Religions of the Three Emperors

The Qianlong Emperor in Buddhist Dress, Puning si, c. 1758, by an anonymous artist. Thangka, colours on cloth. The Palace Museum, Beijing.

The Qing Emperors’ grand plan to reign as universal rulers over an empire that extended far beyond China was fulfilled during the Qianlong reign (1736—95), when Qing territories stretched from their Manchurian homeland through China, Mongolia, Central Asian Xinjiang and, by means of diplomatic détente, into Tibet. Throughout this lengthy campaign, the Qing incorporated the diverse ritual practices they encountered into the unique and ecumenical amalgam that defined their court. This is not to say they were intent on creating an egalitarian multiculturalism; but rather that they saw the value of controlling newly conquered territories by speaking to subjects in their own native languages and through the medium of their own cultural practices.

The Qing funnelled immense resources into their religious projects through the Imperial Household Department (Neiwu fu) and the Ministry of Rites. The Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors alone established dozens of temples in Beijing, most of them dedicated to Tibetan Buddhism and the Confucian rituals of the state. But daily records of the court also show that they promoted many other religious activities, especially shrines for their own Manchu spirits, for the Chinese war god Guandi (who rapidly merged with the Tibetan hero, Gesar), and for the beloved bodhisattva of compassion, Guanyin (Sanskrit: Avalokiteshavara), as well as Islamic mosques and Christian churches. They personally performed Daoist-inspirited acts of abject penance before local dragons during years of drought and honoured popular Daoist figures at the Quanzhen (Complete Truth) Daoist White Cloud Monastery in Beijing.

All the Qing Emperors understood the political advantages of supporting the Tibetan Buddhist establishment. The Qianlong Emperor and, to a lesser extent, his grandfather the Kangxi Emperor, were more personally involved in Tibetan Buddhist practices. Both the Kangxi and the Qianlong Emperors left extensive material evidence of their regular engagement with Buddhism. Between them, they personally wrote out thousands of copies of the Heart Sutra. They also poured immense resources into the construction of Buddhist monasteries and shrines in Beijing, Chengde, Mongolia and Tibet, which they filled with paintings, textiles, sculpture and ritual implements. These objects, like the whole of Qing visual culture, often represent an eclectic collage of styles that joins Tibetan iconography with Chinese landscape and even European-style portraiture. The court’s appetite for this material was so great that it required a separate centre of production, which was established at the Hall of Central Righteousness (Zhongzheng dian), the headquarters of Tibetan Buddhism within the Forbidden city. Multi-chambered and multi-storied meditation chapels were also built in the Forbidden City to map out a gradual path to enlightenment for the Emperor and his family to follow.