Tibetan Buddhists in the Making of Modern China by Gray Tuttle
|Reviewed By:||Andrew Fischer|
|Reviewed in:||Nations and Nationalism|
|Date accepted online:||02/11/2007|
|Published in print:||Volume 13, Issue 2, Pages 341-367|
Gray Tuttle has made an impressive and original foray into this contested grey area of Sino - Tibetan relations in the first half of the twentieth century. His objects of study are the attempts by both Tibetan and ethnic Chinese elites to use Tibetan Buddhism as a means to advance elite interests or, more importantly, to innovate ideologies that legitimated, in modern nationalist terms, the integration of Tibet into the emerging post-imperial Chinese nation-state. In this regard, his book deals only marginally with the evolution of Tibetan Buddhism within modern Tibet itself. Rather, he directs his attention mainly towards two marginalised groups that were acting as intermediaries in China Proper - Chinese Buddhists at odds with a secular Chinese state and exiled Tibetan Buddhist leaders at odds with the centralising religious Tibetan nation-state (such as the Ninth Panchen Lama). He notes that up until the last years of the Qing dynasty, most relations with Tibet (referring to Central Tibet), were controlled by either Manchu or Mongolian officials. Thus, particularly from the British invasion of Lhasa from 1904 onwards, the twentieth century effectively marked the first time in recent history that (Central) Tibetans had to deal directly with ethnic Chinese elites and their emerging nationalist project. In this context, the intermediaries provided important links between Chinese and Tibetan political elites. His central thesis is that 'Buddhism was the key factor in maintaining a tenuous link between China and Tibet during the Republican period (1912-1949), a link the Communists could exploit when exerting control over Tibet by force in the 1950s. For this reason I argue that Buddhist religious culture played an essential role in the formation of the modern Chinese nation-state' (p. 228).
Tuttle advances these arguments with an impressive degree of original historical analysis on this period from both Chinese and Tibetan sources, the combination of which, he notes, is usually lacking on the scholarship of this period and region. In particular, he traces three main attempts by Republican China to innovate ideological bases for encouraging Tibetans to integrate within the new Chinese nation-state. The first approach followed the discourse of harmony between the 'five races', which was clearly seen to ring hollow. With the rise of the Nationalist Party to national dominance in 1927, the Chinese government started to advocate a second strategy based on Sun Yat-sen's ideas of nationalist liberation, which again rang hollow given that the Nationalists failed to support the Tibetans who applied Sun's nationalist tactics to their own nascent autonomy movements, such as in Eastern Tibet (Kham) in the early 1930s. The failure of these two strategies led the Nationalists to actively attempt to use Buddhism as rhetoric to legitimate the incorporation of Tibet into the modern Chinese nation-state.
His theoretical arguments effectively draw much from the work of Benedict Anderson, extending the notion of imagined communities to the notion of an imagined religious community. In other words, in order for the presence of the Buddhist religious community to be able to bridge the gap between the imperial Qing dynasty and the modern Chinese nation-state (in terms of providing an ideological basis for maintaining the imperial boundaries), Buddhism had first to become conceived of as a world religion. Tuttle traces this transformation to the influence of the Chicago Parliament of World Religions in 1893, which 'made possible the inclusion of Tibetan Buddhist teachers and practices within a formerly hostile Chinese Buddhist context' (p. 72).
Without taking away from the excellent historical scholarship, I was left unconvinced on several of these theoretical points - namely, that Buddhism was essential to the creation of the Chinese nation-state and that this required the modern and novel construct of Buddhism as world religion. On the first point, large parts of the historical presentation focus on biographical details or particular events, with much emphasis given to discursive analyses of official rhetoric. In this regard, we are given no idea as to the larger significance or weight of these biographies or events in terms of their substantive influence on the politics underlying the processes of Chinese nation-state formation. While the sums of money or numbers of people involved in the various events cited, such as the Kalachakra rituals conducted by the Panchen Lama in 1931 or 1934, were large from an individual perspective, they would have been small from a wider social perspective. The possibility still remains that much of the analysis deals with the discursive analysis of public rhetoric that may have in fact had little relevance or bearing to the actual evolving political economy surrounding the 'Tibet Question' in China. I do not suggest that this was the case, but that the argument has not been evidenced sufficiently to substantiate the theoretical claims on the processes of nation-state formation at a wider society or state level.
On the construction of Buddhism as a world religion, here I was left with the impression that the author was mostly representing a Sino-centric vision of Buddhism. Indeed, the derogatory views of Tibetan Buddhism by Chinese Buddhists, as Tuttle describes in Chapter 3, need not necessarily imply that either Tibetan or Chinese Buddhists thereby did not conceive of themselves as part of a larger Buddhist family. Instead, such views are typical of the doctrinal disputes within the various Buddhist orders, whereby less esoteric traditions reject the more esoteric traditions as degenerations or frauds. However, classical Tibetan Buddhist commentaries from well before the nineteenth or twentieth centuries clearly conceptualise the Buddhist vehicles (
Nonetheless, besides a few other minor points of contention, Tuttle has made an admirable attempt to deal with the dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism in China Proper. It is fairly clear why certain Tibetan elites would have had strong political economy motivations for spreading their teachings and gathering disciples in China; Tuttle offers fascinating insights and suggestions into why this was reciprocated from the Chinese side. The book represents an excellent piece of scholarship that definitely deserves reading by anyone interested in the history of either Tibet or China in the twentieth century and it provides fascinating insights into possibly analogous processes taking place today.