Osburg on Esler, 'Tibetan Buddhism among Han Chinese: Mediation and Superscription of the Tibetan Tradition in Contemporary Chinese Society'

Joshua Esler
John Osburg

Joshua Esler. Tibetan Buddhism among Han Chinese: Mediation and Superscription of the Tibetan Tradition in Contemporary Chinese Society. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2020. 266 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4985-8464-7.

Reviewed by John Osburg (University of Rochester) Published on H-Buddhism (May, 2021) Commissioned by Jessica Zu (USC Dornsife, School of Religion)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56552

Starting around the late 1990s, Tibetan Buddhism experienced a surge in popularity in Han Chinese communities throughout the Sinophone world and, it continues to attract growing numbers of Chinese followers to this day. While previous studies of this phenomenon have focused either on Taiwan, Hong Kong, or the PRC exclusively,[1] Joshua Esler’s Tibetan Buddhism among Han Chinese: Meditation and Superscription of the Tibetan Tradition in Contemporary Chinese Society provides a detailed ethnographic study of Tibetan Buddhist practitioners in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the mainland. Esler is primarily interested in the ways in which Tibetan Buddhist principles and practices interact with other religious forms in these different locations, including Chinese folk religion, “pragmatic” Protestantism, and the PRC’s Confucian revival, and how these traditions influence Tibetan Buddhism in turn. Through Esler’s detailed theological conversations with his interlocuters at multiple field sites, we gain a sense of the diverse interpretations and modes of engagement Han Chinese practitioners have with Tibetan Buddhism—from those who attempt to faithfully emulate the “culturally Tibetan” aspects of Tibetan Buddhism to those who adhere to a more stripped-down, modernized “self-help” version of Buddhist practice.

Esler employs Prasenjit Duara’s notion of superscription to account for the ways in which Tibetan Buddhism has “been layered or superscribed with new meaning by both Tibetan monastics and Chinese practitioners as it encounters scientific rationalism and other modernizing forces as well as a traditional Chinese cosmology of gods, ghosts, and ancestors in modern China” (p. xvi). For example, chapter 2 focuses on the Karmapa’s incorporation of the Chinese folk deity Guan Gong into the Karma Kagyu school as a protector deity. Esler examines how different practitioners further layer their own meanings upon this superscription, with some interpreting Guan Gong as a protector deity while others view him as a Boddhisattva, an emanation of Gesar, the legendary warrior-king, or some combination of the three.

The first chapter provides an extremely useful overview of the recent growth in Han Chinese Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, outlining both the pre-1949 history of Sino-Tibetan religious engagement as well as parallels between Chinese disgruntlement with post-Mao economic development and a similarly disaffected Western 1960s counterculture. Both groups came to view Tibetan Buddhism as offering a kind of “primordial purity” (p. 27) untainted by the ills of modernity and thus uniquely capable of curing those very ills. In the remaining chapters, Esler draws on both secondary scholarly sources as well as his own ethnographic data drawn from multiple fieldsites including Beijing, Gyalthang (in Xianggelila, “Shangrila” county), Hong Kong, and Taipei. He interviews more than eighty individuals, including stressed-out Hong Kong professionals and bohemian Chinese artists who have fled the rat race. While the voices and perspectives of Han Chinese practitioners are dominant in the book, we also hear from Tibetan monks and occasionally from lay Tibetans as well. The multiple fieldsites from which Esler analyzes the diversity of engagements with Tibetan Buddhism are one of the strengths of the book. Yet I found myself wanting a little more contextualization of Tibetan Buddhism in these various sites. For example, Esler views Tibetan Buddhism in Hong Kong through the lens of pragmatism and materialism, a characterization many would apply to most PRC citizens’ appropriation of Tibetan Buddhism as well. (Esler acknowledges that this more pragmatically oriented group was not represented in his study.) While some of the personal tribulations that propel people to find solace in Buddhism—such as loss of a loved one, marital strife, and work stress—seem similar across all three locations, Tibetan Buddhism’s role as a critique of state narratives of development and material progress (outlined in the introduction) is perhaps less salient in Hong Kong and Taiwan than it is on the mainland. While Esler is attuned to the harsh regulation surrounding Tibetan Buddhism in the PRC, one wonders how the relatively freer religious ecosystems of Hong Kong and Taiwan have impacted Tibetan Buddhism’s spread there.

Another strength of the book is Esler’s historical overviews of Tibetan Buddhism’s interactions with other religious traditions in China (as well as its current debates with state Marxism), which are evenly distributed throughout the text. This makes the book accessible to those with little background in Buddhist studies (Tibetan or otherwise) or Chinese history. One of Esler’s more intriguing findings is how Han Chinese engagement with Tibetan Buddhism often serves as “gateway” toward interest in Chinese religious traditions and sometimes traditional Chinese culture as well, leading some followers to adopt a syncretic blend of Buddhism and Confucianism. Yet, for other practitioners, Tibetan Buddhism (and Tibetan culture in general) possess a purity and authenticity forever lost from Chinese traditions. In his chapter on Tibetan landscape deities and “geopiety,” he shows that while some practitioners interpret these beliefs through a traditional Chinese cosmology or through a modernized lens, others embrace these beliefs in their entirety as part of a larger project of “approximating the Tibetan other by dressing, acting, and performing like this other” (p. 162). Many Han Chinese who relocate to Tibetan towns fall into this category, with some even asserting that they were Tibetan in a past life.

In short, Tibetan Buddhism among Han Chinese provides the best overview to date of the contemporary wave of Han Chinese engagement with Tibetan Buddhism. The book is clearly written and is easily accessible to an upper-level undergraduate audience. Given the relatively sparse scholarly treatment of this subject to date, it should be read by scholars of Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese religion interested in this complex field of inter-religious and intercultural encounters. Given the profound financial influence Han Chinese patrons exert over Tibetan Buddhism, it is an encounter that will, for better or worse, likely shape the trajectory of Tibetan Buddhism in the years to come.


[1]. For example, Alison Jones, “Contemporary Han Chinese Involvement in Tibetan Buddhism: A Case Study from Nanjing” Social Compass 58, no. 4 (2011): 540-53; Dan Smyer Yü, The Spread of Tibetan Buddhism in China (New York: Routledge, 2021); Abraham Zablocki, “The Taiwanese Connection: Politics, Piety, and Patronage in Transnational Tibetan Buddhism,” in Buddhism between Tibet and China, ed. Matthew Kapstein (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009); and Yinong Zhang, “Between Nation and Religion: The Sino-Tibetan Buddhist Network in Post-Reform China,” Chinese Sociological Review 45, no. 1 (2012): 55-69.

Citation: John Osburg. Review of Esler, Joshua, Tibetan Buddhism among Han Chinese: Mediation and Superscription of the Tibetan Tradition in Contemporary Chinese Society. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56552

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