#AsiaNow Speaks with Max Oidtmann

Max Oidtmann is Associate Professor of Asian History at Georgetown University Qatar and author of Forging the Golden Urn: The Qing Empire and the Politics of Reincarnation in Tibet, published by Columbia University Press and winner of the 2020 AAS E. Gene Smith Inner Asia Book Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

In 1791, the Gurkhas of Nepal launched an embarrassingly successful invasion of Tibet. As the disaster unfolded and Qing forces embarked on a punitive expedition over the Himalayas, the Qianlong emperor traced the roots of the crisis to the corruption of the oracles of central Tibet and the resultant emergence of fraudulent reincarnations among the governing monks of the Geluk school. The court’s solution to this perceived problem was a package of legal reforms centered on the Golden Urn lottery—a new, imperially-supervised divination technology for identifying rebirths of prominent lamas. The emperor hoped that by taking control of the arts of divination, his ministers would now exercise real decision-making power in Tibet and faith in the ruling class of reincarnate lamas could be restored. My book examines the origins of these ideas, the Qing court’s attempt to implement them, and the roles that indigenous Tibetans played in this process. I argue that it was Tibetan elites themselves who transformed a procedure with origins in the Ming bureaucracy into a Buddhist ritual that could identify “authentic” reincarnations. This story reveals much about the ability of the Qing state to create legal and religious culture and legitimate its rule in Inner Asia.      

What inspired you to research this topic?

The Golden Urn has become symbol of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and, unsurprisingly, very controversial. The PRC revived the ritual in 1995 as a way of ensuring that the CCP would have the final say over which children could be identified as reincarnate lamas such as the Dalai Lama. I didn’t come at the project, though, out of any interest in wading into the polemical debates about the status of Tibet. Like most historians, the project began when I came across something unexpected in the archives. While working on another project, I found many reports of Qing officials using the Golden Urn in the late nineteenth century, a hundred years after it had been created. The received wisdom was that the Tibetans ignored the law and that Golden Urn lottery was only used a handful of times. I wondered why the ritual might have “worked” for Tibetans in the 1800s. I also realized pretty quickly after poking around that no scholars had investigated the contemporaneous rationale for the invention of the procedure. Why did people think a lottery was a good way to identify reincarnations? I found that when we step away from the contemporary language that surrounds Sino-Tibetan relations, there are a lot of events and historical processes that require new explanations.    

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

Time and access to historical sources were major obstacles. I would have loved to have been able to work with the archives of the former government of Tibet in Lhasa, but this was (and remains) impossible. Access to Qing official sources, especially Manchu language sources, however, was actually not so difficult. What was difficult is that even when you have access to “original” government documents they still almost always feel one or two steps removed from the deliberative process—one or two steps removed from the direct expression of people’s opinions. Qing historians rarely find the journals, private letters, memoirs, or cynical diatribes that historians of Europe can find when they look for dirt on officials, rulers, or social elites. These genres either didn’t exist or Qing officials were too discreet to leave them behind. Yet with this project I was surprised to find here and there small tidbits—drafts of documents with heavy editing, for instance—that did seem to give some insight into the private discussions that Qing officials and even some Tibetan elites had about imperial administration in Tibet. More importantly, when I read the Tibetan record against the Manchu-language record, all of a sudden important lacunae and other telling-details suddenly emerged. 

What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

Early on I found a document I had never expected to find: a top-secret report in which the Qing officials discussed how they had “rigged” the outcome of the lottery so that a candidate favored by the emperor but not the local Tibetans was identified as an important reincarnate lama. All of a sudden, I realized that the subsequent Tibetan-language biographies of this lama—which praised the child as the real deal and make no mention of any serious competition from other candidates—were clearly works of purposeful fiction. At the very least these biographies were acts of strategic obliteration, trying to wash away memories of what had been a very controversial identification. This discovery really made me rethink the role of Tibetan historians during the Qing. In this instance, rather than finding evidence of hostility between Tibetans and the “emperor of China,” I found a strategic alliance and also the grounds for an argument that undermines many common assumptions about Qing-Tibetan relations.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

The strongest influence was without a doubt Philip Kuhn’s Soulstealers. Obviously, I was working with many of the same characters as Kuhn was, but I also couldn’t avoid observing that many of the same tensions and passions that drove to court into a frenzy over fears of sorcerers clipping queues in China proper also animated their concerns with regulating divination, oracles, and shamans in Tibet. I was lucky to have Kuhn as my “Qing Docs” instructor during my first year of graduate school. His intuitive understanding of the foibles and feelings of Qing bureaucrats was inspiring. My book project also benefitted from a wave of scholarship that is revisiting early modern Tibet and Qing Inner Asia. Peter Schwieger’s The Dalai Lama and the Emperor of China (2015) helped set the scene for my microhistory. Two other recent collections of essays—Sacred Mandates (2018) and Faith and Empire (2019), are also key new works that provide fresh takes on the China-Eurasia interface. And readers should keep their eye out for forthcoming books by Brenton Sullivan, Stacey Van Vleet, and Benno Weiner.  

What are you working on now?

I’m currently finishing a book manuscript titled When Tibetans Came to Court. This book follows the history of what happened when Tibetans (and some Mongols and Hui as well!) started taking their problems to Qing authorities and began filing lawsuits in Qing courts. This book expands on some of the themes introduced in Forging the Golden Urn, such as the importance of relationships between Qing officials and Tibetans, but takes a more bottom-up, local history approach. Unlike Forging the Golden Urn, which is primarily based on the records of the emperor, high-ranking officials, and prelates of the Geluk school, this book has benefitted from access to documents from a small Qing colonial outpost in the Sino-Tibetan borderlands in present-day Qinghai province. These documents were primarily written by men and women from much more ordinary backgrounds and reveal nearly two centuries of gritty violence and peacemaking in a multi-cultural landscape. This litigation resulted in the creation of a state-sanctioned corpus of laws known as the “Tibetan Code” and the centralization of a pluralistic legal landscape under the supervision of the Qing state; it re-shaped the political-economy of monasteries and the pious activities of Buddhist laypeople; and it forced the reluctant participation of Qing officials in the temporal and spiritual affairs of Tibetan households, establishing patterns of relations between Tibetans and the Chinese state that have endured into the twenty-first century.