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China’s Tibetan Theme Park

posted Sep 15, 2011, 6:13 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Sep 16, 2011, 7:17 AM ]
By Richard Bernstein
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.

The "Little Potala" in Chengde, China  (Photo: NY Review of Books)

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.

The Kangxi ceremony in Chengde
The Kangxi ceremony in Chengde (Photo: NY Review of Books)

One of the great rulers of China’s long imperial history, Kangxi consolidated the Manchus’ rule over China proper and, using a combination of clever diplomacy, conquest, and divide and rule tactics, extended the country’s borders to what the Qing called “the outer lands” – a process of unification and expansion that reached its apogee under Qianlong. Kangxi’s achievement is celebrated in Chengde in an ultra-high-tech theatrical extravaganza called the Kangxi Ceremony that plays nightly in a vast open-air amphitheater about ten miles outside the city. The show begins with several dozen uniformed horsemen galloping across the turf in front of the audience and taking up positions in the suddenly illuminated hills that surround a large circular stage. Amplified drums and a throaty male chorus fill up the night air as an actor playing Kangxi, dressed in lustrous robes of yellow brocade, gallops onto the scene, his horse rearing, cheered on by dozens of surrounding horsemen.

In one scene, accompanied by a revolving, luminous model of the solar system, Kangxi learns astronomy from a Jesuit priest. In another scene, one of the show’s most lavishly produced, a huge procession of Tibetan lamas, marching to the music of rumbling bass horns and headed by a senior religious figure being carried in a canopied sedan chair, arrives to demonstrate their fealty to the Chinese emperor. Many in the audience assumed it to be the Dalai Lama. Did these events actually take place?


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