Questioning the Revival

Buddhist Monasticism in China since Mao

In: Review of Religion and Chinese Society
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  • 1 Chinese University of Hong Kong, China
  • 2 Chinese University of Hong Kong, China

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A common narrative of Buddhist monasticism in modern China is that monastic institutions were virtually eliminated during the Cultural Revolution period (1966–1976) but have undergone continuous revival since that time. This simplistic narrative highlights differences in state-monastic relations between the Maoist and post-Maoist eras, even as it oversimplifies various developments. In this article, I analyze the notion of revival and assess the state of Han Buddhist monasticism in the prc. My focus is on clarifying the “basic facts” of monasticism, including the numbers and types of monastics and monastic institutions. I draw on studies published since Holmes Welch’s works as well as on my own fieldwork conducted in China since 2006.

This article questions the revival metaphor and shows that it is misleading. First, as Welch noted for the Republican period, recent developments are characterized by innovations as much as by revivals. Second, evidence for the growth of monasticism from around the year 2000 is weak. Yet in two aspects, monasticism today revives characteristics of Republican-period monasticism: ritual performance is central to the monastic economy, and Buddhist seminaries are important for monastic doctrinal education.

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