Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text

Tibetan Buddhism at Wutai Shan in the Qing:
The Chinese-language Register

JIATS, no. 6 (December 2011), THL #T5721, pp. 163-214.

© 2011 by Gray Tuttle, IATS, and THL

[page 163]

Abstract: In contrast to the few anti-Tibetan Buddhist statements preserved in the Confucian-dominated historiography of the Qing court, this essay demonstrates the generosity and consistency of Qing patronage for Tibetan Buddhists at Wutai shan, as recorded in imperially endorsed Chinese-language gazetteers. From the 1650s, Tibetan Buddhist bla mas (of various ethnicities) led the Buddhist community there and frequently led prayers on behalf of the imperial family. In return, the mountain’s inhabitants all received regular and generous imperial favors. I hypothesize that the imperially-sponsored Chinese language materials on Wutai shan emphasized the importance of Tibetan Buddhism on the mountain because ethnic Chinese Tibetan Buddhists represented a significant group, which the Qing court wanted to support and also over which they wished to exercise control. Only this desire could explain the efforts, which the Qing court made in the Chinese language register, to publicize and commemorate their patronage of Tibetan Buddhism at Wutai shan.


Assessing the motivations and effects of Qing (1644-1911) patronage of Tibetan Buddhism is a task complicated by the many biases and layers of historical analysis that surround the topic. Rather than trying to summarize the entire range of Qing patronage of Wutai shan (Riwo Tsengari bo rtse lnga) from a state policy perspective, this study will attempt to look closely at Qing editions of the primary sources involved with the Buddhist pilgrimage and cultic site of Wutai shan in order to question past assumptions and suggest new directions of research.1 Focusing on the relative minutia of the social history of Qing patronage at one particular site yields a very different story than that portrayed in a few general anti-Tibetan Buddhist statements [page 164] preserved in the Confucian-dominated historiography of the imperial court.2 I will describe the social history of Qing patronage of Wutai shan based largely on imperially endorsed gazetteers in a tradition of Buddhist-dominated historiography.3 Although this different (Buddhist) perspective remains only that – one representation of a place and events among many – the imperial support for this alternative view indicates that it was something the Qing court wished to encourage. However, unlike the Confucian-dominated historiography whose audience is fairly obvious, it is unclear at first for whom exactly the Chinese-language materials associated with Wutai shan were produced.

The Mongolian-language materials associated with Wutai shan have been analyzed by David Farquhar in his well-known article “Emperor as Bodhisattva in the Governance of the Ch’ing Empire.”4 His conclusions fit neatly with the Confucian-dominated historiography which asserts that patronage of Tibetan Buddhism was used as a means of “control[ing] affairs in Mongolia and Tibet.”5 However, the wealth of imperially sponsored Chinese-language sources dedicated to Wutai shan indicates that the Mongols were not the only target audience of the Qing court. In fact, the early Manchu emperors made great effort to be seen – by Mongols and Chinese Buddhists, as well as by local Chinese and Manchu officials – as patrons of Tibetan Buddhism, especially at Wutai shan. This is quite different from the mostly surreptitious role that Farquhar assigned the emperors in propagating their bodhisattvahood. In contrast, the emperors and their representatives on the mountain often wrote – or otherwise supported the dissemination of – Chinese-language materials for Qing patronage of Buddhism, especially of the Tibetan variety, at Wutai shan.

I will demonstrate that the early Qing emperors did not ignore this patron status but rather sought to promote it, especially through literary production and the sponsoring of rituals. Leaving aside Farquhar’s conclusions regarding the Qing court’s motivations for the Mongol editions, one must ask why the bulk of the imperial gazetteers and inscriptions at Wutai shan were produced first in Chinese. The number of Chinese-language gazetteer editions and the frequency of their [page 165] printing far outnumber those of the Mongolian or Tibetan versions, especially in terms of those which were imperially sponsored (see Table 3 and Appendix 1). Yet, the abundance of Chinese publications cannot be simply explained as a result of the fact that Chinese was a default language of the empire. Instead, we must look at the historical background of the pilgrimage site of Wutai shan to understand why it would be of interest to Mongols, Chinese, Manchus and Tibetans. Following the historical introduction, I will discuss the actual audience for the Kangxi emperor’s (r. 1661-1722) patronage of Buddhism, which is to say who is recorded as being present when the emperor went on pilgrimage to the mountain, as well as it can be determined based on Confucian historiographic sources. This Confucian perspective, one among many of the official accounts, will provide a foil against which the information preserved in other sources may be illuminated.

[1] Wutai shan, also known as Qingliang shan (Clear and Cool Mountain), is a cluster of five alpine peaks located only some one hundred and fifty miles west of Beijing and has been renowned as a Buddhist site since the Northern Wei dynasty (Bei wei, 386-534 CE).
[2] My use of the term “Confucian,” though problematic, is merely an expedient shorthand referring to the Chinese literati and bureaucratic community, especially that associated with a critique of monastic Buddhist practice. The views of such men have been adopted by much modern scholarship, and is probably best exemplified by Sung-peng Hsu’s statement, “For political expediency, many Chinese rulers appointed Tibetan monks to the central government office of religion to participate in Buddhist activities in China.” See his A Buddhist Leader in Ming China: The Life and Thought of Han-Shan Te-Ch’ing (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1979), 45. This statement is especially out of place in describing the Ming (1368-1644) situation, when relations with Tibet, as a political entity, were almost non-existent. See also, Lawrence Kessler, K’ang-hsi and the Consolidation of Ch’ing Rule (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 145.
[3] Where possible I will compare these accounts to what I am calling Confucian-dominated historiography, especially as recorded in the Shunzhi and Kangxi Veritable Records (Shi lu) and the Kangxi Diaries of Rest and Repose (Kangxi qi ju zhu).
[4] David Farquhar, “Emperor as Bodhisattva in the Governance of the Ch’ing Empire,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 38, no. 1 (1978): 34.
[5] Farquhar, “Emperor as Bodhisattva,” 25.

Note Citation for Page

Gray Tuttle, “Tibetan Buddhism at Wutai Shan in the Qing: The Chinese-language Register,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5721 (accessed ).

Note Citation for Whole Article

Gray Tuttle, “Tibetan Buddhism at Wutai Shan in the Qing: The Chinese-language Register,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 163-214, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5721 (accessed ).

Bibliography Citation

Tuttle, Gray. “Tibetan Buddhism at Wutai Shan in the Qing: The Chinese-language Register.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 163-214. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5721 (accessed ).