Zhe Ji, Gareth Fisher, André Laliberté, eds. Buddhism after Mao: Negotiations, Continuities, and Reinventions. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2019. vii + 355 pp. $72.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-7734-7.
Reviewed by Xing Wang (Fudan University)
Published on H-Buddhism (October, 2021)
Commissioned by Jessica Zu (USC Dornsife, School of Religion)
This collection of eleven articles is the outcome of the conference “Buddhism after Mao: Religion, Power, and Society in China since 1980,” held in Paris in 2014. This is a unique book and perhaps one of the most comprehensive and in-depth works focusing on the changes, novelty, and problems of Chinese Buddhism after Mao’s era. In this book, various scholars’ sociological, historical, and ethnographic studies on contemporary Chinese Buddhism in Mainland China are grouped under three panel-like themes: “Negotiating Legitimacy: Making Buddhism with the State”; “Revival and Continuity: The Monastic Tradition and Beyond”; and “Reinventing the Dharma: Buddhism in a Changing Society.” Despite of the multifaceted topics and methodological differences between these articles, the authors all concentrate on contemporary Buddhist sociopolitical institutions in Mainland China and naturally tackle their materials and observations with strong sociological awareness.
Just as the title and the editors’ introduction to this anthology indicate, this book is organized in order to show different dichotomies in modern Chinese Buddhism and how they are reconciled or perpetuated in specific contexts; dichotomies between the old and new, innovation and continuity, the state and the Buddhist “church,” elites and grassroots, the monastic and the lay, the central and the local, the secular society and Buddhist religiosity, and even the real world and virtual reality are exhibited in great detail in the studies. These dichotomies remind us that in addition to the teachings, doctrines, and ideals carried on in contemporary China, Buddhism as an important sociopolitical institution in this vibrant society is also experiencing all kinds of transformations, challenges, and uncertainties. As the editors mention at the beginning of this book, the recovery of Buddhism after Mao’s era, which persists today, is definitely not a monolithic phenomenon in China, and this is exactly why Chinese Buddhism in the past decades and at present deserves our attention. Beyond the broad label of “recovery” or “revival” with respect to the unique case of Chinese Buddhism, complicated and even conflicting situations forced different communities, organizations, and personages to act and react in diverse ways. The eleven articles reflect how these actions and reactions function historically and socially.
In the first part, “Negotiating Legitimacy,” André Laliberté’s paper shows how in the past decade Buddhism in Mainland China has liaised with state and local governmental power for its own benefit but also in return served the complex political agendas of the CCP and the government. Especially on the local level, Buddhist associations and their contacts with foreign Buddhist communities function as both a religious enterprise and a political as well as diplomatic maneuver to increase the influence of the CCP and this is one of the motives for local politicians in China to foster the growth of Buddhism, not merely as a support to religious prosperity but as a strategy to channel the growth of religion into state and governmental structures. Claire Vidal’s ethnographic work exhibits in the case of the administrative structure of the sacred Buddhist site the Putuo 普陀 Mountain island how Buddhist institutions, state supervision, and local political power coexist and cooperate on organizing and disciplining economic and even religious lives in Buddhist monasteries and pilgrimage sites. On the one hand, strong state control and governmental intervention in the administration of Buddhist institutes and communities in China means that Buddhist institutions cannot manage their religious sites exclusively but always in collaboration with governmental bodies; on the other, Buddhist institutions and communities try to achieve their goals and ambitions through negotiating with and manipulating other decision-making bodies. Susan K. McCarthy’s research focuses on a special case of the Buddhist Ren’ai 仁爱 Charity Foundation in Beijing established by the famous elitist Longquan 龙泉 Temple. McCarthy argues that religious charity organizations in China like the Ren’ai Foundation have never been truly “religious” in that to survive the Chinese political atmosphere, they must remain aligned with the interests of the party-state and mix their religious advocacy with secular ideological preferences. That being said, the author also points out the significance of religiosity in Buddhist charity organizations’ perspectives and reactions on certain issues like life rescuing, and one cannot mistakenly assume that because these organizations have to make compromises with the party-state and a secular society that they have wholeheartedly abandoned their religious pursuit. Brian J. Nichols discusses two modes of monastic revival in China and the negotiations between the two: one being the reconstruction and expansion of Buddhist monasteries and monastic communities initiated by religious revivalists to make monasteries into places for professional Buddhist practices and true believers; the other being the renovation and re-labeling of Buddhist monasteries by the curators (like the Bureaus of Tourism, Culture, or Heritage) to transform these religious sites into secular tourist attractions or cultural centers due to economic and political concerns. The author also analyzes the possible challenges and problems each of the modes faces and how this complex “movement” of restoring Buddhist sites in contemporary China reflects the broader problems between religion and secular politics.
In the second part, “Revival and Continuity,” Daniela Campo reminds us that in the transmission of Dharma lineages of both Chan 禅 and Tiantai 天台 teachings in Republican period and after the 1950s, certain ambiguities remained and put the authenticity and legitimacy of these lineages into question. However, the author also reveals that unlike the tradition in the past, in contemporary China when Dharma lineage has become an important “qualification” or “privilege” in Buddhist communities and institutions, efforts are made by these recent heirs of Chinese Buddhist genealogies to overcome ambiguities and shape a clear and ascertained line of Dharma generations. The following paper, by Ester Bianchi, argues that in the restoration of Chinese Buddhist vinaya disciplines and orthodox monk ordination over the past forty years in China, this ordination system resurrected is far from the traditional versions of it but a unified and standardized version after a series of interactions between and interventions from the Buddhist Association of China and local and central governmental bureaus. The revival of the Buddhist ordination system thus not only serves religious agendas but also functions as a mechanism for the state to control monastic communities. Ji Zhe’s article shows us how Buddhist academies in PR China are parallel to the monastic system and how these academies have produced Buddhist elites for Buddhist institutions for the past decades. Yet Ji also mentions that there is tension between the academies and monasteries as well, and this is reflected in the monastic communities’ criticism of monks from the academies as being semi-academic and semi-religious but not fully professionalized on either side. In other words, there are voices from monastic communities that oppose the more bureaucratic, secular, and more state-managed Buddhist academic education in order to stress or maintain the religiosity of monastic Buddhism. Ashiwa Yoshiko and David L. Wank’s research contours the socio-religious landscape of a particular type of “laynun” (p. 210) Buddhist in Xiamen, Fujian province. The crucial concern here is how, by being recognized as “religious professionals” in new governmental policies, these laynuns face both official acceptance for the first time after decades of identity struggles and challenges brought by this institutional recognition.
In the third part, “Reinventing the Dharma,” Huang Weishan explains in her case study of the recent material and communal development of the well-known Jingan 静安 Temple in the center of Shanghai the role and agency of the abbot and elite monks in mediating between Buddhist institutions, the state, local government, and the business world. Huang argues that temples and elite monastic communities are not only the passive recipients of state control and economic erosion, but also active agents trying to interact with and transform these bodies of influences into opportunities for Buddhist temples to expand and grow. Gareth Fisher on the other hand tries to see the transformation of Buddhist monasteries from a “bottom-up” perspective. By comparing the state-sponsored and recognized “official” Buddhist temples with laity-oriented, semi-secretive Buddt societies in China, Fisher suggests that in contrast to people’s common sense, the division of religious space and management in official temples facilitates a more lay-friendly and diverse environment than the more hierarchical lay Buddhist societies. Stefania Travagnin explores another kind of important religious space for Buddhist rituals and worships: the online world. According to her observation, in this booming trend of digitizing Buddhist rituals and worship, the online cyberspace is constructed as a replica of physical Buddhist temples and sacred sites, and the digital platform does not fundamentally change the essential elements of Buddhist religiosity. Travagnin sees potential challenges and even threats posed by online Buddhist worship to offline communities, although thus far digitized Buddhist practices do the opposite, helping to improve the visibility of and public interest in offline Buddhist sites.
The articles in this collection portray contemporary Chinese Buddhism as a powerful social institution and a considerable political power in today’s China. Instead of concentrating on Buddhist religion in China in terms of its religiosity, ritual efficacy, and spiritual qualities in a rapidly changing modern world, the authors in this collection treat Chinese Buddhism as a “human-made,” “human-led,” and “human-oriented” mechanism and as a part of contemporary Chinese sociopolitical life, with no exception. From this collection we can see human beings as the crucial social agent, constantly transforming Buddhism and redefining the boundaries of this ancient religion in modern China. Certainly, as a wealthy, influential, and prevalent religious institution, Buddhism appeals not only to people with strong religious faith and spiritual needs, but also to various secular communities, political figures, organizations, and new technologies; one could say that from the inside to the surface Chinese Buddhism functions as a platform of complex social performances and interactions. What this collection indicates is that with respect to the key transitions of Buddhism in today’s China, a sociological perspective is vital in understanding how this religion “evolves” and negotiates between the old and the new, the elite and the grassroots, and the spiritual and the material. In other words, to comprehensively survey contemporary Chinese Buddhism, we may need to “disenchant” it from a religion to a multifaceted kind of social entity/dynamic. What the authors in this collection do is exactly this kind of “disenchantment”: the alleged religiosity, doctrinal reform, and philanthropist activities for religious merit can be the result of a series of sociopolitical actions behind the curtains.
In this sense, this collection opens up new possibilities in discussing Buddhism in contemporary China. Chinese Buddhist studies may also benefit from sociological perspectives and use sociology as a tool to reevaluate the intellectuality, spirituality, and religiosity of this religion. This is something that can be further pursued based on the contribution of this collection. What have not been probed in detail are questions like, how is the social reality of this religion perceived from Chinese Buddhists’ own standpoint How does the social reality of contemporary Chinese Buddhism participate in the production of the “religious reality” of Chinese Buddhists? How to connect the sociality of Chinese Buddhism with its religiosity? We cannot stop at the sociological analysis of Buddhism and confine this religion in its own institutional existence.
A more provocative as well as productive direction would be liaising sociological inquiries with the concerns in Buddhology, religious studies, anthropology, etc. Moreover, authors in this collection choose an assortment of monastic, elitist subjects in their discussion, since the institutional changes in Buddhism are often best and most immediately reflected in elite communities. Nonetheless, beyond monastic and elitist narration of Chinese Buddhism as an institution, transformations of Buddhism as a social reality can also affect people in lower, more peripheral or more local social echelons, especially in shaping and generating new types of religiosity, accordingly. In fact, in my own experience, new governmental policies on Buddhism are often perceived as a stronger control on Buddhism from the state and an “apocalyptic sign” of an era of the end of Dharma by local, self-claimed non-elite Buddhist monks. Issues of monastic corruption, monks’ and nuns’ sexualities and violations of Buddhist vows and precepts, and the problem of lay masters and patriarchs in local Buddhist communities often incite discontent and debate among conservative Buddhists and problematize the relationship between Chinese Buddhism as an institution and Chinese Buddhism as religious experience and religious reality. More effort is needed to put the sociological observation of Chinese Buddhism into a more diverse and religiously salient context.
Editor's note: A previous version of this review mistakenly attributed an incorrect pronoun to contributor Huang Weishan. The current version of the review reflects the correction.
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Xing Wang. Review of Ji, Zhe; Fisher, Gareth; Laliberté, André, eds., Buddhism after Mao: Negotiations, Continuities, and Reinventions.
H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews.
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