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Chinese Buddhist literature gained modernity and humanism over past century

Author  :  Ren Chuanyin     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2018-09-29

As Chinese scholars of literature Sun Changwu, Wu Guangzheng and Tan Guilin proposed, Buddhist literature refers in the narrow sense to the literary works created by Buddhist monks (including lay Buddhists) that reflect Buddhist practice and manifest the Buddhist spirit. Since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the reformed schools of Buddhist thought along with cultural reconstruction have led to the historic transformation of Buddhist literature in the context of the modern transformation of Chinese society. Chinese Buddhist literature over more than a century has gained in richness and acquired distinctive modern features.

First, generally speaking, Chinese Buddhist literature has undergone a transformation in both content and form in its modern stage of development. Authors have examined themes of individual being, society, history, culture and natural landscape using Buddhist wisdom and emotion. Cases in point are Hsu Yun and Hong Yi’s poems and articles about self-examination; the visit notes by Taixu and Gao Henian; Feng Zikai and Xia Mianzun’s memorial writings reminiscing on eminent monks; and Zongyang’s poems that call for the rebirth of the modern nation and country.

The dominant form of Buddhist literature is the archaic style, especially in the form of classical poetry. Inheriting ancient legacy in the use of image, allusion, language, rhyme and other aspects, Buddhist literature has also made some modern explorations. For example, in Taixu’s poems, the pre-Tang poetic style is adopted with unregulated verse—either five characters or seven characters to a line—and the image choice is innovative with new ideas of the era. Writings in vernacular Chinese have gradually progressed, including New Poetry, novels, prose essays and drama. The diversified forms and the new literary situations demonstrate a type of sentimental, modern aspiration for emotional freedom and aesthetics.

Furthermore, after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the CPC made necessary religious reforms on the three levels of material, systems and ideology. Buddhism itself has also been actively seeking modernized, humanistic theories and ways in its adaptation to socialist construction, and in Buddhist literature as well. Under socialist modernization, the modern traits of Buddhist literature have been reflected in its rethinking and criticism of the alienation and distortion of human nature. This is caused by materialist desire and emotional lust; the social flattening and digitization of the industrial society; commercial thinking; the tension of man-nature relationships and other issues related to society and human nature.

Buddhism in today’s Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan has inherited the thought of Humanistic Buddhism proposed by Taixu, and it is actively engaging in society, vigorously playing its role in education, research, culture, charity and medical treatment. Buddhist literature in these regions has become the cultural carrier of the Humanistic Buddhism practice. Some authors, while applying Buddhist thought and enlightenment from life experience, offer Buddhist case studies, mentalities or inspirations to those problems that ordinary people are concerned about. For example, the loss of values, psychological depression, distress over desire, family relations, social development and life planning. Representative examples are Hsing Yun from Taiwan who wrote many essays advocating the spirit of Humanistic Buddhism; Sheng Yen whose essays about Chan practice are dedicated to the environmental protection of the mind; and Cheng Yen’s edifying proverbs about meditation.

The above examination of Chinese Buddhist literature shows that its modernity has developed with the three major underpinnings—society, Buddhism and literature—which have enriched the modernization of Buddhist culture and Chinese literature in terms of content, form and experience. Contemporary Chinese Buddhist literature should negotiate the relationships among belief, canon and aesthetic creation. While carrying forward the classical enlightenment of traditional Chinese Buddhism and inheriting the wisdom of each sect, Chinese Buddhist literature should also draw experience from the traditional Confucian and Taoist cultural legacies.


Ren Chuanyin is from the College of Literature and Journalism at Xiangtan University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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