Tibetan Buddhism among Yellow Yugurs of Gansu 1994


There are between 20,000 to 40,000 Yellow Yugurs (Yugu Zu 裕固族), a Turkic people residing in Gansu 甘肃, China. The Yellow Yugurs are related to the Uighurs of East Turkistan (Xinjiang 新疆), but they still follow Tibetan Buddhism, unlike the Uighurs, who converted to Islam. Traditionally, half of them spoke Uighur and half Mongolian. When the Uighurs migrated south from Mongolia in the mid-ninth century, the majority went to join their Buddhist cou­sins in Turfan 吐鲁番, and converted to Buddhism from their Manichaean religion. A small portion, however, settled in cen­tral Gansu and became known as the Yellow Yu­gurs, after the yellow color of their tents. Ano­ther small group of Ui­ghurs migrat­ed to the Chu Val­ley in Kyrgyz­stan and inter­married with the local Sogdian Bud­dhists. Some scholars think that another group went to southern East Turki­stan.

The Yellow Yugurs and Buddhism

It is unclear exactly from whom the Yellow Yugurs first received their Buddhism. The area of central Gansu and nearby Dunhuang 敦煌 had, for two centuries on and off, been under Tibetan rule, but the form of Buddhism prevalent in the area was Chinese, with some Tibetan traditions of Chinese Chan Buddhism, or the so-called “Ho-shang view” mixed in.

The area became part of the Tangut (Tib.: Mi-nyag, Chin.: Xixia 西夏) kingd­om in the early ele­venth century. The Tangut capi­tal was at present-day Yin­chuan 银川, now the main city of the Hui Chinese Mus­lims. The Tanguts at first followed Chinese Bud­dhism, but from the twelfth century, combined it with Kagyu forms of Tibetan Buddhism. After they were subjugated in the early thir­teenth century by the Mongols, the Tanguts also followed the Tibetan Sakya tradition of their conquerers. The Yellow Yugurs followed the same pattern as the Tanguts in adopting­ the Tibetan Buddhist tradi­tion, eventually becoming Gelug at the end of the six­teenth century under the influence of the Third Dalai Lama, at the same time as did the Mongols. By this time, most of the Tanguts had migrated south to Kham.

The Present Situation

Before 1958, the Yellow Yugurs had about 30 monasteries. Most of these were destroyed, but parts of some remained. The three largest were Huang Si 黄寺 (Ser dGon-pa) in Sunan 肃南 about 60 km south of Zhangye 张掖 (formerly Ganzhou 甘州) with about 50 monks, Mati (Horse Hoof) Si 马蹄寺 about 60 km north of Zhangye, and Wenshu (Manju­shri) Si 文殊寺 in the Nanshan 南山 Dis­trict south of Jiuquan 酒泉 (formerly Su­zhou 肃州), all in the corri­dor re­gion of central Gansu. Al­toge­ther there were about 500 monks, with an additional 200 Yellow Yugurs studying at Kumbum Monastery in Amdo (Qinghai 青海).

The main area where the Yellow Yugurs currently live is the Sunan Yugur Autonomous County 肃南裕固族自治县, on the Gansu side of the Nanshan Moun­tains along the Amdo border, south of Zhangye. Some also live in Jishishan 积石山, 70 km east of Linxia 临夏, to the south of Lanzhou 兰州, and some reportedly in the Subei Mon­gol Auto­nomous County 肃北蒙古族自治县 south of Dunhuang.

At present, there are three large and several small Yel­low Yugur monasteries that have been repaired and rebuilt. The largest is Mati Si, north of Zhangye, which was rebuilt in 1986. It has 26 mostly young Amdo Tibetans, but currently no Yugur monks. There is one resident teacher from Lab­rang Monastery, and the monks primarily perform tantric rituals and chant prayers. Previously, Mati had about 100 monks, also mostly Amdo Tibe­t­ans. In the corri­dor region of central Gansu there are about 30,000 Amdo Tibet­ans, who call themselves Gansu Tibetans. It is unclear when they start­ed to join the Yellow Yugur mon­as­teries.

Young Yel­low Yugurs are not joining the local monaster­ies be­cause they are illiterate in Tibetan and the Amdo monks do not seem able to teach them the Tibetan language. Only a few very old Yugur monks are left. They have disrobed, married and con­tinue their prac­tices at home. If there were teachers avai­lable, there would undoubtedly be interest among some younger Yugurs.

The other two larger Yellow Yugur monasteries left are Wenshu Si south of Jiuquan, with about eighteen monks, and one south of Wuwei 武威 (formerly Liangzhou 凉州) with about ten monks. It is unclear if there are now any Yugurs at them. There is reportedly a small monastery in Jishishan with just five or six monks.

In Sunan itself, what was forme­rly the largest Yugur monas­tery, Huang Si, has not been rebuilt. There is a small temple there, Hongwan (Red Bay) Si 红湾寺, but no monks at all. It for­merly had 20 monks. Report­edly, a 76 year old Yellow Yugur Tulku, Lan Jinyun, lives in Sunan.

The Yugur monasteries were always independent. The ones in central Gansu used to invite many teachers from Labrang and send many students there to study. The monastery in Jishishan had a similar arrangement with Kumbum, even though it was located closer to Labrang. At present, there are a few young Yugur monks studying at Labrang.