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THL Title Text

Wutai Shan, Qing Cosmopolitanism, and the Mongols

JIATS, no. 6 (December 2011), THL #T5715, pp. 243-274.

© 2011 by Johan Elverskog, IATS, and THL

[page 243]

Abstract: The aim of this article is to challenge some of the circumscribed ethnic boundaries that shape much of “New Qing History” in order to explore the Manchu dynasty as an interregional arena. To this end it explores pilgrimage to Wutai Shan as one node in the creation of a distinctive Qing cosmopolitan culture.


In the wake of the New Qing History’s “ethnic turn” it is nowadays common to come across the terms “Manchu,” “Tibetan,” “Mongol,” and other “frontier” peoples in studies of late imperial China.1 Indeed, to not recognize the “multicultural” or “multiethnic” dimension of the Manchu state has as of late become somewhat intellectually suspect.2 Even so, how this reality actually shaped and defined Manchu rule, as well as how it shaped the broader Qing culture, are questions whose answers are still evolving. The early idea of the Manchu emperors using specific idioms, or hats and costumes, to ideologically incorporate specific groups, or “constituencies,”3 has given way to the more nuanced view of various polyvalent practices, rhetoric and institutions that were not ethnically or religiously [page 244] specific, but rather resonated with all the people of the empire and thus helped foster a broader Qing culture.4

Yet, although our understanding of the Qing has advanced in such new and important ways, it is also surprising how at the same time one still comes across essentialized categories, even within otherwise nuanced interpretations. Namely, at some point we will all revert to using terms such as the “Mongols,” “Manchus,” “Tibetans,” and readily assume that everyone understands what these categories entail. And most often readers do comprehend them. But at the same time should we not be wary about the possible oversights and problems embedded within the use of such terms? In particular, what changes or historical developments are occluded when we talk about “the Tibetans,” for example, as a homogenous entity? As we all know many things changed in the Tibetan experience between the years 1648, 1795, and 1906, and it is precisely these transformations that are potentially obscured when a generic term such as “Tibetan” is employed.

On one level, of course, it is clear that most scholars recognize these differences, not only spatially, but also temporally. Thus we know that a “Tibetan” in AmdoA mdo is not necessarily the same as one from LhasaLha sa, nor is a Lhasan living at the time of the Great Fifth (1617-1682) the same as one in 1837. Moreover, in both cases there would no doubt be a large difference in the life and experiences of a Tibetan nobleman and that of a commoner,5 or between a man and a woman, or an urban dweller and a nomad, and so forth. This may be obvious, yet the point being made here is how are such complexities obscured when the term “Tibetan” is used? While it is obviously impossible to take into account all of these diverse experiences in a single scholarly work, much less a term, it is clear that the use of any such term is often a shorthand, and it is assumed that the broader context is generally understood. But at some point we must ask the question if the reader, or even more troubling the scholar, is aware of the problems with such sweeping terminology, such as their embedded ethnonational teleology and its implications.

As is well known, “the birth of professional History in the universities of the West was deeply tied to national concerns, and the profession derived its authority from its role as the true spokesman of the nation.”6 And even though the nation and its construction have undergone a lengthy scholarly assault as of late, it unsurprisingly continues to permeate the institutions of academia. Indeed, how many academic associations, conferences, journals, and endowed chairs are not linked with an identifiable national entity? Even so, or especially because that [page 245] remains the case, scholars, in tandem with the realities of globalization, keep challenging the idea of the nation, and looking for a wide array of historical narratives that national historiography purportedly distorts.7 Thus as we have witnessed over the last decade or more there has arisen a new historiography that focuses on frontiers and borders, as well as transnational studies, in addition to the revival of regional studies.8 A valid question is thus whether, or how, this historiographical shift could be applied to the study of late imperial China?

As noted above, the Qing Empire is now understood as a “multi-national” enterprise,9 and it thus seems to lend itself to the historical model of an “interregional arena.” Thus instead of highlighting the ethnonational differences of Manchu rule, scholars should perhaps reveal the “important connections of material life, politico-military organization, economic institutions, and social-religious ideology”10 that were forged across the perceived cultural boundaries within the Qing state. Indeed, to my mind it seems as if scholars all too often draw boundaries around the component part of the Qing Empire in which they specialize and thereby easily ignore the rest. Yet at the same time, consciously or unconsciously, most scholars also recognize the fluidity between all of these imagined units, and it seems as if that is precisely what needs to be brought to the fore in the study of the Qing. In fact, it seems to be precisely this multifaceted cultural reality that is too often subverted within the many studies focusing on the “ethnic question,” or those studies based on one linguistically circumscribed component of the empire. Thus instead of recognizing the porousness between Qing culture(s), such studies inadvertently reinforce artificial, and perhaps even modern tribal/ethnic/religious/national boundaries.

In order to move away from this paradigm it is important to recognize that it was the enormous economic growth and attendant social and geographical mobility of the pax manjurica which made such cultural exchange possible. Thus rather than generating ethnic cantons as often imagined, Qing rule actually fostered the crossing of boundaries, a mixing and fusion, and ultimately the creation of new forms that defined a distinctive Qing culture. And in this process one of the central sites of interaction was no doubt Wutai Shan (Riwo Tsengari bo rtse lnga), a pilgrimage site for Chinese, Manchus, Mongols, and Tibetans. It was here that Chinese literati, [page 246] Mongol herders, Tibetan lamas, and Manchu bannermen all came together, jostling shoulder to shoulder at temples and caves in the pursuit of blessings and merit. But what impact did this experience have on these pilgrims?

Scholars of religion have long explored the dynamics of pilgrimage and one of the most famous and enduring is that of Victor Turner, in particular, the idea of communitas.11 In many ways, this idea can also be applied to the case of Wutai Shan pilgrimage, though not in the conventional Turnerian sense. Rather, in accord with Toni Huber’s study of TsariTsa ri, we need to see pilgrimage to Wutai Shan as a time and place where identities and cultural practices were forged anew. As Huber notes:

issues of self-definition and identity… can become amplified in the borderland areas, where ethnic self and other confront each other directly in various interactions. This amplification is particularly pronounced in popular yet geographically peripheral pilgrimage venues, where representational distinctions of ethnic identity can be most forcefully drawn out and reiterated within the context of certain organized forms and structures.12

In contradistinction to Huber however, who shows how pilgrimage to TsariTsa ri reinforced the vertical hierarchies of Tibetan society, I will argue that pilgrimage to Wutai Shan promoted two types of horizontal relations to develop among the Mongols.

The first of these horizontal relations builds upon the idea of pilgrimage as a means of engendering cultural unity. However, rather than generating a specific ethnic, national, or religious identity, as has been argued in the case of Tibetan pilgrimage,13 I believe that pilgrimage to Wutai Shan generated the opposite effect. Namely, by visiting the culturally and religiously diverse site of Wutai Shan pilgrims came to be shaped by the culture of Qing cosmopolitanism. Yet, at the same time as pilgrimage to Wutai Shan engendered this cosmopolitanism among the Mongols, it also fostered a re-evaluation of what it meant to be Mongol, since it brought together for the first time on a large scale not only aristocratic and [page 247] commoner Mongols, but also those from different banners. In many ways, Wutai Shan was thus a vehicle for the both the pan-Qing identity found in nineteenth-century Mongolia, and a factor in the creation of a unified vision of the Mongols that extended beyond the Chinggisid aristocracy. Wutai Shan thus not only fostered a powerful Qing identity, but also sowed the seeds for Mongol nationalism.

[1] The recognition of the Qing’s cultural complexity is becoming even more evident nowadays on account of the recent sub-field of “frontier studies,” as seen in the work of David G. Atwill, The Chinese Sultanate: Islam, Ethnicity, and the Panthay Rebellion in Southwest China, 1856-1873 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005); C. Paterson Giersch, Asian Borderlands: The Transformation of Qing China’s Yunnan Frontier (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006); John E. Herman, Amid the Clouds and Mist: China’s Colonization of Guizhou, 1200-1700 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).
[2] For a critique of “multiculturalism” in the Qing, see Beatrice Bartlett, “Review of Evelyn Rawski’s The Last Emperors,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 61, no. 1 (2001): 171-83.
[3] This is the term used specifically by Crossley, but the general approach can also be seen in the founding works of the New Qing History, see R. Kent Guy, “Who were the Manchus?: A Review Essay,” Journal of Asian Studies 61, no. 1 (2002): 151-77; and Sudipta Sen, “The New Frontiers of Manchu China and the Historiography of Asian Empires,” Journal of Asian Studies 61, no. 1 (2002): 151-77.
[4] See for example Christopher P. Atwood, “‘Worshipping Grace’: Guilt and Striving in the Mongolian Language of Loyalty,” Late Imperial China 21 (2000): 86-139; Michael Chang, A Court on Horseback: Imperial Touring and the Construction of Qing Rule, 1680-1785 (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007); Johan Elverskog, Our Great Qing: The Mongols, Buddhism and the State in Late Imperial China (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006); and Joanna Waley-Cohen, The Culture of War in China: Empire and the Military under the Qing Dynasty (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006).
[5] For a critique of the “unitary view” as well as the issue of aristocratic nostalgia, see Robert Barnett, Lhasa: Streets with Memories (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 5-25.
[6] Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 21.
[7] It is important to recognize that this critique is mainly advocated by Euroamerican scholars, while scholars from countries such as Canada and Mexico, for example, see nothing wrong with the nation. Rather, they see globalization and the hegemony of America that it entails as the more pressing concern, and thus preserving the nation remains an important intellectual endeavor. I thank my colleague Ben Johnson for bringing this to my attention.
[8] See, for example, the new scholarly focus on the Indian Ocean region in Eric Tagliacozzo, “Underneath the Indian Ocean,” The Journal of Asian Studies 67, no. 3 (2008): 1039-46.
[9] This issue has not only shaped the questions of New Qing Historians, but also the theorists of the modern Chinese nation-state. See, for example, Uradyn E. Bulag, The Mongols at China’s Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002); Liu Xiaoyuan, Reins of Liberation: An Entangled History of Mongolian Independence, Chinese Territoriality, and Great Power Hegemony 1911-1950 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006).
[10] Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 15.
[11] See Victor W. Turner, “The Center out There: Pilgrim’s Goal,” History of Religions 12 (1973): 191-230; Victor W. Turner, “Pilgrimages as Social Processes,” in Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975); and V. W. Turner and E. Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978).
[12] The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain: Popular Pilgrimage and Visionary Landscape in Southeast Tibet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 174.
[13] “Pilgrimage may be examined as one of the paradigmatic phenomena contributing to, and perhaps even to some extent engendering, the cultural unity of the Tibetans. Pilgrimage, among other things, promoted trade in both goods and information. It brought persons from far distant parts of the Tibetan world into direct contact with one another and thus militated to some extent against divisive regionalistic tendencies. By ordering the cycles of pilgrimage according to calendrical cycles, by establishing the locations visited and the routes traversed, and by promoting specific religious teachings, historical narratives, and symbolic interpretations of the landscape and the events taking place within it, the Tibetan religious world constructed for its inhabitants a common order of time, space and knowledge” (Matthew T. Kapstein, “A Pilgrimage of Rebirth Reborn: The 1992 Celebration of the Drigung Powa Chenmo,” in Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet: Religious Revival and Cultural Identity, eds. Melvyn C. Goldstein and Matthew T. Kapstein [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998], 117).

Note Citation for Page

Johan Elverskog, “Wutai Shan, Qing Cosmopolitanism, and the Mongols,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5715 (accessed ).

Note Citation for Whole Article

Johan Elverskog, “Wutai Shan, Qing Cosmopolitanism, and the Mongols,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 243-274, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5715 (accessed ).

Bibliography Citation

Elverskog, Johan. “Wutai Shan, Qing Cosmopolitanism, and the Mongols.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 243-274. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5715 (accessed ).