The Origins of the Monguors of the Kansu-Tibetan Frontier
China is a country made up of many different ethnicities; currently, there are 56 officially recognised ethnic groups. The Han Chinese makes up the majority of the population with the Zhuang and Manchu with the next highest numbers. However, there are other group, such as the Monguors, who have significantly lower numbers.
Also known as the Moinba, the 1990 census records that there are 7,475 Monguors in the part of the Tibet Autonomous Region, along with several other ethnic groups. For a long time there was little knowledge about them and some conflicting and fascinating tales about their origins.
The Monguors of the Kansu-Tibetan region (expect the Shat’o sub-groups who claim their own heritage from) trace their presence in the Hsining district as far back as the period of the Yuan or Mongol dynasty (1260-1368). When the Yuan Dynasty fell, they submitted to the Chinese Ming Dynasty.
“On the over-throw of this dynasty they submitted to the Ming dynasty. A fixed territory was then assigned to the chief of each clan. The Tibetans of the Hsining district were assigned territories in the same way at the same time. While the Tibetans were subject to the direct administration of the Chinese sub-prefecture officials, however, the Monguors, in spite of the fact that their territories formed enclaves within the sub-prefectures, were directly administered by their own clan chiefs under a peculiar kind of local autonomy”.
There are many theories as to the origins of the Monguors – Huc and Gabet (1844-1846) stated that they are of “Tartar” origin and their language a mixture of Mongol, Chinese, and Tibetan. However, Prjevalski, in 1873, called them Daldy and that the Tibetans call them Karlun, the Chinese calling them Tunschen. He stated that they were came from Samarkand, a mixture of the “Aryan” and “Mongol” races, but, having mixed with Chinese, the original type has disappeared.
A legend concerning the Monguor’s origins concerns Genghis Khan himself. When he ruled the Ordos he rode so fast a horse so that he could reach Kukunor for a hunting party within one day. Once, an important official escorted Genghis Khan and when he saw the country of Hsining he liked it so much that he settled there with his subjects and became the founding ancestor of the Daldy tribes.
Another author states that the Monguors are called Shirongols and that they call themselves “Mongol” or “Chagan Mongol” (White Mongol) and that some of them call themselves “Chzhahor”. He states that the Monguors are the result of the blending of the Olot, the Sienpi tribe and the brothers of Kublai Khan who were ordered by their mother to migrate to Shera-tala.
There are many more theories – the Chinese state that they are of Mongol stock and settled in the region during the Yuan Dynasty; another theory is that they are of Shat’o Turkish stock and arrived in the Hsining region during the Tang dynasty. One scholar states they “were not a homogeneous people, but included descendants of the T’ulu-fan of Turkistan, remnants of the medieval T’uyiihun (Sienpi) tribes, and even fragments of old Ch’iang (Tibetan) tribes.”.
Looking at more at the historic aspect of the Monguor, it appears that they first appeared during the Yuan dynasty. In 1275, according to the Annals of Hsining, “a Mongol army was sent to fight the turl)ulent T’ufan (Tibetans) whose nomad pastures were in the Kukunor region. This expedition was based on Hsining. During this half-century of war, most of the population of the Hsining country, which had con-sisted of small Tibetan tribes, had fled and the country was laid open for the Mongols”. The first historical information that we have is from the Ming Dynasty and proves that the Monguors were already living in Hsining (luring the Mongol period, under the ancestors of their later T’u-ssu.
There are sources that claim that all Monguors are of Mongol origin expect for one small group of 70 families belonging to the Yeh T’u-ssu who are of Ch’ant’ou origin and who submitted to the Ming at the same time as the Monguors. “All the Monguors are described as having been posted along these frontiers by the Ming and their chiefs as having received the title and function of T’u-ssu dur-ing the very first years of the dynasty”.
Tracing the history and the origins of the Monguor can be quite a complicated knot to untangle, but nevertheless, the Monguor are a fascinating and wonderful people with a rich and intriguing history and culture.
Schram, Louis M. J. (1954) The Monguors of the Kansu-Tibetan Frontier. Their Origin, History, and Social Organization, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, American Philosophical Society.