Theses Doctoral

Medicine, Monasteries and Empire: Tibetan Buddhism and the Politics of Learning in Qing China

Van Vleet, Stacey

Representing the first comprehensive study of Tibetan medical institutions, this dissertation argues that medicine played a crucial role in the development of Tibetan Buddhism outside of Tibet during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), while Tibetan Buddhism played a vital role in the governance of the northern and western borderlands of the Qing Empire. During the same period remembered today for the rise of science along mercantile-colonialist sea routes, an inland network of Tibetan Buddhist monastic medical colleges (gso rig or sman pa grwa tshang) proliferated in tandem with the expansion of the Qing Empire over Inner Asia. My study examines these developments from a regional rather than an anachronistic nation-state perspective, historicizing both the "Tibetan" medical system and its community of practitioners within the context of Qing imperial expansion and decline. Combining the approaches of intellectual and institutional history, I argue that the medical colleges of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries bridged the realms of ritual and materiality that we understand as separate today, providing a key site for the display of benevolent governance, and serving as a vital forum for intellectual and material exchange between the Qing court and peoples of the Tibetan Buddhist frontiers. The "monastic guidelines" (bca' yig) of Tibetan medical colleges provide a window into these institutions' ritual and medical curricula, as well as debates over medical orthodoxy that took place within and between them. Historical narratives within monastic guidelines served as frameworks of legitimacy and templates for ritual practice, and the boundaries of medicine as a discipline were negotiated through the selective incorporation of various medical lineages and traditions. I explore the relationship between ritual debates, doctrinal debates, and ideas about how to both encourage and circumscribe experience within the monastic guidelines of medical colleges. One of the major issues at stake was the relationship between innovation and revelation, as physicians could claim a special insight into the experience of their predecessors in a medical lineage. While innovation was necessary for expertise in healing, revelation was potentially dangerous to the state. Such medical debates give us insight into ideas about the relationship between social and epistemic order taught within Tibetan Buddhist institutions as they spread within the Qing Empire. With the advent of new ways of defining territorial and disciplinary boundaries in the early twentieth century, ritual technologies for defining social and epistemic order were replaced by new institutional structures. I consider why the greater circulation of medical knowledge within the Qing Empire was followed by a fragmentation of medical nationalisms. While Han Chinese nationalists embraced the culture of science as a defensive strategy against Western powers and as a political strategy to distance themselves from the Qing formation, Tibetan Buddhists did not seek such a radical break. Similar and connected medical reforms in Lhasa, Eastern Tibet, Mongolia, and Buryatia reveal the continuity of Tibetan Buddhist knowledge networks and early cooperation among their separate nationalist projects. In the broader context of the history of science, the example of Tibetan Buddhist medical institutions points to the centrality of early modern networks of knowledge in determining modern political configurations.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for VanVleet_columbia_0054D_12556.pdf VanVleet_columbia_0054D_12556.pdf application/pdf 26.6 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Tuttle, Gray
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 18, 2015