Ming Temples in the Sino-Tibetan Frontier


A review of The Impact of Imperial and Local Patronage on Early Ming Temples in the Sino-Tibetan Frontier, by Aurelia Campbell.

From the outset, the subject matter of Aurelia Campbell’s dissertation promises a complex reading of history. It considers a group of Tibetan Buddhist temples from the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644) in the Sino-Tibetan frontier. Campbell refers to them as the Gan-Qing temples for their location on the border between present-day Gansu and Qinghai provinces. Both temporally and geographically, these temples are situated at a liminal juncture between what have traditionally been considered distinct categories: between Song and Qing architectural styles, between imperial and local patronage, and between Chinese and Tibetan temple forms. Campbell deftly navigates the previously underexplored territories between these various practices and traditions to deliver a lucid picture of how they came into contact with one another, and shows that it is precisely at their intersection that a distinct regional style emerged.

Armed with the rigor of formal architectural analyses and close readings of inscription in-situ, Campbell’s is the first study to consider these temples as a group and to situate them within the history of Sino-Tibetan relations and of Chinese architecture. As Campbell’s work reveals, the Gan-Qing temples provide a wealth of materials for studying “the dynamics of patronage, politics, and style” (p. 1) This elucidates, on the one hand, how contrasting types of patronage (imperial and local) resulted in different architectural styles, and on the other, how various architectural forms (Chinese, Tibetan, and vernacular) blended together to create a synthesis that accommodated the religious and practical demands of donors and practitioners.

Chapter 1, “Historical and Political Context,” establishes the history of military, political, economic, and religious ties between the Ming court and the Amdo frontier. Campbell shows how the imperially founded temple of Qutansi “provided a stable point of interaction between the core and the periphery” (p. 5). Highlighting the importance of the imperial patronage of Tibetan Buddhism, and in particular of Tibetan Buddhist teachers, Campbell argues that the Ming emperors’ interest in Tibetan Buddhism was “equally as personal as it was political,” a point she developed fully in the chapter that follows with regard to the Gan-Qing temples (p. 5). In doing so, Campbell joins a growing number of scholars, such as Elliot Sperling and Karl Debrezceny, in refuting the traditional view that the Ming emperors’ supported Tibetan Buddhism in frontier areas out of political expediency (preliminary discussion in pp. 38-42).

Chapter 2, “Histories of the Gan-Qing Temples,” explores the Ming emperors’ multi-faceted patronage of the Gan-Qing temples through close readings of imperial edicts, relevant historical chronicles, and surviving wall paintings. Focusing first on the imperially founded Qutansi, Campbell postulates that Ming emperors’ sustained multi-generational patronage was motivated by several stated and unstated reasons: to maintain peace in the region (Emperor Hongwu), to legitimize his rightful rule following his usurpation of the throne (Emperor Yongle), and to perpetuate the lineage by fulfilling the wishes of their forebears (Emperors Hongxi and Xuande), to name a few (pp. 44-63). Nonetheless, their patronage was always channeled through relationships to high lamas, and the craftsmen who were directly dispatched from the central government.

Such was not the case with the temples founded by the rulers of Lu Tusi, the second topic in the chapter. Instead, as Campbell demonstrates, rulers of Lu Tusi actively sought to express allegiance to the Ming Court with the building of Miaoyinsi, Xianjiaosi, and Gan’ensi; the temples in turn received imperial benefit and protection, but were built entirely by local craftsmen. (pp. 65-86). A third section examines the no-longer extent Dachongjiaosi to elucidate a close lama-patron relationship between the temple’s founder dPal ldan bkra shis and its chief donor Xuande, whose motives appeared largely faith-based (p. 86-93). Campbell concludes with an analysis of stele inscriptions, arguing that they both articulate the strategic importance of the Gansu-Qinghai border during the Ming Dynasty as a gateway to Tibet, which was viewed as the sacred land of Buddhism by the Ming court following work by Hoong Teik Toh, and “functioned as legal documents” to assert their protection of and authority over the monasteries (pp. 93-97). All together, they testify to the broader trend during the Ming in which temples and lamas acted as intermediaries between the central Court and people living in the borderlands.

After examining patterns of patronage in the Gan-Qing temples, Chapter 3, “Creating the Official Ming Architectural Style” turns to situate Ming-dynasty architecture within Chinese architectural history and the institution of craftsmen during the Ming. Campbell shows that Ming imperial architecture aimed to “adhere to the standards of the ancients, while expressing the distinctive style of the new dynasty” (p. 101). Attempting to understand how this new imperial style was formed, Campbell examines the institution of the builders, and shows how a combination of stationed and rotating craftsmen contributed to the movement of ideas and the creation of a Ming official architectural style. The remainder of the chapter charts major architectural shifts during the Ming to show its importance “as a dynamic link between Song and Yuan architecture and that of the Qing,” de-mystifying the traditionally homogenous view toward Ming architecture (p. 100).

Chapter 4, “Ming Architecture at the Gansu-Qinghai border,” systematically analyzes architectural features of Gan-Qing temples in order to discern how the major issues of patronage and craftsmanship laid out in the preceding chapters bear upon the resulting buildings themselves. Campbell adroitly shows that while parts of Qutansi (the Longguodian in particular) closely resemble Ming imperial architecture (specifically Fengtiandian) as a result of Imperial sponsorship and craftsmen dispatched from the capital, possibly as a deliberate choice to “represent the Ming’s control over the northwestern periphery” (p. 144), other halls at Qutansi and the temples of the Lu Tusi built under local patronage exhibit characteristics of local craftsmanship.

The local and imperial dichotomy, however, does not account for key features in this group of temples, such as the circumambulatory corridor, the square plan, and mural on exterior walls of temples. The Gan-Qing temples reflect a distinct regional style that can be traced back to architectural traditions of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. Campbell demonstrates this connection convincingly by tracing the historical prototypes in Tibet, and through comparisons with the imperially sponsored hall bsTan ‘gyur Lha khang in Zhwa lu Monastery in Central Tibet, two monasteries at Kharakhoto in Ejin Banner in present-day Inner Mongolia, and a later case in Amdo. These parallel examples lead Campbell to suggest an architectural synthesis in which “the circumambulatory mediated between the Chinese style architecture of these temples and their culturally Tibetan environment.” (pp. 177-178)

Because Campbell’s approach is both synchronic and diachronic, her work will appeal equally to scholars of Ming history and of Chinese architecture. Beyond the immediate fields of Sino-Tibetan relations and Ming art history, Campbell’s work will no doubt speak to a wider audience interested in the relations between center and periphery. As a case study of how ritual, aesthetic, and political demands shaped a local architectural tradition, it is a persuasive response to the growing awareness across the field of Chinese studies that the dynastic paradigm is no longer adequate, and provides a new model for studies of regional and cross-regional traditions.

Wen-Shing Chou
Assistant Professor
Department of Art and Art History
Hunter College, CUNY

Primary Sources:

Genealogies of the Lu Clan (Lu shi jiapu 魯氏家譜 and Lu shi shipu 魯氏世譜)
Religious history of Amdo (mDo smad chos ‘byung/Anduo zhengjiao shi 安多政教史)
Ming dynastic history (Ming shi 明史 and Ming shilu 明實錄)
Stele and wall painting inscriptions
Construction manuals (Gongbu gongcheng zuofa 工部工程做法 and Yingzao fashi 營造法式)

Dissertation Information

University of Pennsylvania. 2011. 265 pp. Primary Advisor: Nancy Steinhardt.


Image: Photo by Aurelia Campbell

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