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  • Morality and Monastic Revival in Post-Mao Tibet by Jane E. Caple
  • Nicole Willock (bio)
Jane E. Caple. Morality and Monastic Revival in Post-Mao Tibet. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2019. xi, 218 pp. Hardcover $65.00, isbn 978-0-8248-6984-7.

Author Jane Caple reminds us that the resurgence of religion in China since the late 1970s is nothing less than extraordinary. A diverse religious landscape, previously left barren by Maoist secularism, has come back in full force bringing with it monastic and lay communities that have both shared—and [End Page 21] competing—moral values, ritual practices, and economies. Although the reemergence of Tibetan Buddhist monasticism in China is not exempt from these dynamic processes, studies on Tibet tend to frame religious revival in terms of politics and power. Counteracting this tendency, Morality and Monastic Revival in Post-Mao Tibet answers a fraught question—"Is it possible to see beyond the state in studies of Tibet, religion, and other highly politicized issues in contemporary China?" (p. 3)—with an affirmative. Jane E. Caple successfully makes her case through a richly detailed ethnographic study that examines how Tibetan Geluk Buddhist monks and associated lay communities negotiate moral and social dimensions of monastic revival and reform. The solid research is grounded on six years of extensive fieldwork at sixteen monastic communities as well as Kumbum Monastery in eastern Qinghai Province, which involved interviews and participant observation over multiple visits.

The introduction lays out the author's innovative theoretical approach, gives a survey of previous ethnographic work, and provides an overview of the fieldwork sites for this study. Caple suggests that by solely focusing on state-society power relations, "we miss a key a part of what constrains and motivates people" (p. 6). Caple builds on the moral-turn in anthropology, found most notably in John Barker's Anthropology of Morality in Melanesia and Beyond (2007), to examine constraints and motivations, which she argues are not solely defined by politics and power but are negotiated by shared moral communities. Caple does not view this as a closed moral system. Throughout her nuanced ethnography, she demonstrates that rules and boundaries of what is right and wrong are constantly being reevaluated at various levels of multiple moral communities (local, translocal, national, universal). While this chapter introduces the theoretical framework, the penultimate chapter articulates her robust theoretical contributions with precision.

There Caple ties together the notion of negotiating moral boundaries with her fieldwork data, and thereby, creates her own theory of how to see beyond the state in studies of Tibet and religion in contemporary China. This is best articulated in the author's own words:

In their attempts to revive, maintain, and develop their monasteries, [Tibetan] monks have been negotiating moral as well as political space. … The shifting lines between what is conceived to be good and bad, proper and improper, have been drawn (and redrawn) in relation to monks' experiences of the world, their relationships to others within their moral communities, and the judgements of these others, as well as in relation to institutionalized norms and values. Thus, morality has been a dynamic force both constraining monastic development and creating space for changes to institutionalized practices. …

(p. 164)

The six prior chapters provide ample examples, anecdotes, and data to ground the author's conclusions. [End Page 22]

This study focuses on monastic revival and development among Geluk Buddhists in western China. Caple chose her fieldwork locations at sixteen Geluk Buddhist monastic communities for pragmatic reasons. They were relatively easy to travel to, the political situations on site were relatively relaxed, and few previous studies had been conducted at these places. All sixteen sites were located in Repgong [reb gong; Chi. tongren] and western Bayen [ba yan; Chi. hualong] counties in the culturally diverse region known to Tibetans as "Amdo," which is home to not only Tibetans, but also Chinese, Mongols, and multiple Muslim populations. The Geluk Buddhist monastic communities included four scholastic centers: Ditsa, Gartsé, Jakhyung, and Rongwo, as well as branch monasteries and practice centers such as: Dechen, Dowa Drok, Dzongkar, Dzongngön, Gomar, Kasar, Nyentok, Lower Senggé Shong, Upper Senggé Shong, Trashi Kyil, Trashitsé, and...


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