The Dharma Through a Glass Darkly: On the Study of Modern Chinese Buddhism through Protestant Missionary Sources
Gregory Adam Scott
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Religion, Columbia University
This is an edited, electronic version of "The Dharma Through a Glass Darkly: On the Study of Modern Chinese Buddhism through Protestant Missionary Sources 彷彿對著鏡子觀看的佛法：藉由基督教傳教士的史料研究現代中國佛教". Shengyan yanjiu 聖嚴研究, Vol. 2 (July, 2011): 47-73.
|The writer has drawn his water from native wells, the facts being mostly gathered from Chinese sources. The pen is not held by one seated in a professor's study, but by a plain man, who daily walks to and fro among idolaters, and testifies of what he has seen and heard.|
|Hampden C. DuBose, The Dragon, Image, and Demon, or, the Three Religions of China, 1886|
Christian missionaries working in China in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries produced a great deal of printed material, both through presses that they had established in China, and through publishers in their home countries. They wrote about their work, their religion, and their experiences in the field, often with a particular emphasis on indigenous religious culture. Widely regarded to be specialists in the field of religious belief, their writings on Chinese religion were very influential and authoritative in their time. The first-hand nature of their experience, especially the fact of their long years of residency in the treaty ports and hinterlands of China, was presented as part of the authority behind the material. As in the preface penned by DuBose above, this "experience as authority" was sometimes rhetorically set against the arms-length knowledge of university academics who only knew about Chinese religion through texts. After their expulsion from mainland China in the early 1950s, missionary writers lost much of their access to the field, and were supplanted to a large degree by pioneering ethnography and fieldwork that has expanded the scope of scholarly inquiry into experienced and lived religion in Chinese societies. Even so, the missionary experience of Chinese religious culture during the long years of their residence in China stands today as a unique and very intriguing corpus of historical data. This body of work is certainly problematic from a historian's point of view, since it is so explicitly biased against its subject; for the most part, missionaries criticized, dismissed, and ridiculed indigenous religion while upholding and defending their own beliefs. And yet even though they denied its validity, they earnestly sought to understand the religious culture they observed around them.
This essay is an attempt to outline how these types of missionary sources might be used by historians of religion; specifically, scholars of Buddhism in modern China. The impetus for this paper came from my experience as an intern archivist in the Missionary Research Library archives at Burke Library in New York City. Working with materials produced by missionaries who had lived and worked in East Asia prompted me to look more closely at how they described local Chinese religious culture, how these accounts had been used in previous scholarship, and how these resources might be used in future research. In my view as a historian of religion, these missionary studies represent a fascinating cross-cultural encounter between religious traditions during an era when the boundaries and concepts of 'religion' were themselves being formed; as a specialist in the study of modern Chinese Buddhism, missionary observations of Buddhist temples, sacred sites, festivals, monastics and laypeople offer a valuable perspective on an era of immense religious change. I make no claim to be an authority on the study of missiology or on the history of Christian missions in China; this field is blessed with a great number of expert studies and scholars. I do wish to argue, however, that studies coming out of those fields are critically important to those of other specializations who wish to dip their foot into this field; my thesis here is that we must first know more about the missionaries themselves, their lives and their historical context, in order to make responsible use of missionary sources in the study of modern Chinese religion. By understanding the conceptual lenses through which they viewed the religious culture of their time we are better able to compensate for their distortions and glimpse their observed world, perhaps not from some putative standpoint of objectivity, but certainly in a way that begins to draw aside the veil of criticism that colors so much of this material.
As European and American scholars of East Asian cultures during an age of imperialism, the points of view expressed by missionaries might best be understood through the rubric of orientalism. While initially articulated in reference to the Middle East, the study of orientalism has come to exert a profound influence on scholarship of East Asia as well. Studies building upon Edward Said's 1978 monograph have examined how knowledge has been constructed on an apparatus of colonial power and domination, and these have been joined by wider postmodernist movements that have urged reevaluating conceptual structures previously regarded as sacrosanct. These movements have implicated an entire intellectual legacy of information and understanding about non-European cultures in a systematic distortion and subjugation of their subject, and have prompted scholars to re-examine the sources, assumptions, and methods behind a colonialist discourse that persists in a post-colonial world. In the field of religion, studies such as David Chidester's Savage Systems have examined how scholars and researchers in the field have been complicit in developing and maintaining colonial structures of power, creating the very object of their study through their influence on modes of governance. Many scholars argue that the entire apparatus of the 'World Religions', often treated as a natural and objective descriptor of a universal phenomenon, has revealed itself to be nothing more than a modern construction formed through processes of scholarship, institutional isomorphism, law and policy. No longer able to take 'religion' for granted, scholars must now attend to its performance, representation, regulation and resistance.
Some scholars of Buddhist Studies have taken up this line of inquiry, attempting to examine how the history and legacy of the field is connected to orientalist and colonialist modes of thinking. Philip C. Almond was one of the first to apply Said's methods to the study of Buddhism, arguing that in Victorian Britain the field was involved in an “imaginative creation” of its object of study, and that the biases established during this formative period have had a lasting - and deleterious - effect on the field. In the introduction to his 1995 edited volume, Donald Lopez suggests looking at the history of Buddhist Studies in order to better understand the genealogy of its received ideas, and the essays that follow in that volume do precisely that, revisiting important researchers and religious figures who have helped to construct the field as it exists today. Richard King's 1999 monograph on studies of India and "the East" urges a redirection of religious studies by making orientalism itself an object of our study. He sees this as a means of avoiding both resignation toward the influence of orientalism in the history of the field, and a re-introduction of Enlightenment thought under the guise of "critique". These pioneering efforts have established a consideration of the legacy of orientalism and of earlier scholarship on Buddhism as a necessary, and potentially quite productive, project for advancing the scope and depth of Buddhist Studies.
Missionary accounts of Chinese religion appear to embody all the hallmarks of orientalist scholarship: on the whole they establish a clear divide between reified categories of East and West, they reflect domestic concerns in portrayals of their subject, and they appear to maintain a privileged position of power and knowledge over the cultures they describe. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, missionaries were widely held to be authoritative sources of knowledge on religious topics, including the religion of the cultures in their field. Their writings on Chinese religion, especially their translations of religious texts, were highly regarded and indeed formed some of the foundational materials for the Euro-American discipline of Sinology. Holmes Welch, whose writings on modern Chinese Buddhism in the late 1960s still stand as the most comprehensive guide to the subject in a European language, cited missionary accounts to provide details on the health of Buddhist institutions. Yet he also began to question how authoritative their work really should be, as he was able to interview many refugee monastics outside of the People's Republic who provided him with alternative narratives of the modern history of Buddhism in China.
Scholars since Welch have continued to cite missionary descriptions of modern Buddhism in China, most often their first-hand accounts of things such as monastics, temples, and festivals. The question we must face, however, is whether these missionary accounts do not, in fact, reflect anything substantial about their subject, reproducing instead a set of European concerns and biases, as Eric Reinders has argued. Said's arguments about the misrepresentation of non-European cultures focus mainly on the academic world of orientalist scholars, many of whom studied "the East" from the comfort of university libraries in Europe, disconnected from the living cultures for whom they spoke. Yet Arif Dirlik, on the other hand, has argued that orientalism was not a product of the West alone, but rather involved the confluence of European and non-European cultures in the "contact zones" of colonial modernity. These were precisely the sites where missionaries spent their long periods of residence in China, and though their training, language, and religion were sourced in the West, their daily lives put them right into the midst of a combustion chamber of intercultural and translingual intercourse. Indeed, missionaries and other workers in the field had more opportunity to incorporate input from their subaltern subjects, including that of native interpreters, collaborators, scholars, and friends, into their descriptions of local culture, although this input might not receive explicit recognition in the finished text.
My point here is that missionary writings are not simply reflections of their own culture, but rather represent the subject of their gaze filtered through the lens of their own understanding. If we are to account for their biases, however, we must first gain some insight into these conceptual lenses by learning more about the historical and intellectual contexts behind missionary writings. And just as these distortions were originally produced through contact between European and non-European cultures, if we are to mine missionary accounts for historical information we must draw upon primary sources in both European and non-European languages.
The following two sections offer examples of missionaries whose writings represent intriguing sources for scholars of Chinese Buddhism. I have chosen two figures who lived in very different periods of history to show how much their missionary approach, historical context, and relationship to Chinese culture changed from one generation to the next. I do not intend to interpret them as "representative figures", but rather to show how important it is to learn about both their personal history and the larger historical context in order to interpret missionary writings. This is to say that both their times and their own lives are critical considerations in understanding what lenses they brought to their visions of religion in China.
Joseph Edkins (Ài Yuēsè 艾約瑟, 1823 - 1905) was a pioneer of the China mission field, one of the founders of the North China branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, and a scholar who published over a dozen monographs during his lifetime. Born in England, he traveled to China in 1848 under the auspices of the Protestant non-denominational London Missionary Society. He would later work with such pivotal figures as Hudson Taylor (Dài Déshēng 戴德生, 1832 - 1905), Walter Henry Medhurst (Mài Dūsī 麥都思, 1796 - 1857), and W.A.P. Martin (Dīng Wěiliáng 丁韙良, 1826 - 1916), leading translation and publishing efforts of the fledgling Protestant missionary enterprise in China. This groundbreaking generation of missionaries had a heady confidence in the superiority of Christian doctrine and European science. They were also leaders in the study of Chinese sacred texts - as in, for example, the translations of the Classics by James Legge, published from 1861 to 1872 - and in producing written works about the Chinese religion of their own day. Missionary authors almost universally derided Chinese religion as corrupt, idolatrous, and ultimately harmful to the people. The bias against idolatry was especially reflective of their own Protestant preoccupations, as Chinese religious images were often critiqued through thinly-veiled references to Catholic practices.
Yet in spite of their near-universal criticism of idolatry and superstition, there was one aspect of Chinese religious culture to which this generation of Christian missionaries in China were overwhelmingly favorable: the sacred mountains, temples, monasteries, and related religious spaces of the Chinese countryside. This is an argument that Michael J. Walsh put forward in a seminar delivered at Columbia University in November 2009, where he described how the normally critical gaze of missionaries was suspended when writing about Chinese sacred spaces, especially those in natural surroundings. With their majestic vistas and cool climates, religious properties were often prized as retreats from the summer heat in the lowlands, or used as hostels by traveling missionaries. While the contents of the temples presented frightening examples of idolatry gone wild, and Buddhist priests were usually targets of criticism for their dullness and sloth, the experience of the wild and natural spaces themselves was something that Victorian missionary minds could well appreciate.
Edkins' published works are full of travel accounts, among the most interesting of which is one that narrates his visit to Nánjīng 南京 in 1861 while it was occupied by forces of the Tàipíng rebellion. He also wrote a detailed and colorful description of the city of Běijīng 北京 in 1898. Here, however, I will examine one account recorded in his book Chinese Buddhism: a Volume of Sketches, Historical, Descriptive, and Critical, first published in London in 1880. Most of Edkins' book focuses on describing the textual corpus of East Asian Buddhism, where his own biases show through quite clearly: his own theology is consistently used as a touchstone of truth, and Buddhist teachings are only presented as imitations or deviations from his own belief. If we turn to his accounts of visiting Buddhist sacred spaces, however, we find ourselves looking through a much more sympathetic lens.
One of these narratives is particularly interesting. It describes a brief visit to Tánzhé Temple 潭柘寺 in the western hills of Běijīng. Edkins' account describes how in 1866 he and some friends arrived at the temple one night and stayed in a guest room. They observed an evening ritual involving about forty priests, as well as a box containing a snake that was said to have lived for two thousand years and which ingested only water. Edkins understood it to have been pacified by the power of the Buddha. He describes a Lèngyán Altar 楞嚴壇 depicting scenes from the Lèngyán Sūtra (the Śūraṅgama Sūtra), and pays particular attention to six iron figures of Portuguese sailors placed around the altar. He also recounts how, since a heavy rainstorm had just passed, a monk took them to see the rushing waters of the stream near the monastery gate. Lastly we find a description of an altar to the Pratyeka Buddhas 辟支佛, the name of which I have reconstructed from his Romanized “An-lo-yen-sheu-tang” as “Hall for Extension of Longevity and Peaceful Happiness” 安樂延壽堂. In his descriptions of these features of the temple grounds, Edkins' narrative is surprisingly free of the judgmental tone present in his earlier discussions of Buddhist doctrine.
We can compare this narrative with what would normally be one of our main sources of historical information on the site: its temple gazetteer, which was first compiled in the eighteenth century by Shén Mùdé 神穆德 (d.u.), and expanded in 1883 by the monk Yì'ān 義庵 (d.u.) From this text we can learn about the major sights on the temple grounds, for example the Yìnyuè Stream 印月溪 in front of the temple, likely the same "foaming and dashing water" described by Edkins. We can also read biographies of temple abbots and learn of their contributions to the temple. Yet we also find many poems and accounts written by certain named individuals based on their visit to Tánzhé Temple. These include pieces by the eighteenth-century literati Shěn Wéngǎo 沈文鎬 (d.u., jìnshì 進士 1733), and Zhāng Péngchōng 張鵬翀 (1688 - 1745, jìnshì 1727). Yì'ān himself made two visits to the temple in spring and autumn of 1883, recording his impressions in eight and ten poems respectively. Edkins' experience is thus very much of a type that would have been included in a temple gazetteer, had he been a Chinese literatus or monk. Although separated by language and culture, we can find similar things mentioned in both types of accounts.
Yet not only does Edkins offers us further details not present in the gazetteer, he also presents an new source independent from that of the Chinese record. As far as I can tell, his description of the Lèngyán altar and the altar to Pratyeka Buddhas are not to be found in the Chinese-language historical record. Edkins and Yì'ān valued different sorts of phenomena when they wrote their accounts of Tánzhé Temple, and each is useful to us in its own way. Edkins recorded the sights and sounds he felt were remarkable based on what he valued in a sacred space, and in light of his experiences at other Buddhist temples; Yì'ān was focused on situating the temple in a history defined by imperial favor, the poetic impressions of powerful literati, and a series of exemplary monastic leaders. Elsewhere in Edkins' publication, we find descriptions of his visits to Bìyún Temple 碧雲寺, southwest of Tánzhé temple, and Mount Pǔtuó 普陀山 in Zhèjiāng province 浙江. Again in sharp contrast to his denunciations of the corruption of Buddhism elsewhere in the text, his descriptions of these locales are relatively free from such judgments.
Yet we must be careful to weigh his observations against what we know about his biases; while he writes much about Chinese Buddhist texts, I would not value his perspective on these as much as I would his descriptions of the physical layout and condition of temples and other sacred spaces. These were aspects that Edkins and many other missionaries of his day could appreciate and represent in their writings without having to condemn them, and given the importance of landscape, architecture, and space for Buddhism in China as elsewhere, this represents a source of very valuable information for our studies.
Earl Herbert Cressy (Gě Déjī 葛德基, 1883 - 1979) was an American Baptist missionary who traveled to China in 1910 under the auspices of the American Board of Foreign Missions. Cressy was involved with the Council of Christian Colleges in China as well as the National Christian Council of China, and was principal of a college in Hángzhōu. While the Protestant missions of Edkins' generation were characterized by a heady confidence, those of Cressy's era were more subject to conflict, introspection, and change. The World Missionary Conference convened in Edinburgh in 1910 set the stage for a radical rethinking of the mission enterprise, a new direction that was formalized in China by the establishment of the China Continuation Committee in 1913. By 1928 the committee was reformed into the National Christian Council of China, a consultative non-denominational body of Protestant leaders. Organizations such as these had helped to increase cooperation among mission groups, but they were still faced with the question of why their mission efforts were not producing the dramatic number of conversions that they had expected. The anti-Christian movement of 1927, a stronger Chinese state and calls for the indigenization of Chinese churches all added to the sense of urgency - each one could be a sign that the mission enterprise was failing, or represent an opportunity for greater success. One effort to study this problem, the Laymen's Foreign Missions Inquiry, was initiated in 1930 by a group of Baptist laypeople and soon gained the support of John D. Rockefeller (1839 - 1937) and the Presbyterian Church.
Cressy was recruited as a fact-finder for the China section of the study, but evidently he soon decided to undertake a much more thorough approach than that laid out in the original plan. To this end he recruited a Mr. Y.D. Bao in Hángzhōu and a Mr. Paul T.T. Seng in Wǔchāng 武昌 to assist him in gathering data on "indigenous religions", by which he means Buddhist, Daoist, and local and/or popular religious institutions. Bao and Seng personally visited a total of 379 temples and monasteries, and interviewed or otherwise recorded data on 326 monks, nuns and laypeople. Some of this data was incorporated into the published report, but like other contributors to the LMFI report Cressy entrusted the bulk of his data to the archive in hopes that future researchers would be able to make use of the copious amounts of data that could not be put into print.
These data sheets record a great deal of information about these religious institutions, including their name, location, date founded, sect affiliation, the number and type of monastics, and comments by the researchers. While many of the cells are blank, there is still a great deal of information that is provided. In addition to temples and monasteries listed in the Nationalist government's survey of religious institutions, there are also data sheets on Buddhist monasteries outside of this list. One of these is the Zhēnjì Temple 真際寺, for which there is more detail recorded than for most of the other entries. From the data sheet we learn that this temple, which is still extant today, is located on Mt. Wǔyún 五雲山, was founded in the Sòng dynasty, is affiliated with the Pure Land school, and was rebuilt during the Qīng. There are nine monks and three novices recorded as being in residence, with seven being literate. It is noted that the monastics come from Wēnzhōu 溫州 and Táizhōu 台州 in Zhèjiāng province, and elsewhere in China such as Húběi 湖北 province, and that the officers of the monastery are appointed for life. The sheet shows four hundred pilgrims from all classes of society (but "mostly business") visiting the temple per year, mostly from the locality. Further information is provided on temple income, major and minor images, as well as personnel including their name, age, province of birth, position and reason for their becoming a monk.
|Hangzhou Buddhist Monasteries Listed in Cressy's Survey|
| Included in the Government Survey:
長慶寺, 華藏寺, 天寧寺, 戒壇寺, 天華寺, 龍興寺, 演教寺, 水德寺, 蓮覺寺, 義悟寺, 童乘寺, 圓通寺, 甘泉寺, 金剛寺, 相國寺, 覺苑寺, 報恩寺, 正等寺, 相國寺, 天長寺, 水陸寺, 彌勒寺, 遙祥寺, 七寶寺, 慧雲寺, 白衣寺, 白蓮花寺, 法輪寺, 水福寺, 仙林寺, 仙林寺八房, 祖山寺, 護國寺, 彌陀寺, 鋼佛寺, 菩提講寺, 祥符律寺, 福濟寺, 福濟寺東房, 長佛寺, 大通寺, 水福寺, 海潮寺, 福田寺, 萬壽寺, 小九華地藏寺, 潮鳴寺, 永壽寺, 定香寺, 寶華寺, 吉祥寺, 奉聖寺, 道林寺, 姚園寺, 鐵佛寺, 覺圓寺, 接待寺, 金剛寺, 定光寺, 天龍寺, 五藏寺, 定江寺, 七寶寺, 百法廣潤寺, 法喜寺, 定水寺, 法云寺, 月塘寺, 昭化寺, 殊勝寺, 崇福寺, 鐵佛寺, 善慶寺, 大佛寺, 拈化寺, 常寂光寺, 海會寺, 聖水寺, 仁王講寺, 慈雲寺, 開元寺, 魚藍講寺, 韜光寺, 廣化寺, 鳳林寺, 昭慶律寺, 兠率寺, 昭賢寺, 智果寺, 南天竺聖因寺, 普福寺, 龍井寺, 甘露寺, 南高峰榮國寺, 大仁寺, 虎跑寺, 真珠寺, 靈峰寺, 梅龍寺, 香積寺, 茄(?)壇寺, 化度寺, 永慶寺, 棲雲寺, 梵天寺, 普濟寺, 淨因寺, 寂照寺, 報國寺, 壽聖寺, 水福寺, 靈隱寺, 理安寺, 淨慈律寺, 薦福寺, 棲霞洞妙智寺, 紫雲洞法雲寺, 上天竺法音寺, 法鏡寺, 法淨寺, 玉泉清璉寺, 六通寺, 夕照寺, 法相寺, 法雲寺, 集慶[講]寺, 本來寺
高麗寺, 瑪瑙寺, 慧林寺, 玉佛寺, 雲棲寺, 果成禪寺, 西方禪寺, 包山寺, 法音寺, 真際寺
It is important to remember, however, that the data is not recorded in any systematic fashion. Many cells remain blank, and question marks abound. The judgments of the researchers - such as their impressions of the piety and intelligence of the monks - are especially suspect. Yet this data offers us a unique ability to add to what we know from other sources, such as temple gazetteers and reports in Buddhist periodicals and official documents. Since this study sought reliable information on the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese religious institutions, data that would help Christian leaders enact reforms in their own churches, we can be reasonably sure that they attempted to make it as accurate as possible within the terms of their understanding. As was the case with Edkins, knowing the auspices under which the research was undertaken helps us to better judge the data itself. Even better would be some knowledge of Y.D. Bao and Paul T.T. Seng, but to date no such information has been unearthed.
Looking at Cressy's LMFI data as a whole, it paints a picture of a thriving Buddhist scene in Hangzhou, supported by large wealthy monasteries which attracted more than one million pilgrims per year. Whereas the most prominent narratives of Chinese Buddhism during this era are dominated by reformist figures such as Ōuyáng Jiàn 歐陽漸 (1871 - 1942) and Tàixū 太虛 (1890 - 1947), it is sobering to find that, for example, the surveyed monastics seem to have been exposed to few Buddhist books and periodicals, one of the most common venues for discussions of reform. Clearly the institutions surveyed by Cressy's associates were very much of the traditionalist mold, and yet appear to have continued to enjoy popular support.
Although it has only been possible for me to take a few tentative steps into what I feel is a very intriguing field of inquiry for historians of religion, I hope that others will join me in exploring the potential of missionary sources. Just as we see a cross-cultural encounter taking place in the works published by Protestant missionaries to China, so too must our work partake of different cultures, languages, histories and contexts. Scholars today, who are able to participate in more international exchanges than before, are perhaps better equipped to undertake this type of work than ever before. In this way we might still be able to glimpse of a period of religious history that missionary writers saw only as through a glass darkly.
The following is a list of relevant missionary writings on Chinese religion, with a focus on those sources that discuss Buddhism at some length. An URL is provided if the text is currently available online. Full author names are given in each instance to facilitate internet searches.