University of Nottingham Ningbo China
School of
International Studies
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Stories, myths and practices of Buddhist clerics in late-imperial China

Abstract:In Ming and Qing vernacular literature Buddhist monks are often portrayed as sexual predators, evil magicians and even political rebels. Do these literary images reflect reality? Can we say there was a “decline” in Buddhism in late imperial China? The “decline” thesis is at best misleading. Buddhist beliefs and practices flourished in late imperial society and appealed to people of all social backgrounds. Officials and novella-writers might have portrayed monks negatively, but for ordinary folks they fulfilled ritual life and eminent ones were much venerated, by commoners and the elite. The negative image of monks in literary works has three explanations during this period: first, in late imperial China Confucianism was entrenched as a state ideology in the form of “Confucian ritualization”, a kind of ritual/textual purism. The elite became increasingly detached from “non-orthopractic” rituals (i.e. rituals that fell out of the category of “Confucianism”), including Buddhist clerical rituals. The social status of the clergy sank relative to that of the Confucian scholarly elite. Their image as low-ranking ritual specialists further tarnished the clergy. Second, the culture of reading was changing. In the sixteenth century rapid urbanisation, increasing literacy and new print technologies, created a market for entertainment literature. The clergy was just one of many topics: if there were more portrayals of lecherous clerics compared to earlier periods, there were also more images of libertine scholars and adventurous girls. Third, many of the stories about lecherous monks expressed a growing male anxiety about female chastity. Monks were one of the few males outside the family circle with access to women, and so were readily cast in the role of seducers. A typical plot involves a woman who invites a monk home to perform rituals and is then seduced by him. Such stories are not “anticlerical” in the strict sense.These stories – the construction of the image of the Buddhist cleric – reveal to us many aspects of the profound change that took place in late-imperial (or early modern) China due to changes in the market, urbanisation and technologies. 

Speaker:Junqing WU 

Bio:Junqing Wu is a Leverhulme early career fellow in Chinese studies at University of Cambridge where her current project is about anticlericalism (negative portrayal of Buddhist monks) in late imperial China. She has just completed two year postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research in London. Her primary focus is on anticlerical discourse and the social forces behind these. Junqing completed a PhD at the University of Nottingham (U.K) in 2014. Her thesis explored how the concept of “religious heresy” (subsumed under terms like “evil teaching” and “white lotus teaching”) was constructed in late imperial times. It was revised as a monograph, Mandarins and Heretics: the Construct of “Heresy” in Chinese State Discourse (Brill, 2016). 

14 May