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  • Why Did the Kangxi Emperor Go to Wutai Shan? Patronage, Pilgrimage, and the Place of Tibetan Buddhism at the Early Qing Court
  • Natalie Köhle (bio)

Historians studying the Qing period have traditionally argued that the completely sinicized Manchu Qing emperors had no personal commitment to Buddhism, and that their lavish patronage of Tibetan Buddhism was mere political expediency, in what was essentially an attempt to create a new stronghold of Tibetan Buddhism in the Chinese interior in order to orient the Mongols towards China and away from Tibet. Lately, however, some scholars, such as Patricia Berger, have offered evidence which renders this argument questionable.1 At the same time, a new trend in Qing studies stresses the Inner Asian heritage of the Qing rulers. This “New Qing History,” in particular the work of Pamela Crossley, Evelyn Rawski, and Mark Elliott, has shown that the Qing emperors’ successful rule was not achieved through sinicization, but rather through conscious and successful construction of a distinctive Manchu identity that allowed the Manchus to sustain their rule over a decidedly Inner Asian empire as a conquest regime.2 Whether understood as a borrowing from, and elaboration on, Yuan precedents, or as addressing the Qing empire’s Tibetan [End Page 73] and Mongolian constituencies, Qing patronage of Tibetan Buddhism occupies a prominent place in both Rawski’s and Crossley’s arguments. More than an incidental strategy designed to win over the Mongols, this patronage is seen as a central Inner Asian component of the Manchu emperors’ political ideology and strategies of rule. Perhaps the most important predecessor of New Qing scholarship on Tibetan Buddhism is David Farquhar’s 1978 article “Emperor as Bodhisattva in the Governance of the Ch’ing Empire.”3 This was the first study of the identification of the Yuan and Qing emperors as emanations of Mañjuśrī as propagated in Mongol-language texts, and, in the case of Qianlong, by means of a much-discussed series of thang ka.4 He traces the development of this identification to precedents in the Tibetan tradition and thus sees it as part of the Qing emperors’ Inner Asian mode of rule. In Farquhar’s study, Wutai shan, one of the main centers of Tibetan Buddhism in the Chinese interior, plays an important role: he sees the wish to propagate the “Mañjuśrī-emperor belief” in the eyes of the Mongols as the main reason for the Qing emperors’ patronage and visits to Wutai shan:

It may be, as has been asserted, that the emperors were interested in orienting the Mongols towards China and away from Tibet by this and other imperially supported Tibetan-style monastic establishments built on and near Chinese soil, but I suspect that the wish to spread the Mañjuśrī-emperor belief was the main reason for the new imperial concern with Mount Wu-t’ai.5

Since Farquhar finds comparable modes of rulership and self-legitimation in the conquest dynasties of the Yuan and Qing, his argument readily corroborates the thesis of New Qing historians, according to which rule as a Buddhist emperor and generous patronage of Tibetan Buddhist institutions is particular to the form of rule of conquest regimes. [End Page 74]

In contrast, Hoong Teik Toh argues that “[m]ost of the Ming emperors practiced Tibetan Buddhism,” that “Ming patronage of Tibetan Buddhism was one of the most important factors contributing to the florescence of the religion in this period,” and that therefore, “in terms of popularity, the Ming was indeed the “golden age” of Tibetan Buddhism in China.”6 Johan Elverskog likewise, though from an entirely different perspective, distances himself from the current position of the New Qing History. He contends that it is “tautological” to claim that the Manchus gained legitimacy among the Mongols because of their adoption of a “Buddhist persona,” since such reasoning is based on a “static” conception of Buddhist rule. What is needed, he argues, is a more sophisticated investigation of the processes by which “being Mongol and Buddhist” came to imply being part of the Qing.7

The present essay takes its inspiration from the prominent place accorded to Tibetan Buddhism in New Qing History and, following...


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