Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros50Animals in the religion and cultu...The case of the disappearance of ...

Animals in the religion and culture of the Tibetan Plateau

The case of the disappearance of Tibetan sheep from the village of Charo in the eastern Tibetan Plateau. Tibetan pastoralists’ decisions, economic calculations, and religious beliefs

Le cas de la disparition du mouton tibétain du village de Charo, à l’est du plateau tibétain. Décisions des pasteurs-nomades tibétains, calculs économiques et croyances religieuses
Ga Errang


Le mode de pâturage dans lequel yaks et moutons tibétains étaient les animaux domestiques dominants qui pâturaient sur le plateau tibétain a récemment changé avec la disparition des moutons tibétains de nombreuses régions pastorales. Contrairement aux yaks qui fournissent lait, beurre, fromage, fourrure, viande et aussi un moyen de transport, les moutons ne sont utilisés que pour leur viande. De nombreux pasteurs-nomades interrogés sur le lieu de l’enquête où une seule maisonnée continuait à élever des moutons ont affirmé qu’en dépit de la rentabilité supérieure des moutons par rapport aux yaks, ils ont choisi de garder ces derniers et d’abandonner l’élevage de moutons. Quelles sont les raisons qui ont conduit ces Tibétains à abandonner l’élevage de moutons, alors qu'ils estiment ces animaux être l'un des moyens les plus rentables de gagner leur vie ? Bien que de nombreux éleveurs aient cité des raisons similaires à celles énumérées (pénurie de prairies et d'ouvriers, entre autres) dans d'autres recherches menées sur le même sujet, des entretiens approfondis suggèrent des raisons plus complexes à ce changement, dont la force des sensibilités religieuses. Les pasteurs-nomades font une distinction entre le péché lié à l'élevage des yaks et celui lié à l’élevage des moutons. Associé à d'autres facteurs, notamment les revenus monétaires, l'investissement de travail et la vulnérabilité aux catastrophes naturelles et aux prix du marché, les calculs religieux associés au concept de péché jouent, à divers degrés, un rôle important dans les décisions prises au sujet du bétail.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 Funding for this research was provided by the National Social Science Foundation of China (17BMZ037 (...)
  • 2 As Lobsang Gelek suggested, wool had a better cash value during the commune time when the state col (...)
  • 3 These statements were made by many herders. Their calculation is commonly based on how much faster (...)

1In many pastoral regions of the Tibetan Plateau, along with other wild herbivorous animals and domestic horses, yaks and Tibetan sheep have long been the dominant domestic animals that grazed the grasses on the rangeland of the Tibetan Plateau, a high-altitude land that sustains the livelihood of over two million Tibetan pastoralists1. This grazing pattern has recently changed, with Tibetan sheep disappearing from many Tibetan pastoral regions. Unlike yaks, which provide Tibetans with milk, butter, cheese, fur, meat, and transportation, Tibetan sheep are used only for their meat (Lobsang Gelek 20022). When interviewed in a field where only one household maintains sheep herding, many Tibetan pastoralists stated that Tibetan sheep are much more profitable than yaks3, but pastoralists in many places have chosen to herd yaks and have given up their sheep. Why have these Tibetans given up their sheep, when they valued the animals as one of the most profitable ways of making a living? To answer this question, two related works by Emilia Sulek are important.

2The selling off of Tibetan sheep was well-studied by Emilia Roza Sulek in a Tibetan community in Golog Prefecture, Qinghai. She suggests that the emergence of a new economic source in the region, caterpillar fungus, is the main factor that has led to the reduction in the sheep population, in addition to shortages in the work force, insufficient pastures, harsh climates, the sheep’s vulnerability to predators, and the current state policy that aims to limit livestock numbers for ecological stability (Sulek 2010). She found that, due to their cost to herders through additional labour force requirements and grassland leasing fees, sheep herding is no long economically competitive given that the cash income from caterpillar fungus is relatively easy and profitable. In this situation, the small number of households who have been keeping sheep herds must subsidise fees for labour forces and grassland leases to maintain their sheep herding, which is interpreted by herders not through economic rationale, but through the cultural attachment to sheep herding (Sulek 2010, p. 14).

3Compared with Golog, my study in Dawa found that the contribution of caterpillar fungus to a household’s annual income is tiny, if anything. In the absence of the caterpillar fungus economy, what other factors have contributed to the Tibetan herders’ giving up sheep? Though many herders cited similar reasons to those listed (the shortage of grassland and labourers, among others), in-depth interviews suggest more complex reasons for the change, including religious factors. Moreover, further exploration indicates that the influence of religious pressure has been stronger in the last two decades than previously, including pre-1958 and during the commune period.

4In a similar approach to that taken by Clarke, Lichter and Epstein, and da Col to link economic thinking and religious practices (Clarke 1990, Lichter & Epstein 1983, da Col 2012), another work by Sulek proposes the concept of the “economy of sinning”, in which the economy and religion are closely connected, and within this concept, the newly emerged economy of caterpillar fungus has been viewed differently by Tibetans in terms of Buddhist ethics (Sulek 2016). While some Tibetans see it as sinful, others do not. However, it is with the support of the potentially sinful income generation of caterpillar fungus that Tibetan pastoralists are able to maintain their yak herding tradition without having to sell them to be slaughtered at the market, a much more sinful practice in Buddhist teachings.

5In these two works by Sulek, there is a triangular relationship between caterpillar fungus, yak herding, and sheep sell-off. Sulek’s analysis of sheep sell-off is an economic one in that she intended to determine how the new income of caterpillar fungus correlated with the sheep sell-off with regard to Tibetan herders’ income generation, labour availability, and other costs (Sulek 2010). At the same time, her work on caterpillar fungus and yak herding is a religiously implicated analysis (Sulek 2016). Here are two questions left unanswered in her works. Why do Tibetans choose to maintain yaks rather than sheep, and how do Tibetans calculate the difference in sin (and merit) between herding yaks and sheep? Indeed, in Sulek’s first work (Sulek 2010), she raised same question, but suggested the need for further study.

6To add to her first article, this study focuses on a Tibetan community without lucrative income from caterpillar fungus to explore how Tibetan herders choose between yaks and sheep herding. This article also attends to the religious aspects that are lacking in Sulek’s studies of Tibetan herders and their decisions about selling off sheep. This article also contributes to another of her works (Sulek 2016), the idea of an “economy of sinning”, by attending to Tibetan herders’ historical memories and their interpretation of the decisions regarding yak herding versus sheep herding. This study asks how Tibetan pastoralists calculate the Buddhist idea of sin (negative karma) and merit (positive karma) when they make a decision such as to keep yak herding and give up sheep, and how they calculate the costs and benefits of religious loss (or gain) and economic benefits (loss) at same time during livestock production. This article suggests that Tibetan pastoralists decide to choose a certain category of livestock for subsistence by translating the religious concepts of sin and merit into material calculations. That is, Tibetan pastoralists measure the weight or amount of sin in the size and amount of animals that are designated to be slaughtered and the rates of these misconducts (slaughter).

7Finally, and very importantly, all these discussions are based on tracing the historical changes in livestock (yaks, sheep, and horses) and human populations before, during, and after the commune period in a Tibetan nomadic community on the eastern Tibetan Plateau. The research site and methods for this case study are presented, followed by a reconstruction of the populations of yaks, sheep, horses, and humans at three different points in time. The final three sections detail the Tibetan herders’ interpretation of sheep reduction since the reform era and the religious aspects of this change, ending with a concluding discussion on sheep reduction and its relationship to the new forms of Tibetan Buddhist teachings.

Research site and data

  • 4 Pseudonyms are used throughout this article.

8This case study was conducted in a current administrative village (Ch. Cun), Charo4, which is located on a 1 020 km2 area on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, in Dawa County, Sichuan Province, in the People’s Republic of China. Dawa County, to which Charo Village currently belongs, is a nomadic county with a population of over 47 000 people, at an altitude of 3 500 metres. The village experiences long winters and short summers, springs, and autumns.

9For this study, data was collected during two periods of field research: one in the summer of 2009 and another in the summer of 2017. Two types of data were collected. The first type was overall changes in the population of villagers, yaks, sheep, and horses in the community at the different points in time of the major social changes from 1952 through to the present. The second type was ethnographic data collected from over 30 villagers in the community in the summer of 2017.

10As with all the other pastoralists in the eastern Tibetan Plateau, the pastoralists in this village experienced three major eras that were significant to their rangeland access, livestock management, and social relations. The first period refers to a short period of time before the commune system when the village belonged to a Buddhist lama who ownership the teritory and the village was organised in the household based work unit. The second is during the commune system that was launched by Chinese Communist government in 1958 and ended in 1982. The third period follows the livestock privatisation in 1982 that dismantled the commune system. In addition to these major time points is the change in sheep population, which occurred around three significant dates: a year around 1970 when the community’s sheep herd size reached its highest numbers, and 2005 and 2017 when the sheep population decreased drastically.

11In short, the following presents a picture of the livestock numbers and the human population from 1952 to 2017. In many cases, where it was difficult to obtain accurate numbers, it was possible to estimate them from various facts and villagers’ memories. The numbers of livestock I have estimated is reconstructed with herders’ knowledge of the general constitution of livestock herds (the portions by age, gender, and functions of livestock), human population, and household numbers. Government-provided annual numbers of livestock are not available for most cases. At the early time of economic reform, it was hard for the government to obtain exact numbers of livestock from the herders because the herders wanted to avoid government taxes. Yet, in more recent decades, the state was able to collect relatively accurate numbers because they offered ecological compensations (Yonten 2012), and certain social benefits were distributed according to livestock numbers. Even though some of the numbers that follow were generated through my own estimations after consulting with elderly members of the community, they are sufficient to show the bigger picture of the changes that occurred in the yak, sheep, and human populations since 1952.

Reconstruction of the changes in the village’s yak, sheep, and human populations


12The yak and sheep populations of the current administrative village of Charo in the years before 1958 can only be reconstructed through the narratives of elderly people in the community. The reconstruction is associated with the Charo villagers’ migration from Qinghai Province to their current location in Sichuan Province in 1952 and is related to rangeland tenure and the management system of that time.

  • 5 In Tibetan, tshowa refers to a small social unit, whereas dewa refers to a larger traditional socia (...)
  • 6 Those households with a larger number of sheep would normally herd more yaks than poorer households (...)

13Charo village is the other half of a small tshowa (Tib. tsho ba) that had a conflict with another tshowa in Qinghai and migrated to the current location in Sichuan in 19525. The tshowa that the current Charo villagers belong to was once a part of larger dewa (Tib. sde pa) in Qinghai called Meri. The tshowas within Meri shared a single piece of land, and over 3 000 people herded both yaks and sheep6. Yaks provided the villagers with milk (and therefore butter and cheese) and meat; the sheep were farmed for meat, and a small number of sheep were reserved for meat markets in neighbouring rural areas. Since the grassland where the Charo was living then was drier than the current location, sheep were the dominant livestock on which their livelihood depended. According to the elderly people who grew up there, because herding sheep required frequent movement and the grass was not as dense as it is in their current location, the herders had to move on a frequent basis throughout the year. The Meri divided the land into two parts used by all community members, one for summer and one for winter. Within these two pastures, as there was no division according to group or household, the herders could move wherever they wanted. The head of the dewa would decide the timing of the move from the winter to the summer pasture, but he would not regulate the location of each household within that pasture. The elderly people stated that the flexibility the members of tshowa enjoyed in rangeland use in their former location was very important for sheep herding.

14Charo comprised about fifty households or about 270 people at the time of their arrival in Dawa County in 1952. The elderly people’s memories suggest that the three richest families had around 500 sheep on average, another ten families had about 100 sheep on average, ten more households had about thirty sheep on average, and the rest of the households had no sheep. Yaks were comparatively less popular; the richest household had about seventy yaks, and the majority of other households about ten to twenty yaks each. Given this information, it can be estimated that Charo villagers possessed around 900 to 1 000 yaks, around 3 000 sheep, and about 100 horses when they arrived at their new location.

  • 7 When Charo Village arrived in their current location from the Qinghai Province, they saw that one o (...)

15The number of livestock possessed by the villagers would have been larger when they were in Dawa County, but a significant number of sheep died during their migration to the new location. When they first arrived in Dawa County, a local Buddhist lama accepted them and allocated them a pasture. Their newly-received pastures contained far more abundant grasses and wetlands than their previous pastures, but the richness of the new pasture presented challenges to their herding sheep. Precipitation levels were much higher (average annual precipitation is over 700 mm), and many herders lacked experience in herding sheep in such a wet grassland. As a result, many sheep died in the first few years after their arrival, yet the number of yaks increased steadily7. In the new location in Dawa County, as it was in Qinghai, the working unit of the Charo village was also family-based under a traditional social group framed as Lhade (a dewa owned by a Buddhist lama), and the land was used in common throughout the four seasonal movements.

During the commune era

  • 8 This work unit was divided into two work teams for the second and third year.

16In 1958, the Chinese Communist Party took over power of the government and established the commune system by confiscating all the livestock as communal assets. This system broke up the traditional working system and labour units, establishing a new system and new labour units in which all the livestock and labour were divided into several larger groups based on gender, age, and type of labour. In the early commune era, yaks were divided into units based on their category: 1) 375 adult female yaks were one unit milked by fifteen women (twenty-five milking yaks for each labourer8); 2) about 300 young female yaks were one unit managed by two men; 3) around 300 young male yaks were one unit managed by another two men; 4) around 200 crossbred milking yaks were one unit; and 5) approximately 100 adult male yaks that were mostly used for transportation for all the groups were another unit. From these units, we can roughly calculate the total number of livestock that this village had at the time when it was forced into the commune system. The livestock population had increased to about 1 300 yaks and over 100 horses for the human population of over 300 people since their arrival at the current location.

17When it came to the end of the commune system, the village had nine milking yak work units with over 120 female yaks managed by twenty-five women in each group. There was also a young male yak work unit, an adult male yak work unit, two young female yak units, a calf yak work unit, and a male yak work unit for transportation with about 400 yaks for each work unit. That is, by the end of the commune system (and the beginning of privatisation), the Charo villagers possessed over 3 000 yaks and around 200 horses, and the human population had increased to about 400 people.

  • 9 This is an estimate by some of surviving elderly villagers.

18As far as the sheep population at the start of the commune era is concerned, some of the surviving elderly villagers recalled that there was only one sheep herding team with 400 to 500 sheep, but in the second year, a new sheep team was added with newborn lambs. Therefore, for the first year, there were only about 500 to 600 sheep for the entire village. By the 1970s, this number had increased to between 6 000 and 7 000 sheep at its highest point9.

19Sheep herding was a very important part of livestock production during the commune years. Then, as the allocation of labour and time was arranged by the leaders of village (who were assigned by the higher-up government administrator), many administrative villages had both yaks and sheep to herd, and assigned Tibetans were required to herd either yaks, sheep, or horse. As with other herding practices, the herders assigned to sheep were also subject to the forces of production quotas and incentives. For instance, the sheep herder needed to maintain the total mortality of adult sheep herd below 20-30% and the lamb survival rate was required to stay above 70-80%. If the mortality of adult sheep exceeded this level, the herder need to compensate for the loss, and he was awarded if he did well in terms of both mortality and lamb survival rate through an incentive system. This calculated system and the widespread use of veterinary drugs became a major force behind the growth in the sheep population in the commune years. In short, the increase in sheep population seen from 1958 through to the late 1970s was associated with the forced production quota for each herder, the incentive system that was common in the Chinese planned economic system, and the increased use of veterinary drugs.

20Yet, by the end of the commune era, the sheep population of Charo had dropped to about 4 000 in 1982. Some of the elderly villagers attributed this decrease to a greater number of rainy years and diseases that hit the sheep population. By comparison, no herders mentioned that these weather changes and diseases had any impact on the yaks or horses.

Since the Chinese Economic Reform

  • 10 The phrase that was used by herders is: “I swear on the Yum (Prajñāpāramitā) or bKa ’gyur (the Budd (...)

21Two sets of data collected from the state administration show the trend in the changes in livestock numbers, particularly in the sheep and yak populations. One local government dataset shows that, in 2005, there were 13 190 yaks, 910 sheep, and 565 horses for the Charo population of 850 people in 178 households. This dataset was obtained from the village leaders who collected data on the village’s livestock and population by using the traditional method of asking herders to swear that the numbers they had submitted were true. Thus, its reliability is high10. Another dataset from 2017 was also obtained from village administration: 24 650 yaks, about 150 sheep, over 200 horses for 1 350 people in 242 households. These data can be considered reliable because the village administrative leaders used them to implement state projects, including distribution of the rangeland ecological compensation and other state welfare.

Table 1. Livestock and human populations in Charo village from 1952 to 2017

Table 1. Livestock and human populations in Charo village from 1952 to 2017

22While the yak and human populations have increased at a steady pace since the Charo villagers’ arrival at their current location, sheep numbers increased during the commune years but decreased drastically after the livestock and rangeland decollectivisation. Other than the preferable land condition in the new location and introduction of new techniques like fencing, herders attribute the widespread use of veterinary intervention with livestock as the main reason for the increase in the yak population.

Herders’ interpretation of the decreased sheep population since the reform era

23The reasons for the decrease in the number of sheep between 1952 and 1958 and the significant growth in sheep numbers during the commune era are detailed in the previous section. This section and the next will explore how herders interpreted their decision to give up these sheep, a collective decision that led to a major reduction in the sheep population after decollectivisation. During the decollectivisation of 1983, as was the case in some other pastoral regions of the Tibetan Plateau, all Tibetan were allocated yaks, sheep, and horses when the livestock of the village were allotted to each person. That is, all households were entitled to a certain number of sheep, and many Tibetan pastoralists herded sheep for multiple years after livestock privatisation. However, the decollectivisation also brought herders more freedom in terms of deciding what type of livestock to herd, how to use the land, and how to make a living. Many herders gave up sheep very early in the reform era (since the decollectivisation of 1983) for various reasons. Other herders sold their sheep to commercial slaughterhouses in the late 1980s and 1990s. Even though many pastoralists, knowing how difficult it is to herd sheep, gave up their sheep early on, more than ten herders kept their sheep until the late 2000s before also giving up sheep herding one after another.

24Emilia Sulek suggested that, along with reasons such as the shortage of pastureland and labour forces, the sell-off of sheep in Golog is associated with the emergence of a new income source, the collection of caterpillar fungus, which made sheep herding less economic. She asks why Tibetans sell off sheep, but not yaks, and suggests that answering this question requires further investigation. In her case, the emergence of the caterpillar fungus economy has not only led to the sheep being sold off, but it also made Tibetans become less depended on yak herding in the regions where caterpillar fungus is productive. Although there was no alternative lucrative income source, such as caterpillar fungus, other income sources exist in the region I studied as well, and these income options include part-time work in construction and local factories, collecting herbs, gate guardians, street cleaners, and small businesses, such as local transportation and Tibetan restaurants in the towns. However, these only contribute to the majority annual income from yak herding for the majority of Tibetan pastoralists. Therefore, why is it that sheep have been given up and not yaks?

25To address this question requires understanding of a complex and dynamic situation. This complex is associated with economic benefits (the productivity and reproductive cycle of livestock, grassland use rights privatisation, and so on), personal interests, and religious devotion. Many herders claim that sheep are much more profitable, a narrative that is mostly based on short-term calculation (as mentioned in the early notes that highlight the faster reproductive cycle and maturity of sheep); however, some of these skilful herders suggest that in an overall calculation, it makes more sense for Tibetan herders to herd yaks rather than sheep.

  • 11 Sheep are more vulnerable to a liver disease usually caused by eating grasses in the wetland that g (...)

26First, compared to yak herding, sheep herding is a task that requires an intensive labour investment regardless of the number of animals (herding 20 sheep requires the same amount of labour as herding 300 sheep). It is not only that sheep are very vulnerable to all types of diseases and natural disasters (Chos bstan rgyal 2014), but different geographical conditions bring different challenges to sheep herding11 (Lobsang Gelek 2002). The difficulty of herding sheep was highlighted when widespread fencing was introduced to Tibetan pastoral communities, which, in turn, made yak herding much easier than before (Bauer 2005, Yeh 2003). After rangeland privatisation, the fencing technique became a common tool for Tibetan herders to divide their land for different herding purposes. Many herders currently do not follow the yaks as they did in the traditional period and during the commune years; instead, they send the yaks to the fenced land and then deal with other things, enjoy more leisure time, or look for other sources of income. The only herder who currently herds sheep in the village stated that the type of fence widely used in the Tibetan populated area is not sophisticated enough to herd sheep unless one trains sheep intentionally. Therefore, herding sheep requires a well-trained, full-time labourer who follows the sheep every day.

  • 12 Indeed, due to the dynamic situation of the topography, it is impossible to evenly distribute resou (...)
  • 13 Interviews with herders and my own observations.

27The Tibetan pastoralists’ interpretation of the renunciation of sheep has been associated with the rangeland privatisation of 1996, when the winter pastures were allocated to individual households (but summer pastures are shared by groups of about ten households) (Banks 2003, Yan & Wu 2005, Yan et al. 2005). This grassland allocation distributed the pastures to each household unevenly in terms of quality and resource distributions, such as water, hills, flatlands, and wetlands (Richard et al. 2006, Shun 2000, Wu Ning & Richard 199912). Herding sheep requires drier land, and not all the households received land with such optimal conditions. In addition, the last ten years have seen a rise in grassland lease prices. Therefore, some of these herders who wanted to keep sheep but lacked adequate pastures had to rent pastures from other herders; however, the increasing rental rate has made herding sheep less profitable in the monetised rangeland tenure system13.

  • 14 Interviews with Tibetan pastoralists and my own observations.

28Another very important social change took place in the state provision of compulsory education for young Tibetan herders. The state has promoted nine years of compulsory education (primary school through middle school) nationwide, including in these Tibetan communities. Furthermore, Tibetan herders’ awareness of the importance of education in improving their livelihood has also increased over the last several decades. The impact of this change on the Tibetan herder’s decision to keep sheep is the radical drop in labour availability, and the labour force is crucial for a family wanting to herd sheep and yaks at the same time (Sulek 2010). Tibetans have begun sending their children to school, and many of these young Tibetans have graduated from various levels of school, including vocational schools, colleges, and universities, and were no longer interested in herding livestock, particularly sheep, which required higher herding skills – and few of the younger generation were familiar with sheep14.

29One herder we interviewed stated that the sheep he received from livestock decollectivisation ran out after five years, but he had bought sheep from other herders twice and herded them for over ten years before his retirement at the age of sixty. He later left all the sheep to his son and son-in-law, but they all died within a few years after he stopped herding. He had concluded that the loss of his sheep was due to his son and son-in-law not knowing how to herd or not being interested in herding sheep. In addition, being employed in non-herding-related jobs, including government, business, and self-employment, has become much more common for young, educated Tibetans than it was for their seniors. In short, herding sheep has become but one of many income-generating options.

30Finally, some Tibetan pastoralists who are interested in herding sheep have expressed their sensitivity to the market price of sheep. They state that they have seen more fluctuations in sheep prices than in yak prices. For instance, 2015 and 2016 marked the lowest rate at which a best-quality sheep was sold, at about 300 RMB, whereas in 2017, this rate went up to 1600 RMB. For the same period of time, yak prices remained stable (on average, an adult female yak was sold at round 4000 RMB). This rise in the price of sheep once again could induce some herders to consider sheep herding again. In short, according to these herders, with an overall calculation of all factors, including the unstable market price, all types of vulnerability, the intensive labour input, and unfavourable land tenures, herding yaks has been relatively easy due to its stable income. That is, even though in a short-term calculation (faster reproduction, maturity and cash conversion) sheep seems much more profitable, but in the long-term, yak herding has become a better option.

31There are another two categories of people in the community. The first group is those who are not interested in herding sheep after all. According to the state data recording that each herder in the village had received seven or eight sheep, the total number of sheep that each household received should have ranged from twenty to seventy sheep, which is about the same number of yaks that each household received. Some herders during interviews noted that not everyone had sheep herding experience during the commune time, so many Tibetan herders had asked their relatives to help or formed groups to herd sheep together, but all had failed. For instance, one herder had asked one of his relatives to herd his sheep for about two years, but in the third year, he gave his sheep to another herder on the condition that the other herder paid the fee for the sheep to the state. Others stated that during decollectivisation, herders, for the first time, received a large number of yaks (compared with pre-1958), so they felt it bothersome to herd sheep. Many of them expressed their bad memories in dealing with sheep and felt that regardless of how profitable sheep may be, they would never consider herding them.

32Lastly, there are the religiously devoted Tibetan pastoralists. In the context of the recent Buddhist resurgence in Tibet, the religious reason for not herding sheep is as important as the other reasons mentioned above, putting new moral pressure on herders who may want to pick up sheep at a good market price, and this will be explored in detail in the following section.

Religious Interpretations: numbers, size, and cash income

33In 2017, I was able to interview the only remaining sheep herder in Charo. At over forty years old, he was very talkative and has shown great enthusiasm and experience in herding sheep. He stated that he was given forty sheep by one of his relatives in Qinghai Province five years ago, and that number has increased to his current herd size of 160 sheep. Throughout the interview, he focused on his knowledge and experience in herding, including how to avoid various diseases and how to train sheep to make the herding easier, and he was also eager to mention how sheep grow fast and how profitable sheep herding was compared with herding yaks. Yet, he intentionally avoided talking about the sin related to keeping sheep. Even when I asked if he thought that herding sheep was associated with more sin than herding yaks was or if he had any views about the sin involved with his selling sheep to the meat market, which happens more often than with yaks, he avoided answering both times. Just as with several other interviews, it was clear that the question of sin had become a sensitive topic for this herder. Similarly, other herders who had tried to return to sheep herding during the last several years did not want to talk about the religious aspect of the activity.

34As a herder states, “it [the issue of sdig pa – negative merit] has become an issue for many Tibetan herders since the arrival of dge bcu’i khrims [a new form of the ten virtue rules] recently” (Ga Errang 2011), a religious rationale that has recently become an important factor in herders’ decisions regarding livestock and the related rangeland-use strategy in this region. During field interviews, in many cases, the religious reason was not the first reason cited when herders spoke about abandoning sheep herding. Still, in-depth communications with the villagers suggested that religious beliefs also played an important role in their decisions regarding sheep.

35A herder, Losar, had experience working as a middleman for a Han-Chinese businessman in the local yak-trading business in the meat market. He stated that he knew he could make far more money raising sheep in modernized captivity rather than herding sheep in open pasture, but did not do so because he was afraid of incurring a serious sin by slaughtering sheep. He also mentioned that he had seen many Han Muslims doing this and making far more money in many other places. These Han Muslims would usually buy adult sheep and raise them in shelters by feeding them commercial feed. The advantage of raising sheep in captivity is that it avoids almost all of the challenges that Tibetan herders were facing when herding sheep in open pastures. For him, the investment and profit calculation is not a problem, but his moral concern over the expected large numbers of sheep to be slaughtered is, which is associated with the fast-growing characteristic of sheep compared to yaks (discussed in detail below).

36While conducting interviews, I also encountered several herders around forty years of age who had tried to once again conduct sheep herding. In 2000, one herder, assuming that he could make a significant amount of money by herding sheep, bought over 500 sheep but gave up herding within two years due to the lack of laborers and shortage of grassland. He sold all the sheep he had bought to the slaughterhouse at once, and his case has become a conversation topic among some Tibetans, as selling such a large number of livestock in such a short time has become a difficult choice for devout religious Tibetans these days. The key problem with his decision was associated with collecting such a large amount of sin (a large number of sheep) in such a short period of time. A commonly heard conversation among Tibetans about this type of conduct (selling a large number of livestock at a single time) puts invisible pressure on those who may consider herding sheep in the future. To bring Sulek’s two works together again, the consequences of the emergence of caterpillar fungus on traditional livestock production are that Tibetan pastoralists are able to maintain yak herds, but not for the meat market, and sell off their sheep. For her, the religious merit of maintaining yaks (Sulek 2016) compensates for the potentially sinful nature of caterpillar fungus, whereas the Tibetan practice of selling off sheep seems to be certain sinful conduct (Sulek 2010, p. 18). In the case of Charo, Tibetan herders keep yaks and sell them to the meat market, a sinful misconduct. The sheep are a more complicated issue. While selling all of their sheep at once is misconduct by itself, many herders also argued that to give up sheep entirely is to avoid the long-term misconduct of selling more sheep to the meat market in the future. Some herders indicate that to give up sheep is to avoid a long run of sinful practices due to selling sheep. For instance, a herder bought over 100 sheep by selling his six adult yaks in 2003. He did not have a good experience herding sheep and other problems, since his sheep population did not increase over his two years spent herding. Still, he was very happy that he did not need to slaughter them and was able to sell them to another herder in a neighbouring village who added the newly bought sheep to his existing herd.

37The key element is that the Tibetan pastoralists were not only concerned by the general sin associated with sheep slaughter in the meat market, but the “large numbers” and “long term” engagement of sheep slaughter that they need to deal with if they herd sheep. This is commonly associated with their comparative calculation between yak and sheep in terms of cash income, the size of the animals’ bodies, the numbers of animals, and the frequency of livestock sales.

  • 15 Tibetan pastoralists are Buddhists, and “sin” refers to the Buddhist teaching of negative karma in (...)
  • 16 The largest yaks could weigh the same as the meat of up to eight sheep.

38Yaks provide Tibetans with the sinful meat and yak leather, as well as the less sinful products of milk and as a traditional means of transportation15. Sheep are different in that they can only be used for meat production (Lobsang Gelek 2002). Other than wool, which is a much less profitable product, meat and sheepskins are only attained by killing the animal, and murder is considered the most serious sin in Tibetan Buddhist culture. It is very common for Tibetans to slaughter yaks for both commercial and personal consumption, but they see a difference between the size of the sheep and that of yaks. That is, sheep grow fast but small, and the animals can be slaughtered once they reach the age of one-and-a-half years, whereas yaks grow slowly but larger, taking at least four years until they are large enough to be slaughtered for their meat (and at least six years for female yaks to grow big enough to be milked). Though the growth period of yaks is longer, Tibetans make the calculation in terms of the amount of sin committed. In their mind, life or spirit knows no difference in terms of size (Tan 2016). Killing a large yak and killing an ant generate the same amount of sin. Due to this religious norm, they prefer to slaughter yaks over sheep because four to six sheep need to be slaughtered to gain the same amount of income that one slaughtered adult yak can generate. Therefore, the calculation and the trade-off between cash income from selling an animal to the meat market and the Buddhist sin collection is very important in Tibetan herders’ decision to engage in yak herding versus sheep herding. For instance, the late Genga, who was a very rich herder in the village, once said that when he was bringing fifteen yaks to the slaughterhouse, he saw another herder taking over forty sheep to the same slaughterhouse, and they earned about the same amount of money by selling different livestock16. He added that he only received the sin for killing fifteen lives, while the other herder had the sin of killing of forty lives, thus suggesting that herding yak is less sinful than herding sheep. He was among those who gave up his sheep at the beginning of livestock decollectivisation.

39Here, to achieve the same amount of income, Tibetan pastoralist calculation is not merely about secular economic factors, including the investment of capital and labour, risks of natural hazards and market prices, and opportunity cost, but also the spiritual calculation, which is made in terms of economic income generation as the baseline. That is, in generating the same amount of income, herding yaks is less sinful than herding sheep.

40Sulek, in her concept of the “economy of sinning”, suggests that Tibetan herders in Golog have been able to minimise their sinful practice of selling yaks to the meat market through the compensation of their newly engaged caterpillar fungus collection, a practice which is also potentially sinful and spiritually risky. Tibetan pastoralists’ decision to refrain from selling yaks to the meat market has become a way to minimise their sins and the spiritual risk associated with caterpillar fungus, therefore achieving an economic balance between income generation, sin avoidance, and spiritual risk mitigation. Similarly, in the case of the Charo Tibetan community, the Tibetan herders make a distinction between the sin associated with herding yaks and that of herding sheep, and this difference is calculated in the size as well as the numbers of livestock when they consider the same economic income. Along with other factors, including the cash income, labour investment, and vulnerability to nature disasters and market prices, the calculation of the religious concept of sin plays a timely role in their decisions about livestock.

Recent religious resurgence and sheep disappearance

41The last several decades have seen two parallel developments in the pastoral areas of the Tibetan Plateau. One is the religious revival that has been popular on a global scale; in Tibet, in some areas, people have become more sensitive to religious norms and rules, particularly regarding the accumulation of negative karma from killing and slaughtering animals (Ga Errang 2015, Gayley 2013, 2011, Germano 1998). The teachings of the Tibetan Nyingma Khenpos and Lamas about the recent “Buddhist teachings of slaughter renunciation” have encouraged Tibetan pastoralists to stop selling their livestock to slaughterhouses, a highly contested and controversial movement among Tibetans (Buffetrille 2015, Ga Errang 2015). Though the Tibetan herders in this village did not participate in the movement directly, nor did the lamas in the village teach them to do so, their exposure to the general atmosphere of religious revival in some areas has nevertheless led them to become more aware of Buddhist norms, such as sin, karma, and compassion, in their everyday life. However, this change has occurred simultaneously with globalised market-based economic penetration into the non-Western region, where commercial market logic has increasingly become a force that guides the indigenous people and their actions (Ga Errang 2015, Yeh & Ga Errang 2011). It is in this context that the reduction in sheep herding integrates both economic calculation and religious implications; Tibetans only later started to add religious reasons to their decisions about what type of livestock they wanted to herd since the privatisation of livestock reinforced significantly by the rangeland-use rights privatisation.

  • 17 In another article I will explore the reasons why Tibetans must sell to the meat market.

42Indeed, the parallel development suggests that the religious implication associated with herding yaks versus sheep is a new sentiment. Some of the elderly Tibetan herders expressed that, generally speaking, in the traditional era before 1958, the majority of Tibetan herders in the Charo community had to spend such a significant time and effort to make a living (Tib. kha gso rgyu’i ched du) that there was no room for many people to consider the sin of selling or slaughtering yaks and sheep. They add that they cannot imagine that people would give up sheep or any livestock herding for Buddhist ethical concerns alone. The same was true during the commune years. As was also the case in other Chinese territories during the commune era, all visible religious practices of Tibetan pastoralists were completely banned in that particular political context; the choice of slaughtering livestock in the meat market was merely a decision made by the state (local government administration). Though the religious force associated with slaughtering livestock was not as significant in the years before 1958 as it is today, and it did not have a social space during the commune era from 1958 to 1980, when discussing the sin associated with animal slaughter, one very rich herder said, “Let alone herding sheep, when one thinks about the animal suffering, we are now afraid of herding yaks and selling them. The good thing is that nowadays, there are lots of options for making a living”. He added that one of the most difficult times for him is when he sells his livestock (yaks) to the meat market (for fear of accumulating negative karma). This difficulty represents a common concern among many Tibetan pastoralists who have large numbers of livestock but face a challenge in selling them to slaughterhouses (Ga Errang 201517).

  • 18 To make a living, some households engaged in hunting wild animals, as they also used to in the old (...)

43Barstow suggested that the vegetarian movement is primarily associated with monasticism, and that eating meat has long been a core of nomadic culture (Barstow 2018, p. 47). Having said that, it is true that nomads do have the tsetar (Tib. tshe thar) tradition, in which they release a small number of livestock from slaughter for the animals’ entire lives, and this indicates that the Buddhist idea of avoiding killing was important for nomadic people even in the pre-1958 era. However, I still take the position that the significance of the idea of avoiding negative karma from slaughtering did not reach the point it is at today since it now plays a role in some Tibetan herders’ decision to change their herd structure (for instance, replacing sheep with yaks). In other words, there are herders who consider religious elements when they decide between yaks and sheep, and the elderly herders express that this would not have been the case in the old times, when kasowa (kha gso ba; “to survive” or “make a living”) was the top priority, as there were few options left other than herding sheep or yaks, or even worse, hunting18.

44To conclude, even though many herders have expressed over and over again that herding sheep is much more profitable than herding yak, I encountered few herders who indicated that they would return to herding sheep. The majority do not consider sheep herding an option for making a living. Some surveys that I have conducted suggest that the sheep reduction, to various extents, does exist in other places near to Charo, a similar change found by Chos bstan rgyal in a Tibetan community of mTsho lho (Hainan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (Qinghai) (Chos bstan rgyal 2014, p. 134). However, I have also noticed that in Machu County of Gannan Province and some other places on the Tibetan Plateau, the state has initiated a program called ‘animal-husbandry products with special characteristics’ (Ch. 特色畜产品), in which some townships are encouraged to raise sheep alone while others are supported in raising yaks as a specialty. The impact of this project deserves further study. In Charo, Tibetan pastoralists’ reasons for selling off their sheep are dynamic. In addition to the intensive labour requirements, the high skill level necessary, sheep’s natural vulnerability to diseases and natural disasters, as well as market prices, religious factors can be considered “the straw that breaks the camel’s back”. In these interwoven calculations, it is the new social space that has made religious considerations and their calculation an additional element in Tibetans’ decisions, a space where the overall improvement of the living conditions of the people is achieved through yak herding and other income generation methods.

Haut de page


Banks, T. 2003 Property rights reform in rangeland China. Dilemmas on the road to the household ranch, World Development 31(12), pp. 2129-2142.

Barstow, G. 2018. Food of Sinful Demons. Meat, Vegetarianism, and the Limits of Buddhism in Tibet (New York, Columbia).

Bauer, K. 2005 Development and the enclosure movement in pastoral Tibet Since the 1980s, Nomadic Peoples 9(1-2), pp. 53-81.

Buffetrille, K. 2015 A controversy on vegetarism, Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines 3, pp. 113-127.

Clarke, G. E. 1990 Ideas of merit (bsod-nams), virtue (dge-ba), blessing (byin-rlabs) and material prosperity (rten-‘brel) in Highland Nepal, Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 21(2), pp. 165-184.

Chos bstan rgyal 2014 Following the herds rhythms of Tibetan pastoral life in Amdo, Asian Highlands Perspectives 32.

Col, G. da 2012. The elementary economies of Dechenwa life. Fortune, vitality, and the mountain in Sino-Tibetan borderlands, Social Analysis 56(1), pp. 74-98.

Ga Errang 2011 Alternative (to) development on the Tibetan Plateau. Preliminary research on the anti-slaughter movement, Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines 21, pp. 31-43.
2015 Development as entangled knot. The case of the slaughter renunciation movement in Tibet, China,
Journal of Asian Studies 74(4), pp. 927-951.

Gayley, H. 2013 Reimagining Buddhist ethics on the Tibetan Plateau, Journal of Buddhist Ethics 20, pp. 247-286.
The ethics of cultural survival. A Buddhist vision of progress in Mkhan po ’Jigs phun’s heart advice to Tibetans for the 21st century, in G. Tuttle (ed.), Mapping the Modern in Tibet (Andiast, International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies GmbH), pp. 435-502.

Germano, D. 1998 Re-membering the dismembered body of Tibet. Contemporary Tibetan visionary movements in the People’s Republic of China, in M. Goldstein & M. Kapstein (eds), Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet. Religious Revival and Cultural Identity (Berkeley, University of California Press), pp. 53-94.

Lichter, D. & L. Epstein. 1983 Irony in Tibetan notions of the good life, in C. F. Keyes & E. V. Daniel (eds), Karma. An Anthropological Inquiry (Berkeley, University of California Press), pp. 223-259.

Lobsang Gelek 2002 The herders of eastern Tibet. Notes from an anthropological field study, Chinese Sociology & Anthropology 35(1), pp. 21-81.

Richard, C., Yan Zhao Li & Du Guozhen 2006 The paradox of the individual household responsibility system in the grassland of the Tibetan Plateau, China, USDA Forest Service Proceeding RMRS-P-39, pp. 83-91.

Shun, X. 2000 Jinyibu luoshi he wanshan muqu caochang chengbao zerenzhi [A study of rangeland use right privatization in Tibetan rural areas. Implementation and improvement], Gansu Agriculture 165(4), pp. 15-18.

Sulek, E. R. 2010 Disappearing sheep. The unexpected consequences of the emergence of the caterpillar fungus economy in Golog, Qinghai, China, Himalaya, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies 30(1), p. 9.
2016 Caterpillar fungus and the economy of sinning. On entangled relations between religious and economic in a Tibetan pastoral region of Golog, Qinghai, China,
Études mongoles & sibériennes, centrasiatiques & tibétaines 47, [online, URL:, accessed 15 February 2019]

Tan, G. 2016 “Life” and “freeing life” (tshe thar) among pastoralists of Kham. Intersecting religion and environment, Études mongoles & sibériennes, centrasiatiques & tibétaines 47, pp. 1-31.)

TaylorJ. 2014 Zhongguo beifang de xianzhi xingdong, weilan he chuantong caoyuan guanli: guanyu xin shengtaixue de renleixue guandian [Restriction, fencing and traditional grassland management in Northern China. An anthropological approach to the new ecology], in A. Kolas & Zhaluo (eds), Dangdai Zhongguo Youmuye. Zhengce yu shixian (Pastoralism in Contemporary China: Policy and Practice) (Beijing, Social Sciences Academy Press), pp. 51-65.

Yan, Zhaoli, and Wu Ning. 2005. “Rangeland Privatization and Its Impacts on the Zoige Wetlands on the Eastern Tibetan Plateau.” Journal of Mountain Science 2(2): 105-5.

Yan, Z., W. Ning, Y. Dorji & R. Jia 2005 A review of rangeland privatization and its implications in the Tibetan Plateau, Nomadic Peoples 9, pp. 31-51.

Yeh, E.T. 2003 Tibetan range wars. Spatial politics and authority on the grasslands of Amdo, Development and Change 34(3), pp. 499-523.

Yeh, E. & Ga Errang 2011 Tibetan pastoralism in neoliberalising China. Continuity and change in Gouli, Area 43(2), pp. 165-72.

Yonten, N. 2012 From “retire livestock, restore rangeland” to the compensation for ecological services. State interventions into rangeland ecosystems and pastoralism in Tibet. PhD thesis (Boulder, University of Colorado Boulder).
What factors determine carrying capacity? A case study from pastoral Tibet, Area 47(1), pp. 73-80.

Wu Ning & C. Richard 1999 The privatization process of rangeland and its impacts on pastoral dynamics in the Hindu-Kush Himalaya. The case of Western Sichuan, China, conference paper presented at the International Rangeland Congress, Townsville Australia, July, 1999.

Haut de page


1 Funding for this research was provided by the National Social Science Foundation of China (17BMZ037) and the Ministry of Education of China (17JJD850001).

2 As Lobsang Gelek suggested, wool had a better cash value during the commune time when the state collect it within the planted economic system (Lobsang Gelek 2002, p. 59). In the current market, the cash income from selling sheep wool and skin is very small if any.

3 These statements were made by many herders. Their calculation is commonly based on how much faster sheep grow in term of numbers compared with yaks. That is, while yaks produce calves every other year in most cases, sheep produce once or even twice a year. In addition, sheep can be sold to the meat market or give birth after twenty months, whereas yaks need to wait at least four years to be sold to the meat market or six years to give birth. Therefore, in terms of productivity, sheep have a much quicker turnaround than yaks. Yet, as Emilia Sulek suggested, if one considers the fluctuation in market prices, labour input, pastureland availability, religious beliefs, and other costs, a detailed income comparison between sheep and yaks would become much more complex.

4 Pseudonyms are used throughout this article.

5 In Tibetan, tshowa refers to a small social unit, whereas dewa refers to a larger traditional social unit that may be constituted of a number of tshowas.

6 Those households with a larger number of sheep would normally herd more yaks than poorer households would.

7 When Charo Village arrived in their current location from the Qinghai Province, they saw that one of their neighbouring dewa, the Shedrok, had been herding sheep for many years, while another neighbouring dewa (the Mawa) did not have the tradition of herding sheep. This difference in herding patterns indicates that, although the current location of Charo is very wet compared to the grasslands in Qinghai, herding sheep in the new, wetter location was not an impossible task.

8 This work unit was divided into two work teams for the second and third year.

9 This is an estimate by some of surviving elderly villagers.

10 The phrase that was used by herders is: “I swear on the Yum (Prajñāpāramitā) or bKa ’gyur (the Buddhist canon) that the numbers I reported were true”.

11 Sheep are more vulnerable to a liver disease usually caused by eating grasses in the wetland that grow in late summer (after the herd has moved to the autumn pasture); sheep are particularly vulnerable to snow disasters, as opposed to yaks, which can survive without grazing for as long as ten days, whereas sheep can die after only a single day without grazing. When sheep give birth in the snowy winter time, the adults are vulnerable to freezing and lambs are vulnerable to predators, including eagles, wolves, and dogs; facing snow disasters and extremely cold weather, weak sheep need to be fed separately and need intensive care. Walking in the autumn frost grasslands can also lead sheep to contract a hoof disease that makes them weaker and more vulnerable to harsh winters.

12 Indeed, due to the dynamic situation of the topography, it is impossible to evenly distribute resources among pastoralists.

13 Interviews with herders and my own observations.

14 Interviews with Tibetan pastoralists and my own observations.

15 Tibetan pastoralists are Buddhists, and “sin” refers to the Buddhist teaching of negative karma in this article.

16 The largest yaks could weigh the same as the meat of up to eight sheep.

17 In another article I will explore the reasons why Tibetans must sell to the meat market.

18 To make a living, some households engaged in hunting wild animals, as they also used to in the old times.

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1. Livestock and human populations in Charo village from 1952 to 2017
Fichier image/png, 261k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Ga Errang, « The case of the disappearance of Tibetan sheep from the village of Charo in the eastern Tibetan Plateau. Tibetan pastoralists’ decisions, economic calculations, and religious beliefs », Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines [En ligne], 50 | 2019, mis en ligne le 04 mars 2019, consulté le 10 mai 2021. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Ga Errang

Ga Errang (Kabzung), earned his PhD at the University of Colorado-Boulder in 2012, and is currently an Associate Professor at the College of History and Culture, and a faculty member of The Centre for Tibetan Studies, Sichuan University (Chengdu, China). His research interests include development, everyday religious practices, and environmental change in pastoral societies of southeastern Tibet. He has published articles in international academic journals, including Journal of Asian StudiesConservation and Society, Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines and Area, among others.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

© Tous droits réservés

Haut de page
  • Logo École Pratique des Hautes Études
  • Logo Université PSL
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search