Buddhist Education, Student-Monks, and Citizenship in Modern China

China_Rongdao Lai2

A review of Praying for the Republic: Buddhist Education, Student-Monks, and Citizenship in Modern China (1911-1949), by Lei Kuan Rongdao Lai.

In this dissertation, Dr. Lai analyzes the processes by which elements of Chinese Buddhist monasticism were modernized in the first decades of the twentieth century, as well as the new social and political identities that became available to monastics as a result of these transformations. Through historical investigation and theoretical intervention she makes an important contribution to the growing field of modern Chinese Buddhist studies by describing the appearance of a new monastic identity, which she terms the “student-monk.” She argues that this new identity was the product of a new system of monastic education which led to the restructuring of traditional master-student relationships and ultimately served as a basis from which Chinese monastics were able to negotiate their status as citizens with, and within, the emerging modern nation-state. Issues of identity performance, community formation, and secularization (in the broader sense of the term) are her key theoretical touchpoints in this dissertation.

The introduction contains much of what one expects to find in a dissertation, including a literature review. Dr. Lai begins the introduction by asking a number of interesting and interlocking questions about the modernization of the Chinese Buddhist monastic establishment. She observes that there has been, to date, no sustained analysis of the modernization of Chinese Buddhist education. This has led, she argues, to some confusion on the part of scholars in how to understand the relationships that various student-monks of the period had with various masters, among other things. The category of “student-monk” is a central analytic category in this work, and Dr. Lai argues that we should use this term in a broadly inclusive sense, in which “student-monk” refers to a performed identity that was enacted within communities, both real and imagined, by young monastics who gathered around China’s modern Buddhist academies. She argues that this new identity of the progressive, political, and socially active student-monk was embraced not only by the monastics who actually attended these academies, but also by those who aspired to the same values, and that these actors all joined together in textual communities formed by means of the periodicals published by those academies.

The introduction contains many of the key theoretical insights Dr. Lai contributes to the field. These insights focus on the area of identity formation among Chinese monastics in the first decades of the twentieth century, and reflect both their aspirations and innovations. While authors such as Vincent Goossaert, Rebecca Nedostup, and David Palmer have given us useful studies of the political and social forces at work in the modern construction of religion in China. Deng Zimei, Holmes Welch, and Chen Bing have provided broad studies of the development of Chinese Buddhism in the early twentieth century. With few exceptions (most notably Xue Yu’s work on monastic participation in the Anti-Japanese War), this class of young monastics has not been a central focus of study. Much has been written about Taixu 太虛, of course, but not much has been said about how less famous monks and nuns understood themselves in relation to Chinese modernity.

The first full chapter of the dissertation is devoted to historical context. Drawing on the work of other researchers (including all of the scholars mentioned in the preceding paragraph), Dr. Lai touches on the important events from late nineteenth and early twentieth century history that form the background and foundation for the object of her inquiry.

In Chapter 2, Dr. Lai sketches the history of the modernization of monastic education in China. She begins with a brief review of the development of Buddhist monastic education until the advent of the twentieth century. She then describes the forces that led to the implementation of Buddhist educational reform, which she links to the threat posed by the miaochan xingxue 廟產興學 (seize temple property to build schools) movement. Dr. Lai argues that the development of modern Buddhist education proceeded in three phases: 1) the Sangha Education Societies that emerged in the 1900s, primarily in the Jiangsu region; 2) the Jetavana Hermitage established by Yang Wenhui 楊文會 in Nanjing before the end of that decade; and 3) the short-lived Wuchang Foxueyuan 武昌佛學院, which became the prototype for modern Buddhist seminaries in the 1920s. Much is already known about these institutions, but Dr. Lai tells the story of the Wuchang Foxueyuan with new material, and in a particularly cogent way. She also provides, in English translation, a handy table outlining the planned curriculum for that school.

Having laid the historical foundation for her study, Dr. Lai in chapter 3 begins to make theoretical conclusions. She begins with a careful analysis of Taixu’s thinking on modern Buddhist education and offers some convincing speculations about the atmosphere of religious competition that led to the early closing of the Wuchang Foxueyuan. Dr. Lai agrees with the scholarly consensus that despite its short lifespan, this school was highly influential. Her contribution to this discussion is to provide a new model with which to think about the specific nature of that influence. Using the language of a “paradigm shift,” she argues that the school “provided an ideological basis” for a new identity, which yielded a “discursive tool for student-monks to negotiate and redefine their place in the new social order.” (p. 159) This paradigm shift consisted of three changes: 1) a reimagining of the teacher-student relationship, in which the monastic first adopted the identity of “student-monk,” and then sought out the teachers who supported that identity; 2) the creation of new horizontal relationships – the linkages of a new community – among student-monks, that were valued as much as the more traditional vertical teacher-student relationships; and 3) the creation of a new orthodoxy that drew from the past to create a Buddhism for the present. All of these points are interesting, but this last point in particular opens a new conversation about the modern Buddhist schools that is certainly worth having. Did they indeed create a new interpretation of Buddhism? Was it a coherent doctrine in any sense?

In the final chapter, Dr. Lai takes up the question of citizenship. Drawing extensively from the writings of a wide range of well-known and lesser-known Buddhists, she argues that, “[I]n performing the collective student-monk identity, educated Buddhist monks strove to develop their own notion of rights and obligations as members of the political community…” and that, “Chinese Buddhists actively performed citizenship in Republican China through constant negotiation and compromise with discourses on the right to the protection of property, through participation in political activities such as voting and running for office, and by assuming the obligation to defend the nation especially during the Sino-Japanese War.” (pp. 185-186) To make this argument, she describes the evolution of the modern nation-state and the ways in which the student-monks contested the stipulations placed on their status as citizens, both by government actors and by other Buddhists.

In reading this dissertation, one is struck by the economy and quality of Dr. Lai’s work: It is coherent, focused, and pragmatic. Dr. Lai’s erudition is obvious, but she does not seek to overwhelm the reader with it. Rather, she stays focused on her issue, and renders her main points – even the most theoretical ones – in lucid prose.

Erik Hammerstrom
Assistant Professor of Religion
Pacific Lutheran University

Primary Sources
Minguo fojiao qikan wenxian jicheng 民國佛教期刊文獻集成
Minguo fojiao qikan wenxian jicheng bubian 民國佛教期刊文獻集成補編
Taixu dashi quanshu 太虛大師全書
Yang Renshan quanji 楊仁山全集

Dissertation Information
McGill University, Montreal. 2013. 262 pp. Primary Advisor: Victor Hori.

Image: Students and staff at the World Buddhist Institute in Wuchang. Source: Haichaoyin, Jan 1930.

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