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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 6.1 (2023): 379–385;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Buddhist Narrative Literature)

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John Kieschnick. Buddhist Historiography in China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2022. 296 pp.

Temple University

There are not many books about Chinese Buddhism that tackle a topic spanning sixteen centuries, several genres, and countless actors. Most of our studies confine themselves to a single period, place, text, or person. But then, John Kieschnick’s work is unique in that all his books have eschewed a narrow focus and instead aimed to introduce complex topics in the history of Chinese Buddhism. In The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography (1998) he outlines three features—asceticism, thaumaturgy, and scholarship— that constitute the monastic ideal as it evolved in China. A few years later, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture (2003) provided a magisterial study of how the transmission of Buddhism to China brought not only new software (texts, institutions, narratives), but also new hardware. Telling the history of the arrival of everyday Buddhist objects in China, such as the rosary, filled an important gap in our knowledge. It also turned up a few surprises: who knew that monks played a role in the transmission of the chair or the refinement of sugar? Now, with Buddhist Historiography in China, Kieschnick again takes on a large topic and ventures into new territory. Neither a study of an ideal nor of material culture, this new book is about practice. How did Chinese Buddhists conceive of and write their own history?

Writing about historiography as a historian is pleasantly recursive. One gets to meet authors one can easily relate to, and with whom one shares common interests. Like our precursors, we are still interested in, say, periodisation, in biography, or in what constitutes historical evidence. At times, the main difference seems that the centuries have turned their studies into our sources. But alterity, of course, always strikes back. As Kieschnick shows, the Chinese Buddhist historiographers of the past inhabited quite different mental spaces, both compared to modern historians, but also, if less so, to their non-Buddhist Chinese contemporaries. Trying to understand how our colleagues of yore approached their task is also a meditation on our very own craft. Thus this new book is not only indispensable for historians of China, but will also be of great interest to researchers working on comparative historiography.


About the Author: Marcus Bingenheimer 馬德偉 is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Temple University in Philadelphia. He taught Buddhism and Digital Humanities in Taiwan at Dharma Drum (2005 to 2011) and held visiting positions and fellowships at universities in Korea, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, and France. Since 2001 he has supervised various projects concerning the digitisation of Buddhist culture. His main research interests are the history and historiography of Buddhism, early sūtra literature, and how to apply computational approaches to research in the Humanities. In the last twenty years he has published a handful of books and more than sixty articles.


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