Tibetan Buddhism and the Politics of the Qing Dynasty

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qianlong emperor chengde

The Qianlong Emperor and his retinue at Chengde, the imperial summer retreat. Painting by Giuseppe Castiglione. Image by Chiumei Ho

Tibetan Buddhism and its associated art played a high profile role during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, who ruled China from 1736 to 1795. His was a vast, multi-cultural realm, whose myriad peoples held a variety of religious beliefs.

A strong alliance with the powerful lamas of Tibet helped the Qing Dynasty to legitimise its rule beyond the Chinese heartlands of the empire. The Qing, themselves a foreign dynasty hailing from Manchuria, were keenly aware of the need to present an appropriate image.

The visit of the sixth Panchen Lama to the Manchu summer retreat at Chengde in 1780 exemplifies the importance of Tibetan Buddhism during this period. As the highest-ranking lama – along with the Dalai Lama – in the Gelugpa (or Yellow Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen Lama’s visit to celebrate the emperor’s seventieth birthday was long awaited.

More than 500 records of the event survive, detailing orders for everything from horses and fodder to hats, robes and buddha images.

Qianlong even had the Xumifushou temple built at Chengde, in imitation of the Panchen Lama’s own temple at Tashilunpo in Tibet. In addition, Qianlong’s workshops produced prodigious quantities of thangkas (Tibetan scroll paintings), sculptures and ritual objects to fill it. Observed by ranks of Mongol khans, the visit was a diplomatic triumph.

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The Influence of Tibetan Buddhism in a Vast Empire

The esoteric Buddhism of Tibet, also known as Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism, has a long history in China. It first gained ground during the Tang Dynasty, thanks to a burst of translations of new texts from India, and Tibetan domination of the area now known as Xinjiang from 781 to 847 AD. Its influence waxed and waned over the succeeding centuries, before coming to the fore again during the Qing Dynasty.

The Chinese empire reached its greatest extent during this period, due primarily to the Qianlong Emperor’s extensive military endeavours, the so-called Ten Great Campaigns. In addition to Manchuria and China, the empire now encompassed Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang, areas with a diverse range of cultures and traditions. The heartland of China found itself part of a greater whole. Their rulers, the Manchu Qing, were oriented as much to their Inner and Central Asian dominions as they were towards China.

Although on a lesser scale, the reach of the Qing Empire was reminiscent of that of the Mongols, who ruled China as the Yuan Dynasty from 1276 to 1368. The Qing consciously sought out Mongol precedents as they developed their own national myth and consolidated their hold on the empire.

The lama-patron relationship, where the emperor recognised the spiritual authority of the lama, and the lama recognised the emperor as the Buddhist universal ruler (cakravartin), was key to imperial rule. Both the Mongol emperor Khubilai Khan and the Ming Yongle Emperor came to this arrangement with the lamas of Tibet. There was thus a precedent for the idea in the Chinese tradition, as well as the Tibeto-Mongolian.

Art and Architecture as Political Tools

Under the Qing, art and architecture became instruments of imperial policy. Buddhist images and precedents were used for the people of Mongolia and Tibet, while Confucian images and ideas were used for the Chinese. The Qing’s subtle exploitation of their subjects’ various rites and traditions enabled them to rule a large empire in ways their different peoples would understand and therefore obey.

From the beginning, the Qing were keen to maintain their cultural distinctiveness with regard to such matters as dress, language and religion, which included both shamanism and Buddhism. In keeping with their nomadic past the Qing court travelled frequently, in marked contract to the preceding Ming dynasty.

qianlong emperor

The Qianlong Emperior in his study. Qianlong was frequently portrayed as a traditional Confucian scholar, engaged in such activities as calligraphy and painting. Painting by Giuseppe Castiglione. Image by Chiumei Ho.

Yet Qianlong spent much of his private time in traditionally Chinese cultural pursuits, such as poetry, painting and calligraphy, the past-times of a Confucian scholar. He had himself painted in the robes of a Chinese scholar, surrounded by his huge art collection, as if emphasizing the point that Chinese culture was safe in his hands.

Publicly, however, Qianlong focused on the empire in all its variety. The re-dedication of the Yonghegong, or Palace of Harmony, in the Forbidden City, as Beijing’s main Tibetan Buddhist temple in 1744 was a clear example. He commemorated the event with an edict inscribed on a stele in the temple’s courtyard.

The inscription was in the four languages of the empire – Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan – but the different versions were not identical. Their content was shaped to suit their respective audiences. The Chinese text was full of classical references and filial piety, ending with a poetic eulogy to Qianlong’s father, the Yongzheng emperor. The Manchu version followed the Chinese text closely, but in a straightforward, unadorned style. The Mongolian and Tibetan versions replaced the Confucian elements with Buddhist flourishes.

Furthermore, the Chinese version didn’t mention the temple would be turned over to the Tibetan and Mongolian lamas exclusively, while the other versions make that clear.

Much later, in 1792, Qianlong issued another edict, the Lama Shuo (Speaking of lamas), which was likewise inscribed on a stele in the Yonghegong. This edict was decidedly more blunt, articulating Chinese suspicions about Tibetan Buddhism:

By patronizing the Yellow Church we maintain peace among the Mongols. This being an important task we cannot but protect this (religion). (In doing so) we do not show any bias, nor do we wish to adulate the Tibetan priests as (was done during the) Yuan dynasty.”

Qianlong was an old man by this time, possibly tired of the need for subtlety. Alternatively, he could have been aware of the need to acknowledge the suspicions of the Han Chinese.

The Empire in Miniature at Chengde

The central role played by Tibetan Buddhism during Qianlong’s reign was on obvious display at the Qing summer retreat at Chengde. Founded in 1703 as an escape from the heat of Beijing for the Kangxi emperor, it had become a second capital of the empire by the time of Qianlong. Here at Chengde the empire was recreated in miniature, its complex of temples replicating those of the Qing’s far-flung dominions.

There was even a replica of the Potala, the Dalai Lama’s palace-temple in Lhasa, which had been built for the eightieth birthday of Qianlong’s mother, the Dowager Empress Xiaosheng.

The imperial workshops employed artists from all over China, Mongolia and Tibet. Much of the art from Qianlong’s reign fuses these cultures, featuring an eclectic mix of Chinese landscape, Tibetan iconography and occasionally European-style portraiture. The court’s appetite for this Sino-Tibetan style was so great it necessitated a separate centre of production at the hall of Central Righteousness in the Forbidden City.

Qianlong commissioned such works on a massive scale to present as gifts. In this he even managed to surpass his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor, who once presented so many gifts to his favourite Outer Mongolian lama Zanabazar that his caravan of laden camels took three days and three nights to pass through the gates of Beijing.

Tibetan Buddhism and Empire

The Qing ruled over a large, potentially fractious, empire. They exercised control to a large extent by recognising the various regions’ differences and presenting appropriate images of power and religion to them. Tibetan Buddhism was a key factor in both Tibet and Mongolia, and thus played a prominent role in Qing relations with those regions.

The Qianlong emperor’s bluntly worded edict, the Lama Shuo, states it clearly: Qing support for Tibetan Buddhism was meant to keep the Mongols in line. The Mongol khans gathered at Chengde and the Tibetan lamas with their gift-laden caravans were left in little doubt as to whose largesse they owed their positions.

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© Copyright 2014 Paris Franz, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past


  1. says

    Quote from your article-

    The Qianlong emperor’s bluntly worded edict, the Lama Shuo, states it clearly: Qing support for Tibetan Buddhism was meant to keep the Mongols in line.

    Since this is the case, and he was a devout Buddhist then he was other than Tibetan Buddhist? No?
    Any one interested in the origins of the 5 Claw Imperial Dragon logo Yuan, Ming and Qing?
    I cracked the Qianlong Art code. Seeking contact with Ms. Franz, I need a writer.

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