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  • Forging the Golden Urn: The Qing Empire and the Politics of Reincarnation in Tibet by Max Oidtmann
  • James Gentry
Max Oidtmann, Forging the Golden Urn: The Qing Empire and the Politics of Reincarnation in Tibet. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. xvii, 330 pp. US $65 (hb). ISBN 978-0-231-18406-9

The imposition of the so-called Golden Urn policy by the Manchu Qing dynasty in 1792 to recognize the reincarnations of Tibetan Buddhist lamas, and its sporadic use until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, stands out as one of the most controversial issues in the history of Sino-Tibetan relations. The Qing implementation of this lottery-like selection process, in which Manchu officials and Tibetan Buddhist lamas would draw a single child's name from a ceremonial golden urn containing the names of all possible candidates, has been for decades at the heart of historical arguments for or against Tibetan geopolitical autonomy from China during the Qing period (1646–1911). This argument has been exacerbated by the recent revival of the Golden Urn policy by the PRC government in an attempt to wrest control over the recognition process from the Tibetan government in exile led by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso. The ongoing storm of controversy over the PRC's use of the Golden Urn in its selection of the Panchen Lama in 1995, and the mounting rhetoric about its similar designs to control the eventual recognition of the current Dalai Lama's reincarnation serve to highlight just how polarizing the issue of the urn's use has been in the contemporary struggle over the status of Tibet and its geopolitical future.

Exiled Tibetans and most Western scholars of Tibet have referred exclusively to Tibetan-language documents to argue that Buddhist clergy in Tibet were uniformly resistant to the Qing Golden Urn policy, or when observing it would simply go through the formal motions but in the end select their own candidate. But Chinese scholars active in the PRC have argued with reference to Chinese documents that the Golden Urn policy was in fact consistently binding for Tibetans, particularly in the recognition of their most high profile and politically influential reincarnates like the Dalai Lamas and the Panchen Lamas. For PRC scholars, the urn's use stands as proof that Tibet's religio-political leadership acknowledged Qing sovereignty over Tibet from at least the late eighteenth century on.

With Forging the Golden Urn, Max Oidtmann aims "to return to the original polyglot conversations of the Qing era and test these long-standing assumptions" (p. 4). In so doing, Oidtmann expertly mines Manchu-language and Chinese-language correspondences of the Qianlong Emperor and Qing imperial officials active in Inner Asian policy and governance, comparing these with Tibetan-language correspondences and biographical and historical writings of their monastic Tibetan interlocutors, to offer a strikingly fresh perspective on the issue of the Golden Urn that moves well beyond the current stalemate between Tibetan and Chinese accounts. Oidtmann's study traces the trajectory of the [End Page 233] Golden Urn from its inception as an adaptation by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796) of a Ming-dynasty bureaucratic lottery to the Qing court's multipronged efforts between the years of 1791 and 1798 to successfully implement and legitimate its use among elite clergy belonging primarily to the Geluk school in the recognition of its most illustrious reincarnate lamas—or trülkus (Tib. sprul sku; usually pronounced tulku).

Forging the Golden Urn is divided into a lengthy introduction, three "acts," and a conclusion. It also includes as appendices a useful "Chronology of Key Events" that took place between 1788 and 1798, the main time frame under Oidtmann's consideration; a "List of Usages of the Golden Urn," with the names, locations, and textual sources of all documented instances in which the Golden Urn was used between the years of 1793 and 1910; a handy record of "Tibetan Orthographic Equivalences" of the proper names referenced in the book; and, finally, a "Translation of the Qianlong Emperor's Discourse on Lamas" from the Tibetan, appearing here for the first time in English.

The introduction sets...


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