Forging the Golden Urn: The Qing Empire
and the Politics of Reincarnation in Tibet

By Max Oidtmann

Reviewed by Joseph Lawson
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July, 2019)

Max Oidtmann, Forging the Golden Urn: The Qing Empire and the Politics of Reincarnation in Tibet New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. Xvii + 330 pp. ISBN: 978-0-231-18406-9 (cloth).

The Geluk church, headed by the Dalai Lama, was the most powerful institution in the Qing Empire not under the control of the Qing court. It is still arguably the largest extra-bureaucratic nongovernmental organization in China, as Max Oidtmann points out in the introduction of his terrific book on relations between the Qing court and the Geluk hierarchy. Neglected relative to Manchu or Mongol archives until recently, the Qing Empire’s Tibetan institutions and sources are the subject of an emerging body of research by Paul Nietupski, Peter Schweiger, Yudru Tsomu, and now Oidtmann with this new book on how the Qing court asserted control over the process for recognizing the reincarnations of powerful lamas.

As is probably typical for rulers of large organizations comprised of non-inherited positions of authority, especially in contexts where close control over officials is impossible, Qing emperors were highly concerned about ensuring the right people were in post. The Geluk church did not escape their attention. In the late eighteenth century, the Qianlong emperor began to worry that the identification of the Geluk hierarchs, including the Dalai Lamas, had been subject to corruption. The emperor was vexed by the appearance of incarnates with far greater than expected frequency among the noble households of Tibet and Mongolia. To the latter, this was only natural. Good karma made rebirth in auspicious temporal and sacral circumstances more likely. To Qianlong it looked more like someone was fixing the process. As Oidtmann shows, it was not that the court was afraid that these families might challenge the imperial state; rather, in the emperor’s view, such corruption seemed to lead to incompetent and venal leadership that would sully the reputation of the Church, undermining one of the pillars of the imperial order in Inner Asia. The Geluk order was, after all, one of the key institutions that could generally “be counted on to support imperial initiatives” (104).

The solution to the problem was a ritual in which the final identification of reincarnated lamas would be determined by drawing lots from a golden urn. The ritual originated in Ming dynasty Board of Civil Appointments practice, but it was thoroughly localized once exported to Tibet. The use of the Golden Urn extended “imperial oversight over a category of local elites that had historically eluded the dynasty” (114). In an important discovery in the Manchu archives, Oidtmann has found one case in which the amban and assistant amban (imperial residents) in Lhasa fixed the lottery to exclude a candidate whom the emperor considered unsuitable because the child was the son of a local headman in Qinghai. As Oidtmann clarifies in the conclusion, however, this case appears to have been exceptional. As part of the process of promoting the Golden Urn, the Qianlong emperor and his agents in Tibet also sought to suppress the oracles who played important roles in Tibetan society and the Geluk church, a process that Oidtmann labels “shamanic colonialism.” This suppression was unsuccessful, but efforts were not only limited to the oracles’ role in the selection of reincarnates. In one case, the Qing resident in Tibet had an oracle caned after finding him guilty in a property dispute. In the past two decades, historians of the Qing have often noted points on which their findings resonate with those of historians of European or other Eurasian empires, though they have tended to wear their reading of those literatures lightly. This also applies to Oidtmann’s work, in which references to Homi Bhabha are useful for a close analysis of Qing discourse on the oracles, but never threaten to distract from the Tibetan and Manchu source material.

As Oidtmann notes in the introduction, Tibetan historiography has often highlighted the independence of Tibet until the Communist invasion, so scholars have not always recognized the significance of Qing colonialism. Only one part of this argument slightly puzzled me, and this should not be read as a critique of the book, so much as an area that could use more work in the future. Discussing a court-affiliated Geluk hierarch, the Tukwan kūtuktu, Oidtmann emphasizes that he “was not intervening on the side of the ‘Tibetans’; nor would he have conceptualized himself as an ‘ally’ of the dynasty—for it is unlikely that he saw himself as the ‘enemy’ of Tibetan Buddhists. To employ such terms implies an anachronistic dichotomy dividing Geluk Buddhists from the Qing” (164). My question here is which of the words in inverted commas Oidtmann is really aiming at. The warning against anachronistic references to national communities is important. But it is hard to write about colonialism without allies or enemies entering the picture in some way. The Tukwan kūtuktu played a key role in allaying the concerns of some, including Belmang Pandita, the abbot of Labrang Monastery, about Qing intervention in the selection of the Second Jamyang Zhepa in Labrang. I am not sure I appreciate a major difference between, on the one hand, the Tukwan kūtuktu acting on the understanding that the interests of the Qing dynasty and the Geluk church were aligned, and, on the other hand, the kūtuktu acting as a partner or ally of the Qing court, and therefore aiding, even if unwittingly, its shamanic colonialism.

Yet if the Tukwan kūtuktu looks like an ally of the dynasty to me, it is true that after the defeat of the Junghars, the Qing appear to have found very few real enemies among either the Geluk church or the communities who were faithful to it. Belmang Pandita returns in the book’s conclusion in an interesting discussion that clarifies that, although Belmang saw Qing rule in Tibet as an “unfortunate development,” resulting from “the negative effects of bad karma” (213-14), it is unlikely that he ever envisioned an alternative to the Qing Empire. As the main targets of Shamanic colonialism, the oracles may have had a more oppositional view than Belmang. But for now they are largely silent in the historical record. The final sentence of this book is “Just ask the oracles,” intended to punctuate a reminder that the Qing were “not willing pluralists” (and there are non-specialists who really need this reminder) (225). However, “Just ask the oracles” might also serve as a good starting point for a future research project that could usefully clarify responses to the Qing colonial project from those on the receiving end.

Some earlier studies on the institutions of the Qing referred to a “Manchu model of empire,” a phrase used by James Millward in his path-breaking Beyond the Pass to describe the end of the mode of governance that persisted until the rise of a new assimilationist approach to the non-Han regions of the empire in the late nineteenth century. This contrast has become foundational to understandings of modern Chinese history. However, the “Manchu model of empire” has been somewhat elusive in works that followed Millward’s. Oidtmann’s book demonstrates why. Through focus on a critical transformation at the close of the eighteenth century, and with due attention to the importance of local officials in interpreting policy, it is now clearer that the Qing empire was an evolving system of many moving parts, rather than a structure cast from a model.

This book might find itself categorized as part of a second-generation New Qing History, but what comes to mind often is Philip Kuhn’s Soulstealers and Joanna Waley-Cohen’s work on the Jinchuan Wars. These are also studies of the construction of legitimate and illegitimate claims to supernatural power, and the intersection of this process with the late eighteenth century political order. Twentieth century scholars would have been tempted to call this the interplay of religion and politics, though the distinction between the two would not have been familiar to the Qing emperors (Manchu memorials referred to the emperor as “The Holy One,” after all). This meticulously researched book illustrates, often in brilliant microhistorical detail, the weaving together of supernatural and temporal authority in the empire’s Tibetan institutions. Whereas Kuhn and Waley-Cohen have shown what it meant for low-status and marginal groups to be the targets of the imperial concern that special connections with the divine be the preserve of the emperor alone, Oidtmann shows how the same imperative caused Qianlong to intervene in powerful pillars of the imperial order as well. Unsurprisingly, he trod a lot more cautiously in this case (no sorcerer-hunts here). Oidtmann’s eloquent and learned book is thus essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the Qing political order.

Joseph Lawson
Newcastle University