Buddhist Activism in Shanghai, 1920-1956


A review of The Householder Elite: Buddhist Activism in Shanghai, 1920-1956, by JAMES BROOKS JESSUP. 

This dissertation studies the role that Shanghai’s elites played in constructing a new lay Buddhist identity in China from the 1920s to the 1950s. Jessup uses social history to examine the status of religion among Shanghai elites, investigating the social networks and the political and business connections within which such elites operated. This work brings together two distinct spheres of historical inquiry, and offers something to each: On the one hand, social histories of Republican Shanghai are abundant (Jessup cites the work of Wen-hsin Yeh, Janet Lloyd, and Xiaoqun Xu as having impacted this dissertation), but few have focused on the role of religion in Shanghai society; on the other hand, although the field of Chinese Buddhist studies has recently taken a much greater interest in the development of Chinese Buddhism in the early twentieth century, no large scale study of the burgeoning lay movement have yet been attempted using the methods employed here.

Jessup’s main argument is that the lay Buddhist associations that were formed in Shanghai in the mid-1920s represented a new “civic culture” that allowed Shanghai elites to “establish a durable source of moral authority and social legitimacy.” (Abstract) Touching on the work of Philip Huang and others, Jessup argues that this civic culture was not autonomous from the various forces of authority that existed in Shanghai during the first half of the 20th century, but rather worked with that authority to create a space wherein elites could practice charity and other Buddhist activities and thereby become socialized to a newly redefined identity as a Buddhist “householder” (jushi).

This dissertation is organized chronologically, with each chapter focusing on one or two of the major issues that defined Shanghai elite lay Buddhism during a specific period of time. In Chapter 1, Jessup describes the genesis of two major lay Buddhist organizations in the 1920s: the World Buddhist Householder Grove and the Pure Karma Society. He shows how these organizations differed from similar organizations that had come before in Chinese history. One of these associations, the World Buddhist Householder Grove, aimed to create a space for a complete participation in lay Buddhist life by unifying under one roof all of the disparate practices involved in being a Chinese lay Buddhist. He ends the chapter by building on the work of Leo Ou-fan Lee, Meng Yue, and Hanchao Lu to assess the ways in which these two organizations accomplished their goals partly through participating in the new use of public space that was occurring in 1920s Shanghai.

Chapter 2 covers the period of the Nanjing Decade (1927-1937), and deals with the ways in which lay Buddhist associations in Shanghai interacted with the Nationalist government to continue their activities. Against the backdrop of Nationalist movements to destroy superstition and to centralize its control, Jessup notes that these associations were able to exert, through their elite membership, some influence at the political and economic levels of Shanghai society. The primary argument of this chapter is that these lay associations amplified some of their activities in order to bolster their legitimacy in the eyes of the state. The most prominent of these activities was the institutionalization of charity work, such as flood relief, the running of soup kitchens, and the establishment of schools. Because of their connections, their charitable activities, and the importance of Shanghai, the Pure Karma Association played host to the first successful pan-Chinese Buddhist organization, the Chinese Buddhist Association, which was founded in 1929 and was immediately dominated by Shanghai’s lay Buddhists.

Chapter 3 deals with the same time period as Chapter 2, but examines a different topic. Here, Jessup draws on the work of Christopher Reed as he discusses the founding of Shanghai Buddhist Books by members of the World Buddhist Householder Grove. Realizing that publishing was taking too much of the association’s time and money, members of the World Buddhist Householder Grove formed a joint stock limited-liability corporation that, while run for profit, was dedicated to spreading the teachings of Buddhism. In the 1930s this company had a tremendous impact on Chinese Buddhism: they produced scriptures, accessible tracts on Buddhism written in the vernacular, and Buddhist periodicals with large circulations. They also produced statues and gramophone records, and began running a Buddhist radio station.

Chapter 4 moves to the period of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. The driving question of this chapter is that of collaboration: to what extent did each of the associations, or the individual members of those associations, collaborate with the Japanese occupational government? Citing Yeh and Jay Carter, Jessup argues that there is no straightforward answer to this question. He shows how different individuals and groups, caught in a web of social and political connections, did or did not aid the occupational government in carrying out activities such as converting Chinese people to Japanese culture through the Japanese Buddhist missionary. His conclusion is that while Jing’an and Guandi Temples were directly complicit in carrying out the policies of the occupational government, the major Chinese lay Buddhist associations collaborated with the Japanese government only through extended networks and only in those areas where collaboration was necessary in order to survive as organizations.

The final chapter of the dissertation traces the generational shift in leadership within the lay Buddhist associations of Shanghai that occurred at the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War. It then follows the decline of the associations as successive waves of governmental reform stripped them of resources, legitimacy, and finally, any existence independent of the State’s Chinese Buddhist Association.

This work provides a much needed corrective to the dominant view in Republican Era Buddhist studies that sees the lay resurgence as part of a “reformation” of Chinese Buddhism, and it also adds much needed depth to our understanding of the complex lives that Shanghai’s elites lived during that period.

Primary Sources

Buddhists periodicals:

– Foxue banyuekan 佛學半月刊

– Haichao yin 海潮音

– Jingye yuekan 淨業月刊

– Shijie fojiao jushilin linkan 世界佛教居士林林刊

Shanghai Municipal Archives

Dissertation Information

University of California, Berkeley, 2010. 95 pp. (single-spaced) Primary Advisor: Wen-hsin Yeh.

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