Buddhism in Chinese Society: An Economic History from the Fifth to the Tenth
Centuries, by Jacques Gernet. Translated By Franciscus Verellen
Reviewed by Daniel L. Overmyer
Pacific Affairs
Vol.68 No.4
Winter 1995
COPYRIGHT 1995 University of British Columbia (Canada) ;
New York: Columbia University Press

            THIS BOOK is based on a wide variety of Chinese primary texts, with 
            many translated passages, most from literati or government sources 
            outside Buddhism. Since the author stays close to the critical 
            perspectives of these sources there is useful information here not 
            only about Buddhism, but also about attitudes toward it. Gernet 
            allows that "Buddhism in medieval China was a religious movement. 
            That was its essential characteristic," (p. xv) but as its title 
            indicates, the primary focus of this book is the economic activities 
            of Buddhist monasteries, monks and nuns. There is interesting 
            information here about such topics as monastic ownership of land, 
            serfs, mills, oil presses and pawnshops, as well as on the roles of 
            monasteries as inns and hospitals. There is also good discussion of 
            the wills of monks and nuns and the activities of monasteries in 
            colonizing new land. The author distinguishes three different types 
            of monasteries, those supported by the state, eminent families, and 
            "common monks" (p. 4), and reminds us that "Buddhism in China was 
            not the essentially monastic religion represented by the Vinaya" (p. 
            96). There is repeated emphasis on the contrast within Buddhism 
            between charity and profit, religious merit and commerce. Another 
            strong point of this study is its detailed discussion of Indian 
            Buddhist teaching concerning economic activities of the sangha as 
            the theoretical background of the Chinese situation. All this is 
            Nonetheless, there are problems here, the chief of which is that 
            though this book was first published in French in 1956 it was not 
            fundamentally revised and updated for this translation. The original 
            bibliography of secondary sources lists nothing published after 
            1955; the "additional bibliography" prepared by the translator does 
            include later materials, but few of them are referred to in the 
            book. When it was first published forty years ago, this was an 
            important, path-breaking work, but its republication now is as 
            significant for the history of Western studies of China as for our 
            knowledge of China itself. Specialists have used this book for 
            years, but nonspecialists may not know of more recent 
            It is good to be reminded of the economic motivations and activities 
            of some monks and nuns and of the high costs of large monasteries in 
            labor, precious metals and deforestation, but the author goes too 
            far toward economic reductionism in such statements as that in the 
            period in question, "Religious activity appears as a luxury...an 
            entirely gratuitous activity. The monks themselves were a luxury" 
            (p. 196). It is in such an approach that the dated nature of this 
            book is most evident, as is true as well with its discussion of 
            popular devotional activities in such undiluted Durkheimian terms as 
            "the frenzy of the faithful", "collective delirium", "abnormal 
            behavior" and behaving in "an irrational manner" (pp. 237-39). In 
            the midst of a discussion of T'ang Buddhism, the author jumps back 
            seven hundred years to Tse Jung (d. 195) to illustrate "the 
            demagogic nature...of the great religious assemblies..." (pp. 
            Throughout this discussion, "the literati" are discussed as a 
            unified group represented by a few skeptical intellectuals with 
            little recognition of the great variety of views that in fact 
            existed. At the end the author accepts completely the old view that 
            after the T'ang Buddhism declined and decayed (pp. 308-310), a view 
            that ignores the vitality of Sung Buddhism that had already been 
            discussed by Suzuki Chusei in 1941, and has been reemphasized in 
            recent decades. 
            The value of this book is its translations of primary sources and 
            its salutary reminder of the importance of economic motivations and 
            activities in the history of Chinese Buddhism. But these motivations 
            are insufficient to explain the vitality and continuity of this 
            tradition down through the centuries, for which religious faith and 
            ideas were also important. For a more balanced treatment of this 
            topic, one should consult Kenneth K. S. Ch'en, The Chinese 
            Transformation of Buddhism (Princeton, 1973), and the several 
            articles by Denis C. Twitchett listed in the "additional