The Qianlong Emperor as Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom

Giuseppe Castiglionemid-18th century

Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art
Washington, DC, United States

The painting is arranged with Qianlong at the center of a symbolic universe. The landscape background is filled with auspicious clouds and the mountain is the five-peaked Wutaishan (sacred mountain in China). He is seated on a lion-guarded dais that is supported on a lotus blossom. The throne rises from an azurite pond with two dragon kings in the water holding up offerings to the emperor as bodhisattva. An altar table with Tibetan ritual implements is placed in front of the throne. The emperor is clothed in a monk's cap and robes, which are delicately patterned with pomegranate and floral scrolls painted with exceptionally refined detail. The meticulous workmanship and rich colors underscore the painting's imperial provenance.

The emperor as Manjusri holds the wheel of law in his left hand and makes the gesture of argumentation with his right. In each hand, he also delicately fingers the tensile stem of a lotus flower that appears respectively behind his right and left shoulders. On the viewer's left, the lotus bears an upright sword and on the right, the lotus is a platform for a sutra. These are the attributes of Manjusri and visually manifest the persona that the emperor has assumed. An inscription in Tibetan written in a slender gold script on the dais confirms that Qianlong is depicted as an incarnation of Manjusri.

In the nimbus surrounding Qianlong, important historical figures appear. On the central axis above Qianlong's head, we encounter an image of Tsongkapa, who was the founder of the Yellow Hat (Geluk) sect of Buddhism. He was also an incarnation of Manjusri, which can be seen by examining Tsongkapa's attributes of a sword and sutra. Other figures in the nimbus can be identified as Dalai lamas, panchen lamas, tutors to the lamas, and other deities. Qianlong is positioned at the center in a manner to reinforce his centrality to the history of Buddhism, past and present.

In a separate roundel above the nimbus containing the portrait of Qianlong, we encounter a second portrait. The likeness depicts Qianlong's Tibetan spiritual leader and teacher of Sanskrit, Rolpai Dorje (1717-86) [also romanized as Rol-pa'I rdo-rje). Qianlong was close to Rolpai Dorje, and many scholars take their relationship as one of many signs that Qianlong was a sincere believer in Tibetan Buddhism. Other evidence of this includes the gesture of giving his mother for her seventieth birthday more than nine thousand statues of Buddhist deities. Also, in his tomb Qianlong arranged to have Sanskrit inscriptions, which suggests he found this language of Buddhism more personally compelling than the secular languages of Chinese and Manchu, in which he was fluent.

The Tibetan inscription written on the Qianlong emperor's throne attests to Qianlong's respect for Rolpai Dorje. The inscription contains word play that alludes to the name Rolpai Dorje. The scholar Michael Henss has speculated that Rolpai Dorje may have designed all of the tangkas that Q

An inscription in Tibetan written in a slender gold script on the dais confirms that Qianlong is depicted as an incarnation of Manjusri. The text reads:

Most Sagacious Manjusri
You who have taken up the role of a mighty Dharma king,
Supreme among men,
Abide forever upon your immutable diamond throne.
May there be auspicious fortune that all your wishes are instantly fulfilled.

This unusual portrait reflects upon the political strategy of the Qianlong emperor (reigned 1736-96) as well as his personal religious beliefs. Moreover, it is testimony to the multicultural nature of his court and empire. The emperor has had himself portrayed in the center of a thangka, a traditional Tibetan-style religious painting, but he called upon the Italian artist Giuseppe Castiglione, who was a Jesuit missionary serving at the Chinese court, to paint his face. By having himself depicted as the enlightened being Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, the Qianlong emperor positioned himself squarely in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy. The landscape surrounding him is filled with auspicious clouds and a representation of the five-peaked, Wutaishan sacred mountain in China.

The inscription on the painting proclaims Manjusri to be the ruler of the Buddhist faith. By assuming Manjusri's identity, the Qianlong emperor indirectly laid claim to that role for himself. This was politically significant because relations between the Qianlong court and the Mongol and Tibetan residents of the empire were couched in Buddhist, rather than Confucian, cultural rhetoric. The Qianlong emperor ordered thangkas, with himself as the central deity, displayed in the Tibetan Buddhist chapels that he erected in Peking (modern-day Beijing). One thangka that he sent to the Seventh Dalai Lama is currently displayed in the Potala, the Dalai Lama's residence in Lhasa, Tibet.

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