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Reviewed by:
  • Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism
  • Linda Penkower (bio)
Alan Cole. Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. xvii, 292 pp. Hardcover $49.50, ISBN 0-8047-3152-7.

With his Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism, Alan Cole joins a growing number of scholars in the field of East Asian Buddhism who rightly seek to bring what were once marginal areas of study into the mainstream dialogue on how Buddhism developed and functioned within Chinese society. In Cole's case, the focus is on family values. Through a rather straightforward and insular look at a series of Buddhist texts written in China between the fifth and thirteenth centuries, Cole suggests an evolving pattern of Chinese Buddhist propaganda designed to exploit the mother-son relationship—underutilized in the Confucian defense of the traditional patrilineal family structure—in an ultimately successful effort to tie the family to the (financial well-being of the) monastery and thereby gain for Buddhism a large piece of the highly lucrative funerary rites prize. In the course [End Page 416] of doing so, Chinese Buddhists created new myths, rituals, and justifications for a mother-son style of filial piety that, despite the unconventional and intrusive nature of their form and content, in the end showed little interest in going beyond or otherwise challenging the male-dominated Confucian family status quo. Rather, the increasing sophistication with which medieval Chinese Buddhists broached and manipulated the desires and fears of each member of the Chinese family was first and foremost aimed at the self-serving end of securing a steady source of income and other support for the Buddhist community. Buddhists, Cole thus concludes, systematically hooked their rising assimilative star to the preservation of the traditional patriarchal family not so much because they took an active interest in family values but because they found that capitalizing on certain fault lines inherent in the dominant Confucian family-value system was a practical and efficacious point of entry and acceptance into Chinese society (pp. 1-13, 226-227).

Cole begins by laying out the fault lines in the Confucian notion of filial piety (an idea he claims existed and remained consistent enough from the Han on to be treated ahistorically), which set the stage for the Buddhist response (chapter 2). Basing himself in the Analects, the Classic of Filial Piety, the Mencius, and the Book of Rites, Cole argues that the Confucian vertical pattern of filial piety, which in theory is applicable to both sons and daughters and is directed to both fathers and mothers, in fact deals almost exclusively with the father-son relationship, which demands accepting paternal dictates both before and after the father's death, and which is grounded in unquestioning obedience and replication rather than affection and a sense of indebtedness. The reason for this narrowed emphasis is that the Confucian notion of family values takes the continuation of the patriline into the future and the maintenance of its ancestral line from the past as its main objectives. Daughters generally do not remain within the uterine family after marriage and are thus of no use to their natal families in this regard; as wives and daughters-in-law, they are outsiders who must be brought into line with the goals of their new families, and this primarily entails producing sons to ensure the continuation of the household.

Despite the father-son nexus of Confucian filiality, Cole notes that the critical motivating factor as articulated in the Analects for observing the three-year mourning period for parents (held out as the paradigm of family values) in fact is grounded in the repayment of moral debt owed by children to their mothers, not to their fathers, for the sacrifices endured during the early years of child-rearing—feeding, nurturing, and sleeping in the spots of a bed made wet by an infant while offering the child the dry spots. From this he concludes that the first of two fault lines in the Confucian patrilineal system is the natural affinity a son feels toward his mother (and the need to express this feeling), but which he does not feel toward his father. Indeed, Cole...


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