During the period remembered today for the rise of colonial scientific networks along global sea routes, a vast inland network of Buddhist monasteries emerged across Inner Asia in tandem with the expansion of the Qing Empire (1644-1911). Using Tibetan as their lingua franca
of high culture, these Inner Asian monasteries spread a distinctive sphere of Buddhist education and statecraft across territorial and ethnic boundaries. In particular, the ruling Manchus became linked to Mongolians and Tibetans through shared participation in Buddhist community, from local and regional hubs to the imperial center. This study theorizes the durability and limits of this Inner Asian Buddhist community, examining the ways in which monasteries served as sites for negotiating the “politics of learning” between local, regional, and imperial levels. I argue that Inner Asian Buddhist monasteries were not limited to concerns with symbolic discourses of Qing diplomacy, but productive of shared Buddhist frameworks for worldly knowledge, social values, and technologies of governance.
A primary example of Inner Asian monasteries’ role in Qing statecraft lies in the emergence of roughly two hundred Buddhist medical faculties, which were incorporated into local and central levels of the imperial medical bureaucracy. Buddhist medical colleges trained clerical officials and court physicians, providing a pathway to prestige and power that complemented the Manchu civil-military “banner” administration in a manner parallel to the Confucian bureaucracy of China proper. Through both large public rituals and more intimate practices of everyday care, these medical faculties effected vertical integration of lay and monastic elites with the populace. And hearkening to earlier Inner Asian imperial models, monasteries proffered medical training and charity as empirical proof of the efficacy and benefit of Buddhist governance, allowing Mongolians and Tibetans to envision a shared imperial culture of their own making.