Qianlong Emperor Thangka

The Qianlong Emperor was the ruler of the world’s largest and most prosperous empire in the eighteenth century. This thangka is both art and a political statement.

The Qianlong Emperor as Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom (mid-18th century) by Artist: Imperial workshop, Artist: Emperor's face painted by Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

In this thangka (which is a traditional, Tibetan-style religious painting), the Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1735–1796) is painted in the middle.


thangka - (thahng-kuh) a Tibetan-style painting or textile image traditionally mounted in decorative cloth that conveys Buddhist concepts.
Tibet – a mainly Buddhist territory located in southwest China, north of the Himalayas, and defined by its elevated plateau.
Qianlong - (chee-en-long)

The Qianlong Emperor was the ruler of the world’s largest and most prosperous empire in the eighteenth century. He presided over a vast, multiethnic empire of many diverse people.

Mongol and Tibetan members of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) believed in Tibetan Buddhism. Like most of his subjects, the Qianlong Emperor also participated in Tibetan Buddhist rituals.


Mongol – an ethnic group from present-day Mongolia and northern China united by Genghis Khan in the early 1200s.

Qing – (ching)

Buddhism - (bood-ihz-uhm) a widespread Asian religion founded by Siddhartha Gautama in northeastern India in the 5th century BCE.

ritual - a set pattern of behavior for a religious or other kind of ceremony.

The Qianlong Emperor had himself illustrated in the form of Manjushri, who is the bodhisattva of wisdom...

Manjusri (17th-18th century)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

...seen here similarly positioned, flaming sword aloft, in this gilt bronze statue.


Manjushri -  (mahn-joo-shree) bodhisattva of wisdom who can be identified by the flaming sword and the Buddhist text that he carries in his hands.
bodhisattva - (bo-dee-saht-vuh) an enlightened being who chooses not to proceed to Nirvana (a state free of the endless cycle of suffering and rebirth) but instead remains on earth to guide others in their paths toward enlightenment (the complete understanding of everything).

The Qianlong Emperor as Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom (mid-18th century) by Artist: Imperial workshop, Artist: Emperor's face painted by Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Pictured among 108 deities, teachers, and other Buddhist figures, the Qianlong Emperor appears at the center of a symbolic universe.  

deities - divine beings; gods and/or goddesses.

This painting proclaims the Qianlong Emperor to be a figure of authority in three realms...

...the heavens...   

...the human realm...   

...and the underworld.

The jewel-like landscape of the painting is filled with clouds of good fortune...   

...and a representation of the five-peaked mountain Wutaishan, which was believed to be Manjushri’s earthly home.     

Wutaishan - (woo tie-shahn)   

Who is this figure?

Represented as a bodhisattva, the Qianlong Emperor sits with his legs folded...

...and holds the wheel of Buddhist law in his left hand. 

His right thumb and index finger join in a circle, which is the mudra that symbolizes the circular wheel of Buddhist law. 

mudra - (moo-druh) a hand gesture with a consistent meaning; mudras are made during Buddhist ritual practice and are depicted in Buddhist images.

In each hand, the emperor also delicately holds the stems of lotus blossoms.    

Behind each of his shoulders, a flaming sword...

... and a sutra appear on top of a lotus flower. 

These are characteristics of Manjushri; they tell the viewer that the emperor is a form of Manjushri on earth.    

Look closer at the refined detail on the robe.

The emperor is dressed in a robe and a shawl that follow the style and colors of a Tibetan Buddhist monk’s garments. 

The squares on the orange garment resemble the patchwork garments of monks who have rejected wealth...

...but the emperor’s robes are also lavishly decorated with pomegranate and floral scrolls that have been painted with very refined detail. 

The workmanship and artistry of the painting confirm that it was made by the emperor’s command.    

What are the ritual objects in front of the throne?

In front of the throne that is decorated with lions, there is an altar table holding Tibetan ritual tools.    

A pronged scepter called a vajra (which means thunderbolt) and a bell are two of the most important ritual tools in Tibetan Buddhism. The scepter indicates “method” and the bell indicates “wisdom.”

What is unique about the emperor’s face in this thangka?

The distinct modeling of the face with light and shadow is attributed to Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766), an Italian Jesuit missionary who served at the Qing court. 


Jesuit - (jezh-oo-iht) a member of the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic religious order founded by Ignatius of Loyola.

The detailed setting of the painting, the 108 Buddhist figures surrounding the emperor, and the emperor’s body were painted by a team of Chinese and Tibetan artists.

With the face painted by a European artist and other areas painted by Chinese and Tibetan artists, the painting represents a multicultural dimension of the Qing court.

Who are the figures surrounding the emperor?

The individuals in small circles that are closest to the image of the emperor represent important historical figures. 

These figures include lamas (teachers in Tibetan Buddhism) spiritual tutors, and other deities.

Who is the figure directly above the emperor?

The emperor’s personal Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Rolpe Dorje (1717–1786), appears in the circle directly above the clouds surrounding him. 

The words “root guru” (teacher) have been written in gold on the teacher’s cushion. This text reveals the emperor’s and the teacher’s close relationship.

Who are the figures in the bright cloud circles?

The portrait of the emperor’s religious teacher is flanked by bright cloud circles that are populated by bodhisattvas...

Who are the figures in the bright cloud circles?

...and religious followers.

Who are the protectors at the bottom of the thangka?

The bottom of the painting shows seventeen protectors of Buddhist teachings. This is a common arrangement of figures in a traditional thangka.

To name a few of the protector deities who are in this thangka: in the upper left, we see the six-armed protector deity known as Mahakala.

In the center, we see the twin dancing skeletons known as the Lords of the Charnel Grounds.

Both of these deities are surrounded by orange flames. 

Credits: Story

For additional learning resources, visit Teaching China with the Smithsonian

Written by
Debra Diamond
Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art
Freer and Sackler Galleries
Smithsonian Institution

Jan Stuart

Melvin R. Seiden Curator of Chinese Art
Freer and Sackler Galleries
Smithsonian Institution 

Story Design byMarc Bretzfelder
Emerging Media Specialist
Office of the Chief Information Officer
Smithsonian Institution

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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