The Dalai Lama and the Emperor of China

A Political History of the Tibetan Institution of Reincarnation

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Peter Schwieger
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , March
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Peter Schwieger’s new book is the most well-researched, comprehensive book on the modern history of Tibet (the book principally covers the 17th to 19th centuries) to be published to date. Schwieger draws on several decades of research of the Chinese- and Tibetan-language sources for his understanding of the subtleties of Sino-Tibetan relations from the Ming (1368-1644) through the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). This includes having worked with Tibetan-language archival sources originally procured by his advisor, Dieter Schuh, as well as those procured through a unique partnership between Schwieger’s own institution (Bonn University) and the Archives of the Tibetan Autonomous Region in Lhasa (ATAR).

The major contribution Schwieger makes to the study of Tibetan history and Sino-Tibetan relations is to show the importance of utilizing archival sources, including the many published documents, when studying Tibetan history. His unprecedented access to and reading of such documents helps to correct certain biases present in more polished literary or historical accounts. One example of the ways in which legal and other archival documents can alter our perception of Tibetan history and of the history of Sino-Tibetan relations is reflected in the way that Tibetan leaders and hierarchs referred to themselves in their correspondence with the Qing emperors. Schwieger presents the stylistic and semantic choices made by Tibetan authors, demonstrating their acknowledgement of their position as subjects of the Qing Court whose authority derives from Qing investitures.

In his introduction, Schwieger provides an overview of the basic structure of the Tibetan decrees and other archival documents used in this study, and he also demonstrates his grasp on the doctrinal and historical background to the trülku (T. sprul sku) system: the system of incarnate spiritual leadership exemplified by the Dalai Lama. Thereafter, the chapters proceed chronologically. Chapter 1 introduces the earliest precedents of the recognition of a trülku, beginning in the thirteenth century, and ends with Gushri Qan’s conquest of Tibet on behalf of the Fifth Dalai Lama and his Geluk school of Buddhism. The Geluk experimentation with the concept, though not the first, was perhaps the most fortuitous in terms of its ability to attract powerful Mongol supporters (31-32).

Chapter 2 raises numerous important historical questions pertaining to the career of the Fifth Dalai Lama and the relationship between political power and religious power in Tibet. In brief, the chapter concludes that the figure of the Dalai Lama as the “union of religion and politics” trumped the salience of the well-known priest-patron relationship, at least for earlier Tibetan-Mongol affairs (60). The Fifth Dalai Lama, Schwieger explains, presented himself as the unqualified ruler of Tibet, the “gift” of Gushri Qan. Tibetan-Qing relations were a different story, however. Both the Qing emperor and the Dalai Lama appear to have recognized the unprecedented nature of the relationship they struck (63). The Dalai Lama acknowledged that his authority derived from the Qing emperor, even though that did not imply the right of the emperor to interfere directly in Tibetan affairs (63-64).         

Chapter 3 discusses the Inner Asian politics and alliances that formed in the years between the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1682) and the first years of the Sixth Dalai Lama’s reign (ca. 1703). The chapter also introduces several important incarnation lineages that typically go unappreciated in accounts of Inner Asian diplomacy or accounts of Qing interest in Tibetan Buddhism. These include the Tatsak jedrung rinpoché (80-83) and many others, not to mention Galdan, the leader of the Dsungars, who was recognized as the Fourth Ensa trülku (72-73).

Chapter 4 outlines the process through which control of Tibet (including Amdo and Kham) was ceded to the Qing emperor. The “turning point” in the history of Sino-Tibetan relations occurred when the emperor directly intervened in the recognition of the Dalai Lama (the “second” Sixth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Yeshe Gyatso) (119). Chapter 5 takes us through the rest of the 18th century. It does a good job of describing the Qing manipulation of the recognition of trülku, at least for some particular cases, as early as the mid-18th century (174-75). Chapter 6 addresses some of the more debated and controversial questions regarding Tibetan leadership, such as the use of the Golden Urn for recognizing incarnate lamas, and chapter 7 briefly draws connections with post-1950 Tibet.

This book covers a lot of history, and it does so with greater detail and a greater sensitivity to the genres of sources being used than any previous study of modern Tibetan history. Of course, such an ambitious book is bound to have some shortcomings. The primary drawback to the book pertains to its potential readership. In short, the main argument of the book is often lost amidst certain historical details and lengthy translations. This is not the sort of book a general educated reader or an undergraduate student could read. Its ideal audience is perhaps a graduate seminar on Tibetan history or on Sino-Tibetan relations, in which readers have already been exposed to many of the major figures and events that shaped modern Inner Asian history.

The other major shortcoming of the book is that there are many tantalizing historical questions that Schwieger leaves unanswered. Perhaps the most burning question for this reviewer is “why the Gelukpa?” In other words, why did the Gelukpa and not another school of Tibetan Buddhism rise to be the most visible and influential school of Buddhism across Tibet and Mongolia? Schwieger alludes to an answer when he suggests that the Sakyapas and Karmapas had unfortunate ties to foes of the rising Manchu power (62) and were ultimately deemed “heterodox” (166). But surely the same logic should apply to the Gelukpa, who were also forming alliances with all sorts of Mongols, some of whom did not fall within the Manchu’s favor (to wit, the Ensa trülku) (47). Schwieger also questions the Qing’s revisionist history of the Gelukpa, wherein the Qing dynasty presents itself as the initial and most important patron for the school. Schwieger instead attributes the rise of the Gelukpa to Gushri Qan (171). This, however, begs the question of why the Qoshot ruler or any Mongols would have been partial to the Gelukpa to begin with. It seems that the question of the Gelukpa here continues to revolve around everyone but the Gelukpa themselves. They were merely opportunistic, being “willing to lean toward and ideologically support imperial rule” in exchange for generous grants of imperial patronage and new monasteries and temples (166). A more likely explanation, or at least an explanation that would supplement the nuanced political picture presented in this book, is that the prolific literary production of the Gelukpa—manifest in the form of legal decrees, myths, histories, ritual manuals, monastery charters, and just about every other genre of literature imaginable—reflects a highly motivated and conscious concern for such things as governance, social discipline, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy. This unremitting concern would have appealed to Mongol and Manchu patrons.

Future work should ask to what extent such a concern was in fact unique among this school of Tibetan Buddhism and to what extent it translated into different social institutions. Of course, such future work cannot proceed as it has in the past due to the lessons Schwieger has imparted in this book. He has demonstrated how any good history must entail a close and careful examination and comparison of the cacophony of voices—Tibetan, Mongol, Manchu, Chinese, and Western (especially missionary)—reflecting a diverse array of contingent political concerns. There are no easy answers to be found here, and the millions of documents still sitting in archives in Tibet and China, of which Schwieger has provided a most extensive treatment, will continue to make simple, one-dimensional answers to questions of Tibetan history impossible to maintain.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brenton Sullivan is assistant professor of religion at Colgate University. 

Date of Review: 
July 29, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Schwieger is professor of Tibetology and the head of the Department of Mongolian and Tibetan Studies at the University of Bonn, Germany. His current research focuses on the political and social history of Tibet based on archival material.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.