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The Tibetan Drokpa Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 20 March 2017

The Tibetan Drokpa


The Tibetan plateau was then a haven for drokpas and their herds. For the natives of Tibet, their yaks, sheep, cattle, horses and goats are their most precious possessions. Traditionally, their yak tents are indicative of their rich culture and how many of these herds they can tend say much of their social status. Their migratory lifestyle and their skill in determining environmental changes are their weapons of surviving in the harsh environment of Tibetan plateau. However changes in their government including environmental and economic changes forced them to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and shift to a different pattern of subsistence.

This paper aims to present the significant changes in the nomadic lifestyle by first presenting the traditional life of the drokpas to the time when China invaded Tibet. The first part of this paper briefly discusses the essentials of the four patterns of subsistence one of which is followed by the drokpas. The former lifestyle of the drokpas will also be discussed as prelude to the investigation of how the changes in the different areas of Tibetan life have caused significant changes to the pattern of subsistence of the drokpas. The latter part of this paper focuses on how drokpas made adjustments on their altered lifestyle and how they generally evaluate such changes.


Anthropologists once classified people and their culture as savages, barbarians and civilized cultures: a classification method they call “ethnocentric approach” (D. O’ Neil, 2005). This method used by the 19th century anthropologists like Edward B. Tylor (England) and Lewis Henry Morgan (United States) was in comparison with the European cultures and so are less informative and suggestive of the culture’s means of living. However a classification approach was later developed in 1930s which is based on the culture’s subsistence pattern, a method called “ethnographic approach.”

Subsistence pattern is a method by which a certain culture obtains its food and other necessities or how people make a living (R. Erickson, 2005). 1More specifically it is a method adopted by a culture for survival. The ethnographic approach of culture classification is therefore suggestive of a culture’s economic lifestyle. Anthropologists however stressed that this method also useful in determining other basic cultural patterns. As O’ Neil 2noted “there is a high positive correlation between the type of economy and population sizes and densities, social and political systems, scale of warfare, and complexity of science, mathematics, and technology”, in short the human cultural diversity.

There are basically four types of subsistence patterns according to the ethnographic approach: foraging, pastoralism, horticulture and intensive agriculture. While this paper focuses on the pastoralism subsistence pattern, it is important to also look into the backgrounds of all four in order to distinguish one from another. Foraging is a subsistence pattern which concentrates on hunting and gathering of wild plants, as suggested by foraging, from the word “forage” which necessarily means, wild.

Foragers are found in marginal environments as deserts, the arctic and tropical rainforests. In fact, our early ancestors are necessarily foragers due probably to the unavailability of tools for other means of finding food. Because foragers do not permanently settle in one area, it is but logical that their houses are built and temporary structures so that they can easily move to another area when their food resources become scarce.

Horticulture focuses on low-intensity farming or small-scale farming. Horticulturists depend on domesticated plant resources for food. Families of this culture classification typically maintain small garden plots. They are also known for practicing shifting or slash-and-burn agriculture. Their main crops include banana, coconut, plantain, yam, taro, potato, barley, wheat, maize and rice. Directly opposite horticulture is intensive agriculture where a society makes their living through large-scale or intensive farming. This type of subsistence requires the continuous use of land, fallowing and the application of fertilizer. 1Irrigation is also required to cultivate dry areas, terracing on steep slope and multi-cropping in order to extend harvest seasons.

“Pastoralism is an effective means of exploiting marginal environments” (M. Crawford, et.al, 2002, pg. 3). It is a pattern of subsistence which is primarily based on raising domestic herd animals that necessitate the grazing of lands. Sheep, cattle, goat, horses and yak are usually raised in variety in order to reduce risk of losing. These animals are raised for trading agricultural products and for the production of other products such as wool and milk products but rarely for meat. Pastoralism subsistence pattern may either be nomadic or transhumant.

In nomadic pastoralism, a seasonal migratory pattern is being followed and that varies annually. In Tibet, nomads call themselves “drokpa” who migrate with their herds to and from places where they could find sufficient grasslands and water for their herds. On the other hand, transhumant pastoralists do have the so called “cyclical pattern” of migration. Unlike drokpas, these people settle on permanent houses but their herds are moved to cool highland valleys during summer and during winter, to warmer lowland valleys.


Tibet’s economy primarily relies on agriculture. About eighty percent of its people are engaged agriculture either in form of pastoral nomadism (drokpa), grain farming (shingpa) and semi-nomadism (sama-drok) (Tibet Environmental Watch, April 26, 2000 report). Seventy percent of Tibet’s land territory is natural rangelands which supports 70.2 million domestic animals and about one million drokpas. Tibetan nomads raise variety of herds but common to them are sheep, goat and yak.

Their traditional knowledge of grazing lands is marked their sensitivity to environmental conditions such that they move to and from areas where climate would be favorable for their herds’ productivity. For example, drokpas raise different set of herds during summer and from that of winter herds. This way they are able to let the grasslands recover its fertility during the interval periods. The high altitude of Tibetan Plateau offers rich grazing resources for the drokpas.

Due to the need of finding enough grazing areas and the changing climate, drokpas move together with their herds when season changes. Their tents which serve as their temporary homes are moved and then will be re-established on new campsites. For seven months, they remain in the area pasturing their herds when winter and spring season comes typically during months of October to May. Usually in the middle of May, the drokpas then move their herds to other areas as summer and autumn come which is typically from June to September of the year.

The lifestyle of drokpas is simple. Their staple food is tsampa (roasted barley) they pair with butter and cheese, yoghurt and milk. They typically drink a native beer they call chang made from barley aside from their locally produced butter tea. Drokpas also trade their butter and cheese for food grains. Dri or the female yak is a vital source of milk products for the Tibetan nomads. Everyday, dris are churned using a wooden churner they call dongmo for milk and butter. It is worth appreciating how they produce butter and cheese without preservatives.

The butter they collected from dri’s milk is pressed in a hard circular cake in order to remove the liquid after which the butter is packed in skin and wooden containers. For trading purposes, drokpas also produce dried cheese. They do this by slicing a circular cheese from the buttermilk into small squares and then will hang those using strings. They also die yak for personal consumption.

They fresh and dry yak meat are cooked in stew. Raw yak meat is prepared by setting aside a portion of the yak leg and will be wrapped in cloth which they prepared well as they consider yak meat as special delicacy. Aside from being a primary source of milk and milk products, drokpas also raise yaks and dris for their meat, hair, wool and hides. As firewood, the dung of these animals is also used to make heat to combat the harsh climate in the Tibetan plateau. Sheep are good sources of wool and hides of which Tibet are known for its high quality. Goats also are good source of quality cashmere.


A. Environmental Factors

Degradation and overgrazing has been the major environmental factors that negatively affected that subsistence pattern of the Drokpas. The once wealthy nomads were now suffering from the effects of overgrazing and environmental degradation which sad to say are not caused by their own nomadic lifestyle. As stressed earlier, drokpas are known for their skill in determining seasonal and climactic changes which give them important signals to where and when to migrate with their herds.

3When traditional Tibet was invaded by China, the Tibetan plateaus started to be destroyed through the conversion of marginal lands into cultivation for wheat production. The introduction of agrarian reforms deprived traditional nomads of their usual production as grasslands are pushed to its limits. Because much of the grasslands were converted to other uses such as settling place for Chinese people and farming needs, the pastoral areas to which drokpas usually seasonally migrate were significantly degraded.

B. Government Policies

When China invaded Tibet, the traditional barter system or the free trade system enjoyed by the drokpas were changed to collectivism or the communist form of government (TEW, 2000). With this system, all properties are necessarily taken by the communist government and regarded as the property of all. Yields of all kinds are therefore distributed and so private ownership is deprived.

The implementation of agrarian reforms such as the conversion of grasslands into farmlands for the production of wheat and livestock decreased the chance of the drokpas to produce their usual yields. Aside from these, the Chinese government also implemented the taxation and quota system where farmers are required to produce certain volume of crops and grains regardless of seasonal and climactic factors (A. Marr). Heavy use of fertilizers due to pressure in producing wheat during winter season degraded the grasslands now converted to croplands.

The government also required drokpas to leave their nomadic life by encouraging them to begin the fenced production where herds are raised in designated fenced areas and so the cyclical migration is abandoned. Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has to meet the five year plan (1996-2000) of having 335,000 hectares of enclosed pastures.

Therefore drokpas nomadic lifestyle has forcibly changed to permanent settling into such enclosed pastures. Drokpas also have to adjust to their usual diet of barley to wheat and rice since it is the Chinese staple food aside from the fact that these grains are subsidized by the government. It is therefore safe to assume that it has been culturally hard for drokpas to adjust from their traditional Tibetan lifestyle to the Chinese way of living.


Drokpas make up 90% of the inhabitants of Damshung, which means “chosen valley” (Tibetan Bulletin Online, July-September 2002). Government economic policies of meeting crop quota forced drokpas to sign long-term contracts of cultivating lands for livestock production. From their traditional yak tents, drokpas are to shift from building their houses and barns in fenced or enclosed areas designated by the government. They are required to stay in such permanent settlements in order for the government to have at least the easiest way of providing social services. Since drokpas no longer are able to migrate, seasonal changes therefore would leave them nothing to do to save their herds from dying especially when heavy rainfall comes. This especially led them to severe poverty as opposed to their usual wealth when Tibet is free from Chinese intervention.

The inevitable effect of global warming is also considered by scientists as directly affecting the subsistence pattern of drokpas. The Tibetan plateau has been experiencing less rainfall and high temperatures making it hard for drokpas to raise their herds the usual manner, quality and quantity.

There are however documents that say that there are drokpas who were able to appreciate the way the enclosed raising of herds have improved their economic life. Because the Tibetan plateau has already been degraded and overgrazed, drokpas do not have the choice but to shift to the modernized way of tending their herds. Since Chinese government policies have production requirements and taxation policies for them to meet, they are forced to utilize what they currently have better than insisting to go on with the nomadic lifestyle without any assurance of favorable yield.

Cultural adjustment might have been the hardest part of drokpas altered lifestyle. As mentioned earlier, their tradition of migration was changed to permanent settlement. Their usual freedom of owning their herds and of free trade has been shifted to collective ownership. Their tradition of having barley as their staple food has been changed to rice and wheat as economic and government policies required of them. Drokpas need to adjust in order to fit in the changing world despite the fact that their culture and tradition have been significantly disrespected.


Despite the rich culture of nomadic life displayed by the drokpas, the significant environmental, government, social and economic policies in the Tibetan plateau require such four thousand years of tradition to be displaced. By looking into the subsistence patter of the drokpas, which is pastolaralism, we were able to identify significant differences in their economic lifestyle in comparison with the other three patterns of subsistence.

With the Chinese invasion of Tibet, we were also able to see what were the specific changes that the drokpas faced in order to continue surviving in their old Tibetan plateau but with the new members of the society. This paper also presented the changes in government and economic policies which contributed to the economic instability of the drokpas and how these changes inevitably altered their culture.

Territorial invasions are realities of life and so are cultural changes. I am not in favor of altering culture and tradition of nomadic lifestyle but encouraging them to resist changes will definitely make their situation even worse. What this writer recommends is for the drokpas to continue to adjust to the current lifestyle since it will be hardly impossible for them to bring back the lost rich grasslands of the Tibetan plateau.

1Subsistence. Retrieved on August 11, 2007 from http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/bkimura/Subsistence.htm
2O’ Neil, Dennis. Pastoralism. Retrieved on August 11, 2007 from http://anthro.palomar.edu/subsistence/sub_3.htm
3Marr, Alec. Tibet 2000: Environment And Development Issues. Retrieved on August 11, 2007 from http://www.wilderness.org.au/campaigns/international/tibet/tibet2000/
Leonard, William and Michael H. Crawford (2002). Human Biology of Pastoral Populations. Cambridge University Press. Pages 2-13
Tibet Environmental Watch. Tibet: Environment and Development Issues. Chapter 3. April 03, 2000. Retrieved on August 11, 2007 from http://www.tew.org/tibet2000/t2.ch3.agriculture.html
TibetanBulletin Online. Tibetan Nomads in a Fix? July-September 2002.Volume 6, issue 3. Retrieved on August 11, 2007 from http://www.tibet.net/en/tibbul/2002/0207/eyewitness.html
Environmental Damage Changes Tibetan Nomad Lifestyle. Retrieved on August 11, 2007 from http://www.china.org.cn/english/features/poverty/168635.htm
The Nomad Economy and the Annual Cycle of Migration. Retrieved on August 11, 2007 from http://www.case.edu/affil/tibet/booksAndPapers/nomads/chapter04.htm

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