Theses Doctoral

Refuge from Empire: Religion and Qing China’s Imperial Formation in the Eighteenth Century

Wu, Lan

Following several successful military expeditions against the Mongols in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Manchu rulers of Qing China (1644-1911) met an unprecedented challenge as they incorporated culturally different subjects into their growing empire. After doubling in territory and tripling in population, how did the multicultural Qing operate? How did the new imperial subjects receive and reinterpret Qing state policies? What have been the ramifications of the eighteenth-century political innovations in modern China? In this dissertation, I address these questions by examining the encounters of the expanding Qing empire with Tibetans and Mongols in Inner Asia. Central to the analysis is Tibetan Buddhism, to which Mongols and Tibetans have adhered for centuries. Recent decades have seen a growing volume of research attending to Tibetan Buddhism within the context of the Qing’s imperial policies, but key questions still remain with regards to the perspective of these Inner Asian communities and the reasons for their participation in the imperial enterprise. The inadequate understanding of the Qing’s interaction with Tibetan Buddhism is predicated upon the assumption that Qing emperors propitiated the belligerent Mongols by patronizing their religion. While this premise acknowledges Tibetan Buddhism’s importance in the Qing’s imperial formation, it simultaneously deprives those practicing the religion of agency. The purpose of this dissertation is to analyze how the empire was ruled from the viewpoint of the governed.
The project draws evidence from Tibetan-language biographies and monastic chronicles, letters in the Mongolian language, as well as local gazetteers, artisanal manuals, and court statutes in Chinese and Manchu, the two official languages in the Qing era. These textual sources are supplemented by Tibetan Buddhist artifacts housed in museums and libraries in North America and Asia. Through an examination of the wide array of source materials, I argue that the Qing imperial rulers capitalized on the religious culture of Inner Asian communities, which in turn gave rise to a transnational religious network that was centered on Tibetan Buddhist epistemology. The religious knowledge system remained strong well past the formative eighteenth century. Its enduring impact on Qing political and social history was felt even as the empire worked towards creating a distinctive cosmopolitan Qing culture. The dissertation consists of four chapters, each of which locates a space within the context of the symbiotic growth of the Qing and the Tibetan Buddhist knowledge network. This dissertation revolves around Tibetan Buddhist scholars, institutions, rituals, and objects, as they traveled from Tibet to Qing China’s capital and eastern Mongolia, and finally entered the literary realm of intellectuals in eighteenth-century China. Chapter One brings into focus Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation—a dynamic practice that redefined the institutional genealogy of individual prestige—as the Qing imperial power increased its contact with Inner Asian communities from the 1720s in the strategic border region of Amdo between Tibet and Qing China. I discuss how local hereditary headmen refashioned themselves into religious leaders whose enduring influence could transcend even death so as to preserve their prestige. Yet, their impact reached beyond the imperial margin. Chapter Two traces the role of these religious leaders in transforming an imperial private space into the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Qing’s imperial capital. This monastery—Beijing’s Lama Temple (Yonghegong 雍和宮)—not only became a site that manifested Qing imperial devotion to Tibetan Buddhism, but also served as an institutional outpost for the increasingly transnational Tibetan Buddhist network to the east. The Lama Temple was not the only outpost of the growing religious network, and Chapter Three explores another major nodal point within this network at a contact zone in southern Mongolia. It was here that two massive Tibetan Buddhist monasteries were constructed, owing to the mutual efforts undertaken by the imperial household and Tibetan Buddhists from Inner Asia. The final chapter returns to the imperial center but shifts its focus to a discursive space formed by Tibetan Buddhist laity who also occupied official posts in the imperial court. Two Manchu princes and one Mongolian Buddhist composed or were commissioned to compile texts in multiple languages on Tibetan Buddhist epistemology. Their writings reveal the fluidity and extent of the religious network, as well as its symbiotic growth with the imperial enterprise as the Qing empire took shape territorially and culturally. This dissertation concludes by addressing the nature of the Qing’s governance and that of the transnational power of the Tibetan Buddhist network, and it aims to deconstruct the dominant discourse associated with imperial policies in the Inner Asian frontier. My findings offer insight into how Tibetan Buddhism had a lasting impact on the Qing’s imperial imagination, during and after the formative eighteenth century.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Tuttle, Gray
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
December 22, 2015