Crafting Buddhist Art in Qing China’s Contact Zones during the Eighteenth Century

Lan Wu


In 1808, a Tibetan Buddhist reincarnate (Tib. trülku, Mon. bla-ma, hereafter trülku) from the Labrang Monastery in northeastern Tibet named Jamyang Tubten Nyima (1779-1862) travelled to southern and eastern Mongolia (Fig. 1), where Tibetan Buddhism had flourished during the previous century.[1] On his trip, Jamyang Tubten Nyima, the third in line to the Detri reincarnation line, commissioned two foundries in the southern Mongolian market town of Dolonnuur (Tib. tsodün) to produce a brass statue of Mañjuśrī (Tib. Jamyang künzik) and numerous other Buddhist figures. In 1822, these objects made their way to the Labrang Monastery and found a home in Kelzang Lhakhang, a new temple that Jamyang Tubten Nyima had built next to his residence on the southeastern edge of the Labrang Monastery building complex. Both of these buildings were the first real estate owned by this trülku, whose line of succession had remained in the residence of the Jamyang Shepa reincarnation line, the founding lineage of the Labrang Monastery. In the same year, Jamyang Tubten Nyima was named abbot of the Labrang Monastery. To this day, it is still the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in northeastern Tibet, an area known to Tibetans as Amdo.[2] The history of Amdo has been connected to expanding Chinese imperial power since 1725, when the area was annexed by the Qing (1644-1911).[3]

Fig. 1. Map of major locations pertaining to Dolonnuur Tibetan Buddhist art production and circulation in the Qing. Created by Lan Wu using the Natural Earth Dataset.

How did this shifting geopolitical configuration change religious practices and related artistic productions in the newly acquired imperial borderland? This essay underscores artistic exchanges brought about by Qing China’s imperial enterprise in the eighteenth century as the empire became increasingly diverse. The Qianlong emperor sponsored extensive and systematic Tibetan Buddhist art production in the imperial capital, yet that metropolis did not monopolize the dynamic industry that took place. Instead, a study of Dolonnuur and its place in an evolving religious network reveals that there was already a thriving artistic system operating in Qing China’s hinterland. This essay demonstrates the multiplicity and complexity inherent in making Buddhist art, as the undertaking itself became a site for articulating authority in eighteenth-century China. It also delves into the politics of Tibetan Buddhist art production at the height of Qing imperial expansion by exploring the production and circulation of sacred Tibetan Buddhist statues in the empire’s contact zones.

Contact zones are social spaces where “disparate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination.”[4] Like literary works produced in the contact zones discussed by Mary Louise Pratt, the Tibetan Buddhist statues made in Dolonnuur exhibited common traits of heterogeneity that reflected the nature of cross-cultural encounters. In focusing on Tibetan Buddhist art in Qing China’s contact zones, this essay has two goals. First, it brings to the forefront “peripheries” and their agents, rather than considering Tibetan Buddhist art production as a court-driven enterprise that occurred exclusively in Beijing or other imperial spaces.[5] Furthermore, it proposes alternative ways of considering cultural geography in Qing China’s Inner Asia, a geographical area that fell largely within the orbit of the Manchu Qing empire during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as China came to include Manchuria, Mongolia, and part of Tibetan regions.[6] Rather than viewing these areas as compartmentalized units created by administrative divisions, I will highlight linkages across regions by examining Tibetan Buddhist statues made in Dolonnuur and their subsequent circulation among Tibetan Buddhists in Inner Asia under the Qing. The mobility of these statues was vital to their role in forging the cross-cultural religious network that shared mutual Buddhist artistic expressions. Portable arts were essential in this context in redrawing cultural boundaries and transcending geographical borders.[7] This essay therefore takes mobile Buddhist objects as its point of departure in order to highlight their agency in shaping a Tibetan Buddhist Inner Asia.

The role of Tibetan Buddhism in the Qing imperial agenda has become a productive field of inquiry in recent decades. Research on imperial patronage of Tibetan Buddhist art has been particularly fruitful, and it shows that art was important for articulating authority as the empire expanded to include more diverse cultural areas and practices.[8] But the exclusive focus on imperial court productions has reinforced a misunderstanding that the court was the only viable site for manufacturing Buddhist religious objects. In the essay that follows, I discuss another major venue for Tibetan Buddhist art production and its role in the fluctuating cultural paradigms of Inner Asia under the Qing.


Dolonnuur: Site of Tibetan Buddhist Art Production

Formerly a small settlement on the southern edge of the Mongol steppe approximately 250 kilometers north of Beijing, after the founding of the Qing dynasty Dolonnuur quickly developed into a major cultural and commercial center in Qing China’s Inner Asian borderlands. Dolonnuur’s rise began in 1691 when the Qing Kangxi emperor (r. 1661-1722) convened an assembly with the Khalkha Mongol leaders there amidst his military campaigns against the rival Zunghar Mongols led by Galdan (1644-1697).[9] The assembly ushered southern and eastern Mongolia into a new era of more assertive Qing imperial intervention into the Mongols’ social and political life, as the Qing rulers sought to establish their authority in the newly defined political hierarchy of Inner Asia. The Qing imperial court implemented policies to demarcate and allocate pastureland to reduce intercommunal disputes and reorganized the Mongols into civil-military banner units, an organizational system that the ruling Manchus had previously invented and implemented among themselves.[10] Along with heightened imperial penetration into the region, the political landscape in Inner Asia was redrawn, which together gave rise to new cultural centers that attracted a host of diverse visitors from Inner Asia and the North China Plain.

From its inception as a Qing-inflected site, Dolonnuur demonstrated its convergent nature as a nodal point linking various parts of a cross-cultural network. At the 1691 assembly, the Khalkha Mongol leaders made a request to build a monastery and open trade with merchants from China. Within roughly ten years, the Huizong Monastery (Mon. Köke Süme) was completed, and the Yongzheng emperor (r. 1722-1735) decreed the building of the Shanyin Monastery (Mon. Sira Süme) in 1727. These two monasteries housed young Mongol monks from each of the Mongol banners, so they could advance their Buddhist studies. Here, a dozen highly placed trülkus also connected with their Mongol patrons, as well as with their fellow Buddhist monks, through lectures and ritual performances. Within a century, the two monasteries could be seen “in the distance, glittering under the sun’s rays,” related Évariste Huc, a French missionary who travelled to Inner Asia in the middle of the nineteenth century.[11] Without the two monasteries and their imperial connection, Dolonnuur might not have developed as rapidly as it did over the course of a few decades. As major social institutions, monasteries functioned as desirable venues where people from all walks of life could come together, at a time when they were otherwise a mobile and dispersed society on the steppe. Mutually celebrated religious gatherings brought together laypeople from distant corners of the Buddhist world throughout the year.

Monks were not the only ones who called Dolonnuur home. Sojourning merchants (lümeng shang 旅蒙商) established branch offices in Dolonnuur. These early sojourning merchants were also supporters of the Kangxi emperor’s campaign against the Zunghar Mongols. The Qing court in turn granted and protected their trading privileges, including distinct licenses that allowed them to travel more freely in Mongolia, and some merchants might have even received enhanced protection in legal disputes in the eighteenth century.[12] The Chinese merchants were deeply invested in local society and played a vital role in moving capital across the hinterland.[13] Several decades after the two monasteries were completed, the Qing state began to collect a commercial tax in Dolonnuur because of its high volume of trade. Such growth also pushed the business district to expand further. This district was situated next to the monastic complexes and developed in a rather spontaneous manner. Indeed, Huc observed that the area was “a vast agglomeration of hideous houses, which seem[ed] to have been thrown together with a pitchfork.”[14] The chaotic jumble of buildings revealed the unpremeditated development of social and cultural practices in Dolonnuur. The absence of strong imperial sovereignty made the town a promise land for many communities.

Another such group of Chinese who crossed the physical and cultural boundary of the Great Wall were impoverished farmers from the neighboring Shanxi and Zhili regions.[15] Migrant farmers rented plots from the land-owning Mongols to avoid heavier taxes in their home regions. In the seventeenth century, the early Qing emperors imposed laws to prohibit Chinese farmers from entering or cultivating land in Mongolia. However, these regulations were unpopular and barely enforced because of the increased pressure caused by population growth in northern China. By the 1720s, a rising number of migrant farmers had begun to form settled communities in places like Dolonnuur. The Yongzheng emperor and his son, the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736-1795), vacillated between regulating Chinese migrants and barring them from cultivating the land. By the start of the nineteenth century, however, many Chinese migrants had settled in southern Mongolia and were contributing to the prosperous economy there.[16]

What the Chinese migrants brought with them remains unresolved. A potentially productive area of study is range of the technical skills possessed by those who settled in Dolonnuur. The most sought-after Chinese craftsmen employed by the Dolonnuur brass studios came from modern-day Shanxi Province, south of the Great Wall. Many archeological findings in the North China Plain have led one scholar to postulate that some of the brass and bronze Tibetan Buddhist statues produced in Dolonnuur were most likely created using the “lost-wax casting” technique, a time-honored method used for making a wide range of objects found in northern China.[17] Also known as “precision casting,” this technique involved several basic steps that began with making a wax model, then creating a clay mold around it. Once the mold had hardened, pouring molten metal into the mold melted and removed the wax, creating the desired metal object in the empty space. After the metal object was cast, it was considered complete after receiving a final polishing.[18] Yet since no substantial objects made in Dolonnuur can be confirmed, possible technological linkages across regions and cultural confines must remain speculative.

Better understood are the foundries in which the craftsmen worked in Dolonnuur. Jueming Hua has identified five major working foundries in Dolonnuur during the Qing era. Many foundries employed close to 100 craftsmen, and the Dachengyu 大成裕 Foundry, the largest of all, employed several hundred.[19] By 1809, when Jamyang Tubten Nyima visited Dolonnuur, its art industry assiduously connected to potential customers. As Jamyang Tubten Nyima noted in a description of his journey, the owner of the Ayushi Foundry had thrown an elaborate banquet in his honor on an earlier visit he had made to secure his order.[20] Further research on the Ayushi Foundry may provide more information on its specialty and production capacity. Jamyang Tubten Nyima mentioned that his order including one Mañjuśrī statue and those of one thousand Buddhist deities were too great for the Ayushi Foundry to complete in a timely manner. As a result, the production of the Mañjuśrī statue was postponed. Additionally, Jamyang Tubten Nyima had to dispatch two monks to help prepare for the production of the statues of the thousand Buddhist deities.[21] Despite having to delay the statue of Mañjuśrī, the magnitude of Jamyang Tubten Nyima’s order suggests that the Dolonnuur studios were generally able to meet market demand. Huc recorded that a Mongol commissioned a large Buddhist statue for his pilgrimage to Lhasa. The statue was loaded onto six camels for delivery to the Dalai Lama.[22] Statues of such a considerable size were often cast in parts and then soldered together after each part was delivered separately.[23] To make large-scale brass statues with consummate refinement required readily available labor and advanced casting techniques. The influx of peoples, techniques, and styles gave rise to a major production center different from that of the Qing’s imperial capital, Beijing.


Artistic Genealogy in Qing Tibetan Buddhist Art Production

Both of these production sites, however, found their inspiration in an earlier artistic tradition. Patricia Berger’s study of Tibetan Buddhist art made in eighteenth-century Beijing suggests that the Qing rulers encouraged a combination of Tibetan, Nepalese, and Chinese styles when making Tibetan Buddhist art in order to establish visual connections with the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). In Khubilai Khan’s court (r. 1260-1294), Nepalese-style Tibetan Buddhist art was associated with Mongol imperial authority.[24] Qing emperors’ pursuit of political power through religious art began in 1697, when the Zhongzheng Hall Scripture Recitation Office (Zhongzhengdian hanjing chu 中正殿唸經處) was designated as the imperial workshop for Tibetan Buddhist art.[25] The Kangxi emperor seemed particularly captivated by this heterogeneous Tibetan Buddhist style. He shared the Mongol emperor Khubilai Khan’s concerns regarding the need to stabilize a young empire; both leaders were conquest rulers whose attention necessarily focused on territorial expansion and administrative integration. Like Khubilai Khan, the Kangxi emperor capitalized on the power of Tibetan Buddhist art and communicated his comprehension of Buddhist cosmology to his Inner Asian subjects through art. Furthermore, his imperial validation probably compelled craftsmen and Buddhist monks alike to move across regions. These travelling bodies brought the Qing court a host of ideas and techniques, which in turn supported its increasing need and desire to craft a universalist imperial agenda to accommodate its diverse subjects.

If the Kangxi emperor found his inspiration in Nepalese-style Tibetan Buddhist art, it was his grandson, the Qianlong emperor, who orchestrated a massive systematic industry for Tibetan Buddhist art production. The emperor commissioned, collected, and meticulously cataloged Tibetan Buddhist art.[26] Beijing’s imperial workshops were ushered into a new era of mass production with support from the imperial household, although perhaps at the cost of artistic sophistication.[27] Other court initiatives included commissioning field officials in Lhasa to collect architectural blueprints, glue recipes, or generally codify artisanal expertise. Furthermore, the Qianlong emperor invited Nepalese craftsmen to Beijing to produce art for the imperial workshops.[28] The emperor’s unique approach to and generous support for Tibetan Buddhist art production attested to his knowledge of art and its value in communicating with culturally diverse religious subjects in Inner Asia.[29]

The aesthetics and iconometrics of Tibetan Buddhist art were such fundamentally meaningful elements of a statue that they needed to be conscientiously calibrated. A polyglot career official stated in the preface to his manual of Tibetan Buddhist iconography that “deities [do] not manifest in statues with inaccurate proportions and measurements.”[30] This statement was by no means an exaggeration. Indeed, Buddhist images were embodiments of the Buddha or specific Buddhist deities, and as such, they followed certain prescribed proportions:

[I]n the Tibetan religious context, a work of art that is a Buddhist image (kudra) is not merely a symbolic representation of an ultimate Buddhist truth. Nor is it simply an icon, a rendering of the ideal form of a member of the Buddhist pantheon. It is both of those things but, to the extent that it embodies the form of the Buddha or deity, the image also conveys the presence of that Buddha in its own right.[31]

Much of the concern over creating correct forms of Buddhist statues came from the theory that the Buddha was at once formless and physically present.[32] How then to translate this duality into material terms? Precisely because of the importance of the dimensions to a statue’s sacredness, it was vital to get the process right. Detailed sketches of iconographic attributes ensured that members of the Buddhist pantheon were accurately (and thus aesthetically) (re)presented (Fig. 2). With the significant increase in Tibetan Buddhist art production that occurred during the 1740s and 1750s, the Qianlong emperor commissioned his Imperial Preceptor—the Third Changkya Rolpai Dorje (1717-1786)—to prepare a collection of illustrations of Tibetan Buddhist pantheons for a precise reference. In 1750, his quadrilingual text with 360 Buddhist deities was put to use for manufacturing Tibetan Buddhist statues in the imperial workshops.[33] Tibetan Buddhism featured centrally in the Qing Inner Asian imperial enterprise, the text’s multilingualism further attests to the Qianlong emperor’s universalist imperial vision.

Fig. 2. Artist/maker unidentified, Tara, Goddess of Compassion, 18th-19th century. Made in Dolon Nor (Dolonnuur), Inner Mongolia, Chahar Province, China, Duolun County, Asia. Gilded bronze, 45 x 38 x 26 inches (114.3 x 96.5 x 66 cm), Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of John T. Morris, 1911-98 (HAR 87118).

During the six decades of Qianlong’s reign, approximately 40 new or converted Tibetan Buddhist monasteries dotted the capital’s urban landscape. Some of the imperial princes engaged in Buddhist philosophical debates, while others invited trülkus to their residences, and still others collected art and copied Tibetan Buddhist texts.[34] Twelve reincarnation lineages systematically established residences in Beijing during this era.[35] In tandem with the new Buddhist center of Beijing, the number of reincarnation lines increased by 40 per cent in the eighteenth century.[36] The fast growth of these powerful Buddhists reflected the Qing emperors’ acute awareness of the trülkus’ position among Inner Asians.[37] Imperial patronage further inscribed its authority on Tibetan Buddhist art and drove up demand for it.

However, the flourishing art industry did not mean that Jamyang Tubten Nyima or other potential patrons had access to the many objects being made in Beijing’s imperial workshops. First, the Qing state regulated the trülkus’ travel, and monks needed road passes to go on pilgrimages.[38] Second, a marginal trülku like Jamyang Tubten Nyima did not have the ability either to meet the emperor, or to receive statues made in the workshops exclusively for the emperor and as gifts for his special guests. How, then, did a figure like Jamyang Tubten Nyima forge a meaningful relationship with the imperial authority and emerging patrons in Qing China’s Inner Asia? I argue that the drastically increased number of Tibetan Buddhist trülkus and the inaccessibility of imperial authority gave rise to a market-driven art production site in Dolonnuur. The Dolonnuur foundries discovered a niche in the market, and thus met the demands of lesser Tibetan Buddhist trülkus. Minor trülkus like Jamyang Tubten Nyima ingeniously tapped into a cultivated art production enterprise prompted by the religious patronage of the Qing imperial rulers.

The calculated nature of Qing imperial art production is often considered a successful political strategy initiated by the Qianlong emperor. But a careful study of shared sources of artistic inspirations in both the court style and the Dolonnuur style may validate the persistent legacy of steppe politics continuing from a much earlier time. Both styles owed a great deal to a celebrated Nepalese artist named Anige (also known as Aniko or Araniko, 1245-1306) and the artistic legacy he and his patrons had nurtured during the Yuan dynasty. He was perhaps better known in China than in his native Nepal because of his abiding influence on Tibetan Buddhist art abroad following his decades-long stay in Beijing serving the Mongol emperors.[39] Chinese dynastic records describe him as a child prodigy who was inquisitive, retentive, and composed, and reported to be one of the best artists in Nepal already at the young age of 16.[40] His fame gained him an assignment to join 79 other craftsmen in building a monumental golden stupa (Tib. chotën) in central Tibet in 1260 for Phagpa (1235-1280), the fifth patriarch of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism and the Imperial Preceptor for Khubilai Khan.[41] Stupas were considered a physical representation of the Buddha’s mind; together with the Buddhist canon (speech) and statue (body), they constituted the Buddha’s material existence. This golden stupa in Tibet was allegedly intended to legitimize Khubilai Khan’s rule at a time of intense conflict for sovereignty among the Mongols. Impressed by Anige’s skills, Phagpa brought him to Khubilai Khan’s court.

It was here that Anige gained his true fame as a fine artist and an able administrator. Many of the Tibetan Buddhist arts produced for the court during this period bore his imprint. In 1279, Anige built the oldest and one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist stupas in China, which still stands in downtown Beijing (Fig. 3). He built another stupa in the same style at Mt. Wutai in 1301 (Fig. 4).[42] Seen in a panoramic image of Mt. Wutai printed in 1846 (Fig. 5), the white stupa immediately attracts the viewer’s eye thanks to its distinctive drawing technique and color application, and its position testifies to the stupa’s centrality in the mountain’s Buddhist cosmology.[43] Anige’s epitaph indeed summed up his prolific career at Khubilai Khan’s court: “[the] construction of three stupas, nine great Buddhist temples, two Confucian shrines, one Daoist temple, and countless images and objects made for the emperor, his imperial family, the court, and private persons.”[44] But his biggest accomplishment might be the influence he was able to inscribe on Tibetan Buddhist art long after his death.

LEFT: Fig. 3. White Stupa, Miaoying Temple, Beijing, 2006. Photo: Gray Tuttle.
RIGHT: Fig. 4. White Stupa, Wutai Shan, Shanxi Province, 2007. Photo: Gray Tuttle.

Fig. 5. Map of Wutaishan, Sino-Tibetan, c. 1846. Painted and colored xylograph. Rubin Museum of Art, C2004.29.1 (HAR 65371).

Tibetan Buddhist art and its embodied power continued to evolve after the Mongols’ withdrawal from areas south of the steppe in 1368. The movements of lay artists and Buddhist monks (who might also be acclaimed artists) between China and Tibet between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries were more spontaneous and infrequent, but persisted nevertheless. The most compelling discussions of this topic come from those scholars whose research is firmly grounded in the indigenous development of Tibetan Buddhist art traditions in Tibet itself.[45] Heather Stoddard contends that craftsmen in Tibet continuously assimilated motifs, techniques, and styles from nearby cultures, thereby maintaining greater agency in an otherwise unprompted cross-cultural exchange.[46] The circulation of distinct Tibetan Buddhist objects as well as craftsmen formed a nexus of art and politics that defined Sino-Tibetan relations for centuries.

During the Qing, Mongolians who were also Tibetan Buddhists likewise availed themselves of the matrix of art and politics centering on Tibetan Buddhism. Zanabazar (1635-1723), a prodigious polymath and influential Tibetan Buddhist, developed a Tibetan Buddhist artistic style that bridged the gulf between the Qing imperial style and the style prominent in the Qing Inner Asia that still maintained its Nepalese origin.[47] Zanabazar’s heterogeneous artistic style attested to the central role played by mobile craftsmen; he himself was an accomplished artist, especially in the area of sculpture. Scholars also suggest that he brought Nepalese craftsmen back with him after his visit to Central Tibet in 1651.[48] The movement of such technical and artistic skills was perhaps responsible for perpetuating and even reinventing artistic traditions across linguistic and cultural boundaries over time. A more comprehensive study of Zanabazar’s specific connection to Dolonnuur’s burgeoning art scene can likely help us discover an intensely intra-Asian artistic exchange in which the Qing imperial court ventured to participate.


The Circulation of Art in Qing Inner Asia

Central to Jamyang Tubten Nyima’s order of Tibetan Buddhist statues was one of Mañjuśrī—the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, with whom the Manchu Qing emperors closely identified.[49] Indeed, bringing home a Mañjuśrī statue efficaciously constructed a relationship with the imperial authority through a mutually accepted Buddhist visual vocabulary. Twelve statues of Mañjuśrī in various forms were found in the Qing imperial estates, and many were gifts from the Panchen Lama or Dalai Lama, prominent political figures of the Tibetan Buddhist government.[50] Portraits of the Qianlong emperor as the Mañjuśrī emanation also decorated his palaces (Fig. 6),[51] clearly demonstrating how the Buddhist deity of Mañjuśrī was inscribed with Qing imperial sovereignty. Mt. Wutai, Mañjuśrī’s abode, experienced a resurgent imperial patronage during the Qing, whose rulers clearly had become aware of the mountain’s significance to Buddhist cultures. The Qing Manchu emperors repeatedly went on pilgrimages to Mt. Wutai.[52] Three new imperial monasteries built during the Qianlong reign were also modeled after monasteries on Mt. Wutai, and through this architectural patronage the emperor was able to drive home a well-articulated vision of universal empire.[53] Precisely because of the imperial embrace of Mt. Wutai, Tibetans and Mongols also rekindled their interest in the mountain during the eighteenth century.[54] They capitalized on its supremacy to legitimize their own universal rulerships.[55] For reasons still unknown, Jamyang Tubten Nyima’s teacher persuaded him to study at Mt. Wutai rather than in Lhasa, where many of his contemporaries had gone. This change naturally exposed Jamyang Tubten Nyima to a new set of challenges, as well as new opportunities.

Fig. 6. Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining, 1688-1766), The Qianlong Emperor as Mañjuśrī, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, mid-18th century. Thangka, ink and color on silk, 113.6 x 64.3 cm. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase-Charles Lang Freer Endowment and funds provided by an anonymous donor, F2000.4.

A large monastery like the Labrang Monastery contains a trove of Buddhist art. One scholar has estimated that in the twentieth century, the number of brass and bronze statues in the monastery totaled over 30,000, of which 220 are larger than life-size.[56] Most of the monastic and residential buildings were originally furnished with murals or sculptures produced by local craftsmen, although those made by their Nepalese counterparts were considered to be superior. In 1791, the reigning abbot invited several Nepalese craftsmen to make a 26-foot-tall bronze statue for one of the major buildings.[57] The Labrang monastic complex reached its limits in 1820, and Jamyang Tubten Nyima’s residence and temple actually stood on the banks of the encircling river. Neither of these structures was the most prominent building within the spawning monastic complex in the Labrang Monastery (Figs. 7, 8 and 9), however, and their marginal locations bespoke their owner’s minor position in the Labrang community during the eighteenth century.

LEFT: Fig. 7. Map of Labrang Monastery, likely Labrang monastery, Gansu province, Northeastern Tibet, 1930s. Pigment on cloth, Rubin Museum of Art. Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin. C2012.4.3 (HAR 1097).
CENTER: Fig. 8. Detail of Fig. 7.
RIGHT: Fig. 9. Panoramic view of the Labrang monastic complex. Photo by M. G. Griebenow, c. 1934. © M. G. Griebenow, Tibet House US, New York. Photo: Paul Nietupski.

The shifting political climate also opened up new venues for trülkus of various ranks. With a nudge from his master, Jamyang Tubten Nyima grasped the opportunities offered by the Qing’s imperial intrusion and its intersection with the expanding Tibetan Buddhist world. Even though Lhasa remained the cultural epicenter of Tibetan Buddhists across the high plateau of Tibet, the political turmoil fueled by ongoing competition both within Tibet and beyond intensified.[58] As a result, many Tibetan Buddhist trülkus retreated to their home regions and forged new ties with more locally-oriented patrons.

The Labrang Monastery was a direct outcome of the intense political turmoil in Lhasa, which forced an Amdo-born trülku to retreat from the Buddhist epicenter. The first Jamyang Shepa built the Labrang Monastery in 1709, and his successor raised funds for a massive expansion.[59] The Geluk School had long labored to cultivate ties with the Mongols to the east, but earlier connections were more sporadic.[60] However, more Buddhist monks visited southern and eastern Mongolia in the eighteenth century. The Geluk prelates’ tie to the Beijing-based Manchu rulers also prompted Geluk reincarnates to increase their outreach and undertake missionary work in the east. But research concentrating only on the highest-level communication overlooks this more nuanced web of interactions and ignores figures like Jamyang Tubetan Nyima.

Jamyang Tubten Nyima’s new temple was home to the Mañjuśrī statue and the alleged one thousand Buddhist statues that gave the temple its name. In an essay he wrote in 1823 commemorating the opening of the temple, Jamyang Tubten Nyima acknowledged his patron’s generous support and rejoiced in the building’s exquisite statues.[61] Jamyang Tubten Nyima went a long way, both figuratively and literally, to find a patron. The Mongol leader of the Aru Horqin Banner in far eastern Mongolia provided funds that were indispensable for the large construction project. In return, Jamyang Tubten Nyima visited the remote banner several times. Between 1663 and 1826, 23 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries with a considerable number of monks were built in the Aru Horqin Banner territory, half of which were constructed following Jamyang Tubten Nyima’s visit in 1804.[62] Existing texts do not offer substantial information on the specific role played by Jamyang Tubten Nyima in these monasteries; however, further research on Tibetan Buddhist dissemination in eastern Mongolia may reveal the extent to which individual trülkus such as Jamyang Tubten Nyima spread the religion in the far eastern Mongolian community.



Like the peripatetic trülkus whose journeys shaped a new religious network, mobile Tibetan Buddhist statues redrew the cultural landscape of Qing China’s Inner Asia. Tracing their circulation beyond their site of production opens new possibilities for analyzing previously unacknowledged connections across linguistic and political boundaries. These Tibetan Buddhist statues travelled across the porous boundaries that demarcated Tibet, Mongolia, and other areas within the Chinese cultural sphere. They were no longer static objects; instead, they assumed an active agency in redefining who the Qing’s Inner Asian religious subjects were, regardless of their linguistic or geographical attributes.

Unquestionably, this exchange was prompted by the Qing court, whose artistic patronage was fundamental to the Qing imperial enterprise. However, a shift of focus from the metropole to peripheral contact zones brings to light a deeply expansive and complex network operating in Qing Inner Asia. Standing at the meeting point of several cultural realms, Dolonnuur became a site where distinct mobile social groups, trülkus, merchants, and craftsmen developed artistic expressions that attracted attention from religious communities far away. However, it is critical to point out that major monasteries like the two at Dolonnuur played a pivotal role in undergirding this fluid network. As religious establishments, monasteries provided a venue for social gatherings, pilgrimages, and frequent economic exchanges around religious celebrations. The emergence of Dolonnuur’s art production scene owed much to the two imperially sponsored monasteries.

It is essential to acknowledge the Qing imperial patronage of Tibetan Buddhist art production. But current research has mostly studied this cross-cultural exchange through the lens of the court’s initiatives, which more often than not undercut the multifaceted movement of these peripatetic craftsmen, Buddhists, and ideas, as well as the techniques that travelled with them. It is especially important to understand how certain techniques were transmitted, adapted, and reinvented as multiple systems, as well as how practices converged in the process of making the Qing’s Inner Asia.

Lan Wu is Assistant Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College, MA


Acknowledgements: I thank the two anonymous reviewers and Kristina Kleutghen for their valuable comments and suggestions. I am also grateful for the discussion on borderland trade at the New England Region Association for Asian Studies Annual Conference where I presented an early draft of the essay. Samten Chhosphel helped me with a Tibetan text. Gray Tuttle of Columbia University shared two photographs. Paul Nietupski of John Carroll University helped me locate another image. The publication was supported by two research assistants, Ruilin Fan and Nicole Annunziata as well as the Dean of Faculty Office in Mount Holyoke College for its Faculty Research Assistance Grant.

[1] In this essay, I render Tibetan terms in the THL Simplified Phonetic Transcription system. I use pinyin to Romanize Chinese terms. For the concept and social positions of Tibetan Buddhist reincarnations in Tibetan history, see Peter Schwieger, The Dalai Lama and the Emperor of China: A Political History of the Tibetan Institution of Reincarnation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 9-16. For more on Jamyang Tubten Nyima, see (Accessed January 18, 2017); Zhazha 扎扎, “Detri Jamyang Tubten Nyima and his Writings 德哇嘉央圖丹尼瑪及其著述成果,” Forum of the Western Mongolian Studies 西部蒙古論壇 4 (2014), 34-43. Labrang Trashi Khyil is more commonly known as the Labrang Monastery. For its history in the English language, see Paul Kocot Nietupski, Labrang Monastery: A Tibetan Buddhist Community on the Inner Asian Borderlands, 1709-1958 (Lexington Books, 2010). For Tibetan Buddhist dissimilation in Mongolia, see Isabelle Charleux, “Buddhist Monasteries in Southern Mongolia,” in The Buddhist Monastery: A Cross-Cultural Survey (Paris: École Française d’Extrême-Orient, 2003), 351-390; Vesna Wallace, ed., Buddhism in Mongolian History, Culture, and Society (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[2] Amdo refers to the Tibetan region that consists of areas within present-day Qinghai, southern Gansu, and northern Sichuan provinces in western China. Its emergence as a distinctive cultural region perhaps reflected a growing rupture between different interest groups in central Tibet in the seventeenth century. See Gray Tuttle, “An Overview of Amdo (Northeastern Tibet) Historical Polities” Tibetan and Himalayan Library, University of Virginia, (accessed October 11, 2017).

[3] Naoto Katō, “Lobjang Danjin’s Rebellion of 1723: with a Focus on the Eve of the Rebellion,” in The Tibetan History Reader, eds. Gray Tuttle and Kurtis Schaefer (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 411-436.

[4] Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 4.

[5] For more on Tibetan Buddhist art production in the Qing imperial court, see Patricia Berger, Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003); Luo, Wenhua. Dragon Robes and Kesaya (龍袍與袈裟: 清宮藏傳佛教文化考察) Beijing: Sijincheng Press, 2005, 8-9; Wang Jiapeng 王家鵬,“The Zhongzheng Hall and Tibetan Buddhism in the Qing Imperial Court” (中正殿與清宮藏傳佛教), Palace Museum Bulletin 故宮博物院院刊 3 (1991), 58-71.

[6] For more on Inner Asia as an analytical scope, see Nicola Di Cosmo, “State Formation and Periodization in Inner Asian History,” Journal of World History 10:1 (1999), 1-40, fn 8.

[7] Eva Hoffman, “Pathways of Portability: Islamic and Christian Interchange from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century,” Art History 24:1 (February 2001), 17-50; Finbarr Barry Flood, Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 25.

[8] Berger, Empire of Emptiness.

[9] Peter C. Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), 175-180.

[10] David Bello, Across Forest, Steppe, and Mountain: Environment, Identity and Empire in Qing China’s Borderlands, Studies in Environment and History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 117-128.

[11] Évariste Regis Huc, Travels in Tartary, Tibet, and China during the Years 1844-46, trans. W. Hazlitt (London: Vizetelly and Company, 1857), 32.

[12] Duolun Gazetteer Complication Committee, ed., Duolun County Gazetteer 多倫縣志. (Haila’er: Inner Mongolian Culture Press, 2000), 383.

[13] Yi Wang, “Irrigation, Commercialization, and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century Inner Mongolia,” Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis 59 (2014), 215-246.

[14] Huc, Travels in Tartary, Tibet, and China, 35.

[15] Ren, Yuehai 任月海, Duolun Historical Documents 多倫文史資料 vol. 3 (Hohhot: University of Inner Mongolia Press, 2008), 20-21.

[16] For more on the changing economic patterns in Southern Mongolia during the Qing, see David A. Bello, “Relieving Mongols of Their Pastoral Identity: Disaster Management on the Eighteenth-Century Qing China Steppe,” Environmental History 19:3 (July 1, 2014), 480-504. Jonathan Schlesinger, A World Trimmed with Fur: Wild Things, Pristine Places, and The Natural Fringes of Qing (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2017), 93-128.

[17] Hua Jueming華覺明 ed., Essays on The History of Metallurgy in China 中國冶鑄史論集 (Beijing: Wenhua Press, 1986), 240-241.

[18] For more on the lost-wax casting technique, see L. B. Hunt, “The Long History of Lost Wax Casting,” Gold Bulletin 13:2 (June 1, 1980), 63-79. For further discussion on the spread of this technique in the eastern Eurasian steppes, see Emma C. Bunker et al., Nomadic Art of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes: The Eugene V. Thaw and Other New York Collections (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002), 198-210. For more discussion on the usage of the lost-wax casting technique in northern China, see Zhou, Weirong 周卫荣 and Huang, Wei 黄维, “Discussion of the Lost-Wax and Lost-Textile Technique 失蠟失織法商榷,” in Gansu Antique and Archeology Research Institute, ed., Proceedings of the International Conference on Early Silk Road and Early Qing (?) Culture 早期絲綢之路暨早期秦文化國際學術研討會論文集 (Beijing: Wenwu Chubanshe, 2014), 178-188.

[19] Hua, Essays, 241. The five foundries Hua identifies are Yuheyongyu裕和永, Fuheyong複合永, Dachengyu大成裕, Xinglongrui興隆瑞, and Qingshengde慶聖德. “Ayushi,” which is mentioned in the Tibetan-language source, is only included in Duolun’s local historical account as one of the well-known foundries in the Daoguang reign (1820-1850), see Duolun County Gazetteer, 221.

[20] Jamyang Tubten Nyima, Collected Works, 507.

[21] Jamyang Tubten Nyima, Collected Works, 507.

[22] Huc, Travels, 36.

[23] Huc, Travels, 36.

[24] Berger, Empire of Emptiness, 23-27. Uranchimeg Tsultem, Ikh Khuree: A Nomadic Monastery and The Later Buddhist Art of Mongolia (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California Berkeley, 2009), xi.

[25] Luo, Dragon Robe and Kasaya, 347.

[26] Berger, Empire of Emptiness, 3.

[27] Luo, Dragon Robe and Kasaya, 434-435.

[28] Luo, Dragon Robe and Kasaya, 583-598.

[29] Berger, Empire of Emptiness, 9.

[30] Gombjab, Preface to the Canon of Buddhist Iconography (circa 1740s). Rare Books and Manuscripts Collections, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China.

[31] Janet Gyatso, “Image as Presence: The Place of the Work of Art in Tibetan Religious Thinking,” in Valerie Reynolds, Amy Heller and Janet Gyatso, eds., The Newark Museum Tibetan Collection III: Sculpture and Painting (Newark: The Newark Museum, 1986), 30-35.

[32] Berger, Empire of Emptiness, 84-89.

[33] Luo Wenhua 羅文華, Introduction to Eulogies on the Sacred Images of the Buddha[s] and Bodhisattva[s] 諸佛菩薩聖像贊導讀 (Beijing: China’s Tibetology Press, 2009), 18-19.

[34] Vladimir L. Uspenskii, Prince Yunli (1697-1738): Manchu Statesman and Tibetan Buddhist / Yunli, Prince, Son of Kangxi, Emperor of China, 1697-1738 (Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 1997).

[35] Chen Xiaomin 陳曉敏, Studies of Lamas-in-Beijing in Qing China 清代駐京喇嘛研究 (Beijing: Beijing yanshan chubanshe, 2011), 10. “Lamas-in-Beiing” is an ambiguous category; Chen discusses the different ways of calculation. Twelve of the Tibetan Buddhists were recorded as Hutuktu, a term denoting a reincarnation status in the Qing.

[36] Schwieger, The Dalai Lama and the Emperor of China, 193.

[37] Gray Tuttle, “Pattern Recognition: Tracking the Spread of the Incarnation Institution through Time and Across Tibetan Territory,” Revue d’Études Tibétaines 38 (2017), 29-44.

[38] Zhao, Yuntian 趙雲田 annot., Lifanyuan Regulation in the Qianlong Reign 乾隆朝內府抄本《理藩院則例》(Beijing: China’s Tibetology Press, 2005), 117-136.

[39] Aning Jing, Anige, a Himalayan Artist in Kubilai Khan’s Court,” Asian Art & Culture 9:3 (1996), 31-43.

[40] Jing, “Anige,” 31-32.

[41] (Accessed April 6, 2017); Stoddard, Early Sino-Tibetan Art, 65-97.

[42] Jing, “Anige,” 38-39.

[43] Wen-shing Chou, “Maps of Wutai Shan: Individuating the Sacred Landscape through Color,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, 6 (December 2011), 375; Wen-shing Chou, “Ineffable Paths: Mapping Wutaishan in Qing Dynasty China,” The Art Bulletin 89:1 (2007), 108-129.

[44] Jing, “Anige,” 42.

[45] Stoddard, Early Sino-Tibetan Art; Karl Debreczeny, The Black Hat Eccentric: Artistic Visions of the Tenth Karmapa (New York: Rubin Museum of Art, 2012).

[46] Stoddard, Early Sino-Tibetan Art.

[47] Tsultem, Ikh Khuree, 135-214. Patricia Berger, “Zanabazar (1635-1723),” in Patricia Berger and Terese Tse Bartholomew, eds., Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Khan (New York: Thames and Hudson in association with The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 1995), 261-304.

[48] Luo, Dragon Robe and Kasaya, 327; Berger, Empire of Emptiness, 93.

[49] For the Qing Imperial cultivation of the cult of Mañjuśrī, see David Farquhar, “Emperor as Bodhisattva in the Governance of the Ch’ing Empire,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 38:1 (1978), 5-34.

[50] The Palace Museum 故宮博物院, Luo Wenhua 羅文華eds., Classics in the Forbidden City: Tibetan Buddhist Sculptures 故宮經典: 藏傳佛教造像 (Beijing: Zijincheng Press, 2009), 210-225.

[51] Luo, Dragon Robe and Kasaya, 540-545. Ishihama Yumiko 石濱裕美子, Qing China and the Tibetan Buddhist World: The Qianlong Emperor who had become a Buddhist King清朝とチベット仏教 菩薩王となった乾隆帝 (Tokyo: Waseda University Press, 2001).

[52] Gray Tuttle and Johan Elverskog, eds., Wutaishan and the Qing Culture: A Special Issue of the Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 6 (2011).

[53] Wen-shing Chou, “Imperial Apparitions: Manchu Buddhism and the Cult of Mañjuśrī,” Archives of Asian Art 65:1-2 (2015), 139-179.

[54] Isabelle Charleux, “Mongol Pilgrimages to Wutai Shan in the Late Qing Dynasty,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 6 (December 2011), 275-326.

[55] Farquhar, “Emperor as Bodhisattva in the Governance of the Ch’ing Empire;” Berger, Empire of Emptiness; Tuttle and Elverskog, Wutaishan and Qing Culture; Chou, “Imperial Apparitions.”

[56] Gazang Caidan 尕藏才旦, Tibetan Buddhist Art 藏傳佛教藝術 (Lanzhou: Gansu People Press, 2009), 159.

[57] Danqu 丹曲, Anthology of Tibetan Buddhist Culture of the Labrang Monastery 拉卜楞寺藏傳佛教文化論稿 (Lanzhou: Gansu Nationality Press, 2010), 255-256.

[58] Luciano Petech, China and Tibet in the Early 18th Century: History of the Establishment of the Chinese Protectorate in Tibet (Brill Archive, 1950). Sam Van Schaik, Tibet: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 114-145.

[59] For the First Jamyang Zhepa Dorje, who founded the Labrang Trashi Khyil, see Samten Chhosphel, “The First Jamyang Zhepa, Jamyang Zhepai Dorje,Treasury of Lives (Accessed July 26, 2017); Nietupski, Labrang Monastery, 37-39; 115-118. For the Second Jamyang Zhepa, see Samten Chhosphel, “The Second Jamyang Zhepa, Konchok Jigme Wangpo,Treasury of Lives (Accessed July 26, 2017). Nietupski, Labrang Monastery, 121-125.

[60] Zahiruddin Ahmad, Sino-Tibetan Relations in the Seventeenth Century, Serie Orientale Roma, vol. 40 (Rome: Instituto Italino per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1970). Sŏng-su Kim, Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia During the Ming and Qing 明清之際藏傳佛教在蒙古地區的傳播 (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2006).

[61] Jamyang Tubten Nyima, Collected Works, vol. kha, 613-622.

[62] The 20 monasteries housed several hundred monks at their zenith, one house numbered 70 at its apex, and two monasteries housed close to 50 monks during the Qing. See Aru Horchin Banner Bureau of Archives, Aru Horchin Banner Gazetteer 阿魯科爾沁旗志, Chap 27, Section 2: Monasteries (Hohhot: Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region News Press, 1991) (Accessed January 19, 2017).


Cite this note as: Lan Wu, “Crafting Buddhist Art in Qing China’s Contact Zones during the Eighteenth Century,” Journal18, Issue 4 East-Southeast (Fall 2017),

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