Buddhist Print Culture in Early Republican China


A review of Conversion by the Book: Buddhist Print Culture in Early Republican China, by Gregory Adam Scott.

Gregory Scott’s dissertation is a substantial addition to the rapidly expanding body of scholarship on modern Chinese Buddhism that has appeared in recent years. In the first major attempt to document the remarkable growth of Buddhist publication institutions, publishing projects, as well as key figures involved in Republican era Buddhist print culture, Scott shows that a new print culture served as the “catalyst for change” in the transformation of the Chinese Buddhist landscape in the twentieth century (p. 38). In engaging with ongoing discussions of the “revival” of Buddhism on the one hand and the complex relationship between religion and the “secular” nation-state on the other, he demonstrates that, propelled by new print technologies and innovative religious organizations, publishing served as a key sphere for communication and exchange between the Buddhist and cultural elite in modern China.

Chapter 1 begins with a brief history of Buddhist scriptural publishing in medieval China, focusing on the major editions of the Buddhist canon (da zangjing大藏經) produced using xylography (woodblock printing). Scott then moves on to discuss the innovations and shifts in publishing practice associated with the layman Yang Wenhui 楊文會 (1837-1911) and his Jinling Scriptural Press (Jinling kejing chu 金陵刻經處). Established outside of the monastery, Yang’s Jinling press differed from traditional scriptural printing in that it operated as an independent organization – regulated by a charter, financed and managed by lay people. Although it never moved away from xylographic printing and published mainstream scriptural texts almost exclusively, its organizational model was emulated by scriptural presses in other parts of China. In the early years of the Republican period, these presses evolved to become part of a larger social network connecting lay donors, publishers, and scriptural distributors (fojing liutong chu佛經流通處) selling not-for-profit Buddhist texts and images in retail spaces and through mail order in the major urban centers (pp. 84-89).

It is perhaps most interesting to note that the adoption of moveable type printing, introduced by foreign missionaries and commercial presses in the late Qing, did not immediately replace xylography. In fact, a large number of xylographic scriptures continued to be printed (new printing blocks were carved) and many authors and distributors of Buddhist moveable type publishing were also supporters of the scriptural presses. This had led Scott to assert that, unlike in Europe, there was “no sharp break between manuscript and moveable type eras” in China (p. 42).

One of the first Buddhist publications that utilized mechanized moveable type printing was the Kalaviṇka Canon (頻伽大藏經), which is the subject for Chapter 2. The chief patron for this massive project was the laywoman Luo Jialing 羅迦陵 (Liza Roos, 1864-1941), who was married to a wealthy Baghdadi Jewish trader, Silas Aaron Hardoon (1851-1931). Both the canon project and its editor, the monk Zongyang 宗仰 (1861-1921), were housed in the Kalaviṇka Hermitage 頻伽精舍, established by Luo within the compound of her Shanghai estate. The editing and printing of the Chinese canon, which was based on the Japanese Gukyōzō (弘教藏), was completed in merely four years, between 1909 and 1913. The print work was done by the Chinese Library Company (Zhongguo tushu gongsi 中國圖書公司), a commercial printer in Shanghai. Despite the efforts to publicize in various Buddhist periodicals, the Kalaviṇka Canon did not become popular enough to revolutionize scriptural printing in the early twentieth century, probably due to the extensive errors it contained (p. 124). Yet Scott argues that it should not be seen merely as a failed project, but rather as an innovative experiment in that the Buddhists had to learn to overcome the difficulties and challenges in employing new print technologies (p. 128).

According to Scott, the real revolution in Chinese Buddhist print culture took place with the appearance of a new genre – Buddhist periodicals published in moveable type by modern commercial presses. In addition to the new means of publishing, Buddhist periodicals were also “revolutionary” in that their content mostly resonated with the call for radical changes in Buddhist organization and practices (p. 130). Shanghai, which was already the center of the newspaper and periodical publishing industry at this time, became the main nexus of the modern Buddhist publishing world. Benefitting from quick content turnaround; the capital, skilled labor, and mechanized equipment in Shanghai (and, to a lesser extent, other urban centers); and the expanding distribution networks, periodicals would soon emerged as an important channel for the exchange of ideas between Buddhist authors and readers in China.

In Chapter 3, Scott introduces three Buddhist periodicals published in the first decade of the Republic. Foxue congbao佛學叢報 was published in Shanghai by Di Chuqing 狄楚青 (1872-1941), who founded the Youzheng Press 有正書局 to publish the revolutionary newspaper Shibao 時報 and a few other periodicals. This press printed the writings of a diverse group of contributors on topics that ranged from doctrinal issues to contemporary debates. Its publications also included advertisement, especially catalogues of texts from scriptural presses, which would become a common feature for most Buddhist periodicals. Fojiao yuebao佛教月報 was the organ of the Chinese General Buddhist Association (Zhongguo Fojiao zonghui 中國佛教總會). Despite its short four-month print run, it marked the rise of its editor Taixu 太虛 (1890-1947) as a leading voice for reform. A few years later, Taixu founded the lay group Jueshe 覺社, which issued the quarterly Jueshe congshu覺社叢書. It was later reorganized as a monthly and renamed Haichaoyin海潮音, which continues publishing to this day. In brief, as important tools for communication with their members and the public at large, the content of these periodicals was highly accessible and largely directed toward a non-specialist readership (p. 176).

Chapter 4 examines the Buddhist Studies Collectanea by the bibliophile Ding Fubao 丁福保 (1874-1952). As reading became an important aspect of Buddhist religiosity following the growth in publishing, a new demand for training and guidance for the readers emerged. With his expertise in textual exegesis, translation, and publishing (his early work focused on translating medical texts from Japanese), Ding attempted to provide readers with the competency needed to navigate the “sea of scriptures” (p.198) known for their obscure, specialized form of Buddhist classical Chinese. His collectanea consisted mainly of works by others, while his contribution is usually limited to editing, annotations, and commentarial notes. Published between 1918 and 1923, Ding’s Buddhist collection can be divided into two main genres: 1) annotated scriptures; and 2) books for beginners, which are mostly collected tales of Buddhist practitioners, focusing on karma and rebirth. In terms of exegesis, Ding differed from his predecessors in that instead of presenting personal insight, his extensive annotations drew upon a large number of commentaries and interpretations from the past. Another one of Ding’s exegetical undertakings was his compilation, based on a Japanese-language counterpart, of the monumental Great Dictionary of Buddhist Studies (Foxue da cidian 佛學大辭典), which remains an important Chinese Buddhist lexicon to this day. As he turned his attention to other topics, Ding largely ceased to add new titles to his Buddhist Studies series after 1924. Nonetheless, his work represents a unique trend in the practice of modern Chinese Buddhism – texts now served as the master that both introduced and guided many Buddhists’ exploration of Buddhist teachings.

Chapter 5, the last chapter, examines a few notable examples of periodical, scriptural, and commercial publishing in the 1920s. Several important development took place during this period of fervent growth in Buddhist print culture. First, scriptural and periodical publishing gradually evolved into an integrated network in which references and advertisements were shared. Second, Buddhist publishers started to adopt the business model of the commercial presses while maintaining a not-for-profit principle. For example, the Central Scriptural Press (Zhongyang kejing yuan 中央刻經院) offered stock options to donors and applied a 20 percent markup on books sold (p. 280). Extensive catalogues, some running to thousands of titles, were advertised in Buddhist newspapers and periodicals. Lastly, new Buddhist organizations and societies became nodes in a distribution network of Buddhist print materials that spread nationally and internationally.

One component of this dissertation project that should not be overlooked is the database The Digital Bibliography of Chinese Buddhism (http://bib.buddhiststudies.net) that the author assembled based on several major print sources. The core bibliographic data file in XML format can be downloaded from the project website. Scholars of Buddhism and print culture in modern China will find this searchable, user-friendly database to be of great help to their respective research. In short, Gregory Scott’s insightful study illuminates how Buddhist beliefs and practices were transformed through participation in print culture in modern China. It will appeal to anyone interested in the religious and cultural changes that took place in China in the twentieth century.

Rongdao Lai
Assistant Professor
School of Religion
University of Southern California

Primary Sources

Minguo fojiao qikan wenxian jicheng 民國佛教期刊文献集成
Minguo fojiao qikan wenxian jicheng bubian 民國佛教期刊文献集成補編
Minguo shiqi zong shumu 民國時期總書目
Various scriptural publishing catalogues

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2013. 325pp. Primary advisor: Chun-fang Yu.

Image: Front cover of Foxue chuban jie, Shanghai: Shanghai Foxue shuju, 1932.

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