Category Archives: (post) imperial Inner Asia

Author Interview: Oceans of Milk, Oceans of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire, by Matthew King (University of California, Riverside)

Editor’s Note: This fall we are pleased to present again a series of some of the books shortlisted for awards in the Social Sciences and Humanities at CESS.  In this first installment, Daigengna Duoer (University of California, Santa Barbara) interviews Matthew King (University of California, Riverside), on his book Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire, published by Columbia University Press.

  • A polymath Buddhist monk from Khalkha Mongolia, Zava Damdin Lubsangdamdin (Tib. Blo bzang rta mgrin, 1867-1937), and his writings are the center of focus in your book. What led you to write about him and his hundreds of texts?

After I finished my undergraduate degree, on the invitation of a Tibetan lama who was going on a teaching tour of Gobi Desert villages, I began spending time in Buddhist revivalist communities in Mongolia sometime around 2006. Though I knew nothing about Zava Damdin when I embarked on that first trip (or about Mongolia… or really anything!), it happened that our host was the eminent Mongolian lama Guru Deva Rinpoché. Guru Deva had been at the heart of revival and preservation of Inner Asian monasticism for decades; first in the Tibetan diaspora in India during the 1960s, then in Nepal, and then, after 1991, in Mongolia. In the 1970s, Guru Deva Rinpoché had collected and published the seventeen-volume Collected Works (Tib. Gsung ‘bum) of Zava Damdin from his exile base in Kathmandu.

When I arrived in Ulaanbaatar in 2006, Guru Deva Rinpoché’s residence was a throughway for hundreds of people involved in reviving Buddhist institutions and public ritual traditions in Mongolia and the PRC, from visiting Tibetan lamas to sumo wrestlers, endless streams of monks and lay people, and funders and patrons from across Asia. One of the most prominent members of this entourage was a monk named Luwsandarjaa, considered to be the current incarnation of Zava Damdin. During that summer and over five or six subsequent trips, I spent a great deal of time with this lama and his monks in apartment temples in Ulaanbaatar, at his revived Gobi monastery, and in many town halls, grasslands, and sandy ruins across the Gobi all the way to the Chinese border.

“A religious ritual begins, Ulaanbaatar (1930s).(Digital copies of glass plate negatives preserved in the Archives for Cinema, Photography, and Sound Recording, Mongolia [1910s-1950]. EAP264/1/9/6/111.)

Appropriately enough, I suppose, I learned about Zava Damdin’s revolutionary-era historical writing from his current incarnation. During my first two visits, his community was widely distributing a modern Cyrillic Mongolian translation of his predecessor’s verse history of Mongolian Buddhism and world history from c. 1910 entitled the Sounding of the Auspicious Dharma Conch (Tib. Bkra shis chos dung bzhad pa’i sgra dbyangs). Though I had been studying classical Tibetan and Mongolian for a while at that point, in these early years I had not yet discovered the extent of Zava Damdin’s surviving writing, never mind the breadth of their content. That would take many, many (many) years of reading and translating. In the meantime, I completed a Master’s thesis based on ethnographic research about the Buddhist revival in the Gobi and then, for my doctoral studies, I turned to historical anthropology and spent several years reading and translating two or three of Zava Damdin’s histories. At that time my interest was not in the social history of knowledge of the late-and post-Qing, but in theoretical conversations about “non-Western historiography.”

Once I began my current job after graduate school, I spent a couple more years reading what amounts to about two thousand pages of Zava Damdin’s historical writing from c. 1900-1931 and two thousand more pages of autobiographical writing from c. 1910-1936. Collectively, I finally realized, these works contained an absolutely unique expression of scholastic interpretations of the Qing collapse and the rise of revolutionary modernism in Asia’s heartland. Inspired by works such as Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and formed by exchanges at Duke University and in a meeting at Chiangmai during a yearlong SSRC InterAsian fellowship, I decided to try and use Zava Damdin’s writing as the basis for a revisionist, even radical, microhistory of the Qing-socialist transition in Inner Asia and, more broadly, a critique of modernist presumptions beholden to the national subject in the plotting of post-imperial history in Eurasia. The sum of that exploration is Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood.

  • Your book points out that living and writing in Asia’s first socialist state in the early twentieth century, Zava Damdin’s Buddhist worldview was challenged by new ideologies inspired by Marx, Lenin, and Western sciences that saw the Buddhist institution as a “lama problem.” What was this perceived “problem” and the proposed “solutions” to it?

Against the enduring authority of the Qing-era Buddhist religious establishment, the fledgling socialist state in Mongolia (1921-1990) remained contingent; it occupied a liminal position between enacting direct military action against Buddhist monasteries and having the authority to impose the rule of law. A fundamental problem facing this first project at socialist state building in Asia was glossed by revolutionary cadres at the time as the “lama question” (Kh. Mong. lam narin asuudal).[1] While early revolutionary leaders worked closely with monastic leaders such as Zava Damdin, or else were themselves prominent Buddhist monks and lay Buddhist literati, the majority of monasteries and their elite prelates opposed the centrifugal forces of reform advanced by the government. Examples of reform initiatives range from public health campaigns and staging European theatre for (apparently unimpressed) rural Mongols, to secular education, Mongolian language publication, industrialization of agriculture, and taxing the rich monastic estates. Such reforms failed to provoke a mass awakening of class consciousness; the number of monks actually grew over the course of the 1920s and early 1930s.

“A view of Ganden monastery and its surrounding area, Ulaanbaatar.(Digital copies of glass plate negatives preserved in the Archives for Cinema, Photography, and Sound Recording, Mongolia [1910s-1950]. EAP264/1/9/2/71.)

At Stalin’s infamous behest in the 1937, General Choibalsan and the party leadership in Mongolia decided the enduring weakness of the socialist state and the enduring strength of monastic estates required a turn to legalized violence. In just over a year, at least 40,000 monks and other “counter-revolutionaries” were tried and shot. Hundreds of thousands more were imprisoned or disrobed. Mongolia’s over 700 monastic complexes and temples were reduced to rubble save three. Here was the final, blunt answer to the “lama question.”

  • How did Zava Damdin respond to these conversations and ruptures following “Asia’s first modern revolution” (coined by historian Urgunge Onon) in his Buddhist writings? What were his major topics of concern?

Though Zava Damdin was memorialized in Soviet-era histories as a unique, modernist outlier of an otherwise counter-revolutionary monastic establishment (because, they decided, he had adopted scientific methods in his historical writing), and though current revivalists in Mongolia remember him as a master of the imperial-era monastic tradition, my research shows that neither are true. During the Qing-socialist transition (c. 1900-1936), Zava Damdin and his conservative and trans-Asian milieu of monks and Chinggisid nobility understood their times in terms neither of the Qing nor the just invented revolutionary national subject.

“Zava Damdin, alias ‘The Spiritual Friend Who Please Mañjughoṣa’ (‘Jam dbyangs dgyes pa’i bshes gnyen).”(Blo-bzaṅ-rta-mgrin, Zhongguo Xi Bei Wen Xian Cong Shu / v. 143-157. 西北少数民族文字文獻; Byaṅ Phyogs Hor Gyi Yul Du Dam Pa’i Chos Rin Po Che “Byuṅ Tshul Gyi Gtam Rgyud Bkra Śis Chos Duṅ Dźad Pa”i Sgra Dbyaṅs, vol. 150 (Lanzhou: Zhongguo Lanzhou: Lanzhou gu ji shu dian, 1990), 25.)

In general, the conservative nobility and monastic elites such as Zava Damdin were overwhelmingly concerned with preserving the integrity and centrality of monasticism in revolutionary Inner Asia; over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, monastic networks became not only the major sedentary institution across eastern Tibet, all Mongolian societies, and Siberia, but also the dominant, nearly singular, site of medicine, literacy, printing, artistic production, and, of course, ritualism and philosophy.  However, in a more interesting and fundamental sense, what was at stake for Zava Damdin and his increasingly embattled milieu was the very mechanism of history and sovereignty itself: contact (Tib. mjal) with purifying, always masculine centers of social, political, and religious reproduction. Here we get to the enduring cultural and social legacies of the Qing imperial formation in Inner Asia that exceeded its political endings. Here too, we find a landscape of social, political, and religious imagination erased by the hegemony of the national subject and state violence. It is this landscape, with all of its revisionist implications for disciplinary treatments of modernization in Asia’s heartland, that I have tried to reconstruct in Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood.

As part of this pressing work to write the Qing ruins into place and time, cosmopolitan monastic elites across the Tibeto-Mongolian-Siberian frontiers such as Zava Damdin were very concerned to engage newly globalized intellectual traditions arriving from Europe. For example, while polyglot frontier scholastics in eastern Tibet and Mongolia had long engaged European mathematics, astronomy, cartography, and art via Jesuits at the Qing court, Zava Damdin is one of the first, to my knowledge, to engage European humanism.  In the pages of a secular newspaper entitled Shine Toli (The New Mirror) that circulated in the Autonomous Period (1911-1919) and in engagements with scholars ranging from Russian Buddhologists,
German diplomats, a member of the Bakhtin Circle, Agvan Dorjiev, and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Zava Damdin and many other Mongolian monastic leaders deeply engaged European arts and sciences. Unlike revolutionary intellectuals, however, these trans-Inner Asian monastic thinkers used the human sciences to extend or subvert received monastic histories from the Qing and also to re-interpret historical and spatial representations in Indian canonical works as varied as the Kālacakra-tantra and the Abhidharma. While I cannot get into the details here, the main takeaway for the social history of knowledge in the region is that this engagement had far less to do with the scientism privileged by the new revolutionary state than with a long narrative and interpretive tradition of frontier scholasticism forged in the polyglot, boundary crossing Tibeto-Mongolian frontiers of the Qing Empire.

  • A really fascinating idea in the book is “enchantment,” which is something that Zava Damdin attempted to historicize in his life’s works. What does this unique historiographic vision tell us about Buddhist views of time and space?

In Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood I use “enchantment” in a specific sense to name the dominant object of historical writing in Inner Asian monastic historiography for much of the last millennia: enlightened agents (buddhas and bodhisattvas) appearing upon the human stage in the bodies of monastic leaders and temporal rulers. This was a centuries-long project along the Sino-Tibetan-and Mongolian interface to historicize the enchantment of Eurasia. The event of history, the object of monastic historiography, was the periodic intervention of enlightened buddhas in the guise of emperors, khans, and monks upon the human stage. The result, as they saw it, was the abundance of social and salvific possibility manifest in forms as diverse as literacy, just law, sacred violence, and, of course, Buddhist monasticism and the promotion of
Buddhist forms of self-and community-cultivation. Turkic, Mongol, Tibetan, Chinese, and Indian communities were known in relation to one another through this lens; and in the early twentieth century treated by my book, so too was the collapse of the Qing and Tsarist Empire, the invasion of Tibet by the British, and the rise of revolutionary nationalism across Asia’s heartland. This orientation to place and time as moved by contact between enlightened
and human actors was, more pragmatically, a dominant language of diplomacy and, during the Qing Empire especially, a way of projecting imperial authority into the Inner Asian frontiers. This was articulated in the “Two Systems” model of a unified religious and political authority (Tib. lugs gnyis, chos srid zung ‘brel; Mong. qoyar yosu). The Two Systems was for Zava Damdin, as it had been for his monastic predecessors, perfected in the Qing-Géluk partnership according to a well-worn model in his late-imperial scholastic tradition. This was a golden age which he referred to regularly as the rising tide of a life-giving “ocean of milk” (Tib. ‘o ma’i rgya mtsho) sweeping across Eurasia’s heartland.

  • The other equally fascinating idea in the book is “disenchantment,” which is when Zava Damdin’s enchanting historiography becomes overtaken by “post-Qing anxiety.” What do his critiques of the disenchantment of post-imperial Inner Asia tell us about Buddhist views of modernity?

In the ruins of the Qing, Zava Damdin’s unenviable task was to “clarify” (Tib. gsal) and “order” (Tib. bkod) his revolutionary times. Occasionally he sought only to appropriately name (Tib. zer) ruptured temporalities, territories, communities, sovereignties, and religiosities. The range of his intellectual interests were vast, ranging from Chinese history to European mechanical sciences and astronomy, yet in all his writing he remained primarily focused on diagnosing the causes and conditions of what was elsewhere being called the revolutionary modern, but which he referred to regularly simply as a toxic, life-denying “ocean of blood” (Tib. khrag gi rgya mtsho).

“Delgeriin Choira, revived Gobi monastery of Zava Damdin near contemporary Delgertsogt, Dundgovi Province.” (photo by Matthew King).

My book contains an extensive presentation of Zava Damidin’s alternative historicization of not just Inner Asian but global history. I won’t give it away here, but in a general Zava Damdin and his trans-Asian milieu understood the Qing collapse as the product of events in 19th century Yeke-yin Küriy-e (modern Ulaanbaatar) and Beijing. After decades of investigation, Zava Damdin determined that the violence and upheavals of socialist state building around him were only symptoms of a grander world historical narrative of decline (one marked also by the authority of scientific empiricism and rule by the masses). Though deeply engaged with revolutionary forces and state narratives, Zava Damdin and his otherwise silent milieu  set the post-Qing world into time, place, and community without any reference to the empty, homogenous time of the nation, for example, or to contact with Europe as marking an epochal transition to modernity in Asia.

  • As you have argued in the book, the historiography of modern Inner Asia has overwhelmingly been driven by state-centric narratives and archives that tend to neatly organize the imperial period and its aftermath into stories of modernization. In addition, you also argue “that the situation is made worse by disciplinary fault lines in the professional study of social, political, and religious history along the Tibeto-Russian-Chinese-Mongolian interface…” So, how would Zava Damdin’s writings and other similar Buddhist responses to modernity offer a corrective to these issues?

I have much to say on this! (Much more than is possible to even summarize here.) Very briefly, my position in this book and in my broader scholarship on the social history of knowledge in the throughways of late-and post-imperial Inner Asia is that the story of modernization is organized too neatly between the imperial period and its aftermath, between Mongolian and Tibetan (and Chinese and European) sources and traditions, between the national subject and what it excludes, and between the arrival of the “modern”—progress, self-mastery, social emancipation, science, technology, socialism, academic institutions, democracy, Europe—and the retreat of the “traditional”—stasis, superstition, other-mastery, suppression, folk tradition, Buddhism and shamanism, scholasticism, monastic institutions, feudalism, Asia.

Such dualisms, like the West/Nonwest binary, the neutrality of the secular humanist gaze, or the modernist staging of the West as site and source of universal knowledge and History—are simply not tenable. For example, in the case study I examine in Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood, the social imagination and active lives of the majority of monastics across Inner Asia cannot be emplotted in the self-descriptive language of a state. Erstwhile cosmologies guided monastic lives during the modern formation of Inner Asia, yet we still know so little about them. Zava Damdin’s oeuvre is just one telling case study, remarkable not necessarily because of its content but because of being recorded and surviving a century of violence.   Here is a vast landscape of social and religious imagination quite apart from what is recorded in state archives, reducible to neither tradition nor the modern, religion, science, monasticism, feudalism, or revolutionary progress.


[1] Here I recommend Christopher Kaplosnki’s 2014 monograph The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty, and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia, about state strategies adopted by the people’s party to advance their claim to sovereignty through the analytical frame of Agamben’s use of the Roman legal concept of homo sacer; an exclusionary politics founded on legal exceptionalism and required state violence in perpetual states of emergency.