Island of Guanyin

Mount Putuo and Its Gazetteers

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Marcus Bingenheimer
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book is a must read for anyone contemplating the use of Chinese temple gazetteers in their research. Simply put, temple gazetteers functioned to advertise what was special about a particular temple, its location, and its storied inhabitants. For a longer definition of this important genre and detailed discussion of their contents, one need look no further than the first few chapters of this book. The eight substantial chapters offer readers a systematic walk through the most common textual categories listed in a gazetteer’s table of contents. Reflecting the typical layout of a gazetteer, the book opens with a chapter on prefaces and postscripts, proceeds to landscape and map, topography, legends and miracle tales, biographies, poetry, and ends finally with travelogues. Each chapter offers translations of at least three carefully chosen texts that are indicative of the genre, demonstrate the spectrum of possible views, cover the historical range, and serve to reveal the history of the site. The strength of this work resides precisely in its presentation of these many translated texts and its analysis of how gazetteer publication worked. By focusing on one very famous Buddhist site—Putuo Shan, off the coast of Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, China—and drawing almost exclusively from nine gazetteers dedicated to this site (the first published in 1361 and the last in 1999), Marcus Bingenheimer presents a broad historical sweep for the development of this site from its legendary inception to the end of the twentieth century. Readers are introduced to how gazetteers and the genres they showcase were edited, when and how pilgrimage routes and place names were altered, and how gazetteers fared in the transition from dynastic to communist rule.

As it stands, Island of Guanyin offers insights on editing and textual accumulation, demonstrating how a site becomes inscribed with meaning through the addition of labels, the creation of poem cycles, and so forth, all of which is excellent, foregrounding the idea that text and site are mutually constitutive. The gazetteers qua genre deviated little in the sub-genres they showcased, in part, because all subsequent gazetteers republished material from previous ones, albeit at times in modified form. Yet gaps of fifty to one hundred years sit between subsequent publications, suggesting that a history of the site will require further exploration of the relationship between actual historical activity in all its discursive and non-discursive forms beyond the insularity of gazetteers and their textualization. How important was this genre to literati readers? What was the print run for gazetteers? How many visitors actually read them? As a window onto literati views of the site or of Buddhist engagement, is there any reason to privilege the gazetteers over other literati writings? What role did oral history play in attracting pilgrims and visitors?

The fortunes of Putuo Shan can certainly be tracked by the arrival of each new gazetteer issue, signaling that after a lacuna of considerable years the site was once again a flourishing outpost. However, the historical apparatus in which these rich translated vignettes are embedded becomes at times too static. To give but one example, Bingenheimer states, “more so than previous dynasties the Ming was suspicious of religious travel” (41), and yet for the last hundred years of the Ming (1550-1644) there are numerous travelogues (youji 遊記) attested in the collected writings (wenji 文集) of literati.

Of greater concern is the handling of religious identities. Neo-Confucianism is treated as an ideologically monolithic and hegemonic unchanging force that determined religious identity from the end of the Song dynasty until 1911. One of the key findings of this volume is that officials “lost the freedom to assume a Buddhist identity in their writing” (189). Underlying this assertion is the idea that literate males, by virtue of their training in the classics are all (secular) Confucians and never “pure” Buddhists. The most they can muster is to be syncretistic or “sympathetic.” This leaves only monastic communities and the illiterate to be designated as true Buddhists, a term that is never defined, but seems to favor “belief in miracles” as a criteria.

First, a number of scholars consider Confucianism a religion and that scholarship should have been addressed here. Second, there is considerable difference between education and active advocacy. Third, elite religious modes of identification can be multiple without our viewing this as diluted, impure, or “merely” syncretistic. During the late Ming alone, there were many competing Confucian lineages and internecine tensions among and between Yangming Confucians, Zhu Xi advocates, and Donglin partisans in a landscape of swiftly shifting allegiances topped off by a despotic emperor unconcerned with Confucian ethical codes. In a word, no singular orthodoxy prevailed in this period nor should we assume that elite men who actively promoted Confucian traditions subscribed to the same Confucian identity across centuries, or that such identities were dominant in every context.

Many literate men became Buddhist precept-disciples (jie dizi 戒弟子), indicating this and/or a dharma name in many a writing reprinted in other gazetteer collections. Since Bingenheimer makes this a criterion (38) of Buddhist identity, such texts should be acknowledged. Some gazetteer writers, as is correctly pointed out, were not Buddhist. Bingenheimer notes that the famous playwright Tu Long屠隆 (1542-1605) called himself a Buddhist (佛弟子) and wrote more than a few essays either advocating or defending Buddhist practices. Why then on the very same page does Bingenheimer still refer to him merely as having “sympathy” toward Buddhism? (152). (For a longer discussion of religious identity and Tu Long’s religious choices, see my publication which came out before Island of Guanyin, but too late for Bingenheimer to consult, Late Sixteenth-Century Chinese Buddhist Fellowship: Spiritual Ambitions, Intellectual Debates, and Epistolary Connections, Brill, 2016). Frequently short on funds, Tu Long, like some of his peers, took on editing projects. To what extent did the need for cash affect the length or content of a gazetteer?

There are many more issues that could be discussed, such as the assertion, previously debunked, of a long decline in institutional Buddhism from the Yuan onwards, proof of which is not presented beyond reference to “quantitative evidence” (20, 202 n.76). Surely other scholars will find much to value and much to debate in this volume, so let me simply end by noting that Island of Guanyin does a great service to the field by bringing to our attention the richness of the gazetteer tradition and offering numerous insights into how to read these great repositories of writing on numerous Buddhist sites.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jennifer Eichman is a Research Associate in the Centre for Buddhist Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Date of Review: 
December 28, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marcus Bingenheimer is Assistant Professor of Religion at Temple University.


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