Hybrid Sino-Tibetan Buddhist Communities in Sichuan, 1890s-2016

By Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa

Since the beginning of the religious revival in the Deng period, Sichuan has been home to lively and diverse Buddhist activities including temple and monastery renovation, an abundance of publication activity and the return of Buddhist educational institutions for both monastics and laypeople centered around the capital Chengdu and beyond.

An interesting and unexpected part of this revival has been the emergence of Tibetan Buddhist communities in rural Sichuan as Buddhist centers, and the popularity of teachers from these centers as significant preachers and writers in the contemporary Chinese Buddhist public sphere.

A fascinating part of the composition of these communities has been Han Chinese Tibetan Buddhist converts and sympathizers, who gather in Chengdu and from other major metropolitan areas in eastern China at these centers in rural Ganzi and Dege.

While Han Chinese participation in Tibetan Buddhist practice may seem innovative, it in fact reflects much older Sino-Tibetan Buddhist exchange that dates back to at least the Yuan Dynasty, when Tibetan Buddhism was first brought to the capital of the emperors and which reached its peak in the Qing Dynasty, when the Manchu rulers enthusiastically acted as patrons to Tibetan teachers and institutions (Elverskog 2006).

During the Republican period, it again emerged as a tradition that could unite western China’s myriad ethnic and cultural groups and was keenly supported by the Republican Government (Tuttle 2005). Sichuan has long played a crucial role in this exchange, due to its geographical position between Tibetan and Chinese cultural areas.

As Yudru Tsomu has recently argued, while Sichuan was a Middle Ground between these cultures, the informal Middle Ground was basically only up until Kangding, a border town where Tibetan cultural areas began, since there were few Han Chinese migrants beyond there until recently (Tsomu 2016).

However, Sichuan was still a significant site of Sino-Tibetan Buddhist exchange. Much knowledge of what constituted Tibet in the nation state building Republican period came out of Sichuan, produced by ethnographers, administrators and explorers in the area.

The written and photographic corpus created by these Chinese intellectuals and artists have remained central to the creation of an imagined Tibetan culture in the Sino-Tibetan borderlands even today. These representations have fuelled the romantic notions of “wildness” and pristine beauty presented by stories of remote Tibetan Buddhist communities mentioned above, and interact in complex ways with the actual experiences of Han Chinese converts living in remote Tibetan Buddhist communities.

This project will explore the complex dynamics of Sino-Tibetan Buddhist interaction and negotiations in Sichuan from the late Qing until the present, focusing on both issues of representation by Han Chinese intellectuals and agents of the state as well as the actual histories and experiences of Han Chinese converts  and their fellow Tibetan Buddhist practitioners in the Sino-Tibetan borderlands.

I will look at a number of different sources to expand on representation, including travel literature, administrative reports and ethnographic writing and photography from the Qing until the present; and will complicate these representations through studying literature created by Sino-Tibetan Buddhist communities from Sichuan in its different printed and media formats.