By Gilbert Chen
I am conducting a book-length project to investigate the social life of grassroots Buddhist monks and nuns in nineteenth-century Chongqing. This project largely relies on about 600 legal cases from the Ba County Archive located in the Sichuan Provincial Archives, Chengdu. The project will adopt a bottom-up approach to investigate ordinary monastics’ non-liturgical activities across various socioeconomic arenas. By shifting the analytical focus from elite monks to their more mundane counterparts, this study illuminates how deeply ordinary monastics became embedded in their communities. The shift also broadens our understanding of clerics as more than liturgical specialists, highlighting the intersectionality of multiple identities (e.g., religious, familial, gender) in the everyday context.
More specifically, the project consists of three parts. The first one is to analyze the continued interaction between monastics and their natal family members across various arenas: economic, social, and emotional. Instead of being antithetical to each other, the clergy and their lay families worked together to support each other and achieve social reproduction.
The second subproject enlarges on the importance of Buddhist institutions in the local economy. It first investigates the monetization of Buddhist temples, examining how temples per se became a highly valuable type of asset for clerics of different religious traditions. A crucial reason why temples were so high-priced was the size of temple landholdings. Many local temples owned a significant number of farmlands and coal mountains that generated a stable source of revenue for resident clerics. Given that nineteenth-century Chongqing underwent a steady decline of cropland per capita, temple landholdings thus undergirded the clergy’s influential position in rural areas.
The final subproject concentrates on clerical sexual activities. Instead of interpreting them as a sign of the decline of Buddhism in the late imperial era, I will contextualize these transgressive activities by examining various socioeconomic factors contributing to their occurrence and unveiling local residents’ attitudes toward sexually misbehaving monks and nuns.
Together, my work provides a vivid picture of the discordant and disjointed side of Chinese Buddhism and foregrounds the importance of sociality in the lives of ordinary monks and nuns in local society. By doing so, it aims to provide a more balanced and nuanced understanding of Late Imperial Buddhism.