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THL Title Text

Mongol Pilgrimages to Wutai Shan in the Late Qing Dynasty

JIATS, no. 6 (December 2011), THL #T5712, pp. 275-326.

© 2011 by Isabelle Charleux, IATS, and THL

[page 275]

Abstract: Since the beginning of the Qing dynasty, Mongols have viewed Wutai Shan as a substitute for Tibet pilgrimages. Relying on various Mongolian, Chinese, Japanese, and Western sources (stone inscriptions, local gazetteers, travelogues, mountain guides), this paper tries to document the pilgrimage of Mongols to Wutai Shan from the late Qing dynasty to the early twentieth century. Who were the ordinary pilgrims, where did they come from, and what were their motivations? How were they informed about the pilgrimage and how did they travel to Wutai Shan? What were they particularly looking for and what were their priorities? The final section deals with a particular type of cave, the famous “Womb Cave,” and its connection to pilgrimage sites in Mongolia.


Un lieu saint ne peut exister sans l’action centrifuge des saints et des religieux, et l’action centripète des pèlerins. Les religieux proposent et les pèlerins disposent.1

Figure 1: General view of Wutai Shan in the first half of the twentieth century. Ernest Boerschmann, Picturesque China - Architecture and Landscape - A Journey through Twelve Provinces (New York: Brentano’s, 1923). Photographs taken between 1906-1909. http://www.pbase.com/lambsfeathers/image/43157671.

Pilgrimage is one of the most important expressions of lay religiosity. Mongols being reputedly pious and sincere devotees, their devotion at pilgrimage sites was spectacular. As noted by a few nineteenth- and early twentieth-century observers, they made pilgrimages to numerous local shrines, but none of them could compare to Wutai Shan. James Gilmour for instance, who traveled from 1870 to 1880, compared the Wutai pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Mecca.2 Yet this had not always [page 276] been the case: the transformation into a Tibeto-Mongol3 pilgrimage site was a gradual process. Although Tibetan Buddhist monasteries were built on the mountain by the Yuan Mongol emperors, we have no evidence of Mongol pilgrimages before the mid-Qing dynasty, when Rölpé DorjéRol pa’i rdo rje (1717-86), the Second (or Third for the Chinese) Zhangjia (章嘉, Changjalcang skya) Qutuγtu, spent summers on the mountain for thirty-six years (1750-1786). At that time, three thousand lamabla mas (lama, 喇嘛, lamablama)4 lived in twenty-six Tibeto-Mongol monasteries at Wutai Shan.5 Although the Qing also subsidized the Chinese monasteries,6 the Tibeto-Mongol ones were obviously wealthier and received more donations from the Qing court.7 These monasteries staffed by Mongol and Tibetan monks attracted so many Mongol pilgrims that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Wutai Shan presented a strong exotic flavor for Chinese visitors. With Qing support, the Tibeto-Mongol monasteries became a Tibetan enclave on the edge of Chinese territory, only a few hundred kilometers from Mongolia, ruled by the representative of the Dalai Lama in China – the head ruling lama (jasaγ da blama).8 Under the emperor Jiaqing (嘉庆, r. 1796-1820), Wutai Shan was called Tibet of China (Zhonghua Weizang, [page 277] 中華衛藏)9 and a statute was created granting Tibetans there extraterritoriality. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, who took refuge in Wutai Shan in 1907-1908, felt more secure and free there than in Beijing. However, during that period, Wutai Shan continued to be a very important pilgrimage site for Chinese Buddhists, included in the circuit of the Four Grand and Famous Mountains (Si da ming shan, 四大名山).

Figure 2: LamaBla mas playing music during the Cham’Cham ritual. Ono and Hibino, Godaishan, 14.
Figure 3: A Mongol LamaBla ma invited to make a ritual for the festival of the Wuyemiao, the Chinese temple dedicated to the Five Dragon Kings in Taihuai Village, July 2007. Photo by Isabelle Charleux.

[1] Katia Buffetrille, “Montagnes sacrées, lacs et grottes. Lieux de pèlerinage dans le monde tibétain. Traditions écrites, réalités vivantes,” (Ph.D diss., Nanterre, 1996), 390.
[2] “All over Mongolia, and wherever Mongols are met with in North China, one is constantly reminded of this place. It is true that the mania which possesses the Mongols for making pilgrimages carries them to many other shrines, some of which are both celebrated and much frequented, but none of them can be compared to Wu T’ai.” James Gilmour, Among the Mongols (New York: Praeger, 1970 [1883]), 141.
[3] The terms “lamaist” and “Lamaism” – which are no longer in use in the academic world (see Donald Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-la: Tibetan Buddhism and the West [Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998]) – would be more appropriate for these monasteries that were staffed by Tibetan, Mongol, but also Monguor and Han Chinese monks.
[4] I here use the term “lamabla mas” in current Mongolian usage (fully ordained monks in Tibeto-Mongol Buddhism), to distinguish them clearly from the monks of Chinese Buddhism. The Chinese sources on Wutai Shan use the terms monk in yellow robe (huangyi seng, 黃衣僧), lama, or foreign monk (fanseng, 番僧).
[5] Tian Pixu et al., ed., Wutai xin zhi, juan 1 and 4 (Chongshi shuyuan, 1883).
[6] See Nathalie Köhle, “Why Did the Kangxi Emperor Go to Wutai Shan?: Patronage, Pilgrimage, and the Place of Tibetan Buddhism at the Early Qing Court,” Late Imperial China 29, no. 1 (2008): 73-119.
[7] The rent and produce from their lands were their first source of income. In addition, Tibetan monasteries received larger imperial favors, as well as a tribute from Shanxi Province (Xin Butang and Zheng Fulin, “Wutai Shan simiao jingji de tansuo,” Wutai Shan yanjiu [1995, no. 3]: 28). Of the five monasteries that received the highest amounts of donations in 1936, four were Tibeto-Mongol monasteries: Tayuan Si (塔院寺, suburγan süme; 17,000 yuan), Pusa Ding (15,000 yuan), Cifu Si (慈福寺, Jamgé Lingbyams dge gling, buyan ibegegci süme; 11,000 yuan), Zhenhai Si (鎮海寺, luus-i daruγsan süme; 10,000 yuan); Xin and Zheng, “Wutai Shan simiao jingji,” 28.
[8] The six first head ruling lamas were appointed by the Manchu emperors; from the seventh on, they were appointed every sixth year by the Dalai Lama and became ambassadors for Tibetan religious affairs in China.
[9] Stele, “Qingliang Shan ji,” (1811) in Wutai Shan beiwen biane yinglian shifu xuan, edited by Zhou Zhenhua, et al. (Taiyuan: Shanxi jiaoyu chubanshe, 1998), 81.

Note Citation for Page

Isabelle Charleux, “Mongol Pilgrimages to Wutai Shan in the Late Qing Dynasty,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5712 (accessed ).

Note Citation for Whole Article

Isabelle Charleux, “Mongol Pilgrimages to Wutai Shan in the Late Qing Dynasty,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 275-326, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5712 (accessed ).

Bibliography Citation

Charleux, Isabelle. “Mongol Pilgrimages to Wutai Shan in the Late Qing Dynasty.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 275-326. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5712 (accessed ).