Theses Doctoral

Mirrors of History: The Poetics of the Tibetan Kingdom in the Time of Empire (1728-1750)

Shakya, Riga Tsegyal

The first half of the 18th century saw the advent of Qing imperial authority over Central Tibet and much of Inner Asia. Histories of this formative period have often reiterated narratives of empire building that emanate from the imperial center in Beijing. The few treatments of Qing empire building that engage Tibetan language sources have typically centered around the ties of patronage between the Qing court and Gelukpa monastic hierarchs such as the Dalai Lama and their associated monastic institutions. This dissertation traces elite responses to the political transformations that swept across Central Tibet during the 18th century by examining the literary narratives of the Qing encounter and Tibetan lay rule produced by Tibetan laymen that clustered around the lodestar of the court of the king Polhané Sonam Topgye (r. 1728–1747). How did these courtly elites negotiate the violent and transformative history of state and empire building in 18th century Tibet and Inner Asia? What imaginaries did they draw upon to understand the formation of new political affiliations and communities against the backdrop of Qing imperial expansion? And what was the legacy of the Polha kingdom as lay rule ended in 1750?

This dissertation recovers an early modern reading of this lay literary tradition as a distinct form of elite self-fashioning and historiographical practice that emanated from poet-statesmen at the Polha court during the formative decades of Qing rule in Lhasa. In doing so, I foreground the role of a network Tibetan lay elites in the early Central Tibetan encounter with Qing imperial power, and the potency of the Tibetan literary tradition to capture the major political, social, and cultural shifts that Qing imperial rule brought about. Attending to these Tibetan noblemen as both key political actors in and poet-historians of this imperial encounter, I demonstrate how their poetic literary productions sought to reconcile notions of kingship, ethical governance and the history of imperial rule in Tibet and Inner Asia by drawing on an entangled Buddhist political and literary imagination. At its core, this study contributes to the understanding of indirect rule in a multi-ethnic imperium, how Buddhist knowledge making practices responded to imperial conditions, and the connected histories of political formations in early modern Asia.

Delinking from the colonial episteme - with its inherent conceptions of the historical and the literature as separate domains, this study reads 18th elite Tibetan sources for both their historical and literary value in tow with Tibetan, Qing, and European archival sources of the period, to offer a window into how Tibetan courtly elites were influenced by, responded to, and imagined the formative encounter between the 18th century Central Tibet and the Qing empire. To this end, this dissertation is comprised of five thematic chapters centering Tibetan lay elites, their encounter with Qing imperial power, their participation in Buddhist elite literary culture, and the broader ethical, material, and political concerns they inscribed through their cultural productions spanning the 18th and early 19th century.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2028-09-05.

More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Tuttle, Gray
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 6, 2023