This Little Potala


Putuo Zongcheng Temple, Chengde, China

From The New York Review of Books:

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.

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.

Chengde, photograph by Edwin Lee

“China’s Tibetan Theme Park”, Richard Bernstein, The New York Review of Books