China’s Tibetan Theme Park


The Kangxi Ceremony in Chengde

In the international press, China’s tensions with Tibet are often traced to the Chinese invasion of 1950 and Tibet’s failed uprising of 1959. But for the Chinese themselves, the story goes back much further—at least to the reign of Kangxi, the Qing Dynasty emperor, who ruled for sixty-one years (1661-1722) and, in the official Chinese view, incorporated many lands, including Tibet, into a glorious Chinese empire. One of the most important symbols of those events, moreover, lies not in Tibet but thousands of miles east in the city of Chengde, near Beijing. There, Kangxi built a hunting estate amid a cluster of lakes and jagged hills, and between 1767 and 1771, the emperor Qianlong, his grandson, built one of the more astonishing architectural monuments in China: a Tibetan Buddhist temple housed in a scrupulously detailed scale model of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the seat of Tibetan cultural and spiritual power. This Little Potala, as it’s called, was intended as an architectural expression of the great unity of China under his rule.

In recent years, the tourist authorities have used Chengde to create a sort of national monument to Kangxi, and, through him, to advance China’s contemporary position on Tibet. The site doesn’t seem to attract many foreign visitors, but it teems with Chinese, who arrive in convoys of cars and buses from all over the country, fill up the city’s hotels, and stream through the entry turnstiles at the major sites. I visited over a weekend in July, and there were so many people that the wait for an open-air bus to tour the outer reaches of the hunting estate was two hours. The bus tour offers several impressive vantage points, one of them of the city of Chengde itself, which, like most Chinese cities, bristles with construction cranes. Standing on the estate’s stone boundary wall, you can see across the valley to the massive, oxblood rhomboid that is the main feature of Chengde’s Little Potala.

Little Potala.jpg

Little Potala in Chengde

One of the great rulers of China’s long imperial history, Kangxi consolidated the Manchus’ rule over China proper and, using a combination of clever diplomacy, conquest, and divide and rule tactics, extended the country’s borders to what the Qing called “the outer lands” – a process of unification and expansion that reached its apogee under Qianlong. Kangxi’s achievement is celebrated in Chengde in an ultra-high-tech theatrical extravaganza called the Kangxi Ceremony that plays nightly in a vast open-air amphitheater about ten miles outside the city. The show begins with several dozen uniformed horsemen galloping across the turf in front of the audience and taking up positions in the suddenly illuminated hills that surround a large circular stage. Amplified drums and a throaty male chorus fill up the night air as an actor playing Kangxi, dressed in lustrous robes of yellow brocade, gallops onto the scene, his horse rearing, cheered on by dozens of surrounding horsemen.

In one scene, accompanied by a revolving, luminous model of the solar system, Kangxi learns astronomy from a Jesuit priest. 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 a senior religious figure being carried in a canopied sedan chair, arrives to demonstrate their fealty to the Chinese emperor. Many in the audience assumed it to be the Dalai Lama. Did these events actually take place?

The astronomy episode reflects the historical presence of the Jesuits at the court in Beijing at the time. But 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. (The only recorded visits of a Dalai Lama to imperial China are by the fifth, in 1652-1653, and the thirteenth, in the early twentieth century.) 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.


Even if such an episode did not occur under Kangxi, 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.”

Little Potala tourists.jpg

Geert Vanneste

Tourists at the Little Potala Palace in Chengde

Clearly, China’s authorities want to extend the same sentiment to modern times—or, as China’s vice-president Xi Jinping said in July in Lhasa, marking the 60th anniversary of the [“peaceful liberation”] ( of Tibet by Mao Zedong, “the past 60 years have pointed to an irrefutable truth, that without the Communist Party of China there would have been no new China, and no new Tibet.” Another of the major tourist attractions of Chengde is the Puning Temple, also built during the Qianlong reign and like the Little Potala, modeled on a Tibetan original: the Samye Gompa, the oldest Tibetan Buddhist monastery, built in southeast Tibet in the 8th century, where, according to our Chinese guide, eighty-six Tibetan monks now live, though they seem to have no contact with the visitors.

Both the Puning Temple and the Little Potala were crowded with thousands and thousands of Chinese tourists, led by Chinese guides with loudspeakers, turning large bronze Tibetan prayer wheels, burning incense sticks sold to them by Chinese men and women wearing period costumes, and receiving instruction from Chinese temple staff in the proper prayer gestures to make before the Buddha images by Chinese functionaries. The tone is respectful, conveying the sense that the Tibetan culture, part of the great Chinese multi-ethnic family, is deeply respected in China and has always been deeply respected.

There is nothing heavy-handed in these messages—none of the ritual denunciations of the Dalai Lama as a “jackal” and a “splittist” that regularly appear in the Chinese press, no overt praise of China for having liberated Tibet from serfdom and slavery—and, of course, no mention of the bloody suppression of the 1959 rebellion in Tibet, one result of which was the flight of the present Dalai Lama to India. Yet the Chengde sights are a bit like exhibits in a Tibetan theme park devoid of actual Tibetans. In one room in the sprawling Puning Temple, several photographs of a handsome young man in safran robes were on display. This is Gyaltsen Norbu, now twenty-two years old, who was selected in 1995 by the Chinese Communist Party to be the authentic reincarnation of the Panchen lama, after the Chinese police took into “protective custody” the boy whose selection was approved by the Dalai Lama.

In the end, the underlying assumptions of the Chengde presentation are unmistakable: that Tibet has been governed by China since at least the time of the Kangxi emperor, that this had the ready consent of Tibet’s highest spiritual authorities at the time, and that the current Chinese government honors Tibet’s religious traditions—that reminder in the photographs of the “Chinese” Panchen Lama of the Communist Party’s intrusion into Tibet’s religious traditions notwithstanding.

The real story of Chinese-Tibetan relations would of course be vastly more interesting than Beijing’s version, but the narrative implied by the Kanxi Ceremony seems widely accepted by Chinese who in many other respects are skeptical of official Chinese history. In August in Beijing, I had a talk on this subject with a small group of journalists and academics of the sort who chafe under censorship restrictions and who are fully aware that on sensitive subjects the truth is what is dictated by the Communist Party. But they seem to feel that Chinese rule, especially in the past couple of decades, has greatly benefitted Tibetans, who show an annoying lack of appreciation.

When I brought up the case of the Panchen Lama to illustrate the harshness of Chinese control, the response generally was that, yes, that was a bit heavy-handed, but the government supervises the appointment of all senior religious figures in China, including, of course, Catholic bishops, and therefore the Panchen Lama incident was not discriminatory against Tibetans. As for the Dalai Lama, the general position during my conversation was that he is a socially retrograde figure who would restore the feudal system that Chinese rule has ended, such as requiring that 30 percent of all income go to the Buddhist establishment and that lamas have to provide permission for people to marry.

Such assumptions, which are contradicted by widely available facts, may seem all the more surprising since it is very easy to find a meeting of minds with Chinese journalists and academics on other subjects, including the notion that the ruling party has become a conspicuously corrupt oligarchy and is increasingly unpopular. But on Tibet, the version of truth that prevails is the version to be found in Chengde.


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