Stefania Travagnin

Stefania Travagnin interviewing the abbot of Shijing Monastery 石經寺

I am conducting two studies during this multi-year project, one on the topic ‘Religious Diversity/Inter-Religious Networks in Qingyang District’, while the second analyzes ‘Han Buddhism intra-religious networks in Chengdu/Sichuan’.

As for the research on ‘Religious Diversity/Inter-Religious Networks in Qingyang District’, I visited all the sacred sites in Qingyang 青羊 district that were important in the late Qing and Republican period, and are still present (some even active) today: the two mosques 皇城清真寺 and 鼓楼清真寺, the Protestant church 上翔街禮拜堂, the Catholic church 平安橋天主堂, the Daoist temples 二仙庵 and 娘娘廟, and the Buddhist sites 文殊院, 愛道堂, and 金沙庵.

I took photos of those sites, interviewed their devotees and religious personnel, and also collected data about the sites themselves from the Sichuan Provincial Library, city archives, and the library of the Sichuan University. So far I have just completed a preliminary survey, in preparation of a later trip (to be done in 2021) that will be devoted to unpack dynamics of the inter-religious networks in the district. I will look at the situation in the Republican period but also at dynamics in the present time.

As for the sub-project ‘Han Buddhism intra-religious network in Chengdu/Sichuan’, I made some adjustment to my initial proposal, which planned to focus only on urban Chengdu.

I decided to enlarge the area of investigation to the entire Sichuan, urban and rural areas, and study the modern Buddhist history of Mt. Emei 峨眉山, Leshan 樂山, Neijiang 內江, Suining 遂寧, Nanchong 南充, Luzhou 蘆洲, and Chongqing 重慶. I have also selected two specific perspectives for the analysis of the modern history of Sichuan Han Buddhism, namely (1) Buddhist education and (2) female communities, in the attempt to unpack Buddhist education networks (佛教教育網絡) and ‘female Buddhist networks (女性佛教網絡) that developed in modern Sichuan. Moreover, the theme of Buddhist education has been further divided into Buddhist education for the laity and common people, education (and training) for the Sangha, and Sangha’s education to the army during the Sino-Japanese conflict.

The following paragraphs will explain some of my findings, which are also subjects of research articles currently in preparation or in press.

(In)visible Nuns and Nunneries: Female Hidden History of Sichuan Buddhism

The official history of Chinese Buddhism has often been the story of so-called eminent male monks; this historical account neglects to mention nuns, yet nuns were quite active participants in the religious and social spheres. Regarding Sichuan, modern Buddhist history is framed within the efforts of the monks Nenghai 能海 (1886–1967) and Fazun 法尊 (1902–1980), and the nun Longlian 隆蓮 (1909–2006). This research unfolds a parallel and different narrative of modern Sichuan (Han) Buddhism, and tell how nuns other than Longlian, especially those who preceded Longlian, and small nunneries have contributed to this new page in the religious history of China. 

During my very first trip to Chengdu I started a long-term research on a small nunnery, the Jinsha Nunnery金沙庵, via archival research and interviews to the resident nuns.

Jinsha Nunnery 金沙庵
Jinsha Nunnery 金沙庵: Hall with portraits of important nuns and monks in the history of the nunnery

Jinsha Nunnery is located in Qingyang district, which is a very important area for the religious landscape in Chengdu as it hosts sacred sites and religious communities belonging to all the five official religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestant Christianity); this is also the district of the famous Manjusri Monastery文殊院 and Aidao Hall 愛道堂.

The nunnery is built on a tiny and busy commercial alley, with the main gate quite hidden by surrounding shops. Jinsha is a small community of twenty nuns, but it is also a temple that was built in the Qing dynasty, and whose history includes the succession of thirteen generations of nuns, which is a rare and remarkable achievement in the female history of Buddhism. After research in the city and provincial archives, and in the archives of the Sichuan office of the Buddhist Association of China I found that Jinsha Nunnery has contributed tremendously to a few religious networks: the larger Buddhist network in the city of Chengdu and surrounding areas, and the inter-religious network of the Qingyang district and of Chengdu and suburbs.

My research extended to other small hidden nunneries in Chengdu, like Zhongxing Nunnery 中興寺, Zhuyin Nunnery 竹隱寺, and Dizang Nunnery 地藏庵, and mapped their relations during the Republican period.

  • Zhongxing Nunnery 中興寺
  • Zhuyin Nunnery 竹隐寺

Other hidden yet crucial nunneries in the late Qing and Republican period in other parts of Sichuan include Xinlin Nunnery 西林寺, located in Neijiang 內江 and very important since 1938; Jingye Chan Nunnery 淨業禪院 and Qingfu Nunnery 清福寺, located in Suining 遂寧 and whose histories intersected with the local popular worship of Guanyin and the monk Qingfu 清福 (1862-1940); Fuhu Nunnery 伏虎寺, which also hosts the Mt. Emei Female Institute of Buddhist Studies 峨眉山佛学院尼众班.

  • Xinlin Nunnery 西林寺
  • Qingfu Nunnery 清福寺

Several of these nunneries, like Jinsha and Zhongxing in Chengdu, and Xilin in Neijiang, display photos of previous abbesses and resident nuns, and also of other monastics who have been important in the histories of these sites, in small rooms and shrines; these ‘pagoda’ are not merely a memorial of the temple nuns, but they represent the collective memory of larger communities, which go beyond the borders of a single site, and show how temples and networks can intersect and develop in a micro-area.

Soldier-Monks (僧兵 or ) and Buddhist Engagement with the Army.

As for the ‘Military education’, the Baoguang monastery 寶光寺 served as key case study.

Baoguang Monastery 寶光寺
Baoguang Monastery 寶光寺: Front courtyard

The theme explores the role of Sichuan monks in the second Sino-Japanese war (1931/1937-1945) as soldiers (defined as 僧兵 and 軍僧). Archives presented the most important material on the topic; however I could find interesting photos and narrative material in the Jianchuan Museum 建川博物館 (Dayi 大邑), and temples like Wenshu Monastery 文殊院 and Baoguang monastery 寶光寺, which indeed hosted the militaries from the late 1930s.

Sangha Education and Local Buddhism in Republican Sichuan and Chongqing

I have unpacked important ‘Sangha education networks’ centred on the figures of local monks like Shengqin 聖欽 (1869-1964), 遍能 (1906-1997), 昌圓 (1879-1945), and the lay intellectual Wang Enyang 王恩洋 (1897-1964). As for the latter, I have also researched an important cross-province Sichuan-Nanjing network centred on him and his lecturing career. 

The monk Changyuan 昌圓 (1879-1945) was crucial in the Republican period for his role in developing Buddhist education for nuns in Chengdu, and his overall position in Republican Sichuan Buddhism.

With the help of nuns from Aidao Hall 愛道堂, I conducted visits and interviews to temples in Pidou 郫都district (which was called Pi xian 郫縣 in the Republican period), like Pingle temple 平樂寺, Zhongxing nunnery 中興寺, Huguo temple 護國寺, Zhuyin nunnery 竹隐寺, and the Śākyamuni Bridge 釋迦橋. Changyuan was in fact native of Pi xian, and active especially in Pi and Wenjiang xian 溫江縣. I have also interviewed elderlies from the area who met Changyuan when they were little, and a writer of the gazetters of Pi xian.

  • Zhongxing Nunnery 中興寺
  • Śākyamuni Bridge 釋迦橋

The monk Bianneng 遍能 (1906-1997) is another key case study in my research, as he was born in the end of the Qing dynasty and lived through the first Republican period, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the Cultural Revolution, and the beginning of the new opening to religion post-1980. Bianneng is the leading figure of a ‘diachronic network’ and crossed several Buddhist centres during his career. Active in many Buddhist areas like Mt. Emei, Leshan, Chengdu, and Chongqing, he is considered the most important figure in Sichuan for the modern development of Sangha education. I visited his Wuyou Monastery 烏尤寺 in Leshan, interviewed his living disciples who are now resident at Wuyou and the Sichuan Buddhist Institute on Mt. Emei.

Wuyou Monastery 烏尤寺
Wuyou Monastery 烏尤寺: Front Gate
Fawang Monastery 法王寺
Inside what was the classroom of the Fawang Institute of Buddhist Studies (法王寺佛學院); this is now a library (Fawang Monastery 法王寺)

Wang Enyang 王恩洋 was another educator, involved in several structures of learning, and active between Sichuan and Nanjing. The Dongfang Cultural and Religious Institute 東方文教研究院, located at Shengshui Monastery 聖水寺, in Neijiang, was one of these schools.

The Fawang Institute of Buddhist Studies 法王寺佛學院, located at Fawang Monastery 法王寺, in Luzhou 蘆洲, was an important education centre for the Sangha in the final years of the Republican era, and had monks like the well-known Yinshun 印順 (1906-2005) among their teachers.

The case of Suining: Local and Theravāda Patterns

Suining Buddhism mirrors key features of Han Buddhism in modern Sichuan, elements of the unique local culture from the Eastern part of the province, but also shares significant patterns with the overall Chinese Buddhism during the first half of the twentieth-century. I did some in-depth research visiting Guangde monastery 廣德寺, Qingfu Nunnery清福寺, Jingye Chan Female Nunnery 淨業禅院.

Suining is well-known for a wide-spread devotion to Guanyin 觀音信仰, and the development of local practices and stories about Princess Miaoshan 妙善. Besides collecting material on nuns from the late Qing and Republican time, I also gathered unpublished sources of key monks in the Republican period like Qingfu 清福 (1862-1940) and Changnian 長念 (1908-1990). My study has especially addressed life and practice of the monk Qingfu, who also traveled to South and Southeast Asia, and could be seen as a leading figure in the contemporary revival of attention towards early Indian Buddhism and the Theravāda tradition.

Leave a Reply