Beijing’s “Lama Temple” & Imperial Universalism


A review of Yonghegong: Imperial Universalism and the Art and Architecture of Beijing’s “Lama Temple”, by Kevin R. E. Greenwood.

Since Ferd Lessing published his seminal work on Yonghegong (Palace of Harmony and Peace) in 1942 (Ferd Lessing, Yung-ho-kung: an Iconography of the Lamaist Cathedral in Peking, Sino-Swedish Expedition, 1942), there have been no manuscript-length studies in English of this important site at the heart of Beijing. Although it was the largest Tibetan Buddhist establishment in the capital city and a key component within Qing China’s network of imperial palaces, research on Yonghegong has been limited. Kevin Greenwood’s art historical study is thus wholeheartedly welcomed, drawing scholars’ attention to the underexplored subject of Yonghegong.

In his dissertation, Greenwood meticulously analyzes the art and architecture of this palace. Primarily emphasizing elements produced during the long Qianlong reign (1735-96), he argues that Yonghegong exemplified the Qing ideology of “imperial universalism” in the eighteenth century. As an ideology, “imperial universalism” was intricately linked to expansion of the Qing, especially annexations of Inner Asian communities (i.e. Tibetans and Mongolians), the latter of which had practiced Tibetan Buddhism since the fourteenth century. This historical link has led historians to argue that Tibetan Buddhism was a useful political tool utilized by the Qing state to negotiate with Inner Asians populations. Joining these scholars, Greenwood suggests that the Qianlong emperor’s universalism influenced the development of Yonghegong, a place where Mongol monks live alongside Tibetan Buddhist iconography and Chinese architecture (p. 2).

The ideology of imperial universalism, in Greenwood’s opinion, helps us extend our understanding of Qing Tibetan Buddhist sculptures beyond just their style and iconography (p. 5). Rather than simply documenting Yonghegong’s art and architecture, Greenwood interprets it within the context of the Qianlong emperor’s political ambition. One of the strengths of this dissertation is its presentation of Yonghegong as a holistic site where art, politics, and religion intertwined. Greenwood achieves this by employing the mandala as an organizing device to integrate art and its political symbolic meaning. The mandala, a concentric Buddhist iconographic symbol, is used as a heuristic device to map the architectural and sculptural organization of Yonghegong (chapter 2). This methodological innovation distinguishes Greenwood from earlier generations of scholars, who use courtyards as their unit of analysis, in accordance with studies of Chinese architecture. Built upon pioneering art historical work on Tibetan Buddhism and Qing court culture (e.g. Patricia Berger, The Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China, University of Hawai’i Press, 2003) and “New Qing Studies,” which reassess the Manchu rulers and their role in expanding and sustaining a multicultural empire, this dissertation demonstrates how interdisciplinary approaches can contribute to scholarly understanding of the complex cultural enterprise of Qing China as it expanded and evolved over time.

Unlike Ferd Lessing, whose work on Yonghegong primarily seeks to catalog the art and buildings at the temple, Greenwood restores agency to the art and architecture, considering them as “events” rather than inert objects (p. 309). Taking cues from studies of architecture,  in Greenwood’s view, these buildings are evolving texts that have lives of their own. He organizes the “textual knowledge” of buildings and art into two mandalas, outer and inner. The former relates to Yonghegong’s site plan and physical infrastructure, while the latter includes art works displayed at Yonghegong, such as calligraphic inscriptions and Buddhist iconography (pp. 331-3; pp. 334-7). The model of the concentric mandala enables Greenwood to analyze these “evolving texts” in a comprehensive way. Moreover, Greenwood takes his survey of the arts to the next level and situates the art production in the Qianlong emperor’s political agenda. At the very center of the spatial arrangement are references to the emperor’s physical presence, such as his childhood living quarters; beyond this “microcosm,” as Greenwood calls it, is the “mesocosm,” containing symbols of the emperor’s political legitimacy among various parts of the multicultural empire; finally, the “macrocosm” alludes to the religious aspect of the emperor’s rule (pp. 55-9; appendix I & II). The three spheres allow Greenwood to expound the subtle relations between the art of Yonghegong and the emperor’s imagination of the growing empire. Adopting this innovative conceptual framework, Greenwood presents a finely crafted picture of Yonghegong that shows the important political dimension of this site.

Each of the dissertation’s main chapters depicts one sphere or layer in the mandalic configuration of the site. Following introductory chapters on the historical and historiographical accounts of Yonghegong and Greenwood’s own methodological approaches (Chapters 1, 2, and 3), the subsequent three chapters introduce the “outer mandala,” including Yonghegong’s site plan and its physical facilities. Greenwood then devotes Chapters 7 and 8 to the inner mandala, which encompasses the artistic aspects of the site. The final chapter concludes by reiterating the oft-overlooked political aspects of the Buddhist site in the imperial capital. By doing so, Greenwood aims to position the Yonghegong within the framework of “imperial universalism” that has been a recurring theme in recent studies of the Qianlong era.

Before delving into specific details of the outer and inner mandala, the dissertation appraises the existing literature on Yonghegong as mostly focused on documentation instead of interpretation (p. 29). This is a result of the general scholarly adoption of Chinese architectural history’s conventional approach to studying sites, dividing the site by courtyard. Greenwood instead studies Yonghegong as a holistic and united site showcasing imperial universalist ideology (p. 32). This unique methodological approach diverges from earlier historians and art historians while suggesting the author’s alignment with the goals of New Qing Studies.

In order to organize the art and architecture in Yonghegong, Greenwood employs the Buddhist concept of  the mandala, with both the site’s exterior aspects (the outer mandala) and the Buddhist iconography (the inner mandala) centering on the Qianlong emperor and his political enterprise (p. 48). By doing so, this project weaves together Yonghegong’s physical and iconographical worlds. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 depict three parts of the outer mandala, with each chapter focusing on one area and its representative value within the vast symbolic empire of the site. Chapter 4 presents buildings in the prefatory courtyard, including the Eastern Academy and the Temple to Guandi, which no longer exist. These structures represented wen 文 and wu 武, the two core values in Confucian officialdom (p. 141). Chapter 5 guides us into Yonghegong and enters the garden and palace sections featuring several courtyards, many buildings, and scriptures. The final chapter on the outer mandala focuses on the plateau and the Tusita Heaven sections.

Following the analysis of the physical facilities and their symbolic importance to the Qing empire, the discussion moves to the inner mandala, encompassing Buddhist iconography at Yonghegong. Chapter 7 showcases the greatest strength in Greenwood’s research, an exploration of the circulation of artisanal knowledge between the Qing’s central government and the Tibetan Buddhist world in the Himalayan regions. Topics include iconographic manuals, Nepali artisans, and the ways in which the Qing government catalogued these Tibetan Buddhist arts. Through studying the historical dynamics that shaped Yonghegong’s transformation from an imperial space into a Tibetan Buddhist monastic college in the 1740s, Greenwood demonstrates that Yonghegong was where art, politics, and religions encountered and sustained the underlying theme of imperial universalism. In addition to his impressive interpretation of the artisanal knowledge-making processes, in this chapter Greenwood also touches upon the subtle competition for authority in art production and collections between Tibetan Buddhism in Inner Asia and the Qianlong emperor in Beijing. This once again draws attention to the political aspect of arts in the Qianlong era. Chapter 8 examines important sculptures at Yonghegong and their political implications to Qing China. After meticulously translating all the inscriptions in four different sections of the site, Greenwood interprets these texts in relation to his tripartite mandalic conceptualization — microcosm, mesocosm, and macrocosm — with each inscription relating to the Qianlong emperor’s personal and political engagement on these three levels (pp. 307-8).  The dissertation concludes by drawing attention to Yonghegong’s long-lasting political significance and argues that it has always been a place where political, religious, and personal connotations converged, manifesting “harmony (yong)” and “peace (he)” within an imperial space.

The present research project captures well some of the unique characteristics of this ambiguous space, one of the best manifestations of the Qianlong emperor’s personal and political views. It is truly interdisciplinary in that the research not only documents the amazingly complex artifacts on display at Yonghegong, but also tackles the specific historical factors that shaped the site. Greenwood challenges us to take arts, buildings, and sculptures not simply as static physical objects, but as “texts” that can complement or contest written texts. This innovative methodological endeavor alone should make this research of interest to historians, art historians, and scholars of Buddhist iconography in the field of China and beyond.

Lan Wu
Ph.D. Candidate in East Asian History
Columbia University

Primary Sources

Archival Historical Materials on Yonghegong in the Qing Dynasty (Qingdai Yonghegong dangan shiliao 清代雍和宮檔案史料)
Canon of Iconometry (Zangxiang liangdu jing 造像量度經)
“On Lamas” Written by the Imperial Brush of the Qianlong Emperor Qianlong (Yubi Lama Shuo 乾隆御筆喇嘛說)
Qianlong Period Complete Map of the Capital (Qianlong jingcheng quantu 乾隆京城全圖)
Cultural Relics of Tibetan Buddhism in the Qing Palace (Qinggong Zangchuan fojiao wenwu 清宫藏传佛教文物)

Dissertation Information

University of Kansas. 2013. 445 pp. Primary Advisor: Marsha Haufler.

Image: Yonghegong. Wikimedia Commons Image.

1 comment
  1. Excellent review of a very complicated subject. This new slant on viewing Yonghegong should motivate many more scholars to take another look .

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