- Building the Buddhist Revival: Reconstructing Monasteries in Modern China by Gregory Adam Scott
With Building the Buddhist Revival, Gregory Adam Scott has significantly contributed to a growing number of studies of Chinese Buddhist institutions and to better understanding the material lives of Buddhist monks and nuns and their financial and political connections. Building on the works of Holmes Welch and Johannes Prip-Møller, among others, Scott’s book is a history of Buddhist monasteries that were reconstructed in China between 1866 and 1966.1
Scott begins his compelling study by recognizing that Buddhist monasteries in China are complex and hierarchical social spaces imbued with sacred power, but also in many cases deeply involved with statecraft. Consequently, further understanding their relational complexities will deepen our knowledge of Chinese Buddhist history well beyond just the history of ideas. Scott writes convincingly that Chinese Buddhist monasteries are “economically and socially distinct entities that support resident religious specialists and attract visitors drawn by their reputation for discipline, teaching, and numinous efficacy” (p. 4). These are all attributes I tried to decipher economically in an earlier study I did of Chinese Buddhist monasteries during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, particularly Tiantong Monastery 天童寺 in Zhejiang province.2 This is one of a handful of monasteries in that region that survived the Taiping War (1850–1864), a period of widespread destruction of temples, and a period during which, as Scott explores, many reconstructions took place.
In this earlier study of mine, I explored the economic ramifications (in terms of both economic and cultural capital) of large Buddhist monasteries in China. I wanted to better understand how monastic institutions supported themselves economically while simultaneously doing the salvific work required of what Scott rightly calls a “merit economy” (p. 16). Scott makes the case that the production and transference of merit by Buddhist institutions had social, political, and economic implications across the imperial spectrum. By the Ming 明 (1368–1644), Buddhist monasteries were in many instances bases of political and economic power and integral to the stability of the imperium.
In my study of Tiantong Monastery, in exploring how Buddhist monasteries could support themselves economically, socially, and politically, one of my guiding lines of inquiry was to ask what type of monastic space was produced in order to achieve both income and salvific outcomes. While different from Scott’s inquiry, there is some resonance with his focus on institutional reconstructions. It was when these institutions were destroyed for any number of reasons that Scott finds his guiding question. He writes, “I would like to better understand how and why people repeatedly generated the motivation and resources to reconstruct them after they had been destroyed, and how the means by which reconstructions were undertaken and the implications they had for Buddhism in China changed in time” (pp. 18–19). In the rest of the book Scott convincingly and [End Page 159] methodically shows us how reconstructions took place all over China, and provides us with a framework to better understand monastery reconstruction historically and theoretically. It is an excellent book written in a clear, readable style.
The book has an Introduction and four chapters focusing respectively on post-Taiping reconstruction (1860s to 1890s), reconstruction from the 1890s to the late 1920s, the period of 1928 to 1949 when print media transformed Buddhist institutionalism, and from 1949 to 1966. These chapters are followed by an elegant Conclusion in which he writes that “a monastery is at heart a living community of humans and numinous beings, for which the structures and even the images are simply frames of material support. Thus, each monastery reconstruction is instead a rebirth of the community into a new generation, a rebirth that brings changes, innovations, and adaptations” (p. 218). Better understanding those changes, innovations, and adaptations is precisely what Scott does throughout the book from the 1860s and even, as we see in the Conclusion, up to the present day. For instance, the types of narratives produced by the Chinese Communist...