Tuesday, January 13, 2004

January 5, 2004 – I have visited the Palace Museum, or as it is more familiarly known, the Forbidden City, several times, but I want to pay one more visit and see if I can discover anything connected with Zanabazar (1635–1723), the Mongolian Buddhist leader, artist, and polymath who lived in Beijing from about 1689 to 1701 as the guest, perhaps an involuntary one, of the famous Qing Emperor Kangxi. Zanabazar was the first of the eight Bogd Gegens who held a position in Mongolia similar to that of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet. It was Zanabazar who in 1691 had brokered a deal whereby he acknowledged the suzerainty of China in exchange for Kangxi’s help in defeating his arch-rival, the Western Mongol warlord Galdan Bolshigt, who had invaded the domains of the Bogd Gegen and forced him to flee to what is now Inner Mongolia. For the next two centuries Mongolia (the country, not to be confused with Inner Mongolia, still part of China) became a de facto province of China, and could have suffered the same fate as Tibet had not its revolutionary leaders in the 1920s sided with Bolsheviks and thus placed Mongolia firmly in the Russian Soviet orbit. During the Cold War years and the eventual rift between Red China and the Soviet Union the latter guaranteed Mongolia’s nominal independence, while maintaining an overriding military, political, and economic presence in the country. The communists had castigated Zanabazar as a tool of antiquated and no longer acceptable feudalism and the figurehead of Buddhism, one of the traditional opiates of the people which the they were determined to stamp out. His reputation has been somewhat refurbished since the fall of the communist government in Mongolia in the early 90s, but many ordinary Mongolians still view him as the man who sold out Mongolia to the despised Chinese, a grudge which runs much deeper than mere ideology.

Still, this preternaturally talented man is one of my fixations, and I have been on the trail of his life story for several years now (See “In Search of Zanabazar” in my book Travels in Northern Mongolia). I had read several books about both Kangxi and the history of the Forbidden City but I never been able to find any mention of Zanabazar. Still, I am curious to see first hand if any traces of his presence or that of other Mongolians remain.

A few months earlier, in October, I had attempted to visit the Forbidden Palace, but it was a Sunday and already at 9:30 in the morning hundreds had lined up to buy tickets and thousands more milled around in the huge courtyard between the main entrance out front, just to the north of Tiananmen Square, and the Meridian Gate, the entrance to the museum proper. The Forbidden City is a must-see stop for Chinese visiting the capital, and from the way they intently frown over tourist maps of the city it seems that many are as lost as most foreign tourists. On this hazy Monday morning in mid-winter there are still over a thousand people congregated in front of the Meridian Gate but at the moment there is no one in line to buy tickers.

Just inside, in the expansive courtyard between the Meridian Gate and the Taihe Gate, are several Chinese tour groups of middle-aged man in baseball caps emblazoned with their company logo, led by those chirpy, animated young women who always seem to end up as tour guides in China. Many of men appear to be ogling their guides instead of admiring the impressively carved stone balustrades lining the Inner Golden Water River, which runs easterly through the courtyard, although at this time of the year the stream is frozen.


Stone balustrades which the men should be been admiring instead of ogling their guides


Past the Taihe Gate is the Hall of Great Harmony, also known as the Hall of the Imperial Throne. One hundred twenty-one feet high, with fifty-five rooms, it is the largest wooden palace in China. First constructed in 1420, it was enlarged and remodeled during the reign of Kangxi. It was here that Kangxi greeted dignitaries and held ceremonies to mark the Lunar New Year, the Winter Solstice, birthdays of notables, and other important events.

Zanabazar had his first meeting with Kangxi at Dolonor, or Seven Lakes, north of Beijing, in what is now the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, in 1691. Here he acknowledged the suzerainty of the Qing Dynasty, and in return Kangxi recognized him as the highest religious authority in Mongolia and also as the highest ranking of all Mongolian dignitaries, including the princes and khans. According to the Rosary of White Lotuses: Being a Clear Account of How the Precious Teachings of Buddha Appeared and Spread in the Great Hor Country, a nineteenth century history of the introduction into Mongolian written in Tibetan by the monk Dharmatala, “In the winter of that year [Zanabazar] was summoned by the Emperor to come to the great palace [in Beijing]. The welcome extended to him on that occasion was based on the ceremony of welcoming the Dalai Lama. After the welcoming ceremonies many high-level talks were held in the palace, so as to avoid any disturbances from outside.”

The Fifth Dalai Lama had been invited to visit Beijing by Shun-shih (r.1644–62], Kangxi’s father. Shun-shih, the first of the Qing, or Manchu, emperors, was a strong supporter of the Tibetan style of Buddhism exemplified by the Dalai Lama and Zanabazar (once known as Lamaism, although this term as now fallen into disfavor), although he also showed a keen interest in the Ch’an school of Buddhism practiced in China, often inviting Ch’an monks to the palace to lecture on their doctrines. At least part of Shun-shih’s interest in Tibetan Buddhism was motivated by supra-religious factors. Kenneth Ch’en opines in his History of Buddhism in China that the Chinese rulers “undoubted patronized Lamaism [Ch’en, writing in 1964, still employed this now frowned upon term] out of a primary political motive—to use the high priests of the Tibetan religion to help them maintain control of the Tibetans and Mongols. By gaining the support of these high lamas, who wielded tremendous power over their followers, the Chinese emperors hoped that they could effectively govern those border regions without the need of any costly occupying military force or civil administration”.


A non-Chinese people, the Manchus were originally “barbarians” who lived outside the Great Wall in what are now the northern Chinese provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang. As Ch’en points out, “Even before the Manchus penetrated the Great Wall to become the masters of China proper, it is likely that they already had become acquainted with Lamaism through the Mongol tribes. Like the Mongols before them, they favored this brand of Buddhism, which they felt was closer to the Shamanism they believed.” As Ch’en and other scholars also note, the name “Manchu” by which these people are known may not refer to Manchuria, as the northern region they originated from is known, but from the name of the Bodhisattva Manjushri. “A theory widely held by Japanese scholars contended that through this early contact [with Tibetan Buddhism] the name of the bodhisattva Manjusri [sic] was introduced to the Manchus, who were called Ju-chen at the time, and from the name of this bodhisattva the tribe derived the name Man-chou, Manchu.” Indeed, Nurbachi, the founder of what became the Manchu Dynasty (he died in 1626; the dynasty was not actually established until 1644), as well as several subsequent Manchu emperors were believed to be incarnations or emanations of Manjushri. The Rosary of White Lotuses also comments, albeit obliquely, on this: “Fulfilling the prophecies, these great sovereigns [the Manchu, or Qing emperors] took the precepts of the Law like the flowery crowns on their heads. In particular, with the help of Holy Manjusri who took shape after the human pattern [i.e., the Manchu emperors], the Teaching, its holders and all the followers of the Second Buddha [Tsongkhapa, founder the Geluk sect] were taken care of, paid respects to, and the Precious Teaching spread and increased ever farther and farther.”

The prophecy mentioned here may refer to the Third Dalai’s prediction, made in the 1580s, that a descendant of the Mongol chieftain Altan Khan, who had given the Dalai Lama his title, would someday rule all of China. The Tibetans considered the Manchus and Mongols as more-or-less the same people ethnically speaking (modern scholars might debate this point, however), and Shun-shih, the first Manchu emperor, was in fact distantly related to Altan by marriage.

In any case, six years after he became emperor, in 1650, Shun-shih sent a delegation to Lhasa requesting that the Fifth Dalai Lama come to Beijing and pay his respects to the new Manchu regime. The “Great Fifth,” as he was known, hesitated. At the time travel was hazardous because of small pox raging in China and the borderlands of Tibet and many Tibetans had died of it. There were also religio-political considerations. As Glenn Mullin in his recent history of the Dalai Lamas relates, “By going to Beijing the Dalai Lama would be formally acknowledging the new rulers of China, to the chagrin of the many Ming [the previous dynasty] Chinese friends that Tibet had cultivated over the past century. On the other hand, not to go could be perceived as an insult to and personal assault on the new rulers of China, thus inviting bad relations on the eastern borders of his country.”

As important lamas frequently did when faced with a quandary, the Great Fifth retired to Chokorgyal Monastery, which was just a short distance from Lhamo Lhatso, the famous Oracle Lake on whose waters those with suitable karma were granted visions which helped them determine what course of action to take in this life.


By coincidence I had been to Chokorgyal Monastery and Lhamo Lhatso just a couple of weeks before, on December 22. I had hired a vehicle and driven from the city of Tsetang to the county seat of Gyatsa, on the banks of Tsango (upper Brahmaputra) River, ninety-five miles east of Lhasa as he crow flies. Even a few years ago a trip to Lhamo Lhatso was a daunting affair. Between Tsetang and Gyatsa the poorly maintained road crossed 16,144 Potang Pass, and from Gyatsa an even worse dirt road continued to Chokorgyal Monastery. From the monastery, according to the guidebook I had, it was a extremely strenuous 12 hour round-trip to the lake and back by horseback. My translator had heard tales of people who had tried to walk in one day from Chokorgyal but failed. We were visiting in wintertime, when almost no foreigners come to this area, and according to my translator, a woman in her thirties named Jampa, the primitive guest house at Chokorgyal Monastery might not be open. It would be impossible to drive from Gyatsa to Chokorgyal Monastery, walk to the lake, and then return to Gyatsa all in one day, she maintained. Our driver, however, had heard that the road to Chokorgyal Monastery had been improved and that just that summer a new extension had been built beyond the monastery, but he was not sure how far it went toward the lake.

A huge farmers’ market was in progress when we arrived in Gyatsa and the streets of the small county seat were jammed with thousands of people. We had no sooner stepped onto the main street of town than we were surrounded by six Chinese policeman who very brusquely demanded to see our papers. Gyatsa is in a restricted area closed to foreigners without special permission from Lhasa. Instantly a mob several hundred of Tibetans encircled us, pushing, shoving, and craning their necks to get a better look at the foreigners and see how the police were going to handle them. The altitude of the police changed completely when they discovered that we did in fact have the coveted permits from Lhasa. They informed our translator that the guesthouse at Chokorgyal Monastery was closed for the winter, but that it was not necessary to stay there anyhow. The new road to Lhamo Lhatso was complete and we could easily drive there, climb to the ridge overlooking the lake where lamas traditionally seek visions, and return to Gyatsa the same day. After giving our driver detailed instructions on how to reach Chokorgyal Monastery the policeman saluted smartly and marched off. The crowd, which apparently had been anticipating the spectacle of us being led off in handcuffs, slowly dispersed.

The next morning we drove from the relatively balmy Gyatsa at 10,703 feet, famous for its walnuts, apples, and apricots, 22.2 miles as the crow flies to Chokorgyal Monastery at 15,117 feet. The actual route took over two hours. Here the stream running through valley was frozen over and banks of snow stood in the shadows, although the steep slopes above, where herds of yaks grazed, were snow-free.

Chökorgyal Monastery had been founded in 1509 by the Second Dalai Lama Gendun Gyatso. It was he who divined that the lake Lhamo Lhatso contained the spirit of Pelden Lhamo, the Protectress of Tibet (hence the name Lhamo (goddess) La (spirit) Tso (lake). The monastery soon became an important retreat center and way-station for those on their way to the lake. It was almost completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, although extensive ruins including many standing walls remain to this day. We stopped briefly and visited the one rebuilt temple, a simple affair which also served as a storage area for lumber and big bags of tsampa (the barley flour which is a Tibetan staple). The guest house, which appeared to be constructed from the ruins of a temple, was closed, the monks explaining that almost no visitors come here in winter.

We hurried on, anxious to see how much of a walk we had in front of us. The new road switch-backed up one side of the valley and then veered left up another side-valley, rapidly gaining elevation. Startled yaks using the road to access higher-up pastures leaped out of the way as we approached. In few shaded corners there was a couple of inches of snow on the road but otherwise it was bare. Just in front of a boulder-strewn ridge the road ended at 17,147 feet. The top the ridge, the traditional viewing point for the lake, looked just a few hundred feet higher, and a stone staircase had even been built part of the way up. A trail led to the rest of the way the top of the ridge at 17,399 feet. In the distance, about two or three miles away (it was very hard to estimate distances in the pellucid air at this height) was the lake, much smaller than I had expected. Two fingers held at arm’s length covered it completely. The other side of the ridge drops off in sheer cliffs, making the lake itself inaccessible.

It was here that lamas stared at the surface of the lake in hopes of visions. Over the centuries many have come seeking the answers to their questions, including the Tibetan Regent Reting Rinpoche who in 1935 determined here the whereabouts of the boy who is now the fourteen and current Dalai Lama. All visitors are advised to at least try to see something on the surface of the water, but now however the lake is frozen over, so there will no visions granted today. Also, at this time of the year—Winter Solstice was just the day before, the lake is apparently in deep shade all day, making the view less impressive than it might have been had the it been sun-lit.

My translator is strangely quiet. She finally relates that she not happy to see a road built to the foot of the ridge overlooking the lake. In the summer she works as a guide for big tour groups from Europe and American and she knows that now that the lake is accessible by bus it will become a standard stop on the tourist circuit. “This was one of the most sacred places in Tibet,” she noted. “Before just getting here was a real pilgrimage. Now it’s too easy. There will be no merit in coming here. It’s just not the same.”


It was here that the Fifth Dalai Lama came to meditate on the question of traveling to Beijing to meet the Qing Emperor Shun-shih. “In accordance with tradition,” Glenn Mullin tells us, “many images and signs soon began to appear within the sacred waters. He watched these in silence and for long periods, contemplating their significance. In the end he decided that the signs indicated that he should go.”

The Great Fifth arrived in the outskirt of Beijing on the 16th day of the 12th month according to the Tibetan calendar, in January or February of 1653 according to the Gregorian calendar. Emperor Shun-shih himself rode out of the capital to greet him. The Rosary of White Lotuses relates:

“Reaching the place where the royal encampment could be seen, everyone stepped down from their horses. The Venerable One [the Great Fifth] dismounted his own horse, too, and walked the distance of about four arrow flights. As he walked, the great and mighty emperor stepped down from his throne, walked the distance of ten times the length of open arms and took the Venerable One’s hand in his own hand, while the interpreter standing by inquired about the Dalai Lama’s health. The king invited him to sit down on a specially prepared throne which was only a little lower than his own, offered him tea and paid his respects. They had many happy talks with each other.“

On the 11th day of the New Year Shun-shih invited the Dalai Lama to the Forbidden City. “The sun and moon—Preceptor and Protector—,” the Rosary of White Lotuses notes, “sat together on the same high throne, shared the golden tea and gourmet food, and held friendly and fruitful talks.”

From the Buddhist viewpoint this was not just a meeting between two ordinary mortals. As Mullin observes,

“ . . . Tibet held a special connection with Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, whereas Manchu China held a special connection with Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. These two bodhisattvas ranked high as Buddhist archangels transcending time and space, and as principal recipients of the inner teachings of the Buddha. The Dalai Lama was regarded as an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, whereas several mystics had indicated that the Manchu emperor Shun-chih was an incarnation of Manjushri. The world could only benefit from their meeting.”

Although we can’t say for sure, this meeting may have taken place here in the Hall of Great Harmony, now besieged by numerous tour groups, and it may also be here that Kangxi officially welcomed Zanabazar for first time, since the hall was traditionally used as a place where officials and dignitaries were greeted by the emperor. Or perhaps Kangxi greeted Zanabazar in the Middle Harmony Hall just behind, where officials also met with the emperor and he himself made offerings on the Altar of Earth and the Altar of Land and Grain.

Wherever the meeting took place, the relationship between Kangxi and Zanabazar blossomed. The Dalai Lama had soon returned to Tibet from China, but it now appeared that Kangxi intended to keep Zanabazar at close range for an indeterminate amount of time. It is not quite clear from the record whether Zanabazar stayed in Beijing of his own free will or whether he was in effect a hostage, albeit an extremely well treated one, guarantying the conduct of the unruly Mongol tribes (this is a point I want to investigate more). Whatever the case, Zanabazar soon became an intimate of the emperor, who plied him with numerous gifts, including a sable coat embroidered with pearls and a tea pot of solid gold. Zanabazar’s reputation was further enhanced when In 1693 Zanabazar was credited with the successful treatment of a life threatening ailment suffered by Kangxi. Kangxi invited him along to the imperial hunting grounds north of Beijing, near the present-day town of Chengde, and Zanabazar also accompanied Kangxi to Wu Tai Shan in Shaanxi Province, one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China. Wu Tai Shan is connected with Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and thus of special important to the Qing emperors, some of whom were considered incarnations of this bodhisattva. In part because of Zanabazar’s visits to Wu Tai Shan, the mountain later became one of the most hallowed pilgrimage sites for Mongolian Buddhists.

Just behind the Middle Harmony Hall is the Preserving Harmony Hall, where on the Lunar New Year‘s Eve Kangxi traditionally held a banquet for the nobles and other dignitaries of the various minority peoples living within the boundaries of his empire According to The Rosary of White Lotuses Zanabazar usually celebrated the New Year with Kangxi, and it’s quite possible the Bogd Gegen attended these affairs here in this building. Such was Kangxi’s regard for Zanabazar that he eventually gave one of his own daughters in matrimony to Zanabazar ’s nephew Dondub.


The Supreme Harmony, Middle Harmony, and Preserving Harmony halls constitute the largest of the compounds within the Forbidden City. Behind this suite of buildings is a paved courtyard across which is the Quiangqing Gate, the entrance to another suite of buildings. I am just about to enter the gate when off to my right I see a Starbucks sign on a low, one-story building just in front of the compound wall. At first I thought the sign was some kind of joke, but upon inspection it proved to be an actually Starbucks outlet, although quite small, with only three tables and no counters for standees, tucked away in the corner of a gift shop. For the sheer novelty factor I could not resist having a latte grandé on the grounds of the Forbidden City.



Behind the Qiangqing Gate are the Heavenly Purity Palace, the Union Hall, and the Earthly Tranquility Hall where Kangxi lived with his wife and concubines and performed his day-to-day business. In front of the Earthy Tranquility Hall, where Kangxi had been married and which contained the Emperor’s Nuptial Chamber, is a sign which says that four of the rooms in the complex were once used “for offering sacrifices to the gods of Manchu lamaism.” As Zanabazar was the chief proponent of this type of Buddhism in Beijing during his time there it seems quite likely that he would have frequented these rooms. Perhaps he even had access to access to Kangxi’s private apartments, for soon the emperor came to rely on Zanabazar for council and advice, opining, “I have never seen a lama more exceptional than this Jetsun Dampa Rinpoche [Zanabazar]. He personifies the highest qualities of the men of Halha [Mongolia].”

Off to the left is a series of small compounds where the wife and concubines of the Qing emperors had their private quarters. Zanabazar even entered these sacred precincts. Kangxi senior wife Huang-t’ai-hou saw Zanabazar from the window of her apartment and reported to her husband, “Your hutukhtu [Zanabazar’s title, meaning, “reincarnation”] is as beautiful as a bright moon on a night of a full moon; can’t I invite him to my half [of the palace] and hear the sacred teaching from him?” A meeting with the Empress in the presence of her women-in-waiting and maids was arranged, after his talk Zanabazar was presented with a mantle embroidered with pearls and various other gifts.


Quarters of the Qing wives and concubines. Cixi may have slinked around this very building.


The quarters of the Qing wives and concubines are one of the big attractions in the Forbidden City and today most of the foreign tour groups seem to have congregated here. They are not searching for traces of Zanabazar, however. One large group is peering through windows into the bedchamber of the Empress Dowager Cixi, the controversial figure who in popular imagination hovered over the declining Qing Dynasty of the late nineteenth century like a huge and malevolent black spider, although some historians have recently cast her in a kinder light. Perhaps this is the very bedchamber where, if we are to believe the more salacious accounts of her life, the Empress Dowager indulged in a shocking array of recherché sexual practices. Perhaps the ripest of these tales was penned by the notorious Edmund Backhouse, an English scholar of Chinese who lived most of his life in Beijing and who achieved a dubious reputation as a pornographer, fantasist, and “the most remarkable scoundrel ever known in the Far East.” Although a homosexual, Backhouse claimed to have had an intimate affair with Cixi. During one alleged tryst the Dowager Empress, according to Backhouse’s overheated account, fingered his anus and then observed, “It’s seen some use, I’ ll abide.” This may have been the only true statement in the book.


Zanabazar’s first stay in Beijing last until 1699, when he returned to Mongolia to preside over the death of this brother. By then Galdan Bolshigt had been defeated by Kangxi’s armies and the Khalkh Mongols were back in power. Zanabazar was arguably now the most influential man in Mongolia. Over the next two decades he divided his time between China and Mongolia. While in Mongolia he launched a ambitious campaign of restoring and refurbishing monasteries and temples that had been damaged in the civil war with Galdan Boshigt, building new temples based on his own designs, and introducing new religious ceremonies and modes of dress for monks.

Zanabazar returned to Beijing for the last time in 1722. On the fourteenth day of the first lunar month of 1723 he passed away at the Shar Süm monastery in Beijing. “They relate that, on the day of his death, there was a five-colored rainbow stretching above his palace in Urga [Ulaan Baatar], and on the hutukhtu’s throne a clear light shone for a long time . . .” notes one traditional Mongolian account.

The exact circumstances of Zanabazar’s death remain unclear, but there is a persistent belief among Mongolians to this day that he was murdered by agents of Yung Cheng, who had became the Qing emperor upon the death of his father Kangxi in 1722. Allegedly, Yung Cheng was jealous of Zanabazar’s close relationship with his father, and wanted him eliminated. But that’s another story.