The Monasteries Of Altan Khan: Genesis Of A Distinctive Architecture For Mongolian Buddhism

Wei Chen, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation studies a distinct architectural form of the Tibetan-rite Buddhist great assembly halls associated with Altan Khan and other members of the Dayan Khanid aristocracy. Altan Khan (16 th c.) deserves credit for ending the hostile relations with Ming China—which had continued after the fall of the Great Yuan Mongol Empire—and introduced the Gelug School, a branch of Tibetan-rite Buddhism, into Mongolia. A distinguishing feature of the Altan Khan Monasteries is that their Tsogchin halls are all structured in a unified architectural form, comprising a gate tower, a Tibetan-style chanting court, and a Chinese-style Buddha hall. In this dissertation, I have termed this architectural form the “Altan Khan-style Tsogchin.” The Altan Khan-style Tsogchin is a triumphant achievement in transforming the Chinese-style architectural structure specifically for Tibetan-rite Buddhism use; and, it turned it into a distinctive architectural form, one among the earliest surviving and best-preserved timber-structures in Mongolia. Since Altan Khan Monasteries were constructed at the request of Tibetan monks, patronized by Mongol nobles, and completed by Chinese artisans, the monasteries discussed in this dissertation were founded amidst political and religious competition in the triangular relationship among the Chinese, Mongolians and Tibetans.

This dissertation examines the structural and spatial features, craftsmanship, and layout of Altan Khan-style Tsogchins and reveals the genetic threads connecting the monasteries of the Altan Khan and Dayan Khanid aristocracy. This dissertation has followed a narrative format wherein each chapter focuses on one Altan Khan Monastery and discusses a specific topic that brings us closer to understanding Altan Khan-style Tsogchins, or monasteries. The eight chapters investigate the formation, models, spatial organization, structural features, developmental stages, and achievements of the Altan Khan-style Tsogchin. The thesis concludes that the column network represents a distinctive but local structural mode which Altan Khan selected deliberately to establish his rulership and manifest the legitimacy of his governance. In addition, it also argues that other monasteries associated with Altan Khan’s relatives and allies also evince similar political motivation behind their construction beyond the structural similarities. Moreover, those monasteries presented political and religious needs in their designs and served religious, political, residential, and funerary functions. This dissertation refers to the connection as genetic.

This dissertation makes its primary arguments based on structural analysis and presents more than 100 original diagrams of building structures. At the same time, it endeavors to provide wide-ranging, additional information through which to better understand and appreciate Altan Khan and the politics of Tümed Mongols in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries.