A treasure-trove of information, compiled from a wide variety of sources. Copious translations of primary materials. More entertaining than your norma...moreA treasure-trove of information, compiled from a wide variety of sources. Copious translations of primary materials. More entertaining than your normal economic history because you have the constant underlying tension between monks' supposedly "austere" lifestyle and the very real fact that medieval Chinese Buddhism functioned much like a modern corporation: it had assets, made investments, lent money at interest to individuals, etc. Most monks didn't work in the fields their monastery owned - they had slaves to do that. Ordination certificates were sold. Many took refuge in the saṃgha to avoid paying taxes - they simply shaved their head, registered, then kept a wife and children on the side. Likewise, state persecution of Buddhist organizations were driven by economic factors as much as ideological ones.
A fine book, originally published in the '50s under the title Les aspects économiques du Bouddhisme dans la société chinoise du Ve au Xe siècle, translated admirably by Franciscus Verellen. I give only three stars because I personally find the genre of economic history rather tedious to read cover-to-cover, and because the theory underlying the study is way too determinative. Basically, it looks at medieval Chinese society through the lens of economics, and - what do you know? - it turns out economics is responsible for everything. The deck is stacked. Nonetheless, this is a landmark study, and the fact that it still feels fresh today, nearly 60 years later, demonstrate its enduring value.(less)
An excellent survey of current scholarship on Christianity in China, very nuanced and critical. Its stated goal is to summarize current human knowledg...moreAn excellent survey of current scholarship on Christianity in China, very nuanced and critical. Its stated goal is to summarize current human knowledge about the topic, and they seem to have done just that. (less)
Christianity found its way to China long before the first Jesuit missionaries, or even Marco Polo. It came sometime in the early Tang Dynasty, in the...moreChristianity found its way to China long before the first Jesuit missionaries, or even Marco Polo. It came sometime in the early Tang Dynasty, in the 7th century. The most spectacular evidence of this can be found in the "forest of steles" in modern day Xi'an 西安, originally erected in 781. A large stone tablet, topped by a cross resting in a flower (probably a lotus, maybe a lily), the head of which reads: "Stele [Commemorating] the Spread of the Great Qin's Religion of Light to the Central Kingdom" 大秦景教流行中國碑. The "Great Qin" was a sort of catchall term to refer to European and Middle-Eastern empires, and "Central Kingdom" refers to China. In short, this monument tells the story of 7th century missionaries from the Syriac church, and how they brought the gospel to China.
P. Y. Saeki's The Nestorian Monument in China consists of two parts: an introduction and a translation of the stele. The 161-page introduction provides a decent (if generalizing) overview of historical context: the culture of the Tang dynasty [618-907 CE], Euro-Chinese contacts before the modern era, etc. Unfortunately, Saeki doesn't stop there, and goes on to promote a number of outlandish theories, including:
1. The teachings of Vairocana Buddhism are essentially the same as Christianity 2. After the Chinese emperor's suppression of "foreign" religions in 845, the Nestorians were mostly absorbed by Muslims, and thus, the Chinese Muslim groups of the present are actually wayward Christians 3. The inscriber of the stele was none other than Lü Dongbin 呂洞賓 (a mythical Daoist immortal) 4. The Nestorians who didn't convent to Islam formed something called the "Golden Elixir Religion" 金丹教 (which, in actuality, is a 18th-20th century sect of Daoism).
None of the evidence Saeki offers on these matters is at all convincing, involving a lot of facile equations between various Buddhist and Christian doctrines, as well as willful (or inept) misreadings of technical religious terms from medieval Daoism and Buddhism.
It's really odd to see how a single inscription can be misread in so many ways. And this practice has not ceased. Martin Palmer's 2001 book The Jesus Sutras puts a whole new (and equally fallacaious) New Age spin on the Nestorian stele (see my detailed review here).
This is the danger of eisegesis, of reading into a text. In books like Saeki's and Palmer's, the stele's inscriptions are flattened away, and the stone once again becomes flat, sanded, polished, shimmering - sending back to us nothing but our own cold reflections.(less)
I'm of two minds about this book. On the one hand, as a literary-minded Christian, I very much sympathize with Wiman's project - the display of wrestl...moreI'm of two minds about this book. On the one hand, as a literary-minded Christian, I very much sympathize with Wiman's project - the display of wrestling with faith, with meaning, with death, in a way that is both honest and lyrical. On the other hand, he seems to subscribe to a metaphorical form of Christianity that robs it of its power and promise, redefining central theological concepts so that they are palatable to liberal America. The result is a harrowing dance around the fringes of orthodoxy, without ever truly entering in. Ultimately, Wiman's craft and depth of vision win out, and even this reader, a skepticism skeptic, finds himself nodding along.(less)
Gass's ability to craft language is practically unparalleled in modern letters. He knows the shapes of words, the tumbling rhythms of sentences, the j...moreGass's ability to craft language is practically unparalleled in modern letters. He knows the shapes of words, the tumbling rhythms of sentences, the jug jug jug jug jug jug so unrudely forc'd upon the tongue of your mind. To do any justice to his prose, I'd have to quote extensively from it, and wouldn't know where to stop, as paragraph after paragraph build upon each other, elliptically, to form an intricate web of language. So I won't. Just pick up the book yourself - it's only 85 pages, after all.
What's more, he's actually got interesting things to say, especially about sex, dirty language, and their use and abuse. Reminds me of Gershon Legman, but more lyrical.(less)
A really great overview of the poetry found among Dunhuang manuscripts,* expertly guided by the superbly talented scholar Xiang Chu. Mostly consists o...moreA really great overview of the poetry found among Dunhuang manuscripts,* expertly guided by the superbly talented scholar Xiang Chu. Mostly consists of classification and explication of poems without much deeper analysis, but Xiang does occasionally offer up his own opinions. All kinds of fascinating things to be found here - from the vernacular poems of Wang Fanzhi, to alternate versions of the works of the great masters, to bored students' jottings in the margins of sūtras, to experimental word games, to a handful of Nestorian Christian hymns (in Chinese), and much more.
*A cache of manuscripts dating back to roughly the year 1008 CE, discovered in the early 20th century in what's now far western China. Think the Dead Sea Scrolls, but for medieval China.(less)