Yang Lianzhenjia

Yang Lianzhenjia 楊璉真加 (Tib. Yang Rin chen skyabs) (fl. 1277-1292)

Yang Lianzhenjia’s place of origin and background are unknown, but he may have been Tibetan or Tangut. His early career is completely obscure, but we know he was a protégé of Sangge 桑哥 (alt. Sengge, Sang-ko, Sangga, Samgha) before the Mongol conquest of the Song in 1276.

In 1277, Yang Lianzhenjia was appointed Supervisor of the Buddhist Teaching South of the (Yangzi) River (Jiangnan zongshe zhang shijiao 江南總攝掌釋教), a post under the Bureau of General Regulations (Zongzhi yuan總制院). He was headquartered in Hangzhou and held unlimited control over Buddhist monasteries and sacred sites in former Song dynasty territories. Up until 1285, he is credited as having restored to the Buddhists dozens of stupas and temples that had been converted to secular or Daoist use under the Song. Several hundreds of Daoists are said to have been made to abandon their faith and become Buddhist monks.

In 1285, Yang Lianzhenjia destroyed the buildings and grounds that had formally been the Song imperial tombs near Shaoxing. He seized the mausoleum of the Ningzong emperor of the Song and converted it for Buddhist use on the basis that the entire site had originally been a great Buddhist temple. In 1286, Yang obtained court support to command complete control over lands and fields formerly belonging to Buddhist temples in the greater Hangzhou region. The financial proceeds of these lands were to be handed directly to him presumably for the maintenance and repair of Buddhist sites in his charge. Both of these events had been permitted and approved by Yang’s superior, Sangge, without the knowledge of the emperor. Sangge, in 1287, had acquired exceptional power as Supreme Chancellor of the Right (you chengxiang 右丞相) in the newly reestablished Supreme Secretariat (shangshu sheng尚書省) while retaining his position as the head of the Bureau of General Regulations.

In 1288, Yang Lianzhenjia reported to the court that the former Song dynasty palaces had been converted into stupas and Buddhist temples, and that the funds to support these grand structures should be come from the seizure of additional lands. The cornerstone for one hall had yet to be installed, and Yang proposed that a stele on which the nine Confucian classics were inscribed in Song emperor Gaozu’s own handwriting be used for the purpose. The motion met with significant local resistance and was ultimately prevented.

By 1291, reports of Yang’s actions reached the emperor and even Sangge was unable to avoid official investigation. It took more than a year for authorities to complete an inventory of riches Yang Lianzhenjia appropriated, which included lavish stores of paper money, gold, silver, and jade, as well as ownership records of unreported agricultural lands. Furthermore, young women offered to him as bribes were “confiscated” and sent to the capital and he was implicated in the deaths of four people.

The official record of Yang’s activities cannot be interpreted without noting the potential bias of Chinese historians. Yang Lianzhenjia may have understood his actions as being within the context of establishing and protecting Buddhism throughout the realm. For example, in addition to restoring temples and constructing new sacred sites, Yang commissioned the carving of esoteric Buddhist stone sculptures on the caves of Feilai Feng 飛來峰. However, the aggressiveness and grandeur with which Yang carried out his duties offended Chinese sensibilities and he remains to this day the controversial figure responsible for the desecration of the Song imperial tombs.

Sources:
  • Herbert Franke. “Tibetans in Yüan China.” In China among equals: the Middle Kingdom and its neighbors, 10th-14th centuries. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983
  • Luciano Petech. “Sang-ko, a Tibetan statesman in Yüan China.” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientarium Hungaricae 34 (1980):193-208
  • Heather Karmay. Early Sino-Tibetan Art. Aris and Phillips, 1975. p. 24.

Entry by Neil E. McGee, 2/2/2007