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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 2.1 (2019): 1–15;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Faxian)

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Faxian and the Meaning of Bianwen 變文: The Value of His Biography to the Study of China

SOAS, London

Abstract: In 1989 Victor Mair published a monograph entitled T’ang Transformation Texts that has subsequently come to determine the translation used for the term bianwen 變文 in English as ‘transformation’. In 1991 I published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society a comment on Mair’s monograph proposing that a passage in Faxian’s biography noticed by some earlier scholars but not discussed by Mair suggested that other ways of construing the term were possible, and I have subsequently expanded on these remarks in passing. In 2016 the erudite Seishi Karashima published in the Annual Report of the International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University a review of the early evidence for the meaning of bianwen that likewise draws on Faxian, though his explanation differs from and makes no reference to mine. How does Faxian’s evidence now stand?

Keywords: Faxian, bianwen, 變文, Victor Mair, Karashima Seishi


About the Author: Tim H. Barrett is Emeritus Professor of East Asian History at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He studied Chinese at Cambridge and Buddhist Studies at Yale, and spent much of his career publishing on the history of the religious traditions of East Asia, primarily with regard to China. His books include Li Ao: Buddhist, Taoist, or Neo-Confucian? (1992), Taoism Under the T’ang (1996), The Woman Who Discovered Printing (2008)and From Religious Ideology to Political Expediency in Early Printing (2012).


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