Yu on Zhang, 'Thriving in Crisis: Buddhism and Political Disruption in China, 1522-1620'

Dewei Zhang
Chun-fang Yu

Dewei Zhang. Thriving in Crisis: Buddhism and Political Disruption in China, 1522-1620. The Sheng Yen Series in Chinese Buddhist Studies. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. 368 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-19700-7.

Reviewed by Chun-fang Yu (Columbia University) Published on H-Buddhism (October, 2020) Commissioned by Jessica Zu (USC Dornsife, School of Religion)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55481

This book makes a major contribution to our understanding of the late Ming Buddhist renewal. The author combines rigorous statistical analysis with an engaging in-depth historical narrative. These approaches are further enhanced by his skillful use of rich and varied original sources. This book will become indispensable for students of Ming Buddhism.

Dewei Zhang defines the renewal as “a strong, phenomenal, and large-scale resurgence with monastic Buddhism that involves all walks of society and that projects itself in the spiritual, intellectual, and material forms with the sangha and beyond” (p. 5). Using case studies and quantitative analysis, Zhang traces changes in temple-building activities and activities of eminent monks through the perspectives of time, region, and society. The time span, as the subtitle indicates, is a hundred years, covering the reigns of Jiajing and Wanli. The regions of focus are Beijing and Jiangnan. Society refers to political-social forces. Instead of restricting his discussion to the Wanli era alone, he starts the study with the Jiajing era. This long view allows us to see the arc starting with Buddhist decline under Jiajing, cresting with the renewal under Wanli, and ending with another decline in the seventeenth century. He asks what made the late Ming Buddhist renewal possible and how we should understand it. He cites with approval Jiang Wu’s thesis that “the cycle of revival and decline, rather than being gauged by the intensity of Buddhist activities, should be rephrased as expansion beyond and retreat behind the boundaries set by the society.”[1] However, he wonders whether the expansion beyond or retreat behind the boundary is more a result that requires explanation than a cause that can determine the development of Buddhism. For this reason, it is necessary to explore the causal relationship between the boundary society set for Buddhism and its rise and fall.

Therefore, Zhang believes that a systematic and effective political study, which has been lacking in previous scholarship, is essential. The crucial role politics played is indicated by the two words “crisis” and “thriving” in the title. Crisis refers to political crises created by conflicts within the inner court and factionalism among scholar-officials. Paradoxically, the political crises offered opportunities for Buddhism to thrive.

The book has eight chapters in addition to the introduction and conclusion. I will first describe them and then highlight some key points for discussion. Chapter 1 provides the background for the late Ming Buddhist renewal. It stresses the effect of the regulation of Buddhism instituted in the early Ming period, which imposed structural limitations on its role in society. The controversies of the Great Rites (daliyi 大禮儀) under Jiajing and the “Succession Issue” (guoben zhizheng 國本之爭) of Wanli created chaos and factionalism. These led to the disillusionment of scholar-officials who sought refuge in the Neo-Confucian thought of Wang Yangming (1472–1529) and Buddhism. The close relationship between court politics and the fortune of Buddhism is a running theme of the book. Zhang summarizes this central theme succinctly: “The complex unfolding in the late-Ming Buddhist renewal was structurally conditioned by politics in its direction and pace. In fact, the turning points in the process corresponded precisely with major political events, including Jiajing’s enthronement as an emperor hostile to Buddhism, the reversal of decades-long policy repressing Buddhism after Jiajing’s death, the timely entrance into the political arena of Empress Dowager Cisheng as a successful coordinator on behalf of Buddhism, and the heightened tensions between Cisheng and Wanli that were exacerbated by court factionalism” (p. 232).

The next six chapters examine the leading players in the late Ming renewal: chapter 2 on Jiajing (r. 1522-66); chapter 3 on Empress Cisheng (1545-1614); chapter 4 on eunuchs; chapter 5 on scholar-officials; and chapter 6 on the three eminent monks, Hanshan Deqing 憨山德清 (1546-1623), Zibo Zhenke 紫柏真可 (1543-1604), and Miaofeng Fudeng 妙峰福登 (1540-1612). Chapter 7 turns to the case studies of five temples, two in Beijing and three in Jiangnan. Their fluctuating fortunes were tied to the cooperation and competition between the imperial court and local society. Since the temples were subjected to external forces, they were unable to control their own fates, reflecting the sangha’s loss of autonomy. With eight charts, chapter 8 offers a detailed quantitative analysis of the movements of eminent monks and changes in temple-building activities. By tracing the changes in these two indices, Zhang provides a clear picture of the renewal and its eventual setback.

The book sheds new light on the late Ming Buddhist renewal on several aspects. It not only examines how it happened but also asks why it did not last beyond the Wanli era. While most scholars concentrated on the patronage of Cisheng and Wanli, the literati’s interest in Buddhism, and the activities of eminent monks as contributing factors in the renewal, Zhang makes the situation much more complicated. Instead of starting with the patronage of Cisheng and Wanli, he suggests that we should consider Jiajing’s treatment of Buddhism first. Zhang divides Jiajing’s rule into two halves, twenty years each. In the first twenty years he patronized Daoism and was hostile toward Buddhism, symbolized by his closing of the ordination platform at Tianningsi in 1566. But during the second twenty years, he relaxed some restrictions and even restrained some overly zealous local officials from carrying out large-scale destruction of temples. The point Zhang makes here is that although Buddhism was in a depressed state, it did survive and could be revived when the right opportunity presented itself in the Wanli era.

When scholars speak of the late Ming Buddhist renewal, they usually credit Cisheng with Wanli. But the chapter devoted to Cisheng makes it abundantly clear that she was the real chief benefactor. Her son, the Wanli emperor, sometimes worked with her, but other times worked against her. Her success was due to the network she formed. It included eunuchs, court women, scholar-officials, members of the imperial household, and eminent monks. She patronized Buddhism with financial backing of Buddhist temples, distribution of the Buddhist canon, and promotion of eminent monks. Zhang divides her forty-two-year patronage into four decades. During the first decade, her interest was completely in Beijing-North China, while in the second decade, her patronage began extending southward to central China and Jiangnan. Using three charts, Zhang shows that the first two phases account for 71 percent of the forty-nine monasteries that she supported financially. The funding sharply declined after that. The number of temples Cisheng sponsored in the next ten years dropped by 71 percent from the previous eleven years, and then there was a slight recovery in the final ten years of her life (p. 68). Zhang concludes that the curve matches closely with the ups and downs in the mother-son relationship, which lasted for a decade, from 1595 to 1604.

Cisheng’s confrontation with Wanli over the issue of succession soured their relationship. This mother-son conflict had far-reaching consequences for Buddhism and played a key role in the moving of the center of Buddhism from north to south. The succession issue refers to their different preferences of Wanli’s two sons to succeed him. Cisheng supported Zhu Changluo (r. 1620), the son of the empress Lady Wang, but Wanli wanted to install Zhu Changxun, the son of his favorite, the imperial honored consort Lady Zheng. This conflict between mother and son involved scholar-officials, eunuchs, and eminent monks, such as Deqing and Zhenke. Deqing prayed for the birth of Zhu Changluo on behalf of Cisheng at Mt. Wutai in 1581. Sometime between the eleventh month of 1594 and the second month of 1595, Cisheng became his disciple and even asked Wanli to pay homage to Deqing’s portrait. Deqing’s close relationship with Cisheng alienated Wanli who had him arrested in the second month of 1595, put in prison, and exiled. Zhenke also died in prison because of his involvement with court intrigue and factionalism connected with the same succession issue. Eunuchs who were strong supporters of Buddhism along with Cisheng became less active for fear of antagonizing Wanli. Scholar-officials retired from public service and returned to Jiangnan and started supporting local temples. This shift from the court in Beijing as the center of Buddhism to Jiangnan would become permanent.

Zhang raises a significant question about why the Buddhist renewal did not last beyond the Wanli era. He points out that there are at least two fundamental causes. One is the lack of autonomy and economic security of the sangha and the other is the lack of stability and reliability of the individuals and groups that supported the sangha. The book opens with the sad story about monks in the Da Baoensi in Nanjing having to sell part of their temple land to pay debts incurred for the abbot’s funeral. Zhang argues convincingly that the decline or flourishing of Buddhism is intimately connected with monastic economy in the form of land holding. It is the decline of monastic economy caused by the reduction of temple land that affected the health of the sangha in the Ming. Buddhism enjoyed prosperity in the Yuan. For instance, temple lands in the Yuan amounted to 300,000 qing (4,941,000 acres) and half came from the emperors. By contrast, Ming emperors were much less generous in granting land to temples. The largest grant given to Da Gongde si in Beijing was only 400 qing (6,588 acres) and the second largest was 250 qing (4,118 acres) to Lingu si in Nanjing (p. 25). The reduced monastic assets resulted from their taxation status. We learn that monastic lands in the Ming fell into two categories. While the lands of temples with plaques bestowed by the emperor were exempt from paying land tax, the lands belonging to the temples without imperial plaques were treated as private land and not exempt from paying land tax. However, compared to public land, the tax that a temple paid should take up a small portion of the rent they would receive, and the surplus was intended for the monks’ livelihood. But this led to abuse during the Jiajing era. As one scholar-official observed, “local powerful families treated the sangha as if it were their inherited asset, raising its assigned land tax quota but reducing its land rent” (p. 128). Some powerful families in the Jiangnan area encroached on monastic lands or confiscated them all together. Another reason why temple lands were in short supply was due to donors’ patronage choices. Zhang found that the majority of resources channeled to the sangha in Suzhou, Hongzhou, and Nanjing, all core regions and cities of Jiangnan, were directed not to monastic lands but to such construction projects as (re)building temples, renovating their halls, casting bells, and erecting statues. This did not improve the temple’s economic health. A counter example is Tanzhesi in Beijing. It could remain economically stable over centuries because it amassed huge amounts of monastic lands.

Zhang’s second explanation of why the renewal did not last beyond the Wanli era is that the sangha could not rely on stable support from individuals and groups. The changing patterns of patronage by eunuchs and scholar-officials illustrated this. Next to Cisheng and the imperial household, eunuchs constituted a major group patronizing Buddhism in Beijing and nearby regions. But this could change with the political situation. One table shows that eunuchs were the largest group patronizing temple-building projects in both the Jiajing and Wanli eras. “Together with members of the royal household, they supported nearly three-quarters of the building projects. In contrast, local people, monks, and scholar-officials together accounted for about one-quarter” (p. 93). Why did they support Buddhism? Zhang believes that their patronage could not be explained by their religious faith alone. He thinks that a more powerful motivation was the multiple functions Buddhism could serve for their personal interests, both in life and after death. We learn that eunuchs were affiliated with each of the twenty-four yamens (bureaus) at court. Like the relationship between father and son, there is a semi-lineage relationship between a senior eunuch and a junior eunuch he trained. Charitable associations (yihui) were usually formed by eunuchs who had this kind of relationship. Led by senior eunuchs, the charitable associations would buy land, build a temple, and hire monks to take care of it and the grave site that would later become a cemetery for eunuchs. But the support was unstable, for when an influential senior eunuch died or lost power, it usually meant the end of the group and thus the yihui built around him. In the early Wanli period, eunuchs were a crucial force to shape a religious environment most favorable for Beijing Buddhism. It was the eunuch Xu Zhengguang who brought Zhenke to Cisheng’s attention. However, as the conflict between mother and son over the succession became intense, eunuchs shied away from Buddhism and turned to Daoism, which was patronized by Wanli’s favorite, Lady Zheng. Eunuchs’ participation in Buddhist projects decreased by about 60 percent during the second two decades of Wanli. Cisheng’s patronage also dropped at the same time (p. 118).

Scholar-officials constituted another group that supported Buddhism and contributed to its renewal. Zhang alerts us to the need to pay attention to the “dark history” between literati and Buddhism, for previous scholarship tended to concentrate only on the “cozy relationship” between the two. Under Jiajing, since Buddhism lost protection from the state and local lineages encroached on monastic land, the sangha was almost bankrupt in Jiangnan. Feng Mengzhen 馮夢楨 (1548-1608) and Yuan Hongdao 袁宏道 (1568-1610) are taken as two case studies of scholar-officials embracing Buddhism. They received guidance from Buddhist masters in their religious life, contributed to Buddhism in multiple ways, and enhanced the visibility of Buddhism. But as Confucian officials serving the state and lay Buddhist believers, they always faced the challenge of a dual identity. Yuan described their situation aptly as “riding a two-headed horse” (p. 144). Both Yuan and Feng tried to stay away from politics at court, yet the desire for religious cultivation could not overcome the need to serve the state, which, after all, provided their livelihood. The fate of the Putao Association, active from 1598 to 1560, is another example about the incursion of politics into religion. It was founded by Yuan Hongdao and his older brother, Zhongdao. Most of its members were high-profile scholar-officials in Beijing. The end of the Putao Association was again connected with the succession issue. Five chief members of the Putao Association were Zhu Changluo’s nine instructors, and Yuan Hongdao was one of them. The association was thus a gathering place for court officials who backed the crown prince. Their association with Zhu Changluo cast the group into suspicion. When Deqing and Zhenke suffered persecution, the association had to disband. Unlike local elites in Jiangnan who were freer from court politics in their interaction with Buddhism, officials in Beijing were much more restricted. This is one of the reasons why the center of Buddhism moved to Jiangnan from Beijing.               

Buddhist historiography has always credited the flourishing of Buddhism to the activities of eminent monks. For Zhang, however, they were no more central to the late Ming renewal than Cisheng and the other players in the book. Zhenke, Deqing, and Fudeng were the three eminent monks singled out as case studies. The three were close friends within the same network. Each vowed to complete a major Buddhist project: Deqing vowed to restore the Da Baoensi in Nanjing, Zhenke the compiling of the Jiaxing Buddhist canon, and Fudeng the casting of three bronze halls to be enshrined at Mt. Wutai, Mt. Emei, and Baohuasi (changed from the originally planned Mt. Putuo due to the threat from pirates). Compared with Deqing’s sole dependence on Cisheng and Zhenke’s heavy reliance on scholar-officials, Fudeng kept independence from both Cisheng and Wanli by making local society as his base. Fudeng’s casting of copper halls projects was a good example. The project was supported by donations from both the inner court and local societies. Fudeng was the only one who fulfilled his vow, while Deqing failed to renovate Da Baoensi and Zhenke also did not see the completion of the Jiaxing canon project. He was also the only one who did not suffer from misfortune. Fudeng spent his life in construction projects, building temples and bridges. He was known as one of the best architects in Chinese history. Yet his fame did not seem to have lasted after his death, while Deqing and Zhenke have been celebrated as eminent monks.

By examining the lives of these three figures, Zhang also raises an interesting question: “Who had the right, and by what standards, to decide who constituted an eminent monk?” (p. 157). According to Zhang, the elevation of Deqing and Zhenke to the status of eminent monks was due to the promotion by Jiangnan scholar-officials who “tended to laud political activism and encourage defiance of the ruling emperor mostly because they had fostered a growing sense of solidarity with Cisheng and monks in the fight against Wanli. Thus they shaped Deqing and Zhenke as victims for the public interest, whether it be monastic or political, and invented heroic stories to enshrine their loss and to elevate them to such height of adulation” (p. 196). Although this is an attractive theory, it does not bear examination. In the biographies of eminent monks, there is always a section called xingfu 興福 which is devoted to monks who gained merit by performing deeds benefiting the world. Fudeng was this kind of eminent monk. Such criterion was made by Buddhist historians and not decided by politically motivated scholar-officials. Another example is Zhuhong who never participated in politics and had nothing to do with the court. He spent his entire monastic career in his native Hangzhou. Yet he was without doubt an eminent monk.[2]

The book provides a trajectory of the late Ming Buddhist renewal. Zhang uses the two indicators of the state of Buddhist institutions and the retention of eminent monks in Beijing-North China and the Jiangnan region during the mid- and late Wanli period to chart its course. Two factors were central for the center of Buddhism moving from north to south: patrons and monks. Inner court elites served as major patrons of Buddhism in Beijing but scholar-officials played a similar role in Jiangnan. During the Wanli era, Beijing attracted up to one-third eminent monks, and the number was even higher in the 1580s and 1590s (p. 233). However, the majority of eminent monks in Beijing were not natives and Beijing did not produce eminent monks locally. Buddhism in Beijing-North China was also much more sensitive to political changes than in Jiangnan. By contrast, Buddhism was more successful in engaging local elites and could thus produce most of its eminent monks locally in Jiangnan.

Zhang states explicitly that “what makes Buddhism a religion is not emphasized in this study. It was court politics that ultimately decided the direction and pace of the late-Ming Buddhist renewal. It was politics that prove an overarching key variable, operating both on the structural level of policy and on the level of real-life, context-dependent interactions” (p. 244). Indeed, the entire book is a successful proof of this thesis. It is curious therefore to read when he says two pages later, “Despite a high degree of correspondence, a simple relationship cannot be established between politics as an influencing factor and the renewal as a resulting phenomenon. The causality between politics and the Buddhist renewal resists any simplistic reductionism. Although the renewal would never have occurred without the political crisis, the crisis alone could not entail the renewal or determine its complexities” (p. 246). Since politics cannot account for the renewal, what else is needed to round out the picture? This is a call for more scholars to venture into this most interesting field of study. Zhang’s book is certainly a most felicitous beginning.


[1]. Jiang Wu, Enlightenment in Dispute: The Reinvention of Chan Buddhism in Seventeenth-Century China (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 280.

[2]. Chün-fang Yü, The Renewal of Buddhism in China: Zhuhong and the Late Ming Synthesis (1981; repr., New York: Columbia University Press, 2020).

Citation: Chun-fang Yu. Review of Zhang, Dewei, Thriving in Crisis: Buddhism and Political Disruption in China, 1522-1620. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. October, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55481

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