How strong was Qing institutional control over the Buddhist saṃgha in actual practice? The existence of a bureaucratic apparatus for controlling the monastic community is often stressed as an inhibiting factor for Buddhist and Daoist traditions, but at the same time its abolishment in the late eighteenth century is depicted as a factor furthering religious decline. This analysis ignores the agency of religious institutions, as if the state is the only institution that could preserve the quality of religious activity. Here I approach this topic from two angles. First I analyse some quantitative information on the total numbers of monks and nuns in order to ascertain the degree to which the Qing state was able to keep track of the members of the saṃgha. I will argue that the reach of the state was much more limited than is commonly thought. I then flesh out this argument by looking more closely at the failure of institutional control in the actual lives of prominent Buddhist monks.