Common Ground: Tibetan Buddhist Expansion and Qing China’s Inner Asia

By Lan Wu

248 pages, 2022, 35 USD (Paperback)

New York: Columbia University Press



Reviewed by Yewong Tenzin Dongchung


How do we study pre-twentieth century Sino-Tibetan history from an international relations framework when one of the two players, the Dalai Lama-led Ganden Phodrang government (1642-1959), failed to materialize as a nation-state in the modern period? In acknowledging the limits of a nationalist and secularist paradigm, what other analytical frameworks can scholars access to study the interaction between a Buddhist government and a multi-ethnic Qing empire? Many past works have succumbed to the teleological pull to look for a primordial Tibetan, or a Chinese nation and, thereby have been unable to sufficiently articulate the pre-modern modes of governance and power that constituted this relation. Building on the growing scholarship on empire, borderlands, and transnational history in the study of South Asia, the Atlantic world, and the Mediterranean, Lan Wu’s book, Common Ground: Tibetan Buddhist Expansion and Qing China’s Inner Asia, engages in expanding the above historiography to the study of Tibet and China.

The author first problematizes two existing models of studying Sino-Tibetan history. The first adopts a political history perspective of studying two ruling states. But this model primarily rests on a presumption of a state as a homogenous and internally static entity (11), which is ahistorical and, therefore, an inaccurate rendering of the past.  Second is the framework of studying Tibet as a Qing frontier, but this perspective centers narrative of vertical interactions from the Qing emperor to local powers and of an active agent influencing a passive one. Lan Wu eschews the inherent center-periphery paradigm of this model for its inability to discuss lateral interaction between Tibet and China.

Is there a way out of this? Lan Wu convincingly asserts that Sino-Tibetan history needs to move out of both Beijing and Lhasa and instead orients our focus to a new narrative on making a Buddhist space in Inner Asia (20). This region exists between the two governing centers. The main crux of the book is conceptually grounded in the study of this space, which the author argues is engendered by the production of a Tibetan Buddhist knowledge network. Each of her four chapters touches on different nodes in Inner Asia (Amdo, Yonghegong, Dolonnur, Beijing) where the process of producing knowledge via monasteries, texts, and people had created common grounds of interaction between Qing China and Tibetan Buddhists. This process-driven understanding of power, knowledge, and space imbues the author’s historical approach, and it is here that Lan Wu’s book makes the strongest contribution through precise historiographical interventions on narratives and analytical frameworks.        

Chapter one, “Campaigns” starts at the onset of Qing’s imperial rule in Inner Asia with the reign of the Kangxi Emperor. The author sets the background with the growing tensions between the Zunghar and Qing troops and the subsequent Lobsang Danjin rebellion in Qinghai, which prompted the Qing state to become more directly involved in these new territories. By showing the different names for this region, such as Qinghai (Chinese), Tso ngon (Tibetan), and Kokonur (Mongolian), she writes that “Buddhism was a tool of governance for multi-lingual imperial subjects” (35). However, the governance using Buddhism on multi-ethnic subjects outside of Tibetans is not expanded upon in the rest of this chapter. The author focuses more on the Yongzheng emperor’s attempt to control monastic power in Amdo through new administrative measures such as ordination permits for monks at Kumbum Jampaling (52). But when the emperor failed to bring the monasteries completely under direct Qing rule, she explores how the Qing could not entirely circumvent monastic power because outside of Qing imperial recognition, monasteries also drew their source of authority from being part of the “Geluk knowledge system” (58).

The node of convergence between the Qing and Buddhist Asia is grounded in Amdo, and the author covers a brief history of the region (32), but interestingly, much of those works were only written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Just as what constituted Tibet as a broader, unified state constantly changed, the same dynamic applies to studying smaller regions such as Amdo, for these are also not stable categories. It highlights that a local history approach does not necessarily elude the methodological challenges of incorporating a fluid understanding of a place in the study of nation-states.                                                                                                         

In chapter two “Manufacturing”, the author’s main subject is Yonghegong, one of the most famous Buddhist monasteries the Qianlong emperor started in Beijing. She invites the readers to consider Yonghegong not just a singular Buddhist monastery in Beijing but also as “an outpost in a sprawling Buddhist knowledge network in the Qing empire’s Inner Asia” (60). This knowledge network is demonstrated through the study of itinerant religious hierarchs. For instance, the eighth abbot of Yonghegong, Ngawang Tsultrim, was originally from Amdo. After serving as the abbot in Beijing, he became the regent to the eighth Dalai Lama in Central Tibet and started his own incarnation line called the Tsemonling. This brilliantly demonstrates the façade of seeing Yonghegong as a separate institution from Lhasa. This interconnectivity is further shown through the seventh Dalai lama, who sent yellow hats (signifying the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism) to hundreds of monks at Yonghegong (66).
What started and fostered this interconnectivity? Lan Wu writes that it came from “the shared schooling experience and collective memory” of these figures in the Geluk educational systems. In other words, the network converges in their common practice of Tibetan Buddhism (63). In the later part of this chapter, the author clarifies how monastic wealth relates to the state in China (75), dispelling incorrect assumptions. Overall, the chapter effectively “provincializes Yonghegong” in the space of Buddhist Inner Asia. It also situates the study of Yonghegong within the existing scholarship on the material culture of Qing Imperial China and illustrates the author’s awareness and understanding of multiple historiographies in which the study of Tibetan Buddhism under the Qing has found a space.                   

Chapter three “Assemblies” is about the start of new Buddhist centers in Inner Mongolia. As the Qing built two new monasteries, Huizong Si and Shanyi Si, in Dolonnur, Mongolians who used to go farther into Central Tibet for education could stay in their own areas. Here, the author conceptualizes monasteries and tulkus (a unique Tibetan Buddhist institution where a highly-realized Buddhist figure is recognized through reincarnation) as “infrastructure” in this knowledge network. Monasteries provided study space for monks and resting space for traveling Buddhists, while tulkus trained other monks, built monasteries, and conducted rituals (96). The first gave the site for knowledge production and the second produced knowledge, thus building this network further. Unfortunately, not much information on the two monasteries is provided in the chapter itself but a footnote directs to detailed published works on the sites. The part strengthens the theme of Dolonnur as a site of assemblage on its Buddhist metalwork production, where a style of Buddhist art distinct from Lhasa and Beijing developed (108). The chapter also reinforces the importance of including Mongolian history in studying Qing-Tibet relations. The author argues that as Buddhism became a more substantial presence in the region, Tibetan religious hierarchs could find patrons in Mongolia and not rely solely on the Qing emperors. In fact, this book incorporates not only the history of Mongolia but also Mongolian art and makes for a rich reading for anyone interested in these two topics. In this section, the author most clearly engages with notions of contact zone and middle ground, although each of the nodes she covers in her chapter could be understood as forms of common ground between the Qing and Tibet.                           

The final chapter “Governance” takes two historical figures and their written works as its subject of inquiry: Prince Guo, the younger brother of the Yongzheng emperor, and Gombojab, a Mongolian aristocrat and head of Lifanyuan (an administrative office responsible for managing the frontiers). Unlike the previous chapters’ focus of space on physical sites like monasteries, the author studies the textual construction of space here. First, she shows how Gomjojab’s book, History of Buddhism in China, included important Buddhist places like Mount Wutai and supported Qing imaginings of Buddhist China. Using the concept of High Territoriality, where the Russian elite’s consumption of territorial knowledge nurtured their sense of belonging, she writes that Gombojab’s book performed a similar function for Qing rulers. Then, Lan Wu shows how the preface of his second book, The Canon of Buddhist Iconometry, listed many important Buddhist teachers and lamas, and through Gomjojab’s act of creating an intellectual genealogy, he helped to build the Buddhist Inner Asian community on text.                         

Prince Guo’s work, which included ritual manuals and texts on Buddhist statue construction, is used by the author to argue that even though he was a statesman, his engagement with Buddhism showed a forgotten past where Qing elites took Buddhism seriously. She ends this passage by shifting the gaze to the readers and addresses us by stating, “but we have not yet.” This opens up one of her main points: Tibetan Buddhism was a knowledge system, not just a political tool (120). In fact, it becomes clear towards the conclusion that the common ground from the title of this book refers to this Tibetan Buddhist knowledge, for this knowledge “provided the institutional and philosophical common ground that allowed the Qing to craft a unique Buddhist space in Inner Asia” (149). It is easy to identify patronage and economic resources from the Qing as a form of influence in Sino-Tibetan relations, but if the exchange from the other side is knowledge, how do we account for and study knowledge as a valid form of cultural and social capital? This is the challenge she identifies in studying Sino-Tibetan history.                                                          

It would be remiss not to discuss the book’s impressive use of multi-lingual research. One of the reasons why studying Buddhist Inner Asia’s space is challenging is its multi-lingual and multi-ethnic nature. Studying this space demands scholars to develop diverse linguistic skills, a feat that Lan Wu deftly demonstrates. Her use of Tibetan primary sources spans several genres, including the history of religion (Tib: chos ‘byung), monastic history (Tib: gdan rabs), religious life-writing (Tib: rnam thar) and lastly, collected works (Tib: gsung ‘bum) of important figures. All of these help her strongly build on her work’s Tibetan Buddhist aspect. Her Chinese language primary source includes both the memorials (Chin: zouzhe) of important figures such as the Qianlong Emperor and county gazetteer (Chin: xianzhi) and survey (Chin: zazhi) of places like Dolonnur and Huocheng. An important part of her Qing-Mongolian relations and Qing imperial practices is supplemented by Chinese journal articles. Several Japanese and German-language articles are also consulted for Qing and Mongolian history. Lastly, true to its Inner Asian past, both Manchu and Mongolian language archival works are used.

I write this with an understanding of the exhaustive labor and time that area studies scholar has to put into multi-lingual research. However, in lieu with this discussion on sources and historiography, Lan Wu’s book would have been enriched if she had incorporated and included her analysis of knowledge, network, and space in the existing disciplinary discourse of these concepts. Except for a few select works, which include Denise Baxter’s work on space, David Turnbull and Helen Watson-Verran on indigenous knowledge systems, and Adam McKeown on migrant networks, within the parameter of this book and its bibliography, readers’ exploration of these concepts is limited to the author’s own description, thus rendering “knowledge, space, network, and infrastructure” more as terms rather than concepts.                                                        

Moreover, it becomes apparent that much of the Tibetan Buddhist network that Lan Wu discusses falls under the purview of one specific Tibetan Buddhism school, i.e., the Geluks. The lack of other Tibetan Buddhist schools’ presence could be due to the historical rise of Geluks during the period that the author studies or also because of the dominance of Geluk historiography in indigenous Tibetan history. But it still leaves me with the question of whether the phrase “Tibetan Buddhist knowledge network” is too overarching, given the specificity of the Geluk network that the author writes about.  

Overall, Lan Wu’s book brings a fresh narrative and framework that situates Sino-Tibetan history within the scholarship on the Tibetan past and with methodologies drawn from different sub-fields of history, such as studies of empires and borderlands. Her work promises to inspire many new research avenues in which histories of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism could be approached from new disciplinary sub-fields, such as the history of knowledge and intellectual history. I believe this work would be relevant to those regionally interested in Tibet, China, or Inner Asia and those working on themes of middle ground, intercultural connections, or religious exchange in other regions.


Yewong Tenzin Dongchung is a Ph.D. candidate in the East Asia History program at Columbia University. In her dissertation, she studies the historical and material conditions that enabled the development and spread of woodblock printing technology along the Sino-Tibetan borderlands during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). By focusing on artisans who carved the woodblocks and patrons who financed these projects, she hopes to expand the scope of historical actors included in the study of Tibetan Buddhist book culture. Her research brings the study of Tibet and Sino-Tibetan history in conversation with methodologies drawn from material culture studies and the history of science and technology.