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Reviewed by:
  • Chinese Buddhism: A Thematic History by Chün-Fang Yü
  • Stuart H. Young
Chün-Fang Yü, Chinese Buddhism: A Thematic History. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2020. xiii, 285 pp. US$85.00 (hb). ISBN 9780824881580. US$28.00 (pb). ISBN 9780824883478.

After more than forty years of teaching and research in Buddhism and Chinese religions, Professor Chün-fang Yü here offers a new undergraduate textbook that is unique in focusing exclusively on Chinese Buddhism.1 Such textbooks are rare in part because relatively few universities offer courses on just Chinese Buddhism, which may seem too narrow in scope to attract undergraduate students. In order to do so, instructors often center their courses on broader, more topical or compelling themes like healing, warfare, capitalism, magic, self-cultivation, and so on. Thus, the first and perhaps most difficult task for the author of such a textbook is selecting and framing the contents to make them relevant and accessible for students. As Yü notes, the last attempt to meet this challenge was Kenneth K. S. Ch’en’s Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (Princeton University Press), published in 1964.2 Ch’en intended his book for students with some background on the topic, so it is perhaps too long, detailed, and narrowly historical for introductory courses. Yü thus offers a much more concise and simplified “thematic history,” which covers topics like scriptures, devotional cults, festivals, rituals, and gender in synchronic fashion, and includes standard classroom props like “Discussion Questions” for each chapter and a glossary at the end.

Otherwise, Yü’s textbook is quite similar to Ch’en’s. Both exemplify the intellectualist, elitist orientation of twentieth-century Western Buddhist studies—foregrounding written texts, philosophical discourses, doctrinal “schools,” and the activities of eminent monks, emperors, and literati scholars—even when discussing the social, material, and embodied practices of “common” Buddhists. Both authors emphasize how Buddhism was domesticated in China, thereby reifying socially and historically constructed categories like “India,” “China,” and “Buddhism” as bounded, timeless essences that somehow influence and transform one another. Thus, Yü’s Chinese Buddhism helpfully updates and consolidates the contents of Ch’en’s Buddhism in China for undergraduate readers—and incorporates more materials from late-imperial and modern periods—but it otherwise leaves unchanged and unexamined Ch’en’s underlying approach, structural framework, and theory of transregional religion.

Yü’s “Introduction” and chapter 1 on “Major Buddhist Sutras and Treatises” present the main histories, doctrines, texts, and personages of Chinese Buddhism during the [End Page 164] Han and Six Dynasties periods (ca. first–sixth centuries CE). She begins with abstract overviews of Indian Buddhism, “early” vs. Mahāyāna, Han Confucianism, and Daoism before recounting legends of Buddhism’s Chinese transmission via emperors, elite monks, and scriptural translations. Here one may question the contention that “Buddhism was at firstly poorly understood” by the Chinese, who could only “make sense of rebirth . . . by positing that Buddhism taught the continued existence of a soul” (p. 15). For what could Buddhism possibly be apart from people’s interpretation of it, whether medieval monks or modern scholars? According to Yü, however, early Chinese Buddhists eventually came to understand their tradition through the intellectual and literary efforts of great masters like Kumārajīva (344–413), Dao’an 道安 (there are no Chinese characters in this book) (314–365), and Huiyuan 慧遠 (334–416), whose medieval hagiographies are recounted uncritically as historical fact.

Since a “key way that Chinese people learned about Buddhism was through reading and listening to the exposition of Buddhist sutras” (p. 17), chapter 1 gives pride of place to written texts and their tenets, including the Perfection of Wisdom scriptures, the Tathāgatagarbha, Nirvana, Lotus, and Vimalakīrti sutras, and the Awakening of Faith in Mahayana [sic, p. 64]. Yü notes the significance of some of these texts in social and material practice—as oral liturgies, apotropaic devices, visual, artistic, and physical reproductions, etc.—but her presentation of them here is almost entirely doctrinal. Yü provides concise and accessible explanations of concepts like ś ūnyatā (not “ś ūnyāta” or “ś ūnyata,” as on pp. 31, 162), non-duality, the Middle Way, upāya, Buddha-nature, and other...


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