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  • Forging the Golden Urn: The Qing Empire and the Politics of Reincarnation in Tibet by Max Oidtmann
  • Yingcong Dai (bio)
Max Oidtmann. Forging the Golden Urn: The Qing Empire and the Politics of Reincarnation in Tibet. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. xvii 330 pp. Hardcover, $65.00, ISBN 978-0-231-18406-9.

Using a golden urn as lottery medium to decide the reincarnations of high lamas in Tibet, including the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, has fascinated many, in and out of academia, and continues to be a point of controversy at present. Imposed by the Qing dynasty in the early 1790s after the second Gurkha war, this rule has been considered by some one of the hallmarks of Qing sovereignty in Tibet. Nevertheless, no exclusive scholarly study has been done to examine its birth and evolution. Max Oidtmann's groundbreaking work on the creation of the Golden Urn is deeply researched and offers innovative interpretations of its significance in the unfolding of Qing imperialism in Tibet. In addition to records and archives in Chinese, Oidtmann uses ample Manchu archives, typically the correspondence between the Qing court and its representatives in Tibet, and Tibetan sources, such as biographies, hagiographies, and gazettes. Viewing the Qing dynasty as a "colonial empire," Oidtmann explores how sovereignty, faith, and law were central themes in the making of the Golden Urn, which is a departure from the existing understanding of the Qing invention of this practice. [End Page 133]

Following a lengthy introduction chapter which examines the reincarnation tradition in Tibet and the evolution of the Qing suzerainty over Tibet, among other things, Oidtmann delineates the creation and installation of the Golden Urn rule in Tibet, as well as in Mongolia, in three "acts," that is, three chapters. The first chapter sets the backdrop and discusses rationale of the Qing decision to reform the traditional reincarnation procedure in which the oracles had been a key player. Although he fully acknowledges widespread corruption in the reincarnation procedure which had invariably resulted in selecting candidates from noble families to succeed high ecclesiastical positions (the similar situation existed in Mongolia where the oracles were also used in high lamas' reincarnations), Oidtmann downplays political agenda, contending that to tame the Tibetan nobility was not the Qianlong emperor's priority. Instead, he stresses the importance of faith in maintaining the stability of an empire. As he states: "the emperor's overriding rationale was the desire to stamp out doubts in reincarnate lamas and shore up faith in the Geluk church" (p. 77).

Nevertheless, in order to shore up faith in the Geluk church, what the Qianlong emperor and his field officials did was to first denounce some of the practices that the Geluk church had performed for generations, for example, its divination tradition, as Oidtmann elucidates in the second chapter. Using the correspondence between Qianlong and his officials, Oidtmann puts in full display the Qing ruling elites' distain of the Tibetan culture in general and their divination tradition in particular. Some Qing officials in Lhasa even publicly tested oracle performers in order to expose their deceitfulness and absurdity and to evoke the Tibetans' awe and respect of the Qing imperial authority and law. Comparing this mindset of the Qing ruling elites to that of the British in India, Oidtmann holds that the establishment of the Golden Urn was not only to impose Qing political authority, but also a way to transmit to Tibet the legal and cultural systems of the Qing dynasty, which were more superior and kingly than the indigenous Tibetan ways in the view of both Qianlong and his field agents. Yet, Qianlong and his officials stopped short of uprooting the Tibetan divination tradition, owing largely to the resistance from the Tibetan elites including the Eighth Dalai Lama. In the first few years after the creation of the Golden Urn, several reincarnations were confirmed by using the Golden Urn in both Beijing and Lhasa. Nevertheless, the Qing throne and the ambans did not pursue the elimination of the oracles.

While the central stage of the first two acts was Lhasa, the third chapter is set in Amdo (today's Qinghai and part...


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