Distinguished Lecture (5) The Emperor’s Eunuch and the Buddha’s Tooth
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In March 1413, Emperor Yongle wrote to the senior Tibetan lama, Tsongkhapa, to announce that he had acquired the famous tooth relic of the Buddha from Ceylon. The person alleged to have acquired this precious relic was Zheng He, on his third voyage into the Indian Ocean. The announcement looks like evidence of Buddhist piety, but it had more to do with Yongle’s political illegitimacy than his religious commitments. Behind the story of the tooth lurk some intriguing puzzles: Why did Yongle send Zheng He into the Indian Ocean? What was he doing in Sri Lanka? Did he actually obtain the tooth relic? And if he didn’t, how did the emperor convince everyone that he did?
Timothy Brook is Republic of China Chair at the University of British Columbia, Canada. A historian of China, he has taught at the University of Toronto and Stanford, and has held the Shaw Chair in Chinese Studies at Oxford. His work is rooted in China but extends outward to global history. Brook is the author of Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World and Mr. Selden’s Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer, among many others. He was the editor-in-chief of Harvard University Press’ 6-volume History of Imperial China. His overview of China’s last eight centuries, Tales from the Great State: China and the World since Marco Polo, will be published next year.