The old Tibetan Empire had three provinces — Ü-Tsang, Amdo and Kham. The names are still sometimes used, the three regions still have different dialects, and the Dalai Lama's Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala still claims all three as parts of Tibet.
Tibet has only intermittently been fully independent since it was conquered by the Mongol Empire around 1250, though various rulers of China — Mongol, Ming, Qing, Nationalist, and Communist — have allowed autonomy in some areas. Large parts of the former empire have not actually been ruled by Tibet since the Qing Dynasty (Manchu rulers of China 1644-1912) expanded its borders into the area in the early 1700s.
Both the Republic of China (1911-1949) and the People's Republic (1949-date) kept most of the Qing setup, so the current political and administrative boundaries are quite different from the old provinces.
- What was once Ü-Tsang province plus a large chunk of Kham are now the Tibetan Autonomous Region or TAR. The Chinese name for the region, Xizang (西藏) is their rendering of the Tibetan word which we transliterate as Ü-Tsang. This is what the term "Tibet" typically refers to in current English usage, and the area that our main Tibet article covers. Its dialect is the subject of our Tibetan phrasebook. During the period of de facto independence from 1911-1950, Ü-Tsang was the only area actually controlled by the Tibetan government.
- Kham was historically controlled by a couple of dozen tribes and small kingdoms (not all Tibetan) who fought each other often. Some places that are major tourist destinations today, such as Dali and Lijiang, were regional capitals in that era. Both Beijing and Lhasa tried for some centuries, and with considerable success, to control the area, but there were rebellions against both.
- The Qing put the eastern parts of Kham under the jurisdiction of the Chinese provinces Yunnan and Sichuan, and they still are. Our article on the Yunnan tourist trail covers travel through parts of Kham. The famed scenic destination of Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan was formerly part of Kham, and is named after nine traditional Tibetan villages in the area, seven of which are still inhabited by ethnic Tibetans, and are excellent places to marvel in traditional Tibetan architecture.
- In the 1950s, the western part of Kham was incorporated into the TAR. In the current administrative system, Kham has no role; all of its old territory is now part of other administrative divisions. However, the locals still call themselves Khampas and speak a somewhat different dialect of Tibetan.
- Amdo is a Tibetan term; the area is known as Kokonor in Mongolian and Qinghai in Chinese. Geographically, the area is part of the Tibetan Plateau with an average elevation over 3,000m. Ethnically it is quite mixed; Tibetans were historically the largest group and Mongols second, but now it is just over 50% Han (ethnic Chinese). However, Han Chinese are mostly concentrated in the eastern part of the province, around the provincial capital Xining, while the rest of the province is sparsely populated and predominantly Tibetan.
- The Qing established the province of Qinghai, roughly corresponding to historic Amdo, and it has been retained by later governments. We also have an Amdo Tibetan phrasebook. The current Dalai Lama was born here in 1935.
None of the current boundaries correspond exactly with the older ones; the above is just a general guide.