Art and Politics in Later Buddhist Mongolia

Simon Wickhamsmith

On my first visit to Mongolia, in summer 2006, the first place I was told to visit in Ulaanbaatar was the Zanabazar Museum. This museum, dedicated to the first Bogd Haan Zanabazar, is much more than a repository of this 17th-century artist and religious leader’s work; it functions as Mongolia’s de facto national museum, showcasing the best of the nation’s artistic and cultural heritage. But the identification of this important museum with this towering figure of the early Qing reflects his importance in Mongolia’s story. That said, the life and work of Zanabazar – notably his central role in the development of Mongolia’s fine arts and in Ulaanbaatar’s development as Mongolia’s religious, social, and creative center – has until now received scant attention from scholars. With the full disclosure that Uranchimeg Tsultemin is as much my friend as my colleague, I welcome the publication of A Monastery on the Move, a book which I see as an important addition to the library of anyone interested in the religious and political history of Mongolia, and especially in the development of its arts.

While Uranchimeg’s scholarship is first rate, the book’s copious illustrations add a particular immediacy and depth to her narrative. The organic relationship between Zanabazar and Ulaanbaatar – the nomadic monastery of the title was, after all, the seat of the Bogd Haan lineage – is traced through a dynamic narrative, the warp and weft at the intersection of biography, art history, historiography, and religious studies. Central to this weaving, and made explicit in the illustrations, is Uranchimeg’s wish to show “that the two parallel – Chinggisid and Buddhist – conceptualizations of political power [...] can be traced in the art and architecture of Ikh Hüree [Ulaanbaatar] throughout its history” (p. 10). Thus, from the earliest known representation of Zanabazar, a thangka which explicitly shows him surrounded by the primary teachers (human and spiritual) of his lineage, we see his link to the Tibetan Geluk (dge lugs pa) lineage and tradition. But Zanabazar was also a Mongolian from the lineage of Chinggis Haan, and so this image, both in terms of religious iconography and secular portraiture, starkly reveals these “conceptualizations of political power” and their dependence upon the powerful “reformed” school of Tibetan Buddhism which had gained ascendency in Mongolia.

In her biography of Ikh Khüree – a term meaning “great monastic estate” – Uranchimeg shows how the city became, over time, a focus of this potent admixture of religious and secular power, an intersection of Manchu Qing polity, Geluk religious power, and a Chinggisid Khalkh national identity. Ikh Khüree’s development as a trading post, as an administrative center, and as a focal point for religious practise, philosophy, and power further consolidated its importance, and Uranchimeg shows convincingly how the conceptual and physical mapping of the city responded to a series of architectural and political developments. The parallels between Ikh Khüree and Lhasa are drawn with care, and even a cursory reading of this book alongside both Aldrich (2016) 1 Aldrich, M.A. Ulaanbaatar beyond Water and Grass: A Guide to the Capital of Mongolia. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016  and Barnett (2006) 2 Barnett, Robert. Lhasa: Streets with Memories. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006  will show how strong an influence such monastic sociopolitics can be upon their secular environment.

In the end, though, Zanabazar was primarily an artist of great depth and subtlety, and it is as a book on Mongolian religious art that A Monastery on the Move really shines. Beyond the illustrations, Uranchimeg’s is sensitive and astute in her analyses of Zanabazar’s development; the influence of his recognition as the reincarnation of the historian Jonang Tāranātha (Kun dga’ snying po), who had died in 1634, five years before Zanabazar’s birth; and the importance of his legacy, which is made explicit for locals and tourists alike in the Zanabazar Museum. Such analyses offer a possible reading through the statuary and thangkas discussed in the text. The substantive presence of the spiritual realms in vajrayāna Buddhism emphasizes Zanabazar’s achievement as an artist. As Uranchimeg describes, though, it is the critical place of image and symbol in the Mongol worldview and in the interplay of the religious and secular realms that emphasizes his greater achievement as the unifier of both realms in his role as Bogd Khan.

Above all, Uranchimeg’s treatment of the history of the early Qing in Mongolia complements, and is enriched by, her stimulating investigation of the many pieces of art she addresses. Although it is a fine piece of research, it is also a well-written and intellectually stimulating read. Parallel to the narrative, and in addition to the illustrations, both in black and white and in color, there are extensive and informative notes, a full and tantalizing bibliography, and a well-prepared index. That A Monastery on the Move is an important book is, to my mind, not in question. But the richness of its intellectual and visual force keeps drawing me back, and I look forward to returning to the text and to exploring the new vistas it reveals in the study of pre-modern Mongolia.