This sub-programme of the VISCOM project at the IKGA set out to assess the background and social usage of late medieval clan genealogies from the Tibetan highlands. Previous scholarship had generally taken for granted the accuracy of the ethnographic gloss “clan” to refer to these important groups (called gdung or rus in Tibetan), which have long been recognised as key agents in the region’s socio-religious history. Nonetheless, no systematic attempt had ever been made to critically analyse the extant textual materials depicting these groups. The genealogies that detail the make-up of these collectives, their background and exploits thus offered a natural source for further research into these important yet poorly understood groups.

The key text in Reinier Langelaar’s research, which combined literary-historical with ethnographic work, was the "Singular Volume of the Rlangs [Clan] (Rlangs-kyi-po-ti-bse-ru)". Describing the ancestral lineage of the ruler­s of Phag-mo-gru, who rose to a hegemonial position in the central highlands in the mid-14th century, it is one of the most enigmatic Tibetan genealogies, as well as one of the most elaborate. The work’s own claims to ancient authorship have been accepted by some recent scholars, which further elevated its stature as a source of paramount interest that promised a possible window into the cultural and social formations of an otherwise poorly attested past.

Detailed study of the text (including an edition and translation), however, has demonstrated that the work cannot be pinned to any date before the 14th century; rather, it stems from the period of the house’s heyday. In line with these findings, it is a highly political document that was crafted to boost the stature of the community that embraced it. The political angle of this and related works, as well as the patchwork and contrived nature of the documented descent lines, cast a long shadow on the degree to which this and comparable works can be used to pursue historical ethnographic queries: indeed, it seems that most such genealogies should not be taken as representative specimens of a broader ethnographic reality, but rather as cultural anomalies associated especially with political powerhouses.

Moreover, this line of inquiry even cast doubt on the identity of the ruling house as scions of the Rlangs clan, an allegedly old descent group with a broad and transregional historical presence. The only tangible communities that can reliably be discerned behind this genealogical work are a ruling house and an otherwise rather obscure eastern Tibetan descent group, whom the work proceeds to incorporate into the better-known Rlangs. The appropriation of this established name is presumably best understood as a legitimising strategy that helped raise the house’s relatively unknown lineage from its geographically and historically peripheral status, thus allowing the house to access the cultural clout associated with established historiographical figures and episodes related to the golden days of the Tibetan Empire, as well as the spread of Buddhism in Tibet. These insights have helped challenge the established image of the Plateau as a large clan-scape filled with deep-rooted descent groups, suggesting instead a landscape filled with local lineage groupings and villages that occasionally were drawn together by politically powerful Lévi-Straussian houses.

Overall, this strand of research tied in well with the larger VISCOM project and several of its working groups. Within the transversal working group (TWG) "Tribes and Ethnicity", for instance, a similar approach was used to study ethnic origin stories of the Tibetans (bod-pa). This demonstrated that Tibetan identity – across various agents, communities, religions, and regions – constituted a rather contested and fluid field, which shed an interesting light on the crafting of historical Tibetan ethnic identity, a field of research that has received but little attention in scholarship. In a like manner, the biographical elements found in genealogies offered substantial materials for comparative research into medieval biographical collections, which was pursued in the TWG "Medieval Biographical Collections". Lastly, work on genealogies' role in 17th c. ancestor cults in Khams resulted in an article slated to appear in the proceedings volume of the VISCOM conference "The Social and the Religious in the Making of Tibetan Societies."


Langelaar, R.J., 2022. “Buried Bones and Buddhas Beyond: Ancestor Cults, Buddhism and the Transcendentalisation of Tibetan Religion.” In: G. Hazod, M. Fermer & C. Jahoda, eds. The Social and the Religious in the Making of Tibetan Societies. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, pp. 283-308.

Langelaar, R.J., 2022. "Biography and Hierarchy: The Tibetan Ruling House of Phag-mo-gru and the Singular Volume of the Rlangs (Rlangs-kyi-po-ti-bse-ru)." In: Medieval Biographical Collections: Perspectives from Buddhist, Christian and Islamic Worlds. Special issue of Medieval Worlds. Comparative & Interdisciplinary Studies 15: 75–94.

Langelaar, R.J., et al., 2022. "Writing Strategies." In: Medieval Biographical Collections: Perspectives from Buddhist, Christian and Islamic Worlds. Special issue of Medieval Worlds. Comparative & Interdisciplinary Studies 15: 23–35.

Langelaar, R.J., 2021. “The “Clan Castles” of Khams: Critical Editions and Provenance of Two 17th-c. Funerary Manuals.” In: D. Lange, J. Ptáčková, M. Wettstein & M. Wulff, eds. Crossing Boundaries: Tibetan Studies Unlimited. Prague: Academia, pp. 78-96.

Langelaar, R.J., 2019. "Historical Social Organisation on the Eastern Tibetan Plateau: The Territorial Origins and Etymology of tsho-ba." In: Inner Asia, vol. 21(1): 7-37.

Langelaar, R.J., 2018. "Chasing the Colours of the Rainbow: Tibetan Ethnogenealogies in Flux." In: The Medieval History Journal, vol 21(2): 328-64.

Langelaar, R.J., 2017. "Descent and Houses in Reb gong (Reb-gong): Group Formation and Rules of Recruitment Among Eastern Tibetan tsho ba." In: Archiv Orientální, supplementa x. Mapping Amdo: Dynamics of Change, ed. by J. Ptáčková and A. Zenz. Prague: Oriental Institute: 155-83.