Forging the Golden Um

The Qing Empire an the Politics of Reincarnation in Tibet

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Max Oidtmann
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , July
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Prior to reviewing Forging the Golden Urn: The Qing Empire and the Politics of Reincarnation in Tibet, I had known little about the political history of Tibet—a vast cultural area that covers Ü-Tsang, Amdo, Kham, Jang, and Ngari—over the last three hundred years. To my delight, not only does Max Oidtmann do an excellent job providing a captivating account of a famed religious implement in an imperial context, he also opens a valuable window on how Tibet existed as part of an empire during that time. This archive-based book is a solid addition to the body of scholarship that deals with the Qing as a multi-ethnic Inner Asian empire (the “New Qing History” school). With his linguistic prowess and acumen as a historian, Oidtmann artfully explicates the historical agency of the Golden Urn lottery, which was institutionalized in 1792 by Emperor Qianlong in geographic areas dominated by Tibetan Buddhism, and which functioned as a means to divine the reincarnations of important lamas for the Geluk church. Relying on a bonanza of materials written in Manchu, Tibetan, and Chinese, Oidtmann successfully weaves a multi-faceted story strewn with nuanced analyses.

Oidtmann divides the book into an introduction, three “acts” (to use the author’s term), and a conclusion. Act 1 deals with the origin of the Golden Urn lottery, whose invention can be traced to the aftermath of the Second Sino-Nepalese War (1791–1792). In order to defeat the invading Gurkhali army, the Tibetan government chose to request military help from the Qing. During the process, Emperor Qianlong became more informed about what was happening in Tibet, and grew suspicious of the existing practice concerning the Tibetan way of picking future reincarnations (tulku)—a divinatory process that allowed political power, prestige, and wealth to be amassed by several noble families. In an attempt to arrive at a solution, Qianlong promulgated the Golden Urn lottery as an imperially-sponsored mechanism to solve the problem of who, among several candidates, should be the true reincarnation. Act 2 describes the initial deployment of the Golden Urn lottery in Tibet and Mongolia. In exchange for accepting the authority of the Golden Urn and the standardized tulku-selection procedure, the Lhasa-based Guluk church managed to extend its religious authority in Amdo and Mongolia. Act 3 revolves around the identification of the third Jamyang Zhepa ('Jam dbyangs bzhed pa). The ritual usage of the Golden Urn lottery was once again reaffirmed, upheld, and carried out (and even rigged!). Negotiated between Lhasa, Amdo, and the Qing government, the Golden Urn was now dressed in a Tibetan disguise through efforts of the Geluk establishment. In the conclusion, the author continues to discuss the implication and the afterlife of the Golden Urn.

In reviewing Oidtmann’s study, several counter-intuitive facts took me by surprise. First, the Golden Urn was used more frequently in the Qing than one would otherwise assume (see the appendix). Also, it was deemed a symbol of legitimization even by the Gelukpa establishment. In this respect, the book’s treatment of Tibetan hagiographies alerts us to the usefulness of a reading strategy which takes day-to-day politics into account. Second, despite Emperor Qianlong’s own intent and conceit, he was often forced to rely on incomplete information provided by his—often outmaneuvered—field officials in making his imperfect decisions. Third, the ritual invention did not close the door to rent-seeking and machinations; in fact, the opposite was the case. Lastly, the Qing, much in keeping with its nature as a premodern empire, had to incorporate divinatory and shamanistic techniques in order to, in many respects, compliment the unwieldy bureaucracy (hence the term “Shamanistic colonialism” coined by the author).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yi Ding is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Stanford University.

Date of Review: 
April 10, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Max Oidtmann is Assistant Professor of Asian History at Georgetown University Qatar.


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