Consuming belief: Luxury, authenticity, and Chinese patronage of Tibetan Buddhism in contemporary China

John Osburg


This essay examines two domains in which wealthy Chinese seek to cultivate social distinction. The first section examines luxury consumption and highlights the ambivalences surrounding global luxury goods in China. Given that luxury goods often fail to deliver on their promises of distinction, many wealthy Chinese have turned to new forms of money-mediated spirituality—in particular, patronage of Tibetan Buddhism. I argue that in a context in which forms of value, authenticity, taste, morality, etc., are all too easily reduced to quantitative, monetary terms, appropriation of the spiritual power of Tibetan lamas and the authenticity associated with Tibetan Buddhism has become increasingly attractive to wealthy Han Chinese. This appropriation, however, has generated tensions between practitioners for whom Buddhist patronage is an extension of worldly projects of social distinction and wealth accumulation and those for whom Buddhism is imagined as an isolated spiritual retreat from those same concerns.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/708547