THE SINO-TIBETAN FRONTIER IN THE EARLY 20th CENTURY

Auf der Seite http://gisby.org/bobroof.htm konnte man bis vor kurzem unter dem Titel “Copplestone Castings 28mm The Back of Beyond” eine interessante Einführung von Chris Peers in die Konfliktzone zwischen Muslimen aus Xinxiang und Ngolok aus Amdo (Nordost Tibet)am Anfang des 20.Jahrhunderts. Auch wenn sie für einen anderen Interessentenkreis geschrieben wurde, bietet sie doch einen guten Überblick.
Sie basiert im wesentlichen auf folgender Literatur:
Leonard Clark, “The Marching Wind”, London, 1955.
Ian Heath, “Armies of the Nineteenth Century: Asia” Vols 1 (Central Asia) and 2 (China), Foundry Books , 1998.
Dr. Joseph Rock, “Seeking the Mountains of Mystery”, National Geographic Magazine, February 1930.

(Originaltext siehe unten)

WARFARE ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD
THE SINO-TIBETAN FRONTIER IN THE EARLY 20th CENTURY
By Chris Peers

The wars on the frontier of China and Tibet must be strong contenders for the title of the least known large-scale conflicts of the early 20th century. (…) The area concerned is so remote that it is not easy even to describe exactly where we are talking about. It comprises roughly the north-eastern quarter of what is now the Chinese province of Chinghai, south of the Koko Nor or “Blue Lake” - a bleak, rolling steppe averaging about 12,000 feet above sea level, bisected by the gorges of the Yellow River and overshadowed by the inaccessible Amne Machin mountain massif. Until the 1950s, even the political status of this area was uncertain. It was claimed by the Tibetans, who regarded it as part of their province of Amdo, but - like the rest of Tibet in fact - until 1912 it had been nominally subject to the Manchu dynasty of China, which had maintained a handful of ineffectual garrisons there. Then the Chinese were withdrawn, but the Tibetan government in Lhasa was no more successful than the Manchus at establishing effective authority on this remote frontier.

For generations, the Turkish and Tungan (Chinese Muslim) clans on the Chinese side of the frontier had maintained a brutal feud with the Tibetan Ngolok tribesmen living further west. And yet, as Dr. Joseph Rock of the National Geographical Society’s 1927 - 1930 Yunnan Expedition reported, “of these local wars, not even an echo ever reaches the outside world”. According to Ian Heath, in the late 19th century the nomadic Ngoloks already had a reputation as rapacious horse rustlers and caravan raiders, who escaped retaliation by retiring into inaccessible mountain gorges. Several 19th century travellers mention these people (otherwise known as Goloks or Golok-pas), but for numerous reasons - the reluctance of the Chinese and Tibetan governments to allow outsiders into the region, the density and hostility of the population, and the sheer remoteness of the place from anywhere that seemed worth going to - even such famous explorers as Przewalski and Sven Hedin had given them a wide berth. One of the very few outsiders to encounter them was the Russian explorer Roborovski, who in 1895 had been attacked and driven back on the approaches to Amne Machin. (Like most Tibetan Buddhists the Ngoloks regarded the mountain as sacred, and they were always unhappy about foreigners going anywhere near it.).

The past history of the Tungans was just as turbulent. In 1895 the Muslims of Sining, the provincial capital of Chinghai, rebelled against the Manchus and inflicted several defeats on Chinese armies. Eventually they were suppressed, after a massacre which reportedly left no able-bodied Tungan males alive, except for 10,000 or so who fled west into the Koko Nor region. But by the 1920s the Muslims of eastern Chinghai were again on fairly good terms with their Chinese neighbours, and under the leadership of General Ma Chi - one of many independent warlords who claimed to rule their own parts of China in the name of the defunct Republic - they found themselves holding the frontier against the Mongolian and Tibetan nomads. In fact, despite the warlike reputation of the latter, they seem more often than not to have been the victims of aggression by their settled neighbours. In about 1928, as the Nationalist Northern Expedition was bringing the warlord era in the rest of China to a close, Ma Chi launched what was declared at the time to be a war of extermination against the Ngoloks. After many setbacks, he defeated them and captured the great Buddhist monastery complex at Labrang, situated across the Yellow River south of Sining. Dr. Rock, travelling west from Labrang soon afterwards, found the walls decorated with the severed heads of Tibetans. The entire country was devastated, the grasslands littered with the bones of massacred Tibetan men, women and children - “a slaughter”, he says, “recalling the days of Genghis Khan”. .

But twenty years later, the next outsider to try to get through to Amne Machin - the American Leonard Clark - found the Ngoloks far from exterminated, and still as belligerent as ever. Their motivation was succinctly explained by a Tibetan informant quoted by Clark: “They like to be free”. At that time the Nationalist General Ma Pu-fang was based in Sining, with a predominantly Muslim army which was said to be over a million strong. (Confusingly, just about every Tungan was called Ma.) General Ma was regarded by many foreign powers as one of the anti-Communist forces’ best hopes, and it appears that one of the factors which encouraged the Tibetan government to resist the Communists was the belief that he was a reliable buffer against invasion from the north-east. In 1949 Ma sent a mounted expeditionary force west into the Ngolok country to reconnoitre a route by which he could retire into Tibet if forced out of Sining by Mao’s armies. This party was commanded by Colonel Ma Sheng-lung and accompanied by Clark, who had worked under cover in China for the OSS against the Japanese during World War Two. He now seems to have been acting in an unofficial capacity as an advisor to General Ma, although his own account is (perhaps deliberately) unclear about his real objectives. His ostensible motive was not military but scientific - to investigate the claims made by Rock, and apparently corroborated by American pilots who had strayed off course en route from India to China during World War Two, that Amne Machin was actually the world’s highest mountain. In the event Ma failed to put up much resistance to the Communists, instead escaping to Hong Kong by plane with his gold and his concubines, and the planned fighting withdrawal into Tibet never materialised. During the 1950s the People’s Liberation Army finally succeeded in pacifying the Ngoloks, who survive to this day, subdued and impoverished but still not assimilated into mainstream Chinese culture. (Amne Machin, incidentally, was first climbed in 1981, when it was found to be nearly 5,000 feet lower than Mount Everest.) .

Whereas Rock’s references to the Muslim-Ngolok war are tantalisingly brief, Clark’s account is a fascinatingly detailed tale of adventure on what was then an untamed frontier reminiscent of the old American West. (He even recounts how he used examples from the career of his great-grandfather, who had fought against Captain Jack’s Modocs, when discussing tactics with the Tungans.) How reliable Clark really is as a source is difficult to say. I am certain that he exaggerates the dangers of his expedition as well as the importance of his own role, but his account is probably true in outline at least, and thanks to his military background his book is a useful source of tactical information, as well as comprehensive if flowery descriptions of the appearance of the combatants. Many of the descriptions of the characters he met have a sort of heroic quality which emphasises the epic feel of the whole subject - mighty warriors duelling on horseback beneath some of the world’s highest mountains, in lands utterly unknown to the outside world - all this in the middle of the 20th century! Captain Tan Chen-te, for example, was a tall, skinny fellow admired for his ability to decapitate a man with a single sword stroke. Clark’s interpreter, Tsedan Dorje - a small man in a shabby brown European suit - turned out to be a Turgut Mongol Prince whose ancestors had been appointed by Genghis Khan. Chutsu Tsereng (known by the honorific title of “Secretary” because he could read and write four languages) was “the leader of a motley crew of crack mercenaries, Moslems and Buddhists, some of whom were believed to have fought under him from Siberia to Lhasa, from Mongolia to Afghanistan� He rode a magnificent white-dappled stallion, showing three black sword scars on its shoulders, claimed by one of his men to be captured from the King of Afghanistan’s army�. A Russian-Turko Mussulman syce tended his mount, often swishing a red horsehair fly switch, though in winter there were no flies; and a Nepalese gunbearer, a Gurkha, rode at his side with a rifle - a Mannlicher, probably the world’s finest 8mm sporting gun.” .

Another Muslim fighter, Abdul, had been the personal bodyguard of Ma Pu-fang’s son, Marshal Ma-yuan, who described him as “the deadliest gunman in China”. He was also an expert guerrilla strategist, capable of leading a force of 300 cavalrymen in battle. “He had fought against, and killed, according to Colonel Ma, Russians, Japanese, Mongols, Turks, Tibetans, Tungans, and Chinese bandits and Communists� Abdul was both horse- and gun-wise, keeping these, his best friends, in top shape. His arms were a Chinese copy of a German automatic sub-machine pistol, a bone and golden-hafted dagger, a new Skoda .30 calibre rifle inlaid with chased silver.” Over six feet tall, distinguished by a bayonet scar on his forehead, he combined a “bold and dangerous-eyed” appearance with perfect discipline and manners. “In short,” concludes Clark, “he was a soldier.” The enemy often receives the same epic treatment. Among the Tibetan chiefs were “Gelakh - a mighty-thewed, hawk-faced chief dressed in red brocades and wolf robes”, and a notorious brigand “half-jokingly referred to as a vampire”. Even the horses were made in the same heroic mould. Clark’s favourite mount was a huge black Mongolian stallion known as the “Black Moon of Alashan”, which he allegedly retrieved from a Ngolok camp single-handed after it had been stolen by the tribesmen. Altogether, the more I read of the handful of books that contain any information on this subject, the more I realised that it was crying out to be gamed..

THE TIBETAN ARMIES
A NGOLOK ARMY LIST

We know little about Ngolok military organisation, and it is unlikely that there ever was much. Rock contrasted the “brave but disorganised” Tibetan tribes with the superior discipline of the Muslims. He reckoned that there were about 90,000 tribespeople altogether, which ties in fairly well with the estimate of 20,000 warriors given to Clark. However they were never politically united, but were divided into numerous clans of around 500 families each, commanded by chiefs called “khumbos”. (One of these chiefs, who died in the late 1940s, was a woman known as the “Queen of the Ngoloks”, who allegedly had seventeen husbands.) The biggest armies or raiding parties seem to have been only around 1,000 strong.

As for their fighting reputation, Clark calls the Ngoloks “the greatest cavalry existing on earth anywhere today, not excepting even the Soviet Cossack regiments”. The rather shaky basis for this statement was the fact that they had frequently defeated Ma Pu-fang’s Chinese troopers, whom Clark had campaigned with and learned to regard with respect. Clark’s NCO Abdul, though, also told him that in his wide experience Tibetans were “by far the smartest and most dangerous of all Asiatic soldiery including the Japanese”. Shortly before the expedition entered their territory the Ngoloks had ambushed and wiped out one detachment of cavalry, capturing its commander, and forced another entire regiment to retreat on foot, having stolen all its horses. The Chinese forts scattered along the frontier were virtually under siege, and the commander of one admitted that the nomads had actually captured it twice. Presumably they had done this means of one of their favourite tactics - infiltrating an enemy camp by night in disguise, then stampeding the horses and taking advantage of the ensuing chaos to massacre the defenders. .

Rock believed that “under any skilled leader the Tibetans could have whipped the Moslems”, but they lacked a personality capable of uniting the tribes and ensuring that they co-operated with each other. During the fighting in the Song Chu Valley in 1928 one group, the Amchoks, looted the tents of their allies while they were still engaged with the enemy. This, it was later alleged, was one of the main causes of the ultimate Muslim victory. The nomads’ only other major failing was that because their horses had to subsist through the winter on dead grass dug up from under the snow, they were too weak to travel far until the campaigning season was well advanced. This was a factor of which the Muslims - who had access to the farming regions of the Yellow River valley and so could feed their horses on grain - often took advantage. However it appears that in desperate circumstances the Ngoloks sometimes copied the old Mongol habit of feeding their horses on meat, which provided them with enough energy for forced marches even when there was no grazing..

Dr. Rock travelled through the region in the immediate aftermath of several savage battles in the Song Chu Valley near Labrang, though he was apparently not an actual eyewitness of the fighting. He describes how the Tibetans “charged against the Moslems at full speed on horseback, impaling them on their 30 foot lances like men spearing frogs”. Twenty years later, a Tibetan officer gave Clark this quite different account of Ngolok tactics: “Usually when they enter battle the Ngoloks do so on horseback, then dismount and attack on their bellies. They kill before you can see them. If we had been in the open they would probably have struck already by early morning, or just after sunset. But they are unpredictable, they even ambush from cover in broad daylight, or charge right out in the open� But day or night it makes no difference. The Ngoloks attack silently or sometimes with cries to their gods� above all they will kill - with a finality and detail horrible to behold.” Clark’s own experiences suggested that in most situations the Ngoloks preferred to fight dismounted. At close quarters, they would discharge their rifles and then resort to their swords. It appears that by the 1940s they had learnt the hard way the danger of being too predictable in their tactics, and deliberately varied them to keep the enemy guessing. According to the same Tibetan officer, their individual clan armies were well led and subject to strict discipline: “During attack they execute a pre-arranged plan, they obey one leader during battle, for to do otherwise is not to receive a reprimand but a prolonged death by torture from their own comrades.

The nomad encampments were invariably guarded by enormous black mastiffs, which were trained to attack and kill men, and are described as being more dangerous than wolves. Although not likely to have accompanied their masters on long-distance raids (if only because they would have been needed to protect the camps in the absence of the warriors), these dogs would fight bravely if anyone attempted to attack the Ngolok camps or drive off their horses, and had to be taken account of in any battle plan. From some of Clark’s descriptions it is clear that they could be formidable opponents. In one Buddhist monastery he encountered “the most savage dog we had yet seen. Like some monstrous, moth-eaten, four-legged, frothing gorilla, it had black pieces of wool hanging from its shoulders nearly to the ground. It was as big as any Saint Bernard. The enormous iron chain fastened to its iron collar seemed ready to snap at any second from the terrific lunges and weight of the maddened beast. The brute was chained to the partly devoured carcass of a horse, which it actually dragged along the ground towards us. When the dog had devoured this half-ton of meat, it would be chained to a fresh carcass, perhaps that of a yak, as many of these skeletons were scattered about. Its roars of rage set our horses shying by him fast.”

Appearance

Typical Tibetan costume consisted of a fur cap, leather boots, and a robe known as a “chupa”. The latter was basically a dressing gown made of thick wool, overlapping at the front from left to right, and belted tightly at the waist with a sash or belt; the Ngolok version was made of sheepskin instead of wool, but was basically of the same design. Tibetan nomads usually had their right arms and shoulders bare, leaving the right sleeve tucked into the belt or dangling at their sides. Most of these robes were probably left in their natural shades of fawn, cream, brown or grey, but rich men might dye them or substitute woollen ones - usually coloured dark red and black, though purple or violet had also been associated with some of the northern tribes in the late 19th century. It may be significant that the Ngloloks were sometimes known as the “Black Ngoloks”..

Fur or coloured cloth trim might be worn around the cuffs and hem, especially by chiefs. Clark describes the “chupas” of some of the Tibetan “ponpos” or lords as “of the finest sheepskins, faced with rich brocaded silks and gold thread and trimmed with the furs of the white Tibetan snow-leopard, red fox, marmot, wolf, or ermine”. On their bare chests, hung round their necks, most men wore a pouch (or, in the case of chiefs, a turquoise-inlaid silver receptacle) containing a small statue of the Buddha or a piece of paper with sacred writings on it. There were two types of boots - a heavy variety made of black leather, and a lighter type with a leather sole and a top made of wool dyed in coloured patterns. Tibetan men often shaved their heads apart from a pigtail at the back, but long, unkempt hair was common among the Ngoloks. Caps appeared in a wide variety of styles, with and without ear flaps, and were made of fox fur or sheepskin, sometimes trimmed with the fur of the wolf or snow leopard. Clark encountered men wearing “painted leather masks”, decorated with “terrifying faces”, which were designed for protection against both the freezing winds and evil spirits. He does not go into any more detail, but an examination of any of the numerous Buddhist paintings of demons will probably give an idea of the sort of patterns that might be in use..

Such finery, however, was rare among the Ngoloks, whose overall appearance was apparently fully in accord with their savage reputation. Clark describes a “pack of long-haired Ngolok tribesmen” in these rather unflattering terms: “Their faces were thickly smeared with bear grease, and they were certainly as arresting as any Apache who ever sharpened knife. Dressed in thick sheepskins, stiff with animal blood, they looked like huge, hulking anthropoid apes or the Dryopithecus. None of them seemed to be less than six feet tall, and some of them exceeded even that.” Elsewhere, though, the explorer is a bit more complimentary about them: “Their handsome faces and fairly high-bridged noses were wind- and sun-burned a brownish red. These were not necessarily Mongolian in appearance (as some others are), but resembled North American Indians� they were truly amazing men: the Ngoloks and the headshrinking Aguarunas in the Upper Amazon are by far the most virile-looking races I had yet run across.” .

Traditional Ngolok weaponry consisted of lances, broadswords and matchlocks, but by the 1940s they had acquired plenty of modern bolt-action rifles, mainly captured from the Chinese (although fairly good copies of Martini Henrys and Lee Metfords had been manufactured in Tibet since the early 1900s). Cartridge belts were worn around their chests or waists. Tibetan rifles and muskets were invariably fitted with rests made from two long prongs of polished horn, which were used to support the weapon when firing dismounted. Broadswords were carried in silver scabbards thrust into sashes or cartridge belts, and their hilts were decorated with turquoise and red coral. Both Rock’s and Clark’s informants said that the tribesmen killed many more Muslims with the lance than by rifle fire. As we have seen, Rock claims that Ngolok lances were as much as 30 feet long. He implies that he had actually seen such weapons, but in the only one of his photographs which shows men carrying lances the shafts appear to be about twice the height of a horse and rider, which would make them at most half the length he claims. In any case, 30 feet seems rather impractical. Clark gives the same figure, but he seems to have been relying on Rock rather than on personal observation, so this cannot be taken as positive confirmation. (Actually measurement was not Rock’s strong point, as he seems to have been responsible for the persistent story that the Ngoloks’ sacred mountain, Amne Machin, was about the same height as Everest!) I have seen no evidence that the coats of mail or lamellar armour which are sometimes seen in photographs of early 20th century Tibetan ceremonial occasions were still worn in battle in this region (as they apparently were further south, in Szechwan), but an occasional figure depicting a chieftain in a helmet might not be too anachronistic.

THE MUSLIM FORCES
CHINESE CHINGHAI FRONTIER ARMY LIST

The Tungans were generally regarded as far better fighters than the average Chinese. They were bigger and physically more powerful, and - possibly because of the influence of their religion - had the reputation of not being afraid to die. “Fierce and clever men without the knowledge of fear”, Clark calls their leaders, “whose followers deliberately sought death ‘that they might live’.” Traditionally they were almost all cavalry, and although the armies of Ma Chi and Ma Pu-fang included large numbers of infantry, the forces deployed on the Ngolok frontier seem to have been exclusively cavalry, with the exception of a few garrison units. By the 1920s the Muslim cavalry in the service of generals like Ma Chi were well armed with modern rifles, and although they retained their swashbuckling traditions and irregular appearance they are best thought of as regular army units in terms of their organisation, chain of command and scale of equipment. Nevertheless, we have no record of any force larger than a regiment operating on the Tibetan Plateau - not surprisingly, in view of the logistic difficulties in such a barren region. .

Clark’s expedition - which he describes rather implausibly as the largest ever sent into the Amne Machin range - comprised about 120 combatants, all mounted. Among them were Colonel Ma Sheng-lung’s bodyguard of 50 “Moslem soldiers of fortune” - mostly Tungans, but a few Afridis and others from Afghanistan, “too hot for even their own tribes to handle”. There were also 20 Tibetan fighting scouts, “fanatical Buddhists claiming to be deliberately seeking liberation to Nirvana”. The pack train included a total of about 800 yaks, camels and mules; later on, ox-drawn wagons and even pack sheep were pressed into service. Among the supporting personnel were blacksmiths, doctors, vets, surveyors and intelligence officers, and a signals contingent kept in contact with Sining by radio. On the march scouts and flank guards preceded the supply train, while the main body under the commander rode at the rear, ready to intervene if raiders attempted to stampede the animals. Camps were chosen with great care, bearing in mind the enemy’s habit of sneaking into them at night, and sentries were often changed hourly in order to ensure that they remained alert..

The men of Clark’s 1949 expedition were equipped with .30 calibre Skoda rifles, “Chinese copies of American tommy-guns”, Belgian and German automatic pistols, “Chinese potato-masher hand grenades”, Tibetan broadswords, a few light Japanese machine guns, and one small Japanese mortar. The Japanese weapons were presumably war booty, and so would not have been available until about 1945. Rifles were often fitted with Tibetan-style bipod rests. Like their Tibetan enemies the Muslims preferred to dismount to fight at close quarters, although Clark was told that if the terrain permitted they would often charge the flanks of an enemy position on horseback. He describes an engagement in which the column he was with was ambushed by nomads firing from behind a low ridge:.

“There was only one order in such a situation, and Ma and I gave it at about the same time: ‘Charge!’.

“Following us the entire column wheeled its horses to the left, and digging in spurs, plunged up the fairly steep, sandy hill� One fellow was firing his rifle with a single hand as if he held a pistol. Most had drawn the Chinese Mausers with which they were armed, and the rapid crack from these filled the hollow with a din and served to keep the attackers’ heads down� The colonel leapt off his saddle and closed at a run with the sword, bringing the blade down on the nearest Tibetan’s head� The attackers now turned their attention to us; a few dropping their rifles, mostly single-shot types and now empty, and drawing their broadswords from silver scabbards� stood up in full sight. About forty men ran back and disappeared behind a dune. The Moslems charged raggedly over the crest and, leaping from their mounts, closed with a yell and began efficiently slicing down those remaining.” .

Later, Clark quotes Colonel Ma’s standing orders in the event of a night attack on the camp. “Our Moslem centre would mount and counter by charging directly into the point of heaviest Ngolok concentration, smashing into their cavalry with the objective of splitting or fragmenting it. Two other groups, Tibetan and Moslem, tented on the wings of the camp, would simultaneously mount and ride yelling in two directions, as if escaping in alarm, and then suddenly they would wheel and ride back through the Ngolok flanks and rear, now supposedly shattered by our centre thrust.” The troopers were forbidden to dismount during the battle to finish off wounded enemies or collect loot, but were to remain on horseback and keep firing. As their lances were the most dangerous of the Ngoloks’ weapons, at close range the Muslims were to get inside them and use their swords. “A good theory”, remarks Clark, but he adds that “Moslem tactical theories didn’t always pan out against Ngolok ones.” .

Appearance

The Muslim cavalry who accompanied Clark seem to have worn little in the way of uniforms. He describes the commander’s bodyguard as “for the most part dressed like dandies in fur caps, red robes, and either Tibetan or polished black Cossack boots”. Colonel Ma and Captain Tan wore robes “of Kashmiri velvet, sky blue and ox-blood red, gold-trimmed; their filigreed cavalry sabres and automatic Belgian sidearms were worked in various designs”. Clark himself was disguised as a Muslim trooper in a padded Chinese uniform worn under a gold- and silver-trimmed robe with long trailing sleeves, and either a Tibetan fur hat or a black Astrakhan cap. Most of the men dressed in sheepskins while on campaign, but took their smartest clothes along with them in order to impress the garrisons of any forts which they might visit. Before calling on a high-ranking Chinese officer, “all of us who had them (including the Tibetans) had changed from old sheepskins into robes of black, blue or red, not forgetting our best silk sashes, our shiniest boots or most gaudy Tibetan footgear and spurs, daggers and sidearms, our swords and other gauds and accoutrements”. For this occasion Colonel Ma Sheng-lung wore a robe of sky blue velvet, “edged with a four-inch silver band”, and a red sash. Traditional Muslim skull caps (Clark mentions white and black ones) were often worn under Tibetan caps made of red fox fur. Horse furniture could be just as varied and colourful as the men’s clothing. Clark writes of Chutsu Tsereng’s “red-leather, high-cantled saddle� of silver plate, engraved, and studded with turquoises, his tattered saddle blanket the remains of a brocaded robe, the horse’s martingale embossed with jade Buddhas”. Black, bay or other dark coloured horses were preferred, as they were less visible at night..



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