Mismatched Concepts of Early Medieval Chinese Religious History
A talk by Victor H. Mair
It is not surprising perhaps that an eminent scholar noted for, among other things, probing the connections between text and performance, should present a learned lecture in a form and style reminiscent of the Chinese art of storytelling. This is precisely what Professor Victor H. Mair, of the University of Pennsylvania, did in a talk at UCLA on November 4 on the mechanisms by which Buddhism first gained a toehold in China. Professor Mair's approach delighted those in the audience acquainted with the rich tradition of Chinese storytelling, for it lifted an academic talk up to the level of art.
Professor Mair began by explaining that his talk would be in three "parts." How appropriate, members of the audience must have thought, that a talk on Buddhism would be so divided, just like the tripitaka (literally, the three baskets), the three major parts of the teachings of the Buddha, or like the sanjiao ("the three teachings": Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism) that Chinese often said characterized their world of thought. Professor Mair's opening remarks were analogous to the short, quick kaipian (literally, prologue) with which Chinese storytellers often began their tale, but unlike kaipian, which typically consisted of a song or poem, Professor Mair's prologue was a series of very brief anecdotes, the import of which became clear as the main story (the lecture) unfolded.
Part 1: Prologue -- Anecdotes
Here are the anecdotes with which Professor Mair began:
- "When I was a graduate student and a young professor at Harvard, I had a colleague named Nagatomi, in Buddhist studies. . . . We were close neighbors. Every morning he would walk by my house on the way to the Harvard campus. He had a very priestly kind of shuffle -- you knew when he was going down the street who it was. [At this point, Professor Mair stood up and mimicked Nagatomi's shuffle.] My mother-in-law, who is Chinese, would look out the window, and every time he would go by she would say 'There goes Lao Dao.' I replied, 'Mother-in-law, that's not Lao Dao. You should call him Lao Fo, because he's a Buddhist priest; he's not a Daoist.' And she answered 'Chabuduo' [It's almost the same thing]."
- "It used to be said the representative of Chinese popular religion wears a Buddhist robe, Daoist sandals, and a Confucian cap."
- "A nineteenth-century European traveler to China saw a monkish looking person and said to him, 'Which sect of Buddhism do you belong to?' The monk replied, 'the Daoist sect.'"
- "When the Japanese went to Taiwan to make it part of their empire by colonizing it, they were aghast at all of the mish mash of things that were in the temples there. And so they made a special point of cleaning up Buddhist temples and purifying them by kicking out all of the Daoist things that had crept in."
Part 2: Terminology
Professor Mair noted that "people commonly speak of there being three doctrines or three religions (sanjiao) in China: Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. Whether or not you want to call them 'religions' depends on how far you are willing to go in your interpretation of the term 'religion.' If you take it in its naked, unadorned sense, then Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism are merely three doctrines or teachings. However, if you accept jiao in the expanded sense of zongjiao [the modern Chinese word for 'religion'], then [all three] are indeed religions."
"There is a slight problem nonetheless," Mair continued, "in that zongjiao is a neologism borrowed from modern Japanese, where it was created specifically to serve as a translation of the Western term 'religion.' Thus, the modern standard Mandarin word zongjiao is what I call a roundtrip word. It originally existed in Chinese in premodern times, but it acquired a new meaning given to it by the Japanese. . . . In China zongjiao used to mean doctrine of a sect or teachings of a clan -- it did not mean 'religion.'"
These roundtrip terms, adapted by the Japanese from old Chinese terms and transformed into neologisms that translated modern, Western concepts -- such as jingji (economy) and shehui (society) -- Professor Mair described as lying "at the heart of global intellectual discourse, in which the citizens of China and Japan are now integral participants."
Professor Mair observed that "the question of why insular Japan was more open to these new international ideas than continental China is a profound and complex one, which can only be partly explained by Yôgaku (Western learning) or Rangaku (Dutch learning) of the eighteenth century. . . . National character, inertia due to sheer size, social and governmental institutions and other facts certainly must also have played a significant role in the relative receptivity to Western ideas by East Asian countries in the early modern period."
Returning to the term zongjiao, Mair pointed out that the traditional meaning in classical or literary Chinese of the term is far different from the Western concept of "religion." The term "religion," Mair noted, "comes from the Latin religare, which means to tie back or to tie fast, cognate with "rely," and probably referred to the attachment of the individual with the godhead." It took quite an intellectual leap, Mair argued, for the Japanese to take the two characters zong and jiao, and combine them into one word -- zongjiao -- to represent the Western notion of religion.
Mair, noting that classical, literary Chinese was mostly monosyllabic, stated that "with the polysyllabization and vernacularization of the official written language that were given the stamp of public approval during the May Fourth movement of 1919, the legitimacy of a host of new terms, such as zongjiao, was assured. Nonetheless, so long as Chinese write in sinographs (or hanzi, or characters) and are at least subliminally aware of the root meanings of zong and jiao, there will always linger a slightly alien flavor in discussions about zongjiao carried on in sinographic languages."
Although China thus came to acquire the term "religion," the question remains, Did China actually have a religion or religions? "Some Confucian-minded conservatives," Mair pointed out, "would insist that "no -- traditional China before the impingement of Buddhism only had philosophy. . . . Furthermore, some people would deny that traditional China had philosophy at all, since the ancient Chinese did not engage in ontology, epistemology and all the other things that philosophers do. Maybe traditional China had 'thought,' but no 'religion' and no 'philosophy.' Alas, even the very word for the abstract notion of thought, idea, or ideology is a Sino-Japanese roundtrip neologism: sixiang. . . . It would seem that one can no longer think or cogitate in a modern sinitic language such as Mandarin without becoming sucked into a maddening vortex of neologisms. Does this mean, then, that the civilization, people, and culture of China have experienced a cosmic discontinuity so deep that it can be scarcely bridged?" This is a question, Professor Mair declared, that must be taken up another time.
In any event, Mair continued, "it is not through words that we know that premodern China had religion. We know it through historical and archaeological research, through ethnographic and anthropological investigations, through the study of rituals, myths, and legends. It doesn't matter what we call it. . . . Premodern China definitely had what Europeans call 'religion.'. . . Make no mistake about it, the discipline of the history of religion has established very clearly . . . that even Confucianism has its religious dimension: temples, icons, rituals, popular scriptures, and so forth."
Having established that traditional China had religion, Professor Mair went on to say that "the territory we now refer to as China, in premodern times had many more than merely three religions. It also had Nestorian Christianity, Judaism, Manichaeanism, Zoroastrianism, shamanism, Bon, animism, ancestor worship, and Islam. . . Yet, of all these religions, the least problematic and most overwhelming of these systems of thought qua religion, in terms of its spiritual, ideological, social, and intellectual impact on the largest number of Chinese for the past 1,500 years, has been the foreign faith from India we call Buddhism."
By the "middle of the first century CE Buddhism came to be recognized as an integral entity of tremendous power and complexity. This is something that the Chinese had to take seriously, and by and large they did. Millions flocked to it; thousands attacked it; few ignored it. The questions I wish to raise today are how precisely the indigenous traditions responded to Buddhism, how they affected Buddhism, and how Buddhism affected them. . . . The main arena of interaction was between Buddhism and Daoism. . . . Keeping in mind the anecdotes I began with, as to what transpired when Dao xiansheng (Mr. Dao) met Fo xiansheng (Mr. Buddhism), in the words of the Chinese storyteller, If you want to know what happened after that, wait for me to take this drink." At this point, Professor Mair took a drink of water.
Part 3: The Buddhist Origins of Daoism
"The genesis of today's lecture," Mair stated, "goes back about thirty years ago, when I first began teaching Chinese religion. I was trained at the graduate level in Chinese literature and Buddhism, and I honestly did not know much about Daoism. So I had to scramble to keep ahead of my students. The more I learned about Daoist religion the more startled I was by how closely it resembled Buddhism. The first thing I noticed was that the Daoist canon had three parts (sandong)," similar to the tripitaka of Buddhism. Furthermore, "the lists of names of Daoist deities in many cases were very similar to those of Buddhism deities, and some of the names of Daoist deities were simply Buddhist. The iconographical setup of Daoist temples so closely resembled those of Buddhist temples -- with their three main deities usually, and fierce warriors guarding the front and back door -- that unless I looked very carefully when I entered a Chinese temple, I often had trouble telling whether I was in a Buddhist place of worship or a Daoist hall. It was not long before I began to formulate a hypothesis of religious Daoism as a response to Buddhism. . . . If there had been no Buddhism that came to China, there would be no Daoist religion, especially as it has been known for the past 1,800 years or so." Professor Mair related that when he shared this view with Kristopher Schipper, the renowned Daoist scholar, Schipper replied "Of course you're right."
Mair went on to "draw a very sharp distinction between Daoist philosophy and Daoist religion." He pointed out that Daoist religion has liturgy, rituals and practices, all of which is very different from what the early Daoist philosophers were doing. In objecting to this interpretation, some scholars say "Don’t forget geyi," which is generally translated as "matching concepts." "This is," Mair went on to say, "the standard refutation of my view of Buddhism as providing the source or inspiration for the rise of Daoist religion. According to the conventional view, Buddhism came into China on the coattails of Daoist religion. In other words, Daoism was already in place in China, and Buddhism modeled itself on that preexisting tradition."
Geyi or matching concepts implies is that "when the Buddhists came to China, they did not know how to present their religion to the Chinese people. So they looked to Daoism for terminology: they used Daoist terms to translated Sanskrit terms." To come to grips with geyi, Mair said he "began to look very carefully at every occurrence of geyi, anywhere and everywhere -- there aren't many of them. Even before I started doing that, I questioned the translation 'matching concepts.'" First, Mair argued that it is far fetched to translate ge as "matching." The term ge, Mair pointed out, is used to describe such things as pigeon holes or boxes or slots: gezi. Similarly, the little, square boxes on Chinese writing paper are gezi. Geyi "does not mean 'matching concepts,'" Mair declared. Rather "it means something like 'categorized concepts.'"
When one looks at what ancient Chinese did when they were doing geyi, "basically they were doing one thing. And they didn't do it very much, because it failed. They were trying to cope with large numbered lists in Sanskrit texts. The Indians loved long numbered lists, and when this came to China with Buddhism, the Chinese weren't prepared for it because in pre-Buddhist writings the Chinese very seldom had used long numbered lists." The idea of ge is evident, for example, in the term gewu, which means classifying things. "This was the first Chinese translation, during the early contact with the West, for 'physics.' It was a real Chinese neologism, not a roundtrip word."
In closing, Professor Mair showed the audience a single page from a fourth or fifth-century Daoist scripture. On this page, he had marked in red Buddhist terms or even Sanskrit terms, that is terms borrowed from Buddhist texts. The page was covered with red markings, thus vividly illustrating Mair's hyphothesis.
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Victor H. Mair was educated at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and at Harvard, where he took a PhD in Chinese literature (with a dissertation on Dunhuang bianwen -- "transformation texts") in 1976. Since 1979 he has been at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is now Professor in the Department of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies and a Consulting Scholar in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Mair has spent most of his academic career doing research and writing on premodern Sino-Indian and Sino-Iranian cultural relations. Beginning in the fall of 1991, he organized an international, multi-disciplinary research project on the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age peoples of Eastern Central Asia, especially their desiccated remains and textiles. His investigations on this subject have involved numerous expeditions to the region and culminated in a major conference drawing distinguished scholars from fifteen nations that was held at the University of Pennsylvania in April of 1996. This conference has been hailed as a watershed in the study of Eurasian civilization and has had a considerable impact on scholarly paradigms about the spread of ancient peoples together with their cultures and technologies. In 1997, Mair made a television documentary about the mummies of Eastern Central Asia for NOVA and in 1998 made another film for the Discovery Channel.
Among Mair's publications are Painting and Performance: Chinese Picture Recitation and Its Indian Genesis (Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1988), and T'ang Transformation Texts (Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1989). Mair has also translated the Dao de jing (Tao de ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way; Bantam, 1990), and more recently has edited the Columbia History of Chinese Literature (Columbia Univ. Press, 2001).
Published: Sunday, November 21, 2004