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Not Your Ordinary Potala Palace

No mere imitation, Chengde's Putuo Temple commemorates the diversity of the Qing Empire


Not Your Ordinary Potala Palace

No mere imitation, Chengde's Putuo Temple commemorates the diversity of the Qing Empire


It’s not just college students who like Tibetan Buddhist themes. For Chinese emperor Qianlong, who ruled over the vast Qing Empire (1616 – 1912) at its peak territorial extent, paying homage to the religious and cultural symbols of various peoples of the realm was an important manner of acknowledging his worthiness to unite them under his reign.

To that end, Qianlong ordered the construction of the Putuo Zongcheng Temple in his summer resort, Chengde, then known as Rehe, 250 km northeast of Beijing. Completed in 1771 for the emperor’s 60th birthday and the 80th birthday of his mother, Empress Dowager Xiaosheng, the temple was modeled after the Potala Palace (whose name in Tibetan was translated to give the temple its Chinese name), legendary temple in Lhasa that also served as the residence of the Dalai Lama, one of the highest authorities of the Yellow Hat (Gelupa) sect of Tibetan Buddhism.


Visitors climb the stairs leading to the main complex of the temple, built in the Himalayan style

Today, the Putuo Zongcheng Temple is known as “Little Potala” and is the largest of the “Eight Outer Temples” of Chengde, so called because they are located outside the ancient Gubeikou pass on the Great Wall north of Beijing. There were actually 12 temples in all, and nine today, but the name came from the fact that they were classified as eight temples under the administration of the Linfa Yuan, the imperial department of minority affairs during the Qing. These temples as wells as the Chengde Summer Resort were all recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1994.

Judging from the exterior, it seems like Qianlong spared no effort at authenticity. Like the palace in Lhasa, Little Potala’s pavilions rise startlingly from the slopes behind the Chengde Mountain Resort, with layers of whitewashed rectangular facades forming sheer terraces up the green hillside until they culminate in the main complex, the Cihangpudu. This was where the emperor could oversee festivities and receive guests, and it was built with the hallmarks of the real palace’s Himalayan architectural style—thick, impenetrable stone walls with trapezoidal windows and great height, colored in iconic red and white.


The interior of the Cihangpudu showcases the syncretism of Qing religious art styles

The tour guides taking visitors up this steep mountainside, however, are fond of the following historical trivia: “It’s called ‘Little Potala’, looks like Potala, but it’s not actually an imitation of Potala.” The evidence of the Qing’s multiculturalism is on display with the golden-tiled, Chinese-style roofs that adorn some of the pavilions. In the interior of the Cihangpudu, formidable stone arches and steps lead to graceful Chinese-style corridors with painted eaves; balconies with delicately carved wooden railings emerge out of the stone walls. Its interior layout follows that of Chinese palaces.


The painted woodwork in the interior of the Cihangpudu under restoration

A conquest dynasty founded by an alliance of different ethnic groups from northeastern China, the Qing grasped early on the importance of communicating their rule to different peoples that their empire sought to unite. The office of the emperor, especially, had to carefully embody the emblems and ideals that each major population in the realm attached to the idea of imperial rule, and Qianlong could considered the grandmaster of this strategy. He was famous for adapting his official image to different audiences: for peoples in the Chinese heartland, official portraits painted of Qianlong on the throne in his yellow dragon robe coded him as China’s rightful ruler as mandated by heaven; he was also styled in some portraits as a Confucian scholar, seated in a study and surrounded by books, to affirm his desire to uphold Confucian ideals and safeguard the core aspects of Chinese culture.

There were, however, also official portraits of the emperor in horseback, highlighting his origin and continued leadership of his own ethnic group, the formerly nomadic Manchus. Other portraits of incorporate Buddhist elements—such as Qianlong in saffron robes and holding a great wheel, like a bodhisattva—in order to justify his rule over Mongolian and Tibetan peoples as something mandated by religious doctrine.

Qing emperors had a patron-vassal relationship with the lamas in Tibet. Continuing the historical relationship established in the Qing’s predecessors, the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, the emperor granted the lamas titles within the empire while the lamas recognized the emperor as a reincarnation of the bodhisattva Manjusri, thus a divine universal ruler (cakravartin) under Tibetan Buddhist teachings. To maintain the relationship, the Qing emperors were expected to reciprocate with interest in Buddhist teachings and help the religion to flourish in their realm. To that end, the emperors constructed temples and invited Tibetan lamas to study and translate texts in places like Mount Wutai and the capital, Beijing.

The Yonghe Temple, situated in the northeast corner of the old imperial city in Beijing, is probably the most famous surviving example of this historical relation. A former palace, it became dedicated as a Buddhist temple in 1744, housing Tibetan and Mongolian lamas studying and practicing in the capital. Four inscriptions in the temple courtyard, in Chinese, Manchu, Tibetan, and Mongolian, differed in their content and symbolic references according to the taste of each culture. These are the same four languages inscribed inside the pavilion at the entrance of “Little Potala”. Upon its completion in 1771, dignitaries representing these and other ethnic groups were housed in the temple while they convened for the birthday celebrations of the emperor and his mother. It continued to be the chief venue for housing ambassadors from the borderlands and minority groups as long as the Chengde Summer Resort remained the chief summer destination of the imperial court.


Visitors spin the prayer wheels at the Putuo Zongcheng Temple

In 1780, the Panchen Lama, the other highest authority of the Yellow Hat sect, was also invited by Qianlong for a visit at his summer resort, and his temple in Tibet was also replicated in Chengde as the Xunmi Fushou Temple, which is also part of the Eight Outer Temples today.


These whitewashed walls give the temple its characteristic “Little Potala” appearance

Chengde’s importance as the summer “secondary capital” of China receded not long after the era of Qianlong, as the court became more sedentary and centered around the summer palaces in Beijing. Chengde’s next significant appearance in imperial history was as the sanctuary to which the Xianfeng Emperor escaped while English and French troops marched on Beijing in the Second Opium War, ultimately burning of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace.

Today, the memory of Chengde’s past as a meeting place of the cultures of a diverse empire is mostly represented by the palace itself. From the terrace of the Cihangpudu you can see the summer resort just over the next ridge of the mountain, while in between there’s a replica of the Great Wall that symbolically marks off the emperor’s retreat. Little Potala, and the syncretism and compromises that it represents, is just on the doorstep.


Cover image from Tibet.cn

All other photos by Hatty Liu