The Putuo Zongcheng Temple, or “Little Potala”, in Chengde. Photo by pudelklopper.
Why visit the real Lhasa when there’s a fake one closer to home? Richard Bernstein, of The New York Review of Books, visits Chengde, not far from Beijing, where Kangxi, the great Qing Dynasty emperor, built a replica of the Potala Palace. Tourism authorities have in recent years developed the place as a monument to Kangxi and a quasi-theme park that is now teeming with Chinese tourists. Bernstein describes what he saw in the Kangxi Ceremony, a “ultra-high-tech theatrical extravaganza” that now plays nightly in the new amphitheatre:
In one scene, accompanied by a revolving, luminous model of the solar system, Kangxi learns astronomy from the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci. In another scene, one of the show’s most lavishly produced, a huge procession of Tibetan lamas, marching to the music of rumbling bass horns and headed by the Dalai Lama, arrives to demonstrate their fealty to the Chinese emperor. Did these events actually take place?
The Matteo Ricci episode reflects the historical presence of the Jesuits at the court in Beijing at the time. But Western historians of the Qing and the Qing’s complicated relations with Tibet make no mention of such a visit by the Dalai Lama during Kangxi’s reign, although the 3rd Panchen Lama, the number two Tibetan spiritual leader and an ally of the Qing, did visit Chengde in 1779—shortly after the Little Potala was built—to help celebrate the 60th birthday of Qianlong. During that visit, Qianlong famously treated the visitor as an equal. The Panchen Lama did not, for example, perform the kowtow, which was required of other visitors from the “outer lands,” and he was recognized as a spiritual authority for China proper, the “inner lands,” as well Tibet. As the late historian of imperial China Frederick W. Mote concluded, “Tibet remained wholly independent of Qing China in all aspects of its domestic governing….Chinese control, something previously found not feasible, perhaps traditionally not held to be highly desirable, was in the end accomplished by modern military force”—led not by Kangxi or any other Manchu emperor but under Mao.
Whether the Dalai Lama episode occurred under Kangxi or not, the message of its enactment in the Kangxi Ceremony is clear: China in the 18th century was a vast, unified multi-ethnic empire whose constituent parts all welcomed the legitimate authority of the ruler, and were richly rewarded as a result. As Qianlong himself put this, the presence of non-Chinese dignitaries for his birthday marked “the uniting of the hearts of the people of the inner and outer lands.”