Strategic commodification: The object biography of Tibetan thangka paintings in contemporary China

Ming Xue


  • This article focuses on Tibetan thangka and thangka painters in Amdo Rebgong (Qinghai, China), who are caught between a state-fostered tourist market promoting Tibetan thangkas as folk art and an intermediate market where clients pursue the religious authenticity and efficacy of thangka paintings. My study rejects any simple dichotomy of sacred object and commodity and views the object biography of Tibetan thangkas as contingent on the sites of thangka within the complex structure of the art market, the context of the actual exchanges, and the specific relationships forged between painters and their clients, an important narrative that has been missing in previous studies of Rebgong thangka art and its commodification. I argue that commodification should be understood as a strategic process where some Rebgong painters tactically participate in the market in order to authenticate their religious identity, preserve a cultural tradition, or establish artistic authority within and beyond Tibetan communities.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/717955