The Pilgrim’s Progress
In a previous work on the Mongols during the Qing dynasty I have shown that beginning in the late eighteenth century and continuing through the nineteenth century Mongol notions of themselves and their place in the world changed dramatically. In particular, I revealed how Mongol conceptualizations developed in two ways. The first was that Mongol communal conceptualizations moved away from the earlier focus on solely themselves and instead began to situate the Mongols within a broader community including Chinese, Manchus, and Tibetans, or what I called a “pan-Qing identity.”43 The second development was an expansion of the category “Mongol” to include the common herders.44 To appreciate this latter shift it is important to recall that Mongol society was rigidly stratified between the hereditary Chinggisid aristocracy and the tax-paying commoners under their control. Central to this conceptualization was the idea that it was only the elites, the direct descendants of Chinggis Khan, who actually represented the Mongols.45 To my mind this is an important fact that, as noted above, is often glossed over when the term “Mongol” is blithely employed. Indeed, as Munkh-Erdene has recently shown, the exclusion of the vast majority of commoners from the category “Mongol,” who [page 253] in a 1918 survey comprised 94 percent of the population,46 was a central problem in the theoretical debates of the early Mongol nationalists.47 Yet, the fusion of these two groups did not begin with the nationalists; rather, it started as a result of various forces challenging the boundaries between these two groups during the nineteenth century. One of these forces was no doubt pilgrimage to Wutai Shan.
To appreciate the impact of this pilgrimage upon the Mongols it is again important to recognize the nature of Qing Mongolia. Rather than the homogenous whole that the term “Mongol” conveys, it is vital to recall that the Qing Mongols were among themselves linguistically, culturally, and politically different. The fact that this reality had historical roots is beyond a doubt, but it was also fostered by Qing policies that hindered the development of any possible “pan-Mongol” sentiments, such as the structural political differences between Inner and Outer Mongolia, as well regulations restricting Mongol movement between banners. As Ellen McGill has shown the Qing court was concerned from very early on about such movement:
Among the original (yuanding) entries in the Li fa yuan section of the Da Qing hui dian shi li are schedules of fines for outer banner Mongols that nomadize across banner borders; those who committed the mistake knowingly were subject to much stricter penalties. In 1662, the Kangxi emperor further specified that Mongols were not to leave their own banners while hunting and reasserted the ban on cross-banner herding. In 1680 the latter was revised to allow Mongol nobles to apply to a Li fa yuan official for permission to pasture in the territory of nearby banners and watchtower stations in the event that the grass in their home banner was not sufficient. The official was to check on the situation of the applicant’s banner and if the pasture was found to be flourishing, the noble was to be punished and, the court warned, his requests were likely to be denied in the future. In 1727, the punishments were converted from the confiscation of cattle to a system of fines.48
Pilgrimage to Wutai Shan was thus one of the few avenues for circumventing these restrictions. As a result, it brought a large number of diverse Mongols together for the first time ever, and upon meeting within this liminal state, where, on account of language and customs they were easily differentiated from the Chinese, Manchus, and Tibetans, it is possible to imagine that Mongols of all social ranks came to share a new “Mongol” communitas.
Of course, while this may be easy to imagine, it is quite another to prove that such a phenomenon actually occurred. We have no Mongolian accounts to offer us clues as to the social dynamics of the Wutai Shan pilgrimage. Moreover, one of the few Mongolian records related to Wutai Shan, other than poems of praise [page 254] and cursory accounts of visits to the mountain found in the biographies of noted lamas, seems to confirm quite the opposite. It in fact confirms the common view of the endless tensions between the Chinggisid aristocracy and the commoners by highlighting the financial burden a nobleman’s pilgrimage to Wutai Shan would place upon his tax-paying subjects. Namely, in an official petition of grievance, commoners complained that when Wang Toktokhtör went to Beijing in 1838:
on his duty of honour. In addition to all his necessities which we had already paid in accordance with the precedent for Wang’s official journey, the Wang took advantage of the opportunity and took his wife, his two sons and fiancées and two other common girls named Tsagaankhüü and Dolzin with him to Peking. Therefore, we were forced to pay for the expenditure of these idlers also. We paid 430 ounces of silver for the rent of 40 camels which were used for loading and riding, 50 horses costing 10 ounces each, which were only used for riding, and 1115.40 ounces of silver for provisions.49
The grievance then goes on to say that the next year they were told to send supplies to Doloon Nuur since the Prince was returning, yet after a thousand-mile trip he was not there – and this happened two more times – costing huge sums of time and money.50 Then to top it all off, when the prince finally “left Wu-tai in the first month of the 20th year (1840) and arrived in the third month. At a relay station, when the Wang was on his way back from Wu-tai, he beat the Kiy-a Balcin and Sumun-u janggi Bayandelger cruelly with a whip and caused their death.”51 Such an episode no doubt seems to offer more fodder for the coming Marxist revolution than it does to an expansion of the category Mongol beyond the Chinggisid aristocracy. Yet, at the same time it was precisely within the multicultural and mercantile hurly-burly of pilgrimage to Wutai Shan that these issues were no doubt thrown into relief, since as is well-known, identity is forged in relation to the other. Thus at Wutai Shan the boundaries and nature of what it meant to be Mongol, must have been both challenged and reconceptualized.
However, whether one can draw a direct line from the experience of Wutai Shan pilgrimage to the two main tenets of Mongol nationalism – which is based on the claim of cultural similarity and the idea that all commoners are also the descendants of Chinggis Khan52 – is far from clear. Even so, it seems fairly certain that with its broad influence among the Mongol peoples, and its distinctive multicultural environment, Wutai Shan must have had an impact beyond maintaining Manchu hegemony. And I would suggest that one of these was the development of a new conceptualization of the Mongols, and not only in terms of the broader space of [page 255] “Mongolia” beyond the geographical strictures of the banner, but also in fostering bonds between the stratified social hierarchies institutionalized by the Qing state.
Yet what it meant to be Mongol was not the only thing re-evaluated during a pilgrimage to Wutai Shan. Coming into contact with the enormous cultural and religious diversity of the Qing Empire, in many cases no doubt for the first time, must also have been an amazing experience. How would these diverse Mongols have responded? The fact of the matter is that we really do not know. There are no extant sources offering us a window into this experience. Nevertheless, the fact that a pan-Qing, or “cosmopolitan culture,” took root among the Mongols in tandem with the rise of pilgrimage to Wutai Shan is, again, probably not a coincidence. No doubt there were other venues where Mongols came into contact with this new Qing cosmopolitan culture, such as the mandatory imperial audiences (nian ban) for the nobility, but from the available evidence it was only the pilgrimage to Wutai Shan that influenced such a wide swath of Mongols.
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 ).
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 ).