“Forging the Golden Urn: The Qing Empire and the Politics of Reincarnation in Tibet” by Max Oidtmann

Golden Urn

In the summer of 1792, the Qianlong Emperor was confronted with a uniquely Tibetan Buddhist problem: Qing authorities had discovered the Eighth Dalai Lama, Seventh Panchen Lama, the Fourth Jetsundamba, several other prominent reincarnate lineages, and a distinguished Tibetan statesman, were embedded in a web of kinship ties. “… How is it possible that the reincarnations of all the major kutuktus of Tibet have come to appear only in the noble households?” he remarked in a  letter to one of his most trusted generals.

In Forging the Golden Urn: The Qing Empire and the Politics of Reincarnation in Tibet, historian Max Oidtmann deftly weaves together Chinese, Tibetan and Manchu archival and literary sources to explore the introduction of the golden urn, a Ming bureaucratic lottery system, as a new ritual technology to identify Tibetan reincarnations. In doing so, he not only underlines how Qing frontier officers and Tibetan elites grappled with issues of faith, sovereignty and law in the context of a multi-ethnic empire, but also illuminates critical questions about religious and political authority in the contemporary PRC.

Oidtmann is particularly sensitive to Manchu language materials.

Forging the Golden Urn: The Qing Empire and the Politics of Reincarnation in Tibet, Max Oidtmann (Columbia University Press, July 2018)
Forging the Golden Urn: The Qing Empire and the Politics of Reincarnation in Tibet, Max Oidtmann (Columbia University Press, July 2018)

Oidtmann steps resolutely into a fierce historiographical debate between Chinese and Tibetan interpretations of the relationship between Tibet and the Qing empire. Qing expansion in Tibet (1720-1913) has lacked serious scholarly attention since the 1970s. PRC historiography has traditionally argued the urn was representative of Qing sovereignty over Tibet, underscoring the modern Chinese state as natural successors to mantle of their imperial predecessors. Tibetan exile historians have typically pointed to the paucity of Tibetan language sources on the urn and the infrequency of its use in identifying major reincarnation lineages in the 19th and 20th century to buttress a narrative of weakening Qing influence over Tibet and a general imperial decline from the late Qianlong period onwards.

As a Harvard trained historian of Inner Asia, Oidtmann is particularly sensitive to Manchu language materials. In addition, unlike the New Qing historians before him, whose take on Qing borderland “constituencies” inadvertently reproduce state-centric demarcations of difference and cultural homogeneity, he makes strong efforts to engage with Tibetan language materials. Through an extensive consideration of unpublished multilingual, archival material; secret palace memorials; legal documents; Tibetan autobiographies and chronicles, Oidtmann is able to cut across the polemics of national history to provide a new perspective on Sino-Tibetan relations during the Qing.

Rather than a comprehensive synthesis of the Qing-Tibetan interface, the book is invitingly structured into an introduction, three “acts” and a conclusion. The first act, entitled “The Royal Regulations”, begins in the wake of the 1791 Gurkha invasion of Tibet that saw thousands of Qing troops deployed to Central Tibet to intervene. The Qianlong Emperor was now convinced that it was imperative for Beijing to take a more active role in Tibetan governance. Oidtmann explores the deliberations behind the genesis of the urn through Qianlong’s Manchu correspondence with trusted court confidantes, as the Emperor became increasingly fixated with corruption among Tibetan oracles in the identification of reincarnate lamas.

The urn was thus born out of Qianlong’s desire to establish a Qing monopoly over the indigenous technologies of divination. The process was to be a simple one, the names of three candidates being written on ivory slips and placed in the urn, a draw would then be conducted by a group of Tibetan elites and Qing officials. Yet, all did not to go to plan. After the installation of urn in Lhasa in 1792, the Emperor was dismayed to learn of the persistence of Tibetan oracles, who were seen to a potential source of corruption, in the verification of candidates.

Act 2 then follows a Qing propaganda initiative against Tibetan divination practices that also called into the question the credibility of the Dalai Lama himself. Act 3 takes us to Labrang Monastery in Eastern Tibet, where senior monastic elites sought to recognize the reincarnation of their founder, the Jamyang Zhepa through procedures of their own, bringing them in directly conflict with the Emperor’s new law. The author maneuvers between confidential Manchu dispatches and Tibetan histories to uncover the coded language through which key interlocutors on both sides communicated with each other and suggest that the urn was susceptible to the manipulations of both Qing and Tibetan historical actors.


Forging the Golden Urn is a prodigious work of scholarship and testament to years spent in the archives. The book is essential reading for scholars of Sino-Tibetan, Qing and Inner Asian history. By taking non-Chinese language sources, Oidtmann illustrates the extent to which religious affairs mattered to the Qing court and the Qianlong Emperor himself. Oidtmann succeeds in demonstrating that the implementation of the urn, and in fact, Qing rule in Tibet was contingent on the careful management of relations between the Emperor, imperial agents and Tibetan lay and religious elites. His conclusion that the Golden Urn was less a forceful imposition that undermined temporal and spiritual rule of the Dalai Lama’s government than a reinterpretation of indigenous ritual that served to aggrandizing the position of certain Tibet religious elites.

The author’s contextualization of Qing-Tibetan relations in broader studies of the history of empire and colonialism, as well as the engaging style in which the book is written in makes it an absorbing read for non-specialists.

Scholars will surely find the chronology of key events, the detailed list of usages of the Golden urn, translation of the the Qianlong Emperor’s Discourse on Lamas, ample footnotes and index of great utility. The gorgeous paintings from the Arthur M Sackler Museum at Harvard university and the Rubin Museum, New York, reproduced throughout the book are a rare treat, especially the eight leaf series on the enthronement of the 9th Dalai Lama.


In his conclusion, Oidtmann turns us to the resurrection of the Golden Urn by the contemporary PRC. In 1995, the CCP turned to a remnant of the imperial past to authenticate their favored candidate as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama over the candidate identified by the 14th Dalai Lama. In doing so, Oidtmann says the “Golden Urn could no longer be understood as anything other than a blunt description of Chinese sovereignty.”

A contemporary Beijing adage goes: “the Chaoyang district is home to 300,000 free-range living Buddhas.” The growing popularity of Tibetan Buddhism in mainland China has led to a renewed debate on the extension of Chinese state control into the religious sphere. According to PRC sources there are over a thousand state recognized reincarnate lamas in China today, each issued with an identity card that denotes their authenticity. The identity card might be the favored form of inscription for the modern Chinese state but Oidtmann’s timely book provokes prescient questions about the present day. With the current Dalai Lama approaching 84, how soon will it be before the golden urn is rolled out again?

Riga Shakya is a PhD candidate in Sino-Tibetan History at the Department of East Asian Languages, Columbia University. His doctoral research centres on Tibetan lay autobiographical narratives and historiographical practice during the Qing period. He is also a translator of contemporary Tibetan fiction and involved in Chinese and Tibetan film production.