The Qianlong Emperor as Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom Thangka

In this unusual thangka, a traditional Tibetan-style religious painting, the Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1735–1796) had himself portrayed in the form of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. Pictured among 108 deities, teachers, and other Buddhist figures, he is placed at the center of a symbolic universe. This painting indirectly proclaims the Qianlong Emperor’s rulership of both the spiritual and secular worlds. The jewel-like landscape is filled with auspicious clouds and a representation of the five-peaked mountain, Wutaishan, believed to be the earthly abode of Manjushri. This painting belongs to a small group of eight similar, imperially commissioned works with Qianlong as the central deity. Such paintings were given to Tibetan religious leaders or displayed in the Tibetan Buddhist chapels in the city known today as Beijing.

The Qianlong Emperor was the ruler of the world’s largest and most prosperous empire in the eighteenth century. He articulated the idea of universal monarchy, which envisioned a multiethnic empire held together under his reign. This thangka and other evidence, such as Tibetan Buddhist inscriptions and symbols found in the Qianlong Emperor’s tomb, reveal what many scholars interpret as his genuine devotion to this religion. Additionally, this religious work would have carried political weight as well. Mongol and Tibetan members of the Qing Empire believed in Tibetan Buddhism. By participating in Tibetan ritual initiations and assuming Manjushri’s identity in the painting, the Qianlong Emperor positioned himself squarely in a Buddhist tradition important to two large ethnic populations in his empire.

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