledge of any believers, ever.

Most of the Sichuan Pumi (40,000) live in Muli County, with Muli city being the capital. The county rises from 2,000 meters in the south to 4,000 meters in the north, Muli city being at 2,300. Its valuable natural resources are lumber and gold. Many Chinese knew Mulias “the world of gold” and before 1950 attracted Chinese gold prospectors who were sometimes not welcome and killed by Tibetans.

Muli County opened for travel in April of 2000, so it is still a wild place to travel with some of the most adventurous roads in Sichuan. The best time to travel is in autumn or spring; the summer can bring rains that wash out the road, causing long delays. The bigger roads are supposed to be paved by the end of 2002. You can see some war towers in the county that were built by the Naxi nation. One should be careful of big wild dogs when traveling in this area. Many are not chained up. There are 2 Internet bars in Muli city, but most of western Muli does not have telephone access.

Seven to Eight thousand Pumi live in Yanyuan (means “source of salt”). The Pumi and Chinese had a war over salt here that pushed the Pumi south. 80% of the Pumi in Yanyuan are farmers (apples, and wheat) while 20% work in the city. The Pumi sometimes have 4-6 kids.

The Pumi live in an area that might be open to outsiders coming to help with agriculture and education. In western Muli, it costs 100Y a term (4 months) for students to attend Middle School. Some families can’t afford this, and some need the children to help in the fields. Less than 10% of the kids go to Middle School in the rural areas of Muli. In Xichang there is a teachers college, and a minority training college (2 years) that some Pumi attend. It may be possible to go to Wachang and teach English in the middle school for a few days or weeks. This has been done before. There is only one telephone here, which is an old wind up telephone that is rarely used, located in the post office. They do have electricity, and they have a place where people can rent horses to travel and sell their goods to people who live as far out as a 7 days journey. The Elementary and Middle schools in Muli city are very willing for short-term teams to come and teach English.

Location: Southwest Sichuan: The Pumi of Sichuan mainly live in 3 counties: Muli (40,000), Yanyuan (7-8,000), and Jiulong (3,000). A small number live in Yongning District of Ninglang County in the Northern Yunnan Province. There is at least 60% linguistic similarity between Sichuan Pumi and Yunnan Pumi.

The Shixing (Sher-shing)


The 2,000 Shixing are one of the smallest and most unreached people groups in all of China. They live a good 6 days travel from Chengdu, and the only foreigners that have traveled here are linguists and a few professional mountain climbers. The Shixing live isolated lives farming rice and maize on thin strips of land in Shui Luo or the area leading down to the Shui Luo River. In the past the Shixing lived under the rule of the Pumi king in Muli. Their language is quite different from their Pumi neighbors. They can speak 3 or 4 languages (including Chinese and Pumi). Little else is known about these people besides their location and language.

The Queyu (Chue-yoo)


The Queyu are the most unknown of the Qiangic speaking Tibetans. Most Tibetans and Chinese in surrounding counties have never heard of them. It is not known if any foreigners have ever traveled to this extremely remote mountainous area. The 7,000 Queyu mainly live in 2 villages in the southeastern tip of Xinlong county: You la xi and Xhi tuo xi. Some 2,486 people lived in these villages as of 1990. Unlike the other groups, the Queyu do not seem to have much outside influence. It is very doubtful that any Queyu have ever heard the gospel.

The Heishui Tibetan


In part of Heishui County (Aba Prefecture) the Tibetan population speaks a variety of the Qiang language. This caused them to be designated as belonging to the Qiang nationality, a people group that lives in the same area but is not Tibetan Buddhist. The so-called “Heishui Tibetans” are proud of their Tibetan heritage and refuse flatly to be reckoned as Qiang people, even though their language is largely the same. For these reasons they are classified as Tibetans. This situation has long caused confusion about the terms Qiang and Qiangic.

The simplest way of dealing with the situation is to remember that a number of Tibetans called “Heishui Tibetans” (after the name of the county they live in) actually speaks a dialect of the Qiang language. There are estimated to be some 12,000 Qiang speaking Tibetan Buddhists in Heishui County. The estimate is lower than the figures of other researchers. There are no known believers among these people.

The Baima (Bai-ma)


The Baima live in steep mountain valleys in an area that crosses from northern Sichuan to southern Gansu. They number about 13,700, and live in the counties of Pingwu and Nanping in Sichuan, and Wenxian in Gansu.

As the Han Chinese have moved into the area the Baima have moved higher up into the mountains. They are farmers and hunters, living on the corn they grow in terraced mountainsides, the animals they raise and the animals they hunt.

They have a keen sense of self-identity; they have kept up the practice of marrying within the tribe as a means of self preservation. A number of years ago they applied to the central government for separate nationality status. They felt that their language and special cultural characteristics make them significantly distinct from other Tibetans. One of the distinctives of the Baima is the fact that they have their own script for their language. They have their own religious writings, books used in the ritual animistic worship. According to Deng Ting Yan et. al. “the scripture book of Baima is written in the Baima language which is spelled by a kind of pictograph similar to that of the Naxi nationality plus the Tibetan alphabet.

Today there is no one who can read this language after the death of the great Laobai Meng Xai in 1984.” (Page 135). * Each recognized minority in China is given access to funding for language preservation and representation in decision-making bodies regarding a number of issues, such as education. Special status as a separate nationality could have resulted in funding to do language research and preserve their language. However their application was turned down, and they are still officially lumped together with the larger group of Tibetans.

Baima practice the animistic mountain god worship prevalent among Qiangic speaking Tibetans, but apparently there is no trace of Tibetan Buddhism in their religion, which makes them unusual among Tibetan groups. In yearly rituals the mountain gods are asked to protect and prosper the people. The men participate in presenting sacrifices of food to the mountain god. At New Year, the Shamans lead in rituals exorcising the village and each home from evil spirits. The position of Shaman is passed down from father to son.

The Baima live near one of the most famous nature reserves in China, Jiuzhaigou. In recent years the area has opened up to tourism, which has improved travel to and from the area.The area is home to the giant panda, one of the special tourist attractions.

The Guiqiong (Gway-chee-ong)


There are about 7,000 c Guiqiong living in Kangding Xian and neighboring counties that contain the Dadu river valley. The Chinese Linguist Sun Hongkai says “speakers of Guiqiong live in small communities interspersed among larger Chinese communities. They use Chinese outside of their own villages. The Guiqiong language they speak is under heavy influence from Chinese, containing many Chinese loan-words”.

The Zhaba (Zha-ba)


The 15,000 Zhaba live a hard life in a land of fast winding rivers and high mountains. Most of the Zhaba live along the river (Xian Shui He) that flows from Daofu to Yajong. The Zhaba say they came to this area after being defeated in the Mongol wars in Northern China. Many say that the Zhaba were the earliest inhabitants of this area. They now mostly believe in the Black sect (Bon) of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Zhaba have a history of being a matriarchal society. In some of the distant villages, the women still have control over the family, with the father taking care of his sister’s children, not his own. When a couple wants to get married, it is not the fathers that talk, but the brothers of the mothers who discuss the possible marriage.

Most of the Zhaba are farmers growing wheat, mushrooms, medicine plants, and apples. They also raise cows, pigs, and horses. In Zhaba town-ship, the people have not had electricity or telephone lines since 1997 when logging was banned. The logging industry was a big part of this area, so when logging stopped, so did the electricity. Two generator-run televisions are watched by some at night. Lanterns are used in the evenings, and a horse is the main mode of transportation to most villages.

The Zhaba area has no Middle schools, so students must go to Yajang city or Daofu city for Middle school. There is a Bon temple just north of Zhaba town, which has 3 groups using the monastery, 30 monks being there at any given time. Every Zhaba village has a temple and its own Holy Mountain where the villagers go to worship on special holidays. The Zhaba have unique tower like houses that that are made of rock, and striped with lines of light blue and white paint on the sides of the house. Many of the houses have cow skulls built into the side, as a way of giving the house good luck. Each Zhaba house has a worship room with elaborate Tibetan paintings and wallcarvings that line the shelves and walls. Few people have ever traveled to this remote area.

There are no Christians, and it is not known that any Zhaba have ever heard the gospel.

Location: Western Sichuan: Zhamai District of Yajiang County and Zhaba District of Daofu County; possibly in Litang and Xinlong counties.

The Jiarong (Gee-ah-rong)


Today between 150,000 and 200,000 Jiarong live in northwest Sichuan. They build their 3 story rock houses by the rivers. The bottom floor is for the animals, the middle floor is the living area, and the top floor is for grain storage and the god room. The god room is where they burn incense and offer food sacrifices to idols, for protection. Approximately 90% of the Jiarong are Tibetan Buddhist, and 10% believe in the Bon religion.

It is estimated that more than 50% of the Jiarong have not heard the name of Jesus, those who have do not have sufficient understanding to know how to follow Him. There is currently no translation of the Bible in print or audio format. A portion of the book of Jonah was in progress in the 1930’s, but all work was lost in the invasion of the Red Army in 1936. Currently, no written script for any of the Jiarong dialects still exists. It is important to note that over half of the Jiarong can also speak Chinese.

Maerkang (Barkam) is the capitol of Aba Prefecture and is the most important city for the Jiarong. The winters are harsh with heavy snows and subzero temperatures in northern regions. Seventy-Five percent of the Jiarong are farmers and their staple crop is barley. Roughly 20% are nomadic herdsmen, tending to their yak. About 5% live in towns and manage shops or hold low-level government positions. The Jiarong women wear hand woven belts, headdresses, and aprons that are uniquely Jiarong. The men wear the tradition Tibetan tunic dress. Most of the areas do have running water, electricity, and telephones.

The most important Holy Mountain for the Jiarong is Murduo Mountain in Danba County. The Jiarong, Ergong and other Tibetans worship this mountain, trying to appease the spirits and gain protection. The most important monastery is in Guanyinqiao, Jinchuan. The Jiarong take pilgrimages to holy sites and are often seen spinning prayer wheels. Some families send their son to the monastery, both to get an education and as an offering.

Compared to other Tibetan groups, the Jiarong are less antagonistic towards the Chinese. Living between the Tibetan and Chinese areas puts them in a great place to be reached by the Chinese. As of 2001, the Chinese Christians have yet to share the gospel with the Jiarong.

Location: northwest Sichuan: southern half of Aba Prefecture (Maerkang, Lixian, Heishui, Jinchuan and Xiaojin Counties), Ganzi prefecture, and Danba county.

The Muya (Minya)


The 15,000 Muya live in the shadow of the mighty 7,556m (24,783ft) Gongga Mountain. This is the tallest mountain in eastern Tibet, and is very important spiritually to all Tibetans in Sichuan. The Muya are not to be confused with the Eastern Kamba speaking Tibetans who also call themselves Muya, but do not speak a Qiangic language. Some people call this area the little Muya of the Big Muya area. This area of 3-4,000 meters is prone to landslides and floods in the summer times.

Their culture is essentially Tibetan, with a few local differences. When a Muya boy wants to get married, he takes a wine bottle with a ceremonial scarf tied around it to the house of the girl’s parents. He pours them a cup of wine and they drink the cup if they approve of the marriage, then the rest of the family discusses which day the couple willwed. When it comes time for the wedding, the boy takes friends to ride horses to the girl’s home. The boy must pass 3 tests at the wedding, and everyone dances all night. Most Muya families have two children.

When the Muya die, they are buried with prayer flags to help them make it past the demons, which they will encounter soon after death. The relatives burn yak-butter candles for 49 days. Unlike the Namuyi, the Muya do not kill animals when someone dies. Most Muya believe in the yellow sect (Gelugpa) of Tibetan Buddhism with some believing in the black sect (Bon). They like to race horses. They have one race where each person has a bowl full of water in one hand, and at the finish line, whoever has more water in their bowl wins. They do this in October at a big Tibetan festival.

Location: Western Sichuan: Ganzi Tibetan Prefecture: southern Kangding, Ya’an, northern Jiulong, and Shimian counties. The main town for Muya speakers is Sha de (southern Kangding) where over 7,000 Muya speakers reside. Some 2,000 live in Tang gu (northern Jiulong)