Patrons and Patriarchs

Regional Rulers and Chan Monks During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

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Benjamin Brose
Studies in East Asian Buddhism
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawaii Press
    , August
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What is Chan/Zen 禪? When and why did it become one of the most prominent forms of Buddhism in East Asia? These questions have animated the field of Chan/Zen studies for more than half a century, and Benjamin Brose’s book contributes compelling new dimensions to these debates. First viewed as a Tang 唐-era (618-907) anti-establishment movement, and then as a product of Song 宋 dynasty (960-1279) institutional proliferation and historical revisionism, Brose shows that Chan actually owes much of its character to the century of sociopolitical fragmentation that spanned these dynasties. Typically understood as a brand of antinomian thought, a tradition of meditation practice, or style of literary discourse, Brose defines Chan as membership in spiritual genealogies that functioned primarily, if not exclusively, to confer the authority of their “collective, routinized charisma” (110). This latter perspective is not new, and Brose clearly indicates his indebtedness to earlier scholars, but he employs it most profitably in charting the fortunes of eminent monks associated with Chan during the tenth century in southeastern China—when and where, it turns out, institutional structures and patronage patterns that determined the course of Chan first took shape. And in a nutshell, this is the thesis of Patrons and Patriarchs: certain Chan lineages gained ascendency over others during the Ten Kingdoms period by successfully navigating local patronage networks with ruling clans, not by winning battles of Chan ideals, and this process gave rise to Northern Song Chan as we know it.

This book is comprised of six chapters, an introduction and conclusion, and five appendices of relevant names and dates. Chapter 1 provides a convenient survey of the political history of the southeastern kingdoms Min 閩 (909-946; roughly present-day Fujian province), the Southern Tang 南唐 (937-975; Jiangsu, Anhui, and Jiangxi), and Wuyue 吳越 (907-978; Zhejiang), upon which Brose focuses his study. Chapter 2 aims to counter scholarly claims that the ninth-century Huichang 會昌 persecutions dismantled the institutional trappings of “scholastic” Buddhism and paved the way for the rise of anti-establishment Chan. Chapter 3 charts the ascendance of “the most powerful monastic network in southeastern China during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms”—the lineages of Xuefeng Yicun 雪峰義存 (822-908) and Xuansha Shibei 玄沙師備 (835-908) that first flourished under Min royal patronage during the early decades of the tenth century (48). Brose argues that members of these lineages gained prominence because they enjoyed a kind of “affinal kin group” relationship with the kings of Min from the time of Wang Shenzhi 王審知 (r. 909-925) (70). Chapter 4 next follows the fortunes of Yicun’s and Shibei’s dharma-descendants, such as Fayan Wenyi 法眼文益 (885-958), who were readily supported by the Li 李 royal clan that absorbed Min territory and human resources into the newly established Southern Tang. In Chapter 5 Brose examines the Yicun-Shibei Chan lineages that predominated in Wuyue via the largess of the ruling Qian 錢 family. These lineages did not convey Chan-specific doctrines, but rather the sanction of monastic institutions whose authority both derived from and contributed to the perceived legitimacy of the Qian regime. Lastly, Chapter 6 also accounts for the rise of famous Chan lineages—in this case centering on Linji Yixuan 臨濟義玄 (d. 866)—in terms of material means rather than doctrinal ideals. Brose argues that the Linji faction achieved ascendency not because of its antinomian, iconoclastic vision of Chan, but because it was better positioned to take advantage of northern patronage networks once Kaifeng 開封 became the seat of Song dynasty economic and political power.

One main theme that runs throughout Patrons and Patriarchs is that the century of political strife after the fall of the Tang created a host of new opportunities for potential rulers, officials, and monks not associated with old aristocratic orders, which is why Chan was able to rise to prominence. This raises a series of questions concerning the relationships between Chan and clan lineage, between aristocracy and meritocracy, and between dharma ancestry, talent, and perceived efficacy. “It may seem counterintuitive,” Brose notes, that at the same time that “elite Chinese society was moving away from the aristocratic model that prevailed until the end of the Tang toward the more meritocratic ethos of the Song, Buddhist systems of authority seemed to be moving in the opposite direction” (110-111). As with the aristocratic clans of the Tang, Brose’s research demonstrates, Chan monks were often chosen for appointment at major state institutions in the southern kingdoms largely because of their “family” name – because of their affiliation with lineages of descent from great Chan patriarchs of old. But Brose differentiates between Chan and clan lineages in at least two ways: membership in the former was not determined by birth and it was viewed to some degree as indicative of practical talents—particularly in terms of maintaining imperial clan cults at major Chan monasteries that also served as royal ancestral shrines. If this was the case, then is medieval Chinese “Chan” best defined as demonstrable expertise in mortuary ritual—as with Chan/Zen in other contexts—in addition to lineage affiliation? And to what degree was Chan lineage really meritocratic? Is it possible that monks gained membership in these dharma lineages because of their secular family ties, as with Buddhists in the north during the Tang and Five Dynasties periods (116)? What are the relationships in this context between birthright and status earned, between nature and nurture, and between Chan lineage as a means of training and transmitting the dharma to sincerely devoted adepts, or merely as discovery and sanctioning of natural born saints? In other words, was one’s position in a Chan lineage the cause or effect of his perceived power? This is but one set of questions prompted by Brose’s excellent study, which provides much food for thought about how dharma lineage functioned in Chinese social networks, and how the dynamics of patronage spawned Chan Buddhism as we know it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stuart Young is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Bucknell University.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benjamin Brose is assistant professor of Chinese Religions in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan.


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